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How To Avoid Sounding Like an Idiot

Avoiding the Pet Peeves of People Who Read Your Stuff (I)

Mass Nouns & Count Nouns

English distinguishes mass nouns, like "economics" and "coffee," which cannot normally occur in the plural, from count nouns, like "Buddhist" and "computer," which routinely can and do occur in the plural.

Some common units of measure are limited to association with one kind of noun or the other. Here are a few examples. (If another termpaper talks about "a large amount of people" I may run amok.)

Here are some expressions which differ by mass/count type:

mass nounscount nouns
not much chocolate not many apples
very little interest very few people
less coffee fewer professors
large amount of money small number of pages
what you said things you said

Here are some expressions which remain unchanged:

mass nounscount nouns
more food more people
a lot of nonsense a lot of coins


Right: Many of these products are sold to tourists.
Right: Much of what is produced is sold to tourists.
Wrong: Much of these products are sold to tourists.

Right: Very few programs are greared toward preparing students for leadership.
Wrong: Very little programs are greared toward preparing students for leadership.

Right: What you said was quite right.
Right: The things you said were quite right.
Right: A lot of the things you said were quite right.
Right: A lot of what you said was quite right.

Wrong: Statewide, the overall number of trash disposed per person each day was 4.4 pounds …. (San Diego Union Tribune, 150223, p. A7)
Right: Statewide, the overall amount of trash disposed of per person each day was 4.4 pounds ….

In some cases the selection of the measure word is dictated by the sense, rather than whether the noun is singular or plural, mass or count. Notice the illiterate effect of "amount" (used only with mass nouns) to refer to people in the following quotation from a student paper, even though the term referring to people is not plural:

"a certain amount of the younger generation" [The younger generation comes perhaps in milk bottles?]

Some mass nouns have shadow count nouns in some meanings. It is possible to speak of "deep waters," but one would not talk about a glass of "waters." A box of chocolate is not the same thing as a box of chocolates. And so on. These cases should not distract one from the main thrust of the distinction, which is normally clear in any particular example.

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Commas & Restrictive Clauses

In principle, a comma is used in print to represent a pause in speech. That is the usage lurking beneath the famous contrast between "Let's eat, Grandma" and "Let's eat Grandma." In practice, commas have conventions that may or may not correspond with spoken pauses, and which vary much less between users than spoken pauses do. One which matters relates to restrictive and non-restrictive clauses.

In English, a non-restrictive subordinate clause is set off with a comma, but a restrictive one is not. The comma thus signals an important difference in the meaning of some sentences. Leaving it out can lead to your being misread. Here are a couple of examples from a doctoral dissertation:

"The money is given to the fiscal who pays the priest."
[There are many fiscales. One pays the priest. The money should be given to that one, not to any of the others. The subordinate clause restricts the range of fiscales to whom the money may be given.]
"The money is given to the fiscal, who pays the priest."
[There is one fiscal. One of the things he does is pay the priest. The comma shows that the subordinate clause adds description about the fiscal, but does not affect which fiscal is it issue.
"They returned to the house where the séance was going on."
[There were many houses they might have returned to, but they picked the one where the séance was going on. The subordinate clause restricts the range of houses to which they could return.]
"They returned to the house, where the séance was going on."
[There was only one house that they would have returned to. As it happened, the séance was in progress when they got back. The subordinate clause adds information about the house, but does not affect which house is at issue.]

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Commas in a Series

When three or more items are placed in a series, with "and" or "or" linking the last item, English separates the items in the series with commas, but style sheets vary on the need for a comma before the "and" or "or":

In general the second, "stripped" form is used in other European languages, and seems to be increasing in frequency in English. However it occasionally promotes ambiguity that can be avoided with the first, "full" form, which is therefore to be preferred:

Consider the following sentence from the Los Angeles Times:

Spurred by changing times, [PTA] chapters are recruiting fathers, working mothers and immigrants, running health clinics and taking stands on touchy political issues.

Are the chapters recruiting mothers and immigrants or working them? Misreading is not possible with the full punctuation:

Spurred by changing times, [PTA] chapters are recruiting fathers, working mothers, and immigrants, running health clinics, and taking stands on touchy political issues.

Since the quotation includes a list of nouns within a list of verbs, it is still clumsy. The structure would be less confusing if the syntax were rearranged a bit:

Spurred by changing times, [PTA] chapters are running health clinics, taking stands on touchy political issues, and recruiting fathers, working mothers, and immigrants,

If necessary, the structure could be made clearer yet by using semicolons for the elements of the "outer list" to avoid confusion with the commas of the "inner" one:

Spurred by changing times, [PTA] chapters are running health clinics; taking stands on touchy political issues; and recruiting fathers, working mothers, and immigrants,

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Hyphens & Common Sense

In principle, a hyphen links two words that are in the process of fusing into a single one but haven't quite got there yet. For example, "killjoy" is already an English word. (Don't be a killjoy.) "Mangle-joy," on the other hand, is not yet in common use, and perhaps never will be. (Don't be a mangle-joy.) But it functions as a single word, and makes no real sense without the hyphen.

All sorts of expressions pick up the hyphen when they are used to modify a noun:

There are expressions where most editors leave out the hyphen, usually because the modifier is already unambiguously experienced as a single entity without the need to signal it, and no ambiguity can result:

As a general rule of thumb, the hyphen goes in when it enhances clarity and the reader benefits by having it there.

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Indirect Questions & Quotations

An indirect quotation or question is a one in a subordinate clause, presented as a paraphrase of what was said and not necessarily in the same words. The word order, punctuation, and usually the verb form differ from those in direct quotations and questions.

Direct Quotation: She said, "I will come on Friday."
Indirect Quotation: She said she would come on Friday.

Direct Quotation: She said, "I hate you!"
Indirect Quotation: She said she hated me.

Direct Quotation: Smith wrote, "Cannibalism has prevailed in China from time immemorial."
Indirect Quotation: Smith wrote that cannibalism had prevailed in China from time immemorial.

Direct Question: He asked, "Will she go?"
Indirect Question: He asked if/whether she would go.

Direct Question: Will China succeed in controlling her population? We still don't know.
Indirect Question: We still don't know whether China will succeed in controlling her population.

Direct Question: The issue is: "Did the President know about it?"
Indirect Question: The issue is whether the President knew about it.

In these latter days, there has been a tendency in spoken language to portmanteau the direct-quotation word order into indirect quotations. For example: "The issue is did the President know about it?." The lesser sort of writer does this in termpapers too, where it is even more sub-standard than it is in speech. (In this example it is possible to follow exactly this form in writing, but it requires correct punctuation: "The issue is: Did the President know about it?")

Wrong: We will examine how do the villagers interpret the shaman's act?.
[The question mark plus period is the punctuation the student used, clearly recognizing that the question was embedded within a statement, but unsure how to deal with it. The punctuation is ingenious, but is not how English solves the problem.]
Right: We will examine how the villagers interpret the shaman's act.

Wrong: That approach ignores the issue of how much do things cost?.
Right: That approach ignores the issue of how much things cost.

Wrong: Informants disagreed about how effective a hunter was he?.
Right: Informants disagreed about how effective a hunter he was.

Note that sometimes the direct-question word order can be used by punctuating it as a direct question. That would not work in the sentences above, but it works fine in the following examples:

Wrong: The question is does Neanderthal cranial capacity need more attention in the argument?.
Right: The question is whether Neanderthal cranial capacity needs more attention in the argument.
Right: The question is: "Does Neanderthal cranial capacity need more attention in the argument?"
Better: The question is whether the argument should take better account of Neanderthal cranial capacity.

Wrong: What did Confucius mean by junzi is our problem.
Right: What Confucius meant by junzi is our problem.
Right: "What did Confucius mean by junzi?" That is our problem.

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Quoting Other People's Mistakes

Should you quote other people exactly even when they make mistakes? If so, how do you show that the mistakes are not yours? For example, President Obama, exasperated at Republican intransigence in the 2011 spring budget negotiations, said in a news conference:

"As I've said before, we have now matched the number that the Speaker originally sought. The only question is whether politics or ideology are going to get in the way of preventing a government shutdown."

It is obviously very tortuous to talk of politics getting in the way of preventing something undesirable when you mean politics may cause something undesirable. The reporter who quoted this word-for-word did Mr. Obama no favor. Arguably it would have made sense to paraphrase this so that a reader would not have to go over it several times to work out the meaning:

The President pointed out that "we have now matched the number that the Speaker originally sought," and he expressed concern about politics or ideology nevertheless leading to a government shutdown.

In this particular case, the Speaker, in his own press conference, made a simple syntax error, which the same news account also quoted word-for-word. Here again paraphrase could also be a graceful solution, but it is also conventional to insert the little word "sic" in brackets to show that the error is part of the original.

Original News Account: "We are not going to allow the Senate nor the White House to put us in a box," Boehner said.

Correcting Paraphrase: Speaker Boehner said they were not going to allow the Senate or White House to "put us in a box."

"Sic" Note: "We are not going to allow the Senate nor [sic] the White House to put us in a box," Boehner said.

These examples come from press conferences, that is, from spoken language with all its imperfections. If the original were a printed souce, the "sic" form would probably be preferable for the second quotation.

For better or worse, using "sic" to show that the error is in the original text and not sloppiness on your part also directs the reader's attention to it. That need not be a big deal, since errors tend to stand out anyway. But calling attention to an error can strike some readers as snide — and it can actually be a bit snide if you use it that way. In any case it disrupts the general flow of the writing. If an original is peppered with syntax errors, it may be better just to say so and then quote it without tagging each one with its own "sic."

Anthropological Broken English. In anthropology we often quote informants who originally spoke to us in another language, not always their native language. We treat our translations of what they say as exact quotations, usually rendering them into standard English even if the originals had some irregularities.

But sometimes informants speak in broken English. We want to quote them accurately, but it seems to diminish them to quote their mistakes (let alone to tag them with "sics"), and it also seems dismissive to provide a translation from what was clearly an English original, at least in its intention. What is the best course?

Obviously a quotation that is to serve as the basis of a linguistic analysis must be exact. However most anthropological quotations are not like that, and it protects both the dignity of the informant and the patience of the reader to avoid the distraction of broken English. One possibility is to use a close paraphrase that "cleans up" the English as much as possible, and then introduce the quotation by saying something like the following: "Susan said (paraphrasing): …" One can even put quotes around it show that the paraphrase is extremely close. ( "Susan said (paraphrasing): '…'") Whatever policy is adopted, it should be made clear to the reader.

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Apostrophes & the Possessive Case

In spoken English, the possessive (or genitive) case is marked with the sound of -s (or -z) added to a word. In written English the possessive case is marked by an apostrophe (').

If the word already ends in -s, it is enough to add the apostrophe to the end of the word. This is the case with most plural nouns: babies becomes babies' (both babies' toys).

If the word does not already end in s, then an -s is added after the apostrophe. This is what is done with most singular nouns: baby becomes baby's (one baby's toys).

The distinction is whether the non-possessive form already ends in -s, not whether it is singular or plural, despite whatever your grade-school English teacher may have told you!!!

(Some writers count final -z or -x like final -s for purposes of apostrophe placement: "the Bijoux'[s] last movie." Also, in the case of proper names, some add an -s after the apostrophe even if the word already ends in -s: "Mr. Jones'[s] new dog." These cases are rare and, since either form is allowable, unlikely to cause trouble, even though there exist people with strong passions on the subject.)


Singular PossessorPlural Possessor
1. the wizard's castle
(one wizard)
the wizards' castle
(many wizards)
2. the baby's bottle
(one baby)
the babies' bottles
(many babies)
3. the child's toy
(one child)
the children's toy
(many children)
4. the people's bank
(one people)
people's views
(many people)
5. the mouse's pedigree
(one mouse)
the mice's genes
(genes of several mice)
6. Dneprodzerzhinsk's city center
(there is only one Dneprodzerzhinsk!)

Caution: In the vast majority of cases, the possessive singular sounds like the nominative and possessive plural. A common careless error is therefore to write "the babies bottle" or "the cities population" rather than "the baby's bottle" or "the city's population." When this makes its way to a final draft, it is an especially illiterate mistake and is the kind of thing that can cost you a job you are applying for.

Further Caution: The possessive form of the pronoun "it" is "its," without an apostrophe, just as the possessive form of the pronoun "he" or "her" is "his" or "hers," without an apostrophe. This is the only exception, and it contrasts with "it's" meaning "it is." Examples:

It's a hubcap. The car lost its hubcap
I think it's a tail. The lizard lost its tail.
I think he's coming by bus. He lost his bus pass.

Yet Further Caution: It is usually a lapse of style, to use the possessive inflection on nouns that do not refer to animate objects, at least metaphorically. One ought to say "Susan's motorcycle" or "the baby's bottom" rather than "the motorcycle of Susan" or "the bottom of the baby," but in the opposite direction, if less emphatically, one ought to say "the bottom of the box" rather than "the box's bottom." Intermediate cases occur —"China's population" = "the population of China"— but when in doubt the animateness rule will produce expressions less likely to jar the reader.

Another Caution: It is generally clumsy and confusing to insert extra material between the possessive and the thing possessed:

I also enjoyed reading about the oyster omelet's, which I love eating, history.

Final Caution: Misuse or omission of the apostrophe can result in a complete shift in the meaning of other parts of the sentence!

The dogs' preferred diet changes daily. [The diet changes.]
The dogs preferred diet changes daily. [The dogs liked changes.]

Apostrophes are also used in abbreviations (he'd have come = he would have come), to form plurals of numbers and other odd things ("in the 1980's," "He used four 'etc.'s'"), and by some people in forming plurals of proper names ending in -s ("keeping up with the Jones's"). The last two uses seem to me to be becoming less common —"1980s" is more modern style than "1980's."

Some students use apostrophes at random intervals, apropos of nothing I can discover, save perhaps guilt at not having used any apostrophes for a while. That is not good style.

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Who, Whom, She, Her, He, Him, I, Me

English pronouns (like nouns, pronouns, and even adjectives in some other languages) change their "case" to show their function in a sentence. "She threatened him." "He petted her." And so on. Since word order normally shows the grammatical relationship, the change in the pronoun is redundant, and perhaps that is why in many expressions, dialects, and speech contexts it has atrophied. This means that how one manipulates these pronouns depends in part on the formality of what one is writing or the context in which one is speaking:

In general, written English confounds cases at its peril. If you say "Who did he come with?" nobody will notice anything in particular about your speech. (That is probably also true for "Whom did he come with" as well.) But if you write it, it stands out as an error unless you are writing dialog.

Even in speaking, a case error can sometimes sound pretty jarring. Consider the following newspaper quotation from a supporter of 2008 vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin:

Do I think it's a big challenge for her husband and for she and their family? Absolutely."

A special case comes in subordinate clauses. Remember that the case of the subordinating pronoun (who or whom) is determined by its role in the subordinate clause, not by the role of the subordinate clause in the main sentence:

They hated the immigrants, who[m] they believed were taking over their jobs.

The "m" is wrong. Since the "who" is the subject of the verb "taking over" it must be "who," not "whom."

("Whom" would be correct if the sentence read, "They hated the immigrants, whom they believed to be taking over their jobs," since the infinitive "to be taking over" is a complement to the "whom" and not a clause in itself. As a rule of thumb, the "subject" of an infinitive is always accusative: whom, him, her, me, them. That seems an odd way to think about it, but I have never seen an exception.)

There is no true athlete who[m], upon hearing word of this, would not mourn in anguish.

Once again, the "m" is wrong. Since the "who" is the subject of the verb "would mourn," it must be "who," not "whom."

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Greek & Latin Plurals

Incompletely assimilated foreign words used in English tend to retain the plural formation of their original languages. Writers about the ancient Maya, for example, use the Maya word sacbé to refer to a kind of causeway that led across a site or between sites. With the singular form they often also import its Maya plural: sacbeob, even though it is unlike any other plural in English. Similarly, ancient Egyptian tombs often included small statues of servants to wait on the dead in the afterlife. The singular is ushebti; the plural is ushebtiu.

Without knowing the donor languages, it is easy to miss such plurals, and in fact many people are quite happy to see them anglicized. This means that it is perfectly respectable to speak of "ushebtis," even if some people think "ushebtiu" is cooler. ("Ushebtiu" is cooler than "ushebtis"; but "sacbeob" is way cooler even than "ushebtiu." Obviously.)

Here are a few imported plurals that educated (or prissy) people tend to be fussy about:

alga algae
bacterium bacteria
colloquium colloquia
curriculum vitaevitas/vitae (Details)
criterion criteria
datum data (Details)
hypothesis hypotheses
medium media (Details)
millennium millennia
octopus octopuses (Details)
phenomenon phenomena
vertebra vertebrae

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The Pronouns "One" and "Their"

It is a (stupid) peculiarity of "one" as a pronoun that the only pronoun that can refer back to it is "one" itself:

Wrong: One tends to go to siblings or friends when he needs to talk to somebody.
Right: One tends to go to siblings of friends when one needs to talk to somebody.

Wrong: Swallowing a live tadpole will increase one's sterility without losing their virility.
Right: Swallowing a live tadpole will increase one's sterility without losing one's virility.

(Swallowing live tadpoles sounds like something you shouldn't try at home. Don't blame me. I found it in a student termpaper, just like most of the rest of the examples!)

Such words as "someone" and "everyone," because they include the element "one" are traditionally regarded as singular.

Wrong: Everyone eat pig knuckles on Halloween.
Right: Everyone eats pig knuckles on Halloween.

Since the time of Chaucer, some English speakers have used "their" as a sexless possessive adjective referring back to a singular antecedent. This is regarded as substandard, and editors have long insisted on "his" or "her" because only one person is involved. The "ignorant" and "illogical" usage has persisted, however, and has even been given new life with the rise of concern about the use of "his" as a generic singular pronoun when sex is irrelevant. Accordingly some editors now tolerate as "gender-free" what has traditionally been condemned as "illiterate." (Some probably figure "their" is better than "his/her.") Do as you wish, knowing that whichever decision you make somebody will condemn you for it. (How is that different from any other decisions people make?) Here is an example:

After identifying the object, the curator [singular] puts their [plural] initials on the tag.

The issue of making pronouns agree with each other in such sentences is capable of producing massively illiterate results as various solutions to the problem are heaped squirming into the same sentence. An anonymous pamphleteer in the California Employment Development Department wrote the following mess in the wake of the passage of a ballot proposition abolishing race and sex quotas in public hiring:

Isn't it nice that everyone can now call themselves "Americans-all"! Isn't it great that everyone feels good enough about him or herself that he or she does not need to defend oneself or organize into a political … group … !

A newspaper reporter discussing the pamphlet was no more literate in her discussion:

[The proposition] applies only to hiring, contracting and public education admissions, not to anyone's right to call themselves what he wishes or associate with whom he wants.

(Perhaps that was why the reporter was assigned to report on anonymous pamphlets. It seems odd that she wasn't reassigned to tasks that didn't involve writing.)

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"Each" and "Every"

By the same logic, pronouns referring to "each," "everyone," "someone," or "a person" should also be singular. Traditionally a form of "he" is used unless the referent is necessarily female.

Wrong: Everyone seems to be motivated to pay attention to themselves.
Right: Everyone seems to be motivated to pay attention to himself.

Wrong: A person awakens to find themselves unable to move.
Right: A person awakens to find himself unable to move.

Wrong: Each student has an individualized program prepared to meet their specific needs.
Right: Each student has an individualized program prepared to meet his specific needs.
Right: An individualized program is prepared to meet each student's specific needs.

Probably partly because "everyone" semantically refers to many people even if it is grammatically singular, and probably partly to avoid having to decide the sex of the pronoun, in modern spoken English there is a(n increasing?) tendency to tolerate a plural pronoun, but no corresponding tendency to make the verb plural:

Maybe Modern Instead of Wrong:
Most everyone seems to be motivated to pay attention to themselves.

The word "each" can present special challenges, since it stresses individuals within a group: "Each one dribbled his ice cream in the hot weather." It gets complicated when the group is mentioned and is a plural noun:

Wrong: The Democratic Congressman and his Republican challenger each portray themselves as the true consensus candidate.
[Problem: "Each" has to be singular, so it can't go with "themselves."]

Not Quite Right: The Democratic Congressman and his Republican challenger each portrays himself as the true consensus candidate.
[Problem: Two politicians become singular at the word "each" linking a plural subject to a singular verb.]

Right: The Democratic Congressman and his Republican challenger both portray themselves as true consensus candidates.
[Problem: We have lost the claim of uniqueness that each candidate makes.]

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Subject-Verb Agreement

The English present-tense verb agrees with its subject in number. In recent years, I think I detect an increasing tendency (especially in very long sentences and especially after a prepositional phrase) to make the verb agree with the nearest available noun, often violating subject-verb agreement. For example:

The structure of the cults do not change drastically.

It's not clear what the cause of those injuries are.

As worthy of each of these goals are, her attempt to pursue them together has been detrimental to her argument.

In the first example, the verb here should be "does" to agree with "structure," but has accidentally been made plural ("do") to agree with the adjacent noun "cults," which is actually the object of the preposition "of." In exactly the same way, in the second example once again the plural object in the prepositional phrase has pulled the following verb from singular to plural. In the third, the verb should be "is" to agree with "each," derailed by the adjacency of "goals," again the object of an "of."

You may think you do not do this. So did the two professors who originally wrote the example sentences above (which I have shortened to make the errors stand out). You don't have to be a senile professor to make such errors. Here are some from student papers:

The strictness of the rules decide the strength of the lineage.
Two examples involves the whole community.
The isolation of factors are essential for the concept.
The role of Mayan languages are also changing within the Catholic Church.
The magnitude of the problems are tremendous.

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Erratic Singular-Plural Shifts

It is a common error to speak of many people as though they were but one, shifting in the same sentence from plural actors to a singular object of their ownership or attention:

Note that in some languages —I have the impression that Spanish is one— this plural-singular shift is preferred, and it is left to the context to show, for example, that one means that each husband takes a separate concubine. In written English this usage is substandard.

Some cases are especially difficult to recast into consistency. Here are some challenging examples from try-outs for a 2000 college graduation speaker. Each one needs recasting to avoid the singular-plural conflict:

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Readers expect lists to contain syntactically similar items: "houses, artichokes, and bishops" (noun-noun-noun), not "green, regurgitate, and penguins" (adjective-verb-noun). Lists containing different classes of words turn out to be jarring and can seem unthoughtful, like this unfortunate course description from the UCSD catalog:

We will learn about each others' perspectives, our own positions, and critically evaluate the divide between religion and secularity.

In general when a prepositional phrase interacts with a word like "either" or "both," the structures should also be parallel. Note the bracketing in the generic case:

Right: of either (A or B) to both (A and B)
Right: either (of A or of B) both (to A and to B)
Wrong: of (either A) or of B to (both A) and to B

In general, if you can't insert logical brackets to show the parallelism, then there is no parallelism:

In a list, the listed items should also be grammatically parallel with each other:

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The English Subjunctive in Orders & Requests

English, like other Western languages, has a subjunctive, used in commands, wishes, and so on. Its form is the simplest, uninflected form of the verb (the infinitive without "to"):

Note the contrast with the indicative:

Similarly, a polite request or proposal for something that hasn't yet happened is put in the subjunctive, often the subjunctive form of "may" or "can" (present and future) or "might" or "could" (past):

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The English Subjunctive & Statements Contrary to Fact

The subjunctive is also used with "if" when it indicates something which is contrary to fact. (Historical Note) The verb in the "if" clause is in the subjunctive, and often "would" or "could" goes in the main clause:

Present/Future: Past:

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Split Infinitives

The English full infinitive consists of the word "to" plus the simplest form of the verb. There is no particular reason not to put an adverb between them, but "splitting" the two with an adverb has for some centuries been considered a mark of illiteracy and has been corrected by editors. As a writer, this offers you a choice: You can keep the "to" and the basic verb together, and nobody will pay any special attention, or you can "split" the "to" from the basic verb in a perfectly logical way, and be considered slightly illiterate by people who worry about these things.

Split: … to next Tuesday meet
Literate: … to meet next Tuesday …

Split: … to roundly condemn him for his mountebankery.
Literate: … to condemn him roundly for his mountebankery.

Split: … to boldly go where no man has gone before.
Literate: … to go boldly where no man has gone before.

Most editors and all speakers of English readily agree that there are occasional cases where ambiguity (or great awkwardness) can result if the adverb is not put into the middle of the infinitive. In those cases splitting the infinitive is clearly necessary and unlikely to be condemned by anybody.

The following headline suffers from lack of clarity about whether "brokers" is a noun or a verb; partly because of that, the word "formally" seems to fit nowhere comfortably except in the middle of the infinitive:

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Nouns Used As Verbs

English and Chinese are far freer than other languages to use the same word both as a noun and as a verb, and in both languages one finds that usage varies through history in the frequency with which a given morpheme functions as a noun rather than a verb. That said, in neither language is the process very open; rather it is hedged around with conventions that one ignores at one's risk. The most conspicuous trend we see in English today is the use of nouns as verbs.

For example, the noun "loan," used as a verb "to loan," has just about fully displaced the verb "to lend" in American spoken English. (Interestingly, the derivative "lender" is alive and well, while "loaner" does not exist.) Another example: "Critique" is now sufficiently at home as a verb that a want-ad for a UCSD creative writing magazine sought editors "good at critiquing."

That this is an historical trend does not mean it is admired. A writer may think it is quite normal to describe somebody as "good at critiquing," but the usage will jar many readers, who are likely to see it is an illiteracy.

In general, if the only verb you can think of is mostly a noun, you should reconsider whether you are actually saying anything meaningful!

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Weird Shifts of Tense or Grammatical Mood

It is distracting in a narrative to have the tense shift for no apparent reason. If the events took place in the past, leave the whole narrative in the past:

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Chinese Emperors

(You may not have too much occasion to write about Chinese emperors, but, since this is my list of crochets, I get to include Chinese emperors if I want to!)

The name of a Chinese emperor was taboo. Indeed, even using the characters that made up the imperial name without modifying them could cost you your head. Reigns of individual emperors were named, however, and the name of a reign was not taboo. Accordingly it was universal to refer to a particular emperor by the reign name (niánhào), not the emperor's own name.

Even today no Chinese emperor is commonly referred to by his personal name in either English or Chinese.

Unfortunately until the Ming dynasty (that is until 1368) emperors tended to rename their reigns several times. Fortunately each emperor had a single postmortal title (miàohào) which could be used to refer retroactively to the whole reign. For this reason modern Chinese (and scholarly) usage uses postmortal titles for pre-Ming emperors. One speaks of "Emperor Taizong," for example, where Taizong is a postmortal name that the man himself was unaware would be used to refer to him.

Unfortunately, many of the postmortal titles are identical; there is a Taizong, "great ancestor," in each of several dynasties, for example. Accordingly it is not unusual to add the name of the dynasty: "Tang Taizong" means the Taizong emperor of the Tang dynasty.

However, it is customary to use reign names rather than postmortal titles for Ming and Qing period emperors, just as people did in those reigns, since each emperor has only one reign name during those two dynasties, and the usage therefore corresponds to what Chinese actually called these people at the time.

As a result of all this, one speaks not of "Emperor Qianlong" (of the Qing period) but rather of "the Qianlong emperor" — that is, the emperor who sat on the throne during the period named Qianlong— the same way one would speak of "the third emperor" or "the sun king." The cut-off year is 1368. Before 1368 it is Emperor Whatchamacallit. After 1368 it is the Whatchamacallit Emperor.

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