Grammar Moses: On cribbage scoring and standing people up

  • Can cribbage teach you as much about grammar as it can about math? Well, not really.

      Can cribbage teach you as much about grammar as it can about math? Well, not really. Rick West | Staff Photographer, 2001

Updated 5/7/2022 11:32 AM

If I know my readers, most of you are familiar with pickleball, waltzing, dinner by 5 and ... cribbage.

For those of a generation or two younger, today's main topic might be foreign to you.


Tough beans. Cribbage is a terrific card game primarily for two players. It's fast-paced and fun. Try it!

Reader Bev Cherney wrote with a question about cribbage's lighting-fast self-scoring.

"Even card games at our house can morph into grammar debates," she said. "During the pandemic we played plenty of cribbage, but we still cannot agree on the correct grammar while counting points. For instance, should we say, 'Fifteen two, four, six and a pair IS eight' or 'Fifteen two, four, six and a pair ARE eight'? I could see a case for either structure:

'The sum of two plus two plus two plus two is eight' or 'Two (points) plus two (points) plus two (points) plus two (points) ARE eight (points).' When I count my hand, am I getting a sum or a total of points? Should we just be happy that loosening pandemic restrictions allows us more time outside?"

Bev, I have a wholly unsatisfactory answer for you that I hope is fun anyway.

My mom and I joked about this all of the time when we played, and I think we got that from her dad, who taught me the game.

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"Fifteen two, four, six and a pair is eight" is something I would say while counting up my hand.

"Fifteen two, fifteen four, a double run of four ARE 14, and nobs ARE 15," she might counter, emphasizing, as I've done here, the plural form.

I'd not-so-subtly count up my next hand with "Fifteen six and a flush AM 10."

I distinctly remember Grandpa saying that, and that was easily 50 years ago. It made no sense, but it was funny. So it stuck.

Another of his favorites was "Fifteen two, fifteen four ... and there ain't no more."

Cribbage taught me a lot about doing fast math in my head. It didn't teach me a darn thing about English.

Games such as cribbage are supposed to be fun, not exercises in pedantry. As long as you don't over-count, no one will give a hoot which state-of-being verb you choose.


You stood me up!

I am guessing that in her 75 years of reading, Bonnie Kroeger has read even more than I have. And I do it for a living.

But something she found recently came as a head-scratcher to her.

"I have been reading a mystery series, published recently, and I have never seen this before," she said. "'She was stood by the desk.' 'They were sat by the fire.' I don't know what the use of 'was' and 'were' are for, and if you delete them the sentence makes perfect sense.

Is this new?"

No, Bonnie. In fact, it's pretty old.

I haven't read your book, but I've seen other contemporary fiction written in a style befitting an earlier time in which such verbs were employed.

Let's say you're a portrait photographer and you're posing your subjects. You might stand the tall people in back, put Mom and Dad on either side of the fireplace and sit the kids on Grandpa's knee in the middle.

"Stand," "put" and "sit" in this case tell us it's not the subjects of the photo who are in control but the photographer.

She is treating people like objects.

Think of that fancy dinner, where you got a crummy table.

"It was terrible, Margaret. They sat us next to the kitchen," you might tell your friend.

If you had your choice of tables, you would have "sat" somewhere else. In this case, your sitting somewhere describes your choice of table rather than that of the maître d', whom you apparently forgot to tip.

Write carefully!

• Jim Baumann is vice president/executive editor of the Daily Herald. You can buy Jim's new book, "Grammar Moses: A humorous guide to grammar and usage," at Write him at and put "Grammar Moses" in the subject line. You also can friend or follow Jim at

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