Wednesday, July 11, 2007

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A. Problems with pronouns

English has several pronouns – words like I, they, she, he, it, we, them, me, him, her, us, etc., which take the place of nouns (or to be technically correct, noun phrases) in a sentence. For example, instead of saying “Christopher went down town and Sally saw Christopher there” it is possible to say “He went down town and she saw him there” – provided the reader/hearer would know from the context who is meant by “he”, “she” and “him”.

Which form of a pronoun is used depends on its grammatical function or position in a sentence. The first six pronouns listed above are used in the so-called subject function or position, e.g. "He/she/they went to Durban." The next four are used in other functions, e.g. "We saw him/her/them in Durban." The pronoun "you" is good as both subject and object: "We saw you, and you saw us."

English speakers will generally use the correct form when there is only a single pronoun involved, but as soon as there are two pronouns, or a pronoun and one or more nouns, confusion (and hence incorrect usage) sets in!

Someone who would never dream of saying "She gave the book to I as a gift" might be heard saying "She gave the book to my wife and I as a gift" (probably because it’s been drummed into us that we should always say "My wife and I" and not "Me and my wife"). And while few English speakers are ever likely to say "Me went to the funfair", many might (and often do!) say "Me and John went to the funfair" (or "John and me went …"). If there is any doubt about which form to use in such "multiple-noun/pronoun" cases, simply take one of the (pro)nouns away, see what is left and decide whether that is the correct form or not.

B. Oh deary I!
We should ALWAYS say “my mom and I”, “Tommy and I”, “Zanele and I”, and NEVER “my mom and me”, “Tommy and me”, “Zanele and me” …

Right? Wrong.

The phrase with “I” is correct ONLY if it represents the so-called subject of the sentence, that is, if the other person and I are the DOERS of whatever the verb is expressing. So:

– My mom and I went to see my gran.
– Tommy and I have been writing movie reviews.
– Zanele and I ordered a pizza.

But when the other person and I are being “done to”, that is, if the phrase represents the so-called “object” of the sentence, it must be “me”:

– My dad asked my mom and me to collect a parcel.
– The teacher gave Tommy and me a book to review.
– Hotstuff Pizzas delivered the pizza to Zanele and me.

It is NEVER correct to say or write:

– *My dad asked my mom and I to collect a parcel.
– *The teacher gave Tommy and I a book to review.
– *Hotstuff Pizzas delivered the pizza to Zanele and I.

If you’re one of those who are never quite sure whether it should be “me” or “I” in sentences like these, and grammatical terms like verb and subject and object confuse you, do this simple little test: omit the other person in the phrase and see whether it sounds right. Your test will show you that all the following are wrong, since you would never use “I” by itself in such cases:

– *My dad asked my mom and I to collect a parcel.
– *The teacher gave Tommy and I a book to review.
– *Hotstuff Pizzas delivered the pizza to Zanele and I.

Now put me in the place of every I and it’s all OK!

Conversely, of course, you would never use me by itself in the following cases:

– My mom and me went to see my gran.
– Tommy and me have been writing movie reviews.
– Zanele and me ordered a pizza.

When we say things like, “Our friends threw a party for my wife and I”, it’s called hypercorrection. Having been told repeatedly by our instructors to say "Sue and I" and not “me and Sue” in some contexts, we then over-correct and use “Sue and I” even when we shouldn’t!


A. Introduction
Spot the “wrong stuff”:

1. As a little girl of five my mother taught me how to sew.
2. When giving a speech everyone always listened intently to Churchill.
3. When giving a speech Churchill always started with a controversial statement.
4. As a little girl of five my mother loved to climb trees.

1 and 2, of course. Now add these:

– As a white passenger using a “black” taxi several things stand out.
– His singing career was put on hold while completing a doctorate.
– When phoning my sister she always dominates the conversation.
– To avoid choking, always supervise a toddler while eating.

The problem? The wrong sentences contain “dangling modifiers”. In plain terms: the phrases/clauses indicating time, manner etc. (those starting with as, while and when) are technically referring to the wrong things (even though we know what meanings are intended). Appearances to the contrary, sentences 1 and 2 are clearly not intended to suggest that the mother was five when she taught the speaker how to sew and that everyone gave a speech while they were listening to Churchill!

To eliminate such errors, simply add words that will make the agents (“doers”) of the relevant actions clear. For example, 1 and 2 may be changed to read: When I was a little girl of five my mother taught me how to sew; When Churchill gave a speech everyone always listened intently to him.

The next time someone produces a sentence without an explicit agent, have some fun – put on a linguistically educated air and say politely: “Excuse me, Sir/Ma’am, you’ve left your modifier dangling.” (Then run.) But be very careful: you, too, may dangle a modifier in a moment of weakness – it happens far more easily than we would like to think!

B. Crawling bags and diners on plates (1)
In each of the following sentences the implied sentence subject relating to the verb ending on -ing (a so-called present participle) or -ed (past participle) is clearly the same as that relating to the verb in the next part of the sentence:

(1) Looking around, I saw a stone I could use (interpreted as "I looked around, and I saw a stone …").
(2) Turning the corner, we nearly collided with a huge elephant (interpreted as "We turned the corner, and we nearly collided …").
(3) Running back to my room, I quickly locked the door behind me (interpreted as "I ran back to my room, and I quickly locked …").
(4) Described with great sensitivity, the scene was one of the most poignant in the novel (interpreted as "The scene was described … and the scene was one of …").

That is the way it should always be with such constructions, and all the following sentences are ungrammatical precisely because the participles in the first part of each of them can clearly not be interpreted as relating to the same subject as the verbs in the second part:

(5) *Crawling under thick bush along the riverbank my kitbag became heavier and heavier so I handed it to Charlie to carry. (It is clearly not "my kitbag" that was crawling.)
(6) *Even after assuring them that we were only harmless visitors anxious to photograph them, they still looked at us with some apprehension. ("They" were not the ones doing the assuring.)
(7) *When travelling across the plains between x and y, the game grazing peacefully in the veld is marvellous to see. (The game is not travelling, but grazing!)
(8) *Served on special, farmstyle plates we thoroughly enjoyed the pancakes on offer at the country bistro. (Er … that would presumably be the pancakes that were on the plates?)

Can sentences (5)–(8) be corrected? Certainly. The simplest way to do that is to state the intended subject explicitly:

(5.1) While we were crawling …
(6.1) Even after we assured them …
(7.1) When one is travelling …

(8) is slightly more complicated and will be considered in the next article.

Meanwhile, just beware of (mis)constructions like these – as I have found in my own writing, they are not as easily avoided as one would suppose, and can creep up on one quite unexpectedly!

C. Crawling bags and diners on plates (2)
The following sentence, as we noted above, is incorrect (which is why it is preceded by an asterisk – an international convention in linguistics):

(8) *Served on special, farmstyle plates we thoroughly enjoyed the pancakes on offer at the country bistro.

We all know that this is meant to convey that it was the pancakes (not "we") were served on the special, farmstyle plates (and that we enjoyed them).

However, from a grammatical point of view that is not what the sentence actually says. As we saw last week, we should be able to interpret the implied sentence subject relating to a present participle or a past participle as being the same as the subject relating to the verb in the next part of the sentence, as in last week's sentence (4), for example:

(4) Described with great sensitivity, the scene was one of the most poignant in the novel (interpreted as "The scene was described … and the scene was one of …").

But this is not the case in (8). So how can we reformulate it to read correctly?

We could try and structure (8) along the same lines as (4) by bringing the pancakes forward:

(8.1) Served on special, farmstyle plates, the pancakes …

So far so good, but the only way to complete the sentence now is to turn the last part into the passive voice as well, which makes it clumsy and makes the previously strong affirmation of enjoyment rather fizzle out:

(8.2) Served on special, farmstyle plates, the pancakes on offer at the country bistro were thoroughly enjoyed by us.

We could try this:

(8.3) We thoroughly enjoyed the pancakes on offer at the country bistro(,) which were served on special, farmstyle plates.

But now the main focus has been taken off the pancakes, and the relative clause introduced by which seems to relate more to the country bistro than to the pancakes.

Why is this sentence so difficult to correct? The main problem is the initial passive voice. Then, whereas sentence (4) has only one "agent" (just a different way of talking about the sentence subject) this sentence has two: the pancakes and "we".

Some sentences are simply difficult to salvage (or to keep intact as single sentences) without sacrificing something of their original content, intent and punch. Unfortunately, space does not permit more than one possible alternative suggestion here, so for now I'll settle for:

(8.4) Served on special, farmstyle plates, the pancakes on offer at the country bistro were treats (items? delicacies?) we thoroughly enjoyed.


A. The apostrophe
In English the apostrophe should not be used to indicate a plural. Thus the following are incorrect: (i) *A competition for mother's and babie's; (ii) *We specialise in the grooming of pet's; (iii) *The Smith’s are a nice family. The correct versions of these examples would be: (i) A competition for mothers and babies; (ii) We specialise in the grooming of pets; (iii) The Smiths are a nice family.

There are two major uses of the apostrophe in English:

a. To indicate that one or more letters have been omitted from a word or phrase, as in: We'll show you a better way (where the wi of the word will has been omitted) and: It's the right thing to do (omission of the i of is).

b. To indicate possession, as in (i) A man's best friend is his dog; (ii) A dog's best friend is his kennel. If the possession involves a plural noun, the apostrophe comes AFTER the plural -s, as in: (i) Dogs' best friends are their kennels; These poems' greatest merit lies in their simplicity; (ii) Ladies’ Golf Day.

B. The apostrophe revisited
I have lost count of the number of people who have asked me to write something about the apostrophe again – it would appear that either the rules for its correct use are still unclear to many people, or its misuse is getting on the nerves of those who to whom the rules are very clear!

In the first article on the apostrophe (April 15, 2003), we saw that one of the main functions of the apostrophe in English is to indicate possession (e.g. The child's bicycle, David's pen), and that the apostrophe is NOT used for simple plurals (thus “Used car’s for sale” and “beautiful photo’s” are incorrect). If the noun concerned is in the singular, or the plural does not end on s, the apostrophe PRECEDES the possessive s (as in: The child’s toy; the children’s toys). If the noun (or name) is in the plural AND the plural is formed with -s (not all plurals are, as we’ve just seen with children) NO possessive s is added, and an apostrophe is simply inserted AFTER the plural -s (e.g. The ladies' blouses; the Smiths’ car).

How should we indicate possession if a singular noun (or name) ends on s? Simply by adding an apostrophe and a possessive s in the usual way, e.g. The boss's Ferrari; Des's B&B; Tom Jones's diary.

There are a few names ending on s that have traditionally been treated differently when it comes to indicating possession – instead of adding an apostrophe plus s according to standard practice, we add only an apostrophe. These are names associated largely with the Bible: Moses and Jesus (possessive forms Moses' and Jesus' respectively). But all other names ending on s require another s, preceded by an apostrophe, as shown above.

If we have names like Jones and Charles, which end on es, and we put them in the plural (Joneses, Charleses), possession is indicated by simply adding an apostrophe after the plural -es, as with any other plural noun/name ending on s – thus: the Joneses' car; the Charleses' house. Nothing difficult about that, one would think, yet I have often seen forms like the Jones’ car and even monstrosities like the Charle's house! Jone’s and Charle’s are OK if and only if the names concerned are Jone and Charle!

C. The apostrophe … again!
Isn’t it amazing how a little squiggle like the apostrophe can cause such confusion for some and irritation to others, and how much can be written about it? Here are a few more points to add to those covered in two previous articles (“The apostrophe” and “The apostrophe revisited”).

(1) Apostrophes and plurals
We start by mentioning the primary rule again: in 99,982 percent of cases we should not use apostrophes when writing plural nouns in English. So photo’s, Mazda’s, pizza’s and Ferrari’s are misspelt if they are intended as plurals and not to indicate possession; the correct forms are photos, Mazdas, pizzas and Ferraris.

Is an apostrophe ever permitted when writing plurals in English? According to the website of the Oxford Dictionary, yes. Some instances are:

– When writing the plural of letters of the alphabet, e.g. in sentences like: There are four s’s and two p’s in Mississippi; You must watch your p’s and q’s.
– When writing the plural of some abbreviations, e.g. We have received four cheques and two IOU's. “But,” the Oxford continues, “IOUs is common and accepted, and the usual plural of CD is CDs.”
– When writing the plural of short words like yes, ex and do, as in: We received five yes’s to our invitation; All three of his ex’s were at the party; Our office organises four do’s a year. (And then: “But in each case, dos, exes, yesses would be acceptable. The usual plural of no is noes.”)

Also permitted are apostrophes when we write the plural of numerals (e.g. the 1930’s), but this is not encouraged and the preferred form is the 1930s.

(2) Apostrophes and possessive forms
In “The apostrophe revisited” (25 June 2004) we saw that while the possessive forms of names ending on s require an apostrophe plus s, e.g. James’s book, tradition has allowed an apostrophe to be added without another s in the case of some names. The examples mentioned in that article were Moses and Jesus (possessives Moses’ and Jesus’ respectively). Some other names need to be added to that list, e.g. Euripides, Demosthenes and Xerxes. The rule regarding this category is that the s-less possessive is allowed where the names have (i) more than one syllable and (ii) an unaccented ending pronounced “eez”.

And lastly (at least for now!), a note about the possessive of closely-linked nouns: If the entity possessed is the same for both nouns, only the second element takes the apostrophe, e.g. Jenny and Tom’s cat (same cat). If the entities are different, two apostrophes are used, e.g. Jenny’s and Tom’s jobs (different jobs).

D. It’s or its?
Many people confess to getting confused about the spelling of these two identically-pronounced little words, the main question obviously being when the apostrophe is correct and when not. If you’re one of those who struggle with the difference between it’s and its, I hope this article will help clarify matters for you.

Remember this to start with: one of the chief functions of the apostrophe is to indicate the omission of one or more letters or sounds, as can be seen, for example, in I’m, where the a has been omitted from I am, and there’s, where the i has been omitted from there is.

This is exactly the case with it’s, which comes from it is, so simply try and remember that it’s works just like I’m and there’s in this respect.

Most people’s confusion does not, however, relate to the above type of example; misspelling tends to come in mostly when they are dealing with it in the context of possession. For example, should it be “South Africa will field its best team” or South Africa will field it’s best team”; “The cat ate its food” or “The cat ate it’s food”?

The answer is: the first one in each case, where its has no apostrophe.

And this is probably precisely the cause of some people’s confusion, simply because we usually do use an apostrophe to indicate possession, as in “the cat’s food” and “South Africa’s best team”.

So why are *it’s food and *it’s best team incorrect?

As far as I can see, the reason is this: the apostrophe is used in the context of possession only in the case of nouns and names, and never to indicate possession where pronouns are involved. Notice the absence of apostrophes in this set of pronouns:

– The book is mine/yours/his/hers/theirs/ours.

I’ve deliberately included mine here, even though it has no s to which one could add an apostrophe, precisely so that it can act as the strongest possible reminder that the possessive forms of pronouns don’t have apostrophes.

The sentences below also show how consistent it is that its as a possessive form has no apostrophe:

– The boy has eaten his food (no apostrophe)
– The dog has eaten its food (similarly: no apostrophe).

Similarly, therefore:

– The shop had its annual sale
– The school will welcome its new principal
– The book has lost its cover.


A. If only …
If you heard someone say: “I blue see a car driving down the road”, you’d probably think: What an odd place to put the word “blue” – it should go immediately before “car”.

Exactly. One of the mechanisms we use to convey our intended meaning is to order words in a particular way. Yet there are some words that are treated with great carelessness when it comes to positioning, one of the most frequently (very frequently!) abused ones being “only”. Many otherwise well-spoken, decent, law-abiding citizens (including journalists, who should know better!) say and write things like: (1) “We only saw impala in the Kruger” when they mean “We saw only impala”; (2) “I’ve only been to the mall six times” when they mean “I’ve been … only six times".

Closely related to “only” is “not only”, which we usually use to create the anticipation that further information is to be added. If we misposition “not only”, we mislead the hearer/reader into misanticipating the next bit of information. For example: “Carlos not only offered to pay for the meat …” creates the expectation that he also carried out some other action, e.g. “ … but also insisted on hiring a chef”. This is because “not only” has been placed immediately before the verb “offered”. If the sentence were to continue: “ … but also for the drinks” the wrong expectation will have been created. In that case the first part of the sentence should have read: “Carlos offered to pay not only for the meat …”

As far as possible, “only” and “not only” should immediately precede the word(s) they relate to – for the sake of preciseness, the elimination of potential confusion (ambiguity) and aesthetics.

Not only should we not misposition “only” and “not only”, but also other, similar words. (Ouch! Did you spot “the wrong stuff” in that statement? Isn’t it irritating?)

B. Not only only
In “If only …” we looked at the need to position the words “only” and “not only” correctly. “I’ve only been to the mall six times” is incorrect; it should be: “I’ve been to the mall only six times.” (Did you manage to correct my deliberately misformulated closing sentence in that article?)

The need for accuracy applies to other modifiers as well, e.g. largely, especially and mostly. Consider the difference between these sentences:

– This is largely true [i.e. not entirely true] in relation to softwood trees.
– This is true largely in relation to softwood trees [i.e. less in relation to other trees].

Some readers may object that since the context will often lead us to the correct interpretation despite the mispositioning of the modifier, people like teachers (and me!) shouldn’t make a fuss about it – and to some extent it’s tempting to agree: if the hearer interprets the intended meaning correctly and effective communication has taken place, why not just let it go? Why insist on correctness?

The problem with this kind of thinking is one we face in other areas of life as well, and it boils down to questions like: Where do you draw the line? How wrong should something be allowed to be before it is exceeds the bounds of acceptability – whether it’s breaking a minor rule of etiquette, exceeding the speed limit, or tolerating verbal abuse? Ultimately the simplest solution is simply to do the right thing, and acceptability would follow – in language as in other matters.

So we may as well try and get it right, especially when we’re writing – it’s like making the effort to add figures correctly if we’re going to bother to add them at all. Being correct and precise as often as possible is much more satisfying than being content with an attitude of “it’s good enough if it’s more or less OK”.


During a recent cricket broadcast one of the commentators said, “It’s good to see such a big amount of people here today”, while he should have said, “It’s good to see such a big number of people …”

A similar error occurs when someone says, “There are less apples in this box than in that one” instead of “There are fewer apples …”

Most people who have learned grammar would have learned that there are two main categories of nouns: those that can take plurals and those that can’t. So, for example, book, diamond and orange have the plurals books, diamonds and oranges respectively, whereas love, rice and hay do not have plurals. Nouns that have plurals can usually be used with numerals, e.g. five books, six diamonds, whereas the other type of noun can’t.

The simple rule for deciding whether to use “amount” or “number” is this: if a noun has a plural form, or can be used with a numeral, the correct word is “number”; if it doesn’t have a plural or be used with a numeral, we use “amount” (or “quantity”).

Similarly, if a noun has a plural, we use “fewer”; if it doesn’t, we use “less”. Compare:

– There were apples in the box / There were fewer apples in the box.
– There was much confusion / There was less confusion.

What may complicate things is the fact that there are some nouns of which it is usually said that they do not have plurals, e.g. love and coffee, while in fact they sometimes do and sometimes don’t, depending on context and meaning. For example, it’s perfectly OK to say, “I have three great loves: rugby, poetry and Garfield”; and the word “coffee” can have a plural in a context like “We ordered five coffees” or “We always order a huge number of coffees, because we’re caffeine freaks.” It’s clear that “coffees” is really a short way of saying “cups of coffee” here, and since “cups” is a plural form we have to use the word “number” – it would be wrong to say, “We ordered a big amount of coffees.”

So to sum up: “fewer” and “number” belong together and are used for nouns with plurals and numerals; “less”, “amount” and “quantity” belong together for the other type of noun.

... AND A BONUS 6TH ...


A. How unique can you get?

The meaning of some adjectives does not (normally) allow for qualification or comparison. One such word is dead: one mosquito cannot be deader than another dead one just because it was swatted harder!

The word unique is another adjective that does not allow for any possibility of comparison or qualification. Yet it is not uncommon to hear statements like:

– The St Lucia wetland is very unique in that it …
– The most unique feature of this machine is …
– This ornament is so unique!

Not possible – not in view of the word’s meaning, “only one of its kind”, and dictionary synonyms like “sole”, “irreplaceable” and “matchless”.

Just as something cannot be “more matchless” (or “less matchless”), “very irreplaceable” or “the most sole”, it cannot be “more unique”, “less unique”, “very unique”, “the most unique” or even “so unique”.

[The following few paragraphs are extracted from a longer, later article, "Words in transition (2)"]

In the case of some words it is probably not, in the final analysis, a disaster when the meaning shifts or expands. If, for example, enormity were to lose completely its sense of "criminal" or "bad", other words could take its place, albeit, perhaps, not with quite the same effect or import. The problem becomes more serious when the repeated sloppy use of a word leads to a genuine loss/gap in the vocabulary, and it is important for careful and caring speakers and writers to do all they can to resist such unproductive changes.

A word that falls into this latter category is the word unique, which I've written about before. There is no true equivalent for it of which I am aware, yet it is clearly losing ground as far as its distinctive (indeed unique!) place in the lexicon is concerned. More often than not unique is used simply as a synonym for "different" or "special", but that is not what it means, and its meaning does not allow for modifying adverbs or degrees of comparison. The following are all, therefore, incorrect:

– *One of the most unique features of this locality is …
– *What makes this artefact very unique is …
– *Her style of music is so unique …
– *I can't think of anything more unique in the world of business
than …

[Another word that threatens to lose its unique place in the language is the word literally ...]

B. Literally? Really?
The word literal contrasts with the word figurative. The former is used to indicate that an utterance is true and that the words are to be taken at face value. The latter refers to the use of words in an almost poetic way. When someone says, “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth”, no one expects to see a real horse anywhere within miles around! The TV sitcom Mind your language, in which Mr Brown tries to teach English to a class of foreigners, frequently exploits misunderstanding of the figurative use of language for humorous effect. For example, when Mr Brown once spoke of having something up his sleeve, one of his students remarked, “Oh dearie me, but I am not being seeing anything up your sleevie!”

Foreigners may be forgiven for that kind of confusion, but have you noticed how normally thoughtful mother-tongue English speakers misuse the word literally? People say things like, “I was literally snowed under with work” (to which I am tempted to respond: “Really? Did you get all frozen up as a result?”) and “When I told my boss that, he literally blew his top, then stomped out of the office” (Volcano Man complete with lava?).

A few weeks ago a Grand Prix commentator said of Kimmy Raikkonen that if he won that particular race he would “literally take off like a rocket” in the next few races; and a new skin cream commercial claims that people who have used the product have “literally been born again”. Wow!

Literally is one of those “for effect” words, and it’s OK to use it in appropriate contexts. But literally, the effect can eventually be lost if we use the word in literally every second sentence!


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