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 . . .