Coming to terms with bafflers in English grammar and usage


WE take for granted certain bafflingly equivocal instances of English usage as correct until we encounter situations that force us to publicly commit the usage in writing.

This was the grammar dilemma faced by English Editor — that’s the username of a member of Jose Carillo’s English Forum — when he and his team were about to wrap up a book project for publication recently:

“Which of these two sentences is the correct one? 1. ‘This version is exclusively for use of students and teachers of (school)’ or 2. ‘This version is exclusively for use by students and teachers of (school).’ We had quite a confusion here as to which is more appropriate.”

Here’s my reply to English Editor:
Both the phrasal verbs “use of” and “use by” are grammatically and semantically correct for that sentence construction, but the more idiomatic usage is “use of”: “This version is exclusively for use of students and teachers of (school).” I strongly recommend it over the “use by” variant, “This version is exclusively for use by students and teachers of (school),” particularly because the preposition “by” is more strongly associated with authorship than with action in general.

Here’s how those two phrasal verbs work: In the sentence that uses the prepositional phrase “for use of students and teachers,” the preposition “of” indicates the object (“students and teachers”) of the action denoted by the preceding noun (“use”). In the sentence that uses “for use by students and teachers,” on the other hand, the preposition “by” indicates the agency or instrumentality (“students and teachers”) through which the action denoted by the preceding noun (“use”) is achieved. The grammatical mechanism of each of the two phrasal verbs differs, but the resulting sense is practically the same.

Then here’s a similar English usage dilemma brought to my attention recently by Baklis, another Forum member:

“Which one is correct: ‘We attend a five-days seminar’ or ‘We attend a five-day seminar’?

Here’s my reply to Baklis:

The grammar rule in such hyphenated constructions is to always render the noun expressing the quantity in the singular form, so the correct construction for the usage you presented is “five-day seminar,” as in your second sample sentence: “We attend a five-day seminar.”

Think of it this way: As a rule, a noun that by itself (particularly not in the possessive form with apostrophe-s, as in “women’s room”) premodifies another noun actually functions as an adjective, and adjectives don’t take the plural form. We can see that this applies in such examples as “car key” (we don’t say “cars key”), “plane ride” (not “planes ride”), and “table manner” (not “tables manner”).

When we compound a noun into a hyphenated quantity modifier like “five-day,” it similarly functions as an adjective; as such, it takes the singular form like all adjectives do. We don’t say “five-days leave” but “five-day leave,” and not “40-storeys condominium” but “40-storey condominium,” etc.

Finally, here’s a third similar usage question, also by Baklis: “Can we consider ‘in line with this’ in writing an ineffectual phrase?”

My reply to Baklis:
No, I don’t think the correlative phrase “in line with this” can be considered an ineffectual phrase. That phrase effectively says what it means, that the subject being described is in conformance to, similar to, or at the same level as something, as in “The increase in prices of consumer goods is in line with the current inflation level.” The problem with that phrase though is that it sounds a tad too formal and officious, particularly when used too often.

Personally, I try my best to avoid using “in line with” whether in an official or personal capacity. I use plainer equivalents like “follows,” “is based on,” “according to,” and “corresponds to,” as in “The increase in prices of consumer goods follows the current inflation level.”

Visit Jose Carillo’s English Forum at Visit me on Facebook. Follow me at @J8Carillo.


Please follow our commenting guidelines.

1 Comment

  1. Amnata Pundit on

    Which one is more correct, in conformance to, conforms to or conforms with ? Thanks.