Even preachers need participles (and gerunds)

When I read or hear a sentence like “We are dedicated to help you succeed,” my first thought is always “WHAT HAPPENED TO THE ‘I-N-G’?” followed closely by “How are you going to help me succeed if you can’t succeed in constructing a sentence correctly?

You see, the sentence should be, “We are dedicated to HELPING you succeed.” Yet, for some unfathomable reason, the author or speaker felt it would be acceptable to change “helping” to “help.”

Image of the DeLorean from the movie "Back to the Future," recreated using Lego-brand blocks.

If I had a time machine, I’d do two things:

  1. Stop the person who invented the fax machine from being born (I believe that evil machine spawned our stress-inducing, impatient, “I need it yesterday” culture).
  2. Find the person who first published something that included an infinitive where there should have been a gerund or participle, and make him fix it!

Ditching gerunds (or participles, or whatever other part of speech applies) in favor of infinitives is a practice that has become so common, it’s on its way to becoming (not become) acceptable. But I will never accept it.

The first time I spotted ing-hate was early in my career, when I was working as a proofreader for a direct marketing agency. This company served nonprofit clients, some of which were religious in nature. I was proofing a very dramatic appeal letter which contained the phrase, “. . . dedicated to preach His word. . . .” My only thought was, “Oops — typo! I’ll fix that,” and I marked the document to have the copy changed to “. . . dedicated to preaching His word. . . .”

Image of actor Julian Beck as the Reverend Kane in the movie "Poltergeist 2."The next day, my boss stopped by my desk to tell me that one of the writers was really upset because I had changed her copy. “Absolutely not,” was my immediate reply. I would never have changed a writer’s copy. If I truly thought something needed to change, I might go to the writer to talk it over, and ask for his or her input, but I’d never just change something on my own. Not in that position, and not at that point in my career.

“Yes, you did,” she continued. She was referring to the typo! I was beyond confused.

I explained to her that I had merely fixed a misspelled word. My boss, however, did not agree. She explained that the writer wanted the copy to be incorrect. She liked the way it sounded — to her, it sounded “stronger” her way.

I started casually keeping an eye out for another job.

A related left-turn off the grammar highway is the refusal to use either a gerund or an infinitive — in a place where either would be perfectly acceptable — in favor of speaking like Tonto, Tarzan and Frankenstein: “The floor needs cleaned.”

From which level of Dante’s Hell did this construction arise?Photo of Kevin Nealon, Phil Hartman and Jon Lovitz as Tonto, Tarzan and Frankenstein

“The floor needs to be cleaned” (infinitive) or “the floor needs cleaning” (gerund) are both perfectly fine options. There’s no need for a third.

Aside: There aren’t that many publishers of school textbooks around, and consequently, not that many textbooks to choose from. I’m comfortable asserting that most of us probably learned the same material in schools. And we all read the same books. Nowhere in any book I’ve ever read have I come across “that car needs fixed.” So people in all regions of the U.S. are being taught the right way to speak and write. Some are just choosing to ignore it.

A more recent trend is the changing and dropping of prepositions. A piece of my soul dies each time I hear or read:

1. Use of “different than” in place of “different from.”

I recently got into an online discussion about this topic. The example being debated was, “The movie was different than I expected.” I submitted that the sentence should be worded as, “The movie was different from what I expected.” Someone replied that I was wrong, because I’d had to add the word “what” to my example, which changed the construction of the sentence.

I replied that I was not wrong, and that the change in sentence construction was absolutely necessary in order for it to be correct. Sometimes things must be stated a particular way, or they are wrong. Bottom line: There is no correct use of “different than.” You must always use “different from,” and if you have to reconstruct your sentence in order to use it, then reconstruct. If you don’t like it, speak a different language, but please stop mutilating mine.

Besides, even if you insist on using “than,” you still need the word “what.” Changing the preposition doesn’t allow you to randomly drop other words. “Different” is a word of comparison. You compare one thing to another thing. Keeping with the example, the things being compared are “the movie” and “what I expected.” You can’t compare “the movie” with “I expected.” The only time, though, that I can think of where you could use “than” would be in this type of construction: “He was more different than what I imagined.” In this case, you’re speaking about a particular degree of difference (“more” or “less”). “From” wouldn’t make sense here.

2. Use of “on accident” instead of “by accident.”
I don’t want to know from what hill this phrase tumbled down, but it’s not even close to being correct. Think of it this way: Would you ever say that you did something “by purpose” or “along malice” or “out by kindness”? No. In the same way that “by accident” is correct the way it is, and should not be changed, so are “on purpose,” “without malice,” and “out of kindness.”

Another cringe-inducer is the use of “once and for all” instead of “for once and for all.” (Or, should I say, “instead on”?)

Correct: “I’m going to clear this up, for once, and for all.”

Not correct: “I’m going to clear this up, once and for all.” Why drop the “for”? What did it ever do to you? Why would you want to clear something up only once anyway?

Yes, the English language is evolving, and it has been since time immemorial, and blah, blah, blah. I get that. I’m not advocating the death of language evolution. Rather, I am stating that there is a clear difference between evolution and deterioration. Changes that make sense are fine. The key concept is that the changes make sense.

In order to coexist on the same planet, people have to be able to communicate with one another. The less sense you make, the less others understand you, and the more likely they are to ignore you, or declare war on you.

Image from the movie "Wargames."

“Shall we play a game?”


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