The Grammarphobia Blog

All the best whiches

Q: A colleague (we’re technical writers) insists that one should never use “which” as the object of a preposition (“in which,” “on which,” “by which,” “for which,” “to which,” and so on). Could you comment on this?

A: I’m not sure where your colleague could have gotten the impression that “which” can’t be the object of a preposition. All the phrases you mention (“in which,” “on which,” “by which,” “for which,” “to which,” etc.) are perfectly legitimate. Examples:

Here’s the field in which the plane crashed.
That’s the goal on which he’s fixated.
These are the laws by which we govern ourselves.
Show us the fence over which the prisoner escaped.
We exercised, after which we took a break.

You may be interested in two related items on The Grammarphobia Blog, one about
“which” clauses and the other about “which” vs. “that.”

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A slothful usage?

Q: I am concerned about the assertions on your Grammar Myths page that the objective case is acceptable in informal English for sentences like “It is me” or “Who’s the package for?” Is intellectual laziness so dominant that those of us able to follow a simple rule will be required to abandon the nominative case, while those who cannot or will not write and speak properly will be rewarded for their sloth?


A: Like it or not, those two pronoun usages, once strongly resisted, are slipping into standard English. In conversation and informal writing, it’s OK to use “me” after forms of the verb “be,” and “who” instead of “whom” at the beginning of a sentence. I’m not the arbiter of what’s acceptable and what’s not – I’m just reporting what linguists, lexicographers, and usage experts are saying these days.

In the case of “It is me” vs. “It is I,” grammarians have been arguing for one side or the other since at least the early 1700s. What apparently set them off was Sir Richard Steele’s use of “It is not me” in the Spectator in 1712.

For some years, two camps battled over the issue until the “It is I” faction won around the late 18th century (possibly influenced by the Latin pattern of using the nominative). So the “It is I” nominative pattern has been considered the norm in English grammar for most of the last 200 years, although both constructions have been (and still are) common among the actual users of the language.

In our day, the objective is in the ascendant and is now considered an acceptable informal usage, according to the entries for “me” in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), and other references. The nominative pattern (“It is I”) is generally used in formal English, but the objective (“It is me”) is universally and legitimately used in less formal writing and speech.

It’s hard to imagine a robbery victim, even William F. Buckley Jr., spying his assailants and shouting to the police: “It is they! It is they!” And it’s hard to imagine a startled District Attorney, on being informed that Mr. Buckley was robbed, saying, “Whom?” (Actually, Noah Webster himself suggested that “whom” would one day fall out of use.)

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage has a theory about all this: “The strongest force operating in favor of ‘it is me’ is probably that of word position: the pronoun after ‘is’ is in the usual position for a direct object, and the objective case feels right in that position. It is probably just as simple as that – we find the strength of word order at work on initial ‘whom’ also, turning it frequently into ‘who,’ even when it is an object in its clause – but early grammarians knew nothing of the power of word order in English, and they had to find other explanations.”

I hope this makes “it is me” and similar constructions seem less slothful.

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Learning disabilities

Q: I work for a marketing firm where the rules of English are subject to “marketizing.” Lately our research department has informed us of “learnings” that I assume can be used to make “decidings.” This kind of talk gives me “cringings.”

A: “Learnings”? What happened to good old “findings”?

In my opinion, the noun “learning” (the act of gaining knowledge or the knowledge that’s gained) has no plural form in contemporary English. In the past, however, “learning” was used in the plural.

The Oxford English Dictionary has several published references from the 16th and 17th centuries for “learnings,” including citations from Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Bacon.

Here’s one from The Advancement of Learning (1605) by Bacon: “He did send his divine truth into the world, waited on with other learnings.”

But the OED has only one reference for the usage since the 17th century and that’s from a 50-year-old research paper full of academic jargon.

Maybe your company needs to engage in a few hirings in the research department, or else send the culprits back for some more “schoolings.”

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Should a kid care about grammar?

Pat did an article for the online magazine Tweens & Teens about why she wrote Woe Is I Jr. and why grammar still matters. Here’s an excerpt:

Knowing Write From Wrong
A cure for grammarphobia.

By Patricia T. O’Conner

The fall quarter or semester means new clothes, teachers, classrooms, books and friends. Yet, for many tweens and teens, it also means grammarphobia. In case you haven’t heard, grammarphobia is the fear of grammar. This common phobia attacks almost everybody at one time or another, and it’s most likely to strike during English or language arts class. Even people who love reading and writing have been known to get feverish and shaky at the prospect of turning in homework with grammar or spelling mistakes. Though writing may be enjoyable, being corrected most definitely is not!

Grammarphobes, unite! It’s time to put your fears behind you. Contrary to popular opinion, grammar isn’t gruesome, ghastly, gross, or grim. Here’s why.

Let’s assume you like hearing and telling stories. And that you enjoy joking with friends and sharing the latest gossip. You probably also like e-mailing and instant-messaging. Well, what do you think makes all this possible? Grammar!

Grammar is simply the art of putting words together to make sentences. Whenever you use words to express yourself, you’re using grammar. You do this all the time without even thinking.

So why think about it? Because good grammar helps you convey the ideas you intend. If your words aren’t right, or if they’re not in the right order, the person you’re talking to might get the wrong idea. This can have embarrassing consequences.

I’ll illustrate by using what I call the Bad News Rule. Here’s how it works. You learn that your favorite Uncle has broken his leg in a skiing accident. You send him an instant message: “I heard you’re bad news.”

Oops! You meant to say the news was bad. But you’ve actually said that your Uncle himself is bad news! You wrote “you’re”— a word that’s short for you are— when you should have used “your.”

Grammar helps us understand each other. It’s like an owner’s manual for assembling the words in your head. You have to put your words together the right way if you want them to make sense. They can’t do what you want if they aren’t put together correctly.

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Do you heart New York?

Q: I wonder if you’ve seen the use of the word “heart” to replace the familiar heart symbol. I first saw this on a T-shirt printed with “I heart my mom”; then I was asked by a tourist where she could find “I heart New York” items. And the science-education issue of the Barnard College alumnae magazine had an article with the title “I heart science.” For some unexplained reason, I find this usage very annoying. I’ve gotten used to the heart symbol, but this seems ridiculous.

A: Thanks for bringing this to my attention. I must have had my head, if not my heart, in the sand to have missed it. I just googled “I heart” and got 2.25 million hits – from “I heart knitting” to “I heart pixels” to “I heart paws.” Hmm.

Interestingly, the use of “heart” as a verb isn’t a modern phenomenon. In fact, the first published reference for the verbing of “heart” dates from around 897, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In Anglo-Saxon days, to “heart” meant to give heart to or inspire someone. The latest OED citation for the usage is in an 1830 poem by Tennyson: “A grief not uninformed and dull, Hearted with hope.”

The verb “heart” has had several other meanings over the centuries, including to utter with heart, take heart, be at the heart, and have one’s heart in something. In Shakespeare’s Othello (1604), for example, Iago reassures Roderigo that he hates Othello and his heart is in getting revenge: ”My cause is hearted.”

But none of the published references in the OED use the verb “heart” in quite the same way that it’s being used these days, meaning to love.

By the way, the stylized image of a heart has been used since ancient times as a symbol of love. But the graphic designer Milton Glaser was the guy who came up with the idea of using it to represent the phrase “I love.” This was back in the 1970s, when he created the logo for the “I love New York” ad campaign.

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Mischief-making

Q: Why do you say in your Oct. 25, 2007, blog posting that it’s wrong to accent the second syllable of “mischievous”? Both M-W and the AHD include pronunciations with the accent on the second syllable.

A: Dictionary entries can be confusing. For example, some dictionaries put the stress mark before the syllable accented and some put it after. And different dictionaries have different ways to indicate whether a variant is legit: some use symbols, others explanatory notes, and still others both. If you have the time, it helps to read the guide at the beginning of a dictionary.

As for “mischievous,” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) gives only one pronunciation – with the accent on the first syllable. (In American Heritage, the stress mark follows the syllable that’s accented.)

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) does list a four-syllable variant accented on the second syllable, but it’s accompanied by a division symbol (÷), which means the variant is widely considered unacceptable, as well as an explanatory note saying it’s “considered nonstandard.”

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The Scarlet Letter

Q: In your blog item a couple days ago about the pronunciation of “adult,” you said the word comes from the Latin adultus, the past participle of adolescere. Do “adultery” and “adulterate” come from the same root?

A: Good question, but the answer is no. The words “adultery” and “adulterate” are derived from the Latin verb adulterare, which means to pollute, while “adult” comes from adolescere (to grow up).

In the 14th and 15th centuries, we had several Gallic-influenced words for what we now call “adultery”: “avoutrie,” “advoutrie,” “aduoutrie,” and so on. But by the end of the 15th century, both the French and the English were using words derived from the Latin adulterare for what the Oxford English Dictionary describes as a “violation of the marriage bed.”

For example, the first complete English translation of the Bible, the Wycliffe version of around 1382, uses the term “auowtrie,” but the later Geneva translation of 1560 uses “adulterie,” according to the OED.

When “adulterate” first showed up in English (in 1531), it meant to debase or corrupt things, pretty much what it means today. The first citation in the OED refers to someone who “adulterateth his coin, with a more base metal.”

But Shakespeare uses the word in King John (1595) to refer to debasing people: “She adulterates hourly with thine uncle John.” I’m surprised that Shakespeare’s use of the word didn’t catch on, since we don’t have a common verb these days for committing adultery.

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Take a decision, please!

Q: I would love to hear your views on whether one makes or takes a decision. Personally I hate the “take” form – it sounds like bureaucratic language that absolves the decision-MAKERS of responsibility. But I hear it more and more, especially in governmental and corporate discourse.

A: You are right. One makes a decision. The “take” version is seen a lot in the British Commonwealth, especially in India. But even British dictionaries seem to prefer “make a decision” over “take a decision.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, for example, has a dozen published references for “make a decision,” but only one for “take a decision” – a 1993 Newsweek article that quotes someone who’s backed into a corner and forced to decide: “I have to take a decision, even if they shoot me.”

The OED does, however, list references in the 1960s to “decision-takers,” “the decision-taking process,” “the decision-taking mechanism,” and this double-header, in which decisions are subject to both taking and making: “Decision theory is probing the psychology of decision making, and attempts to provide an algorism for taking decisions.”

The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (4th ed.), which reflects both British and American English, includes “make a decision,” but not “take a decision.”

William Safire, in an “On Language” column in the New York Times in 1989, noted the increased use of “take a decision” in the U.S. among politicians, commentators, bureaucrats, and academics. But he said the usage was seen more often in the British media (the BBC, The Economist, Reuters, and so on).

Since the Safire column appeared, the “take” usage has crept more and more into American English, especially the jargon spoken in government, business, and academia.

But the “make” expression is by far the more popular, both here and overseas. I googled both versions. The results? Nearly 2 million hits for “make a decision” and only 649,000 for “take a decision.”

My take on all this? Let’s make a decision.

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Adult entertainment

Q: I would love it if you could comment on the proper pronunciation of “adult.” Is it a-DULT or ADD-ult?

A: There are two correct pronunciations of “adult.” The more common one is “a-DULT,” with the accent on the second syllable, and number two is “ADD-ult.” Both are considered standard English.

I checked this in two modern dictionaries, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), as well as in an old unabridged Webster’s New International Dictionary (2d ed.) from the early 50s.

The word “adult,” a noun or adjective meaning grown-up, has been around since 1531, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The use of “adult’ as a euphemism for sexually explicit (as in “adult cinema” or “adult entertainment”) dates from only 1958, according to the OED. The earliest published reference for “adult” used to refer to the elderly (as in “adult home”) dates from 1968.

The word “adult” comes to us from the Latin adultus, the past participle of the verb adolescere (to grow up), which has of course given us “adolescent.”

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Booby hatch

Q: In the Steinbeck novel Of Mice and Men, Crooks teases Lennie that he’ll end up in a booby hatch. Can you tell me something about the term “booby hatch” and how it came to mean a mental institution?

A: The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) describes this usage as “offensive slang,” but Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) defines “booby hatch” as a psychiatric hospital, without a negative label.

The word “booby” has meant a dummy or nincompoop for hundreds of years, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED says it probably comes from the Spanish word bobo, meaning a fool or dunce, but Daniel Cassidy suggests in How the Irish Invented Slang that it might be of Gaelic origin.

The earliest citation for “booby” in the OED dates from the late 17th century. Here’s one from Samuel Johnson, via James Boswell’s Life of Johnson (1791): “Sir, we are a city of philosophers, we work with our heads, and make the boobies of Birmingham work for us with their hands.”

In the 19th century, the word “booby” was attached to a whole bunch of words to create such phrases as “booby prize,” “booby trap,” and “booby hatch.” At first, “booby hatch” referred to a police station house or a covering over a hatchway, according to the OED. (It’s still a nautical term for a covering over a hatchway.)

By the late 19th century, the term was being used in reference to a mental hospital, according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang. Here’s an example from the P.G. Wodehouse novel Laughing Gas (1936): “What, tell people you’re me and I’m you. Sure we could, if you don’t mind being put in the booby-hatch.”

And how, you may ask, did “booby hatch” come to mean a mental hospital? Word detectives have several theories, but the one I like best is a suggestion in Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang that it may have something to do with the word “hatch” in the name of the old Colney Hatch Asylum in London.

The mental institution, which operated under various names from 1851 to 1993, was in the Colney Hatch district of the London Borough of Barnet. Over the years, the name “Colney Hatch” became a catch phrase for a mental institution.

Wodehouse, for example, used both “booby hatch” and “Colney Hatch” in his comic novels. Here’s an example of the latter from Uncle Fred in Springtime (1939): “He’ll probably end his days in Colney Hatch.”

The “hatch” in “Colney Hatch” apparently refers to a one-time gate into a nearby wood, according to the Borough of Barnet’s website. And “Colney” may have something to do with a long-forgotten person named Col, the website says.

One final note about “booby.” The earliest OED reference to the word as slang for a woman’s breast appears in (you guessed it) Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (1934): “She was lying on the ground with her boobies in her hands.”

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Inside the pale

Q: What does the word “pale” mean and where does it come from in expressions like “Pale of Settlement” (the Jewish ghettos in Europe) and “beyond the pale”?

A: The noun “pale” comes from the Latin palus (“stake”), from which we also get the words “pole” and “palisade.” (The adjective “pale,” meaning wan or weak in color, comes from a different source.)

The noun first appeared in English in the 1300s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and it literally meant a wooden stake or picket driven into the ground.

Originally it was used to refer to a fence or boundary (that is, “palings”), but in the 1400s it was used for a district or territory within certain bounds and subject to a certain jurisdiction.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, for instance, the parts of Ireland under English jurisdiction were called “the Pale.” And “the Pale” was also used (much after the fact) to refer to the French territory of Calais under English jurisdiction.

Beginning in the late 19th century, the term “Pale of Settlement” was used to refer to areas where Jews were required to live in Russia and Russian-occupied Poland between 1791 and 1917.

From the 15th century onward, “pale” was also used figuratively. For example, someone might be said to be “within the pale of the Church” or “outside the pale of society.”

The expression “beyond the pale,” first recorded in 1720, meant outside the bounds of accepted mores or behavior.

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Is this integration?

Q: Can the word “integrate” be used in this sentence: “We are writing a manual that integrates the concepts of urban forestry and stormwater management”? Or, must it be used in the sense that one thing is put INTO another: “We are writing a manual that integrates the concepts of urban forestry into those of stormwater management”? A colleague says the latter is the only correct usage, while I think the former is acceptable. Can you help?

A: You win the argument. The verb “integrate” means, among other things, to unite or bring parts together as well as to bring a part into a larger unit.

In fact, the first definition is the earliest and most common. The word, first used in English in 1638 according to the Oxford English Dictionary, comes from the Latin integrare, to make whole.

The earliest use of the word “integrate” in the racial sense (to make open to all racial or ethnic groups) dates from 1948, according to the OED.

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Noun sense

Q: My son’s 6th-grade teacher gave a test that included the following question: “Upon receiving a check plus on his essay, Tony gave his teacher a look of triumph. In this sentence, the word triumph is a(n) 1. noun, 2. verb, 3. adjective, 4. adverb.” My son answered “4,” and his friend Eden “3.” The teacher marked both incorrect. I agree with Eden. It seems to me that “look” is a noun, modified by “triumph,” an adjective.

A: “Triumph” here is a noun. It’s also the object of a preposition (“of”), so the phrase “of triumph” is a prepositional phrase. But in the clause “Tony gave his teacher a look of triumph,” it is also an adjectival phrase, since “of triumph” modifies “look.” (What kind of look was it? A look “of triumph.”) But while “of triumph” serves the function of an adjective, “triumph” alone is a noun.

“In triumph” would have been an adverbial phrase if the sentence had been “Tony looked in triumph at the teacher.” (How did he look? He looked “in triumph.”) But again, while “in triumph” serves the function of an adverb, “triumph” alone is a noun.

In short, the answer (noun) was a lot simpler than it appeared on the surface. The adjective of “triumph” is “triumphal” (as in, “Tony gave a triumphal look”), and the adverb is “triumphally” (as in “Tony looked triumphally”).

You might also think of the problem this way: “Tony gave his teacher a cup of milk.” Clearly, “milk” is a noun, even though it’s part of a prepositional phrase, as well as part of an adjectival phrase modifying “cup.” (What kind of cup? A cup “of milk.”)

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The proper perspective

Q: I can’t find definitions for “proper left” and “proper right.” These phrases are commonly used by art conservators to designate direction (like “stage left” and “stage right” in the theater world), but I can’t find the definitions in any dictionary, even the OED. Why not? Where might I find these definitions?

A: Museum curators and art conservators often use the terms “proper left” and “proper right” to describe paintings and sculptures. They do this to avoid any confusion about which arm or leg (or whatever) they’re talking about. The “proper left hand” of a person in a painting or sculpture, for example, is the subject’s left hand, not the one that simply is on the left from the viewer’s perspective.

I did find a couple of references in the Oxford English Dictionary, including a 1948 citation from the journal Endeavour: “An X-radiograph [of the picture] made after cleaning revealed the density in the region near the proper right hand.”

This is an example of nomenclature (or jargon) that’s peculiar to a particular field. Often such terminology isn’t found in general dictionaries, like the use of “graf” (paragraph) and “lede” (lead paragraph) in newspaper lingo.

I hope this helps!

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Author! Author!

Q: On a railroad mailing list, someone used the verb “authored.” I think you’ve discussed this on NYC and as I remember you said it was a fairly old practice. Is there a website that has a list of such words? Googling (I use and like that noun-to-verb), I found a few words but mainly links that decry the practice. One of the decriers said: “This constant verbing of nouns has got to stop!!!”

A: Yes, “author” has been used as a verb since 1596, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED‘s first citation is from Chapman’s translation of The Iliad: “The last foul thing Thou ever author’dst.”

We’ve been using “author” as a verb ever since (though seldom in the form of “author’dst”). Here, “author” meant to be responsible for an action. In 1602 the word was first used to mean to be responsible for a statement.

I don’t know of a definitive list of nouns-turned-verbs, but this a very common transition in English. I, too, like the “verbing” of the noun “Google.”

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Department of inveterate affairs

Q: I wanted to call last month while you were on the Leonard Lopate Show, but I didn’t get a chance. Leonard described his listeners as “inveterate contributors” to WNYC. Now I have always been of the opinion that “inveterate” had a somewhat pejorative connotation. Hence I would have preferred “veteran contributors.” Am I right, or is the word as neutral as “veteran”?

A: “Inveterate” has been around since the 1500s and means long-established, deep-rooted, ingrained, and so on. It’s derived from the Latin inveterare, to make old or give age to.

But to some extent you’re right – there are sometimes pejorative connotations to the adjective. It took on negative overtones from the very beginning, probably from its association with obstinacy, persistent habits, or resistance to treatment (as in a chronic disease). That’s likely to be the reason it’s so often seen paired with negative nouns, as in “an inveterate liar” (or “drunk” or “thief”).

But its first and most common meaning in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) is the neutral one – of long standing.

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Just because you’re you

Q: I see sentences like this all the time: “Just because you’re a millionaire doesn’t mean you can win the election.” I feel that arrangement is wrong. Do you agree?

A: The sentence you mention is an example of a very common idiomatic construction. What’s at issue is whether the clause “Just because you’re a millionaire” can legitimately be the subject of a sentence.

There’s a rather stuffy old prohibition to the effect that it can’t. Why? Because (or so goes the “rule”) a clause starting with “because” can’t be a subject. But in fact subject clauses beginning with “because” or “just because” are extremely common in both conversational and written English.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) calls this “perfectly acceptable,” but notes that it carries a “colloquial flavor.” Linguists studying this phenomenon have named it the “JBX-DMY” construction (for “Just because X … doesn’t mean Y”).

I found an interesting research paper on the subject by a pair of academics at the University of California at Berkeley. (You might want to jump to the “conclusion” section.)

The short answer to your question is yes, the construction is acceptable. But in writing (particularly formal writing), I might opt for the more straightforward construction: “The fact that X … doesn’t mean Y.” (Or even “Just because X …, that doesn’t mean Y.” The addition of the relative pronoun “that” seems to make the construction less offensive to more sensitive ears.)

I hope this sheds a little light. It’s a very interesting question!

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A conversation stopper

Q: I’ve been hearing the word “conversate” around my office lately. Is it a legitimate substitute for “converse”? I need your expertise!

A: “Conversate” is not legit. The proper word is “converse.”

I suspect your co-workers are using (perhaps humorously) an inventive back-formation from “conversation.” Although I got 201,000 hits when I googled “conversate,” many were complaints about the usage.

Back-formations (new words formed by dropping prefixes or suffixes from older ones) are pretty common in English. Examples of verbs that began as back-formations from nouns are “diagnose” (from “diagnosis”), “escalate” (from “escalator”), and “babysit” (from “babysitter”).

Among back-formations that are often frowned upon by American usage experts are “incent” (from “incentive”), “enthuse” (from “enthusiasm”), and “orientate” (a mid-19th century back-formation from “orientation,” which itself is derived from a verb, “orient”).

Another example of a humorous back-formation that’s not (yet) in the dictionary is “adolesce” (from “adolescence”), as in “He hasn’t finished adolescing yet.”

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Are you possessed?

Q: I find the subject of possessives both maddening and confusing. I’ll often read things like “The New York Times’s Thomas L. Friedman,” but I’ll just as often see something like “The Daily News’ Mike Lupica.” Shouldn’t that be “News’s” because “News” is the name of the newspaper? Other examples I’ve seen: “Brian Williams’ family” and “Joan Rivers’ daughter.” Should that read “Williams’s” and “Rivers’s” because their names end in “s”?

A: Lots of people are spooked by possessives, so let’s exorcise some ghosts. Here are three simple rules for making a noun possessive:

1) If the word is singular, add an apostrophe followed by s: “I love London’s theaters and Paris’s museums.”

2) If the word is plural and doesn’t already end in s, add an apostrophe followed by s: “The children’s room was a mess.”

3) If the word is plural and ends in s, add just an apostrophe: “The victims’ car was recovered.”

So you’re right. It should be the Times’s Thomas L. Friedman, the News’s Mike Lupica, Brian Williams’s family, and Joan Rivers’s daughter.

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It’s got to be me

Q: Which is correct: “I am free to be I” or “I am free to be me”?

A: Traditionally, the pronoun “I” should follow the verb “be” in the present, past, future, and other tenses, as in “It is I,” or “The lottery winner was I,” or “The next mayor will be I.” But the pronoun “me” should follow the verb “be” when it’s an infinitive – that is, “to be.”

In answer to your question, the correct sentence is “I am free to be me.” So, Sammy Davis Jr. was right when he sang “I’ve Got to Be Me.” And Marlo Thomas got it right when she wrote Free to Be … You and Me.

I should mention that language is a living thing, and the traditional view of “I” and “me” is loosening. In all but the most formal writing, it’s now OK to say “It’s me” or “The lottery winner was me” or “The next mayor will be me.” But you’re still NOT free to be I.

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“I’ve ‘ad me breakfast”

Q: I was born in England and came to the U.S. when I was 10. I pronounced “ate” as “et” in the U.K., but I was told that educated people pronounced it as “eight” here. You may enjoy this story. I later visited England and went for a drive through Richmond Park with my grand aunt in her chauffeur-driven Daimler. I asked her whether she’d say, “I et my breakfast” or “I eight my breakfast.” She repeated the question and quipped: “Neither. I would say, ‘I’ve ‘ad me breakfast.’”

A: Thanks for sharing that story! Americans pronounce “ate” with a long “a,” as in “mate,” but the British pronounce it to rhyme with “yet.” Joseph E. Davis, in his book Divided by a Common Language: A Guide to British and American English, has this to say on the subject:

“The pronunciation of ate is a little tricky. Americans pronounce the word exactly like eight. In Britain one is taught to pronounce it as et. This is confusing, but if you wish to have a command of English wherever you are, it is necessary to change the way you pronounce ate.”

This distinction is well established. It’s confirmed in Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1926) as well as Longman’s Dictionary of Contemporary English, 4th ed. (2006). Both give “et” as the standard British pronunciation.

By the way, the verb “eat” is one of the oldest words in the English language, dating back to Anglo-Saxon days. The first published reference in the Oxford English Dictionary is from around 825. In the early days, it was spelled “eotu,” “yte,” “ete,” and other variations on the theme. I have no idea how Alfred the Great would have pronounced them!

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Collective thinking

Q: I got these from newspapers: “The elderly couple are charged with counterfeiting” and “A group of Dutch investors are building 25 homes.” Shouldn’t the verbs be “is,” not “are,” since “couple,” “group” and other collective nouns take the singular? I vaguely recall a grammatical rule to that effect.

A: Many words that mean a collection of things – “couple,” “group,” “total,” “number,” “majority,” and so on – can be either singular or plural, depending on whether you mean the group as a whole or the individuals in the group. With all these two-faced words, ask yourself whether you’re talking about the whole or the parts. Sometimes this can be a close judgment call.

Let’s look at “couple” first. Here are two examples from my grammar book Woe Is I: “A couple of tenants own geckos. The couple in 5G owns a family of mongooses.” In the first sentence, you’re talking about two separate tenants who own geckos. In the second, you mean one couple that owns mongooses.

Here’s a hint: If the word in front of a collective noun is “the,” then the noun is usually singular. If the word in front is “a,” especially when the noun is followed by “of,” then it’s usually plural. So you’d say “A couple of defendants are charged with counterfeiting,” but “The elderly couple is charged with counterfeiting.”

The same holds true for “group” and other collective nouns. If you’re talking about the individuals in the group, it’s plural; if you mean the group as a whole, it’s singular. So, you’d say “A group of Dutch investors are building 25 homes,” but “The Dutch investment group is building 25 homes.”

If you’d like to read more about collectives, see the “majority” and “none” items on The Grammarphobia Blog.

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Whiling away time

Q: Should we wait “awhile” or “a while” between servings?

A: Both of the following sentences are correct: (1) “You should wait awhile between servings.” (2) “You should wait for a while between servings.”

“Awhile” is an adverb meaning for a time. (The “for” is inherent in the word, so “for awhile” would be redundant.) But “a while” is a noun phrase meaning a period of time.

So you could correctly say, “We sat awhile, drank coffee for a while, and laughed once in a while.”

More than a little confusing, aren’t they? The general rule is that you use two words (“a while”) after a preposition and one word (“awhile”) after a verb.

If you want to while away more time on this subject, check out my Aug. 28, 2006, blog item.

I hope this helps, and don’t gulp your food!

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Don’t lay down your guns!

Q: I have noticed the virtual disappearance of the distinction between “lie” and “lay.” Do I have to put up with this?

A: Of course not! Don’t give up.

This is how I explained “lie” and “lay” in my grammar book Woe Is I (you know this already, but here it is in case you need to instruct others):

Lie (to recline): She lies quietly. Last night, she lay quietly. For years, she has lain quietly.

Lay (to place): She lays it there. Yesterday she laid it there. Many times she has laid it there. (When lay means “to place,” it’s always followed by an object, the thing being placed.)

So hold the fort! Dictionaries are doing so. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) still continue to give the same old principal parts of “lie” and “lay” that our grandparents learned.

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A scrutable mystery

Q: I find it inscrutable that I never see the word “scrutable.” Why is this?

A: We don’t see much of “scrutable” these days, but it is indeed a legitimate word.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) says “scrutable” means capable of being understood. It comes from the Latin word scrutari (to search or examine), which also gives us the word “scrutiny.”

“Inscrutable,” which means mysterious or not readily understood, is much more popular. I did some googling and got 1.9 million hits for “inscrutable,” but only 41,900 for “scrutable.”

Nevertheless, “scrutable” has been around for hundreds of years.

The first published reference in the Oxford English Dictionary dates from 1600, but the citation I like best is from 1856: Elizabeth Barrett Browning, in Aurora Leigh, describes poets as democrats “loyal to the low, and cognizant / Of the less scrutable majesties.”

You may be interested in a blog item I had a couple of months ago about words (like “gruntled” and “ruth”) that are usually seen only within other words (“disgruntled” and “ruthless”). If you check out the item, don’t forget to look up the Jack Winter story. It’s really hilarious.

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Who pays the tab?

Q: I know you’ve discussed word “literally” on the radio (literally a half-dozen times or more), but a colleague and I are at odds over its use in the phrase “literally driven crazy.” He thinks it’s all right, but I believe it’s incorrect to use the word “literally” with a figurative expression like “driven crazy.” Would you please arbitrate? There’s a bar tab at stake.

A: With a bar tab at stake, I’ve rolled up my sleeves and given your question special attention. It turns out that all three words – “literally,” “driven,” and “crazy” – have had many interesting twists and turns over the years.

Let’s start with “crazy.” It first showed up in English in the 1500s, meaning full of cracks or flaws, but by the early 1600s it was being used to refer to a person of unsound mind. The Oxford English Dictionary‘s first citation for this usage, dating from 1617, refers to someone who “was noted to be crazy and distempered.” People began using the word more loosely, however, in the 1800s with phrases like “to be crazy about something” or “to be crazy for somebody.”

Now on to “driven.” The verb “drive” is a very old word in English, dating back to Anglo-Saxon days, according to the OED. It initially meant to force living beings, whether people or animals, to move on or away.

By 1300, it also meant to force someone into a state or condition, such as to drive someone to scorn, suspicion, or impatience. By the early 1800s, it was used for driving someone crazy. The earliest reference for this usage is in Shelley’s first big poem, Queen Mab (1813): “Or religion Drives his wife raving mad.” So “driven” isn’t really being used in a metaphorical sense when you say someone is driven crazy. You don’t need an oxcart or a limo to be driven.

Finally, let’s look at “literally.” In contemporary usage, it means actually or to the letter. It doesn’t mean figuratively or virtually or emphatically, though it’s often used that way. I should mention, however, that “literally” has a long and complicated history. It originally meant to the letter, but it was being used for emphasis by the late 17th century.

Over the last century or so, usage authorities have insisted on a return to a literal use of the word “literally.” I agree with them. But if you’d like a second opinion, check out the lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower’s article on “literally” in Slate.

Now, back to your question: is “literally driven crazy” correct English? In my opinion, it’s correct as long as you’re referring to someone who’s actually driven insane. In most cases, however, “driven crazy” is used loosely and it would be wrong to add “literally.”

So, you’re probably right, but for the wrong reason. Maybe you and your colleague should split the bar tab. Drink up!

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Is it “able” or “ible”?

Q: Is there a rule for remembering the correct spellings of words ending in “able” or “ible”? You know, words like “portable,” “possible,” “manageable,” “delectable,” “suitable.” Hmm… Now I’m having trouble coming up with another “ible.” Perhaps treating “able” as the norm and remembering the “ible” exceptions will do it?

A: There’s no rule, exactly, for telling the “ables” from the “ibles.” Often a word derived from a Germanic source (Old Dutch, Old Icelandic, Old Norse, and so on) will end in “able,” like “forgivable,” which comes from Old English. And often a word derived directly from Latin will end in “ible,” like “legible,” from the Latin legere (“read”) and “collectible,” from the Latin colligere (“gather”).

There are exceptions, though. And not many of us know automatically whether a word is derived from Latin or Old English. Only one thing is certain: there are far more “ables” than “ibles.” The best rule to follow is this: When in doubt, look it up.

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Russian dressing

Q: My question is about the pronunciation of “Moscow,” the city in Russia. I had always heard and spoken the word as MOS-cow, with the last syllable pronounced like the animal that says moo. Lately, I have heard many people (mostly on the news) pronounce it as MOS-coh, with the last syllable rhyming with “go.” To me, this is a pretentious and annoying pronunciation. Just curious if you have any insight on this. Also, how would one determine the “correct” English pronunciation of a place that is pronounced Mosk-VAH in Russian?

A: Both the “cow” and the “coh” pronunciations are acceptable, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

American Heritage lists the “cow” pronunciation first and Merriam-Webster’s puts the “coh” version first. The first pronunciation in dictionaries is usually the most common, but the differences in popularity may be negligible.

I looked up “Moscow” in a reference book from the 1950s, my unabridged Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language (2d ed.), and I found both pronunciations there too: the “cow” was first and the “coh” was second. So it would appear that both versions have been standard English for at least a half-century.

How, you ask, do we determine the “correct” English pronunciation of a foreign city? It’s a messy process that’s pretty much a popularity contest. If educated English speakers overwhelmingly prefer one pronunciation, that’s the correct one. If there’s no clear-cut winner, two or more pronunciations are considered correct. When in doubt, go to the dictionary. All the pronunciations listed are considered standard English unless labeled otherwise.

If you’re interested in reading more, I had an item on my blog last September about the spelling and pronunciation of foreign names.

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Fuzzy numbers

Q: I’ve learned a lot about English from listening to you on the radio, but I take exception to your criticism of teaching approximations in arithmetic. I worked as an engineer for more than 40 years, and I found approximations invaluable. Punching errors are common when using a calculator, so approximating the answer helps protect against doing exact calculations with the wrong data. Approximating requires a solid knowledge of arithmetic, and practicing it enhances that knowledge. I hope you reconsider your stand on this issue.

A: I agree that it’s extremely valuable to know how to make calculations based on approximations. For instance, mathematical errors are apologized for almost every day in the Corrections column of the New York Times, errors that could have been avoided if someone had stopped to make simple approximations.

A recent article in the Times, for example, referred to 100,000 gallons of heating oil instead of 100 million gallons. And another article referred to 2.5 billion in investment funds instead of 2.5 trillion. I could go on, but I’m sure that as a person interested in “numeracy,” you see this stuff too.

Obviously, I’m not opposed to the kind of approximating that you’re talking about. But if this is what kids are being taught in the public schools, it isn’t getting through to them. I see little evidence that these students are achieving anywhere near the level of skill you describe.

For instance, this kind of thing happens to me all the time, and I’m sure it must happen to you, too, especially during the summer-job season: I purchase articles totaling $19.15 and hand the college-bound cashier a twenty and a quarter; he or she stares at the money in utter paralysis. At last I have to explain, “Give me back one dollar and a dime.”

It seems to me that in order to make the kinds of calculations you’re talking about, one has to begin with a rudimentary knowledge of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. But the multiplication tables are no longer part of the curriculum in many school districts. And neither is English grammar.

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Is this “use” abuse?

Q: Whence the term “used to”? If you think about it, a sentence like “I used to shoot cans out there” doesn’t make much sense. And the question form (“What did you use to shoot out there, cans or duck?”) looks and sounds even stranger.

A: Once upon a time, a meaning of the verb “use” was to be accustomed, or to be in the habit, or to usually do. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage gives this example from Samuel Pepys in 1667: “I did this night give the waterman who uses to carry me 10 shillings.”

This meaning of “use” has died out in the present tense. We wouldn’t say “he uses to carry me”; we’d say “he usually carries me.”

But it’s alive and well in the past tense: “used” or “did use.” We now say, for example, “Normally I shoot cans, but I used to shoot duck.” Or: “Well, I did use to shoot cans. What did you use to shoot?”

Since the “d” in “used to” is not pronounced, it sounds like “use to.” In speech we don’t notice the difference, but the error shows up in writing. Many people mistakenly write “use to” when they ought to write “used to” or “did use to.”

Another error is using both “did” and “used” together, as in “Did he used to shoot duck?” With “did,” the correct form is “use” (“Did he use to shoot duck?”). This is because “did use” means “used,” just as “did walk” means “walked.” So “did used” makes no more sense than “did walked.”

The British treat “use” differently than we do in questions and negative statements. We say “did” in the United States: “Did he use to shoot cans?” Or: “He didn’t use to shoot cans.” But the British say “used” instead: “Used he to shoot cans?” Or: “He usedn’t [or “used not”] to shoot cans.”

Thanks for your question, and I hope this will be of use to you.

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