Aunt Ruth’s Common Grammar Problems

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Sep 272016
 

Hey y’all,

Don’t forget that you can access Aunt Ruth’s Common Grammar Problems for all (well, some) of your grammatical and word usage questions!

The list will soon be expanding, as well. I have made significant progress on the next Aunt Ruth book with another 40+ stories to whet your grammatical appetite. Look for it in Spring 2017!

The Absolute Ruth

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Sep 272016
 

“Most of his attempts usually succeeded.”

I read this sentence in a well-respected newspaper this morning. What does it mean?

If most means, say, 51% or more, and if usually also means 51% or more, then the sentence is saying that 51% of his attempts succeed, 51% of the time.

If you’ve studied any statistics / probability at all, you know that this is equivalent to saying that his attempts succeed 26.01% (or more)  of the time. (0.51 multiplied by 0.51 is 0.2601).

“Most of his attempts usually succeeded” sounds a whole lot stronger than “His attempts succeeded more than 26% of the time.” Right?

Even if we ramped up the definitions of most and usually to mean 70% and 70%, respectively, we still end up being able to say that his attempts succeeded more than 49% of the time.

Most and usually are both considered to be absolutes. The writer (or speaker) has to be very careful when using absolutes. If I walk out of Kroger thinking, “Man, most of the stuff in this store is overpriced,” but I base that only on the 4 or 5 items I purchased, then my use of the word most is highly inappropriate.

I watched the presidential debates last night on television. Both candidates were freely using absolutes … “most people want” … “I never would” … “we always should” … and phrases like that. I wondered how much research (or thought) had gone into backing those statements.

Others absolutes include words like: always, every, all, never, none, often, and more. (I don’t mean more in the .etc sense, but in the more is one of those words, too sense.)

The problem (if there is a problem) here is that most and usually are both used in the same sentence.

Wouldn’t the sentence mean the same thing if I said:

Most of his attempts succeeded.

Or

His attempts usually succeeded.

Saying that most of his attempts usually succeeded kind of clouds the intent (I think), unless the writer intentionally tried to mislead. That (trying to mislead) was not the intent of the writer (at least, based on the tenor of the article).

It becomes more obvious (does it really?) that something is askew when we say:

All of his attempts usually succeeded. Maybe this does make sense. All of his attempts—that is, every time he tried to do whatever it was he was trying to accomplish—more often than not, he was successful.

All of his attempts never succeeded. If we can associate never succeeded with failed, then this is pretty cut-and-dried. All of his attempts failed.

Most of his attempts always succeeded. Similarly, if always succeeded is associated with passed, then it’s easy to see that most of his attempts passed.

None of his attempts usually succeeded. At first glance, I was tempted to say that this means the same as none of the attempts succeeded. But, does it mean that? Even if none of the attempts usually succeeded, could there be attempts that occasionally succeeded?

None of his attempts always succeeded. Again, are there attempts that sometimes succeeded, even if none always succeeded?

That begs the question: What does attempt mean in this context?

Let’s try an exercise (I’m doing this with you … I haven’t planned this out in advance).

Suppose Hank Aaron is our subject for this endeavor. Hank had a lifetime batting average of .305. Yes, he was a great, solid hitter. (And he’s still the all-time home run leader, in my book.)

Now, suppose we could look back at statistics for Hank’s individual at-bats and the types of pitches he faced. And suppose that his success rate (where success is defined as getting a base hit) is as follows:

Fastball: 42%

Curveball: 27%

Screwball: 16%

Knuckleball: 22%

(These are just arbitrary numbers … I have no idea what they actually would be. We also don’t know how many of each of these pitches he saw, nor do we know what other pitches there were. I don’t know if slider falls into the curveball category; I don’t know if a split-finger fastball falls into the fastball category, etc.)

Here we have four different classes of attempts, each class having its own success rate. What are some things we could say about these attempts and success rates, if by attempt we mean class of attempt?

None of the four attempts was always successful.

None of the four attempts was usually successful (if usually means > 50%).

All of the four attempts were sometimes (or occasionally) successful.

We could even say that most of the attempts were occasionally successful, where most can include every attempt.

Okay, this feels like a bit of a dead end.

Go back to semantics. When we say that an attempt is usually or sometimes successful, that seems to indicate that an attempt may sometimes be successful and sometimes not.

THAT’s the problem.

Let’s go back to the original problem, way at the very top of this article.

Look at it like this: Most of his attempts succeeded. We’re looking at a body of attempts – each individual attempt either wins or loses – and most of those attempts end in success.

Now, look at it like this: His attempts usually succeeded. Again, each individual attempt either wins or loses. His attempts usually won.

But saying “Most of his attempts usually succeeded” either means that there are classes or groupings of attempts, each with its own success rate, or that it’s acceptable to say that if more than 25% of his attempts succeeded, we can say that most of his attempts usually succeeded.

Be careful of those absolutes!

Contrary to current social thinking, there ARE absolutes. And there are truths. And there is Ruth.

 

Aunt Ruth and the Peach Cobbler’s Kitten

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Sep 192016
 

It’s mine!” shouted Aunt Ruth. “Give it back to me at once, my nemesis nephew. Or else!”

“You’re being too possessive, my dear Aunt Ruth,” I said as I set down the now-empty plate of what had been a delicious serving of Aunt Ruth’s peach cobbler. “Besides, you are distracting me from being able to concentrate on this fascinating topic of possessives with appositives.”

I tried hard to ignore Aunt Ruth’s occasional tantrums—not an easy task, certainly, but occasionally it worked—and this morning I had been in deep thought about some of the odd (and correct) possessive statements I have witnessed through the years.

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), Aunt Ruth’s new pet kitten had taken a liking to me, and it was now sound asleep on the floor at my feet.

Anyway, back to odd possessives. The most bizarre possessive statements that I’ve seen involve appositives.
Appositives, you may recall, are noun phrases that are used to clarify or further describe the noun immediately preceding it in the sentence. For example, look at the sentence:

Marjorie, the lady who sat next to us in church this morning, has a dog and two cats.

In that sentence, Marjorie is the subject, and the lady who sat next to us in church this morning is the appositive. The appositive is a description or identification of Marjorie.

Now, suppose I accidentally sat on Marjorie’s hat. Suppose, also, that I am not sure if you remember who Marjorie is. For clarification, then, I want to include the appositive when I tell you about sitting on Marjorie’s hat.
The rule for creating a possessive with a statement that has an appositive is NOT to put the apostrophe on the subject, but put the apostrophe at the end of the appositive (i.e., add apostrophe -s to the last word of the appositive, and then remove the comma that normally immediately follows the appositive). So, that would look like this:

I sat on Marjorie, the lady sitting next to us in church this morning’s hat.

Note a couple of things. In the phrase before the appositive, it indeed says I sat on Marjorie. However, I did not sit on Marjorie. I sat on her hat. The second thing to notice is that the apostrophe -s is attached to morning, as in … this morning’s hat. And the comma after morning has been removed.

Weird? Certainly. And I must confess that the grammar books that discuss this also say that in such cases, the writer should seriously consider restructuring the sentence for clarity, e.g.,

I sat on Marjorie’s hat; she was the lady sitting next to us in church this morning.
Or … I sat on the hat of Marjorie, the lady sitting next to us in church this morning.

That works, certainly, though the hat of Marjorie sounds a little stuffy, kind of like the title of a murder mystery, perhaps.

“Tonight, on ‘Hitchcock Presents,’ we will watch The Hat of Marjorie.” That sounds sinister, indeed.
One can contrive scenarios that produce word combinations that are visually funny.

I was bitten by Marjorie, the lady sitting next to us at the concert’s dog.

Of course, I was not bitten by Marjorie but by her dog. The dog was probably upset with me for sitting on (and undoubtedly ruining) Marjorie’s hat.

I vacuumed up Marjorie, the lady who always went to the park with her husband’s ashes.

I did not actually vacuum up Marjorie; and Marjorie did not go to the park every day with her husband’s ashes. She simply went to the park every day with her husband. I did vacuum up Marjorie’s ashes, but we don’t know from whence those ashes came. Maybe Marjorie is a chronic chain-smoker. As far as we know, her husband is still alive and has not (yet) been reduced to ashes. The possessive statement leaves a lot of wiggle-room for ambiguity.

“I sat on Marjorie, the lady sitting next to me’s hat.”

This is similar to the first example, but I like the me’s hat combination. It just sounds so wrong.

“I ate a bowl of Marjorie, the next-door neighbor who liked to go to Africa to hunt elephants’ soup.”

I ate a a bowl of Marjorie? I’m not even sure what that means. She does go to Africa to hunt elephants (I am not condoning that, by the way …this is just an example. So back off, will ya?) She does not go to hunt elephants’ soup, though that could be an interesting hobby. Tusk, tusk. Note, also, that in this case we merely added the apostrophe to elephants; we did not add the “s” because the word already ended in “s” (and elephants’s just doesn’t sound right).

“We must get Steve Berry, the attorney handling the case of the missing elephant’s signature.”

This seems to indicate that the elephant’s signature is missing. I can see why we might be concerned.
Now, suppose Steve Berry has a piano, and suppose that I went over to his house to play his piano. I could say this:

I played Steve Berry, the attorney handling the case of the missing elephants’ piano.

I did not play Steve Berry. He is a fine actor and can play his own part quite well. He’s still handling the case of the missing elephants, not the elephants’ piano. It’s interesting to consider, though, that multiple elephants would have only one piano. I can’t imagine two elephants playing a one-piano duet. That could be awkward.

“What are you saying, notorious nephew?” asked Aunt Ruth, yawning as she slowly awoke. “Are you violating our grammatical agreement to not stretch ‘out there’ into the strange world of intentional weirdness and ambiguous writing?”

I acknowledged but tried not to focus on Ruth, the aunt who likes to take me out to eat’s warts.

“What did you say? Eat’s warts?”

“Uh, never mind.”

I am wearing Marjorie, the neighbor who has llamas’ argyle socks.

“Marjorie’s llamas wear argyle socks?” gasped Aunt Ruth. “Really?”

In my rush to pack up and get out of here at the end of the story, I accidentally stepped on Aunt Ruth, my relative who makes the best peach cobbler’s kitten.

I’m Not Lying. I’m Sitting.

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Oct 062015
 

What is it about the word lying that makes people so afraid to use it? At least three times this past week I have heard laying (the present participle of lay) used where, instead, lying (the present participle of lie) should have been used.

I was laying in bed this morning thinking about the news.

No you weren’t, unless you were a chicken trying to lay an egg.

You were lying in bed this morning thinking about the news. Yes, you were (and good for you … there is a lot of news to think about these days).

People get uncomfortable thinking about lying, as they should. It’s not good to not tell the truth.

People apparently also get uncomfortable thinking about being in a horizontal position that might be construed as lying.

Hmm, there may be a joke in here somewhere … Why did the politician sleep upright in his chair instead of in a bed? Otherwise, he would be accused of lying.

Anyway, yes it’s true, the present participle of lie is lying.

I need to lie down.

Last night I lay down.

Dad lies in bed, waiting for you to bring him his morning coffee.

I am lying in bed, thinking about writing a blog post this morning.

I’m not lying.

 

Dem Cows, Dey Behooved

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Sep 272015
 

Maybe there’s something in the water … or maybe there’s something in the air (besides a song, or besides autumn (oh, happy autumn, by the way … only a few days late)).

Twice in the past week I have heard the word behoove used incorrectly. In both cases, the incorrect usage was as a verb meaning befuddled, as in “It behooves me why the grocery store would stop selling its most popular prune juice.”

Behooved is not befuddled. Behooved is not confused, curious, or wondering.

Behooved is also not a description of the podiatric state of bovine and equestrian animals, as in “Dem cows, dey behooved.”

Merriam-Webster has this to say about the verb behoove:  transitive verb. : to be necessary, proper, or advantageous for.   intransitive verb. : to be necessary, fit, or proper.

An example: It behooves us to study the writings of the American forefathers to understand their views of government.

I don’t think I realized that behoove also has an intransitive state. I looked up some examples and it goes like this:

Tenacity is a quality that behooves in an athlete.

Several sources claim the intransitive usage is archaic. [ Incidentally, that means that you can’t use the intransitive while you are modifying your writing … after all, you know the adage, “You can’t have archaic and edit too.” (Sorry, I’m tired. If you need me to explain the adage to you, write me.) ]

Anyway, just remember … it behooves all of us to pay attention to our vocabulary!

 

If I Were, If I Was

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Sep 252015
 

Let’s talk about using the subjunctive. After all, if they aren’t teaching it in school (unless you take foreign language), and if I fail to describe it a bit here, then I have no business ranting about its decline.

First of all, note this: in English, the verb forms for the subjunctive are the same as for the indicative, except for first person and third person singular. That means that much of the time it won’t matter whether you realize you’re in subjunctive or not because you’ll just happen to get it right anyway.

But … what about first person and third person singular? Let’s look at first person first.

First Person

The most common way to get into a subjunctive mood (or mode) is with an If statement that is either false, probably false, or hypothetical.

Suppose I did not go to the game yesterday, and suppose I went to the grocery store instead. At the grocery store, I knocked over the pile of pumpkins. Thus, I could say:

If I were at the game yesterday, I wouldn’t have knocked over the pumpkins.

Now suppose that I did go to the game two weeks ago. I wore my blue sweater at the game (the air was chilly). Someone comes up to me the next day and says, “Hey, I saw you at the game last night. You were wearing a green sweater.”

I could say, “You must be thinking of someone else. If I was at the game, I’d be wearing my blue sweater.”

Indeed, I was at the game, so the conditional is true.

Third Person

Replace the “I” in the previous examples with “Aunt Ruth.”

If Aunt Ruth were at the game, she wouldn’t have knocked over the pumpkins. (She wasn’t at the game; she went grocery shopping instead.)

If Aunt Ruth was at the game, she’d be wearing her blue sweater. (In this example, Aunt Ruth did go to the game in question.)

There are other cases and examples to talk about, and we’ll discuss it further in the near future. Until then …

 

 

Dixie and the Decline of the Subjunctive

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Sep 242015
 

You know how you’ll just be sitting there and suddenly you realize a song is going through your head? And, in fact, sometimes when that happens you realize that the song has been going through your head for a long time (as in days)?

Well, that happened to me earlier this week. I was driving down the road, thinking about all the things going on. I had to stop at the grocery store; I had to pick up my son from piano lessons; I had to stop at the post office; I had to stop at Target to pick up some COTTON tee-shirts; etc. Then, out of the blue, it hit me. I think it was the word “cotton” that tipped me off. I was playing the song “Dixie” in my mind, over and over again.

It’s such a catchy tune. Even Abe Lincoln said that.

“Oh I wish I was in the land of cotton …”

Hold on just a minute (I guess I should say one cotton-picking minute). Where is the subjunctive? The song should be “Oh I wish I were in the land of cotton …”

It set me to wondering.

So, I’ve always been interested in history and politics. There was a stretch of time (like, the 1970s) when I was convinced that Communists had infiltrated the U.S. Department of Education and, in an effort to destroy American productivity and to produce a generation of children barely capable of tying their own shoes, prescribed a megaton of busy-work, labeled as homework. By spending hours and hours on meaningless homework, we would be prevented from having time to spend on real things.

Of course, that probably wasn’t the case. Even if it were, I spent my spare time watching television.

Anyway, long story short, I now wonder if the Confederate States of America developed / promoted this song (Dixie) so that we all would lose our sensitivity to the subjunctive mood.

The subjunctive (which lends itself to wishes, hypothetical questions, and important / recommended / insisted upon matters) mood as a literary device is another dial on your English language control panel. It’s like the equalizer on your stereo console.

We had an old Harmon Kardon amp when I was a kid. Actually, it belonged to my Uncle Steve or Uncle Tom, but they left it at my grandma’s house where we lived. Anyway, the amp had one dial called Ambiance. I would play my record albums and fiddle with the Ambiance dial, but I could never distinguish a difference in sound. It either didn’t work, or my Aerosmith and Foghat albums didn’t have any ambiance to begin with — not sure which.

In today’s culture, the subjunctive button is still there but it’s getting little use.

Would that that were not so.

Aunt is Bored by Her Own Musical

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Oct 112014
 

As the perspiration rolled off my nose and my skin baked under the shining spotlights, I finished the closing song with a flourish:

and with your grammar be meticulous and cautious …
… you may be nauseated, but I don’t think you’re nauseous.

The curtains closed. The final dress rehearsal for our new Broadway smash hit –Aunt Ruth Grammar:  The Musical – was done!

“Did anyone throw roses to you?” asked Aunt Ruth, standing off to the side. She had finished her dancing just moments earlier.

“Not just roses, but a whole salad!” I exclaimed. “I saw tomatoes, apples, eggs, and even some rocks. I guess they loved it. Anyway, I’m so excited about our opening show this weekend.”

“Nephew, I have something to tell you,” said Aunt Ruth, quietly.

“What is it, my dear aunt?”

“I’m bored of this show.”

I coughed. I felt dizzy. My world started spinning. Before I knew it, Aunt Ruth was standing over me, waving smelling salts in my face.

“What … what happened?” I asked.

“I said I was bored of this show, and you fainted. I guess you are more excited about the show than I am.”

“Oh, no, it’s not that, really. I was shocked at your word usage, not at the fact that you are bored.”

“What do you mean?”

“You can be bored with something or bored by something, but you are not bored of something.”

“Really?” she asked.

“Really,” I said. “Now, we Americans use bored of pretty regularly — and frankly, I don’t see anything wrong with it. As we’ve talked about in the past, languages evolve and grow. However, that doesn’t make it right.”

“Well, no, but are you going to get people to stop using it?”

“Probably not,” I reflected, “but we can still point out the rule, the standard, so that people understand whether they’re speaking correctly versus bending the language a little. After all, you never know when you might be giving a paper, or writing something on the Internet, that might be read or heard by people world-wide. There’s a difference between casual usage and formal correctness.”

“True. So tell me how this bored rule works?”

“Hit it, Hal,” I shouted. Somewhere in the distance, a piano began playing.

“You may be bored with the new neighbors, those  who never take a bath;
you may be bored with too much homework if you’re only doing math.
You may be bored with heavy traffic if you’re always in a jam.
You may be bored with TV dinners if you only eat a yam.”

“Yeah?” asked Aunt Ruth.

“Yeah. Further, you may be bored by pointy antlers if you find them on your head;
you may be bored by great big pillows if you see them on your bed.
You may be bored by a big tuba if it’s notes are way too deep;
you may be bored by fluffy penguin dolls who never say a peep.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

Aunt Ruth then began singing.

“I get bored with doing grammar when I’m stuck on lie or lay;
I get bored with conjugation – yuck – whose rules I must obey.
I get bored with me – the novice – using well and using good,
I get bored with trying to figure out I shall or if I should.

I get bored by being confused with using they’re or there or their;
I get bored by trying to know if data is or data are.
I get bored by trying to see where my apostrophes should go;
I get bored by the subjunctive case – I wish it were not so.”

“But never—“ I sang.

“Never!” Aunt Ruth sang.

“Never!” I repeated.

“Never!” she echoed.

“Never,” we sang together, “are we bored of anything!”

The piano played a final chord, and we were done.

“Gosh,” said Aunt Ruth. “I won’t be bored of anything ever again.”

 

How to Pronounce Blessed

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Oct 102014
 

Here’s a little piece of grammar that most English-speakers probably get right just because they were raised doing it this way. I don’t ever remember being formally taught about this little tidbit. This is short and sweet for a Friday evening. Ready? Here goes.

The pronunciation of the word blessed varies according to its usage.

The word blessed can be used as an adjective or a verb. Actually, it can also be used as a noun.

When using it as an adjective, pronounce it in two syllables: BLES-SID.

So, the blessed day, the blessed saint, the blessed mother: all are said with two syllables.

When using blessed as a verb, pronounce it in one syllable: BLEST

He waved his arms and blessed the day.

He blessed the ground upon which he walked.

He blessed the meal before eating.

Now, how about when blessed is a noun?

The blessed shall be chosen first.

In this case, blessed should be said with two syllables. Think of this as substituting for “blessed people,” in which case, as an adjective, blessed would be two syllables.

That’s all, folks!

Aunt Ruth Gets Smart

 grammar  Comments Off on Aunt Ruth Gets Smart
Oct 082014
 

“Clovis, these are great seats! Wow, front row behind the centerfield wall here at Grammar Park – this is the place to be! Boy oh boy, I hope someone hits a ball our way.”

Clovis, chewing on a mouthful of peanuts, merely nodded in agreement.

No sooner had the game begun than my wish was granted. The leadoff batter blasted the first pitch, sending a towering fly ball toward centerfield.

“I got it, I got it,” yelled the centerfielder in an unmistakably familiar voice.

“Aunt Ruth! You’re playing centerfield!” I blurted in astonishment. Clovis was so surprised that he choked and coughed. Peanuts shot out of his mouth like bullets from a Gatling gun.

Positioning herself beneath the still-high fly ball, Aunt Ruth retorted, “Thanks for reminding me, Rookie Relative. I almost forgot. Now, what can I do for you while I’m waiting for the ball to return to earth?”

“First of all,” I said, never one to miss an opportunity, “you can correct your claim to the ball.”

“Pardon?” she asked, before muttering under her breath, “I think I’m going to regret this.”

“The phrase, ‘I got it,’ is simply incorrect when used in the present tense. Yes, it’s common to hear it that way, but that doesn’t make it correct English.”

“Can we talk about something more pleasant, like the time you stapled your tongue to a giant windmill?”

“Uh, no. Look, Aunt Ruth, this isn’t too hard. Just bear with me.” I looked up. The ball was still hundreds of feet from the ground.

Her silence encouraged me, so I continued.

“In American English, the present tense is get, the past tense is got, and the past participle form is gotten or got, depending on meaning. Generally, Americans use gotten for the past participle when talking about ability or permission, and they use got for the past participle when talking about possession or ownership.  For example, today I get to go to a ballgame; yesterday I got to go to a ballgame; I have gotten to go to ballgames in the past. I have got a baseball at home that was autographed by Homer, the famous Greek slugger. Are you with me so far?”

“Uh huh,” she sighed.

“Before I go on, let me also point out that American English tends to use to get in ways that are totally, uh, foreign to some of the other English-speaking places on Earth.”

“For example?”

“For example, we use got to mean must. I got to be going. We use got to mean permission or capability. I got to go on stage and see Aunt Ruth at last night’s rock concert. We even use got to mean have got. Yes sir, I got one big, old, mean, tough aunt.”

“In British English—“

“You mean English English?” she asked.

“Uh, I guess so. In English English, the present, past, and past participle words are get, got, and got, respectively. The meaning of to get is much more restrictive than you will find in America. To get is pretty much confined to meaning to receive or to obtain. I get strawberries and cream for lunch today. I got strawberries and cream for lunch yesterday. I believe I have got strawberries and cream in the larder; would you care to join me for an afternoon snack?”

“The Brits don’t use gotten?” she asked with an incredulous look on her face.

“That’s right.”

“At all?”

“Well, they have words like begotten, forgotten, and ill-gotten, but they don’t use gotten by itself, unless of course they’ve picked up an Americanism.”

“You got to be kidding.”

“The British would say that ‘you got’ is not correct.”

“You have got to be kidding?” tried Aunt Ruth.

“Technically, that’s not correct either, because the British don’t generally use forms of to get to mean must.  Now, well respected writers have been using that phrase for the past 400 years or so, but even current grammarians will admit that one shouldn’t overuse ‘have got’ or ‘has got’ because it gets tiresome. One suggestion often heard is to elide the phrase have got so that it comes out as I’ve got or you’ve got.” That just sounds less awkward. But really, what’s wrong with just saying, ‘You have to be kidding’?”

“Why is the distinction important? Why do we care if Americans do it one way and the British another?”

“I am merely putting a stake in the ground and saying there is a right way of using to get and there is the American way that deviates from the norm. I am not saying that we shouldn’t use the American way, but I want to make it clear what is proper or not proper in formal writing. “

“Oh brother…” sighed Aunt Ruth.

Nonplussed, I continued. “There may come a time when you need to make a presentation at a formal conference or have High Tea with the Queen of England, and you want to be sure to speak or write correctly and accurately.”

I glanced up. The ball was now just dozens of feet from Aunt Ruth’s head.

I yelled, “Get it!”

She caught the ball and shouted, “Got it!”

Clovis clapped his hands and cheered, “Good!”