A short list of Perfesser Cumber's pet peeves is presented
alphabetically below. The perfesser will no doubt be adding to it
from time to time. We feel that this material is far too valuable
to sell1, so we are giving it away--you may download this page with
our blessing and do anything you want with it (apart from claiming
that you wrote it yourself--the perfesser is almost as ill tempered
as Bert when he doesn't get credit). If you should choose to take
issue with any of Perfesser Cumber's pronouncements, you can write
him at email@example.com.
Remember, there is no good excuse for using whom where
who is the correct choice. The secretary who says, "Whom
shall I say is calling?" may be under the impression that whom
is the object of say, but she's mistaken. Rather, who is
the subject of the clause "who is calling," and remains the subject of
that clause even if a "shall I say" is stuck into the middle of it.
In the first person, use shall to predict future events and
will to express determination: "I shall be in Brighton
on Tuesday next. At which time, I will have the money you owe me
or know the reason why not."
In the third person, reverse prediction and determination: "He will be
there on Tuesday, and I have instructed him that he shall
give you a sound thrashing if my money is not forthcoming."
Put more succinctly, "No one will save me; I shall
drown!" is a prediction made by someone who would probably just as
soon be saved. "No one shall save me; I will drown!"
is an injunction from someone determined to commit suicide.
1. Which does not, of course mean that we won't sell
it, if you insist. If you'd like to see
Term Perfesser Cumber's Comments
also Except under extreme provocation,
do not start sentences with "Also,".
assure vs ensure Assure requires a
direct object; ensure doesn't. Unplug the toaster to
ensure against electrocution. Assure the user that
he will not be electrocuted.
as well as If you mean and, say so.
author (as a verb) vs write Mark Twain
never authored anything, but he wrote quite a bit.
If writing was good enough for Twain, it should probably be good
enough for most of the rest of us.
desire Desire is not a polite way to
say want. If you mean want, say want.
desirous of Don't even think of using
this expression unless you are desirous of becoming a
empower If you insist on using this word (and you know you'd be a better person if you didn't), at least have the decency to follow it with an infinitive phrase. Don't just empower someone (unless you are over fond of saying nothing whatever and doing it in the most politically correct possible terms); empower someone to DO something: The new legislation empowers parking enforcement officers to use lethal force.
hanged vs hung When hang means, as it
generally does, "to suspend," then hung is the correct past-tense
and past participial form of the verb: "Yesterday, I hung a
picture on the wall"; "I have hung many pictures on many
walls." When hang means "to put to death by hanging," however,
hanged is the correct past-tense and past participial form:
"We hanged the horse-thieving varmint yesterday"; "We've
hanged nigh unto forty horse thieves this year." Given that
hanging has become a fairly infrequent means to a fairly infrequent
end, you might think that this is an unimportant distinction. But,
because of a colloquial use of hung that we blush bright
yellowish green to mention here, you can end up embarrassing yourself
if you use hung as an adjective to describe a male historical
figure executed by hanging. History records that John Billington was
hanged at Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1630; whether Mr. Billington
was hung, history does not record.
insure vs ensure Insure your car or
your life. Ensure your safety by not stepping in front of an
it's vs its It's is a contraction of
it and is. Its is a possessive pronoun. "It's
not that I don't like its location; it's just that
its price is too high." The only reason you may be confused
about this is that 's is added to nouns to make them possessive,
and so you think that it's looks pretty possessive, too. But
it isn't a noun; it's a pronoun. And possessive pronouns do
not take an 's. Think of he's and his, and
remember that it's and its are exactly analogous.
lovely If you are a heterosexual American male,
you can safely skip this entry, because you know it intuitively.
If you are not a heterosexual American male, and have no desire to be
mistaken for one, you can also skip this entry as irrelevant. If,
however, you somehow fall into the cracks between those two categories,
you should know that heterosexual American males are not allowed to
use the word lovely except with heavy sarcasm, as in the
sentence, "Well, this is just effing lovely, isn't it?"
(cf "This is a fine mess you've got us into, Ollie.").
make use of Use means the same thing,
is two words shorter, and doesn't make you sound like a pompous
may vs can May is not a polite way to
say can. If you mean can, say can.
may vs might Misguided opinion to the
contrary notwithstanding, may and might BOTH have the
dual senses of granting permission and expressing probability.
Might is, in fact, the grammatical past tense of may.
In the sense of granting permission, might is genuinely past
tense and is seldom used in modern American English: "Mother said I
might." (Most Americans would say, "Mother said I could,"
while the rest of us would say, "Mom said it was OK.") In the sense
of expressing probability, may is stronger than might.
That is, something that may happen is more likely than something
that might happen. If there's a good chance that making a
given mistake will erase the hard disk, use may.
may have vs might have "My father may have
been killed when his ship was torpedoed" means either that I don't
know whether or not he's dead or that I know he's dead, but I'm not
sure whether or not the torpedoing of his ship had anything to do with
it. In either case, I am in some current doubt as to the outcome.
"My father might have been killed when his ship was torpedoed" means
that his ship was torpedoed, and there was, at the time, a real
probability of his death, but he did, in fact, survive.
mission statement Most intelligible missions can be expressed in less than a sentence. If your mission isn't something on the order of "sell more widgets" or "improve student reading scores by 10%," all the proactively empowering mission statements in the world are unlikely to convey what you're really about (which is likely to be not much, if you will forgive my presumption).
myself Myself is a perfectly respectable
word, in its proper place. So is me. The two are not
interchangeable. Use me when you are the object of some action,
even if you have one or more accomplices. It is perfectly OK to say,
"They gave Frank and me the boot." Indeed, it is obligatory to say,
"They gave Frank and me the boot," if that's what you mean. "They gave
Frank and I the boot" is just plain wrong, while "They gave
Frank and myself the boot" is nearly as wrong and sounds
unbearably pompous into the bargain.
none None, even though followed by a
plural prepositional phrase, should generally take a singular verb:
"None of the horse thieves was (not were)
hanged." It's pretty obvious that none is singular in
etymology--it's a combination of no and one and means
"not one." Nevertheless, there are constructions in which it
becomes difficult to treat none as singular: "None of
my friends likes each other" is hard to defend. You could
argue for "Not one of my friends likes another," but, "None of
my friends like each other" works for me too. Just try to
keep none singular, and I'll be happy.
on vs upon Whenever you are tempted to use
upon, stop and consider carefully whether on would
not do just as well.
people vs persons In all situations but one,
people is acceptable as the plural of person. The
one exception arises when person is used to refer to some one's
body or clothing: "The smugglers secreted the drugs on their
persons." In all other known contexts, when the number of
human beings under discussion is small and specific, you can use
either people or persons (though, personally, I find
persons pompous--it suggests an attempt to sound more educated
than one is): "Twelve people accompanied Jesús to dinner,"
and "Twelve persons accompanied Jesús to dinner" are both
acceptable. When the number of beings in question is very large or
is unknown, or when you are stating a generalization, people is
mandatory: "Over eight million people (not persons) have
the good fortune to live in New York City"; "Nobody even knows how many
people (not persons) live in Calcutta"; "Many people
(not persons) actually enjoy engaging in hair-splitting arguments
over English usage." Review: Fill in the blank in this sentence:
"______________ (People/Persons?) like Perfesser
Cumber make me want to retch."
presently vs currently Presently
means pretty soon. Use currently or "at present" when you
mean right now.
proactive There's no such word. Unless you are quite sure you want to be perceived as a warm and fuzzy, muddle-headed, vaguely (very vaguely) leftist dweeb, don't pretend that there is. For those of you who don't want to take the Perfesser's word for anything, consider this: For the adjective proactive to exist, the verb proact would first have to exist. I trust that you are with me in maintaining that there is no verb proact. But why not? you may ask. For the good and sufficient reason that, if there were such a verb, it would mean exactly the same thing as act and would thus be entirely redundant.
put/place in/into You can put it in.
You can put it into. You can place it in.
Please don't place it into. In general, prefer put
to place in most contexts.
regarding See "with respect to" below. Nuke it.
series comma Humor me and use the series comma, even if
your favorite style guide says you don't have to: "...this, that, and
the other" not "...this, that and the other."
serve vs service Serve a customer.
Serve the educational community. Service a car (but
only if you're a qualified mechanic). Service a cow (but only
if you're a bull).
something of vs
Short version: "Something of," as in, "He's something of
a traditionalist," is correct. "Somewhat of," as in, "He's somewhat of
a snot," is incorrect.
For those who like explanations (and are not satisfied with, "Because the Perfesser sez so"): Somewhat is an adverb. One of the duties of an adverb is to modify an adjective (e.g., traditional or snotty. It is therefore perfectly correct (and possibly even accurate) to say, "Perfesser Cumber is somewhat traditional," or "The Perfesser is somewhat snotty at times." An adverb cannot, however, BE modified by a prepositional phrase (e.g., "of a traditionalist" or "of a snot"). For that, you need a noun, which is what something is. OK?
that vs which Which is not a polite or
high-class way of saying that; the words mean two different
things. Use which in nonrestrictive clauses only: "This
widget, which cost me an arm and a leg, works fine." (Note the
commas.) Use that in restrictive clauses: "The widget
that works cost me an arm and a leg. The other one was free."
their and they're I would not dream of
insulting you by suggesting that you do not know the difference
between their and they're (well, OK... maybe I'd
dream of it, but I'm not going to do it). The point
of this entry is that both their and they're require
plural antecedents not singular ones: "When people lose
their tempers, they're usually sorry about it later"
is fine. "When a person loses their temper, they're
usually sorry about it later" is an abomination. Even in the days
before our society became obsessed with gender neutrality, this was a
fairly common mistake, though I can't quite make out why. But in those
days, at least, the fix was straightforward: singular men and boys were
referred to by masculine pronouns, singular women and girls were
referred to by feminine pronouns, and singular human beings
whose actual sex was unknown or irrelevant were assumed to be male.
Thus, the abomination above would simply be recast as, "When a person
loses his temper, he's usually sorry about it later."
For better or worse (and that's a question for a different web site
entirely), such cavalier assumptions of generalized masculinity are no
longer acceptable. So, what do you do when you need a pronoun to refer
to a single person whose anatomy is unknown? Well, what you don't
do is mangle the Queen's English by pretending that they,
their, and they're have magically become singular; they
haven't. Often, when you are speaking in generalities anyway, it's
perfectly easy to recast the sentence such that it is genuinely plural.
In the example given above, does it really matter whether people lose
their tempers or a person loses his or her temper?
And if it matters, you've already got the fix: "His or her" may
be awkward, but at least it's not illiterate. In an effort to keep the
peace, I will even accept variants such as "his/her," "her or his,"
"her/his," etc. A person can't ask fairer than that, now, can they?
use vs utilize There may be some legitimate
excuse for the existence of the word utilize, but I have yet
to encounter it. Use use.
via Nine times out of ten, the temptation to
use via indicates that you don't know what English
preposition to use. And that generally means that no
self-respecting English preposition would be caught dead in the
construction you're trying to get away with. That, in turn, generally
means that you should rethink the whole sentence. Please use via
only when you are writing in Latin.
who vs whom Come on, people, this is almost
too easy. Nevertheless, I will instruct you on two ways of overcoming
whatever unease you may feel about this pair:
whoever vs whomever See "who vs whom"
above; these two are exactly analogous. They are, however, more often
used in the kind of constructions that throw people off: who/whomever
often appears as the subject, and at the beginning of, a clause that is itself the object of
a preposition. Thus, you may be tempted to use whomever in an
attempt to appease the preposition, instead of the correct
whoever: "To whom shall I give our Super Bowl tickets, Dear?
Give them to whoever (not whomever) gives a tinkers
damn about the Super Bowl." (But, "Give them to whomever you
will vs shall If you live or are traveling
in the United States, don't have an endearing British accent, don't
write legislation, and
don't want to stand out in a crowd, you would probably do well to
stick with will and forget about shall altogether. But,
if you really want to make this distinction:
wish Wish is not a polite way of saying
want. If you mean want, say want.
with respect to There's no excuse for this
construction. Figure out the precise nature of the relationship
you're trying to describe, and then describe it. This construction
is an almost infallible sign of fuzzy thinking.
Back to Recommended Reference Works
the Perfesser's pearls of wisdom in booklet form, just lobby him a little--he's easy.
Remember, there is no good excuse for using whom where who is the correct choice. The secretary who says, "Whom shall I say is calling?" may be under the impression that whom is the object of say, but she's mistaken. Rather, who is the subject of the clause "who is calling," and remains the subject of that clause even if a "shall I say" is stuck into the middle of it.
In the first person, use shall to predict future events and will to express determination: "I shall be in Brighton on Tuesday next. At which time, I will have the money you owe me or know the reason why not."
In the third person, reverse prediction and determination: "He will be there on Tuesday, and I have instructed him that he shall give you a sound thrashing if my money is not forthcoming."
Put more succinctly, "No one will save me; I shall drown!" is a prediction made by someone who would probably just as soon be saved. "No one shall save me; I will drown!" is an injunction from someone determined to commit suicide.
1. Which does not, of course mean that we won't sell
it, if you insist. If you'd like to see