Sunday, 28 January 2018

Me, Myself, and I

These three words often get confused and misused, usually when a writer is trying to sound formal.

1964 photo by Chris Ware of two London police officers watching actors in alien costumes cross the street

Just Between You and Me


If you want to seem fancy, you might write, for example, Keep this between you and I. But the correct wording is Keep this between you and me, so you’ve come across as clueless rather than classy. In grammar circles, this kind of overcompensation is called a hypercorrection.

I (the nominative case) is used for the subject of a sentence or clause. Me (the objective case) is used for the object of a verb, the object of a preposition, or the subject of an infinitive.

  • I am from out of town. (subject of sentence)
  • Those cops don’t worry me. (object of verb worry)
  • Nobody comes between me and Zorg. (object of preposition between)
  • Zorg asked me to lead the way. (subject of infinitive verb to lead)

These examples probably seem obvious. It’s when an and (or an or) is involved that people often trip themselves up. The easiest way to avoid mistakes is to try your sentence without the other person.

  • It would be a different matter for you or I.
  • It would be a different matter for I. X
  • It would be a different matter for you or me. 

  • Give the Princess of Zanzibar and I your fealty.
  • Give I your fealty. X
  • Give the Princess of Zanzibar and me your fealty. 

Portrait of the Princess of Zanzibar with her African Attendant by Walter Frier, 1731

I Made It Myself


Myself (the reflexive case) is used either as an intensifier or to show that the action is reflecting back onto the actor.

As an intensifier, myself appears in sentences like I myself don’t dance and I crocheted it myself. You could take out myself and the sentence would still make sense; it’s just there to add emphasis.

The second, reflecting use occurs in sentences like I embarrassed myself. Here, the verb’s subject and its object—the one who embarrasses and the one who gets embarrassed—are the same person.

Again, it’s the ands and ors that throw people off. You can use the same method as above to see whether your sentence needs a reflexive pronoun.

  • I signed my roommate and myself up for Underwater Basket-Weaving 101.
  • I signed myself up for Underwater Basket-Weaving 101. 
  • I signed my roommate and myself up for Underwater Basket-Weaving 101. 

  • Send the kryptonite to my neighbour or myself.
  • Send the kryptonite to myself. X
  • Send the kryptonite to my neighbour or me. 

Don’t be tempted to use myself as a subject. That’s not its job.

  • The saucer’s crew and myself thank you.
  • Myself thank you. X
  • The saucer’s crew and I thank you. 

Even when the subject of the sentence is I, the next pronoun isn’t necessarily myself. Remember, the instigator of the action and the recipient of the action have to be the same person.

  • I called a flying fish to carry my wife and myself home.
  • I called a flying fish to carry myself home. X

Myself is the object of the verb to carry. Even though I is the subject of the sentence, the subject of to carry is fish—it’s the fish who’s going to carry me. Because the fish and I are not the same person, this sentence does not take a reflexive pronoun.

  • I called a flying fish to carry me home. 
  • I called a flying fish to carry my wife and me home. 

Detail from The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Hieronymus Bosch

On Behalf of Me and Myself


Sentences with on behalf of are hard to get right because rephrasing them doesn’t help: you wouldn’t say on behalf of me or on behalf of myself, you’d say on my behalf.

  • Thank you on behalf of the coven and myself.

Myself is the indirect object of the verb thank. The implied subject of thank (i.e., the thanker) is I—as in, I thank you. So the final pronoun is reflexive.

  • The Big Man speaks on behalf of the other Feegles and me.

Here, the subject of speaks, the Big Man, is not the same as its indirect object, me. So we don’t need a reflexive pronoun.

If it helps, you can replace the prepositional phrase on behalf of with the preposition for.

  • I thank you for [the coven and] me. X
  • I thank you for [the coven and] myself. 
  • The Big Man speaks for [the other Feegles and] myself. X
  • The Big Man speaks for [the other Feegles and] me. 

It Is I


One of the more obscure sources of I-versus-me confusion is predicate nominatives: pronouns that follow linking verbs like be, seem, look, or feel. The best-known example is probably when a caller says, “May I speak to the lady of the house?” and you answer, “This is she.”

Of course, you probably don’t answer “This is she,” because few people follow this rule anymore. Saying “It’s me” is far more common than saying “It is I,” which sounds ridiculously pompous and old-fashioned. (A best-selling grammar book pokes fun at this with the tongue-in-cheek title Woe Is I.) Using the nominative case (I, he, she, we, they) after is or was is technically correct but socially awkward. Even the most formal readers are unlikely to fault you for ignoring this rule.

Illustration by Edmund Dulac for Sleeping Beauty, 1910

So Why Should I Care?


In spoken English these mistakes are common, even accepted. You could argue that in casual writing there’s no need to be so persnickety. But consider this scenario: your narrator is a down-to-earth gal who doesn’t give a damn about grammar—who gets hired by the Duke of Lahdidah to find his missing son. If, in trying to make your Duke sound hoity-toity, you pepper his speech with between you and I and the Duchess and myself welcome you, you’re going to ruin the illusion for any readers who pay attention to grammar (and believe me, we’re out there). On the other hand, if you want to convey that a character is trying hard to sound posh but hasn’t had a rigorous education or an elitist upbringing, hypercorrection is the perfect tool.



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Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Dangling Modifiers


A dangling (or misplaced) modifier can cause confusion and, often, unintentional hilarity. It’s a word or phrase that’s supposed to describe one thing but, because of how its sentence is written, actually describes something else—often in a way that’s ridiculous, impossible, or absurd.

Harold Lloyd hanging from clock

How to Spot a Dangler


By the rules of English grammar, a descriptive word or group of words (a modifying phrase) always refers to the closest noun or pronoun.

  • Glowing and beeping, we stared up at the alien craft in awe.

The pronoun closest to the modifying phrase glowing and beeping is we. No matter what its writer’s intention may have been, this sentence says we were the ones glowing and beeping, not the alien craft.

How to Un-dangle a Dangler


To fix the last example, we need to rearrange the sentence so the word being described is close to the phrase describing it.

Glowing and beeping, the alien craft hovered while we stared up at it in awe.


X
Upon entering the crypt, my hair stood on end.

Technically, upon entering the crypt describes hair, which admittedly did enter the crypt but presumably not under its own steam. What did enter the crypt was the speaker, who needs to be added to the sentence.

Upon entering the crypt, I felt my hair stand on end.



X
Working in her underwater lair, Dr. Megatroid’s sinister plans soon bore fruit.

Don’t let possessives confuse you. In this sentence it’s not Dr. Megatroid but her plans that are working.

Working in her underwater lair, Dr. Megatroid soon saw her sinister plans bear fruit.



X
A consummate high-wire artist, he assumed her wobbles were feigned—until she plummeted to the floor amid gasps from the audience.

Who is the high-wire artist, the man or the woman? As the sentence is written, it’s the man.

Knowing she was a consummate high-wire artist, he assumed her wobbles were feigned—until she plummeted to the floor amid gasps from the audience.

Now the modifying phrase does describe the closest pronoun, he.

Because she was a consummate high-wire artist, he assumed her wobbles were feigned—until she plummeted to the floor amid gasps from the audience.

Here the modifying phrase has been changed to a subordinate clause.


X
Having mastered the tango and the two-step, learning the electric slide was his next goal.

What does having mastered the tango and the two-step describe here? It describes learning the electric slide, which of course makes no sense. (Learning the electric slide is a gerund phrase, which means it acts as a noun.) The unstated he needs to be added, or the modifying phrase needs to be changed to a subordinate clause.

Having mastered the tango and the two-step, he set learning the electric slide as his next goal.
Since he had mastered the tango and the two-step, learning the electric slide was his next goal.

Early 19th-century illustration of dancers


X
Shaking off her trance, the spirits were scattered in every direction.
Shaking off her trance, she scattered the spirits in every direction.

X
Donning his superhero mask, a sense of his own silliness came over him.
Donning his superhero mask, he was overcome by a sense of his own silliness.
While he was donning his superhero mask, a sense of his own silliness came over him.

Hard-to-Spot Danglers


As in the previous examples, danglers are usually found at the beginning of sentences; however, like Bolshevik spies, they may be lurking anywhere.

X
Providing enough exercise can be a challenge for owners of dogs with small apartments.

Dogs do not, as of this writing, rent apartments, small or otherwise.

Providing enough exercise can be a challenge for dog owners with small apartments.

Participial Prepositions


Sometimes a word or phrase can modify an entire sentence rather than a single noun or pronoun. These participial prepositions—phrases that start with words like assuming, based on, depending, given, including, owing to, and provided—have built-in gravity boots: they never dangle.

Regarding the proposed orgy, it was generally felt that dim lighting would be best for all concerned.
Concerning his wayward daughter who had run off with a fallen seraph, he would only put a hand over his eyes and mutter about feathers.
Barring unusual weather, the balloon should reach Abyssinia by Thursday.

Illustration of early balloonists

Your intentions as a writer may seem obvious to you, but that doesn’t mean they’re obvious to your readers, who may become confused by dangling modifiers or, worse, laugh at them.



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Friday, 22 December 2017

Directional Insanity

Should you write backward and forward or backwards and forwards? Which directional word you choose depends on where you live and on whether you’re looking for an adverb or an adjective.

Compass roses from 18th century book by Katip Celebi

Toward/s


In the US most people use toward, while in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand most use towards. In Canada toward has the edge (see Canadian Oxford Dictionary), but towards isn’t unheard of (see Collins Canadian Dictionary). Really, you’re free to use whichever you like, as neither is incorrect. But be consistent—don’t flip-flop between them in the same document or you’ll look confused.

The other directional words are more complicated, because sometimes the s means the difference between an adverb and an adjective. (Quick reminder: adjectives modify nouns; adverbs modify everything else.)

Backward/s


Backwards is an adverb. Backward is an adjective. (Usually. See below.)

  • Looking backwards is the easiest way to turn into a pillar of salt. (adverb: modifies looking)
  • Guillermo ruined his dramatic exit with a backward look. (adjective: modifies look)

In addition to its directional meaning, backward as an adjective can also mean “shy or reluctant” or “underdeveloped or inferior.”

  • Shazia was not backward in showing off her scars.
  • It was a tiny, backward village, without running water or universal healthcare.

However, if you’re American, backward may sound fine to you as an adverb (falling backward). Merriam-Webster and The American Heritage Dictionary prefer backward for both adverb and adjective. According to Separated by a Common Language, more Americans use backwards than backward as an adverb, but obviously there’s room for debate.

To recap: For Brits and Canadians (and Australians and Kiwis), use backwards as an adverb and backward as an adjective. For Americans, feel free to use backward for both if you prefer.

Understand that this advice is based on which usage is most widely accepted; it’s not a lexicographic prescription from on high. If you feel strongly about that s one way or the other, follow your heart. But don’t add the s to your adjectives: most people would consider a backwards glance incorrect.

  • Cleopatra expected the staff to lean over backwards for her. (UK, Canada, etc.)
  • I won’t bend over backward for stingy tips. (US only)
  • Eudora left Earth’s orbit without a backward glance. (everyone)

Book cover: A Plunge into Space, 1890

Forward/s


Unsurprisingly, most Americans use forward as both adverb and adjective, a choice that’s supported by Merriam-Webster and American Heritage. Contrary to their s-loving trend, so do most people in the UK, though forwards seems to be the more common choice in the expression backwards and forwards.

As an adjective forward can also mean “bold or presumptuous,” “eager,” or “pertaining to the future.”

  • It was most forward of Hanz to seize your hand during tea.
  • The professor is forward-thinking in her approach.

It should be noted that some people make a distinction between forward and forwards as adverbs. The Oxford English Dictionary says forwards “expresses a definite direction”: a wheel moves forwards and text reads forwards, but we go forward, bring a matter forward, and look forward in time. The Canadian Oxford Dictionary also prefers forwards for the literal direction (backwards and forwards) and forward for expressions like come forward, send forward, move forward with, and from this time forward.

  • I look forward to it.
  • Even looking forwards I still feel carsick.
  • Step forward to volunteer.
  • Step forwards twice then spin around.

Five Positions of Dancing, Wilson, 1811

Other -Wards


The other directional words follow the same pattern, with US dictionaries preferring upward, downward, inward, outward, and onward and UK dictionaries leaning towards upwards, downwards, inwards, outwards, and onwards. (For adverbs, that is; the adjective forms are always without an s.)

  • The pigeon-toed geneticist always pointed her feet inward. (US)
  • Tenniel’s lobster points his toes outwards. (UK)
  • Mrs. Gupta’s ferocity belied her outward appearance. (both)

As with toward/s, Canadians generally follow the US in this, and Australians and Kiwis generally follow the UK. But there’s so much variation, you won’t confuse readers if you decide to add or drop the s from your adverbs. Just remember, if you want to look competent and professional, (say it with me) be consistent!

Tenniel illustration of lobster from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

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Friday, 24 November 2017

When to Use “Said”

There’s a myth that you should never use the verb say in your dialogue. Certainly there are more exciting, muscular verbs out there, but too often writers resort to a thesaurus when a simple said would be more effective.

Medieval
Cefusa, a legendary beast which leaves human footprints. France c.1290

Compare the following:

  “Are you sure this is where you saw it?” wondered Shazad.
  “Yes, I told you. It’ll pass by any minute, trust me,” replied Mae.
  “It’s not that I don’t believe you. It’s just that this branch has been poking me in the butt for like twenty minutes now,” complained Shazad.
  “Wait! I hear something!” observed Mae.

  “Are you sure this is where you saw it?” said Shazad.
  “Yes, I told you. It’ll pass by any minute, trust me,” said Mae.
  “It’s not that I don’t believe you. It’s just that this branch has been poking me in the butt for like twenty minutes now,” said Shazad.
  “Wait! I hear something!” said Mae.

While neither example is ideal, the speech tags in the second example are less distracting than those in the first. Said has a way of fading into the background, while verbs like replied and observed can sound odd or stilted. You want your reader’s attention to move smoothly through the scene, not get snagged on awkward or unnecessary word choices.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you should always and only use said. Other verbs can be more effective when they tell us something important about the dialogue.

  “Are you sure this is where you saw it?” whispered Shazad.
  “Wait! I hear something!” hissed Mae.

Here both speech tags expand on the dialogue by telling us how it was spoken. And both are in keeping with the scene, not shoehorned in just to provide word variety.

Medieval illumination of many-headed lion-type thing
Apocalypse beast. France 1220–1270

Of course, you could always dispense with speech tags altogether.

  “Are you sure this is where you saw it?”
  “Yes, I told you. It’ll pass by any minute, trust me.”
  “It’s not that I don’t believe you. It’s just that this branch has been poking me in the butt for like twenty minutes now.”
  “Wait! I hear something!”

This can work well where you want a quick pace. But unless you’ve already introduced the characters, the reader won’t be able to picture them. And if you add a third speaker, things get really confusing.

  “Is that it?”
  “Shh!”
  “Oh my God, you were right! It’s really real!”
  “Excuse me. Do you mind giving me a little privacy?”
  “Oh, uh, sorry.”
  “Yeah, sorry, dude.”

You can still let your readers know who’s speaking without using speech tags. The characters’ actions, appearing on the same lines as their dialogue, cue readers as to who’s saying what. (For more on this, see Dialogue and Paragraph Breaks.)

  Shazad leaned forward. “Is that it?”
  “Shh!” Mae poked his shoulder warningly.
  His jaw dropped. “Oh my God, you were right! It’s really real!”
  The sasquatch glared at them through the tree branches. “Excuse me. Do you mind giving me a little privacy?”
  Shazad cleared his throat. “Oh, uh, sorry.”
  Mae winced. “Yeah, sorry, dude.”

This method keeps some of the punchiness of the dialogue-only approach while giving the reader more information. The scene is a lot more vivid when we know how the characters are moving and reacting in between speaking.

Cute illustration of two sasquatches
Sasquatch and her son by Sarah Goodreau

But any sentence structure repeated too often will bore your reader, so you want to use some or all of these methods in combination. Remember, too, that you can put speech tags or actions in the middle of dialogue to switch things up.

  “Are you sure this is where you saw it?” whispered Shazad.
  “Yes, I told you,” said Mae. “It’ll pass by any minute, trust me.”
  “It’s not that I don’t believe you.” He shifted awkwardly. “It’s just that this branch has been poking me in the butt for like twenty minutes now.”
  Mae froze. “Wait! I hear something!”
  “Is that it?”
  “Shh!” she hissed.
  His jaw dropped. “Oh my God, you were right! It’s really real!”
  The sasquatch glared at them through the tree branches. “Excuse me,” she rumbled. “Do you mind giving me a little privacy?”
  “Oh, uh, sorry,” said Shazad.
  Mae winced. “Yeah, sorry, dude.”

What we can learn from the “never use said” myth is that no writing rule should be applied universally. A screwdriver may be an invaluable tool, but you wouldn’t use it to hang a picture. Writing tips are tools, and choosing the right one for each job is what the craft of writing is all about. Next time you’re enjoying a good book, notice how the author has put together their dialogue. I’m guessing somewhere in there they probably used said.



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Sunday, 12 November 2017

Lie vs. Lay

Here’s the difference between lie and lay: Lying is a thing you do. Laying is a thing you do to something.

  • The carpet has to lie flat before it’ll fly you anywhere.
  • You have to lay the carpet flat before it’ll fly you anywhere.

Le tapis volant by Bilibin

To put it another way, lay is transitive and lie is intransitive. Transitive verbs need a direct object. (See Transitive and Intransitive Birds for more on this.) In the example above, the object of lay is carpet.

Present Tense


One way to remember the difference between lie and lay is to think of the idioms “lie like a rug” and “lay an egg.” You can’t say “lay like a rug” because then the pun (lying on the floor/combusting one’s pants) doesn’t work. “Lay an egg,” on the other hand, demonstrates how the verb lay needs a direct object, in this case egg.

In the antiquated structure of “now I lay me down to sleep,” the object of lay is me. The modern version would read “now I lie down to sleep.” If you’re not laying down a thing (or a person), then what you’re doing is lying.

  • My only goal is to lie around in a fluffy robe eating chocolates.
  • Lay Whiskers on his cat bed and step away slowly.
  • Anatoli has to have a lie-down after every séance.
  • There is a special hell for people who lay open books face down.

So far so simple, right? Just wait.

Past Tense


Because the English language laughs at logic, the past tense of lie is lay.

  • The carpet lay still and refused to fly anywhere.
  • After waking, Gregor lay in bed trying to figure out what he’d turned into overnight.
  • All that month we lay low at the ranch while the posse searched for us.

The past tense of lay is laid.

  • When the act was over, the ventriloquist tenderly laid her dummy in its box.
  • The night before the big match, the luchador laid out his favourite mask, cape, and tights.

Vintage lucha libre poster

Past Participle


A past participle is a verb form you use with have or had (e.g., drunk, given, seen). The past participle of lie is lain.

  • For ten years Teodora had lain in her coffin, waiting for a victim.
  • You’ve lain around feeling sorry for yourself long enough.

The past participle of lay is laid (yes, it’s the same as the simple past).

  • Whiskers has generously laid a dead mouse on your pillow.
  • It seemed the prince had not yet laid those salacious rumours to rest.

To recap:

lie/lay/lain, lay/laid/laid

  • The Oompa-Loompas are lying in wait.
  • Yesterday the Oompa-Loompas lay in wait.
  • The Oompa-Loompas have lain in wait since breakfast.

  • Lay your cards on the table.
  • Yesterday you laid your cards on the table.
  • You had already laid your cards on the table when I drew my derringer.

Lie Low or Lay Low?


The correct expression for keeping a low profile is “lie low”—although “lay low” is so commonly used instead, it’s probably only a matter of time before it becomes accepted. However, to lay low actually means to knock out or overcome. For example, you’ll often read of someone being “laid low” by illness. In such cases, the object of lay is the person being laid low.

  • Lupe was laid low after Sunday’s roller derby match.
  • Roller derby injuries can lay Lupe low.
  • Hien and Renée had to lie low after the diamond heist.

Movie still from Les Vampires, 1916

In casual spoken English, lay and lie are frequently interchangeable, but formal writing guides still maintain the distinction, so it’s worth memorizing the different verb forms. That said, it’s rare to see lain in the wild, let alone hear it, and I doubt most readers will notice if you use laid by mistake.



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Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Comma Splices and How to Avoid Them

Like a botched Apparition spell, a comma splice happens when a comma is unequal to the task of carrying you from one clause to another.

Walter Crane, illustration from Beauty and the Beast
Pierre snorted like a pig every time he laughed. He could hardly help it given his physiognomy.

  • Pierre snorted like a pig every time he laughed, he could hardly help it given his physiognomy. X

A comma is not strong enough to join what would otherwise be two complete sentences.

  • Pierre snorted like a pig every time he laughed. He could hardly help it given his physiognomy. 

A period is often the cleanest fix for a comma splice. There is nothing wrong with short sentences. However, if you want to convey a tighter relationship between your clauses—cause and effect, for example—you can use a coordinating conjunction, dash, colon, or semicolon instead.

  • Pierre snorted like a pig every time he laughed, but he could hardly help it given his physiognomy.
  • Pierre snorted like a pig every time he laughed—he could hardly help it given his physiognomy.
  • Pierre snorted like a pig every time he laughed; he could hardly help it given his physiognomy.
  • Pierre snorted like a pig every time he laughed: he could hardly help it given his physiognomy.

Medieval illumination of hugging demons
Demons have bad days like the rest of us, and sometimes they need a hug.

Coordinating Conjunctions


Coordinating conjunctions are the joining words and, or, but, so, yet, for, and nor. Using them makes the relationship between your clauses explicit, which is no bad thing.

  • Demons have bad days like the rest of us, sometimes they need a hug. X
  • Demons have bad days like the rest of us, and sometimes they need a hug. 

See Commas and Conjunctions for more.

Dashes


Dashes have a lot of uses, but in this case their interruption suggests an aside or a punchline, like an elbow to the ribs.

  • Euphemia was a canny card sharp, even Death couldn’t beat her. X
  • Euphemia was a canny card sharp—even Death couldn’t beat her. 

See How to Use Dashes for more.

Colons and Semicolons


Colons introduce, while semicolons join. Use a colon when the second clause explains or expands on the first. Otherwise, use a semicolon.

  • Giacomo’s true nature was obvious in hindsight, he’d always avoided garlic, churches, and sunlight. X
  • Giacomo’s true nature was obvious in hindsight: he’d always avoided garlic, churches, and sunlight.  
  • It couldn’t have been easy, no wonder there were so few vampires in Italy. X
  • It couldn’t have been easy; no wonder there were so few vampires in Italy. 

See Colon vs. Semicolon for more.

Death and the Lady photo 1906
Euphemia was a canny card sharp—even Death couldn’t beat her.

All that said, if your clauses are very short, and if their structures match, you can get away with only a comma between them.

  • I came, I saw, I conquered.
  • Mum was in the orchestra, Dad in the ballet corps.
  • She played, he danced.

What you don’t want to do is make your sentences flimsy paperclip chains of clauses hooked together by commas. Clarify your thoughts, then use the appropriate punctuation.



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Thursday, 14 September 2017

Subject-Verb Agreement, Part 2

Check out Part 1 for phrasal connectives, mass nouns, and bickering fairies.

Dancing dervishes
Each of the dancers has his own style.

Indefinite Pronouns


Would you write “Each of the dancers have their own style” or “Each of the dancers has his own style”? Keep your eye on the subject—in this case, each.

  • Each of the dancers has his own style.
  • Of course both of the pirates have eye patches.
  • Which of us hasn’t yearned for a shrubbery? 

But

  • Meilin is one of those people who aren’t afraid of spiders.

In this case, Meilin is one of X (X being those people who aren’t afraid of spiders). Meilin is the subject and is is the verb. Compare that sentence with the following:

  • One of those people isn’t afraid of spiders.

None can be singular or plural, despite those who claim a singular verb is the only correct choice (“None of us is drunk”). While a singular verb isn’t wrong, even The Chicago Manual of Style thinks it sounds “possibly stilted” (5.220). Chicago’s recommendation is to make the verb agree with the noun following none

  • None of the German fairy tales were conducive to a good night’s sleep.
  • None of the creamed corn is edible.
  • Are you telling me none of them know how to crack a safe?

Alternatively, you could dodge potential arguments by using not one or not any instead.

  • Are you telling me not one of them knows how to crack a safe?
  • Not any of the creamed corn is edible.

Horrifyingly violent illustration from Der Struwwelpeter
None of the German fairy tales were conducive to a good night’s sleep.

Predicate Nouns


“The bait was chocolate-chip cookies” or “The bait were chocolate-chip cookies”? Here cookies is what’s called a predicate nominative or predicate noun: it renames or identifies the subject. Bait is the subject, so the verb should be singular to agree with it—was

  • The general’s passion was Fred Astaire movies.
  • Jivika’s weakness is kittens.

If the correct version still sounds weird, you can reword it.

  • Fred Astaire movies were the general’s passion.
  • Kittens are Jivika’s weakness.

Nouns That Look Plural but Act Singular


Nouns like mumps and news are plural in form but are treated as singular: “Mumps was prevalent,” “Good news is always welcome.” Others are less clear-cut. Mathematics, for example, is usually treated as singular but may be plural when used in the operational sense.

  • Mathematics is the underlying language of the universe.
  • Her theory’s mathematics were indisputable.

Similarly, politics is usually singular when it refers to political science or the process of governing, but it can be singular or plural in the sense of an activity or a set of principles.

  • Politics is for people who have too much idealism or none.
  • That man’s politics are distasteful.

Compound Subjects Revisited


Although subjects joined by and take a plural verb (as covered in Part 1), they can sometimes be treated as a singular unit. 

  • Skipping and jumping were his favourite hobbies. (Two subjects)
  • Skipping and jumping was her recess activity of choice. (One subject)
  • Battered and fried is how I like my Mars bars.
  • Wine, women, and song was all the poet cared about. 

Of course, smoothing your reader’s path is more important than impressing them with your grasp of grammar, so always consider alternate wordings.

  • Her recess activity of choice was skipping and jumping.
  • I like my Mars bars battered and fried.
  • All the poet cared about was wine, women, and song. 

Lobby card from Top Hat
The general’s passion was Fred Astaire movies.





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