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The Wicked Of

What would prompt H.W. Fowler to pick on the word of?

Fowler (1858-1933), whom many regard as the dean of English-language scholars, ascribed to of “the evil glory of being accessary to more crimes against grammar than any other.”

Do not be fooled by looks. Weighing in at a svelte two letters, this petite preposition couldn’t appear more guileless and benign. But of is the culprit in many, perhaps most, subject-verb blunders.

Those who watch their English must constantly remind themselves not to mistake the noun in an of phrase for the actual subject. This is a key rule for understanding subjects. Hasty writers, speakers, readers, and listeners might miss the error in the following sentence: A bouquet of roses lend color and fragrance to a room.

Make it A bouquet of roses lends color and fragrance to a room. In the sentence, roses is the object of the preposition of. The true subject is bouquet (bouquet lends, not roses lend).

But once we learn that principle, here comes of to stir up yet more mischief. First, consider this sentence: He is the only one of those men who is always courteous. Where’s the mischief, you may well ask; who refers to one, calling for the singular verb is. True enough—but wait, we’re not finished.

Now look at this almost identical sentence: He is one of those men who is always courteous. That is incorrect. The correct sentence is He is one of those men who are always courteous. This time the word who refers to men, requiring the plural verb are.

Are you skeptical? If we slightly change the word order, which verb would you select: Of those men who is/are always courteous, he is one. Would anyone choose men who is?

If any armchair grammarians remain unconvinced, let them try to explain this sentence: Pope Francis is one of the popes who has led the Catholic Church for almost two thousand years. Obviously, it’s utter nonsense unless the verb is have led. It may madden us, it may sadden us, but popes—despite being the object of of—necessitates the plural verb have led.

Thus does of sabotage our best efforts. First, we train ourselves to ignore an of phrase in order to find the true subject. Then a he is one of those sentence comes along and we find that the object of the preposition of is the key to finding the correct verb.

Mr. Fowler, you do have a point.

 

Pop Quiz

These sentences contain prepositional of phrases. Correct the ones that are wrong.

 1. Neither of the books have arrived yet.

 2. Yasif is one of those people who likes Mozart.

 3. Al is the only one of the carpenters who always work hard.

 4. This is one of the few chairs here that are comfortable.

 5. Each of the brothers said they were sorry.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

 1. Neither of the books has arrived yet.

 2. Yasif is one of those people who like Mozart.

 3. Al is the only one of the carpenters who always works hard.

 4. This is one of the few chairs here that are comfortable. CORRECT

 5. Each of the brothers said he was sorry.

 

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Posted on Monday, March 31, 2014, at 5:03 pm


The Case of the Missing Hyphen, Part 2

We thank all of you who took the time to respond to the question we posed two weeks ago: Should it be e-mail or email? There were eloquent arguments for both sides, but email won decisively. “Time to join the 21st century,” wrote one gentleman, who added, “and I’m 61 years old.”

Many of you chose email for pragmatic reasons, like this respondent: “In all practicality, email will win. On my smartphone, anyone typing the word e-mail has to shift to a second, then a third screen to complete the word.”

What this amounts to, said another reader, is that “texting is creating a whole new language.” We find ourselves rattled by that thought.

If, as one of you wrote, “The only quick punctuation mark I have on my smartphone is the period,” then this helps explain the indifference to hyphens, commas, apostrophes—and capital letters after periods—that we nitpickers are noting with ever-increasing dismay. Why should advances in technology have to come at the expense of the English language?

Other readers took the long view. “When the use of a particular prefix with a particular word is new, the hyphen is a useful link,” wrote one. “Once people become used to the new combination, the hyphen will be dropped.” History bears out this astute observation. Let’s look at some other familiar words that have followed the same pattern.

Goodbye: In 1968, Random House’s American College Dictionary demanded a hyphen, and preferred good-by to good-bye. The 1980 American Heritage dictionary agreed. But by 2006, American Heritage preferred goodbye, although it also listed the hyphenated choices.

Passerby: It started out as passer-by. The Associated Press Stylebook still recommends the hyphen, but that probably won’t last. The American Heritage dictionary already gave passerby top billing eight years ago.

Fundraiser: After years of recommending fund-raiser, the Associated Press’s manual dropped the hyphen seven years or so ago.

Baseball: The one-word form we have today did not prevail until less than 100 years ago. It was base ball in the early nineteenth century and base-ball in the early twentieth century.

Grass-roots (adjective): The American Heritage dictionary, Webster’s New World (fourth edition), and the Associated Press all agree on the hyphen, but grassroots is coming on strong.

So who are we to flout the inevitable? From now on, we’ll grit our teeth and write email.

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Posted on Monday, March 17, 2014, at 8:08 pm


Cheap Talk Can Cost You

A word nerd’s burden: someone said to me, “I guess I can’t say anything around you.” It was a lighthearted remark … I hope.

Saying is far different from writing, and the spoken word deserves a lot more leniency. I don’t want people to think I go around rating everyone’s conversational acumen, waiting to pounce. That’s not my style. Besides, I don’t always speak standard English either. Sometimes it’s more fun not to.

However, it’s different when someone misspeaks over the airwaves. Even if it’s a talk show featuring casual chit-chat, lots of people are tuned in, and the participants must not forget Rule One of being on the air: Watch what you say and how you say it.

So when a great athlete—I’ll call him “E.J.”—declares in front of a national audience: “Kenny and Charles is both right. They shoulda did it another way,” civilized people rightly cringe. Other more-articulate athletes squirm. Parents scowl, aware that this man is a role model for their kids. Teachers worry that their students will follow in his grammatical missteps.

This is not to disparage E.J., one of ten kids who grew up in a working-class family in the Midwest. Matching his physical genius with a relentless work ethic, he became a winner who played on five championship teams. When E.J. retired, he became as brilliant in business as he’d been in sports, and today he is one of the great rags-to-riches success stories in America.

Now why can’t this bright, accomplished man speak decent English? Kenny and Charles is? Shoulda did? Awful—and I don’t mean the shoulda, which I can live with when it’s spoken.

I’ve read that E.J. has someone on his payroll to monitor his verbal skills. If so, start earning your money, buster. On the other hand, some might say it really doesn’t matter anymore. Would better language skills have made E.J. more successful? Doubtful—you can’t get more successful.

Still, I keep thinking of that line from Citizen Kane: “It’s not difficult to make money … if all you want is to make money.” Is it too old-fashioned to think that “having it made” is about more than wealth and fame? There used to be something called class.

There is an annoying argument that good English is irrelevant if you get your point across. Sometimes it might be true, but there are other times when being articulate carries the day, and these may be some of the most significant times of your life: when you have to speak at a formal occasion, when you bare your soul to a friend or loved one, when you meet someone you’ve always respected and admired, when you’re interviewed for a dream job, when you have to make an important presentation, when you propose marriage …

Or how about when you’re in charge and it’s vital to establish your authority. There’s no harsher critic than a subordinate. Respect is never just given away; it must be earned. I was watching one of those inside-prison documentaries and a commotion broke out in the prison yard. A guard had to act fast to restore order. He barked out, “Get on your backs—face down!”

That’s anatomically impossible.

Such a remark can be costly after order is restored. I’ve no doubt that for a long time afterward, that guard was a source of wicked glee for the inmates.

Some occasions are too solemn for foolish language lapses. At a memorial service, a well-meaning soul remembered a renowned artist with these ill-advised words: “Although Michael achieved notoriety, he was a simplistic man.” What he meant was, “Although Michael achieved fame, he was a simple man.” Trying to convey Michael’s integrity and charm, the speaker instead called the dear departed notorious, and kind of a simpleton.

This person’s ineptitude was an affront to both the mind and the heart. Vain and insecure, he dumped fame for “notoriety,” a five-syllable blunder, and swapped simple for “simplistic,” another fancy-sounding but inappropriate word, which further undermined his entire tribute.

It can’t be said enough: Simplify, simplify, simplify.

Tom Stern

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Posted on Tuesday, March 11, 2014, at 6:50 pm


Hyphen Help Us

Nobody writes “electronic mail,” but how do you write the abbreviation—is it e-mail with a hyphen or its successor, email? It is a small matter that has larger implications: how, why, and when do accepted words and terms change forms?

It seems no less than a miracle that all right has survived this long, despite the perennial threat of alright. It’s probably only a matter of time until want to becomes wanna, and going to becomes gonna. (Or worse: even “I’m gonna go” is preferable to the trendily inarticulate “I’m-a go,” which one now hears with dispiriting regularity.)

It is doubtful that anyone under thirty writes “e-mail.” A modish blog site called Mashable declares e-mail an “antiquated tech term.” Mashable gloated when, in 2011, the Associated Press Stylebook started recommending email.

As you may have noticed, many blogs and periodicals, and even some books, already write “email.” Others are holding out, including the San Francisco Chronicle, defiantly championing e-mail despite being just down the road from Silicon Valley.

The writer Roy Blount Jr. is a passionate crusader for e-mail. In his book Alphabet Juice, Blount states, “email is an e-barbarism,” pointing out that “you wouldn’t write Abomb for A-bomb, or opositive for O-positive, or Xray [for X-ray].”

The GrammarBook.com staff won’t deny that we are in Blount’s corner, but at the same time we bristle at being labeled “antiquated.” Those who care about good grammar are already dismissed as querulous fussbudgets by most of the young and the hip; who needs more of that noise?

But bear in mind that the ascendant Millennial Generation is, to put it mildly, not noted for its language skills. Millennials are mystified by hyphens, and when they use them at all, they tend to use them incorrectly. (Many of them think a hyphen is a cute little long dash.) So in retrospect, it’s likely that e-mail was in trouble from the start.

There you have it. It’s the dilemma of sticking with something that works just fine vs. learning to live with a slick new version, however inane, vulgar, and wrongheaded it may strike you.

Readers, now it’s your turn: send us an electronic mail and weigh in on all this.

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Posted on Monday, March 3, 2014, at 6:17 pm


Simple Words, Fancy Label

Whether you realize it or not, you’re well acquainted with correlative conjunctions. It’s a lofty term for phrases people say every day. The most common correlative conjunctions include either … or, neither … nor, not only … but also, and both … and. Here is a list of other familiar ones:

whether or
rather … than
as many … as
just as … so
hardly (or scarcely) … when
no sooner … than
what with … and

People constantly mishandle correlative conjunctions. This is due to faulty parallelism, which we discussed last week. Look at these innocent-looking sentences:

Either you’re with me or against me.
She not only invited us in but she also cooked dinner.
He was both happy about the promotion and he was nervous about it.

All three are flawed.

You’ll notice that the sentences each contain two sections. The second section should parallel the first one as closely as possible. However, in the first example, Either is followed by a complete sentence (you’re with me), but or is followed only by a phrase (against me). That is a classic case of faulty parallelism.

To fix it, we could add a second you’re to the or section: Either you’re with me or you’re against me. Another option is to place you’re in front of the entire either-or construction: You’re either with me or against me. When we do this, You’re governs both the either and the or parts, and both parts consist of prepositional phrases (with me, against me). That makes a clear, balanced sentence.

Let’s home in on the second example. Since She precedes the entire correlative conjunction (not only … but also), She affects both parts equally, making the second she unnecessary: She not only invited us in but also cooked dinner. Our other choice is to rewrite the first part to match the second: Not only did she invite us in but she also cooked dinner.

On to the final one. Removing the second he was gives us He was both happy about the promotion and nervous about it. Note that each component now features an adjective (happy, nervous), a preposition (about), and a noun (promotion, it). You can’t get more parallel than that. But we can do even better: He was both happy and nervous about the promotion.

There’s no avoiding sentences with correlative conjunctions. Making sure they are parallel lends clarity and style to speech and writing.

 

Pop Quiz

Are these sentences parallel? If not, can you fix them?

1. Not only am I angry but disappointed.

2. The book both fascinated me and it taught me a good lesson.

3. She’d rather stay at home than to go out.

4. I had hardly left when you arrived.

5. He’s either going today or he’ll be going tomorrow.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. I am not only angry but disappointed. OR Not only am I angry but I am disappointed.

2. The book both fascinated me and taught me a good lesson.

3. She’d rather stay at home than go out.

4. Hardly had I left when you arrived.

5. He’s either going today or going tomorrow. OR Either he’s going today or he’ll be going tomorrow. OR He’s going either today or tomorrow.

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Posted on Tuesday, February 25, 2014, at 6:56 pm