Search THE READING ROOM

Thursday, September 6, 2012

How to avoid being a grammar goof

Of the many grammar books I have had the pleasure of reading (yes, pleasure; and no, Wren & Martin is not on the list), Woe Is I is right at the top.

This elegant, friendly, and witty bestseller, subtitled The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English, has taught me that learning never ends. More important, after reading up on author Patricia T. O'Conner's easy-to-understand explanations with easy-to-grasp examples, I now know...

1. None is not always singular.
None of Tyson's teeth were chipped is correct.

2. Both cactuses and cacti are correct.
O'Conner has this to say about other nouns of foreign origin:

How do you know whether to choose an Anglicised plural (like memorandums) or a foreign one (memoranda)? There's no single answer, unfortunately. A century ago, the foreign ending would have been preferred, but over the years we've given English plural endings to more and more foreign-derived words. And in common (rather than technical) usage, that trend is continuing. So don't assume that an exotic plural is more educated. Only ignorami would say they live in condominia.

What about the plural of octopus?

O'Conner writes:

Plurals can be singularly interesting. Take the octopus a remarkable creature, grammatically as well as biologically. Octopus is from the Greek and means "eight-footed". The original plural was octopodes, Anglicised over the years to octopuses. Along the way, someone substituted the Latin ending pi for the Greek podes and came up with the polyglot octopi. Though it's etymologically illegitimate, octopi is now so common that dictionaries list it as a second choice after octopuses. I'll stick to octopuses, thank you very much. Octopi is for suckers.

Look at the punchline in each of O'Conner's paragraphs above. Aren't they knockouts?


3. One way to make a noun possessive is to add 's; another way is to put of in front of it. You can also use both.

O'Conner tells us both a friend of Jake's and a friend of Jake are correct. She says there's nothing wrong with using the 's in addition to of: Brett is an old girlfriend of Jake's [or of Jake]. The choice is ours.

4. How to use the possessive with -ing words that act as nouns.

He resents me going is wrong. It should be He resents my going. But if you thought the former is correct, O'Conner has a few words of consolation for you. Don't beat up on yourself, she says. You're a member of a large and distinguished club. She then gives us a helpful tip:

To see why so many of us slip up, let's look at two similar examples:

1. He resents my departure.
2. He resents me departure.

I'll bet you didn't have any trouble with that one. Obviously, number 1 is correct. Departure is a noun (a thing), and when it is modified by pronoun (a word that stands in for a noun), the pronoun has to be a possessive: my, his, her, your, and so on.

Now look again at the first set of examples:

1. He resents my going.
2. He resents me going.

If you still feel like picking number 2, it's because -ing words are chameleons. They come from verbs — go, in the case of going — and usually act like verbs. But every once in a while they step out of character and take on the role of nouns. For all intents and purposes they may as well be nouns; in this case, going may as well be the noun departure.

I absolutely love this no-fuss, no-nonsense approach to teaching grammar.

O'Conner gives us more on the subject of -ing words because how do we figure out whether an -ing word is acting like a verb or like a noun?

Here's a hint: If you can substitute a noun for the -ing word departure in place of going, for example, or habit for smoking then treat it like a noun. That means making the word in front a possessive (my, not me): He can't stand my smoking. 

5. How to decide whether a verb that goes with a phrase like one of the, one of those should be singular or plural. 

The answer in a nutshell.

If a that or a who comes before the verb, it's plural: He's one of the authors who say it best.

If not, it's singular: One of the authors says it best. 

And, again, an explanation that helps us to understand these rules:

In the first example, one is not the subject of the verb say. The actual subject is who, which is plural because it refers to authors. In the second example, the subject really is one. If you don't trust me, just turn the sentences around in your mind and you'll end up with the correct verbs: Of the authors who say it best, he is one. Of the authors, one says it best.

I have only provided five examples of what I've learnt from reading Woe Is I (read the author's preface to know the origin of the title). There is more, much more to digest and to appreciate and to feel good about. Get your own copy now and never again be a grammar goof.