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.

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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!

More on word order

rogersgeorge on December 4th, 2013

The last post touched on word order. Here’s a subtle rule in English about the order of adjectives when you use more than one to modify a noun. For example, this sounds wrong:

She gave him a golden old big star.

Somehow you know it should be:

She gave him a big old golden star.

Instead of color, age, size, it needs to be size, age, color.

Other languages do this sort of thing. German has the rule, “time before place.” French has a rather complicated set of rules for pronoun word order. Many languages place adjectives after the noun they refer to.

I hope you never feel the need to modify a noun with nine different adjectives, but here’s the order for them. You don’t need to use them all, but the ones you use should be in this order:

Opinion, Size, Age, Temperature, Shape, Color, Origin, Material, Purpose

Maybe you can think of a comfortable sentence that uses all nine. Put it in the comments.

By the way, I though of an exception: we say the big bad wolf. But that’s an idiom.


rogersgeorge on December 2nd, 2013

This use of “whom” is correct. Why does it sound wrong?

blondie whomGood old Dagwood. From Sept 2013

The reason is because word order is important in English. The rules of word order aren’t absolute in English, but we pretty strongly like to have the subject come right before the verb. Since we don’t use many inflections, word order steps in to tell us the function of a word. Lots of times we spell nouns and verbs exactly alike. Without word order, we can’t tell. Take “run,” for instance. is it a noun or a verb? Depends.

This dog run looks pretty clean.

Would you run to the store for me?

In front of the verb, “run” is a noun, a place for dogs to hang out. After the subject, it’s a verb, something you do.

Highly inflected languages, such as Greek, care less about word order. In fact in Greek, they have a figure of speech called “chiasmus,” which means to arrange the words in a symmetrical order by part of speech. For example: adjective, noun, adverb, verb, adverb, noun, adjective. You use the inflections to tell what goes with what. It’s pretty hard (though not utterly impossible) to do this in English.

So on to the Dagwood cartoon. “Whom” is in front of the verb “talking.” That makes it feel wrong, even though it’s right. Actually, the “to” is out of place. Literally the sentence is “Do you realize to whom you are talking?” Of course, that’s even stiffer than the original.

Ah English. Sometimes you just can’t win.

The parrot is correct

rogersgeorge on December 26th, 2011

Here’s a comic I ran into recently.  The parrot got three things right that a lot of folks get wrong. Bizarro is generally pretty funny, by the way, and I recommend it.

The first thing is he mentioned himself first. Yes, this is opposite of an aside I made in a recent post about case. Normally, out of humility, you’re supposed to mention yourself last, but it’s not necessary to put yourself behind inanimate objects, and he’s talking mainly about himself anyway.

Second, he used the correct case. Many people would have said “With crackers and I…” and this is wrong. Object of a preposition—use “me.”

Third, a lot of folks would have missed the apostrophe in “a thousand’s.” It’s a contraction of “thousand is.”

Fourth, he didn’t point out that his mistress had eaten a few too many crackers herself.