Frequently Asked Questions

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Questions about agreement

QuestionAnswer
Is it grammatically correct to say, "Our group IS the people"?

Thanks.
You're asking if the linking verb is should be singular, and the answer is, yes. Your subject, group, is singular, so your verb would be singular as well.
The majority of students are...

or

The majority of students is?

Which is correct?
The second version is correct, though it may not sound like it should be. "Majority" is a singular subject, with which the verb "is" agrees; "of students" is a prepositional phrase that modifies the subject, but does not change the number of the subject.
I read an article about Betty a few years ago and I'm so grateful I can lean on you for this "stumper."

Which version is correct? Why? Should this sentence be rewritten to avoid the singular/plural issue?

Some patients need an implant for both the left and the right vocal cord.

Some patients need an implant for both the left and the right vocal cords.
Consider the sentences written this way:

"Some patients need an implant for both the left vocal cord and the right vocal cord."

(versus)

"Some patients need an implant for both the left vocal cords and the right vocal cords."

Anatomy determines the correct sentence--the former. ("Fingers" or "toes" would be a different matter.)

Questions about capitalization

QuestionAnswer
The AP style manual indicates that the title "president" should be capitalized only as a formal title before one or more names. Let me
know if the following examples are correct interpretations of this rule:

1) He worked for four presidents of Niger.
2) A new constitution required direct election of the president and the creation of a new court.
3) I went to the president's house.
4) New laws proposed by the president and parliament go to the executive cabinet secretary.
5) The students presented President Bush with an award.

Thank you in advance for your response.
All are correct. However, rules for capitalization may change depending on the style guides used by the government or organization you're writing for or about. It's best to review practices observed by the publication or outlined in its style manual.
When is the word, "state," capitalized in these situations?

--Washington State

--State of Washington

I've seen the capitalization vary in publications before, so I'm wondering what the rule is. Thank you!
When you're not sure, follow the catchall rule for capitalization that stipulates we should capitalize proper nouns (names) and leave common nouns in lower case.

Therefore, treat Washington State as a proper noun, but "state" in "state of Washington" as a common noun and use lowercase. Don't be surprised, however, if documents produced by the Washington government use State of Washington in official correpondence and publications. Context and house style will determine what is correct.

Questions about commas

QuestionAnswer
Do I need a comma in the sentence, "The meeting started on time and everyone was there"?Yes and no. Your example is a compound sentence, where a conjuction links together two independent clauses (meaning each could stand alone as a complete sentence). In these cases, it's conventional to use a comma before the coordinating conjunction (and, but, yet, or). The technically correct punctuation would read, "The meeting started on time, and everyone was there."

However, for the sake of stylistic simplicity, we often omit commas between two short independent clauses such as the two in your example. No reader would be confused by the sentence, "The meeting started on time and everyone was there."

For more information, see our explanations of sentence structure and style.
If you start a sentence with But, should you put a comma after it?

For example:

"But, don't ask me to give a reason for my answer."

vs.

"But don't ask me to give a reason for my answer."
A comma after but isn't required, but it depends on the meaning you're trying to convey. The second of your examples is correct. But consider the following example:But, just for the record, exceptions can crop up, as with certain parenthetical phrases.

In this example, "just for the record" is a parenthetical phrase that needs to be set off from But. If we removed that phrase, the comma on both sides of it would also be removed.
In the example, "I loved to go jogging in the morning, and in the afternoon, I went to class," I want to put a comma between "and" and "in" -- thereby setting off both parts of the "in the afternoon" phrase. Can you explain why you didn't do this?Good question. My example was actually, "I loved to go jogging in the
morning, and I went to class in the afternoon." You can see that in both
clauses, my habits are expressed first, and the time of day second. This
repetition of sequence is called parallelism. And a comma between
independent clauses—before "and"— is required.

The tricky thing about commas is, some are required while
others are discretionary, their use resulting in slightly changed
nuances. When you move the phrase, "in the afternoon," toward the
beginning of the clause, you do have the stylistic option to make it
parenthetical by setting it off with a comma at either end, though I'd advise
against it: you lose parallelism, and too much punctuation results in cluttered
sentences.

Questions about pronouns

QuestionAnswer
When do I use "whom"?Here's the grammatical answer: use "whom" when the noun you want to substitute is a direct object of a verb or an object of a preposition. Here are some examples:

Ex: I talked to the lady whom you met yesterday.

EX: I talked to the lady to whom you gave the flowers.

In the first example, the lady is the object of "met," while in the second example, the lady is the object of the preposition "to."

Here's an easier trick: considering only the phrase around the "who" or
"whom" in question, change the pronoun to either "he" or "him." If your ear tells you to use "he," the correct relative pronoun is "who;" if it tells you to use "him," the relative pronoun is "whom."

EX:Whom should I give these to?

EX: I should give these flowers to him.
"That" or "which"?Many writers agonize over this question. Both are relative pronouns, so the issue is ofen more of a stylistic one of cadence and flow than a grammatical one of correctness.

However, the relative pronoun "which" is often used when introducing a nonrestrictive modifier, or information that is not essential to the reader's understanding of a sentence. As you'd expect, restrictive modifers are introduced by "that" and include information that is essential to our understanding of a sentence.

Consider the difference, for example, between "Susan's favorite cat, which she named Precious, lived for more than fifteen years" and "The kitten that Susan rescued more than fifteen years ago was her favorite among the three she kept as pets." In the first example, the information that appears in the "which" clause is helpful but not essential information, and that's what makes it nonrestrictive.

Readers tend to pause more when they encounter "which" and less when they encounter "that," so consider how important the information is and how integral it is to the noun it's modifying.
Please define second-person point of view.
Second person is "you," whether it's used to refer specifically to the listener as in "You look nice today," or to refer to anyone indefinitely as in "You shouldn't drink turpentine."

So much for the person. Now for point of view. Second-person point of view is a somewhat artificial construction, based loosely on the imperative voice. Imagine giving someone directions and saying, "You go down Main street; you take a left on Henderson." Both you and the listener imagine the listener doing this, which is presented in second-person point of view.

Now imagine extending this construction into a whole story narration. "You have never really considered yourself a suspicious person, but when you see Ellen exiting the drug store with a wrapped package, you decide to follow her." What we have here is second-person point of view narration.

Questions about punctuation

QuestionAnswer
How can I fix my comma splices and make sure that I am aware of the problem?Comma splices result when we join two separate sentences with a comma as though one of them were a phrase or a dependent clause. The best way to correct the problem, then, is to become aware of what makes a complete sentence, otherwise known as an independent clause.

I like to imagine independent clauses as locomotives or train engines,and dependent clauses and phrases as freight cars. When you create a comma splice, you've coupled two locomotives facing opposite directions.

EX: "The chicken was enormous, it filled the entire van."

Ask yourself, If I said only what was on one or the other side of this comma, could each stand alone as a sentence? Yes? Then you've probably got yourself a comma splice.

Now, we can fix comma splices in a number of ways.

#1: Add a conjunction between clauses. This sets the two engines in the same direction, so to speak.

EX: "The chicken was enormous, and it filled the entire van."

#2: Change the comma to a semicolon, which CAN stand between two independent clauses. (Be careful, though, to use these sparingly.)

EX: "The chicken was enormous; it filled the entire van."

#3: Change one of the independent clauses to a dependent clause or a phrase.

EX: "Because the chicken was enormous, it filled the entire van." (First part is now dependent.)

EX: "The chicken was enormous, filling the entire van." (Second part is now a phrase.)

Try reviewing also Comma Splice Sentences.
Apostrophes will be the death of me! I think I have it figured out and then WHAM, I get corrected on my punctuation again! When adding "s" to a word, when and where do you use apostrophes? I need a short course on this. Can you help me? Here are some basics on apostrophes that may help you out.

-- Plurals DO NOT take an apostrophe. EX: There were once three little pigs. EXCEPTIONS: Apostrophes can be used to set off plural words mentioned as words, letters mentioned as letters, numbers mentioned as numbers, and abbreviations (though the MLA advises against the last two). EX: He forgets his thank you's, and to mind his p's and q's, which will not go over well with the CEO's.

-- Possesives DO take an apostrophe before the -s. EX: The first pig's house was built of straw. VARIATIONS: If the noun is plural and ends in -s, add only an apostrophe. EX: The pigs' nemisis was the big, bad wolf. EXCEPTION: Do not use an apostrophe for possesive pronouns such as its, hers, or theirs.

-- Contractions DO take an apostrophe. EX: Huff and puff as he might, the wolf couldn't blow the brick house down. CAUTION: Don't confuse the contraction for it is, it's, with the possesive pronoun, its (belonging to it). EX: It's a fine thing that they got a restraining order on the wolf to halt its assaults on their domiciles.
Should I place commas before and after parentheses?

No. Never. The parentheses are a form of punctuation in and of themselves; thus they signal pauses similar to those created by commas to set off nonrestrictive elements.

EX: This gum (which is flavored with lizard eggs) is really good!

or

EX: This gum, which is flavored with lizard eggs, is really good!
What hyphenation is needed in the phrase, "South Korean made pottery"?We use hyphens to connect words functioning as compound adjectives. Since we do not hyphenate South Korean when the words appear alone, we would not here, either. But the word "made" is appended as part of the adjective, so we would hyphenate it. The result? South Korean-made pottery.
As department secretary for the Art History faculty I find myself reluctant to make a flyer that says "Rubens's Portrait" rather than "Rubens' Portrait." Does current practice require "'s" for every possessive noun?You CAN say "Rubens' Portrait"! For singular nouns ending in "s," the rule dictates we add an "'s" unless it's awkward to do so. For example, "My boss's office" is easy and natural to say. But I think you are right that "Rubens's" sounds more like a tongue-twister than a natural possessive.
When referring to several articles, do I separate them with commas or semicolons, and where do I insert those in relation to the quotation marks around the titles?Depends. If none of your titles contain commas, you can separate them with commas. Otherwise, use semicolons consistently -- even if only one title contains a comma.

Commas go inside the quotation marks; semicolons go outside.

Questions about quotations

QuestionAnswer
When I introduce a quote that begins with a capital letter, should I need leave it capitalized?

Example: Benjamin begins his argument by stating, "In principle a work of art has always been reproducible."
Your answer depends on which style guide you're using. Whether you change the case of the first letter depends on the degree to which you are either introducing the quote as an independent statement or integrating it into the flow of your own sentences.

Let's alter your example a bit to highlight the difference.

Benjamin begins his argument with this statement: "In principle a work of art has always been reproducible."

Here, we want Benjamin's statement to stand on its own because we are discussing it as a statement. Ordinary quotes follow the same custom.

EX: Mary said, "Those are cute shoes."

Integrating quotes is, however, a different matter. Let's say your example were as follows.

Benjamin begins his argument by stating that "[i]n principle a work of art has always been reproducible."

Here we are incorporating Bejamin's phrases into the syntax of our sentence, so that they become part of our sentence structure. Writers often do this with shorter quotations of only a few key words.

Notice the use of brackets around the lower case letter. If you're using MLA format, indicate your change to original source material by enclosing the new words, ellipses, or altered letter in brackets.

You can read more about changing quotations to fit into your prose at integrating quotations.
When I'm using a quote in a sentence, where does the period go? Does it go inside the quotation marks or outside?

EX: Susan Smith stated, "The baseball game was on Sunday".

OR: Susan Smith stated, "The baseball game was on Sunday."
Punctuation always goes inside the quotation marks, but with a few key exceptions. So, to use your example, you'd say: Susan Smith stated, "The baseball game was on Sunday."

Here are some exceptions:

If the statement surrounding the quote is an exclamation, question, or a clause ending with a semicolon/colon, those marks supercede the closing punctuation of the quote.

EX: Susan was lying when she said, "The baseball game was on Sunday"!

OR: Was Susan lying when she said, "The baseball game was on Sunday"?

(These are slightly strained examples, though, because in reality, we'd probably use indirect quotation for those sentences.)

When you're using parenthetical citations, punctuation follows the closing parenthesis, unless the quoted material ends with an exclamation point, question mark, or elipses, in which case you employ redundant punctuation, with those marks inside the quotation marks and a punctuation following the closing parenthesis. EX: "Is the baseball game on Sunday?" (Smith 14).
How do you quote a dictionary? And how do you include it in your Works Cited list?Most in-text references to definitions simply include the source in the sentence. For example, "Onomatopoeia is defined in the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary as..."

According to MLA guideline 5.6.8, you would include the following in your Works Cited list:

"Onomatopoeia." Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary.11th ed. 2003.

Questions about usage

QuestionAnswer
Would you like to join Charlie and 'me' or Charlie and 'I' for dinner?"I" is the subject form of the pronoun; "me" the object. In this example, you'd use "me," since it serves as one of two objects of the prepositional phrase.

Another trick: Omit the other person, so that "Would you like to join 'I'" tells you you've got the wrong pronoun.
Can I follow the word "methods" with the preposition "to," as in "methods to improve," or does it have to be "of," as in "methods of improving"?If you're modifying "methods," use "of." If methods is standing alone unmodified, use "to." Both are correct, but the meanings are slightly different.

EX A: "We found several methods of improving feedback." (We're talking about what kind of methods these are.)

EX B: "We found several methods to improve feedback." (We're talking about what the methods were used to do.)
I have a question about the sentence:

"I have never been wearing my glasses since I was twelve years old."

I explained the sentence several times to one of my students why it is incorrect, but he is still not understanding me. Is there an very simple way to convey the problem?
We have an answer, but it's not simple. The sentence would be fine if it weren't for the word "never," so we have to look at what's in conflict here.

"I have been wearing my glasses" is in the form of the Present Perfect Continuous ("I have been doing"), which we often use with how long, for, and since to refer to an activity that is still happening or has just stopped. "Never," on the other hand, is an adverb used to describe something that neither starts nor stops -- it simply has no existence.

The student wants to indicate that during a certain period of time, he has NEVER worn his glasses, but has chosen a verb tense used for ongoing (or recently stopped) actions. The two don't mesh logically or syntactically.

Thanks for the challenge!
Do people lean "toward" or "towards" doing something?

Ex. I am leaning toward(s) going to the football game this weekend.
Both are correct, so use whichever you like. "Toward" is a little more formal, "towards" a little more colloquial (and a tiny bit harder to say).
While proofing my novel, I realized I don't understand the difference between "woke" and "awoke" or "wake" and "awake." Or is it just the writer's choice? Thanks!
There is virtually no difference. They can be used interchangeably.
Writer's choice!
I don't know which sentence sounds better:
"Mr. A subscribes to a health magazine" or
"Mr. A has a subcription to a Health magazine."
"Better" always depends on context! Generally speaking, active verbs like "subscribes" outperform weak ones like "has," so go with the former.
Which is correct --

“I wish I were an angel"
or
"I wish I was an angel"?
Good question about the subjunctive mood. "I wish I were an angel" describes a sitation contrary to fact -- the most common use of the subjunctive. You could also use the subjunctive by saying, "If I were an angel..." or in a that phrase such as, "It's important that I be named an angel."

The indicative can be used for conditions of supposed fact. For instance, "If I was an angel on Tuesday, I certainly don't remember it!" This stands in contrast to the subjunctive, "If I were an angel, I'd do wonderful deeds!"

More and more, however, current speech patterns are replacing the subjunctive with indicative, so we are losing a valuable mode of distinguishing hypothetical situations. Instead of saying, "We ask that everyone speak from the podium," people say "...that everyone speaks from the podium." Uses of this fabulous form of speech are too many and varied for Betty to descibe in this space; I can only recommend that you go (there's a subjunctive!) to Bartleby.com and read up on it, so that you, too, can be a steward of the subjunctive!
When using the term "unique" as a noun, would you use an unique or a unique?

For example, A unique situation has occurred today...
The choice between "a" and "an" depends upon the initial sound of the following word. In this case, the sound of "Y" is considered a consonant, not a vowel.

Your example is correct, because "yoo" is the initial sound of "unique."
Is the distinction between number and amount or countable and uncountable
important? In other words, should I mention to my colleague that using "less"
rather than "fewer" ("there will be less books for them") is not the best choice?
Yes, it is important, in that many native speakers would pause and experience some distraction if they encountered the phrase "less books."

Whether you correct your friend is a different issue, one that has more to do with the nature of your friendship than with grammar.




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