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Sweating the Small Stuff

At a football game a few weeks ago, Notre Dame University sold soda in cups that said, “Figthing Irish.” Did no one at this distinguished school have the time or pride to proofread a two-word slogan?

Here are a few other items we’ve seen recently and now wish we hadn’t…

Back to Basics Many professional journalists can’t find the subjects in their own sentences, like this one: “The final installment of those tapes—340 hours—were made public.” Make it “was made public.” The writer, distracted by “tapes” and “hours,” forgot that the subject, “installment,” was singular.

Ho-Hum: More Who-Whom Recently in this space, we discussed the difference between who (subject) and whom (object). Pronoun confusion has plagued our language for centuries. Some now claim that English would be fine without whom. But whom holds some mysterious attraction for people who shouldn’t be using it, because they keep getting it wrong, as in “…a man whom he thought was ready” (make it “who he thought was ready”).

Compare that with “Brown, who investigators had trouble reaching for interviews” and “Schulman, who he met on a blind date.” Here the writers were handed whom on a silver platter, but instead chose “who.”

How the Cookie Deconstructs Flawed sentences like those result from either carelessness or grammatical cluelessness. Just as prevalent, and deadly, is poor word choice caused by fuzzy thinking. Here’s a writer who sabotaged his own metaphor when he wrote, “…before the whole house of cards crumbles.”

Dead leaves and old walls crumble. A house of cards collapses.

POP QUIZ

Try to spot the errors or lapses in these sentences, written by professionals.

1. “The case is the latest in a series that have fueled public protests.”
2. “He was convicted in absentia to 20 years in prison.”
3. “…and Steenkamp, whom he believed was still in the bedroom.”
4. “A deadline to Syria to turnover its weapons.”
5. “The first time either of them have heard the recording.”

POP QUIZ ANSWERS

Not all of these sentences have one right answer. See if your remedies agree with ours.

1. The case is the latest in a series of events that have fueled public protests.
2. He was sentenced in absentia to 20 years in prison.
3. …and Steenkamp, who he believed was still in the bedroom. (i.e., who was still in the bedroom, he believed)
4. A deadline to Syria to turn over its weapons.
5. The first time either of them has heard the recording.

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Posted on Wednesday, October 2, 2013, at 2:19 pm


Whoever Would Use Whomever: Read On

Last week we discussed Americans’ odd fondness for whom. It’s a word that few really understand, but it just sounds so darned cosmopolitan.

If we’re infatuated with whom, we’re over the moon about whomever. You hear it everywhere. People love saying it—right or wrong.

Just recently, a major American newspaper ran a headline that said “…whomever that may be.” When the story jumped to a second page, the headline changed to “…whomever it is.” Horrors! In both cases, this was first-degree whomever abuse.

Like that errant headline writer, too many of us think that whoever and whomever mean the same thing—and that whomever is the sexier choice.

To determine whether to use whoever or whomever, last week’s shorthand rule for who and whom applies: he = whoever and him = whomever. Whoever is always a subject; whomever is always an object. That’s why whomever it is and whomever that may be could never be correct. We say he is, not him is, so we must say whoever it is and whoever that may be.

The presence of whoever or whomever indicates a dependent clause, as in this sentence: Give it to whoever asks for it first. (The dependent clause is whoever asks for it first.) You might think the correct word should be whomever, an object pronoun, since you’d say Give it to her or Give it to them. But here is the rule: Always use whoever or whomever to agree with the verb (asks) in that dependent clause, regardless of the rest of the sentence.

I ask for it, he or she asks for it, we or they ask for it. I, he, she, we, and they are subject pronouns. Therefore, Give it to whoever asks for it first.

On the other hand: We will hire whoever/whomever you recommend. Since you recommend me (or him, her, us, them), the right answer is whomever, the object of recommend, the verb in the dependent clause.

So the key is the verb in that dependent clause. Remember that, and may all your whomevers be winners.

POP QUIZ

1. Choose whoever/whomever you prefer.

2. Choose whoever/whomever you think will win.

3. Whoever/whomever is chosen, we must pick wisely.

4. We discussed it with whoever/whomever we figured might be interested.

5. Make sure whoever/whomever you hire turns out to be qualified.

6. Make sure you hire whoever/whomever turns out to be qualified.

POP QUIZ ANSWERS

1. Choose whomever you prefer. (you prefer him)

2. Choose whoever you think will win. (you think I will win)

3. Whoeveris chosen, we must pick wisely. (he is chosen)

4. We discussed it with whoeverwe figured might be interested. (we figured they might be interested)

5. Make sure whomever you hire turns out to be qualified. (you hire him)

6. Make sure you hire whoever turns out to be qualified. (she turns out to be qualified)

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Posted on Tuesday, September 17, 2013, at 12:39 pm


Whom Abuse Is Rampant

Consider the humble pronoun. It seems that fewer and fewer Americans know when to say “she” or “he” or “me” instead of “her,” “him,” or “I.”

It used to be that little Gloria would run home and tell her mother, “Me ’n’ Annie saw a walrus!” Whereupon her mom would say, “ ‘Annie and I,’ dear.” Now, alas, Gloria’s mother thinks “me ’n’ Annie” is just fine.

So why is it that so many pronoun-challenged Americans are infatuated with whom? It’s a word that’s become exotic and mysterious, and people say it when they want to sound authoritative, because even if they’re misusing it, chances are their listeners won’t know.

Let’s get technical. The pronoun who is always the subject. Use who wherever you would use the subjective pronouns I, he, she, we, or they. It is correct to say Who wants to go? because we would say She wants to go or We want to go.

The pronoun whom is always an object. Use whom wherever you would use the objective pronouns me, him, her, us, or them. It is not correct to say Who did you choose? We would say Whom because you choose me or him or them.

A handy memory aid: who = he, whom = him.

Here is an all-too-common misuse of whom: He is a man whom I believe can do the job. The writer chose whom, thinking it was the object of believe. But look what happens when we rearrange the sentence: He is a man whom can do the job, I believe. Obviously, the proper word is who.

Compare that with He is a man who I admire. Because we would say I admire him, the sentence should read He is a man whom I admire.

The key to mastering whom comes down to knowing the difference between a subject and an object.

POP QUIZ

1. Who/whom do you think will win the prize?

2. Who/whom do you think you’ll vote for?

3. She is someone who/whom I always counted on.

4. She is someone who/whom I always said could be counted on.

5. Who/whom are you going to believe?

QUIZ ANSWERS

1. Who do you think will win the prize? (they will)

2. Whom do you think you’ll vote for? (for him)

3. She is someone whom I always counted on. (I counted on her)

4. She is someone who I always said could be counted on. (she could be counted on)

5. Whom are you going to believe? (you’re going to believe me)

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Posted on Tuesday, September 10, 2013, at 12:32 pm


Reflexive Pronouns

Loyal reader Bill P. and others have written in commenting on what seems to be a growing misuse of words known as reflexive pronouns. Have you either heard or seen in writing a sentence like this, “Please give it to John or myself”? Is that right or wrong? Let’s have a look.

Rule: Reflexive pronouns—myself, himself, herself, itself, themselves, ourselves, yourself, yourselves—should be used only when they refer back to another word in the sentence. (A reflexive pronoun reflects the action described by the verb.)

Correct:
I worked myself to the bone.
(The word myself refers back to the word I.)

Incorrect:
Please give it to John or myself.
(The word myself does not refer back to another word.)

Correct:
Please give it to John or me.
(Why do some people use myself rather than me in the sentence above? Is it because it sounds more “upper class”? Possibly—however, it is incorrect grammar.)

Although the following example is not strictly an incorrect reflexive pronoun because it does not reflect the action described by the verb, the principle is the same.

Incorrect:
My brother and myself did it.

Correct:
My brother and I did it.

 

Pop Quiz

1A. Please call either Juanita or myself when you get this message.
1B. Please call either Juanita or me when you get this message.

2A. The chief of staff and myself want to thank you for your hard work.
2B. The chief of staff and I want to thank you for your hard work.

3A. Since we each have a job, we are able to support ourselves.
3B. Since we each have a job, we are able to support us.

 

Answers

1A. Please call either Juanita or myself when you get this message.
1B. Please call either Juanita or me when you get this message. (Correct)

2A. The chief of staff and myself want to thank you for your hard work.
2B. The chief of staff and I want to thank you for your hard work. (Correct)

3A. Since we each have a job, we are able to support ourselves. (Correct)
3B. Since we each have a job, we are able to support us.

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Posted on Wednesday, August 22, 2012, at 10:44 am


Its vs. It’s

Would you like to know the #1 Grammar Error?
Hint:
The word involved is small and it’s contained in this sentence.

That’s right: its vs. it’s
Yet the two rules are actually quite easy to remember.

Rule 1: When you mean it is or it has, use an apostrophe.

Examples:
It’s a nice day.
It’s your right to refuse the invitation.
It’s been great getting to know you.

Rule 2: When you are using its as a possessive, don’t use the apostrophe.

Examples:
The cat hurt its paw.
The furniture store celebrated its tenth anniversary.

 
Note: From what we understand, the possessive was also written it’s until a couple of hundred years ago. While we don’t know for certain, it is possible that the apostrophe was dropped in order to parallel possessive personal pronouns like hers, theirs, yours, ours, etc.”

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Posted on Thursday, April 12, 2012, at 5:35 pm