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I Subject, Your Honor

Last month, in discussions of who-whom and whoever-whomever, we passed along a handy memory aid: who (and whoever) = he; whom (and whomever) = him.

That’s fine as far as it goes, but it goes nowhere unless we can tell a subject (he) from an object (him).

One reason that distinguishing between subjects and objects is so difficult can be traced to what’s called the subject complement, a fancy term for the B in A = B. In the sentence It is you, the word you is a subject complement: it = you.

Math teaches us that if A = B, then B = A. If it = you, then you = it. In the sentence It is you, the word you is a kind of secondary subject.

However, you stays the same whether it’s a subject or an object. Things get trickier with the subject pronouns I, he, she, we, they, who, and whoever, which all change forms when they function as objects (me, him, her, us, them, whom, and whomever).

A conversational sentence like It’s me is technically wrong, because me is the object form of I, when what we need is a subject complement. Therefore, It’s I would be proper English (it = I). Remember, if It is I, then I am it. Since no one says, “Me am it,” It’s me can’t be correct.

Look at these everyday sentences: It’s us. Wait, it was him. No, it has been them all along. But it could’ve been her. We hear these all the time—and every one of them is technically incorrect. In such sentences, informal speech tends to prefer object pronouns like me, her, and them over the formally correct I, she, and they. Who knows why? They just sound better, or something. For whatever reason, not many folks we meet on the street would say, “It’s we.” “It was he.” “It has been they.” “It could’ve been she.”

But no one can ever master whom and whomever without knowing when object pronouns in everyday speech should be changed to subject complements in formal English.

More next time…

Pop Quiz

Make the following colloquial sentences consistent with formal English.

1. She’s just glad it turned out to be me.
2. The way I see it, it must have been them.
3. The culprits were Joe, Jack, Jake, and whomever else.
4. It ended up being her who the group could count on.
5. It seemed like them, but it was him.

Pop Quiz Answers

These answers are academically correct. But if you talk to your friends like this, you’re on your own.

1. She’s just glad it turned out to be I.
2. The way I see it, it must have been they.
3. The culprits were Joe, Jack, Jake, and whoever else.
4. It ended up being she whom the group could count on. (whom is the object of the verb count on)
5. It seemed like them, but it was he. (them is the object of the preposition like)

This grammar tip was contributed by veteran copy editor and word nerd Tom Stern.

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

Posted on Monday, October 14, 2013, at 2:55 pm


Clichés Are Too Easy

Clichés are to good writing as McDonald’s is to fine dining. You don’t need to shun them altogether; occasionally they have their place. But overall, like fast food, the job they do isn’t worth the toll they take.

But what’s really so wrong with avoid like the plague? You know exactly what it means when I say it, and besides, I might be on a deadline. Why should I fritter away precious time trying to come up with something fresh and inventive when there’s this prefabricated, comfortably familiar turn of phrase available?

That’s the lure and the curse of clichés. They’re easy and they work, yes, but by definition, they’re tired and overused, even the new, trendy ones. They’re the earmark of the hack writer.

The irony is that clichés are victims of their own success. As trite and shopworn as they become, they were effective and brilliant when they were first coined. They flourish by expressing something universal in words and images that are memorable and original. There’s no such thing as an ineffective cliché, or it’s not really a cliché.

Clichés sometimes start as clever punchlines. About fifteen years ago, for a period of several months, it was funny to hear someone reply to an outburst of brutal frankness by dryly remarking, “So, what do you really think?” But now when I hear this, even though it’s still about as up-to-date as a cliché can be, I get a wee pain.

Same with “wait for it.” It’s become quite a favorite with the higher-brows among us. It signals the reader that something deliciously ironic or amusing or ridiculous is about to be revealed: “So they caught that sanctimonious Pastor Reynolds in a strip club last night, and he said he was just there to—wait for it—do some research.”

In closing, I’d like to try something either really instructive or really dumb…

Cliché Masterpiece Theater
My friend said in no uncertain terms: “Let’s cut to the chase. It goes without saying clichés are something you should kick to the curb, where the rubber meets the road. They stick out like a sore thumb. They spread like wildfire. If you want to be a good writer, don’t go there or you’ll be thrown under the bus. You’ll have your name dragged through the mud. It’s as plain as the nose on your face. That being said, at the end of the day, for all intents and purposes, the bottom line is that when you use them, all bets are off. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out; this isn’t brain surgery. It is what it is.”

“Tell me what you really think,” I quipped. I was just jerking his chain since I didn’t have a dog in this fight. But by the same token, you can’t have it both ways. I knew I had to step up to the plate. “Dude,” I intoned, “the long and the short of it is, anyone who thinks I’m not on the same page is barking up the wrong tree. It boggles the mind and it’s freaking me out. I won’t take it lying down.”

You have to get up pretty early in the morning to catch me using a cliché. So let’s get the ball rolling. Let’s get up to speed here. Let’s take the gloves off. Let’s pull out all the stops. Let’s push the envelope. Let’s circle the wagons and stop kicking the can down the road. We need to wrap our minds around this perfect storm and think outside the box. But, you kids: don’t try this at home.

In the court of public opinion, clichés are a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they make your meaning clear as a bell; but on the other hand, long story short, in a heartbeat you’re confronted by a bunch of strange bedfellows who are shocked, shocked! That doesn’t pass the smell test.

Left to their own devices, these Einsteins seem to be having a field day with all their bells and whistles. They should give it a rest. They need to get over themselves, beyond a shadow of a doubt.

After all is said and done, this could have been a teachable moment—but, nooo! They had to turn it into a witch hunt.

Well, to them I say, “Right back at ya!” I’m not trying to sell snake oil to these snakes in the grass—these weasels who want to let the cat out of the bag, free as a bird. So in no way, shape, or form am I throwing in the towel. I’m drawing a line in the sand. I’ll fight this tooth and nail. When push comes to shove, I’m not falling on my sword. I’m not going from the frying pan into the fire. I’m not taking the bait like some deer in the headlights. No way, José. That would be deja vu all over again.

I’ve been around the block, but even if you held my feet to the fire, I couldn’t make people put their money where their mouth is—that’s above my pay grade.

Creature of habit? No, I’m crazy like a fox. If they keep fanning the flames, they’ll be dropping like flies. I refuse to be the poster child for being behind the eight ball when the chips are down.

Well, I think I’ve run out the clock. It’s time for the fat lady to sing. There’s nothing more to say—zero, zip, nada. I have to get out of Dodge.

This grammar tip was contributed by veteran copy editor and word nerd Tom Stern.

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

Posted on Tuesday, October 8, 2013, at 1:39 pm


Sweating the Small Stuff

At a football game a few weeks ago, Notre Dame University sold soda in cups that said, “Figthing Irish.” Did no one at this distinguished school have the time or pride to proofread a two-word slogan?

Here are a few other items we’ve seen recently and now wish we hadn’t…

Back to Basics Many professional journalists can’t find the subjects in their own sentences, like this one: “The final installment of those tapes—340 hours—were made public.” Make it “was made public.” The writer, distracted by “tapes” and “hours,” forgot that the subject, “installment,” was singular.

Ho-Hum: More Who-Whom Recently in this space, we discussed the difference between who (subject) and whom (object). Pronoun confusion has plagued our language for centuries. Some now claim that English would be fine without whom. But whom holds some mysterious attraction for people who shouldn’t be using it, because they keep getting it wrong, as in “…a man whom he thought was ready” (make it “who he thought was ready”).

Compare that with “Brown, who investigators had trouble reaching for interviews” and “Schulman, who he met on a blind date.” Here the writers were handed whom on a silver platter, but instead chose “who.”

How the Cookie Deconstructs Flawed sentences like those result from either carelessness or grammatical cluelessness. Just as prevalent, and deadly, is poor word choice caused by fuzzy thinking. Here’s a writer who sabotaged his own metaphor when he wrote, “…before the whole house of cards crumbles.”

Dead leaves and old walls crumble. A house of cards collapses.

POP QUIZ

Try to spot the errors or lapses in these sentences, written by professionals.

1. “The case is the latest in a series that have fueled public protests.”
2. “He was convicted in absentia to 20 years in prison.”
3. “…and Steenkamp, whom he believed was still in the bedroom.”
4. “A deadline to Syria to turnover its weapons.”
5. “The first time either of them have heard the recording.”

POP QUIZ ANSWERS

Not all of these sentences have one right answer. See if your remedies agree with ours.

1. The case is the latest in a series of events that have fueled public protests.
2. He was sentenced in absentia to 20 years in prison.
3. …and Steenkamp, who he believed was still in the bedroom. (i.e., who was still in the bedroom, he believed)
4. A deadline to Syria to turn over its weapons.
5. The first time either of them has heard the recording.

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Posted on Wednesday, October 2, 2013, at 2:19 pm


To Split or Not To Split

Not everyone knows what an infinitive is, but everyone uses them.

Infinitives are formed when a verb is preceded by the word to, as in to run or to ask. Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech might be the most famous use of infinitives in English literature.

One of the great misconceptions about English is that it is wrong to “split” an infinitive—that is, to put a word or words between to and the verb. According to this superstition, to quickly respond or to flatly refuse is incorrect; we should say instead, to respond quickly or to refuse flatly. This supposedly preserves the “integrity” of the infinitive.

The myth sprang up in the 18th century, when grammarians decreed that English should be modeled on Latin. In Latin, infinitives are one word, so they can’t be split. The trouble is that English is a Germanic, not a Romance, language. Imposing Latin rules on English is like demanding that cats act like dogs.

There is no point in splitting an infinitive just for the fun of it. Experienced writers do not split capriciously. But sometimes they prefer to—and sometimes they have to. A classic example of the latter case: I expect my salary to more than double. There’s no other place for more than except right between to and double.

Would Hamlet’s speech be so admired if it opened with “To be or to not be”? Splitting infinitives with not is usually a terrible idea. I decided not to go is a vast improvement on the clunky I decided to not go.

But now consider His mistake was to not go. It’s ugly, but it says what it means. Placing not before to go would invite ambiguity: His mistake was not instead of His mistake was. In this and many other cases involving split infinitives, a rewrite would be a good plan: He made a mistake by not going.

Finally, notice how often infinitives are split by dispensable adverbs, as in this sentence: I intend to strongly protest. The verbs intend and protest are dynamic enough to make strongly extraneous—I intend to protest would be an improvement. Any time an adverb can be removed, it should be.

POP QUIZ

Which sentences would be improved by “unsplitting” the infinitive? Which ones are fine the way they are? See our views below.

1. I was hoping she’d choose to not attend.

2. He wanted to strongly advise against it.

3. Alice needed to quickly leave.

4. She’s not expected to immediately fix the problem.

5. We decided to gradually get rid of the clutter.

POP QUIZ ANSWERS

1. I was hoping she’d choose not to attend.

2. He wanted to strongly advise against it. (We’d keep it as is; to strongly advise sounds more forceful to us than to advise strongly.)

3. Alice needed to leave. (The urgency of “needed” makes “quickly” unnecessary.)

4. She’s not expected to fix the problem immediately.

5. We decided to gradually get rid of the clutter. (Best option, although some would argue for get rid of the clutter gradually. Decided gradually to get rid of is ambiguous. Get gradually rid of and get rid gradually of strike us as ghastly alternatives.)

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Posted on Sunday, September 8, 2013, at 12:45 pm


Words Can Be Bullies

Words that start with the letter h don’t always act like it.

Consider “herb,” when it means “an aromatic plant used for seasoning in cooking.” Americans dump the h, whereas many Brits pronounce it. So we say “an ’erb,” but an Englishman says “a herb.”

A different sort of h-confusion happens when self-important speakers and writers say “an historic occasion” or “an heroic soldier.” Ever notice that “an” only precedes a few highfalutin h-words like “historic(al),” “hypothetical,” “hallucinogenic”? And they tend to have three or more syllables: “An heroic soldier” is also “a hero.”

About 20 years ago, Time magazine ran a front-cover headline beginning, “A Historic…” and misguided word nerds raised a furor, insisting Time should have said “An Historic”—but the magazine never budged, stating flatly that “an historic” is wrong.

In everyday conversation, would you describe a wailing brat as “an hysterical child”? I sincerely doubt it. But what makes “hysterical” so different from “historical”?

A Google check yields tips from various websites, which only reinforce common sense: “You should use ‘an’ before a word beginning with an ‘H’ only if the ‘H’ is not pronounced” (from the website wsu.edu/~brians/errors/anhistoric.html).

Or this: “you use an before vowel sounds…Following this rule, we would say ‘a historic,’ not ‘an historic’ ” (betterwritingskills.com).

Or this one, which ought to seal the deal: “I’d love to hear a reasonable argument, based on logic and not convention, in support of ‘an historic’…given the prevalence of such similar constructions as ‘a hotel downtown’ and ‘a high bar’ and ‘a hitman killed my dog’ ” (ask.metafilter.com).

Pomposity often leads to tortured language. I remember lawyer-turned-sportscaster Howard Cosell, rest his troubled soul, and the way he regularly subjected professional athletes to his cruel and unusual polysyllabic punishment. In general, jocks are spoiled, semi-educated boors, and they know it, so the tug-of-war between them and Cosell was great theater.

At its most sublime, it involved boxing champion Muhammad Ali. He and Howard made a great team, and there was genuine love and trust there. Whatever his faults, Cosell, perhaps at the risk of his own career, had taken up for the draft-evading Ali when the champ was something of a national pariah. (YouTube.com has many wonderful sequences of these two through the years.)

Although there was a good Cosell, all too often we got Bad Howard, neurotically insecure, the one who knew he was kept at arm’s length by these great physical geniuses—and resented it. He knew they mocked him, not caring that Cosell had more knowledge of more subjects than all of them put together. So he would sometimes do perverse things, like the time he bullied a poor rookie football player from some Deep South ghetto. Bad Howard said something like: “So, my young friend, in your estimation, did the immensity of the task assigned you, juxtaposed with the metaphysical certainty of your callow demeanor, effectuate a lessened or heightened capacity on your part?”

I’m not kidding. That’s pretty close to what Howard said. As the kid listened, his eyes widened with terror and confusion, as if he were being swarmed by a raging horde of ruthless linebackers. I don’t recall his answer.

 

Pop Quiz
As we discussed last time, the great writer Elmore Leonard, who died August 20, deplored adverbs. Experienced writers like Leonard prefer strong nouns and verbs. In this quiz, try rewriting each sentence with greater precision and economy. There are no correct answers, but our suggestions may be found in the Answers section.

1. Avoiding wordiness is basically a simple principle of good writing.
2. He went into the room quickly.
3. She was incredibly thrilled by the experience.
4. He said things about us that were viciously harmful and insulting.
5. The committee strongly expressed disapproval of them.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. Avoiding wordiness is a fundamental of good writing.
2. He hurried into the room.
3. The experience elated her.
4. He vilified us.
5. The committee censured them.

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

Posted on Saturday, August 31, 2013, at 6:53 pm