NorthWest by NorthEast Blog

Hey, where are you at?

The phrase “Where are you at?” is popping up everywhere. It’s on TV. It’s in ads. It’s all over the Web. And, of course, we’re hearing it when we eat at a restaurant, wait for the bus, or walk down the street. Our language shifts and absorbs new ways to say things. It’s natural, if a bit unnerving.

 
Did you ever wonder why grammarians, English teachers, and wordsmiths cringe every time they hear, “Where are you at?”

 

So, what's all the fuss about?

It could be the preposition at the end of the sentence. But, we’ve been comfortable with that for decades. Because, honestly, fixing the grammar often leads to awkward sentences like “I love the couch on which you’re sitting.”

 
The correct question is “Where are you?” In English, we only need to include the preposition “at” when there is a place after it. So, “Are you at the mall?” correctly uses at.
 
The question word “where” covers what we all need to know. And brevity is not only the soul of wit, it is also the heart of conciseness. Why add words that you don’t need? As my ninth grade English teacher used to say, “If in doubt, leave it out!”

 

What if I still want to use this phrase?

How you express yourself is entirely up to you. If all your friends use the phrase and you don’t want to sound stuffy, then go for it. But you might want to drop it when you’re at work. Just a suggestion. :)

 
Your turn: Do you use this phrase? How do you feel about it?

 

 

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Ego battle: I versus me

For a country of belly-button gazers, we don't know how to talk about ourselves. A lot of people use "I" when they should use "me" and vice-versa. Luckily, solving this problem is pretty easy. Just ask yourself: Is the word the subject or the object?

 

Easy examples:

  • I work at the museum. (subject of "to work")
  • My mother gave me a beautiful sweater. (object of "to give")

 

More complex examples:

  • She is taller than I. (subject of the omitted verb "to be": She is taller than I am.)
  • Between you and me, I never liked raw fish. (object of "between")
  • No one but me does the dishes. (object of "but" - used as a preposition)

 

Pronoun use in English is pretty easy for most native speakers. We know when to use plural forms for subjects (we or they), and we know how to say "Call us when you get there." But things seem to fall apart in two cases:

  1. When the pronoun is only one of the subjects.
  2. When the pronoun is only one of the objects.

And if the pronoun in question is "I" (or "me"?), everyone's grammar confidence seems to go out the window.

 

Don't worry. I'm here to break it down for you.

 

Compound subjects

In simple terms, a compound subject is a subject that contains two or more individual nouns. It doesn't matter if each noun refers to one person, place, or thing or multiple people, places, or things. In other words, "we" is not a compound subject but "Jamie and I" is.


Let's look at some examples.

 

Simple subject:

  • I went to the beach.
  • She ate sushi.

 

Compound subject:

  • He and I went to the beach. (or Dave and I went to the beach.)
  • She and I ate sushi. (or Susan and I ate sushi.)

 

Compound objects

As I'm sure you've figured out, a compound object is an object that contains one or more individual nouns.

 

Let's look at some examples of simple and compound objects.

 

Simple object:

  • Give the ball to me.
  • John hugged her.

 

Compound object:

  • Give the ball to him and me.
  • John hugged her and me.

 

Simple trick #1

If you're ever stumped about which form of a pronoun to use in a compound subject or compound object, simply omit the part that you know and write the sentence with only the part that you aren't sure about. (Or write both parts separately, if you like to be careful.)

 

Here, I'll show you.

 

  1. He and I ran four miles.
    • He ran four miles.
    • I ran four miles.
  2. Me and her took the bus to school.
    • Me took the bus to school. - Nope!
    • Her took the bus to school. - Nope!
    • She and I took the bus to school. - Yup! 
  3. Should Bob return the book to her or me?
    • Should Bob return the book to her?
    • Should Bob return the book to me?
  4. My neighbor babysat she and I when we were little.
    • My neighbor babysat she when were were little. - Nope!
    • My neighbor babysat I when we were little. - Nope!
    • My neighbor babysat her and me when we were little. - Yup!
  5. He hit her and I with snowballs.
    • He hit her with snowballs.
    • He hit I with snowballs. - Nope!
    • He hit her and me with snowballs. - Yup!

 

Simple trick #2

If the way that you think is correct still sounds wrong to you, you can always use the noun instead of the pronoun (except for "I" and "me," unless you commonly refer to yourself in the third person!). Here are the same examples with fewer pronouns:

  1. John and I ran four miles.
  2. My sister and I took the bus to school.
  3. Should Bob return the book to Jane or me?
  4. My neighbor babysat my sister and me when we were little.
  5. He hit Susan and me with snowballs.

 

Correct order

Did you notice the placement of "I" and "me" in the example sentences? In the English language, we always list "I" or "me" last. I'm not sure if it's a way to be humble or just the way the language developed, but it has become a usage rule. When you construct a sentence with more than one subject or object, list pronouns other than I/me first, then nouns, and finally I/me. This sounds more complicated than it is.

 

Incorrect examples:

  • Mary and he went to Italy for their honeymoon.
  • Me and Mary walk around Green Lake every Thursday.
  • Mary, he, and I went to college together.

 

Correct examples:

  • He and Mary went to Italy for their honeymoon.
  • Mary and I walk around Green Lake every Thursday.
  • He, Mary, and I went to college together.

 

One final note on pronouns

All of the examples lack context. In a real-world situation, please make sure that you've introduced the thing that the pronoun replaces before you use the pronoun. Otherwise, your reader will be wondering, "Who the heck is 'she'?" Not identifying pronouns can lead to some fun misunderstandings in texts, tweets, and Facebook posts. But, for more formal writing, you probably want to avoid that type of "fun."

 

Your turn: Do the correct examples sound right to you?

 

 

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What's the origin of kitty corner?

Where does the term "kitty corner" come from?

 

I've heard the term "kitty corner" since childhood and always thought that those who said "catty corner" were wrong. And I assumed that this phrase had something to do with cats. Turns out I was wrong on pretty much all counts (I got the "corner" meaning right).

 

Cater-cornered is actually the correct term. "Cater" derives from the Old French "catre" for 4. (For anyone interested, modern French for 4 is spelled "quatre.")

 

When there are four items, the things that are diagonally across from each other are "cater-cornered," "catty-cornerned," "catty corner," or "kitty corner." For the record, kitty corner isn't wrong, it is just the least preferred form.

 

Thanks for the great question, Justine!

 

And thanks to the American Heritage Dictionary, 4th edition (yes, the actual book) for research assistance.

 

Do you have a question about word usage or grammar?

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Parallelism: To be or… ending it all

Would Hamlet’s famous line have stayed in our minds if it hadn’t been parallel?

 

The most recent grammar gaffe, the Love Meter, highlighted the importance of parallelism. It’s an important concept that many very intelligent people don’t get quite right and grammar checkers often miss. In fact, as a professional editor, I find that parallelism is one of the most common issues that I fix.
 
I hope to shed some light on parallelism and help everyone write better.

 

What is parallel construction?

The St. Martin’s Handbook defines parallelism as “expressing parallel elements in the same grammatical form.” In other words, if you are comparing two things, use the same grammatical form for each. For example: I like skiing better than swimming. Both skiing and swimming are gerunds, so the structure is parallel. If I said, I like skiing better than to swim, most readers would feel that something was wrong with the sentence.

 

Why does it matter?

Parallel construction is easier to read. If your brain has to search for the subject or verb—or figure out what the writer meant—then communication has stopped. As a writer, you want to make it as easy as possible for your readers to understand your meaning. Parallel construction is one way to do that.

 

Parallelism and lists

Lists are one of the most common places for parallel construction. Both bulleted lists and series within a sentence must have parallel construction. It’s often easier to spot parallelism issues in a bulleted list, so we’ll start there.

 

Non-parallel list

Before traveling internationally, be sure to:

  • Obtain a valid passport.
  • If you need a visa for the country you are visiting, then be sure to apply for it as soon as possible.
  • To avoid illness while traveling, get any immunizations you need.
  • Research the climate and customs of the country you plan to visit.
  • Get traveler’s checks or pre-loaded credit cards, if the country has many ATMs.
  • Bring a printed copy of all necessary documents and information with you.
 
Did you spot the bullets that aren’t parallel? If you want to test yourself, rewrite them before looking at the “Parallel list” example below.
 
Ready?
 
Let’s look at the same list, edited for parallel construction.

 

Parallel list

Before traveling internationally, be sure to:

  • Obtain a valid passport.
  • Apply for a visa as soon as possible, if you need one for the country you are visiting.
  • Get any immunizations you need to avoid illness while traveling.
  • Research the climate and customs of the country you plan to visit.
  • Get traveler’s checks or pre-loaded credit cards, if the country has many ATMs.
  • Print a copy of all necessary documents and information.
 
How did you do? Did you find them all?
 
The last one was a little tricky. It was grammatically parallel, but there was a conceptual problem. The introduction to the list indicates that these things need to be done before traveling. Bringing something along on the trip doesn’t fit there. However, we know that in order to bring a copy of something on a trip, we need to make the copy before we travel.
 
Sometimes, it’s harder to figure out what the writer meant. In those cases, it is best to ask the writer what he or she intended. Usually, I provide a comment that includes my best guess. If I’m right, then the writer only needs to say OK. If I’m wrong, then the writer can explain (in writing or in person) the intended meaning.
 
Next, let’s look at an example of a series in a sentence.

 

Non-parallel series

Everyone knows that kids love three things: ice cream, birthdays, and believe.

 

Can you spot what isn’t parallel?
 

Parallel series

There are a few options here, depending on the intention of the writer.
  1. Everyone knows that kids love three things: ice cream, birthdays, and make-believe.
  2. Everyone knows that kids love three things: ice cream, birthdays, and belief.
  3. Everyone knows that kids love three things: eating ice cream, celebrating birthdays, and believing.
 
Even if I didn’t write the original, I would still think that the first option makes more sense. But I would definitely check with the writer (or query the writer, as editors like to say).

 

Note that “ice cream” and “birthdays” are parallel even though one is singular and one is plural. They simply both need to be nouns.
 

Summary

Parallel construction uses the same grammatical pattern for similar items to help the reader quickly understand the meaning.

 

I'd like to hear from you!

How did you do? I’d love to hear how you did solving the parallelism issues in this post. Also, please let me know if you have any additional questions.

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Gerunds: I love you for loving me

February is the month of love. For that reason, I can’t help focusing in on a grammar form that appears in many professions of love.

 

I’ve mentioned in other posts that communication is often more important than grammar. So, if your love sends you a Valentine’s card with incorrect use of gerunds, please don’t say anything. But, if you haven’t written your Valentine’s card yet, then this post can help you communicate with proper grammar.

 

Gerunds are verbs that function as nouns. All gerunds end in -ing. When people list their hobbies, they often use gerunds: hiking, skiing, writing, and singing.

 

You might be wondering how gerunds can help your love letters. Well, it's easy. Everyone wants to hear the reasons that you love them. Instead of listing their sparkling eyes and beautiful smile, why not focus on action words?

  • I love you for eating all my cooking experiments.
  • I love you for smiling first thing in the morning.
  • I love you for loving me.


Of course, gerunds aren’t only for love letters. You can use a gerund anywhere you can use a noun. All the following are normal uses of gerunds:

  • Swimming is my favorite sport.
  • I exercise daily by running sprints.
  • Susan hates cleaning. 

 

Enjoy using gerunds!

 

Letters and poems are fun to write, and they don’t have to be about love. Friends and family enjoy cards on Valentine’s Day too. 

 

I’ve shared my favorite use of gerunds. What’s yours?

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