The Grumpy Grammarian

Oct 02

Nice sense of proportion

From come this, the most shocking story in the world:

"An employee of a think tank owns a house in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington. He wants to refinance his mortgage, but the bank won’t give him a loan.

"It is perhaps not the most shocking story in the world, but it becomes so when you learn that the think tank employee is Ben Bernanke, who was until earlier this year the chairman of the Federal Reserve, charged with setting the course of interest rate policy for the United States economy."

'Nuff said.

Aug 19

Double entendre, twice

By email, your grammarian received a summary of a piece run in the Washington Post. The teaser’s headline ran: “Study Suggests Hospitals Not Using EHRs To Increase Billing.”

I had imagined that the story would suggest that laggard medical facilities, those that had not yet adopted electronic health records, might also (while coasting under the radar) set high fees. Then I realized that the intent was different: to indicate that a feared consequence of computerization—hospital administrators would use advanced systems as a means to hike charges—had not occurred.

Clicking the link to the underlying story revealed a similarly ambiguous headline in the Post: “Study: Hospitals Not Bilking Medicare Using Electronic Medical Records.” Was it that honest corporations (those not cheating the government) were likeliest to employ modern record-keeping? Instead, the article revealed that cutting-edge hospitals were already optimizing billing and that electronic record-keeping did not make matters worse.

May 25

Keeping it simple

From the lead sports story in today’s Providence Journal:

"Boston’s nine-game losing streak has been comprised of close games and blowouts, walk-offs and runaways."

The correct formulation is simpler: Boston’s streak comprises many types of games.

Comprise means consists of.

Has been composed of would also work, but why not use the easy locution that English provides?

Late note: Hey, a ProJo editor caught the error and corrected the text on line. Good work.

Apr 30

Score one for the home team

An elementary math problem:

Of a Tampa Bay Rays pitcher, a Boston Globe sports reporter writes: “…Bedard threw five one-run innings…” How many runs did the Red Sox score against Bedard?

What’s meant: Over five innings, Bedard held the Sox to one run.

It’s hard to know how to classify the problem—something close to a misplaced modifier. The model for the sentence appears to be threw five shutout innings, which works because where the multiplier is zero, there’s no possible confusion.

Apr 17

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.

Apr 15


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.

Mar 24


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

Mar 19

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”?

Mar 17

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.

Feb 13

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.”