Grammar Media Watch: Pronouns, Verbs, Word Choice |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

Media Watch: Pronouns, Verbs, Word Choice

Here is another batch of fizzles and fumbles from dailies and periodicals.

• Headline for an editorial: “Let he who is without spin.” It’s clever, it’s glib, it’s … a disaster.

It’s supposed to be a twist on a well-known biblical verse, but that verse is routinely misquoted. Many people believe it goes like this: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Here is the actual quotation from the Gospel of John: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” Note the wording: “let him.” That’s because “let he” is almost grammatically impossible. (No one would claim that Marie Antoinette said, “Let they eat cake.”)

• “Fear, borne of national security hysteria, can threaten Americans’ rights.” Either replace “borne” with “born” or, depending on how you interpret the sentence, replace “of” with “by.”

To be born is to be given birth to, as babies are born. Or it can mean “to be created”: ideas are born the moment we think of them.

To be borne is to be carried, transmitted, or tolerated: a mosquito-borne diseasecharges borne equally by the payer and the receiver. When you see borne of, the writer almost certainly meant born of. You are far more likely to see born of or borne by than borne of in a correct sentence.

Our staff prefers born of in the instance cited. Fear is born of—springs from or is created by—hysteria.

• “The criteria for a permit is whether the business is compatible with the impacted neighborhood.”

“The criteria is” is ungrammatical; there is no such thing as one criteria. Criteria is the plural of criterion, a standard used for judging, deciding, or acting. So make it “One of the criteria for a permit is …”

But we aren’t done yet. Do not say “impacted neighborhood” when you mean “affected neighborhood.” As a verb, impact is constantly misused, and affect is almost always the remedy. To impact means “to pack tightly together,” as in an impacted tooth. That is not what the sentence is saying about this particular neighborhood.

• “She did not specify his exit date or what lead to his decision.” Make it “what led to his decision.”

Budding writers are increasingly using lead instead of led as the past tense of the verb to lead. There are three reasons for this confusion. First, lead reminds us of read, and everyone knows that the past tense of the verb to read is read. Second, the word lead, when it refers to a metal, is pronounced led, just like the past tense of the verb to lead. And third, they don’t drill spelling in schools the way they used to.


Pop Quiz

The following are sentences recently heard over the airwaves. See if you can spot the errors. Answers are at the bottom of the newsletter.

1. “One thing they didn’t find were bullet casings.”
2. “Were either of you kids exposed to the virus?”
3. “His family is at their wits’ end.”
4. “Last year, less than a hundred thousand Americans visited Cuba.”
5. “They want to talk to everyone with whom he may have came into contact.”


Pop Quiz Answers

1. “One thing they didn’t find was bullet casings.”
2. “Was either of you kids exposed to the virus?”
3. “His family is at its wits’ end.” OR “His family are at their wits’ end.”
4. “Last year, fewer than a hundred thousand Americans visited Cuba.”
5. “They want to talk to everyone with whom he may have come into contact.”


If the article or the existing discussions do not address a thought or question you have on the subject, please use the "Comment" box at the bottom of this page.

9 responses to “Media Watch: Pronouns, Verbs, Word Choice”

  1. Peter Brodie says:

    Oh dear, so many odd assertions, so little space to address them (in).
    You quote the King James Bible’s “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her” (nice to hear the KJB version and not some Modern Mishmash) and you use it to prove that “let him first cast” is correct, whereas some poor schmuck’s “let he who is without spin” is illiterate. But you’ve pulled a fast one: What about the “He that is without sin”? What’s that “He” doing? What case is it? It can’t be the (nominative) subject because it governs no main verb; and if it’s in apposition to “him” it should be “him.” My guess is that the very wise translators of 1611 (a rare example of a committee tasked to produce a camel creating a beautiful horse), unable to decide between “he” and “him” have opted for both, and that the “he” is in fact unique in English Grammar: a third-person Vocative/Apostrophe.
    Also, you are unwise to condemn “Let he who is without spin” without considering that “he” is doing double duty: it is both the object of “let” (hence “him”) and the subject of “who is without spin,” the integral head of the phrase “he-who-is-without-spin” (hence “he”). One or the other has to yield.
    Phrases like this have a kind of titular inviolability: they don’t alter, even when they are the object of the verb—-just as you wouldn’t say, “Let’s watch ‘The King and Me’ with Yul Brynner.”
    Think of John Mortimer’s Horace Rumpole: he always refers to his wife as She Who Must Be Obeyed, as in “I must consult/am summoned by She Who Must Be Obeyed.” Never “Her.” It’s the same with “between you and I” or “They’ve invited my wife and I”: phrases like “you and I” (you-and-I) or “my wife and I” (my-wife-and-I) are so well-established that they are unalterably beyond the dictates of mere grammar/pedantry. Titular Inviolability indeed.
    Now to your “there is no such thing as one criteria.” True enough. But that’s not what the miscreant wrote (another fast one!). That was “The criteria for a permit is”—-which is quite different. “Criteria” is indeed the plural of “criterion” and you would expect it to take a plural verb; but you seem to have forgotten that, for the Ancient Greeks, all neuter plurals (like criteria, phenomena, bacteria, etc.) take a singular verb. They seem to have regarded a bunch of abstract concepts as a singular entity (conversely, we often regard “a lot,” which is clearly singular, as a plural and accord it a plural verb: we never say “a lot of cars is….”) I would argue that as long as we’re borrowing a foreign word like criteria we should not wrench it away from its familiar syntactical moorings: don’t put the kid in an orphanage when the parents can be traced.
    As for poor old “impacted”—-which is usually damned as a neologism (it’s been around for over 400 years)–I would refer you to that excellent enchiridion, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage: “The critics recommend the use of “influence” or “affect” instead of “impact.” But clearly “impact,” with its overtones of impacting bombs and asteroids, sounds more forceful. In addition, many people seem to have trouble with “affect” and “effect”; “impact” presents no spelling problem.” A droll coda to the underlying assumption that any fuss over “impact” is bizarre. Nor does it mean “to pack tightly together” (though it did in 1601) so much as “to strike forcefully”—its far more common meaning since about 1935.

    • “He” is the subject of an invisible “is” clause: “He that is without sin among you [is the subject at hand]. Let him cast the first stone at her.” So we stand by our answer.

      *criteria: In English, plural subjects take plural verbs.

      *impact: Please feel free to use it as a verb in your writing.

  2. Robin H. says:

    I think answer #1 would sound better with “a bullet casing.”

  3. Ed Nielson says:

    Today, the AP tweeted the following:

    Secret Service arrests person after attempting to scale White House fence

    Although we know the answer, this headline is grammatically ambiguous. Who attempted to scale the fence? The secret service, or the person arrested?

  4. Barry U. says:

    Has “is” replaced “are” as a plural verb? In both the written and spoken word it’s commonplace to read/hear, “There’s three storms bearing down on our area….(Instead of “There’re or there are three storms…”).” I want to scream at the TV newscasters for their spoken blunders! And don’t let me get started on the misuse of the pronoun “I” – Jon went to the market with Sara and I. (TV script writers are the major perpetrators of poor English, and the actors don’t seem to know to correct the errors!) In your estimation, is colloquial English replacing proper English and will it eventually be taught in school as acceptable?

    • All we can say is, we share your frustration.

      Unfortunately, some of the things we deplore are becoming acceptable. The singular they is now used without shame throughout the print media.

      All any English lover can do is refuse to sink to that level.

  5. Scott M. says:

    I am just getting around to reading a backlog of your e-newsletters. In the newsletter Media Watch dated 17 February 2015, you review a few of the “fizzles and fumbles” you found in the media. The last item you brought to our attention was:
    “She did not specify his exit date or what lead to his decision.”

    You advise us to modify the sentence to be “what led to his decision.” And, as a product of the 70’s, I agree with your conclusion – spelling drills are not what they were. Yet, I think there should have been another correction for agreement.

    If I recall correctly, because “She did not specify” is a negative, would it not be more correct to say:

    She did not specify his exit date nor what lead to his decision?

    And, please, feel free to correct this message where I committed grammar crimes.

    I love what you do. Thank you.

    • Although nor is used by many in this situation, mostly for emphasis, a close analysis reveals that not … nor is a double negative: most people would write She did not specify X or Y. Therefore or is probably the right choice.

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