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Monday, May 23, 2011

The Defender of The Language Returns To Bring Light To The Darkness Yet Again, For Someone Has To Do This Important Work. (Nance Has To Find Time To Take Care Of The Cattens, Too, After All!)

It is that time again, Dear Readers.  The Defender of The Language is back to...well, defend The Language!  In a world where poor grammar never ceases; where incorrect apostrophe usage is still, sadly, not an offense punishable by death or at least imprisonment (or hefty fine); where slack speech and mediocre writing are deemed acceptable and past redemption, the Defender can never rest.  She commandeers this space to bring light to the darkness for Dept. of Nance readers in particular.  Let's first take a query from RD, a sporadic Dept. commenter.  He's not forthcoming about his residential region, so I'll just assign him one.  RD, you're calling Intercourse, Pennsylvania, home.


Defender, could you comment on the (mis)use of "there's"? I hear it frequently these days, by both the well and poorly educated. "There's problems in Wisconsin these days." Or "There's things we'll never understand." It's driving me insane!
RD, I hear you.  As I mentioned in my answer previously, the examples you provided are really two annoyances.  Allow me to address them separately.  The first one is a simple lack of subject-verb agreement.  The contraction there's stands for there is.  Because the word there is functioning as an expletive, or in simpler terms, a garbage word, it has no value in the sentence and is not its subject. You must look past the verb to find the substantive subject of the sentence, problems, which is plural. The verb must therefore be plural, are.  The same holds true in the second sentence, as you can see.

I'd like to speak to the more important issue at hand, however, and it is the use of the word there in the first place.  As I mentioned, it is an expletive, or a garbage word/dummy subject. It has absolutely no adverbial power of location in the sentence.  Is it showing where something is? No.  It simply delays the action and actor of the sentence.  Why employ it?  Would not the sentences be far more precise and tighter if they were said or written thusly:  Wisconsin has problems these days  and  We'll never understand some things?  Naturally, I would further edit and eliminate/replace the egregious "these days" and "some things" but we cannot tackle everything at once.

Next, we will hear from the similarly location-reticent Nancy, who I have now made a resident of Lady Lake, Florida.

Hello, Defender.  I would appreciate your explaining the rule of "was" and "were".  For example, which one of these sentences would be correct?

"She looked at me as though I WAS crazy."
"She looked at me as though I WERE crazy."



Hi, Nancy!  I haven't been to Florida in a very long time. You must be taking care of The Language there for me. In any case, let me help you with your concern, which deals with an old grammar chestnut we call the subjunctive mood.  This is really a holdover from the 14th century, but picky grammarians love to lord this over the hoi polloi from time to time.  Soon, it will go the way of whom and double-spacing after the period, but some of us will still cling to it for civility's sake.  Basically, the subjunctive mood governs the use of verb tenses (most commonly was or were) when the context of the sentence states or describes a hypothetical situation.  Many times, this sentence will contain a clause that begins with the words as if, as though, suppose, or wish.  Some tightly-wound grammar enthusiasts would argue incessantly the finer points of whether or not the hypothetical might, in fact, be possible or might at one point come true, and whether or not that might change the subjunctive into the indicative mood, but life is too short for all of that, even for a Defender of The Language.  For a more exhaustive--yawn!--discussion of this vast topic, click here.  Because your example sentences include the adverbial subordinating conjunction as if, the subjunctive mood is called for, and you would use the verb were.

Finally, we come to this question from another Dept. reader.  Since it was submitted via email, I must again guess at geographical location.  So, let's hear from Deb, whose hometown is Gallipolis, Ohio.

Dear Defender, I am a middle school English teacher who is ready to throw in the red pen.  I mean, where do I start?  Students who eschew commas entirely, students who use apostrophes for plurals, and students who cannot tell the difference among there, their, and they're.  I am in pain every time I grade an essay.  If there were one single error you could choose to stamp out in "tween" writing, what would it be?

First of all, Dear Deb, thank you for your service.  As a teacher of English, you are a Guardian of The Language as well, and serving under sometimes the direst of circumstances.  On to your question.  I think an example of the most hurtful middle school error would have to be this:  If Justin Bieber would of cut his hair, he would still be cute.  Using of as a helping verb is such a continuing horror in middle school and high school writing that it has reached Domestic Terrorism status.  OF is not a verb, period. Ever.  This confusion is because of the contracted form of the helping verb have.  Students, and some adults, hear the 've as of and simply write the phonetic result.  The logic of what the word of is and does is lost, perhaps in laziness or disinterest, perhaps in something else.  Either way, it's discomfiting and disappointing.

As always, if you have a question or concern for the Defender of The Language, leave it in Comments or email Nance here at the Dept. of Nance by clicking the email link in the sidebar. Questions and issues will be addressed in the next column.

12 comments:

  1. Well this was informative! Now let's just hope that I can remember that was/were business the next time it comes up in conversation.

    I have a question for you. I, of course, think I'm right & my boss is wrong, but I would be ok with hearing otherwise (especially because he makes me do it his way even if I think I'm right - & that just sounds all kinds of wrong, doesn't it?). We always block indent long quotes in documents. He insists that I also put quotation marks around the quote. I believe that the indention is what marks it as a quote. Who's right?

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  2. Greetings from Lady Lake,Florida!

    Thanks for sending me here, Nance. It's really nice. It was lovely to see our picture,too.

    Your explanation of the "was or were" rule was excellent and I will be certain to refer to it in future -as they say in Lady Lake-when someone looks at me askance or
    in any way questions my sanity,lucidity,sagicity or prudence.

    Did you know that Roget lived here in Lady Lake,too? He's my neighbor.

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  3. Nancy--Which Roget? LOL. My grandma used to hang out at Lady Lake, and I always got a charge out of the name. Now I'll turn the rest of this reply over to the Defender in case she has anything to add.--Nance

    Nancy--Thank you. I do want to add that subjunctive mood is still very much in use in many foreign languages even though it is not so critical in American English. Notably, Spanish makes great distinction in verbs with regard to the subjunctive mood.--DoTL

    The Bug--Format of quotations within text is not strictly within the purview of Language Defense. Defending The Language is more a matter of usage; however, I can address this for you since you seem genuinely frustrated by this. Unfortunately, this may depend upon what style sheet your boss wishes you to use. I am more familiar with the MLA standards. There are others which govern the fields of journalistic writing or writing of a more scientific nature. MLA agrees with you.--DoTL

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  4. RD here--a she from CO, and now I'm blushing. Defender, you are a walking (flying!) grammar superhero! I like knowing that "there" is a garbage word. It really is. I think you need your own NYT column!

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  5. RD--Please pardon me. I instinctively used the universal pronoun "he" and did not do so with intent to offend. Greetings to you in CO! (If you notice, the picture was androgynous, or was meant to be.) Thank you, in any case, for your kind words. Certainly, many grammarians offering expertise exist on the internet and in print although your suggestion regarding a regular--and so very helpful!--NYT column is flattering and much appreciated.--DoTL

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  6. For me, it all comes down to this:

    "How I wish, how I wish you were here.
    We're just two lost souls
    Swimming in a fish bowl,
    Year after year,
    Running over the same old ground.
    What have we found
    The same old fears.
    Wish you were here."

    At least regarding 'was' and 'were'. Pink Floyd's song wouldn't have sounded nearly as poetic and lovely with 'was' rather than 'were'. But then we get into Simon and Garfunkel, usually so poetic, and they get it wrong and say,

    'And I'm laying out my winter clothes and wishing I was gone,
    going home
    Where the New York City winters aren't bleeding me, leading me,
    going home.'

    Artistic license and all, but I would like that one better with were instead of was.

    I feel like my grammar is mostly correct, but I give full credit to my mother for correcting me every chance she had. So things sound correct to me, or they sound incorrect to me, but I don't necessarily know the hows and whys of the rules that go along with them.

    I am always very impressed by heroes such as you, who understand not only what is correct, but why.

    Then there are the rules that I understand, but don't agree with. Such as the preposition at the end of a sentence. It's a foolish rule, and actually one that many people misunderstand. I've heard people try to get around the awkwardness of it by dropping the preposition, which is fine when the preposition is extraneous, but not when it's important to the meaning of the sentence. Some people would correct my sentence, above, to "Then there are the rules that I understand, but with which I don't agree", which is fine, but most people don't actually speak this way. All too often, people would incorrectly correct (ouch) the sentence to "Then there are the rules that I understand, but don't agree." That sets my teeth on edge.

    All of this reminds me of an argument I had with my high school boyfriend, who thought he was smarter than I was because he was a man, and corrected my use of 'me' vs. 'I'. His rule was, it's always 'so and so and I'. My rule, of course, was, that you use me or I depending on how you would use the sentence without the other person. So if it's 'Meg and I went to the store', you could test it by saying, 'I went to the store', rather than, 'me went to the store'. But if it's 'Meg drove Susan and me to the store', then it's 'Meg drove me to the store', not 'Meg drove I to the store'. I dated him for perhaps another year after that, but honestly, I knew that day he was not marriage material. A person is allowed to have fun, but must also have standards.

    Wow, that's an extremely long comment. Sorry to clutter things up here.

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  7. Deb's question about the use of "of" was the first that I've heard of that particular mistake. Sad, but interesting. I can see where it would happen.

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  8. You should do all of our public service announcements, Nance. If I could make you a crown, I would festoon it with diamonds in the shape of commas and apostrophes.

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  9. aplo--Oh, hell. Thanks, but no need for diamonds. Now, emeralds...that's another story.

    Lisa--But you don't read student writing. That's the big difference. You do get me thinking, though. I'm assuming you read other "amateur" writing, like blogs. Do you ever see it on other blogs, or do you not notice it? I have to think if I've ever noticed it. Now I'll be on the lookout and try to see if it's a younger generation thing or what.

    J.@jj.com--On the contrary, I found your examples and analogies to be clear, modern, and very understandable. You'll be pleased to know that the preposition kerfuffle is also going the way of "whom" and the subjunctive. There is, however, one particular case in which I will draw the line quite strenuously. I am willing to go to blows on this; let that be the usage barometer to indicate to you my antipathy. No one should ever commit the injustice of asking a question such as, "Where is the concert at?" This horrifying habit of tacking on an extraneous preposition is painful for correct speakers everywhere. Often, the crime is committed by gum-popping cretins in trucker hats or vapid bimbos who are too busy twirling their hair extension around their acrylic fingernail, so it may well be a lost cause. Still, it does not lessen the pain for the rest of us.--DoTL

    j@jj--Hey, you can clutter up my comments section anytime if you are going to quote Floyd AND Paul Simon at the same time. I'm a big fan of both. And just think of the major victory you would have had with that smug shit of a boyfriend if google had been around then!

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  10. Yeah, I wonder where he's at now? Just kidding! I also hate the extraneous preposition. HATE.

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  11. Using "of" instead of "'ve" is also rampant among college students, but then the current crop of students are borderline illiterates anyway. That particular error bugs me a lot, but not NEARLY as much as the obvious misuse of the conditional, which is so bad that I have to teach students in my Spanish class the correct version in English before I can teach the equivalent in Spanish. So if Mr. Bieber HAD cut his effin' hair... we wouldn't have this problem, right? Sheesh. And they wonder why we can't teach the pluscuamperfecto del subjuntivo.

    The Word-Ver is "porpo." Spontaneous definition: Said of a person whose lack of refinement is boundless, usually due to profound cerebral atrophy.
    Ex. "There's so many mistakes in his writing, I never know where his mind is at. He's such a porpo."

    (Hi, Nance.)

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  12. ORTIZZLE! I've been thinking of you lately, and missing you continuously. Was it something I said/wrote? It's beyond lovely to see you back here at the Dept. If I get a new pond fish this summer, I am definitely naming it Pluscuamperfecto del Subjuntivo.--Nance

    Ortizzle--The use of the conditional mood leans heavily upon basic verb agreement, and for those of us who are correct speakers, this is instinctive. We simply speak, and the correct verbs come tumbling out coherently and pleasantly, delighting our listeners. For others, as we know, basic speech, including idioms (which include conditionals and subjunctive mood, often) is a vast befuddlement. We are their pained victims.--DoTL

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Oh, thank you for joining the fray!

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