Tag Archives: English grammar

Are you a fan of its?

Sometimes editors (and others) wonder what the difference is between, say, “He’s not a fan of Cher” and “He’s not a fan of Cher’s.” Is there a distinction? Is it equally important in all instances?

There is a distinction: it’s between possession and association. In some cases it’s the same thing; in others, quite different. “A picture of Mr. Goldfine” is not a picture belonging to Mr. Goldfine but a picture depicting him; “A picture of Mr. Goldfine’s” is a picture belonging to him. (“Mr. Goldfine’s picture” can mean either because we use the “possessive” for both possession and association.)

When you talk about fandom, there is again the possible distinction between association and possession, but in that case it really refers to the same thing, just from a slightly different angle. “A fan of Cher’s” is the same as “a fan of Cher” but in the “Cher’s” case it gives a sense of there being a collection of fans belong to Cher, as opposed to it being simply an attitude on the part of the fan.

It also follows that because running in the rain is a kind of action, not an entity that can possess, “A fan of running in the rain’s” is odd.

English pronouns are more archaic than the rest of English; they preserve case distinctions that have been lost everywhere else, mainly because they’re so entrenched and we used them automatically by habit and without analysis. In cases such as this, a distinction can be made with them when there is a real distinction to be made: “A picture of him”; “A picture of his.” In instances where the distinction is not a significant one, we may hew to the older construction, which in this case uses the genitive because that was the case governed by this construction: “A fan of his” may seem more natural than “A fan of him” (though this will vary from speaker to speaker). (Languages that have full and productive cases systems for nouns tend to use different cases after different prepositions and depending on context; German and Latin are two languages that do this. Old English was another.) Note, however, that the association/possession distinction still matters: “I am not a fan of it” is fine; “I am not a fan of its” is probably not.

Seriously, what’s the problem with sentence adverbs?

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly

The English language is a very complex and powerful thing, capable of many nuances and quite resistant to simplistic attempts at tidying it up. Sadly, not everyone realizes that. Worse still, many people take very narrow and inconsistent views, focusing on pet peeves while letting parallel instances of usage pass unnoticed. It’s as though a self-trained self-appointed “master chef” opened a cooking school and taught, among other things, that salt and anything containing sodium can only be used in savoury dishes, never in desserts. The cakes may all be horrible and heavy and the puddings insipid, but goshdarn it, they’re culinarily correct!

Adverbs give us a good example of this. “An adverb modifies a verb,” some people say, “so it must always directly modify the main verb of the sentence. If someone says ‘Hopefully, they will be here tomorrow,’ it can only mean that their presence here will be hopeful.” And yet the same people will not be seen declaring that “Seriously, it will be very amusing” must mean that it will be amusing in a serious manner, or that “Frankly, you’re being evasive” must mean that your evasiveness is frank, or that “Clearly, someone has muddied the water” must mean that the water has been muddied in a clear manner.

If the “hopefully” peevers were to take note of how these other sentence adverbs function – using the adverb to give an attitude or setting for the entire sentence – they would be forced to allow the same role for hopefully… or perhaps they would decide that all those uses must be wrong, well established though they are (some date from the 1600s). But let’s say they allowed them. The next thing the forced-tidying mind might do – like the robot maid tossing out both the cat and the master of the house – is decide that only single-word adverbs can fill this role. Never mind that one may modify the action of a verb with prepositional phrases and participles; they’re not adverbs, so (the reasoning might go) they can’t be used as sentence adverbs. Sure, you can say “Hypothetically, he could resolve it with a clear statement of fact,” but you must not say “Speaking hypothetically, he could resolve it with a clear statement of fact”…!

Now, of course, there’s a perfectly good reason not to use the latter sentence – it has an ambiguity that could make the reader snicker (I like to say such sentences have a high SQ, or snicker quotient) – but ambiguity (and high SQ) is not the same thing as grammatical error. There are many instances of prepositional phrases, participles, and infinitives being used to set the scene for a sentence: “To give an example, he is disinclined to use illustrations”; “Going forward, all cars on the ferry must have their parking brakes on”; “Among other things, it is located on an empty treeless plain”; and so on. These do not generally raise the ire of the particular – although some can be awkward – and they are not ungrammatical.

Hopefully, as editors, we have eyes more finely tuned to such structures and can discern the many places and cases of their use. Going forward, I would like to suggest that we all keep our eyes open for every instance where an adverbial construction of any sort is used to give a setting for the entire action of a sentence rather than to modify the main verb directly – and, if we dislike it, ask ourselves whether it is truly ungrammatical or simply ambiguous. You may find yourself having to come to some surprising and possibly discomfiting conclusions.

Can you let it all dangle out?

After a month off from writing for The Week – I was just too much otherwise occupied – I have published a new article, about dangling participles and other dangling modifiers and whether it’s ever OK to use them:

Everything you wanted to know about danglers but were too afraid to ask


A passive aggressive quiz

Many people who like to give writing advice – or just pick at other people’s writing – like to hate on the passive voice. But quite a lot of those who do don’t actually know what they’re talking about. How about you? Try my latest salvo in The Week:

Grammar quiz: Do you know the passive voice?


I only wanted to explain this

This week is a bit of a double header for me: two articles published in different places at the same time. Yesterday I posted a link to my latest article on TheWeek.com; today I’m posting (in its entirely) my latest article on the Editors’ Association of Canada’s national blog, The Editors’ Weekly.

Adverbs are a problematic and much-maligned class of words. Linguists often have trouble explaining exactly why they go where they go. Some sorts of adverbs are baselessly despised (hopefully, people will eventually get over those hangups, but I’m not hopeful). Some people think adverbs should be excised from writing altogether.

I’d like to cover all the misconceptions relating to adverbs, but that would make for very long reading. So today, I’m only going to talk about the placement of one specific adverb.

Those of you who read that and thought, “That’s bad grammar — it should be ‘I’m going to talk only about’ or ‘I’m going to talk about only,’ ” raise your hands.

Hands raised? Keep them there. As long as they’re raised they won’t be causing any trouble.

Oh, there’s no mistake in thinking that careful placement of only has much to recommend it. The mistake is in thinking that putting it in the default position, right before the main verb, is an error unless it’s limiting the main verb specifically.

Let’s look at an example sentence:

I only wanted to bake three cakes.

Without context, all you know is that baking three cakes is the full scope of what I wanted. You don’t know if the thrust of it is “I was not happy about baking the fourth one” or “I didn’t want to have to decorate them” or “I had no desire to bake three pies too.”

But do you know what the supposed only correct interpretation of that is? It’s that I only wanted to bake the cakes — I didn’t actually do it.

Does that seem odd? It should. It’s a made-up rule with no correspondence to reality. As Matt Gordon recently said on Twitter, quoting a student paper he was marking, “If ‘this grammatical distinction has confused writers for centuries,’ maybe it’s those trying to impose the distinction who are confused.”

In truth, the only way you can make that only about wanted is to emphasize wanted, or to phrase it differently. That position is the default position for only regardless of what aspect of the action it is limiting. But the rule-thumpers insist that you must move the only right next to what it limits:

I wanted only to bake three cakes.

I wanted to bake only three cakes.

I wanted to bake three only cakes.

Ah, wait, the last one isn’t even usable. You have to do this:

I wanted to bake only three cakes.

But that blows the “rule” right away. If you can do that, you can do this:

I only wanted to bake three cakes.

You can do likewise for the other restrictions:

I only wanted to bake three cakes.

I only wanted to bake three cakes.

The fact that we can — and do — shift the emphasis like that without moving the only is proof that this is a standard feature of English grammar, and that the word feels natural in the default position and can work there quite well. Anyone who tells you that “I only wanted to bake three cakes” is wrong and must be “I wanted only to bake three cakes” has not correctly analyzed the syntax of the sentence. He or she also has a tin ear, and yet thinks himself or herself a better writer than the many respected authors throughout the history of English who have used only in the “wrong” way.

This is not to say that you can only put only before the main verb — or, if you prefer, it’s not to say that you can put only only before the main verb. Its mobility gives you a very good tool for clarifying the meaning. But the availability of the default position gives you a tool for adjusting the rhythm and the naturalness of the sentence when the meaning is clear anyway. Why limit your toolkit unnecessarily?


Today’s word tasting note is a guest post by Vancouver editorial genius Iva Cheung.

“Oh yeah? Well you guys may have won this time, but my team’s still the winningest!”

That’s how I imagine the first utterance of winningest, and the fact that the speaker, in my mind, could just as well have been a four-year-old as a drunken sports fan in a pub is telling. Winningest has a decidedly juvenile and unsophisticated ring to it, and, judging by the comments on Merriam-Webster’s entry for the word, a lot of people hate it, calling it a “made-up word” and a “lazy degradation of modern language.”

So why is it so objectionable?

Well, first, It hasn’t been around for all that long. Although the Online Etymology Dictionary claims winningest appeared in the written record by 1804, without seeing a reliable example, I’m more inclined to believe the Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster, which both trace the word back to the early 1970s. According to Webster’s in 1974 it appeared in The State newspaper in Columbia, South Carolina, which described the Maryland-Eastern Shore as the “winningest college basketball team in the nation.” Since the word was coined, it’s been used almost exclusively in (North) American sports pages.

Newness alone isn’t a good reason to find a word immature, though; after all, plenty of much newer words have seamlessly slipped into everyday usage. The resistance to accepting winningest as a “real word” probably comes from its weird morphology and incongruous semantics. We don’t usually slap the superlative -est morpheme onto the -ing morpheme—it seems like a mistake a young child might make—and winningest may be the only English word to feature this odd combination. Sure, present participle forms can serve beautifully as adjectives, but even words like charming and stunning—which we probably use more often as adjectives than as verbs—are compared using more and most rather than the -er and -est suffixes.

And speaking of which, if winningest exists, why doesn’t winninger? This lack of a comparative counterpart to winningest contributes to its oddness. What’s more, you could easily argue that the superlative doesn’t even make sense. We tend to think of winning as half of a dichotomy, not the end of a spectrum. Winning isn’t really a gradable adjective; if you’re not winning, you’re losing.

Yet this semantic mismatch is why winningest has found a niche as a functional word, despite the many reasons it shouldn’t exist. It doesn’t actually mean “most winning,” does it? To be the winningest means to have the most wins or victories, or to have the most success, typically in a sports context. And in that context, it’s unambiguous, succinct. You may wrinkle your nose at a phrase like “the winningest team in the league,” but you’re unlikely to be confused by it, and any other way of expressing the same concept would simply take more syllables.

Despite the objections to this “non-word,” it seems to be slowly seeping out from its sports confines into the rest of the world; even law firms are seizing the opportunity to declare themselves “the winningest.” The question is whether it’ll remain a one-off anomaly or spawn a new, productive way of affixing. Will we one day read about the eatingest competitor at the hot dog contest or the flyingest pilot in the air force?

I myself think people get too bothered about it

My latest article for TheWeek.com is about something some people get quite bent out of shape about: use of myself for purposes other than the reflexive. See what I have to say, and why:

Myself, I don’t see a problem