Sunday, December 31, 2006

Just the Word

On the blog, English Jack, which offers thoughtful and sometimes thought provoking discussion of grammar points, is a list of tools. He links to one tool that I think could prove useful. The site Just the Word provides a way to look up words with their common collocations in different patterns. Use the link, Getting Started, to see how it works or, better yet, type in a word in the box and explore.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Correction about Guide to Grammar and Writing

I wrote too soon it seems. Guide to Grammar and Writing remains available. Some of the former links don't work, but this one does
As Ronald Reagan said, "trust but verify", and I forgot the second part, to verify.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Grammar Resources on line

The site for Guide to Grammar and Writing seems to work no longer with the death of the webmaster, Charles Darling. Here are a couple of sites that can serve as replacement resources.

The first one, Grammar Slammer, has some good grammar explanations available in a simple format that makes finding what you want fairly easy although it doesn't have the richness of explanations of the Guide to Grammar and Writing. The site appears to be a site aimed at selling a more complete product, which I have not tried and cannot endorse.


The second one, the OWL (On-Line Writing Lab) - Purdue University, has a wealth of materials on different grammar, writing, and punctuation topics. I have used this site off and on for several years. I particularly like the option of downloading pdf files of many of the explanations. While Grammar Slammer provides short and clear explanations, OWL (On-Line Writing Lab) - Purdue University supplies more in-depth explanations and exercises for practice.

Friday, November 24, 2006


In class, the question arose because a student reported that she got the answer wrong on a test because she thought due was always followed by a time. But due when followed by to means caused by. Another synonym for due is attributable according to the Columbia Journalism Review site. The explanation further notes that "due to" is usually preceded by some form of the verb be or words that function like it, that is, linking verbs.

Their examples are:

  • "The power failure was due to a lightning strike."
  • "Their exhaustion seemed due to the humidity rather than the heat."

Here is a little more about due. Due with prepositions can connect with money and time.

Due to is also used with money.

  • Ten dollars for the tickets is due to Mr. Jones.

To return to the original point about due to. When due is used with on or in, it often refers to a time.

  • The paper is due on the last day of the month.
  • Your answer is due in ten minutes.

Due has several uses beyond pointing to time including causes and money.

Thursday, November 09, 2006


Because is a commonly used subordinate conjunction. The word because is not followed by very many parts of speech except in this sentence where because is not a subordinator but the word being talked about. Consider the following concordance results from VIEW: Variation in English Words and Phrases.

As we can see of the 9 lines from the results, 2 are nouns, workers and germs, one is a gerund, shooting, and 3 are personal pronouns:they or she. In one sentence because introduces another dependent clause beginning if you do not pay. In line 6, the prepositional phrase like Jesus follows because. Nine lines are not enough lines to make any serious generalization from.

However, using another online concordance, Lexical Tutor, similar results were found.

These results, based on many more lines, indicate that a noun or noun phrase, pronoun, or preposition are most likely to follow because. Consequently, when writing clauses that begin with because, we should make sure the word or words that follow include a noun, pronoun, or preposition. The most common preposition that follows because is the preposition of. Do not use a verb after because unless you are writing about the word because.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

a couple

The word couple poses some problems when we deal with subject verb agreement.  First of all, even with the phrase a couple, we have to be careful.  In American English, we expect a couple to be singular, which means we add an -s to the present tense verb that follows it.

Example: John and Mary are a couple.  This couple is traveling with us to Jacksonville on Saturday.

So far, we are doing well with singular subject verb agreement.  However, consider the following sentences.

They/It disagree/s about where to eat, so we went to separate restaurants, me with the husband, my wife with the wife. 

Obviously, in this example, it doesn't make sense because the couple we refer to in the previous sentence now becomes two.  This shift leaves us with a choice between remaining consistent or adjusting as we write. 

Consistent:  John and Mary are a couple.  This couple are traveling with us to Jacksonville on Saturday.  They disagree about where to eat, so we went to separate restaurants, me with the husband, my wife with the wife. 

Adjusting:  John and Mary are a couple.  This couple is traveling with us to Jacksonville on Saturday.  They disagree about where to eat, so we went to separate restaurants, me with the husband, my wife with the wife.

I like the second choice, adjusting, because I understand the couple to be a single unit when they are traveling, but they become two, the meaning of couple, when they disagree about the restaurant.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

plural gerunds

A general rule for gerunds that our workbook gives is that gerunds are singular. This is accurate in most cases because most gerunds serve as non count or uncountable nouns and do not have a plural form. For example, in the sentence, Skiing is my favorite winter activity., skiing is always singular and can not be counted. As I wrote before, this guideline is accurate in most cases. However, a few gerunds can be countable and have a plural form. In the Collins COBUILD English Grammar, there is a list the more frequent gerunds that have plural forms.

beginning feeling meeting setting turning
being finding offering showing warning
building hearing painting sitting
drawing meaning saying suffering (page 28)

The writers point out that many of these words have different meanings in the plural form than in the verb form. One example of this difference is the word feel.

As a verb, feeling refers to the sense of touch, health or mood.

She is feeling the roughness of the fabric.
He is feeling a little sick from the long ride.
She is feeling sad that her sister could not come along.

As a noun, feeling refers to the sense of touch, emotions, or opinions.

The feeling in his hands returned as his hands warmed up.
His has mixed feelings about this trip.
Their feelings were that the judge was unfair.

When we rely on the guidelines that gerunds are singular, we should keep in mind the exceptions listed above.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

continual and continuous

There is a good explanation of continual and continuous at
The explanation is as follows:
Notes: Continual is often confused with continuous. However, the meanings of these two words differ significantly and they cannot be used correctly as synonyms. Continuous refers to an action that continues in an unbroken fashion, as a continuous hum or buzzing sound. Continual refers to a repeated action that is periodically interrupted, as continual complaints about the dog from the neighbors.
Both of these adjectives come from continue, but the differ in meaning so much that they can not be used interchangeable, that is they cannot be synonyms. If I want to write that something happens without stop, then I use continuous.
  • There was a continuous whistle in my ears while I had a cold.
  • Her continous complaining made her uncomfortable company.
Continual, as the explanation points out, means a repeated action.

  • He made continual use of the whistle to stop play.
  • The protestors faced continual pressure from the police.
In an earlier post, I wrote about time and times as noncount and count. It would seem that continuous is like the noncount time in that it is not broken into different actions. Continual is like the count time because it refers to several actions that keep getting repeated.

Saturday, April 29, 2006


The Triangle Grammar Guide has a fine post on the FANBOYS, the coordinating conjunctions For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So. This blog is written by Pam Nelson, an experienced journalist for the The NewsObserver of Raleigh, North Carolina. As is clear from the title, she writes about grammar.

A few points that she makes are:
"The words can connect words, phrases or clauses. They are called coordinating conjunctions because they join equal things."

"Newspaper style varies from academic style on commas and items in a series. In newspapers, we drop the comma just before the coordinating conjunction:

Stir in sugar, oil, beaten eggs and vanilla."
"You have probably heard that you should not begin a sentence with a coordinating conjunction. Piffle! You shouldn't begin every sentence with a conjunction, but you can use the conjunctions sometimes. But don't put a comma after the conjunction."

I found a few things interesting in her discussion of the FANBOYS. I liked that she pointed out how journalistic style is different from academic style. Second, she points out that we can use a coordinating conjunction at the beginning of a sentence. There is no rule that a sentence cannot begin with a coordinating conjunction, but there are some teacher rules that forbid the use of coordinating conjunctions at the beginning of a sentence. Finally, remember the final sentence I quote above:"But don't put a comma after the conjunction."

By the way, for those who do not know, according to Merriam Webster's on line, piffle means "trivial nonsense".

Friday, March 31, 2006


That can serve different functions in English. I will discuss four uses.

As a pronoun, that usually refers to something specific.
What kind of car is that?
That can be used to refer to an event.
The bicycle race finish was very close. That was really exciting.
That can be used to refer to something farther away in contrast to this.
That calculator is mine; this one is hers.
Relative Pronoun

That can be used to form two kinds of clauses: noun clause and adjective clauses.

Noun Clause:
That he was wrong is very clear now.
The important thing is that she did not panic.
Adjective Clause:
The store that used to be on this corner was my favorite place to buy magazines.
Storm is the name that her mother gave her.

With some adjectives and verbs, that can serve as a subordinate conjunction.

He is sorry that he missed her performance.
I wish that she would pay closer attention.
She knew that she should wait longer.
so that
I worked hard all afternoon so that I could pay my rent this month.


That is used to point at a specific thing.
That rose is my favorite one.
He brought that guitar to the party.
Leaving out that

In some cases, that can be left out.

So that clauses
She baked a cake so that her sister would have something special for her birthday.
She baked a cake so her sister would have something special for her birthday.
That can be left out of clauses when it is the object of the clause.
She went to the store that sold the best watches. (that is the subject so it can not be left out.)
She went to the store that her sister told her about. (that is the object – her sister told her about that store- so it can be left out)
She went to the store her sister told her about.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

all the time, every time

There is some confusion between every time and all the time in a couple of papers. Every time refers to several different events. All the time consists of an extended event.

At McDonald's, I work every time. (In this sentence, it is a little unclear, but the sentence suggests that when McDonald's needs me to work, I work. It means several different times.)
At McDonald's, I work all the time. (In this sentence, the writer is saying that the person works the full time that he or she is at McDonald's.)

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

a number of

In an exercise we were working on in class, a sentence began with A number of students. This caused confusion because a number indicates one, so it would seem that the verb should be has. However, the correct answer is A number of students have. The reason the plural verb form is used is that a number of is an idiom. The idiom, a number of, means several. With this in mind, we can go back to our sentence

A number of students (has, have) problems with pronunciation.

and substitute several for a number of.

Several students (has, have) problems with pronunciation.

With several, it is clearer that the correct verb choice is have.

Several students have problems with pronunciation.

A number of students have problems with pronunciation.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Like/As if

Here is a very helpful post from Triangle Grammar Guide on the use of like and as if:

Write as if you know what you are doing

"Like" is a preposition and should not be used at the beginning of a clause. Here is an example I encountered in my editing recently: The two friends look like they’d be more at home knocking the stuffing out of people on a football field. I changed that "like" to "as if." I seem to do that a lot, so it occurs to me that writers either don't know the correct usage or are deliberately ignoring it in favor of "conversational" writing.

John Bremner in "Words on Words" has a clear rule for determining whether to use "like" or "as/as if." Remember that "like" means "similar to" or "similarly to." Substitute "similar to" in the sentence above: The two friends look similar to they’d be more at home knocking the stuffing out of people on a football field. You can see that how wrong that is or hear how incorrect it sounds.

The post clears up for me the difference between like and as if in a way that helps me understand how the words differ in use.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Noun adjuncts

Even an old dog can learn something new.

I have taught for years that the noun coming before another noun and describing the second noun is simply a noun acting as an adjective. But there is a name for this noun. It is a noun adjunct.
Here is what I am talking about.

In the phrase raisin bread, the word raisin is a noun adjunct. It is a noun describing a second noun, bread.

This differs from a compound noun like toothbrush which is two nouns combined to form one word.

Although noun adjuncts will not be on any tests that I give, it is nice to learn something new. By the way, I checked my old grammar books, and there is nothing in them about noun adjuncts, so I guess I have an excuse for my ignorance.