75 – Grammar shot: The possessive myth

This post has been inspired by my friend who questioned the apostrophe in sunglasses’ fans. And who could blame him? Britain’s schools teach their pupils that such apostrophes indicate possession, so he, not at all unreasonably, asked whether the fans actually belonged to the sunglasses, which, of course, they didn’t. This, however, does not make this apostrophe incorrect. And this is why.

English nouns have two cases: the common case (boy/boys) and the genitive case (of the boy = boy’s and of the boys = boys’). The common case is the base form – the one we see in a dictionary: apple(s), compassion, grammar, house(s), London, Manhattan, police, Tuesday(s), war(s). The genitive case is more nuanced because it conveys a range of meanings.

Admittedly, one of the functions of the genitive case is to indicate possession – but it’s far from the only one. But, because of the indoctrination – albeit unwitting – by British schools, some people use the terms genitive and possessive interchangeably; others seem unaware of the former altogether. However, equating the genitive case with possession is an oversimplification because, as I’ve mentioned, the genitive conveys also other meanings. Those meanings are listed below.

  • Possessive genitive: John’s book (the book belongs to John)

  • Subjective genitive: John’s application (John made an application = the application was made by John)

  • Objective genitive: John’s release (John was released = they released John)

  • Genitive of origin: John’s story (John told a story)

  • Descriptive genitive: a boys’ school (a school for boys)

  • Genitive of measure: ten days’ leave (the leave lasted ten days)

  • Genitive of attribute: John’s courage (John is/was courageous)

  • Partitive genitive: the house’s roof (the roof is a part of a/the house)

As for the noun classes with which the genitive frequently appears, they are as follows:

  • Personal names: the Robinsons’ family house, Obama’s reforms
  • Personal nouns: the twins’ older brother, my mother’s cooking
  • Animal nouns: the cat’s tail, this dog’s collar
  • Collective nouns: the nation’s resources, the committee’s decision

The genitive is further used with certain kinds of inanimate nouns:

  • Geographical names: Africa’s future, China’s growth, California’s climate, London’s inhabitants, Harvard’s alumni
  • Locative nouns (for regions, institutions, heavenly bodies, etc.; some can be similar to geographical names): the world’s population, the hotel’s entrance, the club’s pianist, the church’s mission, the school’s history
  • Temporal nouns: a day’s work, yesterday’s news, this year’s sales
  • Other nouns relevant to human activity: mind’s eye, my life’s goal, love’s young dream, the novel’s structure, the play’s philosophy, science’s influence, the treaty’s ratification

So that’s the genitive case in a nutshell. Needless to say, this exposition is going straight into my book on grammar, which, I hope, will dispel many myths surrounding the subject.

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74 – Midi-rant: Accented moustache and suspect soundness

What on earth was I doing reading about a chap who got off on owning Rolls-Royces? A non-driver, I’m completely impervious to the delights of any automobile, so this must have been one of those temporary aberrations to which I fall prey on occasion. Anyway, here I am, deeply buried in The Sunday Times and feeling mildly bemused by this journalist waxing lyrical about how a Rolls-Royce “carries a greater weight of association, assumption and prejudice”, when I get walloped with this revelation.

“I got it from a nice man called Alan, who owns a moustache with a strong Midlands accent.”

While I would agree that having an accented moustache is no more than any man selling second-hand Rolls-Royces deserves, I have a sneaky suspicion that this was not what the hack, hailed as the paper’s most brilliant writer, meant – unless it was a tortuous attempt at hilarity (which I doubt). So what is an inveterate editor to do? How about this?

I got it from a nice man called Alan, who owns a moustache and has [OR speaks with] a strong Midlands accent.

Or might a shorter version be better?

I got it from a nice man called Alan, with a moustache and strong Midlands accent.

In either case, the solution lies in deploying coordination, that is linking units of text by means of a coordinating conjunction (i.e. and, or or but).

Having overdosed on the unparalleled virtues of Rolls-Royces and the author’s verbal dexterity, I turned my attention to BBC Radio 4. To those reading this outside Britain, BBC Radio 4 is a beacon of broadcasting excellence, so I was slightly taken aback by this statement.

“She begins to suspect the soundness of her own mind.”

Had she been of unsound mind before, I wondered. But the context categorically precluded that interpretation, although it was the only one allowed by this sentence. It didn’t take me long, though, to work out what the broadcaster was attempting to say, which was this.

She begins to doubt the soundness of her own mind.

Careless word choice is at the root of many a misunderstanding, my file literally bursting with similar examples. But, since I’m trying not to be over-indulgent with this rant, I’m saving these quotes for later; I hope you will bear with me.

 

 

73 – Grammar shot: ‘Greengrocer’s apostrophe’

I keep meaning to entertain you with another frolic, but the serious stuff keeps getting in the way. I’m currently having a whale of a time writing a grammar book – albeit one which pays particular attention to usage. The book will be aimed at a non-specialist audience, and I’m trying my damnedest to make it as accessible as possible. I have just written a short usage tip on an error referred to as the ‘greengrocer’s apostrophe’. Even if you are not familiar with the label, you are likely to have come across the error itself. What is interesting is that, although the blunder is attributed to poor greengrocers, even educated folk stumble. I have thus illustrated this section with authentic examples taken from rather unexpected sources, and it is learning who the perpetrators are that will probably be of the greatest interest to readers. Then again, I might be wrong – what do you think? Here comes my piece.

 

Since the plural forms of nouns do not incorporate the apostrophe, those who use it with regular (i.e. s) plurals make a relatively common error referred to as the ‘greengrocer’s apostrophe’. The name of this mistake reflects the frequency with which such wrongly spelt plurals advertise produce – especially fruit and vegetables – sold in shops. Examples include: *apple’s for apples, *pear’s for pears, *carrot’s for carrots, *orange’s for oranges, etc.

REMEMBER

We do not use the apostrophe with the plural forms of nouns in the common case.

The six examples below illustrate the ‘greengrocer’s apostrophe’ erroneously used by educated adults, the final one being particularly striking.

“Czech schools offer secondary education in a range of vocational *specialisation’s [SPECIALISATIONS].” (British government department)

“The body has responsibilities ranging from the *under-five’s [UNDER-FIVES] to higher level vocational qualifications.” (British government department)

“Almost half of all *traveller’s [TRAVELLERS] suffer diarrhoea.” (The Sunday Times)

“She is one of the class *teacher’s [TEACHERS] under the microscope.” (The Independent)

“Our *youngster’s [YOUNGSTERS] will benefit greatly.” (An election campaign leaflet by a British Member of Parliament)

“All national governing *body’s [BODIES] encourage safety.” (An examination syllabus produced by a major British examination board)

PS

I have just added my little greengrocer’s apostrophe verse, which can be found also under my English-related ditties.

 Yesterday, I saw an ad

Which was really, really bad;

I stood gawping in a trance:

“Car valeting – cars and van’s”!

72 – Grammar shot: More asymmetry with correlatives (‘not/but’)

Seeing as yesterday was supposed to be a National Grammar Day (at least in America), here comes a grammar shot with a twist. What’s the twist? That hardly anybody notices that anything is amiss in sentences such as the one below, taken from a recent issue of The Economist.

“Russia has taken to arguing that it is not fighting Ukraine, but America in Ukraine.”

 Don’t worry if you can’t identify the fault; you are in good company. If you can, this post is clearly not for you. Those who wish to persevere, please note that ‘not/but’ do the job of correlative conjunctions (I wrote about the correlative conjunctions ‘either/or’ in Grammar shot no 66 on 3rd January 2015) and are thus supposed to be followed by units which do an EQUIVALENT job or have an EQUIVALENT status. This can best be seen if we bracket off what follows immediately after ‘not’ and ‘and’.

not [fighting]

but [America]

Is ‘fighting’ in any way equivalent to ‘America’? No, of course not – hence the asymmetry in the title of this post. In sentences such as this, the answer lies in moving ‘not’ and placing it where it would match ‘but’ in terms of what follows.

Russia has taken to arguing that it is fighting NOT Ukraine BUT America in Ukraine.

The bracketing below highlights the restored symmetry.

not [Ukraine]

but [America]

Asymmetry with correlative conjunctions is extremely common – though not always as easily remediable as that in this example. But, not wanting to muddy the waters, I will leave sentences requiring a more invasive intervention for later. Below are given three more examples (from quality British newspapers) where a simple relocation of ‘not’ provides the answer, the bracketing making the point clear – I hope.

INCORRECT

“It’s not a question of if, but when.” (The Sunday Times)

BECAUSE

not [a question]

but [when]

CORRECT

It’s a question of NOT if BUT when.

BECAUSE

not [if]

but [when]

 

INCORRECT

“In one school, I was not given a proper contract but a series of one-year contracts.” (The Times Educational Supplement)

BECAUSE

not [given]

but [a series]

CORRECT

In one school, I was given NOT a proper contract BUT a series of one-year contracts.

BECAUSE

not [a proper contract]

but [a series of one-year contracts]

 

INCORRECT

“They are not being lazy but in tune with their natural body rhythms.” (The Times Educational Supplement)

BECAUSE

not [being lazy]

but [in tune]

CORRECT

They are being NOT lazy BUT in tune with their natural body rhythms.

BECAUSE

not [lazy]

but [in tune]

71 – Frolic: Government in a grammatical trap

“What does HM stand for?”

“Her Majesty. Why?”

“I’ve been looking online …”

“Uhm?”

“It says HM Revenue and Customs.”

“Oh yes, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. It’s the people who collect British taxes.”

“Aren’t they kind?”

“Kind? Well, I’m sure they can be. I mean, it’s a government department after all.”

“A-a-a-a, but our tax officials wouldn’t do this.”

“Do what?”

“Make applications for people. It says here that, from April, people will be able to apply for the new Marriage Allowance.”

“Oh yes, I’ve heard about it.”

“But it looks as if your HM Revenue and Customs are trying to save them the bother.”

“What bother?”

“Of applying.”

“Look, you are not making any sense.”

“It’s not me; that’s what they wrote – your government people.”

“We’ll give you more detailed information before making your application.”

“Oh this – ha, ha, ha!”

“What’s so funny?”

“The grammar.”

“What do you mean?”

“They obviously don’t realise that this making has no choice but to relate to the subject of this sentence, which is the pronoun ‘we’.”

“They don’t? Well, at least they are trying to be helpful …”

“No, no, no, you don’t get it, do you? What they should have written is this.”

We’ll give you more detailed information before you make your application.

“A-a-a-a, so your officials won’t actually be applying on people’s behalf?”

“Of course not – how could they? They don’t have the information, do they? The point is that participles, such as this making, are less explicit than complete – or finite – verb forms, which is why they are much easier to misrelate.”

“Are you saying that your government misrelates its participles?”

“It evidently does.”

“Blow me down.”

“But they are not the only ones.”

“They are not?”

“Nope. I’ve told you that participles are a minefield, haven’t I?”

“You did mention something, yes.”

“And this type of mistake is quite common.”

“It is?”

“Yep. I remember this example from The Sunday Times.”

 

“The suspect entered the apartment via an unlocked balcony and confronted three female tenants while sleeping.”

“Well, he did have a lucky escape: it’s easy to slip when you are sleepwalking.”

“Oh, for goodness’ sake: he was NOT sleepwalking! What they meant was this.”

The suspect entered the apartment via an unlocked balcony and confronted three female tenants while they were sleeping.

“I s-e-e-e-e.”

“And how about this one? It’s also from The Sunday Times.”

“‘Lifestyle enhancements’ are crucial if markets slide when approaching retirement.”

“Hmmm, markets don’t retire, do they?”

“Of course not; what you want is this.”

‘Lifestyle enhancements’ are crucial if markets slide when you are approaching retirement.

“So this Sunday Times is as bad as your government?”

“Well, it’s not just The Sunday Times; I’ve collected lots of examples from different sources. These two are from The Times Educational Supplement.”

 

INCORRECT

“Youthful misdemeanours can come back to haunt you while job hunting.”

CORRECT

Youthful misdemeanours can come back to haunt you while you

are job hunting.

INCORRECT

“Social exclusion is inevitable when faced with restrictions of mobility.”

CORRECT

Social exclusion is inevitable when one is faced with restrictions of mobility.

“Blow me down!”

70 – Grammar shot: Hypercorrection

Enjoying an otherwise well-written article in last Saturday’s Daily Telegraph, I was jolted by this sentence.

 “Marriage will bond Susanna and I closer together.”

 True, it’s a classic example of what, in linguistics, is referred to as hypercorrection – and I’m quite used to both seeing and hearing similar lapses – yet it never ceases to puzzle me why sub-editors employed by prestigious newspapers should stumble over basic grammar. But first, what is hypercorrection? While The Oxford English Dictionary defines the adjective hypercorrect as “falsely modelled on an apparently analogous prestige form”, the writer Kingsley Amis was more direct, branding hypercorrection “an indulged desire to be posher than posh”. In other words, the perpetrators imagine that such hypercorrect usage is formal and seem to want to appear sophisticated, but their desire is inevitably thwarted by their failure to have grasped the principle in question. Put it another way, hypercorrection can be seen as pseudo-refined usage.

Such usage is not limited to English, nor is it confined solely to grammar, but I will concentrate here on a classic misinterpretation of English syntax involving an incorrect case of the personal pronoun I. In the Daily Telegraph example, this pronoun is in the subjective case, but it’s not the subject, the subject of this sentence being ‘marriage”. What is needed here is the objective (or accusative) case me – simply because the phrase “Susanna and me” functions as the object.

Marriage will bond Susanna and me closer together.

After all, what native speaker would write (or say): “Marriage will bond I and Susanna closer together”? Or “between I and you?” Yet reverse the order of the pronouns, and we often get the hypercorrect “between you and I”. If, however, we changed the voice of the Daily Telegraph sentence from active to passive, the phrase “Susanna and I” would become the subject, which is why the subjective case of the pronoun I would be perfectly legitimate there.

Susanna and I will be bonded closer together by marriage.

 Let me offer you a brief grammatical summary. Like nouns, most pronouns in English have only two cases: common (somebody) and genitive (somebody’s). However, six pronouns have three cases: subjective (I), objective/ accusative (me) and genitive (my).

Subjective

I

we

he

she

they

who

Objective/ accusative

me

us

him

her

them

whom

Genitive

my

our

his

her

their

whose

A few further examples of hypercorrection with the personal pronoun I follow; I have many more on my file.

 “There are 10 years between Ruth and I [me] …” (The Sunday Times)

“Two of the children live with my wife and I [me].” (The Independent)

“To you or I [me], it sounds like the ultimate indulgence.” (The Daily Telegraph)

“My children were dealt with at home by Norma and I [me].” (A former British Prime Minister quoted in The Guardian)

Hypercorrection with I is so common that I’ve penned this short rhyme to alert readers to this trap.

 You must never even try

Saying, “Come with Greg and I”,

For it’s always – you will see –

Always, “Come with Greg and me”.

 

69 – Frolic: Babies and participles

“Blimey, your health service …”

“Yes?”

“It’s incredible.”

“Do you think so?”

“Well, maybe not all of it, but your midwifery – the mind boggles.”

“It does?”

“Absolutely. I mean delivering babies isn’t usually a walk in the park – not in Poland anyway.”

“I’d say not anywhere.”

“A-a-a-a, but that’s just it.”

“That’s just what?”

“It is, apparently.”

“It is what?”

“A walk in the park.”

“Look, you are not making any sense here – what is a walk in the park?”

“How you deliver babies. In Britain.”

“Get away!”

“No, no, it is. Or, at least, it can be.”

“Says who?”

“The Times Educational Supplement. I’ve found this article – in your archives. Listen to this.”

 “When delivered in a fresh, artistic way, children will seize on writing as they do art and drawing.”

 “Oh this, ha, ha, ha!”

“What’s so funny? I mean what a feat: they manage to deliver kids in a fresh way. And artistic! I defy you to beat that.”

“No, no, they don’t deliver children!”

“What do you mean they don’t deliver children? Are you saying that The Times Educational Supplement would have wilfully misinformed its readers?”

“No, no, of course not; it’s just that they didn’t know their grammar.”

“Are you saying you need to know grammar to deliver babies?”

“No, yes, I mean everybody needs grammar to communicate – grammar is the mortar that holds the bricks of vocabulary together – but this has nothing to do with babies; it’s a dangler.”

“A dangling baby?”

“NOT A BABY THERE IS NO BABY – IT’S A DANGLING PARTICIPLE!!!”

“A dangling what?”

“Participle. ‘Delivered’ is a dangling participle here.”

“Why is it dangling?”

“Because they made it refer to the wrong noun.”

“They did?”

“Absolutely. They obviously thought that you could relate an initial participle such as ‘delivered’ to the object – which, in this sentence, is writing – but you can’t.”

“You can’t?”

“Nope. Initial participles will always be interpreted as referring to the subject of the main clause – ALWAYS. And the subject here is children.”

“Sure, it’s an important subject.”

“No, no, I don’t mean a subject of discussion – I mean grammar. It’s a very common error.”

“It is?”

“Yep. But it’s very easy to put right. Whenever an initial participle is meant to refer to the object instead of the subject, you just change the voice of the main clause from active to passive – that’s all.”

“Is that really all?”

“Yep. Because, when you change the voice, the object becomes the subject.”

“And what happens to the subject?”

“It becomes the agent.”

“Secret?”

“Get away! Look, what they were trying to say was this.”

  “When delivered in a fresh, artistic way, writing will be seized on by children as eagerly as art and drawing.”

 “Blimey.”

68 – Grammar shot: Interpolated coordination

I feel it was a tad unfair to leave you, in my previous post, more or less high and dry after hitting you with the term ‘interpolated coordination’, with which some of you may be unfamiliar. In this post, I’m trying to atone for the lapse. The logical start would be a brief overview of coordination. Coordination is a way of combining words, phrases and clauses of equivalent status into more complex structures by means of coordinators. Coordinators include coordinating conjunctions and, or and but and punctuation. Coordination is an exceedingly common procedure, and it’s not at all necessary to be aware of the term to be able to perform the operation without mishaps, although it is by no means plain sailing. But that’s not what this article is about.

Examples of coordination:

 I like apples, plums and pears.

Sink or swim.

They were bloodied but unbowed.

I was late; consequently, I wasn’t allowed to sit the exam.

 So far, so uncomplicated. We, however, also use the so-called interpolated coordination, a very common device, but one which often seems to present some writers with difficulties – hence this post. Since to interpolate means to insert, interpose, incorporate, inset, interpolated coordinate constructions are constructions where one is ‘inserted’ inside another. This usage is illustrated in the examples below.

Examples of interpolated coordination:

She is, or at least was, a famous pianist.

He is known for his love for, and expertise in, grammar.

Some girls consider themselves not just equal to, but the same as, boys.

 In order for interpolated coordination to work, the inserted unit MUST be enclosed by two correlative commas (the most common), dashes or brackets. Why?  Because it is inserted – or interpolated. But the point is that it often lacks the required punctuation, this being illustrated through the two examples below.

 Both correlative commas (or dashes/ brackets) missing (very common):

 “It was perfectly possible to get an A grade in history without the slightest interest in or grasp of the subject.” (The Times Educational Supplement)

 Write: interest in, or grasp of, the subject.

 The second correlative comma (or dash/ bracket) missing (very common):

 “Extra money and facilities must be focused on, not away from the disadvantaged.” (The Times Educational Supplement)

 Write: focused on, not away from, the disadvantaged.

 Interestingly, I have found no examples with the first correlative comma (or dash/ bracket) missing, although such omission can be seen with other constructions. I am using the three examples below to exemplify the omission of relevant prepositions – another type of error – but there are punctuation mistakes in two of them as well.

 “The imperial bureaucracy must be accountable and the servant of the commonwealth.” (The Sunday Times)

 Write: must be accountable to, and the servant of, the commonwealth.

 “Nobody loves fancy dress as much (or is more ill-advised in its adoption) than members of the Royal family.” (The Daily Telegraph)

 Write: as much as (or is more ill-advised in its adoption than) members of the Royal family.

 Occasionally, the omission of a preposition is likely to result in unintentional hilarity.

 “Every school should offer classes for parents to teach them how to talk and play with their children.” (The Times Educational Supplement)

 Blimey, you would think that parents can talk already!

Write: to teach them how to talk to, and play with, their children.

So mind how you go with interpolated coordination!

67 – Maxi-rant: Moving sheds, the comma splice and interpolated coordination

“Wow, what a feat!”

“What feat?”

“Of engineering. I’ve read that Britain is famous for its engineering. They’ve had this … this famous Brunel, if I remember correctly.”

“Isambard Kingdom.”

“Yes, yes, that’s what I mean: in your kingdom.”

“No, no, it was his name: Isambard Kingdom Brunel.”

“His name? Wasn’t it rather unusual?”

“Very. But it was simply an amalgamation of his parents’ names.”

“I see. Anyway, what your Duke of Westminster has achieved here is surely worthy of this Isam … Isam … this Brunel.”

“And what is that?”

“Constructing moving sheds.”

“Moving sheds? You mean like … like on wheels?”

“Not sure; they weren’t all that specific.”

“Who wasn’t?”

“This week’s Sunday Times.”

“What exactly did they write?”

“This.”

 “The sheds are large and airy, they can move around.”

 “But this makes no sense; let’s have a look. Ha, ha, ha! They didn’t mean it like this!”

“But that’s what they …”

“I know that’s what they wrote, but you can’t use pronouns like this.”

“You can’t?”

“Nope; pronouns are useful if you want to achieve textual cohesion or to avoid repetition, but you have to be careful to make them refer to the right nouns.”

“How do you mean?”

“I mean they meant cows – not sheds.”

“They meant cows?”

“Yep: this was about this farm, set up by the Duke of Westminster, where dairy cows were kept indoors all the time. And the farm’s director was trying to defend the practice, you see.”

“He would, wouldn’t he?”

“That’s exactly what the late Mandy Rice-Davies said to the judge. But the point is that a pronoun will usually latch onto the nearest preceding noun agreeing with it in person and number.”

“It will?”

“Absolutely. And, in this sentence, the nearest congruous noun is ‘sheds’ – hence the confusion.”

“I s-e-e-e-e. So are you saying … you mean that … what exactly do you mean?”

“This; let me write it down for you.”

 The sheds are large and airy; the cows can move around.

 “A-a-a-a-a.”

“It’s an absolute minefield, I’m telling you. It’s very easy to end up with pronouns whose reference is, at best, unclear and, at worst, completely misleading. And, often, you have unintentional hilarity to boot.”

“What boot?”

“No, no, it’s just a saying. And, of course, they had the comma splice in there.”

“The comma splice?”

“Yep: the one after ‘airy’. You can’t just plonk a comma between individual sentences like this.”

“Why not?”

“Because this weakens both sentences. If you don’t want to divide them with a full stop, you’d usually use either a semi-colon or a connective.”

“Or a connective? How …”

“Look, look, I have three different connectives for you here.”

 The sheds are large and airy, and the cows can move around.

The sheds are large and airy, which is why the cows can move around.

Because the sheds are large and airy, the cows can move around.

 “I s-e-e-e; so you wouldn’t use a comma on its own there?”

“You certainly wouldn’t use a comma on its own there. But people often do. There is this myth that it’s a mistake made largely by kids, but the comma splice is quite common among adults – including professional writers.”

“Blimey.”

“And look what they wrote further on.”

“What?”

 “If the facilities are good and the cows are well managed, the welfare of cows kept inside can be as good and in some cases better than they would be outside.”

 “So? Maybe it can.”

“No, no: can’t you see the mangled interpolated coordination?”

“Inter-what?”

“Interpolated coordination; it often gets mangled – particularly if you don’t use commas.”

“How do you …”

“Look, what they should have written is this.”

 (…) the welfare of the cows kept inside can be as good as, and in some cases better than, that of those kept outside.

 “‘As good as, and in some cases better than, something’ is called interpolated coordination. If you use both commas – as you should – it will be easier to see that you need ‘as’ after ‘good’.”

“It will?”

“Well, it should. And, of course, the cows’ welfare won’t be better than they. The whole sentence is an almighty mess.”

“But I thought you said it was this farm manager, didn’t you? I mean, you’d expect him to know about cows and that, but this intercol … interbol … interpol …”

“Sure, but you’d think The Sunday Times could stretch to a sub-editor, wouldn’t you?”

“But aren’t you supposed to be having this standard-of-living crisis? The one that your Labour Party is always banging on about?  Maybe your press can’t afford a sub-editor these days?”

“Looks like it, doesn’t it?”

66 – Grammar shot: Asymmetry with correlatives (either/or)

Happy New Year! I have decided to introduce yet another type of post, namely a grammar shot. While I will aim to keep such posts light-hearted, the emphasis will be on grammar.

 

“How right they are.”

“About what?”

“Charm.”

“What about it?”

“You either have it, or you don’t.”

 “Either you have it, or you don’t.”

“Exactly.”

“No, no, I mean asymmetry.”

“But I was talking about charm.”

“No, yes, what I mean is that you’ve got asymmetry there.”

“Where, where? Pass me the mirror, will you?”

“No, no, not your appearance.”

“Thank goodness! You know what they say about beauty: the more regular your features …”

“No, no, no! I’m talking about grammar.”

“Grammar? What has grammar got to do with charm?”

“No, no, not with charm. But you said: ‘You either have it, or you don’t’.”

“So?”

“You see, ‘either/or’ are correlative conjunctions.”

“Are they really?”

“Yep. Or correlatives – for short.”

“And?”

“Well, people often misplace them, and what results is asymmetry. It’s a very common error.”

“It is?”

“Yep; you’ve just made it.”

“Me?”

“Aha. Just bracket off what comes after each of the correlative conjunctions, and you will see.”

“How do you mean?”

“Look.”

 You either [have it], or [you don’t].

 “So?”

“Now extract the bracketed stuff and put it side by side, like this.”

 First bracketed unit: have it

Second bracketed unit: you don’t

 “So?”

“Well, how does it look?”

“Bitty.”

“No, no, that’s not the point.”

“So what’s the point?”

“Would you say that these two bracketed constituents do an equivalent job or have an equivalent status?”

“I don’t know; are they meant to?”

“Absolutely. Look what happens when I do this to my version.”

 Either [you have it], or [you don’t].

 First bracketed unit: you have it

Second bracketed unit: you don’t

“Are the bracketed constituents equivalent now?”

“I suppose; but does it really matter? As long as you can get what the stuff’s about …”

“Oh yes, yes, the famous proclamation.”

“What famous proclamation?”

“We know what we mean – the less you know, the more often you trot it out. I mean … I don’t mean … not you, obviously. But asymmetry is asymmetry: while some instances can be barely perceptible, others are more striking.”

“They are?”

“Yep. Take this; it’s from The Sunday Times.”

 “She’s either criticised for being too fat or too thin.”

 “Who?”

“Never mind who; just bracket off what comes after either and or.”

“Just a sec, just a sec; you mean that what they should have written is this?”

 She’s criticised for being either too fat or too thin.

 “Absolutely. But that was easy. Just look at this – from The Evening Standard.”

 “Nick should either be able to carry on investing via his Personal Equity Plan (PEP) or by using the tax shelter within the new Individual Savings Account (ISA).”

 “Hmm …”

“Brackets, brackets!”

“Just a sec, just a sec; you mean this?”

 Nick should be able to carry on investing either via his PEP or by using the tax shelter within the new ISA.

 “That’s it, that’s it! And this is from The Times Educational Supplement.”

 “Teachers would either be paid extra to supervise the sessions, or non-teaching staff would be employed.”

 “You mean this?”

 Either teachers would be paid extra to supervise the sessions, or non-teaching staff would be employed.

“By Jove, you’ve got it! But such asymmetry is extremely common; even professors of English stumble over their correlatives.”

Professors of English?”

“Yep; and all sorts of other luminaries. And it’s not only ‘either/or’ that are problematic.”

“Get away!”

“No, no, I’m serious. Other correlatives notorious for being misplaced are ‘neither/nor’, ‘both/and’, ‘not/but’, ‘not only/but also’ and ‘whether/or’.”

“Blimey!”

“So mind how you go and, when in doubt, just use brackets.”

“Hmm, I think I’d better.”