Archive | February, 2012

President’s Day Grammar

20 Feb

At the close of this holiday weekend, please enjoy some little known poems from our nation’s leaders about grammar and writing.

“Take it from me,

my head’s on the nickel:

follow this trick

when you’re in a pickle.

‘I’ before ‘E’

except after ‘C,’

or when sounded as ‘A,’

as in ‘neighbor’ or ‘weigh.’

But even with that,

and those red squiggly lines,

your mechanics will be right

only part of the time, SO PROOFREAD,


-Thomas Jefferson, to his wife Martha, when she asked him if he would “just read this email to my boss before I send it”

“If you’re thinking about adding a vowel suffix to a word,

follow these two rules, my friend, and please don’t be absurd.

Drop the final ‘e’ if the vowel begins the suffix, please

like in -able, -ous, and -ing, -acy, -ive, and -al.  So you see,

surprise becomes surprising, create becomes creative,

arrive becomes arriving, donate becomes donative.

But if the suffix starts with what we call a consonant,

such as ‘ful’ or ‘less’ or ‘ly,’ then kindly be a gent,

and turn care right into careless, and true right into truly,

drop the ‘e’ and don’t look back, and if the words should get unruly,



Actually, no, wait, I’d like to save that title for something else.



Guys, please don’t call this the Monroe Doctrine.”

-James Monroe, calling in his one favor the resident linguists owed him for that one time he caught one of them saying, “Me and Chauncy are going downtown and notice how much ash is everywhere.”

“Affect is a verb,

effect is a noun,

my name’s William Taft,

I’m the size of a town,

but that doesn’t define me.  William Taft is a beautiful,

sexy man.  And he’s WORTH it.  He’s WORTH IT.”

-William Taft’s daily affirmations to himself in the mirror

“I freed the slaves,

now I’m here to free you

from a lie that you’ve heard

that just isn’t true.

They say don’t start your sentences with words like ‘because’

or like ‘and’ or like ‘but,’ but they can’t harsh our buzz.

It’s fine to start sentences like those

in moderation,

think of it as giving them a well-earned vacation,

just not to Texas, because Texas has seceded, and I really think they’re over-estimating how much we care. Honestly, you guys are just not good PR for us.  Do you know that because of you, everyone in Europe thinks we wear cowboy hats?  Do you?  What?  This is 1861, and you’ve only had a 3rd grade education?  Okay, that’s fair.  But you’ve gotta admit, it’s fun that we still do the whole lunch pail thing.”

-Abraham Lincoln, in one of the Gettysburg outtakes 

Calvin Coolidge refused to contribute.



Everyone is Single On Valentine’s Day (Because “Everyone” Is A Singular Pronoun)

12 Feb

Valentine’s Day brings out three different types of people.

1. Those who, single or taken, love Valentine’s Day indiscriminately.  I know a few people like this, and they’re genuinely lovely.  Even as adults, these people give out Valentine’s Day cards to all of their friends with no agenda or need for reciprocation.  Out of the Valentine’s Day-lovingness of their hearts, they hand out cards with pictures of Bob the Builder on it saying, “I dig you!” or Lightning McQueen saying, “You make my heart race!” or Hannibal Lector saying, “I want to cut your face off and wear it as my own face because I STARVE FOR HUMAN FLESH.”

2. People who really don’t care, unless they’re dating someone and that person doesn’t do anything, and then they care a little.  I fall into this category.  These people never really had any feelings about Valentine’s Day.  In my many years of singleness, I didn’t have any feelings towards the day one way or another.  I did have one year in high school that was a bit of a roller coaster: the boy I liked made me a paper rose that came with a very romantic note that, and this is serious, I think said something like, “Hey Riane, you’re really cool! I like playing basketball with you!”  I was pretty excited until I found out that he had made an entire bouquet of paper roses for my best friend, the true object of his affection.  But even then, I didn’t blame Valentine’s Day.  I blamed the number one rule of Making a Boy Like You, which is that if he ever–and I mean EVER, in any small way–associates you with the WNBA, you’re sunk.  Unlike most 3-pointers in the WNBA, because women have weak arms.

Beware, though.  This doesn’t mean that you can get away with not doing anything for Valentine’s Day just because your significant other doesn’t care about it.  That is the logic of Valentine’s Day.  It’s really a lose-lose situation, like … well, like getting drafted by the WNBA.  On the one hand, you could be pulling in almost $15,000 a year before taxes … but on the other hand, you have to sleep at night with the knowledge that you are single-handedly responsible for the resurgence of sexism in America.  And also knowing that your TV audience is made up exclusively by people who thought they were watching C-SPAN 3, but were surprised because they “didn’t really think it could be THIS boring.”

3. All of the other girls in America, who have declared war on Valentine’s Day.  Starting sometime after Christmas, these girls are just LOOKING for opportunities to let you know how much they hate card companies for forcing Valentine’s Day on us, and how they’re just going to take the day to stuff themselves with chocolate and watch Dear John and set things on fire.

To these women: you are not original.  There is nothing more cliche than hating Valentine’s Day.  Let me guess a few other things about you: you have a quote by Carrie Bradshaw or Meredith Grey on your Facebook profile, you–and this is so totally weird–actually LIKE the smell of gasoline, and you–ew, I can’t even say it–hate the word moist.

Valentine’s Day brings out something in everyone.  And here’s what it’s bringing out in me: a post about indefinite pronouns like the word “everyone.”

Everyone is an example of an indefinite pronoun.  An indefinite pronoun does not refer to any specific person, amount, or thing.  I’m going to keep the focus on the word everyone, but the exact same rules will apply to other indefinite pronouns; namely: everybody, no one, nobody, anyone, anybody, someone, and somebody.  There are more indefinite pronouns than these, but we’re going to focus on this group because the all of the following rules apply to them equally, and because–like so many miserable people on Valentine’s Day–they are single.  Well, singular.

Now, here’s the deal with everyone.

Everyone is a singular noun.  This seems kind of illogical, but it’s true.  Although the word everyone seems to imply that that multiple people are involved, as far as grammar is concerned, all of those people are grouped into one singular indefinite pronoun.

Because it’s a singular noun, it needs singular verbs.  If you ever get confused, you can always temporarily substitute he (which is also a singular pronoun) for everyone, and whatever verbs you would use with he, you would also use with everyone.  For example:

Everyone is coming to the party.  (“Is” is a singular verb.  You would also say “He is coming to the party.”)

Everyone loves Neapolitan ice cream, but only historians love Napoleon ice cream. (“Loves” is a singular verb; you would also say “He loves.”)

That’s simple enough.  But what to do when another pronoun comes later in the sentence, and we have to make it agree with everyone?  It’s a hard decision–even harder decision than when, in the 2011 WNBA championship game, the Minnesota Lynx had to decide whether to utilize the full-court press early on, or to save their energy, leave the elementary school playground where the game was being held and go back to college for something more useful than a career in women’s basketball, like a B.A. in 8-track tape engineering, or a B.S. in Communications with an emphasis in proving that the Internet is just going to be a fad, or, you know, Art History.

Once again, just like in the WNBA, the problem is gender.  I’ll show you.

Incorrect: Everyone is piling mashed potatoes on their plates.

Problem: Even though it sounds right, everyone is a singular pronoun, remember?  Because of this, you can’t use a plural pronoun (their) to refer back to it.  You must always be consistent.

But what do you do?  Everyone isn’t a male or a female pronoun, and English doesn’t have a singular pronoun without a specified gender.  These are your options:

1. In the past, many accepted the use of him or his to refer back to everyone or everybody, even if the people referred to in everyone or everybody included females.  It would look like this:

Everyone is piling mashed potatoes on his plate.

This effectively solves the consistency problem, but a lot of people now consider this sexist.  But I’ll bet those people are the same “progressives” who think that hiring a woman dressed like a poodle to ride around all day on your back while feeding you treats is demeaning.  Come on.

2.  To solve the sexist problem, another option is to rotate his and her to refer back to pronouns of unspecified gender.  This means one sentence you might write, “Everyone is piling mashed potatoes on his plate,” while a few sentences later, you would say, “Nobody finished her mashed potatoes.”  It’s a little confusing, but it’s becoming more acceptable.

3.  Of course, there’s the always bulky “his or her” option.  Saying, “Everyone is piling mashed potatoes on his or her plate” is grammatically acceptable and a fine solution.  However, if you find yourself using the the phrase his or her often, you’re probably bogging down your paper, and you should consider different options.

4. Re-write your sentence.  If none of these options please you, then get rid of the indefinite pronoun.  Just say, “All of the guests are piling mashed potatoes on their plates.”

A re-write isn’t always that simple, but it is usually an option.  Just remember that everyone is a singular noun, and the rules of singular nouns apply; this means that “their” should not be used to refer back to it.  The same rules go for those words I mentioned earlier: everybody, no one, nobody, anyone, anybody, someone, and somebody.

And I want to apologize to those girls I made fun of earlier: I don’t want any bad blood between us.  Girls, I now understand that you probably hate Valentine’s Day so much because you’re upset about the modernization and commercialization of the day.  You’re simply saddened that we’ve forgotten what the day is truly about: a day when the Romans sacrificed goats and dogs and women lined up for men to whip them with the hides of animals they had just slain, believing it would make them fertile.

Just a warning, though: Evan and I tried that for a date once and it got a little weird.  I’m not saying don’t do it; I’m just saying maybe don’t do it in an Olive Garden.

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