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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.


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.”


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.

Posted on Wednesday, October 2, 2013, at 2:19 pm

6 Comments on Sweating the Small Stuff

6 responses to “Sweating the Small Stuff”

  1. Sunil S. says:

    I have a query regarding the following sentence:

    ‘The creation and manipulation of cold molecules has become …’

    Is it ‘has become’ or ‘have become’ that is to be used in the above sentence?

    • As per our Rule 4 of Subject and Verb Agreement, “As a general rule, use a plural verb with two or more subjects when they are connected by and.” Therefore, it appears that your sentence should be “The creation and manipulation of cold molecules have become …”

      An exception to this rule is a sentence such as “The bed and breakfast was charming.” In this case bed and breakfast is a compound noun.

      You are a better judge than we regarding standard terms used in your research. If creation and manipulation are considered two separate operations, then the plural verb have is correct.

  2. Quentin G. says:

    I was looking for ways to help my friends understand the who vs whom usage, and I respectfully disagree with the latter half of your who vs whom section (

    First of all, ‘a woman whom I think is a genius’ isn’t a complete sentence, which must be confusing for readers. Here’s a new sentence: ‘The book was written by a woman, whom I think is a genius.’ In this new sentence, ‘whom’ actually is the object of the second half of the sentence and ‘I’ is the subject. That is the correct usage (unless you follow the school of thought that says everyday usage on the street trumps dusty old grammar knowledge). To use ‘who’ here : ‘The book was written by a woman, who is a genius.’ Now, ‘who’ is the subject of the second half of the sentence.

    Another example: ‘A woman, whom I think is a genius, wrote a book called Mary Jane.’ That’s correct. ‘A woman, who is a genius, wrote a book called Mary Jane.’ Also correct.

    I know I must sound like a pedantic, ‘pseudo-sophisticated’ person, but I hope this helps. You are the top hit for a google search of ‘who vs whom,’ which thrusts great responsibility upon your site.

    • We see that by placing yourself in the responsible role of the teacher with your friends that you now find yourself in a difficult position. We stand behind every word of the who-vs.-whom section of the book. If you really believe that “A woman, whom I think is a genius, wrote a book called Mary Jane” is a correct sentence, which it emphatically is not, then you need to start over and study subjects, objects, and verbs until you see why “whom” is incorrect in your example. Otherwise, you are misleading your friends.

      • Quentin G. says:

        Thank you very much for your response. I think I see where I went wrong. I was stuck in the rut of thinking that every time there is a pronoun directly after who/whom, one uses whom. I see now that in my example, ‘who’ is the subject for ‘is’ and ‘I’ is the subject for ‘think.’ I hope that’s correct.

        I was used to examples like this: ‘This is the woman whom I wrote the book with.’ That’s correct, right? If not, then I’m really struggling with this.

        Again, I really appreciate the response because it made me reevaluate my instincts. All the best!

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