Thursday, September 17, 2015


Two indefinite pronouns that cause definite problems

     Most of us routinely ignore the object pronoun “whom” and use the subject pronoun “who” for both object and subject uses in our speech. This pervades all educational levels and is regarded as perfectly acceptable colloquial English. In your written work intended for publication, the way your characters speak determines how closely the prescribed who/whom uses are observed in dialogue and in first-person narrative that reflects the speech habits of the narrating character. But virtually all publishers will expect you to know the proper uses of these two pronouns and to apply those uses when appropriate, and you’d better believe it. So get over any lurking notions that using “whom” is archaic and silly and that your publisher won’t care if you don’t do it. Writers have been debating the need for the use of “whom” for an awful long time now, but it has managed to endure through the centuries as an element of standard grammar and is not going anywhere anytime soon; you can set your mind to that.

     Who is a subject pronoun. It executes a verb; it does something. Therefore, if the pronoun is in the subject role—is doing something—use “who”:
Who showed up last?
I don’t know who broke the door.

     Whom is an object pronoun. It has something done to it. If the who/whom pronoun is playing the part of the object, use “whom”:
Whom did you email about this?  “Whom” is the object of the verb “email.”

     A who-or-whom pronoun that is the object of a preposition is usually “whom.” However, when the object of the preposition is not only the pronoun itself but, in effect, an entire relative clause containing the pronoun, make your who-or-whom decision based on the pronoun’s function within that relative clause. If that sounds screwy, here’s how it shakes out in practice:
Give the envelope to whoever arrives first.“whoever arrives first” is a clause that is the object of the preposition “to.” Within that clause, “whoever” is the subject executing the verb “arrives.”
Give the envelope to whomever you like.  “whomever you like” is the object clause. Within it, “whomever” is the receiver of the action, i.e., the object, of the verb “like.”

     Here are a couple of shortcuts that can help you in certain situations without the necessity of figuring anything out:
     First, if any verb immediately follows the pronoun, the right pronoun is who:
Who is that pecking at the window?
I don’t care who said it. I don’t believe it.
Whoever knows about the merger will be there tonight.
     Second, if any quantifier (many of, some of, all of, a few of, etc.) comes just before the pronoun, use “whom”:
The cowboys, many of whom had seen the shooting, weren’t talking.
Raquel looked in at the “New Fathers” class students, a few of whom were not men.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Anymore, Any More: Uses in American English

anymore or any more

     Some references will tell you that anymore and any more are interchangeable in American English, or that “any more” is preferred for formal writing. Neither of these things is true, and you don’t need to pay any attention to them. You shouldn’t pay any attention to them.
     In American English, the one- and two-word forms have different meanings.

     Anymore (one word) is an adverb meaning now in one of two slightly different senses:
1. “any longer,” anymore expressed in a negative way that suggests that something that used to be so isn’t so now . . .
The Amtrak doesn’t stop here anymore.
Look, I’m not a kid anymore.
2. “nowadays,” anymore expressed in a positive way that suggests that something that wasn’t so before is so now . . .
Everyone in this town looks so sad anymore.
Whenever we go skiing anymore, somebody gets hurt.

     Any more (two words) is:
1. an adjective phrase that means “some more,” “an additional amount or number of” . . .
I don’t want any more ice cream.
If any more ants show up, I’m out of here.
2. an adverb phrase, meaning “to any greater degree or extent,” that can be used to modify either a verb or an adjective . . .
I don’t like this any more than you do. Modifying a verb.
This car doesn’t look any more dependable than the other one. Modifying an adjective.
I don't want to hear any more about it.
Could they even possibly be any more annoying?

     Think of anymore in time contexts and any more for quantity, degree, or extent. One word for “when,” two words for “how much,” like that.
      Now, UK folks, who use only any more, two words, might look at this discussion with some amusement and wonder why we think we need a one-word version in the first place. Fair enough. But at least we don't say silly stuff like VITT-a-min and SHED-ule. 
Dictionary Support:
Merriam-Webster's Collegiate, American Heritage, Random House Webster's, Oxford American, Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage, et al. 
Text Support:
Little Brown Handbook, Harper Collins . . . New Century Handbook, Longman . . . Garner's Modern American Usage, Oxford University Press . . . et al.   

Friday, January 9, 2015

Commas with Coordinate Adjectives

The Order of Series Adjectives
     There’s an idiomatic order to follow when using more than one adjective in front of a noun, and commas aren’t used between the adjectives. 
(As an aside here: Never, ever place a comma between an adjective and the noun it is describing: for example, a long, black, car. The comma between black and car is wrong--it has always been wrong, and it will forever be wrong.) 
     Although, like everything else in this world, there are occasional exceptions, the conventional order is as laid out below with a couple examples of how this works out:

evaluation          \   cantankerous
 size                \
  shape               \
   age                 \   
blue     \
German   \
      made of             \
sports   \
        the noun  
car      \   codger

What Are Coordinate Adjectives?
      The matrix above is how we order series adjectives. We ordinarily say “blue German sports car,” we don’t normally say “German blue sports car.” Likewise, conventional English usage says “cantankerous old codger,” not “old cantankerous codger.” There are plenty of exceptions in popular use, of course, but this is the usual heirarchy of series adjectives. What kind of sports car is it? It’s a German one. What kind of German sports car is it? It’s a blue one. You can see that all of the levels of description except the topmost (evaluation) are more-or-less objective in nature: size, shape, color, age, like that.
     Sometimes we use two or more adjectives of the evaluation class (evaluation adjectives are subjective observations such as “an interesting theory,” “a beautiful sunset,” “effective methods,” etc.) in series. For instance, a person might be described as both kind and gentle. These are both evaluation adjectives; when two or more such adjectives are used in series, they’re called coordinate adjectives because they are of the same rank; they’re equal in position of precedence, so the series order is grammatically unimportant.
     If you want to use two evaluation adjectives in series, you can either place “and” between them and write
      a kind and gentle man
or you can place a comma between them and write
     a kind, gentle man
     Kind and gentle are coordinate adjectives, so they can be switched without harm if that better pleases your creative muse:
     a gentle and kind man
     a gentle, kind man
     There’s no injunction against using more than two coordinate adjectives in series, but the longer the string the more potential for looking overdone, so use your head:
     his energetic, efficient, ambitious assistant
     As coordinate adjectives, they can, if desired, be rearranged to suit you:
     his ambitious, energetic, efficient assistant   and so on
     Some writers would insert “and” after the last adjective, with or without the last comma:
     his energetic, efficient, and ambitious assistant
but it’s not needed with series coordinate adjectives. The conjunction is a stylistic choice: not wrong, just unnecessary.