Grammar Moses: Shorter isn't always better

  • A child wearing a crown attends Richard III funeral procession through Leicester City center ahead of internment at Leicester Cathedral on March 22, 2015, in Leicester, England.

    A child wearing a crown attends Richard III funeral procession through Leicester City center ahead of internment at Leicester Cathedral on March 22, 2015, in Leicester, England. Associated Press

 
 
Updated 12/11/2021 5:22 PM

Contractions can be wonderful space- and timesavers.

They also can gum up the works.

 

You might tell the 14-year-old babysitter: "There's a 12-pack of Coors Light in the fridge. Oh, and there's 30 chicken and cheese taquitos in the freezer if you're feeling peckish."

Are you out of your mind?

There ARE 30 taquitos in the freezer.

The only thing that would save that sentence is if you were to say, "There's a box of 30 taquitos from Costco in the freezer." The "box" becomes the object in that case.

This is something that bugs Rich Parkinson, too.

"How has 'there's' become popular when referring to a plural number of objects?" he asked in an email. "For example, 'There's four teams remaining in the baseball playoffs.' 'There's' is a contraction of 'there is' and should only be used with a singular object. I understand that language is dynamic, thus constantly changing, but it should make sense and be understandable. Am I lost in the mists of time?"

You are correct on the rule, Rich. But I'm hard-pressed to come up with a situation in which using "there's" instead of "there are" would cause confusion. I attribute that to it being 5 p.m. on a Friday and my brain's sudden preoccupation with delectable chickeny, cheesy snacks at 5:15 p.m.

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If you, dear reader, can think of a sentence in which "there's" paired with a singular object would cause confusion, please share it with me.

In a similar vein, I remember fielding a complaint from reader Pat Stasiak about there not being a contraction for "am not" in English, while "we" and "they" have "aren't."

"There's" rolls off the tongue nicely, while "there're" does not. We tend to avoid contractions that, while shorter, are difficult to pronounce.

Try saying "amn't" instead of "am not."

Go ahead, I'll wait. Gave you a tongue cramp, didn't it?

Unto the breach

I love writing this column, because it allows me to blow off a little steam and I don't have to suffer the groans and eye rolls my musings get when I'm Zooming with my editors.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

But I know you're doing it just the same.

Allow me to share a mini diatribe from Opinion Page Editor Jim Slusher.

He found the following sentences in a syndicated column about the House's facing a landmark vote on a potential fiscal crisis:

"Once more unto the breach, as King Henry V declares in the eponymous Shakespeare history play before his thrilling victory over the French king's men. Only the breach is bigger in our realm."

"How a syndicated writer and editors let this get by baffles me somewhat," Slusher said. "But how many readers do you suppose read that second sentence to say that the only thing bigger in our realm is the breach (without of course a reference to 'bigger than what'), rather than its intended meaning of 'Only, in our realm, the breach is bigger.' (or it could be written: 'Only, the breach is bigger in our realm.')

"The structure of the phrase and sentence doesn't offend me; it reflects how people might talk and, properly punctuated, is perfectly clear. But her construction of the phrase around 'only' is unnecessarily confusing and easily fixed."

See, it's not just me.

Remember that Jim wrote a column last week based wholly on a conversation we had in our Page 1 meeting about the gender of a bovine.

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

grammarmosesthebook.com. You can also order an autographed copy by instant messaging Jim on Facebook

at facebook.com/baumannjim.

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