Let’s start the new year with a quiz!
Below are common language problems that – judging from my mail – drive people crazy. Can you find the problems? This is a straightforward quiz, not meant to be tricky or even especially tough; it merely comprises the most frequent reader complaints I hear throughout the year. Explanations are below. (Don’t peek!)
1. If I was rich, I’d do something about the homeless.
2. The administration hopes the faculty will set their own goals.
3. We feel badly that we missed your call.
4. You’ve been here longer than me.
5. You’ll prefer our plan because of it’s homeowner protections.
6. Leave the parcel with whomever is in reception.
7. She wore a long, red gown.
8. They snuck over the wall.
9. Her husband John loves sushi.
10. The door prize will go to the Smith’s because they arrived early.
11. The director gave bonuses to Sally and myself.
12. I appreciate you doing this for me.
13. This gift will show someone you care about them.
14. I want to lay on the beach awhile.
15. Twain wrote, “Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits”.
1. If I were rich. Were, not was, is preferred in “if” clauses that are contrary to fact or when expressing desire or supposition. I wish I were going. If it were up to them, nobody would go.
2. The administration hopes the faculty will set its own goals. Or: hopes the faculty members will set their … . Faculty is a collective (singular) noun; their does not agree.
3. Feel bad. Use adjectives rather than adverbs with sense verbs or with linking verbs such as seem, appear, become, etc. She feels stupid, not “stupidly”; looks pretty, not “prettily”; seems nice, not “nicely.”
4. Longer than I. This sentence means: “You’ve been here longer than I (have),” so we want the subjective I, not the objective me. We would not say, “You’ve been here longer than me has.”
5. Its. Like other possessive pronouns – his, hers, ours, theirs, etc. – its has no apostrophe. It’s (with an apostrophe) always means “it is.”
6. With whoever is in reception. When whoever or whomever seems to be both object and subject (here, the object of with and the subject for is), choose whoever. Whoever is the subject for is, and the whole whoever clause is the object of with.
7. Long red gown – no comma. Automatically placing commas between adjectives preceding nouns is common among even professional writers. Here, long modifies “red gown”; long and red are not separate and equal modifiers. When in doubt, place and between the adjectives. If the result sounds odd, you don’t want a comma. Long and red gown – no, it’s odd, so no comma. The old and gray mare – nope, no comma. A beautiful and baby girl – no comma. However: big and ugly spider. Sounds fine – therefore: big, ugly spider.
8. Sneaked. “Snuck” is as despised as it is common, and you wonder how it even came to be – it doesn’t follow usual forms. The floor creaked,, not “cruck”; the roof leaked, not “luck”; the storm peaked, not “puck.”
9. Her husband, John, loves sushi. We’d omit the commas around John only if she had more than one husband – her husband John as opposed to her husband Harry. We use commas to set off words identifying a preceding noun or pronoun when those words add parenthetical, nonessential information. If she had more than one husband, then which husband we’re referring to would become essential information, and we’d skip the commas.
10.Smiths. The word is plural, not possessive. If my mail is any indication, the “wild” apostrophe makes people breathe fire.
11.To Sally and me. Stripping “Sally” from this sentence shows the problem: gave bonuses to myself. We need the object me. The word myself is neither subject nor object. “Myself gave a bonus to him” is as flawed as “he gave a bonus to myself.”
12. I appreciate your doing this. Use possessive pronouns before gerunds. (Gerunds are words that end in “ing” but act as nouns. “Doing” is a gerund in this sentence.)
13. Show someone you care about him (or her). Words ending in “one” are singular and should be followed by singular pronouns rather than by they, their, or them. Many don’t want to use the masculine pronoun as a generic term applying to both sexes, however, and “he or she” is bulky and awkward. It’s not necessary to do either; there’s always a better way. Here, we could say simply, “Show someone you care.”
14. Lie on the beach. The verb “to lie” means to rest or recline; the verb “to lay” means to place or put. A complication is that lay also is the past tense of lie, but this sentence is not in past tense.
15. “ … habits.” In American English, periods and commas go inside quotation marks.
Paula Larocque is a consultant for The Dallas Morning News, where she was a writing coach for 20 years. You can e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.