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The verdict

SOME OF THE QUESTIONS on last week's Word survey addressed familiar issues like verb tense and pronoun agreement-the hobgoblins on every good grammar nerd's short list. Others were examples of a much bigger class: the usage innovations that sneak in under the radar, rarely setting off alarms. It's a mystery why we'll take up arms to preserve (say) irregular verbs, yet accept ungrammatical novelties and unheard-of definitions without a whimper. But that's the way it is, as your more than 3,000 votes revealed.

Here's a brief recap of last week's puzzlers (in truncated form) and what you thought of them. For the complete survey and vote tallies, go to

1. ''He's grown bored of horse racing" (Washington Post).

A solid majority (69 percent) favored bored with, which (along with bored by) is the standard expression. But bored of (22 percent) has been gaining ground. Two years ago, linguist Mark Liberman reported that ''bored with it" was only 1.9 times as common as ''bored by it" in a Google search. And the gap may be narrowing: A search last week showed bored with it was only 1.6 times as frequent as bored of it. Guess we'll have to get used of it.

2. ''Because Greenspan was so deferential, allowing everyone their argument, he was able to pull a very large consensus along" (Bob Woodward, ''Maestro," 2001).

An interesting split; 41 percent of you voted for the wordy (but inclusive and grammatical) his or her; 34 percent chose the convenient (and time-honored) their, despite its suspect status among purists; 16 percent would say his; and the rest would recast the sentence.

3. ''[Anthony Henry's] unhappiness led to him signing a deal with the Dallas Cowboys" (

In our 2001 Word poll, the question on this point drew the most lopsided response, with 80 percent insisting on the possessive with the gerund: ''His signing a deal." Today, only 58 percent of you feel that way; 32 percent like him; and the rest, like most writers during the past 300 years, can go either way.

4. ''[T]he laptop was more suspect, and less revelatory, than it had been depicted" (Seymour Hersh, The New Yorker).

If Hersh had written ''the laptop was depicted revelatory," his editor would have inserted an as. When that as would fall at the end of the clause, though, it's often dropped, and many readers don't mind at all: Fifty-two percent of you chose his version. But 41 percent preferred ''had been rumored to be," and 7 percent put the as back where it belonged, despite the awkwardness of ending with described as.

5. ''A mild-mannered horticulturist and avid horsewoman, Mrs. Parker's name, nonetheless, was among 490 on a list..." (Boston Globe).

Mrs. Parker's name is not the ''avid horsewoman" here, as the syntax suggests, and 64 percent said a repair is in order. But 22 percent thought it didn't matter, and 14 percent claimed not to see the alleged dangler at all. Those answers reflect the real world, where misplaced modifiers come in many degrees of acceptability, from invisible to risible.

6. ''[Coldplay] got a little too blustery on some of its recent songs, but it rarely sunk into soft-focus blandness" (Chicago Tribune).

A resounding 81 percent of you chose sank, but some of the best dictionaries now accept past-tense sunk. I wouldn't put big money on the long-term survival of sank, shrank, or stank.

7. ''[T]he book's hero is meant to be a sort of representational figure: an average Joe, an ordinary guy" (New York Times).

For years I've been noticing those low-budget ads where the picture of the product has a (tiny) footnote: ''Photo is representational." Well, no kidding; you wouldn't use an abstract picture of your miracle cream or mousetrap, would you? What they mean is representative-similar to the item for sale, but not the thing itself. Only 55 percent of you voted for representative, though (42 percent liked representational), so it may be too late to revive this dying distinction.

8. ''Meryl is one of those people who has a habit of imagining possible disasters" (Los Angeles Times).

Strictly speaking, grammar calls for ''have": Turn the sentence around, and you get ''Of the people who have a habit of imagining disasters, Meryl is one." Often, however, we use this wording to mean ''Meryl is the kind of person who has a habit," and when the intent is singular, so, usually, is the verb-as it was for the LA Times writer and the 75 percent of you who agreed with his choice.

9. ''On the photocopied sheet she gives students, Ms. Yamamoto includes guidelines that are obtuse at first" (New York Times).

''Obscure" is what the writer meant, and what 51 percent of you chose. Obtuse, when it's not a kind of angle, usually means ''clueless, dull-witted"-the opposite of ''acute." But 35 percent of you like obtuse, and you have Merriam-Webster's blessing. (Oblique, meaning ''indirect," also just misses the mark.)

10. ''Darwin's five-year voyage on HMS Beagle brought him eminence as a geologist" (, among others).

Yes, him is fine here, as 65 percent of you said; and yes, this is like the PSAT question-asking whether there was a grammar goof in ''Toni Morrison's genius enables her to create novels"-that caused a commotion in 2003. The testers said there was no mistake; a high school teacher said there was, because Toni Morrison's (a possessive) couldn't be the antecedent of the pronoun her. The new-fangled ''rule" would require us to say something like ''Darwin's voyage brought the naturalist eminence" (instead of ''brought him"). But even those who preach the rule forget all about it when they write- and so can you, unless you're taking a standardized test.

For four weeks' worth of the word, visit E-mail

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