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Zeugma October 22, 2016

Posted by Ronica Stromberg in Uncategorized.
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I’m a word nerd. I love language and playing with words but also understanding the rules of usage and the logic behind them. Who else would enjoy reading grammar books? I confess I’ve read somewhere between 20 and 30 of them. So, it was with great excitement I recently read in a grammar book about zeugma. This was a term I’d never heard before, but it seems to me it should be a subtopic of parallel construction.

A zeugma is a grammatical expression in which a single word is forced to apply to multiple parts of a sentence even though it is grammatically or logically correct only for one of them. The following is an example:

The grammar, punctuation, and spelling were terrific, the writing awful.

The problem with this sentence is that the verb “were” has been dropped in the second part of the sentence, but it should never be used there anyway. “The writing were awful” is obviously grammatically incorrect. The sentence could be corrected this way:

The grammar, punctuation, and spelling were terrific; the writing was awful.

Excited about this new word for a grammatical concept, I googled “zeugma” and found, on Wikipedia, a more thorough explanation of not only zeugma but syllepsis, diazeugma, hypozeugma, prozeugma, and mesozeugma.

I have a new respect for Wikipedia.

Conditional Clauses July 7, 2013

Posted by Ronica Stromberg in Uncategorized.
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A writer in one of my critique groups asked me recently about conditional clauses. These clauses are found in sentences beginning with if. The other writer questioned why I had written a sentence beginning with “If I were you . . .” instead of “If I was you . . .”

Were is the correct form of the verb to use with I in if (conditional) sentences when the condition suggested is impossible or highly improbable. I could never be another person, so the conditional clause “If I was you . . . ” is wrong. I need to use were to communicate that I’m talking about a supposition or condition that can never be.

Many writers have lost this distinction in their writing or never realized there are times they should be using were instead of was in conditional clauses. I’ve written a few more sentences below to better show the distinction.

Example #1:

Right:  “If I were dead, I wouldn’t care about my belongings.”

Wrong:  “If I was dead, I wouldn’t care about my belongings.” (This conditional clause with was is not possible because the speaker is talking and obviously alive. Were is the correct word to use in clauses like this that are describing impossible situations.)

Example #2 (both sentences are correct and being spoken by a 70-year-old man):

Right:  “At that time, if I was 16, I could have worked as a car hop.” (At the point in history the 70-year-old is referring to, it would have been possible for him to work as a car hop if he was 16. Was is the correct word to use in conditional clauses like this that are possible.)

Right:  “If I were 16 now, I’d love to be a high school exchange student.” (The 70-year-old man isn’t 16 now, so this clause is impossible. Were is the correct word to use in conditional clauses like this that are impossible.)

Example #3:

Right:  If I was certified (at that time), I could have done that work.

Right:  If I were certified (but I’m not), I could do that work.