Ain’t That a Shame



We are gratified that our readers are uncompromising about the English language. Over the course of fifty articles annually, we get our share of lectures, challenges, and rebukes. We welcome all your comments, but before you write, keep in mind the final edict in last week’s Stickler’s Ten Commandments: Be sure you are correct before you cry foul.

• One correspondent admonished us to replace over with more than in sentences like the package weighs over ten pounds. This myth has been around a long time, but few if any language scholars take it seriously. In an article titled “Non-Errors” the eminent grammarian Paul Brians says, “ ‘Over’ has been used in the sense of ‘more than’ for over a thousand years.”

• When we wrote “formulas,” a reader said that the correct plural is formulae, and those who write “formulas” are “the same lazy folk who would use ‘octopuses’ rather than ‘octopi.’ Please, don’t be lazy.”

While it is true that formulae is preferred in scientific contexts, formulas is most writers’ choice in other applications. The Associated Press Stylebook does not even acknowledge formulae. As for octopi, it is listed in most dictionaries, but that does not make it correct. In his book What in the Word? Charles Harrington Elster states that octopuses is the right choice: “Because octopus comes from Greek, not Latin, the Latinate variant octopi is inappropriate and is frowned upon by usage authorities.”

• But the biggest tiff of 2015 was over the use of that in sentences like She is a woman that likes to laugh. There is nothing grammatically wrong with a woman that likes.

Oh, but try telling that to all the readers who wrote in insisting that that must never be used to refer to humans. In 2014 we ran two articles which we hoped would put this dreary matter to rest forever (you can read them here and here). We’ll say it again: The pronoun that applies to humans as well as nonhumans. You may not care for how it sounds. You may not like how it is used nowadays. But rules of grammar transcend our personal preferences.

Most of the correspondence on this topic included some variation on “this is how I was taught.” Well, maybe so, but as the years pass, sometimes the memory plays tricks. And teachers are not infallible. Even the best ones harbor their own opinions, biases, and delusions, which might slip out in the classroom and be taken as fact by a callow student.

Too many of us cling to cherished misconceptions out of loyalty, sentiment, nostalgia—or sheer force of habit. If Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity were disproved tomorrow, would any reputable scientist disregard the overwhelming evidence because of his allegiance to Einstein?

 

Pop Quiz

Correct any sentences that need fixing.

  1. That basketball player is over seven feet tall.
  2. I prefer people that don’t tell everything they know.
  3. A couple dollars is all that place charges for a great taco.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

  1. That basketball player is over seven feet tall. CORRECT
  2. I prefer people that don’t tell everything they know. CORRECT
  3. A couple of dollars is all that place charges for a great taco.

Posted on Tuesday, January 12, 2016, at 2:14 pm

If you wish to respond to another reader's question or comment, please click its corresponding "REPLY" button. If the article or the existing discussions do not address a thought or question you have on the subject, please use the "Comment" box at the bottom of this page.

8 Comments on Ain’t That a Shame

8 responses to “Ain’t That a Shame”

  1. Robert P. says:

    I love (like?) your well-reasoned articles. The title of today’s article made me think that you might mention Fats Domino, who celebrates his eighty-eighth birthday next month. You are obviously too young to know this, but “Ain’t That a Shame” was one of his several million-selling recordings.

    Regards to you and the mother tongue.

  2. Deborah B. says:

    The only reason to accept ‘that’ for humans is to avoid the ‘who/whom’ issue. It’s not that hard to explain.

  3. Aaron L. says:

    Ha! It should be “octopodes”! My friend, who is a classic professor, told me this once, and it is an ongoing joke!

  4. Sheila K. says:

    Please advise if “gonna” is acceptable. I have seen it written in newspapers, magazines, etc., and it drives me crazy. Perhaps I am out of the loop, and would appreciate your input. Thank you.

    I so enjoy your e-newsletter!

Leave a Comment or Question:

Please ensure that your question or comment relates to the topic of the blog post. Unrelated comments may be deleted. If necessary, use the "Search" box on the right side of the page to find a post closely related to your question or comment.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *