Sign Up For Our Free Grammar E-Newsletter

Don’t Blur Fine Distinctions

If Helen offers André food, but André has just eaten, he will say, “Thank you, but I’m not really hungry.” If Helen persists, André might say the same words in a different order: “Thank you, but I’m really not hungry,” which lets her know in a civil way that she’s not going to change his mind. When you think about it, there is a clear-cut difference between not really and really not that is well worth preserving.

Word order matters. Many people who mean to say Don’t just stand there now say instead Just don’t stand there. But the two statements mean different things. Don’t just stand there means “Don’t stand there doing nothing.” Just don’t stand there means “Don’t stand there for any reason.”

The meaning of just depends on its placement in a sentence, especially when it is accompanied by negative adverbs such as not or never, or negative verbs such as don’t or wouldn’t.

Careless speakers these days blur the distinction between phrases like not just and just not. Traditionally, not just means “not merely” or “not only,” and just not means “simply not” or “definitely not.” He’s a trusted adviser, not just a friend means “He’s both my adviser and my friend.” Whereas He’s a trusted adviser, just not a friend means something quite different: “I trust his advice, but he’s no friend of mine.”

Saying “just not” when we mean “not just” could lead to misunderstanding, embarrassment, even hurt feelings.

Pop Quiz
Match each of the first four sentences with its closest paraphrase in sentences A-D.

1. I just wouldn’t leave.
2. I wouldn’t just leave.
3. I can’t really concentrate in here.
4. I really can’t concentrate in here.

A. This place interferes with my concentration.
B. This place makes concentrating impossible for me.
C. If I were to leave, I’d tell you first.
D. There is no possibility that I’d leave.

Pop Quiz Answers

1-D, 2-C, 3-A, 4-B

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

Posted on Thursday, December 12, 2013, at 7:01 pm


Look Who’s Talking

On Nov. 15, a high-level government official caused quite a stir when he disparaged “white suburban moms” for resisting efforts to elevate teaching and learning in U.S. schools. “All of a sudden,” he said, “their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.”

Some may question the statement’s tone; what concerns us here is its grammatical absurdity. Note that “their child,” which is singular, somehow becomes plural six words later, with “they were” referring to one child. Same with “their school”: in the span of seven words, one school has become “they.”

There are various ways to fix this mess, but here is one we don’t recommend: “their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought he or she was.” Using he or she is a valid solution, and there are times when a writer has to use the phrase, but he or she is a dismal option that should be avoided whenever possible.

We could change “child isn’t” to “children aren’t” and make “school” plural: “All of a sudden, their children aren’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their schools aren’t quite as good as they thought they were.” At least that makes grammatical sense. Still, the repetition of they in “they thought they were” is grating once, let alone twice.

Effective speakers and writers are guided by this line from Hamlet: “Brevity is the soul of wit.” Sure enough, if we look for extraneous words in the sentence and remove them, voilà: “All of a sudden, their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought.” That’s about as good as it’s going to get.

The statement was made by, of all people, the U.S. secretary of education. Lead by example, Mr. Secretary.

Pop Quiz
Correct any sentences that need fixing.
1. One of every two houses you see are vacant.
2. Ten pounds are heavier than you think.
3. Every student at our son’s all-boys school gets a discount on their books.
4. I felt that twenty dollars wasn’t worth the bother.
5. No one on the bus knew their way around town.

Pop Quiz Answers
1. One of every two houses you see is vacant.
2. Ten pounds is heavier than you think.
3. Every student at our son’s all-boys school gets a discount on his books.
4. I felt that twenty dollars wasn’t worth the bother. CORRECT
5. No one on the bus knew his or her way around town. (Without a rewrite, his or her is virtually unavoidable.)

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

Posted on Tuesday, December 3, 2013, at 12:27 pm


Media Watch 1

Several weeks ago, a Vatican-endorsed medal honoring Pope Francis had to be recalled because Jesus was spelled “Lesus.” Just last week, a political placard at a Washington, D.C., press conference spelled filibuster “fillibuster” and against “againts.” In light of these disgraces, it seems the right time to reopen our Media Malfeasance file…

• “They have arrested two suspects, neither of whom are British.” This decades-old problem is only getting worse. To journalists it may concern: The pronoun neither, like either and each, is always singular. Make it “neither of whom is British.”

• “Prop. 32 is an initiative to curb union’s influence.” Ah, apostrophes. Note that one could also say “to curb the influence of unions”—that’s unions, plural. Plural nouns ending in s show possession with the apostrophe after the s, not before. So make it “curb unions’ influence.”

• “Guess who’s coming to dinner?” Looks all right, you say? The problem is the unnecessary question mark. “Guess” is an imperative—a direct order, not the first word in a question.

• “Rebecca Solnit’s book, Unfathomable City, was celebrated last week.” Remove the commas. This is slipshod editing. With the commas, the sentence means that Unfathomable City is the only book Solnit has ever written. In fact, she has written over a dozen.

The rule is that commas set off nonessential information. If the author has written only one book, its title is not essential to the sentence: “Rebecca Solnit’s [only] book, Unfathomable City, was celebrated last week.” But since she has written several, we must be told which book directly—no commas. Similarly, The actor, Robert De Niro, was there is incorrect with commas. But The president of the United States, Barack Obama, was there is correct.

As writers’ skills decline, so do readers’ standards. The acerbic avant-garde musician Frank Zappa (1940-1993) once described a rock ’n’ roll magazine as “written by people who can’t write for people who can’t read.” Were he alive today, Zappa might not limit his assessment to rock-music journalism.

 

Pop Quiz

See if you can spot the flaws in these actual quotations from the media.

1. “…shot himself with a riffle.”

2. “Is it fair to compare the two crisis?”

3. “It does so many other things that drives up the cost.”

4. “Everyone has come out looking badly.”

5. “Dow closes at new record high.”

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. “…shot himself with a rifle.”

2. “Is it fair to compare the two crises?”

3. “It does so many other things that drive up the cost.”

4. “Everyone has come out looking bad.”

5. “Dow closes at record high.” (“new record” is a redundancy)

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

Posted on Monday, November 25, 2013, at 1:36 pm


Learning From the Masters

There is a universal fellowship of nitpickers and always has been.

More than a century ago, the iconoclastic American writer Ambrose Bierce gave the world Write It Right (1909) and The Devil’s Dictionary (1911). George Orwell published his classic essay Politics and the English Language in 1946. In the 1970s and ’80s, former NBC news anchor Edwin Newman and New York literary and drama critic John Simon each wrote best-sellers deploring our nation’s declining language skills. The New York Times Magazine ran William Safire’s curmudgeonly “On Language” column from 1979 until his death in 2009.

There are any number of grammar sticklers online. GrammarGirl.com is a popular site with young people; baby boomers might enjoy bbhq.com/brushup.htm.

There are also countless reference books, starting with the American Heritage dictionary, with its Usage Panel of distinguished scholars. No pedant’s library is complete without The Elements of Style by Strunk and White and A Dictionary of Modern English Usage by H.W. Fowler (I recommend the 1965 second edition; I’m told the 1996 third edition has made some questionable compromises).

Serious authors and journalists are never much farther from the Chicago Manual of Style or the Associated Press Stylebook than a clergyman is from his bible.

These books present a united front against ignorance, but reading them, one notices their authors don’t march in lockstep—like politicians, there are conservative and liberal word nerds, and they can differ widely over what’s acceptable.

Consider this sentence: It’s different for men than for women. “Since the 18th century,” says the American Heritage dictionary, “language critics have singled out different than as incorrect.”

 Although hairsplitters from both sides of the aisle endorse different from, “It’s different for men from for women” obviously doesn’t work. And “It’s different for men from the way it is for women” is wordy and stiff. So language liberals would tend to accept different for men than for women in cases like this. The conservatives wouldn’t budge. They’d most likely insist on rewriting the sentence—something like “Men and women differ” neatly sidesteps this whole puddle of mud.

 It came as a surprise that some of my reference books didn’t condemn different than outright. Fowler’s venerated Dictionary of Modern English Usage notes that “different than is sometimes preferred by good writers to the cumbersome different from that which etc.” To which Wilson Follett’s Modern American Usage responds, “To condone different than because it is sometimes awkward to follow different with [from] is defeatism.” “The idea that there is anything wrong with different than is a superstition,” declares Roy H. Copperud in A Dictionary of Usage and Style. Theodore M. Bernstein, in The Careful Writer, fires back that if you accept different than, you are a “structural linguist permissivist.” Ouch, that can’t be good.

 I still use these books a lot. Collectively, they’ve helped me become the stuffed shirt I am today.

—Tom Stern

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

Posted on Tuesday, November 19, 2013, at 1:13 pm


We the People, or…?

For much of the last two months, we have been analyzing why the subject pronouns I, he, she, we, they and the object pronouns me, him, her, us, them are chronically misused and confused.

In this final installment, we’ll deal with flawed sentences like Politicians should respect we the people and It’s a happy outcome for he who laughs last.

Formal writing requires “us the people” (object of respect) and “him who laughs last” (object of for), even though we instinctively resist tampering with venerable expressions like we the people and he who laughs last.

If being correct would ruin the mood, there may be creative ways around the grammatical buzzkill. In the first case, we could probably avoid censure by using capitals: Politicians should respect We the People. This signals the reader that the well-known phrase is sacrosanct and must not be altered.

In the second example, we could write: a happy outcome for “he who laughs last.”  The quotation marks grant the words special dispensation, like the title of a book or movie.

So now, here is a summary of the chief causes of pronoun confusion.

• All forms of the verb to be. Informal sentences (It was me, It must have been them, It seems to be her) wrongly use object pronouns instead of what are called subject complements. (The correct pronouns respectively would be I, they, and she.)

• Compound subjects and compound objects. In everyday speech, when and or or links a pronoun with other nouns or pronouns, the results are often ungrammatical: Joe and him went fishing, Sue invited my friend and I for dinner, Her or I will meet you there. (The correct pronouns respectively would be he, me, and she.)

• Comparative sentences using as or than. Sentences like You’re as smart as her and Eddie ran faster than them sound fine but are technically flawed. (The correct pronouns respectively would be she and they.)

• Infinitives and verbs ending in -ing. They change subjects to objects. An infinitive such as to be turns I believe he is honest into I believe him to be honest. A verb ending in -ing, such as going, gives us the option of saying either I saw he was going home or I saw him going home. This can be especially confusing with compound subjects and objects, or when who-whom is involved.

• Idiomatic phrases containing subject pronouns (we the people, he who laughs last).

 

Pop Quiz

Correct any sentences that are formally ungrammatical.

1. LaTroy knew it was him who everyone preferred.

2. According to witnesses, it had to have been we.

3. The receipts were always safe with Maria and I.

4. May him and his friend join us for a nightcap?

5. She’s every bit as confused as me.

6. Your cousin’s wife looks older than he.

7. Who do you suspect was hiding something?

8. Who do you suspect to be hiding something?

9. This has been a bad week for we citizens of the United States.

10. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

Pop Quiz Answers

1. LaTroy knew it was he whom everyone preferred.

2. According to witnesses, it had to have been we. CORRECT

3. The receipts were always safe with Maria and me.

4. May he and his friend join us for a nightcap?

5. She’s every bit as confused as I.

6. Your cousin’s wife looks older than he. CORRECT

7. Who do you suspect was hiding something? CORRECT

8. Whom do you suspect to be hiding something?

9. This has been a bad week for us citizens of the United States.

10. Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.

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

Posted on Tuesday, November 12, 2013, at 6:54 pm