My Favorite Line from Strunk and White
Posted by June on October 27, 2014

 

I’m on record as saying some not-nice things about Strunk & White’s “The Elements of Style.”

All my criticisms boil down to the same problem: This book is not what people think it is. It’s not what marketers and publishers present it as. This book, which is marketed as timeless wisdom for the masses, is really just a list of rules for students of one English professor about a century ago, offering instructions on how to turn in papers in that particular class.

Imagine a teacher put together a list of rules on, say, classroom conduct that included the imperative “Don’t chew gum,” then 100 years later people were running around thinking no one should ever chew gum because doing so is “wrong.”

That’s the problem with “The Elements of Style.” Half its advice is great, half is either obsolete or impertinent or too broadly worded. Yet millions of people think it’s authoritative.

But it can be a great source to quote. Traditionalists love it, so when the book disagrees with the traditionalist view, it carries that much more weight. And of all the Strunk and White quotes that buck the traditionalist view, this is my favorite.

And would you write “The worst tennis player around here is I” or “The worst tennis player around here is me”? The first is good grammar, the second is good judgment

Not only is the guide telling writers to break a grammar rule, but it does so in a sentence that starts with “and.” After this pithy entry, the authors add that “‘me’ might not do in all contexts.” So they’re not saying "me" is fine all the time. They're saying that sometimes  you just have to get real.

'Data' With a Singular Verb?
Posted by June on October 20, 2014
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Here's an e-mail I got a while back:

People are now using words which are considered to be all inclusive, such as data, with the plural form of the verb. When I went to school, the word data was considered to be singular because it is a set of information, all inclusive. Each of the pieces of data (aka information) are considered to be a set within that data.

There are several other words that imply the plural, but like data, are considered to be singular. For the life of me, I can't think of other examples at the moment. This error is rampant. I can't stand it! Both my husband and I want to turn off the TV or the radio when that happens. It is happening more frequently. I thought people who major in journalism and communications studies (what a misnomer!!) were supposed to have writing skills, which should include grammar.

And here's my reply:

Thanks so much for the note! I've gotten a number of e-mails over the years from people about verb agreement with "data" -- but it's always been the opposite of your position. They complain that data is used with a singular verb (the data is compelling) when in fact it should be used with a plural verb (the data are compelling).

Data is actually the plural of datum. So traditionally it would take a plural verb. (That's from the
Latin, but American dictionaries still treat data as a plural first and foremost.

But in fact, both forms are acceptable depending on the writer's/speaker's intent.

Hope that helps!

 

As, Though, Although and While
Posted by June on October 13, 2014
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“As,” “while,” “though” and “although” are contenders to be my least-favorite word in the English language. True, they’re not as offensive a lot of other words you and I can think of. But they cause more than their share of problems for the writers I edit.

Their weakness is also their biggest strength: They let you squeeze more information into a sentence – perhaps more than should be there.

Zander fell screaming to the ground, clutching at his gushing wound, as Kerry’s gun blasted a bullet through Zander’s throat.

I really dislike the organization of that sentence. The “as” clause feels like a cheat. The big event in this sentence was suppose to be that Kerry shot Zander. Yet through the dubious power of “as,” the writer was able to tack it on like an afterthought. Sometimes when I see “as” used this way, it almost comes off like the writer had forgotten to mention the actual events, so in a backpedaling motion he tacks it onto the end of a less-interesting action.

"While," "though," "although" and "as" do the most damage at the head of a sentence.

While not as fuel efficient as a lot of other cars Chevy is rolling out this year, the 2015 Fussy GT offers impressive torque and a zero-to-60 time of about eight seconds.

This is, of course, a legitimate way to structure a sentence. But it leads to abuse. But the way the comma coincides with the reader's need to take a huge gulp of air may not be ideal. In other words, the “while” clause can create a big, long delay before you get to the real point of the sentence.

Plus, “while,” “though” and “although” create contrasts that tend to undermine the main clause:

Though she can’t hit high notes or hit any notes for very long, Baybay is a good singer.

The writer of a sentence like this hasn’t exactly convinced me of Baybay’s talents.

Don’t let this wank stop you from using “though,” “although,” “while” and “as.” Just when you do, stop and consider whether these words are setting you up to write a sentence that is itself wank-worthy.

'Whomever' or 'Whoever' Positioned Between Two Clauses
Posted by June on October 6, 2014
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Here’s an e-mail I got recently:

Normally I have no difficulty with who/whom. I do when it  comes to a sentence like "Give it to who(m)ever wants it." If the rephrasing would be he wants it, it would be "whoever." If the rephrasing would be give it to him, it would be "whomever." Which would you use?

This is exactly why I caution people against using “whom.” It’s simple in a lot of cases. But once you start using “whom” you’ve pretty much committed to using it for the entire document. And if you come across a sentence like this, you could find yourself in over your head.

Here’s what I wrote back:

In your example, the object of the preposition "with" is not the pronoun that follows. It's the whole clause that follows. And that clause needs a subject. 

"Give it to whoever wants it."

That is, the verb "wants" needs a subject. And when combined with its subject ("whoever") the whole clause becomes the object of the first part. That's why "whomever" is wrong in your sentence and "whoever" is correct.

When in doubt, remember this: If a pronoun is in position to be the object of one thing and the subject of another, the subject form wins.

Hire whomever you want.

BUT

Hire whoever wants the job.

The man whom I marry.

BUT

The man who marries me.

They recruited an engineering major who they believed would do the job better.

BUT

They recruited an engineering major whom they trusted.

See what I mean? In "Hire whomever you want," the pronoun is the object of the verb "want." What's the object of the verb "hire"? The whole clause that follows.

In "Hire whoever wants the job," the pronoun is the subject of the verb. "Wants" needs a subject.