When Only Standard Usage Will Do

When I began writing about English usage, I would label sentences as “correct” and “incorrect.” I don’t do that anymore because what is “incorrect” in the standard dialect may be “correct” in one of the other dialects of English. The English language is not a monolith, but a collection of “Englishes.” According to some estimates, … Read more

The Half-life of Verbs

The term half-life existed before the term was applied to the breakdown of a radioactive substance. One earlier meaning was “an unsatisfactory way of life.” Another was “the size of painting half life-size.” The radioactive application dates from 1907. Now, the term is also applied to the time required for half the amount of any … Read more

Demise of the -er Comparative

Perhaps, like me, you were taught in elementary school that most one-syllable adjectives, plus two-syllable adjectives that end in y, form the comparative and superlative by adding –er and –est. Most one-syllable adverbs also form the comparative and superlative with –er and –est. As with every grammar “rule,” there are exceptions, but mostly, short adjectives … Read more

Another “Kryptonite” Issue: who vs whom

Many of the AP Stylebook users who responded to the Grammar Day Twitter question (AP Quiz Top Two Anathemas ) complained about the usage of who and whom. For all practical purposes, the pronoun form whom is ready to go the way of ye, an old form of the pronoun you. Ideally, speakers who do … Read more

“Become” and a Question of Syntax

A sentence in a biographical piece in the Washington Post about the gifted librettist Randy Rainbow got me thinking about syntax and linking verbs: His closest friend became his caustically funny maternal grandmother. The writer may have chosen the verb became in order to avoid overused was, but, although numerous grammar resources assert that become … Read more

Addicted “to,” not “with”

Some verbs and participle adjectives are followed by a specific preposition. Different from phrasal verbs, which can be replaced by a single word, prepositional verbs are verbs that stand alone, but are followed by a particular preposition. The verb addict (and its related forms) is one of these. Its signature preposition is to. For example: … Read more

Uses of the -ing Participle

A reader has questions about the following type of sentence: “the education chief’s sudden resignation left him scrambling to find a replacement”. This construction – “left her struggling to/has seen him battling…” is common. I haven’t been able to classify the -ing form in such sentences. I ruled out gerund (“his scrambling” can’t be right), and I don’t … Read more

Post-positive Adjectives in English

An often-noted difference between English and the Romance languages is that in English, adjectives precede the noun. English-speakers say “the red car,” whereas French-speakers say, “the car red” (la voiture rouge). Nevertheless, English possesses many examples of post-positive adjectives: adjectives that follow the noun. Some of these after-the-noun adjectives belong to set phrases, collocations whose … Read more

Good vs. Well

The words good and well have been in English since its earliest incarnation. When Beowulf finds the ancient sword in the underwater cave of Grendel’s mother, one of the words used to describe it is good. Likewise, when the Beowulf poet contemplates the afterlife, he says, “Well [i.e., “in a state of good fortune”] is … Read more

Something Odd Happening with Irregular Verbs

In Old English—the principal language spoken in England from the mid-fifth century until the Norman Conquest in 1066—English verbs were of two main kinds: Weak and Strong. OE weak verbs formed their past tense endings with dental suffixes that have survived into modern English as our -ed endings: walk (present) walked (simple past) have/had/has walked … Read more

7 Best Grammar Checker Apps

Do you struggle with spelling and grammar? Even if you’re a native English speaker, there might well be grammatical rules that confuse you – and you may find that you spend a lot of time poring over your draft text, trying to figure out what needs to be edited. This is where  grammar checker apps … Read more

3 More Cases of Confusion Between a Thing and Its Name

One fairly infrequent but prominent error in sentence composition is the careless confusion of a word or a phrase with the person, place, or thing that it represents, which usually occurs when the term is being defined or explained. The sentences below have this problem, or a related one, in common; discussion and a revision … Read more