I have written a new quiz involving word choice. Some sentences on this quiz came from my own editing, others appeared elsewhere, and some were just made up. I put a disclaimer at the beginning of the quiz because at least two or three of the sentences gave me pause. I think I chose the better answer, but others might disagree. If you disagree, please leave a comment here. Or even if you agree, leave a post here.
I started to make a Grammar Guide quiz with examples of whoever and whomever, but I piled up so many sentences with whomever misused that I decided such a quiz would be useless. All the answers would be whoever.
Here are a few of the sentences:
If you’re thinking the jumbled Republican presidential field does not matter because whomever gets the nomination can’t win – think again. A Republican could well take the White House in 2012. (The pronoun should be whoever because it is the subject of the verb gets.)
But here's a reality check: Whomever is elected on Nov. 8 will be limited by the city's thin finances, said Brian Vargus, a political science professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. (Again, we need the nominative case whoever because the pronoun is the subject of a verb is.)
Authorities are asking for the public's help finding whomever is behind a series of burglaries at a storage facility in Clinton in early October. (The pronoun is the subject of is.)
This last example is a bit more complicated. Although the use of whomever stopped me right away, I had to think about it for a while to be sure.
But whomever it is that the Scots-Irish have become in modern America -- along with all the others that settled in Appalachia -- there is still a rich and distinct Appalachian mountain culture that the Scots-Irish helped to create.
You might think that whomever is the object of the verb have become, but it is a subject complement for the subject it linked by the verb is. You could puzzle it out by substituting words and changing the structure.
I am whoever I think I am.
She can be whoever she wants to become.
I am sure that the ubiquity of whomever is a matter of hypercorrection. Writers are trying hard to get the usage right and end up getting it wrong. My advice to writers and editors who think they need whomever: Check again.
If you’re thinking the jumbled Republican presidential field
does not matter because whomever gets the nomination
can’t win – think again. A Republican could well take the
Those readers who have followed my move from the Triangle Grammar Guide to this blog probably know of my quizzes on usage and grammar. Today I have posted the first on this platform. The format is the same as before, and it is a Flash-based quiz. (Sorry, iPad users.)
I hope you will give it a try and will send feedback. Please feel free to leave comments or to send email to email@example.com.
I hope to have exciting news soon about a new permanent site for the Grammar Guide.
I was among the copy editors and designers at The News & Observer whose jobs were eliminated in Raleigh. I, like the rest, was given the choice of leaving the company or accepting a job in a new central publishing center at the Charlotte Observer. I chose to continue to practice my profession, and I will begin work at the publishing center on Aug. 22.
I was on an urban light rail train recently in Charlotte, N.C., and noticed this message on the scrolling LED display. I wondered whether non-native English speakers would have trouble understanding the message.
The message is "Train is about to move." The word about in this sentence is an adverb used with the infinitive "to move" and is meant to tell riders that the train will be moving soon. It announces an intention. (Reminder: An adverb can modify a verb and tells where, when, how or to what degree.)
As R.W. Burchfield's version of "Fowler's Modern English Usage" notes, in American English, about is often expressed as a negative: "My mother was not about to let me go to the beach unchaperoned after my high school graduation."
These uses of about seem perfectly idiomatic to me as a native speaker, but I also know that about has other meanings and uses. As a copy editor, I know the word also comes with some usage baggage.
First the grammar geek stuff: About can be a preposition meaning "concerning" as in "I asked the store clerk about the dress I saw on the mannequin." It can mean "near" as in "The man who robbed the liquor store was about 6 feet tall and weighed about 200 pounds."
About is a adjective in this sentence: "The little boys were up and about at 6 a.m."
And here is an interesting angle on about from Fowler's. In a construction such as "The library will be closed for about three months during renovations," about is an "intensifying predeterminer." It is an adverb that could be replaced with another adverb such as "approximately" or "roughly."
Among journalists, the word is considered jargon as in the police report that "the victim was beaten about the head and shoulders." Copy editors usually change that to "on the head and shoulders." (I view "about the head and shoulders" affectionately because a colleague and I giggled over it regularly in my first newspaper job.)
Copy editors -- especially devotees of Theodore M. Bernstein's "The Careful Writer" -- know that about is used in approximations, so a sentence such as "The crowd was estimated at about 7,000" contains a redundancy. We've already used the verb estimated so we don't need about.
Also, as a corollary, many copy editors say the word at can be deleted in a sentence like this: "The accident happened at about 6:30 a.m." But as Bryan A. Garner writes in "Garner's Modern American Usage," "... in many contexts, especially those involving expressions of time, the phrase at about is common, idiomatic and unimpeachable." It seems to me, though, that taking out at does no harm.
Bernstein also wrote that about should be preferred over the casual around for the meaning of "approximately." I part ways with Bernstein on that. The construction "the accident happened around midnight" is fine with me.
If you'd like to read more about words that are sometimes prepositions and sometimes adverbs, check out The Tongue Untied.
I have had the word dilemma on my mind for the past week. The word comes up fairly often in the copy I edit and usually it is used to mean a problem or a difficult choice. In the strictest sense, a dilemma is a choice between two equally bad alternatives. It is being between a rock and a hard place. I almost always change the word -- to problem or difficult choice.
Here is an example of a dilemma. The Great Recession has wrecked state government budgets, and the states don't have enough money. Legislatures must choose between cutting money for essential services such as education or road building and raising taxes on residents and businesses that are still reeling from the bad times. The situation is not just a problem -- it's a choice between two undesirable alternatives.
A related term that appears seldom these days is Hobson's choice. A Hobson's choice is a take it or leave it choice. A mother tells her child, "You can eat the dinner I am serving tonight or you can go to your room without dinner." Hobson's choice comes from a 16th century English stable owner who gave customers only the choice of the horse in the closest stall or none at all. Writers rarely use the term because it is not well understood -- including by writers.
Sometimes, what looks like a dilemma (two bad choices) may seem to the person facing it to be a Hobson's choice (take it or leave it). You have been given two choices, both bad, it seems, but in fact one alternative is unfeasible so you really have a Hobson's choice -- you have to leave it.