Number 71 — February 10, 2006
I have tumbled into the winter "blahs," my mind in neutral with no destination in sight, the problem aggravated by idleness bred by closing my business. So, I coasted into February, wondering what comes next, when the same question arose from two unrelated sources.
I suspect sentences like 4 and 5 include this error more often than 3. To correct the error, find the subject and put a comma in front of it.
The same words, but different messages. Beware.
Number 72 — February 17, 2006
I am happy to report my recovery from the winter blahs that afflicted me last week. While snow buried the East Coast, Arkansas enjoyed great weather. A high of 65 last Tuesday and I played my first game of golf in 2006; a sure cure for the blahs. On the deserted course, I had the opportunity to hit three balls on every hole, while pondering this week's article. My choice—give up golf and—no, I'm only kidding; it wasn't that bad. Anyway, while out in the bright sunshine, I elected to continue my discussion of punctuation begun last week. I begin with an excerpt from an essay recently sent to me for comment that deals with the impact of TV advertising:
Feelings, as used by the author, is a common word clearly intended to mean the subjects' emotional reactions to their circumstances. So, why did he put it in quotes? I could find no reason within the context of his writing, so I presume the purpose was for emphasis. If so, this is a mistaken use of quotes.
My recommendation: Use sparingly. I sometimes find ellipses inserted in various places where the author senses a need for some sort of punctuation, but not knowing what, inserts an ellipsis. Here is an example from a recent submission that begins with this line:
The ellipsis does not fit any of Ms. Stilman's functions. The author's intention may have been to suggest a pause as the character reacts after stepping outside. How to correct? Either replace the ellipsis with a comma or an em dash, setting off a parenthetic interjection, or show the reader the action that motivates the thought. As above, I think adding words to make writing concise and to deliver a clear meaning or image is better than the vagueness of inappropriate punctuation.
Number 73 — February 24, 2006
I begin with a definition of a pronoun: "A word used as a substitute for a noun or a noun equivalent that refers to persons or objects named or understood in the context." (Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary.)
You would never say, "Me will write an article," or "The article was written by I." Not all cases are so obvious. Errors sometimes creep in largely because of our poor speech habits. Our objective in this and subsequent articles will be to examine pronoun use in general and discuss instances where errors often occur. Let's begin by listing the pronouns in each category.
Here are examples of a common method of determining correct pronoun use.
To select the correct pronoun, complete the sentence by adding the implied verb cook at the end of the sentence. My wife cooks better than I (cook). We immediately recognize I as the correct pronoun because we now see it as the subject of the inferred verb. But nine times out of ten, asking who is the better cook will bring this response: "My wife cooks better than me," which is grammatically wrong. Because it is common parlance should not blind us to correct grammar, although we might use the incorrect sentence in dialogue for realism's sake.
We must take care that our pronoun use does not create ambiguity. In this case, the choice depends on where you place the implied verb needed.
Presumably, once he got the car, he didn't need me to drive it. In such a case, the author must restructure the sentence to remove any possible ambiguity, but more often than not, even the author fails to see the possible mistaken interpretation.
Sometimes the perceived awkwardness of the correct grammatical construction as compared to a common incorrect verbal usage may be thought to be an error. For instance, many people would incorrectly say, "Paul sings better than him." When readers see "Paul sings better than he," they may think the phrase is wrong. Substituting Paul sings better than his brother removes the discomfort. The corollary is when unable to decide the correct pronoun, rewrite the sentence to avoid the issue. The tragedy is authors never make corrections when they lack the grammatical knowledge to recognize incorrect usage.
Number 74 — March 3, 2006
Last week, I introduced the idea of deciding which pronoun to use in a particular case by inserting implied words. This week, I will look at some other common pronoun uses and continue to suggest ways to avoid problems.
I have ranted and raved for years about my dislike of substitute subjects and this is a case in point. The pronoun (he / him) renames or identifies the substitute subject it. Since the pronoun follows a form of the verb to be (was), the correct choice is the subjective case.
The problem is that many speakers and some writers find these sentences stuffy, unnatural, or awkward, inserting the objective case of the pronouns because it sounds better, as in—
When rewritten without the substitute subject, the subjective case of the pronoun is automatic without a second thought.
Sometimes, pronouns combined with nouns in compound uses cause trouble. To find the right pronoun, test the sentence with the pronoun alone, omitting the compounding words.
When personal pronouns follow conjunctions except, but, than, or as, they take the subjective form as subjects of a clause.
Some grammarians suggest everyday speech has missused the objective case so much in these kinds of statements that it has become acceptable grammatical construction for some conjunctions to act like prepositions—although I have yet to see such a statement in a book on grammar—as below:
The foregoing suggests we look at prescriptivism and descriptivism that I will explore when I conclude the current series on pronouns. (Turns out to be in Article 77. A little bit of history never hurt anyone.)
Number 75 — March 10, 2006
Continuing with the subject of pronouns, I turn to the relative pronouns who, whom, whoever, whomever, which, and that. I start with the rule governing the first four:
Notice in case 1, the subjective relative pronoun who stands in for the subject of the action; In case 2, the objective relative pronoun whom stands in for the target of the action. This provides another way of choosing: Does the relative pronoun relate to taking an action or being the receiver of an action?
Let's move on to that and which. Use the relative pronoun that when the relative clause following provides specific information identifying the subject. The desk that Stephen built was … . Here, the words Stephen built identify a particular desk and therefore the correct relative pronoun is that. The tables, which Stephen built, were … . In this case, the words Stephen built supply information about all the tables in question and do not serve to further identify any particular one and therefore the correct relative pronoun is which. The which clause is set off by commas because it is non-restrictive; the that clause is not set off with commas because it is restrictive. I addressed this topic in Article 5 under the heading of restrictive and non-restrictive clauses. This would be a good time to go back and re-read it.
I think the sentences without the reflexive pronoun deliver the same message as the ones with the reflexive pronouns. In other words, the reflexive pronouns do nothing except add redundancy.
Second case: Used for emphasis: Stephen himself was the builder of the desk.
The antecedent of a pronoun is the noun it replaces.
Number 76 — March 17, 2006
Bearing in mind the simple definition of the antecedent of a pronoun, I come to the most common errors in pronoun use.
1. CONFUSED IDENTITY:
2. MULTIPLE ANTECEDENTS:
3. INTERRUPTING PHRASE:
4. RECOGNIZING THE REAL SUBJECT:
6. CONFUSED IDENTITY:
Here are examples:
7. NUMBER AND PERSON:
8. GRANNY'S RULE:
Number 77 — March 24, 2006
I suppose I could go on writing about pronouns for a dog's age, but enough is enough, so let's switch to a bit of history. An interesting lecture series on tape called The History of the English Language. (The Teaching Company, Course No. 802.) begins with the origins of English from the various cultures infiltrating the British Isles—the Romans, Angles, Saxons, Danes and finally the French after the Norman Conquest—each leaving their impact on our language. Regional dialect is a major emphasis of the course. In the time of King Alfred in the late tenth century, the English dialect of one geographical area could be incomprehensible in other areas. The lecturer tells a humorous story of travelers from Northumberland asking a Kent farmer's wife for eggs, both speaking English in their regional dialects. The woman could not understand the question and replied, "I'm sorry, sirs, I don't speak French."
An endless stream of descriptive writing pervades American literature from the founding of this country to the present day, but the rules of grammar are not to be ignored. Even as we read these fractured examples, we know if we delve further into each author's work, we will find a knowledge and understanding of the rules of grammar. To know what is wrong, we must first know what is right. Thus, while descriptivism appears to be the popular choice, we should not cast prescriptivism aside.
Number 78 — March 31, 2006
I once considered producing a book on creative writing I proposed to call The Power of Four. My advisers frowned on the idea, but it lingered in my imagination. Last week, I received a short story—only 235 words—with a request for comment. Written in dialogue without tags (Mama said, Daughter said), scene setting, exposition, and character description, the story nonetheless develops good imagery. How did the author achieve this? Through invoking the writing formula I talk and write about all the time:
"GOAL versus OBSTACLE breeds CONFLICT that leads to ACTION and results in RESOLUTION."
The story line is a daughter telling her mother she met a man who has serious intentions, while the Mother expresses doubts and concerns. I sensed room for improvement and made a few recommendations for the author's consideration.
I called the process The Power of Four. A procedure so ridiculously simple, there is no reason to fail. I contend by setting yourself on the right course, your story plot will evolve as if by magic.
Number 79 — April 7, 2006
Gifted authors have an artistry for words. In all my years of attending writing conferences, I have met only one such person; a young man who won a large cash reward in the first writing contest he entered. Writing was so easy for him, he chose a different career path, which in his eyes offered more challenge. In the 1960's, while working in Nova Scotia on a paper mill project, I met an engineer who played the piano beautifully without ever having had a lesson. He selected a career in engineering because he had no interest in music; it was too easy. The stories of other gifted people who lacked the motivation to develop their natural talent are legion. This is not to exclude the less talented from success. Many people dream of goals well beyond their natural ability. Wonderful success stories result, leading us to ask how they did it? I believe the answer is dedication and determination, which means setting goals, enabling plans and persevering with unrelenting resolve.
Number 80 — April 14, 2006
Before I begin, let's review the four-step procedure I use to plan a story.
Here is another analogy. I spent more than forty years in the commercial construction industry. My work began with the arrival of plans from an owner or architect with a request to price the work shown on the drawings. This involved an evaluation of every part of the proposed work, and a determination of an action plan if my company received a contract award. When that happened, a superintendent took charge of the work in which he had to make many more decisions than considered in the price evaluation, which nonetheless served as the foundation for his decisions. The process I want to describe now equates to the cost evaluation before the work begins. Its purpose is to create a foundation on which I will build my book if I elect to continue with it. Later, when I put on my "superintendent's" hat and become the author of the book, I will have to make many more decisions, some of which will be at variance with my first plan. But, my four-step plan sets a course towards a completed story in the same sense I set the superintendent on his way towards a completed building guided by a plan to control the work flow.