The OG answers your mostest confusedly grammar questions

Scott Gardner


How many negatives can I put in a sentence?

My personal best is four, last year, just before I broadsided a poor old man in his mini-truck at a busy intersection: “no, No, NO, NO!”

My newspaper’s one-point English lesson says that the phrase to put one’s heads together is commonly used to describe an intellectual act of problem solving. How does one do it?

One must first have one’s head split in two, either surgically or figuratively. A surgical procedure is costly and socially abhorrent. A figurative split is easily achievable by watching several hours’ worth of celebrity quiz shows on TV.

I’m studying iambic feet in my poetry class. What is an iamb?

An iamb is a mythical medieval character, akin to a biblical saint, who was said to wander—barefoot, of course—around Europe helping poor children who were being taunted by bullies. Hence the common children’s rejoinder when being verbally abused: “I know iamb, but what are you?!”

<Eds.: Our friend the Old Grammarian is a bit mixed up. The children’s phrase goes like this: “I know you are, but what am I?”>

<OG: Excuse me, Ed., but if you look up iambin your dictionary, you’ll see that iambs and tauntings have a lot in common.>

<Eds.: Ooh, aren’t you Mr. Etymology Expert of the Day!>

<OG: Yes I am.>

When is food countable and when is it uncountable?

It becomes uncountable about 10-15 minutes after you eat it.

Anaphora is using alternate words, like she, he, or it, to refer to some subject presented earlier in the discourse. If I am forbidden, for religious or legal reasons, from naming a certain subject even once, my use of anaphora becomes problematic. In this situation, what should I say?

Your prayers.

My computer grammar checker always asks me if I want to say which instead of that, or vice versa. It’s very annoying. How can I make it stop?

This is the result of a persistent bug in some of the most common word and usage checking software on the market. It can be easily fixed by reaching around behind your computer and switching the power button to off.

I wrote a speech for my boss, but when I added the greeting “I am filled with excitement,” I misspelled excitement and accidentally allowed excrement as the correction. My boss read the speech as written and I got fired. Can I seek legal recourse with the makers of the spell checker?

OK, enough computer questions. This is a grammar column, not “Wired.”

I learned that “It’s raining” and “There once was a farmer” are sentences with dummy subjects. Who is the dummy that decided we need to be so anal about having subjects and verbs in all our sentences?

I know this isn’t really a question but rather a rhetorically veiled diatribe against grammatical prescriptivism, so I won’t answer it. Instead I will tell you how to annoy your writing teacher. Next time you are accused of neglecting to put in a decent thesis statement, and your teacher starts groaning about not knowing what the subject of your essay is, look solemnly into her eyes and say, “My essay is directive; it doesn’t need a subject.”

Please explain locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary utterances.

When you’ve just been hit by a bus, and your boyfriend pleads with you to “Speak to me!” he is requesting a locutionary utterance. It doesn’t matter whether you say “I’m all right, darling,” or “That elevator would sing better with longer sideburns,” as long as you locute. An example of an illocutionary utterance is when you are sitting on the couch with your cat, saying “Does Kitty know how to get the newspaper?” in a voice loud enough to get the attention of your spouse who is seated nearer the front door. The classic example of a perlocutionary utterance is when your mother defends her demands with the phrase “Because I said so, that’s why!”