Tag Archives: grammar

A Cry in the Wilderness

Language is as dynamic as the culture of which it is a part. On the one hand, it is enriched by new words, phrases, and concepts associated with cultural activity as diverse as technology, literature, and notable events. On the other hand, language is subject to denigration at its grammatical level. A typical excuse to ignore any rule of grammar is that languages are filled with inconsistencies, so why bother being ‘correct.’ This raises the question: Is there really any need for grammar?

You bet there is. By that, I don’t mean unwavering dedication to inviolate grammatical rules. But, since language is our major tool for communicating concrete and abstract concepts, consistent standards of language should be maintained as much as possible, including irregular verbs and well-established idiomatic quirks. Italians live with the double negative, ‘I don’t know nothing.’ Their idiom is grammatically ‘correct’ for them. It is anathema for us. It also happens that the English ‘I don’t know anything’ is consistent with logic. Italians know that, but it is centuries too late for them to correct their ancient idiom. The same is true for our imbedded idioms, however irrational some of them seem out of context.

But denigration of language is another matter. Consider the following:

  •  He is so fun.

If that sentence hurts your ears, there’s good reason for the pain. Replace fun with house and we have, ‘It is so house.’ Fun is an abstract noun that is never preceded by a. We can speak of ‘a house,’ but not of ‘a fun.’ It is a word that requires modification, as in ‘We had fun.’ It is used as an adjective only at the colloquial level, as in ‘a fun movie.’ I am neither nitpicking nor am I alone in objecting to the recent popular ‘reclassification’ of that word.

  • What went down?

Why replace “What happened?” with an awkward colloquial expression.

  • She went missing last week.

Translation: She’s been missing for a week.

Went missing’(!). We go to lots of places- – -‘missing’ is not one of them. ‘She went missing’ is an expression widely used by newscasters reporting missing persons (a rather frequent news item). I’m afraid that this abomination has already infected the general populace and is here to stay.

  • He goes, ‘I have an issue.’

Translation: He said, ‘I have a problem.’

I remember when the verbs ‘to go’ and ‘to say’ had separate meanings. The same was true of the words issue and problem. These words were not interchangeable. Recently, the fine distinction between them has been severely blurred.

  • We’re back after a commercial.

Translation: We’ll be back after a commercial.

This last example is symptomatic of a significant denigration of English grammar. Old English didn’t have a future tense. The future tense was created by combining shall, will, and forms of do, have, and be. Auxiliary verbs are combined with main verbs to convey many shades of time. For example, will or shall combined with forms of other verbs provide us with time frames as precise as, ‘I will have had dinner before you arrive.’ (Putting aside the interesting but mainly archaic rules about whether will or shall is the proper word to use in different circumstances, will is by far the more commonly used.) Of course the contraction (we’ll) makes those subtleties totally irrelevant. In any case, I’m still waiting to hear someone say, ‘We’ll be back after a commercial.’

I suspect that ‘We’re back’ instead of ‘We’ll be back’ is intended to create an illusion of nonstop action, a concession to restless audiences. By this time, most listeners unquestioningly accept a corrupted tense when they hear phrases like, ‘The President is in London for two weeks’ when the reality is that the President is expected to be in London for two weeks beginning a day after the newscast.

Before television, changes in the spoken word were relatively gradual. Then, about fifteen years ago, I was shocked by an instant change. I was watching a weather report delivered by a new ‘weatherman.’ Forecasting the weather a week in advance, he said, “Tomorrow it’s raining. Thursday, it’s turning colder. The weekend is fair and cold.” Throughout his delivery, the future tense was not used once (a retrogression to the 10th century). This, on a news segment that forecasts weather! In the course of about ten minutes, I witnessed the disappearance of the future tense.

Within two weeks, all major newscasters and commentators followed the same pattern. Apparently, some consultant or other, or some broadcasting school or other, decided that the language needed a lift. Weather reports in particular suggested a redaction of the future tense. Whoever advised newscasters and commentators to inappropriately distort the future tense also advised (compelled?) them to deliberately stress words inappropriately. I couldn’t help but notice their discomfort as they struggled against the sense and rhythm of the language.

For about five years I cringed as I heard,

  • It is cloudy in New York or It is cloudy in New York or It is cloudy over New York.
  • The temperatures have been rising.
  • We do have rain falling. (note the redundancy as well)


A cop has been shot in Manhattan. Police say they have no suspects. There is a press conference tomorrow morning at 9:00 A.M. Tuesday there is a meeting between the mayor and his staff that focuses on the rise of crime in the city. The mayor is not available for comment. I even remember, Good evening. I am John Smith.

I think of those years as the spoken word’s Reign of Terror. Prepositions and parts of verbs instantly became the uncontested operative words in virtually every sentence. Of course we are all familiar with the genuine need to stress words when appropriate, but stressing them for their own sake was nothing more than an anomalous affectation created by a charlatan. Strictly for ‘innovation,’ prepositions and parts of the verbs to be, to have, and to do were invariably stressed! A trace of that nightmare survives. But I advise you not to listen for it. Once you are aware of it, it drives you crazy. At the peak of the Reign of Terror, my friends good-naturedly cursed me for having drawn their attention to that ill-conceived affectation. I wondered what that charlatan’s whim would have on children and immigrants who were learning English at that time.

Compare the inappropriate stressing of prepositions to Abraham Lincoln’s brilliant use of them when he said,

of the people, by the people, and for the people…

Language is elastic, vibrant, and boundless. Grammar is not its soul but it serves as its skeleton. It’s foolish to play competitive ‘gothcha!’ grammar games with each other or impair our communication skills with an overbearing attention to grammar. I think it’s okay to text-message, u r luv…c u 2nite. But I also think that we owe it to ourselves and future generations to resist domestic and foreign assaults on our spectacular language.

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He or She/Him or Her/His or Hers

In his 2010 State of the Union speech, President Obama had only one significant occasion to use the third person singular. That was when he spoke of education. The sentence was structured so that the word /student/ required a pronoun in agreement with it. Fortunately, he did not use the cumbersome phrase /he or she/ but selected /she/ to ‘agree’ with /student/. I doubt that he (or his writers) are unaware of how to circumvent the awkward /he or she/ conundrum that impedes smoothly spoken (or written) English. It is also possible that the choice of /she/ was intended to play it safe with the politically correct crowd. Even presidents must answer to a higher authority.

I would have much preferred a change of the word /student/ to its plural, thereby achieving gender-free agreement between a plural subject and its corresponding third person plural pronoun. On the surface, my exception to the use of /she/ in this instance may appear to be sexist. It is not. On the contrary. I don’t believe that the time-honored exclusive use of the word /he/ would have been any better. But, if it’s sexist to use /he/ exclusively to stand for both sexes, why is it not sexist to use /she/ exclusively? In deference to unreasonable political correctness, President Obama fell into an avoidable trap.

I am not a grammarian, but there are sounds (and texts) that need not be jarring. Among the worst of these are sentences like, “When a student complains about grammatical rules, you might remind them that many rules’ reflect reality.”  The word /student/ describes an individual; /them/ describes two or more individuals. The clash between /student/ and /them/ is jarring. Yet, logic and basic grammar have been sacrificed to accommodate one of the many damaging notions imbedded in political correctness, i.e., reverse roles and you achieve equity.

Tiptoeing around the gender issue also creates logical havoc in a sentence like, “When a student complains about grammatical rules, you might remind them that many basic rules are in place for logical reasons.”

But this blog is not really about grammar or logic. I have a nobler purpose for it. Consider the following sentence: “I’d like him or her to take out his or her book so that he or she might begin his or her lesson.” That is logically, grammatically, and politically correct, but it is also patently absurd. A simple change transforms that sentence to a smooth and reasonable one. Change /him or her/ to /them/; change his or her/ to /their/; change /book/ to /books/; change /he or she/ to /they/; change /his or her/ to /their/; and /lesson/ to /lessons/, and you have a perfectly reasonable sentence: “I’d like them to take out their books so that they might begin their lessons.” Or, if you prefer: “I’d like the students to take out their books so that they might begin their lessons.” The plural shall make you free!

Good speakers avoid the /he or she/ trap as much as possible, but even they struggle to keep up with communication taboos. Terrified by the possibility that they might offend someone as they tiptoe through the minefield of political correctness, they are on constant alert. They guard against members of their audiences who are also constantly alert in their search for a strident ‘gotcha!’ against a speaker who ‘slips.’ It’s enough to make a speaker stammer and stutter. I’ve seen panic in the eyes of speakers who abruptly double-back to correct a ‘slip’: “I wish that he would—er—or she would… .” The faster the pace of speech, the greater the danger of slipping.

Using the plural is one way to get around the awkward and dreaded /he or she/ trap. There is another. That tactic requires more skill than the one described above, but is very useful for sustained use. For example, you are speaking to an audience of men and women. Your concept requires hypothetical examples of what each of them will be required to do at work. You can completely avoid the /he or she/ challenge by ‘sprinkling’ your message with a ‘he’ or a ‘she’ from context to context. For example, “He may prefer to lunch in our cafeteria. She may prefer to lunch at a restaurant.”

However, there is a caveat to the use of this technique. Many politically correct people are consciously or unconsciously sexist. ‘Sprinkling’ a message with one pronoun at a time (he or she) requires skill in distribution. Even if you are a master at it, you can never be sure of the hostility you might spark in a sexist’s selective interpretation of what you are ‘implying’ by using /he/ in some instances but /she/ in others. Objectivity is not a characteristic of partisans. So, you must be sure to establish parity at the beginning of your speech. After a few /he/ and /she/ exchanges, your audience (and you) will relax about potential traps. The same holds true for a Q & A session that may follow.

Languages are largely idiomatic. When Spanish-speaking persons speak or hear the word /padres/, they think both /parents/, not ‘two fathers.’ In context, the plural /padres/ means father and mother. That concept is automatic, even when they are thinking in private.

I spoke a gender language (Sicilian) before I spoke English. That is how I know that Spanish-speaking people exclusively think /mother and father/ when the word padres is used in the context of parents. When I speak Sicilian, Italian, or a bit of Spanish or French, gender languages, I never even think that the words for chair, sky, or truth reflect literal gender or imply gender at all. That is because gender languages randomly and arbitrarily assign masculine, feminine, and (as in German) neuter forms to words. German even has a neuter definite article for the noun /woman/! In Italian slang, there are two principal words for male genitals: one is male, the other female! The word for /radio/ has a feminine definite article and a masculine noun attached to it. There is no reason for that. It just is what it is.

There are even rare instances in which the gender of a noun (and its modifiers) switch from ‘male’ to ‘female’ depending on whether the noun is singular or plural. One might ask, what is it that determines whether a word is masculine or feminine? The answer is: Nothing whatever. Language is a convention, not a social statement.

It is impossible to eradicate the centuries-old convention in gender languages that assign gender to every noun and its ‘agreeing’ gender modifiers. The speakers of those languages in no way think of chairs or apples or stars as male, female, or neuter. Neither did their ancestors. The ‘gender’ for their words, including words for concepts (!), is totally arbitrary and was established randomly as the language grew. In one gender language a specific object is ‘male,’ in another that same object is ‘female,’ in still another, it is ‘neuter.’

Having spoken Sicilian and Italian before I spoke English, I never once thought of objects or concepts as literally male or female. The same was and remains true when ‘he’—in English—is used in the general sense. Centuries ago, a single androgynous pronoun might have been coined for /he and she/. But it wasn’t. It’s a bit late for that now. Old, Middle, and Modern English happened. Modern English excludes virtually all the structural elements of gender languages. Our indeclinable single definite article and the exclusion of noun and adjective gender inflections assured us of an almost perfectly neuter language. In addition to that, current word adjustments occasioned by societal changes suit the language well, e.g., firefighter in place of fireman, salesperson in place of salesman, and so on.

But militant insistence that the generalized ‘he’ is sexist forces us to use the awkward /he or she/ construction or break the logical case consistency for singular and plural words. It hurts my ears when I hear, “If a person wishes to speak English well, they should study hard.” What a price to pay just to avoid the word he! Ironically, because of its emphasis on gender, /he or she/ defeats the very purpose for which it was created. For most of us it draws attention to gender.

It also hurts my ears to hear the word /housewife/. I wonder why dictionaries don’t label that word archaic. I also flinch when I hear chairman when the ‘chairman’ is a woman. Bad habits die hard. Unfortunately, /he or she/ has become a bad habit.

On the light side, it’s interesting to note that when crimes are committed by an unknown assailant, reporters (and others) drop the politically mandatory /he or she/ and virtually always describe the unknown assailant as ‘he.’ When that happens, no one blinks an ear! Most people (including me) don’t mind that at all and don’t ferret words out of context in order to make politically correct points. I don’t think that many people know that Eskimo means ‘eater of raw flesh,’ but neither is any slur intended when the word is used.

A relentlessly sharp eye for sexist words often blurs a partisan’s vision. On more than one occasion, I’ve heard “feminist” partisans assert that the word history is a composite of two words: his and story! I remember a discussion with a lady who told me that the word /history/ is a prime example of sexist bias in our language. She made that statement despite the fact that I had told her I was aware of gender-based words in English and had even provided her with examples of some of them that had never occurred to her.

Believing that the first syllable in the word /history/ is the possessive /his/ in English, she alleged that /history/ means ‘his story’!

As a courtesy to her I suggested that she no longer use the word history at all as an example of gender words in English. I politely explained that the word is derived from the Greek word /Historia/, and means investigation, research, not ‘his story,’ and that the study of history itself originated in Greece. The word /history/ has nothing whatever to do with gender—it never did. In the way of partisans, the lady didn’t believe me!

My seemingly pedantic details about language are as tedious to me as they almost certainly are to you. But since our language has been scrutinized as a significant agent of sexist bias, I think it’s important to recognize that many words considered sexist were once merely a reflection of reality when jobs and professions were exclusively practiced by men.

At the conceptual level, the word /mankind/ is a convention that distinguishes humans from all other species. I don’t think any of us exclude women from a concept that means men, women, and children. Humankind is an option, of course, and a very good one, but /he or she/ is hopelessly awkward.

In the absence of other instances requiring a single gender pronoun in his State of the Union speech, President Obama’s coerced use of the word /she/ is a sad commentary on the fear generated by rigid political correctness.

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Know these Rules and Hope for the Best

[Note: Self-published books are notoriously unfaithful to original documents, especially in respect to punctuation. Even in this attempt to edit an already published article, there are irreparable errors. For example, the blog site might be unable to underscore words that I had underscored in the original document. This is especially unfortunate in an article that features elementary grammar!

In order to mitigate the confusion occasioned by the scribes of cyberspace publishing on line and in publishing houses, I’ve placed an asterisk after those words that I intended but was unable to have underscored. I hope you may ignore that.]

The spoken word is rich in nuances produced by vocal techniques. The written word requires textual techniques to emulate nuances of speech as closely as possible. There are times when we have choices as to which technique is best. There are other times when we have no choice.


Major techniques designed to stress words or phrases include the use of bold, italic, or underscored* fonts. You might incorrectly write, “You must* use only one font for one word.” That statement is correct in itself, of course, but a single stress indicator is sufficient. Exceptions are described below.

There is a special rule about the italic font that is not generally known. If you want to be ‘perfect,’ the following paragraph illustrates a rule you might follow.

Because I am writing this sentence in italic font, if I wish to stress a word, I simply reverse the font. I also have the option of writing that same italicized sentence as follows: Because I am writing this sentence in italic font, if I wish to stress a word I simply reverse* the font. Note that I have not ‘broken the rule’ by underscoring /reverse/ (an italicized word) because that entire sentence is italicized. Technically, only the underscore serves as a stress factor.

Italics are often used to quote passages from sources other than the author. For example: In the first chapter of his book, The Handyman’s Handbook on Cosmology, Mario states:

Cosmology may be thought of as having existed during our earliest civilizations. This statement stems from the idea that any study of the heavens automatically implies cosmology. But cosmology did not emerge as a science until it was discovered that our galaxy is not the entire universe, but rather only one of billions of galaxies.

Note that the word /science/ is not in italics, thereby stressing that word in the context of an italicized paragraph. (Hopefully, my site has also indented the quote in this edit. If not, remember that quotes read best when indented.)

You may distinguish quoted text with italicized fonts (preferably bold) or by quotation marks at the beginning and end of the quoted passage. By far, I prefer the former method.

If you choose to stress words or phrases that were not stressed by the original author, you must inform the reader that you have done so immediately following your stress indicator in parentheses, e.g., (my underscore) or (italics mine), and so on. Also, you must copy the original quote exactly as written. There are no options to these two rules on pain of death!

If the author (or editor) had misspelled a word, copy it exactly as written and add [sic] immediately after the offending word to acknowledge the misspelling or other error. Always be sure that your comments are precisely distinguished from those of the author.

All punctuation should be consistent. For example, once you decide to use italic fonts rather than quotation marks to indicate a title, be sure that all the titles in your document are italicized, with the exception of the title of your document. Titles in the same document require either italicized fonts or quotation marks throughout, never randomly mixed.

Italic fonts are very useful as an alternative to quotation marks when we wish to indicate a title. For example, if you write The Revenge of the Grammarians, it is understood that the italicized words indicate the title of a film and/or book. I prefer this technique as opposed to “The Revenge of the Grammarians.”

Quotation marks within quotation marks, should be single or double depending on the context:

Correct: He said, “I don’t care about the ‘rules’ of grammar.”

Correct: ‘Some “rules of grammar” cannot be broken.’

A reminder about international differences in the Anglo-Saxon world:

British: “We place our end quotation mark first, then the period”.

American: “We place our period first, then our end quotation mark.”

As difficult as it may be to accept a ‘triple quotation mark’ at the end of a sentence, there is a rule about that:

Correct: “I’m bothered by ‘rules of grammar.'” Note that there should be no spaces within the ‘triple quotation mark’ (the single mark for the highlighted phrase and the double closing quotation mark). If you obey that rule, many readers will think this is a typographical error. You might avoid being falsely accused of that by writing, “Rules of grammar bother me.” There is always a way to get out of a grammatical crisis.

In technical language, you may freely combine stress factors that are already emphatic in themselves, e.g., bold caps combined with underscoring. This is one of the exceptions to which I referred above. The need for clarity and categorization trumps the exclusivity ‘rule.’ For example:


  • Bold
  • Italic
  • underscore

It’s technically correct to use caps, bold, and underscoring simultaneously when appropriate. Yet, the use of bullets, powerful stress tools in themselves, should obviate additional stress techniques. The overkill I’ve used here is simply to emphasize further stressing if desired or necessary. But I always try to blend economy with clarity. In this case, the following would be more appropriate than the example above.


  • Bold
  • Italic
  • underscore

Using ‘caps’ is another way to stress words or phrases, but caps should be used sparingly as stress indicators. Used within a sentence, caps are cosmetically ugly. If I were writing anything other than a grammar guide I would never stress so many words in the body of a document as I have done here. Overstressing desensitizes the reader to highlighted words and passages, very much as the use of too many painkillers makes them less effective. (Incidentally, note that I’ve used quotes only when I first used the word ‘caps.’)

When I was a young man (long before the advent of word-processing), bold and italic fonts were not available on typewriters. We had only underscoring or caps with which to stress words and phrases. The resulting text was ugly. Italic font is so much “cleaner”! I seldom underscore a word or phrase now. Tragically, in this article where underscoring was absolutely necessary, I was unable to have it included in the text! Although caps for acronyms are grammatically legitimate, I think they’re ugly. I prefer Blue Cross and Blue Shield to BCBS.


Writing is a communications art. Like all other arts, writing has a basic principle often referred to as the Economy of Design. I suggest you read over what you have written. Check for anything that has been expressed more than once. Assuming that you find three different instances of essentially the same thought, consider reducing them to the better two. Then, consider reducing those to the best one. Then, consider if that single thought is essential to the whole. By that time, you’ll know whether or not it should be included in the document.

Ideally this should be a process that runs through the entire work, paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, word by word. A shorter, tight piece requires more time to write than a longer, looser one.

Writing requires exactitude and restraint as well as creativity.

For your comfort, I feel I should add that you must not be intimidated by a “Gotcha!” I would not have been able to write these few tips (especially under time constraints) were I concerned about a potential “Gotcha!”

And remember: Only when you know the rules are you free to break them.

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