Jumpabola Pragmatic

Readers seek herd immunity against faulty grammar

My tolerance for incorrect pronunciation, grammar, punctuation, and spelling is extremely low these days. I used to have some immunity built up, but obviously there are new variants out there. Apparently, U-T readers agree.

DEAR RICHARD: I’ve noticed a language trend in recent years that rubs me the wrong way grammatically. What really bugs me is the use of the verb graduate. Increasingly people write in obits, “So-and-so graduated college.” “No, no,” I scream. “Your loved one graduated from college.” A person graduates from something to something else. —Cy Perkins, La Mesa

I’m with you, Cy, that graduate from is the logical construction. Graduate as a verb reflects the influence of youthspeak, in which prepositions and particle verbs are often vaporized: “Let’s hang.” “Don’t cave.” “Can you deal?” Graduate, without the from, may one day prevail, but not yet.

DEAR RICHARD: The biggest gripe I have in listening to others is the way so many people use the word only. I was taught that only as a modifier should come immediately before the word it is modifying. —Leo Caron, Pacific Beach

The placement of only is one of the trickiest procedures in English usage. The most famous example of its vagaries is the song, “I Only Have Eyes for You.” Formalists argue that the only is mislocated in this title and that the statement misleadingly implies “I have eyes — but no ears, noses, or mouths — for you,” rather than “I have eyes for you only — and nobody else but you.” They insist that only — like hardly, nearly, almost, scarcely, even, and just — must appear right before the word modified, as in “I Have Eyes for Only You.”

In reality, no intelligent listener or reader misinterprets the song line “I only have eyes for you.” When only comes early in such a statement, the listener or reader is forewarned that the qualifier may be attached to almost any word that follows, and it is usually clear what that word is. In general, though, when equally natural placements of only are available, you should locate the adjective or adverb immediately before the noun or verb it modifies. For example, after hearing or reading the sentence “He only died yesterday” you might well ask, “Only died? What could be worse?” Relocating the only to read “He died only yesterday” makes life easier for your listeners and readers.

Take my word for it: God only knows. Oops, I mean, “Only God knows”!

DEAR RICHARD: The past tense of cancel is canceled in our dictionaries, with cancelled noted as British usage. Yet Americans I run this by think double l is standard. Other words with the same form of past-tense spelling include travel, channel, and marvel. What is the grammatical rule that explains this? —Mary Arana, Encinitas

Hoo boy. Here’s the most labyrinthine but most useful spelling rule in U.S. English: Words ending in a single consonant preceded by a single vowel double the final consonant before the suffix if the accent falls on the last syllable of the root word.

Whew! It takes a lungful of words to recite this rule, but the application is easy-peasy: fit-fitted (accent on the root word before the suffix that begins with a vowel), but profit-profited (the final syllable of the root word is unaccented). This model applies to pet-petting, but carpet-carpeting; refer-referred, but refer-reference; and, as you point out, cancel-canceled, travel-traveled, channel-channeled, and marvel-marveled.

DEAR RICHARD: I’ve always suspected that most people who use i.e. do so incorrectly, but I’ve never actually looked into what it really means. —Rich Robertson, Navajo

I.e. stands for the Latin id est, “that is.” I.e. is used to restate something said previously in order to clarify its meaning: “I am a verbivore, i.e., a person who adores words.”

E.g. stands for the Latin exempli gratia, “for example.” It introduces one or more examples that illustrate something stated: “Submit a sample of academic writing, e.g., a dissertation chapter.” Because their usage can seem similar, these two abbreviations are often confused.


On Saturday, Sept. 10, 2 p.m., and Monday, Sept.12, 7 p.m., I’ll be offering two benefit performances at Lamplighters Theatre, 5915 Severin Drive in La Mesa; (619) 303-5092; website: My show is called “Doctor Grammar Guy.” Come prepared to laugh and learn and support a great community playhouse. I’d love to meet you at Lamplighters.