A test of grammar

The magazine Management Today recently published a grammar quiz and a list of tips by my friend Andrew Ingram (who runs Better Business Writing) and me. As MT’s readers are probably a bit less fascinated by this stuff than my blog’s readers are, here I’m reproducing the questions with a more extended discussion of what they mean.

The questions

1) “They decided to quickly recommend hiring her.”
Would you move the word “quickly” to somewhere else in the sentence?

2) “This was a collaboration between the London, Birmingham and Manchester offices.”
Would you change “between” to “among”?

3) “None of the people in that meeting are your friends.”
Would you change “are your friends” to “is your friend”?

4) “You can leave your coats and bags in our cloakroom downstairs.”
Would you change “can” to “may”?

5) “We have so much data that it will take a few weeks to analyse.”
Would you treat “data” as a plural?

6) “Someone older than me would expect to have been promoted by now.”
Would you change “than me” to “than I”?

7) “You’ll never guess who we’ve just recruited.”
Would you change “who” to “whom”?

8) “Anna and Bill wondered which of them would get through all their emails first.”
Would you alter “their” used this way?

How did you do?

As you may have guessed, these questions cover disputed rules of grammar. Some people insist on them, but many people ignore them. Our aim in this test is to show that religiously following these so-called rules can cause more trouble than it’s worth.

1) “They decided to quickly recommend hiring her.”

This is the notorious split infinitive: allegedly, it’s wrong to put the “quickly” (or anything else) between the “to” and the “recommend”. But look what happens when you try to move it in this sentence – bearing in mind that the recommending is what’s meant to be quick, not the deciding or the hiring:

  • “Quickly they decided to recommend hiring her.”
  • “They quickly decided to recommend hiring her.”
  • “They decided quickly to recommend hiring her.”
  • “They decided to recommend quickly hiring her.”
  • “They decided to recommend hiring quickly her.”
  • “They decided to recommend hiring her quickly.”

These are all wrong. In some, “quickly” modifies the wrong verb; in some it’s unclear which verb it modifies. One isn’t even grammatical.

The only way to make clear what’s quick is to split the infinitive.

Some people don’t like this, though. Many of us have heard that splitting infinitives is wrong, although it’s never clear why. Infinitive-splitting is common and it’s been a feature of English for many centuries. The “rule” against it was invented in 1834 and has never had any support from rational argument or the facts of usage.

Whether to split is a case-by-case judgement: do whatever works best for the flow and above all the clarity of the sentence.

You could, I suppose, avoid the issue by reworking the example sentence to something like this:

  • “They decided to make a quick recommendation to hire her.”

But it’s longer and the abstract noun makes it a bit starchy, and if the only reason to change it is to follow a superstition that most people happily ignore, why bother?

2) “This was a collaboration between the London, Birmingham and Manchester offices.”

Some people think that “between” should be used only when there are two objects; three or more and you need “among”. But this is another bad idea. Look:

  • “This was a collaboration among the London, Birmingham and Manchester offices.”

Does that sound odd to you? It does to me. It’s pretty unusual to talk about a collaboration being “among” parties.

The supposed rule reads too much into etymology. The Old English word “betwéonum” originally meant “by two each”, but for all the lifetime of “between” it has been used to cover any number of things.

“Between” and “among” do have different uses, though. Roughly, when the objects you’re talking about (however many there are) are connected as individuals, each taking its own particular role, “between” is more standard. When they’re connected in a vaguer, more collective way, try “among”.

This might sound tricky, but if English is your first language then you probably know how to do this already (without knowing that you know it). It’s like riding a bike: easy unless you start trying to explain how you’re doing it.

3) “None of the people in that meeting are your friends.”

You may have been told that “none” should be treated as singular, not plural – so you should say “none is”, not “none are” and so on. But it’s widely used both ways, and has been for over a millennium.

Often, it can go either way, although using the singular may make your tone sound a bit more formal and old-fashioned. If that’s what you’re after, go for it – but remember that this is a stylistic choice, not a rule of grammar. It just so happens that many of the people who prefer that style like to think of it as a rule of grammar.

(One place you do need the singular is with mass nouns: “none of the food is ready”, “none of the money has been spent”.)

There may be a subtle difference of emphasis, too – using the singular might suggest the importance of having assessed each member of the group individually, while the plural might suggest a blanket judgement covering them all.

Sometimes, though, there’s a sharper difference of meaning: changing the example sentence to “None of the people in that meeting is your friend” could imply that there is one specific (absent) friend in mind. So I wouldn’t make that change.

If you’re really bothered by it, you could rephrase it to something like:

  • “None of the people in that meeting is a friend of yours.”
  • “The people in that meeting are not your friends.”

But now the emphasis is different – weaker, I’d say. The original opens with the stark “none” and ends with the clarifying thud of the “friends” you don’t have.

4) “You can leave your coats and bags in our cloakroom downstairs.”

Many of us remember from school that “can” is about ability while “may” is about permission: “Can I go to the bathroom?” “Yes, you can. But you may not.”

That’s true enough, although the two overlap: a lack of permission is a kind of constraint.

And the two words can come across quite differently. In the example sentence, we’re giving visitors the use of a cloakroom. Do we want to assert our status by showing them that permission is ours to give? Or do we want to make them feel comfortable and empower them – literally – by giving them the information they need to find the cloakroom?

You could change it to “may”, but I much prefer the tone as it is.

5) “We have so much data that it will take a few weeks to analyse.”

Originally a Latin word, “data” was the plural of “datum”. Many English grammarians have argued that we should respect that origin, and say “these data are” rather than “this data is”. Others say that it’s now an English word and can freely follow English conventions. After all, would you say “the spaghetti are cold”?

In scientific journals and other technical contexts, plural “data” is still very common. Elsewhere, it’s more usual to see “data” treated as a singular mass noun, like “information”.

In the example sentence, using the plural would give us:

  • “We have so many data that they will take a few weeks to analyse.”

Ouch.

As with the other examples, you could paraphrase to avoid the issue. But, as with the other examples, I recommend you not to be driven by fear of a dubious concept of wrongness. Do what you prefer, or what you think your readers would prefer in the context.

6) “Someone older than me would expect to have been promoted by now.”

Arguably, you should say “than I”, but it’s a bad argument. It goes like this: “He is younger than I” is short for “He is younger than I am”. The “am” is implicit. But you wouldn’t say “He is younger than me am”, so you shouldn’t say the shorter “He is younger than me”.

(If you want to get technical, it’s about whether “than” must always be a conjunction or whether it can sometimes be a preposition instead.)

In fact, this distinction isn’t about right and wrong but what Geoffrey Pullum calls formal and normal. What’s more, in this example, using “I” would work out badly:

  • “Someone older than I would expect to have been promoted by now.”

This is confusing, because readers are likely to think at first that “I would expect” is a unit. You may be able to get away with an implicit verb missing from the end of a sentence, but here, mid-sentence, the “I” grabs the next verb it can find.

If you wanted, you could change “than me” to “than I am” and it would work. I don’t think I’d bother, though.

7) “You’ll never guess who we’ve just recruited.”

“Whom” trips a lot of people up. Perhaps for that reason, people sometimes use it as a sign of refinement. The flipside of this is that in other situations it can sound stilted and pretentious.

I’m afraid I lack the will to try to explain the niceties of “who” and “whom”. If you’re interested, take a look at what the American Heritage Dictionary and Oxford Dictionaries have to say.

Very roughly, it’s about whether the word is in a subject or object position – but how this convention applies varies between different styles of language.

In this example, you could use “whom” – and some would insist that you must, because the word is an object here. But look at it:

  • “You’ll never guess whom we’ve just recruited.”

Does the tone feel right? “You’ll never guess” is clearly casual. After that, “whom” is a bit of a jolt.

In a grander style, it would be more at home: “I daresay you shall be somewhat surprised when you discover whom we have most recently recruited.”

8) “Anna and Bill wondered which of them would get through all their emails first.”

There’s a long history of people complaining that “they”, “them” and “their” cannot refer to a single person of unspecified sex. And there’s an even longer history of people doing exactly that. The complaint dates back to the 18th century, the usage all the way to the 14th.

“He” as a unisex pronoun was once common, but it has increasingly come to be seen as sexist. And in many cases it’s absurd or misleading. In this example sentence it would clumsily imply that Bill was bound to beat Anna. “His or her” can work, but it’s a bit long-winded and here it would be awkward.

There is no consensus on this one yet. Many of us find singular “they”, “them” and “their” not just acceptable but indispensable. These usages seem to have become more common and more accepted in recent decades.

But others still disagree, especially for formal language. You’ll have to use your judgement in each case.

Bryan Garner, in the Chicago Manual of Style, offers nine techniques that can help you avoid gendered pronouns. They don’t always work in all cases, of course.

*

We had a ninth question in the Management Today quiz, but it was a bit of an odd one out. It was on whether to change “less accidents” to “fewer accidents”, and in our answer Andrew and I did recommend this (while adding that “less” vs “fewer” isn’t as straightforward as some people suggest).

I’ve left it out here for a sharper focus. The eight examples above are all cases where applying the so-called rules can make things difficult: less a test of you than a test of those rules.

The eight rules broken by these examples are a mix of superstitions, misunderstandings, pet peeves and a couple of legitimate but far from absolute points. They have their fans – some more than others – but not one of them unquestionably applies across the whole of standard English. None of the eight example sentences is ungrammatical in the way that “They decided to recommend hiring quickly her” is.

You might be better inclined towards some of these rules than I am. If so, I’m not going to damn you for preferring things a different way (although a couple of them really make me despair).

To pass the test, you don’t need to share my prejudices – unlike most online “grammar tests”. You just need to appreciate that not everything people call a rule of grammar really is one, that there are grey areas, that context and audience affect which conventions you should use, and that if you’re not careful, rule-following can lead you astray.

Finally, in the Management Today article, after the quiz answers we gave a list of tips for people who find themselves in the role of office grammar-checker. The tips are essentially Andrew’s, with just a bit of light polishing from me, and I strongly recommend them. I also strongly recommend Jonathon Owen’s ‘12 Mistakes Nearly Everyone Who Writes About Grammar Mistakes Makes’.

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Comments

  • Benf  On January 6, 2015 at 11:08 am

    In 1): as adverbs are best avoided if possible, I would write: “They decided to urge her recruitment.” I like the rule that, if you are using an adverb, the chances are that you have chosen the wrong verb.

    • Tom Freeman  On January 6, 2015 at 12:01 pm

      Adverbs are useful, as you’ve just shown by using one: “best”. If you omit the “quickly”, you lose information. Adverb overuse can be a problem, but neither of us is guilty of it here!

    • Rain, Rain  On January 19, 2015 at 4:54 am

      “… adverbs are best avoided if possible…”

      Oh, Benf, you unlinked commenter! Will this war on adverbs never end?

  • Benf  On January 6, 2015 at 11:10 am

    In 2): as the passive voice is best avoided if possible, I would write: “The London, Birmingham and Manchester offices collaborated.”

    • Tom Freeman  On January 6, 2015 at 12:03 pm

      The passive voice can be very useful, as you’ve just shown by using it: “is best avoided”! That example sentence, on the other hand, doesn’t use the passive voice.

      • Warsaw Will  On January 6, 2015 at 4:13 pm

        It’s funny how those who are most critical of the use the passive voice very often have problems identifying it.

  • Benf  On January 6, 2015 at 11:13 am

    In 3): as the sentence is an admonition or warning, the subject should be the person to whom it is addressed, hence: “You have no friends in that meeting.” Or if you want greater emphasis on the absence of friends, then make it: “You haven’t a single friend in that meeting.”

    • Tom Freeman  On January 6, 2015 at 12:07 pm

      Either of those rewrites works for me. But in general there’s no reason to begin a warning with the addressee: “He’s threatening to fire you”, “They want to scrap your project”, “There’s a tiger behind you” etc!

      • patti with an i  On January 8, 2015 at 9:17 am

        I’m with Richard below on this one. “No one in that meeting is your friend” is unambiguous, and retains the starkness and “thud” you like in the original.

    • Jonathon Owen  On January 6, 2015 at 5:39 pm

      That’s not a rule I’ve ever heard before, and it’s certainly not a grammar rule. That’s just a personal style preference.

  • Richard Nield  On January 6, 2015 at 1:04 pm

    Hey Tom. Many thanks for posting some typically thorny questions. Before I read your explanations, I took a crack at the questions myself. For some reason number 6 tied me in knots. The psychiatry bill’s in the post…

    1) “They decided to quickly recommend hiring her.”

    Would you move the word “quickly” to somewhere else in the sentence?

    It depends on which verb “quickly” is being used to describe. It could be the deciding, the recommending, or the hiring.

    If it was the making of the decision that was quick, the sentence should read: “they quickly decided to recommend hiring her”.

    If they decided (at whatever speed) to recommend her quickly, then it’s a different matter. As it’s currently written, the “quickly” is splitting the infinitive “to recommend.” So do you move it?

    I would make two points. First, I would only choose to strictly follow (split infinitive intended) the split infinitive rule in cases where it does not hamper the flow and rhythm of the sentence.

    Secondly, and more importantly in this case, if you choose to not split the infinitive, you again introduce confusion over whether the “quickly” refers to the recommending or the deciding.

    To avoid splitting the infinitive, you would write “they decided quickly to recommend hiring her”. But from the sense of this you would gather that it was the decision that was quick rather than the speed at which they intended to recommend her. This would be misleading.

    So if it’s the speed of the recommendation that’s at issue here, leave the “quickly” where it is.

    If it’s the hiring itself that they want to be quick, then “they decided to recommend quickly hiring her” and “they decided to recommend hiring her quickly” are equally valid.

    2) “This was a collaboration between the London, Birmingham and Manchester offices.”

    Would you change “between” to “among”?

    Strictly speaking, “between” is used to denote a space (or an action) between two things (or people). To follow this rule, yes, “among” should be substituted for “between”.

    However, for the same reasons of rhythm and flow that I refer to above, I would leave it as it is. There is no ambiguity over what is intended here, and using the word “among” is likely to disrupt more readers than would be upset by a failure to strictly adhere to the rule. (Most people would say “let’s keep it between the three of us; not “let’s keep it among the three of us.”)

    3) “None of the people in that meeting are your friends.”

    Would you change “are your friends” to “is your friend”?

    Strictly speaking, yes. None takes the singular, so you should change it. Again, though, I think the determining factor is whether you are going to disrupt more readers by leaving it as it is or by changing it. My opinion in this case is that you are going to upset people in both cases. This isn’t what you want, so I would suggest either “you don’t have any friends in that meeting” or “no one in that meeting is your friend.”

    4) “You can leave your coats and bags in our cloakroom downstairs.”

    Would you change “can” to “may”?

    At the risk of sounding like a broken record (okay, I confess, I’m beyond the stage of “risk” here)… it depends on the audience. If you’re communicating with someone (or some people) who (or, yes, whom…) you think would be more comfortable with the formal pursuit of grammatical correctness, use “may” and keep them happy. If on the other hand you’re communicating with someone who would think such strict adherence to be stuffy, then keep them happy, and stick with “can.”

    5) “We have so much data that it will take a few weeks to analyse.”

    Would you treat “data” as a plural?

    Um, the same again: let people’s comfort be your guide. The history of the word data would suggest that, as the plural of datum, it should indeed be treated as a plural. But usage has long since outstripped this rule. The word datum has fallen out of common usage, and the word data is routinely used as a singular. So if you want to keep your audience happy – which after all is the whole point of communication – then leave it as it is. There are few people who would be happier with “we have so much data that they will take a few weeks to analyse,” and many who would be thrown or confused.

    6) “Someone older than me would expect to have been promoted by now.”

    Would you change “than me” to “than I”?

    I have conflicting thoughts on this one. One is that there is a silent verb in the sentence of which the “me” is the subject, and therefore you should use a subject pronoun: “Someone older than I [am] would expect to have been promoted by now.” You can’t say “me am,” so you have to say “I”.

    My other thought is that in spite of this I would still be tempted to use the object pronoun “me” where I am the object of a comparison and in the absence of a verb. In the end – you guessed it – I would let ease of comprehensibility be my guide.

    “Someone older than I” sounds rather highfalutin, and the absence of a verb, even though it is implied, could throw the audience. “Someone older than I am” would be an improvement in this sense, and would have the added bonus of being grammatically correct. Of the three, I favour “someone older than me” because of its straight-talking comprehensibility.

    [NB to Ed: There is a niggling doubt in my mind that if I start talking about “someone older than me”, the familiarity of it makes it sound like I am thinking of a specific person, even though the conditionality of “would” suggests that I’m not. I’m picturing nudges and winks and raised eyebrows. So unless I do have someone specific in mind, maybe I should change it to “than I” after all. But I think at this point my confusion may simply be because thinking about the question has driven me to insanity.]

    7) “You’ll never guess who we’ve just recruited.”

    Would you change “who” to “whom”?

    No. Leave it. It sounds better as it is. “Guess who” is such a common part of speech that changing it to “guess whom” just because they are object of the verb “recruit” would sound distinctly odd, and therefore interrupt the flow and sense of the communication.

    8) “Anna and Bill wondered which of them would get through all their emails first.”

    Would you alter “their” used this way?

    No, I would leave it as it is. “Their” is commonly accepted as a third person pronoun and it neatly avoids the problem created by the fact that Anna and Bill are not the same gender (I am assuming that they are not).

    “Anna and Bill wondered which one of them would get through all his or her emails first” is a ridiculous alternative.

    “Anna and Bill wondered whether Anna would get through all her emails before Bill got through all of his” – or vice versa – is equally so.

    I would suggest, though, that in any case the word “all” is redundant, as “get through” already implies “all”.

    • Tom Freeman  On January 6, 2015 at 5:37 pm

      Hey, good effort! Even if we go different ways on a couple of them, your way of thinking about them is great.

  • Naomi Harvey  On January 6, 2015 at 1:22 pm

    For number 7, i recently found this fun comic which attempts to give a simplified version of the uses of ‘who’ and ‘whom’.

    http://theoatmeal.com/comics/who_vs_whom

    I am currently reading a book about grammar. I know that sounds boring but it is actually very interesting. The book explains that our grammar system comes from latin, whereas the English language is actually Germanic in nature. This is why Grammar seems so confusing and why there are often exceptions to every rule of grammar. It’s called My Grammar and I (Or Should That Be ‘Me’?)

    • Tom Freeman  On January 6, 2015 at 5:42 pm

      I love the Oatmeal! And the idea that grammar books might be boring is bizarre to me!

      I’ve heard that as well: that when the scholars of the 17th/18th centuries(?) wanted to formalise English grammar, they pretty much imported the Latin system because that was the height of sophistication and the model of good learning. But in many places it didn’t fit very well. I’ll have to check that book out, thanks!

  • amusebarf (@amusebarf)  On January 6, 2015 at 2:23 pm

    I agree with following rules in a relaxed manner, i.e. not following rules, but two of your questions are a bit tricky as examples:

    1. People’s responses to this are somewhat guided by which verb is most likely to be modified. Deciding is the most likely thing to be modified here: does the recommending have to be done quickly because they spent so long on the deciding? (In other words, I didn’t read this as a split infinitive question, but as a pragmatic incongruence question).

    5. This question is structurally ambiguous.
    We have so much data that it/%they will take a few weeks to analyse.
    We have so much data that it will take a few weeks to analyse it/%them.

    (I’ve used the % sign to indicate which option sounds pompous.)

    By the way, etymology, like “logic”, is a tosser’s guide to modern usage and I’m surprised to see it feature in an otherwise reasonably unfrothy list of dictats.

    Finally, regarding question 9, when do you think “less” is ever incorrect? Using “fewer” to modify count nouns is the equivalent, tonally, of using “whom” as an object pronoun.

    • Tom Freeman  On January 6, 2015 at 8:11 pm

      1. Hmm. I agree in principle that the plausibility of a statement comes into how you’d treat the wording. But in this case I think it’s pretty commonplace that decisions (especially ones made by groups) can take a while, and (regardless of the decision time) that once you’ve decided to recommend something, you may well do it straight away.
      Fact-checking things that look iffy is good, but if the sentence as written is all you’ve got to go on, there’s no escaping that it’s the recommending that’s being described as quick.

      5. Good point, I hadn’t thought of that reading. Like “we have so many books that it will take a few weeks to read them”. But in a sentence like that I think it would be odd to leave the final pronoun implicit. So the structure does become clear, but unfortunately not until the end. On the other hand, both versions are saying essentially the same thing…

      9. I know several very clever wordy types who think “less” is wholly correct to use with count nouns. I’m strongly tempted to agree – I don’t bat an eyelid if someone uses it in conversation, as I’m sure I often do myself – but with a big caveat.
      I think as a convention it has a broader following than the “whom” fans and probably doesn’t come across to so many people as stuffy, especially in writing.
      Maybe if not grammatically wrong, then often ill-advised.

  • Warsaw Will  On January 6, 2015 at 4:25 pm

    I wouldn’t change a thing: this sounds like the normal everyday English I speak. A couple would sound strange. For example I live in Poland, which lies between Germany, Slovakia, Ukraine and Belarus,although the Poles live among other Slavs. I saw data with a plural verb in the Economist the pother day, and it looked distinctly odd. Can for permission is standard nowadays, and I’m a serial singular they user. It’s so much more natural (and elegant in my opinion) than all the alternatives.

  • popegrutch  On January 6, 2015 at 7:52 pm

    Thanks so much for this list and also the link to Jonathan Owen, which led me down a rabbit-hole of other fascinating links!
    I only hedged a bit on #s 3 and 8, not because I personally would worry about those rules, but because in certain formal situations I might want to avoid annoying conservatives. In spoken English or an email, I’d say it just as written, but in some more formal context, say a memo or report, I’d want to find a different way to get the idea across. Both sentences are fairly “homey,” in tone, however, so I don’t think you intended them as examples of formal usage.
    #3 could be “You have no friends in that meeting”
    #8 “Anna and Bill each had so much email that it was hard to say which would finish first.”
    But, I admit that it’s hard to imagine a situation in which I would write either of those sentences in a memo🙂

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