Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Count to Ten

If you listen to You Bet Your Garden on WHYY on Saturday mornings, you probably realize that Mike McGrath, while very knowledgable about all things horticultural, is not a model for grammar and usage. Therefore, I was not surprised when he used the phrase "totally decimated" this week.

The practice of decimation has its roots in Roman history as recorded by Livy. It was a form of punishment for mutinous or cowardly soldiers. Soldiers were divided into groups of ten, and within each group, one soldier would be chosen by lot and killed, either by clubbing or stoning. In other words, decimation is the destruction of one in ten. If you look at the word, you can even see the prefix "deci" that comes from the Latin for ten.

"Total decimation" is an oxymoron. If one tenth is destroyed, nine tenths survive. If you want to show that every member of a group was killed, "total destruction" is a more accurate way to express your meaning.

And when you hear someone else say "total decimation," join me in counting to ten before venting your frustration.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

One of a kind

Summer in Chester County has been a scorcher with record temperatures and consistently high humidity. I've heard meteorologists describe the number days in the 90-degree range "very unique," and I cringe.

"Unique" is a word that should not take any qualifiers (words like very, a little, somewhat, etc.). "Unique" means "one of a kind." Something either is or is not one of a kind. If there are two of an object, then the object is not unique. Copies of the Declaration of Independence printed in 1776 might be rare, but they are not "unique." More than one exists. Ergo, any copy is not unique.

Years ago, I had a student argue for an entire term that she was "very unique." While she certainly worked very hard at being different, and while every student is unique in his or her own way, neither she nor anyone else is "very unique." The logic is all wrong! How can you be "very" one of a kind? While we immediately see the problem when we hear someone talk about a "dead corpse" (is there such a thing as a living corpse?), many speakers and writers don't recognize the incongruity of amplifying "unique." When we add the adverb we are in fact weakening the language--and the value we place on originality.

If I had my druthers, I would argue that writers cull the word "very" from their vocabularies entirely. Find the right shade of meaning and you don't need to amplify. Visit the Visual Thesaurus website (a wonderful tool for writers) to find the word with exactly the right nuance, and you can eliminate the pesky little word while making a greater impact on your reader. In that way, you can be unique (no modifier required).

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Grammar at the Constitution Center

The Ancient Rome and America exhibit at the Constitution Center ends on August 1, so we headed into the city on Sunday morning to see it before it was too late. The artifacts ranged from a ring worn by Caesar Augustus to modern reproductions of busts of famous Romans. The exhibit ended with a video contemplating the fall of Rome and whether America will share Rome's fate. If a failure to use proper grammar is any indication, maybe America is doomed.

Sometimes a grammar problem is only evident in print. The difference between "it's" and "its" is a case in point. In the subtitles of the brief video, the producers used the two words interchangeably; however there is a difference between the two. "It's" is a contraction of the two words "it is." For example, "It's (it is) my party, and I'll cry if I want to." "Its" is a possessive pronoun. In other words, it is used to show ownership by an inanimate object. For example, "Don't judge a book by its cover."

Why do so many people have problems with these two tiny words? I think it is because there are two uses for the apostrophe:
1. The apostrophe is used to indicate missing letters in a contraction. Could have= could've
2. The apostrophe is used to show possession. The book that belongs to Barbara=Barbara's book

When a writer has to decide between "it's" and "its," these two rules seem to collide. But they don't really. Look at the other possessive pronouns:
I=my (I brought my book to the beach.)
You=your (or yours) (You watched your money grow in your retirement account.)
He=his (He played his guitar at the coffee house.)
She=her (or hers) (She kicked her soccer ball in the park.)
We=our (We finished our dinner with homemade gelato.)
They=their (They drove their car across the state.)
Notice that none of the possessive pronouns uses an apostrophe! If you remember that none of the other pronouns uses an apostrophe to form its possessive, you'll never make this mistake of usage.

And you can save America from its (not it's!) decline and fall.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Ten items or...

You are in the grocery store, juggling a gallon of milk, a pound of butter, a loaf of bread, and a carton of eggs. Your biggest decision at this point is whether to get in line behind the woman with the screaming child and a cart full of Captain Crunch and Fruit Roll-ups or the dapper older gentleman with fixings for sandwiches for the week. Suddenly you notice the light pop up over the Express Lane. Yes! Score!

If you are a grammar maven, it might pain you to see the small print. Express Lane: Ten items or less. OUCH! Since the object is question is "items," the grammatically correct expression is "Ten items or fewer."

While this turn of phrase might sound pompous, the use of "fewer" for things that you can count (teeth, books, spoons, chickens, chairs) dates back to 1770. "Less," on the other hand, is used for things you can't count (sugar, sand, flour, water). These words (which grammarians call mass nouns), can be counted if they are paired with a unit of measure. So, it would be grammatically correct to say, "I use less sugar in my coffee than my daughter," or "I use fewer pounds of sugar each week now that I don't bake as often." Another example of this phenomenon is "Put less water in the glasses so they don't spill," or "Use fewer bottles of water to reduce waste."

Granted, "less" has been used with countable nouns since the time of Alfred the Great, and many people have never been taught this nicety of grammar. If that's the case, why do I care whether I stand under a sign that says "Ten items or less"? Or, more important, why should you care? When I see a printed sign, a sign that has been reviewed by the marketing department, the legal department, the executives at the highest level, and it contains a grammatical error, I wonder what other corners have been cut, what other rules they have ignored, what other ways the store relies on the lowest common denominator. If they don't hire writers who know the rules of grammar and usage, what are their qualifications for the people who handle meat or produce?

Sure, people do speak informally on a daily basis, but in my humble opinion, written text needs to be held to a higher standard, and people who design posted signs that will be read by thousands should be held accountable for their language usage.

And that's my pet peeve for the week.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Between you and ...

Quick. How did you finish the phrase? Did you say "between you and me" or "between you and I"?

What's the problem? The English language, unlike, say, Latin, is not concerned with case (giving a noun a different ending depending on how it is used in a sentence). However, pronouns DO change depending on how they are used. For example, we say, "I have the ball," but "Give the ball to me." Only little children might say "Me have the ball."

When we get to today's pet peeve, people get nervous and use a hyper-correct form ("I" sounds more formal, doesn't it?)

The word "between" is a preposition. In languages that rely on endings to convey the relationship between words, nouns connected to a preposition take the objective form. Nouns in English don't change because English is a word-order language. However, pronouns break that rule. Any time a pronoun is part of a prepositional phrase, it needs to take the objective case. (Subject forms: I, you, he, she, it, we, they. Objective forms: we, you, him, her, it, us, them.)

Examples of pronouns following a preposition: Repeat after me. Charlie ate lunch with Josh and him. The ball flew over them.

If you said "between you and me," you were correct. That's music to my ears!

Friday, July 9, 2010

Welcome to Grammar Mom

Grammar Mom is a site for me to vent about issues of grammar and usage that drive me crazy as a mom and as a teacher, as a reader and a writer, as a person who thinks about words.

I hope this site will also be a place for people to go who aren't sure about a language problem, about word choice, about the niceties of style.

What are my credentials? I teach high school English. I have taught college-level writing courses. I attended parochial school long ago when grammar was king. I read voraciously and omnivorously.

Come in to my world. Read about my pet peeves. Ask questions, if you like. Learn about language. Love language.