Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Palette's Quick & Dirty Grammar Clinic

Herein are some useful tips on how to improve your grammar. I have attempted to make these rules "fast and fun" rather than "painfully accurate", because I understand that some folks' eyes glaze over when they see terms like subjunctive case or subject/verb agreement.

Instead, take it for what it's meant to be:  a lighthearted romp through some minefields of English grammar, using shortcuts that I've either been taught or invented myself, in the hope that we can have some fun while learning at the same time.

If at any time you are confused, comfort yourself with this quotation from James Nicoll:
The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.
And now, let the Grammar Clinic commence! (And if you heard that in Shang Tsung's voice, you're doing it properly.)

Remove Yourself from the Equation
Not sure if you should say "me and him" or "he and I"?   Remove yourself from the sentence and the answer will reveal itself.

Example 1:
  • Me and him are going to the store.
  • Me and him are is going to the store.
  • Him is going to the store?  No, this is clearly wrong. 
  • You can double-check by leaving yourself in and taking out the other person: Me is going to the store is also clearly wrong. 
Example 2:
  • He and I are going to the store. 
  • He and I are is going to the store. 
  • He is going to the store.  That's clearly the right answer. 
This also works with proper names, i.e. "Jane and I."

Protip:  If you are still confused, use "we" whenever possible.

Put Yourself Last
All right, but is it "He and I" or "I and he?" As the title says, your pronoun should always come last.

I'm not sure why this is, other than "The English language was carefully cobbled together by three blind dudes and a German dictionary."

Lie About Getting Laid
When to use "lie" vs. when to use "lay" is a source of constant confusion for many folks. Let me break it down for you:

Lay is an action you do to another.  A chicken lays an egg, a mother lays her baby down, you get laid by your lover. 

Lie is an action that you take.  You lie down for a nap. A baby refuses to lie quietly. Let sleeping dogs lie. 

You lay a shirt flat, but you lie flat on your back.  

Whom? Him.
Not knowing when to use "whom" is another common error. The easiest way to remember it is "If the answer is 'him', then you use 'whom.'"

  • To whom does this belong?  It belongs to him
  • Who was at the door? He was at the door. 
Sometimes the easiest way to detect proper grammar is to reverse the order of the sentence.  Not sure if you should say "This is her" or "This is she?"   Switch the order around and you should be able to hear the difference:
  • "Her is this."  No one talks like this. (I hope!)
  • "She is this."  This is correct grammar because it sounds correct!
Author's note:  Nowhere in English exists the rule "If it sounds correct, then it must be correct." I am simply using this technique as a shortcut to help a reader quickly determine which pronoun to use while hoping that their knowledge of spoken English will see them through the rest of the way. 
Similarly, reversing the order of the sentence can help with "was vs. were".  Let us consider the classic sentence "If I were a rich man."
  • "Were I a rich man" sounds like a statement. 
  • "Was I a rich man" sounds like a question, which this sentence clearly was not. 

Let's do it again, with "I wish I was young again."
  • "Was I young again" sounds like a question. 
  • "Were I young again" sounds like a statement.
What do both of those sentences have in common?  They're both wishes. Fanciful desires and fantasy use were.  

Conversely, conditional statements like "If it was Tuesday, I was in Belgium" have an inherent question -- in this case, that question is "Was it Tuesday?" 

To conclude this post with a bit of levity, I leave you with this classic Lewis Black line:  If it weren't for my horse, I wouldn't have spent that year in college. This one is a bit harder, because it's a negative.  But don't worry, just use the same principle:
  • Was it not for my horse
  • Were it not for my horse
I leave the answer as an exercise for the student. 

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