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We thought we would lighten things up a bit this week. We hope you enjoy it.

There is a two-letter word that perhaps has more meanings than any other two-letter word, and that word is up. It’s easy to understand up, meaning toward the sky or at the top of the list, but when we awaken in the morning, why do we wake up?

At a meeting, why does a topic come up?
Why do we speak up, why are the officers up for election,
and why is it up to the secretary to write up a report?

We call up our friends.

We brighten up a room and polish up the silver.
We warm up the leftovers and clean up the kitchen.
We lock up the house, and some guys fix up the old car.

People stir up trouble, line up for tickets, work up an appetite,
and think up excuses.

To be dressed is one thing, but to be dressed up is special.

And this up is confusing:
a drain must be opened up because it is stopped up.

We open up a store in the morning, but we close it up at night.
We seem to be pretty mixed up about up!

To be knowledgeable about the proper uses of up, look it up.
In a desk-sized dictionary, it takes up almost one-fourth of the page
and can add up to about thirty definitions.

If you are up to it, you might try building up a list
of the many ways up is used.
It will take up a lot of your time, but if you don’t give up,
you may wind up with a hundred or more.

When it threatens to rain, we say it is clouding up.
When the sun comes out, we say it is clearing up.
When it rains, it wets up the earth.
When it doesn’t rain for a while, things dry up.

One could go on and on, but I’ll wrap it up,
for now my time is up, so … time to shut up.

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Sentence structures are the beams of the building of composition. The stronger and better formed they are, the firmer our communication foundation will be.

Part One of our discussion introduced us to simple and compound sentences. In Part Two, we explored complex and compound-complex sentences. Let’s take a brief look at all four as a recap.

Simple Sentence Compound Sentence
  • one subject, one verb
  • at least two main (independent) clauses
  • no dependent (subordinate) clause
  • joined by a conjunction and a comma or by a semicolon
  • may include other parts of speech (e.g., adjectives, adverbs, objects)

Examples: Simple Sentence
Cats (subject) meow (verb).
The shepherd’s sheep (subject) have wandered (verb) away (adverb).
His fastball (subject) reaches (verb) ninety-nine miles per hour (direct object).

Examples: Compound Sentence
Cats meow (main clause), and dogs bark (main clause).
The shepherd’s sheep have wandered away (main clause), but they will not go far (main clause).
His fastball reaches ninety-nine miles per hour (main clause); his slider hits eighty-eight (main clause).

Complex Sentence Compound-Complex Sentence
  • one main clause, at least one dependent clause (often starting with a word showing reliance, such as when, because, so, and that
  • at least two main clauses, at least one dependent clause

Examples: Complex Sentence
When I grow up (dependent clause), I want to be an astronaut (main clause).
The roads are closed today (main clause) because it’s snowing so much (dependent clause).
I have given you all of my money (main clause), so you will have to wait until tomorrow for the rest (dependent clause).

Examples: Compound-Complex Sentence
When I grow up (dependent clause), I want to be an astronaut (main clause); my sister wants to be a physician (main clause).
The roads are closed today (main clause) because it’s snowing so much (dependent clause), but they might reopen if it stops (main clause).
I have given you all the money (main clause) that I have (dependent clause), so you will have to wait until tomorrow for the rest (dependent clause), and then I will owe no more (main clause).

To complete our review of sentence structures, we’ll next want to consider how to use them together to achieve greater style in our writing.

Applying the Four Types

Good prose skillfully mixes the four sentence types. It also varies their lengths.

Consider the following text using all simple sentences:

Bernice loves the rodeo. Her father was a rancher. Their family had many animals. She grew up around horses. Her father often let her ride them. She became very comfortable with them. In time she could even stay on the broncos. She also learned to rope calves.

This format is forthright, but an overuse of or overreliance on one sentence type can make writing choppy and droning. Let’s see how compound structures can help break the monotony.

Bernice loves the rodeo [simple]. Her father was a rancher, and their family had many animals [compound with conjunction]. She grew up around horses; her father often let her ride them [compound with semicolon]. She became very comfortable with them, and in time she could even stay on the broncos [compound with conjunction]. She also learned to rope calves [simple].

A little bit better. Now let’s look at adding a complex sentence for enhancing effect.

Bernice loves the rodeo [simple]. Because her father was a rancher, their family had many animals [complex]. She grew up around horses; her father often let her ride them [compound]. She became very comfortable with them, and in time she could even stay on the broncos [compound]. She also learned to rope calves [simple].

Now let’s insert a compound-complex structure to complete our transformation from a mechanical, repetitive paragraph to a more stylized one with all four sentence types.

Bernice loves the rodeo [simple]. Because her father was a rancher, their family had many animals [complex]. She grew up around horses, and her father often let her ride them, which made her very comfortable with them [compound-complex]. In time she could even stay on the broncos; she also learned to rope calves [compound].

Crisp composition can take many forms. You might have a short paragraph of all simple sentences followed by one with a few complex sentences. You can start content with two compound sentences and finish it with a compound-complex sentence. The possibilities are endless: You need only understand the four types and practice their combined sound and flow to become a master of melodious writing.

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If you think you know your English, Ammon Shea’s Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation might make you question your most cherished notions. The book has a lot to offer grammar sticklers with open minds, but it will challenge—and enrage—most traditionalists.

People who care about language tend to deplore the slovenly habits of their contemporaries. The feeling persists that English is in an unprecedented state of decline. For a little perspective, consider this: “Our Language is extremely imperfect; that its daily Improvements are by no means in proportion to its daily Corruptions; and the Pretenders to polish and refine it, have chiefly multiplied Abuses and Absurdities; and, that in many Instances, it offends against every Part of Grammar.”

It has been three hundred years since Jonathan Swift wrote those words. Swift’s dismay has been echoed by grammarians in every succeeding generation. “The idea that there must be a way to get all the right-thinking people together to do something about the abuse of English,” Shea says, “is an idea that has almost five hundred years of failure under its belt.”

The point of Bad English is that despite all the wailing, “English is not dying. It is behaving exactly as it should, which is to say it is changing. [But] while many people accept that our language is subject to change, they want to dictate what sort of changes will take place.”

And this: “There is no aspect of the English language that has been immune to change. Meanings and spellings shift, word order changes, and punctuation comes and goes.” Bad English starts with the assumption that “prescribing how people should and should not use their language” is both futile and reprehensible.

That premise will upset many readers. But Shea is a language scholar of impeccable credentials, and he makes his case with daunting and compelling historical evidence. Shakespeare wrote “between you and I” (should be between you and me). Thomas Jefferson used it’s to mean “belonging to it” (should be its). And Jonathan Swift used ain’t.

Shea is an agitator. The book is peppered with seeming “mistakes” that Shea seems to have planted to provoke fussbudgets. For instance, he wastes no time using and defending the singular they, stating in the introduction, “I have opted to use the gender-neutral they in the singular.” But Shea is just getting started.

See if this bothers you: “It is hard to not admire Lienau’s rhetorical flourishes.” Note the deliberate use of the hideous to not, so beloved by grammar-challenged Millennials, so abhorred by their elders. Shea uses to not any time he has the chance, and it seems downright perverse. To not may be technically grammatical, but it is coarse and jarring. The traditional not to simply sounds better.

Shea baits the reader elsewhere with “a dog who” (instead of a dog that), “for he who utters” (instead of for him who utters), “each were” (instead of each was), among many others. To language watchdogs, these are so obviously wrong that one might wonder if Shea’s editors failed him. Alas, it’s probably worse: one gets the queasy feeling that the author is predicting what “good English” will look like in another generation or two.

Shea ends Bad English with a twenty-eight-page list of everyday words that “have been frowned upon at some point in the past few hundred years.” Some examples: anyhow, celebrity, donate, drapes, escalate, hospitalize, lesser, mansion, ovation, reliable, underprivileged. Shea’s point is clear: these words no longer bother anyone, and it seems odd that they ever did so.

We pedants have to be more philosophical and less churlish as we realize that many of our cherished rules are becoming obsolete. Like it or not, if enough people say “They is coming,” it will become acceptable and, eventually, unremarkable.

—a book report by our late writer and editor Tom Stern

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Understanding sentence structures helps us shape the art of good writing. In Part One of our discussion, we identified the four foundational sentence constructions and reviewed the first two, simple and compound sentences.

We’ll next look at complex and compound-complex sentences.

Complex Sentence

A complex sentence has one independent main clause and at least one dependent clause, a clause that cannot stand alone as a sentence. Dependent clauses usually begin with a word such as when, because, or that to indicate their reliance.

Examples:
when we go to school
because it is raining
that are collected

In complex sentences, dependent clauses function as sentence modifiers:

Examples:
When we go to school (dependent clause), we will receive the assignment (main clause).
We cannot go out (main clause) because it is raining (dependent clause).
The team owners give the star all of the accolades (main clause) that should be shared among several players (dependent clause), which causes unspoken tension in the locker room (dependent clause).

Compound-Complex Sentence

A compound-complex sentence has at least two independent main clauses and at least one dependent clause:

While Sheila painted (dependent clause), Ricardo installed the new shelves (main clause); they wanted to finish as much as they could before dinner (main clause).
The game stops (main clause) if it rains (dependent clause), but it resumes (main clause) if the rain lets up (dependent clause).
The people [who are still in line (dependent clause)] will have to wait another hour (main clause), and even then they might not get in (main clause).

Avoiding Loose/Protracted Sentences

Complex sentences give us a tool for avoiding loose and protracted compound constructions similar to those we considered in Part One. Such constructions can occur when we string multiple clauses together.

Loose/Protracted: The Amazon rainforest is the world’s biggest, and it is larger than the next two largest rainforests combined, and it covers an area about the size of the forty-eight contiguous United States.
Better as Complex: The Amazon rainforest, which is the world’s biggest, is larger than the next two rainforests combined, covering an area about the size of the forty-eight contiguous United States. 

Loose/Protracted: She is a prolific corporate attorney, and she earns a notable salary, but she works long hours, and she has little time on the weekends. 
Better as Compound-Complex: She is a prolific corporate attorney who earns a notable salary, but she works long hours, leaving little time on the weekends. 

In Part Three of “Becoming Savvy with Sentence Structures,” we will recap the four sentences types and how to use them for style and effect in our writing.

Pop Quiz

Using what you’ve learned in this article, identify whether each example is a complex sentence or a compound-complex sentence.

1. I won’t go unless she goes too.
a. Complex
b. Compound-Complex

2. Because I am young, I am impetuous, and because I am impetuous, I make others aware of my youth.
a. Complex
b. Compound-Complex

3. The hourglass will run out if the wizard does not soon return with his potion.
a. Complex
b. Compound-Complex

4. The teacher, who is also my neighbor, is leading tonight’s roundtable discussion; it will begin at around seven p.m.
a. Complex
b. Compound-Complex

Pop Quiz Answers

1. I won’t go unless she goes too.
a. Complex (The sentence has one main clause and one dependent clause.) 

2. Because I am young, I am impetuous, and because I am impetuous, I make others aware of my youth.
b. Compound-Complex (The sentence has two main clauses and two independent clauses.) 

3. The hourglass will run out if the wizard does not soon return with his potion.
a. Complex (The sentence has one main clause and one dependent clause.) 

4. The teacher, who is also my neighbor, is leading tonight’s roundtable discussion; it will begin at around seven p.m.
b. Compound-Complex (The sentence has two main clauses and one dependent clause.)

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Should we say, “What does Gloria and I have in common?” or “What do Gloria and I have in common?”

If you turn the question around to place the subjects first, you would say, “Gloria and I does/do have what in common.”

Gloria and I are the subjects so we need a plural verb. Which verb is plural? We would say she does but we would say they do. So do is the plural verb. Therefore, the answer is, “What do Gloria and I have in common?”

Try this example: “What does/do the children look like in their costumes?”

If you turn the question around to place the subjects first, you would say, “The children does/do look like what in their costumes.”

Because children is a plural subject, we again need the plural verb do.

Try this example: “What does/do the coach expect from the team?

Turning the question around, we realize that our subject is coach, which is singular. Therefore, we would say, “What does the coach expect from the team?”

Pop Quiz

1. What does/do she look like without makeup?
2. What does/do you and your husband think of the movie?
3. What does/do the team uniform look like?
4. What does/do the team members think of the new coach?

Pop Quiz Answers

1. What does she look like without makeup?
2. What do you and your husband think of the movie?
3. What does the team uniform look like?
4. What do the team members think of the new coach?

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The art of writing resembles any trade that begins with the basics and evolves into skillful applications of them. A key component of precise and eloquent composition is understanding sentence structures.

English comprises four foundational sentence constructions: simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex. In part one of our discussion, we’ll review simple and compound sentences.

Simple Sentence

A simple sentence has one subject and one verb. It does not have a dependent (subordinate) clause, one that cannot stand alone as a sentence (e.g., when the boys return). Simple sentences also may include parts of speech such as direct and indirect objects, adjectives, adverbs, and infinitive and prepositional phrases.

Dogs (subject) bark (verb).
Regina (subject) gave (verb) her sister (indirect object) a card (direct object).
Antonio (subject) painted (verb) his old bike (direct object) red (adjective) yesterday (adverb).
Inga’s brown dog (subject) likes (verb) to sleep (infinitive phrase) on his side (prepositional phrase).

The subject (indicated by a single underline in the three sentences that follow), the verb (bold), or both may be compound in a simple sentence:

The moon and the stars came into view.
The pitcher threw six innings and hit a double.
The king and the queen each raised a hand and waved.

We can change syntactical positions in a simple sentence:

Above the law they are not.
There was no response to the question. (In this sentence, the word there is an expletive, a filler word for emphasizing the phrase no response to the question; without the expletive, the simple sentence would be No response to the question was given.)
Her parting glare he ignored.

Simple sentences can be further categorized as statements, commands, requests, questions, and exclamations:

Statement: You write well.
Command: Write well.
Request: Would you please write well?
Question: Do you write well?
Exclamation: You write well!

Compound Sentence

A compound sentence has at least two main (i.e., independent) clauses joined by a conjunction and a comma or by a semicolon:

Antonio painted his old bike red yesterday, and he will paint his scooter the same color tomorrow.
She writes well, but she is still improving at math.
The dreams of my youth have passed; the hopes of my future await.

For strong technique, we want to avoid compound sentences with loose and protracted constructions. This can sometimes happen when we string multiple clauses together.

Loose/Protracted: Angelique went to the store, and then she stopped at the post office, and next she picked up the kids.
Better (simple sentence with a compound predicate, i.e., verb or verb phrase): Angelique went to the store, stopped at the post office, and picked up the kids.

Loose/Protracted: The book was on the table, and Jason saw it, and he picked it up and started reading it.
Better (two independent clauses joined by a semicolon): Jason saw the book on the table; he picked it up and started reading it.

Loose/Protracted: They owned the team, and they were ambitious people, and they invested profits back into the franchise.
Better (consolidated simple sentence): The ambitious team owners invested profits back into the franchise.

In Part Two of “Becoming Savvy with Sentence Structures,” we will explore how to recognize and use complex and compound-complex sentences. Also watch for Part Three, in which we’ll look at how to apply the four sentence types to achieve style and effect in our writing.

Pop Quiz

Using what you’ve learned in this article, identify whether each example is a simple sentence or a compound sentence.

1. I want to learn how to play the piano this year.
a. Simple
b. Compound

2. Next to greatness they will be, and behind mediocrity they will be not.
a. Simple
b. Compound

3. The jury has convened; the hour of decision is near.
a. Simple
b. Compound

4. Make sure you get to school on time!
a. Simple
b. Compound

Pop Quiz Answers

1. I want to learn to play the piano this year.
a. Simple (The sentence has a subject, a verb, and a direct object, the infinitive phrase to learn to play the piano this year.) 

2. Next to greatness they will be, and behind mediocrity they will be not.
b. Compound (The sentence has two independent clauses joined by a comma and the coordinating conjunction and.) 

3. The jury has convened; the hour of decision is near.
b. Compound (The sentence has two independent clauses joined by a semicolon.) 

4. Make sure you get to school on time!
a. Simple (The sentence has a subject, the understood you; a verb; and a direct object, the verb phrase get to school on time. This simple sentence is a command.)

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Any and some can be synonymous; that is, they may have the same meaning. Both may be used in affirmative or negative questions:
Examples:
Will you have any?
Will you have some?
Won’t you have any?
Won’t you have some?

Generally, it is better to use some, not any, for affirmative statements and answers.
Correct: You may have some. Yes, I’d like some.
Incorrect: You may have any.

For negative statements and answers, it usually makes more sense to use any.
Examples:
I don’t want any trouble.
I can’t have any pets in my apartment.
Awkward: I can’t have some pets in my apartment.

Note that it would be fine to leave out any in the above examples entirely.
Examples:
I don’t want trouble.
I can’t have pets in my apartment.

Make sure you don’t use no when you mean any or you will have what is called a double negative.
Incorrect: I don’t want no apple pie.

Pop Quiz

Which of the following sentences are correct?

1. Would you like some ice cream with your chocolate cake?
2. Would you like any ice cream with your chocolate cake?
3. I would like any ice cream with my chocolate cake.
4. I don’t care for some ice cream with my chocolate cake.
5. I don’t care for ice cream with my chocolate cake.
6. I don’t care for any ice cream with my chocolate cake.
7. I don’t want no ice cream with my chocolate cake.

Pop Quiz Answers

1. Correct
2. Correct
3. Incorrect
4. I don’t care for any ice cream would be better.
5. Correct
6. Correct
7. Incorrect

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Sometimes in our writing or speaking we will drop a word or words that are needed for grammatical completeness, but they are still understood when they are left out.

Examples
Do you think [that] she is correct?
His brother and [his] attorney, Chris, will represent him.
I tend to watch football more than [I watch] basketball.

Such sentences will typically be clear to an audience. However, occasionally an omission can cloud the meaning. Ensuring clarity calls for knowing when and when not to withhold words.

The Missing That

The pronoun that can usually be left out before a noun clause with little loss of meaning, as in “Do you think [that] she is correct?” (The noun clause she is correct is the direct object of the main clause do you think.)

However, in certain instances omitting that between a main clause and a noun clause can make them seem to merge, potentially causing confusion about where one concludes and the other begins:

Riley felt my pulse was quicker than usual.

While this expression may still be understood, some audiences might at first interpret the noun phrase my pulse as the object of the first (main) clause rather than the subject of the second (noun) clause that is the object in its entirety. In such a case, one might have to re-read the sentence. For this reason, including that even as a subtle addition separates the clauses for greater precision.

Compound Structures

An omission should not obscure a compound expression (two ideas in a word, a phrase, or a sentence).

Example
My friend and adviser suggested I get more sleep to help lower my stress.

Without a specific person being named, we’re unsure of whether my friend and adviser comprises one person or two.

If we are referring to one person, a better sentence would be My friend advised me to get more sleep to lower my stress. If we mean two people, we would write My friend and my adviser suggested I get more sleep to lower my stress.(To remove all doubt, this statement could further be written as My friend along with my adviser suggested …)

Misapplied omission also can lead to unfinished—and ungrammatical—compound structures.

Incomplete: He has not and never will be one to get frustrated.
Complete: He has not been and never will be one to get frustrated.

Incomplete: The revisions neither subtract nor add to the proposal’s main points.
Complete: The revisions neither subtract from nor add to the proposal’s main points.

Unclear Comparisons

Omission commonly appears in comparisons. We would be correct in believing an audience would understand comparison sentences such as:

This problem is as challenging as that one [is challenging].
The air is more humid this month than [it was] last [month].

When comparisons include words such as than or as, however, some omissions can leave readers uncertain about which word or words are missing. In these sentences, we should determine our intended meaning and include all words needed to achieve it.

Vague Sentence: The Turners visit the museum more than the Tylers.
Clear Meaning 1: The Turners visit the museum more than they visit the Tylers.
Clear Meaning 2: The Turners visit the museum more than the Tylers do.

Similarly, omitting the word other in than or as clauses also can cause something to be illogically compared to itself:

The Burj Khalifa is taller than any building.

Omitting other in this example would suggest that the Burj Khalifa is not or might not be a building. A clearer sentence would be The Burj Khalifa is taller than any other building.

When done with thought and care, leaving certain words out can offer our writing both brevity and technique. We just want to make sure we’re not also making our readers feel left out of the best of our thoughts.

Pop Quiz

Using what you’ve learned in this article, choose the sentence that makes the best use of omission in each pair.

1a. Rob thinks Ryanna is smart.
1b. Rob finds her approach reaps results.

2a. His boss and best friend loaned him money.
2b. His boss and his best friend loaned him money.

3a. Sheila plays with friends more than Tanika.
3b. Sheila plays with friends more than Tanika does.

4a. The Giants are craftier than any baseball team.
4b. The Giants are craftier than any other baseball team.

Pop Quiz Answers

Correct answers appear in bold type.

1a. Rob thinks Ryanna is smart. (Omitting that does not create any confusion over where the main clause ends and the objective noun clause begins; omitting that in 1b can result in such confusion.)
1b. Rob finds her approach reaps results.

2a. His boss and best friend loaned him money.
2b. His boss and his best friend loaned him money. (Because the sentence is in the past tense, 2b more clearly conveys whether the boss and the friend are one person or two.)

3a. Sheila plays with friends more than Tanika.
3b. Sheila plays with friends more than Tanika does. (This sentence has one clear meaning while 3a is open to different interpretations.)

4a. The Giants are craftier than any baseball team.
4b. The Giants are craftier than any other baseball team. (4a leaves open the possibility that the Giants could be something other than a baseball team.)

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Let’s welcome baseball season with this item by our late veteran copy editor and word nerd Tom Stern.

Baseball’s back. I realize a lot of people don’t care. To them, sports fans are knuckle draggers who probably also read comic books while chewing gum with their mouths open.

But baseball isn’t called “the grand old game” for nothing; it’s been a staple of American popular culture since the 19th century. Renowned authors from Ring Lardner to Bernard Malamud to John Updike have sung its praises.

But now let’s talk about Jay Hanna “Dizzy” Dean—because not many people do anymore. The Hall of Fame pitcher from the Deep South would have been 109 years old this past January. “Ol’ Diz” was a tall, rangy right-hander who was discovered on a Texas sandlot. During the Great Depression, an era of fearsome sluggers and high-scoring games, Dean dominated with an unhittable fastball and unshakable self-confidence. Of his cockiness he once said, “It ain’t braggin’ if you can back it up.”

From 1933 to ’36, Dean put together four spectacular seasons. He won 30 games in 1934, a feat that has been accomplished only once since. Diz was beaned in the ’34 World Series by an infielder’s throw while sliding into second base. A newspaper headline the next day said, “X-ray of Dean’s Head Shows Nothing.”

He went on to become a popular radio and TV sportscaster who visited mayhem upon the language to the delight—sometimes outrage—of his listeners.

The St. Louis Board of Education tried to yank Diz off the air. His response: “Let the teachers teach English and I will teach baseball. There is a lot of people in the United States who say ‘isn’t,’ and they ain’t eating.”

Dean’s calculated simplemindedness led to on-air pronouncements such as: “He nonchalantly walks back to the dugout in disgust” and “Don’t fail to miss tomorrow’s game.” Both sentences are variations on his clueless-rube routine: In the first one, he uses “nonchalantly” in place of “slowly” (the logical choice). Since both can mean “unhurriedly,” he figures they must be interchangeable. In the second, he makes us all dizzy trying to navigate three negatives (“don’t,” “fail,” “miss”)—whereupon we realize he just told us to miss tomorrow’s game!

One of Diz’s most infamous butcheries was, “He slud into third.” Dean vehemently defended “slud” over “slid,” insisting the latter “just ain’t natural…‘Slud’ is something more than ‘slid.’ It means sliding with great effort.”

In his prime, Diz once said, “I know who’s the best pitcher I ever see and it’s old Satchel Paige, that big, lanky colored boy.” And this: “If Satchel and I were pitching on the same team, we would clinch the pennant by July fourth and go fishing until World Series time.” Dean made these statements a decade before African-Americans integrated major-league baseball in 1947. Reading those two quotes, I was heartened by the generosity of spirit peeking out from behind Dean’s shroud of buffoonery.

Maybe Ol’ Diz knew the score in more ways than one. Later in life he said, “I ain’t what I used to be, but who the hell is?” Could that there Shakespeare fella have said it any better?

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We recently reviewed how negative constructions both serve English expression and muddy it more than positive constructions will. Another aspect of English negation that deserves a closer look is the double negative.

To convey something is incorrect or untrue, English offers words such as no, not, nothing, barely, scarcely, and hardly, as well as terms with cancelling prefixes such as improbable and incomplete. In concise writing, we will use only one of these words to form a negative statement:

I don’t have time for supper.
I hardly remember that name.
They had nothing to say about the subject.

A double negative includes two of these words:

I don’t have no time for supper.
I can’t hardly remember that name.
They didn’t have nothing to say about the subject.

In certain contexts, the double negative can accommodate English by aiming to produce a positive thought or a less negative one, as in the following examples:

I guess it’s not impossible.
Not a year passes when she does not think of how they won the championship game.
It’s not that he didn’t like it. 

However, beyond being redundant and unclear, a double negative can suggest an absence of eloquence, as well as conviction. Consider the same preceding sentences without the double negative:

I guess it’s possible. Or, more succinctly, It’s possible.
Every year she thinks of how they won the championship game.
He thought it was so-so.

Interpreted more closely, a double negative also can turn a thought intended to negate into one that confirms:

I don’t have no time for supper. (To not have no time for supper could mean “I do have time …”)
I can’t hardly remember that name. (To not remember that name hardly could mean “I can remember …”)

As we put forth in our last article on the negative, using positive, more-direct language will almost always achieve more with less. Like a loose stitch in our quilt of expression, the double negative may still work its way into our writing and speech, but with a little focus and discipline, we have the tools to tighten the seam.

Pop Quiz

Using what you’ve learned in this article, choose the better sentence from each pair.

1a. It’s not like it’s unheard of.
1b. It’s possible.

2a. I do fifty push-ups a day.
2b. Not a day goes by when I don’t do at least fifty push-ups.

3a. It’s not that she doesn’t want to go.
3b. She can’t go because she’s busy.

4a. We hardly watch movies anymore.
4b. We don’t hardly watch movies anymore.

Pop Quiz Answers

1b. It’s possible.

2a. I do fifty push-ups a day.

3b. She can’t go because she’s busy.

4a. We hardly watch movies anymore.

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