Category Archives: Grammar

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Suffixery

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Letter to the editor, “The Guardian,” April 22, 2017

Kory Stamper, associate editor of Merriam-Webster and author of the new book Word By Word: The Secret Life Of Dictionaries, appeared on NPR’s Fresh Air on April 19. I turned to the transcript of the interview to look up something I heard, and I found: “So in speech, I don’t police people’s speech. I think that’s jerkery (ph) of the highest order when people do that.”

I love the ph. It means that the transcriber was not familiar with jerkery, f…

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Adverbs and United Airlines

flythefriendlyskiesYou might think nothing more remained to be said about United Airlines Flight 3411 from Chicago to St Louis on Sunday, April 9. Not so. The coverage left key facts of the case misreported, and the most interesting linguistic aspects completely unnoticed.

Sean Davis at The Federalist sensibly dug out United’s contract of carriage and read it. But even he failed to note how bad its use of English is.

The volitional subclass of adverbs used as act-related adjuncts are the adverbs like accidentally,…

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The Many First Rules of Politics

Press_secretary_Sean_Spicer“The first rule of X is Y” is a cliché of the sort that Language Log calls a snowclone: a sentence frame with customizable parts, suitable for journalists who can’t be bothered to craft sentences from scratch.

There is, of course, never a unique first rule of X. The Y’s multiply. One of the many first rules of politics, attributed to Donald Rumsfeld, is “You can’t win unless you’re on the ballot.” Somewhat contradicting it is another, from The Gangs of New York (and Josef Stalin before that): “T…

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Done and Finished

baking-cake-tipThe title might suggest that I am following up on Ben Yagoda’s informative post on the expression done and done, but instead I am revisiting one of my mother’s grammar bugbears.

When my sisters and I were kids, at the end of dinner, we at least sometimes described the postmeal state of affairs this way: “I’m done.” And then we would ask to be excused from the table. My mother would remind us, “Cakes are done, you are finished.” Or, she would tease us: “Are you ready to come out of the oven?”

I w…

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The World’s Greatest Grammarian

SunshineBeach

Professor Rodney Desmond Huddleston, the world’s greatest expert on the grammar of English, woke beside the South Pacific Ocean today on his 80th birthday. He was, I’m sure, up as usual by 3:30 a.m. (Brisbane time; that’s 1:30 p.m. the previous day in Washington, D.C., so he’s way ahead of Lingua Franca time), and will have gone on his standard predawn five-mile hike in the Noosa Heads National Park a few hundred yards from his home. Then he will have had breakfast, and a postbreakfast nap (put…

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The Team Sat in Its Hotel Drinking Its Beers

Lucky BarWhen Business Insider recently published a listicle entitled “21 common grammar mistakes and how to avoid them,” naturally the old chestnut about its being an error to use they (or their or them) “as a singular pronoun” was included.

It repeats a familiar mistake by saying “as a singular pronoun.” Nobody uses they as a singular pronoun. The word is grammatically plural, as you can see from the form of a present-tense verb that has they as subject: You get They are responsible (as with Women are …

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The Fun of It

grammar fun copyWhen I was invited to give a talk at Aquinas College on singular they, I barely finished reading the invitation before saying yes. It never crossed my mind that a lecture on this kind of grammar topic might seem like a recipe for the pedantic or dull, until friends teased me about it later. (As Lingua Franca readers can imagine, given my multiple posts on the topic, I have at least an hour’s worth of thoughts on this pronoun and what is at stake in using it — or prohibiting its use.)

The talk ha…

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Milking a Comma for All It’s Worth

cow and milkThe case of the dairy drivers has captured the world’s attention. From The New York Times to The New Yorker and Language Log, the $10-million award granted (some say) because of a missing comma makes news in which we all — well, maybe not Oakhurst Dairy, in Maine — can delight.

Readers of Lingua Franca may well know the facts already. The workers’ guideline at issue noted that overtime pay would not cover “the canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for s…

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Still Looking for a Triple

embeddedReading an article about the latest apparent murder by the North Korean royal family in this week’s Economist (February 18, 2017), I came upon this remarkable example of English hypotaxis:

Kim Kwang-jin, a defector who once worked in North Korea’s “royal court” economy, says that even if rumours that China had hoped to install Jong-nam if Jong-un fell from power are far-fetched, China would nonetheless have seen Jong-nam as useful leverage.

Hypotaxis is packing clauses inside other clauses as su…

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How Dangerous Are Danglers?

starfish-purple-color-420x280I don’t remember many grammar lessons from junior high school, but for whatever reason, one sentence from the lesson about dangling and misplaced modifiers has stuck with me. Here’s the sentence: “Clinging to the side of the aquarium, Mary saw a starfish.” Poor Mary! It is exhausting to have to cling to the side of an aquarium that way.

Now, of course, if we heard this sentence, we would probably assume it was the starfish clinging to the side of the aquarium, as this is the most logical and sen…