Category Archives: Grammar by the Letter

G is for Good

The imminent arrival of the Winter Olympics makes this a perfect time to review the usage of the words good and well because we’ll soon hear countless interviewers and announcers telling us how good our athletes did in their events. In fact, they will have done well, not good, but it’s a common grammatical error and, sadly, I’m confident that we won’t be able to count on the television personalities to get it right.

Here’s the basic rule for determining whether you should use good or well: a thing is good, but you do something well.

Good is an adjective that describes people and things (nouns) so use it when you’re stating how something or someone is.

Examples:

  1. Good Will Hunting is a good movie.
  2. Martha Stewart says “it’s a good thing”.
  3. Glinda is a good witch.

Well is an adverb that modifies action words (verbs) so use it when describing how something or someone does something.

Examples:

  1. He did well on the English exam.
  2. She danced well in the recital.
  3. The hockey team played well.

There are exceptions to the rule, of course. For example, you can use good when referring to verbs of the senses. Something can smell goodtaste goodfeel good, or look good.

At this winter’s Games, I hope that our athletes have a good time and ski, snowboard, skate, curl and play hockey well. I hope the weather is good and the bobsleigh, biathlon, luge, and ski jumping events go well. I hope our team members look good in their Olympic outfits and represent Canada well.

And I hope that our announcers do well too.

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F is for Foliage

If you Google images for the word Foliage, you’ll find thousands of pictures of lovely leaves. If you Google images for Foilage … you’ll find thousands of pictures of lovely leaves.

The correct spelling of the word  used to describe a cluster of  leaves is foliage, from the Latin word for leaf, “folio”. However,  the l and i in foliage are reversed so regularly that the word is on many Top 100 lists of English words most often misspelled and mispronounced. The misspelled version  is used in a myriad of Internet pages.  You can even shop for Foilage T-Shirts, Posters, & Other Gift Ideas at zazzle.com.

There is a definition on urbandictionary.com for foilage that claims it is an expression for bling. Man check out the ride – foilage.”

So according to that definition, this might be considered foilage:

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I think this should definitely be designated as [tin] foilage:

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The following photos are of autumn foliage in Southern Ontario. Many of the pictures were taken at, or near, the shore of Lake Ontario.

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E is for Effect

If you ask around, I think you’ll find that most people have at least one word that they’re inclined to look up in the dictionary every time they need to use it. For whatever reason, some words just don’t seem to stick in the old noggin, even if their meaning and spelling is really not difficult. I have two of those words: effect and affect.

Whenever I have to decide which one of them to use, I send the request for clarification of their meanings to my brain for processing. Ker-chug, ker-chug, ker-chug – you can practically hear it, like that noise your computer makes when the hard drive is running low on space and it seems to take forever to pull up what you want. Finally my mind spits out the correct word and, just my luck, there are dead pixels in my brain’s monitor right where the first letter should be, so that the answer comes up looking like this

which is not at all helpful because I don’t have any trouble with the other letters in either word.

For anyone else who finds the difference between effect and affect hard to remember, here is the most basic difference between the two words.

Most of the time affect is a verb. It generally means “to influence” or “to change”.

I am adversely affected by snowy weather.

Most of the time effect is a noun. It generally means “a result or consequence”.

The snow had a dangerous effect on the roads.

The information I find most helpful is that effect is used whenever any of these words precede it: a, an, any, the, take, into, no.  These words may be separated from effect by an adjective.

For a more detailed description of the uses of effect and affect, and to try a practice quiz, go to this site:

http://data.grammarbook.com/blog/valuable-links/effect-or-affect/

Since my brain monitor cannot be repaired or replaced, I suspect that I’ll be looking up effect occasionally for the rest of my days. And that’s okay, because sometimes it’s best just to admit that you’re not sure and consult an expert; that’s what dictionaries are for.

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D is for Dangling Modifier

Yesterday I went to a movie starring George Clooney with Brad Pitt. Popping in the container, we could smell the buttered popcorn, so we got some at the counter that cost $3.00. We ate the popcorn that we had bought slowly. Leaving the theatre, the wind grew cold. Shining brightly in the sky, my date pointed out the full moon. After starting the car, a squirrel ran out from under it. Then we drove the car to my house with chrome wheels.

Modifiers are just what the word implies—words or phrases that modify something else by describing, clarifying or giving more detail. Dangling and misplaced modifiers are words that either haven’t been given a subject to modify, or have been poorly placed in a sentence and describe something you didn’t intend them to modify. I didn’t go to the movie with Brad Pitt or pop in a container. The counter didn’t cost $3.00 and we didn’t buy popcorn slowly. The wind didn’t leave the theatre, my date didn’t shine brightly in the sky, and … well, you get the idea. You know the intent of the above sentences, but they read poorly with the dangling and misplaced modifiers.

A dangling modifier is a word or phrase that modifies a subject not clearly stated in the sentence. Usually the subject is implied and the writer is assuming that the reader will know what is meant. For example, in the sentence “After starting the car, a squirrel ran out from under it,” after starting the car states an action but doesn’t name the doer of that action. The doer must be the subject of the main clause that follows so in this sentence, it is the squirrel. You know I didn’t mean that the squirrel started the car, so the first phrase is a dangling modifier. The sentence can be easily fixed by adding a subject to the beginning phrase: “After I started the car, a squirrel ran out from under it.” Tip: dangling modifiers frequently contain verbs ending in –ing.

A misplaced modifier causes confusion by falling in the wrong place in a sentence. “Then we drove the car to my house with chrome wheels” is easily fixed by just moving the modifier (chrome wheels) so it directly follows the object it’s really modifying: “Then we drove the car with chrome wheels to my house.” The best way to avoid misplaced modifiers is to place the modifying word(s) as close as possible to the word it qualifies.

At least dangling and misplaced modifiers can provide a laugh to the reader. Here are some amusing examples:

– Walking downstairs, the doorbell rang.
– Having been thrown into the air, the dog caught the ball.
– The closet was empty, having packed everything into the suitcase.
– Pressing the button, the elevator went down to the basement.
– While sleeping, the house caught on fire.
– Flying over the oak tree, the farmer saw the flock of birds that had damaged his crops.
– For those of you who have children and don’t know it, we have a nursery downstairs.
– Eight new choir robes are currently needed, due to the addition of several new members and to the deterioration of some older ones.
– Buried deep within the earth, the scientists said the blast would be harmless.

One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas.
How he got into my pajamas, I’ll never know…

– Groucho Marx

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C is for Crazy Cat Lady

C should be for Could Care Less because it’s the only grammar gaffe starting with c that makes my ears bleed. I don’t understand why people say “I could care less” when they mean they couldn’t, and I don’t think they should be allowed to pass grade 3, drive a car, or raise children until they can get it right.

However, I’ve already written about Could Care Less and I don’t want to harp on it, so I’m going with crazy cat lady. I don’t actually have a problem with that phrase. In fact, I couldn’t care less if people want to use it, whether they’re referring to a woman who is crazy about cats or Catwoman of DC Comics fame high on catnip. Hopefully the subjects couldn’t care less about being called crazy cat ladies, especially Catwoman because I suspect you don’t want to be on her bad side. (Personally, if I looked even half as good as she does in spandex, I wouldn’t care what anyone called me.)

Cats tend to be independent and generally couldn’t care less what you do as long as you’re not bothering them and you set their food out on schedule, but they are also playful and affectionate and it’s lovely to have one purring on your lap. Crazy cat ladies know that the benefits of cat ownership outweigh the inconveniences, so they couldn’t care less about annoyances such as cat hair and dander.

Truthfully, I like cats but I couldn’t care less about the phrase crazy cat lady. I used it because it, obviously, starts with c, but mostly because  barefootheart told me that it is the search engine term that has directed the most traffic to her blog. Writing about could care less crazy cat ladies here is just a shameless attempt to attract more wise and interesting readers to my blog who might not otherwise have discovered Grammar by the Letter.

Crazy Cat Lady Action Figure

Crazy Cat Lady Action Figure

P.S. Although I like cats, I am not owned by any. Our house is ruled by a slightly demented bird.

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B is for Bring

Or, How A Grammar Lesson Saved Red’s Day

Red was on her way through the woods to Grandma’s house with her large picnic hamper when a handsome grey wolf stepped onto the path beside her.
“Hello,” he said pleasantly. “Bringing some goodies to Grandma?”
“Taking,” said Red.
The wolf ignored her admonition. “I know your charming Grandma,” he lied. “Perhaps I could join you and bring her some flowers.”
“Take,” sighed Red.
“Yes, well, I’ve never been clear on the usage of bring and take.”
“It’s really quite simple,” said Red. “You know, I could use a rest and a bite to eat. Come and sit with me and I’ll give you some pointers while we have a snack. Would you like some pâté?”
The wolf sat beside her and helped himself to the spread.
“Whether you use bring or take depends on your point of reference for the action,” Red said. “In order to use bring, the speaker must already be at the destination to which the person or object is being conveyed. For example, someone in the living room might say ‘Please bring me some pâté from the kitchen’.”
“Great pâté,” the wolf enthused.
“Have some more,” responded Red. “When you are viewing something from the point of departure, then you say take. For example, I will take this hamper full of chilled wine coolers to Grandma.”
“I love wine coolers,” said the wolf.
“Please help yourself,” invited Red. “So, you ask people to bring things to the place where you are, and you take things to the place you are going. From Grandma’s point of view, the bumbleberry tarts are coming to where she is, so she would say ‘Red is bringing me some tarts’. From my point of view, I’m moving the food from here to the location I’m going to – Grandma’s house – so I’m taking the tarts to Grandma.”
“There are bumbleberry tarts?” asked the Wolf.
“Have as many as you like,” encouraged Red. “Anyway, that is really all you have to remember: you bring things here and you take things there.”
“Thank you, our picnic was both delicious and informative,” said the wolf as he washed down his third tart with the remainder of his second cooler. He patted his full stomach and yawned lazily. “I did have plans for lunch,” he mused, “but, on second thought, I think I’ll just head home and have a nap instead.”
He bid farewell and disappeared into the forest, while Red continued down the path with a self-satisfied grin.

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A is for Apostrophe

Apostrophes are like birds. More specifically, they are like our pet cockatiel, Ruffles. Ruffles is a much loved and important member of the family who flutters to our shoulders when he feels like watching television, playing peek-a-bird, talking to our socks (he has a sock fetish) or just perching on a soft body to snooze. Ruffles’ antics can be very amusing and we usually enjoy his company, but sometimes his presence is just not appropriate, e.g., when he flies to someone’s shoulder just as they are heading out to shovel snow.

Apostrophes are important members of the written English family but, like our bird, their company is sometimes welcome and sometimes inappropriate. They flutter above letters looking for a suitable landing position and choosing the wrong spot can make an apostrophe’s presence very amusing. There are Websites devoted exclusively to the misadventures of this punctuation mark.

Occasionally Ruffles sets off from his cage to fly manically through the house without, apparently, a predetermined flight plan in mind. Conversation pauses as his audience views this frenzied flight with amusement and waits for the outcome. He’s going to land in the dining room … no, no, he’s in the kitchen … wait, it’s okay, he’s going back to his cage… no he’s not ….he‘s in the living room …. oh, ohhhhhh, ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, he’s hanging precariously from the drapes.

Pluralizing most singular nouns really couldn’t be any easier: you add an s. Orange becomes oranges, sock – socks, and sales assistant – sales assistants. If you add an apostrophe before an s, you are making a noun possessive: the socks belong to the bird = the bird’s socks. Unfortunately, apostrophes take flight and land without reason in handwritten signs outside of stores so often that plural nouns with misplaced punctuation (e.g., fresh apple’s and orange’s, sock’s and shoe’s, sales assistant’s needed) have been dubbed greengrocers’ apostrophes.

It’s easy to find Internet sites and books that thoroughly explain all the rules for using apostrophes. I don’t know why anybody who is unsure of the correct usage of this punctuation mark doesn’t just review the rules once or twice or thirty times to ensure successful landings for the apostrophe every time it sets forth.

Perhaps anyone about to write a sign should imagine an audience eagerly anticipating the result. Oh no, there’s an apostrophe taking off … it’s circling the words … it’s heading for a landing… wait, it’s okay, I think it’s turning back… no, no, it’s going to settle … oh, ohhhhhh, ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, it landed in the sock’s.


Ruffles on one of his socks.

Ruffles on one of his socks.


Ruffles taking his socks for a walk.

Ruffles taking his socks for a walk.

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