Jose Carillo's Forum


The Use and Misuse section is open to all Forum members for discussing anything related to English grammar and usage. It invites and encourages questions and in-depth discussions about any aspect of English, from vocabulary and syntax to sentence structure and idiomatic expressions. It is, of course, also the perfect place for relating interesting experiences or encounters with English use and misuse at work, in school, or in the mass media.

“As if” and “as though”--Is there a difference?

Question from jhun bartolo, Forum member (June 7, 2013):

Hello, sir. 

Do “as if” and “as though” have differences with their use? When I posted these sentences, “Pray as though everything depends on GOD. Work as though everything depends on YOU,” somebody commented that it should be “as if” and not “as though.”

My reply to jhun bartolo:

Practically all of the authoritative dictionaries today tell us that the conjunctions “as if” and “as though” are synonymous in the sense of “like something was actually so,” “as it would be if,” “as to suggest the idea that,” or “as would be true if.” Personally, though, I am stylistically partial to “as though” because I think it sounds more accepting of the stated presumption than “as if,” which seems to me to convey a somewhat weaker belief in that presumption. 

For this reason, I think your choice of “as though” for these two sentences of yours is perfect for their context: “Pray as though everything depends on GOD. Work as though everything depends on YOU.” It’s unmistakable that a believer in God is speaking here. In contrast, see what happens when “as if” in used instead for those two sentences: “Pray as if everything depends on GOD. Work as if everything depends on YOU.” Somehow, although both affirmative-sounding, these “as if”-using sentences seem to convey a hint of cynicism towards the stated presumptions.

This isn’t to say, though, that there are no contexts in which “as if” and “as though” are not perfectly equivalent. Consider the following three sets of examples:

“She rushed out of the house as if goblins were chasing her.”
“She rushed out of the house as though goblins were chasing her.”

“It looked as if he had not slept all night.”
“It looked as though he had not slept all night.”

“They looked at us as if we were from another planet.”
“They looked at us as though we were from another planet.”

I think you’ll agree with me that there isn’t any perceptible difference in meaning between the sentences in each of those pairs.

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When the perfect participle and present participle hardly differ

Question sent by e-mail by FH, an English teacher in Iran (May 20, 2013):    

Suppose that I sent you an e-mail but you haven’t answered it yet. Now, you want to answer it. Which of the sentences below would you use at the beginning of your reply, A or B? Please explain why.

(A) “Farhad, I apologize to you for not having responded to your e-mail sooner.”
(B) “Farhad, I apologize to you for not responding to your e-mail sooner.”

I look forward to hearing from you.

My reply to FH:

I must admit that I puzzled over your grammar question for quite a while before composing this answer.

My opinion is that since the act of answering the e-mail is being done at the very moment of writing the reply, the perfectly grammatical answer to your question is Sentence A: “Farhad, I apologize to you for not having responded to your e-mail sooner.” 

What we have here is a sentence that uses the so-called perfect participle to express a state (or an action) as just finished right before another action is consummated. The earlier state in such sentences is denoted by the perfect participle form “having + past participle of the verb,” which in this case is the negative verb phrase “not having responded”—meaning a state that was subsisting until the action was taken by the writer to apologize.

This answer, of course, immediately brings up the question of why Sentence B couldn’t be the answer: “Farhad, I apologize to you for not responding to your email sooner.” As you know, this other sentence uses the negative present participle form “not responding”—meaning an action not done until sometime in the past before the later action (the action taken by the writer to apologize) took place. The difference is that when the negative present participle is used, a significant length of time should have elapsed between the earlier action and the later action. This is in contrast to the negative perfect participle, where a particular state ends or an action is finished right before or while the later action is taking place.

The time that elapses between the earlier action (or state) and a later action could be of any length, of course. In this particular case, a delay of a few days or several weeks in the response to the e-mail would make the intervening time between the two actions significant and a cause for concern. The use of the negative present participle form “not responding” would then be called for: “Farhad, I apologize to you for not responding to your email sooner.” Indeed, it’s likely that this statement would be made if Farhad had already sent a follow-up e-mail calling attention to the delayed response to his earlier e-mail.

As we all know, however, our perception of the intervening time between two actions is a subjective thing. Depending on our point of view and attitude towards those two actions, that intervening time could seem very long or very short or practically nonexistent. It is when we perceive that intervening time to be unimportant or inconsequential that we are likely to choose—and for good reason—the present participle as a more natural and logical choice for that statement than the perfect participle. 

In such situations, in fact, the semantic distinction between the perfect participle and the present participle gets blurred. The two become practically interchangeable in everyday usage, with hardly any perceptible difference in meaning. Sentence B, “Farhad, I apologize to you for not responding to your email sooner,” then becomes a correct and perfectly defensible grammatical construction as well for that reply.

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Modals denote conjecture, never absolute certainty

Here’s a fascinating question on modals from FH, an English teacher in Iran, that came by e-mail last May 2, 2013:

As you know, we use the structure “must have + past participle” when we are sure that an action happened in the past. For example, “I rang the bell several times, but they didn’t open the door. They must have gone out.”

Here’s my question: What’s the negative form of the structure “must have +past participle”? My friend says that when we are sure an action did NOT happen in the past, we should use the structure “can’t/couldn’t have + past participle.” For example, “Where is she? She couldn’t have gone out—the door’s locked.”

I disagree with my friend. I think when we’re sure that an action has NOT happened in the past, we should use the structure “must not have + past participle.” For example, “Where is she? She must not have gone out—the door’s locked.”

What do you think?

My reply to FH:

You and your friend are fundamentally mistaken in thinking that the negative modal forms “must not have + past participle” and “couldn’t/ can’t have + past participle” can be used to denote with certainty that an action didn’t happen in the past. On the contrary, these forms denote only a strong belief or conjecture that the action didn’t happen.

Remember now that the auxiliary verbs “can,” “could,” “must,” “might,” and “may” are modals that indicate conjecture, supposition, or belief rather than established facts or absolute certainty.

“Can” and “may” are often interchangeably used to denote possibility or permission, as in “She can go” or “She may go.” On the other hand, “could” is used as the past tense form of “can,” as in “We discovered she could sing”; for the past conditional, an in “She assured me that she would come if she could”; and as an alternative to “can” in suggesting less force or certainty, as in “I hope you both could come.” (In negative constructions, though, “may” is rarely used; instead of “mayn’t,” what’s usually used is “cannot” or “can’t.”)

“Must” is used to denote what can logically be inferred or supposed, as in “It must be risky to sail in such bad weather,” and “may” is used to indicate possibility or probability, as in “You may be right that he took the money.” “Might” is used to indicate a lower probability or possibility than “may,” as in “We might catch up with you if the rain stops,” and to express probability or possibility in the past, as in “She might have sold her car after all.” It is also used as a polite alternative to “may,” as in “Might I ask who’s on the line?” or to “should,” as in “You might at least express appreciation.

We can thus see that the positive modal forms “must have + past participle” and “could have + past participle” couldn’t be expressions of certainty at all. And neither could their negative modal forms “must not have + past participle” and “could not have + past participle” denote certainty that the action didn’t happen. They just express strong supposition or conjecture.

So, for actions that surely happened in the past, we absolutely can’t use the positive modal form “must have + past participle” as in this example of yours: “I rang the bell several times, but they didn’t open the door. They must have gone out.” Instead, we must establish the action in that second sentence as an objective fact: “I rang the bell several times, but they didn’t open the door. They surely had gone out.”

For actions that surely didn’t happen, neither can we use the negative modal form “must not have + past participle” as in your friend’s example: “Where is she? She must not have gone out—the door’s locked.” We also must establish that the woman is indeed still inside the house: “Where is she? The door’s locked so she surely had not gone out.”

In each case, the subject’s going out or not going out must be an absolute certainty.

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Yes, “nor” can be used without “neither” in tandem with it

Question by Miss Mae, Forum member (April 23, 2013):

Can nor be used without its “partner,” neither?

My reply to Miss Mae (April 26, 2013):

Sorry for this delayed reply. I missed reading your posting and it’s only now that I got to see it in the discussion board.

Definitely yes, the conjunction “nor” can be used without the conjunction “neither.” On its own, “nor” is used to introduce the second or last member or the second and each following member of a series of items, each of which is negated, as in the sentence “The burden wasn’t carried by you nor me nor by anyone for that matter.” 

Of course, when only two members of a series of items are involved, “nor” works with “neither” in the negative correlative form “neither…nor,” as in “Neither you nor me carried the burden.” This construction follows the traditional grammar rule that the negative correlative “neither…nor” should only be used to mean “not one or the other of two.” When the reference is to “none of several,” “none” instead of “neither” is used: “None of the five reelectionists passed the advocacy group’s integrity test.”

Also without the conjunction “neither,” the conjunction “nor” is used to introduce and negate a following clause or phrase in a sentence, as in “The candidate didn’t mind being labeled a family dynast, nor did she mind being deemed unqualified.” On a more profound note, the same stand-alone usage of “nor” is used in Psalm 121:6 of the New International Version of the Bible: “The sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.”

Comment from Musushi-tamago, Forum member (April 26, 2013):

In your example for the use of “neither…nor,” “Neither you nor me carried the burden,” I think the “me” should be “I” because it is a doer of the action. Am I right?

My reply to Musushi-tamago:

You’re absolutely right and I’m sorry for the oversight! The pronoun “me” should be “I” instead because it’s in the nominative case, meaning that it’s doing the action of the verb, not receiving that action. That sentence should therefore read as follows: “Neither you nor I carried the burden.” 

This usage of the nominative pronoun “I” in that sentence is in contrast to that of the objective pronoun “me” in the example I presented earlier, “The burden wasn’t carried by you nor me nor by anyone for that matter.” Here, “me” is correct usage because the sentence is in the passive voice. In that passive voice construction, “me” isn’t a doer of the action but an object or receiver of the action of the passive verb form “wasn’t carried.”

For a discussion of how the nominative case differs from the objective case, click this link to this earlier posting of mine in the Forum, “Lesson 3 – The Matter of Case in English.”  

Thanks for the feedback!

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How infinitives and gerunds work in comparative sentences

Question e-mailed by FH from Iran (April 2, 2013):

I have a question: Which choice is correct? Please explain your reasons.
“A teacher can receive no greater gift than ________ she or he has had a positive influence and has been helpful to someone else.”
(a) to know
(b) knowing
(c) know 
Thank you for taking the time to help me.

My reply to FH (April 7, 2013):

Dear FH,

Answer choice (c) “know” is definitely wrong. Both (a) “to know” and (b) “knowing” are possible answers from a grammar standpoint, but I think the semantically and idiomatically correct answer is “to know.” This is because the infinitive phrase “to know” somehow gives the sense that the subject—in this case the “teacher”—still hasn’t received or doesn’t possess yet the gift being referred to, a situation that matches the sense of possibility denoted by the modal “can.” In contrast, the gerund phrase “knowing” gives the sense that the subject is already in possession or has already received such a gift—a situation that doesn’t seem to logically match the modality of “can.” 

It would seem to me that the gerund “knowing” might work in, say, a present-perfect sentence like this one: “As a teacher, I’ve received no greater gift than knowing I have had a positive influence and has been helpful to someone else.” Still, the semantics of the gerund “knowing” seems odd or askew in such constructions because “knowing” denotes a continuing state or permanent condition. In contrast, the one-time action denoted by the gerund “discovering” might work in such constructions: “As a teacher, I’ve received no greater gift than discovering I have had a positive influence and have been helpful to someone else.” Even better is the semantics of this sentence that uses the gerund phrase “receiving the compliment”: “As a teacher, I’ve received no greater gift than receiving the compliment that I have had a positive influence and have been helpful to someone else.” 

What these examples is telling us is that some verbs lend themselves semantically well to taking the infinitive form, while others don’t and could only take the gerund form to work properly in certain sentence constructions.

I hope this explanation helps clarify the usage for you.

Sincerely yours,
Joe Carillo

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The proper tense use of the tenses in main and subordinate clauses

This is a follow-through to the discussion on the question on “Not until Usage” by youngmentor (March 25, 2013).

Feedback from Mwita Chacha, Forum member (April 4, 2013):

If I’m not mistaken, grammar rules require that when the main clause is in the past tense, the independent clause also should be in the past tense. So my revision sentence would further be ‘‘Not until I requested for my GSIS claim this March did I find out that my service record had not been closed yet because your office had not received the endorsement letter.’’

My reply to Mwita Chacha:

I don’t think there’s any grammar rule in English that requires the dependent or subordinate clause to be also in the past tense when the independent or main clause is in the past tense; that would make English an impossibly restrictive language for describing with events as they happen in time. You are perhaps referring by mistake to the so-called normal sequence-of-tenses rule for reported speech or indirect speech. Reported speech is, of course, the kind of sentence someone makes when he or she reports what someone else has said. And under the normal sequence-of-tenses rule, when an utterance takes the form of reported speech and the reporting verb is in the past tense, the operative verb of that utterance generally takes one step back from the present into the past: the present becomes past, the past usually stays in the past, the present perfect becomes past perfect, and the future becomes future conditional. (Click this link to my forum posting on “The proper way to construct sentences for reported speech”

Nevertheless, let’s see if it’s correct to use the past perfect for the verb phrases in the “that”-clause of the sentence in question, as you have done: “Not until I requested for my GSIS claim this March did I find out that my service record had not been closed yet because your office had not received the endorsement letter.” 

In that sentence, the operative verb of the dependent clause is “requested” and that of the main clause is “did I find out,” both of which are in the past tense. We must keep in mind, though, that they are both in the past tense not because there’s a grammar rule requiring them to be always so together, but only because it just so happens that it’s what the particular situation requires. As to the verb phrases in the “that”-clause of the main clause, namely the verb phrases “has not been closed yet” and “has not received,” there is actually no rule whatsoever that requires them to have the same tense as the operative verb of the main clause. This being the case, the tense they will take will not be automatically the past tense but will be dependent only on the sense of the situation being described. In this particular case, they have to be in the present perfect because at the time the letter was written, the two conditions described—”has not been closed yet” and “has not received”—are still subsisting; in fact, they are the very basis and justification for the letter-writer’s request.

The past perfect would apply to those two conditions if they are no longer subsisting. Indeed, only in that event can we use the past perfect for those verb phrases, as you have done in this rewrite:  “Not until I requested for my GSIS claim this March did I find out that my service record had not been closed yet because your office had not received the endorsement letter.” But the use of the past perfect here would wrongly imply that after the letter-writer discovered the problem, that office thereafter received the endorsement letter and duly closed his service record. This isn’t the case at all, though. Those two conditions are still subsisting up to the time of writing, so it’s logical for the letter-writer to use the present perfect tense for those two verb phrases: “Not until I requested for my GSIS claim this March did I find out that my service record has not been closed yet because your office has not received the endorsement letter.”

I hope I have adequately clarified the tense usage for that sentence. 

Rejoinder from Mwita Chacha (April 8, 2013):

So you suggest ‘‘I failed to attend the meeting yesterday because I’m ill’’ is grammatically correct as long as the writer was still ill at the time he was making the sentence? It’s for the first time I hear that.

My reply to Mwita Chacha:

That’s right. And if you put the subordinate clause up front, the grammatical correctness of using the present tense for the state of the speaker’s being ill won’t look as questionable as you think:

“Because I am ill, I failed to attend the meeting yesterday.” (The speaker continues to be ill until the time of speaking.)

Contrast that sentence construction with this one:

“Because I was ill, I failed to attend the meeting yesterday.” (The speaker is no longer ill at the time of speaking.)

Keep in mind that the state of being ill is not necessarily the direct cause of failing to attend a meeting. A slight headache, for instance, won’t prevent one from making it to a meeting. It’s just becomes a subjective justification--a reason in the mind--for not attending the meeting.

In contrast, a real physical constraint like being hogtied by robbers definitely will prevent one from attending a meeting. That’s a direct cause--a consummated action done to the speaker--that will absolutely need the past tense in the construction that you have in mind:

“Because I was hogtied by robbers, I failed to attend the meeting yesterday.” (The speaker is no longer bound like a hog and has lived to tell the tale about his misfortune.)  

And to further emphasize my point that the tense of a subordinate clause is not dependent on the tense of the main clause, take a look at the following sentence with two separate actions in the main clause:

“Because I am ill, I failed to attend the meeting yesterday and won’t be able to fly to Frankfurt tomorrow.”(Three tenses are at play here: the present tense, the past tense, and the future tense.)

I hope this adequately clarifies things for you.

Response by Mwita Chacha (April 8, 2013):

It has indeed clarified things for me. There are some grammar books strictly insists that once the main-clause verb is in past tense the subordinate-clause verb must always be in past tense. My sympathy goes directly towards those who are not Forum members and who, like me hours ago, believe that’s the truth what is said by those books.

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Don’t be caught using “yesternight” these days!

Question by jhun bartolo, new Forum member (April 8, 2013):

Hello, sir!

I would just like to know if the word “yesternight” can still be used? According to what I have researched, this word can no longer be used. I hope that you can answer this question. Thank you.

My reply to jhun:

“Yesternight” is an archaic word for “last night,” dating to as far back as the 1500s and has long fallen into disuse. You’d sound decidedly Shakespearean if you used it in your spoken or written English today, so I suggest you don’t.

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Usage of the definite article “the” in serial lists is a matter of style

Question by Miss Mae, Forum member (March 25, 2013):

When is the article “the” necessary? In the sentence “She beat the bushes offering her free-lance services to Look, the Milwaukee Journal, the Chicago Tribune, the New York News SyndicateNewsweekEsquire, and the Saturday Evening Post,” the writer seems to be taking liberties in using it.

My reply to Miss Mae:

As we know, the definite article “the” indicates that a following noun or noun equivalent is definite or has been previously specified by context or by circumstance, as in “reading the morning paper.” Another use of “the” is, of course, to indicate that a following noun or noun equivalent is a unique or a particular member of its class, as in “the President of the Philippines.”

There are two general styles in the use of “the” for serial listings of definite nouns. The first style is to have each of the definite nouns preceded by the article “the,” as in this sentence: “The tailor, the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick-maker all went on Holy Week vacation.” The second style is to use “the” only once before the first item in the list of definite nouns, as in “The tailor,  butcher, baker, and candlestick-maker all went on Holy Week vacation.” In this second style, it is implied and understood that the first “the” applies to all of the items, which then are all presumed to be definite nouns.

established stylistic preference in the use of the definite article “the” for their names. In the case of The New York Times and The Saturday Evening Post, for instance, they specify and prefer that the article “the” always precede the name, and that the first letter of “the” should be always in capital letters at that. This is why when these two publications are listed with other names of publications, we must not miss out on their “The’s,” as in this serial listing: ““She beat the bushes offering her free-lance services to The New York Times, Newsweek, Esquire, The Saturday Evening Post, Look, and Time.” Other publications aren’t as demanding.

In the case of the serial listing your presented, “She beat the bushes offering her free-lance services to Look, the Milwaukee Journal, the Chicago Tribune, the New York News SyndicateNewsweekEsquire, and the Saturday Evening Post,” you need to check one by one if any of the listed publications have a stylistic preference for the article “the.” Wikipedia is a good place to find out what those stylistic preferences are. Offhand, I know that Look, Newsweek, and Esquire don’t demand the use of “the” ever. On the other hand, the Milwaukee Journal, Chicago Tribune, and New York News Syndicate don’t demand “The” before their names but when these names are serially listed, they’d rather that “the” precede them. In fact, the writer of the serial sentence you presented appears not to have taken stylistic liberties with the use of “the” at all; on the contrary, she seems to have scrupulously researched the stylistic preferences of those publications in the use of the article “the” before their names.

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Constructing a sentence that starts with “not until”

Question by young mentor, Forum member (March 25, 2013):

I was seized by doubt on the use of “not until” in starting this sentence: “Not until I requested for my GSIS claim this March I would have not found out that my service record has not been closed yet due to non-receipt of the endorsement letter.”

I would be needing your expertise regarding this sentence construction.

My reply to young mentor:

This sentence of yours has faulty tense usage and its construction can stand improvement:

“Not until I requested for my GSIS claim this March I would have not found out that my service record has not been closed yet due to non-receipt of the endorsement letter.”

The present perfect conditional “would have not found out” should be in the simple past tense “did I find out” instead.

That sentence should then read as follows:

“Not until I requested for my GSIS claim this March did I find out that my service record has not been closed yet because your office has not received the endorsement letter.”

As to your letter itself, I’m afraid that it sounds very officious and wordy. You can write it much better by imagining that you are face-to-face with the recipient. Then you won’t have need for those big words like “consonance,” “perusal,” and “good office” and won’t have the urge to sound bureaucratic or legalistic in making your request.

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Puzzling variation in the use of the indefinite article “a”

Here’s an interesting grammar puzzler e-mailed to me yesterday, March 15, 2013 by FH, an English teacher in Iran:

Dear Mr. Carillo,

Please look at options (A) and (B)

(A) It was a hard work.

(B) A good knowledge of French.

As you know, (A) is wrong but (B) is correct. But why? Both “work” and “knowledge” are uncountable, both have an adjective in front of them. But why (A) is wrong and (B) correct?

I am really confused. The issue of using the indefinite article “a” in front of uncountable nouns has really confused me.

All the best

Here’s my reply to FH:

March 15, 2013

Dear FH,

Here’s my grammar analysis of the two grammatical constructions you presented:

  1. “It was a hard work.”
  2. A good knowledge of French.”


The first, “It was a hard work,” is grammatically flawed and unidiomatic because it needlessly uses the indefinite article “a” to precede “hard work.” It’s true that here, “work” is an uncountable noun that’s preceded by the adjective “hard,” but “hard work” is actually functioning in that sentence as a compound noun—a figurative expression or idiom—meaning “difficult labor.” The words “hard” and “work” are therefore not working as separate grammar entities in this case.

As a compound noun, “hard work” in that sentence serves as a predicate nominative to the subject “it” following this pattern:

It           +      was         + (hard work)
Subject + linking verb + predicate nominative

By definition, a predicate nominative follows a linking verb and tells us what the subject is. In the sentence in question, although the predicate nominative “hard work” is a compound noun, it serves as an adjective describing the subject “it,” in much the same way that the predicate nominative “big trouble” works as an adjective in the sentence below:

“She was big trouble.”

We don’t say “She was a big trouble,” which is grammatically wrong and awfully unidiomatic. In the same way, we don’t say “It was a hard work” but say “It was hard work” instead.

(The grammatical situation would be different if “work” is used in a sentence as a stand-alone noun in its literal sense modified by a preceding adjective phrase. An indefinite pronoun would then be needed, as in “It was a hard piece of work” and “It was an infuriating kind of work.”)

The above analysis, to my mind, explains why we don’t use the indefinite article “a” in the sentence “It was hard work.” But if this is the case, why then is the indefinite article “a” necessary in this other sentence that you presented?

A good knowledge of French.”

Let’s see why this phrase needs a different grammatical treatment although it also uses an uncountable noun like the sentence we analyzed.

Although both “work” and “knowledge” are uncountable nouns, they are generically different. “Work” in the sense of the sentence you presented is uncountable because it’s a thing that can’t be physically counted like, say, marbles or houses. However, “work” as a uncountable noun can take either a singular form (“work”) or plural form (“works”). We therefore can construct sentences like “It was productive work,” “It was a difficult piece of work,” “She did many different works,” or “His works in modern architecture made him famous.”

In contrast, “knowledge” belongs to the class of abstract ideas or qualities that don’t have and can’t take a plural form at all, like “ignorance,” “courage,” “cowardice,” and “patriotism,” so we can’t use “knowledges,” “ignorances,” “courages,” “cowardices,” and “patriotisms” in any kind of sentence construction whatsoever. But being always singular, such abstract nouns need to be preceded by the indefinite article “a” or “an” to work properly in a sentence, whether or not there’s an intervening adjective between the noun and the indefinite article. Not to do so would result in faulty syntax.

Consider these three sets of examples:

“He showed an ignorance that’s shocking.” “He showed an abysmal ignorance that’s shocking”

“She demonstrated a courage that amazed his peers.” “She demonstrated an indomitable courage that amazed his peers.”

“They showed a cowardice that disappointed us.” “He showed an ignoble cowardice that disappointed us.”

All of the sentences above will grammatically malfunction—or at least sound unidiomatic—if we knock off the “a” or “an” preceding the abstract nouns.

This need for the indefinite pronoun “a” or “an” by an abstract noun when used in a sentence obviously applies to the noun “knowledge” as well: “She has a knowledge of French.” “She has a good knowledge of French.” “She has an amazing knowledge of French.”

This rule is not absolute, however. When no postmodifying phrase follows a noun preceded by an adjective, however, the indefinite pronoun “a” or “an” can be dropped for both brevity and euphony:

“He showed shocking ignorance.” “He showed abysmal ignorance.”

“She demonstrated amazing courage.” “She demonstrated indomitable courage.”

“They showed disappointing cowardice.” “They showed ignoble cowardice.”

I hope you will find this explanation helpful.

Sincerely yours,

Joe Carillo

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How “Whenever we go (for, on) vacation...” differ in meaning

The following question was posted in my Personal Messages Box by chiccoloco, new Forum member (February 20, 2013):

Hi, Mr. Carillo! I’m one of your avid followers. I find your site helpful especially when I find myself confused with some grammar things in my job as an online English teacher. 

I wrote to ask if there’s any difference between saying “Whenever we go for vacation...” or “Whenever we go on vacation...” Are the prepositions “for” and “on” correct in both sentences? Or is it a matter of a missing article in the first phrase?

I hope you could shed some light on this. Thanks.

My reply to chiccoloco (February 23, 2013):

The expressions “Whenever we go for vacation...” or “Whenever we go on vacation...” are practically semantically equivalent ways of saying “Whenever we take a vacation,” which, of course, means spending a period from home or business in travel or recreation. The use of the prepositions “for” and “on” is grammatically correct in both sentence constructions. The sense of the two expressions is slightly different, however. The expression that uses “for” has the nuance that the speaker is referring to the vacation as the purpose for taking time out from home or business; on the other hand, the expression that uses “on” has the nuance that the speaker is referring to the vacation as the act of taking the vacation itself. This distinction, however, largely resides in the mind of the speaker; to the listener, that distinction would be hardly discernible. Whether “for” or “on” is used in saying it, the speaker will be understood to be taking a vacation.

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How “can’t help but + verb” differs from “can’t + help + (verb+ing)”

Question by Miss Mae (February 17, 2013):

Is there a valid reason for writers to refrain from using the idiomatic expression "can't help but"? That instead of the form “can’t + help + but + (verb),” it should be “can’t + help + (verb+ing)” instead?

My reply to Miss Mae (February 19, 2013):

Both the idiomatic expressions “can’t help + but + verb” and “can’t help + (verb + -ing)” are acceptable, and there’s really no valid reason why the first should be preferred to the second. This is because aside from being different in construction, each conveys a different sense when used in a sentence.

The first form, “can’t help + but + verb,” is a formulaic rendering of the idiomatic expression “can’t help but do something,” which means to be unable to choose any but one course of action. Consider this sentence using that form: “I can’t help but cry.” Here, with the expression using the bare infinitive “cry” (meaning the infinitive “to cry” with the “to” dropped), the sentence is complete in itself, and the sense is that under the circumstances, the speaker is unable to do anything else except to cry. 

However, when the form “can’t help + verb + -ing” is used, the sense is that the speaker just can’t prevent himself or herself from crying. When this form is used, some qualifying phrase after the “-ing” form of the verb is often required to make the sentence complete and make sense. In the case of the verb “cry,” for instance, we can’t simply say “I can’t help crying”; both the grammar and the semantics of the sentence would be flawed in that case. However, if we say “I can’t help crying all night,” “I can’t help crying out loud that I’ve been robbed,” or ““I can’t help crying after all the terrible things that happened to us,” the sentence becomes grammar- and semantics-perfect.

We can generalize on this usage by saying that we can ensure that the expression “can’t help + verb + -ing” will always work properly in a sentence if it’s immediately followed by a complement, which can be any word or phrase that completes the sense of the verb. In the three sentences given as examples in the preceding paragraph, the complements are, of course, “all night,” “out loud that I’ve been robbed,” and “after all the terrible things that happened to us.”

Rejoinder by Miss Mae (February 20, 2013):

I see. I have refrained from using the construction “can’t help + but + verb” for years for a false reason after all!

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Is the use of the word “anyways” acceptable?

Question by nutcracker, new Forum member (February 6, 2013):

I often hear youngsters using “anyways.” Is this also acceptable?

My reply to nutcracker:

Many youngsters often use “anyways” instead of “anyway” these days largely because of the influence of watching too many Hollywood movies on cable TV or video, where characters of low educational level use it habitually. This is a pity because “anyways” is American slang or colloquialism that’s considered nonstandard usage in the United States and Canada. I don’t think “anyways” is proper and acceptable usage for nonnative speakers or learners of English, so I believe it should be discouraged as a matter of course in schools and in everyday discourse.

“Is a professor’s use of the word ‘anyways’ acceptable in class?”

Rejoinder by nutcracker (February 7, 2013):

I am also guilty of using it sometimes, going after the trend when even local  DJs and native speakers use it. I remember a speaker in one seminar I attended saying “ English is a growing language.” 
Definitely not in this case, especially for  those learning English as a second language.  I agree that nonstandard usage should be discouraged in formal school.

Thanks again for this enlightenment.

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Should the conjunction “or” be preceded by a comma?

Question by Miss Mae, Forum member (February 3, 2013):

When listing options, should or be introduced with a comma, too?

 My reply to Miss Mae (February 10, 2013):

Sorry for this delayed reply. I missed reading your posting and it’s only now that I came across it in the ‘Use and Misuse” discussion board.

Normally, the conjunction “or” is used to indicate an alternative or distinguish between two choices, as in “You can take the morning flight or the one in the evening?” or “Do you prefer coffee or tea?” In the case of one-word alternatives or those that consist of a phrase of just a few words, there’s no need for a comma to precede the “or.” When the alternative or choices are in the form of rather long phrases, however, using a comma before the “or” may become advisable for clarity’s sake, as in “It’s possible that the newly married couple will consider buying a condominium unit when they move to the city proper next month, or they might just rent an apartment if they can find one near enough to the university where they’ll both be teaching.” Now imagine that long sentence without the comma before “or” and read it.

“On the question over my use of the serial comma”

“Why I consistently use the serial comma”

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Using some idiomatic variations of the preposition “about”

Question by maria balina, Forum member (January 19, 2013):

Hi, Mr. Carillo!

How do I respond to a question asking me how to use the expressions “when it comes to,” “in terms of,” and “about?”  These expressions are similar in meaning but I'm sure there are certain rules on their usage.

I would really appreciate an immediate reply from you. Thank you.

My reply to maria balina:

You’re correct in saying that “when it comes to,” “in terms of,” and “about” are similar in meaning, for they all convey the sense of “with regard to” or “concerning” something. They have different shades of meaning, though, and there are really no hard-and-fast rules on their usage. The choice among them largely depends on the chosen or habitual tone of voice—the so-called “language register”—of the writer or speaker.

Let’s start with the preposition “about.” It’s obviously the no-frills, no-nonsense, direct-to-the-point choice when you want to refer to something very quickly: “About the inconsiderate thing I said last night, I really didn’t mean it.” There are several close synonyms of “about,” the most common of which are “concerning,” “regarding,” “as regards,” and “with regard to,” but using them can make that same statement unnatural-sounding and ponderous. In particular, to say “Concerning the inconsiderate thing I said last night, I really didn’t mean it” sounds officious and bureaucratic, and to say “With regard to the inconsiderate thing I said last night, I really didn’t mean it” sounds like legalese or lawyer talk. I think you’ll agree that neither is the way to express yourself if you want to sound natural and unaffected.

As to “in terms of,” it’s an idiomatic expression that means “as measured or indicated by” in its original mathematical sense, and “in relation with,” “with reference to,” or “on the basis of” in its wider sense. Using it in its original sense gives a patina of precision and accuracy to statements, as in “Fifty years is a very short period in terms of evolutionary time, but a manageable interval for population geneticists.” In contemporary usage, however, “in terms of” is often loosely used in the sense of “regarding,” as in “The couple’s relationshipin terms of intimacy is now practically zero.”

Much more idiomatic than both “about” and “in terms of” is the expression “when it comes to.” It means “when the subject being discussed is a particular thing,” and is often used as a grammatical transition to a different topic or a new aspect of the topic being talked about. Typical of its usage is effecting a change of subject, as in this statement: “In mathematics my professor is nothing less than a wizard. When it comes to social interaction skills, however, he is a hopeless incompetent.”

In present-day usage, however, “when it comes to” is now often used to mean simply “about,” “as to,” “as for,” “in relation to,” “speaking of,” or “on the matter of.” Note that the sense of transition in “when it comes to” is no longer as evident in this Canadian Press news report: “Statistics Canada says people over 65 use the Internet more than they did a decade ago, but there’s still a wide generation gap when it comes to videos and music.” 

Indeed, that sense of transition is sometimes dispensed with altogether in the journalistic usage of “when it comes to,” which retains only the sense of “about.” This is the case in this sentence that starts a news report in The Guardian in the UK: “When it comes to air pollution, the long-suffering residents of Beijing tend to think they have seen it all. But this weekend, instruments measuring the levels of particulate matter in the city’s famously noxious air broke all records.”

So when uncomfortable or doubtful about using the various idiomatic variations of “about,” stick to “about.”

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Should the number of a parenthetical agree with that of its subject?

Question by Miss Mae, Forum member (January 31, 2013):

How on earth can I make the subject of the following sentence agree with the noun in the parenthetical?

“Entry-level attorneys (Lawyer I) must have passed the state’s bar.”

My reply to Miss Mae:

There’s really no need for the subject in the following sentence to agree with the noun in the parenthetical: “Entry-level attorneys (Lawyer I) must have passed the state’s bar.” Here, the subject “attorneys” is a plural noun, but the parenthetical “Lawyer I”—although a singular noun in form—is actually a category or classification. As such, it functions as an adjective modifying the noun phrase “entry-level attorneys.” In English grammar, as we know, adjectives don’t have a plural form; they don’t inflect or change regardless of whether the noun they are modifying is singular or plural. It is therefore grammatically incorrect to seek agreement in number between the subject and the parenthetical in that sentence in this way: “Entry-level attorneys (Lawyers I) must have passed the state’s bar.” Indeed, as a rule in the English language, agreement in number (whether singular or plural) should be sought only for the subject and the verb in a sentence.

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The proper tenses for actions happening at different times

Question by Miss Mae, Forum member (January 28, 2013):

Does this rule I read from your third book, Give Your English the Winning Edge, apply to more than one statement as well?

“If the statement is about events or action happening at different times, a different tense with the appropriate verb form should be used for each event or action.” (Jose Carillo, 2009, Chapter 46, “Tense in Cases of Clause Dependency”).

My reply to Miss Mae:

Yes, definitely, that general rule in English grammar applies to both single statements and multiple statements. We must clearly distinguish, though, between a “statement” and a “sentence.” 

By definition, a statement is a single declaration, remark, or assertion that could be simply a single word of warning like, say, “Fire!”, or a long speech or perhaps a press release consisting of so many sentences or paragraphs. Obviously, a statement could invoke or involve several events or actions at different times, so to put those events or actions in context, the sentences describing them would have to use the appropriate tense for each of them.

In contrast, a sentence by definition is “a word, clause, or phrase or a group of clauses or phrases forming a syntactic unit which expresses an assertion, a question, a command, a wish, an exclamation, or the performance of an action…” (This is from the definition by the Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary.) Within a sentence, there are specific grammatical rules for verbs that describe events or actions that happened at different times, so the verbs will need to use tenses that will clearly give a sense of when the events or actions happened in relation to one another.  

Take this sentence, for instance: “I’m telling you that when I met with my best friend yesterday, she claimed that she had seen your fiancée having dinner last Sunday with another man your age in that fancy bayside restaurant.”  Here, “am telling” is in the present progressive tense, “met” and “claimed” are both in the simple past tense, “had seen” is in the past perfect tense, and “having dinner last Sunday” is in the past progressive tense.

In a statement consisting of several such sentences describing events or actions happening at different times, each of the sentences could have different interplays of the various tenses. The task of the writer or speaker is to make sure that such interplays of the tenses will make the sequence or progression of the events and actions unmistakably clear to the reader or listener.

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