Adjectives Don’t Show Number in English

rogersgeorge on September 18th, 2017

In a lot of languages, when you put an adjective with a noun, the adjective has to agree with the noun. Feminine nouns get feminine endings on their adjectives (gender), plural nouns get plural adjectives (number), and so on. If you know other languages, you know what I mean by the “and so on,” such as the effect of case.

English (with a few exceptions, such as court martial, poet laureate, secretary general) puts the adjective right in front of its noun, and it doesn’t matter much what kind of noun. Here’s an example of getting it wrong:

The New York Times (and others) reported on Plimpton 322, a famous four-millennia-old Babylonian tablet featuring a table of Pythagorean triples.

You might argue that it’s a compound adjective (hyphenated correctly, by the way), but it should still be “millennium.” The whole thing is an adjective, so it shouldn’t show number. An example of correctness:

He drives a four-door car and a sixteen-wheel truck.

That incorrect usage, by the way, is from an interesting and well-written site called Math with Bad Drawings. Even if you’re not much on math, give it a look. The bad drawings are actually pretty good, even. Here’s one:

If you’re a native English speaker, you probably do this without thinking; this post is so you’re aware of what you’re doing already, and so you don’t stumble.


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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.



Two Scams

rogersgeorge on September 3rd, 2016

One of my most important guidelines about expository writing is to be clear. It turns out that in some circumstances you can be clear and still confuse. The auto sales industry can do this at least two ways: Supply too much information, or not enough.

First, the not-enough-info option: It’s called sidewinding. A salesman gets his hands on a car not owned by the dealership, and sells it as if it were. The buyer is none the wiser unless they need to bring in the car for service later. And the dealership doesn’t get its commission. This happened to me a couple decades back. The dealer took care of the needed repair, and the salesman lost his job.

The other one happens in a lot of industries that involve sales, and you probably heard of it. The good old Bait and Switch. Something is offered for sale, and then the thing you want isn’t available but they have something else you can buy. The something else always works in the seller’s favor, and if it’s done right, the buyer is pretty happy. I ran into a blog post by Scott Adams (writer of Dilbert) about his experience with the bait and switch. Go read it. It’s too long for me to quote, but it’s worth reading. Here’s the link again. I think this version of the bait and switch routine is somehow related to the discovery that increasing one’s choices does not increase one’s happiness.

And since this is a writing blog, I had to find something in Scott’s post to point out. This is a subtle one:

So customers either accept the bait-and-switch or they don’t buy a truck, like me.

Scott saves himself here with that comma after “truck,” making it clear that the truck is not like him, but the refusal to buy was like what he did. (I almost wrote “like him,” which would have fallen into the same trap). The rule is to make the pronoun (me or I) agree with what you’re actually comparing. “Me” would be correct if it was “a truck like me,” but it has to be “I” if it’s “refused to purchase, like I refused.” “Like” is so close to the pronoun that we make the pronoun’s case go with “like” instead of with “don’t buy.”

Just be clear—don’t let your reader think you’re like a truck.

Who Goes First?

rogersgeorge on April 11th, 2016

I suspect that more than once in grade school you experienced a conversation something like this:

You: Hey! Me and Tommy want to go swing on the swings.

Teacher: Tommy and I.

This correction of two mistakes at once has led to the unfortunate habit, mostly in the better educated, of saying things like “…between Tom and I.”

We’ve been over the issue of case before. (Subjects use I and objects use me.)

But what about putting Tom first? If you followed that link, You saw that the end of the post makes passing reference to that question of why Tom goes first, but I want to go into it a little more now. (If you didn’t follow the link: I said that the reason for putting Tom first is humility, not grammar.)  That’s not quite the whole rule. The rest of the rule is:

Put the most important one first.

I see this exercised a lot in scientific writing. Suppose your team led the research, but others participated, too. Putting your team first makes sense because it fits the relationship. I ran into this recently in the March 2016 Scientific American, page 68, near the top of the first column:

We and other developmental biologists have spent the past few decades trying to understand how this cellular orientation system works.

The article is mainly about their team, but they want to give credit to others working in the same field. That’s okay. In fact, it’s humble to include the others at all.

Now you and Tommy can go play on the swing in peace!

Watch Out for Ambiguity

rogersgeorge on March 15th, 2016

One principle of expository writing is that it be clear. This means, partly, that you can immediately tell what each word means. Many many words have more than one meaning, so you have to be careful if you want to be clear.

If you want to be funny, though (an antithesis, perhaps, of writing clearly) these multiple-meaning words provide a font of material. Here’s a comic, Fox Trot, that makes passing reference to correct use of case (I/me) but uses two words ambiguously to create humor. Can you tell what the two words are?

FoxTrot Classics

It occurred to me that a third word, “English,” could also have two meanings—the country or the language. (Snicker.)