Answering Your Burning Grammar Questions

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We're joined this week by a special guest blogger. Patricia T. O'Conner, a former editor at The New York Times Book Review, is the author of the national best-seller Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English, as well as other books about language. She is a regular monthly guest on public radio station WNYC in New York. Learn more at her website, grammarphobia.com. Today she's answering questions from our readers.

Q: "All right "¦ so there's no good reason to not end a sentence in a preposition "¦ but that doesn't mean that I have to like hearing, "˜Where you at.'"—Posted by Fruppi on 5/5

A: The problem with "Where you at?" isn't that it ends in a preposition. The problem is that it shouldn't have a preposition at all. (What it ought to have is a verb!)

Constructions like "Where is my car at?" and "Where are my keys at?" are considered substandard usage because "where" makes the addition of "at" redundant. "Where" essentially means "at (or in) what place," so adding another "at" is overkill. It's roughly equivalent to saying, "In which pocket are they in?"

Q: "Can we look forward to a discussion of the singular they this week?"—Posted by s michael c on 5/5

A: I didn't discuss this on the blog but I'm glad you brought it up. The singular they or them or their has been considered wrong for a couple of centuries, and it's still a no-no. (Example: "If anybody uses a cell phone, tell them not to.") But it's become so common that only a few of us diehards notice anymore! That doesn't make it right, though. They, them or their are not legitimate singular pronouns, according to nearly all usage and style guides. And I don't like using "he or she" and "him or her," either.

Here's some historical perspective. Once upon a time, English speakers routinely used they to refer to indefinite pronouns that take singular verbs, like anyone, anybody, nobody, and someone. The Oxford English Dictionary has published references for this usage going back to the 16th century. But in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, grammarians began condemning the use of they as a singular pronoun on the grounds that it was illogical. Numerically speaking, they were right, but this left us with a great big hole in English where a gender-neutral, number-neutral pronoun ought to be.

That's the way things stand now, despite all the history, leaving the careful writer with the problem of finding an acceptable alternative to the singular they.

Here's one solution: In a long piece of writing, you might use "him" in some places and "her" in others when referring to a generic individual. Another solution is to write around the problem—don't use the pronoun at all. Example: "Someone forgot to pay the bills" (instead of "their bills"). Or: "If anyone calls, say I'm out" (instead of "tell them I'm out").

If you do use they, them, or their, then make the subject (or referent noun) plural instead of singular. A sentence like "Every parent dotes on their child" could instead be "All parents dote on their children." Instead of "A person should mind their own business," make it "People should mind their own business." Be creative. Disregarding the plural nature of they isn't the answer.

Q: "Would you please address the misuse/overuse of the word myself? It seems the use of the word has become more popular lately. One example I hear a lot is "˜Myself and my friends"¦.' This sounds so wrong to me, or am I incorrect? Another one is irregardless. Is that a real word?"—Posted by JaneM on 5/6

A: People use myself when they can't decide between "I" and "me." This isn't just a cop-out; it's bad English. The word myself is reserved for two uses: (1) To emphasize: "Let me do it myself." (2) To refer to a subject already mentioned: "I can see myself in the mirror." If you could just as well use "I" or "me," then you shouldn't resort to myself.

As for irregardless, it's definitely out of bounds. It blends "regardless" with "irrespective," and the result is a redundancy that has both a negative prefix and a negative suffix! As one reader (lala) so cleverly commented, it's a one-word double negative! Is it real? Well, lots of people use irregardless and you'll find it in dictionaries, so it's real all right. But not everything in a dictionary is good English. Read the fine print: Both Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) call it "nonstandard."

Q: "If President Bush (41) and President Bush (43) were walking down the street together, what would be the correct statement? "˜Here come the Presidents Bush "¦ the Bush Presidents "¦ the President Bushes'? Or, "˜Here comes President Bush and President Bush'? These questions must be answered before the next President is inaugurated."—Posted by Witty Nickname on 5/6

A: Your first suggestion is right: "the Presidents Bush." Similarly, Presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams are often referred to jointly as "the Presidents Adams" or "both Presidents Adams." When in doubt, think of Dostoyevsky (The Brothers Karamazov).

Q: "What's the best contraction for "˜am not'? For example, how should one best end this sentence: "˜Since contractions are required, I'm forced to use one now, am I not?'"—Posted by John on 5/7

A. This is a very interesting question! The answer (aren't I) takes us back to the history of the most fascinating contraction of them all: ain't.

Today, ain't is considered the poster child of poor English, but it wasn't always so. It was probably first used around 1600, just when most of our English contractions—all perfectly legitimate, I might add—were being formed: don't, can't, isn't, and many more. For centuries, ain't was just one of the crowd. It was first seen in print in the late 1600s, spelled an't, a'n't, and eventually ain't. (Some scholars believe the new spelling may have reflected the way the word was pronounced by certain speakers.)

Ain't was originally a contraction of "am not" and "are not." But by the early 1700s, it was also being used as a contraction for "is not." And by the 1800s it was used for "have not" and "has not" too, replacing an earlier contraction, ha'n't. Naturally, as ain't took on more and more meanings it drifted further and further from its roots, and here's where the grammarians and schoolmarms took notice. Contractions like can't and don't had clearly traceable parentage, but ain't had so many possible parents that it seemed illegitimate. So 19th-century critics turned up their noses and declared ain't a crime against good English.

That created a problem, of course—what to use in place of ain't I as a contraction for "am I not." The obsolete "amn't I" was a tongue-twister (it survives today only in Scots and Irish English). As we all know by now, we ended up with aren't I, which clearly makes no sense. How can we justify it if we don't say "I aren't"? And how did it come about, anyway?

As it happens, aren't I didn't exist until the early 20th century, when British novelists and dramatists started using it to reproduce the way upper-class speakers pronounced ain't I. (In the mouth of an old Etonian, ain't rhymed with "taunt" rather than "taint.") Illogical it may be, but aren't I caught on in both Britain and the United States. It may have come out of left field, but today it's standard English while ain't I definitely isn't.

Too bad. I rather like ain't, though I'm too cowardly to use it. If it hadn't outgrown its old meanings of "am not" and "are not," it might be acceptable today. And we'd have a sensible contraction for "am I not."

Q: "The English/Irish refer to a team as a plural thing ("˜England are playing great football this season'). I realize the English invented English but this drives me nuts! To me it is a non-issue. A team was, is, and always will be ONE team, no matter if there are 2 people or 2,000 people. A couple is always two but it is still just one couple. And certainly not to argue with you but I don't like your example "˜A couple of tenants own geckos.' I think the only reason it sounds acceptable is because the word tenants is plural. But you always have to ignore prepositional phrases. Anyway, just my two cents."—Posted by Rob on 5/8

A: The British have a much broader attitude toward collective nouns than we do. To us, "team" is singular, but to them it's a collective that they treat as a plural. In fact, things like soccer teams ("Manchester are leading"), companies ("Mobil plan to invest"), and government bodies ("the Cabinet have met") are all treated as plural in Britain.

They use punctuation marks and articles (a, an, the) and all sorts of other things differently, too. But do NOT assume that British English is purer or more correct than American English. Many characteristics that we identify with modern-day British English—the different usages, spellings, vocabulary words, some points of grammar, even the British accent with its broad a's and dropped r's—developed after the Revolutionary War. Remember that the Colonists brought with them 17th- and 18th-century British English, much of which has been preserved on our side of the Atlantic (and much of which has been altered on theirs). So what's considered correct in London is not necessarily correct in Philadelphia. A chapter in my next book will be devoted to this issue, which I discussed recently on my blog. Here's a link.

As for the collective noun couple, I don't agree that an attached prepositional phrase should be ignored when you're deciding whether the word is singular or plural. Certainly it's singular here: "The couple next-door vacations in Hawaii." But just as certainly it's plural here: "A couple of my friends vacation in Hawaii." And couple is plural here even without a prepositional phrase, because it's assumed: "Where do your friends vacation?" "¦ "A couple [of them] vacation in Hawaii, and a couple more prefer ski resorts."

Q: "I feel like I remember having read in my old college Chicago Manual of Style that there are a select few proper names for which the possessive is ' and not 's. I think one was Jesus (as in "˜He followed Jesus' teachings,' not "˜He followed Jesus's teachings'). I think it was the same for Moses and Sophocles "¦ am I making this up?"—Posted by lala on 5/8

A: You remember correctly! The usual practice in making names possessive is to add an apostrophe plus s. But there's an exception. When a Biblical or classical name ends in s, the custom is to add just the apostrophe: Jesus' disciples, Hercules' strength, Xerxes' writings, Archimedes' principle.

We also drop the s and use only the apostrophe in certain idiomatic expressions with the word "sake" (this avoids a pileup of sibilants). Examples: "for goodness' sake," "for conscience' sake," "for righteousness' sake," "for convenience' sake."

Q: "OK, so this has always really bugged me: is it the 1970s or the 1970's? For example, "˜I was born in the 1970s.' Or, "˜I was born in the 1970's.' I was always under the impression the apostrophe was erroneous, but I guess I might be wrong!"—Posted by Beth on 5/8

A: It's true that you never add an apostrophe to make an ordinary noun plural. But the plurals of numbers are another matter, a style issue that publishers have differed on over the years. In the first two editions of my book Woe Is I, my recommendation was to add an apostrophe plus s to make a number plural: 3's, for example, and 1970's. This was the style then recommended by the New York Times. Since then, both I and the Times have changed our opinions.

I now advise using only the s, with no apostrophe: 3s and 1970s. The third edition of my book Woe Is I (due out next year) and the children's edition, Woe Is I Jr. (published in 2007), reflect this change. I still recommend using the apostrophe to pluralize a single letter for the sake of readability. Without it, a sentence like this is gibberish: "My name is full of as, is, and us." Translation: "My name is full of a's, i's, and u's."

Yesterday: Five Lessons in Punctuation. Wednesday: Five Lessons in Grammar. Tuesday: Debunking Etymological Myths. Monday: Debunking Grammar Myths.

May 9, 2008 - 12:29pm
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