The Second Most Common Mistake

—in English! In English! I’m sure this is nowhere near the top of the list of mistakes humans make. This might not even be second on the English grammar list, but I think it comes right after the one where someone, trying deliberately to be high-class, says “between him and I.”

This error is using “whom” when “who” is actually correct (or in this case, “whomever” and “whoever.”). First, the rule: when you have a subordinate clause, work from the inside out. Here’s an example of the mistake, from Edge of Adventure. Look at the first panel in the bottom row. Can you tell why he should have said “whoever”?

Yes, “to” is a preposition, and the clause that comes after it is its object. But that clause has its own subject and verb! And since we work from the inside out, being the subject of that clause takes precedence over the whole clause being an object, so it’s “whoever did this.” If you really want a “whom” in that sentence you could say something like “…to whomever I find on the trail.” Now “I” is the subject, and “whomever” is the direct object of “I find.” Make sense?

So sometimes you have permission to use “who.” Be careful.

A tricky Construction

Let’s start with the sentence in question, from the December 2016 Scientific American, page 46:

Planetary scientists such as me have pieced together this new, three-ring circus version of the active young solar system with great help from new tools for calculating the ages of meteorites, as well as the ages of planetary dust clouds—similar to our primordial solar system—elsewhere in the cosmos.

That “me” in the first line doesn’t sound quite right, does it? You definitely don’t say “me have pieced together.”

Well, “me” is correct! First, figure out the actual subject of the sentence. The subject is “scientists.” So planetary scientists have pieced together all that stuff.

Still, why “me”? “Such as” is a preposition, equivalent to “like,” or “with.” So “me” is the object of the preposition. It just happens to sit next to the verb, and that proximity creates the disconnect.

Rule of thumb: Pay attention to what you’re writing.

Another Easy-for-me Post

(See how I did that three-word compound adjective there?)

I happen to own a copy of the US government’s official style guide, the USGPO Style Guide. It’s pretty good, and if you write, and can afford a copy, I recommend it. It’s called the US Government Publishing Office Style Manual, and you can download a pdf of it, but I recommend buying a copy from Amazon or any of a couple other sources, including the US Government Printing Office. Google it.

All that to mention that the NSA of all places also has a style guide of sorts, and you can find info about it here. This is a link to a post that mentions several related grammar guides and such belonging to the NSA.

https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/GPO-STYLEMANUAL-2008/content-detail.html

Check it out.

Really Short Lesson

I’m busy. Today’s lesson is short and sweet. Can you tell the mistake in English in this comic?

Well, it’s in the first panel. Aside from the fact that we have a false subject (it), you should say “It seems that people measure…”

thanks today to Nathan Cooper’s In the Sticks for the quick lesson.

Beware of False Plurals!

Ordinarily we make a plural in English by adding an “-s” at the end.

Almost immediately, though, things begin to get complicated. Sometimes you have to add “-es” (remember fourth grade?). Then some words don’t change at all to become plural, such as “fish” and “moose.” Some words change a vowel to make a plural, such as “mice.” I remember Tom the cat saying “I hate those meeses to pieces,” in Tom and Jerry cartoons, exaggerating the plural for comic effect.

And don’t get me started on all those Latin endings, “genera,” “alumni,” and “alumnae” for example. Some words don’t even have a plural! If you say “informations,” you betray that English is not your first language. “Lego,” by the way, doesn’t have a plural. No such word as “Legos.” It’s “pieces of Lego,” but I digress.

Finally, some words look like plurals but they aren’t. We call them false plurals. Sciences that end in “-ics” are all singular. Physics, cybernetics, fluidics, and finally, which leads to today’s comic, genetics. Can you tell what the verb should be?

Michael Cavna, the cartoonist, is a respected writer, enough to make me suspect this was deliberate. This misuse of “don’t” is often associated with being undereducated. He wouldn’t be insinuating that football fans are undereducated, would he??? Nah…

English Needs Another Personal Pronoun

An essay today, and a little linguistics. The other day I mentioned the singular they. This isn’t that, even though we could use a word for that, too. See yesterday’s post for mention of the best solution to that problem that I’ve found so far: rewrite the whole sentence.

What we need is an improvement on the word “we.” When you use “we,” whom are you including? You and the guy you’re talking to, or you and the guy with you? (And then there’s the plural of majesty, when you mean only yourself, but I digress.)

A pidgin language someplace in the western Pacific has a good solution:

youme, which means me and you, the guy I’m talking to.

mefellah, which means me and the guy with me, but not you.

Sometimes, especially when you’re trying to persuade someone skeptical to agree with you, using a version of “we” that indicates whether or not you’re including the person you’re talking to.

And all this reminds me of the old Lone Ranger joke:

The Lone Ranger and Tonto were on a hilltop completely surrounded by antagonistic Indians. The Lone Ranger turns to Tonto and says, “Looks like we’re in a tight spot, doesn’t it?”
Tonto replies, “Who’s ‘we,’ Paleface?”

So there you have it. Should we, um, youme start a movement?

PS—Ran into this today. Not sure what kind of “we” this is. Maybe a “youme” used to mean “you”?

A Trick of the Trade

I have mentioned the trickiness of using “whom” several times over the years. I predict the word will pretty much vanish from the language in the not-so-near future; in the meantime, we have to deal with it. Use it wrong, and those in the know will hoot and holler. This is not okay if that person in the know has some kind of serious influence, such as deciding whether to hire you.

Occasionally I made passing reference to a good solution to the whole “whom” problem, but I recently ran into someone who used this good solution, and that suggested to me that maybe I should give the solution a little more emphasis. My informant is Erika Moen, author of the site Oh Joy Sex Toy. Yes, it’s an educational site about sex. And I must warn you, she’s not a fundamental baptist! Her material is not pornographic, but it’s really candid, and she covers topics that I don’t think will ever apply to me (blush), but her intent is to inform and to do so in a way that communicates well. You have been warned! Here’s the quote:

I have a bunch of friends who I love. Friends THAT I love? Friends for whom I feel love? I have some friends and I love them.

(Actually, the first sentence should have “whom,” and then it’d be right, hoot holler) But she dealt with the uncertainty by rewriting the whole sentence. Rewriting is an excellent way to eliminate those difficult passages where you’re not sure about what word or what phrase is correct.

Start over and rewrite the passage!

You might have to reflect to get the rewording to say what you want, but it’s worth the effort. You’ll eliminate having written something incorrectly; you won’t be a bad example to some beginner; and the chance is good that your rewritten passage will be more compelling than your first attempt.

Solve your problem by getting rid of it!

Editing Practice

Another easy post for me, but hard for you, I think. How would you edit this sentence? It’s from the November 14, 2017 Mr. Fitz comic:

Beware! If you go to the Mr. Fitz site, you will spend more time there than you intend. Especially if you’re a teacher.

Quick Vocabulary Lesson

I feel lazy today. Besides,  I don’t think I can add much to this Mallard Fillmore comic unless to add a list of more words that lots of folks get wrong. But you know all those, right?