Category Archives: English Grammar

News! News!

Regular readers of this weblog know that I have a good many opinions on a wide variety of topics. Occasionally, I’m even well informed on the subject. But it’s been brought to my attention that as a writer who is trying to get my work sold, some of what I put here may give offense to my readers. In fact, I can just about guarantee that something will offend everyone.

Now don’t get worried. I’m not going to change my ways. I’m just expanding–something like a Japanese conglomerate. Instead of making cars, cameras, and assorted crap, I’m adding a new weblog to my portfolio. Here’s where to find it:

English 301: Reading and Writing

The focus of that site will be exactly what the name suggests. I’ll discuss books that I’m reading, work that I’m writing, matters of grammar and style, and other such things. I may drift into music and movies, since I have no wish to be organized about it. In fact, it will be a lot like the composition classes that I teach, only freer in form. Politics, guns, silliness in the news, and all the other matters that catch my attention will continue here. Being free form, there’s likely to be some overlap, since I write about guns and enquire into the language about them and since English continues to be abused in public.

My hope is that my readers–you few, you happy few–will read and comment on both weblogs, but now you get a choice. There’s more of me, and who wouldn’t want that?

(The shifting in the Earth’s axis of rotation was from the collective raising of hands. . .)

The Oxford Comma Saves Lives

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Oxford comma, here’s an illustration:

I bought chips, candy, and soda.

The comma before the and in that sentence is the Oxford one. I’m in favor of it, even though there are people in this world (including at least one whom I respect) who don’t use it. Today, however, I ran across a case in which using it may mean the difference between life and death. The following comes from the warning signs above the gas pumps at Sam’s Club in Rogers:

In case of fire,
spill or release

What comes after that message is advice to call 911 and other safety blather. But notice how as the quoted lines are written (and without a colon at the end), the message actually tells me to spill or to release fuel if a fire occurs.

A comma after “spill” would correct this glaring error in safety.

Fry Him in Oil!

Nancy Hatch, writer of the Spirit Lights the Way weblog (see the Blogroll to the right and down) reminded me in a recent post ( that I have yet to vent my fury on this video:

It’s Stephen Fry’s response to those of us who are concerned with how language ought to be used.  He calls us pedants.

Now, if by pedant, he means that we’re teachers (the etymology of the word), I’ll accept his label.  However, I believe that he means the more modern usage of someone who picks at nits in the field in question.  Of course, if nits aren’t picked, they become lice, but unfortunately, lousy language fails to make far too many speakers itch.

Fry wonders if we pedants froth with joy about what he calls “verbal freshness.”  But look at the examples that he uses.  He names uninterested and disinterested as words that we understand, even when a speaker misuses them.  A disinterested person is someone who is impartial with regard to a particular subject, while someone who is uninterested merely does not care.  That’s a difference worth noting, and it’s indicated by one of two prefixes.  If we lose the distinction, we end up needing a lot more verbiage to express our meaning.  Or imagine if the members of the Securities and Exchange Commission declared themselves to be uninterested in financial dealings on Wall Street.  That would be cause for alarm, whereas a claim to be disinterested makes us merely doubt their veracity.  Notice that Fry used two words, sensuous and sensual, that have a similarly important difference in their meaning.  He meant both of them and used them correctly.  But if we didn’t have those two words with their individual definitions, he would have needed to use many more words to make his point.

He mentions the claim that good grammar indicates intelligence and clarity of thought.  Not quite.  What the proper usage shows us is that the writer or speaker cares enough about language to look up words to find the right one, edit out errors, and seek the best way to say something.  That has nothing to do with how bright the person is, but rather indicates the person’s responsibility.

Of course, poor Bill Shakespeare gets trotted out, as always whenever anyone wishes to defend sloppy language.  In this case, Fry is gleeful about how the Bard used nouns as verbs and did many other things with English that would get him into trouble in a pedant’s class.  This requires a general and a specific response.  In general, as I say in my own classes, any student who can write on the level of Shakespeare may feel free to ignore any number of rules, and I won’t notice.  Those who can’t achieve that greatness had better pay attention to good grammar.  This kind of argument is the equivalent of a first-year piano student who points out that some great jazz pianist broke rules.  Breaking rules is not what makes a writer or a musician great, and those who drool in homage over rule-breaking are missing the years of obedience that the great person had to practice.

But look at an example of the conjugated nouns in common use today.  Text is particularly ugly, especially in its attempted past tense form of texted.  There is no need for that word as a verb.  We’ve been sending messages to each other for a long time.  Why do we need to use one word in a lazy way when we aren’t actually doing anything new?  Laziness is exactly the problem.  If I have my telephone in hand and am typing a message, it can take a moment to find the correct word for my action, but it’s my duty to find that right word.  Yes, it takes time to check the dictionary (a good dictionary, not one of the modern permissive examples) for a definition or spelling.  Sometimes that pause is just what is needed to get one’s thoughts in order.  But why is it that those who whine about having to do a little work are listened to?

Contrary to Fry’s comments, I’m not opposed to playfulness, creativity, or variety in language.  I love puns.  I have no fundamental objection to the word ain’t.  (Double negatives do annoy me, though.)  One of the things that I enjoy about the speech of the masters of Southern American English is the rich usage of imagery.  Take a phrase like “finer than frog hair.”  That’s clever.

Since Fry uses Picasso as another example of someone who joyfully broke rules, I’ll use him as well.  What I’m arguing here is that we need Picassos of language, but not Pollocks.  Pablo Picasso lived an exuberant life and created brilliant new art, while Jackson Pollock was a drunk who made what looks like a pile of drop cloths.

There is rightness and wrongness in language, contrary to what Fry claims.  Would he tolerate a gardener who mowed half of his grass and then walked away?  Would he accept a plumber who called having both hot and cold water taps pedantic?  Creativity and sloppiness are not the same thing, and I’d be pleased if the advocates for the lazy would fail to act like the ones whom they praise and not get around to tearing down the English language.

I Never Thought I’d. . .

The winner of the “I Never Thought I’d. . .” contest in Real Simple magazine has been revealed, and lo! it is not I.  For those of my readers not familiar with this, writers were invited to submit an essay on the subject of a life change that they never thought would have happened.  The winner gets $3,000 (I could have used that), a trip to New York to have lunch with the editors (pass), and tickets to a Broadway play (myeh. . .).  Since I didn’t win, I feel free to point out that the name of the magazine, Real Simple, is grammatically incorrect.  It ought to be Really Simple, since the first word is an adverb that modifies the adjective that is the second word.  Of course, I insist on simplicity in language wherever it’s possible, so I’d ask the editors to call the magazine Simple.  But obviously, they don’t listen to me.

At any rate, for the benefit of my readers, here’s my essay.  Enjoy:

I Never Thought I’d. . . Teach English

Sitting in the back of the room in Expository Writing, I never imagined that one day I would teach the same subjects to students just like me. The class met on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so it was an hour and a half long, an hour and a half of listening to the one English teacher in the world who by his own admission did not want to be a poet. He read passages out of Thoreau and Annie Dillard that were filled with awe and precise description, then told us to write mechanical, five-paragraph essays. This was not the man that I wanted to be.

It wasn’t that this professor and his class were the deciding vote anyway. In my years of schooling, I had learned that the teaching of English was not a solid, manly enterprise. My English teachers in high school had all been women, except for one male flower child who was in an advanced state of wilt, and all they ever talked about were poems and feelings.

When they weren’t laboring over the niceties of commas and the finer points of fragments, that is. Oh, but there were a few other things that they taught me. I learned that Emily Dickinson was born in a room in Amherst, Massachusetts and never left it, Walt Whitman didn’t know how to count metrical feet, and Ian Fleming was not a writer worthy of my attention. A thesis statement must be the last sentence of the first paragraph, and it must be underlined. Language and literature is summed up in pairs of right/wrong answers—can/may, lay/lie, your/you’re, and so forth—except when we’re considering the fallacy of the false dilemma.

I admit that I wasn’t paying careful attention, though. Part of my mind was stuck on the usual teenage worries. Does that girl like me? Will my parents let me grow up? Is “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2” the definitive song about education? Humming that song under my breath did get me through my senior year.

But that was only a part of what was occupying my thoughts. At that age, when I knew how everything worked but was in too much of a hurry to write down the explanation, I had my life planned out. I was going to be a physicist. I didn’t want to build a better bomb, although that fallback position was what I called job security. My goal was to invent warp drive. I was going to discover the Grand Unified Theory, collect my Nobel Prize, and work out the details of a starship’s engine long before my hairstyle had to change from Kirk’s to Picard’s.

Sadly, there was one small cloud on the horizon of my sunny plan: mathematics.

I had never been a brilliant student in that subject. Geometry and I got on as best friends ought to do, and I admired algebra. Long division, however, was an operation that I loathed. The reasoning behind the numbers made sense, and I particularly enjoyed it when I could see some bit of cleverness. What I didn’t like was interminable calculation. I was happy to do proofs all day long, but give me a pile of arithmetic, and I became rebellious.

I hung on until Differential Equations, the class after Calculus III. This was the summation of everything that I hated about mathematics. There were pages and pages of minute figuring, all with the purpose of finding the equation of the line through a set of data points. It was important—without this technique, there is no modern physics—but I just didn’t get it.

Now what was I to do? I could struggle on for years without ever gaining fluency. I had to accept that while I was in love with science, I didn’t speak her native language, so she just wanted to be friends.

I did like the humanities. Despite the best efforts of my English teachers, I enjoyed reading, so long as I chose what I read. History, that study of human conflict and achievement, fascinated me.

When I realized that the study of letters had something in common with geometry, I was hooked. I found, thanks to the prodding by my professors, that the text was something to be analyzed. It did not have to be only the subject of a game of Trivial Pursuit. How it made me feel was not nearly as important as what I could prove from the writing. Why does Hamlet hesitate? Why does Achilles allow Priam to recover the body of his son? These were questions that could be answered with evidence and reasoning.

So the humanities became my rebound relationship. I learned that grammar is not arbitrary; its rules made sense when I saw it being used by good writers, and those writers form a chain of influence that links generations of ideas together. Strangest of all, I saw that the best writing is beautiful.

I don’t know why I hadn’t understood this before. I had read Watership Down in sixth grade and contemplated its descriptive passages with astonishment. Shakespeare’s soliloquies wove complex thoughts into elegance. Could a relationship stand on beauty at the core?

Of course it could. The key to sustaining it was to be in love and share that emotion with others. After earning a Master’s degree in liberal arts, I found a job teaching English at a local community college. I tutored algebra students on the side. Call that a dalliance with an old love. As an adjunct instructor, I take what I can get. Still, living with English has been a rewarding relationship, if rocky at times. I eschew multiple choice or true/false testing, having promised myself that I would not repeat the errors of my teachers. (I’ve likely made a whole set of my own errors, but that’s inevitable.) My favorite moments are when I see a student learn how to join words together to create magnificence or discover the pleasure that is to be had in reading.

Teaching English has been a Bohemian marriage for me, and I have no regrets. Besides, as I work to get my science fiction writing published, I find that as long as the material is written in English, it’s fair game for me to write and talk about. My students are alarmed at times when I use a mathematical illustration to explain a point of literature, but perhaps that will awaken them to this revelation that I have that anything can be the subject of beautiful treatment.

Comments, Please!

In a response to my article on Somali pirates, I received the following comment:

“Alan stewart says:

2011/03/04 at 01:07

Your remarkable lack of knowledge is surpassed only by your baboonish sense of your own bravery. It might be best if you confined your opinions to whether coors light beats bud.”

My policy about comments has always been that anything that isn’t obviously spam (thank you, Akismet) will be accepted, and I’m not changing just because of an idiotic remark.  I didn’t promise not to lambaste the same.

The problem with the comment that I quoted is that it tells me nothing about what the writer objects to, other than me.  He claims that I lack knowledge.  I’m sure that I do on many subjects.  I tend not to write about such matters.  If Mr. stewart believes that I’m missing information, he ought to tell me specifically what it is.  Otherwise, the comment is useless.

I’m not being merely defensive here.  stewart’s comment has taught me nothing.  I have not been convinced of the error of my ways.  He did not carry the conversation forward; he shut it down between the two of us.  As such, I fail to understand why he commented in the first place, other than as a schoolyard taunt.

Of course, I know that my regular readers have much more class, and I’m grateful to you.  Anyone who wishes to dispute me is free to do so without editing, but I do hope that such comments will show detail and good reasoning.

If you’re curious, here is my response:

“Greg Camp says:

2011/03/04 at 04:55

Rather than toss insults, would you care to explain your objections? It’s easy to accuse someone of lacking knowledge. It’s more difficult to list the facts that appear to be missing. You knew what a letter of marque is, it seems, and I know what it means. That’s an item of shared knowledge. But will you really begrudge me a bit of bravado, especially as an aside at the end of the article?

Regarding beer, if it must be Budweiser, I’ll take the real one, made in the town of Budweise in the Czech Republic. America’s most popular brews were best described by Monty Python–like sex in a canoe: fucking close to water. My choice when I can get it is a British ale, Fuller’s ESB, for example.

By the way, since they’re proper nouns, Bud and Coors need to be capitalized.”

I hope that I wasn’t being peevish in correcting his slovenly use of capital letters.

So Many, I Feel Sick!

In conversation and on the radio, I heard the following words misused: data and nauseous. Both of those are good words, but only when used in the right way.  Data is a plural noun.  One speaks of “these data” or “the data are.”  The singular is datumNauseous means a characteristic that makes us sick.  If I say, “I feel nauseous,” I mean that I think that I make others ill.  The correct word here is nauseated.  (I wrote about this on my English quiz many months ago.)

While we’re on the subject of language, what’s going on with all of the conjugating of nouns that I hear lately.  I heard an interview with someone who works on producing a play the other day.  This slovenly speaker talking about the “maintenancing” of the sets.  Those of us who pay attention to our words wonder why he didn’t just say maintaining.  But this has been going on for a long time, I suppose.  Strunk and White deplored moisturizing, noting that moistening meant the same thing.

There are days that drive an English teacher to drink.  Scotch, anyone?

Let’s Talk Apostrophes, Y’all

On my drive home today, I got stuck behind a truck owned by some business called Company Vac’s.  Apparently, what was on offer is a cleaning service.  (I don’t recall the specific name, but this isn’t a unique problem.)  When I was able to restrain my fury at this schlep delaying traffic in the left lane, I spewed vitriol about the stupidity of the person who painted Vac’s on the truck without identifying what belonged to Vac, whoever he is.

The problem here was the incorrect use of the apostrophe.  With a few exceptions (about which I am intolerant), this mark of punctuation does not indicate plurals.  What does it signify?  For the most part, only two things, contraction or possession.

First, consider contractions.  As illustrated in the title of this article, apostrophes indicate when letters are being left out.  Let’s is let us, and y’all is you all.  (Note that the contraction there is not ya’ll, since no letters get left out of all.)  Many get into trouble with it’s.  This looks like a possessive, but it means it is.

Now for possession.  We have to dispose of the possessive pronouns, his, its, yours, and so forth.  Those do not use the apostrophe.  But if I want to talk about a book that belongs to John, I use John’s.  Isn’t (is not) that simple?  What if James wants his own book?  Then it would be James’s.  The rule here is that ‘s gets added to any singular noun to indicate belonging.  The s at the end of James is not a marker for plural.  (We don’t have a multiplicity of Jame.)  Some style manuals tell us that with names from the ancient world, Jesus, Achilles, etc., we don’t follow the rule, but that makes no sense.  Grammatically, and perhaps theologically, we do not have more than one Jesus, so if it’s (it is) his, it’s (it is) Jesus’s.  (There are boys aplenty named Joshua in English and Jesus in Spanish, but they have to achieve greatness on their own.)  Achilles was his own man and warrior and deserves to be recognized in the singular.  When talking about his shield, call it Achilles’s.

When more than one owns something, we get into more trouble, and I’m (I am) not referring to jealousy.  Consider my students.  They frequently make errors with apostrophes, so the errors are the students’.  Since the word students is plural because of the s on the end, to mark possession, we just add an apostrophe.  Confusion arises when the word is plural without an sMen, for example.  Belonging to a man or to men looks the same:  man’s or men’s.  Children’s toys may get lost in one child’s room.  But that’s (that is) not too bad.

In summary, use an apostrophe when it marks letters left out.  Use ‘s at the end of a singular noun or a plural noun that does not end in s to indicate possession.  Attach an to the final s of a plural word for the same purpose.  That’s (that is) it.

Well, almost.  What if we want to talk about the previous decade?  Some write 90’s, while others use 90s.  (We do talk about the events of ’98, but that’s [that is] a case of leaving out some numbers.)  In a city, one expects to find many automatic teller machines, so would that be ATM’s or ATMs?  For the most part, I see no need to put an apostrophe there.  There’s (there is) neither contraction nor possession, so use 90s and ATMs.  In the limited situation in which we must discuss a letter–s, for example–I suppose that it’s (it is) acceptable to use an apostrophe.  S’s might need something to show that we’re (we are) not talking about a doubled ess sound, but many cases of the particular letter.

May I hope that my dear readers’ writing will now demonstrate the correct usage of the apostrophe?  We’ll (we shall) see.

Ready, Aim, Let Fly

I do wish that speakers of the English language would educate themselves in their own tongue.  Sloppy usage is inexcusable.  Some will tell me that language inevitably changes and that I just have to accept this, but that attitude claims that human beings are incapable of improvement, and I refuse to sink into despair.

The laziness that I’m attacking today refers to the usage of the word spitSpit, used as a verb, is in present tense.  The correct past tense of the verb is spat.  The same, if I may be indelicate, is true for shit.  It’s past tense is shat.

Now go in good health, and spread bodily fluids correctly.

To Whom It May Concern

Reader Sara Kuhlman–the writer of this site: –enquired about the correct usage of who and whom.   (She gets extra credit for suggesting an article, by the way.  Those of you looking for points ought to do the same.)  Here begins the lesson.

This question illustrates something that used to be fundamental to the structure of English, just as it was with Latin and still is with German:  case endings.  As I learned back when I took Linguistics in college (sometime around the sack of Lindisfarne), the following sentences are different because of the order of the words:

The dog bites the man.

The man bites the dog.

Modern English tells us what grammatical function a word performs generally by its position in the sentence.  English is a Subect Verb Object language, as are many modern Indo-European languages.  In Old English or Latin, on the other hand, word order didn’t indicate grammatical function.  That was shown by the endings of the words.  Thus:

Canis virum mordet.

Vir canem mordet.

Latin tends to put the verb at the end of the sentence and the subject at the beginning.  The object and other words fit somewhere in between.  But that’s not necessary, depending on the emphasis.  Canis is the subject of the first sentence because it ends in -is.  It’s in the accusative case (the receiver of the action) in the second sentence, as indicated by -em.

For a number of reasons that would take us into an excess of digression, English lost most of its case endings.  (If you’re curious, it involved the Vikings, as many good things do.)  These days, we have plural markers and possessives, both greatly simplified.  (If you don’t believe that, study some Latin.)  Case endings are the most obvious with pronouns.  Children get them confused, but eventually they figure out that I is the subject pronoun.  Remember the “me so horny” line from Full Metal Jacket?  That’s creepy precisely because it makes the prostitute seem like a child.

So what about who and whom?  One way to simplify the question is to replace who with he and whom with him.  (I’m using the masculine pronoun because the endings match nicely.)  Consider the following:

Who is at the door?

He is at the door.

In each case, the pronoun is the subject of the sentence.  Now for a pair of examples with pronouns as objects of prepositions:

You gave it to whom?

I gave it to him.

In each case, the pronouns are indirect objects.  Those are easy.  Try these two:

She kissed whom?

She kissed him.

Now we reach a situation in which a lot of speakers of English would use who.  “She kissed who?”  That doesn’t sound wrong to many.  But think about this one:  She kissed he.  That’s just wrong and for the same reason.  In the movie, Sleuth, Andrew Wyke asked Milo Tindle, “Whom did you kill?”  Tindle sneers at Wyke’s correct usage.  Yes, being correct gets us laughed at, but in moments like that, we must consider the source.

But what about more difficult cases (pardon the pun)?  All right, here’s one:

I objected to the candidate who/whom he supported.

In that situation, whom is correct.  He supported him, not he.  Oh, but it’s not always pretty:

I’ll give an A to whoever/whomever deserves it.

I wrote that when the pronoun is the object of the preposition, we use whom.  But here, every word after to is collectively the object.  In this sentence, he deserves it, so whoever is correct.

All right, now for just a little bit more.  Try this:

Billybob called anyone who/whom he thought had some beer.

That one’s being pesty.  He thought whom seems the obvious answer to a lot of people, but drop he thought out of the sentence, and you’ll see that pronoun is the subject of the verb had, so who is correct.  But let’s try another sentence:

Billybob was grateful to the ones who/whom he had called.

In this sentence, the pronoun in question is not the subject of the verb.  It’s the receiver of the action.  That being the case, whom is the right pronoun.

There now, doesn’t that make everything clear?  The key is the pronoun substitution–he for who and him for whom.  That will get you through the night most of the time.  In other situations, this kind of confusion is a good argument for writing your sentences within your reach.

Use Your Comma Sense

Have a look at the following sentence:

The day is finally over and I am ready for bed.

Notice anything wrong with it?  Here we have two independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction.  Ah, you’re telling me that the problem is a proliferation of grammatical terms.  Let’s dispose of coordinating conjunctions first.  The list is simple:  and, but, or, nor, for, so, yet.  There, that was easy, just those seven words.  Now what do they do?

Join sentences, that’s what.  “The day is finally over,” could stand by itself, as could “I am ready for bed.”  An independent clause is something that could be a sentence if it were by itself.  In the first clause, “day” is the noun whose condition is asserted by “is.”  The same happens with “I” and “am” in the second clause.  Since in each case we have a subject and a verb that agree, there are two independent clauses joined by “and.”  This means that there must be a comma after “over.”

That sentence had state of being verbs.  Now let’s try some action:

The clock chimed, and I shook from fright.

What chimed?  The clock.  Who shook?  I did.  Again, we have subjects and verbs in agreement, so “The clock chimed” and “I shook from fright” are independent clauses.  They could each stand alone.  That’s the reason for the comma after “chimed.”

Now if you recall the previous lesson on semicolons, you’ll realize that the sentence could have been written, “The clock chimed; I shook from fright.”  I prefer it with the comma and conjunction, though.  The second half is the result of the first, not just a coincidental event.

How about this one?

The dog ran over and barked.

Notice that there’s no comma before “and” in that sentence.  Why not?  “Dog” is the subject of both “ran” and “barked,” so no comma goes in between.  Do not separate subjects from their verbs, except in cases like this:

The dog ran over, crossing a rushing stream, and barked.

In that case, “crossing a rushing stream” could be left out of the sentence, so it’s separated off by commas before and after it.

Everything make sense now?  Try this, if you’re ready:

Go to sleep and dream of me.

That one is also wrong.  The rule is that two independent clauses joined by a conjunction must have a comma in between.  “Go to sleep” and “dream of me” are just such clauses.  The verbs, “go” and “dream,” do have subjects, even though they aren’t stated.  The implied subject is “you.”

Perhaps that’s enough for now, as I don’t want to make my readers, um, dare I write it, commatose.