Category Archives: Grammar


Approaching Partial Zero



When I first heard of a partial zero-emissions vehicle (or PZEV, a fun acronym to say), I wondered if it was a line from a joke. But no. It is a line from a vehicle category designed to circumvent requirements like California’s demand that zero-emissions vehicles be produced by a certain date. There are technical specifications for a PZEV that have to do with exhaust emissions and fuel-system emissions. For a language columnist, however, the interest lies in the modified absolute.

Sticklers l…


A Postcard From Bilbao


Guggenheim Musem Bilbao, Louise Bourgeois sculpture Maman in foreground. [[Photo by Mariordo (Mario Roberto Durán Ortiz, Wikimedia Commons]]

Bilbao, Spain

People whose experience of Spain goes back many decades tell me that Bilbao was once a nondescript little steel town on a polluted river, best driven past and avoided on your way to somewhere nicer. But today, as I stroll along the riverfront walk overlooked by the grandeur of the University of Deusto, and watch cormorants dive into the Nervio…


Broadcast(ed) News

An astute indexlanguage observer I know emailed me a few weeks back with the subject heading: “changing past tense form?” I was intrigued before I even opened the email. He knows how to hook a language geek.

The verbs at issue were cast-verbs, including cast, broadcast, fly-cast, and the like. The bit of journalism that had sparked the question was from a blurb on the Skimm from September 24, 2015:

Yesterday, Egypt’s president woke up and said ‘today’s a good day to pardon prisoners.’ He released 100…


Prepositions as Conjunctions, Whales as Fish


Imagine that the national government controlled education down to fine details of what to teach and how to test it, and in your own subject the government required that modern research should be ignored, and unreconstructed 18th-century beliefs should be taught.

Welcome to my world. I’m not talking about the attempts of dull-witted US school boards to push creationism into the science curriculum. I’m talking about a sample grammar test published by the Standards and Testing Agency of the Britis…


Only in the Right Position

2cac48e4476d82244d16fbd56145a6af.500x500x1I wouldn’t change one syllable of the beautiful lyrics that Al Dubin wrote (to Harry Warren’s music) for the huge 1934 hit that the Flamingos turned into a doo-wop classic in 1959:

You are here, so am I;
Maybe millions of people go by;
But they all disappear from view,
And I only have eyes for you.

The lyrics bring a tear to my eye. And I am simply amazed that many people hold beliefs about grammar that would condemn that last line as a solecism.

What these people believe is (if you will forg…


Evasive Passives in Texas

Ellen Bresler Rockmore, in her New York Times op-ed “How Texas Teaches History,” levels a grammatical accusation against history textbooks recently approved for use in Texas schools:

The writers’ decisions about how to construct sentences, about what the subject of the sentence will be, about whether the verb will be active or passive, shape the message that slavery was not all that bad.

This is a serious charge. The sheer scale of the Atlantic slave trad…


Being a Pronoun

Chapter 5 of Lindley Murray’s English Grammar (1795) begins thus:

A PRONOUN is a word used instead of a noun, to avoid the too frequent repetition of the same word.

The definition is useless: flagrantly inadequate. Yet after more than two centuries people still repeat it. Chapter 5 of Nevile M. Gwynne’s book Gwynne’s Grammar (2011), like almost all other grammar books addressed to the general public, simply paraphrases Murray:

A pronoun is a word which st…


Going Grammando

rant-clipart-anger-clipart-blogangerThere is a great new word that promises to get us out of a not so great metaphor. I’m going to plead its case and hope against hope that the word might get some traction. (As a scholar, I know how hard it is enact conscious language change, but that doesn’t always stop the idealist in me from trying! And yes, I am aware that it is a super prescriptive move on my part to advocate a change in usage like this.)

The not so great metaphor is grammar nazi (or grammar Nazi or Grammar Nazi, depending on…


Saying ‘the’ in German


A tiger in the Berlin zoo. Tiger is masculine, though Katze (“cat”) is feminine.

As I have explained, I spent 18 months of my dissolute youth in Germany without learning German. I still feel a little ashamed every time I visit that fine country.

You might think it’s too late for me to fix this: It is widely believed that adult brains lose the language-acquisition knack. But I actually think that’s a cop-out.

Infants have various often-overlooked advantages: cogni…


The Third Flaw in the Second Amendment

9EEFE82C-D60F-4F34-B5DA-CFA2325E40E5I was at a department barbecue in California last summer, where conversation had turned to some recent school shooting, and how gun-control legislation can never be enacted because we cannot get round the Second Amendment. A nonacademic visitor suddenly interjected: “Nonsense. You’ve already done it.”

Several professorial heads turned toward her. “How do you mean, we’ve already done it?”

“You’ve already passed laws limiting the Americans’ ownership of arms. Individuals aren’t allowed to have nuc…