Cooking up some grammar answers

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A reader from Kansas asked the following free grammar question:

Anyone can become a good cook if they tries?

My answer:

Your question exposes one of the basic flaws of the English language: we don’t have a third person singular gender neutral pronoun.

What does that mean? If the cook in the question is male, then we can write: Anyone can become a good cook if he tries.

If the cook in the question is female, then we can write: Anyone can become a good cook if she tries.

But we don’t know the gender of the cook in question!

The old-fashioned solution in the English language is to simply use the male pronoun when we don’t know the gender of the person. There are plenty of rule books supporting this.

But in these modern, politically correct, gender sensitive days, it seems insensitive.

Some people try to get around the lack of a third person singular pronoun by using the third person plural pronoun: Anyone can become a good cook if they try. But you see the problem in this sentence is that we have shifted from a single person at the beginning of the sentence to more than one person (they) at the end of the sentence.

One proposed solution is the hybrid word s/he. Anyone can become a good cook if s/he tries. It looks ugly to me and I don’t think many teachers are liberal enough with the language to accept that.

So, really the best solution is to revise the sentence to avoid the dilemma: One can become a good cook if one tries. (Seems a little upper class English to me; I bet you don’t hear that sentence often in Kansas.) With effort, anyone can become a good cook (or writer).

Here’s another question; this time it’s from New York.

Hi, Can you please explain which statements below are correct?

3 cupcakes is the limit per student.
3 cupcakes are the limit per student.

3 crayons is the most you may have.
3 crayons are the most you may have.

Think of it this way: The limit is three cupcakes; The most you may have is 3 crayons.

The subject of the first sentence is “limit” and of the second sentence is “most.” This is true in the way I’ve re-arranged the sentence, but also in the original form.

The verb has to agree with the subject. These subjects are singular, therefore the verb has to be “is”.

And finally, a question from way down under in Brisbane, Australia:

If using an abbreviation derived from a plural term, is a singular or plural verb used. Eg: the abbreviation for communication and information systems is CIS. Should I use: CIS is or CIS are? Is there a reference for this? (My boss will want one!!)

My gut told be to treat it as a whatever it is, so I would treat a singular abbreviation as singular and a plural abbreviation as a plural.

However, I did look for a reference for you and I learned: “As subjects, acronyms should be treated as singulars, even when they stand for plurals; therefore, they require a singular verb (“NIOSH is committed to . . .”).” This is from Pennsylvania State University in a technical writing resource.

Thanks for your enquiry, I learned something new.

I love getting these grammar questions. Your questions keep me on my toes and I often learn something new. Keep them coming!

A Complaint Letter

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Have you ever struggled to understand the assembly instructions of a product? I know I have. We received this question from a reader requesting free grammar help:

Do I need a comma in this sentence?
Therefore not wanting to purchase it and have to battele with the assembly process.

Normally you would put a comma before “therefore,”–however, this is not a sentence–it is a sentence fragment. Even if you had something before “therefore”, you would need a subect to make it a complete sentence. I’m making up some parts to fix the sentence, I hope you can see where it changes:

The instructions are too complicated for this product, therefore I don’t want to purchase it and have to battle with the assembly process.

And thanks for asking for grammar help with this letter. An effective complaint letter should be grammatically correct. You will get a better response from any company if they think you are an effective communicator. They may imagine you are capable of mounting a campaign against them, and in these days of social media, it doesn’t take much to spread the word about shoddy business practices.

How many assembly instructions have we battled with this past Christmas season. I was given a new office chair, for which I am immensely grateful. However, it did require assembly. The assembly instructions were in English and French, as per Canadian law. However, some parts of the instructions were in French only! Fortunately I do speak enough French to work my way through them, but that’s a pretty poor quality control process.

The chair was made in China, of course, and I’m guessing that most of the people making it didn’t speak either English or French. But I’d hope that someone from the company selling the chair in Canada would at least visit the factory at some point and examine the manufacturing process from beginning to end, including the assembly instructions.

As Shakespeare said: “All’s well that ends well.” And now I’m resting comfortably in my new chair, after doing battle with the assembly instructions.

Scientific Writing

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A reader submitted this paragraph for free proofreading:
The experiments had been carried out on “18th, 19th, and 20th” June 2005; using two receivers “Ashtech Z12 at the base station and Ashtech X-TREME at the rover station”. The orientation of the base line “its length ≈ 49.0 m” is approximately north east with an azimuth of 41o.
Figure (1) demonstrates the location of both base and rover stations, and harsh environment around the antennas, which are possible sources of background multi-path. For the whole days, the base antenna remained centered and kept fixed, while the rover antenna kept fixed during the first two days, and then a sudden small movement was applied to it by amount of “2.7 cm ± 0.5 mm” in the southeast direction in the third day after ≈40 minutes from first observation. The induced movement magnitude and direction are defined by terrestrial measurements using total station equipment .The data collected for approximately 1.45 hours with observation rate of 0.5 Hz for all data sessions [Faried 2007].
In this paper, the direction of movement is defined precisely by terrestrial measurement as mentioned above, as it is the key factor to assess the movement magnitude correctly. In real environment, the direction of deformation could be guessed based on the structure behavior (for example: dam deformed in lateral direction due the water load and so on).

Suggested changes are below in red. My comments are in italics.

The first error I see is the quotation marks. People often put quotation marks in for material they consider important. However, this is wrong. Quotation marks are used for a specific purpose: to show words taken from somewhere else. I eliminated quotation marks in the first sentence as there did not seem to be any grammatical need for them. If words are quoted for a particular reason, then the source of the quotation should be included for reference. Unfortunately scientific symbols do not transmit properly in this text mode, so I’ve had to make a few guesses.

The experiments were carried out on the 18th, 19th, and 20th of June 2005, using two receivers: Ashtech Z12 at the base station and Ashtech X-TREME at the rover station. The orientation of the base line with its length of 49.0 m is approximately north east with an azimuth of 41o.

Another problem with this first sentence is the use of a semi-colon. Use a semicolon for sentences with parallel structure; each side of the semi-colon is grammatically equivalent. Use a colon for to introduce a list or to emphasize a point.

Figure (1) demonstrates the location of both base and rover stations, and the harsh environment around the antennas, which are possible sources of background multi-path. For whole days, the base antenna remained centered and kept fixed, while the rover antenna kept fixed during the first two days. A sudden small movement was applied to it by amount of 2.7 cm ± 0.5 mm in the southeast direction on the third day after 40 minutes from first observation. The induced movement magnitude and direction are defined by terrestrial measurements using total station equipment. The data was collected for approximately 1.45 hours with an observation rate of 0.5 Hz for all data sessions (Faried, 2007).

The square brackets were changed to normal parentheses. We use square brackets to indicate where material might be changed slightly to fix grammar. An example might be to add a word [the] to a sentence to clarify. It acknowledges to the reader that a small change has been made to quoted material. The reader can go and find the original if he is concerned that the meaning has been changed. For citations, use parentheses with the name of the author and the date separated by a comma. (This may vary depending on the reference style.)

In this paper, the direction of movement is defined precisely by terrestrial measurement as mentioned above, as it is the key factor to assess the movement magnitude correctly. In the real environment, the direction of deformation could be guessed, based on the structural behavior (for example: a dam deformed in a lateral direction due the water load and so on).

The passive voice is used in scientific writing, as it is in much other academic writing. I have yet to find a software solution that takes into account the use of passive voice in academic writing. When I edit material, I often run it through MS Word’s grammar checker as a last check before I return the work and it consistently flags passive voice constructions as incorrect. However, these are absolutely correct in most cases. It is especially true in scientific writing that the writing should be done to eliminate the personal. I am aware that there is a shift and that some writing is being accepted into scientific journals that is more active, as long as it sticks to the principle that all steps in the process are described so they can be reproduced. I’ve also used WhiteSmoke’s grammar checker, and it also flags passive voice constructions. In the end, I think there is no substitution for a real live editor.

We ain’t saints! No matter where we live

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A reader in St. Cloud Minnesota asks:
Which is proper, to use St. Cloud, or Saint Cloud, for the name of a city?

Answer: Since you live there you should be able to find out what the common practice is pretty easily. But seriously, it’s perfectly acceptable to use the abbreviation “St.” for the name of a city or even to refer to a saint in your writing. Most cities named after saints use the abbreviation in their names. Some examples are: St. Paul, St. Bruno, St. Moritz.

The abbreviation for a female saint is “Ste.” which gives us the name “Sault Ste. Marie”, known as “The Soo” because that’s how you pronounce “Sault.” I wonder if that word, meaning “jump” in French, relates to the portage, which would have been necessary during the days that voyageurs paddled their way into the interior of the continent past this connection between Lake Huron and Lake Superior.

But who can tell me why there’s a city named “St. Cloud?” Is there a saint named Cloud? I do have a bee in my bonnet about place names. I live in Gibsons, which is named after a fellow named Gibson. It was originally Gibson’s Landing, which makes sense because it was a place to land owned by Mr. Gibson. But somehow in the ages we dropped the “Landing” which would have left “Gibson’s” (I see many a sign with this on it) but of course the grammarians like me couldn’t live a possessive noun without a possessive complement, so the apostrophe was dropped and we have simply “Gibsons.”

Respect us Americans!

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A reader in Brooklyn New York asked the following Grammar Question:
Please tell me which is correct: “Iran should show more respect to us Americans,” or “Iran should show more respect to we Americans”.

The short answer is: “…us Americans.”

Now for the explanation. The word “Americans” is an adjective describing the pronoun “us.” It defines which group of people “us” refers to. You might not wonder about the grammar of the sentence “Iran should show more respect to us,” but you might wonder about which group of people “us” refers to. Should they show respect to Americans? Or just people from New York? Or self-proclaimed grammar gurus? The adjective clarifies.

As always, we use “we” as a subject, and “us” as an object. The phrase “us Americans” is an object complement to the verb “respect.”

Now, as a Canadian, I can’t use the phrase “us Americans” under any circumstances.  And I think the entire world should give more respect to us Canadians. I wouldn’t venture to comment on who in the world you Americans should give more respect to.

Grammar Questions-some English idioms

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English is a crazy language to learn. One problem is that English evolved from a combination of old Germanic languages and old French. Thus some words have roots in the northern European languages and some words have roots in southern European languages. English is a fairly young language, coming into its modern form only about 700 years ago. Since that time the basic syntax and vocabulary haven’t changed, but the spelling and pronunciation have continued to evolve. Spelling was flexible until those crazy Victorians started writing rules for everything, and we’ve been stuck ever since.

However, since English is now spoken as a means of international communication in business and academics, many  people are learning English as a second, third, fourth or additional language. The great thing is that they are all adding new words to the language. As a Scrabble player, I’m grateful for qi, qat, qintar and suq. I don’t care for the taste of poi, but I’m learning to love couscous.

Many of my readers are struggling with some phrases in English, because, honestly, they just don’t make sense. The only way to learn the idioms is to ask, memorize and use them a few times to get used to them. Confused? Read on.

I’d like to schedule/set/hold/make an appointment with a doctor.
Schedule, set, or make are all equivalent. We wouldn’t say “hold”. In business we can schedule, hold, or call a meeting.

Please fill up/out/in the attached form.
Fill out and fill in are the same…write the appropriate information. Fill up usually means to fill something with a liquid, like fill up your car with gas.

We don’t take no for an answer.
We insist that you say yes. The use of the double negative is for emphasis.

informed consent.

For legal reasons, particularly in a medical procedure, informed consent means a person agrees, but also that they have been informed of the risks and they really understand what they are agreeing to.

Although the film was good it received “a poor write-up” from the critics.
A write-up, in this case, means a review. In general a write-up means any written report.

More /most recently.
More recently means the second thing that I’m going to tell you about happened after the first thing I told you about. Most recently means the thing I’m about to tell you is more recent than either of the two or more things I already told you and there’s nothing else more recent than that.

Most of students work hard/ most students work hard.
Most of the students work hard: This refers only to a certain group of students.
Most students work hard: This refers to all students in general.

Back in October 2007…
This refers to something that happened in October 2007

Conquistador/conqueror
Conquistador is the Spanish word for “conqueror” and we use it to refer to the Spanish army which conquered the Aztecs and Incas in South and Central America in the 1500s. It’s another example of a word from another language that has been incorporated into English.

Face/off
A faceoff is either the beginning of a sporting event such as hockey when the referee tosses the puck in the air so the teams can begin playing against each other.  It is also any situation where two people or teams argue, debate or have some kind of conflict.

Footballer/Londoner/ New Yorker .ER comes only  at the end of the verbs to be verber or adjective.
–er at the end of a noun makes it into an adjective

Warrior, war is not a verb.
Warrior and war are nouns. The verb would be “to make war” or “to be at war.” Sometimes we talk about “warring countries”, but that is really an adjective.

Maybe or may be
May be is an expression with a verb “may” and another verb in the infinitive form “be.” “Maybe” is an adverb meaning “possibly.” If something may happen we can say “maybe it will happen” or “it may be.”

Anyone has OR have a question
It depends on the construction of the sentence.
Does anyone have a question? The main verb is “does” and “have” is in the infinitive form.
If anyone has a question, then ask. Now the main verb is “has” and must agree with “anyone” (singular.)

Someone has OR have a question
Same as above.

On my behalf  OR  on behalf of me
Either is correct, the first is preferable.

Write to us/  write us

Either is correct.

What for/ for what
Both are used in different constructions. They mean the same thing.
I don’t know what that is for. (This is how normal people speak.)
I don’t know for what that is used. (This is a formal way of writing and obeys the old rule of not ending a sentence in a preposition.)

“What for” is also used as a slang term for yelling at someone. I gave him what for when he dented my car. (Sounds better in voice than print).

What’s meaning of upon here; Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England
This is the name of a place. The place name reflects the fact that it is located at the Tyne River.

fast woman

This is an insulting way to refer to a woman whose morals you don’t agree with. It implies she is sexually active outside of marriage and perhaps promiscuous. There’s a Tom Waites song lamenting “Fast women and slow horses…”

Please transfer the sum of $6000 to account#xxxxxxx under “advice to  us”
…at the advice of a lawyer or authorized representative

until such time.
Until the time that some other event occurs.

send-off match.
A send-off is some kind of celebration of leaving. A send-off match is probably a game between two teams at the end of a tournament.

Attached is/are the registration form and the course poster

…are…

plural of feedback

Feedback is a collective noun. It has no plural.

This tongue-in-cheek documentary.
Tongue-in-cheek means satirical or made for fun, not serious.

Cast overview, first “billed” only.
The bill is the list of actors in a play. The first billed are the important actors whose names come first.

The “billed” weight
The weight charged for a product. Packaging may be an additional weight. Therefore a 100 gram package of tea contains 100 grams of tea, plus the weight of the package.

Yippee Ki Yay
An exclamation of joy from an American cowboy (old fashioned, or exaggerated.)

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Don’t get into a dispute; know your purpose.

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A reader from Brownsville Texas asks for free editing on the following submission:

Family disputes can get out of hand, lead to unwelcome emotions and cause long term depressions.  There are many reasons for disputing. Undesirable feelings from family disputes can lead to insensitive words to each other. Undesired depression comes after the disputes.

Comments: I have to do revision on the thesis statement. No x,y,z

My response:

The first sentence gives us some consequences of family disputes. This would be fine if the paragraph was to go on to tell us more about these consequences. But the second sentence goes back and tells us about the causes of disputes. The the third sentence tells us something about the results of disputes, but they are not the results we were waiting for based on the first sentence. Finally the fourth sentence relates to the first sentence, but gives no new information. Your thesis statement needs to tie all the sentences together; in other words all the sentences in the paragraph should spring from the thesis statement.

The question of what would be a good thesis statement depends on what the purpose of your paragraph is. If it’s to be a persuasive paragraph, then we need to have a thesis statement which is could be debated like: teen fashion causes a lot of family disputes. Then we could argue for the thesis or against the thesis.

But if your paragraph is just to be informative, then we only need a thesis sentence which ties things together. Here’s a sample below. I’ve put the thesis statement in bold italics so you can see how the rest of the paragraph is related to it.

Family disputes can have very serious consequences. Although there may be many reasons for disputes, what is important is that the disputes can lead to some angry words being exchanged. Additionally disputes can cause hurt feelings which linger long after the dispute is settled. Finally, family disputes can trigger depression in sensitive individuals. All in all, family disputes should be avoided and families should strive to live together in harmony.

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Seen or not seen; don’t make a scene

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A reader from Beijing China asks (and I’m tickled to be addressed as “Dear teacher” instead of “Hey!” or “I need some help over here!”):

Dear teacher,
He was seen as having left before midnight.
I am confused whether the above works for you also. A friend told me that we couldn’t see him having left because the act of his leaving happened before I saw. May I have your opinions? If my friend is wrong, could you please give a circumstance when the sentence would be said? Thanks.

Here’s how I answered:

When we use the verb “seen” it doesn’t necessarily mean physically seen. It often means that we understand that this happened. I could say “I see President Obama as a new hope for the US” even though I can’t see him and I’ve never seen him in person.

So, in your sentence, it means he was understood to have left before midnight; however, there is an element of doubt. He might have fallen asleep in the corner and no one knew he was still there.

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Who is it?

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A reader in Brantford Florida asks:

My question is:
Can the following sentence be correct grammar?

I heard the doorbell, it must be he.
OR
I heard the doorbell, it must be him.

I am having argument with someone and they say the first sentence is correct grammar.

My answer:

Your friend is indeed correct; however, if you come to my house and ring the doorbell, I’m sure to shout “It must be her!” This rule makes absolutely no sense.

This is stated on my website on the page about pronouns. I wrote “We also use the nominative for a pronoun following the infinitive form of the verb “to be” when the infinitive has no expressed subject.”

Another version of this is when answering the telephone. To be absolutely correct, when you call me and I answer the phone if you ask for Peter I should answer “This is he.” But I’m a bit of a fanatic grammarian and I will still answer “This is him” (or “Whadda ya want?” or “Who wants to know?” or “Never heard of him” depending on who I think is calling).

Probably the best way to look at this is to look at is to play around with the word order.

“This is he” could be arranged to “He is this” meaning he is this one on the phone. It’s like an equal sign in mathematics, which is why it’s only used with the verb “to be.”

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Sentence fragment: some assembly required

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A reader from Pasco Washington asks:

Do I need a comma in this sentence?
Therefore not wanting to purchase it and have to battele with the assembly process.

My answer:

Normally you would put a comma before “therefore,”–however, this is not a sentence–it is a sentence fragment. Even if you had something before “therefore”, you would need a subect to make it a complete sentence. I’m making up some parts to fix the sentence, I hope you can see where it changes:

The instructions are too complicated for this product, therefore I don’t want to purchase it and have to battle with the assembly process.

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