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In My Dreams, Grammar Rules!

By John Woodford / Ann Arbor, Mich.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone “it means just what I choose it to mean–neither more nor less.”

–Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

Humpty Dumpty and Alice (picture by John Tenniel)
Humpty Dumpty and Alice (illustration by John Tenniel)

I was tuned in to the recent NBA championship and heard a commentator say that a pro player had “played collegiately at the University of Michigan.” As usual, I seethed and bellowed in outrage: “Did he play university-ly? Why not school-ly? An adverb is supposed to tell us how an action is done, not where. Why not just say he played ‘in college’? That takes only three syllables versus four for the announcer-speak bastardization collegiately.” My wife, as usual, expressed her irritation at my failure to keep such umbrage to myself.

We all have pet peeves. I just hope mine aren’t petty peeves. So here goes, you be the judge:

Speaking of college, at a recent reunion, my classmate Barbara Whitehead pleaded with those of us contributing to our reunion book, which she’d generously consented to edit, that if they planned to mention anything they’d published, “Please don’t use the verb authored.” The word had the power to make her sick, she said.

She had my full sympathy. It’s a form of preening to feel that you’ve done something better for a book by “authoring” it rather than just plain writing it. To endure a cacophony of “I authored’s” could make you feel as if you were being pecked to death by ducks.

And that’s a feeling also induced by the proliferation of impact and impactful by people who can’t figure out the difference between effect and affect, or how use words like “affective” (when describing an emotional state) and “effective” (when describing a desired result). So, we encounter sentences like, “He was unsure of how the judge’s ruling would impact him,” rather than affect him. Or, “the President gave a really impactful speech,” when a “stirring” speech or “far-ranging” speech, would do, depending upon the specific character and thrust of the speech. Impact, impact, impact — the monotony of it has deprived the word of all force.

So much for poor uses of language, but what about misuses? Especially those that become so entrenched in speech or writing that they’re like antimicrobial-resistant germs. Just as some of our nasty internal bugs defy doses of our most ingeniously produced antibiotics, some of our linguistic habits elude extermination by our greatest language mavens, ranging from H.W. Fowler, who published his exhaustive Dictionary of Modern English Usage in 1926, to the late, great William Safire, who wrote his “On Language” column for the New York Times from 1979 to his death in 2009.

To avoid tearing out my remaining strands of hair, I’ll cite the leading and most vexing offender: LIE/LAY. There, I’ve said it. Now let’s get into it. Lie is intransitive. It means to rest or lie down. It takes no direct object. But woe betide us, its past tense is lay.

Another verb lay, however, is transitive, and in its present tense it requires you to say what is being laid, to identify what is being acted upon. And it also refers to sexual acts. So if you say, “I was laying in bed this morning,” your interlocutor may reasonably ask, “laying whom?” Or take the past tense: “I lay down on the couch yesterday,” with lay being the past tense of lie. Fine.

But “I laid down on the couch yesterday” or “I’m going to lay down in my bed”? Both are no-no’s. And then there are usages at which you just have to throw up your hands: “I was running late, so by the time I got to the funeral, the vice president was laying the president in his grave.” (For more fun with lie and lay, click here)

For a different sort of boo-boo, consider one that occurs only by sound. You’ve no doubt heard a serious lecturer—and more than a few professors—say something like this: “The enactment of the U.N.’s new Law of the Sea reflected the culmination of several complex PROCESS-EEZE.”

Words from Greek like hypothesis, analysis, diagnosis, do take an ‘es’ plural that sounds like EEZE — hypotheses, analyses, diagnoses. But process is not a Greek word, it’s from Latin. So stop saying process-eeze, you pretentious ignoramuses! Would you say, “Caesar had many SUCCESS-EEZE during his campaign against the Goths?” Of course not.

And while I’m at it, the same goes for bias. Bias derives from French, and its plural, biases, has the same unaccented ‘es’ sound as most similarly formed English plurals. Forget BIAS-EEZE!

Those paying really close attention will see that I just wrote “most similarly formed English plurals” with NO HYPHEN between similarly and formed. Like all punctuation (especially unneeded commas after “and” in a series!), hyphens unnecessarily sprinkled on a page are like flyspecks. Little ugly blotches. The “-ly” on the adverb tells us that it is modifying the next word, and that word will also be a modifier. We need no more info. If you write, “That was a nicely drawn portrait,” you will make nothing clearer by punctuating it “a nicely-drawn portrait.”

My next bugaboo is one that has begun to invade print from speech, slowly oozing out like a chemical leaching into a river from a faulty pipe: That’s the use of “of” as if it is the helping verb “have”: People are writing phrases like, “We should of saved that old car” instead of “have saved.” Grammar blogs are noting and warning against this creeping of a preposition into helping-verb territory. You are forewarned!

Now come the pronouns—and not the gender ones currently making the rounds. I mean plain old I/me, he/him, she/her. Would you say, “The teacher gave I an apple?” Probably not. So why are so many of us either saying or ignoring it when we hear linguistic monstrosities like “The teacher gave the apple to he and I,” or “to him and I”?, or “Tom and me gave the teacher an apple.”

Now let’s look at predicate adjectives. Again, as usual, the problem is pretentiousness gone wild. People think they sound smarter if, when you ask them how they feel today, they reply, “I feel badly,” because they assume it’s wrong to say, “I feel bad.” The same as you might answer if asked, “How do you feel about the way you scolded your child?” “I feel bad about it.”

A predicate adjective is an adjective that follows a linking verb and describes the subject. Linking verbs may describe looks, feelings, sounds, smells and so on. So, in the examples above, if you say, “I feel badly,” you’re describing how well your tactile ability is functioning; hence the adverb “badly.” But since you are the subject, not your tactile ability, just use the adjective “bad.”

Now to get finicky, and this is a battle that I can lose without weeping, because it’s clearly in fuddy-duddy land: there’s “comprised of,” as in “The U.S.A. is comprised of 50 states.” “Comprise” originally meant “to be made up of” so it’s the whole of something that comprises its parts. “The U.S.A. comprises 50 states” is the etymologically elegant way to put it. BUT! It is, of course, fine to say, “The U.S.A. is composed of 50 states.” The sound and sense of comprise/compose has sort of bumped against and rolled around each other over the centuries, and we now hear of a whole being “comprised of” its parts instead of the reverse. About this, those of us who care may be able to do little more than wring our hands.

I was going to close with a subject that touches on my experience of language, and maybe yours, too, that is far beyond–whether above or below I can’t say–the topics I’ve sifted through. And that is the pandemic affecting much of the speech we hear, the pandemic known as vocal fry.

I won’t pursue it further today, and I won’t in future. Those smarty-pants Greeks had a word for the manner of my avoidance, apophasis (you’ll know the plural form if you’ve been with me up to this point). Apophasis is a rhetorical way to talk about something, to some degree or another, in some way or other, while saying you are not going to bring it up.

When I hear vocal fry, that creaky, croaky scratchy affected mode of speech that involves contortions of a speaker’s vocal cords, I have to escape: turn to a different TV or radio station, tune out the speaker, leave the room, whatever it takes. Sociologists, anthropologists, speech pathologists, therapists of all stripes—all have weighed in on this irritating phenomenon. And the thing is, although I find it unpleasant whether a male or female is rasping it out, what if I find it more annoying from a female voice? Ah, me. I’ll say no more. Ever.


Dear Readers: If you have a pet peeve involving the use of printed or spoken English, please let me know in The Insider's comment box accompanying this story. I will address them–ideally with your help–in future columns.


Grammar and Words

By Maurice Rigoler

The English language is a potpourri

of foreign words whose sources vary

from Sanskrit, Latin, Greek and Swahili

and others original to our vocabulary.

For snobs these imports have become

a way to sound pretentious (make that dumb),

and who prefer a foreign substitute

to one English, a cheap way to sound cute.

In particular, classical music aficianados

like tacking the Latin and Italian “i”

and dropping the plural “s” from concertos

and sonatas, preferring sonati and concerti

And so with English plurals

like hippopotamuses to hippopotami

tomatoes to tomati, cactuses to cacti

but stopping (wisely) with potatoes to potati

I will concede, however, to keeping fungi

(mushrooms) — as is and not funguses

and for reasons purely culinary, I guess

because eating funguses sounds grotesque.

© Maurice Rigoler. (2023)


John Woodford lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he retired after two decades as the executive editor of Michigan Today, a University of Michigan alumni/ae publication. His career in journalism includes editing and/or reporting duties for Ebony magazine, Muhammad Speaks newspaper, the Chicago Sun-Times, the New Haven Register, the New York Times and Ford Motor company publications.

1 comment

1 Comment

Jul 11, 2023

Media and data! Arg-g-g-g-h! And something learned from my Mother, “only chickens lay eggs.” I love this article!!

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