Sunday, August 2, 2009

"'Til there Was You"

Remember this song by such as Anita Bryant and the Beatles? The title seems innocuous enough, but what's the subject of this clause? "You," right? The verb must be plural, ok? Then shouldn't the title be, "'Til there Were You"? I haven't been able to find anyone who disputes such logic, but the new title surely sounds weird. Oh, as an aside, "'til" is an abbreviation for "until." I don't care for the spelling "till," which seems to have little to do with "until."

"I Gotta Be Me"

The famous Sammy Davis, Jr., song title is safe from my wrath by way of poetic license. How, though, did we come to say such in everyday conversation? "I must . . ." became "I have to . . . ," which dissolved into "I've got to . . . ," which fell to "I got to . . . ," that slid into "I gotta . . . ." I'll be honest; I always believed that "I have to . . ." was fine. Literally, though, what does "I have to . . ." mean? Probably nothing really. Now "I've got . . ." to me is a convoluted processing of "I have . . . ," which is a simple, straightforward indication of possession. "I got . . ." means that I received or picked up, not that I currently possess. Ok, so what is the best grammatical version of "I Gotta Be Me"? A college English teacher once quickly responded to my question: say, "I Must Be Myself." Bad song title, excellent grammar!

Monday, July 6, 2009


It should be fairly elementary in most cases to get it right concerning "I," "me," "he," "him," "she," "her," "they," and "them." Weren't we always taught to use the one that would sound right if the partner word were left out? Example: "Heather and I are going to the grocery." "I am going to the grocery." Ok, that was too easy. How about, "Jay is going to the grocery with Heather and me"? The test: "Jay is going to the grocery with me."

Now let's look at some slightly more difficult situations. "I don't know who is going," but, "I don't know whom he is going with" (or "I don't know with whom he is going). Reduce such situations to the clauses that the pronouns are immediately parts of. ". . . Who is going," but, ". . . with whom he is going." If you're not much into "whom," substitute, say, "him" for "whom" and "he" for "who." Thus "I don't know whom she killed" can be analyzed, ". . . she killed him (not he)"; so it's not, "I don't know who she killed." Further, "Whom she killed is lying in the closet." Again "she killed he" is clearly wrong; likewise "who," strictly speaking, is incorrect. Try this one, "Ben is the one who (or whom?) I thought did it." "I thought" is unnecessary or parenthetical; leave it out and test: "Ben is the one who did it." That's right, "I thought he did it," certainly not "I thought him did it."

Most of us know to answer the phone request, "I'd like to speak with Tom," with "This is he." On the other hand, when the police coming looking for Jake, folks usually say, "That's him!" Be consistent. The construction is the same. Say, "That's he!" Oh, yeah, you'll probably shake up the policemen; but, hey, this is a grammar discussion, not a criminology lesson.

Pet Peeve #1

There is a troublesome construction that I happened to notice while I was in high school. Many years later my thoughts on the matter were confirmed and well explained by a local writer in his grammar column. As soon as I hear something to the effect of, "He's one of those men who . . . ," I am prepared for the mistake that mainly for its frequency is my #1 pet peeve. Don't say, "He's one of those men that likes blondes." It should be, "He's one of those men that like blondes." The word "men" tells virtually nothing until it is qualified, that is, explained. In order to qualify a plural, a plural verb must be used: ". . . men that like blondes." Another way to see such a construction clearly is to flip it around: "Of those men that like blondes, he's one." Note the following: "My father is one of the men who are laying bricks." That sentence is essentially the same as, "One of the men who are laying bricks is my father."

Rarely you will run into a situation like this one: "One of those men, who, by the way, is the tallest, is my father." Note how commas separate a parenthetical or unnecessary clause therein. The writer keeps the reader from thinking that all the men are being described by setting off the height information with commas.

Pet Peeve #2

I shall continue to post from time to time, but for now let's look at my #2 pet peeve in grammar. The problem involves a three-letter word--"nor." In my many years I've never learned or seen a reason to use "nor" except for one situation: "Nor" is to be employed with "neither." Period! The end. Case closed. Do not use "nor" with "not," "never," or any negative other than "neither." If you do, you're creating what we used to call one and a half negatives. "Neither . . . nor" we always referred to as correlative conjunctions. Wrong: "I can't read nor write." Correct: "I can't read or write." Also correct: "I can neither read nor write." Wrong: "Never talk during church nor leave the ringer of your cellphone on while you're in the chapel." Substitute "or" for "nor." Does the sentence sound right now? If so, "nor" can't be correct because "nor" and "or" are essentially opposites, ok? Speaking of church, the scriptures use the word "nor" constantly. Let's face it, the scriptures often warn us of what we shouldn't do. There are negatives throughout. "Nor" is strewn out through the chapters, and unfortunately it is repeatedly improperly used. I have seen certain segments that are consistently properly written. Most of the prophets/writers/translators, however, have major trouble with "nor."

Continuing, don't write, "You are not leaving the house while I'm gone, nor do I want you to turn on the television!" Correct: "You are not leaving the house while I'm gone; neither do I want you to turn on the television!" Understand that "neither" means "not either" and may be used alone (without "nor"). Hence, the correct version means, "You are not leaving the house while I'm gone; I do not want you to turn on the television either." That version is exactly what is meant to be conveyed. Again, the incorrect version at the beginning of this paragraph combines "not" and "nor" and thus creates that one and a half negative situation again.

In summary, "nor" does not properly substitute for "neither" but should be used only in conjunction with "neither." If there's no "neither," don't introduce "nor." Further, never substitute "nor" for "or." They're opposites!

Badly Hurt

A common error related to double negatives can be seen in the following: "Kevin was badly hurt in the car accident." If something is done badly, it's not done well. Strictly speaking, the quoted sentence indicates that Kevin was hurt but not effectively or well. Try something like ". . . severely hurt . . . ." Likewise substitute, "extremely upsetting" for "terribly upsetting." Not "horribly scarred," but, for example, "intensely scarred."

Monday, June 29, 2009


Which should you say? Everyone brought his notebook;
Everyone brought her notebook;
Everyone brought his or her notebook;
Everyone brought their notebook;
Everyone brought their notebooks.
Folks, this point is controversial and rather highly emotionally charged. Of the choices, I prefer the first. With the push of the ERA, I might be in for some trouble from the ladies. The first would certainly be appropriate at an all-boys school. Likewise, the second would work for an exclusively female institution or group. I don't find the third to be wrong, but it sounds stuffy. I don't care for the fourth entry because the number changes from singular to plural. The fifth stresses the confusion, because it sounds as though each had several notebooks. Again, I like the generic use of "his" in this situation. I suggest, however, a practical solution that can often be employed in the above situation. Say, "All brought their notebooks." That's right--use the consistent plural when possible. I do realize that the last example opens itself to the thought that some students did indeed possess more than one notebook, but generally there should be no harm in that allowance.

It's its Mother

When I was in the third grade, I walked up to my teacher and asked her the distinction between "it's" and "its." She explained that "it's" means "it is" and "its" is the possessive of "it." Little did I know how much trouble such tiny words would cause! Suppose there's a kitten and someone asks you about a nearby cat. You might answer, "It's its mother," meaning the cat is the kitten's mother. It shouldn't be hard to remember which is which. You wouldn't write "hi's" for "his," "her's" for "hers," "our's" for "ours," or "their's" for "theirs," would you? At the car tag office today I viewed a notice that stated, "This office close's at 3:15 p.m." Further, there was something like, "Person's in line at that time will be served." The worst error, though, because of the otherwise historic and beautiful nature of the piece, I found at the bottom of a painting of a 1942 locomotive scene. The caption read something like, "The train covered it's tracks . . ." It broke my heart to see a fine framed work with a mistake like that. Here's hoping you'll always do better!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009


They say that math is simply logic with numbers. Grammar, as I hope I often illustrate, is based on logic. Communication encompasses making one's ideas understood and as clear as possible. A topic that falls somewhat into various of these categories is percentages. In particular, let's suppose the Tigers have won 15 and lost 10, and the Orioles are 16-11. Which is better? No pencil or calculator, please! The Orioles have played two more games and won half of them. That's not good. They had won 15 of the other 25. Logic and math say they've fallen below the Tigers. Now baseball will report that the two teams are in a virtual tie; that is, neither is behind the other because the win-loss differential is +5 in each case. Percentage-wise, though, we know that the Tigers are ahead of the Orioles. I can't tell you how many times I've seen a team like the Orioles here listed ahead of one like the Tigers. Such a mistake happens especially when the percentages are identical to the standard three decimal places. You and I, however, can easily see--without a calculator--which record is better. When both teams have won more than they've lost, the one that's played fewer games will have the better percentage if the win-loss differential is the same. On the other hand, if the win-loss differential is the same but negative, the one that's played more will have the better percentage. Example: Pirates 10-15, Astros 11-16. The Astros have won half their two extra games and that's better than they had been doing; so the Astros have the better percentage.

Thursday, June 4, 2009


On the '80's and '90's television show DESIGNING WOMEN, a character was referred to as the uppity kind that uses "impact" as a verb. Yes, current dictionaries do allow for such, and even I will permit verbal usage in situations like this: "The meteor impacted the uninhabited planet." I see no reason to use "impact" as a verb in common parlance like, "I expect the recent overseas disasters to impact the American economy." We've long possessed a perfectly good word to handle the meaning here. Say, ". . . affect the American economy." You may, of course, opt for, ". . . have an impact on the American economy." Why, though, create a substitute for a simple word like "affect"? My sister suggested that some have problems with the differences between "affect" and "effect." In fact, I recently noticed "effect" incorrectly employed for "affect." For the current topic, just remember that if you are tempted to try "impact," go with "affect."

Convoluted Sports Phrasing

If you were to listen to sportscasts of the fifties, I feel safe to bet that you would never hear the phrases that we'll discuss here. The first is "on the night." Example: "Jackson has thirty points on the night." How can anything be "on a night"? "Tonight," "during the night," and "for the night" sound right and make sense. "Jackson has thirty points in the game" tells the story, too. I think one of the reasons that "on the night" has come into vogue is that with sports reports progressing continuously on worldwide broadcasts through multiple time zones, networks are afraid to announce "tonight" or "last night," since the listener may be confused when the event happened. Note, though, that "during the night," "for the night," and "in the game" shouldn't cause any misunderstanding. "On the night" on a live broadcast is convoluted versus simply "tonight." Likewise, don't say, "on the season." Make it, "for the season," "during the season," or most simply, "this season."

We've had some blogs about extra words like "up" in "serve up." How about "early on"? "The Cougars have shown some power early on." Why do we need "on"? If one feels the need to be more specific, he should say exactly what he means: "The Cougars have shown some power early in this game," or ". . . early this season."


This mistake is the easiest to correct. Don't say, "I'll try and get the cheese for you." "And" is not the word that allows you to say what you mean. "I'll try to get the cheese for you," is what you want to say. What will you try? To get the cheese . . .

Friday, May 22, 2009


Let's address the word "none." When I was in school, we were taught to think of "none" as "not one." Clearly a singular verb would have been called for. Example: "None of us is happy." I was never comfortable with that idea. Neither was a grammar expert and columnist in my town. Replace "none" by "not any." Observe: "None of the cake was eaten because none of the guests were hungry." Doesn't that look and sound good? Now grammar does not always work that way, but it surely is nice when it does! In summary, "none" is singular when referring to a singular noun, plural with a plural noun.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Unnecessary Words

Let's address the slight difficulty of extra words. Southerners are said to move and talk relatively slowly. In particular, they, more than some, tend to add unnecessary words. "Serve" becomes "serve up," "cook" similarly shows itself as "cook up," "wipe" is uttered "wipe down," and in blackjack terminology in the casinos, "bust" is yelled "bust out" (often pronounced "bus out," by the way!). Broadcasters seem to be bad about saying, "over in," for "in." Example: "We find some more rain over in Moisture County." At this very moment, a baseball announcer is reporting about games "up in Minnesota." If we know where Minnesota is, "up" isn't needed. If we don't, "up" won't help us much. Not only do some baseball announcers say, "Over in rightfield is John Doe," but they tend to embrace such as, "Early on in the season . . .." It seems as if almost everyone asks, "Where (are) you at?" instead of, "Where are you?" Think, "Less is more"!

Rise Up

This problem is found some in the scriptures. Martin Luther King may be the most famous for this slight mistake. Folks tend to say, "rise up." Can one rise down? How about rise left? I've never noticed a situation that warranted "up" added to "rise."

Monday, May 18, 2009

Improperly Qualified Absolutes

Here is a very unique problem. If you recognize the problem already, I was, as usual, trying to catch your attention. "Unique" means different from any other. If a cobra is different from every other snake, how can it be more so? It is either unique or it isn't. Case closed. Similarly, I recently heard a commercial that boasted that a certain product was the most accurate. Now "accurate" means "correct." That's as good as it gets! Once something is correct, it cannot be improved upon in the exact sense that it is correct. A student enters the right answer but his handwriting is not up to par. Ok, we'll work on his handwriting, but we can't improve upon the actual answer. Continuing, "Our multi-vitamin is more complete," you've probably heard in some form. Again, if it's complete, it can't be more so! Here are some other absolute words to watch out for: round, perfect, invisible, etc. Speaking of "perfect," I shook up my seventh grade English and history teachers when I pointed out this problem in the preamble to the Constitution. You remember, ". . . in order to form a more perfect union . . . ." I hope our founding fathers didn't spend too much time trying to improve upon perfection! The real problem was that the union wasn't perfect. It may have been nearly perfect. It follows that the phrase should have been something to the effect of, ". . . in order to form a more nearly perfect union . . . ."


Here's another redundancy: "Our featured jewelry gives you more value for your money." Uh, as opposed to value for your wife that you were about to trade in for the jewelry to give to your girlfriend? Sorry about that, but value essentially means quality per expenditure. The word "money" is superfluous. Advertisers, promote thus: "Our featured jewelry gives you more value." Also acceptable would be, "Our featured jewelry gives you more for your money."

Reason, Why, Because

The reason why I'm including this problem is because--whoa, Nelly! I don't need all those words! Reason--why--because? They all say the same thing. How about, "The reason I'm including this problem is that I encounter it so often"? Or, "I'm including this problem because I encounter it so often." Fine also is, "Why I'm including this problem is I encounter it so often." Once again, simpler is better.

Saturday, May 16, 2009


This point will be controversial. The word "quality," in my estimation, is first of all a noun and second, a generic word that doesn't express positives (or negatives). Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, tenth edition, allows for "merchandise of quality" to suggest the merchandise is of good quality. Also listed therein is "quality" as an adjective meaning high quality. To me, that's like allowing "number" to mean high number. Keep in mind that dictionaries, to some degree, follow the crowd; that is, they permit usage that has become common, whether right or wrong. For me, "The merchandise is of good quality," is the way to go, not "The merchandise is of quality," or "This is quality merchandise."

Doubt; Care

The construction here has to do with a word like "doubt." To doubt, there must be something specific to doubt. Don't use wishy-washy words like "whether" and "if." Not, "I doubt whether our team will win today," but, "I doubt that our team will win today." Contrast the following: "I wonder whether our team will win today." Further, be careful how you doubt. Recently a college baseball player, after an amazing win of marathon length, exclaimed, "We never doubted we wouldn't win the game." Sorry, but that statement means they were sure they wouldn't win. He should have said, "We never doubted we'd win the game."

A common mistake similar to the last one mentioned involves the construction, "I could care less." That statement indicates that I care some and could lessen the amount I care if I choose. To indicate that I care virtually none at all, I should say, "I couldn't care less." In other words, it would be impossible for me to have a less caring attitude. That's exactly what I'm trying to say.

I Read Where

Folks often say, "I read where . . . ." Unless you are telling specifically where something happened, i.e., "I read where they found the kidnapped girl: Charleston, West Virginia," simply replace "where" by "that." Example: "I read that the kidnapped girl is alive and not severely hurt."

Saturday, May 9, 2009

For Sure

This one's quick and simple. Folks say, "One thing is for sure." All they need is, "One thing is sure." In general, simple is better, shorter is better, and both are more efficient. Now if someone asks, "Are you going to take care of that project?", we often reply, "For sure." "Surely" would be correct as well. The following is common and good, "He doesn't know for sure whether he will join us."

Friday, May 8, 2009

Whether (revisited)

Didn't mean to revive the discussion of "whether" so soon, but I just now heard a sportscaster announce, ". . . he doesn't know whether or not he will . . . or not . . .." Whoa, Nelly. All you need is one "whether." "I don't know whether I'll be able to visit you tomorrow." That's clear as a bell, right? (Ok, I usually avoid cliches like the plague.) No need to throw in "whether or not." The best example I ever heard of what not to say in this context was by a newscaster following a tornado in my area. She reported something to the effect of, "We don't know now whether or not he is living or whether or not he is dead." Sorry for the disastrous reference, but grammatically that line is the literal epitome of overkill!

This and That

Often I hear "by the same token" used when the meaning clearly indicates "on the other hand" is the proper phrase to use. Example: "It's too bad the economy is suffering; on the other hand, we are seeing marketers appeal to our need for frugality with new specials and offers that specifically promote attractive prices." On the other hand, the following is appropriate: "Our son is failing math; by the same token, his English and history grades are nothing to write home about either."

Modifiers: Close Call

Before we start my top 22 issues with the way we talk and write, this issue happened to be on my mind; so I'll address it. Modifiers like adjectives and adverbs should be as close to what they're modifying. Not, as the song title reads, "I only have eyes for you," but, "I have eyes only for you," or, "I have eyes for only you," or "I have eyes for you only." Typically speakers and writers put the emphasized modifier too early. The statement will be most powerful when the modifier is near what it modifies.

P.S.: It humorously occurred to me that some like to look at their significant others, but they don't like to listen to them. Then, perhaps, "I have only eyes for you," might work. Keep in mind that the indication in this last style is also that one doesn't have lips or other body parts for the significant other!


One problem is totally specific to baseball. After decades of saying "51 RBI's," some gurus thought they would change it to "51 RBI." Their reasoning seems to be that RBI can mean runs batted in; so it doesn't need a plural indication. Now announcers waffle back and forth and even pause and slide as they worry about this issue. One was so confused the other day he uttered something like, "He has 6 RBI and 2 home run in this series." I wish they'd worry about other difficulties more than they do. Here's the skinny: If RBI is used, it is an abbreviation like K for strikeout(s). You wouldn't say, "He has 10 K"; it's, "He has 10 K's." (10 K is a footrace, isn't it?) Thus, when the abbreviation for RBI, which means either run batted in or runs batted in, is used, the plural is RBI's. Oh, if you have a problem with the apostrophe, it is appropriate for the plural of numbers, letters, and symbols. If the abbreviation is written with capitals, I accept such as RBIs. Clarity is of utmost importance. Thus the plural of the letter "a" needs to be "a's," not "as." How about, "I made two As, three Bs, one C, and no Ds or Fs"? It appears quite clear to me, although I tend to prefer the use of apostrophes here.

As a footnote to the RBI discussion, our newspaper uses singular-looking abbreviations for various baseball terms: AB (at bats), R (runs), H (hits), BI (runs batted in), BB (bases on balls [walks]), SO (strike outs), 2B (doubles), etc. Exception: for a later listing of runs batted in, the boxscore prints RBIs. Why the inconsistency? Your guess is as good as mine. These abbreviations are to help us find the facts as quickly and in as little space as possible. We know the number of, say, homers may be one or more. We need not write more than HR--Smith 2 (10), meaning Smith hit two home runs and now has ten for the season. Likewise, RBI--Smith 4 (41) expresses that Smith had four runs batted in during the game and now has forty-one this season. RBIs--Smith 4 (41) costs the newspaper one unnecessary letter. In summary, choose
"runs batted in" and "RBI's" (or "RBIs") for speaking and writing, but "RBI" (or "BI") for cryptic headings or notations as in boxscores.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Redundancies and Misleading Statements

When I've taught statistics, I've mentioned that one should not say, ". . . at least two, maybe more." There can't be more than at least two, which, of course, means two to infinity! Yet one hears people, often sports announcers, say such a redundancy quite a bit. Speaking of sports, as I am wont to do, announcers sometimes exclaim, "They've won their last five in a row!" Hey, if it's their last five, I'm sure they were in a row! Another superfluous word is found here: "So the Cubs have beaten the Giants by a final score of six to four." Can you win by a non-final score?

Somewhat off the subject--a freebie, if you will--but another caution I have passed along to my students: When an offer instructs, "If you order in the next fifteen minutes, you'll receive a second CD absolutely free," understand that they don't say that after fifteen minutes you won't get that extra CD! That commercial was probably played yesterday and will most likely air tomorrow, not to mention next week. They're simply using twisted logic or the fact that many don't really understand the logic or lack thereof to try to induce you to buy--in particular, right away.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Simple Grammatical Tricks

Should one say "farther" or "further"? Grammarita's rule: use "farther" if possible. Go farther, read farther, probe farther, but speak further, and investigate further. "Farther" should be for some type of distance, "further" for other situations.  One of Ford vehicles' slogans is simply, "GO FURTHER."  Now, can you go fur?  Then how can you go further?  No, you can go far; so you can go farther.  Whereas "farther" is the comparative of "far," "further" is not the comparative of anything; it's just a helpful word unto itself and works well when "farther," and "far," don't make sense, as seen in a couple of examples above.

Don't use "if" if you can use "whether." "I don't know whether I can run that fast." Notice the following distinction: "Let me know if you are coming" means contact the speaker should your arrival become planned. "Let me know whether you are coming" means to inform the speaker of your plans--yea or nay! The latter is the equivalent of an R.S.V.P. (respond, if you please).

Don't use "or" if you can use "and." Example: In response to, "I'd like to buy a used car," the salesman should not say, "We have Toyotas, Nissans, or Mitsubishis." He thus seems to be saying, "Guess which of the three we have." "We have Toyotas, Nissans, and Mitsubishis" gives the customer a nice choice. Note the following, though, to avoid confusion: "What colors are your used cars?" Answer: "Red, white, or blue." The alternative, "Red, white, and blue" might make his car lot sound patriotic but quite limited!

Don't use "lesser" if you can use "less." As they say, keep it simple, Stupid. Example: "Buy one, get one free (the free item will be the one of less value)." "Lesser" still will find its place: "Choose the lesser of two evils." By the way, use "less" for non-countable items, "fewer" for countable ones: less cake, less time, even three hours less (you wouldn't say "three hours fifteen minutes fewer"), and less than two thousand dollars; but fewer pencils, fewer steps, and fewer pieces of cake.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


Just now heard a common error: "A computer and a desire to succeed is all you need." Plural subject, right? Then, ". . . are all you need." Yes, there are times that the parts of a compound subject are so closely joined--"Bacon and eggs is my favorite breakfast"--that the singular is appropriate. However, if in doubt, use the plural! (Just for the record, I don't like eggs in any manner or form!)

Advertising Faults

It seems that Nissan automobiles have somewhat of a catch phrase, "Look closer." "Look" is a verb and should be modified by an adverb. Thus we may say, "Look closely," or, relative to the mentioned situation, "Look more closely." Now if Nissan thinks such style is pedantic for the average viewer, so be it. It is my purpose, though, to spread the word concerning such mistakes so you won't be learning or relearning improperly. I do believe that the media should set good examples. If folks are alerted, though, they can avoid falling into traps when the media falls short. Many years ago there was some controversy about the cigarette ad, "Winston tastes good like a cigarette should." "Like" should not be introducing an adverbial clause; ". . . as a cigarette should" would be correct. While some joked about the flaw, Winston laughed all the way to the bank as, if memory serves me properly, the number one selling cigarette for quite a few years.

Healthy vs. Healthful

An associate of mine once retorted concerning a grammatical point, "English is a young language." Yes, it may be young and changing; but to me carelessness should not be one of the results. Rarely now do we find the word "healthful." It's healthy food, healthy lifestyle, etc. No! To be healthy, something must be alive. Now the lobster in the tank at the store may be healthy at that time; but when I'm about to eat it, I trust it will not be alive and, hence, not healthy. How healthful it will be I'll leave to the nutritionists. Further, "eat healthy" is wrong on two counts: see the above discussion plus the fact that an adverb is needed. Hence, we should say, "eat healthfully."