Grammatically Speaking, September 2005

by Richard Firsten

Dear Mr. Firsten:

First a compliment: I just finished reading The ELT Grammar Book. It's the easiest, most accessible and interesting grammar book I've ever found, and we've adopted it for a TESL class.

Now a question: Here's a sentence that one of my students created:

From him I learned how important to have responsibility was.

I substituted the infinitive to have with the gerund, and the sentence became grammatical:

From him I learned how important having responsibility was.

Instead of adding the gerund to the student's sentence as I had done, every native speaker I asked added it was after important.

From him I learned how important it was to have responsibility.

I assume that to have responsibility is the infinitive subject, so the word order is correct (not inverted), but I can't for the life of me figure out why this sentence doesn't work.

Thanks in advance for your help.

Karen L. Fox
University of California at Irvine Extension, USA

Dear Ms. Fox:

Let me alleviate your consternation right away. The sentence your student created does work. The reason that you and the native speakers you asked about it weren't comfortable with it has to do with other ways of expressing the same idea that are more typically used by English speakers.

You were right in thinking there's nothing wrong with the word order--that's a given. Changing to have into having to create a gerund noun phrase is another way of expressing this idea. Placing the phrase it was after the adjective is yet another way. And here's one more alternative:

From him I learned it was very important to have responsibility.

All of these sentences are equally grammatical. The question is simply which ones are more commonly used or less awkward, and therefore more easily recognized as correct.

The most typical way of expressing this idea, however, is to use the anticipatory it (. . . it was to have responsibility). This is called the anticipatory it because the pronoun literally anticipates what will follow. Here's another example:

It's wonderful to master another language.
A: It's wonderful.
B: What's wonderful?
A: To master another language. To master another language is wonderful.

Notice that A's reply contains exactly the same construction as your student's sentence. Person A could equally say Mastering another language is wonderful.

I hope this puts your mind to rest, Ms. Fox. Thanks for a great question! And thank you very much for the kudos about the book and the news about its adoption!

Dear Richard,

Can you please clarify an issue I have concerning a couple of adjectives and adverbs? It's amazing how something I thought was a no-brainer turns out to be more complicated than I would have expected. Is it correct to say both I feel good and I feel well? Do they mean the same thing? (I think they do.) But I just don't understand why it's permissible in this case to use either the adjective good or the adverb well. How is it that both are acceptable?

In the same vein, is it equally fine to say I feel bad and I feel badly? Somehow I'm not as comfortable with these two as I am with the first two. Please help me out here.

Frank Charlesworth
Lagos, Nigeria

Dear Frank,

One of the things I enjoy most about delving into English grammar is that it's full of unexpected little twists and turns, and you're never quite sure if you've got the definitive answer for everything. Yes, this can make grammar a frustrating subject, but you must admit that its intricacies can keep your attention.

As to your first question, both sentences you cited are correct, but not for the reason you think. The word well is not only an adverb but also an adjective, so labeling well as an adverb in this case isn't correct. When well means in good health, it's an adjective, not an adverb, and that's why both sentences are correct. Well is being used here, just as good is, as a subject complement after the linking verb feel. When well means in a good way, then it's an adverb, as in the sentence She sings well.

As a quick side note, here are two short sentences that demonstrate the difference in meaning: Be good./Be well. The first sentence is talking about the other person's behavior; the second, about his or her health.

Now to your second question. The word badly is exclusively an adverb, so it doesn't work grammatically after the verb feel. Yes, many people say I feel badly, and some consider this all right in informal usage, but in more formal or educated English, you should say I feel bad since the linking verb feelrequires the use of a subject complement adjective.

I hope you won't be confused anymore about these adjectives and adverbs. Thanks for your question, Frank.

Dear Richard,

I'm actually embarrassed to ask this question, hence the pseudonym I'm using. One of my LEP [limited English proficient] students said the other day, "Ham and eggs have been one of my favorite breakfasts since I came to America." At first I didn't say anything except, "Oh, that's nice." But then I thought about his grammar and told him he should have said that ham and eggs has been one of his favorite breakfasts. Of course I got a quizzical look from him since he knows that has should only be used with he, she, and it, but that ham and eggs is/are they.

My question to you is, was his grammar correct, and am I the one who's confused?

Embarrassed
Austin, TX USA

Dear Embarrassed,

You were right in correcting your student's grammar. Ham and eggs is considered as one prepared dish, so it's treated as a third-person singular item. The simple rule is that any prepared dish of food, regardless of how many ingredients are mentioned in its name, is considered a singular item, which means it takes the third-person singular form of the verb. Other examples are chicken and rice, rice and beans, and sausage and peppers.

And please don't feel embarrassed, Embarrassed. I'm glad you asked this question!

Brain Teaser

Here's the Brain Teaser from my June 2005 column:

1. It's okay to say I saw him leave.
2. It's also okay to say I saw him leaving.
3. It's okay to say I heard her sneeze.
4. And it's okay to say I heard her sneezing.

Sentences 1 and 3 have base-verb direct object companions (DOCs), leave and sneeze, and Sentences 2 and 4 have -ing verb DOCs, leaving and sneezing. What exactly does each DOC mean?

The first completely correct answer came from Anne Kall of Dublin, Ireland:

By using the base verb (leave) in the first sentence, the speaker is saying that he/she saw the completed action. In other words, that person left,since this base verb represents the simple past. As for sneeze, it means that the speaker heard one sneeze coming from the woman. We can use the base verb to mean that something that can happen one or several times only happened one time.

By using the -ing verb (leaving), the speaker is saying that he/she saw the action in progress, but really didn't witness the end of the action. In other words, the speaker is assuming that the other person left, but really didn't see for sure if that happened or not. In the case of sneezing, here we know that the speaker heard more than one sneeze from the woman--in fact, the speaker probably heard several sneezes.

How's that? I hope I got these right.

You certainly did, Anne! You've got a gift for explaining grammar very clearly. Thank you!

Here's the Brain Teaser for this issue. 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 OK or not? 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

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