Sign Up For Our Free Grammar E-Newsletter

Be Careful with the -a Team

The first letter of the alphabet is also a common English word that is virtually synonymous with one. As a word, a is the very antithesis of plurality.

This might help explain why there’s so much confusion about a group of words that I call “the -a team.” Here they are: bacteria, criteria, data, media, phenomena, Sierra. As you can see, all end in the letter a, which just sounds so darned singular that these words continue to confound even careful writers and speakers. Because the fact is, they’re all plural.

Bacteria Staphylococcus is a virulent form of bacteria. No problem there, but Staphylococcus is a virulent bacteria, well, now we have a problem. The singular is bacterium. So a sentence like The bacteria in the cut was infecting it is flawed—the bacteria were infecting it.

Criteria It’s the plural of criterion, a standard used for judging, deciding, or acting. The sentence Honesty is our chief criteria is ungrammatical; there can’t be only one criteria. Make it Honesty is our chief criterion or Honesty is one of our chief criteria. Your criteria are your standards, plural.

Those who know that criteria is plural aren’t out of the woods yet either: many believe the singular is “criterium.” And there are some who will reveal to you their “criterias.”

Data John B. Bremner, in Words on Words, states unequivocally, “The word is plural.” This one is thorny, because the singular, datum, is virtually nonexistent in English. Many people see data as a synonym for information, and to them, These data are very interesting sounds downright bizarre. Maybe, but it’s also correct. English scholar Theodore M. Bernstein says, “Some respected and learned writers have used data as a singular. But a great many more have not.”

Media Among the language’s most abused words is media, a plural noun; medium is the singular. A medium is a system of mass communication: The medium of television is a prominent component of the mass media.

Every day we hear and read statements like The media is irresponsible or The media has a hidden agenda. In those sentences, media should be followed by are and have.

There are some who prefer and defend the media is and the media has. To them, the various means of mass communication—newspapers, radio, TV, magazines, blogs, etc.—make up one “media.”

But writers should insist on the media are. It’s important that people think of the media as many voices, opinions, and perspectives rather than one monolithic entity.

Phenomena This troublemaker baffles even articulate speakers. Phenomena is plural; phenomenon is singular.

“Management is a universal phenomenon,” declares a business website. But a commentator on national television had it exactly backward. He spoke of “the phenomena of climate change” and later used phenomenon as a plural. Others say “phenomenas” when they mean phenomena.

Sierra Avoid “Sierras” when the topic is the vast California mountain range. An online camping guide says, “Translating from Spanish, sierra is plural in itself.” The Sierra Nevada Alliance, a conservation organization, elaborates: “The Sierra Nevada is a single, distinct unit, both geographically and topographically, and is well described by una sierra nevada. Strictly speaking, therefore, we should never pluralize the name—such as Sierras, or Sierra Nevadas, or even High Sierras …”

“Strictly speaking,” you say? What a concept!

Tom Stern

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

Posted on Tuesday, June 10, 2014, at 5:05 pm


Apostrophes and False Possessives

In English, nouns become adjectives all the time: a computer’s malfunction is also called a computer malfunction. One of Shakespeare’s plays is a Shakespeare play.

Consider the sentence Beverly Hills’ weather is mild. Like computer’s and Shakespeare’s in the previous paragraph, Beverly Hills’ is a possessive noun. But we could turn it into an adjective by removing the apostrophe: Beverly Hills weather is mild. Same with Abe Jones’s campaign is picking up steam—we could also say The Abe Jones campaign is picking up steam.

Few would argue with the apostrophe in The Beatles’ place in pop music history is assured. But how would you write this sentence: There are still countless Beatles/Beatles’ fans out there. Although many would choose Beatles’ fans, it should be Beatles fans—no apostrophe—because the sentence has turned Beatles into an adjective modifying fans rather than a possessive noun.

There are times when the distinction is trivial. There is no significant difference between General Motors cars are selling and General Motors’ cars are selling. But if you were to write We visited the General Motors’ plant in Wentzville, you’d be using a possessive noun where only an adjective should go.

Notice that the four examples above involve the nouns Hills, Jones, Beatles, and Motors. Nouns ending in s can tempt rushed or distracted writers to add a possessive apostrophe for no good reason. Many writers, including most journalists, add only an apostrophe to show possession when a proper noun ends in s. On a bad day, this can result in silly phrases like a Texas’ barbecue joint, a Sally Hawkins’ movie, or even the St. Regis’ Hotel, in which the apostrophes are indefensible.

Those who write such things would never dream of writing a Chicago’s barbecue joint, a George Clooney’s movie, or the Fairmont’s Hotel.

So whenever writers are of a mind to add a possessive apostrophe to a noun ending in s, they might first try swapping that word with one that ends in a different letter. If the result is nonsense, they’ll have ample time to revise the sentence and save themselves some embarrassment.

 

Pop Quiz
Mend any sentences that need fixing.

1. Julie Andrews singing in My Fair Lady was some of her best work.
2. She is a fanatical Rolling Stones’ fan.
3. Nigel takes a Thomas Hobbes’ approach to life.
4. Yolanda Adams music is infectious.
5. It was a Black Keys’ performance for the ages.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. Julie Andrews’s singing in My Fair Lady was some of her best work. (some would write Andrews’)
2. She is a fanatical Rolling Stones fan.
3. Nigel takes a Thomas Hobbes approach to life.
4. “Yolanda Adams music,” “Yolanda Adams’s music,” and “Yolanda Adams’ music” would all be acceptable.
5. It was a Black Keys performance for the ages.

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

Posted on Monday, May 19, 2014, at 6:36 pm


When They Is a Cop-out

Ours is a language of traps and pitfalls. Anyone serious about writing in English has to take on problems no one has ever quite solved.

One of the most obstinate of these, as inescapable as it is confounding, concerns singular pronouns that have plural connotations (everyone, nobody, anyone, somebody, etc.).

Even fine writers on occasion succumb to the temptation of using they to refer to a singular pronoun. What would you do with this sentence: Someone left his? her? his or her? their? book on my desk. For decades it was customary to say someone left his book, the assumption being that his really meant his or her (in the same way mankind comprises both men and women). But that stopped being acceptable in the 1960s—the Women’s Liberation movement was having none of it.

Many writers nowadays hold their noses and go with his or her. It’s hard to find a less elegant solution, but grammatically, someone left his or her book does the job; however, someone left their book, although taboo to purists, is what you’d most likely hear in conversation.

Now consider this technically correct sentence: I asked everybody, but he wouldn’t tell me. Anybody who would write that must be tone-deaf, perverse, facetious, or fanatical. What good is a “technically correct” sentence that is so silly and confusing? Changing it to but he or she wouldn’t tell me is hardly an improvement. If you chose to avoid this mess by writing but they wouldn’t tell me, it would be hard to blame you. But if good grammar is important, how about I asked everybody, but no one would tell me.

Last November, a West Coast newspaper editorial dealt with the problem this way: “Under California law, the governor is allowed to choose a replacement for a statewide-elected official who vacates her post midterm.” Fair enough, but though the motive is laudable, the sentence feels somehow forced. Why not replace “vacates her post” with “leaves office.”

Let’s try to rewrite the following sentences and mollify the curmudgeons …

Read a book to a child. Maybe they’ll do something good with their life.

Rewrite: Read a book to a child. Maybe that youngster will accomplish something in life.

If anyone wants to become the next David Letterman, they won’t do it by becoming the last David Letterman.

Rewrite: Anyone who wants to become the next David Letterman won’t do it by becoming the last David Letterman.

The greatest courage will be required from Angela Merkel and Barack Obama, or each will bequeath to their successors a much more dangerous world.

Rewrite: The greatest courage will be required from Angela Merkel and Barack Obama, or they will each bequeath to their successors a much more dangerous world.

English scholars say that using they to agree with singular pronouns can be traced back at least seven centuries. But that doesn’t mean it’s all right to do so. It simply means that there’s nothing new about avoiding challenges when we can take the easy way out.

 

Pop Quiz

How would you deal with pronoun inconsistencies in these sentences? Compare your solutions with ours in the answers section.

1. It isn’t feasible for each one to go through arbitration to get their money back.

2. What if someone asks you what you’re doing at their car?

3. What we don’t want is for someone to turn their unit into a full-time vacation inn.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. It isn’t feasible for each one to go through arbitration to get a full refund.

2. What if someone asks you, “What are you doing at my car?”

3. What we don’t want is for owners to turn their units into full-time vacation inns.

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

Posted on Monday, April 28, 2014, at 6:40 pm


Media Watch 3

Let’s zero in once more on cringe-inducers culled from recent dailies and periodicals …

• Newspaper headline: “New look for a old test.”

One of the principles of English you would think we all learned in third grade is that the article a goes before consonants (a pen, a hat), and the article an goes before vowels and vowel sounds (an owl, an honor). But these days, items like that headline are rampant. Here’s a reporter writing of “a unusual twist in Senate process.” Here’s another, mentioning “an very unfortunately named document.” We’ve even heard the president of the United States say “a international effort.”

We can no longer dismiss such things as a slip of the tongue or a typo.

• Another rule we learned in grade school was, “Neither … nor, either  or, but never neither  or.” We thought everybody knew that one. But neither  or is gaining momentum among people who ought to know better, like the columnist who wrote: “In short, the technology, sports and political worlds seem to be saying that markets should neither be free or fair.”

Let’s change “or” to “nor,” and while we’re at it, put “be” before “neither” to make the sentence parallel: “ … saying that markets should be neither free nor fair.”

• A magazine reported that a twelve-year-old girl sold 18,107 boxes of Girl Scout cookies, calling it “an all-time record.” Delete “all-time.” All records are all-time records. Writers should also avoid new record—when a record is set, new is redundant.

• An article about a successful author offered this snarky advice: “Don’t publish anything ’til you’re fifty.” The writer of this profile should have written “till you’re fifty.” You won’t find a reference book anywhere that recommends ’til. In Words on Words, John B. Bremner declares brusquely, “Either till or until, but not ’til.” Some defend ’til as a contraction of until. However, till predates until by several centuries.

• Check out this sentence about an aggressive company: “The Comcast-run colossus may be able to dictate terms to individual cable channels and Hollywood studios who supply TV shows and movies.” Make it “that supply TV shows and movies.” Use who only when referring to humans. Businesses may be run by humans, but grammatically they are things. Avoid usages like a company who. Use that or which instead.

At least as far as grammar is concerned, there is no debate: corporations are not people.

 

Pop Quiz

The following are sentences recently heard over the airwaves. See if you can spot the errors.

1. “It was committed by two identical twin sisters.”

2. “What lengths did you go through in order to get this done?”

3. “This is bad news for we Americans.”

4. “There are also good places out there too.”

5. “It was different from the bill that they had wrote.”

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. “It was committed by identical twin sisters.” (two twins is redundant)

2. “What lengths did you go to in order to get this done?”

3. “This is bad news for us Americans.”

4. “There are also good places out there.” (“also … too” is redundant)

5. “It was different from the bill that they had written.”

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

Posted on Wednesday, April 23, 2014, at 1:59 pm


More Of

Earlier this month we observed some of the ways that little of can bring big trouble to students of English. Unfortunately, we aren’t done yet.

We previously discussed certain sentences in which the verb is derived not from the subject, but from the object of the preposition of. Here’s an example: She is one of those people who love to travel. Not loves to travel. The verb is determined by people, not by one.

Similarly, with many words that indicate portions—some, most, all, etc.—we are guided by the object of of. If the noun after of is singular, we use a singular verb: Some of the pie is left. If it’s plural, we use a plural verb: Some of the books are gone.

With collective nouns such as crowd or family, the speaker or writer has leeway since such words, though singular in form, denote more than one person or thing. Therefore, Most of my family is here and Most of my family are here are both grammatical sentences.

Other areas of concern:

• Off of  Drop of. Off of is not a valid phrasal preposition. In sentences like Keep off of the grass or You ought to come off of your high horse, the of adds nothing.

• Outside of  We stood outside of the building. Make it outside the building. In sentences indicating location, “of is superfluous with outside,” says Roy H. Copperud. His fellow English scholar Theodore M. Bernstein calls outside of “a substandard casualism.” With sentences where outside of is not literal, such as Outside of you, I have no one, there are better alternatives available, including except for, other than, besides, apart from, and aside from.

• All of  When a pronoun is involved, the of is essential, as in phrases like all of it and all of us. When a possessive noun is preceded by a or an, or has no modifier, again the of is required: all of a book’s wisdom, all of history’s lessons. But when a noun is preceded by an adjective or by the, it’s leaner and cleaner to drop the of in all of: all my books, all the lessons of history.

• Out of  The of is necessary; only bumpkins say Get out my house. Two notable exceptions: door and window—no of is needed in We hurried out the door or I stared out the window.

Couple of  The of stays. This includes phrases such as a couple of things, a couple of more things, a couple of hundred things. “Omitting the of is slipshod,” says Bryan A. Garner in A Dictionary of Modern American Usage. “Using couple not as a noun but as an adjective is poor usage.”

That’s enough of for a while. Amazing the confusion that one pint-size preposition can cause.

 

Pop Quiz

Fix any problems with of that you come across.

1. One of those trees that’s been around for over a century is standing just outside of the restaurant.

2. It’s a little place right outside of San Rafael, just off of Route 101.

3. He threw all of himself into making all Bonnie’s family comfortable.

4. I was looking out of the window as a couple dozen people rushed out the burning building.


Pop Quiz Answers

1. One of those trees that have been around for over a century is standing just outside the restaurant.

2. It’s a little place right outside San Rafael, just off Route 101.

3. He threw all of himself into making all of Bonnie’s family comfortable.

4. I was looking out the window as a couple of dozen people rushed out of the burning building.

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

Posted on Wednesday, April 16, 2014, at 3:49 pm