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July 1, 2001 - Listeners' Questions About Grammar - 2002-01-31

AA: This is Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble. This week on Wordmaster -- answers to some of your questions about grammar.

RS: And providing those answers is Jeff Glauner [pronounced glonner], an English professor at Park University in Missouri.

AA: We start with some questions from our friend Elkhan Tahirov in Baku, Azerbaijan. He first of all would like to know what does 'would' mean in this sentence: "White House spokesman Ari Fleischer would not comment on the latest allegation."


GLAUNER: "'Would not comment' -- it seems as if it's within his rights to not comment. Often, although 'refused to' would hit the nail on the head a little better, 'would not' sounds a little nicer."

AA: "And grammatically that is correct."

GLAUNER: "Absolutely. And of course if his political opponent said it, he would say 'refused to.'" (laughter)

RS: "Right. He goes on to ask another question, and he presents another sentence, and that sentence is, 'Our nation must rise above a house divided.' Now he wants to know what the difference is between 'our nation must rise above a house divided' and 'our nation must rise above a divided house.'"

GLAUNER: "The difference is Abraham Lincoln. Abraham Lincoln was a very fine speaker and knew the value of a modifier placed in a little different spot. He borrowed this, of course, from the Bible, the book of Mark: 'If a house be divided, it cannot stand.' Lincoln changed that to say 'a nation divided cannot stand.' So there is no difference whatsoever in the meaning between the two sentences. However, the style is different."

RS: "And the grammar is fine?"

GLAUNER: "Technically speaking. If someone goes around speaking with adjectives after nouns, they're going to be accused of being incorrect in terms of their grammar. If it's a single adjective it should go before the noun in the normal sentence."

AA: "All right, the next question from Elkhan Tehirov. He wants know the difference between these two sentences: 'Blanton is the second man to be convicted of taking part in the 1963 bombing' and 'Blanton is the second man convicted of taking part in the 1963 bombing.'"

GLAUNER: "Both are correct. In American English especially we like things to be efficient and as succinct as possible. So 'to be convicted' is longer and we don't have to have the 'to be' in it in order to understand, and therefore often we will leave out parts of such phrases."

RS: Next, Lynn Dai writes from Nanjing, China: "I came across this sentence: 'In every society there are norms that say individuals how they are supposed to behave.' I think 'say' is not properly used," the letter goes on, "but I don't know how to correct it."

AA: The way to correct it in this case, says Jeff Glauner, is to use "tell" instead of "say."


GLAUNER: "'Tell' has something of a command attached to it. So in this particular sentence you can't apply it generally to every sentence or every time 'say' and 'tell' comes along - but in this particular case there is a certain implied command going on here, telling the individuals how they are supposed to behave, whereas 'saying' doesn't imply that command."

AA: "So, like, let's say, a constitution would 'say' how individuals are supposed to behave, wouldn't it?"

GLAUNER: "Actually 'tell' would probably work better there too if you get right down to it. You wouldn't want to say a constitution will 'say individuals how,' you'd say 'tell individuals how they are supposed to behave.'"

AA: "Well maybe the second part of Lynn Dai's question here might be a little easier to explain."

GLAUNER: "It might be. That one is next to impossible. Like I say, it's a miracle that anyone learns the difference between 'tell' and 'say.'"

AA: "So the second part of the question here is, what's the error in this sentence: 'Physical fitness activities can lead to an alarming variety of injuries if participants push themselves greatly hard.'"

GLAUNER: "OK, now, again, technically speaking, the grammar is not incorrect. However, the use of the word 'greatly' there is not something that we would ever say in American English and I don't know of any particular system that would use it. Usually we would put the word 'too' in there -- 'too hard.'"

AA: "t-o-o."

GLAUNER: "Right, instead of 'greatly.' Now that comes back to that English efficiency and succinctness. We like the smaller word instead of the bigger word. Also we don't like two things that look like adverbs right together if we can avoid them."

AA: Jeff Glauner at Park University in Missouri, where he's busy organizing a national meeting of the Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar. It's later this month, and you can find the group on the Web at www dot a-t-e-g dot o-r-g.

RS: Send Avi and me your questions. Write to VOA Wordmaster, Washington DC two-zero-two-three-seven USA or With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.

MUSIC: "Gotta Say It, Gonna Tell It Like It Is"/Marvin Gaye