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Grammatically Speaking, Summer 2004

by Richard Firsten

Posted June 2004

Hi Richard Firsten.

I have two questions, rather than answers, that I'm hoping you can explain.

In discussing adverbs of manner, I told my Level 5 Writing students that English doesn't add -ly to the adjective hard to form an adverb of manner. They quickly pointed out that there is an adverb hardly. Their example was I can hardly hear you. Of course, I replied that the adverbs hard and hardly have two different meanings, and I explained them. However, I made this mistake. I added the example I hardly work, and I told the students that hardly was an adverb of frequency. I know that hardly ever is considered an adverb of frequency, but I didn't use ever in my example. How do I explain this? And what kind of adverb is hardly when it is used with the meaning almost not?

My second question is about adjective word order. I presented the order opinion before fact to my students (i.e., size, age, color, nationality, material). No problem thus far until they gave me this example: The beautiful and small quiet town of . . . It sounds okay to me, but it doesn't follow the order. What do you think?

I appreciate your help and love your column. Thanks!

Debbie Cullen

Hillsborough Community College and American Language Academy, Florida, United States

Dear Debbie Cullen,

In answer to your first question, you didn't make a mistake by giving your students the example I hardly work, but you didn't get it quite right in saying hardly is an adverb of frequency. You're right that the phrase hardly ever is considered an adverb of frequency, but hardly by itself is called an adverb of degree. Adverbs of degree commonly answer such questions as How much?, How far?, or To what extent?

A: How much do you work on that project now?

B: I hardly work on it these days, to tell you the truth.

Some other adverbs of degree are almost, barely, a bit, quite, and somewhat.

Now, to answer your second question, Debbie, the first thing I'd like to mention is that the writing style of that phrase isn't as nice as it might be. It might be preferable to say, The beautiful, small, quiet town of . . . without the conjunction and. Anyway, that's a stylistic matter and not the main issue.

English adjectives can fall into 18 "slots," or categories, with No. 18 being the farthest away from the head noun. Another way to look at these slots is that the numbers go in descending order. In these 18 slots, opinion (beautiful) is No. 15, size (small) is No. 14, and condition (quiet) is No. 12. As you can see, these adjectives are indeed in the right order. There you have it! I suppose it sounded okay to you because, in fact, it is okay.

Dear Richard,

Are for and of interchangeable in the following contexts?

There is no evidence of/for foul play (police report)
There is no evidence for/of heart failure. (radiologist's report)


John Shevland

Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Dear John,

Thanks for this interesting question. In both of your examples, the prepositions are not interchangeable. The preposition to use is of. Native speakers use of if the sentence continues with a noun phrase (e.g., foul play, heart failure) that represents what's being investigated. Of is also used to show that something happened, is happening, or will happen, or that something existed, exists, or will exist:

We don't have enough evidence of foul play/of a plot.

Native speakers normally use for if the sentence continues with a verb phrase that explains a reaction to something or an intention. There are two ways that the verb phrase can be created:

There's no evidence for holding the suspect any longer than we already have.

There's no evidence for us to hold the suspect any longer than we already have.

There's no evidence for doing another invasive procedure on the patient.

There's no evidence for us to do another invasive procedure on the patient.

We also use for when discussing an effect or reaction caused by some evidence that's been presented:

We don't have enough evidence for an arrest/an inquiry.

There you go, John.

Dear Mr. Firsten,

What is do in the following: Till death do us part? Is it a verb or an auxiliary? I think it is neither, otherwise it would be in the third-person singular.

Max H. Michel

Port-au-Prince, Haiti

Dear Mr. Michel,

When I read your question, I started grinning from ear to ear because I knew what a can of grammatical worms this little question was opening! There's a great deal that can be said to answer your question, but I'll try to keep it as brief as possible.

The question really needs to be answered in two parts. Here's Part 1: From the days of Old English (around the 10th century) to the 18th century, do was quite commonly used as a tense marker for the simple present and simple past. In this use, it was always unstressed. So, instead of saying I went, one could say I did go; instead of saying she knoweth, one could say she doth know. (Note that in many dialects of Middle and Early Modern English, ­-eth was used instead of -s or -es as the suffix for third-person singular.) One very commonly known sentence from Shakespeare also uses do as a tense marker: "Methinks thou dost protest too much." So that's why do appears in the sentence Till death do us part.As the centuries progressed, English speakers began to consider this use of do to be meaningless and inefficient, and eventually it fell out of use in almost all dialects of the language.

Now here's Part 2: You focused your question on the fact that do doesn't seem to be a verb or an auxiliary in your example sentence. I agree with your analysis as do is in fact a tense marker, but I have to explain why it isn't in third-person singular to agree with its subject, death.

We're entering the realm of a verb form called the formulaic or archaic subjunctive, which uses only the basic form of the verb—in other words, no -s or -es appears on the end for third-person singular in the simple present. I would guess that, being from Haiti, you speak French, so you are certainly aware of the subjunctive in that language. English used to have a subjunctive that worked very much in the same way that the French subjunctive works in a phrase such as quoi que ce soit. In modern English, this phrase would be translated as whatever (it may be), but in the archaic subjunctive, one would say, "Whatever (it be)."

The reason for this is that the subjunctive shows that something is not real?at least not yet. When someone says, "It is," that shows that something exists, that it is real (the indicative mood). When someone says, "It may be," or "It be" in the archaic form, they are only implying that it might exist at some point in time (the subjunctive mood).

The formulaic or archaic subjunctive can be found in many sentences that are referred to as pat phrases, which are throwbacks to earlier forms of English. Other examples of its lingering use are the powers that be, Long live the Queen! and Suffice it to say . . .

In the sentence Till death do us part, both forms are at work: the archaic use of do as a tense marker and the archaic subjunctive. (I have a feeling you weren't expecting this much in the answer, were you?) Merci de votre question, Monsieur Michel!

Dear Mr. Firsten,
Recently while browsing through a grammar book (I can't now tell you whose) in search of something else, I found that the author advocates using that for restrictive clauses andwhich for nonrestrictive. That seems nice and tidy and very helpful to the reader. Does it always work?

Sheila Monk

Richland, Missouri, United States

Dear Ms. Monk,

Yes, it always works! The author you refer to has given you the traditional rule. There are quite a few people who don't pay much attention to the rule anymore and interchange thatand which, but I'm not sure that this is widely accepted yet. One thing that hasn't been pointed out is that if you're talking about a person, the preferred word is who.

Here are examples of the rule in play:

The plant that was used in that poisoning case was oleander. (restrictive)

Oleander, which grows all over the world, has very poisonous roots. (nonrestrictive)

Jean Kelso, who used oleander to kill her husband, was convicted of murder.(nonrestrictive)

By the way, note that commas always come before and after a nonrestrictive clause of this type.

Thanks for writing in, Ms. Monk!

Brain Teaser

Here's the Brain Teaser from Essential Teacher, Spring 2004: Is it teeth marks or tooth marks? Only one is correct. Which is it, and what’s the rule if there is one?

The first correct reply was sent in by Evelyn Uyemura of El Camino College, Torrance, California, in the United States. Here’s what Evelyn wrote:

I say it's tooth marks, no matter how many teeth made the marks. The rule is that when a noun is used as an adjective, the singular form is used. Thus we don't use teethpaste buttoothpaste, and we don't put our shoes in a shoesbox but a shoebox, and we don't buy our books at a booksstore but a bookstore. (This being English, there are exceptions, of course. We keep our clothes in a clothes closet because there is no singular with the same meaning as clothes.)

You hit the nail right on the head, Evelyn! We can add to this by saying that the first element in a noun adjunct (two nouns written as separate words, like post office) or a compound noun (two nouns written as one, like bedroom), which, as you said, acts as an adjective, is never made plural since adjectives are never made plural in English. Thank you for such a clear, succinct answer, Evelyn.

Some more examples that clearly show how the first element is never pluralized are as follows:

  • the light from the stars = starlight
  • a player for CDs = a CD player
  • a kennel for dogs = a dog kennel

There are some exceptions, of course, as Evelyn pointed out. They usually occur when the first element normally appears in the plural:

  • the arms race
  • a sports car
  • the appropriations committee

And then there are the hyphenated examples:

  • a six-foot-high fence
  • a three-year-old child
  • a 600-lb. gorilla
  • a ten-dollar bill

Before giving you the Brain Teaser for this column, I’d like to say a few more things about the Brain Teaser Evelyn answered so well. I have rarely gotten so many responses followed up with second responses after I informed readers that their answers weren’t exactly right. Some respondents were adamant that it’s acceptable to say teeth marks until I privately sent them the grammatical reason for tooth marks and offered other examples. There’s been quite a fascinating debate over this Brain Teaser!

I think the confusion stems from the fact that the Brain Teaser dealt with an irregular noun as the first element. If that first element is a regular noun, which uses the plural marker -s or -es, native speakers never feel comfortable pluralizing it. Nobody would argue that bedsroom or starslight is okay. But because that plural marker is missing in irregular nouns and is replaced with an internal change, it doesn’t "sound" so bad, especially if the item in question is a low-frequency term such as tooth marks. But what about feet prints? Would you accept that? I don’t think so! Probably because it’s a higher frequency term.

I want to thank everybody who wrote in for giving me a very stimulating debate!

Now here’s the Brain Teaser for this issue. Look at the following sentence: Marta works too hard, she does. Why did the speaker add …she does, and what do we call this?

Please e-mail your answers to, or send them 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!