LABELS: DUMMY OPERATOR, EGGCORN, GRAMMAR TERMS, NONCE WORD, SCARE QUOTES, SQUINTING MODIFIER
Grammar jargon is enough to turn most people off of grammar forever. One ill-timed utterance of a term like “doubly transitive post-prepositional verb” and you might never take an interest in the subject again. But some language terms are actually fun.
Squinting modifier, anyone? How about an eggcorn? How about a nonce word or a dummy operator?
My recent column examines these and other language terms that are actually fun to learn.
LABELS: GRAMMAR, PRONOUNS
I and several readers were communicating recently about the practice of putting “I,” “me” or “my” first in a compound-noun phrase. In fact, two back-to-back emails posed the same question: Isn’t it wrong to put oneself first in a compound subject?
For example, Carol in Glendale had come across a passage to the effect of “I and my 13 fellow campers.” She doesn’t like that. Can you blame her?
Rod in Burbank found his fodder in this column. When writing about possessives recently, I had suggested the form “Both my and my wife’s families are based here in South Florida.”
Rod was fine with the grammar but still thought the passage needed improvement.
“My objection is a nongrammatical point. I was always taught that ‘I’ came second. ‘My wife and I went to South Florida,’” Rod wrote. Thus, by extension, the same rule that applies to “I” should also apply to “my,” Rod noted.
That would would give us “Both my wife’s and my families are based here in South Florida.”
I agree with Carol and Rod. Both these passages would be better with the first-person pronoun in the second-place position. Here the column I wrote in response.
LABELS: COPY EDITING, GRAMMAR, WORD CHOICE
“Isn’t ‘a vast majority’ an abomination of an expression?” Jeff in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., wants to know. It’s not the “vast” part that has Jeff curious. It’s the “the” part.
Hear him out: “In any group or set there has to be a number that’s the majority, right? If 100,000 people were surveyed and 60,000 agreed with a certain proposition, it wouldn’t be correct to say, ‘A vast majority of those surveyed agreed with XYZ proposition,’ would it?
Because there aren’t two or multiple majorities within the group on that proposition, only one majority. And that would be ‘the’ majority, not ‘a’ majority. Do you agree?”
Jeff has a point about the logic of using “the.” Articles like “a” and “the” indicate whether the nouns they modify are specific or just one in a crowd. But that doesn't mean your options are limited, as I explain in this recent column.
LABELS: GRAMMAR, I vs Me, OBJECT PRONOUNS, SUBJECT PRONOUNS
Betsy in Albany had a great question about “I” versus “me.” Consider the sentence: “John’s hidden agenda was to make George and I say nice things about him.”
Should that “I” be “me”?
I talk a lot about choosing between subject pronouns like “I” and object pronouns like “me.” If you’ve been paying attention, you know the answer has a lot to do with whether the pronoun is the subject of a verb. The litmus test is usually just: Look for a nearby verb and ask if it’s missing a subject. If so, you probably need “I.” Conversely, if there’s a verb or preposition nearby that seems to need an object, you probably want “me.”
I see now that I’ve let you down. If you look at “say” in “make George and I say nice things,” you could easily conclude that it needs a subject like “I.” After all, it’s “I say,” not “me say.”
That would be wrong. The correct pronoun in this sentence is “me.” The reasons are complicated but worth a moment of your time. Here's my recent column looking at why this sentence calls for "me" and not "I."