Monday, June 30, 2008

Singular or plural

An editor friend and former co-worker e-mailed the following question:

We are having a problem with this sentence. Can you help?
"But he was just fascinating, one of those really intense and rare men who listen as well as they talk, and we had a great time."
I think it should be "... one of those really intense and rare men who listens as well as he talks ..."

So which is it, "listen ... talk" or "listens ... talks"?

Answer: Writer's choice.

The antecedent of "who" can be either "one" or "men."

This is from

1. When constructions headed by one appear as the subject of a sentence or relative clause, there may be a question as to whether the verb should be singular or plural. The sentence "One of every ten rotors was found defective" is perfectly grammatical, but sometimes people use plural verbs in such situations, as in "One of every ten rotors have defects." In an earlier survey, 92 percent of the Usage Panel preferred the singular verb in such sentences.

2. Constructions such as "one of those people who" pose a different problem. Many people argue that "who" should be followed by a plural verb in these sentences, as in "He is one of those people who just don’t take 'no' for an answer." Their thinking is that the relative pronoun who refers to the plural noun people, not to one. They would extend the rule to constructions with inanimate nouns, as in "The sports car turned out to be one of the most successful products that were ever manufactured in this country."

3. But the use of the singular verb in these constructions is common, even among the best writers. In an earlier survey, 42 percent of the Usage Panel accepted the use of the singular verb in such constructions. It’s really a matter of which word you feel is most appropriate as the antecedent of the relative pronoun—one or the plural noun in the "of" phrase that follows it. Note also that when the phrase containing one is introduced by the definite article, the verb in the relative clause must be singular: "He is the only one of the students who has (not have) already taken Latin."

Also, I forgot that I promised earlier to post the column on a particularly eventful week in early June. Below is the column:

Celebrating Thanksgiving on Father's Day

The topic is "Favorite Memory of Dad," a spontaneous Father's Day dinner discussion on the order of Thanksgiving's "What I'm Most Thankful for ... ." It would be more accurate to call this discussion "Dad's Weirdest Behavior," since it quickly devolves into an oral catalog of those past behaviors of mine the kids find most amusing.

Their stories don't quite match my recollections. But on this Father's Day, I don't mind the embellishments. Watching the faces of my wife and children, laughing at one another's remembrances of me, I silently compile my own list, more suited to Thanksgiving.

First, there is Erin, my oldest, sitting across the table, who recounts the day I got the family geared up for hiking a long, rugged trail in Missouri that turned out to be only a half mile long — and partially paved. With enough drinks, jerky and trail mix for a weekend trek, we were finished in 20 minutes.

Whatever tale she might tell, I give thanks that she is even at the table this night. It was exactly a week earlier when I had answered the phone and could barely make out her faint words, "I'm in a hospital ... I was hit ... the car didn't stop." A social worker in ER took the phone from her and explained that Erin had been struck by an SUV crossing the street in a crosswalk.

I threw some clothes into a bag and headed for Chicago, taking my son Sam along to keep me awake for the all-night drive. We arrived early the next morning at a Chicago trauma center to find Erin in the surgery ICU wing, pale and sporting a neck brace, surrounded by monitors, with all kinds of IV tubes and lines connected to her bruised and scraped body. She could not talk but managed a weak smile when we entered. Peg, her friend and co-worker who had spent the night at her side, gave us a progress report: fractured skull, brain hemorrhages, other injuries not yet known. Despite Erin's agony, the trauma team could not allow her any pain meds during the first 24 hours after the accident, during which they also had to keep her awake. She would undergo four CT scans in the first 36 hours to monitor changes in two subdural hematomas.

With people praying for her across the country, she left ICU on the third day and the hospital a day later as I drove her to Paducah to convalesce surrounded by family.

We tease her about picking an inconvenient time to fracture her skull. Had Sam and I not been in Chicago, we would have been with my wife at the airport in Nashville two days after the accident to welcome home my son Pete from Iraq for his mid-deployment leave.

Fortunately, she didn't have to greet him alone. Jay was there. "Jay" — for Janelle — is now his bride; they were married in a brief, intimate ceremony at our church a week ago. Erin, whose recovery is slow but steady, was able to attend.

Pete and Jay are also sitting at that table this Father's Day, and poor Jay is forced to endure an endless string of Dad stories that are, frankly, even starting to bore me. But I am thankful for my son's safe return and proud of Pete and Jay, both lieutenants in the United States Army, for their willing service to their country. I am especially thankful after hearing his stories and seeing photos of his outpost near Baghdad, which is apparently more of a hot spot than he had led his parents to believe.

While in Kentucky they plan to visit a Fort Campbell widow whose late husband, a member of Pete's unit, was killed in Iraq. Pete and Jay, who met at a West Point Sunday school teachers' retreat, knew their fallen comrade first as a fellow Sunday school teacher.

My middle son, Will, home from college, is at the table too. He shares a funny story (with only the thinnest connection to actual events), then a serious and touching memory that momentarily breaks the mood before the "Weird Dad" tales resume.

And Sam, the only one still living at home, has some fresh stories to share. He has the most vivid imagination and the most embellished stories.

The only one missing is Maggie, who is studying in Italy. The family Eeyore, she calls from across the pond to wish me happy Father's Day and complain about how touristy Florence is — on her first day there. It is classic Maggie, and we all get a chuckle. As the conversation shifts to Maggie stories, I give thanks that she could join us, even if only by cell phone, for this special day.

At the other end of the table, my wife smiles, knowing my heart is full. I think of the words she has spoken to me often when surrounded by our healthy and happy and capable children: my cup runneth over.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Steak and Pie

Answers to quiz

1. "I feel bad" or "I feel badly"
To say "I feel badly about your accident" is to say something is wrong with your ability to feel. "Bad" modifies "I," not "feel" in this case, making it an adjective rather than an adverb.

2. "Eat a healthy diet" or "Eat a healthful diet"
Eating a healthful diet makes one healthy. Eating a healthy diet means your steak is still walking around wearing its skin and horns. If "healthful" is too archaic for your tastes, use "nutritious."

3. "I can't help but notice" or "I can't help noticing"
"But" adds nothing except a double negative. "I can't help noticing" is correct.

4. "In behalf" or "On behalf"
This one depends on the context.
"In behalf" means "for the benefit of." Example: We raised $2,000 in behalf of crippled children.
"On behalf" means "in place of." Example: On behalf of pie lovers everywhere, thank you, Sara Lee.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Beyond repair

If any blog readers are left, I can only assume you didn't attempt an answer because you are wise to my ways and knew the last post was a trick question. None of the four is written correctly. Incidentally, all the examples came from actual examples of copy submitted to my former newspaper or written by one of our reporters, with only the names changed.

The topic is parallel construction. When you include a list of objects after a verb, they must all fit the verb. Break the first one apart to see what I mean:

1. The festival will include craft booths, concessions and children can enjoy pony rides while parents shop.
The festival will include craft booths.
The festival will include concessions.
The festival will include and children can enjoy pony rides ... (see what I mean?)
The corrected sentence should read:
The festival will include craft booths, concessions and ponies for children to enjoy while their parents shop.

Sentence 2:
Incorrect: Officers include Claire Weston, president; Bobbie Hogwarts, vice president; Lucy Lickovich, secretary and Ben Gunn will serve as sergeant at arms.
Correct: Officer include Claire Weston, president; Bobbie Hogwarts, vice president; Lucy Lickovich, secretary; and Ben Gunn, sergeant at arms.
(Note: The word "include" should be used only with an incomplete list. If this is a complete list of officers the word "include" should be replaced with "are.")

Sentence 3:
Incorrect: The committee's goals include improving delivery of services, recruiting volunteers, consuming more pork dinners and repair the outside of the the building where Rufus Goforth drove his truck through the wall.
Correct: The committee's goals include ... repairing the outside ...

Sentence 4:
Incorrect: Pageant contestants will be judged on their poise, beauty and they will give an on-stage answer and their evening gown and the swimsuit competition will be judged privately.
Correct: Forget it. This sentence is hopeless. The pageant director who submitted it was charged, tried and convicted of languacide.

New Quiz
Which is correct?
1. "I feel bad" or "I feel badly"
2. "Eat a healthy diet" or "Eat a healthful diet"
3. "I can't help but notice" or "I can't help noticing"
4. "In behalf" or "On behalf"

Come on, don't be a chicken. Venture a guess.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Parallel construction

Which of the following sentences is correctly written? How should the others be corrected?

1. The festival will include craft booths, concessions and children can enjoy pony rides while parents shop.
2. Officers include Claire Weston, president; Bobbie Hogwars, vice president; Lucy Lickovich, secretary and Ben Gunn will serve as sergeant at arms.
3. The committee's goals include improving delivery of services, recruiting volunteers, consuming more pork dinners and repair the outside of the the building where Rufus Goforth drove his truck through the wall.
4. Pageant contestants will be judged on their poise, beauty and they will give an on-stage answer and their evening gown and the swimsuit competition will be judged privately.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Writing "for" EMPHASIS!

Sorry I didn't blog last week. I was unexpectedly and unavoidably out of the office. If I get around to writing a column about it I'll post it here.

Today's topic:
We frequently get letters with lots of exclamation points, all caps, quotation marks and underlining, mostly used arbitrarily. At first glace the letters look like those fundraising appeals from public policy and charity groups. The difference is, those groups at least use the punctuation in ways that make sense.

The letters look something like this:

Dear Editor,
I'm "one" of those PATRIOTS who doesn't "appreciate" the way most "AMERICANS" fly the AMERICAN FLAG!! Sometimes the FLAG is flown in "poor" condition or when it is "NOT" illuminated!!!!!! Why???????? It is "disgraceful"!!! Don't AMERICANS "care" about their FLAG and what it "stands" for???!!!!! I didn't fight in a "war," but I am a "veteran"!! Let's show "pride" in being AMERICANS for a "change"!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I've never figured out what the extra exclamation points and question marks accomplish.

I previously belonged to a newspaper association whose director could not write anything without underlining, all caps, bold print and exclamation points. We teased him about it, but he was CONVINCED that the only way to get people's attention was to make it OBVIOUS which words and phrases were MOST IMPORTANT! Mind you, everyone who read the newsletter was a JOURNALIST!

When should you use exclamation points? With an interjection:
Hey! What are you doing? (Hey)
Oh, what a pain you are! (Oh)
When I saw your desk, all I could say was "Wow!" (Wow)

But do not use an exclamation point merely for emphasis:
You start work tomorrow!
I'm stuffed!
John McCain wants to turn over our country to illegal aliens!

People who use exclamation points after every sentence must read the comics every day! That's just what they do!

When should you use all caps? Never in serious writing, but it works in humor writing for emphasis.

Underlining? Underlining on a type-written page means the same as italics in published text. It can used for foreign phrases; book, magazine, album and movie titles; quotes; emphasis; or other purposes, but is best used sparingly. Some advertisers like underlining, even though it clutters their ads and makes them harder to read. It is best avoided.

I think sometimes a writer uses quotation marks to signal that he is not sure he has selected the "correct" word. But use of quotation marks is as specific as use of any other punctuation. The one use that leaves some discretion to the writer is around words that might be preceded by "so-called" or when the connotation is something other than the words literal meaning. Example:
He was a "blue-blood" after all.

Quotation marks are also used for actual quotes and portions of quotes, and book chapters and song titles. In some style books they can also be used for book, magazine, movie and album titles instead of italics.

Some style books call for using italics for the whole (book, magazine, album, movie, play), quotation marks for the part (chapter, article, song, act). Many publications leave it to the writer's discretion.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Word choice

A few word tips:

"Persuade" and "convince" are not synonyms. Convince is to change someone's mind, persuade is to prompt them to act.
I'm convinced Hillary would make a great president. I'm persuaded, then, to vote for her. (Sadly, I reached this conclusion too late.)

"Meanwhile" stands alone, but "meantime" must be preceded by "In the."
Meanwhile, Hillary campaigned in South Dakota ...
In the meantime, Obama was quietly racking up delegates ...

"As far as" requires a "go" or "goes" or something else to complete the thought. "As for" doesn't.
As far as this campaign goes, I've lost interest,
As for McCain, I wish he were a conservative.

"Compare" includes "contrasts," so you don't need both. To compare two things is to show ways they are alike and not alike. But do not use "compare" to mean "liken."
"He compared Bill Clinton to Elvis" does not mean he likened the two, but that he found both similarities and differences.

"Disinterested" is not the same as "uninterested." "Disinterested" means objective or unbiased. "Uninterested" means not interested.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Half century

Following is my column from Sunday. As you read, think about some of the lessons you've learned in your life and feel free to post them under comments.

A half century of observations

I'm 50, darn it. I observed the occasion with a moment of silence, mourning my lost youth. The upside is I can finally be a cantankerous old cuss.

Since this milestone is too painful to celebrate with anything more physically demanding than striking the keyboard, I mark the occasion with a list of 50 things I've learned in my first half century. Yes, I stole the idea from our own Kortney Brand; let's hope she's not the suing type.


1. Life is too short to drink bad coffee.

2. God is there and He is not silent.

3. Conceit is always ugly, regardless of the package it comes in.

4. Kindness is always beautiful, regardless of the package it comes in.

5. Nothing tastes better than a cold beer after hauling hay.

6. No one hauls hay anymore.

7. People who don't like chocolate are abnormal.

8. It's fine to be abnormal. May I have your chocolate?

9. When kids earn their own money for the first time, they display a conservatism you never knew they had.

10. Kids grow up too fast.

11. Kids who never grow up become liberals — that is, liberal with other people's money.

12. A wife who sticks with you is more valuable than anything else you will ever possess.

13. A wuss talks tough only from the safety of his gang — club, union, lodge, team, actual gang. A man has the courage to stand alone.

14. A wuss, usually surrounded by his gang, bullies the weak. A man uses his strength to defend the weak.

15. Airline seats, pants and candy bars always get smaller.

16. Politicians are like insurance companies; they promise much but deliver little.

17. No environment in America is more hostile to free thinking than the university campus.

18. Mothers who fight their sons' battles for them when they are 5 will still be fighting their sons' battles for them when they are 15 and 25 and 35 ...

19. Embarrassing your children is one of life's little pleasures.

20. Psychologists say the basic drivers of human behavior are money, sex and power. But they leave out the most important: respect. Everyone wants to be important.

21. Life is too short to eat beets.

22. Perfect people are an illusion.

23. Something other than dogs should be dubbed "man's best friend." Maybe snakes. They feed themselves, stay out of your way and never chew up your shoes.

24. If you buy all your socks the same color you don't have to look for matches.

25. Two colors of socks cover all occasions: black and white.

26. Ketchup makes everything taste a little better.

27. Except hot dogs.

28. Some of the smartest people are also some of the most gullible.

29. No one was ever made a better person by entering politics, but politics has ruined plenty.

30. Green bean casserole won't ruin your Thanksgiving — unless you eat some.

31. Fashion designers must be practical jokers if they can convince young men to wear their pants hanging down below their crotches so they can barely walk.

32. Newspapers are America's best bargain and best insurance against despotism.

33. "Groundhog Day" is the greatest movie of all time, and it (not "Star Wars") contains the answers to all of life's questions.

34. Weather forecasts are wrong so often that we don't bother to plan any activities based on them, but we watch them anyway.

35. Barry Bonds was this generation's Ty Cobb — a racist, obnoxious cheater who also happened to have more talent than anyone else in the game.

36. "Scientists" who resort to mocking religion do so to hide the fact that they can't produce sufficient evidence to support their theories.

37. No one could ever live up the legacy of Ronald Reagan. Not even Ronald Reagan.

38. Life is too short to eat carrot cake.

39. Americans are dangerously unsuspicious of government.

40. Gun control advocates operate from their hearts, not their heads.

41. Food cooked and eaten outdoors tastes better.

42. Nothing does more to prevent the next war than winning the current war.

43. Nothing invites an attack more than a retreat.

44. George Washington is the one man without whom there would be no United States of America.

45. George Washington Carver is the most under-appreciated man in American history.

46. Text messaging has introduced a new means for teenagers to be rude in public.

47. Doubting the existence of God because there is suffering in the world is like doubting the existence of your parents because you stub your toe on the door frame.

48. People my age sure look old.

49. Fifty is a pretty big number.

50. I can go home now.