May and Can

rogersgeorge on May 10th, 2017

When I was a kid, my teachers (several of them, in grade school) taught us that “may” meant permission, so when a clerk asked “May I help you?” They were being deferential—”Do I have your permission to help you?” Use of “may” in this circumstance is still considered to be polite and high class. “Can,” my teachers said, meant ability. So “Can you open this pickle jar? It’s too tight for me,” is appropriate (unless the speaker is being manipulative or something, though most manipulative would be to assume the person can open the jar by using “would,” but I won’t get into that). Anyway, this Retail comic does a nice job of describing the subtleties of these words.

Retail - 04/23/2017

All that said, The language seems to be changing. I wrote some math curriculum for IBM once, and the PhD SMEs we worked with insisted we use “can” even when “may ” was technically more correct. And I see “may” used a lot as a weak version of “might.” On that last usage, if you can use “might” instead of “may,” use “might.” Your writing will have more punch.

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Keep your Thoughts Together

rogersgeorge on April 26th, 2017

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.

Half Right

rogersgeorge on April 2nd, 2017

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.

 

 

Throwing up Correctly

rogersgeorge on March 28th, 2017

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.

Mondegreens

rogersgeorge on March 26th, 2017

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.