Another Use for Commas

We use commas to separate items in a list, to identify an aside remark,  and between certain words, such as city and state. Here’s another use.

Sometimes you need a pause, especially when you represent spoken English, even when you have no grammatical requirement to do so. In fact, you can use this physical pause function even when it would otherwise be incorrect to use a comma:

In fact, the cartoonist added a line break to emphasize the pause! I even used this technique on a post I shared a couple months ago.

Ordinarily you are incorrect to separate a subject and its verb with a single comma, so when you use this technique, be sure you know what you’re doing.

A Quick Correct “Fewer”

I was sitting at a restaurant this morning and showed this comic to my waiter (Hi, Rich!) and he laughed. I saw a quick writing lesson, though; one I’ve mentioned before: when to use less and when to use fewer. Use “fewer” when you’re counting.

If they had used “stuff” instead of “things,” “less” would have been appropriate.

PS—yes, she should have said “there are” instead of “there’s.”

Sad, but Correct Grammar

This is from a news story about a traffic accident.

It was driven by 44-year-old Catina Isaacs, who state police said died in the crash.

If you read this blog with any regularity, you might expect me to say that “who” should be “whom,” but the sentence is correct!

Look for the verb. We have two of them, “said” and “died.” Now look for the subjects. “Police said” is obvious. Now what’s the subject of “died”? It’s “who died”! Not “whom died.” So the nominative form of the personal pronoun is correct.

My condolences to the family.

A Mistake Similar to a Bad “Only”

The problem with “only” is that we tend to put the word too early in the sentence. I’ve mentioned this several times, most recently two posts ago. (Search for “only” in the search box in the upper right corner for more.)

The rule in English is to put adjectives directly in front of the word they modify, and usually we don’t have trouble with this, except in the case of “only” and a few other equivalent adjectives. Here’s an example:

Hurricane Helene is taking a stab at Category 3 strength in the remote Eastern Atlantic, where at least its prowess is harmless.

I don’t think the writer intends to modify “prowess.” I think the intent is to modify “harmless.”

Hurricane Helene is taking a stab at Category 3 strength in the remote Eastern Atlantic, where its prowess is at least harmless.

The writer could even make “at least” into an aside by using commas:

Hurricane Helene is taking a stab at Category 3 strength in the remote Eastern Atlantic, where, at least, its prowess is harmless.

Solution to the “Like or As” Problem

I never thought about considering the simile as a solution to deciding whether to use “like” or “as” in a sentence until I saw this remarkably content-free comic:

A simile is a figure of speech that compares two things (think noun) by saying one is like the other. Its companion figure of speech is metaphor, which compares two things by saying one is the other. 

Simile: A donkey is like a horse
Metaphor: You, sir, are a donkey

I never heard of anyone in English class having a problem getting these right. 

Deciding whether to use “like” or “as” is a different matter. And here’s the solution:

Are you comparing two things? It’s a simile—use “like.” The donkey is like a clown.
Is it about verbs or adjectives? Use “as.” The donkey is as funny as a clown (is.) He hit his head as he bent over. He’s sick as a dog (is).

(The “is” is implied; I put it in so you could see it.)

Why You Need to be Careful with “Only”

English puts adjectives directly before the words they modify. Say you have a red car. You don’t say, “Red Tom can wash my car.” You don’t put the word “red” anywhere except in front of “car.”

The label on the bottle is a good illustration of the effect of adjective location:

We tend to play fast and loose with this rule when the adjective is “only.”

Beware! Don’t write “It’s only going to rain half the day” when what you mean is that it’s going to rain only half the day. Putting “only” first is okay in casual conversation, but be more precise when you write.

Here’s another example, with a better solution than putting “only” where it belongs:

But without a way to accurately gauge how many people are actually on the grounds — attendance is only counted at the end of the night — and with nowhere to send people if they had to be turned away, Hammer says the 322-acre fairgrounds will just have to make room for more.

You might correctly put “only” after “counted,” but the best solution in this case it to leave “only” out altogether. 

An “old” Mistake

We don’t use “whence” and “whither” much any more. But when you do, be sure to get the words right!

Whence means from which, from where, or from when, depending on the context.

Whither is similar, but the implied preposition is “to.”

I enjoy Michael Shermer’s column in Scientific American (in this case, the July 2018 issue, page 73). His material is interesting and thought-provoking. But hah! I caught him in a solecism! Here’s the quote:

That is the compatibilist position from whence volition and culpability emerge. 

“Whence” already means “from where,” So he doesn’t need the “from.” I’d say that considering the rest of the vocabulary in that sentence, maybe he’s being careless; “whence” without the “from” would certainly fit.

An Unparallel Compound

Whenever you have two (or more) of something in a sentence, they should share the same structure. For example, if you have a list, they should all be the same part of speech. Line items in bulleted lists should have the same structure. (I wrote about parallelism several times in the past. Look up “parallel” in the search box in the upper right corner.)

I’m not sure how this is wrong, but it’s wrong. The sentence has a compound direct object that doesn’t match itself:

This time around the threat is contained, but flight crews have detailed and practiced responses to more extreme problems.

Maybe it’s because the source is British. I Americanized the spelling.

“Detailed” looks like an adjective (a detailed response), and “practiced” looks like a verb (they practiced responses). Not the same. Bad. Maybe “detailed” is a verb? What is the sense of detailing a response? Is “practiced” an adjective? What’s a practiced response? I think the sentence is just plain not well written.

They could fix this with a simpler sentence; for example:

This time around the threat is contained, but flight crews have practiced detailed responses to more extreme problems.

One verb, one direct object. Nice. 

Use Facts Truthfully!

I can let this comic stand on its own. Expository writing needs to have the facts right, needs to be correct. (Do a search on “correctness” in the search box in the upper right corner of this page. I mentioned this several times in the past.)

Here’s a way not to do it! Don’t twist facts to make them not tell the truth!

The Bratty Kid Gets it Right

One of my favorite hobby horses—getting “whom” correct.

Subordinate clauses are stumbling blocks for a lot of people because these clauses often put the direct object first, where the subject usually goes. So the nominative form, “who” gets used, even though the actual subject is “you.”

Whenever you have a who/whom decision to make, first decide what is the verb, then look for the subject. Then decide whether the “who” word is the subject or the object. “Who” is a subject, “whom” is an object.