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Mistakes were made

Our indefatigable readers are quick to point out our lapses. But as it happens, not all that disturbs them is in error.

An attendance issue

"Once proud of their community of freshly painted houses and well-kept yards, some Toddville holdouts are openly embarrassed by the presence of so many empty buildings. Windows are without panes. Roofs are bare of shingles. The tenacious Phragmites reed has crept past unattended fences to claim lawns and threaten small family cemeteries.

"What would this sort of mistake be called?

"Untended fences are not the same as ‘unattended fences’ -- while I might enjoy attending an opera (well, maybe not...) or a baseball game (more likely ...)  this ‘attending a fence’ deal leads to some images straight out of Lewis Carroll.  Is it the Fence Queen and Her Court?"

Response. Though not as common as it once was, the sense of attend as "look after" or "take care of" survives in the language.

Singular and plural

"How can you expect respect when a sentence with such poor grammar as ‘The company and regulators revealed in March that a typical BGE customer would see a 72 percent rate hike in their monthly bill’ appears in your paper? Parallel construction (a customer -- their bill??) is a pretty elementary grammar rule. Please. Edit."

Response.We have not embraced the construction at The Sun, but our resolve is eroding. You can find my post on this issue, from Jan. 12, 2006, in the archive. Since then, James Kilpatrick has given up the struggle, saying in a column, "Face it, fellow fogeys, our gonfalon is a gone gonfalon! The old order has indeed yielded, and now everyone has their own cup of tea."

Past tense

A caller questioned the usage in a sentence saying that a man stood, walked to the edge and "leapt" into the water. She wanted to know whether that should have been "leaped."

Response. Leapt has been an acceptable past tense for leap in English for going on to 500 years, though leaped may be gaining on it.

Hard to get hold of

A reader was outraged at a sentence in an article about basketball reading, "The slightly more orange, slipperier-when-wet ball the league has decided to use."

He found it difficult to believe that the reporter "cannot spell S-L-I-P-P-I-E-R ! What in heavens name is SLIPPERIER???????????????????????"

Response. Actually (cough) the comparative form of the adjective slippery is slipperier. Pronounced SLIP-ri-er, no doubt, but appearing in dictionaries spelled slipperier.

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:44 PM | | Comments (4)


re: singular they. So sayeth Geoffrey Pullum, editor of "The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language":

"[...] when a construction is clearly present several times in Shakespeare's rightly admired plays and poems, and occurs in the carefully prepared published work of just about all major writers down the centuries, and is systematically present in the unreflecting conversational usage of just about everyone including Sean Lennon, then the claim that it is ungrammatical begins to look utterly unsustainable to us here at Language Log Plaza. This use of they isn't ungrammatical, it isn't a mistake, it's a feature of ordinary English syntax that for some reason attracts the ire of particularly puristic pusillanimous pontificators, and we don't buy what they're selling."


...and shouldn't that be "What in heaven's name" [possessive, not plural]? ; )

" Response. Though not as common as it once was, the sense of attend as "look after" or "take care of" survives in the language."

I bow to your erudition. I am perfectly comfortable with, say a case where someone says: "Please attend to this matter." I could even handle "Please attend to this fence / please tend to this fence" more or less interchangeably.

I'm not enough of a grammarian to be able to label the reason the "fence case" was a jarring locution. I think it involves the presence of someone making the request and someone else who is thus expected to be the actor.

I think the sentence failed the "jar test" myself.

I have a question about the word presumptive, as in "Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the presumptive House speaker."

First, it seems like a pretty big word to describe a pretty simple idea. Also, in Webster's New World under the definition of the word that says "based on probability; presumed," it gives as an example "an heir presumptive," so shouldn't it be "Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker presumptive?" But that would be even more weird.

Basically, wouldn't it be easier just to use "probable" or "presumed."

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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