Sign Up For Our Free Grammar E-Newsletter

Resolutions for Word Nerds

Below you’ll find ten New Year’s resolutions for self-appointed guardians of the English language. We are a group that needs its own code of ethics to protect us from ourselves and shield others from our self-righteousness. So let’s get right to …

The Stickler’s Ten Commandments

1) No using big words to intimidate. You can’t beat a polysyllabic onslaught for sounding authoritative. But laying big words on someone who may not be as educated as you are is just shabby.

2) No correcting someone’s English in an argument. It’s the wrong time to do it. When someone makes a valid point, picking on that person’s language is a cop-out, and a contemptible way of gaining the upper hand.

3) Do it in private. If a person you care about says “irregardless,” it can be a thoughtful gesture to gently advise that there is no such word—but don’t do this when others are within earshot.

4) No condescending preambles. If you have some wisdom to impart, don’t start with “Didn’t you know,” or “I can’t believe you just said,” or “How can someone from your background …” Such statements sound uncomfortably close to “I’m smart and you’re not.”

5) Casual conversation gets a lot of leeway. Public figures are rightly under scrutiny when they’re speaking or writing on the record. Even private citizens may be held accountable, not just for what they say but for how they say it, in a meeting or serious discussion. However, the language police ought to back way off in settings where people are just relaxing and making small talk. At such times, perfect grammar is probably the last thing anyone should worry about. No one ever mistook a Super Bowl party for a summit conference.

6)  And no correcting playful correspondence, either. If you get an email that says, “I didn’t mean nuttin’ by it,” your correspondent is kidding around. What is friendship without informality and levity? And what kind of a sourpuss would point out that “nothing”was misspelled and that double negatives are bad grammar?

7) Know what you’re talking about. Before you correct someone, how do you know you’re right? There are many myths about “proper” English floating around. Here are three discredited rules that a lot of people think are true: Never end a sentence with a preposition. (Yes you can.) It’s wrong to split an infinitive. (No it’s not.) The relative pronoun that cannot refer to a human, so always say “the person who called,” never “the person that called.” (Utter nonsense.) If you believe even one of these superstitions, you see the problem.

8) Look it up. Good writers choose their words with utmost care. So you can’t go wrong with a dictionary nearby. Many people believe they needn’t look up a strange word. They are deluding themselves. Suppose a critic you respect refers to a book’s “meretricious manifestation of sophism.” The word meretricious sounds a lot like meritorious; and sophism brings to mind sophisticated. Having seen the review, you are eager to purchase and read this admirable, stylish work—not realizing that the critic has denounced the book as lurid and devious rubbish.

9) No excuses when you slip. Two can play this game, professor. We all make mistakes. If someone busts you, don’t try to wiggle out of it.

10) No correcting strangers. Keep it to yourself; it’s the Wild West out there.

Tom Stern

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

Posted on Tuesday, January 6, 2015, at 4:01 pm


Rules and Preferences

There were fervent protests from readers reacting to “Old Superstitions Die Hard.” The article established that the relative pronoun that refers to people as well as to things and has done so for centuries.

Never was an essay more aptly named.

“I don’t care what all of your quoted sources say,” wrote a fiery businesswoman. “Executive-level communications candidates who use ‘that’ do not endear themselves to this veteran headhunter.” One can understand her passion—the raw anger and frustration we all feel when a principle we’ve lived by for years is exposed as an old wives’ tale.

Meanwhile, we’ll leave it to you to decide whether those responsible for the following quotations are English-challenged hacks …

  • “I am he that walks unseen.” —J.R.R. Tolkien
  • “I am he that aches with amorous love.” —Walt Whitman
  • “… children that belonged to a man I didn’t even know.” —Mark Twain
  • “A man that hath friends must shew himself friendly: and there is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother.” —King James I, the Bible, Proverbs 18:24

Another reader took issue with Kingsley Amis’s preference for the man that I spoke to rather than the man whom I spoke to—but for a different reason: “I would have written ‘the man to whom I spoke.’ ”

The gentleman who wrote this believes that prepositions should not end sentences. It’s another of the myths about English that just won’t die, right up there with “Do not split an infinitive” and “Do not begin a sentence with And.” Amis set a trap, and this person fell into it. There is no living English scholar who will defend “Do not end a sentence with a preposition,” yet the superstition is still believed by an alarming number of intelligent people.

Here is what the snarky Mr. Amis himself had to say about it: “This is one of those fancied prohibitions dear to ignorant snobs … It is natural and harmless in English to use a preposition to end a sentence with.” Amis goes on to quote H.W. Fowler, the dean of English scholars, who wrote, “The power of saying People worth talking to instead of People with whom it is worth while to talk is not one to be lightly surrendered.”

We are all entitled to our preferences—even our prejudices—but declaring them rules everyone else must live by is crossing a line.

 

Pop Quiz

Pick the correct choices. Answers are below.

1.
A) This is the man who got away with murder.
B) This is the man which got away with murder.
C) This is the man that got away with murder.

2.
A) She is not someone to whom you want to be rude.
B) She is not someone whom you want to be rude to.
C) She is not someone that you want to be rude to.
D) She is not someone you want to be rude to.

3.
A) I just saw Vada, who looks distracted.
B) I just saw Vada, that looks distracted.
C) A and B are both correct.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. A and C are both correct.
2. All choices are correct.
3. A is correct.

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

Posted on Tuesday, September 16, 2014, at 1:09 pm


Old Superstitions Die Hard

People that try hard usually succeed. Is that sentence grammatical? Some nitpickers say the relative pronoun that should never refer to humans. Here is an interesting piece of mail that arrived recently:

Please review your “rule” about the use of “who” and “that” when referring to persons. The use of “that” when referring to people is very poor English and, unfortunately, has become today’s vernacular. I wonder if you could review your work here, so that students are not confused. I teach graduate students and I do not permit the distinctions you are making re this particular word usage. I cannot refer my students to your site for that reason.

The writer went on to say that using that instead of who, while “common today in vernacular English,” is “still eschewed in academic writing.” If we doubted this, we were advised to consult an online site called The Purdue Owl.

That is what we did.

According to the Owl, one may substitute that for who in informal English, but who is “more common in formal written English” and is “preferred”—although the Owl does not say who prefers it. Look at the wording: “more common” and “preferred.” The Owl is conceding that even in formal usage, that sometimes replaces who.

We language fussbudgets like to demonize “today’s vernacular,” but it won’t work in this case. Many authorities past and present would beg to differ with the Owl, and with our correspondent’s assertion that that for who is “very poor English.” The Chicago Manual of Style—the publishing industry’s bible—says, “That refers to a person, animal, or thing.” In the 1990s, author and literary critic Kingsley Amis wrote that he found the man that I spoke to preferable to the man whom I spoke to. In the eighties, English scholar John B. Bremner wrote “that may refer to persons,” with no mention of formal or informal. In the seventies, the renowned editor Theodore M. Bernstein wrote, “You may say either ‘the boy that lives next door’ or ‘the boy who lives next door.’ ” In the mid-sixties—half a century ago—an eleventh-grade textbook called Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition said, “That may be used to refer to either persons or things.”

Great essayists, novelists, and poets have been substituting that for who for centuries. A famous quotation from the Gospel of John begins: “He that is without sin among you …”

Many words have been used to describe the Bible, but it’s a safe bet that “informal” is not one of them.

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

Posted on Thursday, September 11, 2014, at 4:15 pm


Based Off Is Off Base

Enough is enough. It’s time to blow the whistle on an obnoxious faux idiom that has the popular culture under its spell. The offending usage is based off and its alternate form, based off of.

Both are everywhere. One hears and sees them constantly over the airwaves, in print, and online. A Google search yields these nauseous nuggets: “Dr. House is based off of Sherlock Holmes.” “Their favorite classic movies are based off old fairy tales.” “It’s basically a stretched out HTC One M8, which is what the tablet is based off of.” There are hundreds more.

Everyone knows the correct phrase, based on, which has been around forever. But somehow, on became off, or worse, off of—a compound preposition that all English authorities reject as substandard.

The logical conclusion is that anyone who says “based off” doesn’t know what based means. As a verb, to base means “to form a foundation for.” The noun base refers to the underlying part that something rests on, not off.

The words base and basis are closely related and sometimes synonymous. Would anybody say, “The board meets off a daily basis”?

There’s really no excuse for based off. Whoever coined it was just fooling around or talking too fast. It subsequently caught on with other knuckleheads, and now there are those who defend its legitimacy.

But based off is another example of what might be called “Frankenstein formations.” You know, grab a part from here, another part from over there, and stitch them together to create a monstrously unsuitable word or phrase. Witness how the unholy merging of regardless and irrespective begat irregardless, a gruesome beast that even pedants with pitchforks can’t drive from the countryside.

Today’s high schools and colleges turn out students with negligible language skills, and the result is heedless writing and speech. Once upon a time, people who knew their pronouns said, “You and I should invite her and her husband for dinner.” Now you’re more likely to hear, “You and me should invite she and her husband for dinner.” For some perverse reason, those who don’t watch their language tend to say things that are the precise opposite of correct.

That would seem to explain how based on became based off.

 

Pop Quiz

Two of the options in each sentence below are correct. Can you identify the “Frankenstein formation”?

1. I am calling in regards to/as regards/in regard to the job opening.
2. The paragraph comprises/is comprised of/is composed of three sentences.
3. The novel centers on/revolves around/centers around marriage in the eighteenth century.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. The phrase in regards to is nonstandard.
2. The phrase is comprised of is incorrect. The word comprise means “to be composed of,” so “comprised of” would mean “composed of-of.”
3. The phrase centers around is nonstandard.

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

Posted on Monday, June 23, 2014, at 4:13 pm


When They Is a Cop-out

Ours is a language of traps and pitfalls. Anyone serious about writing in English has to take on problems no one has ever quite solved.

One of the most obstinate of these, as inescapable as it is confounding, concerns singular pronouns that have plural connotations (everyone, nobody, anyone, somebody, etc.).

Even fine writers on occasion succumb to the temptation of using they to refer to a singular pronoun. What would you do with this sentence: Someone left his? her? his or her? their? book on my desk. For decades it was customary to say someone left his book, the assumption being that his really meant his or her (in the same way mankind comprises both men and women). But that stopped being acceptable in the 1960s—the Women’s Liberation movement was having none of it.

Many writers nowadays hold their noses and go with his or her. It’s hard to find a less elegant solution, but grammatically, someone left his or her book does the job; however, someone left their book, although taboo to purists, is what you’d most likely hear in conversation.

Now consider this technically correct sentence: I asked everybody, but he wouldn’t tell me. Anybody who would write that must be tone-deaf, perverse, facetious, or fanatical. What good is a “technically correct” sentence that is so silly and confusing? Changing it to but he or she wouldn’t tell me is hardly an improvement. If you chose to avoid this mess by writing but they wouldn’t tell me, it would be hard to blame you. But if good grammar is important, how about I asked everybody, but no one would tell me.

Last November, a West Coast newspaper editorial dealt with the problem this way: “Under California law, the governor is allowed to choose a replacement for a statewide-elected official who vacates her post midterm.” Fair enough, but though the motive is laudable, the sentence feels somehow forced. Why not replace “vacates her post” with “leaves office.”

Let’s try to rewrite the following sentences and mollify the curmudgeons …

Read a book to a child. Maybe they’ll do something good with their life.

Rewrite: Read a book to a child. Maybe that youngster will accomplish something in life.

If anyone wants to become the next David Letterman, they won’t do it by becoming the last David Letterman.

Rewrite: Anyone who wants to become the next David Letterman won’t do it by becoming the last David Letterman.

The greatest courage will be required from Angela Merkel and Barack Obama, or each will bequeath to their successors a much more dangerous world.

Rewrite: The greatest courage will be required from Angela Merkel and Barack Obama, or they will each bequeath to their successors a much more dangerous world.

English scholars say that using they to agree with singular pronouns can be traced back at least seven centuries. But that doesn’t mean it’s all right to do so. It simply means that there’s nothing new about avoiding challenges when we can take the easy way out.

 

Pop Quiz

How would you deal with pronoun inconsistencies in these sentences? Compare your solutions with ours in the answers section.

1. It isn’t feasible for each one to go through arbitration to get their money back.

2. What if someone asks you what you’re doing at their car?

3. What we don’t want is for someone to turn their unit into a full-time vacation inn.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. It isn’t feasible for each one to go through arbitration to get a full refund.

2. What if someone asks you, “What are you doing at my car?”

3. What we don’t want is for owners to turn their units into full-time vacation inns.

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

Posted on Monday, April 28, 2014, at 6:40 pm