Tag Archives: English grammar

An article title, “An article title ‘An article title needs commas’ needs commas,” needs commas

A little while back, a fellow editor asked me about commas and appositives, particularly with an eye to mentioning titles of books and such like. Consider the following:

A 2011 report, “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa,” makes no mention of the weather in January.

The question was whether the commas should be there. It’s a restrictive, isn’t it? You’re specifying which report, right?

Actually, structurally, no. It’s kind of counterintuitive. In fact, with just a noun phrase there, you can’t make it restrictive. Compare:

A passenger, a young lady, sat next to me.

*A passenger a young lady sat next to me.

A passenger, who was a young lady, sat next to me.

A passenger who was a young lady sat next to me.

When it’s just a noun phrase, it’s effectively an alternate subject (or object, in a case such as “I sat next to another passenger, a young lady”) – you need to make a full relative clause to make a restrictive.

Now, if you use the, you can go with or without commas when it’s a name or title:

The report, “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa,” came out in July.

The report “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa” came out in July.

Note that the second is restrictive, while the first assumes that the report has already been established in a previous sentence and we are here just naming it. With “a” rather than “the” you of course can’t have established it before, but you are on the spot establishing it, and you would need a relative clause to restrict it further:

A report, “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa,” came out in July.

*A report “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa” came out in July.

A report called “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa” came out in July.

A report, called “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa,” came out in July.

In some nonstandard versions of English we can use a simple noun phrase as a restrictive: “I met a man Bojangles and he danced for me”; we see survivals of this in something like “He is her man Friday.” But it’s not a real option in standard modern English.

And how about an instance like the following – should there be a comma after “report”?

In the 2011 report “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa,” the authors pretend it’s not brass monkey weather in January.

In fact, it’s fine as it is as long as the report is not previously established in the text. If we said “In a 2011 report,” we would need to use commas, but with “In the 2011 report” we can’t use the comma (the comma after is fine because it’s the end of the propositional phrase that’s modifying the main clause). If the report is previously established – “…there were annual reports on Ottawa tourism from 2009 to 2014” – then your sentence would be “In the 2011 report, ‘Fun Things’” etc.

Here are the three possible combinations of articles and commas, with comments:

  • In the 2011 report “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa” – specifies which book you’re talking about that you are newly introducing
  • In the 2011 report, “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa” – the book has been previously named, so you’re not at this point establishing its identity, you’re just clarifying it
  • In a 2011 report, “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa” – “a 2011 report” posits some report, tout court, without greater specificity possible; you can’t narrow down on a because then it’s not a report, it’s the report, this report – so if you add the title it has to be non-restrictive because a can’t be restricted further

There was one more question, based on a reading of a dictum from the Chicago Manual of Style: If you use something like called before the title, shouldn’t it have a comma? Like this:

A 2011 report called, “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa,” etc.

The answer is no, it shouldn’t. It’s an error I see on occasion, I think because of confusion with sentences such as “John said, ‘Come in,’” and “Suzie called, ‘It’s time for dinner!’” In the use here, call is a verb that takes three arguments (in the syntactic/semantic sense of argument: an entity or actor or complement): a subject and two objects. The first object is what (or who) is being called, and the second is what that person or thing is being called (i.e., the name). “I shall call him John.” When used as an adjective, the subject is removed (same as in the passive voice) but there still need to be both objects. “A boy1 called John2 came to see you” – not “A boy called, John, came to see you.” (You can write “A boy, called John, came to see you,” making it non-restrictive, because “called John” is a relative clause, though a nonfinite one. But that’s a separate matter.)

The rule is the same for entitled: “A report entitled ‘How to Freeze Your Ass Off in Ottawa’ just came out” – not “A report entitled, ‘How to Freeze Your Ass Off in Ottawa,’ just came out.” It has the same argument structure.

Always remember: approach authoritative grammar guides such as the Chicago Manual of Style with the Buddha’s dictum (a variant thereof) in mind: if something you read in it conflicts with your sense of what is usable English, follow your sense… and figure out what the reason is for the discrepancy. If following a rule makes something sound weird to you, the odds are good that the rule doesn’t apply in that way in that instance.

Time to learn about copulation

Some people really screw up their grammar. They do it by trying too hard and by misanalysing what’s going on – they’ve learned a few simple rules and don’t know the fuller facts of language, because no one told them about copulation… or resultatives or substantives.

Well, time to find out. Here’s my latest article for The Week:

What we talk about when we talk about (word) copulation


Planethood for the possessive

In my latest article for The Week, I take up another cause that’s not likely to go anywhere but is worth setting forth just to get people thinking about it and more aware of what’s going on in their language. What is it? It’s about the lady with all the money. Well, the lady with all the money’s cat. Actually, it’s the ladies with all the money. Or, anyway, the ladies with all the money’s cats. Or, no, in fact, it’s just those ’s possessives, which pretend to be suffixes but might be better treated as independent words:

Why we should stop using an apostrophe s for possessives


Whom do you believe?

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly, blog.editors.ca

First of all: If you can avoid using whom, you should. Any but the most formal texts are better off without it; it’s a foreign word for most users, as evidenced by the general inability of even many language professionals to use it quite correctly all the time.

Sometimes, however, you have to use it. The text demands it. When you do, you may be faced with a choice between two voices in your head – the one who says what you would say without thinking too hard about, and the one who says what you would say if you did think too hard about it. Whom do you believe? More to the point, who do you believe is right?

As a general rule, believe the first one. That’s the one that won’t tell you to use “Whom do you believe is right?”

Is that whom wrong? You bet it is. It’s also an error many people make. Here’s what’s wrong and how to avoid it – and similar misadventures.

The key is this: Always look for a subject for every conjugated verb.

We know (I hope) that whom is for the object and who is for the subject (and, if you don’t use whom, who is for the object too). We also know that when we ask a question or make a relative clause, the subject or object of the verb is at the start of the clause:

She is right.

Who is right?

She tickled him.

Whom did she tickle?

A woman knows her grammar.

She’s a woman who knows her grammar.

She tickles him.

He’s a man whom she tickles.

In each of the above sentences, all subjects are in small caps, all conjugated verbs are underlined, and all objects are in bold. Not all verbs have objects, but they all have subjects. In some sentence a single subject has two verbs – “He baked a cake and iced it nicely.” But unless the verb is an imperative, there has to be an explicit subject. And if that subject is the interrogative or relative pronoun, it has to be who, not whom. So:

Who do you believe is right?

Who is the subject of is. And you is the subject of do (which is the auxiliary for the infinitive believe). If you make who into whom, you don’t have a subject for is.

This throws people off because they see “do you believe” and think, well, it has to have an object. “Whom do you believe” is correct, after all.

But when it’s “…believe is right,” it’s not the same. You say “I believe him” but not “I believe him is right” because the clause “he is right” is the object of believe, and within it he is the subject of is. We get tripped up because the subject and object raise to the same position (I’ve added brackets to separate the clauses):

I believe [she tickled him].

[Who] do I believe [tickled him]?

[Whom] do I believe [she tickled]?

The key, as I said, is to make sure you have a subject for every verb. Or avoid using whom altogether. And when you are faced with those voices, ask yourself: Whom do you believe? And [who] do you believe [is right]?

The geniorum octopodes

We know how some people insist on using borrowed plurals (heck, one of my first articles for The Week, a couple of years ago, was on that). But here’s the thing: they just borrow the nominative plural and think they’re covered. That works fine with languages such as French and Italian, but it’s just a token effort when you come to a fully inflecting language such as Latin. If you want to insist on genii instead of geniuses because it’s truer to the Latin, you really ought to know that genii’s is, by the same token, just plain wrong. It should be geniorum. Find out this and much more in my latest:

Octopus, octopi… octopodem? A guide to humiliating grammar nerds with Latin inflections

(Am I being dead serious with this? …Really, what do you think?)

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.