English Plus+ News, February 2001
This month we take up some topics that we have mentioned in past issues of our newsletter or in Grammar Slammer which people have written us about (or is it "about which people have written us"?). Read more about addresses to married couples, what grammar checkers can and cannot do, and using prepositions at the end of sentences.We were asked one good question by a correspondent about addressing married couples. The writer was looking for the best way for her business to address envelopes to a married couple who use different last names.
She asked: "Mr. Tom Jones and Mrs. Ann Smith? Tom Jones and Ann Smith? Mr. Tom Jones and Ms. Ann Smith? Mr. and Mrs. Tom Jones (ignoring Ann's preferred surname)?"
Any of them are "acceptable" ways to address a couple. The first is probably the safest in most cases. The second is fine for an informal letter or someone whom you know well since that has no titles. The third is fine - some ladies prefer the Ms., others disdain it, but if you know your correspondent prefers Ms., that can be the best. The fourth is traditional and still widely used; some correspondents are happy with it, though it might grate other less traditionally-minded couples. The bottom line is how well you know you correspondents. When in doubt, the first is probably the safest.
Since this question was from a person handling a large business database, it was impractical to go over each address she had a question about. Her solution was to choose the first since that would be safe. She described her solution in database programming terms:
" If hislastname=herlastname, use histitle + "and" + hertitle + hislastname, otherwise use histitle + hislastname + "and" + hertitle + herlastname."
We hope this helps others as well.
More about Grammar Checkers
The gist of the newsletter article is that it is impossible to make a grammar checker that corrects things automatically. The reason is simple. Grammar is essential for communication. All languages have grammar rules, whether they are formal rules or informal patterns. If the basic rules are not followed, we are unable to communicate.
In a real sense words + grammar = communication.
When a correspondent wrote us back then if we knew of a grammar program that automatically corrected grammar errors, we replied, "Such a program will not exist until they develop software that reads minds."
Here is a simple example we encountered recently. A writer typed experiences shows for the subject and verb in a sentence. A grammar checker rightly identified this as a problem; the subject does not match the verb. Most grammar checkers can detect that error.
The reason that the grammar checker points out the problem and asks the user for a solution rather than making its own correction is clear. What does the writer intend? Does the writer want to make the subject singular or plural? Is the sentence supposed to say experiences show or experience shows? Both would be grammatically acceptable, but what is the writer's intent? Only the writer knows. A computer program doesn't. Even another person doesn't. So until we create mind-reading software, grammar checkers will continue to ask questions.
More on Prepositions at the End of Sentences
Experience has shown that the "rule" that sentences should not end with prepositions is still being taught in some places, especially in England. Our entry includes a quotation from Winston Churchill, probably the most eloquent English speaker of the twentieth century. When rebuked once for ending a sentence with a preposition in a memo, he reportedly apologized and said that ending sentences with prepositions is "something up with which we should not put!" Of course, he was demonstrating how awkward and artificial this so-called rule can be.
One correspondent told us that Churchill did not understand correct English because his mother was an American. Too bad that we all could not have had such deficient speaking skills as Winston Churchill!
Truly, sometimes ending a sentence with a preposition can be confusing. At times it can be redundant. For example, placing at with where repeats the sense already made clear with the word where. Say "This is where I am," not "This is where I am at." (See At after Where in Grammar Slammer Online.)
However, there are times when ending a sentence with a preposition in England is perfectly normal. It has been normal for centuries in England as well as America. This construction appears in the Authorized ("King James") Version of the Bible. Luke 2:34 is one example. Bible translators tend to be fastidious about grammar for two reasons - they want to be accurate, and they don't want God to be blamed for bad grammar! Clearly, these translators were not worried about the preposition at the end of the sentence. The construction also appears in twentieth-century popular songs that originated in England including "The Hokey Pokey" and "Alfie." If it is a rule in England, then the infractions are noteworthy exceptions.
Having said all that, we still do want to repeat what we said in Grammar Slammer about this subject. It is evident that many educated English speakers, especially from England, do consider ending a sentence with a preposition nonstandard. Although this may make sense in Latin, there is no good reason for it in English. Nevertheless, because this "rule" is observed by some readers and writers, you may need to be careful at times. 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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