Bad Grammar in a Headline

rogersgeorge on January 8th, 2017

From Engadget, which generally gets things right. The headline is in their newsletter. If you go to the site, they have it correct.

Intel’s next generation of PC chips are here

Do you see the goof? What’s the subject of the sentence? Is it singular or plural? Now look at the verb; singular or plural?

This mistake appears a lot in amateur writing, when the plural object of a preposition is right next to the verb, and the subject, a singular, is farther away.  Don’t let that proximity fool you!

(The answers, in case you didn’t get it: the subject is “generation,” a singular. The verb is “are,” a plural! It was attracted to all those chips. Guess you can’t eat just one, eh?)

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Be Agreeable! part 1

rogersgeorge on June 7th, 2016

The technical term is subject-verb agreement. This means that if you have a plural subject, you need a plural verb form. Singular subject gets a singular verb. Third grade stuff. But sometimes it’s easy to get agreement wrong. The biggest pitfall is when you have a compound (more than one) subject. (The second pitfall is when you’re not sure what the subject is; you have so much stuff between the subject and its verb, you lose track. We’ll get to that in another post (ahem) the next one.)

Here’s the rule when you have more than one subject: If they’re joined by “and,” use a plural verb. If they’re joined by “or,” agree with the subject closest to the verb.

Planes, trains, and automobiles are types of transportation.

A plane, a train, and an automobile are in your display of transportation toys.

Trains, planes, or an automobile gets you there.

A train, a plane, or two automobiles get you there.

And now, a curve!

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is the name of a movie.

If the subject is a single entity, no matter what its form, it’s singular. You have to think!

Now an exercise for you. I found this sentence on the website of a place where I used to have a job, many years ago.

A welcome stop along the Glacial Ridge Trail, the Terrace Mill and the Terrace Mill Historic District features a 1903 Vintage Flour Mill, Keystone Arch Bridge, Weir Dam, Mill Pond, Log Cabin, and a Heritage Cottage.

Is the sentence correct or not?

Beware False Plurals

rogersgeorge on May 31st, 2016

I wrote about false plurals before, but it was several years back, and I just ran into a nice example of someone falling into that trap, so I thought I’d mention this little pothole again. Here’s the sentence:

However, that effort has been going about as well as Tennessee politics have been going, which is to say, not very well.

This is from a newsletter sent occasionally by the excellent cartoonist Hilary Price, who writes the comic Rhymes with Orange, and whom I recommend to all of you.

The sentence says “…politics have been going…” Looks like “politics” is a plural, doesn’t it? It’s not! That “-ics” is a noun suffix meaning that it’s a field of study, like physics, fluidics, and phonics. (Beware of words that happen to already end in “-ic” such as “picnic.” They’re different.)

It works the other way sometimes, too, mostly with words originating in languages (such as Latin) that don’t necessarily use “-s” to indicate the plural. “Apocrypha,” for example, is actually the plural of “apocryphon,” but we consider it a singular now, especially since the most common usage is the single collection of spurious books in the Bible. I mentioned recently that the word “media” is headed that way now.

And don’t get me started on “the hoi polloi.”

Remember, get rid of the “-ics” when you use the word as another part of speech: Do your mathematizing in math class. It was an athletic tour-de-force.

Yes, the first sentence in this post contains a mixed metaphor, but that’s a topic for another day.

Apostrophe humor

rogersgeorge on February 22nd, 2014

I have mentioned apostrophes now and then, so don’t expect much new today. This comic, by  Jon Kudelka, who might be an Australian, appeared recently, though, and I can’t resist repeating  myself.

How many apostrophic solecisms can you count?

Apostrophes are replacements for letters you leave out of a word. The apostrophe as the sign of the possessive in nouns (not pronouns!) came from the German, where the possessive ending is usually -es. We take out the e.

Rule 1: Plurals don’t get an apostrophe, even if you’re writing grocery store vegetable signs.

Rule 2: For possessives, look at the noun (not pronoun!) that you want to make into a possessive. If it ends in an single s, put an apostrophe on the end and you’re done. If it doesn’t end in s, add apostrophe s.

Rule 3: You don’t need an apostrophe to pluralize an acronym.

Want a couple complications?

Complication 1: If the word you want to pluralize ends in a vowel or laryngeal sound before the s, you do the apostrophe followed by nothing, but you pronounce the missing -es ending. For example, “Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount” is pronounced “Jesuses Sermon etc.”  and my first name, “Rogers,” has the possessive form “Rogers’ ” and you pronounce it “Rogerses.” Both of these, with the -es, are how you spell and pronounce the plural, by the way.

Complication 2: Use apostrophe s for the possessive of acronyms, even if the acronym ends in ss (for example, the Office of Strategic Services is the OSS). This is the only time in English where you can have three of the same letter in a row. “The OSS’s pronouncement” is grammatical. (Okay, onomatopoetic words can have any number of repeated letters. A snake goes “ssssssss,” and a cow goes “moooo.”)

Complication 3: Pronouns have their own possessive forms: my, your, his, her, its, our, your, their. No apostrophe! That’s not really a complication, is it?

The difference between two and three

rogersgeorge on December 4th, 2011

Grammar has a specialized term, number. To English and many other language speakers, this means singular or plural. Some languages, such as classical Greek, have another number, called dual, meaning exactly two. We have some vestiges of this in English with words that mean exactly two, such as “pair,” “both,” the poetry term “couplet,” and sometimes the vernacular “couple.” I remember in sixth grade a friend telling me that Sharon and I made a nice couple. (The trouble was I liked Sandy better.)

We also make this distinction between dual and plural when we use “between” and “among,” and that’s today’s topic.

Use “between” when you are referring to two things and “among” with more than two. Here’s a good example of “among” being used correctly on purpose (I hope) in a context where “between” would, at first glance, look correct and mean something rather different. This quote is from the December 2011 issue of Blue Water Sailing, a magazine about sailboat cruising where the closest land is straight down.

As we sail into the holiday season, we begin to think about the gift giving that goes on among families and friends. We sailors are easy, since we are always happy to receive anything to do with our boats. A simple rigging knife is as welcome as a full foul weather suit.

This is a deluxe rigging knife, but you get the idea

Two items, right? Therefore the writer should have used “between,” right? As the song goes, ’tain’t necessarily so. “Between” works, and it means a single group of families gives gifts to a single group of friends. How often would that happen? Using “among,” however, fixes this unlikely situation, allowing multiple individual families and multiple individual friends to give gifts in any combination. We have here a good use of the correct word to convey a subtle difference in meaning.

Here’s a word puzzle that plays on this same concept:

It’s a misunderstanding between friends, yuk yuk. Two friends, therefore “between.” If the picture had had the word “friends” more times, it would be a misunderstanding among friends.

I can’t resist making a curmudgeonly suggestion about the passage quoted above. The second sentence violates the second rule of good writing.  The first time you read the sentence, what did you think when you came to the word “easy”? Did it cross your mind that sailors are easy? As you continue through the sentence you figure out that the writer could not have intended this lowbrow and somewhat salacious meaning. Depending on how familiar you are with the meaning of “easy” by itself, meaning loose sexual standards, you got a jolt as you figured out that the writer really meant. Perhaps the sentence should have read “We sailors are easy to give gifts to…”

If you don’t know, ask in the comments or by email and I’ll tell you what the second rule is.