Sleeping Dogs and Other Ponderables
"I don't want to talk grammar, I want to talk like a lady," says the irrepressible Eliza Doolittle in George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion. Perhaps Miss Doolittle speaks for many who just don't want to bother with grammar but are quite eager to talk "like a lady"--or a gentleman. Or, for that matter, like a judge, a physician, or a corporate executive.
Using perfect grammar in speaking and writing does not necessarily mark one as articulate, clever, or even intelligent. It is quite possible to produce a sentence that is grammatically perfect but makes no sense. It is also possible to violate rules of grammar and still express yourself effectively, even eloquently, as boxing manager Joe Jacobs did when he shouted "We was robbed" in protest to what he thought was an unjust decision; or Elvis Presley when he crooned, "You ain't nothin' but a houn' dog"; or as did, on occasion, such luminaries as Shakespeare, Daniel Defoe, Lewis Carroll, and others.
Ralph Waldo Emerson made light of grammar when he wrote,
Any fool can make a rule And every fool will mind it.
And the Holy Roman emperor Sigismund, when someone called to his attention a grammatical error he had made in a speech, said, "Ego sum rex Romanus, et supra grammaticam": "I am king of the Romans, and above grammar."
Even so, using bad grammar can mark a person as one who is careless of language and who may be, by extension, careless of other things. Most of us, most of the time, need to respect the rules and conventions of grammar. After all, a corporate CEO addressing shareholders, a judge charging the jury, or a physician writing for a medical journal can ill afford to sound like Joe Jacobs or Elvis Presley or be as arrogant as the Emperor Sigismund. Even in our era of film, television, computers, video games, and databases, the urge to put together a sentence correctly, sensibly, and even lovingly still engages the attention of many speakers and writers.
One place to start is to explain the title of this book.
Only wide-awake dogs can lay.
A sleeping dog cannot lay, but one that's wide awake can. How? By going for the newspaper and laying it at his master's feet.
To lay is to put something in place. Lay is a transitive verb, which means that it requires an object. A hen can lay an egg. A mason can lay bricks. A disciplinarian can "lay down the law." A child can correctly say, "Now I lay me down to sleep." It is incorrect to say lay unless you also say what is being laid. The what is the object of the verb lay--egg, bricks, the law, and me in the examples above.
Dave Martin, editor of Kitplanes magazine in San Diego, California, distributes a tongue-firmly-planted--in-cheek certificate to the negligent:
With this proclamation, you are recognized as a member of a none-too-exclusive group: recipients of the Lie-Lay Recognition Award
Your award results from the incorrect use of the verb lay (infinitive form: to lay) in the following publication or broadcast: _________
Through your own personal efforts (assuming some editor has not sabotaged your copy), you have demonstrated the common misunderstanding resulting in the misuse of the verb form to lie that is noted among (1) folks in general, (2) most college graduates, (3) plenty of Ph.D.s, and (4) all too many professional broadcasters and writers.
People don't lay down; they lie down. And inanimate objects aren't capable of laying anything; they just lie there. On the other hand, chickens and stand-up comedians lay eggs, on purpose and accidentally.
Considering all of this, we recommend that you ________ (pick one: covet, treasure, trash, ignore) this recognition that people really do read/listen to what you write and say.
Again, our congratulations.
Note Dave Martin's claim that "people really do read/listen to what you write and say." Dramatic proof of that assertion is provided by Laura Miner, of Minneapolis. She tells us about her grandmother, who lived in a nursing home. When the elderly woman developed a serious fever, an ambulance was called. One of the crew asked the family, "Does she want to go laying down or sitting up?"
A member of the family suggested, "Why don't you ask Grandma?"
The ambulance crewman looked at the family with pity: "Surely you don't expect this ninety-plus elderly to be competent."
At which point nonagenarian Grandma said to the astonished crew, "Laying down is not correct grammar. It's lying down."
With eerie similarity, the Toronto Globe and Mail reported the story of an aged gentleman still sharp of mind: "At one hundred and four, when he collapsed during a round of golf, his wife said: 'Oh, George. Do you want to lay there a minute?' He opened his eyes and said, 'Lie there,' before passing out again."
Do sleeping dogs lie or lay? Consider this letter to the authors from Mary Dillon, of Cumberland Center, Maine: "My friend Beth is a high-school English teacher and lives with her friend Sam, an intelligent Golden Retriever. One day, Beth's mother was riding in the backseat of the car with Sam, who insisted on leaning on Mother. Mother told Sam to 'lay down and behave.' No action. Mother repeated, 'Lay down, Sam.' Still no action. Beth turned and commanded, 'Lie down, Sam,' and down he went. He is, after all, the companion of an English teacher."
The principal parts of to lay are lay (present), laid (past), laying (present participle), and laid (past participle). Nonetheless, the prodigiously popular holiday doll, Sing and Snore Ernie, sings, snores, and slaughters the English language. At one point in his monologue, the sleepy Ernie says, "It feels good to lay down."
Ernie would be a far better example for American youth if he would study the correct usage in the following sentences:
The clerk saw the customer lay the money on the counter.
The customer laid the money on the counter.
The hen is laying two eggs daily.
The hen has laid two eggs daily for a month.
To lie means "to repose." Lie is intransitive, which means it does not take an object. It is often used with down.
Principal parts of to lie are lie (present), lay (past), lying (present participle), and lain (past participle). The following sentences are correct:
I often lie down for a nap after lunch.
Yesterday, I lay in bed for two hours after lunch.
I was lying down when the telephone call came.
I had lain there for only a few minutes when the phone rang.
If you have trouble keeping all these lies and lays straight, you have plenty of company--probably 100 million Americans and no telling how many foreign speakers of English. The main source of confusion is that the present tense of to lay is the same as the past tense of to lie. It is one of those anomalies that make the English language at once maddening and wonderful.
Is good grammar important to I?
We doubt that any reasonably literate person would ask the question that way. Yet we have often seen or heard from an educated person a sentence like "Is good grammar important to you and I?"
In an act of test-taking desperation, a student defined a pronoun as "a professional noun." The problem with many people is that they behave as amateurs when confronted with decisions about pronoun case.
In the irrepressible "Dilbert," the horn-haired boss says to Dilbert,"Here's your new coworker Zimbu the Monkey. Zimbu learned English from the zoo keepers in a special program."
Dilbert frowns, "This monkey is an insult to the intelligence of the other workers and I!"
"Other workers and 'me,' not 'I,'" the monkey corrects.
What a difference the little word and makes! For a reason that has always been unclear, a sentence with a preposition or a verb requiring a compound object seems to throw many people for a proverbial loop. It's almost as if they can't decide whether the nominative or objective pronoun is required and so use one of each just to be safe. Here are some choice real-life examples:
* "What [he] was talking about was something that people like [Roger] Ailes and I are concerned with."--Political commentator Brit Hume, as quoted in the San Diego Union
* "Moakley reported assets for he and his wife of between $83,000 and $248,000 ... ."--from the Boston Globe
* "He was selling Encyclopedia Britannica, and he was telling my wife and I ... that it was critical that we buy a set."--Howard Kleinberg, Cox Newspapers columnist
* "[A young woman dying of cancer] allowed a Courier photographer and I to chronicle her last days."--Garret Matthews, in The Evansville (Indiana) Courier
* "It was he and his wife's anniversary."--The Ft. Lauderdale (Florida) Sun-Sentinel
Would the perceptive and intelligent Brit Hume say "a person like I"? Would the Globe reporter write "assets for he"? Would Mr. Kleinberg say "he was telling I"? Would Garret Matthews write that the young woman "allowed I to chronicle"? Would the Sun-Sentinel reporter write "it was he anniversary"? Of course not. Yet these examples are real. The writers who made the errors experienced lapsesof a type that is common to many professionals and amateurs, and they got no help from the newspapers' copy editors.
Don't let the pesky conjunction and trap you into saying or writing something as barbarous as "for he and I." Remember that he and I equals us. Think about it.
Halt! Whom goes there! Or does it?
Among the most nettlesome pronouns are who and whom, so much so that many would be happy to have whom excised from our language. That might happen someday, but for now we're stuck with the venerable pronoun and ought to use it correctly. The following sentence appeared in the Atlanta Constitution:
"Two adults and two juveniles, including a sixteen-year-old whom investigators say was the trigger man, have been charged with the slaying of a convenience store clerk ... ."
The writer of that sentence failed to apply either basic grammar or simple logic. Whom was the trigger man? Does whom go there? Of course not. Remove the parenthetical and irrelevant "investigators say" and the correct rendition becomes clear: "Two adults and two juveniles, including a sixteen-year-old who was the trigger man, have been charged ... ."
The use of whom where who is required is a more egregious error than the use of who where whom is required and is more likely to be committed by educated people who usually speak and write correct English. The book Shakespeare and the Jews, by Edward Shapiro, professor of comparative literature at Columbia University, contains this sentence:
At a time when many writers were trying to reinvent what it meant to be English, the English defined themselves by whom they were not.
The correct pronoun is who, as Professor Shapiro probably knows.
The same error is often committed by people who are trying hard to be correct but don't quite know how and think whom sounds more, well, refined. That is what Theodore Bernstein, the late assistant managing editor of the New York Times, called "overrefinement."
The grammar that governs the use of who and whom is fairly simple but is nonetheless confusing to some. Who is a nominative-case pronoun; whom is its objective-case counterpart. Other nominative/ objective partnerships are I/me, he/him, she/her, we/us, and they/them. Use the nominative case for the subject of a verb, whether the verb is in a sentence or a clause. Use the objective for the object of a verb or the object of a preposition.
That's the grammatical explanation. If you're still in doubt whether to use a nominative or an objective pronoun, try the substitution method. Here's how it works: Instead of who or whom, insert some other pronoun. For instance, in the first example above, substitute the objective pronoun him for whom: "Two adults and two juveniles, including a sixteen-year-old him investigators say was the trigger man, have been charged ... ." Then try it with him's nominative counterpart, he: "Two adults and two juveniles, including a sixteen-year-old he investigators say was the trigger man, have been charged ..."
Which sounds better? No contest. The second. Neither is correct, obviously, but "him [objective] was the triggerman" is jarring, while "he [nominative] was the triggerman" falls easily upon the ear. Therefore, you can readily tell that the nominative pronoun who is required: "Who investigators say was the triggerman ... ."
Do not allow yourself to be misled by the way a sentence is put together. Think about what is being conveyed. Decide who is doing what to whom and the correct pronoun will probably become apparent.
Remember: It's not who you know; it's whom you know.
Let I do it? No, let me.
In Doug Marlette's "Kudzu" comic strip, one of the characters says, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." Wrong! The sentence is an ungrammatical misquotation of a biblical passage: "He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone." (John 8:7)
The misquotation itself is not especially egregious--it can be considered a paraphrase--but the grammatical error in it is. The correct version is "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone."
Atlanta Journal sports columnist Steve Hummer erred similarly when he wrote, "Pause for a moment to think about he who is not here." Errors of that kind are commonly made by writers whose grasp of the structure of a sentence is tenuous. In the biblical misquotation, remove the clause "who is without sin" and it becomes clear that "Let he cast the first stone" is incorrect. In Hummer's, remove "who is not here" and it becomes clear that "think about he" is incorrect.
A grammatical analysis of the misquotation shows that let is the sentence verb, with the unexpressed but understood you as its subject. Let is a transitive verb, and its object is him, which is why it must be an objective rather than a nominative pronoun. "Who is without sin" is a restrictive clause describing him.
The good news, though, is that you don't need all that heavy-duty grammatical analysis to choose the correct pronoun in either sentence. All you have to do is to break down the sentence into its elements and determine how they logically relate to each other. Then trust your ear--the same ear that will tell you that Marie Antoinette never commanded, "Let they eat cake!"
The smoking gun
Consider the following sentences:
Smoking may be hazardous to your health.
The investigators failed to find the smoking gun.
In each of the two, the verb smoking has a different function. It serves as a noun in the first and an adjective in the second. A verb form used as a noun is called a geruNd; a verb form used as an adjective is a pArticiple. Therein is a clue to one of the most puzzling constructions in English. Clever fellows that we are, we have capitalized on your interest and boldly faced this issue by capitalizing and bold-facing the N in gerund and the A in participle to help you remember their respective parts of speech.
Which is correct?
The conductor disapproved of the tuba player chewing betel nut during the concert.
The conductor disapproved of the tuba player's chewing betel nut during the concert.
The correct choice is the second sentence, with the possessive noun player's. That's because chewing, a gerund, functions as the object of the verb phrase disapproved of. Similarly, "The conductor disapproved of his [not him] chewing betel nut" is preferred. The logic becomes clear when we think of it this way: What the conductor disapproved of was not the tuba player himself, but an action of the tuba player's--the infernal chewing.
"Mary dislikes John wearing a purple polka-dot shirt" seems to say that Mary dislikes John, but what Mary probably dislikes is the fact that John is wearing such a shirt. Presumably, she likes John just fine, even when he wears that abominable shirt. A subtle distinction, but a useful one.
Our recommendation: Make the noun or pronoun preceding a gerund possessive unless doing so would result in a confusing or an overly pedantic sentence.
Banishing the wicked which
One way to improve your writing is to go on a "which hunt" and excise any which that isn't "protected" by a comma and replace it with that. For example, if you find in the hunt that you have written "This is the automobile which I saw leaving the parking lot," change which to that.
The use of that and which interchangeably to introduce relative clauses has a long history in our language and is especially common in the King James Bible. But most modern writers make a distinction between the two, and the distinction is useful because it helps to prevent ambiguity.
The rule to follow is this: When the relative clause is defining, restrictive, or essential, always use that and never precede it with a comma. When the relative clause is nondefining, nonrestrictive, or nonessential, introduce it with which and precede it with a comma.
In "I plan to wear the blue suit that I bought at Macy's," the clause "that I bought at Macy's" is restrictive (or defining) because it designates one particular suit. The speaker might have any number ofblue suits, but the one she plans to wear came from Macy's. In "I plan to wear my blue suit, which I bought at Macy's," the clause "which I bought at Macy's" simply gives a nonessential additional fact, almost an afterthought, about the suit. It implies that she has only one blue suit.
An even simpler guide is "With a comma, use which; with no comma, use that."
Double negatives are no-no's.
No speaker of standard English would say, let alone write, "I haven't got no money." That's because, as any schoolchild knows, English--unlike some other languages--does not permit double negatives. "I have NOT got NO money" is about as "double negativish" as it gets.
Even so, a "milder" form of double negative is distressingly common in the speech and writing of educated people. On a baseball broadcast, the play-by-play announcer said, "I haven't seen him throw hardly any curve balls today." Wrong! Doubly wrong! Adverbs such as scarcely, only, but, and hardly; pronouns like no one and nothing; and the conjunctions neither and nor are all negative in effect and should not be used with other negatives.
Another fairly common example of a double negative is "I wouldn't be surprised if she didn't show up unannounced" when the speaker obviously means "I wouldn't be surprised if she showed up unannounced."
An especially egregious double negative results when a writer or speaker attempts to make an already negative word "more negative": "We will go irregardless of the weather"; "The men unloosened their ties." People who say things like that just ain't got no couth.
A type of double negative that is acceptable is one in which the second negative is almost an afterthought, as in the children's song about George Washington: "I will not lie / Oh, no, not I / Not even if I catch it." Using a double negative is also correct when one negative word or phrase is intended to cancel the other: "Not for nothingwas George Washington called 'the Father of our Country'"; "This is not an unimportant point."
Although English frowns on the double negative, it tolerates--and in some cases requires--the double possessive. "A picture of him" is not the same as "a picture of his," but "a friend of the president" means the same as "a friend of the president's," and both are correct. We can say "a friend of his," but "a friend of him" is incorrect unless it appears in a sentence like "I am a friend of him who is an enemy of my enemy."
The subject of the double possessive (or double genitive, as it is sometimes called even though genitive is a slightly broader term than possessive) is replete with subtleties. It is not, however, a subject that requires a long discussion here, because errors in the use of possessives are almost nonexistent. In virtually every instance, the ear is a reliable guide.
An agreeable subject
A correspondent asks which of the following sentences is correct:
All she ever wears is dresses.
All she ever wears are dresses.
This kind of construction puzzles many people, but the answer is simple: The subject of the sentence is all, which is a singular pronoun even though what it represents (dresses) is plural. Dresses is a predicate nominative or, as it is sometimes called, the subject complement. Since the subject, not the complement, controls the verb form and all is singular, the construction requires the singular verb is. Hence, the first sentence is the correct one.
If we reverse the order of the sentence elements and make dresses the subject, all becomes the complement. The plural verb form is then required: "Dresses are all she ever wears."
Similarly, when what is the subject of a sentence, it is treated assingular even when the "what" being discussed is plural. Example: "What I like most about summertime is fresh vegetables."
A good reminder is the novelty song "All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth." Think of that when you're tempted to write "All she ever wears are dresses" or "My favorite dessert are doughnuts."
The leader of the writing seminar asks, "Which is correct, 'The couple was married five years ago' or 'The couple were married five years ago'?"
Immediately from the participants comes a chorus of "Was!"
"Right," the leader says. "Now, how about 'The couple was married five years ago, but now it is divorced and living in separate apartments'?"
No chorus this time. Just puzzled looks. It might be acceptable (barely) to say the couple is divorced, but to say "it" is living in separate apartments is absurd. So, is couple singular or is it plural? The answer is "yes." That is, it can be either.
Certain nouns are singular in form but may be either singular or plural in concept. Among them are couple, family, group, staff, majority, team, jury, total, number, and committee. Such words are called collectives. The list is long. The question often arises whether to treat a collective, grammatically, as singular or plural--in other words, which verb form to use with it.
Most of the time (in the United States, but not in Britain), collectives are treated as singular, but, as with many grammatical questions, function rather than form is the more important consideration. Simply stated, this means that what the writer has in mind should be the controlling factor. For instance, in a sentence such as "A majority of the voters in the district (is/are) Republicans," the word majority clearly means "most" and thus requires the plural verb are.Although, as we have previously stated (see "An agreeable subject," above), the subject of the sentence determines the verb form, this is an instance in which the complement (Republicans), being plural, reinforces the plural verb. In "A majority of the voters in the district is Republican," the writer is thinking of the majority as a group rather than as individual voters. The fact that the complement (Republican) is singular provides reinforcement.
Number and total offer interesting examples. "The number of employees has increased since last year," but "A number of employees have more than ten years with the company." Similarly, "The total is larger than in previous years," but "A total of ten people are enrolled in the seminar." In these examples, the controlling words are the and a. With the, treat the collective as singular; with a, treat it as plural.
No one need worry about collective guilt. The best way to determine which verb form to use with a collective is to ask yourself what you want to say. Most of the time, the correct verb will be evident. If it isn't, the difference probably will not be worth bothering about.
Just one of those things
Several years ago McCall's magazine published an advertisement with a headline describing an attractive young woman as "One of the drab homebodies who reads [our emphasis] McCall's." A Chicago advertising executive wrote a letter to Ad Age, the advertising trade journal, taking issue with the copywriter's use of reads, claiming the correct word to be read: "One of the drab homebodies who read McCall's." The letter elicited a flood of others from Ad Age readers who weighed in on one side or the other. Ad Age called the controversy "the Great McCall's Grammar Debate."
The question comes up from time to time and always seems to generate a lot of discussion and disagreement. William Safire, the New York Times columnist and self-described language maven, wrote, "'Conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman' is one of thosephrases that sounds as if it comes out of Kipling." In a later column, Safire told of being excoriated by readers for using it comes instead of they come.
So who was right, Safire or his critics? The Chicago ad exec or the McCall's copywriter? Safire and McCall's were wrong. (Safire, by the way, acknowledged the error. As far as we know, McCall's remained silent, enjoying the free publicity.)
What both Mr. Safire and the copywriter failed to consider is that the sentence dealt with both plural and singular--the group and one member of the group: A number of phrases [the group] sound as if they come from Kipling; "Conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman" [the single member] is one of them. A number of drab homebodies [the group] read McCall's; the young woman [the single member] in the ad is one of them.
Wilson Follett, in Modern American Usage, expressed it this way:
"Order, reasoning, is sidetracked again in the construction that we may call the one-of-those-who-is blunder, probably the commonest in speech and print alike, in spite of being one of the most easily detected. He is one of those who fights back: the orderly mind sees where the singular statement about the individual ends, where the plural statement about the group or class begins, and such a mind avoids mixing the forms. But to see such matters one has to look. The many who never think of looking have sprinkled millions of lines with those who fights, prophets who goes unrecognized, children who has never know parental companionship, peaks that wears a perpetual crown of snow, and so on without end."
Our advice: When you begin a sentence with "one of those," don't automatically assume that one governs every verb in the sentence. Think.
Are two heads better than one?
"Members of the city council," wrote the editor of a daily newspaper, "really have their heads on straight." Whoa! How many heads doeseach councilor have? Shouldn't the sentence read, "Members of the city council really have their head on straight"? On the other hand, is there one giant head shared by all? How about "The teacher asked her students to raise their hands if they needed help"? Did she mean for each student to raise both hands? Unlikely.
Many grammar and usage manuals don't address this puzzler, perhaps because English has no definitive rule to guide a writer in making the correct choice. Nevertheless, your intrepid coauthors will give it a whirl.
In most instances, the number (singular or plural) of nouns or pronouns should be consistent throughout the sentence. Therefore, the plural heads is the correct choice in the first sentence quoted above. In the second sentence, however, the better choice is hand because hands is ambiguous unless there was a possibility that the teacher wanted the students to raise both hands. The singular is usually acceptable, and sometimes preferred, when only one of the thing in question could belong to each person. In "The senator knew thousands of constituents by their first (name/names)," the singular seems better, but either is acceptable.
Another exception is allowed for certain idiomatic expressions, such as "The men were told to let their conscience [not consciences] be their guide [not guides]," and for abstract or intangible nouns: "Members of Congress have changed their mind [not minds] about the legislation"; "On Black Friday, many ruined investors jumped to their death [not deaths]."
It should be obvious, but evidently it isn't, that when "ownership" of the thing in question is shared by the group, the singular is correct. For example, "The members of the team did not want reporters in their locker room." An Atlanta Journal article included these sentences: "Left out of negotiations about a proposed settlement with Big Tobacco, farmers who depend on the crop for their livelihoods worry about their futures. Many have tried alternative crops, but have been unable to shake their dependency on tobacco [emphasis added]."If livelihoods and futures are plural, why isn't dependency? It seems to us that all three should be singular because all three are shared by the group and are also intangibles.
When all's said and done, the ear and common sense may be the best guide [guides?].
On the subject of subjects
The Atlantic City Press reported that "one in five adults don't know how to use a road map." In the Scrivener, a publication of The American Society of Writers on Legal Subjects, appeared this sentence: "Each of us owe her a debt of gratitude." From an article in the sports section of the New York Post, we learn that "the Nets' seven owners are meeting this afternoon, but determining the fates of Beard and GM Willis Reed are not on the agenda."
Those three sentences have one thing in common: They violate a fundamental principle of sentence construction. If you didn't detect the errors on first reading, reread the sentences, which is exactly what the writers should have done.
The violated principle is that a subject must agree with its verb in number. In the first sentence, the subject is one, not adults, and requires the singular verb form doesn't. In the second, the subject is each, which is singular and takes owes as its verb. In the third, the subject of the dependent clause is the gerund determining, which is singular and requires the singular verb is. In all three the writer evidently was thrown off course by the words that separate the subjects from the verbs.
No reasonably literate person violates the principle of subject-verb agreement when the subject and verb are side by side. Surely the Press reporter would not write "one adult don't know how to use a road map." Nor would the Scrivener writer say, "Each owe her a debt of gratitude." But when the subject and verb are separated by a few words, many writers and speakers seem to lose their way and thesubject. Errors of this kind are common, but they are easy to avoid by the simple device of thinking what is being said.
Here are a few more things worth remembering about subject-verb agreement:
1. With a compound subject joined by and, use a plural verb: "Juanita and Tomas are from San Antonio."
2. With a compound subject joined by or, let the subject element closer to the verb determine the verb form: "The girl or the boys are bringing the picnic lunch," but "The boys or the girl is bringing the picnic lunch."
3. When two parts of a compound subject are thought of almost as one, use a singular verb form: "Ice cream and cake was served at the party." "Ice cream and cake were served ... ." implies a separateness that seems unwarranted, but the compound subject "hot dogs and hamburgers" rates a plural verb because the two items are distinctly different.
4. When a subject contains both a positive and a negative element, the positive element determines the choice of verb even if it is not closer to the verb: "The dog, not the horses, was our main concern"; "The horses, not the dog, were our main concern."
What shall we do about shall?
When General Douglas MacArthur, forced by Japanese advances to depart the Philippines for Australia in March 1942, uttered his famous "I shall return," just what was he saying? Was he making a simple statement about the future, or was he vowing to return?
A reasonable inference is that the general was making a vow to return victorious, and that is certainly how history has interpreted the statement. But by traditional grammar he was simply revealing an intention. That's because the usage as it once was taught in elementary school required that simple futurity in the first personsingular and plural (I, we) be expressed by shall and in the second and third persons singular and plural (you, he, she, it, they, and y'all) by will. So by tradition, MacArthur should have said "I will return" to express the determination he no doubt intended.
The traditional distinction between shall and will is still observed to some extent in Britain but to a much lesser extent in the United States. "In current American speech," wrote Bergen and Cornelia Evans in A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage (1957), "will occurs 217 times for every shall ... ."
So, what shall we do about shall? Well, unless we're lawyers, we will probably forget about it. In a legal document, shall expresses a mandate, as in "The party of the first part shall" do so and so. And, of course, shall is still required in questions such as "Shall we go on to something more important?"
Time is of the essence.
In an article about the search for Eric Rudolph, the survivalist suspected of bombing a clinic in Birmingham, Newsweek wrote: "Investigators got a break last week when they found a truck, believed to be stolen by Rudolph ... ." Because the alleged theft was a completed, or "perfected" event, the phrase should have been "believed to have been stolen." The error is not uncommon. (And that last sentence is an acceptable double negative.)
English verbs have three basic tenses--present, past, and future. To each tense designation can be added "perfect" to express a completed ("perfected") action, often with an auxiliary such as have. Thus, run (present) becomes have run in the present perfect; ran (past) becomes had run in the past perfect; and will run (future) becomes will have run in the future perfect. A "perfect" tense signifies that an action has been completed (present perfect), had been completed before the present (past perfect), or will have been completed after some specified time in the future (future perfect).
Using tenses properly will not be troublesome if you stop to think about the action of each verb and determine when the action took or takes place. Keeping tenses in the proper relationship with each other is called sequence of tenses. These are examples of sentences with correct sequence of tenses:
When she retired [past], she had worked [past perfect] for the company fifty years.
She will retire [future] on July I and will have worked [future perfect] for the company fifty years.
She worked [past] fifty years with the company and has just retired [present perfect].
Differences in meaning reflected in tense can be subtle. Consider these three sentences:
She would like to have gone to the party.
She would have liked to go to the party.
She would have liked to have gone to the party.
The first sentence means that in the present the speaker wishes she had gone to the party. The second means that at some time in the past, she wanted to go to the party. We often hear sentences similar to the third one, but we are hard pressed to think of a situation that would call for a construction like that.
In a sentence with a dependent clause, the verb in the dependent clause should be the same tense as the verb of the main clause. A common error is a shift to the present tense in a dependent clause when the verb of the main clause is in the past. Example: "The chairman told the shareholders that earnings for the year will increase by 15 percent." Standard English and stylish writing require that the verb in the dependent clause be would increase. Failing to adhere to this rule, however, is not an especially egregious error, and fewgrammarians would find serious fault with will increase in the sentence. In any case, the rule is usually not followed when an axiom, a universal truth, or a scientific fact is expressed. Example: "In General Science class, the pupils learned that the sun is [not was] 93,000,000 miles from Earth."
We beg to differ.
"Basketball players are different than you and me. For one thing they are a lot taller," writes a reporter in the San Diego Union-Tribune.
That should be "different from you and me," in part because the writer is alluding to F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The rich are very different from you and me."
Why? Read on.
Which of the following pair of sentences is correct?
Eva's recipe for Hungarian goulash is different from Zsa Zsa's.
Eva's recipe for Hungarian goulash is different than Zsa Zsa's.
This construction puzzles many writers. Let's call it the "different from/different than conundrum." To explain the solution, we will review a principle that most of us learned in grammar school:
English adjectives and adverbs take three forms--positive, comparative, and superlative. The positive form is the basic one--a good book, for example. The comparative form, as the name implies, is used to compare one thing with another--a better book. The superlative form compares one thing with more than one of the same group or category--the best book of the three. With a few exceptions ("put one's best foot forward," "the New York Times Best Sellers"), the superlative should not be used when only two things are involved. Thus, it is not correct to say or write, "This is the best of the two books Lederer and Dowis have coauthored."
The comparative form is often used with than. For example, "Thisnovel is better than the one I read last week." In fact, the conjunction than is used almost exclusively with comparative forms of modifiers.
Now, back to the different from/different than conundrum. In "Eva's recipe for Hungarian goulash is different than Zsa Zsa's," no comparison is expressed, because different is one of those adjectives that have no degrees. There are no such words as differenter and differentest, and even more different and most different are at best shaky concepts. (You would not say or write, for example, that Eva's recipe is "more different than Zsa Zsa's.") Therefore, because than, as we have noted, is used almost exclusively with comparatives, the second sentence, "Eva's recipe for Hungarian goulash is different than Zsa Zsa's," is the incorrect one.
Another way to look at it is to convert in your mind's eye the adjective different to the verb differs, from which different derives. Clearly, then, "Eva's recipe differs from Zsa Zsa's" is correct. "Eva's recipe differs than Zsa Zsa's" makes no sense.
It is permissible to use than with different when an adjective clause follows, as in "The meaning of this word is different than it was in Shakespeare's time." Some purists would not allow even that exception and would instead advise recasting the sentence to something like "The meaning of this word is different today from its meaning in Shakespeare's time," but we feel that the exception is reasonable.
So, Sleeping Dogs' advice is this: When you're confronted with the choice between different from and different than, make different from your first choice. You'll almost always be right. But if your ear tells you otherwise, choose different than.
Comparison proves ... sometimes.
One of the most common errors we encounter is one that grammarians call "false comparison," comparing two things that cannot logically be compared. For example, "Prices are not as high in Germany as France" makes an illogical comparison between prices and France.The problem is easily solved by inserting in before France, which gives us a sentence that is elliptical for "Prices are not as high in Germany as they are in France."
Although false comparisons usually do not cause misunderstanding, they can. "The employee's view, like the manager, was not relevant to the decision" leaves the reader wondering whether it was the manager herself or the manager's view that was irrelevant.
Most false comparisons are the result of hasty writing in which the writer has carelessly omitted a word or two. This should not be confused with ellipsis, which is the permissible and often desirable omission of one or more words. Whether they cause misunderstanding or not, false comparisons do not belong in polished writing.
Beware of sloppy drinking.
Careless speakers and writers often omit words that ought not to be omitted. Even an omission that does not result in misunderstanding may rob writing of style and grace. For example, a sentence such as "He will or already has mailed a check" would not likely be misunderstood, but the omission of mail after will offends the sensitive ear because when we eliminate the parenthetical "or already has" we have an inappropriate pairing of the future tense (will) and the past tense (mailed): "He will mailed a check."
A sentence like "The reporter was fired for sloppy work and drinking" is good for a chuckle because it leaves open to question the reporter's fastidiousness as a drinker. Presumably, the writer intended to say, "The reporter was fired for sloppy work and for drinking." It is one of the many peculiarities of English that reversing the order of the complaints against the reporter makes the second for unnecessary and leaves the intended meaning intact. "He was fired for drinking and sloppy work" is perfectly clear and acceptable.
Of course, certain words can be omitted to good effect. For instance, in "To err is human; to forgive, divine," repetition of the verb is would weaken the sentence. An omission of that type is a rhetoricaldevice called syllepsis. In "Michael Jordan is taller than Shannon Miller," tacking is or even is tall onto the end of the sentence is unnecessary to either clarity or correct grammar. It is important, however, to think is tall. Otherwise there is the temptation to write abominations like "He is taller than her" rather than "He is taller than she [is tall]."
Have you a datum I can use?
The controversy rages: Is data singular or plural? On the one hand are the purists, who insist it is plural; on the other are the modernists, who say purists are transplants from the eighteenth century, and that data is a synonym for information and is therefore clearly singular. So which camp are we in? Is data singular or plural? The answer is yes. That is, it can be either, depending partly on your preference and partly on what you want to say or emphasize. Let's explore the subject so you can decide for yourself.
Technically, at least, the purists are right: data is the plural of the Latin word datum. Datum, however, is rarely used except in scientific or academic writing. We daresay the typical educated American is only vaguely aware of the word, if at all. So if we insist that data is always plural, we have a word that, for most practical purposes, has no singular.
Our friend Norm Storer, a writer from San Diego, composed this limerick to poke good-natured fun at the purists:
Consider the Latin word data,
As common as "French fried potata";
It's used around town
As a singular noun--
Except by some Kappas (Phi Beta).
The modernists have a good point. Most of the time, data is meant to be a synonym for information, a collection of facts. It seemsreasonable to say, "There is sufficient data [information] to support the conclusion." It also seems reasonable to say, "These data [items of information] support the conclusion."
Our own bent, owing to early schooling, is to use data as plural most of the time, but if you prefer it as singular all, most, or some of the time, you have our blessing.
Much ado about sexism
Traditional English requires a masculine pronoun or pronominal adjective (he, him, or his) with a singular antecedent when the sex of the antecedent is unspecified. "A doctor must respect his patients if he wants them to respect him" is correct--by traditional rules--even though a doctor can be either a woman or a man. Those who defend traditional usage say that his, he, and him are not gender specific when used in that way. Those who believe it is time to scrap traditional usage counter that it perpetuates the myth of male superiority. They also contend, not without justification, that using masculine pronouns implies that some professions are exclusively for men, others for women.
Consider what happens when you substitute nurse for doctor in the example above: "A nurse must respect his patients if he wants them to respect him." Doesn't sound right, does it? That's because the vast majority of nurses are women. But there are many male nurses, and there are many female doctors. Until recently, most writers would have thought nothing amiss about the sentence with doctor, but they invariably would have written "A nurse must respect her patients ... ." instead of "A nurse must respect his patients ... ."
Stereotypes die hard. A woman wrote: "I just attended a charity brunch. The speaker was a prominent physician who happens to be a woman. After the emcee told us about her grants and studies and awards, he added, to everyone's horror, 'On top of that, she's got great legs.' A hiss went through the room."
Such boorishness, of course, deserves a hiss and more, but doesit have anything to do with the subject at hand--writing the English language?
To the extent that our use of language perpetuates such stereotypes, yes. The practice of using the masculine pronoun to include both male and female, and the use of certain words that imply masculinity when what they refer to could be either male or female, has been condemned as "sexist" writing. We are sensitive to such concerns and we believe all writers should be. Clearly, sexist writing offends a significant number of people and ought to be avoided.
Still, we are equally aware that a significant number are offended by what they see as debasement of the language in the name of political correctness. We have no desire to become entangled in that debate. Our purpose is to offer readers of Sleeping Dogs some guidance in how to write clearly and correctly without offending either group. Is that possible? Read on.
Is tedium a sexually transmitted disease? Some writers, in a misguided effort to be oh, so modern and politically correct, resort to all manner of machinations to avoid "sexist" writing. This effort often shows up in the unremitting use of such locutions as he or she, himself /herself, and even him/herself to avoid the universal he or him as a reference pronoun when the sex of a singular antecedent is unknown or unspecified.
"A doctor must respect his or her patients" seems innocuous enough, but a little his or her can go too far. The true zealot continues with "A doctor must respect his or her patients if he or she wants them to respect him or her." That's when tedium sets in. And it just might be a fatal disease.
The problem is that the English language has no suitable pronoun for use when the sex of a subject can be either male or female. If we had the power, we would simply decree that the language provide a pronoun that would mean either he or she. But we haven't such power, and language just doesn't work that way.
The problem didn't begin with the feminist movement. It has beenrecognized, and solutions sought for it, since at least the nineteenth century. One suggested neutral pronoun, thon, never caught on, but it remained in some dictionaries until the 1950s. Other rejected suggestions include co, E, mon, heesh, na, hir, and pa. One university press published a book using hir.
We strongly recommend against using the ungainly him/her, himself /herself, and him/herself, and the nonwords theirself and themself. The following appeared in a telephone company booklet on handling obscene calls: "Hang up if the caller doesn't say anything ... or if the caller doesn't identify themself."
We are dubious also about the merit of alternating the masculine and feminine pronouns, a device we have seen from time to time. This device is too contrived. We want readers to enjoy what we write, not to be concerned with whether one sex gets more mentions than the other.
Sexually transmitted tedium also shows up in the indiscriminate use of words purported to replace "noninclusive" terms for certain jobs and professions. We have not yet come to terms with busser and waitron, but server seems to us to be perfectly serviceable. We happily accept letter carrier for mailman and flight attendant for stewardess. Indeed, we feel privileged to live in an age when a flight attendant can make a pilot pregnant.
Is there a natural solution? When the reference is clearly to more than one person, perhaps the most natural solution is to toss traditional grammar out the window and use they, them, or their when you need a singular, genderless pronoun or pronominal adjective. Thus, "Everyone must do his own work" becomes "Everyone must do their own work." Purists may become apoplectic upon reading this, but the construction is almost universal in educated speech and increasingly common in writing. For some years now, we have been seeing it in well-edited publications such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Moreover, the sense of everyone (read, "all people") is plural even though the word is technically singular.
If you are bothered by the pairing of the technically singular pronoun everyone with the plural pronominal adjective their, just remember two things: First, English is replete with contradictions. They are called idioms--expressions that are accepted as correct but do not follow the usual grammatical rules. Second, when there is a conflict between grammar and common usage, grammar always loses in the long run. As our language evolves, the meanings of plural pronouns such as they and their almost certainly will expand to embrace the singular, just as you embraces both singular and plural today.
Are we ready to recommend, without reservation, the everyone-their solution? No, but we cannot condemn its use in most informal speech and writing.
A word of caution: If you choose the natural solution, do not fall into the trap of using the plural pronoun when the antecedent is singular and its sex is clear, as TV personality Oprah Winfrey has been known to do: "One question a mother should ask a baby-sitter when they leave them with their child ..." Of the three pronouns, two refer to mother, one to baby-sitter. Although we cannot assume a baby-sitter to be female, we think it is safe, even in these days of medical miracles, to assume that a mother is a female.
The best solution--the way to avoid sexism, tedium, and even the appearance of bad grammar--is to recast the sentence. The downside of this is that recasting denies a writer some flexibility. In some instances, though, recasting improves the sentence while it solves the sexism problem.
Here are some different ways to recast sentences:
* Drop the "his." In "The employer withholds the money from his employees' paychecks and transfers it to the United Way," his serves no purpose. Eliminating it makes a better sentence. "The employer withholds the money from employees' paychecks and transfers it to the United Way."
* Convert to plural. It is often a simple matter to change the sentence to plural, thus eliminating the need for a singular pronominal adjective: "A doctor must respect his patients if he wants them to respect him" becomes "Doctors must respect their patients if they want their patients to respect them."
* Change "his" to "the." "Every account executive will submit a report to his client regularly" can just as easily be "Every account executive will submit a report to the client regularly."
* Use a noun. "We are hoping to find a tennis professional to put on a demonstration. After the demonstration, we'd like him to give tips to individual members of the club" can be stated effectively as "We are hoping to find a tennis professional to put on a demonstration. After the demonstration, we'd like the pro to give tips to individual members of the club."
* Use second person pronouns. When appropriate, the second person you or your makes the communication more personal and can eliminate the need for the third person his. With this recasting, "Each employee must turn in his time sheets by five P.M. Friday" becomes "You must turn in your time sheets by five P.M. Friday."
With a little thought, you will be able to come up with alternatives to gender-specific nouns and pronouns. Try it, you might even come to like it.
SLEEPING DOGS DON'T LAY. Copyright © 1999 by Richard Lederer and Richard Dowis. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.