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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