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Grammar FAQ

As an editor and English teacher, I frequently hear the following questions:

1. How do I know whether to write a number as a numeral or a word?

Seems like a simple question, but the answer is complicated. Different books give different rules. Here’s a summary:

All style guides say to write out a number that begins a sentence. If you’re using a large number, rewrite the sentence so the number isn’t at the beginning. Also, most books list the following as instances where numerals are always used:

Street addresses: 121 Southern Drive

Dates: March 12, 2012

Decimals: The difference in the projections is 1.21 points.

Time: 8 a.m., 8 o’clock, 8:10 p.m.

Specific amounts of money: $10.58.

Beyond that, no one agrees when to write the numeral or the word.

The Associated Press and other journalistic stylebooks say to write out one through nine and use a numeral for 10 and higher.

The Chicago Manual of Style says to write out round numbers and numbers up to a hundred. It also says to ignore its own rule if two numbers are being used in the same context/sentence but would take different forms if you followed the rule. So it would be correct Chicago style to say the following:

On the first day, ninety-nine members voted, with one hundred and one voting the second day.

OR

On the first day, 99 members voted, with 101 voting the second day.

But only the latter would be correct for AP.

Some grammar books say to write out fifty and below, some say a hundred and below. Some say to spell out numbers that can be written in one or two words: forty-two versus 142, which would be four words if written out.

You can justify using any of these rules if you are consistent within your document. (I used numbers inconsistently in this post to demonstrate the various guidelines.) Of course, for workplace documents, follow your company’s preferred style.

2. When do I use who versus whom, and does anyone really know the difference?

For decades, grammarians have predicted the demise of the word whom. But the word is still alive, so let’s use it correctly.

In spoken English, most people say who instead of whom because whom sounds stuffy. That’s fine for a casual conversation or e-mail, but not formal writing.

The basic difference is that who is a subject and whom is an object. What that really means is that who has a verb describing its action and whom doesn’t, usually following a preposition.

Who is in charge of this project? (Who takes the verb is.)

To whom do you intend to write this letter? (In this case, you is the subject with do intend as the verb. Whom has nothing to do with the verb, instead following a preposition.)

Since these words frequently involve questions, try straightening up the sentence to see what you get:

You intend to write this letter to whom? (In this version, you can clearly see that whom is far from being attached to any verb.)

But just when usage looks easy, a tricky sentence comes along:

I will give the paperwork to whoever is elected as the new treasurer.

Most people automatically use whom after to because the expression “to whom it may concern” is burned into their brains. But in this case, whoever is the subject for the verb is elected.

Here’s another tricky one:

Whom is this project being assigned to?

This sounds wrong because we know that who takes verbs like is. (If you’re bent out of shape by the sentence-ending preposition, see my earlier post “Lies Your English Teacher Told You” or recast the sentence as shown below.) But since the sentence is a question, inverting it reveals the true role of all the words:

This project is being assigned to whom?

So be careful to whom you write because you never know who is keeping track of your errors!

NOTE: I will devote the next post to reader questions, so please submit yours in the Comments section, and I’ll address them along with a few questions posed on earlier posts.

Next time: Reader questions

Some writers are unsure about whether it’s “legal” to use the word you in their writing.

It’s fine — under certain circumstances.

When using the word you in a document, you should be referring to everyone who reads the document. Instructional documents like this blog use you because the material addresses everyone reading them.

Using you in how-to documents also makes writing simpler by eliminating problems with consistency in number or person or gender.

However, some people claim that writers should avoid you at all costs, saying that even in instructional documents, you is wrong:

First, you need to turn off the copier.

First, turn off the copier.

Actually, using you in the above example isn’t a grammar violation. But the second version is more concise, so eliminating you was a matter of style.

Also, directly addressing the audience automatically makes the writing less formal, so avoid the practice in formal situations.

In addition, you can be unnecessary or inaccurate. This is another of those areas — like using they instead of he or she — where people usually use incorrect wording, so the wrong way sounds right. For example, many people would write something like this:

I walked into the conference room and tried to put everyone at ease. But you could tell it was going to be a tense meeting by the way everyone avoided eye contact.

There’s no reason to shift to you as the person in the story. The readers of the story weren’t at the meeting. The correct thing to say is this:

I could tell it was going to be a tense meeting by the way everyone was avoiding eye contact.

However, using you has become a common way to say “anyone who would have been there would have experienced the same thing I did.” This is fine in casual conversation and informal e-mails. In fact, it is the dominant way this idea is expressed. But in formal documents, don’t use you unless it’s appropriate.

Next time: Grammar FAQ

In most sentences, getting the subject and verb to agree is easy. However, three tricky types of sentences can turn this simple task into a complicated feat that requires three grammar handbooks and a call to your old English teacher.

1. Subjects connected by or

Subjects connected by and are easy: they take plural verbs.

The dean and faculty members are creating the new hiring guidelines.

However, in sentences with subjects connected by or (and in either/or, neither/nor sentences), the order of the sentence dictates the verb, with the verb matching the subject closest to it.

Neither the dean nor the faculty members are creating the new hiring guidelines.

Neither the faculty members nor the dean is creating the new hiring guidelines.

2. Sentences with words between the subject and verb

The goal of our Healthy Workplace Now and after-hours exercise programs is to reduce employee absenteeism.

It may sound strange to hear the words programs and is next to each other, but the above sentence is correct. The subject of the sentence is goal: The goal is to reduce employee absenteeism. It doesn’t matter how many words are between the subject and verb or whether those words are singular or plural.

3. Sentences with indefinite subjects

The following pronouns take singular verbs, even if they imply a sense of being plural:

  • anyone
  • anybody
  • either
  • everyone
  • everybody
  • everything
  • no one
  • someone
  • something

Everybody who applied for promotions is required to attend Monday’s meeting.

No one from the Kentucky or Tennessee offices is invited to the meeting.

If each stands alone as a subject, it takes a singular verb. If it isn’t standing alone, the verb choice will vary depending on whether the expression means “each one” or “both.”

Each of the committees has submitted a final report. (stands alone, so it’s singular)

Each manager and assistant manager is required to attend next month’s sensitivity training. (means each one, so it’s singular)

The manager and assistant manager each are required to attend next month’s sensitivity training. (means both, so it’s plural)

Other indefinite pronouns are more complicated. For example, some grammar handbooks still claim that the word none means “not one” and should always be singular. However, that interpretation has been disputed for centuries, with many distinguished grammarians pointing out that the meaning is closer to “not any.” Some sources that concur on the idea of none being plural in many uses:

  • Fowler’s Modern English Usage (dating back to the 1926 version)
  • The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage
  • Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage
  • The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style

The misconception about none is similar to the classroom grammar myths outlined in a previous post except that it actually appears in some grammar handbooks, so I will call it a mythinterpretation.

Patricia O’Conner, author of Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English, calls the issue “none sense” and gives the clearest explanation:

If it suggests “none of them,” it’s plural: None of the fans are fighting. None are excited enough.

If it suggests “none of it,” it’s singular: None of the bout was seen in Pittsburgh. None was worth broadcasting.

Note: When you really do mean “not one,” it’s better to say “not one” and use a singular verb: Not one of Holyfield’s fingers was broken.

I hope these last three blog posts have helped your sentences to be more agreeable.

Next time: Don’t talk to me! (Correct use of you)

References

Burchfield, R.W., ed. The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford, 1996. Print.

Butler, et al. Correct Writing. 6th ed. Lexington, Mass.: Heath, 1995. Print.

Garner, Bryan A. The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style. New York: Oxford, 2000. Print.

Hacker, Diana. The Bedford Handbook for Writers. 4th ed. Boston: Bedford, 1994. Print.

Lutz, Gary, and Diane Stevenson. Writer’s Digest Grammar Desk Reference. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest, 2010. Print.

Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage. Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster, 2002.

O’Conner, Patricia T. Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English. New York: Putnam, 1996. Print.

Rock bands and sports teams cause chaos among grammarians. In the last post, I described how collective nouns — words like jury that refer to a group of people acting as one unit — take singular pronouns. (They also take singular verbs.) Therefore, these sentences are correct:

The band released its latest CD.

The team posted its injury report on the Internet.

But what about these sentences?

The Rolling Stones released its latest CD.

The Pittsburgh Steelers posted its injury report on the Internet.

They sound terrible! And good luck finding guidance in grammar books, most of which avoid the tricky issue of whether the names of rock bands and sports teams are singular or plural.

However, other reference books have declared usage rules for the fields of sports and entertainment, where the names of collective units usually sound plural. (A note to my international readers: These are guidelines for American English. The British have a different outlook on collective nouns.)

The Associated Press Stylebook offers this somewhat contradictory entry:

Team names and musical groups that are plural take plural verbs. The Yankees are in first place. The Jonas Brothers are popular. Team or group names with no plural forms also take plural verbs: The Miami Heat are battling for third place…. Many singular names take singular verbs: Coldplay is on tour. Boston is favored in the playoffs. The Cardinal is in the NCAA tournament.

Linguistic nitpicker William Safire wrote a column on the topic after receiving queries about how to handle situations where teams like the Miami Heat or Colorado Avalanche play teams with plural names:

I see a headline atop The Washington Post: “Jazz Beats Bulls,” with the verb construing the first team, from Utah, as singular. Had the game gone the other way, however, the headline would have read “Bulls Beat Jazz,” construing the Chicago team as plural.

His verdict? Writers should “go with the natural sound of the language. If the team name ends in s, go with the plural verb…. If not, construe it as singular.”

However, most journalists shun the idea of mixing and matching. Rolling Stone magazine disregards the AP stylebook and uses all band names as plurals, as evidenced by these examples from the magazine’s web site:

On a Saturday night in late February, Coldplay are in their North London headquarters, listening to mixes of new songs. 

U2 are legendary for their heartfelt connection with concert audiences. 

Sports Illustrated and ESPN use plural references for all teams, even the Heat and the Jazz.

That usage clashes with the rules for corporate names. General Motors and Dunkin’ Donuts are singular entities that take singular verbs and pronouns even though their names end in s. Therefore, all of these are correct:

General Motors is firing three executives.

The Packers are firing three trainers.

The Foo Fighters are firing three crew members.

What’s the difference? Maybe having the word the in front of band and team names makes the plural version a natural choice.

Or maybe it’s because people don’t stand and cheer at the end of a board meeting.

Additional reading

For more information about the controversy over team names (and more details about British English rules on the subject), read this post from Minnesota Public Radio News that uses the Minnesota Wild hockey team as an example:

Grammar Gone Wild

References

The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law 2011. New York: Basic Books, 2011. Print.

Robicheau, Paul. “A Beautiful Night for U2. Rolling Stone. 26 March 2011. Web. 4 Jan. 2012. (Read story here.)

Safire, William. “Singular Heat?” No Uncertain Terms. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003. 273-276. Print.

Serpick, Evan. “In the Studio: Coldplay.” Rolling Stone. 20 Mar. 2008. Web. 5 Jan. 2012. (Read story here.)

What’s wrong with this message, one that goes out to WordPress bloggers thousands of times a day?

No, the answer is not “Jay P. Johnson has poor taste in blogs.” The problem involves agreement. Jay is one person, or singular in grammar lingo. Their is plural. The two words don’t agree.

Reaching agreement is hard in business and in life, and sometimes it’s even harder for writers to get nouns and pronouns to agree. Fortunately, many people miss agreement errors anyway, so no one may notice that you slipped up and wrote they instead of it. But grammar-savvy people all agree: Right is better.

The main problem with pronoun reference comes from a longstanding rule. For centuries, grammar books insisted that the gender of any indefinite subject was male. However, most modern employees would not want to risk the wrath of their female counterparts by writing this:

A good business executive should hone his computer skills.

Obviously, business executives can be male or female, but technically, the pesky rule said to refer to them all as men. So people started indiscriminately using their to solve the problem. However, in many situations the word is incorrect.

Current grammar books suggest working around the rule to avoid sexism. Here are a few techniques:

1. Use plurals because plural references have no gender.

Good business executives should hone their computer skills.

2. Use both a masculine and feminine pronoun.

A good business executive should hone his or her computer skills.

3. Use a slash.

A good business executive should hone his/her computer skills.

This technique gets awkward, so use it sparingly. Another hybrid that’s popping up is s/he, which goes beyond awkward. Please avoid it so it doesn’t catch on and become acceptable!

4. Mix and match throughout the document.

A good business executive should hone his computer skills.

A company president should remember her responsibilities to her employees.

The mix-and-match method is tricky. Some nonfiction books will use female references in one chapter and male references in the next in an attempt to be fair and consistent at the same time, but in the end this method will feel inconsistent at some level.

5. Rewrite the sentence.

Computer skills are vital for today’s business executive.

One singular sensation

Probably the most common violation of proper pronoun agreement is using the word they, a plural pronoun, to refer back to collective nouns. Collective nouns name a group acting as a single unit and are supposed to take singular pronouns:

The committee presented its findings.

The jury announced its verdict.

Because groups and corporations are run by many people, writers tend to think of those entities in terms of people, a plural concept, instead of the proper singular perspective:

WRONG: Wal-Mart has been in the news because of their business practices.

RIGHT: Wal-Mart has been in the news because of its business practices.

WRONG: Dunkin’ Donuts released their financial report.

RIGHT: Dunkin’ Donuts released its financial report.

Next time: How the Miami Heat upset the grammar world

My recent post, “Lies Your English Teacher Told You,” received an overwhelming response, triggering more than 54,000 hits and hundreds of comments.

As I expected, the idea of not ending a sentence with a preposition generated the most passionate responses, so let me review some key topics:

1. My credentials

Although most readers were supportive, a few questioned my ability to proclaim that writers can end sentences with prepositions. I don’t expect you to trust an unknown blogger. Here are reputable sources that agree with my view:

Oxford Dictionaries

Merriam Webster Online

“Contrary to popular belief, it is not a mortal sin to end a sentence with a preposition, as long as the sentence sounds natural and its meaning is clear. . . . It is absolutely antiquated to forbid ending a sentence with a preposition.”

— The Grammar Bible (2004)

The preposition at the end has always been an idiomatic feature of English. It would be pointless to worry about the few who believe it is a mistake.”

— Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage (2002)

“A preposition at the end of a sentence can be a sign that the sentence is awkwardly constructed. The branch office is where she was at. However, if a preposition falls naturally at the end of a sentence, leave it there. (‘I don’t remember which file I saved it under.’)”

— Handbook of Technical Writing, Ninth Edition (2009)

Many famous writers have ended sentences with prepositions. Just look at Hamlet’s soliloquy by William Shakespeare, who ends each stanza with a preposition:

By a sleep to say we end

The heartaches and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is heir to.

Who would these fardels bear,

To grunt and sweat under a weary life,

But that the dread of something after death–

The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn

No traveller returns– puzzles the will,

And makes us rather bear those ills we have

Than fly to others that we know not of?

2. Grammar vs. style

Although there is no grammar rule about sentence-ending prepositions, some readers aptly pointed out that in some cases they are a matter of style. As mentioned in the earlier handbook example, a sentence that is awkward or unclear with the preposition at the end should be recast.

3. Breaking the rules

Some people mistakenly interpreted the blog post as permission to break writing rules. No! I was clarifying that certain so-called rules are actually myths. Most writing rules are in place to enhance communication, so I don’t advocate abandoning them in workplace writing. Creative writing is another matter.

4. The audience

Even if you feel comfortable ending sentences with prepositions, keep in mind audience preferences. Some of my readers said they are annoyed by such sentences, even if there is no rule about then.  Certainly if you are writing a paper for an instructor or boss who hates sentence-ending prepositions, avoid using them!

5. Evolving language

One Canadian reader pointed out that English seems to evolve faster in the United States. He said that the Canadian journalism stylebook still forbids prepositions at the ends of sentences. I checked the two leading American journalism stylebooks; neither mentions the rule.

6. Practicality

Some readers pointed out that it would be impractical to avoid prepositions at the ends of sentences in certain circumstances, including questions

Where are you from?

and sentences where the preposition is part of a noun or verb:

After hearing the obscene caller on the other end of the phone, I hung up.

6. Lies

A few readers questioned my choice of the word lies in the title. I didn’t mean to suggest a conspiracy by English teachers to deceive students; I think in most cases the propagation of the rules is an honest mistake. In other cases, the teachers are probably trying to get students to avoid lazy habits like starting too many sentences with and. But in the end, I have to question why the teachers didn’t notice the absence of the rules in their textbooks (and the presence of violations of the rules in works by established writers) and yet still pounded the rules into students’ minds so effectively that many years later in my college classroom, the myths are among the few rules students remember consistently.

In school, I had teachers who would forbid students from starting sentences with but or using to be verbs. Such exercises strengthened my writing. However, my teachers always made it clear that the restrictions weren’t permanent rules, merely parts of practice exercises. I’m encouraging today’s teachers to do the same. (Trust me — I know they’re already doing a difficult job for low pay, and I wouldn’t trade places with them!)

7. Examples

A few readers wanted a clearer explanation of split infinitives. An infinitive is to plus a verb:

to walk

to run

to go

I embedded my examples in the lesson itself:

to boldly to

to gently split

As a college English instructor, I continually have to remove writing myths from my students’ brains. These rules don’t appear in any grammar book, but they are taught year after year.

You can’t end a sentence with a preposition.

Yes, you can. The world won’t stop revolving, and your old English teacher can’t argue because there is no such rule. The problem started in England back in 1672 when John Dryden wrote a piece criticizing Ben Jonson for ending a sentence with a preposition. Dryden believed that since the construction wasn’t possible in Latin, it shouldn’t be possible in English.

Clearly, this logic doesn’t make sense: English is its own language. But some people agreed with Dryden and spread the rule around. The issue became a subject of debate. Robert Lowth, a respected academic, wrote in the 1760s that ending a sentence with a preposition was acceptable in “familiar” or everyday writing but that avoiding the construction was “more graceful” for “the solemn and elevated style.”

So there’s no rule against it. One note: Make sure you need the preposition.

NOT: Where’s the new copier at?

INSTEAD: Where’s the new copier?

If you encounter fierce resistance from overzealous followers of the nonexistent but persistent rule, you can recast the sentence, but the result is usually awkward. I saw a funny example of recasting on a greeting card (one that unfortunately used an unnecessary preposition):

GIRL #1: Where’s your birthday party at?

GIRL #2: Never end a sentence with a preposition.

GIRL #1: Where’s your birthday party at, bitch?

You can’t start a sentence with “and” or “but.”

Did your ninth-grade English teacher warn you about starting a sentence with a conjunction? If so, the reason was not that the construction was grammatically incorrect; he or she was just trying to get you to elevate your writing before you hit college. Beginning too many sentences with and or but leads to weak, bland writing. But using such conjunctions sparingly in a document is perfectly legal (unless your ninth-grade teacher is going to read it). If you find yourself using these simple transitions too often, try eliminating each one to see if it was needed in the first place. If some form of transition is needed, try these similar forms:

And: in addition, moreover, furthermore, also

But:  however, in contrast

You can’t start a sentence with because.

This imaginary rule was probably developed by teachers trying to prevent their students from creating sentence fragments. If you write a clause starting with because, it’s easy to mistakenly think you have a sentence:

Because it took all afternoon to write the new proposal.

That fragment looks like a complete sentence because it has a subject and verb; however, it doesn’t express a complete thought. But why is because the only forbidden word? Why not although, when, while, after, if, and a whole host of other words that serve the same purpose? In fact, starting a sentence with because adds sentence variety, a valuable writing technique.

You can’t split an infinitive.

The alleged ban against splitting an infinitive — the word to plus a verb — is another Latin-based idea. In older forms of English, largely rooted in Latin, the infinitive was one word and therefore couldn’t be split. Once the language evolved to include two-word infinitives, writers began splitting, but some grammarians decided that the practice shouldn’t be allowed.

You’ll probably find the rule if you dig up a really old grammar book, but modern ones don’t mention it. If you want to gently split an infinitive, go for it! Your mission is to boldly go where good writers have gone before.

Next time: Everyone agrees that agreement is difficult

REFERENCES

Huddleston, Rodney, and Geoffrey K. Pullum.  The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge (UK): Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Lynch, Jack. The Lexicographer’s Dilemma: The Evolution Of ‘Proper’ English, From Shakespeare To ‘South Park.’ New York: Walker & Co., 2009.

“A Brief History of English Usage” from Merriam-Webster Inc.

http://ling.kgw.tu-berlin.de/lexicography/data/B_HIST_EU.html

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