The Comma Queen Answers Your Questions

Our April 6 broadcast with New Yorker copy editor Mary Norris drew a lot of eager would-be grammarians to our various web channels, and many of you had questions for the Comma Queen. We selected a few of your queries, and Norris was generous enough to answer them here.

Mary, how about the trend I've seen beginning about 10 years ago of referring to a band in the plural? As in: U2 are playing the XL center. Is it correct? It sounds and feels wrong.

That's a British usage, Dale. I don't know how the history of its infiltration, but it sounds perfectly natural to a citizen of the United Kingdom to refer to, say, The Who in the plural. The logic is that although the name of a band may be singular, the band itself comprises more than one person, so the effect is plural. Or at least that's how it lands on some ears. (Not mine, either.)

The great strict nuns of Catholic school education from the 60s, many of whom are in their 90s now, like to point out that the Letters to the Editor about how the Catholic Church ruined their lives are always composed with impeccable grammar. My question, though, is about the the proper pronoun at the end of a phrase of comparison, as in "Mary Norris knows grammar better than ... " better than I? Better than me? I usually revert to sounding like a negotiator for the Iran antinuclear team by finishing the sentence with oratorical certainty: Mary Norris knows grammar better than I do." But is it ever right to say "She drinks more than him?" "She drinks more than he (does)?"

Gregory! How nice to hear from you! Funny about the letters written by alumni of Catholic schools. But now to your question: "than" can be either a conjunction (or do I mean an adverb?) or a preposition. As a conjunction, it should be followed by I (or whatever nominative pronoun is appropriate): He is younger than I [sigh]. But if you think of it as a preposition, then the objective is fine: She is older than me. It's never wrong to fill out the sentence—He is younger than I am—if it sounds more natural.

Could you address why reporters use the phrase "John Doe has pleaded guilty" instead of pled guilty?

Webster's gives the principal parts of the verb "to plea" as "plea, pleaded or pled (also plead). So either is correct. At The New Yorker, we go with the first alternative in Webster's, which is "pleaded," but "pled" is fine, too. I have found that some writers argue when their "pleaded"s get changed to "pled"s. I throw myself on the mercy of the court!

I don't hold conversation to the same grammar standards as writing. Is that a mistake? Am I adding to the demise of grammar?

I don't hold conversation to the same grammatical standard, either. When we write, we have time to go back and fix things. Conversation is spontaneous, and just bubbles up. I do wish people would get the pronoun right  when they switch a compound noun such as "Shannon and I" from subject ("Shannon and I agree about this") to object: "This seems right to both Shannon and me." I would like to see that one fixed in conversation, I admit.

This program aired on April 9, 2015. The audio for this program is not available.


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