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Pronoun Puzzlers

Today let’s look into a seldom-discussed subject that’s quite a mouthful: compound possessives with nouns and pronouns.

Have a look at this sentence: Cesar’s and Maribel’s houses are both lovely. Note the ’s at the end of each name. This tells us that Cesar and Maribel each own their own house.

But when two people share ownership, the ’s goes after the second name only. The sentence Cesar and Maribel’s houses are both lovely refers to houses co-owned by Cesar and Maribel.

However, if one—or both—of the joint owners is written as a pronoun, the possessive form is required for both: his and Maribel’s house, Cesar’s and my house, her and my house, your and their house.

As the above examples demonstrate, compound possessives with pronouns require possessive adjectives (my, your, her, our, their). Avoid possessive pronouns (mine, yours, hers, ourstheirs) in such constructions.

It should be mentioned that compound possessives are often clunky as well as confusing. For instance, a picture of her and Cesar’s house could refer to a photo of “her” in front of the house that Cesar owns or a photo of the house that she and Cesar co-own. Big difference. Such ambiguous sentences should probably just be rewritten.

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Last week we received this interesting note from a correspondent in Cambridge, Massachusetts:

“The M.C. and I” is the title of a New York Times Book Review piece on Joel Grey’s new memoir. When I saw it I thought, Is that grammatically correct? I don’t even know how to think about figuring that out. Most titles aren’t sentences. I doubt The King and I would have gotten by all these years if it weren’t correct.

We’ve found that for every title like “The M.C. and I” and The King and I there are several like You, Me, and the Apocalypse (TV series), Me Talk Pretty One Day (book), Me and the Colonel (movie), “Me and Bobby McGee” (popular song), and on and on.

Here’s our theory: the subject pronoun I in a title like The King and I sends a subliminal message that what you are about to experience is high-minded and edifying. The King and I is a beloved Broadway musical about a prim Englishwoman who served in the court of the king of Siam in the 1860s. Consider the exotic subject matter and the sophisticated target audience and you can understand why The King and Me was not an option.

Now look at those other examples. The titles are meant to disarm us with humor or folksiness. They encourage a bond of easy intimacy between author and audience. There’s something comfortable about Me in a title and something more reserved and aloof about I.

 

Pop Quiz

Choose the best sentences. Our answers are below.

1.
A) Randy returned to he and his wife’s farm in Kansas.
B) Randy returned to his and his wife’s farm in Kansas.
C) Randy returned to him and his wife’s farm in Kansas.
D) Randy returned to himself and his wife’s farm in Kansas.

2.
A) Chris and my screenplay is almost finished.
B) Me and Chris’s screenplay is almost finished.
C) Chris’s and my screenplay is almost finished
D) Myself and Chris’s screenplay is almost finished.

3.
A) They and their children’s house was getting a new porch.
B) Their and their children’s house was getting a new porch.
C) Them and their children’s house was getting a new porch.
D) Them and their children were getting a new porch for their house.
E) They and their children were getting a new porch for their house.

4.
A) Your and her dog is on my lawn.
B) Yours and her dog is on my lawn.
C) Hers and your dog is on my lawn.
D) Rewrite the sentence.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. B
2. C
3. E (B is correct, but awkward)
4. D (A is correct, but awkward)

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Posted on Tuesday, March 15, 2016, at 2:17 pm


Media Watch

Let’s begin this installment of “Media Watch” with a headline we could do without:

• “Manning and Co. bring in ’da noise”

Did you catch it? Why the apostrophe? It should not be there unless one or more letters are omitted from the front of da (like the missing be in ’cause). That’s not the case; da is a condescending spelling of the, as uttered by a rowdy football fan. It appears that the headline writer added the apostrophe as a wink to the reader, a way of saying, “Of course, I don’t talk like these hooligans.”

• “This ugly episode must be overcome in favor of defeating ours’ and Russia’s mutual enemy.”

Another diseased apostrophe. The possessive pronoun ours never takes an apostrophe, any more than yourshers, or theirs does. But even if we remove it we are still left with the frightful ours mutual enemy. The sentence calls for the possessive adjective our. So make it either our and Russia’s mutual enemy or Russia’s and our mutual enemy.

• “RMJ is an acronym for Recycle My Junk.”

No, RMJ is an initialism. There is a key difference between acronyms and initialisms. If you can say it as a word, as with NASA or ROM, it is an acronym. If you pronounce each letter, as with FBI or RSVP, it is an initialism.

• “His choice is Jackson, whom he said already knows the job.”

Why is it that so many people seem to use whom only where they shouldn’t? Look what happens if we move he said to the back of the sentence: His choice is Jackson, whom already knows the job, he said. Obviously, the right choice is who, the subject of knows—and emphatically not the direct object of said. So make it His choice is Jackson, who he said already knows the job.

• “Ironically, Shakespeare’s greatest literary contemporary died the same day he did.”

The first word should be “Coincidentally.” When something is ironic, it has a grimly humorous or paradoxical twist, as if the universe were playing a wicked practical joke. Thus, it is ironic if a speeding car crashes into a “drive carefully” sign. But where is the irony here? Do not use ironically when referring to an odd or remarkable coincidence, such as two famous writers dying on the same day.

• “Before they fled, he and his mom had a going-away party.”

The article was about a fugitive who had committed quadruple homicide. We understand that we’re living in the Age of Informality, but there is something spectacularly inappropriate about calling a sociopath’s enabler mother “his mom.”

 

Pop Quiz

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

  1. “It fell a tenth of an inch short of the all-time record.”
  2. “It’s complete trash, garbage—there are other adjectives I’d like to use.”
  3. “One of the suspects immigrated from Syria.”
  4. “How dare him say that?”
  5. “He and his company are flaunting the system.”

 

Pop Quiz Answers

  1. “It fell a tenth of an inch short of the record” (all-time record is a pleonasm).
  2. “It’s complete trash, garbage—there are other nouns I’d like to use.”
  3. “One of the suspects emigrated from Syria.”
  4. “How dare he say that?”
  5. “He and his company are flouting the system.”

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Posted on Tuesday, February 9, 2016, at 3:19 pm


Year-End Quiz

To close out 2015 we have put together a comprehensive pop quiz based on the year’s GrammarBook.com grammar posts. The quiz comprises twenty-five sentences that may—or may not—need fixing. Think you can fix the ones that need help?

You’ll find our answers directly below the quiz. Each answer includes, for your convenience, the title and date of the article that raised the topic.

This quiz is not for dilettantes. Good luck, and we hope to see you back here after the holidays.

 

Jumbo Pop Quiz: 2015 in Twenty-five Questions

1. I have an affinity for pizza.

2. People that like a couple drinks before dinner are my idea of good company.

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

4. We dined with people from Chicago, Illinois, Brooklyn, New York, and San Diego, California.

5. There are three different pools on the property.

6. Do you have any future plans you can tell us about?

7. It was a hazel doormouse with golden-brown fur and large black eyes.

8. Fifty dollars are too much to pay for a toaster.

9. The differences between us and them are miniscule, so take your pick.

10. Toby has gotten himself into trouble this time.

11. The dry soil has drank up every last raindrop.

12. The hotel is in close proximity to the corporate, financial, and fashionable heart of the city.

13. In Big Sur the view from our balcony was simply incredulous.

14. Erik was born on June 5, 1975 in Oslo, Norway.

15. Hanging around with fantastic writers rubs off on you after awhile.

16. Choose the more likely sentence:
A) Ruben compared Giorgio’s spaghetti to dog food.
B) Ruben compared Giorgio’s spaghetti with dog food.

17. Here is what I want from the store: Onions, potatoes, and broccoli.

18. The challenge so enervated her that she rushed out and sprinted two miles.

19. These two crooks just wanted to steal each others’ money.

20. Storm clouds creeped unnoticed over the distant mountains.

21. Luckily, the guide found them and lead them to safety.

22. She loved three men equally, so choosing a husband was a difficult dilemma.

23. McCloy knew he’d lied to Anita, but his alibi was, “I didn’t want to hurt her.”

24. The conflict centers around the atrocities of war.

25. I am writing in regards to employment opportunities at your firm.

 

Jumbo Pop Quiz Answers

An asterisk (*) indicates that there are more correct answers than one.

1. I have a fondness for pizza.* (Words in Flux, 1-13)

2. People that like a couple of drinks before dinner are my idea of good company. (Nice Publication—Until You Read It, 1-27)

3. Let him who is without sin cast the first stone. CORRECT (Media Watch, 2-17)

4. We dined with people from Chicago, Illinois; Brooklyn, New York; and San Diego, California. (The Man Who Hated Semicolons, 3-31)

5. There are three pools on the property. (Media Watch, 5-5)

6. Do you have any plans you can tell us about? (A Twenty-first Century Usage Guide, 5-12)

7. It was a hazel dormouse with golden-brown fur and large black eyes. (A Twenty-first Century Usage Guide, 5-12)

8. Fifty dollars is too much to pay for a toaster. (What Kind of Rule Is Usually?, 5-19)

9. The differences between us and them are minuscule, so take your pick. (Spell Check, 5-26)

10. Toby has gotten himself into trouble this time. CORRECT (Misbegotten Views on Gotten, 6-30)

11. The dry soil has drunk up every last raindrop.
(Irregular Verbs Can Be a Regular Pain, 7-7)

12. The hotel is close to the corporate, financial, and fashionable heart of the city.* (Don’t Put It in Writing, 7-14)

13. In Big Sur the view from our balcony was simply incredible. (Grammar, Vocabulary Go Hand in Hand, 7-28)

14. Erik was born on June 5, 1975, in Oslo, Norway. (Media Watch, 8-4)

15. Hanging around with fantastic writers rubs off on you after a while. (Media Watch, 8-4)

16. A) Ruben compared Giorgio’s spaghetti to dog food. (Compare To vs. Compare With, 8-18)

17. Here is what I want from the store: onions, potatoes, and broccoli. (Colons and Capitals, 8-25)

18. The challenge so energized her that she rushed out and sprinted two miles. (You Can Look It Up, 9-15)

19. These two crooks just wanted to steal each other’s money. (Each Other vs. One Another, 9-29)

20. Storm clouds crept unnoticed over the distant mountains. (Why Irregular Verbs Are Strong, 10-6)

21. Luckily, the guide found them and led them to safety. (Why Irregular Verbs Are Strong, 10-6)

22. She loved three men equally, so choosing a husband was a difficult predicament.* (Slipshod Extension, 10-13)

23. McCloy knew he’d lied to Anita, but his excuse was, “I didn’t want to hurt her.”* (Slipshod Extension, 10-13)

24. The conflict centers on the atrocities of war.* (When Idioms Become Monsters, 10-20)

25. I am writing in regard to employment opportunities at your firm. (Give the Gift of Pedantry, 12-1)

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Posted on Tuesday, December 15, 2015, at 2:31 pm


Each Other vs. One Another

There are still sticklers among us who see a distinct difference between each other and one another. They use each other when discussing two people or things, and one another when discussing more than two people or things.

According to this system, the following sentences would both be correct: The twins told each other everything and The triplets told one another everything. But The twins told one another everything and The triplets told each other everything would both be incorrect.

This rule has been around since the eighteenth century. Yet it is routinely ignored by just about everyone, including our finest writers. Nowadays, virtually no one even knows it exists.

Taken literally, the phrase each other does seem limited to two entities only, represented by the singular pronoun each and the singular pronoun other.

The twins told each other everything means that each twin told the other twin everything. So far, so good. But The triplets told each other everything means that each triplet told the “other” triplet everything—which makes no sense because there are two other triplets.

So instead the sticklers demand The triplets told one another everything. To them, other means “one of two” and another means “one of more than two.” By this reasoning, one another refers to a group of three or more whose members include one and another.

The sticklers reject The twins told one another everything because it means that one twin told “another twin” everything. To the sticklers, “another twin” means the impossible: three (or more) twins.

The trouble with the rule is that each other and one another were already long-established idioms in the eighteenth century, and many idioms fall apart under this sort of tortured scrutiny—try analyzing as it were or by and large sometime.

Whether some people like it or not, each other and one another are synonyms. So let’s move on.

The possessive of each other is each other’s, never each others’. Although a lot of neophytes write each others’, the authorities agree unanimously that each other’s is the only acceptable option. Same with one another’s.

A thorny problem with each other’s and one another’s is illustrated in the sentence that follows. Should we say The lawyer and the banker admired each other’s car or admired each other’s cars?

The traditionalists are at odds here. In The Careful Writer Theodore M. Bernstein claims that each other’s is equivalent to their. So Bernstein would say admired each other’s cars. But Bryan A. Garner leans toward the singular car. In A Dictionary of Modern American Usage Garner says “the noun that follows is often plural <each other’s cars>, but the more logical construction is singular <each other’s car>.”

Did he say “logical”? When it comes to each other and one another, logic is beside the point.

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Posted on Tuesday, September 29, 2015, at 9:31 pm


Rules, Policies, and Judgment Calls

Readers seemed to enjoy “Are Two r’s One Too Many?” our column about the pronunciation of February. But we also received a few emails like this one: “Why on earth is there an apostrophe in the title??”

We understand the reader’s concern. Starting in grade school, English teachers rail against sentences like “Banana’s make good snack’s.” Students learn early on that only careless or clueless writers use apostrophes to pluralize nouns.

However, there are certain exceptions. When a rule leads to perplexity rather than clarity, writers and editors will make adjustments. For instance, the use of apostrophes strikes us as the simplest and most practical way to pluralize is and was in a sentence like Jones uses too many is’s and was’s. You may feel you have a better solution, but the is’s and was’s solution is not wrong. It is endorsed by many reputable language authorities.

These days, initialisms like TV or RSVP are made plural simply by adding a lowercase s without an apostrophe: TVsRSVPs. But to pluralize abbreviations that end in S, we advise using an apostrophe: They sent out two SOS’s.

Imagine the confusion if you wrote My a’s look like u’s without apostrophes. Readers would see as and us, and feel lost.

This brings us back to our title and the phrase “two r’s.” The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) endorses “Mind your p’s and q’s.” The Practical English Handbook by Floyd C. Watkins, William B. Dillingham, et al., sanctions “four c’s,” but the book also accepts “four cs,” presumably because the difference between c in italics and s in roman typeface is sufficient for attentive readers.

There is no definitive rule for using apostrophes (or not) to form plurals in special cases like these. For many decades The New York Times wrote the 1920’s. Then the paper changed its policy in late 2012, and now writes the 1920s like most of the rest of us. And though CMOS recommends “p’s and q’s,” it prefers yeses and nos to yes’s and no’s. One wonders if CMOS would prefer ises and wases to is’s and was’s—because to us, ises and wases is too obscure to be a practical solution.

So to avoid similar confusion, we went with “Two r’s” and not “Two rs” in our title. We didn’t feel comfortable signing off on something that looked like a typo.

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Posted on Tuesday, February 10, 2015, at 4:23 pm