A Word, Please: A grammar expert offers up her services

Attention, politicians. It has recently come to my attention that you desperately need something you don't have: me.

Yes, I know you think you already have people keeping you fully briefed and, in some cases, debriefed (I'm looking at you Weiner, Cain, Sanford, Edwards, Schwarzenegger and Clinton) on the finer points of everything from economics to baby kissing. But, in one realm, you're still fully exposed (and I'm not just talking about Weiner, Cain, Sanford, Edwards, Schwarzenegger and Clinton).

That area is grammar. The entire world, it seems, is parsing and diagraming and dissecting your every sentence. And they're none too impressed with what they're finding.

I'm here to help.

Mind you, I don't come cheap. But I think you'll find I'm well worth bankrupting the Koch brothers.

As I reported here recently, about half the country enjoyed a good belly laugh this summer when some Romney campaign materials spelled America as “Amercia.” Then came the hullabaloo over whether the Obama camp erred in putting a period in the slogan “Forward.”

Now yet more campaign language has come under scrutiny, as I learned from a reader named John who wrote about a correction his daughter suggested for a political sign.

“The sign states ‘Taking our country back,'” John wrote, “which she notified them should be ‘taking back our country' because ‘taking back' is a verb phrase and should not be split by ‘our country.'”

Pop quiz, political hotshots: In a world where almost anything you say, write or put on a sign can evoke criticism like this, what do you do?

You call me, that's what you do.

It's not proofreading services I'm pitching here. There are countless people here in “Amercia” who could do that for you, if only you'd bother to consult them.

The service I propose to provide is more like the grammatical equivalent of Harvey Keitel's character in “Pulp Fiction.” I'm a cleaner. I make grammar problems go away.

Here's how I'd handle John's daughter. Step one: Intimidate her with some tough talk. “Verb phrase” isn't the term she wanted, I told John. Instead, she probably meant “phrasal verb.”

A verb phrase usually refers to a verb participle plus one or more auxiliaries: “had walked,” “was walking,” “had been walking” — these are verb phrases.

A phrasal verb is different: call out, bring up, work over, call off, give up. A phrasal verb is a combination of words, usually a verb plus a preposition or adverb, in which the verb has a different meaning than it does when it stands alone.

Compare “call” with “call off.” The first has to do with communication. The second means to cancel something. So “call off” is a phrasal verb.

Step two: Go in for the kill. There's no rule against splitting a phrasal verb, I told John, just as there's no rule against splitting a verb phrase.

“Bring it up.” “Call the wedding off.” “Make something up.” “Call him out.” “Give it up.” These are all phrasal verbs with intervening words smack in the middle. It's standard, grammatical and sometimes necessary.

“Bring it up” is much more natural than “bring up it.” “Call out him” is clearly a bad choice over “call him out.” Of course, in some cases, the noun or pronoun works fine after the phrasal verb: “call off the wedding.” But that doesn't mean it's wrong to write “call the wedding off.” The speaker or writer can choose.

True, my politician friends, the only real service I'm providing is telling all your critics that they're wrong. But it's a job you have to outsource to someone like me because, let's face it, no one is going to believe you.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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