Who did it? Fess up

This from Susan B. Glasser’s New Yorker  story on the Secretary of State:


  • This gets at a central challenge of Pompeo’s tenure: turning Trump’s tweets and “instincts” into a coherent foreign policy, as his policy-planning chief often put it.

Those darn possessive pronouns.

I don’t know whose “his” is.

Whose policy-planning chief are we talking about? Pompeo’s? Trump’s? I’m lost.

I’ve tried scanning back to the beginning of the paragraph, and then reading on to the end of the paragraph, but I still can’t figure it out.

This gets at a central challenge of our complicated English language: turning possessive pronouns into coherent communication.

When it comes to pronouns, go isolationist: Avoid, avoid, avoid.



Lucky strike

Will Brinson of CBSSports.com writes:


  • 100 sacks over three seasons beget a 2015 shoulder injury….

Growing up in Sunday school the way I did, you learned your “begats”:

  • “And Enoch lived sixty and five years, and begat Methuselah…” (Genesis 5:21).

Here’s how this old-fashioned verb works:

  • You beget  today. (You bring something into existence.)
  • You begat or begot  yesterday.
  • (And you’ve begotten  in the past participle.)

So those sacks begot  an injury for Luck, and report on it begat  a post from me, all of which has begotten  this Lucky little teaching moment. Sort of like Sunday school, but with shoulder pads.


This just in: Punctuation Spill in Ipswich


  • “High Street main break show’s system’s age”

Let’s be clear: The writer of a newspaper article does not write the headline. Headlines are dropped in by an editor, further up the food chain.

So clearly, some editor happened to have a Dixie cup full of apostrophes, probably as a mid-morning snack, and they accidentally spilled all over page A4, and they tried to clean them all up, but they missed one.


“Of cabbages and kings”

Image-1 16.jpg

  • A walrus attacked and sunk a Russian Navy landing boat…

The walrus sank the boat. (Recruit that pinniped, Marines!) Sunk is the participle.

  • I sink, I sank, I have sunk.
  • I drink, I drank, I have drunk.
  • I shrink, I shrank, I have shrunk.

These are the only words I can think of that work this way. It’s not:

  • It’s not: I think, I thank, I have thunk.
  • It’s not: I clink, I clank, I have clunk.
  • And it’s certainly not: I fink on you, I fank on you, I have funk on you.

Also avoid:

  • I kink the hose, I kank the hose, I have kunk the hose.
  • I link the clues, I lank the clues, I have lunk the clues.

And if you want to delight that attractive person at the bar, absolutely stay clear of I wink at you, I wank at you, I have wunk at you. They will never, ever go home with you. Trust me on this, you’re sunk.


I think you’re going to love our new 67

R.J. Wright reports for CBSSports.com:

Image-1 11.jpg

  • “For those unaware, the Westgate puts out a 12-day number every Tuesday….”

For those of us who are  aware, the Westgate puts out a totally different number. Often, something in a lovely prime. Occasionally an attractive fraction.



Where does it hurt?


  • “…US spends twice as much on health care than any other country”

OK, so yeah, maybe Bernie was wrong. But CNN’s headline writer made a boo-boo too. Another case of misusing “than.”

It’s twice as much as … or twice more than. (Actually, twice more than might not mean the same thing mathematically. I’ll leave that up to the GAO to figure out.)

Think of as  and than  as a Republican and a Democrat. They don’t work together. At least not in the same comparative statement.

If things change in Congress and this analogy becomes obsolete, I’ll revise this post.

And eat my hat.

(And need medical attention. Really, really expensive medical attention.)

Dress codes save lives

Image-1 10.jpg

“…players were prohibited to wear hard objects during games.”

  • Required to — or prohibited from.
  • Never required from — nor prohibited to.

Hey, don’t wear even a cheap Timex when you’re playing football. And no chain mail, please. Avoid steel-toed shoes. Buttons can hurt somebody. Get that Bluetooth out of your ear. And breastplates are out.

Safety first.

Abe, honestly

Image-1 14.jpg

  • “He’s striking a similar pose to Abraham Lincoln….”

The phrase is similar to. Whenever possible, keep a phrase together:

  • “He’s striking a pose similar to Abraham Lincoln….”

This smooths out the sentence.

To be even more precise and, I think, elegant:

  • “He’s striking a pose similar to Abraham Lincoln’s….”

Next we can debate whether he was really striking  the pose (consciously going for the photo op) or merely adopting  the pose, or perhaps just caught in a pose.

And then we talk about the politics of the moment. And then we can have a huge fight.

Or, we can just remember to preserve the phrase similar to, and leave it at that. Yeah, probably a better idea.

Take that silly thing off right now

Jeff Kerr of CBSSports.com writes, of an NFL player’s helmet visor:

Image-1 copy 2.jpg

“Beckham’s appeared to not fall in compliance with the league rules. Clearly Beckham feels different about the rule.”

I’m not sure about “falling in compliance with” a rule. I thought you could “be in compliance with” a rule, or “comply with” a rule, or “fall within” the rules, but is this phrasing English? All the individual words are English, yes. But the combination is something I’ve never seen.

And then there’s Beckham feeling “different” about the rule. Some days I wake up feeling different, but that’s generally because of what I ate the night before. I think Jeff means Beckham feels “differently” about the rule — because feels  is a verb, and he wants to modify it, which means he needs an adverb, and the adverb would be differently.

All of this is moot, of course, if, unbeknownst to me, the NFL has started to allow writers to wear lightly tinted adverbs, without the requisite ly  at the end.

In which case, ignore everything I just said.


The Thats down in Thatville

  • “The former resident … contacted a current resident that lives adjacent from the submerged object.”

Nothing is adjacent from anything. You can be adjacent to it. No other adjacencies allowed.

Also: I vote for every human to be a “who.”

A human is not “that.”

“That” is for objects, and situations, and a grade-schooler’s cussing. (“That is unacceptable, young lady!”)

Stand up for your right to be a Who.

Stats says Dolphins loses

From Hannah Fry’s fascinating story in the 9/19/19 issue of The New Yorker:


  • “Statistics, for all its limitations, has a profound role to play in the social realm.”

Hannah and/or her copy editors at the magazine have decided to treat statistics as a singular noun.

I don’t know. It would be different, I think, if there were no such thing as a single statistic. But you can indeed deal with a single statistic. So it seems to me we should say statistics have a role.

The Brits do sort of the opposite thing when they talk football.

  • Arsenal have won the league!

In the U.S., we don’t say Miami have won the game! (Well, there’s another reason we never say this, but let’s not descend into the quagmire of partisanship.)

I guess if you’re talking about statistics as a realm, a body of work, a concept, then it makes sense to treat it as a singular.

But I confesses, such a concept bother me.


One are the loneliest number

  • One in four kids are malnourished.

This is a sad fact in our world today.

It’s infinitely less important, but also somewhat interesting, that more than 160 websites (according to Google) use these exact words to describe the tragedy.

“One in four” is a big number: hundreds of millions of kids.

But in our complicated language, “one” is the noun in this sentence, and it’s singular.

So it should be: One in four kids is malnourished.

Actually, this error is so common, I believe the rules will change in our lifetime, and a number expressed in this way — a plural expressed as a singular — will come to be officially accepted.

At which point, one in four English-language bloggers are out of work.

Roughing the writer, 15 yards

Image-1 9.jpg

  • “…due to the amount of penalties being thrown…”

Flag on the play!

We’ve run afoul of that old “countable items” vs. “glop” rule.

  • We use amount  in conjunction with glop — or, to be precise, singular mass nouns. Like wrongdoing. You turn off the game due to the amount of wrongdoing by the officials.
  • We use number to talk about countable items — like penalties, and errors, and stupid misguided over-zealous holding calls.

Either way, we turn off the game.



What’s so hard?

Facebook offers me this advice:

  • Complete your About section so people can find your page easier.

I offer Facebook this advice:

We’re communicating in English here. Verbs are modified by adverbs. People can find your page more easily.

If you really mean they might find my page easier, you have to tell me the rest of the story: Easier than what?

(I can only imagine. If I complete my About section, people will find my page easier than calculus. Okay, that’s probably a good goal.)

Friends don’t let friends drive plural

  • “…and there’s even Central Perk replica cafes in Beijing and Shanghai.”

I know it’s exciting to think about sipping coffee with Jenifer Aniston, but let’s keep our heads and use proper English.

  • There are even Central Perk replica cafes in Beijing and Shanghai.

“There’s cafes” — a contraction of “There is cafes” — is the kind of phrasing that Jenifer would dump you for, I feel certain.

As if you ever had a chance with her. Sheesh.

(Be sure to see comments and replies to yesterday’s post to catch up on the big error I made.)

How much to Tijuana?

Immigration enforcers doing their thing, politicians cheering them on, reported by CNN.com:

  • Authorities haled the sweep at food processing plants in six cities as a record-setting operation.

These authorities probably actually hailed the sweep. Cheered for it, approved it enthusiastically.

There are four kinds of hale in our English-speaking world:

  • You can hale a cab — which is to yell at the driver.
  • You can be hale and hearty — healthy and robust.
  • You can live in a Hawaiian hale, a simple thatched-roof dwelling — although you pronounce it HAH-lee.
  • Or you can be Nathan Hale (1755–76) — and be hanged by the redcoats for spying.

Only one of these four is a verb. So if you hale the sweep at food processing plants, it’s like asking the sweep for a ride to Times Square. Not gonna happen. Unless, possibly, you’re Caucasian and documented.

You want gruel with that?

  • “…a game that was played in front of less than 9,000 fans.”

In English, we distinguish between countable things and, uh, glop.

Well, glop isn’t the official term. Technically, it’s singular mass nouns.

For example:

  • The game is attended by fewer than 9,000 fans.
  • But you have less than 9,000 gallons of beer at the game.

Depending on your tastes, yeah, glop.

Opposites a-tracked

Jared Dubin writes, at CBSSports.com:

  • I know that I’m on the opposite end of it than my colleague….

You don’t know any such thing, Jared. You must be hallucinating. I’m not picking on you because you’re a lifelong Dallas Cowboys fan. I’m just picking on you because nobody can be opposite than anybody or anything.

  • You can be something other than, or rather than.
  • Something can be easier said than done — like keeping all those tricky conjunctions straight.
  • Something can be more good than bad — like Jared Dubin’s sportswriting.

Jared, here’s your consolation prize: You can be on the opposite end from your colleague.

By the way, Jared, I totally agree with you about paying Ezekiel Elliott. Big mistake. The very opposite than what they oughta do. (Joke — get it?)

Kittens become cats

From an NFL statement:

  • “Both NFL Media and the AP do not ordinarily name the alleged victims….”

Let’s not talk about football. Let’s talk about kittens.

Say there are two kittens. How many will you take home?

With two kittens, you have three choices:

Both. Either. Or neither.

  • If you answer “Both” OR you answer “Either,” you’re answering in the positive. In other words, you’ll go home with at least one kitten.
  • If you answer “Neither,” you’re answering in the negative. You’ll go home without any kittens. Which is to say, you’ll be happy in the morning.

In English, we use positive descriptors with positive verbs, and negatives with negatives.

So you can say Both ordinarily name victims or Neither ordinarily names victims. But you can’t say Both do not ordinarily name victims.

What’s really sad about this is that the NFL needs to say ordinarily when talking about naming victims.

Quoth the Raven, “Uniquermore!”

  • “The Ravens were maybe the most unique team in football a season ago once they made the switch from Joe Flacco to Lamar Jackson under center.”

So began Sean Wagner-McGough’s CBS Sports story on quarterback Robert Griffin III.

His claim can’t be true — because nothing can be “the most unique.”

Unique is exclusive. One of a kind. If it’s unique, it’s the only. You can’t be the most unique, you can’t be more unique, you can’t be uniquer, nor can you be the uniquest.

If you’re comparing, try special, uncommon, or rare.

As for the even more important question — about how good those Ravens might be: We’ll see. Baltimore is 2-1 on the season, hosting the 1-2 Browns today.

Go Cleveland!

Tom Brady needs your financial support

Here’s a headline for the Grand Opening of the new Pro Shop at North Station, sent by the clever photographic artist Stoney:

  • Executives & players will join fans and get 20% off your purchase

Stoney astutely inquires:

Why are they getting 20% off of my purchase?

I guess because executives and players are always exploiting us poor fans, eh?

Now serving pollo asado in a parallel universe

This from a Mexican restaurant’s website:

  • There’s currently a location in Ipswich MA and Beverly MA…

Unless you’re doing that multi-dimensional thing, it’s not possible to have one location in two locations simultaneously.

Maybe you mean:
There are currently two locations: in Ipswich MA and Beverly MA.
There’s currently a location in Ipswich MA, and another in Beverly MA.

Or, if you really are doing that multi-dimensional thing, awesome!

Welcome to Speedwriting 101

Far be it from me to criticize Garrison Keillor, but a recent Writer’s Almanac entry featured this statement about Stephen King:

  • His latest novel out this month is The Institute….

King is known as a prodigious writer, forcing himself to write at least 2,000 words of fiction a day, whether he feels like it or not. And good for him: he’s one of the top-earning writers in the world.

But nobody, not even Stephen King, produces more than one novel in a single month.

Keillor is suffering here from a comma shortage.

  • His latest novel, out this month, is The Institute….

As I do not have Stephen King’s discipline, I’m not writing 2,000 words of fiction a day. So you’ll have to keep waiting for my next novel. (While you’re waiting, you may read the previous one, here.)

I have, however, collected a plethora of commas, which I’ll be happy to share with anyone who needs them.


(It’s my birthday. Don’t buy me anything. Instead, as a gift to me, go to NewThing.net and check out my humanitarian work. Thank you!)

Back to the future, past perfect, in a pronounmobile

I keep puzzling over this “Talk of the Town” piece from The New Yorker.

  • It starts out describing “the first time Grant met Barbra Streisand.”
  • Then it says “He recently recalled the encounter, which took place at a house party … in 1991.” So we’ve gone back in time.
  • “She was wearing a black lace dress and a floppy hat.” OK, so we’re at the party in ’91.
  • “He had arrived in a ‘cheap rental car.'” So now the past perfect tense is telling us about something that happened even earlier.
  • “In order to reach Streisand…” uh … brings us back to the party?
  • Soon we’re jerked back to the present: “Grant — who is now 61 … doesn’t drink.”
  • Then, I’m sorry to say, a new paragraph begins: “It was a frigid morning….”

All the zigzagging through time and space has exhausted me, and arriving at the damnable pronoun It just makes me want to sit down and cry. Where and when are we now? At the party in 1991? Or at the moment Grant is describing the encounter for us?

By the time we learn we’re in the back seat of an S.U.V. zooming through Flatbush, it seems we’re back in the present. Even Marty McFly would be nauseous.

I vote for writers to tell stories in chronological order whenever possible. If you have to flash back to keep things interesting, flash back carefully.

Or distribute Dramamine.

As a freak, I avoid you

I call it a “misconnect.”

I don’t think that’s the technical term for it.

But the concept is: You set the reader up to think you’re talking about one thing, and then you talk about something entirely different.

  • As a valued friend of the Mission, I am writing to ask for your prayers and financial support.

“As” tells you that you’re going to get an equivalent, after the comma.

So when you get to “I,” you think back to “As.”

That word, after all — “As” — was the warning signal, like a light that flashes as you approach the train tracks, telling you that the identity of the person who’s being described is the person who’s about to be more fully described.

But in this case, the writer (“I am writing to ask”) isn’t the “valued friend” previewed at the beginning of the sentence.


  • As you are a valued friend of the Mission, I am writing to ask….
  • As a valued friend of the Mission, you are someone I feel comfortable asking….

As you are a valued friend of EnglishIsAComplicatedLanguage.com, I feel comfortable whining to you this way.

(P.S. Totally unrelated: Check out my charity in the former USSR; we’re doing good work and we need your help.)

It’s an effect, but…

Sometimes, you read something, and you can only shake your head. Or your booty.

The headline says:

Tom Brady refuses to tolerate sweaty butts, has established tradition of shoving towels down his center’s pants

  • By Pete Blackburn
  • Sep 12, 2019 at 3:26 pm ET • 2 min read

The article begins:

  • It’s not an issue that’s exclusive to Brady of course, as other QBs have also discussed how it can effect the way they play. Just last month, Kirk Cousins talked at length about the very damp caboose of his new rookie center.

So I’m just here to remind us all … I mean those of us who speak and write American English, or who pretend to … that effect is usually a noun, and affect is usually a verb, and if you need to use either word, it’s wise to check out Grammarly.com first.

Because no, sweaty butts don’t effect the way quarterbacks play.

Whether they actually affect the way a quarterback plays is another question entirely.

(My apologies to Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees, Sam Darnold, Cam Newton, Eli Manning, and any other QBs who can’t play this week. I’m not suggesting, in any way, that sweaty butts had anything to do with the fact that you’re sidelined this week. Except, possibly, Eli, because I’m a Pats fan.)

Chill, Dad! Bounce flashing is so dope now

I thought my friend Stoney, the brilliant photographic artist, might be making it up.

But no.

The headline of the online Shutter magazine article actually reads:

  • How to Effectively Bounce Flash at an Event with Vanessa Joy

Stoney shrewdly asks:

  • Would these techniques work if Vanessa weren’t there?

I can’t help but be reminded of Paul Simon’s Graceland lyric:

  • There’s a girl in New York City, who calls herself the Human Trampoline….

(When Oprah asked Simon if there really is such a girl, he said no. But how could he really know? He clearly hadn’t interviewed all the girls in New York City.)

And don’t get me started on the implications of “bounce flashing.”

Allies: your attention, please

  • “…officials disagreed … but sought to manage him rather than confront him, as Mattis did, while enlisting other allies, such as the Israelis and members of Congress, to lobby Trump for a reversal.”

Wait. Who enlisted other allies? Officials? Him? Mattis?

The commas before and after “as Mattis did” … what do they tell us?

They tell us the writer was on a roll, and just kept adding phrases, assuming we were rolling too. But a reader isn’t on the writer’s roll. The reader is absorbing all this detail cold. We need each phrase to inform the previous phrase.

“As.” “While.” I officially disagree with the order to use these slippery words.

Russia buys Treasury Dept.

Is IT just me, or is IT a problem-pronoun?

  • “Rusal was tailor-made to join forces on the project. But it was under sanctions” — Rusal was under sanctions? Or the project was under sanctions? —
  • “imposed by the U.S. Treasury Department. Its billionaire owner, Oleg Deripaska, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s” — whose billionaire owner? Rusal? The project? The Treasury Department?
  • “was being investigated by special counsel Robert Mueller for his potential involvement…” — whose potential involvement? Oleg’s? Putin’s? Mueller’s? Nah, Mueller wasn’t investigating himself. But that’s just about all we can be sure of, thanks to the IT factor.

“Rusal’s billionaire owner” would be clearer.

And actually leaving IT out“being investigated by Mueller for potential involvement” instead of “his potential involvement” — would be clearer too.

IT‘s a heartache.

Throw your hat into the, uh, grass

  • “A dozen mustard-colored bunkhouses ringed a patchy sloping lawn.”

Yes, The New Yorker got it right, in Nick Paumgarten’s article about measles.

The bunkhouses ringed the lawn.

NOT: The bunkhouses rang the lawn.

NOT: The bunkhouses rung the lawn.

  • When you use ring as a verb, to mean making a ring around something, the past tense is indeed ringed.
  • When you use ring to mean making the sound of a bell, the past tense is rang. (They rang the bell.)
  • Rung is rong. It’s never the past tense. It only gets to be the participle. (“They have rung the bell.” “They had rung the bell.” “They were exhausted, having rung the bell throughout this entire post.”)

Psst! Something can’t be passed on! Pass it on!

From Evan Osnos’ New Yorker piece about “China’s dilemma”:

“Bloodshed in Hong Kong would shatter the prospects, however slim, of healing the rift with Taiwan, which Xi has declared ‘can’t be passed on for generations.'”

It seems harmless, but which is a witch of a word.

What can’t be passed on?

  • Bloodshed?
  • Prospects?
  • Healing?
  • Rift?
  • Or Taiwan?

I honestly don’t know. I’ll take your vote in the Comments box.

We don’t spell it “socker”

  • “I don’t usually rush to judgement….”

American football, American spelling.

European football, European spelling.

It’s judgment here in America, John. It’s judgement over there.

(And you’re right about those lowly Dolphins. No playoffs for the Fins this year. How the Finns will do, I can’t say.)

What did that dream mean?

Warren: Where Trump is right now is a nightmare

Where Trump is right? He’s actually right? When? You mean now?


Where Trump is? You mean right now?

If it’s Elizabeth Warren talking, it must be a nightmare either way.

But from CNN.com’s headline, we can’t tell exactly what the nightmare is about.

[Note to self: 3 terms to take special care with — (1) right, (2) now, (3) right now.]

If you point out your church’s error, do you go to hell?

In a recent historical commentary — inviting churchgoers to an event at Appleton Farm — the long-dead Daniel Appleton was lauded for funding my church’s original construction in 1869.

All well and good. But the commentary went on to say this:

Although living in New York City, Appleton Farms was the family summer home and Ipswich benefited from Daniel’s civic-minded spirit.

Which is to say, Appleton Farms managed to be living in the Big Apple and serving as the summer home, all at the same time.


The problem is they keep putting those tiny flashlights in their mouths

Friend Amy B. from Ohio found this lovely headline:

“Woman Abandoned in Dumpster as a Baby Searches for the People Who Rescued Her”

“I’m not sure what shocks me more,” Amy says: “a woman being left in a dumpster, or a baby who is part of a search effort.”

Commas are everything.

Well, maybe not everything, but they can sometimes keep full-grown women out of dumpsters — and spare babies from search-party duty.

Mug shot and nearly killed

  • “Leader of militia that has held migrants attacked in jail”

So there were these migrants, see? And they went to jail. And they got attacked while they were in there. And there was this militia, see? And they were holding these migrants, see? And this is a picture of the militia’s leader.

Thank you for clearing that up.

I hope after the migrants get well, they get out.

Last kid picked

NFL columnist Don Banks writes:

“It had been since 1974 since no cornerbacks were taken in the opening 25 picks of a draft.”

If you use the same word twice in one sentence, you might want to replace or eliminate one of them.

Some possible alternatives:

  • The simple but somewhat awkward approach: “It had been since 1974 that no cornerbacks were taken in the opening 25 picks of a draft.”
  • Maybe smoother: “Not since 1974 had we seen a draft with no cornerbacks among the opening 25 picks.”
  • Simplest, smoothest, most straightforward statement of truth: “This year’s cornerbacks were a lame lot. Geez, nobody wanted any of ’em.”

Mosquitoes make me all frisky

Brooke Jarvis writes in The New Yorker:

“As the recent arrivals cleared land for their own purposes, they also created fresh habitats for mosquitoes, allowing their populations to skyrocket.”

The recent arrivals — those darn colonists — somehow overran the New World by creating fresh mosquito habitats. I thought it was sex that made babies, but apparently I was wrong.

(Note to self: Be careful of the possessive pronoun their, which doesn’t always clearly tell the reader who they are.)

Don’t make me come in there and separate you two

The sharp-eyed freelance editor Sarah C. Jones got this email from Loft, and it made her crazy. Not for the 60% off.

  • Getaway is a noun. You enjoy a getaway, not a get away.
  • Get away is a verb, with an adverb. Two separate words. It’s never time to getaway. It’s always time to get away.

Well, maybe it’s not always time to. But whenever you do it, it’s two words.

Otherwise, Sarah goes nuts.

Happy birthday, dear Mmm-mmmm…

From Connie Bruck’s big piece on Alan Dershowitz in The New Yorker:

“In September, 1996, Epstein invited Dershowitz to meet Wexner, who was throwing a party for his fifty-ninth birthday.”

I’m not sure whom to buy a present for. Epstein? Dershowitz? Or Wexner?

Eh, it doesn’t matter. The party happened 23 years ago, and I wasn’t invited.

(Note to self: Possessive pronouns like his can be confusing.)

“In September, 1996, Epstein invited Dershowitz to meet Wexner, who was throwing a party for his own fifty-ninth birthday.” (I think.)

Buts turn heads

My man Tyler Sullivan writes:

The former linebacker retired from the team back in 2016, but did keep a prominent presence around town as he was working an NFL analyst on NBC Sports Boston, but now is heading back to 1 Patriot Place, this time as a coach. 

Think of a sentence as a journey. When you write but, you’re asking your reader to make a U-turn, or at least turn a corner. It’s whiplash waiting to happen. One thing is true but something about it isn’t true.

But is a disturbance in the force. Don’t make your reader change direction more than once in a sentence. They’ll get dizzy.

In fact, for the most pleasing effect, if you must change direction two sentences in a row, switch from but to however or something. Maybe like this:

The former linebacker retired from the team back in 2016, but did keep a prominent presence around town as he was working an NFL analyst on NBC Sports Boston. Now, however, he is heading back to 1 Patriot Place, this time as a coach.

Fewer buts, fewer U-turns, smoother ride, lower physical therapy bills.

When your face drops, that’s a sad day

The headline from Hamilton, Massachusetts, says:

“Hamilton faces drop in allowed water usage”

I hate to think of Hamilton faces dropping.

The rest of the headline, I don’t understand at all.

Or maybe I’m reading it wrong.

Oh. Yeah. I’m reading it wrong.

This headline is about the town of Hamilton, not the faces of the people of Hamilton.

English is a complicated language.

I’m not sure this is my color, coach

Jordan Dajani writes, on the CBS Sports app:

“…Rodgers went rouge during McCarthy’s time in Green Bay….”

Rouge is French for red. It’s pronounced roozh. It’s the red stuff you put on your face to make your cheeks look better. I don’t think Aaron Rodgers needs to go rouge. His cheeks look fine to me without any special treatment. (My wife loves his eyes, too.)

On the other hand, you can “go rogue.” Rhymes with vogue. Urban Dictionary says this means “To cease to follow orders; to act on one’s own, usually against expectation or instruction. To pursue one’s own interests.”

If Coach McCarthy said, “Aaron, stop wearing that rouge to practice,” and Rodgers kept showing up with red cheeks, that would be going rogue.

English is complicated, and French is even more complicated, so spell things correctement, s’il vous plait.

Yeah, I voted for a bobblehead once

I have an awesome friend who knows and sympathizes with my fixation on U.S. presidential history. He visited the Gerald Ford Museum in Grand Rapids and thoughtfully sent me a Richard Nixon bobblehead doll. BEAUTIFUL addition to my already disturbing collection of presidential figurines (including lots of presidential Pez dispensers).

But I was alarmed to see the claim on the Nixon box:

  • The Royal Bobbles ‘Presidents’ series celebrates the American presidents who have most significantly impacted the history of our great nation. It is largely through their vision, wisdom and determination that our country has achieved its role as the leading free nation in the world.”

I’m sorry, but I just can’t believe that a bunch of bobblehead dolls made our country what it is today.

Or — wait — maybe…

“Their” is a possessive pronoun. Dangerous part of speech. Apparently the presidential bobblehead box designers don’t subscribe to this blog, so they didn’t get the memo about avoiding vague possessive pronouns.

And now, as a result, bobblehead dolls are running the show.

Your tests came back, and I have bad news

  • “…punish doctors who provide abortions with lengthy prison sentences.”

Not to make light of a sensitive subject, but an abortion is serious enough, without the doctor adding a prison sentence.

I think we need a verbiage transplant:

  • “…and impose lengthy prison sentences on doctors who provide abortions.”

The guilty party here, verbiologically speaking, is “with.” Nasty, imprecise little word. Check your first draft, and … well, I leave it up to you to do the right thing.

Who’s on first?

From a Time story about Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh:

  • “…Kavanaugh sided with Alito 91% of the time in his first term.”

Whose first time? Kavanaugh’s? Or Alito’s?

Those rotten little possessive pronouns — his, her, their, its — will get you sued one of these days.

Don’t be afraid to say someone’s name a second time in a sentence — like this: “Kavanaugh sided with Alito 91% of the time in Alito’s first term.” (Actually, this isn’t possible. Kavanaugh wasn’t on the court during Alito’s first term. But what if you didn’t have encyclopedic knowledge of Supreme Court history when you came across this sentence in Time magazine? You would have to rely on the writing for your information! Just imagine.)

(Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I rest my case.)

Who was unnecessary?

“Bjerknes was a Norwegian physicist who was born in 1862,” Hannah Fry writes in The New Yorker.

I would delete “who was” to make the sentence as simple and straightforward as possible. “Who was” doesn’t make anything clearer; these words don’t add any panache, or even any connotation.

As you’re writing, set your alarm to go off every time you use “who” or “that.” It’s often a sign you’ve gummed up your writing unnecessarily.

Also avoid using unnecessarily when you don’t need to.

Be sure to overdo it, OK?

  • One thing that Rams head coach Sean McVay made headlines for this offseason in regards to that game is over-preparing a bit too much.

I always try to over-prepare just enough.

And use exactly the correct number of too many words.

(P.S. “Made” is past tense; “is” is present tense. Gotta line up those two players, coach.)

Two parentheses, overly easy

Thanks to Hannah Fry’s article in The New Yorker about weather forecasting, I humbly suggest that we all smooth out our use of parentheses.

  • “As Blum’s detailed (sometimes overly so) chapters on satellites make clear…”

The break for the parenthetical phrase is choppy, awkward, a bit hard to follow.

What about this: “As Blum’s (sometimes overly) detailed chapters on satellites make clear…”

This keeps all the adverbs and adjectives lined up in a more natural order.

Or maybe you have a better (and possibly overly so) revision in mind?

All welcome, especially victims

  • More than 603 people lost their lives, including 1,641 injured, and 600,000 affected

I feel badly for the dead, the injured, the affected, and the writer.

How many, exactly, is “more than 603”? Is this 604? When expressing numbers, you have two good choices: either give us the exact number, or use a generalizer (more than, less than, nearly, almost) in conjunction with a base number that makes sense (like 600, or 650, or even 625).

If you’re not committing to the exact number because you’re not sure — for example, maybe more people will have died after this statement is released — then specify that in some way: At least 603 people lost their lives — or At this writing, 603 have lost their lives.

Unrelated item: Be careful about “including.” Use “plus” instead, in a case like this. The way it’s currently written, this sentence says the 603+ people who died included 1,641 who were injured, and 600,000 who were affected — a physical impossibility.

Unless, of course, the 603+ people lost their lives in the process of including the injured and affected — which suggests that being inclusive can be dangerous. But then you wouldn’t need that comma. A classic case of “You can’t win for losing.”

I’ll take a small comma, with a little annoyance

The sign says:


“Hi, I’d like a dozen bagels for $7.99, please.”

“Sorry, but that’s Sunday only.”

“Oh, okay. Then may I have some punctuation, please?”

“Sorry, we don’t have any.”

(Same scene, different site: “It was originally released on DVD only in Europe.” Not in theatres? Or not in America?)

Mine support doth overflow

  • Joe Biden’s statement: “They have mine and Jill’s full and complete support….”

Technically, I think he wanted “Jill’s and my.” Or, if he insists on being rude and putting himself first: “my and Jill’s.”

Here’s the test: They have Jill’s support. They have my support. So: They have Jill’s and my support.

(It could also be “Jill’s support and mine,” or “my support and Jill’s,” although this might feel like whoever gets named first was right there from the beginning, and whoever gets named second just came along with their support later — and why get into a scrap with your spouse?)

As for “full and complete” support: I’m not sure how “full” support differs from “complete” support.

I guess you could squint at the definitions and make the case for using both; but I think and feel this presentation and use of wording and usage is a common and typical specimen and example of politician-speak.

I spy superfluous verbiage

From a CNN post on YouTube:

  • Morsy, 67, had been on trial for an espionage case when he suffered a heart attack.

A case isn’t a crime.

You’re put on trial for espionage. The accusation, the charge, the trial — all of this constitutes the case.

Morsy was on trial in an espionage case when he died.

A writer goes on trial for using extra words to try to impress us — or out of simple thoughtlessness. That is the crime.

Sentence pending.

But I loved her on Cavett

From Faye Dunaway’s Wikipedia page:

  • “Bette Davis described Dunaway as the worst person she had ever worked with in an interview with Johnny Carson.”

Not much of a put-down, if you ask me. How many people could she have possibly worked with in interviews with Johnny?

(Don’t get the reference to Cavett? Gosh, I’m old.)

So are they to blame?

  • “Woman dies after paramedics called to Kennedy Compound in Hyannisport”

(Thanks to the insightful artist Stoney, who brought me this — not the woman herself, you understand; he just brought me the headline, but … whatever.)

(The woman died, and then the paramedics were called.)

(Because you might infer from the headline that the woman somehow died as a result of the paramedics being called, see?)

(The paramedics do wonderful work, please understand.)

(Stoney wasn’t suggesting they don’t.)

(He loves paramedics.)

(It’s just that the headline was written in such a way that … oh, never mind.)

No offense to the victim

At age 43, she tragically drowned, for reasons still disputed to this day.

  • The reasons are disputed to this day.
  • The reasons are still disputed.

Since still means to this day, you don’t need to say still disputed to this day.

Save your breath. Live longer.*

*This medical advice does not apply if somebody drowns you.

Not that other. The other other

Give them permission to talk with another adult other than you.

“Another” means “an other,” so when you’ve already specified that you’re talking some “other,” you don’t need to say “other” “another” time.

Give them permission to talk with an adult other than you.


Give them permission to talk with another adult.

By which I mean — no offense, but: Not you.

Steven needs help. So does Steven. And Steven. Steven, too

Support the Stevens!

Actually, you can support The Stevens if “The Stevens” is a single thing, like a museum or an orchestra. “The Clark.” “The Philharmonic.”

But in this case, we’re talking about the Stevens family. You can support the Stevens family, or you can support the Stevenses, but in English, you can’t support the Stevens.

My friends the Evanses have this same problem. As do the Jameses, the Edwardses, the Gosses….

(Wait. If you had a bunch of guys named Steven, you could support all of them. Then you would be supporting the Stevens.)

Somebody, not sure who, is dead in the trunk of a car

If you can’t read the caption under the photo … well, you’ll probably live longer.

Anyone trying to ferret out its meaning will likely expend a significant portion of their life’s energy, and unprofitably.

Police said Saturday that investigators were working to find those responsible for this caption.

(Thank you to my professional colleague V.A.C. for this contribution!)

Is they, or does they?

But not every case gets that kind of attention, other observers point out. A few revisited cases, they say, isn’t yet a sign of lasting progress…. “One or two high-profile cases,” Kaplan says, “does not make a sea change.”

A case is a thing. Cases is how we talk about more than one of those things. So “a few cases” are something. You can’t say “a few cases” is something. Can you? Maybe I’m wrong.

Kaplan (whoever Kaplan is) proceeds to go the same way. “One or two cases does…” If you invent a new category — “one or two cases” — then that category is one single thing, I guess.

But it/they read/reads awkward/awkwardly to I/me.

Noah. No uh. NOAA. I’m so confused.

“And a NOAA report last year estimated that….”

In English, we have to use “an” instead of “a” if the next word starts with a vowel sound.

But if the next word is an abbreviation, it’s tricky.

  • The abbreviation “NOAA” is pronounced en oh ay ay.

The editor in this example (or the algorithm that edits this publication, or the bot that makes these decisions) clearly assumed that readers seeing “NOAA” would say to themselves, in their heads, as they read this piece, “And a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report last year estimated….”

I don’t think so. I didn’t even know what the NOAA was. I thought it was my neighbor calling her kid home for dinner: “Noaaaaaaah!”

I think we should write the way people think as they’re reading — and what you hear in your head, as you read this sentence, is “en oh ay ay.”

Which means we need “an” in front of it, not “a.”

(Now I’m bracing myself for negative comments from employees of the En Oh Ay Ay.)

Follow the Ghirardelli

  • However, total giving did not follow suite.

English is complicated in so many ways.

  • A “suite” (pronounced sweet) is a number of things forming a series or set, or a connected series of rooms to be used together, or a series of musical thingie-dingies, or a set of furniture for a single room, or a bunch of software programs sold as a unit so you pay for stuff you’ll never use.
  • To “follow suit” (pronounced sute) refers to card-playing. (Or at least I think it does. I grew up in a strictly non-card-playing environment.)

But in English, you never follow suite. Not only because suite is always pronounced sweet. Also because follow suite has no actual meaning.

(I take it back. You could let your nose guide you to a chocolate shop. Then, yes, you could say you decided to follow sweet. But you would still spell it differently. And you would probably say sweets. If you simply follow sweets, this post probably doesn’t apply to you.)

What more can be said, madame?

FOB (Friend Of Blog) Peter M. humbly offers this brilliant item, from Oxford-Royale.com, a site of which I am a new fan.

And I am grateful, Peter.

Sorry — did you miss the link? Here it is: WHY IS ENGLISH SO HARD TO LEARN?

Please forward it, recommend it, friend it, whatever you do these days to encourage your friends to read something.


Another, bartender

From the review of a theatrical production:

  • One major character death down, a shocking amount left to go.

No. Sorry. Deaths are things, and things have numbers, not amounts.

Grammar.com can tell you all about this:

  • Number is used with nouns that can be individually counted, like stars. 
  • Amount is used for nouns that cannot be individually counted, like starlight.”

The most important use of this rule is, of course, in a bar.

We will have a number of martinis, because they can be individually counted.

We’ll have a certain amount of gin, because it cannot be individually counted.

Although it is very much like starlight.

If you don’t lose count.

Son, you’ve shamed the family

Heck, if they really felt like they had to take a running back, they could’ve went with Christian McCaffrey.

By Sean Wagner-McGough, June 13, 2019 at 9:01 am ET


I have no words.

I have a feeling it won’t help to send my beloved sportswriter Sean Wagner-McGough to the LearningEnglish site for the basics of “modal verbs” in English.

Although it’s very tempting, because the site is actually sort of romantic, in places.

Modal verbs, as it describes them, “are useful for expressing your present feelings about a past decision (or other action).”

(I’m thinking about a few of my own past decisions, or other actions….)

Could have, would have, and should have are sometimes called ‘modals of lost opportunities,’” the site goes on to say.

Sean, you had an opportunity to say they could’ve gone with McCaffrey, but no. You had to say could’ve went.

S. M. H.

I confess, I’m feeling, at this moment, like the father of a teenager.

Welcome back to the Dept. of Redundancy Dept. again

Do you call it a “hot water heater”?

Or is this just a Midwest thing, like where I grew up?

We also said we’d be there “a tad bit” late.

A water heater doesn’t heat hot water. It takes normal water and makes it hot.

You’re only a tad late. Or a bit late. If you’re a tad bit late, you’re like twice as late. Which gets to be pretty tardy, actually. And potentially annoying.

Why do we add extra words? We’re just wasting breath. Doesn’t this mean you die a few breaths early?


(P.S. You might enjoy this Time magazine article on Internetspeak. I haven’t read the book in question, but this review is good.)

All-about wrongly-hyphenated Tom-Brady

It’s only a hyphen. But just because it’s tiny doesn’t mean you should abuse it.

The CBS Sports writing team? Those guys must hate the lowly hyphen:

  • The league’s coaches were on-hand to get their first glimpse of XFL football.

For the hyphen, this is servitude on the order of Paul Newman’s torture in Cool Hand Luke. The only time you connect on to hand with a hyphen is in the rare case of the two words together forming an adjective — as in He’s ignoring his on-hand resources in favor of far-flung so-called specialists.

  • They’re bringing aboard what is viewed to be one of the top-two players at the position in this year’s class.

We’re talking about two guys, the top two players at the position. If you talk about top-two players, with the hyphen, you’ve created a category of players: all the top-two players. Not much of a category, when you think about it.

(P.S. Don’t refer to a human being as a what. They’re bringing aboard someone who is viewed to be….)

  • Other highly-regarded prospects won’t be taken by a team until Friday night’s second round at the earliest.

Many folks are desperate to hyphenate an adverb-adjective combination like this. But the adverb doesn’t need help to be understood. This is one of the adverb’s jobs: to modify the adjective. Simplest rule to follow (thanks to GrammarBook.com): Adverbs ending in ly almost never need a hyphen.

  • Brady will enter next season at 42-years-old and is well on his way to reaching his self-made mile marker of playing until he’s 45.

If you’re talking about a 42-year-old, you need the hyphens to make the whole 3-word combination into a single noun. Or if you’re talking about a 42-year-old quarterback, you need the hyphens to make the whole 3-word combination into a single adjective. But if you’re just saying he’s 42 years old, well, then, this is just the usual way of using these words, no hyphens required.

(To recap, especially for the benefit of New England fans: Tom Brady is the highly regarded top-two 42-year-old on hand — so we’re keeping him.)

(To recap for New England’s numerous anti-fans: This is a time-sucking, utterly out-of-line jerk-faced post.)

So many dollars, so few words

“Now, we’re getting a more succinct look at the deal that will solidify Edelman with the Patriots possibly for his entire NFL career.”

So the sportswriter claims.

But it’s a lie.

What we’re getting is a less succinct look, because what we got originally was a succinct look. A brief, to-the-point look.

What we’re getting now is not more succinct, but more distinct. A more satisfying look, a more complete look. It’s clearer, it’s multi-faceted, it’s detailed. It’s expansive. It’s vast. It’s over-arching, all-encompassing, beyond imagining.

Words matter. Use the right words. Otherwise, you run the risk of being misunderstood … looking like a fool … your reputation besmirched because you’ve wound up on some blog.

Speaking of besmirched reputations … Go, Pats!


(P.S. In my other life, I’m trying to help hearing-impaired kids in the former USSR. Please check out my project at NewThing.net. Thanks!)


I am a fan of the comma. It’s under-appreciated and under-utilized.

Except when it’s over-valued and worked to death.

3 ways NOT to use the beloved comma:

1. Agatha Christie’s, The Stranger (Belmont, MA)

The author’s work, and the name of the work — no need to keep them from each other. It’s Agatha Christie’s The Stranger, pure and simple.

2. Parsons didn’t identify any problems but suggested the town, “regulate time, place, and manner….”

Dick said, “Look!” It’s customary to use a comma to separate a direct quotation from the “he said” type of phrase. You DON’T need a comma before every darn quotation mark. In fact, even when it’s a direct quotation, you don’t need a comma if the quotation works as part of the overall sentence, and you’re not setting up a formal “he said” type of presentation. For example: Dick says that “this exquisite woman Jane is the epitome of womanhood,” and I couldn’t agree more.

3. He spent $40,000 to restore the classic car which, he had for a dozen years….

You sometimes need a comma before which, but almost never after. The technical rule is complicated. Just trust me on this one.

Save your commas. Keep them in a little box on your desktop, and only bring them out when you must. Maybe Christmas, and Agatha Christie’s birthday.

Kraft stock rises miraculously

“At the time, prosperity ministry and the promise of riches from heaven was popular.”

Ministry is one noun, promise is another noun, so we have a pretty clear plural going here.

A plural requires were rather than was.

Of course, if a noun combination is regarded as all one thing — mac and cheese, for example — then you can treat it as singular and use was. You would never say the mac and cheese were yummy. The mac and cheese was yummy.

But if you regard “prosperity ministry and the promise of riches from heaven” as all one thing, well … you’re wrong. On multiple levels.

It’s the little things


Yeah, probably.

But your writing will be cleaner, stronger, more warmly received if you align your numbers.

  • He finished with 104 tackles, four sacks, a forced fumble, interception, and four passes defended.

If your series includes numbers of items, you need a number to appear with each item.

  • He finished with 104 tackles, four sacks, a forced fumble, an interception, and four passes defended.

There now. Don’t you feel better?

I’m gonna tell on you

“Kosnoff would like to push the Boy Scouts to list the names of the men his clients have accused in a public database.”

Why his clients are doing their accusing in a public database, instead of on Facebook, I’ll never know.

Who reads public databases these days?

If you happen to be one of those people, and you come across a list of men accused by Kosnoff clients, you’ll know Kosnoff got his way.

(The real problem here — other than the Boy Scouts’ problem — is that there are nine words between the verb, “list,” and the phrase modifying it, “in a public database.” When you finally get to the database, you look back at the most recent verb, and it’s “have accused.” So who could castigate you for not knowing which sinner to blame, and when, and where? Start with the writer. And the editor.)

The myth of perfect

  • The thing about Giddens that had stood out more conspicuously, she said, was that she had been “way beyond her years developmentally….”

The past is past. You don’t need to make it perfect.

But this writer felt the need.

The thing about Giddens that stood out was that she was beyond her years. Totally clear.

The past perfect tense — “had stood,” “had been” — often just gums up the writing unnecessarily. I think it’s sometimes a crutch employed by writers trying to sound a bit more sophisticated. (And once you start using it, it feels like you’ve got to keep on using it for the rest of the paragraph. It’s a curse.)

Every time you write has, or had, or having — any of those evil permutations of the evil have — go back and see if you can do without them.

The past tense was good enough when you were a little tyke, and it’s probably good enough today.

  • “On a Tuesday in kindergarten, I had pooped my pants. Now, I cried to go home.”
  • “On a Tuesday in kindergarten, I pooped my pants. Now, I cried to go home.”

See? The storytelling isn’t really all that much more sophisticated in the past perfect.

Mother, I’d rather program it myself

“Get this brand-new research on commonly used apps by children and teens.”

These apps, developed by children and teens … are they really any good?

Oh, wait. I was confused. You mean brand-new research on apps commonly used by children and teens!

Keeping the modifying phrase adjacent to the verb it modifies is a very grown-up thing to do.

Where, oh where did my splenectomy go?

“It required invasive, painful surgeries that took hours and weeks to recover.”

Aw, please. Don’t go back and dredge up an old surgery. Let it go.

Surgeries take a long time to recover from.

Better to write “It required invasive, painful surgeries that took hours and weeks to recover from” — or, to be entirely proper: “It required invasive, painful surgeries from which it took hours and weeks to recover.”

If you’re going to lose a surgery, try to lose it beforehand. (Disclaimer: This is not official medical advice.)

That’s hilarious — if a bit wordy

“He makes me laugh quite a bit, which is one of the reasons why I like working with him.”

You can tell me the reason — or you can tell me why.

But you never need to tell me the reason why.

Eliminating one word or the other may, over the course of your lifetime, save you a cumulative 14 or 15 seconds. Perhaps you could spend it laughing.

Doctor, my adverb is shrinking

“I think it will be alright.”

Maybe not. But do you want to be correct — or popular?

As dictionary.com points out: “The form alright is a one-word spelling of the phrase all rightAlright is commonly used in written dialogue and informal writing, but all right is the only acceptable form in edited writing. Basically, it is not all right to use alright in standard English.”

(The dictionary.com entry continues: “The popular song ‘The Kids Are Alright’ by The Who is evidence of popular acceptance of the informal alright. However, the creators of the 2010 film The Kids Are All Right couldn’t bring themselves to use the informal variant even if the title was a clear nod to The Who.”)

How did we get from all right to alright? Eh, our language has been contracting for centuries. All ready morphed into already. All together shrank to altogether.

Personally, I think it’s alwrong. But after another long, hard day of battling the deterioration of the English language, I’m alwrung out.

Perfect? You’ve been had

Just one more rant about have, has, and had.

Here’s another perfect example of a thicket of hads making mush of a paragraph:

  • The GOP, founded in 1854 as the party of reform, had been the party of abolition and the party of women’s rights. By 1896, it had become the party of big business. It had remained the party most supportive of women’s rights. The Equal Rights Amendment had been on the GOP platform since 1940. In 1968, in the first wave of the backlash against the women’s movement, the ERA had been left off the party’s platform.

The GOP had been the party of abolition, OK. Then, we could go to simple past tense: By 1896, it was the party of big business. It remained supportive. The ERA was on the platform from 1940. Then in ’68 it was taken off. All smooth, straightforward storytelling.

Ironically, had takes the past tense and turns it into something called the past perfect. It’s not perfect. It’s much of a muchness. Use it when you absolutely must. Then stop.

Haven’t had enough of have

I’m not done ranting about have, had, and has.

Look at this passage from Jill Lepore’s brilliant history of the U.S.

“In December, he’d answered reporters.” So at this moment, we know she’s taking us back in time. From this point on, she can use the ordinary past tense. But she waffles, from sentence to sentence. “He said” (past tense). “Muhammad had ordered” (there it is again). “He delivered” (past tense). “That vantage had brought him” (there it is again).

In each of these instances, had is unnecessary. And her editors let her get away with it. It’s almost as if we think more hads make us more sophisticated or something.

They don’t. They make our writing gummy.

To have, or have not? I vote for have not.

Heed the warnings about he’d

If you grew up speaking English, you have no idea how complicated it is for people who didn’t.

I have it. I had it. I did have it. I was having it. I have had it. I had had it, but then I got over it. On and on it goes.

But it isn’t just complicated for non-English speakers. We complicate our own writing by wading into this swamp.

Avoid the swamp. Avoid, if at all possible, anything that involves the verb have.

One sad example: see above. The author is telling a story, then wants to jump back in time. So she starts a new paragraph by saying, “He’d wanted to be a writer.” From this moment, we know that we’ve gone back in time — so from this moment, the author can switch to simple past tense: He wrote his first book … He reckoned with race as a boy … He made himself a stand-in, etc.

By sticking with he’d, time and time again, the author makes the writing sticky, forcing the reader to do more brainwork than necessary.

Search your first draft for the devil have and all its demon forms: had, has, ’s, ’d. If you can’t kill them all, trying letting the first one live and killing all the rest.

On beyond barefoot

“Eller was looking for food when they saw her, and was barefoot with no socks, he said.”

I guess it’s possible to be barefoot with socks, if you’re carrying the socks.

Anyway, it all turned out fine. They found her. Got her some food. And, I assume, some socks. Whether or not she put them on, I don’t know.

If you have to ask how much it costs

  • “The Brady’s are not starved for cash by any means.”
  • “I cannot take credit for it’s origin.”

I think I’ve finally found where all those missing apostrophes have gone. They’re being forced into servitude where they don’t belong.

  • To make the plural of a proper noun, just add s, no apostrophe needed: The Bradys. (If you write Brady’s, you mean Brady is — or you’re referring to something he possesses … say, Brady’s millions.)
  • To make a possessive of the pronoun it, just add s, no apostrophe needed: its origin. (If you write it’s, you mean it is or it has.)

Think of the apostrophe as a very expensive little piece of jewelry. You can’t afford it. The Bradys can afford it, but you can’t.

A phrase that is superfluous

“It’s her photo ‘Migrant Mother, Nipoma, California, 1936’ that is her most famous.”

I humbly offer this tip for improving your writing: Get some sort of that trap — and kill your thats.

Look through your first draft for the word that, and if you find it, I lay 10-to-1 odds you can do without it.

Furthermore, if you find the phrase that is, you’ve almost certainly got a case of that fat.

Much simpler to say: “Her photo ‘Migrant Mother, Nipoma, California, 1936’ is her most famous.”

If every writer in history had eschewed that is from the beginning, the world would have way more ink left today.

Conform to that funky music, white boy

“We will want something that jives with the sponsor’s understanding.”

Groovy idea … but I think you mean jibes.

  • To jive is to engage in a lively style of dance performed to swing music or rock and roll.
  • To jibe is to conform or agree.

Frankly, I like the idea of something that dances, with a generous sponsor standing by, and totally getting it. I think it will be fun for the sponsor, and fun for whatever’s doing the dancing. Don’t you?

This job will take forever

“He’s worked with us for ions, so I’m trusting he can do it!”

Interesting way to pay a guy. He’s working for mere atoms! As long as they have a net electric charge due to the loss or gain of one or more electrons, he’ll apparently take them instead of cash. Must be an alien. Alert NASA.

Oh, wait! You meant EONS! Indefinite, very long periods of time, often used in exaggerated form for humorous or rhetorical effect.

Now I get it.

Cancel NASA.

Kiss I, Kate

I just saw Kiss Me Kate, the old Cole Porter musical, and I was gratified to see Bianca grappling with our complicated English language.

“There is nothing between him and I,” she says — and then immediately senses it’s wrong. “I mean he and me,” she adds.

Which is also wrong.

How to choose between I and me?

My mommy taught me to subdivide the pair and try each option separately:

  • “There is nothing between him.”
  • “There is nothing between me.”

You wouldn’t say “There is nothing between I.” And you wouldn’t say “There is nothing between he.”

Each of the pronouns has to be correct by itself in order to be correct in combination. So it’s “him and me.”

(By the way, I’m pretty sure Bianca was lying.)

Coffee, tea, or a swift uppercut?

The erudite artist-photographer Stoney Stone came across a 1934 United Air Lines ad and sent it as a little gift for us today:

“Ten passengers occupy comfortable reclining chairs in the cabin which is in charge of a stewardess.” 

Maybe back in 1934, the term charge had different nuances. Or maybe it was a typo?

Today, in charge of means being the boss of, while in the charge of means being bossed by.

I’ve known passengers who acted as if they were in charge of a stewardess, but it has rarely ended well. You realize flight attendants get martial arts training these days, right?

This tiramisu is too ripe

“Lose yourself in the canals of Venice and appreciate all the islands and places that are perhaps less famous to San Marco at the Rialto bridge.”

Comparisons are tricky, especially if English isn’t your first language (I think this guy is Italian).

  • Less than, more than — or compared to.
  • But never less to or more to.
  • And certainly never compared than.

Some of these phrases, if you type them into Google Translate, Siri starts speaking Italian involuntarily.

Life in Hyphen Land

“The tunnels branched out some 200 feet and two-stories beneath the basement of the house.”

There is a terrible shortage of hyphens in the world, so please don’t use one unnecessarily.

Adjectives are flimsy; nouns are stout. A two-story house needs a hyphen, to hold the pieces of the adjective together. Two stories don’t need a hyphen, because stories is a big strong noun.

If you find a spare hyphen lying around, by all means, save it for your next two-word adjective.

Home, home on the ranging

“He has helped them through some difficult situations ranging from Aaron Hernandez, the Deflategate saga and four Super Bowls.”

If you range from somewhere — at least in English — you have to range to somewhere.

So this list of difficult situations needs to go from Hernandez and Deflategate to the Super Bowl.

I can’t imagine what group this quotation refers to, can you?

(Only 38 days till the NFL season!)

Daily Dunkin’

I have a problem every day.

I have an everyday problem.

It’s a problem involving people who don’t distinguish between everyday and every day.

Everyday is an adjective, meaning it describes a noun,” observes the inimitable copy editor Sarah C. Jones. “As in, My everyday routine includes eating doughnuts.” 

She continues: “Every day is not the same thing, grammatically speaking. As in, I am getting fatter every day thanks to my everyday doughnut-eating routine.”

Thank you for this helpful observation, Sarah. (Oh, by the way, you have a little sugar on your chin.)

Now? When? Then? No, now

Now. Here and now. The present tense. That’s where you’re living at this moment.

In the C. Wright Mills comment discussed here (from the brilliant These Truths by the brilliant Jill Lepore), “When Americans talk about ‘public opinion'” is in the present tense.

But then we switch, mysteriously, to the past tense: “they meant.”

What happened? The explanatory little phrase “C. Wright Mills argued” seems to have thrown the editor off — jerked him or her from the present-tense track to the past-tense track.

Two choices here:

  • When American talk, they meanOR:
  • When Americans talked, they meant

But you can’t have it both ways. Except in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. (Which is brilliant, but definitely not a work by the brilliant Jill Lepore.)

It’s delightful, it’s delicious, it’s de-lobster

If you want to get into Anything Goes as an actor, singer, or dancer, read the script carefully before you audition.

If they want to douse you in lobsters and champagne at the beginning of Act II, just go with it.

Cole Porter was perverse this way, I guess.

I’m sure it’ll be worth it when the show’s a hit.

How old was John Bolton in ’61?

I love commas, but commas don’t solve every problem.

Is this a photo of Bolton at a 1961 event? You tell me. And tell me why, or why not.

To the writer of this caption, it was obvious, I think, that the invasion happened in 1961. But because of The New Yorker‘s fixation on using commas in every possible position, they have separated “the Bay of Pigs” from “in 1961.” If they had quietly omitted the comma, we would have clearly understood the meaning of “the Bay of Pigs in 1961.” The Bay of Pigs, after all, happened in 1961. This photo didn’t happen in 1961. But the comma might lead us to believe this is a 1961 photo. (The “Make Cuba Great Again” hat is a clue. But you shouldn’t need to search for clues in the photo in order to understand the caption.)

I revere The New Yorker. I read it religiously. I have subscribed for decades. But the comma fixation thing has to go. It’s not healthy. Too many commas will clog your editorial digestive tract.

How do you say “Hi!” in Hungarian?


I can’t tell who’s on the outs:


Or the Hungarian?

And the photo features Putin. What’s up with this?

I’m so confused.

Start a sentence with a prepositional phrase, and it will modify the first noun that appears after the comma. No power shift in Washington can change this. Learn to live with it. Jefferson did it. Both Roosevelts did it. Even Nixon did it. You can do it too.

Newborns: menthol only

“A stranger offered her baby clothes and a cigarette.”

Did the stranger offer baby clothes to a mommy?

Or did the stranger offer clothes for Mommy’s baby?

English is such a complicated language. “Offered her” has two different meanings, “baby clothes” can be interpreted two different ways, and we haven’t even gotten to the cigarette.

This could have been a scene out of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

Attack of the Mueller People!

I’m usually against using the word “that” — it’s often nothing more than a bit of shredded cardboard, completely worthless and utterly expendable.

Here, I think it’s necessary — because Mueller has people.

So by the end of the first line, I might think this is about Flynn saying something to the Mueller people.

In fact, I can still labor under this misimpression well into the second line: It seems Flynn said something to the Mueller people who are connected to the Trump administration or Congress.

Uh, no. When I finally get to the third line, and the verb “attempted,” my train goes off the tracks.

A simple “that” would have spared me the wreck: “Michael Flynn told Mueller that people connected to Trump admin or Congress attempted to influence him.”

It could have been worse, of course: “Flynn people told Mueller people connected to Trump people or Congresspeople…”

Who’s in charge here?

The regulator and the turbulence are not the same thing.

The culprit is the diabolical little “As.” It makes the sentence into an equation, with the comma serving as something like an “equals” sign.

The noun before the comma must equal the noun that comes immediately after the comma.

This sentence says that the turbulence was the regulator. Which gives short shrift to the actual regulator.

Once again, Hamilton fails to get his due. Except for the hit Broadway musical, of course. That was pretty cool.

Vaccinate yourself

“One of the only.” It’s a plague on modern English.

What we mean to say is “one of the few.”

The “only” people who play on this record are the people who play on this record. There’s no point in using the word “only” to describe these people. They’re already the only ones.

But if we want to make the point that there are just a few folks playing on the record, then it makes sense to describe Turrisi as “one of the few.”

(How did this “one of the only” plague get started? It was probably the same guy who coined the term “most unique.” Gah!)

Time magazine gets burned

Something is similar to something else. It’s not similar as something else.

It’s also smoother to keep “similar” and “to” together in your sentence — like this:

“It relies on criteria similar to the FDA’s.”

Oh yeah. It’s FDA’s, not FDA, because we’re comparing this criteria to their criteria — we’re not comparing this criteria to the FDA itself.

Alice Park is a fine writer. I think she was just in a hurry to get to the beach that day.

Make mine a double

  • In his final years, Alexander Hamilton “spent as much time as possible drinking in the tranquility” of his northern Manhattan estate.

Yes, Hamilton was something of a drinker. But I think this is supposed to be about tranquility, not Tanqueray.

We English speakers love to attach a preposition to a verb to make sort of a new verb. So there’s drinking something, and then there’s drinking something in.

When I’m talking to you about someone drinking in the tranquility, you can hear my meaning in my tone of voice: I say “drinking in” with a certain emphasis on “in” which tells you I’m not talking about drinking.

But when I’m writing, you can’t hear my tone of voice. So I have to be careful about those two-word verbs.

  • Hamilton loved the tranquility of his estate, and spent as much time as possible drinking it in. With or without a gin and tonic.

Separating the two-word verb with an object (in this case, it) helps to keep things straight. And sober.

An old mouse and a young mouse walk into a lab…

They’re not mice studies, they’re mouse studies, and I’ll show you why.

If they were studies conducted with dogs, you wouldn’t call them dogs studies. You would call them dog studies. We conduct a fruit fly study, not a fruit flies study.

In English, we use the singular form of the animal as the adjective when we’re talking about the study or studies we’re subjecting them to. Likewise, we have a mouse problem, not a mice problem.

(By the way, if you have a mouse problem, I’m sorry about the scientists trying to make them live longer. What could these Einsteins be thinking?)

Brother, can you spare a fact?

“This gives weight to the fact that helping my relatives helps preserve my genes.”

Helping your relatives may or may not help preserve your genes. If you read this whole New Yorker piece, you see that the writer isn’t expressing this concept as fact. It’s a theory, perhaps, but not something we know for sure.

We often use fact when what we really mean is notion or idea. (And that’s a fact.)

As to the theory itself, my interest in preserving my genes is tempered by the question of exactly how much money my relative is asking for.

Upon, among, whatever, let’s grill

Thank you, friend Carol G., for this find from the North Shore of Massachusetts.

“Among” is a preposition which can mean in, into, or through the midst of; in association or connection with; surrounded by; with a share for each of; in the number, class, or group of; of or out of; by all or with the whole of; by most or with many of; or by the joint or reciprocal action of.

None of which work with connecting grilling season to us.

Grilling season is definitely upon us, friends. Not among. Upon.

Go thou and grill heartily. (And take several of these folks’ delicious sausages on the way. I’m sure they don’t really intend you to limit yourself to just one.)

Does this wig make me look fat?

From Ron Chernow’s brilliant biography Alexander Hamilton (which inspired the hit Broadway musical):

“Washington, in a black velvet suit, danced and cut a dashing figure with the ladies, while Steuben flashed with medals, and French officers glistened with gold braid and lace. In this anomalous setting, the women courted these revolutionaries in powdered hair and high heels.”

Oh, those FABULOUS revolutionaries!

(I thought the French officers were most appealing in the pumps, didn’t you, darling? Merci beaucoup!)

Less Nazis?

My normally articulate 17-year-old is an award-winning soon-to-be senior in high school, but last evening before dinner she said something wrong.

I corrected her — gently, diplomatically, lovingly, of course — but then her mother muttered, “Grammar Nazi.”

Now I’m going to tell you what my daughter said, and how I corrected her, and YOU tell ME if I’m a GRAMMAR NAZI!

She: “You’re eating less calories.”

Me: “Actually, I’m eating fewer calories.”

  • Less refers to a substance. Less water. Less air. Less obfuscation.
  • Fewer refers to a number of individual items. Fewer calories. Fewer children. Fewer problems.

Am I a Nazi? I think not. But if you beg to differ, please … feel free to comment.

A lesson in verbs for my loyal subjects

  • “She would waive to them as she passed each day.”

The tragedy here is that usually people fail by using the complicated, obscure word but spelling it as if it were the uncomplicated, obvious word which sounds the same.

But no.

Here’s someone who apparently grasps, longingly, for sophistication (I’m theorizing here), so they use the fanciest available spelling for the ordinary verb.

  • For the record: waive means to refrain from claiming or insisting on, to give up. I waive my right to humiliate you about your writing.
  • To wave is to do what the Queen does. Although with exceedingly little wrist action.

Adverb: R.I.P.

My dear mother was a grammar Nazi, while I was growing up.

It’s possible that she still is, at the age of 86, but I’m not aware of it, because after all these decades, I take great care to use proper grammar in her presence.

So when I read something like this, I cringe:

“Snow is melting on the mountain quicker and exposing an increasing number of dead bodies.”

Yes, perhaps if I were normal, I would cringe at the idea of the dead bodies. But to tell you the truth, what I cringe at is the idea of the dead adverb.

My mother’s mantra was/is (I’ll express it phonetically for you first, then explain it):

“LEE! It’s an adverb! It tells how!

If I, in my youth, had said, “Snow is melting quicker,” she would respond with the mantra — requiring me to add ly (“LEE!”) to the adjective I had misused.

Snow is melting more quickly, not quicker … because melt a verb, and a word that modifies a verb must be an adverb.

And yes, Mother, an adverb almost always ends in LY.

Love you.

What do Donald Trump, Paul Simon, and Chris Cillizza have in common? Not rational

“In fact, Trump appears to already be laying the rational for an election challenge — or at least the lack of a concession — if he loses next November.”

I’ll be honest. I want CNN to catch an error like this, and fix it, and quickly.

Rational is an adjective. It’s pronounced RASH-uh-null. It involves reason or sound judgment. You can talk about a rational way of approaching a problem. (Like Paul Simon retiring from touring, for example, to spend more time with his actual family, instead of with us.)

Rationale, on the other hand, is a noun. It’s from the French, so it’s pronounced rash-un-AL, rhymes with You can call me Al. It’s sort of a statement of principles; it’s a reasoning device. You can use a rationale to convince Paul Simon to start touring again.

(I am clearly not above using this blog to pursue my personal objectives. It’s emotional, I know — not entirely rational. But give me a compelling rationale to convince me otherwise.)


P.S. Personal message to Chris Cillizza, CNN Editor-at-large: Chris … Shweethawt … This one first appeared on May 6, 2019. It was still there on Memorial Day weekend. I know there’s very little incentive for a major news organization to go back and fix errors in their archives, but this one embarrasses me.

Not necessarily

“Now, the need to have Ellington on the roster seemingly grew less necessary.”

A need is something that’s necessary. Being necessary is part of the definition of a need.

Save your breath. Use fewer words. Live longer.

  • “Now, the need to have Ellington on the roster seemingly decreased.”
  • OR: “Now, having Ellington on the roster seemingly grew less necessary.”

I do hope Ellington finds work with another team. The NFL is harsh, baby. It’s as bad as a blog that constantly critiques sportswriters.

This is really, really important; I really, really mean it

“This bi-monthly resource has become increasingly more important.”

No. It has become “increasingly important,” or it has become “more important,” but nothing in the entire English language is important enough to become increasingly more important. (Even this blog, life-changing though it may be for you, will never become “increasingly more” important.)

“Increasingly more” is right up there with “equally as.”

“You are equally as egocentric as Doug.”

Nobody is so egocentric as to be both “equally egocentric” to and “as egocentric” as Doug. There is only so much obnoxiousness available in the world.

Poor Lawrence

“Lawrence, as one of our long-time sponsors, I was hoping I could bring you a humble request.”

Who’s the sponsor? Lawrence? Or the writer? If Lawrence is actually a long-time sponsor, he’s not getting proper credit for his generosity.

I think this sentence was intended to say:

  • “Lawrence, because you are one of our long-time sponsors, I was hoping I could bring you a humble request.”


  • “Lawrence, as one of our long-time sponsors, you might be open to this humble request.”

The culprit here is the damnable little word as. Once you unleash it as a preposition — meaning, more or less, “in the role of” — as starts connecting things, whether you want them connected or not.

In this case, because as has been deployed, one of our long-time sponsors is equated to whatever comes immediately after the comma — in this case, I.

This kind of “misconnect” is common, but you can avoid such a potentially embarrassing error — by going on HIGH ALERT the moment you write as. If you can substitute “In the role of” for “as” and the sentence still says what you want it to say, you’re OK. If it doesn’t say what you intended, it’s time to kiss your as good-bye.

Let us be brief, and concise, and keep it short

Cut to the chase.

The best writing goes straight there, to the meaning.

Skip extra words if you can.

“It could have lengthened out the legal fight.”

Perhaps the writer was being paid by the word. In which case, he or she would get one extra word’s worth of pay for “out.”

But it would have been perfectly fine for the writer to write:

“It could have lengthened the legal fight.”

I’ll just stop here. I won’t CONTINUE ON.

E Pluribwe Unum

This is something that impacts we as sons and daughters who have never done any of that bad stuff.

I am one of those sons, I assure you. I’ve never done any of that bad stuff.

I have been an object, however, in many, many sentences. Yet whenever I’ve been an object in a sentence, I’ve never been part of a we.

Because when you’re an object in a sentence, you’re us.

We (subject) are us (object)!

This is something that impacts us as sons and daughters, because when you’re the object in the sentence, you get to be US, not WE!

  • (If you wonder whether to use “we” or “us,” take a look at whether you need a subject or an object. If you don’t understand the difference between a subject and an object, I suggest you consult the World Wide Interwebs, where I learned this simple trick: “The subject is the person or thing doing something, and the object is having something done to it.”) We is always doing something to us. Us is never doing something to we.

Confuse, confused, confusing

“You can say, ‘a circle is rectangular in shape,’ and all you’ve done is confused us!”

Serious question:

  • Should it be all you’ve done is confused us?
  • Or should it be all you’ve done is confuse us?

I don’t know what rule governs this situation. But my upbringing (thank you to my mother, Leona Anne, of Ashland, Ohio) suggests a rule something like this:

After a phrase like all you’ve done is — you switch to the present tense: confuse us!

But why? I don’t know. Maybe the phrase all you’ve done is actually stands in, as a substitute, for an implied longer phrase: all you’ve done is, you’ve… In which case, you need a past-tense verb: you’ve confused us!

Somebody help me out here. Use the comment box and enlighten all of us, please.

For $15, I’ll throw in her cousin

“It’s the sacrifice I’m willing to pay.”

Well, buddy, you’re in luck — because you don’t pay a sacrifice.

You can pay a price, or you can make a sacrifice, but you can’t pay a sacrifice.

Actually, come to think of it, if you’re about to toss a virgin into a volcano, and you give her $10 for her trouble, I guess you’re actually paying a sacrifice. But that’s totally different.

How this effects you

“This policy was already in affect when my account was smaller.”

Not true, actually. I don’t mean to be rude, but the fact is, no policy was ever “in affect” because “in affect” is not real English.

English is largely about NOUNS and VERBS. Let’s take a moment to look at…


To affect something is to influence it. The weather affects your route.

To effect something is to cause something to come into being. The weather effects a change in your route.


An effect is a result or an impact. The effect of the bad weather is my bad attitude.

  • (Affect — pronounced AFF-ekt, by the way — is hardly ever used as a noun, but it typically refers to an observed emotion. I could see by his affect that he hated the weather. In everyday writing, affect will almost never be used as a noun; it’s often a psychiatric term.)

So the enduring question is, if I need a verb, which verb do I use?

It will almost always be affect, because this is how we speak in everyday English. This affects that.

But once in a while, we need to talk about effecting a change (because you bring about a change) or effecting a settlement (if you’re not just influencing the settlement; you’re actually bringing it about) or effecting a repair (if you’re not just advising your friend how to fix the sink, you’re doing the work yourself).

(This has been a long and painful blog post, I know. The effect on you may be observed for hours in your affect. Forgive me. English is a complicated language.)