You can write a sentence that is perfectly correct grammatically, but it’s still not right. (Finding these sentences is one reason to let your work sit for a while, then re-read it.) Here’s an example of a sentence that’s technically correct in its grammar, but it’s not correct in its context.
Artifacts created from one of the five buttes, Obsidian Butte, first appear in Native American villages around 510 B.C. to 640 B.C. … However, for decades, researchers thought Obsidian Butte erupted thousands of years earlier.
To be really correct, the sentence should say “…Obsidian Butte had erupted thousands of years earlier.” The sentence is in an article on volcanism in the Salton Sea in Scientific American online, and I encourage you to read it. The sentence refers to something that happened in the past, the eruptions. So far, so good. But the eruptions that happened in the past ended before something else that happened in the past, namely the creation of the artifacts. When you have something that starts in the past, and ends in the past, you should use the past perfect, not the simple past.
Read the article and you will see a couple more places where the past perfect is more correct. It will be good practice for you.
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The compose, comprise, composed of, comprised of choice is among the trickiest set of words to get right in English. Actually, people usually get compose and composed of correct. It’s comprise that makes people stumble.
Remember: Compose refers to multiple things combining into a single thing. Twenty-six letters compose our alphabet. Or if you reverse it, the alphabet is composed of 26 letters.
Comprise goes the other way. The English alphabet, comprising 26 letters,… and we don’t say “is comprised of.” Ever. Harrumpf. Saying “comprised of” is a pretentiousism.
Here’s an article in the eWeek online newsletter that has it right:
Shipping and postage-related terms made up over 26 percent of words featured in malicious file names, and comprised 7 of the 10 most common words identified in the first half of 2012.
See? That wasn’t so hard. The terms (admittedly a plural) comprise seven items. They do it again, and almost get it right a sentence or two later. I think their proofreader wasn’t paying attention:
By far, .zip files were the most common malicious attachments seen by FireEye, compromising 76.91 percent of the file extensions used by attackers. Next on the list were PDF files, which accounted for 11.79 percent.
Oops! The meant to say comprising, but compromising got through the spell checker. Bad proofreader!
By the way, a nice touch in the article (if you ignore the mistaken word) is that they avoided repetition by using synonyms: “made up,” “comprised,” “identified,” “were seen,” and “accounted for.” In editorial writing in English, this is considered good form. It makes the article a more interesting read.
In case you don’t know, here’s what malware looks like:
I don’t know why I’m being so hard on comics lately. Usually comic artists are pretty careful about their use of language, and I have a lot of respect for them, what with having to not only draw, but also write, two very different skills, neurologically speaking. This one is from a comic I don’t read regularly. I saw a link to it on a website that I do read, and this was on the first page. I got locked onto the solecism and haven’t read anything else. It looks like it might be a nice adventure tale for those of you who like that sort of comic, PG rated, I suppose. The comic is called Valkyrie, by By Fernando Heinz Furukawa and I don’t know what the comic is about. Shame on me for generalizing after looking at only one page, but judging from the non-human sidekick and the cleavage, it looks like it’s aimed at boys in their early teens. The link is to the page where I got this cell.
You know what the mistake is, right? We have a nominative being used as a direct object. Nominative is the general term for what my English teacher called the subjective case, because it was used for the subject of sentences. In every other Indo-European language (far as I know) they call it the nominative.
Remember your English teacher saying that with the imperative, you have an implied subject, “you”? So “Sit down” is really “(you) sit down.” Or in this case, (you) let Sandra and ME deal with your son’s abduction.”
I brought your attention to this example because this mistake most often happens with compound objects of prepositions (it was between him and I) and less often with a direct object. It often happens in the writing and speech of people who fancy themselves as edumacated. They picked it up from being corrected as children, when they started to say something like “Me and Tom went fishing” and the authority figure at hand said, ” ahem. Tom and I went fishing, and is that why you are so muddy?”
So how do you prevent this solecism? The culprit the compound construction. Say the sentence without the compound. Then the wrong way sounds wrong. So: “Let me deal with your son’s abduction.”
Now I think I’ll go see what happened to that son.
Normally I find comic artists pretty careful about their use of English, but the other day I ran into one that contains a doozie. And Ed Allison has a generally pretty funny strip. For this one, though, I’d have to slap his hand.
He even put his mistake in bold. The rule is that when you are counting something, especially if you have a plural involved, you use Fewer! FEWER! Use “less” when you measure an amount, I have less egg on my face than he does.
But hey, it’s a comic, and it’s funny.
For post 100, I copied a passage of some really fine writing from a comic strip named Pibgorn by Brooke McEldowney. This is post 200, and I’ll descend to the other end of the continuum, pirate talk. Two days ago (Sept 19) was Talk Like a Pirate day, but I already had a post in the hopper for then, and besides, this is post 200.
First, then, a bit of linguistics. (We gotta be scholarly, y’know.) The traditional accent we all associate with the romance of 18th century pirates is roughly the brogue from Cornwall, or the southwest of England. I think this was most strongly promulgated by Disney’s version of Treasure Island several decades ago, but it might have appeared in some earlier movies, too. Be that as it may, to my mind the epitome of pirate talk is the strong “arr” sound and “be” and “me” instead of “is” and “my” as spoken by Long John Silver in the Disney movie. I read the book , by the way, and there’s quite a bit more adventure in the book than in the movie. But I digress.
Here’s a quote from a review (which gets the name of the day wrong):
He was deeply alcoholic and delivered a performance of such swivel-eyed, bizarrely-accented, scenery-chewing lunacy that he not only stole the entire film but also created a character that almost immediately defined the physical, sartorial and verbal attributes of a pirate.
Second, real pirates, especially modern ones, are bad people as far as we law-abiding folks go. Yes, the older version in the sailing ships had a decent civil structure on their ships, more egalitarian than most people realize, but they nonetheless did not conform to most of our cultural norms (read They were pretty bloodthirsty.). And there was a class of semi-legal pirate types called privateers, who had loyalty to a particular country and tended to concentrate on raiding their country’s enemies’ ships. Talk Like a Pirate day is all in fun, and has no more actual connection to real pirates than having kids go trick-or-treating on Halloween has to do with Satanism and real demons.
Third, if you’re going to speak like a pirate, you should get it right. Women are “me beauty.” It’s “arr,” not “arg” and not “yarr.” And a friend is “matey,” pronounced “maitey.” If you want to look into it a bit more, here’s a link to the official TLAP site.
Fourth, pirate jokes. Of course my favorites are wordplay, that capitalize on the strong pirate “arr.” A pirate’s favorite vegetable is arrrrtichokes, and they fight best in the arrrmy. You get the idea. A fellow by the name of Doug Savage produced a couple comics about pirates that feature chickens. And you all know the joke about the pirate with a peg leg, a hook, and an eye patch. When asked for how he got them all, he described horrific battles for losing his leg and his hand, but lost his eye because of some seagull poop. It seems he wasn’t yet used to having the hook.
And that, me matey, be all I have to say about pirates.