Tag Archive - grammar

Learning about Proper Adjectives in a New York Minute

A “proper adjective” does not refer to a correct adjective in a sentence (because there often isn’t just one correct adjective). It  is one that, being or deriving from a proper name, always begins with a capital letter. Here are some examples of a proper adjective:

  • a New York minute
  • a Cuban cigar
  • a Canadian dollar

The proper name used attributively (meaning the adjective is describing the noun, essentially)  is still capitalized, but it does not cause the noun it modifies to be capitalized. A place-name containing a comma—such as Toronto, Ontario, or New Delhi, India—should generally not be used as an adjective because a second comma may be deemed obligatory. For example if you say “We ate dinner in a Chicago, Illinois, restaurant,” the comma after Illinois is somewhat awkward. Better to reword to something like “We ate dinner in a restaurant in Chicago, Illinois.” Or ‘We ate dinner in a Chicago restaurant.”

Someone Has Their Pronouns Goofy

It’s sometimes hard to make sense of whether certain pronouns are singular or plural, so here are some helpful explanations. The indefinite pronouns anyone, anybody, everyone, everybody, someone, somebody, no one, and nobody are always singular. This is sometimes confusing to writers who feel that everyone and everybody (especially) are referring to more than one person. The same is true of either and neither, which are always singular even though they seem to be referring to two things.

The need for pronoun-antecedent agreement can create gender problems. If you were to write, for instance, “A student must see his counselor before the end of the semester” when there are female students involved, nothing but grief will follow. You can pluralize, in this situation, to avoid the problem:

Students must see their counselor before the end of the semester.

Or, you could say:

A student must see his or her counselor  . . . [which to me is a bit unattractive]

Using his and hers repeatedly eventually becomes annoying, however, and the reader becomes more aware of the writer trying to be conscious of good form than he or she is of the matter at hand.

Trying to conform to the above rule can lead to a great deal of nonsense. It’s widely regarded as being correct (or correct enough) to say, “Somebody has put their notebook on the table.” But many people would object its being written that way because somebody is singular and their is plural. There’s a great deal to be said, however, for using the word their as the gender-nonspecific, singular pronoun.

Remember that when we compound a pronoun with something else, we don’t want to change its form. Following this rule carefully often creates something that “doesn’t sound good.” You would write, “This food is for me,” so when someone else becomes involved, don’t write, “This food is for Fred and I.”

Try these:

  • This money is for him and me.
  • This arrangement is between Fred and him.

The best way to figure out if you’ve written it correctly is to take one of the people out and just say, “This money is for him.” If it’s sounds right, it’s right.


While Means Whereas . . . Sometimes

We usually think of  while  to mean “during the time that,” but it can be used to mean “whereas.”

In the former case, while is not preceded by a comma.

In the latter case, while must be preceded by a comma.

Example: I can’t talk on the phone while my little sister is screaming.
Example: The Pacific Ocean is often calm, while the Atlantic Ocean is rough.

Some purists and copyeditors tend to frown on the use of while to mean whereas because the meaning depends upon the comma, and points of punctuation have a habit of not being where they should be.

If you choose to use while to mean whereas, it’s important to be clear about your meaning.

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