Tag Archives: grammar

One of those questions that are often asked

A friend passed on to me one of those grammar questions that are often asked and often opined on:

In a sentence like “She is one of those people who are always late,” I learned to cross out prepositional phrases when linking subject to verb, so I would cross-out “of those people” and link “she” with “is” instead of “are.” Isn’t “of those people” modifying “one” (which acts as a complement to “she”) and not acting as the actual subject?

The problem with just crossing out preposition phrases is that you sometimes miss where the phrase ends – or doesn’t end! There are a few ways to look at it. The bracket way is short but benefits from further explanation:

She is one [of those people {who are always late}].

What that means is that there are people who are always late, and she is one of them. Yes, “of those people” is modifying “one,” but “who are always late” is modifying “of those people.”

A person could object (as many do) that it could equally be

She is one [of those people] [who is always late].

In other words, of those people, she is one who is always late. The problem with that is only in part that “She is one who is always late” is a bit odd; after all, “She is one” is a bit odd by itself too, but we’re not saying it by itself. The issue is really with “of those people.” For one thing, if the “always late” isn’t there to describe the set of “those people” of which she’s a member, it’s not specified who “those people” are. Who are they? And why are we mentioning them at all? Let’s look at a similar structure:

She is an eater of those hot dogs that have fallen on the floor.

She is an eater of those hot dogs that has fallen on the floor.

The difference is plain enough: in the first, the hot dogs have fallen; in the second, she has. And we have to assume that which hot dogs “those hot dogs” are has been established or can be inferred contextually; if not, it may be perplexing.

She eats those hot dogs. She has fallen on the floor.

Umm… tell me which hot dogs.

Returning to the example in question, the “is” version means this:

She is one of those people. Specifically, she is one who is always late.

If you’re in a context where you know who “those people” are, OK; but otherwise you have to specify them, or why are you mentioning them? And if your answer to “Who are they?” is “People who are always late,” you have shown why you really want to say “those people who are always late.” If she is one of them, then yes, she is one who is always late (as are they all), but if you go with the “is” version then you haven’t actually specified who they are; in fact, you’ve implied they’re not all like her in this respect. It’s like saying

It’s one of those hot dogs that is delicious.

You can see that the implication is that not all of those hot dogs are delicious; otherwise, why would you be singling that one out? Or if you say

He’s an editor who is popular at parties.

you know that it implies that not all editors are! And likewise, if she is one of those people who is always late, by implication others of those people are not. On the other hand, if you say “one of those people who are” and she is one of them, then she is covered.

That’s the logical analysis, and it’s the one I go with as an editor. In casual speech, I admit that I sometimes say “who is” in similar instances before I can catch myself, just because the structure of the sentence is so analogous to others where “is” would be appropriate; “one of those people” is a noun phrase like “a member of the club,” and we would most likely say “She is a member of the club who is always late.” (Unless it’s a club of people who are always late. Which is, in fact, what we mean in this case!) But when I’m editing, it’s more important to make it stand up to analysis. And it sounds good to me.

To be, or not to be, that is the question

Why stop at word tastings? That’s like filling your cupboards with food but never cooking it. Here’s a sentence tasting, which is really using a sentence as an excuse to explorations. It’s a long read.

The year is anno domini 1600, or perhaps 1601. We are across the river from London, in the middle of watching a play. Richard Burbage, a short, stout, utterly entrancing thirty-two-year-old actor, walks onto the stage of the Globe Theatre. The ground and galleries of the open wooden O are full of people, but Burbage takes the front of a broad, nearly empty rectangle jutting into it and claims the heart of a zero, a full nothing – or, depending on how you look at it, a Q.

There are three other people on stage, though Burbage seems not to see them: in the alcove in the back are two actors, playing a king and his adviser, present as an absence, and over to one side, kneeling as if praying, is a boy dressed as a young woman to play the paramour of the prince Burbage portrays. The two hidden men, according to the plot of the play, are using the young woman in hopes of drawing out the protagonist’s secrets. They expect professions of love, confessions of plans, the revelation of what is rolling around in the locked box of his head. They are about to be disappointed. Nobody – characters or audience – will get what they see or see what they get.

Burbage, who is holding perhaps a book, perhaps a weapon, perhaps nothing, but definitely not a skull (not in this scene), starts speaking towards the audience, who in the world of the play are not there but are in fact the entire reason this is even happening. He says words written by his friend and business partner, the successful 36-year-old actor and playwright William Shakespeare. His first line will become one of the most famous lines in the English language: Continue reading

About the serial comma

People have opinions about the serial comma (also called the Oxford comma). Sometimes very strong opinions. So I sat down with my lunch, some Cheerios, and a Martini to tell you the truth.

The Honourable Member for the 18th Century?

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the new Leader of the House of Commons in England, has lately been the subject of remark for his questionable sense of style. And I don’t mean his unfortunate sartorial choices. I mean his directives on English usage. He has, we learn, given his staff a style guide that is just not what a style guide should be.

Many people chalk up his preferences to traditionalism and preferring the old ways. But Rees-Mogg, often called “the Honourable Member for the 18th Century,” is not actually expressing preferences supported by tradition. Like most modern grammar numpties, he’s fancying himself more traditional than tradition. The point is not to hold back the march to modernity; it is to enforce an entirely recent invention of the past for the sake of maintaining a certain sense of superiority. A sort of Disneyification, if Disney were run by ghastly snobby boys. Continue reading

One fewer thing to fuss about

Let us say, for the nonce, that the author of a book telling people how to improve their English has declared, “More is commonly used in speaking of numbers; I believe greater would do better. No greater than a hundred appears to me not only more elegant than No more than a hundred, but more strictly proper. More is best reserved for mass quantities.”

Well. We English speakers have a very problematic relationship with our language. If something seems natural, simple, clear, and obvious, and if it’s something we heard people do all the time, we are very eager to believe a rule telling us it’s wrong. We’re prone to rule-seeking behaviour because we’ve learned to be insecure about our grasp of English’s rules – they’re so capricious and inconsistent – and a new rule also gives us an additional sorting and tidying tool… and something to whack people on the head with to show our superiority, too.

So, if the book came out at the right time and found the right audience, we would soon have people insisting that cookbooks that say “More than 200 of the best high-fat recipes” should instead say “Greater than 200 of the best high-fat recipes,” and that when inviting friends over you should say “The greater, the merrier”; news articles would fussily put “Observers estimated there were greater than 5,000 people in attendance” and “He has lived in the city for greater than five years.”

Does this sound far-fetched? It’s so incredibly near-fetched, it’s fetched right off your page… more or less. Continue reading

What do we care about, really?

“Oh, please, stop. I can’t stand to hear that. It’s like chewing on tin foil. You have it all wrong. Really, I must insist. I care about good English.”

Behold one of the great socially countenanced forms of authoritarian aggression: brutishly objecting to someone else’s English usage. The sin may be a pronunciation that’s not “right,” or a transgression of one of the grade-school superstitions (“split infinitives,” ending sentences with prepositions, using the word ain’t), or a “wrong” meaning (decimate gets a lot of this), or – Heaven forfend – a misspelling. We treat a spelling error as sufficient to vitiate any argument, however well reasoned; we may even issue peremptory unsolicited corrections to slight variations from what we consider correct. Some people have gone so far as to vandalize public signage to change punctuation. And the self-justification is always on the order of “I care about good English.”

Spoiler: That is not why we are doing it. Continue reading

Made-up rules are what get on my nerves

What many word lovers love most are books. But what some word lovers love most is, apparently, a tidy bookshelf. Everything in its place. A single possible spot for any book. And, similarly, some language lovers love a nice tidy grammar, one where there’s only one option at any given juncture.

I understand the inclination. I’m an editor, and I know that tidiness is valuable. But I also know that it needs to serve effectiveness. If your drive for tidiness reduces the expressive potential of the language and proscribes something that people do with good effect, I do not think you are doing the good work.

I’ve harped on this in many of my articles on grammar. Lately I’ve encountered yet another instance of forced tidiness that I don’t think serves a good purpose. On a couple of occasions, people have said that they learned that what as a relative pronoun subject always takes a singular verb. In other words, Good gin and a little dry vermouth are what makes a good martini is correct and, according to them, Good gin and a little dry vermouth are what make a good martini is not. Continue reading

A Hidden Gender?

Last fall I gave at talk for Editors Canada in Barrie, Ontario, on grammatical gender and pronouns. I forgot to add it to my blog then, so I’m adding it now! There are many people who have a lot of things to say about grammatical gender and natural gender and use of different pronouns for different people, and many of them are presenting “facts” that are no such thing. So I took the time to set forth the real facts.

When to Use Bad English

Here’s my presentation at the 2019 ACES conference in Providence on when and how to use “bad” English (not just swearwords but nonstandard grammar and other things some people look down on).

Be an editorial Machiavelli

This was originally published on the website of ACES: The society for editing

Editors need to think more like Machiavelli.

You know who Niccolò Machiavelli was, right? He’s famous for having said “The ends justify the means.”

Except he never said that. Or wrote it. Continue reading