Friday, June 29, 2007

Sticky Wicket

Okay, I couldn't resist. I looked it up. Found some interesting stuff on the site

A wicket is the playing field in cricket (I think I knew that). When the field is wet ("sticky") from rain, playing is particularly challenging. The earliest figurative uses of the expression appeared around 1930.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Who & Whom

Anonymous writes:

Help! As a grammar maven, you might have a suggestion on when I should use "who" and when should I use "whom"? This is certainly a sticky wicket! Thanks for your advice!

I didn't intend to become the Grammar Answer Man, but since Mr. Nonymous was the first to post a comment of any kind, I can't help but oblige.

The difference between who and whom is a matter of case. There are three cases for personal pronouns: nominative, objective, and possessive.

I'll use the first person singular pronoun as an example:

nominative case: I (I love my Chihuahua.)
objective case: me (My Chihuahua loves me.)
possessive case: my and mine (I am my Chihuahua's and she is mine.)

The nominative case is used when the pronoun is the subject of a verb.
The objective case is used when the pronoun is an object--either of a verb or a preposition.
Possessive case pronouns are used to, possession...duh. That's enough about possessive case anyway--it's never an issue.

Circumnavigating back to the original question, the pronoun who is the nominative case form and whom is the objective case form (whose is the possessive case, fyi). Which means you use who when it's the subject of the verb:

Who decapitated the Barbie?

And whom is used as the object of verbs and prepositions:

The elephant stampede trampled whom?
Do not ask for whom the bell tolls

Which is why it is correct to write "To whom it may concern" (whom is the object of the preposition to).

A note of caution: Watch out for tricky little things called predicate nominatives. Predicate nominatives usually look like the objects of verbs, but they are not. They follow linking verbs like am, is, are, and the other be verbs. Linking verbs, you see, don't have objects, ever. A predicate nominative renames or is an equivalent of the subject. It therefore always takes a nominative case pronoun--including who.

Example: The ventriloquist is who?

It may (or may not) help to insert the more common pronoun I or me in the sentence. If I would be appropriate, go with who. If me is right, you'll want whom:

I ate the guacamole. = Who ate the guacamole?
The guacamole ate me. = The guacamole ate whom?

Thus ends a rather boring, but hopefully educational post. Personally, I'd rather know where the heck an expression like "sticky wicket" comes from. Then again, maybe it would be better if I didn't know.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Weirdness of English

If you've ever taught English--heck, if you speak English--you've probably noticed that it gets pretty bizarre at times. There are plenty of things that we take for granted that are downright inexplicable when really think about them. Here are two examples.

To Be...
There's no more common verb in English than be. As a linking verb or a helping verb, it's the most used verb in the language. We are so familiar with it, in fact, that we usually don't even notice how odd it is.

Think about it like this. Take the verb sleep. Conjugate it and you get:

I sleep We sleep
You sleep You (all) sleep
He sleeps They sleep

Clearly, you call a verb like that, sleep, or the infinitive to sleep, right? Its past tense is abnormal (no -ed form), but it's easy to get the idea:

I slept We slept
You slept You (all) slept
He slept We slept

Now look at be:

I am We are
You are You (all) are
He is They are

I was We were
You were You (all) were
He was They were

So what do you call a verb like that? BE? There's not even the letter B in any of the forms! There's not another verb like it. I am sure some linguist could explain the various derivations and how they have their roots in the word be, but all I know is I'm glad I was born here and didn't have to learn English as a second language. This kind of stuff would drive me bonkers.

And how about this one--the word woman. The plural form is women. Okay, simple enough for most of us, especially if we are already familiar with man/men. It's consistent. Unless you think about pronunciation.

Woman is pronounced WOO-MUHN

Now, we make the word plural by changing the a in the second syllable to an e: women.

How do we pronounce it? WI-MUHN

So, we change the spelling of the second syllable, but pronounce it the same, and we leave the first syllable unchanged, but pronounce it differently! It's simply baffling.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

I Am Grammarman

I saw Spiderman 3 the other day. Not as much as the first two, but I liked it. Spidey's always been my favorite superhero because of his inner struggle--that conflict between his merely human desires and his responsibility to employ his gifts for the betterment of mankind. Spiderman cannot enjoy the pleasures and joys of average humanity because it is his duty to protect society from supervillians.

I sympathize with that struggle. I also have a gift of superhuman proportions. A gift that comes with commensurate responsibility. I speak, of course, of my knowledge of grammar and syntax. It is both gift and curse, I assure you. How I would love to sit through a TV interview or a Sunday sermon without wincing at every pronoun case error or malapropism. It is a heavy burden, my friends.

There are times, of course, to endure the pain and overlook the linguistic trespass. On other occasions, however, my duty to the language demands action. I am, after all, a chosen protector of the tenuous purity of English. There are violations that I find just too egregious to ignore.

For example, I was running yesterday when my grammar-sense started tingling. I passed a yard sign for a construction company. Their advertising slogan was,

Creative solutions for all your building needs.

It's a good thing I didn't have a magic marker with me. I might not have resisted the editorial urge.

For you innocent civilians who see no cause for concern, allow me to elucidate: Needs are not solved. Needs are met. Problems are solved. And, for the record, questions are answered.

No more of this please:

The answer to all your problems.
You've got questions? We've got solutions.

I had to get that off my bullet-proof chest.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Something Punny

I'm a sucker for puns (a pun-sucker?). I laugh out loud at good ones. I've found, however, that I am the exception in this respect. Most people are rather inclined to groan than guffaw. Nevertheless, I share the following for those kindred spirits who happen to visit. My thanks to Randi Crumrine, who passed most of these on to me.
  • Those who jump off a bridge in Paris are in Seine.
  • Shotgun weddings: a case of wife or death.
  • Reading while sunbathing makes you well red.
  • When two egotists meet, it's an I for an I.
  • A bicycle can't stand on its own because it's two-tired.
  • Definition of a will: a dead give-away.
  • Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.
  • In a democracy, your vote counts. In feudalism, your count votes.
  • A chicken crossing the road: poultry in motion.
  • If you don't pay your exorcist, you get repossessed.
  • When she got married, she got a new name and a dress.
  • Did you hear about the man who fell into an upholstery machine? He's fully recovered.
  • Did you hear about the glass blower who inhaled? He had a pane in his stomach.
  • If you feel stuck in debt, it's because you can't budge it.
  • A boiled egg in the morning is hard to beat.
  • Those who are too big for their britches will be exposed in the end.
  • If you've seen one shopping center, you've seen a mall.

And my favorite:

  • A midget fortune teller who breaks out of prison: a small medium at-large.

Feel free to contribute your own!

Common Similes

Similes are, as you probably know, figures of speech that compare to relatively unlike things using the words "like" or "as."

I sometimes wonder about the originators of similes like "straight as an arrow" or "fit as a fiddle." They were probably proud of themselves. It's pretty clever stuff. Zoom ahead a hundred years or so, and expressions like these have grown ordinary, bland. Poor guys. We've worn their similes threadbare.

There's nothing wrong, I suppose, with a writer resorting to an occasional simile cliche. The familiarity can be useful if you are not trying to draw too much attention to your linguistic cleverness. But the best writers are masters of the startling simile.

I always liked these from Anne Sexton's poem "Courage":

A child's first step/as awesome as an earthquake
love as simple as shaving soap

Or this from T.S. Eliot's "Prufrock":

Let us go then, you and I,/When the evening is spread out against the sky/Like a patient etherised upon a table

Remember this irritatingly memorable simile from Forrest Gump?

Life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you're going to get.

Good writers excel at creating original similes. Relying too much on the everyday comparison is a sure sign of literary laziness.

See how you do at completing the cliched similes listed below. I'll provide the answers in a comment. Keep in mind that some of these have more than one "right" answer. And also remember that the degree to which these will be familiar to you may depend upon your age and where you live.

When you're done, give me some I've gotten wrong or left out.

Finish These Common Similes

1. happy as a
2. fresh as a
3. dead as a
4. white as
5. light as a
6. pretty as a
7. neat as a
8. blind as a
9. busy as a
10. clean as a
11. cool as a
12. crazy as a
13. cute as a
14. high as a
15. mad as a
16. old as
17. plain as
18. proud as a
19. quick as
20. quiet as a
21. sharp as a
22. slippery as an
23. silent as
24. slow as
25. smart as
26. sly as a
27. snug as
28. solid as a
29. stubborn as a
30. tight as
31. tough as
32. ugly as
33. wide as
34. good as
35. wise as
36. big as
37. sweet as
38 soft as
39. smooth as
40. bitter as

Kicking it off...

I'm a word nut. I love language. I laugh at puns and get a kick out of riddles. I can be crossword-obsessed if I don't watch it. An evening of Scrabble, Boggle, Balderdash, or Scattergories is fine by me. I think words are fun. I think English is marvelously ridiculous and endlessly entertaining.

I started this blog because I'm quite sure I'm not alone--that there are many of you out there who are equally enamored with the peculiarities and perplexities of the English language.
We'll talk about writing, and various approaches to teaching and learning writing. But my vision for this blog is more than just pedagogy. I see a fun place to provoke thoughts, opinions, and maybe even some laughter. If that sounds good to you, please add WriteAtHome, the Blog to your favorites list...I mean now.