For Error Watch and Halls of Praise and Shame, click here.


It is a matter of enduring interest that, in the age of the computer, when a single transposed letter can render a web address invalid, when the idiot spell checkers are red-and-ready to underline any perceived (they are often wrong, and hopelessly un-Canadian) misspelling, that so little care is given, by and large, to grammar and usage. My goodness! Even the term “grammar” seems so hopelessly outdated, outré and irrelevant. Who wants to bother with a bunch of fusty old rules? Let the new reign of Humpty-Dumpty-itis have full sway! Humpty-Dumpty, you may remember, famously said: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean–neither more nor less.” And so, grammar and usage, it often seems, are pretty much arbitrary, and can vary with the weather, the time of day, or the state of one’s digestion.

An argument can be made, of course, against too rigid approach to the use of language. The language is constantly changing, with new words coined to deal with new circumstance, and with the human tendency to use convenient short cuts, and to jump on to a handy bandwagon as it passes by. On the other hand, too rapid change in language leads to failures in communication, and offenses to already established logical consistency.
We wish to make it perfectly clear that the official policy of the Lumpenbangen Piano Institute is against change of any sort. We think that the language should remain forever fixed at about the late1950's stage–just about the time Dr. Dreimer graduated from University, and was pronounced full. We feel that it is the duty of all those interested in the English language, to fight all changes. We do not, of course, expect success in this endeavour. We may be foolish, but we are not stupid. It is simply that all changes should be fought with vigour and determination so that only worthwhile, properly tested changes will survive the fierce resistance of us Language Curmudgeons. In other words, we are strongly in favour of linguistic Darwinism. We may, on occasion, have to accept the inevitable loss of a species of expression, but we will never be happy with the outcome, and we will continue to mourn, inconsolably, the losses which inevitable change may inflict.



1. Lie and Lay! How many times have I heard apparently normal people say that they laid down and took a nap? How many times has a DOCTOR asked me to lay down on the table?

What is the matter with these people? “Lay” is a transitive verb–it takes an object. A hen lays eggs. You lay your cards on the table. You have to lay something, you can’t just go and lay down and take a nap.

Now, you can lay your weary bones down and take a nap. At least you are laying something down.

And, in the past tense, you can’t say you laid down and took a nap-- maybe you laid your book down and took a nap!

If you are going to take a nap, you are going to lie down and take it. You are going to take that nap lying down, NOT laying down. “Lie” is an intransitive verb –it does NOT take an object. If you are going to lie down, you are not laying (something) down.

Yes there is a tiny point upon which you may get confused. Do NOT read the following if your I.Q. is 80 or less. The past tense of “lie” is “lay.” So, if you are talking about someone having a nap in the past, you would say: “He was tired, and so he laid the book down, yawned, and lay down to take a nap.”                              ,           

People who say they are going to lay down and have a nap should be forced to remain standing on one foot, until they can express their intentions in proper English. And the next time a doctor asks you to lay down on the table, simply say you would feel more grammatically correct if you could just lie down, instead.
Present Tenses

Lay (place)

I lay the book on the table whenever I get tired of holding it.
I am laying the book on the table now.

Lie (recline or rest)

Here lies Lisa LaFlamme.
I lie down whenever I have a conniption fit.
I am lying down on this comfortable sofa, until the fit passes.
I have lain here for an hour. (Present Perfect)


Past tenses


I laid the book on the table; can't you find it?
I was laying the book on the table when the phone rang.
He has been laid to rest.


Lincoln lay in this very bed.
I lay down whenever a conniption fit struck.
(I used to lie down whenever a fit struck.)
I was lying down when the phone rang.
The remains had lain there for six centuries, when the vandals broke in and removed them. (Past Perfect)

Future tenses


I will lay the book on the table when it gets too heavy.
They will be laying the concrete tomorrow.
We are going to lay flowers at the grave.


He will lie in state until tomorrow.
I am going to lie down if a conniption fit strikes.
I will be lying down on the sofa until the fit passes.



2. “Like” as a conjunction -- joining two clauses. This probably comes under the heading of “lost battles.” But at Lumpenbangen, “ like” never has been, is not now, and never will be a conjunction. There are three reasons for this objection: (a) it sounds ignorant (b) it sounds uneducated (c) it sounds awful.

"As," or "as if" are conjunctions; they are used by persons of superior intellect and education.


They talk like they are ignorant. (They talk as if they were ignorant.)
He spends money like he just won the lottery. (He spends money as if he had just won the lottery.)
Like I said, I have no sensitivity to language. (As I said, I have no sensitivity to language.)

A further comment may be seen in the Diary, April 13, 2012.



3. "May" instead of "might." This one is more than a lost battle. Nobody can understand the difference between these two, and even fewer people care. But what are windmills but for tilting at? An impossible challenge, one which must surely lose,  is not one that should always be turned down. There is something wonderfully noble about a  Dreimer-David fighting the Goliath of language change.

    You see, "may" is the present tense of the verb "may" which refers to a possibility which is still open -- nothing has occurred which has closed the possibility. Examples:

(a) We may win the Nobel prize.  (But we don't know yet.)
They may have arrived in London by now. (But we don't know because we haven't heard, and for all we know, the plane dived into the Atlantic.)
Someone may discover a unified force theory. (But it hasn't happened, and we don't know yet.)

"Might" on the other hand, is the past tense of "may," and refers to a past time, when there WAS an open possibility, but that possibility no longer exists. Something has happened to close the possibility. Examples:

(b) If the jury had believed the D.N.A evidence, O.J. Simpson might  (not "may") have been convicted. (At that time in the past, there was an open possibility for the jury to convict,  but the jury did NOT believe the D.N.A. evidence, they did NOT convict; the decision is irrevocably in the past, and so the word "may" is entirely inappropriate.)

(c) They might have arrived in London at 3:15, but unfortunately the plane dived into the Atlantic at 2:30. (There was a time in the past when there was an open possibility: we can imagine one passenger speaking to another: "We may arrive in London by 3:15." Once the plane has gone down at 2:30, there is no open possibility of arriving at 3:15--they might have arrived, but they didn't.)


(d) Had I been there, I might have won the race. (You couldn't say: "I may have won the race"--the whole notion is ridiculous--you weren't even there. To say "I may have won the race" --you would have to have been there, completed the race, but be uncertain of the result--because in the particular event, participants compete serially, not simultaneously, and some had not completed their runs.)

Once again, there is a tiny area of possible confusion.  The word "might" is also used to convey an open possibility but of lesser probability than the word "may."

(e) We might win the Nobel prize. (It's possible, but rather unlikely.)
(f) Someone might discover a unified force theory next year. (Yeah...maybe.)
(g) They might have arrived in London by now. (There is an open possibility; we are not terribly sure; the track record of Icarus Airlines makes us a bit tentative on this matter.)

The word "may" is analagous to other auxiliary verbs such as "will" and "can." No one would substitute "will" for "would," or "can" for "could."  Yet many have a perverse inclination to use "may" instead of "might."

May (Possibility)


If I run, I may catch the bus.
The doctor may be able to see you tomorrow.


The doctor might have been able to see you yesterday. Too bad you were run over by a bus.
If he had not been in New York at the time, the doctor might have re-inflated you after the accident.

Will (Intention)

Present (used to refer to future)

I will phone for an appointment tomorrow.
The doctor will see you on Thursday.


The doctor would have seen you yesterday, but you were underneath a bus.
If you had not been run over, you would have (might have) been welcomed at the doctor's office.


Can (Ability)


The doctor can see you tomorrow.


The doctor could have seen you yesterday; now it's too late.
If you had looked both ways, you could have (might have) seen the bus; had you seen the bus, you could have (might have) seen the doctor.




 4. "Fewer" and "less." People are very fond of the word "less," and are inclined to use it instead of "fewer." But "less" means "a smaller amount of," and should be used with singular nouns; "fewer" means "a smaller number of," and should be used with plural nouns.



1. There are fewer cars on the road. There is less traffic. (Not: "there are less cars...")
2. There are fewer bottles of beer in the fridge. There is less beer than I had thought.
3. We had a lot fewer things to remember after the reorganization. There were fewer delays, and less hesitation.

For the fanatic: plural units of measurement are considered singular: it took less than ten seconds; he earned less than ten dollars an hour.



5. "Unique" means "one of a kind." Thus you cannot really say any of the following:

(a) That is very unique. (That is unique.)


(b) That is one of the most unique things about this place. (That is one of the unique features of this place.)
(c) His whole approach is extraordinarily unique. (His approach is unique.)
(d) Of the two hats, the red one is more unique. (Both hats are unique; I prefer the red one.)



6. "Fulsome:"  (a) offensive to good taste, esp. as being excessive; gross: fulsome language; fulsome praise;        fulsome ostentation.

                      (b) disgusting; sickening; repulsive: a table heaped with fulsome mounds of greasy foods

Increasingly "fulsome" is being used to mean "full" or "complete." John McCallum used it this way in parliament a few years ago. Dennis Mitchell used it that way on BNN's "Market Call" January 19th. From our perspective, this is simply ignorance compounded by the fact that no one bothers to correct anyone's errors. It is true that "full" was once a meaning of the word, but it is difficult to imagine how a word can, at one time, have such dissimilar meanings. We suspect that ignorance will be the winner here, but we deplore the victory. The only advantage to using the word correctly is a justifiable sense of superiority, but when nobody is there to notice, the reward is inconsequential.

For a more complete discussion, see Drivel, February 11, 2012




7. "Between" and "Among"  We will quote here from a 1989 Webster's Unabridged Dictionary: "Precise users of English tend to use AMONG when more than two persons or things are involved (The winnings were divided among the six men) and to use BETWEEN  chiefly when only two persons or things are involved (to decide between tea and coffee). This distinction is not very widely maintained in the case of BETWEEN, which is often used when more than two persons or things are involved..." So, there you have it. Last night (January 23), on CTV, a news item referred to the division of emergency funds between  nine agencies. CTV can certainly not be accused of using precise English at any time, and while, in view of the above, we feel we must hold our full scorn and opprobrium in check, this usage, to our precise ears, sounds wildly aberrant.

As a side note, considering the errors which occasionally appear during the newscasts--often from scripts which are presumably subject to proofreading, we have concluded that CTV can afford neither a dictionary nor an elementary handbook of English usage, much less someone with a competent high school education capable of applying the information contained therein to broadcast scripts.

Secretly, we suspect the whole program to be a sham, conducted from two broom closets, the first containing the anchor desk, the second containing a lazy susan of revolving cardboard backdrops to represent a variety of foreign locations. At the end of the program, the wigs and fancy clothes worn by Lloyd Robertson and Sandie Rinaldo  are immediately removed and returned to Malabar, where they are rented on a half-hourly basis. Ms. Rinaldo then repairs to a home for homeless anchorpersons at Gerrard and Jarvis streets, while Mr. Robertson returns to his packing crate shack beneath the Bloor Street Viaduct. This seems to be the only explanation consistent with the inability of CTV to afford a dictionary.



8. There appears to be an increasing tendency to make a verb agree, not with the subject of the sentence, but with the nearest noun. Thus we find such statements as :

(a) A river of tears are being shed over the discovery that the theory of man-made climate change is a scam.

(b) A wide range of services are available.

(c) In recent years, the potential in thin-film cadmium telluride (Cd/Te) photovoltaic cells, used to generate electricity from solar cell power plants, have grabbed investor attention pushing the price up dramatically in 2008 to around US$300/kg from US$12/kg in 2000. The current price (January 2010) is around US $180/kg.

(d) A steady flow of professors are entering the hall to vote.

In each of the above sentences, the subjects -- "river," "range," and "potential," "flow," are all singular, and require singular verbs.


Nouns such as audience, government, jury, are used with a singular verb if  the people in question are considered as a group, and a plural verb if they are considered as individuals. (The jury has retired. The jury are presently debating the issue of DNA evidence.)

The phrase a number of is used with a plural verb; the phrase the number of is used with a singular verb:  a number of the ignorati continue to believe in man-made climate change; the number of people who believe in man-made climate change is rapidly diminishing.

Source for some of the above: Bloomsbury Good Word Guide, 1988.




9. "Irregardless." 

This is not, actually, a word. We confess that we used to think that it was a word--since our father would use the term frequently. Probably lots of what we say is simply what we learned from listening to those around us when we were children, and failing to listen to other sources --contradictory sources--later on--and realizing that what we learned as children deviates from the "educated norm." The discovery of this error was a hugely embarrassing occasion.

We used the non-word  in a tutorial in a graduate course in English, and were horrified to discover that one of dad's favourite words--and one which we thought had a legitimate ancestry--had labelled us as a complete ignoramus. How we had failed to realize our misapprehension-- for so many years, remains a mystery.



10. Effect and affect. Effect as a noun means result or consequence.

(a) What is the effect of the existence of Human Rights Commissions? They make Canada look like a banana republic.
(b) You can complain about political correctness all you want; it is unlikely that your protests will have any effect on M. Houle.

As a verb, effect means to bring about a result. A good test of whether a verb should be affect or effect is to see whether it can be replaced by bring about.

(c) Try as we might, we have been unable to effect any change in Ms. Hall's absurd world view.
(d) When Dr. Dreimer was appointed Emperor, he was able to effect many positive changes: he disbanded Human Rights Commissions and required their officials to undergo intensive humility training.


As a verb, affect means to influence or have an effect on.

(e) We have been unable to effect any change in Ms. Hall's absurd world view; we have been unable to affect her view at all.
(f) Officials of the disbanded Human Rights Commissions were greatly affected by the intensive humility training; they welcomed with tears of gratitude the positions as Greeters at Wal-mart to which they were subsequently assigned by the Emperor.

Yes, affect is also a noun. In psychology it refers to a feeling or emotion. An obsolete use is inward feeling.

(g) She was, indeed, riven by an affect  most profound and sensitive --yet she presented an outward demeanour of distant coldness, particularly in the presence of Sir Edward.




11. Three Awkward Plurals

It seemed to me–though I could be wrong-- that someone on The Agenda last night, (April 20) used the word phenomena instead of phenomenon. This brings to mind two other words with awkward plurals: medium (plural media) and criterion (plural criteria).

With all three of these words, the plural is used so frequently, that people forget that there is a singular. Thus people are inclined to say:

1. This is a phenomena I have rarely seen before.
2. My favourite entertainment media is television.
3. What is their criteria for admitting people to the scholarship program?

In each case above, either the verb should be changed, or the singulars, phenomenon, medium, and criterion should be used.
Some correct usages:

4. The rise of Human Rights activism is a recent phenomenon, but has already resulted in a distressing spread of Human Rightsitis. The afflicted can be identified by certain characteristic phenomena: squinty, remorseless eyes, righteous arrogance, and a religious zeal for persecution.

5. He had a number of criteria in his search for a video camera: it had to be lightweight, be a high definition type, and have a jack for an external microphone. But the most compelling criterion was price.

6. Although he had experience in other media–print, radio, and television-- he settled on the film documentary as his medium of choice.



12. "None" means "not one," and is singular. It is so often used as if it were plural, that the correct use sometimes sounds a bit strained. The test for correctness is always to replace "none" with "not one."

1. None (not one) of the children was here.
2. None (not one) of the things he said is relevant.
3. None (not one) of my jackets was in the closet.

In ordinary speech, most of us would use plural verbs in the above examples. This is probably a sign that "none," in spite of its meaning, will eventually be considered as singular or plural.


It still does bother us to encounter "none" used as a plural in writing. It's simply illogical. In cases where the correct usage sounds a bit odd, we would try to use some other means of expressing the idea. An example in today's National Post (April 28, 2010):

4. "None of these mere details were considered very relevant to yesterday's grandstanding..."

In this example, we would definitely use the correct verb "was."

We note that in the interrogative, the correct verb sounds even more odd:

5. Is none of these books to be approved by the committee?

In writing, we would try to get around the problem:

6. Are any of these books to be approved by the committee?

7. Is not one of these books to be approved by the committee?






13. "Due to" should only be used after the verb "to be." Consider the commonly heard, "Due to conditions beyond our control...."

Due to conditions beyond our control we can no longer offer the 'Mermaid' tattoo for $127.95.  The T.S. Eliot Branch of the Mermaids Amalgamated Union has objected to Mermaid representations on human skin as demeaning and politically incorrect. Until this dispute has been satisfactorily resolved by the Human Rights Commission, we will be substituting the Seahorse Tattoo."

 Such a usage is offensive to the ears of careful speakers. "Owing to" or "because of" are appropriate substitutes.

Correct usages of due to:

1. Their refusal to offer the 'mermaid' tattoo was due to a political correctness dispute.
2. There is speculation that his bizarre behaviour is due to a brain tumour.




14. I, me, and the verb to be.

"Who's  there?"

"It is I."

Yes, the I here is correct, but it sounds a bit high-falutin'. Most people would say "It's me"--in ordinary speech.

To follow through with that usage consistently, the following would also be considered correct:

1. It was him that said we should jump in the lake.
2. It was them that wanted a bigger pizza.
3. Weary was him, for he had walked twenty mile from Aldershot.
4. Resigned was her to a life of misery in her forced marriage to Squire Jones.


The verb to be is a linking or copula verb, and so the case of the subject and the subjective completion (not object) should be the same.  Thus, in the above examples, the objective case should be replaced with the nominatives--he, they, he, and she.

Thinking to be superior, and grammatically correct, many people use I when it is really an object, and me should be used:

5. He had a gift for you and I. (Should be "you and me." "Me" is the object of the preposition "for.")
6. The principal asked Danny and I to petition the Human Rights Commission to allow the provision of "Mermaid" tattoos for $127.95. (Should be "Danny and me." "Me" is the object of the verb "asked.")




15. The Split Infinitive

All right, we'll admit it. This is probably a snob thing. You see, when we were very young, we were taught in school that splitting infinitives was a bad thing. We think it had something to do with the fact that you couldn't split an infinitive in Latin, and thus it was unscholarly to do so in English. We remember vividly being at Convocation Hall at the University of Toronto, when a speaker split an infinitive. My companion remarked that, since the speaker was an engineer, one could hardly expect him to be aware of the subtleties of the English language. The superior pleasures of arcane and recondite knowledge, and the delights of self-congratulatory exposure of the ignorance of others are little bits of psychic income that are not easily renounced.

We understand the the Oxford Dictionary has decided that split infinitives are just fine; but we see this simply as a pandering to the ignorati. At any rate, we still think that most split infinitives sound awkward and uncultured.

1. To boldly go where no man has gone before...             To go, boldly, where no man has gone before...

2. She thought to finally put her demons to rest-- 
she would have to find her father.                                   She thought to put, finally, her demons to rest--she would have to find her father. 
3. He tried to on the one hand explain the discrepancy...  On the one hand, he tried to explain the discrepancy...

The Bloomsbury Good Word Guide notes that sometimes splitting an infinitive is necessary to avoid ambiguity:

4.They were plotting to secretly destroy the files is not the same as They were plotting secretly to destroy the files.


We would still prefer: They were plotting to destroy, secretly, the files, preferring a somewhat contrived sentence which draws attention to our awareness of arcane and recondite knowledge.

5. In another example-- He failed to entirely comprehend me-- it is true that the meaning is not conveyed by: He entirely failed to comprehend me, or He failed to comprehend me entirely. The option: He failed to comprehend, entirely, me, is too bizarre to contemplate. So this is a good example of an occasion where the split infinitive is the best choice. Of course, one can always avoid the construction: His comprehension of my meaning was, regrettably, incomplete.

6. To really understand what is going on here, you have to be aware the circumstances of his family. Putting the "really" at the beginning does not quite convey the same meaning. It might go in front of "have." A reconfiguration might read: For a complete understanding of what is going on here...

7. We would like to properly recognize them for their contributions to the Old Moose Lodge. We would still prefer to reconfigure the sentence: We would like to give proper recognition to them for their contributions to the Old Moose Lodge.

Conclusion: To completely avoid the sneering of the cognoscenti, it is best to earnestly attempt to not split infinitives. Occasionally, it may seem  to really be the only option, but such circumstances are rare. Usually one is able to completely reconfigure a sentence to actually retain meaning and to satisfyingly maintain one's place among the observant elites.




16. Lazy Spelling.

 There is a lot of lazy spelling, but we are choosing the particular variety involving common contractions: you're and they're. The confusions are with your, their, and there.

You're, of course, means you are. Your means belonging to you.

1. You're as good as your word; too bad your promises are worthless.

2. Your problem is that you gave away your dictionary; now you're at the mercy of your own slipshod education in the public school system. In the days of yore, education was more thorough.


They're, of course, means they are. Their means belonging to them. There  means in or at that place, as opposed to here.

3. Does the fact that they left their luggage over there, instead of on the platform, suggest that they're cognitively challenged, or simply absent-minded?

We feel somewhat foolish pointing out what everybody knows. Our only defense is that many posters on Stock Market Bullboards think that your means you're. And just today, in the National Post a headline read: 'Send your game in and basically stand their naked.'






17. Flaunt and Flout

Flaunt means to show off., or make ostentatious display. Flout means to disregard or treat with contempt.


1. One of the many benefits of having money is that one can flaunt it; the envy of one's neighbours and acquaintances provides a wonderful sort of psychic income.

2. Flaunting his wealth seemed to allow him the further advantage of flouting the social conventions of his time.




18. Invalid comparisons.        (January 20, 2013)

We heard this very morning on the CBC, a professor say (roughly): Approval ratings of Congress are lower than colonoscopies. This reminds us of an recent Advertisement for an exercise program "Tapout XT," which holds out the promise of "a body like Mike Karpenko."

Unfortunately, ratings cannot be compared to colonoscopies, and bodies cannot be compared to Mike Karpenko.

What the professor meant to say, of course, was that the approval ratings for Congress are lower than those for colonoscopies. And "Tapout XT" promises a body like that of Mike Karpenko. (Or a body like Mike Karpenko’s.)

We maintain that it is laziness and sloppy thinking – that lead to invalid comparisons. Laziness and sloppy thinking are – almost certainly – evidence of some deeper moral failing or brain circuitry malfunction.

Consider these examples – some of which, we confess we have garnered from the internet as a result of our inability to think of good illustrations. This arises not from a brain malfunction, but an innate difficulty in thinking illogically.


The rate of gun crime in the United States is greater than Canada. (...than [it is] in Canada)

The weather in Canada is colder than Mexico. (...than [it is] in Mexico)

I like Bruce Springsteen's songs more than Madonna. (...than those of Madonna, or Madonna’s [songs])

Rachel Weisz gave birth to a baby boy this week, but the excitement surrounding his birth is nothing like Angelina Jolie's baby girl.(...like that occasioned by the arrival of Angelina Jolie’s baby girl)

The interest at a loan company is higher than a bank. (...[it is] at a bank.)

Mary’s garden is more colourful than Hester. (Hester’s [garden])







O.K. It's Punctuation Time! An excellent guide, is, of course Lynn Truss's Eats Shoots and Leaves.   However, Lynn Truss is an amusing writer, and there is absolutely no place for levity on this website. Our aim is an exalted one: a general improvement in mankind--and that sort of thing requires a serious, sober, and unflinching demeanour.  Real learning requires boredom, and an appropriate degree of discomfort.

We are tempted to begin with the apostrophe, simply because the most widespread punctuation error encountered is the confusion between its, and it's.
On the other hand, the apostrophe is a rather big topic, and we'd rather start small. The semi-colon is a wonderful tool for creating a certain stylistic effect--but, we suspect, few people are confident in knowing how to use it. The semi-colon has the effect of a period which holds the reader in suspense. Consider the effect created by the semi-colon in the following pairs of sentences:

1.  (a) Human Rights Commissions are ill-conceived, insufficiently regulated, and capable of serious miscarriages of justice, and they should be disbanded immediately.

(b) Human Rights Commissions are ill-conceived, insufficiently regulated, and capable of serious miscarriages of justice; they should be disbanded immediately.

2. (a) In the case of Marise Myrand, the Commission reveals its arrogance in meddling in private affairs, determining degrees of victimhood, and punishing those who, in the view of the Commission, do not reflect "Canadian values."

(b) In the case of Marise Myrand, the Commission reveals its arrogance: it meddles in private affairs; it determines degrees of victimhood; it punishes those who, in the view of the Commission, do not reflect "Canadian values."



In each of the examples above, the semi-colon is used to separate two independent clauses; it creates a long pause, and a sense of suspense. It gives the sentences more "punch."

The semi-colon is also used with certain joining words, such as however, nonetheless, further, therefore, accordingly, hence, nevertheless, namely, thus, also, consequently.

3. The existence of Human Rights Commissions is a blot on the National escutcheon; accordingly, I am writing a letter to Stephen Harper, the Prime Minister.

4. The establishment of Human Rights Commissions may have seemed, initially, to represent a positive contribution to our society; however, the results have been disastrous.

The semi-colon is used between two independent clauses joined by a conjunction, such as but, for, or and,  if one or both of those clauses already contain a comma:

5. The Human Rights Commissions are a wonderful place for megalomaniacal busybodies, left-wing meddlers, and self-important Pooh-Bahs; but we question whether the costs of providing such comfortable venues --in terms of the injustices and idiocies perpetrated -- are not excessive.

6. In the case of Marise Myrand, the Quebec Human Rights Commission decided, in a fit of insanity, to award her a parking spot in a private parking lot based on her disability; and from this we must understand that there is no matter too small, no area too inappropriate, no decision too contrary to common sense to be beyond the scope of these oppressive arms of government.



The Colon.

Punctuation is useful in making written expression "make sense," but it is also important in creating rhythms in the language.  The comma marks a short pause; the period says: "that's it -- this thought is over. The semi-colon, as noted above, signals a longer pause, but says: "hold on a minute, I have more to tell you related to what has already been said. The colon is another longer pause--but it is like a dramatic flourish of trumpets--"the Queen is coming," or "listen up, this is important."  It is the equivalent of namely or as follows.

In the following examples, the colon is used to introduce illustration or explanation.

1. The "science" of climate change seems to be crumbling before our eyes: faulty temperature graphs, conspiratory e-mails, and warnings based on unsupported speculation have led to increased public skepticism.

2. Yet another popular idea seems to be falling by the wayside: it is now being suggested that consumption of saturated fat does not increase the risk of stroke or heart attack.

3. From these two circumstances, we are tempted to draw a general conclusion: the popularity of an idea is no measure of its validity.


The colon is also used to introduce a series of elements of the same grammatical construction.

4. We are tempted conclude: political agendas often masquerade as "science;" popularity is no guarantee of truth; gullibility is a persistent failing of the human mind.

The colon is used to introduce a long formal quotation, or follow the salutation of a business letter.

5. The Pooh-Bah issued her judgement as follows: "In the case of Marise Myrand, we find......."

6. Dear Sir:





The Dash.      

The dash can be used as a single punctuation mark, or as one mark of a pair.

Dashes in pairs are very much like parentheses. A parenthetical comment is one that can be omitted leaving the sentence grammatically complete.

1. Helena Guergis (a politician known for her easy charm and folksy manner) was recently removed from her cabinet position.

2. Helena Guergis – a politician known for her easy charm and folksy manner – was recently removed from her cabinet position.

3. I suggested (it was only a thought) that left-handed, blue eyed males were the victims of systemic discrimination, since so few of them had ever landed on the moon.

4. I suggested – it was a significant advance in the fight against injustice everywhere -- that left handed, blue-eyed males were the victims of systemic discrimination, since so few of them had ever landed on the moon.

The dash tends to suggest emphasis, the round brackets suggest de-emphasis. Thus, example 2 is probably preferable to example 1, because the ironic intent is clearer with emphasis.

Like the colon, the single dash can be used to introduce a summarizing statement:

5. He eventually came to a conclusion: no one wanted equality; what people wanted was an improvement under the convenient banner of “equality.”


6. He eventually came to a conclusion – no one wanted equality-- no one would seek it if it involved a reduction in his circumstance.

In  the examples above, the dash is less formal than the colon.

The dash is often used to suggest a sudden change in direction of thought. The writer is giving a clear signal that he is casting off the fetters of grammatical convention in favour of a spontaneous higgeldy-piggeldiness.

7. Will you be coming to visit this spring–the cherry blooms are so beautiful – Samantha will be back after the 18th – and Edmund, thank goodness, will be off to Australia?

8. You think people want equality–don’t deny it–I’ve seen you attending those NDP meetings–but I know that if people achieve “equality” they will seek further improvement in their situations–even if that should result in inequality!

Dashes are used to set off appositive material, or to proceed expressions such as namely or that is. You will note that in the examples below, a colon (9) or semi-colon (10) could also be used. The dash is simply less formal than either of these.

9. Three presidents stand out in our nation–Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln.

10. He was forced to admit the truth–namely, that “equality” is a chimerical concept.

A dash can be used to indicate a long pause. Here is an example from the Gettysburg address.

11. But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground.

This has taken far too long. We must dash -- hurriedly -- off.





The Apostrophe I

We think we may now be ready to deal with the apostrophe. Some weeks ago, we initiated a program of vigorous and strenuous exercise, embarked on a regime of  vitamin therapy, and, just in case, implemented a series of  enlightenment initiatives, including the use of Chinese herbs, yoga, meditation, and omphaloskepsis. We feel that we will never be better prepared to deal with this difficult subject. We have some confidence that, after a few short entries, the apostrophe will be vanquished, and lie mortally wounded, gasping for a mercy that we will confidently withhold.

First, the most common error. This is the one which you may confidently expect to find in the brochure accompanying the wonderful new clock radio/CD player with detachable electric toothbrush/nail clipper, the chainsaw/weed whacker, or the sophisticated High Definition video camera. Some unfortunate Chinese person, struggling with the impossibilities of English, will sprinkle this error in a spirit of generous ignorance. It will be found in the august pages of the Annual Report and Financial Statements of the Megalomaniacal Industrial Corporation, the Hegemony Land and Mortgage Agency, or the World Domination Software Company. The proofreaders for these goliaths are no better off than the unfortunate Chinese person. If CTV  were to print out their television broadcasts, you may be sure this error would be as frequent as the appearance of bad news.


Yes, we refer to the error occasioned by the extraordinary inability of otherwise normal people to distinguish between its and it's.

The apostrophe--in this case-- represents an OMISSION -- the letter "i" or the letters "ha." Thus It's means it is, or it has. Its is a possessive--meaning belonging to it.

Examples: 1. It's no use complaining; this cat has lost its flea collar and identification tag.
                2. The Geezermobile lost its "get up and go." But it's all right now; it's got new spark plugs.

All right. We're exhausted. And this is the easiest one. We will return.





The Apostrophe I (b)

The apostrophe is used to indicate other omissions.

(a) can't = cannot
(b) won't = will not
(c) don't = do not --etc.

You get the idea. George Bernhard Shaw famously objected to this use, and his plays omit such apostrophes.


(e) could've = could have. The related error is to write "could of" --because that's what "could've" sounds like.
(f) would've = would have. The related error is to write "would of."
(g) should've = should have. The related error is to write "should of."
(h) you're = you are.  The related error is to write "your."
(i) they're = they are. The related errors are to write "their" or "there."

You may think that everyone knows these simple things. As a constant reader of the Stock market bullboards, may we assure you that 90% of the contributors to these boards are unaware--or simply too lazy--to distinguish among "they're," "their," and "there," and between "you're and "your." These people are old enough to open brokerage accounts and many are, we would deduce, quite wealthy. Clear and careful writers, they are not.

Lynn Truss notes certain Shakespearean uses-- for example, Hamlet's famous line: "'Tis a consummation devoutly to be wish'd."

You will often find the apostrophe used in the 18th Century to indicate omissions--for example--Alexander Pope: "True wit is Nature to advantage dress'd,/ what oft was thought but ne'er so well express'd."




The Apostrophe II

If you are as frightened by the apostrophe as we are, you may take comfort from this observation, from the Oxford Companion to English Literature, quoted by Lynne Truss in her book Eats, Shoots and Leaves: "There never was a golden age in which the rules for the possessive apostrophe were  clear-cut and known, understood and followed by most educated people."

That, of course, will not prevent us from striving for a new golden age. We have to believe that persistence will eventually pay off.

Thus -- the apostrophe is used with an "s" to indicate possession: ('s)

(a) with a singular noun --This is a dog's breakfast.
(b) with a plural noun that does not end in "s" --Midway in the process of changing her gender, Evelyn could not decide whether to join a men's or women's Health Club.

If the plural noun ends with an "s," then the apostrophe must come after the "s."

(c) The dogs' (more than one dog) breakfast is being prepared by the chief dog chef.
(d) The chef's (one chef) mandate was to attend the convention and transcribe the chefs' (more than one chef) best recipes for inclusion in a new book: American Chefs' Best Dog Breakfasts.
(e) We have never been sure whether we have a subscription to Investor's Digest, or Investors' Digest, because it is spelled Investors Digest. This suggests only that investors eat -- and subsequently digest; it does not indicate whether the publishers consider their readers singly or as a group. If they are thinking of a single representative Investor -- "The Investor" -- the title would be Investor's Digest. If they believe that their publication is for many Investors, it would be Investors' Digest. Quite possibly they were in an agony of indecision, and decided not to make any commitment beyond making the fairly safe statement that Investors, having eaten, digest.

Now the really difficult possessives. What does one do with a proper name that ends in "s"?  (More on this position of the question mark later.)
Do we refer to Lynne Truss' book, or Lynne Truss's book? According to Lynne Truss,
"modern names ending in 's' (including biblical names, and any foreign name with an unpronounced final 's'), the 's' is required after the apostrophe."


(f) This is Lynne Truss's book.
(g) Where is the Jones's driveway?
(h) He read Alexander Dumas's novel.


Names from the ancient world, such as Jesus.

(i) His Achilles' heel was that Archimedes' principle meant as much to him as Pythagoras' theorem--absolutely nothing.
(j) He was one of Jesus' disciples.

Names that end with an "iz" sound--for reasons of euphony:

(k) He had Moses' ability to climb mountains.
(l) Jeff Bridges' acting career began at an early age.


On this basis, we should write: He went to Chris' barber shop. Personally, we would never say that, and would write "Chris's barber shop."

Lynne Truss notes many American newspapers prefer "Connors' forehand," while Connors himself prefers "Connors's forehand."

This shows you that, when you get into the finer points of apostrophe usage indicating possession, it's a bit of a dog's breakfast.




To be continued. If you have a pet grammatical peeve, contact dreimer@lumpenbangenpiano.com.)