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Verbal Energy

Grammar advice – on sale cheap after holidays!

To deal with a tricky issue you run across repeatedly, find a good simple example of it handled correctly, fix it in your mind, and then use it as a model for dealing with trickier instances of the same issue.

By Ruth Walker / January 9, 2014



Lawyers, one hears, are frequently asked for legal advice at dinner parties. And presumably auto mechanics out celebrating over the holidays were occasionally entertained by fellow guests who gave impressions of the funny noises their vehicles are making, à la "Car Talk," and then asked for a diagnosis.

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And so it is with editors. The holiday period exposed us wordsmiths to all sorts of queries about usage, plus the occasional ventilation of a pet peeve or two.

So let me offer a little post-holiday bonus, a sort of principle for keeping your grammatical wits about you without getting dragged into complex rules or terminology.

Here it is: If there's a grammar issue that you continually have trouble with, find a sample sentence that both demonstrates correct usage and also sounds right. Etch that sentence in your thought. Then it can serve as a model for resolving trickier instances of that same issue.

For example: "Do you want me to go with you?" There's nothing hard about that. A small child – being asked by a parent, for instance, whether she's OK finding the powder room at Grandma's on her own, or wants company – will understand that sentence.

Yet it illustrates beautifully a rule of grammar: "A personal pronoun is in the objective case when it is a subject of the infinitive."

There's no need to memorize the rule. If you have "Do you want me to go with you?" in mind, you will not say things like "Do you want for Jim and I to pick you up at the airport?"

Now, I want to keep a sense of proportion here: There are worse offenses known to humanity. But constructions like "for Jim and I to pick you up" drive many of us up the wall.

Another example: Have you ever cringed at hearing someone say, "I feel really badly about what happened"?

The word needed there is "bad." "Feel" is the verb, and verbs are often followed by adverbs ("Someone was talking loudly beneath his window"). But some verbs, known as linking or link verbs, take adjectives instead. That's what's going on here. What's needed is the adjective, bad.

We hear "I feel badly" often enough, though, that it doesn't quite set off alarm bells. So let's look for another model sentence: "I feel really sad about what happened." The adverb sadly does exist, but no one would say, "I feel really sadly...."

So this "sad" example is a good model to keep you from "feeling badly."

A third example is in "help" constructions: "I couldn't help but laugh." Not every authority feels equally energized on this one, but quite a number I've encountered say this usage just isn't "on." One of them was an English teacher I had who offered "I could but laugh" as an alternative. But people who talk like that get beaten up on the playground.

My model for this one is, "I couldn't help laughing," which is correct and also sounds right.

As a postscript, I'd note that it doesn't, er, help that this is a sort of double-negative construction in which "help" essentially means "keep from" – go figure, as they say. It's what they call an "idiomatic expression." Idiomatic is rooted in a Greek word meaning "one's own." Idiosyncrasy is a fancy Greek word that means essentially a personal quirk.

So when we say something is "idiomatic," that's a grammarian's way of saying, "That's just the way it is."

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