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PLEASE:Blame bad grammar on Tricky Dick

A WORD,

October 11, 2006|By JUNE CASAGRANDE

As you know, our current climate of political partisanship is beyond bitter. Democrats are blaming Republicans for perversion in Congress. Republicans are blaming Republicans for perversion in Congress. OK. Bad example. But it's true that partisanship is tearing our nation apart.

This divisiveness is bad news for Americans, but good news for a lot of columnists, who get to make a name for themselves by making hay. And this columnist, for one, is sick of it.

I want in.

How, you're wondering, can a grammar columnist exploit the current political climate? Simple. I'll just apply the tried-and-true formula that has landed so many dolts and schnooks in positions they don't deserve: Find evidence of an alarming decline in our society, then blame it on somebody who can't defend himself.

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Which is why I'm here to tell you that the state of grammar is in a shocking downward spiral, and it's all the fault of one Richard M. Nixon. (If you thought you knew which way I was going with this, it appears you "misunderestimated" me.)

According to sources close to this reporter, namely Bryan Garner in his "Garner's Modern American Usage," Nixon subverted a critical grammar term and turned it into something tawdry. Heck, not just something tawdry, but tawdriness itself.

"In general usage, 'expletives' are understood to be curse words or exclamations," Garner explains. "This sense was fortified in American English during the Watergate hearings in the early 1970s, when coarse language was replaced with 'expletive deleted' in transcripts of White House tapes. In grammar, however, an 'expletive' is a word having no special meaning but standing in (usually at the beginning of a clause) for a delayed subject."

Namely, Garner is talking about words like "there," "here" and "it," which play an unusual role in sentences and which hold the key to explaining a language rule we all know intuitively but never really think about.

Take the sentence, "There's my dog, Checkers." Now consider the sentence, "There are my good friends Kissinger and Liddy."

Why do we use a singular verb in the first sentence but a plural verb in the second? Because the verbs agree with the terms that follow them, right? But since when do verbs agree with nouns that follow them instead of with the subject of their sentences?

The answer, which most people don't know (thank you, Mr. Nixon), is expletives.

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