The Grammar Factor – and/or, agreement and overuse of ‘the’

June 2013

And/or

I recently read an American grammarian who said that style books frown on the use of and/or. I don’t use and/or often, but since I don’t see a problem with it, I turned to the Chicago Manual of Style. Sure enough, it said:

‘Avoid this Janus-faced term. It can often be replaced by and or or with no loss in meaning. Where it seems needed {take a sleeping pill and/or a warm drink}, try oror both {take a sleeping pill or a warm drink or both}. But think of other possibilities {take a sleeping pill with a warm drink}.’

Still not convinced that and/or is bad, nor that ‘taking a sleeping pill with a warm drink’ is the same advice as ‘taking a sleeping pill and/or a warm drink’, I consulted the Australian Commonwealth style manual. I couldn’t find a reference there, so turned to Pam Peters’ The Cambridge Guide to English Usage. She says:

‘At its best, and/or is a succinct way of giving three alternatives for the price of two. Thus:

The child’s father and/or mother should attend the meeting.
is equivalent to:
The child’s father, or mother, or both of them should attend the meeting.

As long as there are just two coordinates, the meaning of and/or is clear, though the reader may have to pause over it to tease out the alternatives. Where there are more than two items, the number of possible alternatives goes up and becomes unmanageable. Try:

The child’s mother, father and/or guardian should attend the meeting.

With three coordinates, the meaning is inscrutable and expressions of this kind are no doubt the ones which give and/or its bad reputation for ambiguity. It is sometimes said to belong in the contexts of legal and business writing, yet the citations in Webster’s English Usage (1989) show that it’s widely used in informative writing for the general reader.’

What do you think of and/or?

Reader’s question – agreement issue

Question: Which of the following sentences is correct?

  • The company’s annual price adjustment of water and wastewater services has been approved by the Commission and apply from 1 July 2013.
  • The company’s annual price adjustments of water and wastewater services has been approved by the Commission and applies from 1 July 2013.

My response: Both are incorrect. With passive sentences, we sometimes lose sight of the subject.

‘Adjustment’ is singular and you could replace it with ‘it’. (It applies from…)
‘Adjustments’ is plural and you could replace it with ‘they’. (They apply from…)

The first sentence should read:

The company’s annual price adjustment of water and wastewater services has been approved by the Commission and applies from 1 July 2013.

The second sentence should read:

The company’s annual price adjustments of water and wastewater services have been approved by the Commission and apply from 1 July 2013.

Pet peeves

My pet peeve
I try not to notice grammar mistakes when reading for pleasure, but one thing caught my attention this month: the use of comprises of rather than just comprises.

The exhibition comprises several large works.
The exhibition comprises of several large works. (wrong)

I wonder if the of sneaks in because we use it with the past participle.

The exhibition is comprised of several large works.

Reader’s pet peeve
Substantive used when the writer means substantial.

My response: I think this is a tricky one because both can mean ‘real’ or ‘a considerable amount or quantity’. In practice, we often use substantial to do with size and substantive more abstractly to mean weighty or meaningful. For instance:

She was paid a substantial sum of money – enough to buy a new car.
The media focus is on personalities rather than substantive issues.

Read more at http://www.philipgooden.com/?p=94

Reader’s feedback

A reader responding to my blog on deleting clutter suggested watching for the overuse of the. She gave this example:

One subsample includes the European Monetary Union (EMU) candidates, leaving the already members and the countries that do not intend to join the EMU in the second subsample, testing for the hypothesis that the scrutiny of the EMU candidacy increases a country’s fiscal discipline, independently of the strength of the fiscal rules it adopted. (53 words/10 identical articles)

I think the overuse of the is a symptom of a badly written sentence, not just clutter. I am not sure of the context, but had a go at rewriting it.

One subsample includes the European Monetary Union (EMU) candidates, while the second subsample includes countries already members or those who do not intend joining the EMU. The hypothesis being tested is that scrutiny of EMU candidacy increases a country’s fiscal discipline.

And I have only used the three times!

For light relief

Puns for the educated mind
I thought I saw an eye doctor on an Alaskan island, but it turned out to be an optical Aleutian.
No matter how much you push the envelope, it’ll still be stationery.
A grenade thrown into a kitchen in France would result in Linoleum Blownapart.
Two hats were hanging on a hat rack in the hallway. One hat said to the other: ‘You stay here; I’ll go on a head.’
A backward poet writes inverse.
Two fish swim into a concrete wall. One turns to the other and says ‘Dam!’

Read more at http://bit.ly/bTnST4

A spellchecker poem
I have a spelling checker,
It came with my PC.
It plane lee marks four my revue
Miss steaks aye can knot sea.

Eye ran this poem threw it,
Your sure reel glad two no.
Its vary polished in it’s weigh.
My checker tolled me sew.

A checker is a bless sing,
It freeze yew lodes of thyme.
It helps me right awl stiles two reed,
And aides me when eye rime.

Read more at http://bit.ly/aSzfn

Quote of the month

‘When I finish a first draft, it’s always just as much of a mess as it’s always been. I still make the same mistakes every time.’
Michael Chabon, American author

 
 

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