For our second sentence to diagram, we’ll stay fairly simple — no compounds or subordinate clauses — but we’ll pile up a few more modifiers and have an imperative verb:
At the recent ACES: The Society for Editing conference, I gave a session on diagramming sentences. It was during the last session period of the conference, on a sunny Florida afternoon, and more than 100 people packed the room to learn, or refresh their memories, about sentence diagramming. (We’re talking about the classic “Reed-Kellogg” method here, not the tree diagrams of great utility to linguists.)
Diagramming has fallen out of favor as a pedagogical tool (it was of questionable effectiveness anyway), and it’s not necessarily something that will make you a better editor. However, it can be helpful to visualize a sentence’s structure, and the “puzzle” aspect of it makes it nerdy fun for many of us who love language. Plus, it’s really easy to spot a dangling participle when you’re diagramming.
The enthusiasm at the conference for diagramming was such that I thought it might be fun to continue the practice, with weekly (ish) “diagramming challenges.” This is the first, and we’ll start simple:
Numerous writing guides (and, judging from the people I encounter, hundreds of writing teachers) drum it into student’s heads
that the passive voice is to be avoided at all costs to avoid the passive voice at all costs. That’s not always bad advice, but, as with most grammar “rules,” it’s a guideline rather than a commandment carved in stone.
First things first: Passive voice is a perfectly legitimate part of English (and most other languages). Using the passive voice is not a grammar error. Continue reading Don’t sweat it: Passive voice
“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 dummy subjects and smothered verbs. Continue reading Don’t let your subjects be dummies
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 plural verbs. With straight subject-verb-object constructions, this is easy and everyone gets it right.
A wrinkle: When more elements — such as a prepositional phrase or subordinate clause — are added to a sentence, it can end up that a plural noun is right before the verb, but is not the subject of the verb. Only the subject gets to “govern” the verb, that is, determine its number.
Example: The headline pictured above, “Flood of unaccompanied minors rush to cross Southwest border.”
To check agreement, take out the phrase or clause temporarily and look at the sentence. With no intervening words, it will be obvious what the verb needs to be.
of unaccompanied minors rush to cross Southwest border.” “Flood” is singular, so the verb should be “rushes.”
And the really tricky type: “She is one of those annoying people who publicly correct/corrects other people’s grammar.”
Should the verb be singular or plural? Let’s examine this sentence closely to find out.
- “She” is not the subject of the verb “correct” – “she” is the subject of the verb “is.”
- The subject of the verb “correct” is the relative pronoun “who,” which is referring to “people,” which is plural.
- So “correct” is correct.
Think of it this way: There are annoying people who publicly correct other people’s grammar. She is one of them.
Thus, “She is one of those annoying people who publicly correct other people’s grammar.” But if someone says “corrects,” don’t correct them — it’s a common mistake and not one that sticks out.
Speaking of bring / brought / brought, people often get confused about when to use “bring” and when to use “take.” Some people use the two words interchangeably, but they aren’t interchangeable, or they aren’t if you are trying to communicate clearly.
“Bring” vs. “take” is easier to understand if it’s compared with “come” and “go,” because both pairs are distinguished by viewpoint.
“Come” and “bring” are both used when movement is “toward”:
Harry is coming at 8 tonight. He is bringing Hermione and Ron to meet us.
(The speaker is, or will be, where Harry is arriving.)
“Go” and “take” are both used when movement is “away” or elsewhere:
Harry is going to Hogsmeade. He is taking Hermione and Ron.
(The speaker is not, or will not be, where Harry is arriving.)
As a child, I hated the answer “Because” when I asked the question “Why?” It’s a non-answer answer that imparts no information and implies that the matter is closed.
As an adult, I teach editing and writing, and work individually with students who need help in both. They have lots of questions — good questions — about why English is the way it is. And, unfortunately, the simple answer to many of those questions is “Because.” (In fact, many of the questions have complicated answers based on when words entered English, where they came from and when their forms were standardized, but those answers don’t fit neatly in a sentence or two, so I’m left with a choice between 10 minutes of explaining or “Because.”)
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.
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?
Sentences 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.
Originally published on Grammar Monkeys on Sept. 20, 2010.
Modal verbs express possibility/probability, necessity/obligation or ability/willingness. They show up as a base verb with a modal auxiliary, such as may, might, should, ought to, must, can, could, would, wish to. Shall and will function sometimes as modals and sometimes as simple future tense markers, depending on context.
There’s a lot of nuance in modals, and here we’ll take a look at two that are close but not exactly the same: may and might.
If you say “I may order that pasta,” you’re likely — but not certain — to order it. Perhaps you’ll end up not ordering it, but you’re indicating a strong-ish possibility.
If you say “I might order that pasta,” there’s a little more hesitation, you’ll order it if it doesn’t have mushrooms in it, if it comes with a tasty sauce, if the special isn’t something you’d rather have, etc.
Some sentences are too close to call, with the may/might choice not yielding much difference: “We may/might go swimming tomorrow, depending on the weather.”
And many people don’t distinguish these two in their speech or writing, so it’s hard to put a lot of stock in the difference if you don’t know how closely the source adheres to the distinction. Use context as your guide.
Problems with “may” and “might” arise in two areas: past tense and negatives.
In the past tense, the difference is amplified, with “may” implying possibility and “might” implying something that didn’t happen but could have.
Here’s an example: “Tornado sirens may have given the family time to get to the basement before the storm hit.” From this, we know they survived the storm and could credit sirens for that. But if the sentence is: “Tornado sirens might have given the family time to get to the basement before the storm hit,” we know there weren’t any sirens and the family didn’t make it to the basement in time.
Also, “may” has “might” as its simple past-tense form, which shows up when there’s another past-tense verb in the sentence: “We thought we might have time to see the Wax Museum.” “Luella said she might be able to bring a mince pie.”
By the same token, in hypotheticals and contrary-to-fact situations, which call for the subjunctive, might is the only choice. “One might think someone with that attitude would have been fired long ago.” “I might be going to the picnic, if liked blistering heat, sticky humidity and ants.”
With negatives, the permission sense of “may” is often stronger than the possibility sense: “You may not eat that squid; it’s for the party.” Meaning you are not allowed to do so, though it is certainly physically possible.