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A Couple of Things, and a Couple More

The word couple literally means “two,” but it is often used to mean “an indefinite small number.” So if you were to say, “I only have a couple of dollars,” you would probably not be called out if you really had three or four.

However, your friend the grammar stickler might take exception if you said you had “a couple dollars.” Although “a couple dollars” is common in everyday speech, traditionalists insist on “a couple of dollars.” And since a couple of dollars doesn’t sound stuffy or pretentious, why leave of out?

But things get tricky when couple is used with words and phrases of comparison, such as more, fewertoo many, too few. Many people would say a couple of more dollars, but in that construction the of is dropped: a couple more dollars and a couple too few dollars are correct. However, if we slightly revise those phrases, ofmust be put back:  a couple of dollars more and a couple of dollars too few are correct.

When the noun couple refers to two people, you often see it used as a singular: The couple was having dinner. But the more one writes, the more one discovers that with couple the plural verb should be used unless there is an excellent reason not to.

While it is true that The couple was having dinner is unobjectionable, what if we expand the sentence a bit. If the subject of a sentence starts out singular, it should remain singular. So if we wanted to say where the dinner took place, we would be forced to write The couple was having dinner in its home. That is atrocious, but so is The couple was having dinner in their home. Therefore, make it  The couple were having dinner in their home. And make couple plural whenever possible (which is most of the time). You’ll be in good company.

*****

We recently heard from a reader who objected to a sentence she found in one of our online quizzes:  We’ll hire the applicant whom we talked with. She urgently informed us that “you do not end a sentence with a preposition!!!!”

This “rule” is the Walking Dead of English-grammar superstitions—a festering pest that cannot be destroyed. We are scolded about it at least once a year, and without exception those who upbraid us offer no evidence to substantiate their claims. (That is because none exists.) So we hereby challenge anyone who still swears by this dubious principle to relocate the preposition in this sentence: Speak when you are spoken to.

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Posted on Wednesday, May 25, 2016, at 9:03 am


Irregular Verbs: Handle with Care

During a recent broadcast of America’s professional-basketball playoffs, a popular commentator said, “I wish he had did it” instead of had done it. A few days later, a longtime Washington insider with his own TV show said “if he had ran” instead of had run.

When those who should know better misuse irregular verbs, it is jarring and distracting. We use these verbs all the time. We might as well get them right. See how you do on the quiz that follows. The answers are directly below the test.

Irregular Verb Pop Quiz

1. She was gazing at a picture that her son had recently ___.

A) drawed
B) drew
C) drawn

2. You have finally ___ me a reason to trust them.

A) gave
B) given
C) give
D) gived

3. Have you ___ that thank-you note to your aunt yet?

A) write
B) wrote
C) written
D) writ

4. Just hearing that old song ___ back a lot of memories.

A) brang
B) brought
C) A and B are both correct

5. She still has not ___ him for the mistake he made.

A) forgiven
B) forgave
C) forgive
D) forgived

6. Lannie had his favorite shoes ___ in the back of the closet.

A) hid
B) hidden
C) A and B are both correct

7. A problem had suddenly ___ with our dinner reservations.

A) araised
B) arose
C) arised
D) arisen

8. The sweet smell of orchids ___ in the air.

A) clung
B) clinged
C) clang

9. My jacket ___ her perfectly.

A) fit
B) fitted
C) A and B are both correct

10. We had not even ___ two miles before we came to a fork in the road.

A) rode
B) ridden
C) ride
D) riden

ANSWERS

1: C) drawn

2: B) given

3: C) written

4: B) brought

5: A) forgiven

6: B) hidden

7: D) arisen

8: A) clung

9: C) A and B are both correct

10: B) ridden

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Posted on Tuesday, May 17, 2016, at 4:20 pm


Media Watch

Here is another set of recent flubs and fumbles from usually dependable journalists.

• “Yet my relationship with the game was simple and uncomplicated.”

How did this one get by the editors? One of those two adjectives has to go.

• “He is accused of fleeing to London in March while owing more than $1 billion dollars to Indian banks.”

The dollar sign means “dollars,” so “$1 billion dollars” is as redundant as “simple and uncomplicated.”

• “The vessels have the capacity to carry about 2½ times the number of containers than held by ships now using the canal.

Why would anyone put than in that sentence?

• “The outpouring of anger and concern show that California wants vital and vigilant coastal protections.”

The subject is the singular noun “outpouring,” so the verb should be shows.

• “To get in, I waded through a throng of protesters gathered around the entrance … A few protestors got close enough to snap pictures.”

The Associated Press Stylebook and many dictionaries accept only protester. Other dictionaries list protestor as an alternative spelling. But no authority alive recommends spelling the word both ways in the same paragraph.

• “It is an important fact ignored—or maybe unknown—to the candidate.”

The writer wanted to say that the “important fact” was either ignored by the candidate or unknown to the candidate. Here’s how to make it work with the dashes: It is an important fact ignored by—or maybe unknown to—the candidate.

• “The outcome is a major win for public employee unions, who would be weakened if members didn’t pay for representation.”

The word after “unions” should be which, not who. Despite being made up of people, a union is a thing. Writers should limit their use of who to humans.

• “Born in Brooklyn in 1922, stage fright steered Mr. Bauersfeld away from Hollywood.”

The dangler is alive and thriving in the twenty-first century. Did you spot it? To sticklers and other careful readers, this sentence is sheer nonsense: it states with a straight face that stage fright was born in Brooklyn in 1922. We could write  Stage fright steered Mr. Bauersfeld, who was born in Brooklyn in 1922, away from Hollywood. But now the reader wonders what being born in Brooklyn in 1922 has to do with stage fright and avoiding Hollywood. Year and place of birth are irrelevant here. The writer was trying to cram too much into one sentence.

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Posted on Wednesday, May 11, 2016, at 7:46 am


The Only Truth

A few readers took issue with the title of last week’s article, “Pronunciation Only Matters When You Speak.” They said “Only” should go after “Matters,” not before. To which we reply: ugh. “Pronunciation Matters Only When You Speak” is too stilted, too mannered. Our title places only where you usually find it: before the verb.

There is no likelihood of misinterpreting “Pronunciation Only Matters When You Speak.” So the only possible objection to it is that it is against the rules. But what rules? Yes, some authorities insist on placing only next to the word or phrase it modifies (“When You Speak”). But other scholars deem this practice unnecessary if the meaning is clear.

There is no question that placing only before the verb can sometimes create confusion. The copy editor Claire Kehrwald Cook explains: “If you write We are only ordering metal desks because they are more durable than wooden ones, readers may think you’re ordering only one type of furniture when you mean you’re ordering it for only one reason. So take care with your onlys.” But Cook also says, “When only falls into its idiomatic place without causing ambiguity, let it stand.”

Writers have been placing only before the verb at least since Shakespeare (“Though to itself it only live and die”). “She Only Loves Me When I’m There” was a hit song in 2014, eighty years after “I Only Have Eyes for You” topped the charts in 1934. They Only Kill Their Masters is the title of a controversial movie from 1972. “It only hurts when I laugh” is the punch line to a classic old joke. If you ended that joke with “It hurts only when I laugh,” people would be amused all right, but not in the way you might hope.

Let’s see what the experts have said down through the years:

“Often, to be sure, clarity and idiom are better served by bringing only to a more forward position … Certainly it is always better to avoid an air of fussiness.” —Bill Bryson, 2003

“It is torturing the sentence and the listener to make a point of saying He died only yesterday.” —Wilson Follett, 1966

“Its natural position is before the verb … This word order is standard literary English.” —Bergen and Cornelia Evans, 1957

“For He only died a week ago no better defence is perhaps possible than that it is the order that most people have always used & still use, & that, the risk of misunderstanding being chimerical, it is not worth while to depart from the natural.” —H.W. Fowler, 1926

We hope those quotations promote clearer understanding of a questionable “rule” that, if followed blindly, only encourages ham-fisted pedantry.

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Posted on Wednesday, May 4, 2016, at 7:50 am


Pronunciation Only Matters When You Speak

A cautionary tale for those who are cavalier about pronunciation: In 2003, the then president of the United States made his first presidential visit to Nevada and repeatedly pronounced it “nuh-VAHD-a.” Residents of the state got testy—it’s nuh-VAD-a, and they felt that the commander in chief should know it. The next time he spoke there, he made sure to say “nuh-VAD-a,” adding archly, “You didn’t think I’d get it right, did you?”

Here are some other pronunciations to ponder:

Vase  The Brits say “vahz,” but we don’t. It rhymes with face or phase in American speech.

Decadent   Given the state of things, this is a word you hear a lot, but not its traditional pronunciation: dik-CAY-dint (first two syllables pronounced like decay), rather than DECK-a-dint. We have to admit that this one is all but a lost cause, although if you think about it, it makes sense to stress the decay in decadent.

Cadre  We recommend CAD-ree. Yes, we know cadre is now commonly pronounced KAH-dray, but it wasn’t always so. In the 1960s the preferred pronunciation was KAH-der, with CAD-ree as an alternative. KAH-dray was not an option.

Culinary  You can’t go wrong with KYOO-lin-ary, although these days you are more likely to hear CULL-in-ary, or even COO-lin-ary. In 1956, Webster’s New World listed only KYOO-lin-ary. In 1966, The Random House Dictionary of the English Language preferred KYOO-lin-ary but made CULL-in-ary a second option. Regrettably, the online American Heritage dictionary now leads with CULL-in-ary, but it lists KYOO-lin-ary second.

Acumen  This word for “keen insight” is usually pronounced “ACK-ya-min,” but many sticklers object. The 1956 Webster’s allowed only uh-KYEW-min (rhymes with luck human), but ten years later, Random House listed ACK-ya-min as a second choice. The Oxford online dictionary accepts ACK-ya-min but still prefers uh-KYEW-min. So do we.

Schizophrenia  We prefer skit-sa-FREE-nia, and so do we (joke). Nowadays there is general agreement on the first two syllables: skit-sa. But are the next two syllables pronounced “FREE-nia” or “FREN-ia”? The 2014 Webster’s New World and the online American Heritage accept both. But going back a few decades, the 1968 Random House American College Dictionary accepts only FREE-nia. And get this: it prefers skiz-a-FREE-nia, the “skiz” rhyming with whiz. It lists skit-sa-FREE-nia second. No FREN-ia in sight.

Halley’s Comet  Make it HAL-lee’s. The two l’s make Halley an exact rhyme with valley. The last name of the astronomer Edmund Halley (1656-1742) is often mispronounced HAY-lee. That would be understandable if it were “Haley’s Comet,” a frequent misspelling. Some say HAH-lee’s or HAW-lee’s, both of which are more acceptable than HAY-lee’s.

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Posted on Tuesday, April 26, 2016, at 4:46 pm