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June 25th, 2008

Quiz wrap-up / that said / master's or masters degree?

by Barbara Wallraff

A lot of you are going to be mad at me because of the “singular versus plural” quiz I ran a couple of weeks ago. It was really hard. I put the quiz sentences in an order that almost forced you to doubt what you know. For instance, a sentence in which “the number of people” should have been singular came right before one in which “a number” should have been plural. Both those things are usual for “number” -- that is, we say, “The number of puzzled people is large,” and “A large number of people are puzzled.” But put the two together and pay close attention to their grammar, and it seems as if one of them must be wrong. What’s more, only four of the 11 sentences were correct, whereas most yes/no quizzes are closer to half and half.

Your assignment was to tell me the first letters of the correct sentences. The answer is URYS: “You are wise” -- get it? A few readers sent me the first letters of the incorrect sentences instead. Those spell what they are: NICETRY. To find out the reasoning behind what’s correct and incorrect, please visit my Web site, www.wordcourt.com, and look in the newspaper archives in the “library.” If you took the quiz and got just one or two sentences wrong, you did well. To be entered in the contest, though, you had to get all of them right. Dawn Cooprider, of Northville, Mich., did, and she won the random drawing for a prize -- an autographed copy of my book “Word Court.” Congratulations to Dawn and to everyone else who aced this quiz -- you’ve earned bragging rights.

L. Schreiber, of Iowa City, Iowa, writes: “Every day I hear or read people using the phrase ‘That said, ...’ Am I the only one to find this phrase annoying? What happened to ‘however’ and ‘nevertheless,’ which seem less egotistical?”

Dear L.: Your word “egotistical” makes a good point. “That said” drags the focus away from what’s being discussed and redirects it toward the person doing the discussing. You are not the only one to find this tic annoying -- far from it. “That said,” together with “Having said that,” appeared on an annual “Banished Words” list compiled at Lake Superior State University, in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. Unfortunately, that happened in 2003, and both of these unlovely phrases are still going strong. Isn’t there anything that can be done? Yes -- and you and I are doing it.

Sandra Wilson, of Portland, Ore., writes: “I have a master of science degree. When I want to shorten that by dropping ‘of science,’ should it be ‘master’s degree’ or ‘masters degree’?”

Dear Sandra: I wish more people were as wary as you are of reckless behavior with apostrophes. Apostrophes seem to turn up where they aren’t wanted much more often than necessary ones are left out. That said (just kidding!), you need an apostrophe in “master’s.” There’s only one of you -- so, obviously “master” isn’t plural. And you hold, or possess, the degree. Therefore, the word is a singular possessive: “master’s degree.”

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

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