Last night my husband and I went to a lovely concert, a tenor singing Shubert’s “Winterreisse” (“Winter Journey”) a series of beautiful and sad songs accompanied by a piano. The program seemed so fitting for a cold night. The songs were written and sung in German, but on the wall above the singer an English translation was projected.
Being the grammatically compulsive person I am, I had to bring myself back to the music and try to ignore the fact that every time the word “its” was needed, “it’s” was written.
If it doesn’t mean “it is” or “it has,” you want “its,” the possessive form:
“It’s been cold and snowy in the East.” <——It has
“It’s cold even here in Los Angeles.” <——-It is
“The tree dropped its leaves.” <——-Possessive. The leaves belong to the tree.
People get confused because in English possessive nouns do take apostrophes. But possessive pronouns never do:
Hers, his, ours, theirs, yours—hold the apostrophes!
We all had that teacher who warned us never to use double negatives. Never say or write, “I don’t have no red shoes.” In fact, if you say that sentence with the emphasis on the word “no,” you might be saying, “I don’t have no red shoes; I have some red shoes.”
I don’t recall ever being warned about triple negatives, but they exist: “I wouldn’t like to say that I would never not wear a bikini.” Granted, that sentence is convoluted. It would be preferable to say, “I might possibly wear a bikini,” but the triple negative version is still grammatical.
Most double negatives we see are, in fact, ungrammatical. “I don’t have nothing to tell you” likely doesn’t mean “I have something to tell you.” It’s an ungrammatical way to say “I have nothing to tell you.” Sometimes, however, many of us talk that way when among people who know us very well. They are aware we know better but understand we are using a double negative in an attempt (albeit feeble) to be funny.
“If I was in Maine, I’d be shoveling snow right now.”
Anyone who knows me knows there is zero chance of my doing any such thing. I’d be inside, bitching and moaning about the miserable weather and pining for a warm beach.
Despite my lie, that sentence still should read, “If I were in Maine….” Why “were” rather than “was”? When a sentence is contrary to fact, use the subjunctive (did I just scare you?). In its most simple terms, the subjunctive is the verb form you use that seems to be wrong. We would never say, “I were in Maine last summer.” Of course we would use “was.” But in situations where the facts are otherwise, use the subjunctive:
“If I were king….” (but I’m not.)
As Tevya sang, “If I were a rich man….” (but he wasn’t.)
People who know how to make nouns plural in general often make up their own crazy set of rules when dealing with names:
I know two people who are Gonzalez’s, three Garies, two Barry’s and five Maxs.
Those should be Gonzalezes, Garys, Barrys and Maxes. Of course, you can just write that you have many friends named Gonzalez, Gary, Barry and Max. I can hear you breathing more easily.
People whose last name ends in a vowel are no different than your consonant-ending friends:
Castroes and Castro’s aren’t plurals for Castro. All you need is Castros.
I wrote a post last night about the difference between LIE and LAY and proofread it meticulously, looking for typos. Lesson to self: looking for typos isn’t enough; I need to look at the content as well. Two people wrote to me pointing out that my definitions were reversed, although my examples were correct. Mea maxima culpa! Here is the correct information:
Many people use these two words incorrectly.
LIE means to rest or recline.
LAY means to put or place.
When you go to the beach, you LAY your towel on the sand and then LIE on the towel.
Much of the confusion arises because the past tense of LIE is LAY: Yesterday I LAY down after work. For the present tense (used for something we do regularly, habitually) we say, I always LIE down after work. And for something you have done in the past and continue to do now, we use the present participle (the verb along with HAS, HAD or HAVE): I always HAVE LAIN down after work. You hate that word, LAIN, don’t you? But it’s correct.
As for LAY, I always LAY the mail on the kitchen table. Yesterday I LAID it there. I always HAVE LAID it on that table.
As I have mentioned, I read the obituaries in the Los Angeles Times every day to make sure my name is not listed. Today was another good day for me. However, I found an obituary for a retired police officer who, it was said, retired “after a lifetime of public servitude….”
servitude |ˈsərviˌt(y)o͞od| noun the state of being a slave or completely subject to someone more powerful.
The poor man. This is what happens when people try to make themselves sound important: they use fancy words, thinking they know what the definition is. They are close, but no one is going to pass out cigars. I’ve already written about often seeing simplistic used when the writer (or speaker) means simple. Again, hold the Cohibas.
If you have even a teensy doubt about the meaning of a word, use your dictionary first.