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All over the English-speaking (or English-based language-speaking) world, university professors, stodgy antiquarians, and linguistic conservatives sit about in tea or coffee houses, bemoaning the tragic decline of Standard Written English. They complain about neologisms1. They mourn the removal of the letters 'ue' from the words 'dialog' and 'catalog' (in American English). They object to the way people use the word 'hopefully', to mean 'I hope', or 'one hopes'. They watch, hopelessly, as the correct use of the apostrophe disappears from the memories of those who were never taught how to use apostrophes in the first place. They react, hopefully, when a student shows a spark of interest in grammar.
Besides complaining, these people occasionally write books, in which they use excellent grammar, spelling, and punctuation, to help others learn to write. They also write articles from time to time, to set the record permanently straight on some small matter or other. This is one such article. The purposes of this Entry are:
To clear up some confusion around certain homophones, which writers frequently find confusing. There is a good reason why these homophonous words are confusing. They become much less confusing once one understands the reason. The reason involves declining English.
To demonstrate how declining English is a way to make unwieldy and confusing sentence-structure less unwieldy and confusing.
To Decline a Noun
English is, structurally, very much a Germanic language. One of the features of German, which does not appear in modern Romance languages, though it is true of Latin, is that it is inflected. This means that the nouns are declined. To decline a noun, one employs its declension.
For those who have never studied any inflected language, the above paragraph doubtless sounds like gibberish. Here, however, is an explanation of declensions. A noun (word for person, place, or thing) can have many functions in a sentence. This is the 'parts of speech' lesson most of us had when we were ten years old, when we were looking out of the window thinking about something else. Bits of it may seem familiar. For the purpose of examples, the word 'dog' will represent any given noun. Nouns can have the following functions in a sentence:
The noun is the subject of the sentence, the doer of the action, the entity employing the verb:
Most dogs are very friendly.
The dog ran around the house dragging my towel.
This dog does not look healthy to me.
The noun is possessive in the sentence, owns properties, possesses a characteristic, is the one to whom things belong:
The dog's coat is very shiny.
Dogs' thoughts are quite concrete-operational.
Your dog's bed needs to be Hoovered.
The noun is the indirect object of a sentence, where the direct object comes or happens to the indirect object, usually by means of the word 'to':
Mary gave some pizza to her dog.
Harry always says 'Good Morning' to the dog, and not to me.
Never give hallucinogenic drugs to dogs.
The noun is the direct object of a sentence, where the subject does the action to the noun, the noun is on the receiving end of the verb:
In some parts of the world, people eat dogs.
Joey, stop pestering that poor dog.
The Press keep carrying on about the President's dog.
The noun is used as a predicate adjective, which means it goes at the end of the sentence from where it modifies (describes, or defines) the subject.
Whoo, that movie was such a dog!
Her mother is absolutely dogged about this wedding thing.
This whole house smelt faintly doggy.
There are many other parts of speech (English is particularly notorious for its ability to verb almost any noun). However, as these are not relevant to this particular discussion, in the interests of conserving space, they will not be discussed here.
Declension Case Names
There are old, traditional names for the noun-jobs described above, which all those people who have studied inflected languages remember with mixed feelings. These are useful terms, and it is helpful to know them, because they can prevent confusion in places where confusion might otherwise occur. Depending upon the job a noun does in a sentence, it is said to take a particular case. This case determines how the noun is altered (by sound, spelling, or both) to indicate its function in the sentence. Thus altering a noun is called 'declining' it. The set of all possible ways of declining a noun is its 'declension'. Languages which use declensions are called 'inflected' languages.
If the dog is the subject of the sentence, 'dog' takes the nominative case. Nominative is that which names, the boss of the sentence.
If the dog is possessive, 'dog' takes the genitive case. Genitive is related to origin, from its roots in the word for genesis; the genitive case indicates belonging, it shows ownership.
If the dog is the indirect object, 'dog' takes the dative case. Dative is connected to the Latin verb which means 'to give', since the direct object of sentences is nearly always given or done to the indirect object.
If the dog is the direct object, 'dog' takes the accusative case, which seems fairly self-explanatory; the direct object is the one being done unto.
For the purposes of this discussion, there is no need to consider more than one possible case for the predicate adjective, and that is genitive, see #2, above.
There are other cases. Again, in the interests of brevity, there is no need to discuss them here. For more on cases and declensions, study German, Russian, and/or Latin.
Why You Believe You Have Never Declined a Noun
If no one can recall changing English nouns, depending upon their case, that is because English nouns are not declined any more, with two exceptions. The first is the addition of an 's' to most nouns, or the presence of some other change, to indicate that a noun has now become plural. Thus 'dog' becomes 'dogs'. The second is the genitive case. All the other different endings, which indicated the cases of the English nouns, have gradually fallen out of use. The only ones left in modern English, so far as nouns go, are the plural forms, and the apostrophe, with or without an 's', used to indicate that a noun takes the genitive case. The rules for the genitive case are actually very straightforward, and easy to remember. Many people find their major problem lies with the apostrophe itself, not with the case of the noun. The apostrophe serves two discrete functions in English, and it is important to remember which is which.
One function of the apostrophe is to indicate an abbreviation of some kind. If some letters and/or sounds have been removed from the beginning or middle of a word, an apostrophe is inserted to indicate that something is missing.
O'clock is an abbreviated form of 'of the clock'. It is still correct, though most people cannot be bothered, to spell the abbreviation for refrigerator as 'fridge. Likewise telephone becomes 'phone, and aeroplane becomes 'plane. Virtually no one would begin to understand the function of the apostrophe in front of those words. These spellings are correct, but rather archaic.
Don't, can't, won't, shouldn't, etc, are respectively 'do not', 'can not', 'will not'2, and 'should not'. These words are called contractions, which is just a fancy way of saying they were runtogether and have become one word. The apostrophe replaces letter/s and sound/s that are omitted. There are other contractions of note, which for reasons involving logical progression of information, will be discussed a bit later on.
The Genitive Case
The apostrophe+letter 's' indicates that an English noun is in the genitive case. This does not lead to confusion with most nouns; but since the rules are quite simple, there is no harm going over them once, for good measure, here.
If a word ends in any letter other than 's' and any sound other than a 'hiss'3, apostrophe+'s' is the correct ending to show the genitive case. This is true regardless of whether the word is singular, like 'person', or plural, like 'people'.
In the USA, if a word ends in the letter 's', or if the final sound in the word is a 'hiss' (a sibilant), a mere apostrophe on the end, with no 's', is the correct ending in the genitive case. This is true whether the word is singular, like 'prince', or plural, like 'purists'. In Standard US Usage, webmistress' is correct for the genitive case singular.
In the UK, the rule is slightly more complicated. If a word ends in the letter 's', or if the final sound in the word is a 'hiss', and is singular, the genitive case is indicated by the addition of an apostrophe+'s'. The tail belongs to the fox, so it is the fox's. The haunted mansion belonged to the late Marquess; it was the Marquess's. If one falls off a horse, the fall is not usually the horse's fault.
In both Britain and the USA, the genitive case plural is the same. If a word ends in the letter 's', or if the final sound in the word is a 'hiss', an apostrophe with no 's' is added to indicate the noun case. The trophy belongs to the heroes, so it is the heroes' trophy. The Centre for the Fine Arts is dedicated to the Arts, so it is the Fine Arts' Centre. The lounge used by the schoolmistresses is the schoolmistresses' lounge.
If the word is the same when pluralised, like 'bison', or 'bass', follow the appropriate rule above. 'Bison' is completely uncomplicated: one bison's temper, and a dozen bison's tempers. 'Bass' in British English takes an apostrophe+'s' in the genitive singular: that deep sea bass's scales are pretty. It takes apostrophe with no 's' in the genitive plural, and in both singular and plural in the USA: deep sea bass' scales are pretty.
Proper names can follow the rules as outlined above. James's email, the Andersons' children, LeKZ's pedantry are all correct. While this may be true, it is also not wrong to simply follow the old rule, which indicated the genitive case for proper names that end in 's' or 'hiss' sounds with an apostrophe and no 's'. The only correct spelling for the genitive case of 'Jesus' in English is Jesus'. So long as it is possible to stick to one rule for proper names, rather than memorise exceptions, it makes sense to do so. The names of United States Corporations universally take an apostrophe+'s', now. Microsoft's, Xerox's, General Motors's, and Coca-Cola's are the correct spellings for US Corporate entities in the genitive case.
Corporate entities fall into a category of nouns about which there is some disagreement over the rules. These nouns are 'collective', in that they are both singular and plural, depending upon context and meaning. Governments, political parties, families, and branches of the military are all collective nouns. Whether the noun uses a singular or the plural verb depends upon whether the subject under discussion is true of the entire Navy, or of members of the Navy. There are also some regional, stylistic, and antiquated usages in circulation. In writing, it is best to avoid constructions like 'Congress's Acts', by rearranging the words to read 'Acts of Congress'. There was an old rule about collective nouns always taking plural verbs, and therefore being declined in the plural. In the modern world, an item impounded by the police, who takes a singular verb, is the police's. Some writers may have been taught that police are plural, and they would say an item impounded by the police was now the police'. This usage is antiquated, and one does not see it often. If, however, that is how one was taught to write, and one has a stubborn streak, one is advised to do so consistently, and not switch from plural to singular on the basis of context.
The Source of the Problem
The only element of English speech that is still consistently inflected is the pronoun. Pronouns are used to indicate persons or things, without repeating their names. Or they are there to ask what a thing is, if one does not know the name. Pronouns are everywhere, and while they are extremely useful, the fact that they are still inflected is virtually never mentioned in schools. Because of this educational omission, pronouns probably cause more confusion than any other class of word in the English language.
Here are English pronouns, declined in as clear a manner as they allow. Not all cases are different from one another, and not all pronouns are declined the same way as each other.
|1st Person Singular||2nd Person Singular||3rd Person Singular||1st Person Plural||2nd Person Plural||3rd Person Plural||3rd Person Nonspecified|
|Nominative:||I||(thou)||she||he||it||we||you (or ye)||they||who|
|Genitive Predicate Adjective:||mine||(thine)||hers||his||its||ours||yours||theirs||whose|
In case there is any confusion about the genitive predicate adjective, the pronoun sits at the end of the sentence and describes the subject of the verb from there.
That idea was mine!
These socks aren't hers, are they?
This alien claims that spaceship is its.
The subject of the sentence does not even have to appear in the sentence, and can be replaced by a relative pronoun: 'Those are definitely not yours.'
Aforementioned Contractions of Note
The contractions which tend to get muddled up with pronoun declensions are, naturally, pronoun contractions. One can conjugate the verb 'to be' in the form of contractions, for illustrative purposes:
|First Person||Second Person||Third Person||Third Person Nonspec.|
The verb 'to have' can also create some confusion, in the form of contractions:
|First Person||Second Person||Third Person||Third Person Nonspec.|
It and Its and It's
It is 'it' in particular, whose genitive case is declined (thereby making 'it', and the genitive predicate adjectives the only possessives in the English language that do not take an apostrophe), which seems to cause the most trouble for the most people. Since the contraction 'it's' can mean 'it is', or 'it has', and the genitive (possessive) fails to take an apostrophe, the confusion of where to use which spelling is very understandable.
The rule is this: the word 'it' never takes an apostrophe unless it is part of a contraction. There are people who have some difficulty distinguishing between 'your' and 'you're'. There are some who routinely mistake 'their', 'they're', and the unrelated 'there'. They do their best, and if understanding why they confuse some words can help them not to do so, then that is the whole point of the exercise.
If one knows that the apostrophe in 'you're' and 'they're' represents the contraction of a pronoun with the word 'are', it is easier to avoid mistakenly writing 'your' or 'their' (the genitive case of the same pronouns). If one understands the genitive case, one will never again want to put an apostrophe in the possessives 'its', 'yours', 'hers', 'ours', or 'theirs'.
In the USA, where one sees such interesting spellings as 'Ladie's Room' and 'Athen's, Greece', an explanation of the declension of English pronouns is probably inadequate to the task of addressing misused apostrophes. However, for people who have some grasp of grammar, but whose teachers never took the time to explain anything beyond 'Its' is the exception to the rule, understanding that 'its' is genitive may solve everything.
More Cases Where Cases Matter
Once a person knows that pronouns are declined, it becomes much easier to understand when to use 'the dog and I...', as opposed to 'the dog and me...'. One often hears people say: 'Rick was talking to Laurie and I, and he said...'. One frequently wishes people would not say things like that.
This construction is simply wrong. Standard written English does not allow it. The easiest way to know whether to use 'I' or 'me' ('we' or 'us', 'they' or 'them'), is to mentally omit the 'dog' and any other irrelevant information from the sentence, and determine the subject, verb, and in/direct object/s. Negations, tenses, and interrogatives can also be suspended, while thus breaking down a sentence, in order to determine what case the pronoun takes. This activity is called 'parsing' sentences in Britain, and 'diagramming' sentences in the USA.
No one would ever say, 'Rick was talking to I, and he said...'4. If the presence of 'Laurie and' is a source of confusion, it can simply be blocked out to find out whether 'I' or 'me' is appropriate.
Your dog and she will never get along! [She gets (along).]
Dogs and dog-owners often look alike, don't they? [They look alike.]
May the dog and I go out to play? [I may go.]
Both the dog's and my cold have got worse. [My cold gets worse.]
My kid's sense of smell is better than your dog's. [His/her sense is better.]
No one's love is as faithful as a dog's. [(No) one's love is faithful]
Are you bringing our toys back to my dog and me? [You bring to me.]
Everyone seems suspicious to her and that wretched dog of hers! [Everyone seems to her.]
Explain your presence here, please, to us and our nice dogs. [(You) explain to us.]
So they brought him and the dog back from the railway station. [They bring him.]
You are not bathing either the dog or me! [You bathe me.]
Children know that adults treat dogs and us about equally. [Adults treat us.]
Un-twisting Twisted Sentences
Once one falls into the habit of taking out the 'dogs', breaking up sentences into pieces, and removing extraneous bits of information from sentences, it becomes quite simple to discern the necessary pronoun case. Sometimes, this is necessary because a writer chooses to affix the pronoun at an unreasonable distance from its referent noun.
Dreadful Sentence One
The fanatics, with their knives and firearms, and some collaborators, are all hiding in this building, which means the building must have a secret passage and the only people who know how to reach it are they.
This is the sort of nightmarish sentence which some teachers of English enjoy making some students of English parse. Those people who have never parsed sentences may consider themselves both fortunate, and deprived. Parsing sentences is a useful tool for learning how to write standard written English. Learning to do it, like learning many other useful things, is not particularly agreeable.
To make sense of the run-on sentence above, remove the weapons, collaborators, etc. Determine the subject of the sentence. In this case, it is 'the fanatics'. Determine what they are doing, with what, and to whom. In this case, they are hiding in the building. Then there is another clause, of which the subject is not 'the building', though the syntax is convoluted in such a way as to suggest it is. The subject of the second clause is also 'the fanatics'. 'They', a pronoun in the nominative case, at the end of the sentence, refers to the fanatics, who know where the secret passage is. This is not what one might call a 'good' sentence. It is, however, actually grammatically correct, but only just. The correspondence between 'they' and 'the fanatics' is the only thing which mitigates this sentence at all. In common, spoken usage, most people would say '...only people who know how to reach it are them'. That is simply wrong. At that point, the Run-On Sentence turns into nonsense.
Dreadful Sentence Two
Will anyone who knows the names of the students who took over the Library and Chapel to stage this sit-in please report them at once to campus police?
'Who' is in the nominative case, and yet is not the subject of the sentence. Dreadful Sentence Two works out to 'Anyone report names to police'. The initial use of the pronoun 'anyone' represents an unknown 'person', who is the subject of that sentence. The first appearance of the word 'who' in this sentence begins a descriptive phrase about the singular subject; the verb-form 'knows' confirms this. The second use of the word 'who' begins an unrelated descriptive phrase about the students; the plural verb-form 'took' confirms this. What is really wrong here is that two distinct thoughts have been mixed together to make one sentence. That is the sneaky sort of thing English pronouns allow. The only way to make this sentence clear is to separate the two tangled thoughts into two separate sentences. 'Students have taken over the library and the chapel to stage a sit-in. Will anyone who knows the names of these students please report them to campus police?'
Dreadful Sentence Three
As one, all of the women, teary-eyed from the sentimental speeches, reached into their handbags for their cheque books to make donations; all were anxious that no one should appear more generous than she.
This is one of those inexcusable sentences that English excuses by saying a word or two is 'understood'. This sentence breaks down into two separate sentences, divided by the semicolon, which should really be a full stop. 'Women reached... to make donations', is Part 1. 'No one (else) should appear more generous than she (did),' is Part 2.
Pronouns, Referents and Verbs
Wherever a noun appears, and a pronoun refers to that noun later, that pronoun must take the same case, plural or singular status, and verb-form as the noun. This rule is true of all inflected languages. The noun to which the pronoun refers is conveniently called the 'pronoun referent'. If the noun is plural, so is the pronoun, and so is the verb. If the pronoun-referent noun takes the accusative case, so does the pronoun.
As the previous Dreadful Sentence illustrates, it is entirely too easy to confuse pronouns which have pronoun-referent nouns with pronouns which serve other functions in the same sentence. The chances of a given pronoun having a specific referent are determined by whether it matches the noun in case, and whether it takes the same verb-form. In Dreadful Sentence Two, both occurrences of the word 'who' are nominative singular. It is clear from the verb-form 'took', however, that the second instance of the word 'who...' serves to begin a descriptive phrase about the students. These complex sentences can be a nuisance. By following the consistent pattern (which pronoun matches which pronoun-referent in case and number, and which verb/s follow) one can at least eliminate the fluff and feathers from sentences.
The postman, whom everyone trusts, said he would be late on Tuesday: [postman said (quote)]. 'He' and 'postman' take the nominative case singular. 'Whom' is accusative; it does not match. In this case, 'whom' is the beginning of a descriptive phrase.
None of the ladies, who were elderly, was acquainted with the rock star: [None was acquainted]. 'None' is singular, as is the verb 'was'. 'Were' is plural; it does not match. 'Who' is the start of a modifying phrase, again.
An elephant stares at a boy because he is too scared to climb the tree: This is a bad sentence. 'He' is ambiguous. It is unclear who is too scared to climb the tree. Making clear pronoun-references is essential to writing understandably.
'I'll get you for this, Sandy', said Carlotta, and she walked away twirling her long, blonde hair: This too is ambiguous, though it is unlikely that Carlotta walked away twirling Sandy's hair. The pronoun 'her' does not actually provide the necessary information for one to be sure that is not the case. Writing clearly demands that one not count on the reader's judgement as to what is and is not probably meant.
'It's a long story', it has always been said, when they've come and asked us about it all: [(we) said (item)(to them)]. There may not be any discernable referent for any pronoun in this sentence, but by eliminating the unnecessary and extraneous elements, this sentence can be parsed to subject, verb, and object/s. The unnecessary elements are: the contents of what is said; how it is said; when it is said; and about what. All of those are descriptive elements. This sort of sentence needs a context. Grammatically, it does what it needs to do.
Parsing takes practise. Given the way some writers choose to express themselves, if one is to read them, one must know how to parse. People who write with the intention of making themselves understood simply must parse (preferably unconsciously) as they write.
'None', 'no one', and 'nobody' always and only take singular pronouns. If, as in Dreadful Sentence Three, Part 2, 'no one' is the subject of the sentence, then the pronoun used to refer to the Subject is necessarily singular. Since it is specified that all the persons present in Dreadful Sentence Three are female, and the pronoun referent 'no one' takes the nominative case, that pronoun ends up being 'she'. There will be no digression on the subject of non-sexist writing in this Entry.
It is extremely helpful to develop the habit of mentally stripping the fluff and feathers out of sentences that are too long, or tortuously written. This is equally true for native and non-native readers and writers of English. When writing, it is strongly recommended that one does not use English as demonstrated in Examples 1, 2, and 3 above. If one should get stuck, however, on the question of whether to use 'who' or 'whom', sorting out what case the word takes in the sentence is the solution. For that purpose, all one needs to know is how English pronoun declensions work.
In conclusion, the decline in written English usage is caused, in part, by the fact that pronouns in English are inflected. Pronouns are used all the time, in virtually every sentence. The incidence of their declensions being taught in schools has been steadily declining. English has lost nearly all, but not absolutely all, of its Germanic features. The few that remain tend to be taught as 'exceptions', rather than 'examples' of grammatical rules. The presence in English of punctuation marks which serve more than one function, which functions are also usually not taught particularly clearly, creates further confusion. If, however, one can decline one's pronouns, one's apostrophes are virtually guaranteed never to be misplaced. Furthermore, with a sufficient grasp of how to decline English pronouns, one can understand convoluted syntax, while avoiding using same in writing.