Grammar Wednesday

images.jpegThe Grammar Girls’ Pet Peeve edition!

These first two things are banes to the existence of two women whom I love, and for their sakes, I’m going to set the proverbial record straight.
Organic Mama emailed me yesterday. It seems she was listening to NPR (being the lefty humanist that she is) and was prompted to electronically gripe to me:

I just listened to NPR and some presidential candidate said “Where I differentiate with the other candidates…”! I was yelling at my radio! Differ FROM, dolt!!


Ehem, indeed. Differentiate is a verb that is generally used with an object and means, essentially, “to distinguish or mark as different from other such things.” One can differentiate between (or among) things, and one can differentiate oneself from others, but one can not “differentiate with the other candidates” in the way that the.. erm.. dolt above tried to do. He could have fixed this sentence by adding one word and changing another; “where I differentiate myself from the other candidates is…” If he were incapable of this bit of grammatical acrobatics (as it seems obvious that he was), he could have simply said “where I differ from the other candidates is…” and saved Mama a lot of angst.

The other grating problem comes to me via Blue. She goes into paroxysms (look it up) of grammar-induced rage whenever she hears someone say that they “feel nauseous.” Nauseous is an adjective that means “causing nausea; sickening, nauseating.” Her contention is that one can BE nauseous, but one cannot FEEL nauseous. Blue thinks that smart people would say “I feel nauseated.” The prescriptive in me says she’s absolutely right.

This isn’t entirely correct, though. The meaning of the word has expanded to include being “affected with nausea, nauseated.” While I, myself, say that I feel nauseated (though, thankfully, not often, because I’d rather feel anything but nauseated), I don’t grit my teeth when someone complains that they feel nauseous, at least, not because of their grammar. Truth be told, I hate puke so much that I usually don’t stick around long enough, after such a declaration is made, to correct the speaker. That, however, is a post for another time…

Finally, I’m going to address something that makes me crazy, and that I’ve noticed an awful lot in the last week or so.

I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating; when you’re saying something like “the problem is” or “the reason is,” you don’t need to say “is” twice. At least twenty times this week – in restaurants, the grocery store, the health club, the classroom, seemingly everywhere – I’ve heard something to the effect of “the thing is, is there are too many ways to screw this up” or, “his problem is, is he doesn’t know how to talk about his feelings.”

The introductory material in these situations, “the problem is” or “the reason is,” or “the thing is” and the like, are separated from the rest of the sentence by a comma: the rest of the sentence should stand alone as a complete structure without that opening line. If we were to dissect one of my examples above – “his problem is, is he doesn’t know how to talk about his feelings” – and we take away the introductory phrase “his problem is,” we’re left with a sentence that reads “Is he doesn’t know how to talk about his feelings.” Most second graders could tell you that isn’t a grammatically correct structure.

If we take out that second “is,” though, we’re left with “He doesn’t know how to talk about his feelings” – a completely correct (and often true) statement.

Do your part: axe the second “is,” please, and encourage others to do the same.

Happy Wednesday, All!



Filed under General Griping, Grammar

18 responses to “Grammar Wednesday

  1. I have to say I’m rather glad you included that extra paragraph on feel nauseous; my nostrils were beginning to flare during the previous section.

    For a start, I disagree that Nauseous is an adjective that means “causing nausea; sickening, nauseating”.It primarily means ‘inclined to sickness or nausea’ (from OED), but on closer inspection, the full definition includes such senses as causing nausea and repellent or loathsome. But these are secondary senses and appear to be restricted to literature. In any case, I didn’t know these other senses existed and thought nauseous referred only to the sensation of being sick.

    Moreover, I would contend that if it’s okay to be nauseous, then it is okay to feel nauseous¹. In fact, I might take this a step further towards a bold and testable generalisation and claim that, for any property, if one can be [property x] then one can similarly feel [property x]. Though there are counter examples: I am tall is fine but I feel tall is a bit awkward.

    I think I know what you’re getting at though. I remember seeing a massive ad on a building that read “Most envious office space in Sydney” and I thought ‘hold on, just who does the office space envy, and for what exactly?’

    ¹I take it that to be nauseous, which Blue concedes is acceptable, is synonymous with to be sick rather than to induce sickness.

  2. Blue’s thing (and correct me if I’m misrepresenting you here, Girl!) is that “nauseous” is more like “annoying” or “obnoxious;” a “nauseous” person is one who makes OTHER people feel sick. It’s a lot like your comment about “tall,” Jangari – one can BE annoying, but one can’t really FEEL annoying….

  3. Well, that’s what I have a problem with. I understand nauseous to apply only to the person who is nauseated. The person/thing that causes nausea is, in my book, nauseating.

  4. Yes, counter-example noted. I need to refine my theory of be~feel transposition.

  5. wordlily

    Here’s a question: Why did you use “axe” instead of the primary spelling, “ax”? I’m curious.

  6. Lily, I am a self-proclaimed grammar snob; this is not in question. I was taught the “proper, British spelling” of the word and, well, it stuck.

  7. Language Log discusses the double is:

    There are distinct kinds of double is:
    One is part of standard English:
    What it is, is football.
    we don’t say:
    *What it is, football.

    Another is not standard English, but it is not a disfluency:
    The difference is is that I don’t want him to find you.
    It is not a disfluency because it does not have the phonetic properties of a disfluency – it’s spoken smoothly and without pause.

    And another is caused by inadvertent repetition:
    The thing is is, is that..

  8. I haven’t looked at the Language Log entry yet, and am just commenting off the cuff because I have a ZILLION things to do today and am on my way out the door as I type this…

    Really? I don’t care HOW it gets justified, it makes me fucking crazy! I understand the “what it is is football.” What I DON’T understand is “the problem is is football.”


  9. I don’t really understand it either, but I like to look at it as an interesting feature of casual English conversation. 🙂

  10. yeah, the first and third bug me a lot, but like you, the nauseous/nauseated one doesn’t get to me much. thanks for educating the masses!

  11. Argh! See, the thing is, is that everyone is accepting the ‘new’ definition of nauseous.

    Yeah, right, I know: ‘English is a dynamic thing and changes constantly’ …

    But just because a few (or a load of) ignorant people begin to say ‘flammable’ when they (*koff*are too stupid to use*koff*) mean ‘INflammable’ and so that ridiculous new word makes it into the dictionary, doesn’t make it RIGHT.

    Flammable is not a word and nauseous means that the SPEAKER makes OTHER people physically ill.

    Yep, this whole convo has made me a bit green about the gills. 😉

    Great post, Mrs. C!

  12. PS: I wasn’t actually aware that ‘ax’ was an acceptable spelling for ‘axe’.

    *whistles innocently*

  13. As far as Nauseous vs. Nauseated…I don’t think I agree that just because people have used a term incorrectly, “nauseous” to mean feeling sick rather than causing sickness, makes it acceptable. It’s the same thing that happened when “inflammable,” meaning likely to be inflamed or engulfed in flame, was taken to mean its antonym, not able to be flamed? inflamed? because of a misunderstanding of the prefix. Errors and misunderstandings are no way for a language to develop.

    John: The difference between your “standard English double is” and your “not standard English double is” is what follows the second “is”.

    “What it is, is football.” That sentence has a a single noun following the double is, and really, why wouldn’t you just say, “It is football”? Mrs. Chili’s example, “The thing is, is there are too many ways to screw this up” is a poorly constructed compound sentence. Really the speaker means, “The thing is THAT there are too many ways to screw this up.” A verb there makes no sense, even a linking verb. You have a clause following the double is when you need a predicate noun or adjective.

    Which actually supports the problem with “is football” because it is a fragment and in English, fragments don’t fit. I am tempted to go into subject-pronoun agreement and such, but I’ll stop for now. It’s fine for verbal communication, slang, and colloquialisms, but double is’s don’t fit with proper, written English.

  14. Blue: It may well be the older sense of the word, but like it or not, languages do change. Until now, I never knew that nauseous could be used to refer to someone that incites nausea and, even upon learning that, I don’t think I’ll start using it in that sense, since everyone I know uses it in the sense of ‘feeling ill’. If I were to change my behaviour and describe people that cause nausea as ‘nauseous’, I would be often completely misunderstood. For everyone I know, a causer of nausea is described using the verbal participle nauseating.

    As for inflammable, which should have been enflammable by the way¹, I think you’re angst is misplaced. It matters more when someone uses inflammable when they mean non-flammable, since you wouldn’t know which they meant. However, using flammable causes no such ambiguity; I doubt that anyone who heard it would mistakenly assume it meant non-flammable. In that respect, flammable versus non-flammable would be the obvious choice for an antonym pair.

    Incidentally, the OED has flammable dates as early as 1813, though a much clearer example later on, in 1867.

    BodogSivana: Yes, what follows the double-‘is’, is crucial. John knows that and brought up the football example to demonstrate one instance of where the double-‘is’ is actually quite necessary. That is if, of course, you want to cleft the subject like that, which for pragmatic or informational structural reasons, may well be the case – subject clefting is a means of de-topicalising what would ordinarily be the topic. It’s by no means the only way to say it, but English is often described as being so ‘expressive’ and ‘rich’ precisely because it has structural configurations like that.

    ¹It should be enflammable since it first emerged in English as an early borrowing from Old French, when the verb ‘to inflame’ was enflammer. The initial vowel changed then in all Latinate languages, apparently, and English, still desperately seeking legitimacy with the prestigious Southern Europeans, followed suit.

  15. I never said that “double is” was standard written English. It seems to be a feature of speech.

    Blue, if it’s true that because a new word makes it into the dictionary, that doesn’t make it right, then what does make it right? Dictionaries document how words are used. And how else are we going to determine what words mean, if not by how they are used?

  16. Although I am am math/engineer major, I am going to put my two bits in here. While I realize that changing meanings make it into the dictionary because English is a living language, that does not necessarily mean that we should blithely accept it. I was always taught that nauseous means something that causes nausea in others. I don’t care that other people have a new meaning for it.

    If we say, “oh, the language just changes,” then before we know it, we’ll have to accept term papers written in IM speak. R U C-rE-us? Oh, wait, that is already happening at some places. So, my bad. Nevermind.

  17. Seester, it doesn’t matter what your major was. You speak English – you have a right to your opinions about it. Besides, this is an INCLUSIVE classroom!

    I agree with you – something’s being “accepted” doesn’t make it “right.” I also agree with John, though, in that, if we can’t rely on our books to be the keepers of the rules, we really have nothing to go on. That being said, the fact that my favorite “keeper of the rules” books were printed before I was born may have a lot to say about the ways I tend to write and speak and teach….

  18. Errors and misunderstandings have always been a major part of how language evolves. ‘Pea’ is a back-formation from ‘pease’, erroneously assumed to be a plural; ‘orange’ probably lacks an initial n in English because somewhere down the line, it made its way from the word to the indefinite article before it.

    That’s not to say we shouldn’t fight genuine errors in the language, especially when they are liable to cause misunderstanding – I doubt if I will ever stop wanting to shout at people who use ‘refute’ when they mean ‘deny’, for example.

    We need to be careful about it, though, and in particular we need to make sure that what we’re correcting is really a mistake. ‘Nauseous’ in the sense of ‘afflicted by nausea’ is attested back to the 17th century, like its other main sense. What are the grounds for considering its most common current usage a mistake? I’ve been looking for a while, and can’t see any that make sense.

    As for ‘flammable’, it’s been in use for around 200 years; it’s possible that it originated from the widespread and understandable confusion that ‘inflammable’ means its opposite, but we don’t really know that, and it seems perverse to deny that it’s a word now.

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