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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.

 

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


Christmas ’Log Review

Every year, for six weeks or so, I get a taste of what it’s like to be a superstar.

From late October to early December, I am accosted daily by an aggressive mob of stalkers who know where I live. Their urgent need for my attention seems to be their only reason for being. No, they’re not paparazzi or obsessed fans. I’m talking about Christmas catalogs. Every day brings a new swarm—they burst out of my mailbox, entreating me to behold them in all their holiday finery.

Well, even a six-week celebrity has an obligation to his public. I checked out every last one. None was turned away. Here, then, is my Christmas catalog review.

For big spenders there is the stately Gump’s catalog, so tasteful you want to take a nap; or Neiman Marcus, with its sullen, stubbly, pasty pretty boys modeling $390 sneakers; or the gaudy Hammacher Schlemmer, for taste-challenged high-rollers: I’ve got to have that animatronic singing and talking Elvis, or more accurately, Elvis’ head and shoulders—the King has been mutilated, I guess, to spare the embarrassment of pelvic thrusts in mixed company. How about spoiling your child rotten with Hammacher’s “6½-foot teddy bear” for $500. If that’s too sissified, the NFL Shop will warp the values of your little tough guy with a personalized 12-minute CD of a football game in which the announcer says the kid’s name 30 times. It’s never too early to learn that it’s all about you.

Frontgate offers a machine that enriches your oxygen as it plays music. An up-and-comer called X-treme Geek has caffeinated soap, a talking toilet-tissue holder, and, for the guy whose girlfriend doesn’t hate him enough already, a Wild West revolver-shaped TV remote, which makes a loud gunshot as it changes channels. It comes with a “super-cool official-looking sheriff’s badge.”

The Signals company tempts pet lovers with the “I kiss my dog on the lips” T-shirt, but I have my eye on the coat rack with three duck tails for hangers. Not to be outdone, What on Earth offers a “cat butt magnet set,” to go with its flatulent toy puppy (“squeeze his belly”) and a Bill Clinton figurine with a corkscrew coming out of his pants.

Wolferman’s offers 44 pages of … muffins?! Fahrney’s offers 56 pages of … pens!? Don’t miss the Marlene Dietrich model (“sensuous curves in all the right places”), a bargain at $880, or the $3,000 “pen of the year” (who voted?).

From high-end catalogs on down, the one constant is the writing, which is excellent across the board. (Is this what good writers have to do to eat these days?) Oh, some are better than others. Fahrney’s thinks the plural of entry is “entrys”—a store devoted to writing can’t make such a dumb mistake. National Geographic’s otherwise classy mailer misfires with the awkward “spiders are one of the creepiest crawlers out there.” Spiders, plural, are “one”? Why not “a spider is”? Sahalie’s writes “completely waterproof.” How is that different from just “waterproof”? Orvis Men’s Clothing says, “Crafted in New England, you’ll appreciate the comfort.” This sentence, taken literally, means “you” were crafted in New England. Herrington’s high-spirited but sloppy catalog spells minuscule “miniscule.” Herrington is also one of many catalogs that can’t get the subject to agree with the verb: “Every one of our vintage Ferraris are parked …” No, every one is parked. Subject-verb agreement is a big problem nowadays, and reflects the carelessness and short attention spans this era will be remembered for.

When you read as many of these things as I did, you come to realize that catalogs have their own language, rules, and customs. Numbers are almost never spelled out, not even leading off a sentence. That’s against all civilized rules of writing, but merchants want to be direct, not correct. They’re targeting our eyes, not our brains. Capitals are thrown around extravagantly because anything capitalized looks Important and Impressive. Hyphens are avoided wherever possible because advertisers will always choose two simple words with a clean space between them over one long, confusing word with an ungainly bar right in the middle.

Many companies sell jewelry made with “Swarovski crystals,” a fancy term for rhinestones, which is in turn a euphemism for phony gemstones. And countless catalogs feature “nutcrackers,” so called because they were inspired by the popular Tchaikovsky Christmastime ballet. The 21st-century versions look to be useless, charmless statuettes, tackier than tin soldiers. You can get them wearing uniforms of your favorite pro sports team or branch of the military. Despite the name, I doubt they could even crack a moldy peanut. Their heads don’t even bobble.

Finally, see if you can figure out what this list of words culled from several catalogs refers to: chianti, chili, dirt, dragonfly, dusk, espresso, grasshopper, mineral, nutmeg, ocean, persimmon, raisin, root beer, sesame, spa, sweet pea, sweet potato, toast.

You might as well give up, because you’ll never guess. They’re … colors?! “Oh, sweetheart, you look fabulous in that root beer muumuu!” “Thank you, darling, and that dragonfly-and-dirt sweater goes so well with your spa-and-dusk striped tie and those toast trousers.”

—Tom Stern

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Posted on Thursday, December 12, 2013, at 7:12 pm


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


How Did They Get In Here?

Writers today have problems keeping their sentences internally consistent. This is especially true of print journalists. Because of staff cutbacks at financially challenged newspapers, many articles are proofread hastily, if at all.

Combine that with the shocking decline in Americans’ English language skills over the last fifty years or so and you get sentences unworthy of the average sixth-grader in 1963. Here is a sentence from a recent article in a major metropolitan newspaper on the West Coast: “Each side in the condo fight has spent more than $350,000 on their campaigns…”

Everything is fine until that jarring “their” at the end. Go back to the subject: “each side.” The writer is talking about two things but is taking them one at a time—each side has spent, not have spent. So writing “their” confounds the ground rules of the sentence. It’s like setting the table with a fork and then eating with your hands.

This is an easy one to fix: “Each side in the condo fight has spent more than $350,000 on its campaign…”

 

POP QUIZ

The following sentences or fragments from recent print or broadcast media reflect contemporary bad habits. Can you fix them?

1. McDonalds is doing everything they can to shift costs to operators.
2. There needs to be better screening and a more foolproof monitoring system.
3. East Haven, Conn. plane crash…
4. No listener is ever happy with how much time they get.
5. He didn’t believe in the peoples’ right to know.

 

POP QUIZ ANSWERS

1. McDonalds is doing everything it can to shift costs to operators.
2. There need to be better screening and a more foolproof monitoring system.
3. East Haven, Conn., plane crash…
4. No listeners are ever happy with how much time they get.
5. He didn’t believe in the people’s right to know.

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Posted on Sunday, August 11, 2013, at 11:06 am