Category Archives: Grammar Monkeys

Comparatives and superlatives

Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on June 9, 2011.

Two recent related questions prompted this post: one on whether “funner” is a word, and one on “stupider” vs. “more stupid.” (Thanks, @kellidubya and @joshwood)

These forms are called comparatives: adjectives that, as the name implies, indicate a comparison between two entities, times, states of being, etc.

Maria is the younger of the twins.
Scott is happier now that he learned to rumba.
Is the sky over Kansas really bluer?

In English, comparatives are formed in one of two ways:
1. Adding “-er” to the adjective: older, faster, greener, smarter
2. Putting “more” in front of the adjective: more ancient, more rapid, more verdant, more intelligent

There’s not a hard and fast rule — this is English we’re talking about — governing when to use “-er” and when to use “more.” But typically, shorter adjectives take “-er” and longer ones take “more” — “funner” being one of the exceptions to that guideline. “More” is acceptable with any adjective, but it usually sounds odd when used with one that can take “-er.” Some comparatives sound fine either way, like “stupider” and “more stupid.”

Don’t use both “-er” and “more,” though — “more yummier” is fine if a 5-year-old says it, but adults should know better.

Adverbs can have comparatives, too, but most of the time they’re formed with “more” (i.e., people read more quickly than they talk).

On to superlatives: When you’re talking about more than two things, you need superlatives, which are the “-est” and “most” forms. The same guideline for comparatives applies: shorter adjectives form a superlative with “-est” and longer ones with “most.”

Ophelia is the oldest of the triplets.
That is the most frustrating package to open.
The sky today is the bluest I’ve ever seen it.

Do you feel smarter?

Nutty non-rules of grammar

Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on April 18, 2011.

20110402MAIN1ARecently I got a voice mail message from a reader saying that the verb “rise” could be used only with animate subjects, and thus our headline “Speed limit may rise to 75 mph” was incorrect, and it should have said “Speed limit may be raised to 75 mph.” Turning aside the issue of changing a perfectly good active-voice sentence to a wordier passive, I was intrigued, because I’d never run across this “rule” before. After all, bread rises. The sun rises. No one seems to complain about those. So I turned to the bookshelf.

None of our dictionaries said anything about “rise” being restricted to animate subjects.

Our usage manuals cite “rise” in distinction to “raise,” the former intransitive and the latter transitive. But I saw no rules limiting “rise” to certain classes of subjects.

The “raise” entry in one book reminded me of another “rule” I’d run across: “Raise” is for crops or livestock, “rear” is for children. That one merited a mention in Garner’s, which said that “raise” is standard for children as well as farm commodities, and the phrase “born and reared” is “likely to sound affected” in American English.

After I posted the rise/animate issue on Twitter, grammar-book author June Casagrande replied, “That’s one of the nuttiest non-rules I’ve heard, and I’ve heard a lot.”

I’ve heard a lot, too, and it can be really tough to disabuse some folks of the notion that a particular grammatical point is “wrong” when they’ve labored under that pretense for years — or decades. But let’s try.

For the record, these are NOT legitimate rules of English usage:

Don’t split infinitives or compound verbs. Split away — there’s no basis in English grammar not to, and it often sounds stilted or unnatural to work around this false prohibition. As Tom F. put it on Twitter, “Nuttiest are the people who still haven’t realised that the infinitive, like the atom, can be split with productive effects.”

Don’t end a sentence with a preposition. The companion to the split-infinitive “rule,” this one is also not a real rule. Prepositions in English are notoriously flexible, hiring themselves out as adverbs or encrusting themselves onto verbs like barnacles. True prepositions are best followed by objects, but for the rest, they’re fine to end sentences with. Continue reading Nutty non-rules of grammar

Why we need grammar

Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on March 4, 2011.

On this day each year, March 4, we celebrate National Grammar Day, a chance to honor grammar in all its glory. But why should grammar get a holiday? Why is it even important at all?

A couple of recent discussions inspired me to think about why grammar is important. Of course it is, or I wouldn’t waste a bunch of time writing about it. But I’ve always thought of it as a given, rather than something needing an explanation.

So when someone on Twitter asked, “How would you convince someone that understanding grammar is important? ‘I will never use it, I know how to spell without it’ ” I had to articulate an answer.

First, spelling doesn’t equal grammar. (It’s important too, though.)

Second, you do use grammar — we all use it, every time we speak or write. Most of us don’t even think about it if we’re speaking our native language. Grammar is why we know Yoda talks funny, why we are able to differentiate “Dog bites man” from “Man bites dog,” and why we can pile up modifiers and clauses and compound predicates and still come away with a sentence that makes perfect sense.

Grammar isn’t a bunch of arcane rules invented by pedants to trip students up. It’s a system of language — building sounds into words, words into phrases, phrases into sentences — most of which you already know. Grammar is what makes language work as a means of communication. It grows and changes; it bends to accommodate poets and philosophers and physicists.

But when grammar is ignored or abused, sentences come crashing down and meaning gets lost. Certainly sometimes people can figure out what you meant, even if it’s not what you said, but other times your communication fails. You’re not deliberately wasting breath or ink or bandwidth, but if you’re not being clear, you may as well be. And that’s why grammar is important.

Back to the figuring-out-what-you-meant part: Someone commented to me (in an e-mail lamenting, not encouraging, sloppy writing), “I suppose it’s true that language use is all about communication, so if you get your point across, it may not matter as much if you use proper grammar rules.”

Well, I suppose it may not. And “good enough” may be sufficient for texts and status updates and casual conversation. But if you’re speaking or writing professionally (this includes students), don’t you want to give your clients, bosses, colleagues, teachers and potential audiences — or, for that matter, your friends and relatives — better than “good enough”? Don’t all the people you communicate with deserve clear, smooth, meaningful language?

You wouldn’t show up for a job interview or a business presentation in sweats and a T-shirt. Your language shouldn’t either.


Celebrate National Grammar Day by spreading the word that good grammar puts you in good company.
The Twitter hashtag for today is #grammarday.
The National Grammar Day home page has all sorts of fun grammar facts, and a free e-card to boot.


Why we need hyphens

Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on Feb. 25, 2011.

One of the regular features we do on Twitter is “Why we need hyphens”: phrases that have different meanings depending on whether there’s a hyphen. These usually occur when a noun has a compound modifier, that is, a modifier that is made up of more than one word.

The classic example of this is “small-business owner” vs. “small business owner.” Is the owner of a business diminutive, or is the business itself small? Depends on the hyphen.

Some other examples of why we need hyphens:

Because a heavy-equipment operator is not the same as a heavy equipment operator.

Because hazardous-materials training is not the same as hazardous materials training.

Continue reading Why we need hyphens

None of the above

Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on Feb. 3, 2011.

People have asked whether “none” is a singular or plural, and occasionally we’ve had readers write in to complain that we’ve used it wrong.

The good news is that “none” can be both singular and plural. The bad news is that the distinction can get a little squishy.

To put it as simply as possible:

If you mean “none” as “not any of it,” use a singular:
None of the tuna-noodle casserole was eaten. One casserole, “it.”
After the Ebola outbreak, none of the lab remains. One lab, “it.”
None of the homework is done. One concept, “it.”

But if you mean “none” as “not any of them,” use a plural:
None of the casseroles at the potluck were eaten. Several casseroles, “them.”
After the Ebola outbreak, none of the technicians are still alive. Many technicians, “them.”
None of the students are done with their homework. Many students, “them.”

We hope none of the confusion remains, and none of you are confused.

Portmanteaus: Word mashups

Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on Jan. 19, 2011.

This cake is choctacular!

“A Lick and a Promise” is a mockumentary about stamp collecting.

We’re doing a webinar on knot-tying.

These three sentences contain what linguists call “portmanteau words” or “portmanteaus,” which are basically word mashups: Take two existing words that you want to combine — chocolate and spectacular, for example — and mash them together, usually the front part of one with the back part of the other.

The word “portmanteau” — originally meaning a suitcase — was given this new definition by Lewis Carroll (of “Alice in Wonderland” fame), and anyone who’s read his poem “Jabberwocky” can understand why he needed a word for this:

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Humpty Dumpty later explains to Alice:
“Well, ‘slithy’ means ‘lithe and slimy.’ ‘Lithe’ is the same as ‘active.’ You see it’s like a portmanteau — there are two meanings packed up into one word.”

Many portmanteaus arise in the technical sphere, often because the words they combine are long, like modem (modulator + demodulator) and malware (malicious + software).

And a lot of portmanteaus are used for fun, like bootylicious and shopaholic. But some portmanteaus, like smog and humongous and motel and even Internet, are so common that we don’t even realize they’re combinations of two words (smoke + fog, huge + monstrous, motor + hotel, inter + networking or internetworking + networks).

The key to portmanteaus is that they have to be easily understood even though they may not be “real” words. You might not find guesstimate or sexcapade in the dictionary, but you know what they mean.

Putting up with phrasal verbs

Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on Jan. 10, 2011.

Some languages add prefixes, infixes or suffixes to verbs to change the meaning. For example, in Russian the word for “go” can change through prefixes into “go in,” “go out,” “go around,” “go across,” “go over,” “go under” and so on. Each one is still a single word.

English, however, frequently adds a preposition after a verb to change the verb’s meaning. These are called phrasal verbs. (Phrasal verbs can also be constructed with adverbs.)

Some verbs have drastically different meanings depending on the preposition — or prepositions; there can be more than one — that follows.

For instance, you put your cards on the table. You put up money before the poker game, and put in your ante before each hand. You put down your friend who fidgets every time she has a good hand, but gently, so she doesn’t get put out. You put up with her cousin at the game because you need him to round out the group after another member put in for a transfer at work and moved to Peoria. You put away the cards when you’re done.

This is one reason you don’t need to worry about ending a sentence with a preposition: Many “prepositions” that are part of phrasal verbs don’t really function as prepositions. Some don’t even take objects.

Choose your prepositions carefully, making sure what you write is truly what you intend. And feel free to position the preposition at the end.

What is an appositive, anyway?

Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on Dec. 13, 2010.

So we’ve done participles and gerunds, and because @glamAtude asked whether we could talk about appositives, here we go:

An appositive is a word or phrase that follows a noun and gives more information about it.

It can be a single noun:
Her new puppy, Paperboy, came home yesterday.

It can be a noun phrase:
Paperboy, her new puppy, came home yesterday.

It can be a noun phrase plus a prepositional phrase:
Her new puppy, a black-and-white ball of energy, came home yesterday.
Her new puppy, a mutt from the pound, came home yesterday.

And so on. You can take out the appositive and you’ll still have a complete sentence.

Relative clauses are not the same as appositives, though they may convey the same information. Relative clauses begin with a relative pronoun and have a verb in the clause. Appositives are simple phrases, no verb.
Relative clause:
Betty, who is my neighbor, said …
Betty, my neighbor, said …

Usually appositives are set off with commas (one before and one after), because they’re adding extra information about the noun. These are called “non-essential” or “non-restrictive” appositives.

But sometimes an appositive is necessary to set apart or distinguish the noun:
Paul Simon the senator (as opposed to Paul Simon the singer)
Her dog Paperboy (as opposed to her dog Scout)

These are called “essential” or “restrictive” appositives, and are not set off with commas.

A note on agreement: The verb agrees with the main noun, not the appositive.
Truffles (plural), a luxury food (singular), are (plural) …
Paperboy (singular), one of the nicest dogs (plural) at the pound, is (singular) …

Which one? What kind?

Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on Dec. 6, 2010.

Which” and “what” each have more than one function in English, but what we’re talking about in this post is when they’re used as interrogative adjectives, that is, in front of nouns in a question:

Which theater did you say that movie was at?
What show did you see?
What college did she go to?
Which subjects did she study?

In most instances, either “which” or “what” is fine; they’re largely interchangeable. So much so, in fact, that when a few of us copy editors delved into our dozens of grammar and usage manuals — and we always love an excuse to do that — we found the topic addressed in only one book, and not our usual go-tos of Garner, Fowler, Bremner and Walsh. Even Strunk and White have naught to say on the topic.

But, if you want to be particular, here’s the guideline as found in Karen Elizabeth Gordon’s “Torn Wings and Faux Pas”:

“Which” is preferred when there is a limited number of choices:
Which topping do you want, pepperoni or anchovies?
And “what” is preferred with unlimited choices:
What foods did you try in Italy?

Before a stated or implied “one,” always use “which”:
Which (one) of your cousins got married last year?

And before “of these,” always use “which”:dresses
Which of these bridesmaid dresses is the least ugly?

Luckily, no one seems to have a problem with using the other interrogative adjective, “whose,” besides writing it like the contracted form of “who is.”

One of those people

Originally published on Grammar Monkeys on Nov. 22, 2010.

Are you one of those people who cringe — or is it “cringes”? — at misused apostrophes? Or is your favorite desk dinner one of those microwave meals that stinks — or is it “stink”? — up the whole office?

bubblesSentences with “one of those” can be confusing because either a singular or a plural verb seems like it would work: “one” is singular, and “those” is plural.

Here’s an example: “Georgia is one of those insufferable people who correct others’ grammar mid-sentence.” Is the subject of the verb “correct” the noun “people” or the noun “one”? If it’s “people” (hint: it is), then you need “correct.” But if it were “one” (which it’s not, hence we use the subjunctive here), then you would need “corrects.”

Think about it this way: There are insufferable people who correct others’ grammar mid-sentence. Georgia is one of them. “People” is what “who” refers to, and “people” is the subject of the verb “correct,” which means that “correct” needs to be plural.

The more mathematically inclined may prefer to look at it this way: [Georgia is one of [those insufferable people who correct others’ grammar mid-sentence]].

As an alternative, you could say, “Georgia insufferably corrects others’ grammar mid-sentence” or “Georgia is a person who insufferably corrects others’ grammar mid-sentence.” Those are fine too, but they’re different constructions.

Now you can be one of those people who get this right — but there’s no need to butt in on others who don’t.