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Don’t Put It in Writing

Today we’ll discuss a word and a phrase, either of which would sound fine in a casual exchange but could attract unwanted attention if used in formal writing.

Ahold  Although few people would notice anything amiss in a sentence like I wish I could get ahold of a good grammar book, many editors would change get ahold of to either get hold of or get a hold of.

Dictionaries differ on ahold. Back in 1966, Random House’s Dictionary of the English Language listed ahold, but called it “informal”—and the American College Dictionary (1968), also from Random House, refused to list the word at all. (Maybe Random House wanted to discourage college kids from using it.)

Nor can ahold be found in the American Heritage dictionary’s 1980 edition. However, American Heritage’s 2004 and 2011 editions include the word without comment.

Our most recent dictionary, Webster’s New World (2014), lists ahold but, like Random House half a century ago, labels the word “informal.”

Most of the language websites we checked did not recommend ahold. Here are some examples: “Ahold does not exist as a word in standard English.” “Ahold poses no problem in informal speech and writing, but it might be considered out of place in more formal contexts.”In standard English you just ‘get hold’ of something or somebody.”

We found only one website that endorsed this word with any enthusiasm: “Don’t hold back on your use of ahold … a word recognized by Merriam-Webster, Garner’s Modern American Usage and most other writing authorities.”

We confirmed that the Merriam-Webster online dictionary does recognize ahold, but the statement about “most other writing authorities” conflicted with our own findings. And as for Bryan A. Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage, all it says about ahold is that “it verges on being standard”—hardly a resounding endorsement.

In close proximity  Proximity does not mean “distance”; it means “nearness,” so close proximity means “close nearness.” Besides its redundancy, in close proximity takes three times as many words and three times as many syllables as are needed to express an elementary concept: nearby.

You see in close proximity all the time, and it always manages to sound ungainly and comically self-important. Here’s a small sampling of what we found on the Internet: “The hotel is in close proximity [close] to the corporate, financial and fashionable heart of the city.” “Investigators believe the aircraft went down after coming in close proximity [too close] to another plane.” “The car’s controls are in close proximity [within easy reach].”

Traditional usage guides advise against close proximity. Typical of these is Eric Partridge’s Usage and Abusage: “Say close to or near, according to the context.” John B. Bremner’s Words on Words finds the phrase too obviously silly to get worked up about. Bremner’s droll entry under close proximity: “The best kind.”

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Posted on Monday, July 13, 2015, at 3:42 pm

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

The Lowdown on Different Than

Those who care about language sometimes discover they’ve been misled. Teachers, parents, or other trusted authority figures have been known to proclaim as rules what turn out to be myths, opinions, or whims about English usage.

In recent years we have debunked some of these baseless “rules,” and gotten a lot of heat from frustrated readers. Who can blame them?

Yet today we’re at it again, taking on another long-standing commandment: Always say different from because different than is incorrect. Upon further review this rule cannot be substantiated.

It has some impressive defenders, though: “In educated American usage, one thing is different from another, not different than another” (Claire Kehrwald Cook, Line by Line). “Comparative adjectives take thanDifferent takes from” (John B. Bremner, Words on Words).

Most writers prefer different from over different than when the phrase precedes a noun or pronoun: Dogs are different from cats. But different from does not always work preceding a clause. Consider this sentence: It is no different for men than it is for women. Using different than results in a clear, straightforward sentence. The supposedly grammatical alternative would be bloated and clumsy: It is no different for men from the way it is for women.

In Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words Bill Bryson cites this sentence: How different things appear in Washington than in London. If we changed the sentence to How different things appear in Washington from how they appear in London, Bryson states, “all it gives you is more words, not better grammar.”

“The idea that there is anything wrong with different than is a superstition,” says Roy H. Copperud in his Dictionary of Usage and Style. Bergen and Cornelia Evans’s Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage concurs: “No one has any grounds for condemning others who would rather say different than, since this construction is used by some of the most sensitive writers of English and is in keeping with the fundamental structure of the language.”

Does this mean you should now write different than every chance you get? We certainly wouldn’t. There may be nothing grammatically wrong with different than, but it remains polarizing. A is different than B comes across as sloppy to a lot of literate readers. If you can replace different than with different from without having to rewrite the rest of the sentence, we recommend doing so.

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Posted on Tuesday, June 23, 2015, at 11:04 am

Say It Again, Sam

It has been a while since our last pronunciation column, so here’s another group of familiar words whose traditional pronunciations may surprise you. (Note: capital letters denote a stressed syllable.)

Antarctica  Like the elusive first r in February, the first c in this word is often carelessly dropped: it’s ant-ARC-tica, not ant-AR-tica.

Err  Since to err is to make an error, it seems logical to say “air”—but who said English is logical? The correct way to say err is to rhyme it with her.

Inherent  Properly, in-HEER-ent. Most people say in-HAIR-ent, but that’s wrong and we can prove it: How do you say adherent?

Covert  Most say CO-vert, rhymes with overt. But it’s traditionally pronounced CUV-ert, as in “cover” plus a t. You may not hear CUV-ert much these days, but it is still listed in the 2011 American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.

Nuptial  It’s two syllables: NUP-shul. A lot of people, including many in the media, say NUP-shu-ul. How do they get “shu-ul” from tial?

Naiveté  Should be nah-eve-TAY. More and more broadcasters are polluting the airwaves by pronouncing this as a four-syllable word: ny-EVE-it-tay, ny-EVE-itty, or ny-EV-itty. The 1999 Webster’s New World dictionary lists only the three-syllable pronunciation, but the 2014 Webster’s New World has caved, giving the four-syllable alternatives unwarranted legitimacy. Charles Harrington Elster, in his Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations, calls the four-syllable variants “illogical.” Elster’s point: naive is two syllables, and is one syllable. Since when does two plus one equal four?

Margarine  Relax, you’re saying it right. But when it was coined by the French in the 1870s, margarine had the same first two syllables as Margaret and the third syllable rhymed with clean. Yes, believe it or not, people used to say MARG-a-reen—hard g, plus “een” on the end.

Our 1941 Webster’s New International Dictionary lists but two possible pronunciations for margarine, preferring MARJ-a-reen over MARG-a-reen. So seventy-four years ago, it was not usual for the third syllable to be pronounced “in” rather than “een.”

Twenty-seven years later, the 1968 edition of Random House’s American College Dictionary listed “marj” and “marg,” and said the final syllable could be pronounced either “in” or “een.” And as recently as 1980, the American Heritage Dictionary listed “marj” and “marg,” but by then “een” was gone.

Standard pronunciations evolve, and margarine has done more than its share of evolving over the last 140 years. But today “MARJ-a-rin” has won out.

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Posted on Monday, June 15, 2015, at 12:23 pm