Grammatically Speaking, Winter 2004

by Richard Firsten
Posted December 2004

Hi!

Whenever I am casually asked the question "How are you?" at work by someone whom I know does not actually want to hear how I really am, I always reflexively respond, "Pretty good." Is that a grammatically correct response? I know it does not sound very impressive. Do you have any suggestions that are more sophisticated without sounding aloof?

Thanks!

Amanda
Northern New York, United States

Hi, Amanda.

Saying "Pretty good" is a perfectly fine grammatical response. Granted, it's very colloquial, but it certainly isn't ungrammatical. Over the years, it's become acceptable to say, "I'm good" in response to the question "How are you?" rather than the more traditional, "Fine, thanks" or "I'm very well, thanks," and the quantifier pretty, meaning more or less, is perfectly all right, too.

You don't have to sound "impressive," Amanda, when you respond to such a normal, everyday question/greeting. Of course, if you want something more sophisticated, you might try giving the reply that one of my Cuban friends used to give to the question "¿Cómo estás?" when she was feeling very ebullient: "¡Encantada de la vida, gracias!" [Enchanted with life, thank you!]. Try that on somebody at work tomorrow morning, Amanda, and let me know the reaction you get!

Thanks for sending in such an enjoyable question.

Dear Sir:

Recently someone asked me to proofread a letter. The only mistake I saw was what I thought was incorrect subject-verb agreement. The sentence read, "There are a variety of activities available." I suggested the writer change are to is based on the singular noun variety.

Did I advise her correctly, and what is the rule for subject-verb agreement when a subject is followed by the word of? Does one take into consideration the following noun, or does one only consider the preceding noun? Should one also consider whether the preceding noun is collective?

Thanks for clearing up my confusion. I just started reading "Grammatically Speaking" and think it's wonderful!

Sincerely,

Karen Ramsey
Ketchikan, Alaska, United States

Dear Ms. Ramsey:

You did advise the writer correctly. The word variety is singular and normally takes a verb in the 3rd person singular form, so you were right in suggesting that the writer say, "There is a variety of activities available." However, many speakers interpret a variety of the same way they interpret a number of, that is, meaning many. If that’s the interpretation, it's acceptable to treat a variety of as a plural and therefore put the verb in the third-person plural. There are also many cases, especially in British English, when a singular noun can be treated as a plural, depending on how the speaker views it: the family is/are; the government is/are.

Then there's the matter of what is called the rule of proximity. If the noun right before the verb is plural, speakers tend to treat the verb that follows it in the third-person plural--for example, A group of researchers are arriving this afternoon to investigate the matter." Even though it would be more technically correct to say is arriving because the real subject is a group, because researchers is right next to the auxiliary, many speakers would tend to use the plural are arriving.

As for your next question, let me reiterate what I’ve already said and add to it. A subject noun phrase followed by the word of does have direct bearing on whether the following verb should be in third-person singular or plural. What is important is whether that noun phrase is normally used to represent plurality, as in the sentence A number of questions have been raised. The phrase a number of stands for the idea of many, so the following verb will be in third-person plural. In the example I’ve cited, the auxiliary verb have agrees with the collective plural phrase a number of (questions). Another example of this is in the noun phrase a couple of, which stands for two or even three at times: A couple of odd-looking fellows are waiting to see you. (Compare a couple of with a plural meaning to simply a couple or the couple: The manager put that couple in the presidential suite.)

More typically, though, if the noun phrase before of connotes a singular subject, for example, a pair of, a flock of, or a bowl of, then the following verb will, of course, be in the third-person singular.

Keep up the good work, Ms. Ramsey, and thanks for writing in!


Dear Richard,

A student of mine recently asked me to explain a phrase he'd heard several times on different occasions. The phrase was Having said that, . . . . I didn't have any problem explaining to him that the phrase means something like, Now that I have said that, . . . but I was at a loss to explain the actual grammatical construction, and I had an awful time trying to find an answer in the reference books I had around. Can you please help me out here? Thanks in advance.

Norman Jenks
Trois Rivières, Québec, Canada

Dear Norman,

The paraphrase you came up with works great, so you definitely took care of that part of the answer as well as anybody could. Now let's tackle the grammatical construction.

What we're dealing with here is something I like to call consecutive actions, which is a construction normally found more in formal written English than in conversational English. Let's look at these examples:

  1. Having prepared the filling, she made the pie crust.
  2. Having made the pie crust, she prepared the filling.

When there are two or more actions, you can use having + the past participle of the verb to indicate which action happened first. In (1), first she prepared the filling, and then she made the pie crust. In (2), first she made the pie crust, and then she prepared the filling.

Note that the time doesn't have to be in the past:

Having prepared the filling, I will now make the pie crust.
Having made the pie crust, I will now prepare the filling.

In addition, the order of these clauses can be changed around, and listeners will still understand which action happened first:

She made the pie crust, having prepared the filling.
She prepared the filling, having made the pie crust.

I hope that gives you the explanation for the grammatical construction, Norman. (I know it gives me an urge for a piece of pie right now!) Thanks for sending in a great question.

Brain Teaser

Here's the "Brain Teaser" from my Autumn 2004 column: Just about everybody in the English-speaking world has heard the proverb Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home.What exactly does be it ever so humble mean? And what kind of strange grammar is going on in that phrase?

The first correct response was sent in by Linda Rousos of Tucson, Arizona, in the United States. Here's what Linda had to say:

This means that ALTHOUGH your home may BE humble, nothing can compare to it (in the comfort it provides, etc.). It comes from Old English, which used a version of the word we know as albeit. Albeit was written as a phrase, al be it, meaning although it be. Old English apparently used the old subjunctive form, be, in a clause of concession. We still use the subjunctive form of be in other clauses such as Be that as it may . . .

A very, very nice job indeed, Linda! Actually, the phrase al be it, which means although, goes back to Middle English, and in its modern form in a proverb like the one I gave for this Brain Teaser, al has simply been clipped, leaving be it. I congratulate you on a scholarly job well done, Linda!

And now, here's the Brain Teaser for Winter 2004. Look at these mini-dialogues:

A: Did the butcher weigh the chicken?
B: Yep. It weighs 6.5 lbs.

A: How much for this Toyota Camry, please?
B: The Camry sells for $18,300 fully loaded.

Hmm . . . I understand that a butcher can weigh a chicken, so why is it that you can say the chicken weighs 6.5 lbs.? I thought people sell things; things don't sell themselves, do they? So how come it's okay to say that car sells for $18,300? What's going on? How would you explain this to your students?

Please e-mail your answers 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

I'd love to hear from you!

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