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Don’t Blur Fine Distinctions

If Helen offers André food, but André has just eaten, he will say, “Thank you, but I’m not really hungry.” If Helen persists, André might say the same words in a different order: “Thank you, but I’m really not hungry,” which lets her know in a civil way that she’s not going to change his mind. When you think about it, there is a clear-cut difference between not really and really not that is well worth preserving.

Word order matters. Many people who mean to say Don’t just stand there now say instead Just don’t stand there. But the two statements mean different things. Don’t just stand there means “Don’t stand there doing nothing.” Just don’t stand there means “Don’t stand there for any reason.”

The meaning of just depends on its placement in a sentence, especially when it is accompanied by negative adverbs such as not or never, or negative verbs such as don’t or wouldn’t.

Careless speakers these days blur the distinction between phrases like not just and just not. Traditionally, not just means “not merely” or “not only,” and just not means “simply not” or “definitely not.” He’s a trusted adviser, not just a friend means “He’s both my adviser and my friend.” Whereas He’s a trusted adviser, just not a friend means something quite different: “I trust his advice, but he’s no friend of mine.”

Saying “just not” when we mean “not just” could lead to misunderstanding, embarrassment, even hurt feelings.

Pop Quiz
Match each of the first four sentences with its closest paraphrase in sentences A-D.

1. I just wouldn’t leave.
2. I wouldn’t just leave.
3. I can’t really concentrate in here.
4. I really can’t concentrate in here.

A. This place interferes with my concentration.
B. This place makes concentrating impossible for me.
C. If I were to leave, I’d tell you first.
D. There is no possibility that I’d leave.

Pop Quiz Answers

1-D, 2-C, 3-A, 4-B

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Posted on Thursday, December 12, 2013, at 7:01 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

To Split or Not To Split

Not everyone knows what an infinitive is, but everyone uses them.

Infinitives are formed when a verb is preceded by the word to, as in to run or to ask. Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech might be the most famous use of infinitives in English literature.

One of the great misconceptions about English is that it is wrong to “split” an infinitive—that is, to put a word or words between to and the verb. According to this superstition, to quickly respond or to flatly refuse is incorrect; we should say instead, to respond quickly or to refuse flatly. This supposedly preserves the “integrity” of the infinitive.

The myth sprang up in the 18th century, when grammarians decreed that English should be modeled on Latin. In Latin, infinitives are one word, so they can’t be split. The trouble is that English is a Germanic, not a Romance, language. Imposing Latin rules on English is like demanding that cats act like dogs.

There is no point in splitting an infinitive just for the fun of it. Experienced writers do not split capriciously. But sometimes they prefer to—and sometimes they have to. A classic example of the latter case: I expect my salary to more than double. There’s no other place for more than except right between to and double.

Would Hamlet’s speech be so admired if it opened with “To be or to not be”? Splitting infinitives with not is usually a terrible idea. I decided not to go is a vast improvement on the clunky I decided to not go.

But now consider His mistake was to not go. It’s ugly, but it says what it means. Placing not before to go would invite ambiguity: His mistake was not instead of His mistake was. In this and many other cases involving split infinitives, a rewrite would be a good plan: He made a mistake by not going.

Finally, notice how often infinitives are split by dispensable adverbs, as in this sentence: I intend to strongly protest. The verbs intend and protest are dynamic enough to make strongly extraneous—I intend to protest would be an improvement. Any time an adverb can be removed, it should be.


Which sentences would be improved by “unsplitting” the infinitive? Which ones are fine the way they are? See our views below.

1. I was hoping she’d choose to not attend.

2. He wanted to strongly advise against it.

3. Alice needed to quickly leave.

4. She’s not expected to immediately fix the problem.

5. We decided to gradually get rid of the clutter.


1. I was hoping she’d choose not to attend.

2. He wanted to strongly advise against it. (We’d keep it as is; to strongly advise sounds more forceful to us than to advise strongly.)

3. Alice needed to leave. (The urgency of “needed” makes “quickly” unnecessary.)

4. She’s not expected to fix the problem immediately.

5. We decided to gradually get rid of the clutter. (Best option, although some would argue for get rid of the clutter gradually. Decided gradually to get rid of is ambiguous. Get gradually rid of and get rid gradually of strike us as ghastly alternatives.)

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Posted on Tuesday, September 24, 2013, at 12:45 pm

Words Can Be Bullies

Words that start with the letter h don’t always act like it.

Consider “herb,” when it means “an aromatic plant used for seasoning in cooking.” Americans dump the h, whereas many Brits pronounce it. So we say “an ’erb,” but an Englishman says “a herb.”

A different sort of h-confusion happens when self-important speakers and writers say “an historic occasion” or “an heroic soldier.” Ever notice that “an” only precedes a few highfalutin h-words like “historic(al),” “hypothetical,” “hallucinogenic”? And they tend to have three or more syllables: “An heroic soldier” is also “a hero.”

About 20 years ago, Time magazine ran a front-cover headline beginning, “A Historic…” and misguided word nerds raised a furor, insisting Time should have said “An Historic”—but the magazine never budged, stating flatly that “an historic” is wrong.

In everyday conversation, would you describe a wailing brat as “an hysterical child”? I sincerely doubt it. But what makes “hysterical” so different from “historical”?

A Google check yields tips from various websites, which only reinforce common sense: “You should use ‘an’ before a word beginning with an ‘H’ only if the ‘H’ is not pronounced” (from the website

Or this: “you use an before vowel sounds…Following this rule, we would say ‘a historic,’ not ‘an historic’ ” (

Or this one, which ought to seal the deal: “I’d love to hear a reasonable argument, based on logic and not convention, in support of ‘an historic’…given the prevalence of such similar constructions as ‘a hotel downtown’ and ‘a high bar’ and ‘a hitman killed my dog’ ” (

Pomposity often leads to tortured language. I remember lawyer-turned-sportscaster Howard Cosell, rest his troubled soul, and the way he regularly subjected professional athletes to his cruel and unusual polysyllabic punishment. In general, jocks are spoiled, semi-educated boors, and they know it, so the tug-of-war between them and Cosell was great theater.

At its most sublime, it involved boxing champion Muhammad Ali. He and Howard made a great team, and there was genuine love and trust there. Whatever his faults, Cosell, perhaps at the risk of his own career, had taken up for the draft-evading Ali when the champ was something of a national pariah. ( has many wonderful sequences of these two through the years.)

Although there was a good Cosell, all too often we got Bad Howard, neurotically insecure, the one who knew he was kept at arm’s length by these great physical geniuses—and resented it. He knew they mocked him, not caring that Cosell had more knowledge of more subjects than all of them put together. So he would sometimes do perverse things, like the time he bullied a poor rookie football player from some Deep South ghetto. Bad Howard said something like: “So, my young friend, in your estimation, did the immensity of the task assigned you, juxtaposed with the metaphysical certainty of your callow demeanor, effectuate a lessened or heightened capacity on your part?”

I’m not kidding. That’s pretty close to what Howard said. As the kid listened, his eyes widened with terror and confusion, as if he were being swarmed by a raging horde of ruthless linebackers. I don’t recall his answer.

Tom Stern


Pop Quiz
As we discussed last time, the great writer Elmore Leonard, who died August 20, deplored adverbs. Experienced writers like Leonard prefer strong nouns and verbs. In this quiz, try rewriting each sentence with greater precision and economy. There are no correct answers, but our suggestions may be found in the Answers section.

1. Avoiding wordiness is basically a simple principle of good writing.
2. He went into the room quickly.
3. She was incredibly thrilled by the experience.
4. He said things about us that were viciously harmful and insulting.
5. The committee strongly expressed disapproval of them.


Pop Quiz Answers

1. Avoiding wordiness is a fundamental of good writing.
2. He hurried into the room.
3. The experience elated her.
4. He vilified us.
5. The committee censured them.

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Posted on Tuesday, September 3, 2013, at 6:53 pm

Leonard’s Ten Commandments

The writer Elmore Leonard, who died last week at 87, was the master of hard-bitten prose. He started out as a pulp novelist, and went on to transcend the genre. Since the mid-1950s, more than forty of his works have been adapted for movies and TV, many of them featuring such A-listers as Paul Newman, Clint Eastwood, Robert De Niro, and George Clooney. In his obituary, the Associated Press called the longtime Michigan resident “the Dickens of Detroit, the Chaucer of crime,” and said, “Few writers so memorably traveled the low road.”

The author’s seemingly effortless low-key, economical technique, with its affably nasty edge, has been the envy of many an aspiring novelist. In 2001, he wrote an article for the New York Times that contained ten rules for fiction writers. Anyone interested in the art and craft of writing is urged to seek out this compelling document online. Today we’ll deal with a couple of Leonard’s precepts.

Rule Three: “Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue.” This is good advice for essayists and journalists, too. Many writers worry that repeating “said” will make them look bad. So they start substituting words like “grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied” before reaching the end of the line (and of Leonard’s patience) with eyesores like “asseverated.”

Leonard is stressing that the quote is what matters, and “the verb is the writer sticking his nose in.” As William Zinsser says in his fine guide On Writing Well, “The reader’s eye skips over ‘he said’ anyway, so it’s not worth a lot of fuss.”

Which leads to Rule Four: “Never use an adverb to modify the verb ‘said’…To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin.” Many great writers have a similar disdain for adverbs. Mark Twain said, “Adverbs are the tool of the lazy writer.” Stephen King, another novelist who has achieved beyond his pulp pedigree, once wrote: “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

Some will be puzzled by this. But how is The town was completely destroyed or basically destroyed an improvement on The town was destroyed? When you become aware that in most cases, the likes of basically, completely, actually, definitely, and very are unnecessary, you start to understand adverb abhorrence.

One note about very: the distinguished journalist and author William Allen White (1868-1944) once called it “the weakest word in the English language.”


Pop Quiz

Despite Elmore Leonard’s commandments, some writers may prefer variations on “said” at appropriate times. There are no right answers to this quiz, but with Mr. Leonard in mind, rewrite any sentence below as you wish, and see if your instincts for staying out of the way of a good story are akin to ours.

1. Bob turned to Mary and offered, “You are the loveliest woman at the party.”

2. “I came here today and saw a whale,” she explained.

3. “Why are you here?” he asked.

“To see you,” I replied.

4. “Why, what a jolly surprise,” he smiled.

5. “Who is equivalent to he, and whom is equivalent to him,” I explained.


Pop Quiz Answers

1. Bob turned to Mary and said, “You are the loveliest woman at the party.”

2. “I came here today and saw a whale,” she said. (Be careful with explained. In this sentence, nothing is “explained”; it’s just a statement of fact.)

3. “Why are you here?” he asked.

“To see you,” I replied. CORRECT

4. “Why, what a jolly surprise,” he said. (Have you ever heard anyone smile?)

5. “Who is equivalent to he, and whom is equivalent to him,” I explained. CORRECT


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Posted on Monday, August 26, 2013, at 2:22 pm