I learned a few things in grammar school. For example, I learned that boys shouldn’t dip girls’ pigtails into the inkwells. I lived near the Little House on the Prairie then and went to third grade with “Half Pint” Ingalls. Okay, maybe not, but my ancient schoolhouse in Moorhead, Minnesota, did have desks with inkwells—dried up, yes, but I could still fantasize about dipping Half Pint’s pigtails into the inky blackness on my desk. Naughty little fantasizer! Something to be punished for.
I learned the hard way not to push friends down the cement steps while waiting in line to go back to class after recess—because, supposedly, friends don’t appreciate that. Oh, bother!
I also learned not to run into the classroom coat closet to escape from the acrid smell of vomit when a classmate heaves his entire lunch onto his desk and the floor—because not all 30 panicked kids can fit in a coat closet filled with Minnesota-winter coats, mittens, and snow boots. Such things can trigger lifelong bouts of claustrophobia.
It’s strange to think that this could come from a grammar school: I vaguely remember learning a couple of things about grammar somewhere in my youth or childhood. I learned how improper it was to begin a sentence with a conjunction, or to split my infinitives, or to end a sentence with a preposition. I have no specific memory of these heavenly dictums, but everyone from my generation simply knows such proscriptions are writ large in the canon of divine grammar and must be avoided on penalty of death. I never actually saw a student receive that penalty. Apparently, some teachers stopped short of killing their students. Instead, they rapped their knuckles with a ruler, which explains why most adults hate grammar.
Nonetheless, what a joy to grow up and learn that Miss Grundy may have gotten a few things wrong in the dark days of the Grammatical Inquisition. Today, I am going to take my trusty keyboard and explode three grammar myths. ZAP! There, it’s done. Too simple, you say? Let me explain:Continue reading “Zapping Three Grammar Myths”
Constance Hale provides one of the most thorough treatments of verbs I’ve read.* The book is aimed at writers, both novice and experienced, and unless you hold a PhD in English composition, you will learn something useful to make your writing better. Do you know all about verb tense, mood, and voice? How well do you understand participles, gerunds, irregular verbs, and phrasal verbs? Do you know why these things matter—and they do matter—and how mastering them will help your writing shine brighter? Hale’s book provides the answers.
The title is a bit awkward (try saying it three times fast!)—I think “Let Verbs Power Your Writing” by itself would have been just fine—but “vex,” “hex,” “smash,” and “smooch” provide the framework around which Hale organizes each chapter, and the scheme works pretty well. At times she ventures into murky waters where even she may be out of her depth. For example, I’m still scratching my head at how “tight-fisted” is a past participle (instead of an adjective), as she asserts on page 224. But for the most part, she’s spot on. She includes many examples from real life and literature to illuminate the concepts, along with plenty of endnotes and an extensive bibliography to warm the hearts of readers who care to dig deeper.
I highly recommend this book to writers, wannabe writers, copyeditors, and students (high school and college), and I know that I’ll regularly pull it off my bookshelf to consult for my own writing. Δ
*Constance Hale, Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch: Let Verbs Power Your Writing (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012).
Latinate abbreviations (i.e., abbreviations of Latin expressions used in English) can serve as useful tools to enhance our writing. Or, if improperly used, they can detract from our writing—and reflect poorly on the writer. Here are some of the most common Latinate abbreviations, their meanings, and notes on their usage. Notice in particular the placement of the periods.
Et cetera, abbreviated etc., means “and so forth” (literally, “and others of the same kind”). Note three things about this abbreviation: (1) It is etc., not ect., and it is not pronounced eck-cetera; (2) It is not “and etc.,” (which would literally be “and and so forth”—that’s redundant); and (3) etc. should be used sparingly in formal writing because it’s a vague term that can make the writer seem lazy—it places the burden on the reader to imagine what specifically the writer is referring to.
Exempli grata, abbreviated e.g., means “for example.” Note three things about its use: (1) it is always followed by a comma: The vendor on the corner is selling flowers for Mother’s Day (e.g., red and yellow roses and white and pink carnations); (2) in formal writing, it should be used in parenthetical statements (as in the previous sentence). In the main text it is better to use words like “such as” or “for example”; (3) be careful not to confuse it with i.e., which means something quite different. Continue reading “Commonly Used (and Misused) Latinate Abbreviations in American English”
Bad grammar ruined this popular Christian song (for me).
Standard English took a blow below the belt with the rise of rock ’n’ roll music, and it was only a matter of time before the assault on the mother tongue would be sanctified by Christian artists writing Jesus Music.
I was no grammar snob as a teenager and young adult, and neither was I a grammar slob. But I lived for the rock ’n’ roll music of Randy Stonehill, Daniel Amos, and other pioneers of the Christian rock genre. I slapped on my Pioneer stereo headphones, cranked up the volume, and blew out my eardrums on a regular basis to songs like Continue reading “Poetic License? But Why?”
One of the most widely committed grammar errors is using lay for lie. This confusion is nearly universal. Writers and speakers everywhere get it wrong. All the time. Popular songs through the years haven’t helped, either. Think of Bob Dylan’s “Lay, lady, lay, lay across my big brass bed,” and Eric Clapton’s “Lay down, Sally, and rest you in my arms.” And let’s not forget Simon and Garfunkel’s huge hit “The Boxer,” which laments of “running scared, laying low, seeking out the poorer quarters where the ragged people go.” Unfortunately, the lays in these examples are all wrong. Now we have an entire generation or two of adults who think that “lay” or “laid” are the only correct forms of the verb, and that “lie” refers to the claims of presidential candidates and Olympic swimmers.
A front-page headline in the local newspaper this morning reads, “U.S. Men’s Basketball Team Romp Past China.” Kudos to the U.S. men’s team for romping away in your first game of these Olympics, steamrolling easily over the Chinese team 119-62. But thanks, local newspaper, for reminding us that subject-verb agreement in number is not always so easy.
Nouns that denote an aggregate of individuals or things are called collective nouns and are grammatically singular, which means they take the singular form of the verb. Common examples include flock, herd, group, family, and team. We would say, “The flock of geese is flying overhead”; “The green group challenges the blue group to a sales contest”; “The family that prays together stays together”; and “The U.S. Team Romps Past China.”
There are exceptions and nuances to this rule. For example, when the group is spoken of as a collection of individuals, the plural form of the verb is used, as in, “When the basketball team plays next, I hope they win.”In the first part of the sentence, team is a collective noun, therefore we use the singular form plays. In the second part, the emphasis is placed on the individuals, and therefore we hope they (the individuals who comprise the team) win (the plural form of the verb). This sounds complicated, but it’s something we all get correct without thinking about it.
Suffice it to say that collective nouns are singular nouns and, as such, take singular forms of the verb.