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Media Watch

Here is another set of recent flubs and fumbles from usually dependable journalists.

• “Yet my relationship with the game was simple and uncomplicated.”

How did this one get by the editors? One of those two adjectives has to go.

• “He is accused of fleeing to London in March while owing more than $1 billion dollars to Indian banks.”

The dollar sign means “dollars,” so “$1 billion dollars” is as redundant as “simple and uncomplicated.”

• “The vessels have the capacity to carry about 2½ times the number of containers than held by ships now using the canal.

Why would anyone put than in that sentence?

• “The outpouring of anger and concern show that California wants vital and vigilant coastal protections.”

The subject is the singular noun “outpouring,” so the verb should be shows.

• “To get in, I waded through a throng of protesters gathered around the entrance … A few protestors got close enough to snap pictures.”

The Associated Press Stylebook and many dictionaries accept only protester. Other dictionaries list protestor as an alternative spelling. But no authority alive recommends spelling the word both ways in the same paragraph.

• “It is an important fact ignored—or maybe unknown—to the candidate.”

The writer wanted to say that the “important fact” was either ignored by the candidate or unknown to the candidate. Here’s how to make it work with the dashes: It is an important fact ignored by—or maybe unknown to—the candidate.

• “The outcome is a major win for public employee unions, who would be weakened if members didn’t pay for representation.”

The word after “unions” should be which, not who. Despite being made up of people, a union is a thing. Writers should limit their use of who to humans.

• “Born in Brooklyn in 1922, stage fright steered Mr. Bauersfeld away from Hollywood.”

The dangler is alive and thriving in the twenty-first century. Did you spot it? To sticklers and other careful readers, this sentence is sheer nonsense: it states with a straight face that stage fright was born in Brooklyn in 1922. We could write  Stage fright steered Mr. Bauersfeld, who was born in Brooklyn in 1922, away from Hollywood. But now the reader wonders what being born in Brooklyn in 1922 has to do with stage fright and avoiding Hollywood. Year and place of birth are irrelevant here. The writer was trying to cram too much into one sentence.

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Posted on Wednesday, May 11, 2016, at 7:46 am


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


Hypercorrection

Trying hard is good, but trying too hard is another matter. Hypercorrection is the technical term for mistakes in grammar, punctuation, or pronunciation that result from trying too hard to be correct.

Perhaps the most common hypercorrection involves pronouns. We constantly hear things like Keep this between you and I or The Wilsons invited he and his wife to lunch. In those examples, the correct choices are the object pronouns me instead of I and him instead of he (me is an object of the preposition between; him is a direct object of invited). The authors of such sentences seem to have decided that I and he sound more classy than me and him, so they must be correct.

Here are a few more examples of this vain tactic:

Often  All dictionaries list two pronunciations, OFF-en and OFF-tun, but OFF-tun is classic hypercorrection. The t should be silent, as it is in soften and many other English words (e.g., listen, moisten, Christmas). Ninety years ago Henry Fowler wrote in Modern English Usage that the t in often is pronounced “by two oddly consorted classes—the academic speakers who affect a more precise enunciation than their neighbours’ [and] the uneasy half-literates who like to prove that they can spell.”

“A $8,000 price tag”  You run across items like this in newspapers from time to time. The copy editor chose the article a, rather than an, even though anyone reading aloud would say “an eight-thousand-dollar price tag.” Acting on the principle that an is used only before a vowel, the copy editor concluded that a dollar sign preceding a numeral cannot be considered a vowel—therefore a was the clear choice. In truth, the rule states that an is used before all vowel sounds. The letter h is not a vowel either, but no copy editor would prescribe “a honor.”

“The Jag-wires have scored 90 points in their past two games,” said the sportscaster. He was talking about a professional football team called the Jacksonville Jaguars (American pronunciation: JAG-wahrs). The mistake was hardly an isolated incident; many announcers say “Jag-wires” over the course of the six-month pro-football season. Here is why: The most avid football fans in America are from the South, and many Southern Americans say “wahr,” “far,” and “tar” instead of wire, fire, and tire. Professional broadcasters are required to remove all traces of regional accents from their speech. In their zeal to speak unaccented English, these announcers sometimes overcompensate with “ire” when words contain an “ahr” sound, even though, like jaguar, it belongs there.

And that is how hypercorrection has unleashed upon the world the dreaded jag-wire.

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Posted on Tuesday, March 1, 2016, at 5:39 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


Singular They Part II

Despite curmudgeons’ howls, the singular they has become respectable. Many editors at the recent American Copy Editors Society conference declared themselves open to the once-frowned-upon use of they with a singular antecedent.

English is an often imperfect language that makes the best of its shortcomings. We say “none are,” despite the prominent one in none, because English has no other pronoun meaning “not any.”

And although the relative pronoun who can refer only to humans, its possessive form, whose, is routinely used with animals: a dog whose collar fell off and inanimate objects: a bridge whose view is unsurpassed. Not even the strictest language purist denounces the nonhuman whose because English lacks a corresponding word that refers to creatures and things.

Similarly, as the writer Ben Zimmer notes, “English sorely lacks a gender-neutral singular third-person pronoun, and ‘they’ has for centuries been pressed into service for that purpose.”

Last week we acknowledged the historical validity of they and its variants in sentences like “It’s enough to drive anyone out of their senses.” Then a reader informed us that singular they has become a practical way of addressing or describing those in the LGBT community who prefer they to masculine or feminine pronouns.

So history and contemporary life both make a credible case for singular they. But now, with the taboo lifting, expect unintended consequences. Writers will become increasingly sloppy with pronoun-antecedent agreement. Here is a sentence from a recent article by a professional journalist: “Neither Indiana nor any other state has described their religious-rights laws as discriminatory.” Change “their” to “its.” No gender issues there; the writer simply botched it.

When an antecedent includes or implies both sexes, old-school types sometimes must resort to the clumsy phrase he or she, himself or herself, etc.: Every student has done his or her homework. Writers despise he or she, which may be barely tolerable once but becomes preposterous beyond that: Every student has done his or her homework, and he or she will be expected to discuss his or her work in class. That hopeless sentence requires a complete rewrite.

An obstinate cadre of traditionalists will always resist singular they. “The solution here,” says Theodore M. Bernstein in The Careful Writer, “is to recognize the imperfection of the language and modify the wording.” Bryan A. Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage concurs. Noting that singular they “sets many literate Americans’ teeth on edge,” Garner says “the only course that does not risk damaging one’s credibility is to write around the problem.”

Even with the recent acceptance of singular they, we suggest using it sparingly, if at all. When confronted with a sentence like Every student has done their homework, you only need a moment to come up with The students have each done their homework.

 

Pop Quiz

If you have misgivings about the singular they, try rewriting these sentences culled from the print media. Our suggestions are below.

1. Everyone involved was doing what they thought was right.

2. Any parent who has enrolled their child knows what to expect.

3. Sometimes in this business, when you come across a comedy legend, they come off as jaded.

4. Even if a hacker has your password, they won’t have the code.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. All those involved were doing what they thought was right.

2. Any parent who has enrolled a child knows what to expect.

3. Sometimes in this business you come across a comedy legend who comes off as jaded.

4. Even a hacker who has your password won’t have the code.

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Posted on Tuesday, June 9, 2015, at 4:12 pm