Avoiding anguished English (The importance of grammar when writing and speaking English)

The typical mistakes in the English punctuation and the correct rules of the using an apostrophe. The most important grammar rules. This is very useful material for all learners who want to understand English more deeply and use it in an appropriate way.

Рубрика Иностранные языки и языкознание
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Язык английский
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Avoiding anguished English

(The importance of grammar when writing and speaking English)


I. Introduction

II. Main part

1. Special Kinds of Subjects

2. A Bit More About Each

3. There - the Introducer

4. Former Greats

5. May and Might: Did they or Didn't they?

6. Apostrophe Atrocities

7. It's a Contraction - Really

8. Whiches, Who's, and Thats

9. Where's the Irony?

10. The Intrusive Of

11. Preposition Propositions

12. Between Who and What? Prepositions with More Than One Object

13. Well, Better, Best, Most

14. Other… or Else

15. Silly Tautologies

16. None Is, none Are?

17. And/Or

18. Quantities

19. Between vs. Among

III. Conclusion

IV. Bibliography

I. Introduction

I'm keen on English. I like this subject very much and I'm studying it with great pleasure and enthusiasm. English has become an inseparable part of my daily study. But for foreign learners there are some aspects of English which are very difficult to understand. I came across the same problems when I started to learn English. That's why I've decided to write this science work - to show these common mistakes and to explain why you must try to avoid them, using real examples which I've found in newspapers and other English literature during my stay in an English speaking country.

My work consists of four parts: introduction, main part, conclusion and bibliography. The main part is divided into nineteen sections. Each of these sections has its own specific topic to identify, to describe and to explain how to avoid each particular common mistake in English. In each of these sections I've used real examples, mostly from newspapers, to show how often people use words incorrectly, even native English speakers. Most quotations are taken from sports reviews, because I'm very keen on sport. Also, I have used a lot of grammar references (which is essential for the topic of my science work, because I'm not a native English speaker and my English still needs to be improved a lot), such as dictionaries and the works of some well-known grammarians. But I've tried to rearrange the usual dictionary explanations in a more suitable and a more understandable way for learning. My work doesn't have any “deep” explanations; the grammar rules are explained in a simple way.

I have always been keen on all grammar, not specifically English grammar only. But while I was in one of the English speaking countries, I had an opportunity to find out many examples which show how confusing some aspects of English language can be, even for native speakers. My tutor, who is a native English speaker, provided me with all necessary materials and literature for my work. There are some really rare pieces of literature, which I couldn't get in Ukraine. Also, he gave me some useful advice about my work.

Last year, I wrote a science work which was called “The typical mistakes in the English punctuation and the correct rules of the using an apostrophe”. This work was also connected with grammar rules. This time I've broadened the scope of my topic. I have undertaken a brief overview of the most common mistakes in English. So, in my opinion, it is useful material for all learners who want to understand English more deeply and use it in an appropriate way. There are also some good examples that will be interesting both for people who have just started to learn English and for the more advanced level students.

II. Main part

1. Special Kinds of Subjects

When we hear a remark like "tarring and feathering are too good for that swindler," we can sense that something is not quite right. At least, grammarians sense it. But why? Two words serving as nouns are sitting right there in the subject spot, aren't they? Yes, indeed they are, but nevertheless the sentence is telling us about one punishment, not two, so surely the remark should be “tarring and feathering is too good for that swindler”.

Although the rule of subject-verb agreement did not become firmly set until the eighteenth century, it has since become the key to clarity for the sentence and thus to true communication. But a mid-twentieth century grammarian, Margaret Bryant, observed that "good prose of today does not always follow the rule," since one could often find sentences in which a singular verb accompanies a plural subject, such as: "But the assault and robbery is at least equally likely to have been a reason for his voluntary resignation.”

Well, yes, there are two nouns sitting in the subject spot, but, as Bryant goes on to say, "if a group of words, even though plural in form, creates one conception in the mind of the person using them as a subject, a singular verb follows. In Modern English where there is a conflict between form and meaning, meaning tends to triumph." So, literally, the sentence gives us two nouns in the subject spot, but in fact they simply name one action - indeed, one `the' serves for both nouns; when we have two such nouns linked by `and', we speak of a compound subject.

The same principle holds in "tarring and feathering are too good for that swindler," which, as we have seen, should read "is too good," and in a sentence like "Rupert decided that dinner and a movie was just the ticket," except that this latter sentence involves pleasure rather than punishment.

Speaking of a basketball player who had returned to action after operations on both knees, his coach commented: "Now his mobility and agility is back." Clearly the coach saw these traits as blending into one athletic quality. If he had said "his mobility and his agility," he would have been separating them.

A particularly good example here comes from a speech by Prince Charles, in which, calling for Britons to live in harmony, he observed that nobody has a monopoly on truth and then declared: "To recognize that is, I believe, a first step to real wisdom and a vital blow against the suspicion and misunderstanding that too often characterizes the public relationships between different faiths."

The distinction between singular and plural in verb forms has little practical value, no doubt. Except for forms of to be (am, was), it occurs only in the present tense and there only in the third person. Nevertheless, it exists and is generally observed in literature and in daily life, and failure to use it therefore creates confusion.

Meaning also outranks form, Bryant comments, when we use collective-group-nouns (although, as she does not say, a good deal of individual choice comes into play here). Often we say "the class were all present" if we're talking about the behaviour of the individuals making up the group. On the other hand, we say "the class was ranked first" if we're thinking of it as a unit.

Any reader of British writing will have noticed that the plural commonly appears here, as shown, for instance, in this line from a Winston Churchill memo to his air minister: "The Cabinet were distressed to hear from you that you were now running short of pilots for fighters."

Meaning or not, however, a line like that often sounds unnatural to Americans (but in the realm of grammar and usage, Churchill, a great admirer of H. W Fowler's Modern English Usage, always stood on firm national ground). And Americans always say "the government was," never "the government were."

Whatever your nationality or your inclinations in this area, however, you need to be consistent within a sentence. In reporting the problems encountered in Greece by a group of British and Dutch tourists for engaging in their curious hobby of taking photographs at foreign air-force bases, an AP (American Profile) correspondent said: "The group was arrested after the Kalamata show and have been held since on espionage charges." Such strong disagreement within a sentence can hardly be considered correct. If the writer, pulled between the singular and the plural, did not wish to make `group' plural, she might well have solved her problem by saying simply, "The members of the group were ..."


If the subject has two or more nouns but describes one action (as in "assault and battery"), use a singular verb.

Don't be afraid to use a plural verb with a plural idea, even if your subject looks singular (as in "the class were all present").

2. A Bit More About Each

In commenting on how unusual it was for two unbeaten American Southeastern Conference football teams to meet late in the season, an AP sportswriter pointed out: "Each team has an identical record 8-0 overall and 5-0 in the conference." The writer has produced a sloppy sentence that is not well crafted. As it stands, the sentence is incomplete because each is being asked to do a job it cannot do. "Each team has a record of 8-0" would be fine, or, alternatively, the sentence could go on to tell us something like this: "Each team has a record identical to that of the great Georgia Tech team of 1887," or whatever it might be. Why? Because identical must be identical to something; it can't float. There isn't much mystery here about what the writer means - the two teams have identical records - but the point has been blunted.

Sometimes a writer simply doesn't give us each when we may need it. Discussing the out-of-court settlement of a lawsuit over a "sex tape" made by Pamela Anderson and a rock singer named Brett Michaels, an entertainment column noted that "Internet Entertainment Group agreed to pay both participants a seven-figure sum and destroy all copies." This decision probably did not result in any great loss to art, but it's cloudy in one respect: Is Internet Entertainment paying Anderson and Michaels each a seven-figure sum, or is that the grand total? If it's the latter, then the writer would have been well advised to say so explicitly, because both is commonly and confusingly used where each is actually called for.

This sentence (from American Profile) is typical: "At both ends of the elliptical design [of the planned World War II memorial in Washington] will stand a towering baldachin, or canopy - one representing the Atlantic theater, the other the Pacific." Quite a mobile canopy!

In describing the successes achieved by two operas at the festival in Aix-en-Provence, a New York Times critic commented: "It no doubt helped that each came with excellent productions." But each is still one, and therefore each came with an excellent production.


Each is always singular. Use both when you mean both.

3. There-the Introducer

A writer who wants the verb to precede instead of follow the subject of a sentence can easily arrange it, because nature has supplied a handy introductory word: there. "There is a Boy Scout on every corner" and "There are Boy Scouts everywhere."

But what do we often hear? We hear sentences like this: "There's Boy Scouts everywhere." Boy Scouts is the subject - the unmistakably plural subject - yet throughout the media, and also in the great world outside, speakers will give it a singular verb. The grammarians fear that many of these writers and speakers see there as the subject, precisely because it comes before the verb, even though it's only a doorman, a function word (once called an introductory adverb) to get you into the sentence. That's probably the case, for instance, with Robert Putnam, the Harvard sociologist who wrote Bowling Alone, the much-discussed analysis of threats to community in America. Speaking of the need to preserve groups like the League of Women Voters, Putnam said that newer advocacy groups may be popular but do not fill the void: "There's a lot of smoke there; there's a lot of mirrors there. But there's not something that has yet replaced it." (There's Nos. 1 and 3 are, of course, correct.)

In an interview on CNN, President George W Bush, who like all presidents belongs in the category of media figure by virtue of the office he holds and hence is subject to being quoted in these pages, displayed a similar fondness for this construction: "If there's any environmental regulations that's preventing California from having a 100 per cent max output at their plants . . . then we need to relax those regulations." (That's, instead of that are, is simply wrong.)

Speaking of Rick Pitino, the renowned basketball coach who was weighing an offer from a university, the broadcaster Dick Vitale observed, "He's going to coach in college. There's no ifs, ands or buts about it."

A less obvious and therefore quite useful example comes from an AP story about the need for former presidents of the United States to speak with care when they visit foreign countries: "[Lee] Hamilton, a former chairman of the House International Relations Committee, said he is not in favor of a `gag rule' but there needs to be clear lines of communication between former and sitting chief executives." Lines, not there, is the subject here; as noted above, there is never the subject.

Using the contraction there's instead of saying there is probably makes this error a bit more attractive to users but doesn't change its nature - 's is still singular - and if you have a plural subject, you need a plural verb.


There is an introductory adverb, never the subject of a sentence. The verb still agrees with the subject, even if it comes afterwards.

4. Former Greats

One snowy February evening, during a visit to Scotland, I heard a BBC broadcaster explain that the Presidents' Day holiday honours "former President Washington and former President Lincoln."

In Henry Kissinger's book Diplomacy, similarly, the caption of a World War One photo of the Kaiser with his generals speaks of "former Emperor William II"

But saying "former President Washington" or "former President Roosevelt" makes about as much sense as saying "former King Tut." After January, 2005, we spoke of "former President Kuchma" to distinguish him from his successor in the office; former conveys the idea that Kuchma once was president and then turned to other pursuits. After a person's death, however, the need for such a distinction disappears, whether or not the particular government continues to exist: Washington and Wilhelm are president and Kaiser forever, just as Victoria is eternally a queen and David eternally a king. (If the president's or other official's time of service had been relatively recent, it would be helpful to give the dates, and you can, of course, provide any other information needed.)

Besides that, to speak of "former Emperor William II" with reference to a 1917 photograph could easily mislead the reader, inasmuch as the Kaiser did indeed live on for many years during which he was truly "former," but that has-been period didn't begin until November 1918.

Since Lincoln and Roosevelt both died in office, neither - even in his own lifetime - ever had the status of former president. A bonus point here: Alex Trebek, the host of the TV programme on BBC radio Jeopardy, referred to Jefferson Davis as "the former president of the Confederacy," even though no conceivable confusion exists in this case, since no other person has ever held that particular office or ever will hold it.

A classic straining of former occurs in this obituary of a noted director of education, who is described as having "served as former president of the Association of Directors of Education." The man did no such thing, of course - he served as president of the association. Serving as former president would hardly have given him much to do. If his dates of service were for some reason not available, the reporter could have solved his problem by saying that the director had served as president of the association.

One day some time later, glancing through a small-town British newspaper, I came across what must be the ultimate example of former smoke-blowing. An obituary notice described the deceased person as a "former native" of the town. If you were born there, of course, you cannot be unborn. I don't think you can pursue former much beyond that, although a different newspaper offered an interesting parallel when it characterised a deceased academic as a "former professor emeritus." It is a matter for speculation as to what the poor fellow could possibly have done during his retirement to cause him to lose his doubtless hard-earned badge of merit.


Use former only to describe people still living (former President Clinton, former President Kuchma, not former President Washington or any other holder of a presidency who is now dead.)

5. May and Might: Did They or Didn't They?

For some reason, reporters, broadcasters, and people generally have progressively assigned to the word may much of the work that might has long and faithfully performed. This change has tended to blur a highly useful distinction and to produce confusion and doubt where we need clarity. In other words, many contemporary sentences with may in them don't make sense.

Let us set the stage with two examples from the grammarians' ample supply: (1) In a note to "Chromedome" (a reader who made jokes about his own baldness), Dear Abby commented drily that "had you found yourself permanently bald at age 21, you may not have been able to see the humour in baldness." (2) From State College, Pennsylvania, a basketball writer fiercely loyal to the home team informed us that "if not for one of the worst calls in Penn State history, Indiana may have been knocked from its No. 1 ranking."

Now we must ask two questions: Was Indiana knocked from its No. l ranking? Did Chromedome lose all his hair at age twenty-one? No, in both cases. The terrible call saved the Hoosiers, and Chromedome did not become bald till later. But, amid this stylistic murk, how could a reader be sure just what the writer meant?

Abby and the sportswriter both needed to say might, not may. May refers to a probability or a possibility that still exists (We may see a landing on Mars within twenty years), whereas might, in this context, refers to a probability or a possibility that existed in the past but did not materialise (If the Americans had spent 3 trillion dollars on their space programme, they might have seen a Mars landing by now). Think of `might' here as merely the past tense of may.

If you had any question, you can now see why many grammarians get upset when announcers (talking of baseball) tell us that "if the runner had slid, he may have been safe." Grammarians know that the runner was not safe, and they think the broadcaster ought to know it, too.

To look at this point in another way: may goes with can, and might goes with could. A Times columnist neatly scrambled these in this fashion: "If a candidate could present the facts succinctly, Americans may be ready to hear some truths." (This sentence really needs correction; the writer means to say that if the candidate can present the facts succinctly, he or she may discover that Americans are ready to hear some truth; this readiness itself certainly does not depend on the candidate's ability or lack of ability to present the facts succinctly.)

One other set of may - might meanings deserves discussion here. When we say "I may go to Donetsk tomorrow," we are not merely expressing a possibility; we're saying that tomorrow quite likely will see us on the way to Donetsk. If we say that we might win the lottery, we're acknowledging a possibility (after all, we bought a ticket) but are realistically expressing a high degree of doubt about it. Thus, if we say that we might go to Donetsk, we're saying that it could happen but there's not much chance of it. May expresses a good probability, might implies a long shot.

These same degrees of probability apply when the sentences are questions. When you answer a knock at the door and the lady standing there says, "May I come in?" she is presuming that the two of you are friends and is expecting to be admitted. If the caller diffidently says, "Might I come in?" she either doesn't know you or thinks you're likely to turn her down for some other reason. She may even feel the need to offer some justification for having made such an unorthodox request (e.g. heavy rain, snow, pursuit by a threatening person, or some other difficulty).


May refers to a probability or a possibility that still exists, whereas might refers to a probability or a possibility that existed in the past but did not materialise.

May goes with can, and might goes with could: "If a candidate could present the facts succinctly, Americans might [not may] be ready to hear some truths."

In the present tense, use may to express a probability ("I may go to Donetsk tomorrow"); use might to express doubt about a possibility ("I might go to Donetsk tomorrow.")

6. Apostrophe Atrocities

The grammarians often remark that they could write an encyclopedia about the age-old indignities and perversions to which the poor little apostrophe has been subjected (this was the subject of my last science work). Three general types of problems plague this innocent bit of punctuation: (1) it is used when it is not needed; (2) it is left out when it is needed; (3) it is needed but is inserted in the wrong place.

"[The rain] always takes me back to sleeping in the upstairs room at my grandparent's house," says a nostalgic lady in an advertisement. Is she speaking of sweet old Grandma or dear old Granddad? Well, obviously, she's trying to include both grandparents in the ownership of the house and thinks she has done it; whoever edited the advertisement apparently agreed with her. But what did she actually do? She made perhaps the most common of all the mistakes in punctuation that disfigure published prose (including prose that appears on TV screens and computer monitors). She violated the simple, fundamental, and inflexible commonsense guide to turning a plural noun ending in s into a possessive: Never split a word apart to insert your apostrophe. Thus, if you're speaking of grandparents, you simply tack on the apostrophe, turning the word into grandparents'. Indeed, you never split any other word apart to make it possessive, either; the possessive of Stobbs, for instance, is Stobbs's, not Stobb's. Because Stobbs is a name, the general practice is to add an s after the apostrophe. So I attend David Stobbs's lessons, not David Stobb's lessons or even David Stobbs' lessons.

But here confusion sometimes arises, as in this example from the historian Robert Nisbet's book Roosevelt and Stalin, which quotes Franklyn D. Roosevelt's (FDR) adviser Harry Hopkins as saying that the second front in Europe "would constitute [the Americans's] major effort." The interpolation in brackets, intended by the editors to make Hopkins's subject plain to the reader, follows the wrong model. It isn't a personal name ending in s, like Stobbs, but a noun that has an s because it's a plural, just like grandparents; it needs no further s after the apostrophe. This is a classic example of helpfulness that actually turns the reader's attention away from the subject.

One should avoid creating a possessive situation where none exists. For example, in a newspaper article a place that got its name from Charles Ebbets was referred to as “Ebbet's Field”. Many places in Britain often get their name from the proprietor - e.g. Hamilton Place, Johnson Tower, Briggs Stadium. (That tempting final s in Briggs should not lure anyone into thinking it any more possessive than Ebbets.)

Worse (in view of its subject) than any of these blunders is a guide to literary sites in London that, most unthinkably, directs the reader to Keat's house (a London map makes the same mistake).

In describing a tour to Dollywood, the Tennessee theme park named for the country star Dolly Parton, the Lexington Herald-Leader produced a two-apostrophe sentence, one right, one wrong: "The Great Smoky Mountain's National Park is only a stone's throw away." The "stone's throw" is fine, of course - one stone, thus an apostrophe plus an s - but there are many mountains, not just one. In splitting the s off from Mountains, however, the editors make the word appear to be singular. In accordance with the rule, they should have said Mountains, and with no apostrophe at all, because this is not a possessive situation but is merely descriptive. The writer probably became confused because the name of the park has an s in it; actually, the name is no more possessive than Yellowstone Park or Bryce Canyon. Even if it were a possessive, however, it would be unlikely to be adorned with an apostrophe; Martha's Vineyard is one of the very few American geographic spots that retain the apostrophe in their names, and in Britain the survivors include Land's End, at the southwestern tip of England, and John o' Groat's, at the northernmost tip of Scotland.

Moving to hills in the American West, we read in a New York Times story on the development of the atomic bomb that "the drama began in earnest when Los Alamos ('the poplars') was founded in 1943 at what had been a rustic boy's school in the New Mexico mountains." A school for just one boy? When the scientists turned that lone rustic lad out of his school, what became of him? Whither across the earth did the poor youngster wander?

Recognise, however, that all plurals are not formed by adding s to the noun, and use the apostrophe accordingly. Since children, for instance, is already plural, to make it possessive add an apostrophe and s: children's. But note how often you see such forms as childrens' and peoples' (meaning not the Asian, African, and other peoples of the world but simply the people of a particular place). Quoting Rory Kennedy, a social-activist filmmaker who is the youngest daughter of Ethel and the late Senator Robert F Kennedy, editors had her saying, "What always makes a difference is a community of social programs and services which are giving attention to these peoples' needs," when she was merely saying "the needs of these people."

Some names acquire a possessive quality because the speaker has a false model in mind. Thinking, apparently, that all physical disorders called by proper names acquire these names from the scientists associated with them, people speak, for instance, of Lyme's disease, parallel to Bright's disease or Hansen's disease, though the name comes from the place in Connecticut in which the disorder was first identified. (If it were named after the doctor who first recognized what it was, it would be called Steere's disease.)

Syntax often poses a problem for the person who is determined to get that apostrophe in somewhere. "Always fond of a constructive nightmare," a writer whose work appears in a New Yorker travel advertisement tells us, "I was enthralled when invited this summer to be part of a small American documentary crew travelling to Baghdad with individuals famously despised by powerful persons in both nation's governments." Since the writer is talking about the governments of both nations, he needed to use the plural: nations'.

Somewhat sadly, many writers use apostrophes in their work with no more logic than if their pet parakeets had flown back and forth across the pages, dropping their tiny loads among the printed words as necessity, or the spirit, moved them.

I want to end this paragraph with a marvellous joke: "Some years ago, a poor old distraught professor claimed that he had inserted at least 50,000 apostrophes into papers submitted by his students. Another chap, equally distraught, claimed that he had removed 50,000 apostrophes from his students' work. And I believe both stories!"


Never split a word apart to insert your apostrophe.

For most nouns, add 's to make a singular possessive, add s' to make a plural possessive.

To form the possessive of a plural noun that doesn't end in s, add 's as you would with a singular noun: children's, oxen's.

7. It's a Contraction - Really

One blunder associated with the apostrophe so irritates me that I decided to give it separate treatment.

The confusing of it's with its is enormously, incredibly common. Perhaps people believe that in speaking of something belonging (or pertaining) to something else, they must supply an apostrophe - never stopping to think that we don't say her's or your's or their's. We don't do it, at least, when we're on our best behaviour, but note how The Guardian newspaper described the surprising wonders of a trades union leader's apartment. There was not only "rosewood galore," there were "his and her's bathrooms and his and her's dressing rooms (each with three cedar wardrobes)."

A pure, classic example occurs in this sentence from an AP story: "Romandetti said that the remodeling was overdue for many restaurants and that the timing has more to do with [Denny's] improved financial situation than it's image."

Speaking of the "tremendous difficulty" experienced by students in coping with the apostrophe, Paul Sawyer, an English professor at Bradley University, noted a number of years ago that the greatest difficulty came with the word its. In addition to its and it's, he said, his students had invented a new form: its'. No doubt this creativity represented a response to the working of the "there has to be an apostrophe in there somewhere" principle, and, in fact, these students were not alone in this invention.

In a piece on electronic books, the New York Times sidestepped the whole issue in this sentence: "The RCA's screen and a relatively high resolution made up for it not rendering typefaces as elegantly as [Microsoft] Reader." Its (not it) is desirable here, because not rendering, which is the equivalent of "failure to render," is a gerund (a present participle used as a noun), and the general principle is that a noun or a pronoun preceding a gerund should be possessive.

The central point is that possessive pronouns survive on their own with no help from punctuation. And writers forget that we use the apostrophe to show where letters have been omitted as well as to indicate possession. It's, of course, is simply a short way of saying it is or it has. You should note, as well, the difference between who's (who is) and whose (belonging to who[m]), and between you're (you are) and your (belonging to you).

TV Guide offered a fine example of the latter confusion: "It's OK to hold a pastel pageant [colorless political convention] if your trying to get 52 percent of the vote." Indeed, the magazine seems to have a continuing problem in this particular area. In an interview concerned largely with Pamela Anderson's new (postoperative) breast size ("It is not that big of a difference," the actress explains), the reporter comments: "You're series, V.I.P., is a hit with viewers." The presence of such errors suggests, perhaps not surprisingly, that the writer really isn't paying much attention to the task at hand.


It's is a contraction of it is. Its (no apostrophe) is the possessive form of it.

Its' is not a word at all (and if it were one, it wouldn't have any meaning). Never use it in your writing.

8. Whiches, Who's, and Thats

Although I readily grant that sports reporters often give us the most stylistically interesting parts of the news, I think that they tend to display a detachment from basic rules of grammar and usage.

Several years ago a columnist, looking as always to next year, wrote concerning a well-known basketball coach: "[Rick] Pitino mentioned an incoming freshman, which he could not name but is obviously highly regarded Wayne Turner of Chestnut Hill, Mass., as [Kentucky's] point guard next season." The "point" here is extremely simple: a person is NEVER a which; only a non-person can be a which - a book or a tree or a crocodile or even a family's much loved pet dog. He or she can be a who or a whom (as should have been the case here), and a person and a non-person can each be a that, as in Mark Twain's novel The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg or Leonard Wibberley's The Mouse That Roared. Note that we can use that when the clause it introduces is restrictive; that is, when the sentence won't make much sense without this clause. The fact of roaring sets Wibberley's particular "mouse" apart from all other mice, and is thus a restrictive idea; it limits the meaning to this particular mouse.

From time to time through the years, the reputation of that has suffered from the false rumour that it should not be used to refer to persons. A modern example comes from some grammarians, who ask readers not to "use the word `that' when `who' is correct. ('That' refers to inanimate objects, `who' to people.)" Well, not so. It's hard to know where this deprecation of that came from, since it has been used in references to people for hundreds of years; as Webster sums it up, "the notion that that should not be used to refer to persons is without foundation; such use is entirely standard."

An interesting point here, however, is that when speaking of a specific person or persons, people have traditionally tended to prefer who, as in "Wilson was the president who ordered troops into Mexico," and have used that when the reference is general, as in the Mark Twain and Leonard Wibberley book titles or in "Who was it that told you?" or "All the members that were present supported the resolution." The best advice comes from Follett and Barzun, who suggest that in restrictive clauses you choose who or that depending on which one produces "greater ease and naturalness" in the sentence.

Just as a person is not a which, a non-person should not be referred to as a who, not even in such spicy and provocative items as this one from the New York Times: "Some of the female chinook salmon who spawn along a stretch of the Columbia River in Washington State hold a secret: They began life as males." Who means what or which person (or persons), but, apparently extending the idea of personhood, the Times's own style manual allows the use of who for an animal if its sex is known or if it has a personal name. Even under that principle, however, the status of the epicene chinook remains, at best, murky.

Grammarians and students of style have written thousands of words, many of them contradictory, on the nature and uses of that and which as relative pronouns. In the well-thumbed copy of the original edition of Modern English Usage, published in 1926, loaned to me by my very respectable tutor, H. W Fowler observed that if the language had been "neatly constructed by a master builder who could create each part to do the exact work required of it," then that and which could fill specific roles instead of overlapping, as they do.

Fowler noted the widespread and quite false idea that which holds a higher rank than that - which supposedly being literary and that colloquial; this belief sometimes leads writers to change a mental that into a written which. (In the same way people seem to regard I as higher class than me; this as one of the reasons people say things like "My aunt gave the property to my brother and I.") Far from accepting this class idea, Fowler, in his discussion of that and which as relative pronouns, made a famous case for giving each word a specific assignment: that to be the restrictive relative pronoun and which the non-restrictive. But, he conceded, "it would be idle to pretend that it is the practice either of most or of the best writers."

As the years passed, this point proved to be perfectly right. Note Graham Greene: "[H]is humorous friendly shifty eyes raked her like the headlamps of a second-hand car which had been painted and polished to deceive." Note, years later still, Anita Brookner: "Occasionally Mme Doche took pity on him and served him a plate of the thick gruel-like soup which she made for her employer's evening meal." Each of the clauses introduced by which is "defining," as Fowler called it.

Thus, obviously, Leonard Wibberley would not have been incorrect if he had called his book The Mouse Which Roared, but he felt, as do many - nowadays, perhaps most - careful writers that that reads better in such instances. But to flatly declare which wrong in such cases, as some writers on grammar and usage have done in recent years, is to display arbitrariness far beyond any strictures of the grammarians. "Anyone who likes to do so may limit his own that's to defining clauses," write Bergen Evans and Cornelia Evans in their classic Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage. "But he must not read this distinction into other men's writing."

The distinction must not be read, for instance, into the writing of such diverse and much-admired stylists as Winston Churchill, T. S. Eliot, Elizabeth Hardwick, Dean Acheson, and George E Kennan, each of whom on occasion employed a restrictive which, as FDR likewise did when he called December 7, 1941, "a date which will live in infamy."

Punctuation plays a part here, too. What definitively marks a restrictive clause is that it is not set off by commas. It's the difference between "the mouse that roared" and "the mouse, which I knew well, roared"; the latter example presumes that we know which mouse is being talked about and merely gives us some information about it.


A person is a who or a whom, never a which.

Both a person and a non-person can be described as that (The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg, The Mouse That Roared).

In general, try to use that when the clause it introduces is restrictive; that is, when the sentence won't make much sense without this clause.

9. Where's the Irony?

Many journalists have fallen into the habit of using ironically to mean simply coincidentally: "Ironically, NFL passing champion Warren Moon ... suffered the same injury two weeks earlier in a 40-20 loss to the Bengals." Coincidentally, yes, of course. Unfortunately, certainly. But wherein, indeed, lies the irony?

You have irony when you are expressing a meaning opposite to the normal sense of the words. If classmate bungles a piece of homework and you tell him "Nice work!" that's irony. If he does the same thing again next week, he hasn't performed an ironic action, he has merely displayed incompetence. What you say to him then is up to you.

10. The Intrusive Of

Whether it should be blamed on us teenagers or it arose from some other group's willfulness, a wholly unnecessary and undesirable of keeps popping up in otherwise respectable sentences.

After a competition, for example, an interviewer asked a participant: "Were you surprised at that close of a race?"

Discussing the movement of a winter storm, a CNN weather forecaster assured viewers that "the snow shouldn't be that big of a factor."

From a recent newspaper interview: "`I'm not that highbrow of a person,' Johnson said."

Sometimes, one fears, the reporter has put this usage into the mouth of a literate interviewee who actually didn't employ it, but the poor interviewee has no defence when the newspaper has appeared or the quote has gone out over the air. That could be the case in the next sentence, in which the reporter uses an indirect quote: "Western Kentucky women's basketball coach Paul Sanderford didn't think Tennessee's women would have that big of an advantage playing at home."

The first of these examples differs from the other two in an important way. In describing the race as that close, the interviewer and the participant had an objective fact as a point of reference: a close race had just taken place. But the sentence should simply say "that close a race," with no of.

In the latter examples, however, the writers are employing the currently popular and quite vague that without anchoring it to any base or fact. How big is that big? They couldn't tell you. They just mean big.

The forecaster needs to say that "the snow shouldn't be a big factor."

Johnson can assure us: "I'm not a particularly highbrow person.”

The reporter can let us know that "Sanderford didn't think that Tennessee's women would have a significant advantage."

Of is to be used when a comparison is being made - Johnson is more, or less, of a highbrow than Meiners is - or a statement is being made about degree: much of or little of, most of or none of.

On the other hand, writers following a regrettable current trend are removing of where it is needed or at least is desirable. Describing an evening spent at a magic show, a columnist noted that after disappearing from the stage, the performer reappeared "rising from a platform in the audience a couple hundred feet away." That sounds like a replay of rapid-fire Broadway talk from Guys and Dolls several generations ago. "Couple of hundred," though lacking any grace, would be a great improvement. The general contemporary move toward terse and even curt speech, grammarians feel, should not result in pidgin English.

11. Preposition Propositions

In a general way, the grammarians expressed both concern and puzzlement on reading the following sentence and many others like it: "With no regard for health, the show biz industry has imposed impossible standards for women." What concerned them was the faltering uncertainty that characterises this assertion. If the industry was imposing standards, it had to impose them on somebody. Was it imposing them on women, or was it imposing standards for women on some other group?

Prepositions have been around a long time, but nowadays a great many speakers and writers seem awkwardly self-conscious in their presence. The result is often an unnatural or unidiomatic use of a simple preposition like on or for, as in the preceding example.

What, exactly, is a preposition? The general definition is broad and vague - a preposition is a word that shows the relationship of a noun or a pronoun to another word or element of a sentence - but you might keep it in mind as you look at all the examples in this topic. You might also remember two points Wilson Follett and Jacques Barzun make in their book Modern American Usage: (1) One of the greatest difficulties in learning European languages is "the mastering of the idiomatic use of prepositions with verbs, adjectives, and nouns," and English is particularly troublesome; (2) "nothing gives away the foreign speaker or the insensitive writer like the misused preposition." I see this insensitivity as the equivalent of the "faltering uncertainty."

Particularly striking is a strange paradox concerning the preposition of. Now we must look at the increasing use of another preposition, for, where normal and established idiomatic English calls for of. Weather reporters keep giving us such information as this: "There's a thirty per cent chance for rain tomorrow," and a CNN forecaster spoke of "the threat for showers" (the threat for showers to do what?). Forecasters would do better to say "chance of rain" and, certainly, "threat of showers." Of is value neutral - we may want it to rain or we may not. For, on the other hand, implies that we hope it will rain. "There's a chance for me to go to Kyiv," for instance, conveys the thought that the speaker, for whatever reason, wants to go to Kyiv, perhaps is even dying to go to Kyiv.

Another context in which we often find for used for of is illustrated in this description of a Scottish benefactor, who is identified as "managing trustee for The Knightwood Trust (an educational charity)." The point here is that you are President of Ukraine or secretary of a chess club or managing trustee of an educational charity - you're an officer of the organization. If you're a vice president for, then it's for a particular area, such as finance or development (and, indeed, that's really short for trustee for finance, etc. of the charity).

For unfathomable reasons (the insensitivity mentioned in Follett - Barzun?), writers frequently go to great lengths to avoid being associated with of. A Knight Ridder obituary article described Rev. Leon Sullivan, the Philadelphia pastor who helped bring down South African apartheid, as "the first black board member at General Motors and a confidant to many business leaders." "The first black member of the General Motors board" might have been a neater way to make that point, but the real issue here is to rather than a normal of after "confidant."

A similar shunning of of appeared in an AP story about the actor Ed Harris, who was chiefly responsible for the making of the movie Pollock. We are told that "Harris grew fascinated with [Jackson] Pollock after reading biographies about the painter in the mid-1980s." Harris had certainly read books about Pollock, but he had read biographies of Pollock.

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