Tag Archives: syntax

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?

Topics, we front them

Featured on The Editors’ Weekly, blog of the Editors’ Association of Canada

English is normally a subject-verb-object kind of language, but there are some interesting exceptions, especially in casual contexts. Consider examples such as the following:

Poodles, we walk them. Labradors, they walk us.

Chickens we have; roads, not so much.

Not one of the clauses above follows standard English sentence order, and yet we understand them. Of the four clauses, the first is object, subject-verb-object (pronoun); the second is subject, subject (pronoun)-verb-object; the third is object-subject-verb; and the fourth is object, adverb – no subject or verb overtly expressed at all. All four are examples of topic fronting, sometimes called left dislocation. (Note that we normally use a comma to set off the topic when it is followed by a complete clause or an elliptical statement, but not usually when the sentence is not syntactically complete without it.)

So why do we depart from our usual syntactic structure? We do it to maintain our preferred information structure. When we communicate information, we usually prefer to introduce a topic and then comment on it with new information. This can be especially useful when we are contrasting two topics. We don’t have to do it; we could rewrite the above sentences as follows:

We walk poodles. Labradors walk us.

We have chickens; we don’t have roads to nearly the same extent.

The first example works well as rewritten, though it loses its folksy feel; it also loses the parallelism of topics, but it highlights the inversion, which has its own effect. The second really, um, fails to cross the road. And even in a structure such as the first, you get poorer results if you can’t make a useful inversion:

Shirts, we mend them. Shorts, we toss them.

We mend shirts. We toss shorts.

You can see it loses some of the contrast effect. In speech you can emphasize the topic structure using intonation; in print that option is not as available.

Now look at the preceding sentence (“In speech…”): it contrasts the adverbial prepositional phrases thematically by moving them from the end to the beginning of their clauses – and no one would object to it. So why does it seem somehow incorrect to do it with nouns?

It’s not because it’s some new error, or a structure borrowed from another language (though some languages do normally introduce topics first, regardless of syntactic role). In fact, as Mark Liberman has discussed on Language Log, left dislocation has existed in English as long as there has been an English for it to exist in.

What has happened is that it has fallen out of use in recent centuries. Like some other formerly standard things, such as double negatives, double superlatives, use of ain’t, pronunciation of –ing as –in, and use of ’em in place of them, it has come to be seen as nonstandard, especially when there is also a pronoun filling the same role – we can sometimes get away with it as poetic when there is no pronoun:

Parsley we put on the plate, sage we leave on the plain, rosemary and thyme we drop in the pot.

The nonstandard air of left dislocation gives a useful means of making your text seem casual or colloquial – as well as keeping a nice clear parallelism. On the other hand, if you need to seem more formally correct, you still have a means of putting it in front acceptably: just turn the parallel nouns into parallel prepositional phrases.

With poodles, we walk them; with Labradors, they walk us.

A little Hellgoing sentence mechanical deconstruction

In Lynn Coady’s Giller-Prize-winning book Hellgoing, one of my editorial colleagues has spotted the following sentence:

She tried not to stare at Marco while he spoke to whomever he was speaking to, but she wasn’t succeeding.

Does that look quite right? Are you not quite sure? It’s the sort of sentence that you might not think much about unless you stop and look at it, but if you do stop and look at it it might start to drive you a little crazy.

So let’s go into this little Hell and take apart this sentence and see how it works.

Core subjects and verbs:

She tried . . . but she wasn’t succeeding.

Tried what?

…tried not to stare…

Not to stare at whom?

…not to stare at Marco…

I’ll abbreviate “She tried not to stare at Marco” as STNSM. It’s syntactically fine, I think we can agree.

Now: when?

STNSM while he spoke…

OK, spoke to whom?

…he spoke to X

where whoever X was, he was speaking to him.

So X was the person he was speaking to. Whoever that was.

Now here is how that plays out in that bit of the sentence. We need a relativizer:

…he spoke to {the person} {[relativizer] he was speaking to him}

What happens is that {the person} is replaced by the whole {[relativizer] he was speaking to him}.

The relativizer is “whoever” or, as the case may be, “whomever”:

…he spoke to {whoever {he was speaking to [him]}}

The “him” at the end moves up and merges with the relativizer, giving it accusative case (i.e., making it the object) (see the bottom of this post for more on this):

…he spoke to {whoever [+him] he was speaking to}

…he spoke to {whomever he was speaking to}

That’s where the confusion happens. The raising and merging into “whomever” is something that can confuse just about anyone until they learn about the underlying movements.

It could have been

…he spoke to the person to whom he was speaking

Then “the person” stays put and it happens this way:

…he spoke to {the person} [relativizer] he was speaking to {him}

The relativizer would become just “whom”, moved up from the end:

…he spoke to {the person} [whom] he was speaking to

But the “to” typically follows it up in this case:

…he spoke to {the person} [to whom] he was speaking

Notice there are two “to”s in both versions.

So let’s look at the whole sentence again and match the parts:

She tried not to stare at Marco while he spoke to whomever he was speaking to, but she wasn’t succeeding.

What are the verbs?

tried … (not) to stare … spoke (to) … was … speaking (to) … wasn’t … succeeding

The conjugated verbs have subjects:

She tried … he spoke … he was … she wasn’t

Let’s add the complements:

She tried not to stare

to stare at Marco

he spoke to whomever

whomever he was speaking to [him]

she wasn’t succeeding

There are also the conjunctions “while” and “but”, and that makes the whole thing.

She tried not to stare at Marco while he spoke to whomever he was speaking to, but she wasn’t succeeding.

So there are actually no surplus words. Each verb “speaking” requires a “to”: “spoke to” and “was speaking to”. Formal English often frowns on stranding the preposition at the end, but it’s always been an available feature of English; indeed, it requires less syntactic movement. Raising the preposition with its complement is a funny thing to do from a syntactic perspective, and linguists call it “pied piping” because it’s as though the object is a pied piper getting the preposition to come dancing along with it.

Most of that is of course rather complex and more than the average person is inclined to want to know. But editors aren’t average persons, so I have put it here for your enjoyment.

Now, here’s the bit more about the “whoever” becoming “whomever”: The reason “whoever” is “whomever” is because it’s merged with the “him”. The entire relative clause is the object, and the case doesn’t penetrate inside it. Here’s proof:

He looked at whoever was speaking to him.

It would not be correct to say “whomever was speaking to him” because the “was” requires a subject, and that is “whoever.”

As it happens, I talk about how case assignment doesn’t automatically percolate into phrases in my latest article on TheWeek.com, “‘You and I’ vs. ‘You and me’.”

Why it’s best to leave grammar advice to experts

A company called ePly Online Event Registration has, on its website, a page on common errors of grammar and word choice that people make when creating web forms: “Are You Making These Common Wording Errors on Event Websites and Registration Forms?

It’s such a pity they didn’t get someone who had any expertise on the subject to write it. You see, some of their recommendations are good, but it’s all couched in a muck of ignorance and rubbish. It does no favours to the company – nor, for that matter, to the reputations of those who give grammar advice.

Let’s have a look at what I’m talking about, point by point.

First they tell people not to use insure where they should use ensure. I actually have no factual disagreement with this point; it’s a correction I make all the time. They give an example of correct use: “Ensure you register on time.” This is indeed grammatically correct. However, it’s also a bit stilted. Depending on the tone you want, “Make sure you register on time” would be better; giving the exact time might be even better (e.g., “Make sure to register by 11:59 pm on December 23”).

Next they hop onto the which/that distinction:

“That” refers to the noun in the sentence and gives essential information about the noun. “Which” introduces a qualifier that is non-essential.

Hm. First of all, the restriction of which to nonrestrictive clauses is not a grammatical law; it is a stylistic recommendation and does not have to be followed, even in North America (let alone in Britain). Secondly, their grammatical explanation is no good: “refers to the noun in the sentence” – most sentences have more than one noun; the subordinate clause beginning with that refers to the noun right before it… when it refers to a noun. It can also be the complement of a verb: “I think that you’re wrong.”

Then there’s their use of “essential” and “non-essential.” This is not really a clear way to put it. If I say “My car, which is older than I am, is not yet 50,” it is an essential trait of my car that it is not yet 50, though the “which is” clause is not essential to the sentence structure. The real difference is that the which-clause is nonrestrictive: that is to say, it’s not further specifying which car I’m talking about; I have only one car. Were I to say “My car that is older than I am is not yet 50,” it would imply that I have more than one car, and I am restricting the scope to the one older than I. But it is actually the commas, not the which or that, that make the difference. I could say “My car which is older than I am is not yet 50” and that would in fact be grammatically correct – though against a common North American practice.

They next pick on whether versus if:

“Whether” is not interchangeable with “if.” “Whether” expresses a condition where there are two or more alternatives.

Hmm. I don’t know if that’s true. Which is to say I don’t know whether that’s true. Which is to demonstrate that I actually know it’s not altogether true: although use of if in place of whether is considered less formal, it is possible in many (though not all) places.

One example of where it’s possible is their example. This is their example of correct use: “Indicate if you are attending the dinner.” Yes, that’s right, they seem to be saying that “Indicate whether you are attending the dinner” is incorrect. This is actually gobsmackingly off-base. The formal standard would actually be “Indicate whether you will attend the dinner.” The problem with the if version is not simply its reduced formality – which can be a good thing – but the fact that in some cases it may be misread: “Do X if you will do Y” can be taken as “If you will do Y, do X” and by implication “No need to do X if you are not doing Y” – an unlikely misconstrual in their specific example, but a possible one in some cases.

Next they dive into the less/fewer matter. Now, I’ve covered this in “When an ‘error’ isn’t”; the use of less for countable items dates back a millennium and a half and has been seen even in journals of science and philology. It’s true that if you use less to refer to countables you will provoke the ire of the peevers, and thus you do well to stick with fewer in contexts with any formality. But it’s not the iron-clad rule they make it to be. And what’s really bad is their explanation for it:

“Less” is for hypothetical amounts, whereas “fewer” or “few” refers to a number that is quantifiable.

OK, now I know for sure that this was written by some underpaid drudge with no real knowledge of the subject who looked up some stuff on grammar advice on the web and didn’t really process it well. For the record, less refers to mass objects: things that can’t be counted – be they real or hypothetical. Fewer refers only to countables. (Few is not a comparative and should not even be in that sentence unless we also bring in the non-comparative words for mass objects: little, not much, and a few others.) “A number that is quantifiable” is a head-desk phrase. All numbers are quantifiable. Oh, ePly, would you hire a non-expert to write about any other thing? Perhaps they would. I don’t know. Well, what they have here is rubbish. Browbeating, grammar-peeving rubbish that has some facepalming mistakes in it.

Just to prove further that their author is desperately ignorant in matters of English words and grammar, they move on next to this:

Impactful simply isn’t a word – “The keynote speaker will give an impactful presentation…” is grammatically incorrect. Sorry to take that one away from you.

First: impactful is a word, and has been for a long time. You don’t have to like it, but if you think it’s not a word, you have no understanding of what is and isn’t a word. Take a linguistics course, for heaven’s sake. One intro course in linguistics and you would stop making all of these dreadful errors.

That includes the error of saying that using a non-word is grammatically incorrect. No, a sentence such as “The vulks spanged the gromple” is not grammatically incorrect, it just uses lexical items for nouns and verb that are not attested in the lexicon and have no agreed sense. On the other hand, “The clowns spanks the dog” is grammatically incorrect because we can see it has an improper conjugation, and “Spanks the dog clown the” is grammatically incorrect because the word order is all wrong.

Next they talk about affect versus effect. This is in fact an important distinction to make. The advice they give is also generally true:

Remember, “affect” is a verb while “effect” is a noun.

However, they should effect one little change there: add a word such as normally or usually after each is. There is a noun affect referring to emotion, but it is uncommon; there is a verb effect, which is a silk-shirt way to say “cause to happen.” Still, this is not as bad as most of their slip-ups.

Next is the it’s/its distinction, also one worth maintaining. The only mistake they make is to say this:

“It’s” refer to a verb, whereas “its” is a possessive.

First, refer is conjugated improperly; it should be refers. Second, refer is not the right word either. It’s doesn’t refer to a verb; it contains a verb – one of two possibles: is and has. They should just say “It’s stands for it is or it has, whereas its is a possessive like his.”

Next they talk about the difference between then and than. They actually pretty much don’t say anything wrong about this. For once.

They follow this, however, with another example of a stylistic recommendation presented as an absolute law:

“Farther” refers to measurable distance, “further” should be used for an abstract length.

This is a distinction you can make but don’t have to. You can talk of going farther in a relationship and further down a road if you want; it’s just more common to do the converse. On the other hand, you can go far but not fur, and you can further an aim but you can’t farther it.

Oh, yes, by the way, their sentence has a comma splice in it. These people who tell you to proofread your forms (in their tips below their grammar advice) haven’t managed to catch a comma splice. Now, many nice people make comma splices – but I would recommend against making one in a screed of grammatical prescriptivism. Or, if you do, hire a proofreader to catch it.

They inveigh next against “misconnecting verbs”:

Wrong: You should try and register before the price goes up. Right: You should try to register before the price goes up.

The “wrong” version is informal – I wouldn’t recommend it in formal businesslike prose. They don’t really explain what’s up (the first is two imperatives presented in a colloquial idiom; the second is an imperative with an infinitive complement – but that’s more technical than most people would understand), but I’ll give them a pass on this one.

They cap off with this injunction:

“Cannot” should always be written as one word. Not “can not.”

In many cases, it’s actually better to write can’t, but that does depend on the formality of the document: many web forms suffer from excessive formality: “Upon completion of the registration process” rather than “When you have finished registering,” for instance. With cannot, though, they’re making too hard a rule again. Consider the distinction between can not do it (“am able not to do it”) and cannot do it (“am not able to do it”).

It’s not that there’s no value in reminding people of some common usage errors and some things that may seem excessively informal. It’s just that it can be done without overstating cases, saying inaccurate things, and making errors of one’s own.

How does one do that? Get an actual expert to write about it. There are many available, often at shamefully low rates.

Incomplete sentences? Sure! Why not?

My latest article for TheWeek.com is up, and it’s on the oft-maligned “sentence fragments”:

It’s totally okay to write incomplete sentences

A few readers have pointed out, as I rather thought someone might, that Shakespeare isn’t really the best example. This is true, but I needed an example that I could be confident readers would be familiar with and would not dismiss as too modern, and I also had a length limit. So there it is. The compromises always get you in the end.

You can also see this article on Salon.com, and I don’t even know where else.

One of the best poem

Here’s another poem from Songs of Love and Grammar, which I present today to fix in mind a problem construction often encountered.

The one

I’m dating a girl who likes moderation
but sometimes praises without reservation.
She has a cute way to show you your place:
she starts off partway, then slips you the ace.

I cooked her some dinner on our first date.
“That’s one of the best meal I ever ate!”
She said that. One best! A class of one!
Such flattery! And we’d just begun.

We went to a movie – the choice was clear:
“It’s one of the best film of the year,”
she said. “On that, the critics agree.”
(They’d all gone for this one? That’s news to me!)

As we walked back, the weather was just sublime:
“It’s one of the nicest night in quite a time.”
It was clear in all that she had to say
that she wanted to take things all the way.

At evening’s end, she gave me my throne:
“one of the best lover I’ve ever known.”
“Lover,” not “lovers” – now, how do you do:
on the list of the best, there’s no number two!

It looks like the matter is when, not whether,
we’ll be vowing to share the future together.
Her level of commitment is plain to see:
“You’re one of the only guy for me.”

This one is similar to the false concord issue, and it’s a very common
thing to see. The analytically “correct” way to put something like this – and the way that seems more natural to at least some of us – is to say, for instance, one of the best lovers. That is, there’s a set of people who are the best lovers, and the person in question is one of them. And, indeed, even people who would say or write one of the best lover would, I think, write one of them rather than one of him for short. But because the subject of the sentence is singular, and we have one as well, there’s a certain magnetism of singularity, shall we say. The speaker stays focused on the one person and uses one of the best as though it were a one-of-the-best or a top-quality to modify lover. Frankly, I’d still rather use the plural there – it just makes more sense to me.

Not that many of us are necessarily all that used to hearing the phrase in the
first place.

Make sure to visit Lulu.com to buy Songs of Love and Grammar for the word nerds in your life!

preposition, position

I’ll start this word tasting note with a poem from Songs of Love and Grammar (71 poems with this sensibility, nicely laid out and illustrated, just $12 on lulu.com, or $3.99 for the ebook). It’s about something just about everyone has a position on.

Indecent prepositions

by James Harbeck

I met a buxom grammatician
and said I’d like her out to take;
back she came with proposition:
in let’s stay and out let’s make.

I proceeded with elation
her proposal up to take,
and so prepared my habitation –
out put cat, up bed did make.

In she came and, around stalking,
switfly over she did take
and declared, with eyebrow cocking,
that me over she would make.

Up she tied me then and there
and smoothly off my clothes did take
and while I lay with syntax bare
she with my wallet off did make.

The upshot of my disquisition?
It is how down not to be shaken:
accept indecent preposition
and you might well in be taken.

The poem’s actually a bit of cheat, in that many of the ostensible prepositions are actually parts of phrasal verbs: take out, make out, take up, make up, take over, make over, tie up, take off, make off, shake down, take in. And some of the remainder are really adverbial uses. But I’m not of the disposition to reposition my composition in the face of opposition; the central proposition remains, that such transpositions are unnecessary impositions.

What is a preposition, anyway? It’s not something that pre-positions something as you would, say, a cushion near someone prone to passing out. It just comes before (pre) a noun phrase and says something about the position, physical or conceptual, of the things on either side of the preposition. (Sometimes the following noun phrase is moved and/or deleted. The preposition doesn’t have to move. You may not like it, but you have to put up with it. It’s just something you have to put up with. There is no rule against it, just a common superstition with no basis in actual authoritative usage.)

Oh, for the record, since there are actually many people who think this (some of them giving “answers” at online “answer” forums): is is not a preposition. It’s a verb.

There are also postpositions. The difference between a preposition and a postposition is the position, of course – a postposition comes at the end of a word (or noun phrase), whereas a preposition comes at the beginning. One might say that a postposition is the positron to a preposition’s electron. We don’t have postpositions in English; if we did, we might say things like your head above or this table on rather than above your head or on this table.

But, on the other hand, what postposition and preposition have in common is, of course, position. This word, originating in the Latin positio “act of placing”, which comes from the past participial stem of ponere “put” (which is also the fons et origo of all those words with pose in them, plus some pon words such as exponent), occupies a central position in English – actually a final position in the at least 40 words formed on it, but the point is that, in spite of its obvious morphology (pos+ition), it is effectively a basic word in modern English.

Did I say at least 40 words have the form [x]position? Yep. Here’s a list I’ve made with help from the Oxford English Dictionary:

adposition
anteposition
apposition
circumposition
composition
contraposition
counterposition
decomposition
deposition
disposition
electrodeposition
exposition
extraposition
imposition
indisposition
interposition
juxtaposition
malposition
opposition
out-position
oviposition
photocomposition
postposition
predisposition
preposition
pre-position
presupposition
proposition
recomposition
redeposition
redisposition
reimposition
reposition
retroposition
subterposition
superimposition
superposition
supposition
supraposition
transposition

And then there are all the common collocations of position, among which are these:

starting position
scoring position
geographical position
defensive position
take up position
jostle for position
in position
into position
out of position
sleeping position
fetal position
strong position
favourable position
precarious position
bargaining position
trading position
put you in an awkward position
in a position to help
philosophical position
official position
first position, second position, third position, fourth position, fifth position
privileged position
social position
full-time position, part-time position, salaried position, senior position, junior position
sex position
apply for the position, the position has been filled
in a unique position

Possession may be nine points of the law, but position is a pretty good fraction of the language. In Visual Thesaurus, it’s connected to no fewer than 16 nodes – that’s 16 different valences of meaning, though they’re all connected to the same basic sense of being somewhere. No other word can fill in for it in every position: not place (you may adjust your position in a chair, but not your place), not posture (you can’t ascend to a high posture in an organization), not point or situation or role.

And what position does position take in your mouth? Mostly a frontal one. It starts on the lips, and the other three consonants are on or near the tip of the tongue; of the three vowels, one (the stressed one in the middle) is high front, one is reduced mid central, and the other – the first one – may be a back vowel when given full value, but, like the final vowel, it’s almost always reduced to a neutral mid front-central one or sometimes deleted entirely (“pzishn”). The consonants alternate between voiceless and voiced; the middle two are fricatives, but in slightly different places, one buzzing and one shushing; it ends in the nasal, which also nasalizes the preceding vowel and sometimes pretty much merges with it. (Try this: say “sh” and hold it, and while holding it open your nose and add voice so it’s basically a “n” with the tongue not quite touching the tip – you see how you can shift the sound without really shifting position, if you’re lazy enough.)

And the shape of the word? Eight letters; one descender, one ascender, two dots; almost-mirroring o i io letters. It’s not an especially fast word to write, what with the dots and cross. And yet this borrowing from Latin has become a staple of English – on wordcount.org, which counts frequencies in the British National Corpus, it’s the 395th most common word in the language, just after woman and real and just before centre and south. Pretty decent, eh?

Semicolons are recess periods

The semicolon is one of the most confusing punctuation marks, and many people are really unsure what to do with it. Some use it in place of a colon; others use it where a comma would be correct.

In fact, a semicolon is really a period that’s wearing a comma costume. It’s a full stop, but it’s pretending not to be. In French it’s a “point-virgule”: a period-comma. I think I would prefer to call them recess periods; they’re really periods, but they’re like a short recess between classes, rather than the full stop at the end of the day – you have a class on one side and a class on the other, or, in this case, an independent clause on one side and an independent clause on the other.

Semicolons are not like colons, and they’re not like commas either. Commas are multipurpose things, but one of the things you can’t do is use them to join two syntactically independent clauses; that’s called a comma splice. A colon is like a pair of eyes, looking expectantly. What is on one side of a colon depends on what is on the other side in some way – syntactically and/or thematically.

A semicolon, on the other hand, is like a tightrope walker – you can see the head on top and the one leg carefully balancing (the other is directly behind and not visible). For the tightrope walker to stay balanced, what is on either side must have equal weight: they must be either syntactically independent clauses or complex list items (by complex list items I mean things in a list that have internal punctuation: We went to see some movies: I, Claudius; Dawg, the Bounty Hunter; and Unforgiven).

To know whether a clause is syntactically independent, look for a subject and conjugated verb; you need one of each (unless it’s an imperative) on either side of the recess period.

Bad: He likes going to the races; usually on Sunday.

Good: He likes going to the races; he usually goes on Sunday.

Also look for conjunctions, which make it not syntactically independent.

Bad: He likes going to the races; which he does on Sunday.

Good: He likes going to the races, which he does on Sunday.

Unless you’re using the semicolons to separate complex list items, the rule is that it would still be grammatically correct if you replaced the semicolon with a period – because, really, it is a period, and when you whip off the comma mask, it will reveal itself. Like in a Mozart opera.

Singular or plural?

The question that comes up every so often among editors has come up again: what do you do in a case such as Fish breed for one stage of their life cycles – or is it Fish breed for one stage of their life cycle?

If that one leaves you feeling uncertain, you’re in great company. Everyone who works with the English language has wondered about that one for ages. Even the style guides are mushy on it. So don’t feel as though somehow there’s a clue space that you’re not in on this one. It’s one of those things that the English language is not suitably designed to handle (another one is Either you or I [are/am] going).

Generally, I think, the leaning is towards using the singular where reasonable. In case like Fish breed for one stage of their life cycle, there is additional justification for this because one could assert that all the fish have the same life cycle in the abstract.

But what do you do with something like They each held a cake in their hands? After all, each person might have the cake in both hands. They each held a cake in their hand is clearer but might sound ugly. Each one held a cake in his hand is a problem if there are males and females, and Each one held a cake in his/her hand is ugly. Best to do something like Each of them held a cake in one hand if you can, or, better, There was a cake in the hand of each of them.

But isn’t it annoying that we should feel the need to shift flow and emphasis just to deal with a syntactic inadequacy of our language!

Going forward, it’s an adverb

A colleague recently asked what part of speech going forward is when used in the annoyingly common way such as Going forward, we’ll do it this way. Here’s what I said:

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