Tag Archives: verbs

Don’t sweat it: Passive voice

zombie-passiveNumerous 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 let your subjects be dummies

Dummy subjects and smothered verbs are usually "couch potato words"--just sitting there taking up space.

Dummy subjects and smothered verbs are usually “couch potato words”–just sitting there taking up space.

“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

Let’s try not to be disagreeable

disagreement-floodThis 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.

Fix: “Flood 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.

Comings and goings, bringings and takings

Speaking of bring / brought / brought, people often get confused about when to TakeBringClouduse “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.)

Continue reading

Why does English … ? Just because

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.”)

Continue reading

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.

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.