English Plus+ News, April 2001
We have written on this subject in our February 1999 Newsletter, but we still get folks asking us about this subject.
At English Plus+ we probably get more questions asking about grammar checkers than anything else. Grammar checkers are useful tools. We at English Plus++ normally use one when we write anything we think might be important. However, they are limited. They are, in fact, more limited than spell checkers. The limitations have nothing to do with technology or software. The limitations are caused by the nature of grammar itself.
If you are really stuck, for example, and are not sure which "compliment" word is the one you need, you can check a dictionary or look it up in Grammar Slammer Deluxe which lists nearly 1200 commonly confused words. Checking spelling with a computer is really pretty simple.
Grammar is different. Grammar involves meaning and intent. We are all familiar with people who do not speak whatever our native language may be and are learning our language. They may put the right words together but what they say either makes no sense or is not spoken the way a native would say it. That is because language is more than stringing words together, it is expressing thoughts by arranging words grammatically. And that grammar is unique in each language.
A grammar checker that checks every little detail would be annoying. But that would insure that our meaning gets across. A programmer could design a grammar checker that asks, "Are you sure that you want 'John' to be the subject? Are you sure that John is doing the loving?" While probably no one would design a grammar checker to ask that question, there are many other questions a checker does ask.
John loves Mary more than me.This is the kind of thing that a grammar checker will often ask you about. Why? To make sure that you are saying the correct thing. Yes, correct grammar is part of the issue, but part of the issue is what you mean to say.
John loves Mary more than I.
The problem here is what you mean. Only you the writer know what you mean. A grammar checker can only guide you. You still have to decide. The main reason we originally wrote Grammar Slammer was to help people with those questions that the grammar checkers ask.
Perhaps, your grammar checker would ask you:
"Do you want 'John loves Mary more than me?' or do you want it so say 'John loves Mary more than I?"You might not be sure of which is better or which tells what you want to say. You can quickly find this in the Grammar Slammer index under Than with Pronouns. There you would find what you need to know. There it would tell you:
Most of the time when we use a comparison using than or as, we leave words out. This is technically called an elliptical clause--a clause with an ellipsis. An ellipsis is words left out.
Look at it this way. There is a difference between the two following sentences. Both are grammatically correct; they just mean two different things.
He likes you more than me.
He likes you more than I.
Think of what words are left out:He likes you more than I do.
(I is the subject)
He likes you more than he likes me.
(Me is the direct object)
Now you have something to go on. But can you see why the grammar checker has to ask a question and not simply "make a correction"? The grammar checker doesn't know your relationship to John and Mary! Only you do! Only you, the writer, can provide the meaning.
The grammar is a tool to help you convey the meaning. The grammar checker can help you make the meaning easier to understand. But ultimately, even with the best grammar checker, the meaning is ultimately what you want to say it is.
A Few Quick Examples of Sentences Ending in Prepositions
Last time we cited the King James Bible--and none of those translators would want to blame God for bad grammar!
This time we call your attention to Shakespeare's most famous speech, the "To be or not to be" soliloquy from Hamlet. This speech has two instances of ending thoughts with prepositions, and there are only seven sentences in the whole speech.
"By a sleep to say we endThis is a clause inserted into a sentence but it does express a complete thought and ends with the word "to." Hamlet also says in the same speech:
The heartaches and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to."
"Who would these fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death--
The undiscover'd country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns-- puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?"
A key sentence in the famous novel of survival, Robinson Crusoe, also ends with a preposition. We must point out that this sentence is an important one in which the narrator shares his purpose for telling the story. While it may not be as famous as Hamlet's speech, it is important to the understanding of Defoe's novel.
"And thus I have given the first part of a life of fortune and adventure, a life of Providence's checker-work, and of a variety which the world will seldom be able to show the like of."We should point out that while Defoe is famous today mostly for the novels that he wrote, he actually made his living for many years as a magazine editor. He knew standard English. Like Shakespeare, he was not terribly concerned about sentences ending in prepositions.
We repeat what we said last issue:
If you think that a preposition at the end of a sentence might offend someone in your audience, then avoid it when you are writing to that audience. Communication is important, but so is good will.
May all your anguish be vanquished,
Your friends at English Plus+
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