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Further Questions from the Inbox

Before sharing another round of questions from my email inbox, I feel compelled to comment on how rich a season spring 2010 was for grammatical blunders and usage goof-ups. In the world of Canadian language professionals, phones rang, emails dinged and Twitter tweeted, spreading the news of one juicy error after another.

In April, Penguin Australia had to destroy 7,000 copies of a cookbook that advised readers to season a pasta dish with "salt and freshly ground black people." Yowza.

In February (which is spring for those of us in Vancouver) the international press, with U.K. papers gleefully in the lead, broke a story that caused proofreaders around the world to blanch. The Chilean mint had produced thousands of fifty-peso coins with the country’s name misspelled "C-H-I-I-E." The coins, worth a paltry ten cents each, cost the mint manager, and several of the eighty or so employees who had reviewed the die beforehand, their jobs. The media made much of the fact that though the coins had been issued in 2008, the typo wasn’t reported until late 2009, suggesting in a sniffing WASP-y sort of way (or so it seemed to me) that those Chileans must be awfully lax. But I ask you: when was the last time you scrutinized every dime that crossed your palm?

Another much-trumpeted error from February 2010 is the topic of my first question from the inbox.

I versus me

Question: I’ve been following the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and I keep hearing the song "I Believe," which is catchy but, I believe (ha, ha), wrong. Doesn’t the chorus contain a grammar mistake?
Editing student, Vancouver

Answer: It certainly does, and it’s a pronoun mistake made daily by speakers and writers of English.

Alan Frew, once lead singer of the 1980s band Glass Tiger, penned the lyrics to "I Believe," a pop anthem commissioned by Canada’s Olympic broadcast consortium. The error, not even tucked away in the lyrics, where it could hide its head, occurs at the end of the chorus, where Quebec chanteuse Nikki Yanofsky is forced to linger on it:

  • "I believe in the power that comes
    From a world brought together as one.
    I believe together we’ll fly.
    I believe in the power of you and I."

The "power of I," however inspiring a sentiment it might be, is just wrong. This is the millionth example of the stubborn belief among native English users that I is always correct and formal and me is unschooled and sloppy, akin to would of or ain’t. But in this song, of course, the preposition of requires the object form of the pronoun (me), not the subject form (I).

Footnote: This error fuelled public diatribes by grammarians, journalists and other exasperated language lovers, but it didn’t stop "I Believe" from hitting #1 on iTunes.

Food versus foods

Question: We deal with the word food a lot. But what about foods, a term we often use? Is it actually a word? I’ve checked several dictionaries and usage guides but haven’t found an answer. Also, if food is a collective noun, does it take a singular verb like other collective nouns? E.g., "Avoid food that is at a higher risk of being contaminated with listeria."
Federal agency editor, Ottawa

Answer: I’ve been asked about food/foods before, so you’re not alone in wondering.

Both forms of the word are correct. Food, which does take a singular verb, as you suggested, is the more common form and also the more useful, since it serves as both a singular noun ("one food") and a collective noun ("some food"). There’s little point going through the many contexts in which you’d use the singular food; it’s simpler to say it’s the word you’d use most of the time.

Foods is rarer, but only because its meaning is one we’re less likely to encounter in daily discourse. Foods refers not to edibles in general but rather to different types or categories of food, or different food groups. The "Choosing Foods" section of the Web version of Canada’s Food Guide (hosted by Health Canada) illustrates the difference:

  • "It’s easy to choose foods [meaning different types of food] wisely when you follow Canada’s Food Guide. Find out more about:
    • How much food you need from each food group; [here the meaning is food in general]
    • What foods [which individual foods] can be found in each food group; . . . 
    • Tips for choosing and preparing foods." [meaning different kinds of food that we’d prepare in different ways]

There’s a similar distinction between meat and meats. The singular is more common ("Do you eat meat?" "Is there any meat in this burger?"), but occasionally, to convey the idea of different types of meat, we use the plural ("Choose leaner meats," "The chef prepared a platter of meats and cheeses").

If you google "food versus foods," you’ll find a smattering of comments on the semantic differences, but none of the sites I’ve seen are authoritative enough to recommend. This is a usage point that’s better illustrated by contexts rather than texts.

The following was versus the following were

Question: Would you say "The following was required" or "The following were required" when introducing a bulleted list of several items?
Provincial government editor, Vancouver

Answer: You could mount an argument for either, depending on how you interpret the following. Option one: you could view it as a gerund (the "-ing" verb form that serves as a noun). In that case the following would be a singular noun and would take was. Option two: you could view it as a participle (the "-ing" verb form that serves as an adjective) that modifies an understood noun such as actions or steps or safeguards, whatever it’s a list of. In that case the verb would be were to agree with the understood plural noun.

A third option is to add a plural noun to make the structure undeniably plural and arguably clearer: "The following actions/steps/safeguards were required . . . ."

Use and misuse of comprise

Question: I am hoping you can clarify the use and misuse of comprise. The following sentence by an author alerted me:

  • We selected the 13 items that comprise the initial version of the interview because they represent symptoms that are highly prevalent….

I immediately thought of the saying "The whole comprises the parts, but the part does not comprise the whole," but the Canadian Oxford Dictionary definition of comprise seems to suggest the sentence is okay. What’s your opinion?
Freelance editor, Toronto

Answer: Sigh . . . Comprise is almost never used correctly. I wish it would just go away.

While it’s with us, the saying you’ve mentioned is still a good test of whether the word is used correctly. Another aid is to remember that comprise means "to contain" or "to consist of." You can’t substitute either of those verbs in your author’s sentence, which means comprise is misused. The sentence should read "the 13 items that constitute/make up the initial version of the interview" or "the 13 items in the initial version of the interview." You can often eliminate the troublesome verb altogether—being careful, of course, not to change the meaning.

I understand why you’re confused by the entry in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. The second edition (2004) does define comprise as "make up, compose" (i.e., the disputed meaning) but then follows with a usage note saying on the one hand that the disputed uses "have traditionally been criticized and are still strongly opposed by some," and on the other that these uses are "common, however, and considered unobjectionable by many."

There’s no question that comprise is increasingly used to mean "compose." The question is how near this use is to acceptability. Most usage authorities, while acknowledging the spread of the misuse, counsel writers to stick with the established meaning of comprise, and especially to steer clear of the passive "is comprised of." The Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage (2nd ed., 2007) sums it up nicely: "Thus comprise is currently an anomalous and confusing verb. To avoid criticism, it is best to use comprise only in the active voice to mean ‘consist of ’."

Possessive of noun ending in "s"

Question: When we met last week, I stuttered over the possessive of your name. I assume that, like Jesus, you don’t take an extra "s." Or do you? Did I recall Frances’s reference to the serial comma or was it Frances’ reference?
Freelance editor, Edmonton

Answer: As egotistically tempting as it is to align oneself with Jesus, I always say (and write) Frances’s. Modern punctuation and style guides recommend forming the possessive by adding the apostrophe + "s" to all singular nouns, even those that end in "s," if the end result is what you would pronounce (a radical notion for a language renowned for flouting the spelling-pronunciation connection). Everyone I know says "Frances’s," pronouncing the extra "s," just as they say "Charles’s," "James’s" and so forth, and since that’s what we say, that’s what we should write.

Many people now say and write "Jesus’s" too. Some style guides suggest leaving off the extra "s" for reasons of tradition, but others, like The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed., 2010), disagree and list "Jesus’s" as the usual possessive. 

Language is seldom straightforward, is it?

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