English is a relatively uninflected language, so word order is important. In declarative sentences, for example, we put the subject first most of the time, and the verb after it. It can get tricky when we insert modifiers. The rule is to put modifiers as close to what they modify as possible. Here’s an example of breaking this rule:
After President George W. Bush announced a plan to return to the Moon and move on to Mars in 2004, NASA began to consider how best to carry out that vision.
We moved to Mars in 2004? What is this, science fiction? I suppose the likelihood that most readers would know that we’re not on Mars yet would make them think a bit to figure out what did happen that year. But as a writer you want the information to flow into your readers’ brains effortlessly. So put that date where it goes, at the beginning:
In 2004, after President George W. Bush announced a plan to return to the Moon and move on to Mars, NASA began to consider how best to carry out that vision.
Now the readers can tell exactly what the writer means without having to interrupt themselves to figure out what’s going on.
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The conversation in this Mr. Lowe comic illustrates two mistakes. Let’s take them one at a time. Here’s the comic:
Some idioms for comparing things in English are”as good as” and “better than.” That second one can be “less than” “more than” “colder than” and so on. Those compare two things. When you have more than two, it’s “best of” “least of” “most of” “coldest of” and so on. I don’t hear people get this wrong very often, mostly by people inexperienced in English, such as young kids.
Can you tell what the other mistake is? Lots of people get this wrong. The comparison hinges on what you’re comparing; you can compare subjects and you can compare objects. When it’s an object, “them,” “me,” him,” or “her” is correct. When you compare subjects, you need to use “they,” “I,” “he,” or “she.” An illustration might help.
Correct: I could do a better job than they. (The second verb is assumed. The full sentence is “I could do a better job than they do.”
Incorrect: “I could do a better job than them.” Say the whole sentence: “I could do a better job than them do.”
Correct: I like you more than her. (Filling in the missing words: “I like you more than I like her.”)
Incorrect: I like you more than she. (Actually, this can be correct if you mean that I like you more than she likes you. But the meaning is different!)
Why is it so hard to get this correct? Because “than” feels a lot like a preposition, which takes objects, and the subjuct of a sentence is usually clear up at the beginning, where it doesn’t have much attraction.
My advice: put the missing words in the sentence.
Another quickie post. The guy here in Adult Children is being a bit of a jerk, but his vocabulary is correct. I remember being impressed with an instructor once because she used this word correctly. Hi, Dr. Bradley!
So, if you feel like you’re going to up-chuck, ralph, vomit, heave, or any of several other unpleasant feelings, remember you’re feeling it, not causing it. Though you might cause it, too.
PS—Since we’re on the subject, here’s a comic I ran into today. Mr. Fitz is an excellent comic about a teacher. Lots of good commentary on education.
A mondegreen is a word or phrase derived from misunderstood song lyrics. It came from a song with the words, “…and laid him on the green,” which was interpreted to be “…and Lady Mondegreen.” I remember a joke I read when I was a kid describing a kid in Sunday School drawing a nativity scene with a roly-poly fellow standing off to the side. When the teacher inquired about him, the kid said it was “round John Virgin.”
So okay. I hardly know any Beatles lyrics, so I can’t appreciate the humor in this Soup to Nutz strip, but you probably do, so you probably will.
If you’re of a didactic bent, feel to translate these into the real lyrics for me in the comments.
If you’ve read more than about three articles on this site, you know that I promulgate expository writing, writing designed to convey information so readers absorb the information effortlessly. (Promulgate means to set forth or teach publicly, but you knew that, right?)
Sometimes idioms and figures of speech can be taken literally, and this generally doesn’t promote understanding. Here’s a Gasoline Alley; the first two rows give a humorous take on this danger.
(The last row repeats a joke that has to be more than 50 years old, but I digress.)
Rule of thumb: When you explain something, be direct and literal.
A related situation is when you write something that will or might be translated. Idioms and figures of speech are notorious for causing problems in other languages. This goes both ways, so be careful when you read something translated into English. Google “badly translated into English” to find some humorous examples, but this can be a serious problem if the writing is about a serious subject. So be careful.