English Grammar

As one of the few native speakers of English at work, I frequently get pressed into editing duties, but it is only fair, since my co-workers have to put up with so many Arabic questions. So I took this challenge in Emirates Today seriously:

Can you catch what is wrong with these sentences?

“Five items or less” “I could of danced all night” “I’m going to be late for the train, aren’t I?” “He was only the pope for a short time before he was shot.” No? I couldn’t either, right away.

OK, I'm not a grammar expert, but without looking these up, I think that the errors are:
1. "Less" should not be used with discrete items - use "fewer" instead. For example, "I have less time than I need to finish building this wall." vs. "I have fewer bricks than I need to finish building this wall."
2. Should be "I could have danced all night".
3. Properly "I'm going to be late for the train, am I not?"
4. "He was the pope for only a short time before he was shot." When using only, put it with the thing that you wish to modify. As written, the author sounds very hard to impress: "he was only the pope - it wasn't like he had an important position".

Out of these four, I really only think that the last one is an error, in the sense of not conveying the message that the writer was trying to. (And yes, I just ended a sentence with a preposition.) The third one especially seems dumb to call a mistake. The formal version may have the benefit of being consistent with the rules, but it sounds awkward and stuffy. I think that the proper response to "I'm going to be late for the train, am I not?" would be "Why, yes, I believe you will be, Lord Pantload".

So many of the rules of formal English are pretty pointless and difficult. Take the prohibition on splitting infinitives (e.g "to boldly go" is, strictly speaking, wrong; it should be "to go boldly"). My understanding is that this rule is in existence because it is impossible to split infinitives in Latin (because infinitives in Latin are one world: e.g. "amare" - to love), English grammarians ruled that the same should be true in English. But that is silly. English isn't Latin. And the rule adds no precision to the meaning of what is said. The same could be said of the "never end a sentence in a preposition" rule. If your meaning is clear and unambiguous, then I say you know where this type of silly rule can go to.


secretdubai said...

I reckon (2) is really wrong, in fact it's the only one that bothers me. "aren't I" is now a very well established usage, and only pedants quibble over "less" and "fewer". The pope one too, I don't have an issue with that.

But "I could of" may sound fine spoken - "I could've" sounds almost identical - it looks appalling written.

Anonymous said...

Yes, everybody ought to be careful with the usage of 'fewer' vs. 'less'.

Some improper usage is more or less accepted by everday English. For example, I often see the sign of '15 items or less' in the supermarkets, small or big, such as Walmart.

I also often hear the usage of 'less' with the amount ( actually the number of hours, days, weeks, so on.

For example, most people say, "It takes less than two hours." I am not sure if this usage is not acceptible. I would not dare to correct it if someone uses it.

Anonymous said...

Out of these four, I really only think that the last one is an error, in the sense of not conveying the message that the writer was trying to. (And yes, I just ended a sentence with a preposition.)

I am not sure if you are referring to 'to' as in 'trying to'. If so, the 'to' is not a preposition. It is used to indicate what follows is a to-infinitive as in 'trying to do something'

Brn said...

anonymous #2, I think that you are right.I was hoping that no one would catch that. I was deliberately trying to end a sentence with a preposition.

anonymous #1, the less vs fewer rule seems a little pointless to me. I really can't see in point in the distinction, but at least there is one. Some of the other rules, like take vs bring, which I still don't understand, seem that way too.

The reason that I think that #4 is problematic is that if you wanted to convey that you are emphasizing the position and not the time that had passed, then that is how you would do it.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed the column but I sort of get the feeling she's having us on. Especially the last bit. Rather a jibe at the UAE's not so subtle culture of discrimination. Zarina is cheeky, I'll give her that.

Anonymous said...

I wasn't 'having you on' so much as 'taking the piss.'But good eye, anonymous. Glad to see I'm read. And thought cheeky. :)


Gerald England said...

only #3 really bothers me -- the misplaced only changes the intended meaning.
#1 surely is just question of shortening -- five or less [than five] would be OK -- in the context the sense if OK
#2 is just a mis-hearing and obvious that it can be ignored
#4 again is just a shortening - No, I can't, not right now -- the not clearly modifing the no rather negating it.