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December 17th, 2003

A parts-of-speech rhyme / more about whereabouts

by Barbara Wallraff

Bill Mitchell, of Royal Oak, Mich., writes, “When I was in the seventh grade, my English teacher taught us rhyming couplets identifying the parts of speech, such as ‘An interjection shows surprise, as “Oh, how pretty” or “Ah, how wise.”’ I want to pass these couplets on to my grandchildren, but memory fails me. Can you help me locate these rhyming aids?”

But of course. The parts-of-speech rhyme was originally written by David B. Tower and Benjamin F. Tweed, authors of a popular mid-nineteenth-century schoolbook. People have been tinkering with the rhyme ever since. Some, for instance, have added one version or another of a couplet about pronouns, which the original rhyme ignores. Others have left off the first couplet, no doubt because they take the view that articles—“a,” “an” and “the”—are a kind of adjective. And still others have changed some of the example words. Here, though, is the rhyme as Tower and Tweed wrote it, according to Charles Darling, a professor of English at Capital Community College, in Hartford, Conn.:

Three little words you often see
Are articles: “a,” “an,” and “the.”
A noun’s the name of anything,
As: “school” or “garden,” “toy,” or “swing.”
Adjectives tell the kind of noun,
As: “great,” “small,” “pretty,” “white,” or “brown.”
Verbs tell of something being done:
“To read,” “write,” “count,” “sing,” “jump,” or “run.”
How things are done the adverbs tell,
As: “slowly,” “quickly,” “badly,” “well.”
Conjunctions join the words together,
As: men “and” women, wind “or” weather.
The preposition stands before
A noun as: “in” or “through” a door.
The interjection shows surprise
As: “Oh, how pretty!” “Ah! how wise!”
The whole are called the parts of speech,
Which reading, writing, speaking teach.

Alan Gorman, of Kingston, Ontario, writes, “I read your recent comment about whether ‘whereabouts’ is singular or plural. You went for plural, for reasons of usage. Consider ‘The subject’s location is unknown.’ The subject can only be in one location, so ‘is unknown’ is right. Now consider ‘whereabouts are unknown.’ The ‘are’ implies that the subject is in more than one place, which is impossible. So I feel that your opting for ‘are’ is wrong.”

Well, but think of the noun “coordinates”—used informally to refer to where someone is or ways to get in touch. (This term evidently started out as a reference to the person’s latitude and longitude.) Please tell me you’d say “The subject’s coordinates are unknown,” not “… is unknown.” Most people—including a sizable majority of professional editors—consider “whereabouts” to be more like “coordinates” than like “location.” The English language is democratic, and we cast our votes by using words in ways that make sense to us. I’m afraid you’re in the minority on “whereabouts.”

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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