Grammatically Speaking, June 2006

The responses I received to the Forum question in my last column were very interesting and very mixed. Here's what I posed, based on a question sent in by Julia Kincaid of Vaughan, Ontario, Canada:

Is it or is it not acceptable to use cardinal numbers in dates instead of ordinal numbers? And have you found any similar elements of English that seem to be going through a transition

I'd like to thank everybody who sent in responses to this question. There were too many to publish, but the three below are good representatives of the answers I received:

I don't think it's acceptable. I don't even understand why some people have started using cardinal numbers in dates. Is it really so hard to say "January first" or "May nineteenth"?--Gerhard Richter, Laxenburg, Niederösterreich, Austria

I don't think this phenomenon is taking over how we say a date for anything but the first day of each month .... I can't say that I'm really comfortable with "January one," but it doesn't make me crazy either. I now actually tell my students that it's an alternate way to say the date for the first day of each month.--Angela Ricci, Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA

This is really not a big deal. To me, the main thing is still having clear communication. If somebody wants to say "April eight" instead of "April eighth," that's fine. I still teach my students the way dates appear in their student books, but I do make it a point to let them know that some people say dates another way.
... I've noticed the same kind of thing happening when newscasters, especially traffic reporters on radio and TV, mention a location. They'll say things like "Northwest one-two-eight Street" instead of "one hundred and twenty-eighth Street." I don't know if that's for clarity or because it's a shorter phrase, and maybe they're just acting a bit lazy.--Luz Mendoza, Homestead, Florida, USA

Dear Richard,

I recently had the hardest time trying to explain when to use what and that in a sentence. I know that this is related to relative pronouns and noun clauses, but I'm not sure of the exact rule in this situation.

The student's incorrect sentence was I cook everything what he likes. I told her to correct it by deleting what and using that. As I went on explaining, I came across the problem of using that in I cook everything that he likes but using what in I cook what he likes. Could you help me explain this? Thanks.

Robert Lyle
Richmond, VA, USA

Dear Robert,

There are two ways to tackle your question, the complex way and the simple way. Since I've always been an advocate for explaining things as simply as possible, that's the way I'll deal with your question here. A simple rule of thumb to give your students is never to use the relative pronoun what to begin a qualifying clause (a relative clause); use the optional that.

A word like everything can be just too unclear or general. "I cook everything," somebody says to you. "Huh?" you respond. "What do you mean, 'everything'?" "I mean that I cook everything that my kids like." (Remember, that is optional in both parts of this sentence: "I mean I cook everything my kids like").

Try a couple of examples like the following on your students, and they'll catch on very quickly. Out of the blue, say to them, "I enjoyed the sandwich." Most everybody should want to ask, "What sandwich?" to which you reply, "That I had for lunch today. I really enjoyed the sandwich that I had for lunch today." Here's one more: "The movie was great!" "What movie?" someone asks. "The movie (that) we saw last weekend. It was great!"

As for what, it's an unclear, general relative pronoun until it's qualified, so it's always qualified. It wouldn't make sense to say I cook what. It does make sense to say I cook what he likes or I cook what I can make quickly. With those qualifications, what makes sense.

I hope this has helped, Robert. Thanks for sending in the question.

Brain Teaser

The new Brain Teaser has three questions to answer:

In sentences like He had his house painted and She got the appointment changed, what do you call the verbs have and get? What do they mean, and do they mean the same thing?

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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