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A Word, Please:

Some weapons of mass destruction

October 21, 2009|By JUNE CASAGRANDE

Grammar can be intimidating. I’ve been saying for years that this is a bad thing. Fear isn’t conducive to learning. And it can keep you from ever realizing that grammar is a lot easier, more intuitive and more useful than most people know.

That’s my official position, anyway. But today I’ll make a little confession: Sometimes grammar intimidation is good. You know the times I’m talking about, like when some blowhard corners you at a cocktail party to patronizingly explain how much better off we’d all be with Lyndon LaRouche in charge. Or at family gatherings when your hot-shot brother-in-law is trying to make you feel small because you didn’t buy Goldman Sachs stock until after Warren Buffett did.

Those are the times when you want to reach for a blunt weapon. And in my experience, no legal weapon can inflict more damage on a deserving opponent than grammar jargon. So, as the holidays threaten to usher in social events overrun with know-it-all uncles and diamond-flaunting cousins, have a few of these terrifying grammar terms at the ready.


Intimidating term: “participle.” Weaponized form: “It’s hard to make sense of your argument for a flat tax when it contains a dangling participle, Uncle Lou.”

Don’t tell Uncle Lou, but a participle is a simple thing to understand. Think of it as a form of a verb that works with a helping verb to show time or duration: Past participles often end in “ed” or “en.” “Lou has spoken.” Progressive participles, often called present participles, end in “ing.” “I am leaving.”

When they’re not working with auxiliary verbs, participles usually work as modifiers. In “Filled with disgust, I left the party,” the participle “filled” modifies the subject “I.” When the stuff after the participle phrase isn’t the thing being modified, that’s a dangling participle: “Filled with disgust, the party made me want to leave.”

Intimidating term: “Copular verb.” Weaponized form: “When you say that I should feel badly about not having a husband, what you’re really saying is that you’re ignorant about copular verbs.”

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