Friday, October 19, 2012

Grammar lesson 5

Often you will hear or read that something is different than something else.

For example, someone might state the truism that "women are different than men." But that would be bad grammar. The way it should be stated is "women are different from men."


Well, if instead of using the word different you stated the truism using the word differ, the reason becomes obvious. You wouldn't say "women differ than men." You would say "women differ from men." Therefore, you should say "women are different from men."

What's the difference between from and than?

The word than, like from, is a preposition. It usually follows an adjective when drawing a specific contrast between people, things, or conditions.
  • Florida is hotter than Minnesota.
  • Trees are bigger than bugs.
  • Cars are faster than tricycles.
Notice the specific contrasts in those examples. "Hotter, bigger, faster." It's easy to see how two things are being contrasted. In statements using those types of adjectives, you use the word than. But when two things are simply different, that doesn't really tell you anything. How are men and women different? How exactly does Florida differ from Minnesota? You don't know, do you? So that's why the word than doesn't follow the word different.


And here's where the English language is once again...different from many others. If a clause (instead of just a noun or pronoun) follows the word different, go ahead and use than.

For instance, it would be correct to say, "Writing about grammar is different than I expected it to be."  

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Grammar lesson 4

I feel sorry for anyone trying to learn English grammar. My church offers English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) classes. I admire the students in those classes. English cannot be easy to learn.

Even we who supposedly know English trip up over the words "who" and "whom." As an example, I'm reading a book titled No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission that Killed Osama Bin Laden. Now, I shouldn't pick on this author, Mark Owen (actually not his real name, for obvious reasons). He's a Navy SEAL, for crying out loud. He's not a seasoned author. And dude, the man helped take out Bin Laden! Still, since he's probably not going to read my blog and come after me with his many weapons, I'll quote a sentence from his "Author's Note":
"This is the story of a group of extraordinary men who I was lucky enough to serve alongside as a SEAL from 1998 to 2012."
See the problem? Mark should have written that sentence this way: "This is the story of a group of extraordinary men alongside whom I was lucky enough to serve as a SEAL from 1998 to 2012."

There's actually a pretty simple rule that tells you when to use "who" and when to use "whom." Who is always a subject and whom is always an object. So, when you're wondering whether to use who or whom (or whoever or whomever), substitute the word he/she/they (subjective) and him/her/them (objective) and see which one sounds right.

Confused? Here's what I mean:
  • "Who/Whom shall I send?" (Isaiah 6:8a)
  • I shall send him (objective). Therefore, "Whom shall I send?" is correct.
  • "Who/Whom will go for us?" (Isaiah 6:8b)
  • He will go for us (subjective). Therefore "Who will go for us?" is correct.
In the sentence I quoted from the book No Easy Day, it's a no-brainer because the author-SEAL was talking about some extraordinary men with (or alongside) whom he was lucky enough to serve. Anytime you have the word "with" or "from" or "to" or "alongside" or "by," you KNOW that you follow it with whom, not who. Why is that? Because those words are prepositions, and they DEMAND an object - and whom is objective. That's why Isaiah 53:1 is correctly translated,
"Who (subject) has believed our message and to whom (object) has the arm of the Lord been revealed?"

Monday, October 08, 2012

Grammar lesson 3

What should you say when two different people possess the same thing? It's called compound, or joint, possession. An example would be: "Scott and Rebecca's kids are coming to see us." As long as the two people possess the same thing (in this case, three of my grandchildren), the rule is that you make only the second noun possessive. You wouldn't say "Scott's and Rebecca's kids" unless Scott's kids are different from Rebecca's.

But it's more perplexing when a personal pronoun enters the picture. Suppose you want to tell a friend about your new car, but your wife is standing right there and you don't want to sound like it's only YOUR car. I've heard people say things like...
"Want to take a ride in my wife and my's car?"
Worse yet, I've heard people say things like...
"Want to take a ride in my wife and I's car?"
What's the rule in this case? You certainly couldn't follow the normal rule for compound possession, because it would force you to say, "Want to take a ride in my wife and my car?"! When one of the possessors in a compound possessive is a personal pronoun, you have to put both possessors in the possessive form. So you would say,
"Want to take a ride in my wife's and my car?"

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Grammar lesson 2

One of the most ridiculous misuses of the English language that is now considered (politically) correct is what has become known as the "singular they." These days, we are supposed to substitute the word they, them, or their for the old, chauvinistic, universal he.

I ran across this trend in my morning Bible reading. The updated (2011) NIV translation of Jeremiah 8:6 says, "I have listened attentively, but they do not say what is right. None of them repent of their wickedness, saying, 'What have I done?' Each pursues their own course like a horse charging into battle."

Two times in that one verse you see what I'm talking about...
"None of them repent of their wickedness...Each pursues their own course like a horse charging into battle."
In the first sentence above, None simply means "not one." It's singular. So good grammar would dictate that repent ought to be repents, and their should be his.  

In the second sentence, Each is a singular noun. Their is a plural possessive pronoun. The two don't go together. So again, the word their should be his.

Out of curiosity, I checked the 1984 NIV (which is the one I normally read). It uses good English grammar. It renders Jeremiah 8:6, "No one repents of his wickedness, saying, 'What have I done?' Each pursues his own course like a horse charging into battle."

In the 27 years between the two NIV translations, the universal he apparently met its demise. In its place, behold, the "singular they"! I suppose it is unfair to half the population to always go around using masculine pronouns. So unless we want to use bad grammar, we must resort to saying "he or she," or "one," or (in writing at least) either "he/she" or the more awkward "(s)he." But never the universal he.

I've noticed what some speakers do to avoid offending women. They will alternate between saying "he" and "she," just to keep us on our toes! So in some situations I guess it's OK to use the universal he, as long as the speaker or writer gives equal time to the universal she.

To each their own.

I just wonder if it's really such a big deal. Ladies, am I missing something here?

Friday, October 05, 2012

Grammar lesson of the day

I had some great grammar teachers when I was growing up in Union, South Carolina. (Do they even teach grammar anymore?)

Take my fifth grade teacher, for example. Here's a picture of my classmates and me at Foster Park Elementary. (See, you'd probably say "me and my classmates," or "my classmates and I," am I right? Bad, bad.) That's me right there in the middle, second row. Our teacher was Mrs. Mazyck (pronounced "ma-ZEKE"). She was something else. She drilled us over and over again on rules of English grammar. She would play these records and we'd have to repeat what we heard - endlessly. But I must say, it worked. I learned things that came in handy later on in high school, college, and now in my life as a preacher.

So from time to time I'll share a bit of my knowledge and give a "grammar lesson of the day" here in my blog.

For my first lesson, class, let's talk about something you're never supposed to say: "The reason is because...." That's incorrect, you see. The RIGHT thing to say is "The reason is that...."

Suppose someone asks you why you're carrying an umbrella. You could say, "I'm carrying an umbrella because it looks like rain." Or you could say, "The reason is that it looks like rain." But you shouldn't say, "The reason is because it looks like rain." That'd be redundant.

And that's why it's bad grammar.