Happy Halloween!

I’m celebrating Halloween today! More accurately, I’m celebrating Hallowe’en. I sometimes use the apostrophe even though it’s no longer standard. It stands for the missing “v” in All Hallows’ Even (“evening”) – one of the earlier names for our October 31 holiday.

In honor of Hallowe’en, I’m going to discuss two features of English that are scary – or just plain crazy.

Here’s a sentence that’s grammatically correct but so weird that I would never use it:

Either you or I am likely to win first prize.  CORRECT (but yuk!)

Here’s the rule: in an either/or sentence, the “or” part (or I) determines the verb. I am likely to win first prize is correct. That gives us “Either you or I am likely to win first prize.”

Nope. Grammar be damned – it’s just too awkward for me. I would use this version:

Either you or I are likely to win first prize.  INCORRECT (but I like it)

Let’s go on to something else that’s grammatically correct but – to me – unbearably clumsy: “that of.” Take a look at this sentence from “This Is the Moment Rachel Maddow Has Been Waiting For,” an article in the New York Times Magazine:

If today’s dominant political recreational metaphor is that of the three-dimensional chess game, Maddow is hunched over in the corner of the rec room, methodically putting together a jigsaw puzzle. CORRECT (but yuk!)

What – I ask you – would be lost if you deleted that of?

If today’s dominant political recreational metaphor is the three-dimensional chess game….

Have a wicked Hallowe’en!

Halloween pumpkin

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