Knock, knock! Who’s there?

I’ve said this before, but it’s probably time to say it again: “who” is well on its way to losing its case marking. That is, the objective case “whom” is fading, leaving us with “who” for both subjective and objective uses (like the pronouns “you,” “it” and “what”). In conversational speech, “whom” is already long…

Focus on the “silently”

“I am silently correcting your grammar.” Many editors own a T-shirt, sticker or button bearing this slogan, marking them as people who care about language, or at least have a sense of humor about it. However, others think it’s not at all funny and is yet another reason for people to think editors are snooty…

Don’t let your subjects be dummies

“Omit needless words” is one piece of stellar, timeless advice from the oft-maligned (with good reason) Strunk and White. Nonetheless, I see a lot writing filled with what I call “couch potato words” – words that just sit there, doing nothing and eating your chips. Two constructions that are good examples of “couch potato words” are…

With grammar, practice makes perfect

There’s a poster in my office that says, “Grammar is not a secret code.” It is a code, sort of, but it’s certainly not a secret. Grammar is for everyone, and everyone deserves to feel confident using it. Plenty of resources exist to help people improve their grammar and language skills if they are so…

3 reasons to use the singular “they”

One: We need it. Two: We use it. Three: We understand it. Explanation: We need a gender-nonspecific third-person singular pronoun to ensure inclusive writing that isn’t awkward. Generic “he” just doesn’t cut it anymore; extended use of “he/she” and “his/her” in writing is clunky; random switching between “he” and “she” is distracting at best, confusing…

Having started this post, an idea struck me

The headline of this post is an example of a misplaced modifier (more specifically, this one is a dangling participle). Misplaced modifiers pop up every day, and even though it’s often clear what the writer meant, they cause a little stumble — and occasionally major confusion — for the reader. Why it’s wrong: When you…

Let’s try not to be disagreeable

This is not a post about immigration — grammarians have no power over politics. It is a post about some of the more complicated aspects of subject-verb agreement, and it’s something I hope everyone can agree on. The basics: Subjects and verbs must agree, that is, singular subjects get singular verbs, and plural subjects get…

Don’t sweat it: “Who” and “That”

One peeve I’ve seen pop up a couple of times recently is the prohibition on using “that” when referring to people, as in “The scientists that worked on the project toiled in anonymity” instead of “The scientists who worked on the project toiled in anonymity.” Some people think — and are quick to point out…

In defense of plain English

Last year I revisited the classic BBC show “Yes, Minister,” which is about a hapless British cabinet minister trying to get things done and the Civil Service employees who seek to thwart him. Much of the show’s humor lies in the dense, rambling speeches of Sir Humphrey, the minister’s permanent secretary, who can turn a…

“Playing” English: Grammar rules and when to break them

Writing can be like playing the piano. To get good at the piano, first you need to learn scales and chords and technique. Then you learn how notes fit together and form compositions. Then you can experiment and play and create — and break the rules if you need to in order to get a…