To be or not to be

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Curious?A reader asked me to explain the verb be:

1.To be truly brilliant, an essay needs to utilise the right language.
2. Do not worry be happy.
What parts of speech ‘ to be ‘ belongs to and how to use it? I would be grateful if you could elaborate on the uses of be.

Although a thorough explanation would probably take a whole book, I gave him this brief explanation.

There is a lot to be said about the verb “be”.

First, as a verb in its own right, it usually is considered as a connecting verb (also known as a “state of being” verb). This is the usage in your first example. In the formation you use, it’s a little hard to see the connection between the subject (essay) and its adjective (brilliant). A similar but much simpler usage could be: “The essay is brilliant.” The verb “is” (present tense of the infinitive “to be”) connects the subject and the adjective which describes it. In your sentence the opening phrase uses the verb in its infinitive form.

In the second sentence, the verb is in the imperative form. The imperative is a command given to a person. Since it’s always in the second person (spoken directly to the receiver of the command) it is the only form in English that dispenses with the use of the pronoun. Here’s a more awkward form in which I’ll supply the pronoun: You must not worry yourself, you must be happy. While happiness is not generally something one can command in another, a much more common command using the verb “be” is “Be quiet!”

The verb “to be” is conjugated in the present tense as:

  • I am
  • You are
  • He/She/It is
  • We are
  • You are 
  • They are.

However, in the (not frequently used in English) subjunctive, the verb conjugation is as follows (I’m adding “if” because the subjunctive is used to indicate a state of wishfulness):

  • If I were
  • If you were
  • If he/she/it were
  • If we were
  • If you were
  • If they were

Notice that in the subjunctive there is only a slight difference from the past tense, which occurs in the first and third persons singular:

  • I was
  • You were
  • He/she/it was
  • We were
  • You were
  • They were

In some cases in the subjunctive, we actually use “be”:

  • Be it resolved…
  • Be that as it may…
  • Far be it from me…

These are all set expressions that have not evolved along with the language. They are difficult to explain to English language learners since they appear to violate normal rules of usage.

Further, the verb “to be” is frequently used as an auxiliary verb (or a modal verb) to create a verb tense.

It is used with the present progressive.

  • I am writing a blog post.
  • I was going to the store when the rain started.
  • He will be flying to Los Angeles tomorrow.
  • I have been editing for 30 years.

It is used to express expectation.

  • He should be finished working by now.
  • The goose will be cooked at 5 p.m.
  • The spy will have been caught by the time we cross the border.

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The trouble with troubles

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Trouble or troubles?I received the following grammar question:

Can you help with this? I’m confused.
Sentence A: My friends are in a lot of trouble.
Sentence B: I’m a man who’s made a lot of mistakes.
Why is it that “trouble” is in the singular form but “mistakes” is in the plural form? Why shouldn’t “trouble” be in the plural form as well or “mistakes” in singular form?

Although singular and plural forms of nouns are generally easy to learn, there are a lot of tricky areas.  Let’s recap: a noun is a person, place or idea (a thing); plural means more than one. This is easy, but English also has a form of noun called a collective noun. This means a word that implies a group of things, but is treated as a singular concept. An example is “herd.” You can say “A herd of cows is on the road.” However, some nouns can be used either as singular or collective, depending on the context. This is the case with the word trouble; whereas, mistake can only be singular. One can have a lot of trouble, which would be a big problem with lots of implications. Losing your job would be a lot of trouble.

Sometimes we use the phrase “a lot of trouble” to indicate degree of difficulty. “If it’s not a lot of trouble, could you help me find the missing files?”

However, trouble can also be used as a plural. “He has many troubles; his car broke down, his dog is sick, he has a broken leg, and he is the victim of identity theft.”

A common wedding toast is “May all your troubles be small ones.” This is both a wish for a good life and for having children.

On the other hand, mistake always refers to a single incident; we use the plural to refer to them together. “Buying a Lada was a mistake. Moving to Oklahoma was a mistake. Not buying Apple stock was a mistake. I’m a man who’s made a lot of mistakes.”

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Me, Myself and I: Misused pronouns

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me or myself?How to use myself

I was reading a newspaper article in which the following sentence appeared: “Myself and my neighbours would not support that proposal.” This is a common misuse of the reflexive pronoun myself. Imagine if this person had no neighbours. Would he say “Myself would not support that proposal?” I hope, as a native English speaker, he would use the correct pronoun: I, as in “I would not support that proposal.”

My guess as to how this error arises is that the reflexive pronoun myself can be used in two circumstances. First, we use it for emphasis. The speaker could use it to emphasize that he is personally objecting. “I, myself, could not support this proposal.” This usage is a little egoistic, since clearly there is no need to emphasize the subject. On the other hand, a more natural usage would be: “I, myself, built this house” (meaning I did it by myself, instead of hiring someone to do it.”

The other use of myself is related, and is used to show that the subject and object of the verb is the same person. I hit myself in the hand.

These are the only two times you should use myself: as a reflexive and for emphasis. All other uses are incorrect and should probably be I or me.

When to use I or me

Since we never use myself to stand in where I or me could do, which one should we use?  The following are some of the common places I hear these errors:

  • The boss asked myself to do it. (me)
  • Myself and Bob will be in charge. (I)
  • She gave it to myself. (me)

In two of the above cases, the pronoun me should have been used. But many people have an inner child who is constantly in fear of misusing me in the form of: Me and Sally went to the park (or even Sally and me went to the park). When we were children we were corrected and told “It’s Sally and I…” So we wiped “me” out of our vocabulary and stick with “and I” for any construction involving two persons, whether in the form of subject or object.

Thus we have “Please give it to Bob and I” as a common statement. “John went to the beach with Fred and I last weekend.”

Oh, the horror. It feels to me as if the pronoun me is being forced out of the English language. It’s a perfectly good pronoun and proper even in formal usage.

It wouldn’t be the first time in English that a pronoun has been forced out through fear of being wrong.

RIP Thou Thee

Remember thou and thee? Probably not, unless you are 500 years old. But at one time, English had a lot more pronouns. The second person subject pronoun was thou and the second person object pronoun was thee. We still use thee in our marriage vows: “With this ring I thee wed.”

Old English, being derived from Germanic languages through the Anglo Saxons originally used thou and thee for subject and object pronouns just like I and me. Following the Norman Conquest in 1066, the word you began to be used as well. You was used for formal usage, and the old forms were used for familiar usage. (Notice how the conqueror’s language had the high-class connotation. Don’t we like to suck up to people in power?)

What happened was that given two pronouns, with one being more fancy, people began to use the fancy one exclusively. Unlike today, when misusing a pronoun might evoke a sneer, or even an insulting blog post, in the 1500s calling your superior thee instead of you could earn you/thee a flogging. So to be on the safe side, people used you more often. Eventually, thee and thou fell out of use except in some isolated locations.

Will I follow thou into oblivion? It’s hard to say since today we have hard and fast grammar rules to follow. Today these common errors simply draw a sharp distinction between those who have mastered the basic grammar of the language and those who haven’t. And they keep us editors in business.

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a or an?

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Curious?Readers often ask a grammar question about whether to use a or an. This often occurs because they see a before a word beginning with a vowel, and they have been taught to use an before a vowel.

The short answer is that it depends on the sound of the noun or adjective following the determiner.

Let’s begin by identifying a or an as one of the 8 parts of speech. A and an are articles, like the. Articles are classified as determiners, which are a type of adjective. Whether we use a/an or the depends on whether we are referring to a specific example of a noun, or the general concept. (i.e. the blue car that is parked across from my house or a blue car, which could be any one of millions of blue cars). A determiner specifies a noun.

When the noun begins with a consonant sound, then we can use a because it’s easy to pronounce (i.e. a blue car). But English has evolved a second form for words that begin with vowel sounds (i.e. an aardvark). But some vowel sounds can be hard, they go better with a than an. One example is the long u sound. Therefore we say a university, not an university. Similarly, we say a European, not an European.

On the other hand, sometimes the initial consonant in a word is silent, as in honor or herb. So with these words, we use an.

A or an with acronyms or abbreviations

Since it’s the sound of the letter that guides us, when the article precedes an acronym or abbreviation, we have to consider how it will sound when read. An acronym is a word like Scuba (which means Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus). It’s made of the first letters of each of the words in the phrase. Sometimes acronyms skip a letter or use a vowel from one of the words to make them readable. Other abbreviations such as SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) are spoken with each letter sounded out (ess-pee-cee-eh). For such words, use the beginning sound of the word as spoken.  For example: “I found a dog; I need to find an SPCA shelter for it.”

A historic or an historic?

One challenging question is a historic or an historic. Oxford Dictionaries supports the use of an here as does Grammar Girl.  A Google Ngram plot of the two usages shows the two usages as similar (with “an historic” leading) until the 20th century. From the mid-20th century, the usage of an historic has been falling, and now is clearly not preferred.

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Comma before and

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CommaOne of the biggest controversies in writing in English is the use of a comma before and. This comma is known as the serial comma, or Oxford comma. One of the reasons that this little punctuation mark is so controversial is that it is not a requirement of grammar; it is a style consideration. Two major styles differ on the use of the serial comma: AP (Associated Press) and APA (American Psychological Association). Simply put, APA requires a serial comma and AP only uses it if needed for clarity.

BTW, MLA also requires a serial comma, so you English majors better get used to putting a comma before and in a series.

Comma before and in APA style

APA requires a serial comma because it is a scientific style and is focused on accuracy. APA does not like to leave things up to the individual writer’s discretion. Just as a scientific experiment must report every detail of the apparatus used to conduct the experiment, APA style expects that the writing does not allow for any ambiguity of meaning. In section 4.03 of APA 6, the serial comma is clearly required: “between elements (including before and and or) in a series of three or more items.” In fact, APA even requires the serial comma to be included in in-text references: (Smith, Smith, & Jones, 2016).

Comma before and in AP style

AP is a  journalistic style, so it is focused on brevity, but it also needs to ensure accuracy, so it leaves the decision up to editors. Here are two examples of how AP might treat the need for a comma before and from the blog AP vs Chicago:

  • I like to pet kittens, puppies and bunnies.
  • I had orange juice, toast, and yam and kegs for breakfast.  (Note: This is the cruelty-free version of AP’s classic “ham and eggs” example.)

Notice how the second version needed the comma before the first and because the second and denoted a pair that was not simply two more items in the series.

Grammar Girl points out that journalistic styles are always looking to save space, which is why they allow writers to drop the serial comma. She writes that she prefers the use of the serial comma because of the clarity.

And what’s the big deal on saving space in journalism? Well, in the old days, type was set by hand, letter by letter with bits of metal. Each item had to be manually inserted into a line of type. So an extra comma was a lot more extra work than a keystroke.

Comma before and in Chicago style

Speaking of Chicago, it “highly recommends” the use of the serial comma (6.08). Like APA style, Chicago is focused on scientific writing and precision, so it leaves little up to the writer’s discretion.

So what’s the bottom line?

Each of the major academic styles mentioned here, APA, MLA, and Chicago, use the serial comma. For academic writing, then leave it in. Check with the journal’s style if you are writing for a publication. In AP style, think about clarity. With an in-house publication, you should have an in-house style that all writers follow. Probably the number one thing to standardize is the use of the serial comma.

Countable or not?

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TortoiseWe know that uncountable nouns (words like happiness, or democracy) do not take an article (the or a). But one questioner found this sentence, which he wondered about:

 “He moved with a deliberate slowness to make the others wait for him.”
According to the Oxford dictionary, the word “slowness” is an uncountable noun. But there is an article before “deliberate slowness” in this sentence. Is it wrong? Thanks!

Although slowness is not countable, “a deliberate slowness” is a specific example of slowness, therefore the definite article is appropriate.

Hey, did you know that an article is actually an adjective. It’s called a “determiner”.

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Dangling modifiers

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A reader asked the following grammar question:

Faced with danger, a human’s adrenalin will be produced much faster.
Is this sentence correct? I think that “faced with danger” is a dangling participle, so this sentence is wrong. Am I right? If this sentence is really wrong, how should I revise it?


The reader is correct when he feels that something is wrong, but we need to tease the sentence apart a little to see exactly what.

Dangling participles

According to, a dangling participle is a phrase that upon close reading, modifies something other than what it was intended to modify. As in this example, the dangling participle is often found at the beginning of the sentence.

Grammar Girl has a great description of the dangling participle. She starts by explaining that participles are verb forms, but the present participle (the -ing form) can also be used as an adjective. For example: “I am running” uses a present participle, while “The running man…” uses an adjective.

So a participle phrase is a phrase containing a participle. In this case the participle is the past participle “faced”. So if there is a verb, then there must be a subject. Who is faced with danger.

In the main clause, the subject is “a human’s adrenaline”. Now, I hope you’re starting to see the problem. The verb in the participial phrase is not the action of the adrenaline, but of the human. Therefore, we need to change the main clause to fix this.

Faced with danger, a human will produce adrenaline much faster.

This has the added advantage of changing the main clause from a passive form to an active form.

Hopefully, a dangling modifier?

In a sentence like “Hopefully, my car will make it to California”, obviously it is not the car who is hopeful. This type of sentence construction drives many people crazy because they see “hopefully” as a dangling modifier.

However, remember that we define the parts of speech by the function. In this sentence, we could see “hopefully” as an interjection, as documented here. It simply expresses an emotion of the speaker. In fact, native speakers use this type of construction regularly and everyone understands the meaning clearly.

Finally, this construction is being accepted. In 2012, the Associated Press announced that it would allow this construction. Hopefully, grammarians can relax.

Go ahead. Ask me a grammar question.


What is Canadian English?

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Barry asks

What is the difference between Canadian English and US English?

There is no official Canadian English. In general, Canadian English follows British English in spelling, but American English in punctuation. However, on the spelling front, Canadian English is inconsistent. Canadian post-secondary education has a strong American influence because many Americans came to Canada in the 1960s and early 1970s to avoid fighting in the Vietnam War. Today, academics can easily cross the border for teaching positions because they are the type of job that can only be held by someone with particular qualifications. As a result, Canadian colleges and universities do not enforce British spelling rules consistently. In fact, my own degree, from Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, is “Honors English”, not “Honours English” as would be correct in British English.

Because of the great influence of American culture on Canada, and because of the slack standards in Canadian schools, I think the British spelling will fade away over time and Canadian English will become much more identical to US English.

Canadian English does follow American punctuation. In particular, this refers to how one places a period at the end of a sentence containing a quote. In British style, the period is only inside the quote if there is a period in the original. In US English, one places the period before the quotation mark at all times. Also, British English uses single quotation marks for most quotations, and only uses double quotation marks for a quote within a quote. American English is the opposite. There are also subtle differences with the use of dashes.

When I edit work for Canadian students, I usually follow their cue. If they are using American spelling, I keep the American spelling. However, if the paper uses both spellings, I edit it to be consistent with whichever spelling system is used more. As with all style issues, consistency is important.

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Semicolon, colon, or comma?

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colon, semicolon or comma?In my essay editing work, I make a lot of corrections where people mix up the use of the comma, semicolon and colon. So let’s take the time to examine the uses of each of these. The reason why these are mixed up is that sometimes a semicolon can be substituted for a comma, and people just get semicolon and colon mixed up because they are both used less often and have “colon” in the name.

The Comma, for a brief pause

Although the comma is generally thought of as a brief pause in the sentence, in fact it is more of a brief pause in the logic of a sentence.

The first place we use a comma is before coordinating conjunctions (and, but, or) that join independent clauses. That means if the clauses both have a subject and verb, and can stand alone as sentences, then they are independent. You can join them with a comma and a conjunction. (Without a coordinating conjunction, it’s a run-on sentence.)

She went to the baseball game, and I went to the opera.

We use a comma after an introductory adverbial clause.

During the rain, I went to the beach because it was not crowded.

We use a comma to set off a non-restrictive clause (usually introduced by “which” and does not “restrict” the preceding noun phrase to a specific individual example).

Purchasing books in university, which is a painful experience, taught me to be a bargain hunter.

Use a comma to separate items in a series

Do you include a comma before the last item in the series? The answer is generally, yes. This troubling comma is called the “Oxford comma” or “serial comma.” Some people are taught that it is required. Others are taught that it is forbidden. The APA style guide wants you to include it. Newspaper style guides leave it off, unless it is necessary for meanning. A famous example of where it is needed could be the following.

A famous example of where it is needed could be the following. In today’s election, I’m voting for Donald Trump, a windbag and a serial liar. Without a serial comma, the sentence makes it look like I’m casting one vote and the comma introduces an appositive or detail about the person I’m voting for. With a serial comma — In today’s election, I’m voting for Donald Trump, a windbag, and a serial liar — it’s clearer that these are three of my ballot choices in a list.

Use a semicolon to form parallel construction

Up above, I mentioned that without a coordinating conjunction, a sentence could be a run-on sentence. But we can fix a run-on sentence without adding a coordinating conjunction by changing the comma into a semicolon. This is my favorite use for a semicolon. Notice that a sentence with parallel construction has a subject and verb in both halves of the sentence. On spring break I went to Hawaii; the snorkeling was excellent. In this kind of sentence, a comma and semicolon cannot be interchanged.

Like a comma, a semicolon can also be used to separate items in a list

But in a list, sometimes we need to use a semicolon because a comma won’t do. In most lists, we use a comma to separate items in a series. But what do we do when we have comma within the items in the series? That’s when a semicolon can come in handy. Sometimes these are lists with long items. In my tour of Europe I visited the Louvre, Paris’s famous museum; Big Ben, the clock on the Thames; and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. I often see a semicolon used incorrectly when the items in the series are long, but don’t contain commas.

Use a colon to expand or explain, or to introduce items in a series

Many people use a semicolon incorrectly to introduce a list. This is the job for a colon.

I’m going to travel to:

  • Paris
  • London
  • Amsterdam

A colon can also be used to introduce a clause that expands or explains. Sometimes this can overlap with a semicolon, which introduces a parallel clause that might also explain. However, notice that the semicolon must be followed by a clause with a subject and verb.

I love sports: skydiving, polo, and tennis.

I love sports; skydiving, polo, and tennis are my favorites.

So, the colon, comma and semicolon have similar jobs: they separate things. A colon separates the introduction from items in a list, or from an explanation. A semicolon separates halves of a sentence in a parallel construction. A comma separates items in a list (unless the items include commas of their own) or it separates clauses.

Got any questions? Don’t hesitate to ask a grammar question.

Ellipsis: when shorter is better

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Gemma writes:

 Hi. I am teaching ellipsis to a group of students and I think I’ve confused myself!
The long sentence is:
How could their petition receive so many more signatures than our petition received?
Would that be shortened to:
How could their petition receive so many more signatures than our? OR:
How could their petition receive so many more signatures than ours?
I suspect it’s the second option, but why?
Help! I think I’ve been staring at this for too long now…

Let’s start by talking about ellipsis. What’s Gemma’s asking about is an action, shortening a sentence by replacing a noun phrase with a pronoun. But notice that she also uses three dots trailing her question. That’s the physical representation of something missing in a quotation. Here’s a blog post on ellipsis usage in academic writing.

Gemma is correct in the use of “ours.” We replace the noun phrase “our petition received”, with the possessive pronoun “ours.”

The confusion arises because we sometimes lump all types of pronouns together. However, there are two types of pronouns. Let’s call them regular pronouns and possessive pronouns. Possessive pronouns are words like “my”, “your”, and “his/hers” that show possession or ownership of a noun. (Because they describe a noun, they are really not possessive pronouns, but possessive adjectives.) But because they require a noun, they don’t replace a noun.

On the other hand, “mine”, “yours” and “ours” are actually pronouns. They replace the noun or noun phrase. Therefore, you can say “John’s car is nicer than ours”. (Notice the format: possessive noun + noun + verb + preposition + possessive pronoun.)

Also notice the use of the apostrophe. The only word in the sample sentence above that uses an apostrophe is the possessive noun. Possessive adjectives NEVER take an apostrophe. Pronouns NEVER take an apostrophe.