Welcome to the website woven for wordaholics, logolepts, and verbivores. Carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words. If you are heels over head (as well as head over heels) in love with words, tarry here a while to graze or, perhaps, feast on the English language. Ours is the only language in which you drive in a parkway and park in a driveway and your nose can run and your feet can smell.

language

 

DEAR RICHARD: On the local news, Carlo Cicchetto and Barbara-Lee Edwards both called the Padres hitting grand slams in four consecutive games “a historic feat”. On the CBS national news, Norah O’Donnell called last year’s fires and storms “an historic” series of events. It’s a for a hard h and an for silent h, right? (Same rule as vowels.) –Bill Goddard, Clairemont

Yep. The rule is that a precedes consonant sounds and an precedes vowel sounds — a, e, i, o and u. When the h is silent, as in honor, honest, hour and herb, use an. When the h is sounded, as in home and (ahem!) historic, use a. Our local newscasters were correct — of course! 

DEAR RICHARD: My fiancé is the only person I have ever heard say, “It is I” or “It was she.” I can understand why that might be the correct usage, but could it be one of the forgotten rules that you’ve mentioned in your column? -Diane Hoffman, Tustin, Calif.

“It is she” and “It is he” are indeed grammatically proper because verbs of being like is do not take direct objects, so their pronouns are cast in the nominative case.

As the joke spools out, Saint Peter hears a knocking at the gates of Heaven and calls out, “Who’s there?”
“It is I,” a voice responds.
“Good,” says Saint Peter. “You must be another English teacher. Come right in!”

But sometimes poetry triumphs over purism, and most standard speakers say, “It’s me” and “It’s her.” We see this in the enduring quotation by Walt Kelley, creator of the comic strip Pogo: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” “We have met the enemy, and he is we” would have been puristically proper but would have weirded people out.

I must add that your fiancé’s grammar standards indicate that he is a man of serious integrity and will probably make you a good husband!

 DEAR RICHARD: I have a question about the word penultimate, and I thought that you might shed light on its meaning and use. I heard Ruth Bader Ginsburg relating a story about Antonin Scalia and how he gave her a stack of papers that were his penultimate draft of a court opinion. This led me to believe that the meaning of penultimate is related to a progression or iteration of something, such that it is the second from the ultimate version of something such as a final court opinion. I would appreciate any clarity that you could bring to this word and its meaning. –Rudy Spano, Clairemont

The words ultimate and penultimate are not synonyms. Something penultimate is next-to-last, nothing more. It carries no connotation of superiority. Something ultimate is last and often suggests superiority, as in “the ultimate in men’s clothing.”

A naval commander representing the Department of Defense once exulted, “In Star Wars, America has finally come up with the penultimate defense system!” Gulp. Glug. Gasp. Gag. The last thing we want is a penultimate system of national defense.

The speaker obviously thought that penultimate means “the absolute ultimate.” So do a lot of other folks, including one Tony Award winner who gushed, “To be an actress like Lauren Bacall — well, to me that was the penultimate!” But nothing can be more ultimate than ultimate.

 DEAR RICHARD: As copy editor of the Union-Tribune, I have quite a few grammar issues rattling around in my brain after so many decades plying my trade. One of the most vexing for me is the incessant appearance of this particular verb agreement error: “He is one of those people who is a stickler for details.” Correct me if I’m wrong, but the second is should be are in that sentence. I have made that change probably hundreds of times over the years on the copy desk, yet I continue to see this error. The second is is the verb for the pronoun who, whose antecedent in this sentence is people. The who clause clearly modifies people. Invert the sentence, and it becomes clear: “Of those people who is a stickler for details, he is one.” Sounds pretty goofy, and it’s wrong. –John Kowalczyk

Spot on, John. Switch the two halves of the statement, and it becomes evident that the plural verb is the right choice: “Of those people who are sticklers for details, he is one.”