Five Lessons in Grammar

This week we're joined by a special guest blogger. Patricia T. O'Conner, a former editor at The New York Times Book Review, is the author of the national best-seller Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English, as well as other books about language. She is a regular monthly guest on public radio station WNYC in New York. Learn more at her website, Make her feel welcome!

1. I or Me?

The most common grammatical mistake in English is probably using I when we should use me. We hear this mistake all the time: "Thanks for inviting Bob and I to your anniversary bash." Or, "This was such a treat for the children and I." Or, "To your mother and I, your happiness means everything." Nice thoughts, but the right pronoun is me, me, me!

Luckily, there's an easy way to help decide whether to use I or me. Just mentally eliminate the other guy and the correct word becomes obvious: "Thanks for inviting ["¦] me to your anniversary bash." Or, "This was such a treat for ["¦] me." Or, "To ["¦] me, your happiness means everything."

And by the way, when you can't decide between I and me, the answer is not to resort to myself! That's not only a cop-out but also wrong. Words like myself (they're called reflexive pronouns) are used for only two things: to emphasize something ("I did it myself"), and to refer to a person already mentioned ("I saw myself in the mirror").

2. Who or Whom?

It's a good thing to remember that who does something (it's a subject, like he), while whom has something done to it (it's an object, like him). You might even try moving the words around mentally and putting he or him where who or whom should go: if him fits, you want whom (both end in m); if he fits, you want who (both end in a vowel).

Example: "Who [or He] threw the first punch at whom [or him]?" asked the judge.

See? Who does it to whom. But don't be fooled by prepositions—words that direct other words, like to, at, by, for, from, in, on, toward, with, and so on). A preposition isn't automatically followed by whom. It can be followed by a clause (a group of words with both a subject and a verb) that has who as its subject.

Consider this sentence: Hermione gives help to [whoever or whomever] needs advice. Don't be misled by the preposition to. It's followed by a clause: whoever or whomever needs advice. Since the mystery word does something (needs advice), it's a subject, so the answer is whoever needs advice.

OK, now that you know the rules, here's how to bend them. On more relaxed occasions, you can sometimes get away with using who where whom is technically correct. Who is often less stuffy-sounding at the beginning of a sentence or a clause. Examples: Who's the email from? Did I tell you who I saw? Who are you waiting for? No matter who you invite, I can't come. Good English would call for whom in those cases, but you can use who in casual conversation or informal writing.

But beware: Who sounds grating if used for whom right after a preposition. You can get around this by putting who in front: From whom? becomes Who from?

3. That or Which?

See if you can guess the answer: Nobody likes a kid [that or which] whines. I'll end the suspense: it's that.

If you want to satisfy Miss Grundy, here's how to figure out whether a clause (a group of words with its own subject and verb) should start with that or which. When the clause (that or which whines) isn't essential to the point of the sentence, choose which. But if the clause is essential, choose that. In this case, if we dropped the clause we'd end up with Nobody likes a kid. Not quite the point, is it?

Another handy rule to remember is that a which clause is separated from the rest of the sentence by commas: Someone tripped over the kid's stroller, which was in the aisle. Or: The kid's stroller, which was in the aisle, was a safety hazard. So if a clause makes you pause, it probably calls for which.

By the way, some of you may think the word that can't refer to a person, only who. Wrong. This is another popular myth. If you need convincing, take a look at this entry in my blog.

4. "If I was" or "If I were"?

When you express a wish, or when you use an "if" statement to talk about a something that's not true, use "were" instead of "was." Why? Because those situations call for what grammarians refer to as the subjunctive mood, and not the usual indicative.

For example, you'd say, "Last week I was on vacation" [indicative], but "This week I wish I were on vacation" [subjunctive], and "If I were on vacation [subjunctive] I wouldn't be here at work."

Note, however, that not every "if" statement calls for the subjunctive, only those that are undeniably contrary to fact. In cases where the statement may actually be true, was remains was. Examples: If I was wrong, I apologize. (I may have been wrong.) If she was there, I guess I missed her. (She may have been there.) If it was Tuesday, I must have been at the gym. (It may have been Tuesday.)

5. Collective Nouns: Singular or Plural?

Should we say, "couple is" or "couple are"? "Majority was" or "majority were"? "Number is" or "number are"? The answer: It all depends.

Many words that mean a collection of things—like couple, group, total, number, majority—can be either singular or plural, depending on whether you mean the group as a whole or the individuals in the group. So ask yourself whether you're talking about the whole or the parts. Sometimes this can be a close judgment call.

Let's look at couple first. Here are two examples from my grammar book Woe Is I: "A couple of tenants own geckos. The couple in 5G owns a family of mongooses." Both sentences are acceptable, one plural and the other singular. In the first one, you're talking about two separate tenants who own geckos. In the second, you mean one couple that owns mongooses.

Here's a hint: Think of the expression "The majority rules." It should remind you that if the word in front of a collective noun is the, then the noun is usually singular. If the word in front is a, especially when the noun is followed by of, then it's usually plural. So you'd say, "A majority of the residents were polled" (plural), but "The majority was significant" (singular). And you'd write, "A group of Dutch investors are building 25 homes" (plural), but "The Dutch investment group is building 25 homes" (singular).

Yesterday: Debunking Etymological Myths. Monday: Debunking Grammar Myths. Coming tomorrow: Five Lessons in Punctuation. And on Friday, Pat will be answering your grammar questions. You can ask said questions in the comments.

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15 Heartwarming Facts About Mister Rogers
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Getty Images

Fred Rogers—who was born in Latrobe, Pennsylvania on March 20, 1928—remains an icon of kindness for the ages. An innovator of children’s television, his salt-of-the-earth demeanor and genuinely gentle nature taught a generation of kids the value of kindness. In celebration of what would have been his 90th birthday, here are 15 things you might not have known about everyone’s favorite “neighbor.”


According to Benjamin Wagner, who directed the 2010 documentary Mister Rogers & Me—and was, in fact, Rogers’s neighbor on Nantucket—Rogers was overweight and shy as a child, and often taunted by his classmates when he walked home from school. “I used to cry to myself when I was alone,” Rogers said. “And I would cry through my fingers and make up songs on the piano.” It was this experience that led Rogers to want to look below the surface of everyone he met to what he called the “essential invisible” within them.


Rogers was an ordained minister and, as such, a man of tremendous faith who preached tolerance wherever he went. When Amy Melder, a six-year-old Christian viewer, sent Rogers a drawing she made for him with a letter that promised “he was going to heaven,” Rogers wrote back to his young fan:

“You told me that you have accepted Jesus as your Savior. It means a lot to me to know that. And, I appreciated the scripture verse that you sent. I am an ordained Presbyterian minister, and I want you to know that Jesus is important to me, too. I hope that God’s love and peace come through my work on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”


Responding to fan mail was part of Rogers’s very regimented daily routine, which began at 5 a.m. with a prayer and included time for studying, writing, making phone calls, swimming, weighing himself, and responding to every fan who had taken the time to reach out to him.

“He respected the kids who wrote [those letters],” Heather Arnet, an assistant on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2005. “He never thought about throwing out a drawing or letter. They were sacred."

According to Arnet, the fan mail he received wasn’t just a bunch of young kids gushing to their idol. Kids would tell Rogers about a pet or family member who died, or other issues with which they were grappling. “No child ever received a form letter from Mister Rogers," Arnet said, noting that he received between 50 and 100 letters per day.


It wasn’t just kids and their parents who loved Mister Rogers. Koko, the Stanford-educated gorilla who understands 2000 English words and can also converse in American Sign Language, was an avid Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood watcher, too. When Rogers visited her, she immediately gave him a hug—and took his shoes off.


Though Rogers began his education in the Ivy League, at Dartmouth, he transferred to Rollins College following his freshman year in order to pursue a degree in music (he graduated Magna cum laude). In addition to being a talented piano player, he was also a wonderful songwriter and wrote all the songs for Mister Rogers' Neighborhood—plus hundreds more.


Rogers’s decision to enter into the television world wasn’t out of a passion for the medium—far from it. "When I first saw children's television, I thought it was perfectly horrible," Rogers told Pittsburgh Magazine. "And I thought there was some way of using this fabulous medium to be of nurture to those who would watch and listen."


A Yale study pitted fans of Sesame Street against Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood watchers and found that kids who watched Mister Rogers tended to remember more of the story lines, and had a much higher “tolerance of delay,” meaning they were more patient.


If watching an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood gives you sweater envy, we’ve got bad news: You’d never be able to find his sweaters in a store. All of those comfy-looking cardigans were knitted by Fred’s mom, Nancy. In an interview with the Archive of American Television, Rogers explained how his mother would knit sweaters for all of her loved ones every year as Christmas gifts. “And so until she died, those zippered sweaters I wear on the Neighborhood were all made by my mother,” he explained.


Those brightly colored sweaters were a trademark of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, but the colorblind host might not have always noticed. In a 2003 article, just a few days after his passing, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote that:

Among the forgotten details about Fred Rogers is that he was so colorblind he could not distinguish between tomato soup and pea soup.

He liked both, but at lunch one day 50 years ago, he asked his television partner Josie Carey to taste it for him and tell him which it was.

Why did he need her to do this, Carey asked him. Rogers liked both, so why not just dip in?

"If it's tomato soup, I'll put sugar in it," he told her.


According to Wagner, Rogers’s decision to change into sneakers for each episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was about production, not comfort. “His trademark sneakers were born when he found them to be quieter than his dress shoes as he moved about the set,” wrote Wagner.


Oscar-nominated actor Michael Keaton's first job was as a stagehand on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, manning Picture, Picture, and appearing as Purple Panda.


It's hard to imagine a gentle, soft-spoken, children's education advocate like Rogers sitting down to enjoy a gory, violent zombie movie like Dawn of the Dead, but it actually aligns perfectly with Rogers's brand of thoughtfulness. He checked out the horror flick to show his support for then-up-and-coming filmmaker George Romero, whose first paying job was with everyone's favorite neighbor.

“Fred was the first guy who trusted me enough to hire me to actually shoot film,” Romero said. As a young man just out of college, Romero honed his filmmaking skills making a series of short segments for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, creating a dozen or so titles such as “How Lightbulbs Are Made” and “Mr. Rogers Gets a Tonsillectomy.” The zombie king, who passed away in 2017, considered the latter his first big production, shot in a working hospital: “I still joke that 'Mr. Rogers Gets a Tonsillectomy' is the scariest film I’ve ever made. What I really mean is that I was scared sh*tless while I was trying to pull it off.”


In 1969, Rogers—who was relatively unknown at the time—went before the Senate to plead for a $20 million grant for public broadcasting, which had been proposed by President Johnson but was in danger of being sliced in half by Richard Nixon. His passionate plea about how television had the potential to turn kids into productive citizens worked; instead of cutting the budget, funding for public TV increased from $9 million to $22 million.


Years later, Rogers also managed to convince the Supreme Court that using VCRs to record TV shows at home shouldn’t be considered a form of copyright infringement (which was the argument of some in this contentious debate). Rogers argued that recording a program like his allowed working parents to sit down with their children and watch shows as a family. Again, he was convincing.


In 1984, Rogers donated one of his iconic sweaters to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Tony Karumba, AFP/Getty Images
The World's Last Male Northern White Rhino Has Died, But Could He Still Help Save the Species?
Tony Karumba, AFP/Getty Images
Tony Karumba, AFP/Getty Images

Following age-related complications, Sudan the northern white rhinoceros was euthanized by a team of vets in Kenya at 45 years old, CNN reports. He was one of only three northern white rhinos left on Earth and the last male of his subspecies. For years, Sudan had represented the final hope for the survival of his kind, but now scientists have a back-up plan: Using Sudan's sperm, they may be able to continue his genetic line even after his death.

Northern white rhino numbers from dwindled from 2000 in 1960 to only three in recent years. Those last survivors, Sudan, his daughter Najin, and granddaughter Fatu, lived together at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. Each animal had physical issues making it difficult for them to breed, and now with Sudan gone, a new generation of northern white rhinos looks even less likely.

But there is one way the story of these animals doesn't end in extinction. Before Sudan died, researchers were able to save some of his genetic material, which means it's still possible for him to father offspring. Scientists may either use the sperm to artificially inseminate one of the surviving females (even though they're related) or, due to their age and ailments, fertilize one of their eggs and implant the embryo into a female of a similar subspecies, like the southern white rhino, using in vitro fertilization.

"We must take advantage of the unique situation in which cellular technologies are utilized for conservation of critically endangered species," Jan Stejskal, an official at the Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic where Sudan lived until 2009, told AFP. "It may sound unbelievable, but thanks to the newly developed techniques even Sudan could still have an offspring."

Poaching has been a major contributor to the northern white rhino's decline over the past century. Rhinos are often hunted for their horns, which are believed to have medicinal properties in some Asian cultures. (Other people just view the horn as a sign of wealth and status). Procreating is the biggest issue threatening the northern white rhinoceros at the moment. If such poaching continues, other rhino species in the wild could end up in the same situation.

[h/t CNN]


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