Mitchell Goes Yard, Fehr Whiffs

I don’t know how many of you live in the United States, and of those who do how many follow baseball, but I spent yesterday watching, first, the George Mitchell news conference on steroid use among athletes, and then, union boss Donald Fehr’s response a few hours later.

I thought both men were well spoken with reasonable statements and arguments, but that aside, let me judge their English usage.

Mitchell was impeccable in his grammar.  At one point in a long sentence beginning with everyone–and then interrupted by a bunch of names in between–he even managed to get the correct singular usage of the verb to match his subject.  Most people would’ve gotten confused by all the names listed in between and reverted to an incorrect plural verb.

Mitchell gets a home run for his English performance.

Now, Fehr–who tended to speak more circuitously but not necessarily incorrectly–did make one boo-boo (which is why I said he “whiffs”) when he said he had given something “to he….”

Naughty, naughty–prepostions always (a simple rule) take the objective case, so he should’ve said “to him.”

Okay, Fehr hit a triple rather than whiffing, but I had to make a contrasing headline.

It’s baseball that struck out.

Building Blocks of English XIII: Verb Mood

English employs three verb moods–indicative, imperative and subjunctive.

Indicative mood is for simple statements, while the imperative is for commands:  “Run!”

However, it’s the subjunctive, represeting a wish or untrue situation, that befuddles virtually every English speaker.

Remember the line from the song in Fiddler on the Roof, “If I was a rich man…”?

Completely wrong verb usage!

Since the singer (“I”) is expressing an untrue situation, or a wish, the verb must be changed to the plural subjunctive form, were: “If I were a rich man….”

If can be a big indicator that the subjunctive mood is called for, but not invariably.  I wish is a definite call for the subjective:  “I wish you were more serious.”

For more examples, peruse this handy guide.

New Grammar Questions Answered System in Place

Because a lot of immature fools out there can’t handle the responsibility of free speech, I’ve deleted my grammar questions forum and instituted an e-mail form for you to send me your grammar questions.

All serious grammar questions will be answered by a posting on my main page.  Please send serious grammar questions only.  My delete button is quite functional, as it was with the now-defunct grammar forum.  Sad, sad, sad.

‘It Is What It Is’–Or Is It?

Out where I live in California, the saying, "It is what it is," is gaining a lot of use and cachet.

However, what exactly does it mean?  It seems to be one of those usages that, like awesome, has somehow become the saying du jour.

There’s nothing wrong with this particular sentence, but I’ve always wondered how certain words and sayings make the rounds.

Is this an example of viral language (like viral marketing)?

Building Blocks of English XII: Verb Voice

Whenever I teach a grammar/writing class, invariably more than a few students (read: a majority) keep confusing passive voice with past tense.  (I covered tenses in a previous Building Blocks post.)

English verbs can have just two voices–active and passive.

The active voice is what you employ for almost everything you say.

Active:  "I am sitting at my desk typing a blog post."

Simple, straightforward English that depicts an action taking place–that’s the active voice.

Now, were I to make this into a passive voice sentence (I can’t imagine why I would, however), it would read something like this:

"A blog post is being typed by me while I am sitting at my desk."

Notice that the whole point of the passive voice is to turn the object (of an active voice sentence) into the subject.  In this example, blog post has switched from being the direct object to being the subject.  That’s why you end up with the passive voice verb construction, is being typed

To make things even more ridiculous to the ear–and to the comprehension–to change the subject of the active sentence, I, to the object, I has to take the form of a prepositional phrase, by me.  (And in this example, getting that "sitting at my desk" part in there is really cumbersome.)

I didn’t pick the greatest example, but here’s another.

Active:  "I am eating a hamburger."

Passive:  "The hamburger is being eaten by me."

The distinguishing feature between active and passive is that the passive construction actually starts with an object in a role reversal as a subject.

Bottom line:  Avoid the passive voice as much as possible.  Leave it to scientists ("the patient was observed to expire after three weeks of non-feeding") and crime scene investigators ("the body was found in a pool of blood").

English grammar was indeed found to be complicated when the student shouted in frustration, "English grammar sucks!"

It Can’t Be ‘Biggest’ and ‘Only’

A headline in my local rag, the Los Angeles Times, said in reviewing a reprise of a 25-year-old movie that it was the director’s "biggest, and only, hit."

Ahem.  To be biggest, something has to be in competition with at least two somethings else.  If it’s competing just with one other movie, for instance, it can be a bigger hit, but to be the biggest, it needs at least two competitors. 

So, if this director had only one hit movie, then that movie could not be either bigger or biggest, but just "his only big hit."

Okay, no one cares, but I thought I’d bring it up anyway as an example of abusing the English language without anyone’s noticing it except probably me.

Your Body Says It All

Body language and other nonverbal cues often (usually) communicate more than one’s spoken words.  Unfortunately, it’s not so easy to strategize one’s bodily movements; they’re almost involuntary at times, and that’s why they’re so revelatory.

Anyway, watch body language guru Tonya Reiman give you some tips:

Self-Write, Self-Written Blog: Sports Babble Redux

I got a good laugh on Monday when [tag]Billy Martin[/tag], the lawyer for now-jailed Atlanta Falcons quarterback [tag]Michael Vick[/tag], issued a statement saying that his client had “self-surrendered” to begin his undetermined-in-length prison term.

Martin’s statement went on to further praise Vick for his “self-surrender.”

Now, to surrender is something you do voluntarily anyway rather than (usually) facing some more horrendous consequences, such as being shot dead on the spot.  Therefore, it is always an act of the “self.” 

Taking Martin’s usage to my more unfamous and mundane self, since I pen this blog voluntarily without compensation and with no gun at my head, I must “self-write” it, and it is therefore “self-written.”

Did you just “self-read” that?

Yankee Gaffer Obviously Doesn’t Read This Blog

Recently, I blogged about the difference between me and myself, the latter being unable to stand alone as a pronoun.

However, Yankee scion Steinbrenner Lite (prodigal son Hank) managed to screw it up in this quotation about negotiations with Alex Rodriguez:

"He [A-Rod] wanted to make sure myself [sic] and my brother knew that he was sincere and serious."

I guess Hank didn’t read my post this week about the uses of me and myself.

Of course, if you’re next in line to inherit the New York Yankees, it doesn’t realy matter how grammatical you are.

Bureaucratizing Good English

My friend Jill, who is Chinese but knows English well and teaches it in Taipei, wrote to ask me about the use of the prepation to (the swift, etc.) in this quote from Ecclesiastes

“I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”

Later, I found this bureaucratese (modern) rendition of the same famous passage as satirized by George Orwell:

“Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account." 

"Just so," as my Irish ancestors would say.  We’re in a bad way.  ("Awesome," I should say.  LOL)