Monthly Archives: March 2010

That and which: Is it all relative?

Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on March 31, 2010.

Some say that “that” and “which” are interchangeable. But are they? Careful writers still say no, and that distinct usage of the two words is necessary to distinguish two different kinds of relative clauses.

A relative clause is a dependent clause that gives more information about the noun (or pronoun) it modifies.
Here’s an example:
The dinosaur bones, which were found last summer, were the remains of a ferocious beast.

Relative clauses fall into two types: restrictive (also called essential) and nonrestrictive (nonessential).

Restrictive clauses, as the name implies, restrict the noun. What this means is that there is a larger group that the noun could belong to, but the restrictive clause lets us know that it’s more narrowly defined.
Here’s an example:
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What is a gerund, anyway?

Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on March 17, 2010

Last week we talked about participles, which are verbs that work like adjectives. Gerunds are also based on verbs, but they work like nouns.

Gerunds have only one form, and it looks exactly like the present participle — ending in “-ing.” But you can tell a gerund is a gerund because it functions as a noun in the sentence. This means gerunds can be subjects or objects:
Cooking doesn’t have to be complicated. (subject)
Everton has finally mastered braising. (direct object)
Lucinda knows everything about baking. (object of a preposition)

sushiA gerund can have adjectives of its own:
Uniform slicing and dicing makes a successful stir-fry.

Gerunds can also be part of a whole phrase:
Properly preparing an assortment of sushi can be time-consuming.
Some cookbooks have step-by-step photos for creating fancy desserts.

Fused participles
Gerunds don’t usually wind up in “dangling” situations as participles do, but there is one little picky problem area that occasionally arises.

There are sentences that work like this:
Otto’s overseasoning of the sauce ruined the whole dish.
The diners love to watch the chef’s grilling their food right at their table.

Generally, these constructions use a possessive in front of the gerund, called “genitive with gerund.” But in some cases, called “fused participles,” you’ll see a non-possessive form — either a noun or an objective case pronoun — instead of a possessive. And then the gerund turns back into a participle, modifying the noun:
The diners love to watch the chef grilling their food right at their table.

In the past, some usage experts said sentences like the example above are always wrong, because there’s the tiniest possibility it could be unclear.

Nowadays, we know that sometimes it’s better to use the possessive; sometimes it’s better, or at least less awkward, to use a non-possessive noun; and sometimes the context pretty much demands a non-possessive noun, as in this sentence:
The new cook was responsible for the pie bubbling over and burning.

This is really a picky point, though, and with gerunds, you don’t need to worry about errors on the scale of dangling participles.

What is a participle, anyway?

Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on March 10, 2010

You may have heard of “dangling participles,” but knowing that you should avoid those doesn’t much help if you’re not sure what a participle is to begin with. So here’s a quick guide:
A participle is basically a verb that works as an adjective. In other words, it looks like a verb, but modifies a noun.

688484_baseballPresent participles end in “-ing”: a screaming line drive, a winning team

Past participles usually end in “-ed”: a dropped ball, a grilled hot dog
But participles for irregular verbs have other forms: The shortstop backed up the ball overthrown at third.

Participles can be part of a whole phrase: Butler, sliding into home face-first, got dirt all over his uniform.

They may occur with auxiliary verbs: Having smashed the ball over the left-field fence, Rodriguez hustled around the bases.

Dangling participles
Participles “dangle” when they are not next to the noun they are intended to modify. Sometimes the meaning of the sentence is clear anyway, but other times the sentence winds up a muddle:

Hurling strikes all night long, the leadoff batter in the eighth walked.
Here, it’s not the batter who was hurling strikes, it’s the pitcher. But the way this sentence is put together, the participial phrase is modifying “batter.”

Since joining the Royals as a rookie, they have turned their record around.
Here, we assume a player did the joining, not the team, but “they” is what’s being modified.

The way to avoid danglers is to make sure that whatever the participle refers to is the subject of the main clause. Usually this will be the first noun in the main clause.

Next up: What is a gerund, anyway?

It’s National Grammar Day!

Originally published on Grammar Monkeys on March 4, 2010

One day a year, March 4, we celebrate good grammar in all its glory.

We celebrate it for the beauty and balance of its structure, however convoluted it may sometimes appear; for all the bits of all the languages, ancient and modern, that have contributed to English; and, most of all, for the clarity it brings to writing.

grammar day badge

We celebrate good grammar not to scold or harangue the use of bad grammar, but rather to encourage the construction of solid, artful sentences, so perfectly punctuated that readers float unimpeded through the prose, free from meaningless or meaning-clouding buzzwords.

Good grammar means that readers focus on what you have to say, rather than stumbling along in search of a subject and verb, losing sight of what you’re trying to communicate. And once you know the rules of grammar, you know exactly when it’s OK to break them. That’s right: Sometimes it is OK to break them.

So celebrate by sharing Grammar Monkeys with your friends, and help spread the word that good grammar puts you in good company.

Here are a few fun and useful links:

The National Grammar Day home page, including a poem, a song and a free e-card.

100 fun and informative blog posts for grammar geeks

Diagramming sentences (yes, this can be fun)