The Editorial Apartment

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Reminder: Language changes

The other day, I got in the “10 Items or Fewer” line at my local Trader Joe’s market. The sign said “fewer” and not the more often seen “less.” That’s not a problem, but they didn’t have to change it, according to noted linguist and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker. (See the article cited in a previous post about rules of English you can break.) This British comedian agrees:


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Don’t panic with subject-complement agreement


Look at these two sentences:

Companies use many methods to expand their business.
Companies use many methods to expand their businesses.

Which sentence is correct? The issue here is about subject-complement agreement. According to Grammar Girl, you can relax. Either option is probably fine because your meaning is usually obvious. It’s likely you mean that any one company has many ways to expand its own business. It’s unlikely that you’re commenting on the many businesses that any one company may run.

Ask students to open their textbook and start reading.
Ask students to open their textbooks and start reading.

Either one of these is OK too. It’s likely you’re implying that every student has one textbook, and it’s the same textbook. It’s unlikely you’re talking about the many textbooks any student may have or that there’s only one textbook and the students are sharing it.

However, if your sentence still seems unclear or crazy sounding, as Grammar Girl puts it, reword your sentence or give other details about how many items you’re talking about. See Grammar Girl’s explanation of subject-complement agreement here.

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Rules of English you can break—or are already breaking


You’ll need some time to read about of few of these rules in this article by Steven Pinker, a linguist who has written several books about language. (His first such book, “The Language Instinct,” is also a long—but humorous—read.)

Many of these so-called grammar rules,* says Pinker, “originated for screwball reasons.” Here’s a few of the issues he comments on:

  • Dangling modifiers – Watch out for them, though not all of them have to be fixed.
  • Like, as, such as – It’s about how formal you want to be.
  • Split infinitives – It’s OK to split them, and sometimes it’s better for adverb placement.
  • Who and whom – “Whom” is declining in use, but it’s a natural choice in some instances, and again, how formal do you want to be?
  • Very unique – This one is best to avoid, but with other constructions, says Pinker, “great writers have been modifying absolute adjectives for centuries.”

*These “grammar rules” have also been called zombie rules, but Pinker doesn’t use the term.