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Are you ready for the Day of Judgment?

Are you in a good place? Have you examined your conscience? Have you gotten yourself right with grammar? Because National Grammar Day is coming, and those of you who are shaky, those of you who are backsliding, those of you who are lapsed, what do you think is going to happen to you on that terrible day, when gerunds blanket the earth, double genitives blot out the sun, and participles fall from the sky?

Get ready, get ready, while there’s still time.

By way of rescuing the wayward, You Don’t Say offers a small primer today on some of the more common lapses. Look carefully to see whether you have been a miserable sinner, and repent while you still have time.

ITS/IT’S

It’s means it is. If you are in doubt which to use, substitute it is for its and see whether the sentence still makes sense. One enduring surprise for the professional editor is the number of adult and presumably educated writers who either can’t figure this out or who can’t be bothered with trifling distinctions of meaning.

WHO/WHOM

Recast the sentence, substituting a subject pronoun, he, she or they, for who as appropriate, or an object pronoun, him, her or them, for whom.

Who was that masked man? (Who is the subject of the sentence.)

Whom did he give that silver bullet? (He is the subject, whom an indirect object: He gave that silver bullet to whom.)

But if the pronoun is the subject of a clause, it remains who, even when the whole clause is the object of a verb or preposition:

The sheriff can arrest whomever he likes. Whomever he likes is a subordinate clause, the object of arrest. Within that subordinate clause, he is the subject: he likes [to arrest] whomever.

The sheriff can arrest whoever appears to be guilty. Whoever appears to be guilty is a subordinate clause, a noun clause, in which whoever is the subject; the whole clause functions like a noun, the object of arrest.

SUBJECT/VERB AGREEMENT

Singular subject, singular verb; plural subject, plural verb:

The West was won. The Indians were moved to reservations.

Compound subjects joined by and take plural verbs: Custer and the Sioux meet at the Little Bighorn.

But with compound subjects joined by or in either/or and nor in neither/nor constructions, the component of the subject nearer the verb determines whether the verb is singular or plural.

Either the settler or the cattlemen get to control the range.

Either the cattlemen or the settler gets to control the range.

In one who and one of those who constructions, the antecedent to the pronoun who determines whether the verb is singular or plural.

The settler’s wife is one who washes clothes in the creek.

The settler’s wife is one of the women who wash clothes in the creek.

MISPLACED MODIFIER

An introductory phrase or clause that modifies the subject of the sentence must match up with the subject:

Watching the moon, the rustler slipped by the cowboy.

That makes no sense. It’s evident that the cowboy was watching the moon, but rustler is the subject of the sentence. Recast it: While the cowboy was watching the moon, the rustler slipped by or Watching the moon, the cowboy let the rustler slip by.

In English, word order and position determine meaning. Prepositional phrases, which can modify either nouns of verbs or adjectives or adverbs, should be placed near the word they are intended to modify. Otherwise one winds up with sentences like Joseph Fewsmith, an expert on the Chinese leadership at Boston University, said, only half jokingly, “It seems that Jiang is stronger today than he was yesterday.” Lordy! The Red Chinese have taken over BU! Call Paul Wolfowitz!

PLURALS AND POSSESSIVES

Writers often come to grief on plurals and possessives of proper names. (Remember: All those quaint little hand-painted or wood-burned signs announcing the residence of The Smith’s are wrong.)

Follow these patterns:

SINGULAR

Man, mule, Compson, Snopes

 PLURAL

men, mules, Compsons, Snopeses

SINGULAR POSSESSIVE

man’s, mule’s, Compson’s, Snopes’s or Snopes’ [Either is correct, so follow one style consistently.]

PLURAL POSSESSIVE

men’s, mules’, the Compsons’, the Snopeses’

And make sure that you never allow some monstrosity such as childrens’ to reach print.

PUNCTUATION OF CLAUSES

Independent clauses — clauses that could stand on their own as sentences — are joined by a conjunction and a comma or by a semicolon.

She shot the wolf, and she skinned the deer. She shot the wolf; she skinned the deer.

Two independent clauses joined only by a comma, or by a conjunction without a comma, constitute a run-on: She shot the wolf, she skinned the deer. Don’t do that, unless you are British.

Compound subjects and predicates do not require commas with conjunctions.

She shot the wolf and skinned the deer. NOT She shot the wolf, and skinned the deer.

Complex sentences, with a dependent clause and an independent clause, are punctuated with commas:

After she washed the breakfast dishes, she shot the wolf and skinned the deer.

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 3:33 PM | | Comments (1)
        

Comments

Thanks for this list. I work as an ESL teacher and it's very useful to have a sort of checklist of common mistakes students make.

Plus I can show this post to my student and demonstrate that there is no shame in such mistakes since native speakers make them as well!

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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 john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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