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Grammar Girl 语法女孩(2007年) A Few Short Questions (October 26, 2007)

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Episode 81: October 26, 2007

Grammar Girl here.

I get a lot of questions about things that are too short to make up a whole podcast, so today I'm going to answer a few of those short questions. 

So here's our first listener question.

Dreamed Versus Dreamt

Hi Grammar Girl. D. Chap here. Here's a new one, a Marine with a grammar question. I was thinking about the words dreamed and dreamt. I've heard it used both ways and I've seen it written both ways, but it doesn't make a lot of sense to me about what the proper usage would be if there is one. You don't say creamt when you're trying to say creamed, or the same thing with gleamed and gleamt; you never hear those. So I was wondering what the proper usage was for dreamed versus dreamt.

Hey, D. Chap. You're actually not the first Marine to submit a grammar question. I've heard from a few Marines, including some guys who wrote in from Iraq. The reason you are confused is that dreamed and dreamt are both allowable past tense forms of the verb dream. Dreamed is more common in American English, and dreamt is more common in British English (1, 2, 3). The same holds true for most other words that have these two forms. For example, learned and spilled are more common in American English whereas learnt and spilt are more common in British English.

Regular Verbs Versus Irregular Verbs

Most of the time you add -ed to a verb to put it in the past tense; jump becomes jumped, for example. So verbs taking an -ed are called regular verbs. The less common past tense forms that end with a t, such as dreamt, are called irregular verbs.  (Wikepedia has an interesting article about the origin of irregular verbs.)

Octopi Versus Octopuses

OK, here's another question:

Hi, Grammar Girl. I am a college student, and I recently questioned if octopi is the correct way to say the plural form of octopus, and I got different answers from two different professors. I know it has something to do with the derivative and if it's Latin or Greek, so I was wondering if you could address the plural forms of octopus or pegasus and any other words you can think of. Thanks. Bye.

You're right that foreign words sometimes keep their foreign plural, especially when they aren't commonly used words.  Fungus comes from Latin and the proper plural is fungi, for example. But most words that came into English through Latin or Greek take the standard -es to make them plural. The proper English plurals are octopuses, hippopotamuses, Pegasuses, cactuses, and so on*. There are varying forms of acceptance for forms like octopi, hippopotami, and cacti -- for example, cacti is more common among people who work with plants -- but it's usually safest to go with the -es for plurals (4).

Nauseous Versus Nauseated

Here's another one:

Hi Grammar Girl. This is Brian from Seattle, and I have a question about the word nauseous. I always thought that nauseous meant that you were causing nausea, and that when someone says, "I'm feeling nauseous," they are causing me to throw up on them. But everyone says it! Everyone says, "I'm feeling nauseous." And I always thought it was wrong, but movie stars say it and books say it, and maybe I've been wrong this entire time. I thought if I'm feeling sick, I'm nauseated. And that big pile of trash on the floor is nauseous, meaning it's causing me to throw up. Anyway, I think you understand my question, I'd appreciate an answer. Thanks. Bye.

Brian is right! And this is a good reminder that I should get a flu shot, too, so thanks. It's common to hear people say they're nauseous when their stomach is upset, but language sticklers hold that nauseous means to induce nausea, whereas nauseated means you feel sick. So when you're describing how sick you feel, you should say you are nauseated; when you're describing something that makes you sick, you should call it nauseous. At least that's how you should do it if you want to be extremely proper. Most usage guides note that the improper use is far more common than the proper use (5, 6), which is always a bad sign for a rule. And the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage even goes so far as to say there is no basis for the rule (7). So it's likely that the confusion will continue for a while and eventually nobody will object when you say you feel nauseous when you're sick. Whether that will happen in 20 years or 200 years, I don't know.

Try to Versus Try and

Hi, Grammar Girl. This is Shannon in Phoenix, Arizona. I was hoping you could set the record straight about the use of try and versus try to. For example, "I'm going to try and give Grammar Girl a call," versus "I'm going to try to give Grammar Girl a call." My inclination is that try to is the only correct construction, however I increasingly hear people say "try and." Could you please set this straight. I'm dying to have an authority hold forth on this. Thanks.

Hi, Shannon. I got really frustrated while researching this topic because none of my books seemed willing to take a stand. They all said "try and" is an accepted informal idiom that means "try to." They say to avoid "try and" in formal writing, but not to get too worked up about it otherwise. But none of them addressed what bothers me about the phrase "try and," which is that if you use and, as in your example sentence -- I'm going to try and call Grammar Girl -- you are separating trying and calling. You're describing two things: trying and calling. When you use "try to" -- as in I am going to try to call Grammar Girl -- you are using the preposition to to link the trying to the calling.

I may have to put this on my list of pet peeves, and as I've said before, people almost always form pet peeves about things that are style issues or where the rules aren't clear.

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