Grammatically Speaking, December 2007

I’m going to start things off this time with a couple of follow-up questions based on a question I posted and answered in my September 2007 column on whether or not we should place thebefore Sudan.

Dear Mr. Firsten:

Thank you. I have always been at a loss as to how to explain the with countries. However, how does one explain the Netherlands, which I have always put together?


Elliot Wheelwright

Lowell, MA USA


Dear Sir,

I saw your explanation regarding the Sudan versus the Yukon, etc. That made perfect sense! How about the Philippines? Are they considered a territory because there are so many islands? Yet, are they not all part of that country?

Thank you,

Mrs. Kim Richey

Greensboro, NC USA

Dear Mr. Wheelwright and Mrs. Richey:

Thanks very much for your follow-up questions. At the end of my September column, I wrote, “the only time we correctly use the definite article in the name of a country is when the name includes a common noun: the United States, the United Kingdom, the Dominican Republic.”

This also holds true for the two examples you’ve cited. The Netherlands means “the Low Countries” or “the Low Lands,” incorporating a common noun, and is strongly related to the DutchHet Koninkrijk der Nederlanden, “the Kingdom of the Lowlands.”

As for the Philippines, what we don’t say but is understood is Islands. We’re really saying the Philippine Islands (again incorporating a common noun). We can see this in other examples such as the Azores and the Aleutians. By analogy, with certain geographical features, we also have this tendency not to say what the feature is since it’s understood: the Nile (River), the Amazon (River/Jungle/Rain Forest), the Cascades (Mountain Range).

One curious example I’d like to add is the Bronx, one of New York City’s five boroughs. A Dutchman named Jonas Bronck first settled that part of New Amsterdam in 1639 with his farm along the Harlem River. Later settlers called that part of New Amsterdam the Broncks’ Land, which eventually became the Bronx, retaining the definite article since Land was understood at the time for the designation of that area.

I, for one, find information like this interesting and fun to learn about. Thanks for continuing this topic, folks!


Dear Mr. Firsten:

First of all let me say what a great column the September 2007 one was. “Zero degrees” and two computer “mouses.” Interesting stuff.

As the only full-time native speaker on one campus of the largest university in Japan, I get lots of grammar questions and sometimes can't answer them. The following e-mail, printed in full, is one such case:


Could you judge whether the following sentence is acceptable?

The press said that the chairman would resign from the board, and resigned from the board he has.

Thanks in advance.


I think that the sentence has to be “resign from the board he has,” but I don't know why. Can you help?

My thanks to you in advance.

Professor Michael Worman

Tokyo, Japan

Dear Professor Worman:

This construction, fronting or preposing the to-less infinitive or the past participle, is something more commonly found in a literary or journalistic format than in spoken English. Let’s look at two sentences that demonstrate this construction:

She said she would fix it, and fix it she did.

She says she has fixed it, and fixed (fix) it she has.

It seems that in this construction, native speakers prefer to use whatever form was used for the verb in the first clause. In the first sentence, the to-less infinitive, or base verb, is being used, so that’s what’s used in the second clause. In the second sentence, however, since the past participle is being used in the first clause, that’s what’s preferred in the second clause, even though it’s still perfectly acceptable to use the to-less infinitive. So, in short, Toshi’s sentence wasn’t wrong; it was one of two possible forms.

Thank you for asking a great question.


Dear Richard,

One of my colleagues handed out copies of a report she’d written, and I got one. Something caught my eye as I was reading it: “There are a variety of reasons for implementing this plan.” I mentioned to her that I thought it should say there is a variety of reasons, but she insisted her grammar was right because the subject of the sentence is reasons. Is she right? Am I right? Please clear this up for us.

Thank you very much.

Charlotte Fenek

Battle Creek, MI USA

Dear Charlotte,

Your colleague is right and your colleague is wrong. The subject of the sentence is not reasons, but variety. The thing is, in this particular phrase you can find examples of there is a variety+ a plural countable noun and there are a variety + a plural countable noun. It turns out that while both are now considered acceptable, a great many more native speakers say thereare a variety of + a plural countable noun than there is. When the following noun is uncountable, there is seems to be used: There is a variety of thought on this subject.

I hope that settles the dispute, Charlotte. Thanks for sending in a very interesting question!


Dear Richard,

I would love it if you could solve a grammar problem that I’ve been stumped by for months! Why is it OK to reduce the sentence I know the man who is responsible to I know the man responsible, but not OK to reduce I have a disease that is contagious to I have a disease contagious? Thanks for any insight you can offer.

Hallie G. Wallack

Gaithersburg, MD USA

Dear Hallie,

I know this answer has been a long time in coming, and I thank you for your patience. I’ve done a good deal of consulting with colleagues, and I have to tell you, your question stumped quite a few people! After researching this, I’ve come up with what seems to be a reasonable answer, so here goes.

There are a number of adjectives that can be postposed, but they’re what we refer to as heavy adjectives in that if they’re postposed, they must go together with some kind of complementation. For example, This is a disease contagious won’t work, but This is a disease contagious to other monkeys, but not to humans does work. The part in bold is the complement, and without that, we can’t end the sentence after the word contagious. So you see that we can consider contagious a heavy adjective.

The problem is that responsible is not a heavy adjective since it doesn’t require a complement when postposed. Your sentence was a perfect example of this.

What seems to be going on is that responsible is a rare adjective that can be used in what are referred to as institutionalized phrases. They do indeed contain reduced relative clauses, but the adjectives that are used in them are not heavy. Here are some examples: something useful, the devil incarnate, all things magical, the person opposite. And, of course, the person responsible fits right into this.

A hunch I have from what I’ve been able to dig up is that it appears most—if not all—of these institutionalized phrases have their origins in other languages, namely Norman French. And that makes sense, since in French the adjective is commonly postposed. We have other institutionalized phrases that make this more apparent, such as notary public, court martial, heir apparent, and president elect.

I hope that solves the mystery. Anybody with a different viewpoint or explanation is more than welcome to write in, and I’ll be glad to post other opinions in my next column. Thanks for sending in such a challenging question, Hallie. It’s been quite a ride!


Brain Teaser

Here’s the Brain Teaser from my September 2007 column:

What role does should play in the following sentence, and what is this use of should called?

We were shocked that he should want to drop out of college.

The first complete, acceptable answer was sent in by Dagmar Hofstetter of Berlin, Germany:

This use of should is called the putative should. It is used to show either that what is said isn’t necessarily to be accepted as true, or it is used as a way for the speaker to distance him/herself from the statement. It does not add any real meaning, only a feeling to the sentence.

That’s it, Professor Hofstetter. Well done! To bring this point home, compare these two sentences:

We’re surprised that they should feel like resigning.

We’re surprised that they feel like resigning.

In the first sentence, the speaker in a way is questioning the veracity of that being the case, while in the second sentence, the speaker accepts that case as being a fact.

Thanks for a great answer, Professor Hofstetter.

And now for a new Brain Teaser:

Is it right or wrong in the following conversation? If the word is right, why? If the word is wrong, why?

A: I hear that global warming may cause more volcanic eruptions in the future.

B: Really? It’s interesting—and frightening!

Please e-mail your responses to, or send them in by snail mail to

Richard Firsten

c/o Lindsey Hopkins Technical Education Center

750 NW 20th Street

Miami, FL 33127 USA

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