Grammar Moses: Welcome to Self-Defense 101
I don't mean to sound defensive. In fact, you'll see me fall on my sword so readily when I do screw up that you probably wonder whether I need a weekly transfusion.
But sometimes I'm just ... right.
Oh, you're one of them
Reader Jan Gollberg questioned my verb agreement skills in a recent column.
"You wrote, 'I'm one of those people who love to visit unfamiliar places.'" she wrote. "I think that the verb should be 'loves,' not 'love.' Why? Shouldn't the verb in that long subordinate clause agree with 'one,' not 'people'? Here's a test: Remove the prepositional phrase, and you would say, "I'm one who loves to ..."
I admit to having spent more time thinking about this issue than I have in making career decisions.
The answer is no, Jan.
I am among the "people who love to do X." The clause "who love" modifies people.
I am one of them.
You are the bestest
Reader Diana Kupish said English always came easily to her in school. So she was puzzled by something I wrote in a column last month on Southern charm.
"I read, 'My friend ... is the politest person I have ever met.' Since your column typically points out errors, I was expecting a correction at some point in the article, but it didn't happen. So did you just forget to make that correction, or am I wrong in thinking 'most polite' would have been the correct way to word the sentence?"
The answer is sure, if you want to, Diana.
One superlative form of the adjective is, indeed, "politest."
But I grew up hearing "most polite," as well. So you're not alone.
There are people who prefer polite/politer/politest and those who favor polite/more polite/most polite.
Would you say this bulb is more bright than the other bulb? Would you say the one emitting the most lumens is the most bright of all?
I'd wager you would go with bright/brighter/brightest.
But if you want to stand out in a crowd you could insist on bright/more bright/most bright.
Just for giggles, I made some comparisons in Google's Ngram Viewer, a handy online tool I've mentioned a time or two that lets you trace the frequency of a word or phrase's use over time and allows you to compare the use of words and phrases to others.
It's a blast. Try it out. It's even more fun than trying to goad Alexa to swear.
In 1800, "politer" was used more than twice as often as "more polite" in books of the time. In the 1830s, "more polite" became the dominant choice, but only by a little. And it remained so until 1980 or so, when "more polite" started to expand its dominance. Today, "more polite" is used 4.5 times as often as "politer" in books.
Using the same type of comparison, I learned "more bright" never got off the ground.
So, Diana, even though Merriam-Webster goes with the more streamlined polite/politer/politest, we can all be right!
Thanks to readers John Coursey and Brad Jones for pointing out something that also grinds my gears.
Both wrote to complain about a headline that read "Four years for Gurnee man who shot, killed girlfriend on accident."
I know kids these days -- and by that I mean people younger than 50 -- sometimes use "on accident."
I attribute that to a mashup of "on purpose" and "by accident."
I've asked our staff to avoid that careless colloquialism, just as I discourage the use of "busted" in place of "broken."
• Jim Baumann is vice president/managing editor of the Daily Herald. Write him at email@example.com. Put Grammar Moses in the subject line. You also can friend or follow Jim at facebook.com/baumannjim.