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No Question About It

Let’s see if you can spot what is wrong with this sentence? On closer inspection, most of you will see that the sentence should end in a period rather than a question mark.

Question marks are used only with direct questions. The sentence above certainly contains a direct question: what is wrong with this sentence? However, Let’s see if turns the sentence into an indirect question.

Here is the difference between direct and indirect questions: Do you agree? is a direct question. That same question is embedded in I wonder whether you agree. But now the sentence is a statement. The question is still there, but it is no longer direct.

Sentences that start with Let’s see if, I wonder whether, and the like are statements that ask questions in a roundabout way. Avoid the trap of ending such sentences with question marks.

Some sentences that sound like direct questions are really declarations (What wouldn’t I do for you), requests (Why don’t you take a break), or demands (Would you kids knock it off). Questions like these, which do not require or expect an answer, are called rhetorical questions. Because they are questions in form only, rhetorical questions may be written without question marks.

One-word questions within sentences do not ordinarily take question marks either. There might conceivably be a good reason to write The child asked, why? but that sentence is heavy-handed compared with The child asked why.

When direct questions of more than one word occur in the middle of a sentence, they are generally preceded with a comma, or sometimes a colon, and some writers capitalize the first word: Rantos wondered, How will I escape?

It is not wrong to capitalize a direct question in midsentence. Sometimes it’s a good idea, other times it can be distracting. Many writers would prefer Rantos wondered, how will I escape?—no capital—because the question how will I escape? is clear and concise.

The venerable Chicago Manual of Style offers this handy guideline: “A direct question may take an initial capital letter if it is relatively long or has internal punctuation.” Chicago then provides an example: Legislators had to be asking themselves, Can the fund be used for the current emergency, or must it remain dedicated to its original purpose?

You will notice that the stylebook says “may take,” not “must take.” When it comes to writing questions there is a lot of leeway. Some writers use a colon where others use a comma. Some capitalize where others do not. But an uncalled-for question mark is amateurish in anybody’s book.

 

Pop Quiz

Fix any sentences that need fixing. Our answers are below.

1. I’d like to ask, what makes you so sure?

2. Why don’t you run along home now?

3. The question is not only how? but also why?

4. I wonder if they’re coming over tonight?

5. I’d like to ask what makes you so sure?

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. I’d like to ask, what makes you so sure? CORRECT

2. Why don’t you run along home now.

3. The question is not only how but also why.

4. I wonder if they’re coming over tonight.

5. I’d like to ask what makes you so sure.

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Posted on Tuesday, March 8, 2016, at 3:59 pm


Hypercorrection

Trying hard is good, but trying too hard is another matter. Hypercorrection is the technical term for mistakes in grammar, punctuation, or pronunciation that result from trying too hard to be correct.

Perhaps the most common hypercorrection involves pronouns. We constantly hear things like Keep this between you and I or The Wilsons invited he and his wife to lunch. In those examples, the correct choices are the object pronouns me instead of I and him instead of he (me is an object of the preposition between; him is a direct object of invited). The authors of such sentences seem to have decided that I and he sound more classy than me and him, so they must be correct.

Here are a few more examples of this vain tactic:

Often  All dictionaries list two pronunciations, OFF-en and OFF-tun, but OFF-tun is classic hypercorrection. The t should be silent, as it is in soften and many other English words (e.g., listen, moisten, Christmas). Ninety years ago Henry Fowler wrote in Modern English Usage that the t in often is pronounced “by two oddly consorted classes—the academic speakers who affect a more precise enunciation than their neighbours’ [and] the uneasy half-literates who like to prove that they can spell.”

“A $8,000 price tag”  You run across items like this in newspapers from time to time. The copy editor chose the article a, rather than an, even though anyone reading aloud would say “an eight-thousand-dollar price tag.” Acting on the principle that an is used only before a vowel, the copy editor concluded that a dollar sign preceding a numeral cannot be considered a vowel—therefore a was the clear choice. In truth, the rule states that an is used before all vowel sounds. The letter h is not a vowel either, but no copy editor would prescribe “a honor.”

“The Jag-wires have scored 90 points in their past two games,” said the sportscaster. He was talking about a professional football team called the Jacksonville Jaguars (American pronunciation: JAG-wahrs). The mistake was hardly an isolated incident; many announcers say “Jag-wires” over the course of the six-month pro-football season. Here is why: The most avid football fans in America are from the South, and many Southern Americans say “wahr,” “far,” and “tar” instead of wire, fire, and tire. Professional broadcasters are required to remove all traces of regional accents from their speech. In their zeal to speak unaccented English, these announcers sometimes overcompensate with “ire” when words contain an “ahr” sound, even though, like jaguar, it belongs there.

And that is how hypercorrection has unleashed upon the world the dreaded jag-wire.

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Posted on Tuesday, March 1, 2016, at 5:39 pm


No Shortcuts with Irregular Verbs

It isn’t just the disadvantaged or disaffected among us who struggle with irregular verbs. A political insider with his own long-running TV show keeps saying “has ran.”

Fifty years ago a textbook called Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition said: “Irregular verbs … cause the greatest single problem in standard verb usage because there is no single rule that applies to them. A student of our language must know the principal parts of every irregular verb … and the only way to know them is to memorize them.”

We use these verbs all the time. We might as well get them right. See how you do on the irregular-verb quiz that follows. The answers are directly below the test.

 

Irregular Verb Pop Quiz

1. It turned out that being ___ solid actually saved his life.

A) frozen
B) froze
C) freezed

2. Barbara ___ for the faces of a family never seen.

A) weeped
B) weapt
C) wept
D) weaped

3. I saved him from getting ___.

A) drownded
B) drowned
C) drownd
D) drowneded

4. His actions have ___ to be contrary to his words.

A) proven
B) proved
C) A and B are both correct

5. Leon was ___ down by the tormenting weight of his burdens.

A) drug
B) drugged
C) drag
D) dragged

6 . She kept wearing it and wearing it until it was all ___ out.

A) wore
B) worn
C) A and B are both correct

7. It turned out we had always ___ the answer.

A) knewn
B) knew
C) knowed
D) known

8. The book was found ___ open on the floor.

A) lieing
B) laying
C) lying
D) lane

9. Why hasn’t someone ___ this by me sooner?

A) run
B) ran
C) running
D) ranned

10. We all thought Alfred had already ___ dinner.

A) ate
B) eaten
C) A and B are both correct

 

ANSWERS

1: A) frozen

2: C) wept

3: B) drowned

4: C) A and B are both correct

5: D) dragged

6: B) worn

7: D) known

8: C) lying

9: A) run

10: B) eaten

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Posted on Tuesday, February 23, 2016, at 10:22 am


Words in Flux

The words we’ll examine today highlight the rift between language purists and less-fussy people who just want to get their point across. You probably can guess which side we are on.

Podium  This word might not mean what you think it means. A podium is not a stand with a slanted top for notes or books—that would be a lectern. A podium is a raised area that speakers, performers, or orchestra conductors stand on. People do not stand behind a podium—more likely they are standing on a podium, behind a lectern.

Back in 1989 The Random House College Dictionary got it right, defining podium as a platform. But a mere ten years later, dictionaries had caved. The 1999 Webster’s New World says that podium and lectern are synonymous. The 2016 online American Heritage dictionary lists “platform” first, but its second definition of podium is “a stand for holding the notes of a public speaker; a lectern.”

The difference between a podium and a lectern is as clear-cut as the difference between a floor and a table. Shouldn’t a dictionary resist muddling these words’ meanings?

Fortuitous  This is a chronically misunderstood word. Purists will not tolerate fortuitous as a synonym for “lucky” or “fortunate.” It simply means “by chance.” True, you could describe winning the lottery as fortuitous, but getting flattened by a runaway truck is also fortuitous.

So let’s haul out the dictionaries again. This time the ’89 Random House cops out, listing “lucky” as the second definition of fortuitous. That is disappointing, considering that just nine years earlier The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language allowed only “happening by accident or chance” and warned that “fortuitous is often confused with fortunate.”

Epitome  Those who use it correctly know it means “a perfect example.” Those who misuse it think it means “an example of perfection.” The epitome of means “the essence of.” But it does not mean “the best” or “the pinnacle.” Denzel Washington is the epitome of cool means that the actor exemplifies coolness. Washington may well be one of the coolest men alive, but that is not what the sentence is saying.

We are pleased to report that even though epitome has been widely misused for years, we have yet to find a dictionary that lists the incorrect meaning. Maybe it’s because the distinction is so subtle.

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Posted on Wednesday, February 17, 2016, at 9:30 am


Media Watch

Let’s begin this installment of “Media Watch” with a headline we could do without:

• “Manning and Co. bring in ’da noise”

Did you catch it? Why the apostrophe? It should not be there unless one or more letters are omitted from the front of da (like the missing be in ’cause). That’s not the case; da is a condescending spelling of the, as uttered by a rowdy football fan. It appears that the headline writer added the apostrophe as a wink to the reader, a way of saying, “Of course, I don’t talk like these hooligans.”

• “This ugly episode must be overcome in favor of defeating ours’ and Russia’s mutual enemy.”

Another diseased apostrophe. The possessive pronoun ours never takes an apostrophe, any more than yourshers, or theirs does. But even if we remove it we are still left with the frightful ours mutual enemy. The sentence calls for the possessive adjective our. So make it either our and Russia’s mutual enemy or Russia’s and our mutual enemy.

• “RMJ is an acronym for Recycle My Junk.”

No, RMJ is an initialism. There is a key difference between acronyms and initialisms. If you can say it as a word, as with NASA or ROM, it is an acronym. If you pronounce each letter, as with FBI or RSVP, it is an initialism.

• “His choice is Jackson, whom he said already knows the job.”

Why is it that so many people seem to use whom only where they shouldn’t? Look what happens if we move he said to the back of the sentence: His choice is Jackson, whom already knows the job, he said. Obviously, the right choice is who, the subject of knows—and emphatically not the direct object of said. So make it His choice is Jackson, who he said already knows the job.

• “Ironically, Shakespeare’s greatest literary contemporary died the same day he did.”

The first word should be “Coincidentally.” When something is ironic, it has a grimly humorous or paradoxical twist, as if the universe were playing a wicked practical joke. Thus, it is ironic if a speeding car crashes into a “drive carefully” sign. But where is the irony here? Do not use ironically when referring to an odd or remarkable coincidence, such as two famous writers dying on the same day.

• “Before they fled, he and his mom had a going-away party.”

The article was about a fugitive who had committed quadruple homicide. We understand that we’re living in the Age of Informality, but there is something spectacularly inappropriate about calling a sociopath’s enabler mother “his mom.”

 

Pop Quiz

The following are sentences recently heard over the airwaves. See if you can make them better.

  1. “It fell a tenth of an inch short of the all-time record.”
  2. “It’s complete trash, garbage—there are other adjectives I’d like to use.”
  3. “One of the suspects immigrated from Syria.”
  4. “How dare him say that?”
  5. “He and his company are flaunting the system.”

 

Pop Quiz Answers

  1. “It fell a tenth of an inch short of the record” (all-time record is a pleonasm).
  2. “It’s complete trash, garbage—there are other nouns I’d like to use.”
  3. “One of the suspects emigrated from Syria.”
  4. “How dare he say that?”
  5. “He and his company are flouting the system.”

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Posted on Tuesday, February 9, 2016, at 3:19 pm