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Things We Will Never Say

There are certain words or phrases that seem to cast a spell over people. All at once some expression is all the rage, and there is no escaping it. It is hard to say anything positive about this particular manifestation of herd mentality but we’ll try: It’s better than a lynch mob.

Have you noticed how many conversations now start with the word so? “So last night I fell asleep reading War and Peace.” What does “so” add? Where did this come from? How did it start? When did this measly mundane monosyllable become hip?

Here are a couple of other usages that are playing havoc with our blood pressure:

Incentivize  Although a worthless jargon word, incentivize is warmly embraced by the business community. It means simply “to offer incentives to or for.” Some random examples among the many found online: “We ought not to incentivize ignorance of the law.” “Professor says legislature should incentivize utilities to improve efficiency.” “If you are going to incentivize anyone, incentivize the buyer.”

Are you impressed yet? Anyone can turn nouns or adjectives into fancy-sounding verbs by tacking ize on the end, but why do it in this case, when words like motivate, inspire, encourage, and influence are readily available?

Incidentally, not all management mavens welcome incentivize with open arms. The following unhinged disclosure is from a business website: “Next time I hear someone use this I will reach across the board table, smack them with my laptop, then stand over their prostrate body and pour a hot cup of coffee into their ears so the last thing they hear is my voice screaming ‘Incentivize is not a word you ignorant corporate drone!’ ” Uh-oh. Someone has been watching too many Quentin Tarantino movies.

That’s a GREAT question  Up until a few years ago, one might respond to a thoughtful, challenging query with “That’s a good question” or simply “Good question” before answering. It was a low-key, cordial acknowledgment. It was no big deal.

Nowadays, when some big shot is being interviewed, it won’t be long before we hear a hearty “That’s a great question,” even when the question is obvious or routine or insipid.

“That’s a great question” could be dismissed as just a tic, a mindless, reflexive throwaway line. But is it? There may be something else at play. Some interviewees deliver this empty compliment to assume the upper hand—beneath the flattery is a hint of condescension. “That’s a great question” is a double threat: tedious and devious. It’s rarely heartfelt. It is more likely either a stalling tactic or the verbal equivalent of an aristocrat tossing spare change to a peasant.

P.S.: As a public service, this entire article appears with no mention of “trending.”

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Posted on Tuesday, November 17, 2015, at 10:49 am

Media Watch

What better way to begin a Media Watch column than with headlines? Here are two recent ones that got our attention:

• “Bacteria has sickened more than 100.”
• “Foreclosure crisis makes taught thriller.”

“Bacteria has sickened” is incorrect because has is singular and bacteria is the plural of bacterium. If the headline writer balked at “bacteria have sickened” or “bacterium has sickened,” we can sympathize, sort of—but why not instead write “Germ has sickened more than 100”?

As for that second headline, who confuses taught with taut? This looks like the work of a distracted multitasker.

• “Hundreds packed the stands, looking for a chance to relish in a sense of community.”

You can revel in a sense of community, or you can relish a sense of community, but “relish in” is nonsense.

• “A completely new species of rat was discovered.”

This sentence gives adverbs a bad name. What does “completely” add, except flab?

• “He was forbidden from giving his name.”

Handy rule: Use to, not from, with forbid: “He was forbidden to give his name.”

• “The CEO receives nearly 2,000 times the compensation as an employee.”

Where did “as an employee” come from? It doesn’t fit. Did a prankster sneak in and write it? Make it “The CEO receives nearly 2,000 times the compensation that an employee receives.”

• “Her rivals tried to emulate her.”

Delete “tried to” and make it “Her rivals emulated her.” One does not “try to emulate.” To emulate means “to try to be as good or successful as.” So when we emulate, we’re already trying. The original sentence is gibberish: Her rivals tried to try to be as good as she was.

• “Stainless steel appliances await whomever inhabits the chef’s kitchen next.”

The whomever is incorrect. The writer would argue that whomever was required as the object of “await.” But then the verb “inhabits” would have no subject, because whomever is always an object. You can’t have a verb without a subject, and objects can’t also be subjects, so it has to be “Stainless steel appliances await whoever inhabits the chef’s kitchen next.”

• “He was clutching the leash of his dog, who was also shot.”
• “This is about political influence by a public utility who spends a lot of money in Sacramento.”

The pronoun who applies only to humans. The writer of the first sentence balked at using “which” for the dog. The writer of the second sentence decided that corporations are people. They’re not, at least not grammatically. The fix is easy: “a public utility that spends a lot of money in Sacramento.”


Pop Quiz

The following are sentences recently heard over the airwaves. See if you can make them better. Answers are at the bottom of the newsletter.

1. “Neither her mother or the police believed his denial.”
2. “He is one of the men they can most afford not to lose.”
3. “I see you nodding your head no.”
4. “A cable from he himself established that.”
5. “I am one of many people that are trying to advance the art form.”


Pop Quiz Answers

1. “Neither her mother nor the police believed his denial.”
2. “He is one of the men they can least afford to lose.”
3. “I see you shaking your head no.”
4. “A cable from him himself established that.” (Correct grammar isn’t always pretty.)
5. “I am one of many people that are trying to advance the art form.” CORRECT

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Posted on Monday, November 2, 2015, at 10:51 pm

Why Irregular Verbs Are Strong

When the authorities labeled certain verbs “irregular,” it was never intended as a putdown. Quite the opposite: another term for irregular verbs is “strong verbs.”

In A Dictionary of Modern American Usage Bryan A. Garner explains: “Irregular verbs are sometimes called ‘strong’ verbs because they seem to form the past tense from their own resources, without calling an ending to their assistance. The regular verbs are sometimes called ‘weak’ verbs because they cannot form the past tense without the aid of the ending (most often –ed).”

For those of you still unclear on regular and irregular verbs, there is a concise overview in our recent post “Irregular Verbs Can Be a Regular Pain” (July 7). You can find this article in the “Grammar Blog” section of our website,

See how you do on the irregular-verb quiz that follows. The answers are directly below the test.

Irregular Verb Pop Quiz

1. Storm clouds ___ unnoticed over the distant mountains.

A) creeped
B) crept
C) A and B are both correct

2. You have really ___ a lot taller since last year.

A) grew
B) growed
C) grown
D) groan

3. Someone kept banging on the door as she ___ there trying to sleep.

A) lay
B) laid
C) lain
D) lied

4. Oliver ___ next to his younger brother’s bed.

A) kneeled
B) knelt
C) A and B are both correct

5. By the time we arrived, they had already ___ back east.

A) flied
B) flue
C) flew
D) flown

6. We ___ back to shore as the sun set.

A) swum
B) swam
C) swimmed

7. Alf had ___ down and couldn’t get up.

A) fell
B) fallen
C) falling
D) felled

8. Have you ever ___ off a high cliff?

A) dived
B) dove
C) A and B are both correct

9. She had long ago ___ away her high school yearbooks.

A) threw
B) through
C) throwed
D) thrown

10. Luckily, the guide found them and ___ them to safety.

A) led
B) lead
C) A and B are both correct



1: B) crept

2: C) grown

3: A) lay

4: C) A and B are both correct

5: D) flown

6: B) swam

7: B) fallen

8: A) dived

9: D) thrown

10: A) led

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Posted on Wednesday, October 7, 2015, at 11:05 am

Irregular Verbs Can Be a Regular Pain

English verbs are either regular or irregular. We call a verb regular when we add ed (wanted, looked) or sometimes just d (created, loved) to form what are called the simple past tense and the past participle (see third and fourth paragraphs below). A regular verb’s simple past tense and past participle are always identical.

Not so with irregular verbs. They form the simple past tense and the past participle in any number of unpredictable ways. Some irregular verbs, like let, shut, and spread, never change, whether present or past. Others, like feel and teach, become modified versions of themselves (felt, taught) to form both the past tense and the past participle. Still others, like break and sing, change to form the past tense (broke, sang) and change again to form the past participle (broken, sung). And then there are a few really weird ones, like go: its past participle (gone) is recognizable enough, but its simple past tense is a strange new word (went).

Let’s get back to the irregular verb break. The simple past tense is broke, which we use in sentences like I broke your dish. We use the past participle, broken, to form compound verbs in sentences like I have broken your dish. The compound verb have broken is so called because we’ve added a helping verb (have) to the main verb’s past participle (broken). Be careful never to add a helping verb to the simple past form of an irregular verb—I have broke your dish is an embarrassing confession in more ways than one.

The past participle of an irregular verb can also function as an adjective: a broken dish. But the simple past form, if it differs from the participle, cannot function as an adjective: a broke dish is substandard English.

There are far fewer irregular verbs than regular ones, but we use them all the time. “The ten commonest verbs in English (be, have, do, say, make, go, take, come, see, and get) are all irregular,” notes Steven Pinker, an American experimental psychologist and linguist, “and about 70% of the time we use a verb, it is an irregular verb.” Pinker acknowledges 180 irregular English verbs, but the website has an Extended Irregular Verb Dictionary which contains over 470 irregular verbs, including rare ones such as bestrew, enwind, and hagride.

Proper use of irregular verbs requires old-fashioned memorization—there are no secret formulas or shortcuts. This is why these words can create havoc for conscientious speakers of English. See how you do on the irregular verb quiz below—and please, no peeking at the answers till you complete the last question.

Irregular Verb Pop Quiz

1. He should have definitely ___ it before sunset.

A) did
B) done
C) have did
D) have done

2. This year has not necessarily ___ the way they hoped it would.

A) gone
B) went
C) going
D) go

3. He hopes he has finally ___ his last grammar test.

A) took
B) tooken
C) take
D) taken

4. The dry soil has ___ up every last raindrop.

A) drank
B) drunk
C) A and B are both correct.

5. She claims she ___ it happen before it occurred.

A) sees
B) seen
C) saw
D) had saw

6. It looks as if Tanya has actually ___ to visit Reggie.

A) come
B) came
C) coming

7. The Smiths were all ___ by a loud crashing noise.

A) awakened
B) awoken
C) A and B are both correct.

8. It had just ___ to snow when the plane took off.

A) began
B) begin
C) beginning
D) begun

9. Don’t they know I’m already ___ up?

A) shook
B) shaken
C) shooken
D) shaked

10. The wind has ___ like this for a week now.

A) blow
B) blowed
C) blown
D) blew


1: B) done

2: A) gone

3: D) taken

4: B) drunk

5: C) saw

6: A) come

7: C) awakened and awoken are both correct

8: D) begun

9: B) shaken

10: C) blown

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Posted on Tuesday, July 7, 2015, at 4:05 pm

Misbegotten Views on Gotten

A few of you were dismayed by our using gotten in last week’s article. We wrote: “In recent years we have debunked some of these baseless ‘rules,’ and gotten a lot of heat from frustrated readers.”

An exasperated gentleman from Australia was “shocked” by the appearance of “gotten,” which he denounced ex cathedra as a “non-word.” His email was generous with vitriol but stingy with evidence. That’s because no language scholar in any English-speaking country would question the legitimacy of gotten.

Gotten has been in continuous use for about seven hundred years, though it all but disappeared from England in the eighteenth century. “In Great Britain got is the only form of the participle used and the older form gotten is considered archaic,” says Bergen and Cornelia Evans’s Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage. “In the United States gotten is still the preferred form of the participle when it is used with have to express a completed action.”

The BBC’s website recently ranked gotten fifteenth on a list of the fifty most annoying “Americanisms.” The Grammarist website explains: “Many English speakers from outside North America resist the encroachment of so-called Americanisms (many of which, like gotten, are not actually American in origin) on their versions of English, and, for mysterious reasons, some feel especially strongly about gotten.”

In The Careful Writer, the American writer-editor Theodore M. Bernstein admits to some reservations about the use of gotten: “Have gotten might occasionally be useful in written language … In most instances, however, a more precise verb would be used: ‘He has gotten [received] his just deserts’; ‘He has gotten [obtained] what he was after’ …”

Roy H. Copperud’s Dictionary of Usage and Style has no such misgivings: “An uneasy idea persists that gotten is improper … Efforts to avoid got by substituting obtained or any other word the writer must strain after are misspent.”

The American linguists Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman offer a further vindication of gotten: “A Brit will tell you that ‘gotten’ is wrong. Not so! The truth is that at one time, English routinely had two past participles for the verb ‘get.’ … While American English retained both forms, British English dropped ‘gotten’ entirely. The result is that we have a nuance of meaning the poor Britons don’t.

“When we say, ‘Jack and Sue have got a dog,’ we mean they own a dog. When we say, ‘Jack and Sue have gotten a dog,’ we mean they have acquired one. There’s a distinct difference between the two statements.”

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Posted on Monday, June 29, 2015, at 6:11 pm