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Grammatically Speaking, June 2009

Instead of getting right to some of the questions that have been sent in, I've got a little bit of correcting to do. But before I get to that, I'm going to copy and paste a question and answer from my December 2008 column here:

Is it correct to say a 15 hours' drive? A student of mine wrote that, and although I didn’t think it was correct, I really wasn't sure how to explain it. I told my student he should writea 15-hour drive, but I didn't know why. Please help me. Thanks in advance.

Your correction is right on the money. The reason it's right is that we don't use the –s genitive with singular countable nouns like drive. We do use it with singular uncountable nouns. For example, we can say I've had five years' experience. / He was given two weeks' notice. / This career requires only six months' training. As you can see, the –s genitive works fine with uncountable nouns like experience, notice, and training.

When we need to use a singular countable noun, we normally use the hyphenated form: a three-hour flight / an eight-month leave / a two-year stint.

The one exception to this is when we use the word time: They'll be back in four months' time. / In just six months' time you won't even miss it.

I received an e-mail from Lee Martin of Nashville, Tennessee, about my answer to the question above. Here's what Lee had to say:

With regard to the –s genitive, I have to disagree with you that "time" is an exception in the example that you provided. As with many other English nouns, "time" can be either countable or uncountable. I believe that in your example it's also used in its uncountable sense.

Of course, you're absolutely right, Lee. That's not what I had intended to say. I didn't mean that time was a countable noun in this usage. I neglected to edit carefully before submitting my column. (To err is human?) I had actually just wanted to point out that with the word time, we always use the –s genitive on the preceding noun as shown in the examples above. Sorry about that. And thank you very much for catching this goof, Lee. Much appreciated!

And now to some new questions and answers for the June column.

Dear Mr. Firsten:

In a dialogue in the grammar book my students use was the question How about you? When one of my students asked what it meant, I explained and added that we can also sayWhat about you? I then went on to show how we can place other pronouns or nouns in these questions instead of you.

A few days later I was walking through a mall with a friend of mine, and we stopped at an ice cream store to treat ourselves. My friend said, "I'm going to get a sundae," and then she asked me, "How about you?" After telling her what I wanted, it suddenly dawned on me that it wouldn't sound right if my friend had said, "What about you?" Now I'm confused. Are both questions still interchangeable or not? Thanks for your answer. I just hope I didn't steer my students wrong.

Anxious Annie

Cleveland, Ohio USA

Dear Anxious Annie:

This is a definite head scratcher, isn't it! You'll be happy to know, however, that your instincts were right about What about you not sounding quite right in that situation. There are many situations in which the two questions What about . . . ? and How about . . . ? are interchangeable, as you pointed out to your students, but that usually involves making some sort of suggestion. For example:

A: What do you feel like doing this afternoon?

B: Hmm . . . How about a movie? / What about a movie?

But when asking about what another person wants, it's more common to use How about . . . ?

A: I'm going to get a hot fudge sundae. How about you?

B: Hmm . . . I think I'll just get an ice cream cone.

I hope that answers your question, Anxious Annie. Thanks for sending it in.

Dear Richard,

I recently gave my advanced class a lesson on some ways we shorten sentences in English. One way that I focused on was the use of to alone without its verb and accompanying clause in a sentence like He can leave work early today if he has to. I explained to my students that we have this neat way of not having to repeat everything: He can leave work early today if he has to leave work early today. It was a fun lesson, and everybody got it. They understood that we need to include the infinitive marker to as a kind of substitute for the rest of the idea.

But the following day, one of my students asked me about a sentence he had come across: They don't need to be here precisely at nine o'clock. They can come a little later if they like. I'm sure you can guess what my student wanted to know: Shouldn't that second sentence end with to?

I was stumped. That's why I’m writing to you, Richard. Help!

Julia Scuzzese

Fremont, California USA

Dear Julia,

Yep, I can certainly understand why you were at a loss. It's because of that old problem we have in English concerning exceptions to some rules.

It appears that in certain circumstances and with certain verbs, we can drop that to where we wouldn't in other circumstances. One case in point is in if clauses and with a verb likelike, which is just what your student found: They can come a little later if they like. Unlike other verbs, though, if we use like in this way, we don't have the option of adding to.

But verbs that give us the option of dropping to in an if clause are want, wish, choose, and prefer. Besides that, we also have the option of dropping the to in clauses that have whenor whenever instead of if:

He can have that elective surgery if/when/whenever he wants.

My neighbor lets me borrow his lawnmower if/when/whenever I wish.

She’ll hire a lawyer if/when/whenever she so chooses.

You may paint your apartment a different color if/when/whenever you prefer.

There you go, Julia. Just another of those odd bugaboos of English! Thanks for sending in such an interesting question.

Dear Grammar Guy:

My fellow teachers and I have been discussing the fact that you can negate certain sentences in one of two places and they are both grammatical. What we are not sure about is if there is a difference in meaning.

Take, for example, I do not think he stole it. Even though it is not as common, we can also say I think he did not steal it. Is that right? So is there a difference between the two?

Thank you in advance for your help.

Kazimierz Wodnicki

Katowice, Poland

Dear Kazimierz:

You're right in saying that it's more common to hear I don't think he stole it than I think he didn't steal it. Both sentences are grammatically correct, but there's somewhat of a difference in meaning or, actually, in emphasis.

We normally negate the main verb in a sentence like the one above even though the reality is that we're really negating the object of the main verb (he stole it). Odd, right? When we use a verb like appear, expect, intend, mean, or think as the main verb in our sentence, we usually negate it. That seems to be more natural sounding.

But if you choose to make the object or subordinate part of the sentence negative, you seem to create a stronger idea, which is a way to show that you're strongly disagreeing with what somebody else has said:

A: I think that movie's a classic.

B: I'm not so sure about that. I don't think it's that good.

A: Really? Lots of people disagree with you.

B: That's okay. I just think the movie isn't that good.

I'm sure there are lots of teachers who have thought about this question at one time or another, Kazimierz. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

Here's the Brain Teaser from my March 2009 column: Take a look at the following sentences:

She won more gold medals at the Olympics than expected.

Most mentally ill people don't realize they are.

Some people go to sports events; others to the theater.

Can you figure out what linguistic phenomenon those three sentences have in common? Name the phenomenon and give details to explain your answer.

The first correct response was sent in by Ismael Tohari of Jizan, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

I think the phenomenon is known as ellipsis. So the complete sentences would be the following:
1. She won more gold medals at the Olympics than she had expected to win.
2. Most mentally ill people don't realize they are mentally ill.
3. Some people go to sports events; others go to the theater.

Absolutely correct, Ismael! But for # 1, we can also interpret the first example of ellipsis to mean she was/had been expected. Glad to see you back with another correct answer!

And now for a new Brain Teaser. Some people say try to . . . while others say try and. . . .  Is one right and the other wrong? Are they both right? And if they're both right, is there a difference in how they’re used?

Please e-mail your responses to

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