Grammar for dog days

With school out for summer, Dog Playing Poker feels an urgent need to do its part in keeping our kids literate over the lazy months. Come to think of it, their parents' grammar and spelling skills could use a tune-up, too — as can be gleaned from a quick look at our nation's church bulletins, fast-food marquees and everywhere else intellectual discourse takes place. Instead of resigning yourself to a world of reasonably priced "sandwich's," memorize the following rules of communication. Who knows? While you're at it, you just may learn something about life.

Who's/whose/Whos — How often have you seen this trio of homonyms confused in the public arena? Too often, we'll wager. For the record, "who's" is a contraction of the phrase "who is." (Example: "Who's going to strap on these grenades and head on down to the peace talks?") In contrast, whose is a possessive, a word denoting ownership of a particular noun or set of nouns. (Ex.: "Whose instruments of holy war are these?") The third choice, "Whos," is a plural noun derived from the writings of Theodore Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss. ("The suicide bombings took their toll on the Whos/ Who had tried to be nice to both the Arabs and Jews.")

It's/its/Itts — Follow the same guidelines when attempting to differentiate between these three deceptively similar terms. ("It's not unusual to be loved by anyone." "Love is mighty and mysterious in its workings." "The bride and groom are totally crazy about each other, even though they both look like a couple of Cousin Itts.)

Effect/affect — A commonly heard differentiation between these two is that "effect" is a noun, while "affect" is a verb. This, however, is a gross oversimplification. True, it is correct to say that the drug Viagra has a miraculous effect on male sexual performance, while unchecked ingestion of the substance can negatively affect the long-term viability of one's urethra. But "effect" is also a verb meaning "to bring about." ("Nothing short of electroshock therapy can effect change in my chemically ravaged nether regions.") And likewise, "affect" can be a noun denoting feeling or emotion. ("Hours later, Pete emerged from the fertility clinic, his face devoid of affect.") In the absence of a clearly understood procedural model, our suggestion to novice writers is to forge blindly ahead, using whichever word is more likely to produce the desired affect.

That/which — Here's a linguistic morass into which all but the best of us have been known to descend. As set forth in the American Heritage Book of English Usage, the governing rule is that "that" identifies the person or thing being talked about, while "which" gives additional information about an object that has already been identified. It is correct, then, to say, "I am voting for the tax package that the president has proposed." But it is also accurate to state, "I am voting for the president's tax package, which will have working families spreading Alpo on their Wheatables by 2006." Such details convey an avalanche of meaning. Two helpful rules to follow: (1) Look for the comma. (2) Follow the money.

The distinction mastered, we can safely proceed to analyzing this passage from Shakespeare's Othello:

"Are we turned Turks, and to ourselves do that which heaven hath forbid the Ottomites?"

As employed here, the word "that" denotes some unspecified activity favored by the Turks (as in "that thing you do"). Meanwhile, the word "which" lends clues as to what said activity might be — by inference, the practice of sodomizing an ottoman while in a house of worship.

None — "None" is often (and erroneously) thought of as plural in nature, when it is in fact singular. (It's short for "not one.") In all uses, pay careful attention to subject/verb agreement. Incorrect: "None of the charges against Martha Stewart are going to stick." Correct: "None of the charges against Martha Stewart is worse than one minute of that horrific Cybill Shepherd biopic of a few weeks back."

Their/there/they're — Another triumvirate rife with the potential for bewilderment. Remember that "their" signifies ownership, "there" speaks to location and "they're" assigns some activity or quality to a group of actors not specified in the sentence (but possibly the Shriners). To reaffirm your comprehension of these principles, survey the following examples, marking each correct or incorrect as warranted:

"The hostesses' dresses were cut right up to their."

INCORRECT. "Cut right up to their what?" one might reasonably ask. The sentence is not only faulty but a tease of the worst kind.

"There's no 'they're' there."

CORRECT. This play on the popular Gertrude Stein quote seeks to describe some dreary location where the locals exhibit zero behavior whatsoever. "They're" just not doing much of anything, you see. (Odds are it's Tallahassee.)

"So there."

CORRECT. Also concise and unanswerable — except perhaps with a hearty cry of "Your moms," which raises its own unique possessive/plural dilemma.

Impact — Here's where things get sticky. Controversy rages over the use of "impact" as a verb, with grammatical hard-liners saying that it's unacceptable at all times and in all cases. But that hasn't stemmed the tide of silver-tongued business spokesmen who like to refer to "soaring costs impacting our bottom line" and "widespread deregulation impacting our ability to hammer consumers up the poop chute."

Our lenient friends at American Heritage, while paying lip service to the old-school linguists' concerns, ultimately come down on the side of popular convention, pointing out that "impact" has technically enjoyed a verb form since 1601. (Though its widespread deployment, they admit, began around 1935 — just in time for the Nazi sweep of Europe. Hmmm.)

Far be it from us to contradict the experts. So go ahead, ye captains of industry, and refer all you like to trends that "impact" your various year-end statements. And if you want to have everybody around you thinking that you just wandered out of a pyramid scheme, well, that's entirely your business, too

Steve Schneider writes for the Orlando Weekly, where this feature first appeared. Send comments to [email protected]
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