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Ain’t That a Shame

We are gratified that our readers are uncompromising about the English language. Over the course of fifty articles annually, we get our share of lectures, challenges, and rebukes. We welcome all your comments, but before you write, keep in mind the final edict in last week’s Stickler’s Ten Commandments: Be sure you are correct before you cry foul.

• One correspondent admonished us to replace over with more than in sentences like the package weighs over ten pounds. This myth has been around a long time, but few if any language scholars take it seriously. In an article titled “Non-Errors” the eminent grammarian Paul Brians says, “ ‘Over’ has been used in the sense of ‘more than’ for over a thousand years.”

• When we wrote “formulas,” a reader said that the correct plural is formulae, and those who write “formulas” are “the same lazy folk who would use ‘octopuses’ rather than ‘octopi.’ Please, don’t be lazy.”

While it is true that formulae is preferred in scientific contexts, formulas is most writers’ choice in other applications. The Associated Press Stylebook does not even acknowledge formulae. As for octopi, it is listed in most dictionaries, but that does not make it correct. In his book What in the Word? Charles Harrington Elster states that octopuses is the right choice: “Because octopus comes from Greek, not Latin, the Latinate variant octopi is inappropriate and is frowned upon by usage authorities.”

• But the biggest tiff of 2015 was over the use of that in sentences like She is a woman that likes to laugh. There is nothing grammatically wrong with a woman that likes.

Oh, but try telling that to all the readers who wrote in insisting that that must never be used to refer to humans. In 2014 we ran two articles which we hoped would put this dreary matter to rest forever (you can read them here and here). We’ll say it again: The pronoun that applies to humans as well as nonhumans. You may not care for how it sounds. You may not like how it is used nowadays. But rules of grammar transcend our personal preferences.

Most of the correspondence on this topic included some variation on “this is how I was taught.” Well, maybe so, but as the years pass, sometimes the memory plays tricks. And teachers are not infallible. Even the best ones harbor their own opinions, biases, and delusions, which might slip out in the classroom and be taken as fact by a callow student.

Too many of us cling to cherished misconceptions out of loyalty, sentiment, nostalgia—or sheer force of habit. If Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity were disproved tomorrow, would any reputable scientist disregard the overwhelming evidence because of his allegiance to Einstein?

 

Pop Quiz

Correct any sentences that need fixing.

  1. That basketball player is over seven feet tall.
  2. I prefer people that don’t tell everything they know.
  3. A couple dollars is all that place charges for a great taco.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

  1. That basketball player is over seven feet tall. CORRECT
  2. I prefer people that don’t tell everything they know. CORRECT
  3. A couple of dollars is all that place charges for a great taco.

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Posted on Tuesday, January 12, 2016, at 2:14 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


Compare To vs. Compare With

Is there a difference between comparing A to B and comparing A with B?

The answer is yes, and it is a difference worth maintaining; but these days, compare to and compare with are in danger of becoming interchangeable. This looks like yet another fight that the grammar patrol is about to lose.

When we compare something to something else, we are placing two things—sometimes very different things—in the same category and commenting on connections we perceive. We are expressing an opinion or making an observation. Others might not have noticed these similarities; still others might disagree with them. Some examples: I’d compare the view from your living room to a painting by Bierstadt. Ruben compared Giorgio’s spaghetti to dog food. Note that these are subjective statements—they are not verifiable.

When we compare something with something else, we are not expressing opinions or making personal statements. We are placing two things side by side and noting empirical similarities and differences. Our purpose is to be fair and impartial. The accuracy or inaccuracy of our findings can be verified. For instance, if we flout the old cliché and compare apples with oranges, we find that neither fruit contains fat, cholesterol, or sodium; that oranges contain more than twice as much potassium as apples; that a cup of oranges contains twenty more calories than a cup of apples.

The act of comparing to—claiming that two distinct entities share a noteworthy similarity—is something children do all the time. When a child says, “Mommy, that owl looks like Uncle Al!” she is comparing her uncle’s face to a bird’s. That is not exactly in-depth analysis. Comparing with tends to be a more mature, responsible, and demanding act than comparing to. Comparing with requires objectivity—and often necessitates research.

In the writer’s guide Simple and Direct, Jacques Barzun issues this caveat: “Any writer can compare himself with Shakespeare and discover how far he falls short; if he compares himself to Shakespeare (i.e., puts himself on the same level), then he had better think again.”

 

Pop Quiz

Choose the better options. Answers are below.

1.
A) Corey compared Eva’s running style with a gazelle’s.
B) Corey compared Eva’s running style to a gazelle’s.

2.
A) The police compared the e in Whitten’s signature with the e in the forged name on the contract.
B) The police compared the e in Whitten’s signature to the e in the forged name on the contract.

3.
A) Compared with the amount of money the administration has proposed for defense, the cost of this program will be small.
B) Compared to the amount of money the administration has proposed for defense, the cost of this program will be small.

4.
A) She compared my singing with the bleating of a calf in a hail storm.
B) She compared my singing to the bleating of a calf in a hail storm.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1.
B) Corey compared Eva’s running style to a gazelle’s.

2.
A) The police compared the e in Whitten’s signature with the e in the forged name on the contract.

3.
A) Compared with the amount of money the administration has proposed for defense, the cost of this program will be small.

4.
B) She compared my singing to the bleating of a calf in a hail storm.

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Posted on Tuesday, August 18, 2015, at 8:39 pm


The Lowdown on Different Than

Those who care about language sometimes discover they’ve been misled. Teachers, parents, or other trusted authority figures have been known to proclaim as rules what turn out to be myths, opinions, or whims about English usage.

In recent years we have debunked some of these baseless “rules,” and gotten a lot of heat from frustrated readers. Who can blame them?

Yet today we’re at it again, taking on another long-standing commandment: Always say different from because different than is incorrect. Upon further review this rule cannot be substantiated.

It has some impressive defenders, though: “In educated American usage, one thing is different from another, not different than another” (Claire Kehrwald Cook, Line by Line). “Comparative adjectives take thanDifferent takes from” (John B. Bremner, Words on Words).

Most writers prefer different from over different than when the phrase precedes a noun or pronoun: Dogs are different from cats. But different from does not always work preceding a clause. Consider this sentence: It is no different for men than it is for women. Using different than results in a clear, straightforward sentence. The supposedly grammatical alternative would be bloated and clumsy: It is no different for men from the way it is for women.

In Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words Bill Bryson cites this sentence: How different things appear in Washington than in London. If we changed the sentence to How different things appear in Washington from how they appear in London, Bryson states, “all it gives you is more words, not better grammar.”

“The idea that there is anything wrong with different than is a superstition,” says Roy H. Copperud in his Dictionary of Usage and Style. Bergen and Cornelia Evans’s Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage concurs: “No one has any grounds for condemning others who would rather say different than, since this construction is used by some of the most sensitive writers of English and is in keeping with the fundamental structure of the language.”

Does this mean you should now write different than every chance you get? We certainly wouldn’t. There may be nothing grammatically wrong with different than, but it remains polarizing. A is different than B comes across as sloppy to a lot of literate readers. If you can replace different than with different from without having to rewrite the rest of the sentence, we recommend doing so.

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Posted on Tuesday, June 23, 2015, at 11:04 am


Media Watch

Here is another bundle of woeful lapses by the print and broadcast media.

• Triple trouble from an international news organization: “Garcia graduated law school in California and passed the state’s bar exam, but has been forbidden from practicing law.”

Using graduate as a transitive verb here is still frowned on by traditionalists. Make it “Garcia graduated from law school.”

The sentence would be tidier with a he before “has”: “but he has been forbidden …” And the final four words should be “forbidden to practice law.” The New York Times stylebook says: “Use to with forbid and from with prohibit: forbid them to attend; prohibit them from attending.”

• “Growing up near West Palm Beach, he and his mother lived in six different apartments.” The phrase “growing up” should describe the sentence’s subject, but note that there are two subjects, “he and his mother,” and his mother had already grown up. This is an unusual example of a dangler (the nemesis of callow or distracted writers). The sentence must be rewritten so that “growing up” applies only to “he”: “Growing up near West Palm Beach, he lived with his mother …” But that’s not all—why “six different apartments”? Aren’t all apartments different? “Six different apartments” seems to be an imprecise way of saying “six apartments at different times.” It would be better to write something like Growing up near West Palm Beach, he lived with his mother in six apartments over the years.

• “Neither the name of the victim nor the suspect was immediately released.” This sentence is ambiguous because of faulty parallelism. The sentence says the suspect was not released, but it wants to say that the suspect’s name was not released. We can make it right without changing a word: The name of neither the victim nor the suspect was immediately released.

• “The gift by Ronald Linde and his wife Maxine will go to support promising initiatives and research.” Why by? A book or a painting is by someone; a gift is from someone. And commas are needed around “Maxine”—since Mr. Linde can have but one wife at a time, we need not know her name to understand the sentence. In grammatical terms “Maxine” is nonessential (or nonrestrictive) information and therefore requires commas. So make it The gift from Ronald Linde and his wife, Maxine, will go to support promising initiatives and research.

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NOTE: For more on faulty parallelism, see our February 2014 post “Simple Words, Fancy Label.” For more on essential vs. nonessential phrases and clauses, see our three-part series on the subject, which ran August 19, 26, and September 2, 2014.

You’ll find these posts on the GrammarBook.com website. On the home page, click on the Grammar Blog tab, scroll down to Monthly Blog Archives in the right column, and select the desired month and year.

 

Pop Quiz

The following are sentences recently heard over the airwaves. See if you can spot the errors. Answers are at the bottom of the newsletter.

  1. “The proof, they say, are in three text messages.”
  2. “She is in unchartered territory.”
  3. “Bacteria thrives in a warm environment.”
  4. “I’m neither a comedian or an aspiring comedian.”
  5. “He realized he had spoke too soon.”

 

Pop Quiz Answers

  1. “The proof, they say, is in three text messages.”
  2. “She is in uncharted territory.”
  3. “Bacteria thrive in a warm environment.”
  4. “I’m neither a comedian nor an aspiring comedian.”
  5. “He realized he had spoken too soon.”

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Posted on Tuesday, May 5, 2015, at 6:29 pm