Welcome to Pellissippi Parkway's Language Chat

The Pellissippi Parkway was built to accomodate the burgeoning technical and academic institutions' growth in the corridor between Oak Ridge and Knoxville [or Ktown, or Knoxburg, or other things...]. It's an appropriate name for a semi-learned forum on things relating to the technical use of language.

Please check the Grammar Annex for the way English rules work; various topics will be covered - the way it should be, or the reason it is, as opposed to this page, which is more of the way it's being done. (Also you'll find there some delightful and informative essays by William Z. Shetter - well worth your while.)


Apostrophes | Me or I | Double Negatives | Everybody
Split Infinitives | Hyphens | Examples | Quick Quiz  

Check the Annex for Inadvertent Wordsmithing! -- malapropisms that work.

More on language will be posted to the Pellissippi Parkway at variable intervals.


Do you have a question, or a topic?
E-mail me at kmdavisus AT yahoo DOT com . I'll answer it in email and/or add it to this forum, as you wish.

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The Pellissippi Quick Quiz, or, What's Wrong Here?

Read the following selection and see if you can identify what's the problem with it.
(NOTE: maybe nothing is

From a blog owned by a teacher, posted on a snow day:
Just in case, you're a bioinformatics student who happened to check in, and you haven't gotten set up on Blackboard, I do have a couple of fun assignments for you to try at home.
Last Quiz:
From the Writers Almanac, this description of 'Woody Guthrie:
He was one of the only American artists whose reputation never really suffered, though he was openly affiliated with the Communist Party.
This sentence is oddly constructed. As it stands, it reads that Woody Guthrie was among the "only American artists who never suffered" - or would, if "reputation" weren't singular. The phrase "one of the only" is strange in itself, and it's a bit unclear from the context whether Guthrie is the only one, or among a small group. It's awkward and unclear all around.
I would suggest rewriting this to "one of the few American artists whose reputation never really suffered".
Look here for Previous Quizzes

Misplaced Apostrophes

Something I really don't understand: making plurals by adding an apostrophe-s. (This is especially seen with surnames, as in the cards and announcements I've seen just this week, The Smith's Celebrate Anniversary or Merry Christmas from the Johnson's...) Where does that come from? I can sort of see why people write it's when they mean its, but no English words make plurals with apostrophes. I just don't get it. And just when I think I've seen it all, I run across someone who makes verbs use apostrophes! Yes, honestly: take a look

Not, mind you, that I approve of confusing its and it's. It's one of those things that make me [and a whole lot of other people, too] pay less attention to what's being said. As someone wrote once, using poor spelling in a purely written forum is like dressing slovenly and mispronouncing words in person: it does detract. 'Should it?' some people ask, and seriously. Hey, even Puff Daddy put on a suit to go to trial!

Others ask, 'Don't you know what they mean?'

Well, usually,the answer to that is, no, not really, and certainly not without having to work at it. Context does not function the same way in verbal and written communications. In verbal, context is the first clue; in written, it's the second. Readers see the word as it's written and accept its meaning at face value. The word as presented to them overrides the sound; they believe what they see.

Imagine that sentence as: Readers see the word as its written and accept it's meaning at face value. Didn't you expect something to follow which didn't; perhaps "its written form" and "it's meaning what it looks like it's meaning"? Didn't you have to stop, if only briefly, to say "its written what?" and "it's meaning what?" It's discourteous to your readers to make them work like that, especially if they have to do it all the way through what you're writing.

In spoken English, the plural and possessive forms of most nouns (the regular ones) do sound the same, I know: dogs, dog's, and dogs'. Also "its" and "it's" sound the same. But when you're listening to someone, you have them there to ask if you get confused. The apostrophe marker was adopted to prevent confusion in the written language. No apostrophes at all (the way Middle English was written) is less confusing - a misplaced apostrophe gives the wrong signal, pointing the reader down the wrong path. And unfortunately, modern English uses apostrophes, so omitting one is now the same as putting it in the wrong place: "dogs" is simply not "dog's", or "dogs' ".

Here are some things I see a lot of nowadays that could be very easily stamped out:

Those are things which are spelling errors: nobody confuses the meaning. But there are some "errors" that people [me, too!] make in their daily colloquial speech that need to be weeded out of any formal or serious writing. There's one in the previous sentence; did you catch it? It's "me" where "I" is grammatically called for. Some examples are here.

Me or I?

What are the possible (affirmative) answers to the question "Who wants lunch?" They are "I do" and "Me". Not "I", and not "Me does". Now, "I" is correct, but nobody says it; they say "I do" if they can't bring themselves to say "me". That's because in English, "I" is weak and clitic-like, which is linguist for "I needs to be attached to a another word (a verb or another noun) to sound right." That's why few people say "Me went to town" but lots of people say "Me and Bob went to town."

'Aha!' you say. 'What about "give it to Bob and I"?' Well, that's different. "I" still isn't standing alone, it's in the phrase "Bob and I", which takes on the characteristics of its headword "Bob". In English, nouns no longer change their form except in possessives. Only pronouns do. Didn't use to be so, our nouns used to decline with the best of them, but they don't anymore. So, "Bob" doesn't take an "objective" or "dative" form, and thus the phrase "Bob and I" doesn't either.
In other words, as pronouns lose their grammatical declension they are slowly acquiring a positional declension instead, and in that so-far-unaccepted declension, "I, he, she, they" must be either immediately in front of their verb or connected by 'and' to another noun, and "me, him, her, them" is used otherwise.
Of course, they're both wrong in Standard English! (Look here for a discussion of why 'Standard English' is the way you should write.)
Let me stress here: what's 'right' in colloquial usage is not necessarily 'right' in standard, written usage. That's my point. You've got to write: "Give it to Bob and me" or your writing will be adjudged substandard, and the image you project will be correspondingly poor.

So, what's the rule? It's fairly simple. "I" is the subject: anytime "I" is doing the action, use I, otherwise, use me. To test it, you can take out any words coupled with it ("Give it to Bob and [me/I]" becomes "Give it to Me") or try substituting the wordpair "she/her" ... hardly anybody uses them incorrectly. "Give it to Bob and [her/she] = me."
And if it's a one-word phrase, such as an answer to a question, try adding the verb: "Who wanted to rework the entire project? [I/Me] (did) = I." (Though in formal writing, I have to add, one-word sentences should most likely be replaced by the a full clause.)

He or She or What

Okay, you want to write about your customer, your generic customer. You've gotten as far as "When someone purchases our product, --" and you pull up. What comes next? "-- he expects ..."? But isn't that sexist, exclusionary? "-- she expects..." Isn't that just as bad? What about "they" - oops, someone is singular. Can't say "it"; guess you'll have to settle for "he or she" no matter how clunky that sounds.

Only, why be clunky? Why not just write "he" and have done with it? That's what we've been doing for centuries, right? [ Check here for why generic 'he' doesn't bother me.]

Well, right. It is. English used to have gendered nouns, and "he" matched the ones ending in "-one". But we don't anymore, and a lot of people read a lot into language use that history doesn't justify -- and rightly so, let me add. History is full of things that used to be okay, but that you wouldn't want done to you just because because they were historically valid. Trust me on this; you wouldn't. (If you don't believe me, read a good sociological study of, oh, say, Classical Greece: pederasty, slavery, and prostitution ...). So why offend someone needlessly?

But you're someone, too; if "he or she" [or the bare "she"] offends you, don't use it. There, that's simple, isn't it. "But," you ask, "what should I do?"

Well, there are a number of workarounds that are much less clumsy than "he or she".

  1. They: yes, they. That's the one most people use in speech, after all, and it has a long and honorable history in English literary usage as well. But, of course, it's not completely accepted now, so, if you really need to be "correct", you need to make sure that it matches in number. How? Change the antecedent. Write See how simple, clean, and unclunky that is?
  2. One: for variety, although it can sound a little stiff to Americans.
  3. You: is also natural, although it is much more informal.
  4. He and later she: Alternating usage of "he" and "she" in a long document can balance out and maintain the standard feeling. While running across the first "she" may be unexpected, if the document is long enough, it will sound natural before long. The key phrase here is long enough document. Do not use alternating "he" and "she" in a document only a few paragraphs long. It just sounds wierd.
  5. Lose the pronoun entirely. Yes, it can be done. Replace one clause with a participle (making sure the participle agrees with the correct noun!) and go from there. Or use relative pronouns. Or use noun phrases that eliminate the need for the pronoun entirely, by linking the nouns together in other ways.
What about made-up pronouns, such as "hi" (actually OE "she"), or "hesh", or I can't keep track of them? Well, I can't keep track of them because they are essentially ephemera: none of them last, none of them are used in any fora except those whose political bias overrides any other considerations. Usage of such words, while certainly up to you, will mark your document as political in ways you generally don't want for a plain, simple piece of technical writing. It's like giving a speech to the VA with a red tie and the American flag sewn to the butt of your jeans: the presentation overrides the message.

"No, Madam, I Do Like No Children"

Or, do two nevers make an always?

The same is true for double negatives: clarity of meaning does not override the image of ignorance. Nearly everyone knows that double negatives do not, regardless of what your teacher told you, cancel out and become positives. Nobody ever heard the sentence "I don't never do..." and think the speaker is always doing it, or even sometimes. You may not notice the double negative, or you may think the speaker is ill-educated, ignorant, sloppy, or stupid; but you do not misunderstand him. [ Here's why I just wrote him.] If double negatives really did cancel out, you would. (Mind, we aren't talking about separate clauses here. "I don't think you don't know any better" does cancel out. We're talking about two negatives in the same clause.)

And if they did cancel, then three would be okay, wouldn't they? Because three negatives are a negative, in math. So, "I don't know nothing about birthing no babies!" would be proper English, as would "Nobody didn't tell me nothing!"

So, what's the deal? What happened is, back in the Age of Enlightenment, a lot of guys decided that English wasn't 'classical' enough, so they sat down and wrote some rules for it. Some of them were based on actual English (like, nouns and verbs should agree in number); some were based on Latin, to give English that certain cachet of classical studies (like, don't split infinitives, because in Latin the infinitive is a single word); some were personal prejudices (in 1672 John Dryden objected to Ben Jonson's the bodies that those souls were frighted from[1611], and some people have accepted Dryden's "rule" ever since. Too bad Ben wasn't still alive and able to slap Dryden silly over it...); and some were just sort of made up. Double negatives is one of those last.

In fact, it was in 1762 when the first grammar denigrating "double negatives" was published (Bishop Louth's highly eccentric and even more highly prescriptive screed).

And double, triple, quadruple negatives have been used in English for more than seven hundred years - since English was English, in fact. For example, Chaucer famously uses them, in sentences like

this from "Canterbury Tales": "In all this world ne was ther noon hym lik, to speke of physik and of surgerye," a classic double,
or this from "The Parlement of Foules (Parliament of Birds)": "Ther nevere tre shal fruyt ne leves bere",
or the refrain to part III of "The Complaint of Venus": "To love hym beste ne shal I never repente"
or the refrain to "To Rosemounde": "Though ye to me ne do no daliaunce"
or these lines from "The Former Age": "No madder, welde, or woad no litestere (dyer) ne knew; the fleece was of his former hewe," which have THREE negatives, or
"He never yet no villianie ne said unto no manner wight: He was a very parfait gentil knight." -- FOUR!
Language isn't mathematical, and in Indo-European languages (of which English is one), the more negatives you pile into a phrase, the more negative the phrase becomes. (We aren't talking about two negative clauses, such as "I don't think he won't come", only about single clauses, like "I don't think no such thing".) In fact, double negatives are required for any simple negation. And they are (still) required in English, too.

Oh, yes, they are. It's just that we must replace all but one of the 'negative-form' particles with 'indefinite-form' ones. And those indefinite particles play a negating role, and cannot stand on their own in the sentence as positive intensifiers.

For instance,
I don't ever do ...
I was not told by anybody ...
Nobody ever does anything around here ...
I haven't ever heard such a thing ...

Compare these sentences:
I ever do *(see note)
I was told by anybody ...
Anybody ever does anything ...
I have ever heard such a thing ...

See what I mean? We do double-negate in standard English; we have to; we just don't use "negative" particles to do it.

* Actually, "ever" meaning "always" can in fact be so used, though it's a bit British, and a bit old-fashioned. And my attention has recently been caught by a British idiom: to only ever do. I noticed it in "The Two Towers", when Gríma told Théoden "I have only ever served you, my lord." At the time, I dismissed it as an archaism. But then, just yesterday (19 Jan 2004) I saw a news report in which a woman stated: "I have only ever followed my conscience." I don't know if "only ever" can be used in other tenses, such as, perhaps, "I will only ever do my duty," but I imagine so.

However, this particular exception doesn't invalidate the general rule. The indefinite pronouns aren't so used even if adverbs are.

How Many is Everybody?

Classic schoolroom example:
"Will everyone in favor please raise (their/his) hand?"
You were taught "his hand", right? And they had to beat it into you, right? Because everyone is clearly more than one person, right? But they made you say "his hand" anyway.

Well, the next time you see them, try this one on:

"When everyone heard the fire engine, (he/they) ran to the window. When (he/they) saw the building was on fire, (he/they) ran outside."

Or this: "Everyone in this town pays bills on time; (he/they) never has/have to be sent reminders."

Or this: "Everyone on the Pelennor Fields stopped fighting for just a moment when (he/they) heard the horns of Rohan blowing."

Or this (from Pinker): "Mary saw everyone before John noticed (him/them)."

So ... everyone is only singular in the same clause! In other clauses, or sentences, it reverts to plural.

That's odd. It really is. Why on earth should that be true? Well, the answer is, because everybody and its cousin everyone are not singular. They've just been forced to pretend to be by the same people that make never, no, none, nothing pretend to be ever, any, anything in order to associate with themselves; and who say that you can't say "to boldly go" because in Latin "to go" was one single word and "boldly" couldn't be put in its middle. (Look here for more on splitting infinitives.)

"They" is the time honored non-specific pronoun, used for centuries.

That "everyone" takes a singular-form verb is irrelevant; so does "each" in things like "each of us knows this is true", and yet "each of us" is clearly plural!

Okay. Some of those rules we'll never get rid of. Like saying "I don't like any of those...." instead of the equally clear and more natural "I don't like none of those." Double negatives we're stuck with ... or stuck without, if you follow. But there's no reason at all we should sit still for being told that everyone is singular.

Linguaphiles of the US, Arise! Demand your right to say "Will everyone in favor raise their hand"!!! Unless, of course, you expect only one "yea" vote.

Splitting Hairs over Split Infinitives

Okay, it's a bad title. But... what is it with splitting infinitives, anyway? Why shouldn't we, or, conversely, why should we?

We shouldn't, because we're told not to by pundits, none of whom can really explain it well. The historical reason, as I've remarked above, is simplicity itself: back in the Age of Enlightenment, a lot of guys decided that English wasn't 'classical' enough, so they sat down and wrote some rules for it. (I'm being a bit flip here, I admit; the invention of the printing press had led to an actual need for Standard English. Printers could wield enormous power: Caxton chose "two eggis" instead of "zw'eien" for "two eggs", and the "z-" forms vanished, and "egg" became regular (not to mention losing the -y pronunciation. So having rules to standardize the written language from one end of England to the other was really a Good Thing. But...)

Some of the rules were based on actual English, but some were based on Latin—partly to use a familiar (to all educated people of the day) model, and partly to give English that certain cachét of classical studies—and one of those is: don't split infinitives. Why? Because in Latin the infinitive is a single word which physically cannot be split by adverbs.

I said it was simple, I didn't say it made sense. (Treating "to love" as "amo" and calling it "the" infinitive probably made learning English grammar easier for some people, though.)

Actually, most authorities (even the Oxford English Dictionary) will allow you to split an infinitive sometimes, or to achieve a certain effect, or for stylistic reasons. Big of 'em, I say.

Of course, you should be careful where you put your adverbs, but then again that's always true. The adverb is an endangered species in English; you can listen to sportscasters for days and never hear them use one. But replacing adverbs with adjectives is another story; what we're talking about here is not replacing adverbs, but simply placing them properly.

The famous example of a split infinitive that nearly everyone (except maybe Safire [quick aside, I once saw an article by a linguist ask the question "Is there a worse nightmare for a linguist than to be cited in Safire's column? How about to be cited approvingly? How about to be cited approvingly for the exact opposite of what you meant???"] back to the thread, here, but you can see that linguist's Safire complaint here) that nearly everyone will let you use is Gene Roddenberry's famous "to boldly go where no man (or no one) has gone before". So let's look at that one.

Where else could that adverb go? Well, you could say "to go boldly..." or "boldly to go..." Do either of those mean the same thing as "to boldly go"? Do you think so?

"To go boldly" is a phrase in which the adverb modifies the concept of going: go and do it in a bold fashion. "Boldly to go" is a phrase where the adverb modifies the person doing the going: be bold and go. But "to boldly go" places the adverb squarely upon the verb: it is the actual going itself which is bold, not the manner or the person, but the actual going.

Or, how about this: We've been asked to more than triple our contribution. What else are you going to say? We've been asked to triple more than our contribution? or perhaps We've been asked to triple our contribution more than? or the truly awful We've been asked more than to triple our contribution?

And we shouldn't overlook the fact that forcibly unsplitting an infinitive can, while still producing a grammatical sentence, change its meaning. For instance, She asked me to kindly close the door clearly indicates that she said, "Kindly close the door." But if you eliminate the split infinitive you get either:

Here's another problem that unsplitting can cause:
The soldiers were instructed to hourly check all the streets in the disputed neighborhood and report to their battalion any signs of unrest.

Where else can that "hourly" go? The soldiers were instructed hourly to check...? No; they weren't being instructed every hour. It's even worse if "hourly" goes at the end of the sentence somewhere: report any signs of unrest hourly says nothing about how often they are to check.

And that says nothing about the perfectly intelligible split "to report"! If you move "hourly" from its current position, you're going to have to repeat it.

In fact, if you drop "hourly" out of the sentence, you are still splitting "to report": The soldiers were instructed to check all the streets and report any signs of unrest. Would anybody really insist on instructed to check and to report? And yet - conjunctions join like elements. In this case, that's the second half of the infinitive.

And here's one more example that came up in discussion about this page:
The king intends immediately to kill the prisoners: His immediate intention is to kill them.
The king intends to kill the prisoners immediately: He intends to kill them right away.
The king intends to immediately kill the prisoners: He intends to kill them at once, without prolonging their agony.
Here's something I found in an article on translation:
For example:
The time has come to once again discuss our annual office party
"once again" has been placed between "to" and "discuss". The writer could have avoided this awkward sentence by not splitting the infinitive:
Once again, the time has come to discuss our annual office party.
Unfortunately this writer has made a bad mistake with his 'correction'. He's fallen prey to the notion that adverbials can go anywhere - and so he's moved this one to the wrong place. Of course adverbials can go "anywhere" - but they change the meaning. And so his 'correction' doesn't mean what the original sentence meant. In the original, what has is "once again" is the discussion; in his 'correction', it's the time. The correction - if you insist on 'correcting' what's not an error - should be "The time has come to discuss our annual office party once again."

This is English. Our infinitives come in two words. That means other words can go in between them. Yes, you want to be sure that that's the right place. But if splitting the infinitive makes the phrase say what you want it to say, then go ahead and split away.

Here's something posted by Geoff Pullum over on Language Log on May 19:

I just heard Alex Chadwick, on NPR's program "Day to Day", say the following in a dicussion about military policies on women in combat:
But still, the policy of the Army at that time was not to send was specifically to not send women into combat roles.
Note the obligatorily split infinitive. Saying The policy was not to send women into combat was far too likely to be understood as the weaker claim that sending women into combat wasn't the policy, and Alex realized that on the fly, and corrected himself. He wanted to refer to the stronger claim that not sending women into combat was the policy, and there was simply no way for him to do it, given that he was using an infinitival clause after the copula (was), unless he placed not between to and send. So he correctly did so. Far from being ungrammatical, split infinitives are (as we have explained before on Language Log) always an option for modifiers of infinitival clauses, and sometimes the only option. Far from being impermissible, they are sometimes required.

Note added later: I've corrected the quoted sentence (which I originally heard while driving) after listening to the program as archived here.

Those Pesky Hyphens

Okay, I fibbed. I said the next topic was phonetic spelling. Well, that's coming, honest it is.

It's just that someone pointed this out to me and I felt it should be mentioned. It's when hyphens are used in adjectival constructions.

You know, the old "uhhhh, is it on-line or on line?" debate.

There's a rule for that, too. The rule is:

if the adjectival phrase is directly modifying (that is, in front of) the noun, use a hyphen.
if the phrase is predicative (that is, seperated from the noun by the verb), don't.
So, it's an on-line publication, or a publication which is on line.

But does it make a difference? Isn't on line publication just as clear? Sure it is... with those words. With other words, it can become crucial.

If John ordered twenty two thousand gallon vats of oil, how much oil in how many vats will John get?

22,000 gallons in 22,000 vats, each holding one gallon?
40,000 gallons in 20 vats, each holding two thousand gallons?
22,000 gallons in 22 vats, each holding a thousand gallons?
some predetermined, unspecified amount, at least 44,000 gallons, in vats which hold twenty-two thousand gallons each?
[that would be twenty-two thousand gallon vats (22,000 gallon vats), twenty two-thousand-gallon vats (20 two-thousand-gallon vats), twenty-two thousand-gallon vats (22 thousand-gallon vats), and twenty-two-thousand-gallon vats, respectively]

See? It does make a difference, doesn't it?
Thanks to Mike for this example!

And here's another one, courtesy of headsup the blog:
Two thousand-year-old beliefs about God, the soul, sin and people outside our tribe are hindering medical research and warping public policy. So, allegedly, says a letter to the editor. Leading to a question: Which two 11th-century beliefs does the correspondent have in mind?

Horrible Examples From Real Life

All of these have been extracted from actual documents. All of them at least distract, if not actually detract, from the message.
    all identifying characteristics have been removed ...
  1. Each platform has it's uses. But I don't agree with trying to go to one platform as the sun cannot, as easily, do what the mac. And there are some things that the mac can't do what the sun can.
  2. I run the PERL scrip, get the e-mail attachment and lo and behold, it's blank! I checked the scripts and all appears well. Anybody have any idea's?
  3. If your doing something where your designing totally from scratch then you'd better solve the problem...
  4. Our project has it's own web server and it's user's are homed to it. I can't see why we would ever want to change that.
  5. When checking on fonts, the X-server query's the list...


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