Good Old Like and As

rogersgeorge on December 16th, 2017

“Like” and “as” are easy to get mixed up. It doesn’t help a lot to say that “as” is an adverb and “like” is a preposition. Too complicated. You might find it easier to remember, perhaps, that “as” goes with verbs, and “like” goes with nouns and pronouns.

Here’s a guy who sounds right both times, uses two different constructions, and we understand him, but he’s wrong! Take a look at the second panel in the Dec 9, 2017 edition of Mr. Fitz:

“Think like I do” sounds right. That’s because you have the verb “do,” that goes with “I.” But technically, it should be “think as I do.” By the way, it’s a good idea to include that “do” in this sort of construction; doing so removes ambiguity.

Then he hauls off and says, “think like me.” And that also sounds correct! It sounds correct because “like” feels like a preposition with that “me” all by itself after it. Well, “like” is a preposition. But he’s modifying a verb (think) with an adjective phrase. That’s a no-no. Take the book title “Black Like Me.” The color, black, an adjective, goes with the pronoun “me.” That’s correct. If he had said “a thinker like me,” since “thinker” is a noun, he would be correct, at least grammatically.

Heavy-duty grammar lesson today. Sorry.

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Another Gödel Joke

rogersgeorge on December 14th, 2017

This post doesn’t have much to do with good writing, but I happen to like jokes that relate to Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorem. The gist of the theorem is that he proved mathematically that you can’t have a complete logical system, one that doesn’t have unanswerable questions and has no contradictions. This was much to his colleague Bertrand Russell’s displeasure, who was in the midst of writing a book (Principia Mathematica) to prove the completeness of mathematics. Here’s a link to a joke about that:

It’s the second one, but they’re all funny if you know a little math.

Okay, that’s a lot of preliminaries to get to the joke in the comic Dog Eat Doug that I had in mind in the first place. Part of Gödel’s proof hinged on the fact that when something refers to itself, you can get into trouble.

Interesting bit of onomatopoeia there, too. I dare you to try this question on Siri.

PS–since it happened to come up, here’s a link to an article that actually mentions the incompleteness theorem:

The mathematics of Christmas: A review of the Indisputable Existence of Santa Claus

It Sounds Wrong, but it’s Right

rogersgeorge on December 12th, 2017

Okay, the intransitive verb “lie-lay-lain” is one we often get wrong in the present tense. We say “I’m gonna go lay down,” when we mean “I’m gonna go lie down.” (note there’s no direct object.)  “Lie,” the correct word, sounds okay even when we often say “lay.”

Ah, but the past tense of lie, which is “lay,” sounds wrong even when it’s correct! I think we’re just too used to something like a “-d” at the end of past tense verbs. Here’s a guy (Mike Peterson of Comic Strip of the Day for December 7, 2017) using it correctly. It’s the past tense:

He may not have been the worst of the lot, but he lay down with the dogs and now he’s getting up with the fleas.

Sorry, he’s right. It’s “lay.” “Laid” is wrong. I suppose Mike could have written, “…he laid his body down with the dogs…” That would be a little strange, but also grammatical.

The rule: “lay” is past tense of “lie.” Deal with it.

The Second Most Common Mistake

rogersgeorge on December 8th, 2017

—in English! In English! I’m sure this is nowhere near the top of the list of mistakes humans make. This might not even be second on the English grammar list, but I think it comes right after the one where someone, trying deliberately to be high-class, says “between him and I.”

This error is using “whom” when “who” is actually correct (or in this case, “whomever” and “whoever.”). First, the rule: when you have a subordinate clause, work from the inside out. Here’s an example of the mistake, from Edge of Adventure. Look at the first panel in the bottom row. Can you tell why he should have said “whoever”?

Yes, “to” is a preposition, and the clause that comes after it is its object. But that clause has its own subject and verb! And since we work from the inside out, being the subject of that clause takes precedence over the whole clause being an object, so it’s “whoever did this.” If you really want a “whom” in that sentence you could say something like “…to whomever I find on the trail.” Now “I” is the subject, and “whomever” is the direct object of “I find.” Make sense?

So sometimes you have permission to use “who.” Be careful.

A tricky Construction

rogersgeorge on December 6th, 2017

Let’s start with the sentence in question, from the December 2016 Scientific American, page 46:

Planetary scientists such as me have pieced together this new, three-ring circus version of the active young solar system with great help from new tools for calculating the ages of meteorites, as well as the ages of planetary dust clouds—similar to our primordial solar system—elsewhere in the cosmos.

That “me” in the first line doesn’t sound quite right, does it? You definitely don’t say “me have pieced together.”

Well, “me” is correct! First, figure out the actual subject of the sentence. The subject is “scientists.” So planetary scientists have pieced together all that stuff.

Still, why “me”? “Such as” is a preposition, equivalent to “like,” or “with.” So “me” is the object of the preposition. It just happens to sit next to the verb, and that proximity creates the disconnect.

Rule of thumb: Pay attention to what you’re writing.