The Grumpy Grammarian

More Michiko

From her appraisal of Gabriel García Márquez: ”His grandfather painted the walls of his workshop white so that the young boy, nicknamed Gabo, would have an inviting surface on which to draw and fantasize; his grandmother spoke of the visions she experienced everyday — the rocking chair that rocked alone, ‘the scent of jasmines from the garden’ that ‘was like an invisible ghost.’”

Everyday is an adjective, meaning encountered or suitable for every day. Here, the adverbial use, indicating when or how often, requires two separate words.

The NYTimes is getting lax in these matters. It now appears to permit underway to be used adverbially, an outrage first adopted by the Associated Press.

BTW, when Kakutani, refers to GGM as “The Magus of magical realism,” why is Magus capitalized? That form is usually reserved for the three wise men from the east; here she means a wise man, generically.

See also here and here and here, etc., etc.


The Torah according to David Brooks: “A leader who isn’t himself obedient to the rules is not going to be effective, so God tries to kill Moses. Fortunately, Moses’s wife, Zipporah, grabs a sharp stone and does the deed.”

The deed in question is not murder but circumcision of the couple’s son, a divine requirement that Brooks mentions in a prior sentence. It is not only modifiers that can be misplaced.


Janet Maslin reviews a biography of a man made famous through epenthesis (or, for the hard core, anaptyxis).

Who? Who?

From the NYTimes account of prosecutors’ efforts to keep the “9/11 mastermind” off the stand: “Mr. Mohammed’s testimony had been sought by lawyers for Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, who the government has portrayed as a spokesman for Osama bin Laden who made speeches praising the Sept. 11 attacks and warned of more to come.”

In the newspaper of record, when journalists attempt long sentences, often the grasp of grammar weakens.

Since the government has portrayed him (the direct object of a transitive verb—calling for the accusative case) the first who should be whom. And then, which person gave speeches? The nearest name preceding the second who is bin Laden, but the intent is to say that Abu Ghaith acted at bin Laden’s behest.

For clarity, separate out a second sentence: The government claims that, acting for Osama bin Laden, Mr. Abu Ghaith made speeches.

BTW, does anyone remember Beyond the Fringe’s long riff on IdentiKits that could help the police find “mindermasts”?

We know what you mean

“His passing leaves a hole in my life that can never be replaced.”

To my ear, this puzzler has the feel of a set-up for a George Carlin rant. In actuality, it’s what Richard Lewis told Reuters about his fellow comedian, the late David Brenner.

étouffées & glacées

From the NBC Nightly News comes this startling account of the abandonment of a quaint Old Dominion custom: “At Virginia’s outlet mall, snow filled parking lots instead of shoppers.”

No, insult intended

The following sentence, from the conclusion of Michiko Kakutani’s review of a new volume about the document leaker (and patriot) Edward J. Snowden, appears to slight her readership:

"But the book still gives readers, who have not been following the Snowden story closely, a succinct overview of the momentous events of the past year."

The sentence says (in passing) that readers are not au courant. The problem involves those commas. They indicate that the clause they set off provides news about the noun modified: Readers (in general, all of them) have not been following.

What is intended is the identification of a subset, those readers who have failed to stay abreast of the Snowden affair. Because the description is necessary to the definition of the subject (ill-informed readers), who have not is a restrictive clause. It delimits—that is, restricts—the group referred to. Restrictive clauses are not set off by commas.

The book gives (those few) readers who have not kept pace a succinct overview.

This instance is one in which the commas contain meaning. Remove them, and you remove the insult.

High-level Parlay

The Grammarian tries to deal with the crème de la crème, playing gotcha with Knausgaard and the newspaper of record. In this vein, let us examine a sentence, appearing in the current number of the New York Review of Books, by a former editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine. Arnold Relman is describing a late, relief-bringing step in what he judges more generally to be a disappointing encounter with his own profession (medicine, not journalism):

"This was not only enormously more comfortable, but enabled me to begin swallowing small sips of water."

This was enabled me? We gain a slight improvement when we move the first verb to its proper location: This not only was comfortable but also enabled me to swallow.

Having made the emendation, we experience our own discomfort with the use in parallel of two different sorts of verb, linking (to be) and more or less intransitive (to enable, although that me is something like a dative).

Better yet: not only brought comfort but also enabled swallowing.

The Grammarian no longer harps on instances of the missing also. Some causes are lost.

The days when this was mostly followed by a noun that lent clarity—this remedy—are yet longer gone.

My Struggle

"But when we arrived she would not budge from my lap, no matter what the three young woman who comprised the staff enticed her with."

To comprise means to include or contain. The staff may have comprised the women, but the women composed the staff. 

The sentence, a description of the behavior of the narrator’s young daughter at a play school, comes from one of the most celebrated books of the day, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. Strangely, the New Yorker, courtesy of James Wood, chose to post this passage in its representative excerpt.


Based on the following sentence, from New York Times columnist Joe Nocera’s op-ed about middle-class wellbeing, what are we to understand about productivity trends in Brazil?

Despite the country’s enormous economic gains since the beginning of this century, there has been very little accompanying productivity gains.”

The singular verb, has, suggests that little is the substantive (noun) to which there points: There has been little [else] accompanying [the] productivity gains. The productivity gains may be solid, but they arrive without whatever normally accompanies them.

Probably what is meant that there have been few accompanying productivity gains.

Although the problem begins with has & little, where what are wanted are have & few, when we stare at the sentence, we may suspect that the villain is the superfluous adjective accompanying. Eliminate it, and the required structure becomes clear:

Despite economic gains, there have been few productivity gains.