Grammar Questions

Here are some questions about grammar I got from readers of my grammar column together with my answers:

Q, Which of these is correct: “cannot” or “can not”?

A. Both are acceptable, but “cannot” is more common. The two-word version can be used for emphasis: No, you can not eat the salamander.

Q. Which of these is correct: “in hospital” or “in the hospital”?

A. “In hospital” is British usage. Americans say “in the hospital.” Canadians generally follow British usage. Similarly, Brits (and Canadians) say “in or at university.” Americans say “in or at the university” or “in or at college.” Note that “in hospital” refers only to a patient. Even in British usage, a doctor works in the hospital.

Q. Can the relative pronoun “that” refer to persons?

A. Yes. In restrictive clauses (clauses that identify the person we are talking about), one can use either that or who: The politician that gets my vote has to be honest. The politician who gets my vote has to be honest. Both are correct.

Q. Which of these is correct:” If I were you” or “If I was you”?

A. Use “were” in if clauses that are contrary to fact: If I were rich, I would be living in southern France. Clearly “If I were you” is contrary to fact. In if clauses that are not necessarily contrary to fact, use was (except for plural, of course): If she was at the party, I didn’t see her.

Q.  Is it correct to say, “Soccer is so fun”?

A. “Soccer is so fun” is incorrect in formal English, although this use of the word “fun” is common in spoken English. “Fun” is a noun, and in the sentence “Soccer is so fun” it is being used as an adjective like amusing or enjoyable. In formal English one would have to say “Soccer is so amusing” or “Soccer is so enjoyable.”

Q. Is it correct to say, “I’ll try and do it by tomorrow”?

A. No. One should say, “I’ll try to do it by tomorrow.”

Q. Doesn’t the expression “aren’t I” violate subject/verb agreement since “I” is singular and “are” is plural?

A. Yes. There is no accepted contraction for “am I not” in formal English. By analogy with isn’t and aren’t, you would think we would have *am’t, but we don’t. The use of the contraction aren’t (for are not) with I is widespread in spoken English, probably because “am I not” sounds a bit stilted.

Q. Why is the Biblical verse “The wages of sin is death”? Shouldn’t it be “The wages of sin are death”?

A. Wages, meaning “a fitting return; a recompense,” can be used with either a plural or a singular verb. It appears as “The wages of sin is death” in most translations of the Bible. The Weymouth New Testament Online Bible (WEY) has “The wages of sin are death.” (Romans 6:23) This one I had to research.

Q. Is “woken up” correct as in “I had woken up before dinner”? Shouldn’t it be “I had awakened”?

A. “Woken” is grammatically correct. One can say either awakened or woken up. The principal parts of the verb “wake” are wake, woke or waked, woken. Both verbs can be used as follows. I woke up/I awakened (never I awakened up); I woke him up/I awakened him. “Awaken” is more common figuratively: Grammar awakens a sense of dread in me.

Q. Is “orient,” as in “He stood for a moment to orient himself,” correct, or should it be “orientate”?

A. Most style manuals object to “orientate.” Supposedly it is a back formation; that is, the original verb is “orient,” but another verb—“orientate”—was formed from the noun orientation. “Orientate” is standard in British usage, but “orient” is preferred in North American usage.

Q. What is the correct verb in this sentence? “Your patience and support (are/is) appreciated.”

A. Two nouns joined by and make a plural subject, so the correct verb is “are.”

Q. What part of speech is the verb “wait” in the sentence “There is nothing I can do but wait”?

A. In this sentence, “wait” is what some grammarians call a bare infinitive. The infinitive in English normally includes to: to wait. But after certain verbs (will, shall, would, could, can, may, might, must, should and needn’t) the infinitive doesn’t have the “to.” We don’t say “I can to wait.” In the sentence “There is nothing I can do but wait,” both “do” and “wait” are bare infinitives after the verb can.

Q. Should the verb in this sentence be singular or plural: “The police (warn/warns) the public to stay away from the area”?

A. The noun “police” is always plural. The correct verb is “warn.”

Q. I often hear the expression “I could care less.” Shouldn’t it be “I couldn’t care less”?

A. Originally the expression is “I couldn’t care less,” meaning that caring less is impossible because I don’t care at all. “I could care less” implies I care at least a little and is considered wrong, but said with the proper intonation, it is surely heard as an intentionally ironic misstatement of the original.

Q. Should it be “none is” or “none are”?

A. “None” can be either singular or plural. The notion that it is only singular is a grammatical myth. “None of the students (is or are) here.” Both are acceptable. When “none” clearly refers to a singular noun, the verb must be singular: None of the cake has been eaten.

Q. What is the difference between “which” and “that.”

A. Both “which” and “that” can be used to introduce essential relative clauses. “The dog that (or which) ate my boots is dead.” The clause “that ate my boots” is essential because it identifies the dog I am talking about. Only “which” can introduce non-essential clauses: “The Smiths’ dog, which ate my boots, is dead.” The clause “which ate my boots” is non-essential because I have already identified the dog. Non-essential clauses are always set off by commas; essential clauses never are. Some writers use only “that” for essential clauses.

For essential relative clauses that refer to persons, use “who” or “that”: The man who (or that) ate my boots is in jail. For non-essential clauses that refer to persons, use only who: Mr. Jones, who ate my boots, is in jail.

Q. Which is correct? Please get the laundry basket from (Dad and my) (Dad’s and my) bedroom.

A. “Dad’s and my bedroom,” meaning “the bedroom belonging to Dad and me” is correct. Note that if two nouns are used, only the second noun is possessive: Mom and Dad’s bedroom. This is true, though, only for joint possession. For separately owned items, both nouns are possessive: Mom’s and Dad’s signatures.

Q. Would you please comment on the use of the term “one off”?

A. As an adjective one-off (it’s hyphenated) means “happening, done, or made only once.” As a noun it means “something that is not repeated or reproduced.” The word is chiefly British.

Q. I constantly hear people say “I’ve got” in their sentences and I think that is incorrect. Shouldn’t it be “I have”?

A. “I’ve got” for “I have” is standard usage in Canadian English. The past participle “gotten” is also used to some extent with interesting distinctions. According to the Columbia Guide to Standard American English, “I’ve got some money” means ‘I have some money’; I’ve gotten some money means ‘I’ve obtained some money.’”

Q. If a group of six corporate vice-presidents issues an annual report and included is a group message from all six, what should the title of that message be:

– Vice-Presidents’ Message or Vice-Presidents Message

A. Vice-Presidents’ message

Q. Many people use the phrase “gone missing” or “went missing” when talking about a missing person’s case. Is it grammatically correct or just used so often it sounds right?

A. To go missing meaning “to disappear” is an acceptable idiom, but it is more common in British than in Canadian usage.

Q. A friend of mine uses words “quite unique” or “very unique” all the time to describe things or situations he likes. Is it correct?

A. “Unique” is an absolute adjective meaning “one of a kind” and can’t be modified. Something can’t be quite (or very) unique or more unique than something else. The cabinets Harold designed are unique. Colloquially, though, “unique” is used to mean simply “remarkable.”

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