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Prose Parade
Grammar and writing basics

June 28, 2009

Reflexive Redux

In a previous posting (see Me, Myself and I, Part 3) I fussed about sentences that use the reflexive (pronoun + the word “self”) when they’re not supposed to. Today, it’s quite the opposite: not using it when you must.

For a long time I thought this construction was regional, mostly from the South, but I hear it everywhere now. Here’s an example: “I’m gonna get me a cold drink.” Huh?

Remember what I said in the other posting? Use the reflexive when the sentence’s subject is a personal pronoun (I/myself, you/yourself, he/himself, she/herself, it/itself, we/ourselves, they/themselves). So, it’s not “gonna get me.” it’s “gonna get myself.” The -self word is an indirect object (see Parts of a Sentence) and relates or reflects (hence the term reflexive) on the personal pronoun subject.

Better still don’t use the reflexive in this construction at all. The sentence communicates just fine without the “me.” “I’m gonna get a cold drink.” See?

And could it hurt you to offer a beverage to other people?

June 25, 2009

A Few Words about Mark Sanford

I know the less you hear about that subhuman the better, but this is about language.

For instance, from one of his amorous e-mails: “I think I had told you, taking the family to China, Tibet, Nepal, India, Thailand and then back through Hong Kong on world wind tour.” World wind?! World wind?! This is from a supposedly educated man. For crying out loud, it’s whirlwind, you doofus. Whirlwind!

And again: “How in the world this lightening strike snuck up on us I am still not quite sure.” Lightening?! How about lightning? The one with an “e” means to go from dark to light. Lightning is the electrical spark from the sky to the earth. Presumably, that’s what this cretin means.

And you know how I feel about “snuck.” It’s “sneaked” as far as I’m concerned no matter what my dictionary tells me.

I think he should resign on the basis of his pathetic language skills, even in an e-mail.

And don’t get me started on the quality of the mush he wrote. Barbara Cartland (RIP) could write better stuff. I was waiting for him to compare her teeth to pearls. Gag.

June 21, 2009

Could/Couldn’t Care Less

I know a lot of people think these two terms are interchangeable, but they’re not. One means you don’t care; the other means you have more depths of caring to plumb.

If you say, “I could care less,” I’m tempted to ask you how much less you could care. No, really, tell me just how much less you could care. I’m vicious if I need to be. This is one phrase that sends me up the wall, around the ceiling, down the other wall and back to the floor.

I think the problem arises because “couldn’t care less” is an odd construction and tries to strike a tone of sarcasm or ennui or cover-up of the real feeling, a dramatic interpretation anyway. Whatever the reason, the construction is odd and confusing. I think if you’re writing it, maybe it’s better not to because the tone needs a real live voice to convey its meaning. It’s better to write, “I don’t care.”

Unless you’re writing fiction, then you can have your character say anything you or he/she pleases. It’s fiction; you can get away with a lot of bad grammar, bad syntax and bad colloquial expressions. Characters are defined in ways like these.

In the end, however, for all of you who say “could care less.” Cut it out. It’s “couldn’t care less.” Period. It’s not a matter of opinion (as someone once told me), they don’t mean the same thing (as many people have told me), and even though I know what you mean (as most people have told me), I don’t care. Use the right expression.

BTW, I rarely correct people’s grammar or anything about what they say in conversation because by and large it’s rude and interrupts the flow of the conversation, but I make an exception for this one.


June 18, 2009

Different From/Than

As most of you know by now, I’m a grammar and syntax purist, and I’m a pain about it. This post is no different.

In the past we were told to use “different from” at all times, even though people used “different than” in speech all the time. “Different from” is used for contrast.

“Than” is for comparing (smarter than the average bear). Some grammarians, including my dictionary, think it’s OK to use “than” if a clause follows the “than.” For example, “The house is different than I remember it.” What follows “than” is a complete sentence.

So, it follows even if it is unwritten that the dictionary disallows “than” if it’s not followed (sorry, two follows) by a clause. So, it’s not all right to write, “Yogi is different than Boo-Boo.”

I say phooey to all that hair-splitting. I say use “from” all the time. BTW, so does the AP Stylebook. The example sentence can easily read, “The house is different from my memory of it.” Also, “Yogi is different from Boo-Boo.”

I know I’m sweeping the ocean with a broom, but I’ll stick to my guns (do you love that mixed metaphor?) until they pry the keyboard out of my cold, dead hands.

June 14, 2009

A Poser

A friend posed this to me, and I think someone posed it to her, and none of us knows the answer. So here goes…

In English we have a habit of saying some words twice, maybe for emphasis, maybe not. For instance, “there, there,” when consoling someone. The Brits say, “Here, here,” when they applaud something. “No-no,” which is baby talk, has made it into the dictionary as a grown-up (or sort of) word that means a misstep or mistake or something forbidden. “Now, now” we use instead of telling people to settle down.

OK, there are the examples. Is there a word that describes these doubles? I’ve looked in the dictionary, my grammar books and my prosody books, and nothing. (And, yes, I have multiple grammar books and prosody books [having to do with prose].) I even looked in my Thrall and Hibbard (a handbook of literature). Nothing, nothing, nothing. Oh, there are three; I must feel very emphatic.

June 10, 2009

Writing Tip/Prepositional Phrases

Sometimes we get on a roll, and we don’t notice we’ve strung about four prepositional phrases together. Um. No good. Too many prepositional phrases slow reading down, which is not the goal. The goal is to be concise and readable.

For instance, “In the dark of night beneath an overcast sky, we took a walk.”

Holy smoke! You have to fix that one right now.
How about this? “It was dark and overcast, but we took a walk.”

You can rewrite the sentence any way that gets rid of the phrases. I turned it into a compound sentence. Also give thought to changing the prepositional phrases into a clause or a prepositional phrase with words in a series as the object of the preposition.

If you like a bunch of prepositional phrases starting the sentence (for artistic reasons, perhaps, or striving to make a word count on a subject you don’t know enough about), then put a comma after the last one. That is, in the first example the comma would come after “sky.”

See, reads better already doesn’t it.

June 2, 2009


At one time “toward” and “towards” meant slightly different things, but now dictionaries say they’re interchangeable. My American Heritage says the Brits tend to use “towards,” and the Americans tend to use “toward.”

However, when writing and using a style guide, check the style guide. The AP Stylebook says always to use “toward.” The Chicago Manual of Style (13th edition) is mute on the subject. I’ve never used the APA, but if you do, check it.

It’s little things like this slight difference that can set off Klaxons in a copy editor’s head. Blaaaat!