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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


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


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


Subject and Verb Agreement with Collective Nouns

Do you use a singular or plural verb to match a collective noun such as team or staff? The answer is, It depends. If these nouns are acting as a unit, use a singular verb.

Example: The team is heading for practice this afternoon.

If the sentence indicates more individuality, use a plural verb.

Example: The team are eating with their families tonight.

Would you choose is or are in the example below?

Example (an actual headline from CNN.com): Nearly one in four people worldwide is/are Muslim.

People is NOT a collective noun like team or staff. It is a plural noun. However, the subject is one, which is singular and takes a singular verb. So the answer is is. In the above sentence, the prepositional phrase is in four people. This means that people is the object of the preposition.

Let’s get real here, however: The intention in this headline is to let us know that nearly 25% of the world’s population is Muslim. That intention gets lost by focusing on one is. It might be better to reword the sentence: Nearly 25% of people in the world are Muslim.

Why is 25% of people are correct? The subject of this sentence is 25%. Fractions and percentages, like team and staff, can be either singular or plural depending on the object of the preposition following. In this case people is the object of the preposition of. We have already said that people is plural. Therefore, 25% becomes plural in meaning.

Example: Twelve percent of the building has/have been renovated.

The subject is twelve percent, which will be either singular or plural depending on the object of the preposition that follows. In this sentence, the object of the preposition is building, which is always singular. So the correct answer is has.

To learn more about subject and verb agreement, click here.

Ready to challenge yourself?

Pop Quiz

1. The team is/are headed to the nationals since winning the state finals.

2. The mock trial team was/were happy with their presentations to the judge.

3. Nearly 25% of the population is/are Muslim.

4. Our staff meets/meet on Tuesday mornings to discuss customer complaints.

5. Our staff works/work hard to meet their goals and deadlines.

Pop Quiz Answers

1. The team is headed to the nationals since winning the state finals.
Team is being used as a cohesive unit so a singular verb is required.

2. The mock trial team were happy with their presentations to the judge.
Team is plural because separate presentations were given. Also, when the plural their is used, the implication is that the collective noun is being used as a plural.

3. Nearly 25% of the population is Muslim.
The word population is a collective noun that can take either a singular or plural verb, depending on the intention of the author. The intention here is to indicate that this percentage represents a single group.

4. Our staff meets on Tuesday mornings to discuss customer complaints.
Staff, a collective noun, is acting as a single unit in this sentence.

5. Our staff work hard to meet their goals and deadlines.
Their is a clue that staff is not acting as a unit. Therefore, the plural work is needed.

How do you know that work, not works, is plural? Think about which word you would use with he and which word you would use with they.

Examples:
She works too hard for her age.
They work harder when the foreman is around.

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Posted on Tuesday, August 10, 2010, at 2:47 pm