I’m sure this comes as no surprise to anyone who has visited the writing guide here before, but I’d like to make official what has been painfully obvious for too long: this little experiment of a writing guide has come to an end.
It has been nearly 2 1/2 years since I last posted an entry here, and I have neither the time nor the motivation to post another any time soon. My interests, along with my profession, have changed quite a bit in the last five years, and I no longer feel qualified to make any kind of authoritative pronouncement about the English language. The entries will remain available for viewing, but comments will be closed. I’ve enjoyed seeing the discussion that a few of the entries have generated, but I’m afraid that leaving comments open invites the expectation that I will answer the questions of anyone who happens to ask. Thanks to everyone who has contributed to those discussions.
To those looking for help with English grammar, style, and usage, I hope you can find an answer in one of the previously posted entries or on another website.
Someone recently sent me an email asking about the proper use of who and that:
When followed by a verb, how does one know when to say “who” and when to say “that”? Ex: The lady that jumped on the couch or The lady who jumped on the couch?
I prefer to use who when referring to people, but that is merely a preference. My favorite online source for such usage questions, The American Heritage Book of English Usage, explains:
that instead of who
The man that wanted to talk to you just called back. Some people say that you can only use who and not that to introduce a restrictive relative clause that identifies a person. But that has been used in this way for centuries. It is a quintessential English usage, going back to the Old English period, and has been used by our best writers. So it is entirely acceptable to write either the man that wanted to talk to you or the man who wanted to talk to you.
You can read more about such pronoun issues in The American Heritage Book of English Usage at bartleby.com
I just got a very nice note from Andrew, who asked a good usage question:
Hi! I love reading your answers to the grammar questions. Recently, I got into a debate about ‘lit’ versus ‘lighted’.
I lit a match.
I lighted a candle.
The room was lit by the flame.
The room was lighted by the flame.
Andrew, I do have some advice for you: Use whichever word you like. They’re interchangeable both as past tense verbs and as past participles.
The only difference between the two words is that lit can be used to mean drunk, but lighted can’t.
Perhaps the most famous use of “lighted” in its adjectival form is in the title of Ernest Hemingway’s short story A Clean Well-Lighted Place.
Here is one of the many questions I’ve received recently:
I was reading a story in the paper and the writer wrote “He hanged himself.” My coworkers and I thought it should be, “He hung himself.” Are we all wrong or is the journalist?
Here is my answer:
I’m sorry to report that you are wrong, not the journalist. Pictures can be hung, but people are always hanged. It’s an odd quirk of the English language. Here is a usage note on the word “hang” from the American Heritage Dictionary:
Hanged, as a past tense and a past participle of hang, is used in the sense of “to put to death by hanging,” as in Frontier courts hanged many a prisoner after a summary trial. A majority of the Usage Panel objects to hung used in this sense. In all other senses of the word, hung is the preferred form as past tense and past participle, as in I hung my child’s picture above my desk.
Someone recently wrote in with the following question:
I was recently reading a book that used the word “towards” many times. I have always said, “I went toward the lake.” But, in this book the author wrote several sentences such as, “I went towards the lake.” The author is a professor of liturature at John Hopkins. So, I’m wondering if I have always been incorrect. On the other hand, English is her second language. So, perhaps I am correct. Or, maybe there are times when it should be plural and others when it should be singular. Please advise.
The good news is that you are both correct. Because the word acts as a preposition, not a noun, adding the “s” doesn’t make it plural. Frankly, I don’t even know which form I use. It probably depends on the context, how it sounds with the words around it. However, the American Heritage Dictionary of English Usage claims that “toward” is used more often in American English, while “towards” is used more often in British English. So, if you are an American and the author is from outside of the U.S. and presumably learned a form of British English, that would explain why you and she use different forms of the word.
The difference between the American and British version of “toward(s)” follows a general pattern that I’ve noticed. It seems that when Americans and Brits spell words differently, or use slightly different words to express the same thing, the American version is shorter, leaner, with fewer letters than the more decorative British version:
Please note that this idea of mine is based only on casual observation, so I have no idea if it would hold up to closer scrutiny. Maybe someone will post a comment with either supporting or contrary evidence. That would be nice.
“The question concerns the appropriate use of the words historic and historical. When is one prefered over the other?”
This is a great question, for which the American Heritage Book of English Usage has an excellent answer:
Historic and historical have different usages though their senses overlap. Historic refers to what is important in history: the historic first voyage to the Moon. It is also used of what is famous or interesting because of its association with persons or events in history: a historic house. Historical refers to whatever existed in the past, whether regarded as important or not: a minor historical character. Historical also refers to anything concerned with history or the study of the past: a historical novel, historical discoveries. While these distinctions are useful, don’t be surprised if you see these words used interchangeably, as in historic times or historical times.
Question: When do I use “to” or “too”? Example: too difficult or to stay
Answer: The word too has two common meanings: (1) “also” or “besides” and (2) “excessively.” Sometimes people use it informally to mean (3) “very.”
Examples of “too”
- Jane would like some ice cream, too. I, too, am part Swedish.
- Frida was too small to ride the roller coaster. Henry is too tired to watch the late-night movie.
- Nobody seemed too interested in the television show.
The word to is used in all other cases—too many for me to describe in detail. Here are the definitions as listed in the American Heritage Dictionary:
- a. In a direction toward so as to reach: went to the city. b. Towards: turned to me.
- a. Reaching as far as: The ocean water was clear all the way to the bottom. b. To the extent or degree of: loved him to distraction. c. With the resultant condition of: nursed her back to health.
- Toward a given state: helping minority women to economic equality.
- In contact with; against: their faces pressed to the windows.
- In front of: stood face to face.
- Used to indicate appropriation or possession: looked for the top to the jar.
- Concerning; regarding: waiting for an answer to my letter.
- In a particular relationship with: The brook runs parallel to the road.
- As an accompaniment or a complement of: danced to the tune.
- Composing; constituting: two cups to a pint.
- In accord with: job responsibilities suited to her abilities.
- As compared with: a book superior to his others.
- a. Before: The time is ten to five. b. Up till; until: worked from nine to five.
- a. For the purpose of: went out to lunch. b. In honor of: a toast to the queen.
- a. Used before a verb to indicate the infinitive: I’d like to go. b. Used alone when the infinitive is understood: Go if you want to.
- a. Used to indicate the relationship of a verb with its complement: refer to a dictionary; refer me to a dictionary. b. Used with a reflexive pronoun to indicate exclusivity or separateness: had the plane to ourselves.
- In one direction; toward a person or thing: owls with feathers wrong end to.
- Into a shut or closed position: pushed the door to.
- Into a state of consciousness: The patient came to.
- Into a state of action or attentiveness: sat down for lunch and fell to.
- (Nautical.) Into the wind.
Which is correct?
- None of us does
- None of us do
In replying to this question, I can do no better than to quote from the excellent book by Martha Kolln, Rhetorical Grammar:
One special problem occurs with the word none, which has its origin in the phrase not one. Because of that original meaning, many writers insist that none always be singular, as not one clearly is. However, a more accurate way to assess its meaning is to recognize none as the negative, or opposite, of all and to treat it in the same way, with its number determined by the number of the modifier.
Kolln provides a few examples to demonstrate the logic of her claim:
- All of the cake was left.
- None of the cake was left.
- All of the cookies were left.
- None of the cookies were left.
So, in the questioner’s example sentence, it appears that the correct version would be the second: “None of us do…”
What do my fellow English geeks out there think?
Selline Odeny asked, “Please tell me about the subject-first and non-subject-first sentence patterns.”
Thanks for the request, Selline. I’d love to tell you about these sentence patterns.
While it’s true that sentences can begin with a dependent clause in which the beginning word is typically an adverb, I’ll be focusing on the main part of the sentence, the independent clause.
The most common sentence patterns in English have the subject first, followed by the verb. We first learn who or what the sentence is about, and then we discover what the person or thing does or is.
- Josie ran down the street. (“Josie” is the subject; “ran” is the verb)
- St. Louis is a fine place to visit. (“St. Louis” is the subject; “is” is the verb)
- The blue car careened down the mountain road. (“The blue car” is the complete subject; “careened” is the verb)
Less common are the sentence patterns that begin with a part of speech other than the subject (as is the case with this sentence, in which the adverb/predicate adjective pair “Less common” comes first). These inverted sentence patterns are used sometimes to delay revealing what the sentence is about and sometimes to create tension or suspense. Still other times, these patterns can be used to connect ideas between sentences more clearly.
- Never before had I seen such a beautiful tree. (Begins with the adverb “Never before”)
- In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. (Begins with a pair of prepositional phrases—”In a hole” and “in the ground”)
- Masterly and dry and desolate he looked, his thin shoulder-blades lifting his coat slightly. (A series of three adjectives precedes the subject)
- It was always pleasant crossing bridges in Paris.
Sentence 4, written by Ernest Hemingway, begins with the expletive (“It”) and the verb (“was always”), followed by the complement (“pleasant”) before finally arriving at the subject (“crossing bridges in Paris”). The sentence rewritten in the conventional subject-verb pattern would look like this: Crossing bridges in Paris was always pleasant.
A great resource for learning more about the “inverted” sentence patterns, the ones with something other than the subject first, is Scott Rice’s Right Words, Right Places, from which I took a few of these examples.
I’ve received a number of questions about the proper use of shall and will. Unfortunately, this issue is so difficult and convoluted that crafting an answer would take more time than I have at the moment. I usually go with my intuition, realizing that since I live in the United States I’ll get away with making a mistake every now and then, as Americans seem to be a lot more relaxed about this rule than the British are.
For those of you who are more concerned about this rule than I am, you may want to read the entries in the following two usage books: