Sign Up For Our Free Grammar E-Newsletter

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.

 

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

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


On to vs. Onto

Rule 1: In general, use onto as one word to mean “on top of,” “to a position on,” “upon.”

Examples:
He climbed onto the roof.
Let’s step onto the dance floor.

Rule 2: Use onto when you mean “fully aware of,” “informed about.”

Examples:
I’m onto your scheme.
We canceled Julia’s surprise party when we realized she was onto our plan.

Rule 3: Use on to, two words, when on is part of the verb.

Examples:
We canceled Julia’s surprise party when we realized she caught on to our plan.
(caught on is a verb phrase)
I’m going to log on to the computer. (log on is a verb phrase)

 

Pop Quiz
1. Billy, I’m worried that climbing on to/onto that tree limb is unsafe.
2. My daughter is going on to/onto graduate school.
3. Jose stepped down from the ladder on to/onto the ground.
4. The magician realized one person in the audience was on to/onto his trick.
5. After you drive five miles, turn on to/onto Highway 280 south.
6. The Gateses have moved on to/onto a life of philanthropy.

 

Pop Quiz Answers
1. Billy, I’m worried that climbing onto that tree limb is unsafe.
2. My daughter is going on to graduate school.
3. Jose stepped down from the ladder onto the ground.
4. The magician realized one person in the audience was onto his trick.
5. After you drive five miles, turn onto Highway 280 south.
6. The Gateses have moved on to a life of philanthropy.

Click here to learn hundreds of distinctions between common words.

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

Posted on Wednesday, January 6, 2010, at 8:53 am


Problems with Prepositions

Prepositions are certain words that go directly before nouns. They often show direction; for example, below, above, over, under, around, through, in, out, between, among, to, toward(s), etc. Other common prepositions include of, for, from, with, like.

Rule: You shouldn’t use or end a sentence with an unnecessary preposition, i.e., when the meaning is clear without the preposition. Sentences may end with necessary prepositions.

Correct: That is something I cannot agree with.
With is a necessary preposition.

Incorrect: Where did he go to?
Correct: Where did he go?
To is unnecessary because the meaning is clear without it.

Rule: Don’t follow like with a subject and verb because prepositions are followed only by nouns that act as the object of the preposition. Use as, as if, as though, or the way instead of like when a subject and verb follow.

Correct: I wish I could be more like her.

Incorrect: It doesn’t look like she will show up for dinner.
Correct: It doesn’t look as if (or as though) she will show up for dinner.

Incorrect: Do it like I taught you.
Correct: Do it the way I taught you.

 

Pop Quiz
Which sentence is correct?

1A. Where did you get this at?
1B. Where did you get this?

2A. I will go later on.
2B. I will go later.

3A. Take your shoes off the bed.
3B. Take your shoes off of the bed.

4A. Cut it up into small pieces.
4B. Cut it into small pieces.

5A. I look like my sister.
5B. I look as my sister.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. B
2. B
3. A
4. B
5. A

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

Posted on Saturday, July 19, 2008, at 12:31 am


Different From vs. Different Than

Different from is the standard phrase. Most scholars obstinately avoid different than, especially in simple comparisons, such as You are different from me.

However, some of the experts are more tolerant of different than, pointing out that the phrase has been in use for centuries, and has been written by numerous accomplished authors. These more-liberal linguists point out that a sentence like It is no different for men than it is for women is clear and concise, and rewriting it with different from could result in a clumsy clunker like It is no different for men from the way it is for women.

They may have a point, but many fine writers have had no problem steering clear of different than for their entire careers.

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

Posted on Friday, July 6, 2007, at 2:46 pm