Sign Up For Our Free Grammar E-Newsletter

Nothing Poetic About This Verse

Have you noticed how the abbreviation vs., meaning “against,” is pronounced these days? People read “Serbia vs. USA for the Gold Medal” and say “Serbia verse USA.” Yes, “verse”—one syllable—although vs. stands for versus here. That’s “verse-uss”—two syllables. When we hear this gaffe over the airwaves, are we imagining things or do the announcers sound smug, as if saying “verse” were something to be proud of? Are they proud because they know about the r? At least they don’t pronounce it “viss.”

*                                                         *                                                        *                                                      *

We saw an article online titled “11 overused words you and your friends need to stop saying right now.” The first three on this list are not words so much as verbal tics: like (as in they were, like, an hour late), you know, and um. The rest of the list consists of familiar offenders, including dude, freakin’, and whatever.

We think the author should have added a twelfth entry, one that is right there in his title: need to. This pushy phrase turns mere wishes or opinions into decrees: I need you to open this door. You need to exercise more. He needs to read the Bill of Rights. They need to get it together or go home.

Those who use need to like this are speaking as authorities or moralists who know what is best for all concerned. When something needs to be done, there is no room or time for discussion—just do it or you’ll be sorry.

But examine the next sentence you come across with need to in it. In many cases a more honest—and civil—choice would be it seems advisable, maybe it’s a good idea, would you please, or anything else that’s not so strident and overbearing.

*                                                         *                                                        *                                                      *

While we’re at it, there is another phrase that deserves a comeuppance, as seen in these sentences culled from the internet: “He expounded on the concept of mercy.” “She expounded on the virtues of solar power.” “McGrady expounded on the dangers of high-octane fuel leaks.” The writers have misused expound—in all three sentences the correct phrase would be expand on, which means “to discuss at length or in detail.”

To expound is to explain or describe. And expound does not traditionally take the preposition on. Here are a few examples of expound used correctly: “She expounded her theory further in the course of her talk.” “He expounded his materialistic philosophy in a number of books.” “The Masters expounded their teachings in a series of propositions.”

Expound on is popular because it sounds more impressive than the pedestrian expand on … but impressive to whom?

To comment on this grammar tip, click on the title.

Posted on Tuesday, August 23, 2016, at 4:42 pm

Media Watch

The following are less-than-exemplary snippets from recent newspapers and magazines …

• “The suspect was linked to at least nine different bank robberies.”

Why not just “nine bank robberies”? It would be interesting to know what compelled the writer to add “different.” However, this sentence is not a total loss; it could be shown to youngsters to illustrate the meaning of superfluous.

• “Each has spent their adult lives demeaning and scapegoating.”

This abject sentence could not exist if the writer or his editor had been paying attention. Each is a singular pronoun, and we know the writer knew that, because he wrote “has” rather than the plural “have.” But after the first two words, he got distracted and started writing plurals (“their,” “lives”). The fix is simple: “All have spent their adult lives demeaning and scapegoating.”

• “The company has never been reticent to send promotional missives.”

Reticent is not a fancy synonym for reluctant, as this sentence’s author seems to believe. Reticent traditionally means “silent” or “uncommunicative.” That doesn’t fit here. Still, reticent to is now inescapable, and some authorities consider it acceptable. We consider it an affectation.

• “Brown grew up in a poor, predominately black neighborhood.”

Sometimes writers mistakenly use predominately as an alternative to predominantly, meaning “chiefly, primarily.” Although predominately is technically a word, it’s not easy to pinpoint what it means.

• “Fake it ’til you make it.”
• “And the party rocked on ’til sunrise.”
• “On politically correct language: don’t knock it ’til you try it.”

We see such sentences constantly, but here’s some sound advice: always use till. Many assume that ’til, a contraction of until, is correct. However, till predates until by several centuries, and you won’t find a reference book anywhere that endorses ’til. The writer John B. Bremner declares brusquely, “Either till or until, but not ’til.”

• “At the same time, as other Americans of faith, the majority also identify strongly with their religion.”
• “The enemy wore Army green, just like she did.”

The proper use of as and like continues to elude many writers. In formal writing, both of the above sentences are incorrect. In the first example, make it “like other Americans of faith.” As would be correct only if a verb were involved, e.g., “as other Americans of faith do.” Like is a preposition meaning “similar to” or “typical of,” and that’s what is needed here.

In the second example, the verb “did” in “just like she did” means like is the wrong choice—just similar to she did is clearly nonsense. Use as instead, and make it “just as she did.”

General rule: Use like when it is followed by a noun but no verb: Do it like me. But replace like with as, as if, as though, or the way preceding subject-verb constructions: Do it the way [not like] I taught you. Do it as if [not like] you meant it.


Pop Quiz

The following are sentences recently heard over the airwaves. See if you can make them better.

  1. “He is trying to appeal to both sides, and neither of them are going to be satisfied.”
  2. “There’ll be some upheaval in the market irregardless of who wins.”
  3. “He is relishing in the American dream.”
  4. “It looked as though they just laid down.”
  5. “Clinton vies for support in newly-competitive red states.” (TV graphic)


Pop Quiz Answers

  1. “He is trying to appeal to both sides, and neither of them is going to be satisfied.”
  2. “There’ll be some upheaval in the market regardless of who wins.”
  3. “He is reveling in the American dream.”
  4. “It looked as though they just lay down.”
  5. “Clinton vies for support in newly competitive red states.” (do not hyphenate adverbs ending in ly)

To comment on this grammar tip, click on the title.

Posted on Monday, August 15, 2016, at 5:26 pm

More Fun with Irregular Verbs

“In the past, they have not went if it was out of the country.” So spoke a poised, informed young woman last week on a political talk show. And this was no anomaly. Abuse of irregular verbs is sweeping the nation—so much so that some readers will see nothing wrong with the sentence quoted above.

So take a moment to take today’s irregular-verb quiz. The answers are directly below the test.

Irregular-Verb Pop Quiz

1. The child took the portrait and ___ it on the wall.

A) hung
B) hanged
C) A and B are both correct

2. You have clearly ___ me for someone else.

A) mistook
B) mistaking
C) mistaken
D) mistooken

3. I have ___ relatives who offer criticism but no support.

A) outgrew
B) outgrown
C) outgrowed
D) outgrowing

4. I would have probably ___ the sweetest dessert.

A) chose
B) chosen
C) A and B are both correct

5. The last time we were together, we ___ all our favorite songs around the fire.

A) sing
B) sung
C) sang

6. He felt that his life had been cruelly ___ apart.

A) torn
B) tore
C) toren
D) turn

7. This game has, despite its success, ___ a complete makeover.

A) underwent
B) undergone
C) under went
D) under gone

8. Fred has ___ the lawn every Saturday.

A) mowed
B) mown
C) A and B are both correct

9. A bee ___ her as soon as she opened the door.

A) stang
B) stung
C) sting

10. The public is ___ to leave the trail.

A) forbid
B) forbad
C) forbade
D) forbidden



1: A) hung

2: C) mistaken

3: B) outgrown

4: B) chosen

5: C) sang

6: A) torn

7: B) undergone

8: C) A and B are both correct

9: B) stung

10: D) forbidden

To comment on this grammar tip, click on the title.

Posted on Monday, August 8, 2016, at 6:41 pm

Arcane Words and the “Intuitive” Reader

Serious readers, when they are reading literature they consider important, routinely look up any words they do not know.

But there are also “intuitive” readers, who consider themselves of sufficient wisdom to figure out a word just by reading the sentence and trusting their life experience and common sense to grasp the writer’s meaning. Today we will try to expose this policy as wishful thinking.

The three examples below are sentences you might find in print or online. Each contains a possibly unfamiliar word which, if misinterpreted, sabotages the meaning of the sentence.

On a blistering August morning we came upon a 1960 Buick coruscating in the sun.

Understanding coruscating is the key to understanding the sentence. The Intuitive Reader ponders the word, with its echoes of corrosion and rust, and concludes that the car was falling apart. A reader’s first impressions matter, and this reader now is picturing a broken-down old wreck. But coruscating means “sparkling.” In fact, the car in the tale has been lovingly maintained by its owner. The reader now has a distorted view of the author’s main character, and may well go on to misread the intent of the story.

What we heard on the demo sounded like a bashful lad with a limpid voice.

The Intuitive Reader doesn’t have to look up limpid to know that the kid on the demo can forget about a singing career. You can’t make it in the music business with a “limpid” singing voice, for what else could limpid mean but “weak” or “lifeless”? But the reader has it wrong: a limpid voice is pure and crystal clear. The kid’s future looks bright. If he can sing in tune, and his material is strong, he could go places.

The man was in a parlous condition, and a lot of his friends headed for the exit.

Intuitive Readers know what parlez-vous français means, and they know that parlance is a style or manner of speaking. So to them, this sentence might appear to tell a cautionary tale about a “parlous” fellow who gets a proper comeuppance for hogging the conversation one time too many. But in reality the situation is far darker: parlous means “dire” or “precarious.” This man is in trouble. He deserves our compassion, and his fair-weather friends deserve our scorn.

Thanks to the internet, it has never been easier or less time-consuming to look words up. Those who refuse to do so are in constant danger of missing the point.

To comment on this grammar tip, click on the title.

Posted on Tuesday, August 2, 2016, at 10:47 am

A Sportswriter Cries “Foul!”

by Bruce Jenkins, San Francisco Chronicle sports columnist

The hyphens are coming, and beware—they’re taking over. Commas, not so much. Commas have gone extinct. These are a couple of my pet peeves when it comes to grammatical violations in print. More on that later. In the meantime:

Somehow, a guy named Al showed up in all right, and it’s now “alright.” Nope. Wrong. And I have no time for “anytime.” It has to be two words: any time. Once you’ve written “any hour” or “any minute,” how can you go with “anytime”?

How about the second time in as many days? As many days as what? Should be in two days.

Going forward. It’s not bad grammar, it just has no place. What, as opposed to going backward? Eliminate going forward from every usage, in print or conversation, and it won’t be missed.

Then there’s the sentence that takes forever to reach the point—and by the time you get there, you’re no longer interested:

“The occasion of the Wallace brothers burning down the Gazebo with the very last match at their disposal and then pretending it never happened at the after-party at Bob’s house takes a special place in history.” Taken literally, what takes a special place in history?

As for hyphens, here are a few really dreadful ones I’ve seen in responsible newspapers lately:

The tension-level was high
He’s the odd-man-out
Dare-we-say he was confused?
That’s the elephant-in-the-room
The best record of all-time

Commas? Somehow, they have been deemed unnecessary. More actual examples:

Thanks for trying guys (maybe you should go back to gals)
Don’t go Tiger (go ballistic, or go east)
Say It Ain’t So Spain (it ain’t so hot, either)
“Meaning what ace?” (actually saw this in a David Milch script)
“This isn’t a funeral you know.” (True, but I think my friend Pete recognizes it.)

Then there’s the misplaced apostrophe, so common on the street:

“Fresh sandwich’s”
“She fly’s with her own wing’s”

Long ago, in the press box of the old Comiskey Park in Chicago, there was a sign on the women’s bathroom that said “Ladie’s.” It was a charming sign, in the form of a baseball—seams and all—but that apostrophe drove me nuts. Year after year, covering the Oakland A’s, I wasn’t able to walk past that thing without seething.

Then in 1990 the park closed down. Visitors knew they’d be making their last visit to the storied old yard. On my last night there, about a month before the season ended, I dawdled and stalled until I was the last person in the press box. And I was prepared. I whipped out a bottle of Wite-Out and made that apostrophe vanish.

Postcript: Wayne Hagin, a broadcaster at the time (can’t remember what team), knew about my mission. One night near the very end of the season, he yanked that sign off the bathroom wall and stashed it in his briefcase.

It now resides in the guest room of my house. Ladies welcome.


Bruce Jenkins’s new book, Shop Around: Growing Up With Motown in a Sinatra Household, is available in bookstores and on Jenkins is the son of Gordon Jenkins, who worked with all the greats of the pre-Elvis era (including Judy Garland, Nat “King” Cole, and Sinatra). The Miracles’ “Shop Around,” the first big hit of the Motown empire, turned Bruce’s life around at the age of 12. Shop Around is a book for soul-music lovers and anyone whose parents were on entirely different musical wavelengths.

To comment on this grammar tip, click on the title.

Posted on Tuesday, July 26, 2016, at 1:30 pm