On How the Grammar Gremlins Wailed

You know I make no claims at grammar expertise. I’m often confused by usage and wind up poring over reference books, which is what I’ve done here because, without them, I wouldn’t have even the language to describe what’s wrong with these examples and how to make them right.

As always, please feel free to share your favorite mangled language or word-wranglers in the Comments.

On how “on how” came to be overused and abused
The prevalence of the “on how” locution makes me grind my fangs down to nubs. And what is a gremlin without its fangs?

Here’s what I’m talking about:

Teaching a demon on how to disguise itself in the muggle world is tricky.

We were taught on how underworld demons try to blend in so they can steal our blueberries.

It was surprisingly dangerous learning on how to saddle a dragon.

The use of “on how” in each of these sentences is correct. Technically. Grammatically. So, what’s got me flustered? Three things, basically:

1) “On” is a preposition. Often we see it attached to verbs in short phrases, such as “relied on,” “depended on,” etc. Part of the overuse of “on how” is coming from the attachment of “on” to verbs that don’t really require it, like “debated on” or “educated on.” In vernacular speech, we’re constantly getting our “on” on. Once “on” is firmly in place, it seems “how” must follow. The way to avoid this usage is to shorten the sentence. In the first example above, “on how” isn’t needed at all. We could say:

Teaching a demon to disguise itself in the muggle world is tricky.

2) The most common misuse of “on how” is as a replacement for “about.” Again, “on how” generally won’t cause your grammar check to draw squiggly green lines under a sentence. But, as most grammar gods command (okay, suggest), it’s advisable to avoid two words where one will do and select the word whose meaning is clearest. And that would be “about.” So:

We were taught about how underworld demons try to blend in so they can steal our blueberries.

3) Finally, to make your sentence zing, add “-ing.” In other words, turn the verb that follows “on how” into a present participle and chuck the offending prepositional phrase, thusly:

It was surprisingly dangerous saddling a dragon.

When the rule of “on how” has passed, the land will be safe for gremlins once again. I just hope I have some teeth left.

Early on
Oh my, here’s another “on” that’s clamped its mighty incisors to “early” and won’t let go.

Early on in the episode, Buffy stakes a vampire.

It was popular, early on, to dismiss “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” as a teen soap opera.

Using “early on” when “early” will do is just pouring it on. Buffy would never waste two stakes when Mr. Pointy alone is more efficient. Put your faith in “early” and trust it will do the job you intend. “On” adds no significant meaning or clarity to the sentence and tends to make the writer sound bombastic. Leave the bombast for Principal Snyder; you’ve got more important demons to slay.

On Me, Myself and I
I love these easy-to-understand pronoun examples from Woe Is I by Patricia T. O’Conner.

“Some of the smartest people I know hesitate at the word than when it comes before a pronoun,” O’Conner writes. “What goes next, I or me? he or him? she or her? they or them?”

Good question. Apparently, the answer is that all of them are correct – though your choice may alter the meaning of the sentence, so that’s where you’ll want to be careful. Check out these examples:

Mulder loves baseball more than I.

Mulder loves baseball more than me.

The first sentence indicates that Agent Mulder, when he’s not chasing aliens or government conspiracies, enjoys our national pastime more than I do. The second suggests that Fox loves baseball more than he loves me, which, frankly, I refuse to accept. (Unless the next “X-Files” movie is as bad as the last one. Then, all bets are off, Mr. Duchovny.)

O’Conner goes on to help those of us who have trouble with “myself,” “yourself,” “himself,” “themselves,” etc. Austin Powers could have used her help, when he first met the villain and warbled, “Allow myself to introduce myself.”

In Woe Is I, you’ll find this helpful note: “Myself and the rest of the self-ish crew shouldn’t take the place of the ordinary pronouns…They are used for only two purposes.”

One is emphasis (“The prime minister himself would lose patience with Austin Powers.” Note that “himself” doesn’t need to be added to make this sentence clear.). The other is to refer to the subject (“Dr. Evil hates himself.” “How can you consider yourself a secret agent?”).

Now, that’s the way to tell those grammar gremlins, “Oh, be-haaave!”

2 thoughts on “On How the Grammar Gremlins Wailed

  1. Funny, Vickie!

    I like the references to popular TV shows, books, and movies in your posts.

    And I agree with your analysis of the teeth-grinding examples you’ve given.

    Here are a couple phrases I consider over-used and silly (usually):
    How about “going forward” as in “we’ll deal with this issue going forward”. Usually when a politician says that you can rest assured they really mean “going backward”.

    Also I’ve heard the phrase “at his juncture” used too many times. Webster defines “juncture” as a “critical or important point of time”. I think most people really mean “now” when they use “at this juncture”, don’t you?

    Love your grammar posts!

    • Hi Rita,

      Your examples cracked me up! They’re both well-worn phrases, aren’t they? When I worked in radio, we used to have a sportscaster who would say “as it were” all the time. Drove everyone nuts!

      Thanks for sharing these terrific examples.

Comments are closed.