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Answering Your Burning Grammar Questions

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We're joined this week 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, grammarphobia.com. Today she's answering questions from our readers.

Q: "All right "¦ so there's no good reason to not end a sentence in a preposition "¦ but that doesn't mean that I have to like hearing, "˜Where you at.'"—Posted by Fruppi on 5/5

A: The problem with "Where you at?" isn't that it ends in a preposition. The problem is that it shouldn't have a preposition at all. (What it ought to have is a verb!)

Constructions like "Where is my car at?" and "Where are my keys at?" are considered substandard usage because "where" makes the addition of "at" redundant. "Where" essentially means "at (or in) what place," so adding another "at" is overkill. It's roughly equivalent to saying, "In which pocket are they in?"

Q: "Can we look forward to a discussion of the singular they this week?"—Posted by s michael c on 5/5

A: I didn't discuss this on the blog but I'm glad you brought it up. The singular they or them or their has been considered wrong for a couple of centuries, and it's still a no-no. (Example: "If anybody uses a cell phone, tell them not to.") But it's become so common that only a few of us diehards notice anymore! That doesn't make it right, though. They, them or their are not legitimate singular pronouns, according to nearly all usage and style guides. And I don't like using "he or she" and "him or her," either.

Here's some historical perspective. Once upon a time, English speakers routinely used they to refer to indefinite pronouns that take singular verbs, like anyone, anybody, nobody, and someone. The Oxford English Dictionary has published references for this usage going back to the 16th century. But in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, grammarians began condemning the use of they as a singular pronoun on the grounds that it was illogical. Numerically speaking, they were right, but this left us with a great big hole in English where a gender-neutral, number-neutral pronoun ought to be.

That's the way things stand now, despite all the history, leaving the careful writer with the problem of finding an acceptable alternative to the singular they.

Here's one solution: In a long piece of writing, you might use "him" in some places and "her" in others when referring to a generic individual. Another solution is to write around the problem—don't use the pronoun at all. Example: "Someone forgot to pay the bills" (instead of "their bills"). Or: "If anyone calls, say I'm out" (instead of "tell them I'm out").

If you do use they, them, or their, then make the subject (or referent noun) plural instead of singular. A sentence like "Every parent dotes on their child" could instead be "All parents dote on their children." Instead of "A person should mind their own business," make it "People should mind their own business." Be creative. Disregarding the plural nature of they isn't the answer.

Q: "Would you please address the misuse/overuse of the word myself? It seems the use of the word has become more popular lately. One example I hear a lot is "˜Myself and my friends"¦.' This sounds so wrong to me, or am I incorrect? Another one is irregardless. Is that a real word?"—Posted by JaneM on 5/6

A: People use myself when they can't decide between "I" and "me." This isn't just a cop-out; it's bad English. The word myself is reserved for two uses: (1) To emphasize: "Let me do it myself." (2) To refer to a subject already mentioned: "I can see myself in the mirror." If you could just as well use "I" or "me," then you shouldn't resort to myself.

As for irregardless, it's definitely out of bounds. It blends "regardless" with "irrespective," and the result is a redundancy that has both a negative prefix and a negative suffix! As one reader (lala) so cleverly commented, it's a one-word double negative! Is it real? Well, lots of people use irregardless and you'll find it in dictionaries, so it's real all right. But not everything in a dictionary is good English. Read the fine print: Both Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) call it "nonstandard."

Q: "If President Bush (41) and President Bush (43) were walking down the street together, what would be the correct statement? "˜Here come the Presidents Bush "¦ the Bush Presidents "¦ the President Bushes'? Or, "˜Here comes President Bush and President Bush'? These questions must be answered before the next President is inaugurated."—Posted by Witty Nickname on 5/6

A: Your first suggestion is right: "the Presidents Bush." Similarly, Presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams are often referred to jointly as "the Presidents Adams" or "both Presidents Adams." When in doubt, think of Dostoyevsky (The Brothers Karamazov).

Q: "What's the best contraction for "˜am not'? For example, how should one best end this sentence: "˜Since contractions are required, I'm forced to use one now, am I not?'"—Posted by John on 5/7

A. This is a very interesting question! The answer (aren't I) takes us back to the history of the most fascinating contraction of them all: ain't.

Today, ain't is considered the poster child of poor English, but it wasn't always so. It was probably first used around 1600, just when most of our English contractions—all perfectly legitimate, I might add—were being formed: don't, can't, isn't, and many more. For centuries, ain't was just one of the crowd. It was first seen in print in the late 1600s, spelled an't, a'n't, and eventually ain't. (Some scholars believe the new spelling may have reflected the way the word was pronounced by certain speakers.)

Ain't was originally a contraction of "am not" and "are not." But by the early 1700s, it was also being used as a contraction for "is not." And by the 1800s it was used for "have not" and "has not" too, replacing an earlier contraction, ha'n't. Naturally, as ain't took on more and more meanings it drifted further and further from its roots, and here's where the grammarians and schoolmarms took notice. Contractions like can't and don't had clearly traceable parentage, but ain't had so many possible parents that it seemed illegitimate. So 19th-century critics turned up their noses and declared ain't a crime against good English.

That created a problem, of course—what to use in place of ain't I as a contraction for "am I not." The obsolete "amn't I" was a tongue-twister (it survives today only in Scots and Irish English). As we all know by now, we ended up with aren't I, which clearly makes no sense. How can we justify it if we don't say "I aren't"? And how did it come about, anyway?

As it happens, aren't I didn't exist until the early 20th century, when British novelists and dramatists started using it to reproduce the way upper-class speakers pronounced ain't I. (In the mouth of an old Etonian, ain't rhymed with "taunt" rather than "taint.") Illogical it may be, but aren't I caught on in both Britain and the United States. It may have come out of left field, but today it's standard English while ain't I definitely isn't.

Too bad. I rather like ain't, though I'm too cowardly to use it. If it hadn't outgrown its old meanings of "am not" and "are not," it might be acceptable today. And we'd have a sensible contraction for "am I not."

Q: "The English/Irish refer to a team as a plural thing ("˜England are playing great football this season'). I realize the English invented English but this drives me nuts! To me it is a non-issue. A team was, is, and always will be ONE team, no matter if there are 2 people or 2,000 people. A couple is always two but it is still just one couple. And certainly not to argue with you but I don't like your example "˜A couple of tenants own geckos.' I think the only reason it sounds acceptable is because the word tenants is plural. But you always have to ignore prepositional phrases. Anyway, just my two cents."—Posted by Rob on 5/8

A: The British have a much broader attitude toward collective nouns than we do. To us, "team" is singular, but to them it's a collective that they treat as a plural. In fact, things like soccer teams ("Manchester are leading"), companies ("Mobil plan to invest"), and government bodies ("the Cabinet have met") are all treated as plural in Britain.

They use punctuation marks and articles (a, an, the) and all sorts of other things differently, too. But do NOT assume that British English is purer or more correct than American English. Many characteristics that we identify with modern-day British English—the different usages, spellings, vocabulary words, some points of grammar, even the British accent with its broad a's and dropped r's—developed after the Revolutionary War. Remember that the Colonists brought with them 17th- and 18th-century British English, much of which has been preserved on our side of the Atlantic (and much of which has been altered on theirs). So what's considered correct in London is not necessarily correct in Philadelphia. A chapter in my next book will be devoted to this issue, which I discussed recently on my blog. Here's a link.

As for the collective noun couple, I don't agree that an attached prepositional phrase should be ignored when you're deciding whether the word is singular or plural. Certainly it's singular here: "The couple next-door vacations in Hawaii." But just as certainly it's plural here: "A couple of my friends vacation in Hawaii." And couple is plural here even without a prepositional phrase, because it's assumed: "Where do your friends vacation?" "¦ "A couple [of them] vacation in Hawaii, and a couple more prefer ski resorts."

Q: "I feel like I remember having read in my old college Chicago Manual of Style that there are a select few proper names for which the possessive is ' and not 's. I think one was Jesus (as in "˜He followed Jesus' teachings,' not "˜He followed Jesus's teachings'). I think it was the same for Moses and Sophocles "¦ am I making this up?"—Posted by lala on 5/8

A: You remember correctly! The usual practice in making names possessive is to add an apostrophe plus s. But there's an exception. When a Biblical or classical name ends in s, the custom is to add just the apostrophe: Jesus' disciples, Hercules' strength, Xerxes' writings, Archimedes' principle.

We also drop the s and use only the apostrophe in certain idiomatic expressions with the word "sake" (this avoids a pileup of sibilants). Examples: "for goodness' sake," "for conscience' sake," "for righteousness' sake," "for convenience' sake."

Q: "OK, so this has always really bugged me: is it the 1970s or the 1970's? For example, "˜I was born in the 1970s.' Or, "˜I was born in the 1970's.' I was always under the impression the apostrophe was erroneous, but I guess I might be wrong!"—Posted by Beth on 5/8

A: It's true that you never add an apostrophe to make an ordinary noun plural. But the plurals of numbers are another matter, a style issue that publishers have differed on over the years. In the first two editions of my book Woe Is I, my recommendation was to add an apostrophe plus s to make a number plural: 3's, for example, and 1970's. This was the style then recommended by the New York Times. Since then, both I and the Times have changed our opinions.

I now advise using only the s, with no apostrophe: 3s and 1970s. The third edition of my book Woe Is I (due out next year) and the children's edition, Woe Is I Jr. (published in 2007), reflect this change. I still recommend using the apostrophe to pluralize a single letter for the sake of readability. Without it, a sentence like this is gibberish: "My name is full of as, is, and us." Translation: "My name is full of a's, i's, and u's."

Yesterday: Five Lessons in Punctuation. Wednesday: Five Lessons in Grammar. Tuesday: Debunking Etymological Myths. Monday: Debunking Grammar Myths.

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Courtesy of Crumbs & Whiskers
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Animals
Inside Crumbs & Whiskers, the Bicoastal Cat Cafe That's Saving Kitties' Lives
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Courtesy of Crumbs & Whiskers

It took a backpacking trip to Thailand and a bit of serendipity for Kanchan Singh to realize her life goal of saving cats while serving lattes. “I met these two guys on the road [in 2014], and we became friends,” Singh tells Mental Floss about Crumbs & Whiskers, the bicoastal cat cafe she founded in Washington, D.C. in 2015 which, in addition to selling coffee and snacks, fosters adoptable felines from shelters. “They soon noticed that I was feeding every stray dog and cat in sight," and quickly picked up on the fact that their traveling companion was crazy about all things furry and fluffy.

On Singh’s final day in Thailand, which happened to be her birthday, her friends surprised her with a celebratory trip to a cat cafe in the city of Chiang Mai. “I remember walking in there being like, ‘This is the coolest, most amazing, weirdest thing I’ve ever done,'” Singh recalls. “I just connected with it so much on a spiritual level.”

Singh informed her friends that she planned to return to the U.S., quit her corporate consulting job, and open up her own cat cafe in the nation’s capital. They thought she was joking. But three years and two storefronts later, the joke is on everyone except for Singh—and the kitties she and her team have helped to rescue.

A customer pets cats while drinking coffee at the flagship Washington, D.C. location of cat cafe Crumbs & Whiskers.
A customer pets cats while drinking coffee at the flagship Washington, D.C. location of cat cafe Crumbs & Whiskers.
Courtesy of Crumbs & Whiskers

Washington, D.C. customers stroke a furry feline while enjoying coffee at cat cafe Crumbs & Whiskers.
Washington, D.C. customers stroke a furry feline while enjoying coffee at Crumbs & Whiskers.
Courtesy of Crumbs & Whiskers

Crumbs & Whiskers—which, in addition to its flagship D.C. location, also has a Los Angeles outpost—keeps a running count of the cats they've saved from risk of euthanasia and those who have been adopted. At press time, those numbers were 776 and 388, respectively, between the brand’s two locations.

Prices and services vary between establishments, but customers can typically expect to shell out anywhere from $6.50 to $35 to enjoy coffee time with cats (food and drinks are prepared off-site for health and safety reasons), activities like cat yoga sessions, or, in D.C., an entire day of coworking with—you guessed it—cats. Patrons can also participate in the occasional promotion or campaign, ranging from Black Friday fundraisers for shelter kitties to writing an ex-flame's name inside a litter box around Valentine's Day (where the cats will then do their business).

Cat cafes have existed in Asia for nearly 20 years, with the world’s first known one, Cat Flower Garden, opening in Taipei, Taiwan in 1998. The trend gained traction in Japan during the mid 2000s, and quickly spread across Asia. But when Singh visited Chiang Mai, the cat cafe craze—while alive and thriving in Thailand—had not yet hit the U.S. "Why does Thailand get this, but not the U.S.?" Singh remembers thinking.

Once she arrived back home in D.C., Singh set her sights on founding the nation’s first official cat cafe, launching a successful Kickstarter campaign that helped her secure a two-story space in the city’s Georgetown neighborhood. Ultimately, though, she was beat to the punch by the Cat Town Cafe in Oakland, California, which opened to the public in 2014, followed shortly after by establishments like New York City’s Meow Parlour.

LA customers at cat cafe Crumbs & Whiskers
LA customers at cat cafe Crumbs & Whiskers
Courtesy of Crumbs & Whiskers

Still, Crumbs & Whiskers—which officially launched in D.C. in the summer of 2015—was among the nation’s first wave of businesses (and the District's first) to offer customers the chance to enjoy feline companionship with a side of java, along with the opportunity to maybe even save a tiny life. Ultimately, the altruistic concept proved to be so successful that Singh, sensing a market for a similar storefront in Los Angeles, opened up a second location there in the fall of 2016. "I always felt like what L.A. is, culturally, just fits with the type of person that would go to a cat café," she says.

Someday, Singh hopes to bring Crumbs & Whiskers to Chicago and New York, and “for cat cafes as a concept, as an industry, to grow,” she says. “I think that it would be great for this to be the future of adoptions and animal rescues.” Until then, you can learn more about Crumbs & Whiskers (and the animals they rescue) by stopping by if you're in D.C. and LA, or by visiting their website.

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entertainment
15 Inconceivable Facts About The Princess Bride
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MGM

It's no wonder The Princess Bride is such a beloved film: It's action-packed but still lighthearted, sweet but not saccharine, silly but still smart—and, of course, endlessly quotable. Fortunately, in 2012, the movie's leading man Cary Elwes was inspired to write a behind-the-scenes book about the making of the movie in honor of its 25th anniversary, for which he interviewed nearly all of the key cast and crew (sadly, André the Giant, who played Fezzik, passed away in 1993).

Pulling from the impressively detailed text of As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride and various interviews Elwes and others have given over the years, we rounded up a series of fun facts and anecdotes sure to delight any fan of the film, which was released 30 years ago today.

1. IT WAS WRITTEN FOR THE AUTHOR'S DAUGHTERS.

William Goldman, who wrote the novel The Princess Bride in 1973 and penned the screenplay, told Entertainment Weekly that, "I had two little daughters, I think they were 7 and 4 at the time, and I said, 'I’ll write you a story. What do you want it to be about?' One of them said 'a princess' and the other one said 'a bride.' I said, 'That’ll be the title.'"

2. BOTH THE DIRECTOR AND THE LEADING MAN ALREADY KNEW AND LOVED THE STORY BEFORE FILMING EVEN BEGAN.

Cary Elwes' stepfather had given him Goldman's book in 1975, when the future actor was just 13 years old. Rob Reiner, who directed the movie, first read the book in his 20s when Goldman gave it to his father. It quickly became Reiner's favorite book of all time, and he had long wanted to turn it into a movie—but he had no idea that many before him had tried and failed.

3. FOR A LONG TIME, NO ONE WAS ABLE TO MAKE THE MOVIE.

At one point or another, Robert Redford, Norman Jewison, John Boorman, and François Truffaut all tried to get the book made into a movie, but due to a series of unrelated incidents—"green-lighters" getting fired, production houses closing—it languished for years. (In one of these proto-Princess Brides, a then-unknown Arnold Schwarzenegger was supposed to play Fezzik.) 

After several false starts, Goldman bought back the rights to the book. The movie only got made because Reiner had built up so much good will with movies like This is Spinal Tap and The Sure Thing that the studio, 20th Century Foxoffered to make any project of his choice.

4. MANDY PATINKIN FELT A PERSONAL CONNECTION TO THE CHARACTER OF INIGO MONTOYA.

Andre the Giant, Mandy Patinkin and Wallace Shawn in The Princess Bride (1987).
MGM

"The moment I read the script, I loved the part of Inigo Montoya," Patinkin told Entertainment Weekly. "That character just spoke to me profoundly. I had lost my own father—he died at 53 years old from pancreatic cancer in 1972. I didn’t think about it consciously, but I think that there was a part of me that thought, If I get that man in black, my father will come back. I talked to my dad all the time during filming, and it was very healing for me."

5. ANDRÉ THE GIANT COULD REALLY, REALLY DRINK.

Three bottles of cognac and 12 bottles of wine reportedly made him just a little tipsy. When the cast would go out for dinner, André—who, according to Robin Wright, ordered four appetizers and five entrees—would drink out of a 40-ounce beer pitcher filled with a mix of liquors, a concoction he called "The American."

6. ANDRÉ HAD AN UNCONVENTIONAL METHOD FOR LEARNING HIS LINES.

Reiner and Goldman met André, then a famous wrestler, at a bar in Paris. "I brought him up to the hotel room to audition him. He read this three-page scene, and I couldn’t understand one word he said," Reiner recalled. "I go, ‘Oh my God, what am I going to do? He’s perfect physically for the part, but I can’t understand him!’ So I recorded his entire part on tape, exactly how I wanted him to do it, and he studied the tape. He got pretty good!"

7. WILLIAM GOLDMAN WAS INCREDIBLY NERVOUS ON THE SET.

Of all the projects he’d written and worked on—which included the Academy Award-winning Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid—Goldman loved The Princess Bride best of all. This manifested itself as extreme nervousness about the project. Reiner invited Goldman to be on set for the duration of the filming—which Goldman did not want to do, saying, “I don’t like being on set. If you’re a screenwriter, it’s boring”—but on the first day, he proved to be a slight nuisance. The first couple takes were plagued by a barely-audible chanting, which turned out to be Goldman praying things would go well. And when Wright's character's dress caught on fire, he panicked, yelling, "Oh my god! Her dress is on fire!"—even though Goldman himself had written that into the script.

8. WALLACE SHAWN WAS BRILLIANT, BUT ALWAYS ON EDGE.

Wallace Shawn and Robin Wright in The Princess Bride (1987)
MGM

Shawn, who played Vizzini the Sicilian, really is, like his character, a man of "dizzying intellect." He has a history degree from Harvard and studied philosophy and economics at Oxford. In fact, on a day off from filming The Princess Bride, Shawn went to Oxford to give a guest lecture on British and American literature. But Shawn was inconsolably nervous for the entirety of filming.

After learning from his agent that Reiner had originally wanted Danny DeVito for the part, Shawn was wracked with insecurity, perpetually convinced that he was going to be fired after every bad take. "Danny is inimitable," Shawn said. "Each scene we did, I pictured how he would have done it and I knew I could never possibly have done it the way he could have done it," he said.

9. THE DUEL BETWEEN WESTLEY AND INIGO WAS EXCRUCIATINGLY RESEARCHED AND REHEARSED.

Goldman spent months researching 17th-century swordfighting manuals to craft Westley and Inigo's duel; all the references the characters make to specific moves and styles are completely accurate. Then Elwes and Patinkin, neither of whom had much (if any) fencing experience, spent more months training to perfect it—right- and left-handed.

"I knew that my job was to become the world’s greatest sword fighter," Patinkin recalled in Elwes's book. "I trained for about two months in New York and then we went to London and Cary and I trained every day that we weren’t shooting for four months. There were no stuntmen involved in any of the sword fights, except for one flip in the air.” Even after months of pre-shooting training, the fencing instructors came to set and, when there were a few free minutes, would pull Elwes and Patinkin aside to work on the choreography for the scene, which was intentionally one of the last to be shot.

10. IT WAS ELWES'S IDEA TO DIVE HEADFIRST INTO THE "QUICKSAND."

That particular Fire Swamp stunt was accomplished by having a trap door underneath a layer of sand, below which there was foam padding for the actors to fall onto. Originally, the direction called for Westley to jump in feet-first after Buttercup, but Elwes argued this wasn't particularly heroic. Switching up the direction was a risky move—if the trap door wasn't opened at exactly the right instant, Elwes risked banging his head—or even breaking his neck. After the stunt double successfully executed the dive, Elwes himself tried it, and nailed it perfectly on the first take.

11. MIRACLE MAX REALLY WAS THAT FUNNY—AND YOU'RE NOT EVEN SEEING HIS BEST STUFF.

Billy Crystal brought two photos for his makeup artist, Peter Montagna, to draw inspiration from when creating Miracle Max: Crystal’s grandmother and Casey Stengel. As for the acting, Elwes wrote in his book, "For three days straight and 10 hours a day, Billy improvised 13th-century period jokes, never saying the same thing or the same line twice." Unfortunately for viewers, many of the improvised jokes were not fit for a family-friendly film. Only the cast and crew knows how funny his more crude Miracle Max takes were, but judging from the fact that Patinkin bruised a rib trying to stifle his laughter, as he recounts in the book, they were probably pretty good.

12. BILLY CRYSTAL AND CAROL KANE, WHO PLAYED HIS WIFE, INVENTED AN ENTIRE BACKSTORY.

Carol Kane and Billy Crystal in The Princess Bride (1987)
MGM

"Billy came over to my apartment in Los Angeles and we took the book and underlined things and made up a little more backstory for ourselves," Kane said. "We added our own twists and turns and stuff that would amuse us, because there’s supposed to be a long history—who knows how many hundreds of years Max and Valerie have been together?" How has that pair not gotten a spin-off film yet? 

13. ELWES FILMED MANY OF HIS SCENES WITH A BROKEN TOE.

Six weeks into production, André convinced Elwes to go for a spin on the ATV that was used to transport the larger man to and from filming locations because he didn’t fit in the van. Almost immediately, the vehicle hit a rocky patch and Elwes got his foot stuck between two mechanisms in the vehicle, breaking his big toe. The young actor tried to hide the injury from his director, but, of course, Reiner quickly found out. He didn't find a new Westley, as Elwes feared he might, but they did have to work some movie magic to allow Elwes to limp around in many of the scenes undetected.

14. ONE PARTICULAR ON-SCREEN INJURY WASN'T FAKED.

As soon as Westley recognizes Count Rugen as the six-fingered man, the script calls for the Count to knock our hero unconscious with the butt of his sword. In filming, Christopher Guest, who played Rugen, was naturally reluctant to really hit Elwes for fear of hurting him. Unfortunately, this reticence was reading on screen and take after take failed to look convincing. Finally, Elwes suggested Guest just go for, at least tap him on the head to get the reaction timing right. The tap came a little too hard, however, and Elwes was knocked legitimately unconscious; he later awoke in the hospital emergency room. It's that take, with Elwes actually passing out, that appears in the film.

15. ONE OF THE FINAL SCENES NEVER MADE IT INTO THE FINAL FILM.

In an alternate ending that was eventually cut, Fred Savage—who plays the initially reluctant audience to Peter Falk's reading of The Princess Bride—goes to his window after his grandfather has left and sees Fezzik, Inigo, Westley, and Buttercup all on their white horses.

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