Category Archives: Grammar


No Overtime Pay for Milk-Truck Drivers (or Professors)


The Oakhurst Dairy case was finally resolved this week by a financial settlement. You may remember Lucy Ferriss’s piece about the case (“Milking a Comma for All It’s Worth”) in March 2017. In a recent New York Times article Daniel Victor throws a few casual insults at the linguistically informed (“punctuation pedants, grammar goons and comma connoisseurs”), and asserts that the case “hinged entirely on the lack of an Oxford comma in state law,” as if it was all about the victory of a trivial us…


Negative or Positive? Answer (a) or (b)

A friend of mine sent me a question from his nephew’s ninth-grade final English exam at Haishan High School in Banqiao, New Taipei City:examquestions

Which is the correct completion: (a) or (b)?
Lydia knows few things,
(a) and so does Peter.
(b) and neither does Peter.

Stare at that for a few moments and decide what your answer would be.

Here’s the puzzle: My friend discovered, by consulting various English speakers, that Americans all choose (a) as correct, while British and Australian speakers choose (b). …


Bonehead Guidance for Would-Be Novelists


The master thriller writer Lee Child


A web article offering self-help for novelists* advises: “Think of choosing more active verbs in place of all your ‘was’ constructions.”

Choose walked  rather than was walking  wherever possible, it says: “The latter invokes stronger, more active images.” And “Catch all of those ‘It was;’ ‘there were;’ constructions.” In fact, unless you are consciously striving to sound literary, “be highly suspicious of any sentence beginning with or containing this struc…


A Couple of Thoughts

three owlsIt seemed so obvious to me that “a couple of questions” referred to two questions that I never stopped to question it. In fact, I would even correct myself on this point of usage. If, for example, I typed in an email “I have a couple of questions,” then went on to list those questions and discovered that actually I had three questions, I would go back and change “a couple of” to “a few.” And I feel sure that I changed this construction in other people’s writing too.

Then came last semester’s r…


Punctuate, Punctuate; Punctuate!

Keep Calm and Punctuate

Punctuation is really an elementary and intuitive idea. Sentences are written down as a linear sequence of characters that (mostly) represent speech sounds. Punctuation marks are inserted in the sequence to signal certain aspects of the structure of their covert grammatical structure; they do what those little musical interludes do in NPR’s Morning Edition program.

However, punctuation does not have a direct or simple relation to phonological, grammatical, or semantic structure. Take clause typ…


Following Up on ‘Off Of’

R-6804881-1426985113-6550Four years ago, in this blog, Anne Curzan challenged “based off of watchers” to notice the degree to which the phrase — regarded by many prescriptivists as purely ungrammatical — continues to rise. I was prompted to do so this past semester, when students in my seminar almost invariably attempted to link the points they were making to previous points by others in the class with the phrase, “Coming off of that … ” or “Coming off of what Justin said … ” The expression grates on my ear, just as bas…


The Boy From the Isle of Man


Randolph Quirk

One sign that your future may lie in linguistics is having a serious interest both in languages and in scientific analysis of structure (chemical or mathematical, for example). Such a conflict confronted a farm boy from the Isle of Man in 1945. Five years’ service in the Bomber Command of the Royal Air Force had given him an intellectual interest in the science of explosives, and he had enrolled in a course in chemistry. But he also wanted to resume the degree course in English th…


The Fine Line Between Errors and Dialect Differences


“Imagine if I hadn’t of been there!” said someone in an email to my brother, Richard. He regarded the sentence coldly, as if it were a slimy creature emerging from under a rock. What’s that of ? A misspelled extra have ? Why? Doesn’t had suffice? He turned to the grammarian in the family, and asked me what had gone wrong.

It’s an interesting puzzle that teaches us something about drawing the subtle distinction between intralinguistic slips and interlinguistic variation.

Let’s start by setting a…


The Unmentionable Topic of Edinburgh Weather

Robert Louis Stevenson

Last Friday I purchased a secondhand copy of an early work by Robert Louis Stevenson that I had not been aware of: Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes (1878). On its very first page it addresses a topic on which my lips are sealed by an oath I took when I first moved from Santa Cruz to Edinburgh in September 2007.

My first Edinburgh home was at 5 Howe Street. I was awestruck to find that my kitchen window looked down into the garden of the house round the corner at 17 Heriot Row where Stevenson had pl…


Answering a Question With a Question

People naively say it’s rude to answer a question with a question. This betrays a widespread but wrong conception of human language use.

The November 20 Dilbert strip illustrates nicely. The boss says stand-up desks will be purchased for those who want them. Wally, perennial slacker and couch potato, responds: “Literally the only good thing about this job is that I can do it while sitting down.”

“How did you get to this meeting?” the boss asks.

And Wally says: “Your chair doesn’t have wheels?”