Or just those who might be curious. Welcome to the grammarNOW! Tips blog. Here you’ll find my occasional musings on grammar, interesting tidbuts and humor I find in the language (yes, Virginia, there are funny things about grammar!), and probably most important: grammar tips! A new year deserves a new start for grammarNOW! Tips, which have been languishing for quite a while as I tried to find the best method for writing and delivering them to the thousands (yes!) of people currently signed up to receive the Tip of the Week.
For those who have been signed up for a week or for years to receive the grammarNOW! Tip of the Week, you’ll now find it here. You can register to receive a notice of each week’s posting or have it delivered by RSS feed, if you prefer. I apologize, slightly, that we’ll be starting over with “a,” because the Tips have been rewritten and redesigned to be more useful. Please feel free to use this new format to respond to the Tips—a process you’ve never had the ability to enjoy before. I’m excited to see where such conversations take us.
Please send in your suggestions for ideas you’d like to see covered in the Tips or grammar and language discussions you’d like to pursue.
This is my first blog, so bear with me. I’ll get better at this as we go along. For now, check out the Tips and other posts I’ve managed so far. And please, SAY SOMETHING! Join the conversation.
I hope I am not a pedant, but even those who are must enjoy this artful commentary:
Language should be enjoyable. There are circumstances that call for correctness and others that call for pleasure. Being grammatically wrong can be fun if it is intentional. So what’s “wrong”? There are basic grammatical rules for communication that should be adhered to in order to be understood and that keep one from being thought of as illiterate or unintelligent. Then there are more specific rules that keep writing or speaking from being unclear or unpleasant as a result of confusion. These are the “rights” and “wrongs” of grammar.
It is important to know the difference between grammar and style, but that’s another post. Stay tuned, and meanwhile, enjoy your language.
So . . .
Interviewer: How did you come up with this amazing invention?
Inventor: So I put two paperclips together and . . . .
How many sentences do you hear beginning with the conjunction “so”? Far too many. As Geoff Nunberg of NPR writes, this little word usually ” introduces some background qualification that the question calls out for . . . ,” the backstory the speaker or writer feels compelled to give in order to answer the question. Another post on NPR in reply to a reader question speculates “that the word ‘so’ generally functions as a better verbal pause than ‘um’ while an interviewee may be considering how to phrase their response to a question.”
While I do not think that “um” is an effective (not to say useful) verbal pause, I disagree that “so” functions better. In what way? How is “so” better? It has no more meaning than “um.” Nevertheless, it does have some usefulness: “So is not being used just to fill a pause, it seems, but as a tool for conversation management” (Dictionary.com). I will concede that it is useful for bringing the conversation back to a previous direction. Otherwise, it is an irritating verbal tic picked up from all the usages one hears without discerning whether to perpetuate them.
“So” can be properly used as a conjunction within a sentence to connect thoughts that need connecting, but I highly dislike its use as a sentence starter, and I sincerely hope this trend doesn’t stick.
Agreement: compound subjects and their verb
Compounding involves having more than one (subject, verb, object, etc.). If you have a compound subject, all subjects would refer to the same verb. For example (subjects underlined):
Cool breezes, blooming flowers, and warmer temperatures must mean that spring is on the way.
A compound subject almost always takes a plural verb, but sometimes, phrases become singular to our ear, or we sense that they are a unit, especially when the noun they refer to is singular:
Peanut butter and jelly is my favorite sandwich. (The subject complement, sandwich, is singular, so the compound subject peanut butter and jelly is singular.)
Some abstract subjects should be treated as singular if they are commonly considered a conceptual unit:
Peace and quiet is rare in this office.
When a compound subject linked by “and” is modified by “every” or “each,” the verb is singular:
Each boy and girl is to memorize a poem.
When a compound subject is joined by “or,” “neither…nor,” or “either…or” the verb should agree with the subject closest to it.
One or more rings were stolen from her jewelry box.
My dad or my mom drives me to school.
When you begin a sentence with a verb and the subjects follow, decide whether you have one or multiple subjects and make the verb agree:
Enclosed are a resume and letters of reference.
When the verb follows a subject placeholder like “there,” and then the “real” compound subjects follow the verb, it isn’t so simple. I would use what sounds natural, and not use an awkward verb because it may follow a “correct” rule. This is considered “notional agreement” when the number of the verb is affected by the noun closest to it.
Remember that a regular plural verb does NOT end in /s/, while a singular verb often does (just the opposite of nouns).
And/But… to begin a sentence
Using either of these conjunctions to begin a sentence is generally considered unacceptable formal English, but even that prohibition is lessening. You will find it everywhere in fiction and in much other writing, including some academic articles. It is a stylistic choice that should be made rarely and very carefully, keeping the audience’s preferences in mind. Here is what Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage has to say about it:
Everybody agrees that it’s all right to begin a sentence with an *and,* and nearly everybody admits to having been taught at some past time that the practice was wrong. Most of us think the prohibition goes back to our early school days. Bailey 1984 points out that the prohibition is probably meant to correct the tendency of children to string together independent clauses or simple declarative sentences with “ands”:
“We got in the car and we went to the movie and I bought some popcorn and . . .”
As children grow older and master the more sophisticated technique of subordinating clauses, the prohibition of “and” becomes unnecessary. But apparently our teachers fail to tell us when we may forget about the prohibition. Consequently, many of us go through life thinking it wrong to begin a sentence with “and.”
“Many of us were taught that no sentence should begin with ‘but.’ If that’s what you learned, unlearn it; there is no stronger word at the start. It announces total contrast with what has gone before, and the reader is primed for the change” (Zinsser 1976).
Everybody who mentions this question agrees with Zinsser. The only generally expressed warning is not [emphasis mine] to follow the “but” with a comma, as in this example:
“But, hasty, ill-considered and emotional prohibitions can seriously threaten individual industries” (Annual Report, Owens-Illinois, 1970).
Sometimes it is acceptable and even effective to begin with conjunctions. You may have been told never to begin with “and” or “but,” but if you really want to emphasize the added information, and your text is not too formal, you can do it. Just avoid that comma.
In his blog of Feb. 15, regarding the novel Tribulation Force, Slacktivist bemoans absent editing. In particular, one example of a comma in this novel suggests a meaning completely opposite the author’s intent. Slactivist quotes:
Rayford watched the news and was certain Chloe had been correct. It had indeed been Buck Williams, not more than 30 feet from the witnesses and even closer to the gunman, who was now little more than charred bones on the pavement.
And then he goes on to comment:
Commas can be tricky. The sentences that follow the ones above make it clear that Jerry Jenkins didn’t mean to say, “It had indeed been Buck Williams . . . who was now little more than charred bones on the pavement.” What he meant to say was pretty much the opposite—that Rayford realized Buck hadn’t gotten charred:
Israeli television stayed with the images longer, and after watching the drama a few times, Rayford was able to take his eyes from the fire-breathing witnesses and watch the edge of the screen. Buck rose quickly and helped the dark-suited man next to him. Neither appeared hurt.
This is why re-reading what one has written, and then rewriting to clear up ambiguities, is part of most novelists’ approach. But Jenkins isn’t like most novelists and Tyndale House isn’t like most publishers. Jenkins first draft is his final draft, and Tyndale is happy to forward that manuscript along to readers. Other books arrive in stores and libraries pre-read, but not this one. When you read Tribulation Force all the way through, you get to experience the thrill of knowing that you’ve just accomplished something the authors themselves have never done.
The downside of this, unfortunately, is that you also have to supply the work of mentally rewriting the sentences Jenkins never bothered to revisit himself. “It had indeed been Buck Williams, not more than 30 feet from the witnesses and even closer to the charred bones on the pavement where the gunman had stood.” Much better. (But then again if the authors had re-read this passage, or if it had been read by a capable editor, then someone likely would have crossed out the whole page seeing as it only rehashes a bunch of stuff readers just finished reading.)
Everyone needs a copyeditor. The best writers—the best coyeditors—need copyeditors. In a shameless plug for my own service, see what I offer at grammarnow.com. Let me help you avoid being the subject of a critical blogger.
Articles are sometimes the most difficult thing about English, especially for non-native speakers. Here are some basic guidelines:
Use the when you want to be specific about a noun; use a when you want a more general reference.
Compare: the president (the one we both know I’m referring to) or a president (any president, no one in particular).
You would rarely use a before a proper noun because the name itself identifies it very specifically. For example, you would not say, May I introduce you to a Tom Selleck?
You would, however, use the when you want to emphasize that the proper noun is the one everyone thinks of when they hear the name. For example, I once received an email from someone named Gary Larson. I had to ask, “Are you _the_ Gary Larson?” He was not the comic artist, but he does a very useful writing site at http://home.comcast.net/~garbl/.
There is the rare time when you might want to use a in a way such as this: He was in touch with a Dr. Kevorkian, but I don’t know why. Obviously, the speaker does not know the doctor’s reputation but expects that the name would have prominence in some circles.
There are many excellent online sources for this very subject; here’s one I like: http://www.ccp.rpi.edu/resources/handouts/nnes-esl-students/article-usage/.
Not at the end of a sentence that starts with Where, I hope!
Where are you at? is redundant. Both where and at ask the same location information, so the question should just be Where are you?
I know this usage is ubiquitous, among all ages and any other group distinctions you care to make. That doesn’t make it grammatical. I’m also aware that it has a long history. That still doesn’t make it grammatical.
Yes, we use informal grammar all the time (I won’t criticize your ain’t), but if you’re going to use wrong constructions, do so intentionally, not accidentally.
Of course, my criticism of at ending a sentence that begins with Where does not apply to one that begins with What.
What are you looking at? is just fine and should not be awkwardly manipulated to read At what are you looking? just to satisfy some pedant’s misinformed “rule” about not ending a sentence with a preposition. (See my Tip on that eventually.)
The next time you’re tempted to ask Where are you at?—please don’t! Just ask Where are you? instead.
If I’ve managed to stop just one usage, I’ll consider this a successful post. Maybe it will catch on.
First, the common misspelling “alot” is not a word. When you mean a great deal or much, the correct spelling is “a lot”: two words. Examples:
- Valentine’s Day is coming, and I plan to eat a lot of chocolate.
- A lot of the time, I prefer to use “most” rather than “a lot.”
- It shouldn’t take a lot of examples for you to get this right.
There is a word that is spelled with two lls, and it is allot. It means “to give out, set aside, or assign.” It is NOT what you mean when you write alot.
The phrase a lot is overused and should be reserved for informal writing or speech. Try for a more specific word choice in formal writing.
Stephen Fry is widely known for his kinetic typography. I particularly enjoy this piece on language, in which he discusses the “rightness” and “wrongness” of grammatical usages and attitudes toward language use. It’s thought provoking and entertaining—fun to watch.
First read the cartoon Candorville: Scare Quotes.
What are “scare quotes?” you ask. They’re the quotation marks people use to call attention to a word or phrase. Unfortunately, 99 times out of 100 they’re misused, causing the writer to look foolish or worse (stupid) or causing the message to become funny rather than achieve its probably serious intent. For some laughs, visit these sites, whose collections of misused quotation marks are just a few great examples of unintentional grammatical humor: