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The Future of English?

The New York Times has called the author Jess Walter “ridiculously talented.” “His sentences nearly sing,” says the Los Angeles Review of Books. “One of my favorite young American writers,” says fellow novelist Nick Hornby.

We agree with the critics. Walter’s 2012 best-seller Beautiful Ruins is a masterpiece. But today we’ll do a different kind of book review.

Our job at GrammarBook.com is to preserve and promote standard English. This sometimes puts us at cross-purposes with Walter, who chooses to speak to his readers in an easy, accessible voice—the people’s English, not the scholars’ English. If his writing is where the language is headed, we traditionalists must accept that we are fighting numerous losing battles.

In Walter’s short story We Live in Water one finds this line: “The resort was comprised of three newer buildings.” Word nerds will question why he didn’t use composed instead of comprised. In 1926, in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, H.W. Fowler hissed, “This lamentably common use of comprise as a synonym of compose or constitute is a wanton and indefensible weakening of our vocabulary.” Seventy-six years later, in 2002, Bill Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words was no less emphatic: “Comprised of is a common expression, but it is always wrong.”

So it seems clear that Walter used the phrase because he either did not know or did not care that “the experts” say it’s wrong. By writing “comprised of,” Walter is legitimizing this “common expression” over the adamant objections of a dwindling cadre of fuddy-duddies.

From Walter’s 2003 novel Land of the Blind: “I don’t know who liked this new world less, him or Mr. Leggett.” Walter, who could have used the correct he in this sentence without sounding stilted or affected, opted instead for the colloquial him. Apparently, neither he nor his target audience loses any sleep over such erudite technicalities.

In another short story, The New Frontier, the author writes, “He convinced her to model.” But technically, he persuaded her to model. “Convince may be followed by an of phrase or a that clause, but not by a to infinitive,” counsels Theodore M. Bernstein in The Careful Writer (1983). That rule is upheld to this day by the Associated Press Stylebook: “You may [only] be convinced that something or of something.” Walter isn’t buying. He’s trusting his own ear, as writers will do. The fine distinction between convince and persuade, he is saying, has become a quaint bit of trivia.

He introduces sentences with danglers. He repeatedly writes “different than” rather than “different from.” He says “snuck” even though sneaked is still considered the correct option. At least once, he uses strata—the plural of stratum—as a singular. He writes “close proximity,” long dismissed by sticklers as a windy redundancy.

Walter is too busy spinning his wondrous tales to be distracted by such minutiae—his instincts tell him: Why bother?

Why, indeed? That question gives all language watchdogs nightmares.

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Posted on Wednesday, January 22, 2014, at 10:57 am


Look Who’s Talking

On Nov. 15, a high-level government official caused quite a stir when he disparaged “white suburban moms” for resisting efforts to elevate teaching and learning in U.S. schools. “All of a sudden,” he said, “their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.”

Some may question the statement’s tone; what concerns us here is its grammatical absurdity. Note that “their child,” which is singular, somehow becomes plural six words later, with “they were” referring to one child. Same with “their school”: in the span of seven words, one school has become “they.”

There are various ways to fix this mess, but here is one we don’t recommend: “their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought he or she was.” Using he or she is a valid solution, and there are times when a writer has to use the phrase, but he or she is a dismal option that should be avoided whenever possible.

We could change “child isn’t” to “children aren’t” and make “school” plural: “All of a sudden, their children aren’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their schools aren’t quite as good as they thought they were.” At least that makes grammatical sense. Still, the repetition of they in “they thought they were” is grating once, let alone twice.

Effective speakers and writers are guided by this line from Hamlet: “Brevity is the soul of wit.” Sure enough, if we look for extraneous words in the sentence and remove them, voilà: “All of a sudden, their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought.” That’s about as good as it’s going to get.

The statement was made by, of all people, the U.S. secretary of education. Lead by example, Mr. Secretary.

Pop Quiz
Correct any sentences that need fixing.
1. One of every two houses you see are vacant.
2. Ten pounds are heavier than you think.
3. Every student at our son’s all-boys school gets a discount on their books.
4. I felt that twenty dollars wasn’t worth the bother.
5. No one on the bus knew their way around town.

Pop Quiz Answers
1. One of every two houses you see is vacant.
2. Ten pounds is heavier than you think.
3. Every student at our son’s all-boys school gets a discount on his books.
4. I felt that twenty dollars wasn’t worth the bother. CORRECT
5. No one on the bus knew his or her way around town. (Without a rewrite, his or her is virtually unavoidable.)

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Posted on Tuesday, December 3, 2013, at 12:27 pm


Media Watch

Several weeks ago, a Vatican-endorsed medal honoring Pope Francis had to be recalled because Jesus was spelled “Lesus.” Just last week, a political placard at a Washington, D.C., press conference spelled filibuster “fillibuster” and against “againts.” In light of these disgraces, it seems the right time to reopen our Media Malfeasance file…

• “They have arrested two suspects, neither of whom are British.” This decades-old problem is only getting worse. To journalists it may concern: The pronoun neither, like either and each, is always singular. Make it “neither of whom is British.”

• “Prop. 32 is an initiative to curb union’s influence.” Ah, apostrophes. Note that one could also say “to curb the influence of unions”—that’s unions, plural. Plural nouns ending in s show possession with the apostrophe after the s, not before. So make it “curb unions’ influence.”

• “Guess who’s coming to dinner?” Looks all right, you say? The problem is the unnecessary question mark. “Guess” is an imperative—a direct order, not the first word in a question.

• “Rebecca Solnit’s book, Unfathomable City, was celebrated last week.” Remove the commas. This is slipshod editing. With the commas, the sentence means that Unfathomable City is the only book Solnit has ever written. In fact, she has written over a dozen.

The rule is that commas set off nonessential information. If the author has written only one book, its title is not essential to the sentence: “Rebecca Solnit’s [only] book, Unfathomable City, was celebrated last week.” But since she has written several, we must be told which book directly—no commas. Similarly, The actor, Robert De Niro, was there is incorrect with commas. But The president of the United States, Barack Obama, was there is correct.

As writers’ skills decline, so do readers’ standards. The acerbic avant-garde musician Frank Zappa (1940-1993) once described a rock ’n’ roll magazine as “written by people who can’t write for people who can’t read.” Were he alive today, Zappa might not limit his assessment to rock-music journalism.

 

Pop Quiz

See if you can spot the flaws in these actual quotations from the media.

1. “…shot himself with a riffle.”

2. “Is it fair to compare the two crisis?”

3. “It does so many other things that drives up the cost.”

4. “Everyone has come out looking badly.”

5. “Dow closes at new record high.”

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. “…shot himself with a rifle.”

2. “Is it fair to compare the two crises?”

3. “It does so many other things that drive up the cost.”

4. “Everyone has come out looking bad.”

5. “Dow closes at record high.” (“new record” is a redundancy)

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Posted on Monday, November 25, 2013, at 1:36 pm


We the People, or…?

For much of the last two months, we have been analyzing why the subject pronouns I, he, she, we, they and the object pronouns me, him, her, us, them are chronically misused and confused.

In this final installment, we’ll deal with flawed sentences like Politicians should respect we the people and It’s a happy outcome for he who laughs last.

Formal writing requires “us the people” (object of respect) and “him who laughs last” (object of for), even though we instinctively resist tampering with venerable expressions like we the people and he who laughs last.

If being correct would ruin the mood, there may be creative ways around the grammatical buzzkill. In the first case, we could probably avoid censure by using capitals: Politicians should respect We the People. This signals the reader that the well-known phrase is sacrosanct and must not be altered.

In the second example, we could write: a happy outcome for “he who laughs last.”  The quotation marks grant the words special dispensation, like the title of a book or movie.

So now, here is a summary of the chief causes of pronoun confusion.

• All forms of the verb to be. Informal sentences (It was me, It must have been them, It seems to be her) wrongly use object pronouns instead of what are called subject complements. (The correct pronouns respectively would be I, they, and she.)

• Compound subjects and compound objects. In everyday speech, when and or or links a pronoun with other nouns or pronouns, the results are often ungrammatical: Joe and him went fishing, Sue invited my friend and I for dinner, Her or I will meet you there. (The correct pronouns respectively would be he, me, and she.)

• Comparative sentences using as or than. Sentences like You’re as smart as her and Eddie ran faster than them sound fine but are technically flawed. (The correct pronouns respectively would be she and they.)

• Infinitives and verbs ending in –ing. They change subjects to objects. An infinitive such as to be turns I believe he is honest into I believe him to be honest. A verb ending in –ing, such as going, gives us the option of saying either I saw he was going home or I saw him going home. This can be especially confusing with compound subjects and objects, or when who-whom is involved.

• Idiomatic phrases containing subject pronouns (we the people, he who laughs last).

 

Pop Quiz

Correct any sentences that are formally ungrammatical.

1. LaTroy knew it was him who everyone preferred.

2. According to witnesses, it had to have been we.

3. The receipts were always safe with Maria and I.

4. May him and his friend join us for a nightcap?

5. She’s every bit as confused as me.

6. Your cousin’s wife looks older than he.

7. Who do you suspect was hiding something?

8. Who do you suspect to be hiding something?

9. This has been a bad week for we citizens of the United States.

10. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

Pop Quiz Answers

1. LaTroy knew it was he whom everyone preferred.

2. According to witnesses, it had to have been we. CORRECT

3. The receipts were always safe with Maria and me.

4. May he and his friend join us for a nightcap?

5. She’s every bit as confused as I.

6. Your cousin’s wife looks older than he. CORRECT

7. Who do you suspect was hiding something? CORRECT

8. Whom do you suspect to be hiding something?

9. This has been a bad week for us citizens of the United States.

10. Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.

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Posted on Tuesday, November 12, 2013, at 6:54 pm


Two More Reasons Pronouns Plague Us

For several weeks now, we’ve been counting the ways that pronouns give us nightmares. Today we’ll look at two more culprits: infinitives and verbs that end in -ing (known technically as participles and gerunds).

To form an infinitive, precede a verb with the word to. The infinitive of look is to look. Constructions like to be looking, to have looked, and to have been looking are also infinitives.

Note what happens if we paraphrase I believe he is honest, using an infinitive: I believe him to be honest. The presence of the infinitive (to be) turns he (the subject of is) into him (the object of believe).

If we change the statement to a question, should we use who or whom? The rule of thumb we discussed when this series began in September is who = he (subject) and whom = him (object). So it would be correct to say Who do you believe is honest? (Who is honest, do you believe?)

But with an infinitive, Whom do you believe to be honest? would be correct. (Do you believe him to be honest?)

The situation is similar with verbs ending in –ing. There are times when an –ing verb in a sentence lets you say the same thing with either a subject pronoun or an object pronoun. For instance, you could say We recall she was driving home or We recall her driving home.

Again, converting those statements to who-or-whom questions poses a challenge. Who do you recall was driving home? would be correct. (Who was driving home, do you recall?) And Whom do you recall driving home? would also be correct. (Do you recall her driving home?)

Such fine distinctions further illustrate why certain everyday pronouns are endlessly confounding.

To be continued…

Pop Quiz

Find the grammatically correct pronouns.

1. I discovered they/them and Al sleeping in the barn.

2. I discovered they/them and Al were sleeping in the barn.

3. Mary trusted we/us and the team would return her car.

4. Mary trusted we/us and the team to return her car.

5. Who/whom do you predict to win the match?

6. Who/whom do you predict will win the match?

Pop Quiz Answers

1. I discovered them and Al sleeping in the barn.

2. I discovered they and Al were sleeping in the barn.

3. Mary trusted we and the team would return her car.

4. Mary trusted us and the team to return her car.

5. Whom do you predict to win the match?

6. Who do you predict will win the match?

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Posted on Tuesday, November 5, 2013, at 1:48 pm