Grammatically Speaking, December 2005

by Richard Firsten

Dear Richard,

I recently heard a TV commercial for a product that's supposed to whiten teeth. The first time I heard the commercial, I didn't catch something, but the second time, it struck me as very odd. I’d like to check with you to see if my reaction has been justified.

During the commercial, the voice-over person says "teeth whitening." Shouldn't it be tooth whitening? I find it hard to believe that whoever writes scripts for commercials would make such a glaring grammatical error, but then again, I'm wondering if they have. What do you say?

Florence Xavier
Brooklyn, NY USA

Dear Florence,

You’re right; they're wrong; case closed! Sadly, it's not uncommon to hear grammatical mistakes on television shows, on the news, and in commercials. You'd think that the script writers would be well trained in writing and language usage, but this ain't necessarily so.

As for the grammar, first understand that the phrase tooth whitening is a noun adjunct. It's basically the same thing as a compound noun except that it's written as two separate words rather than one, like toothbrush. (Notice that it's toothbrush and not teethbrush!)

You need to use the singular tooth in the phrase tooth whitening because the first element in the phrase (tooth) is describing the second element (whitening). It answers the question, "What kind of whitening?" When the first element acts as an adjective, it follows the rule that says not to pluralize adjectives. Ergo, it's tooth and not teeth whitening.

I can't figure out why some people seem to have trouble with the use of tooth and teeth. You may have heard people say teeth marks instead of tooth marks. At first, I thought the problem might spring from the fact that the first element has an irregular plural, but now I don't think so. People don’t make this mistake with other compound nouns or noun adjuncts, do they? I've never heard a native speaker say feetprints or micetraps, have you? Readers, if you can explain why the problem seems to occur exclusively with the wordtooth/teeth as the first element in a compound noun or noun adjunct, please let me know.

So you were right in realizing they'd made a mistake in that commercial, Florence. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.

Dear Mr. Firsten:

A colleague of mine recently told me that there's no such word as hopefully when I used it in a sentence while we were chatting. He said that when people say things like "Hopefully, they’ll get here soon," it’s ungrammatical. I was really taken aback when he said that, and I certainly didn't agree. Is he right, or am I right?

Hopefully Right
Birmingham, AL USA

Dear Hopefully Right:

If we were living back in the 1950s, my answer to your question would be very different. Back then, most grammarians frowned on the use of hopefully as a disjunct adverb, the category of adverb you're talking about. Other examples of disjuncts are frankly and unfortunately.

In the past few decades, the vast majority of native English speakers have accepted hopefully as a legitimate disjunct adverb. However, grammarians change their minds every few years about whether hopefully is okay. For what it's worth, I consider the word quite acceptable. I see no difference in correctness between the use of the disjunct adverbs in Frankly, I couldn't care less and Hopefully, the matter has been settled.

I hope this has helped, Hopefully Right, but I don't expect your conservative colleague to change his mind!

Hi, Richard!

A student asked me a question about the verb in the following sentence, and I couldn't give a good enough answer: More than half of the stars are/is larger than our sun. Of course it's are, but she said, "Isn't the subject half?" Wow. I guess so, so I was stuck.

Robert Coté
Tucson, AZ USA

Good to hear from you, Bob.

Yes, the verb should be are. The reason is that more than half of the stars implies a collective plural, so the verb must be in the third-person plural to agree.

Keep in mind, however, that this phrase is only a collective plural form because the head noun (stars) is plural. In the phrase more than half of the apple, the head noun (apple) is singular, so the verb is in the third-person singular to agree: More than half of the apple is rotten.

Thanks for sending in your question.

Dear Mr. Firsten:

I would appreciate it if you would provide answers to my questions about the following English grammar exercise. Thank you.

Mary Gesualdi
Port Washington, NY USA

1. The professor started her lecture before the class was seated.

Is it correct to identify before the class was seated as an adverbial dependent clause with a subordinating conjunction? Yes. You can also call it a subordinate clause.

Is it a prepositional phrase? No. A prepositional phase would be something like before class. By the way, this prepositional phrase can also be called an adverbial phrase.

2. Many students in the class were startled.

Is it correct to identify in the class as a prepositional phrase? Yes.

Is it a dependent clause? No. However, you can make it into an adjective clause (one type of dependent clause) by adding who were (Many students who were in the class).

3. Here are the results of the tests that they took.

Is it correct to identify of the tests as a prepositional phrase and to identify that they took as a dependent clause? Yes. Of the tests is also known as an appositive genitive, a phrase beginning with the genitive form of that explains something about the preceding noun. Another example of an appositive genitive is of England in the queen of England.

Is of the tests that they took both a prepositional phrase and a dependent clause? I prefer to look at it this way: of the tests that they took is a prepositional phrase, and within that phrase, that they took is a dependent (adjective) clause modifying tests.

And is a clause ever without a subject and predicate? No. In fact, by definition, a clause is a group of words that has a subject plus a verb and possibly a complement or object (all of which is the predicate).

I hope that's clarified things for you, Ms. Gesualdi. If you don't mind my saying so, I hope you aren't having your students learn English this way. ESOL teachers should come up with practical, meaningful ways to help their students make sense of complex parts of English sentences rather than learn the fancy names we professionals apply to identify them. Just putting in my two cents' worth.

Brain Teaser

Here's the Brain Teaser from my September 2005 column: What do you think about the following sentence?

If someone feels that they’ve been unfairly passed over for a promotion, they should speak to their supervisor.

Is the grammar okay or not?

The first completely correct answer was sent in by Patrick Rosenkjar of Temple University, Japan:

This sentence is of a type often produced in informal situations. Possibly, one reason for this is the desire to avoid the traditional but sexist use of the masculine pronoun to refer to someone, who may or may not actually be male. This would result in the following sentence: If someone feels that he has been unfairly passed over for a promotion, he should speak to his supervisor.

Another reason could be a desire to avoid the clunky constructions he or she and his or her. In this case, the result would be If someone feels that he or she has been unfairly passed over for a promotion, he or she should speak to his or her supervisor. In informal situations, the most common response to this Hobson’s choice is to use the plural pronouns. However, strictly speaking, in formal situations the sentence you cite is grammatically incorrect because the plural pronouns (they and their) do not agree with their singular antecedent (someone).

The best way to deal with this dilemma is to find another way to express the intended meaning. One possibility is If employees feel that they have been unfairly passed over for a promotion, they should speak to their supervisor. Another possibility is Those who feel that they have been unfairly passed over for a promotion should speak to their supervisor.

Thank you very much for your in-depth answer, Dr. Rosenkjar. I'd like to add one more alternative by employing the impersonal use of you: If you feel that you have been unfairly passed over for a promotion, you should speak to your supervisor. The most important point is that you can almost always avoid this awkward problem by using the plural form of the subject rather than the singular or the second person rather than the first person.

And now for a new Brain Teaser. In many languages that have a singular indefinite article, this article is the same as the word for one. Spanish is a good example of this: una camisa= a shirt or one shirt. So how do you explain the difference between a/an and one in a simple, easy-to-understand way?

Please e-mail your responses to grammspeaking@aol.com, or send them in by snail mail to

Richard Firsten
c/o Lindsey Hopkins Technical Education Center
750 NW 20th Street
Miami, FL 33179 USA

When writing to Grammatically Speaking, please include your name and location (city and state, province, or country). If your question or response is selected for publication, your name and location will be printed unless you specify otherwise.

More Resources: