Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government


’Twere Well Said, Were it Said Grammatically


February 2004

by Terrence Moore

No one likes a pedant. Notwithstanding this caveat, it must be observed that at the grammar stage of learning, children ought to learn how to speak and write grammatically. Children are much easier to teach when young than when they have already formed bad habits from the vernacular speech they hear every day. They develop bad habits quickly. Upper elementary and middle school students who are corrected for improper grammar will respond, “But that doesn’t sound right.” Unfortunately, students are often better reporters than philologists. They say what they hear but do not always love correct speaking.

Teachers and parents should indefatigably try to break older students of bad grammar and to form younger students’ speech with good. That means we ourselves must speak not good, but well. We have seen the enemy, and they are we. Should the reader need a refresher course in the Queen’s English, I shall canvass the five most common grammatical mistakes committed these days. Further review might be found in the standard classics: Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, Warriner’s Grammar and Composition, and Fowler’s Modern English Usage.

Less/fewer. Fewer refers to a smaller number of people or things that can be counted. Less indicates a smaller quantity of a whole substance or idea. Shakespeare’s Henry V announces before the battle of Agincourt, “The fewer men, the greater share of honor.” Shakespeare’s Somerset says in I Henry VI, “I owe him little duty, and less love.” Supermarkets most commonly bungle this distinction, though some are starting to get it right. “Ten items or less” should read “ten items or fewer” or, better still, “ten or fewer items.” (Express lanes might actually live up to their name if the words cash only were also added.)

Confusion of subjective and objective pronouns. Who is in the subjective, or nominative, case. Whom is in the objective case. “Who are you going to the dance with?” asks the ungrammatical student, rather than, “With whom are you going to the dance?” In this case, whom is the object of the preposition. The direct object works similarly: “Whom did Jack take to the dance?” Increasingly, I hear a less forgivable barbarism. “Me and Jenny want to know what our grades are.” The correct usage is, of course, “Jenny and I.” The nominative is used no matter where it occurs in the sentence. Therefore, “Arnold is more muscular than I (am).” Poe provides a memorable example. “She was a child and I was a child,/In this kingdom by the sea,/But we loved with a love that was more than love—/I and my Annabel Lee.”

The subjunctive. The subjunctive mood of a verb expresses conditions contrary to fact or wishes. The subjunctive were replaces the indicative was. One does not say, “If I was you, etc.” Lady Macbeth thrice reminds us of this rule: “If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly.” The delightfully caustic exchange between Churchill and Lady Astor is another lesson. “Winston, if I were your wife, I’d poison your soup.” “Nancy, if I were your husband, I’d drink it.”

Adjectives/adverbs. Desdemona and Emilia in Othello show the distinction nicely. “This Lodovico is a proper man.” “A very handsome man.” “He speaks well.” Desdemona might have also said, “He speaks properly.” Thus, the well-spoken and proper man does not bring flowers to the soloist after a concert and say, “You sang real good.” Good is an adjective and therefore cannot modify the verb. Real should be converted to the adverb really in order to modify well, which in turn would modify the verb sang. But, you may argue that we say, “This tastes good.” Indeed, we do. The verbs of sense—feel, smell, taste, and sound—are followed by an adjective. The expression feel badly is actually incorrect unless you have numb fingers and cannot sense things by touch.

Agreement in number. Subjects must agree with verbs, and pronouns must agree with their antecedents. Contractions often hide this common error. “Here’s the answers for the test,” should obviously be rendered, “Here are the answers for the test.” Even more prevalent is the construction, “Everyone needs to take out their pencils.” What begins in the singular must end in the singular. Every dog doesn’t have their days; every dog has his day.

In short, were each teacher to have his students speak well and to use good grammar, he would commit fewer grammatical mistakes of his own and help his charges speak better than we.

Terrence Moore is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center. He is the Principal of Ridgeview Classical Schools in Fort Collins, Colorado.