Persons Unknown (Adventures in Grammar #4)

Raindrops pelted Elysia’s cloche hat and dark curls as she alighted from the cab, luggage in hand. Nightfall was an hour off, but the dreary March weather had felt like twilight all day, and a broken engagement hadn’t helped.

Elysia was supposed to board a late train for her wedding trip tonight, but her would-be husband’s cheating had turned it into a solo holiday. She should have known better than to trust a bootlegger.

The cabbie leaned out, and rain pecked his flat cap. “You sure this is the place, miss?”

“It is.” Elysia held out her fare. “Thank you.”

“Suit yourself.” The cab rolled off with a smoky backfire, leaving Elysia to the company of a few city rats and ne’er-do-wells. She gripped her beaded purse with one hand and the pistol in her coat pocket with the other. A female private eye had to have the confidence of Al Jolson and the stealth of Eliot Ness.

Keeping her gaze straight ahead, she strode through the tobacco-scented alley, up to an unmarked door, and knocked on it. The door cracked open.

A small voice slipped out: “A book whose sale’s forbidden all will rush to see.”

Elysia leaned in. “And prohibition turns one reader into three.”

The door opened, revealing Elysia’s mousy cousin Maisie.

“Thanks for coming right away. We open in an hour. If you can’t solve this robbery, I’m done for.”

Elysia stepped through the blank doorway into the Blind Tiger, one of the finest speakeasies in town and Maisie’s thankless place of employment. Patrons knew the Blind Tiger for its high-quality liquor, but few of them knew Maisie as its woman-of-all-work. Now, as always, the place was spotless, from the sparkling glassware behind the bar to the gleaming wood floors. Elysia set her valise next to a shabby case that had been left on the rack by the door.

Maisie twisted her apron in her hands. “I know you’ve got a train to catch, cousin… I’m sorry about how things ended up with Tommy.”

His name stung, but Elysia waved a dismissive hand. “It’s for the best. And my train doesn’t leave for a while yet.” She perched on a stool, set her purse on the bar, and pulled out a notepad and pencil. She wrote Theft by Persons Unknown at the top. “Just tell me what happened.”

Maisie nodded. “I had just given the floors and the bar a once-over, like always, when two men with guns burst through the door and demanded our latest liquor shipment. They must’ve known our schedule—the bootleggers had just delivered the liquor. We haven’t even paid for it yet.”

“Hmm…” Elysia frowned and jotted a few more notes. Their motive? Their opportunity?

Maisie’s voice shook. “Carl will have my hide. He owes the mob already, and now with this shipment gone…”

“Don’t worry about him.” Elysia added Talk to Carl to her notes. He was the Blind Tiger’s boozy, boorish owner, and he deserved to be robbed for all he had put Maisie through. “What happened next?”

“The short one carried out our crates as the tall one kept his gun on me. He moved so quickly that I thought—”

“Sorry, which one moved quickly?”

“Oh—the short one. I thought he could have been some kind of wrestler or athlete. He hustled back and forth out the door until he’d taken everything. And they were heavy—”


“The crates. Heavy as anything. I can’t even push one, let alone lift it. As soon as they left—the men, I mean, not the crates—I rang you up.”

“Who else was here?”

“No one.”

“Are you usually in here alone?”

Maisie looked around. “Yes, I’m here alone from noon until Carl decides to show up with the barkeeps, about twenty minutes before opening. We close at midnight, and I usually make it home by two.”

Maisie’s eyes were already weary. The night, full of sloppy, handsy patrons, hadn’t even started yet. And Carl would lay into her like an absolute beast for the lost liquor.

It was all so unfair. While Elysia’s father had saved and carefully invested in automobiles over the years, his cousin, Maisie’s father, had played ponies by the dozen. With his inheritance squandered but his self-absorption intact, Maisie’s father had sent her to work at the Blind Tiger and kept himself afloat by skimming off her wages.

Elysia slid a thoughtful hand around her lacy collar, along the fine beading of her purse, and over her newly vacated ring finger. Then, she looked over her paper—Their motive? Their opportunity? —and rose from her seat.

Elysia embraced Maisie. “My dear cousin,” she whispered. “I know what happened. And I know why you called me here.”

Maisie stiffened. “You do?”

Letting her go, Elysia nodded. “It was so you could steal my train ticket for tonight, right? After selling off the liquor shipment, you need to skip town before Carl or his creditors catch up?”

Maisie wobbled where she stood, as if her legs might give way under her. “I… How—”

“The floors, to start,” Elysia said gently. “Maisie, you keep this place pristine, and you rang me up not half an hour ago. If two men had just stomped through tonight’s weather, in and out with crates of liquor, there would still be mud and rainwater dripped all over. And if you were alone in the bar all afternoon, you would have had the best opportunity of anyone to undercut Carl and sell off his contraband to, say… a rival club?”

Maisie’s eyes darted around. Elysia stepped forward and gently laid a hand on her shoulder.

“Then, of course, there’s motive, and, well, I think even a nun would be desperate enough to steal to get away from Carl. Who could fault you for that?”

“Cousin, please…”

Elysia shook her head. “All this does leave one question, though: why would you call for me to solve a crime you had committed?”

Elysia pointed to the luggage by the door—her own fine valise and the dingy suitcase that looked forgotten. “Because you’re already packed to leave town. Leaving under someone else’s reserved ticket would keep the mob from tracing you.”

“I didn’t want to steal, especially not from you,” Maisie pleaded, “but you don’t understand—”

“I do.” Elysia picked up her purse. “It’s a good thing I still have Tommy’s train ticket, too. I wasn’t too keen on solo travel, anyway. Shall we?”

Maisie’s eyes spilled over. “What? Really?”

“Yes,” Elysia said firmly. “I’m all for justice, but you’ve put up with far more than your share from Carl and all the scoundrels that crawl in here. Whom are you harming by running? Him? Them? Sounds like justice to me.”

Maisie’s face darkened. She threw her arms around Elysia. “They deserve it. They really do.”

Elysia nodded. “And if anyone’s going to come after you, they’ll have to come after you and me.”

“Thank you,” Maisie whispered.

Elysia untied Maisie’s apron and helped her into her coat and hat. Then, she glanced back at the bar. “Say, is Carl’s bootlegger who I think it is?”

“Sure is,” Maisie said. “That louse Tommy’s going to have bigger problems than a cancelled wedding tonight.”

Elysia laughed. It wasn’t justice, but it was something close. She held the door open for Maisie. “Let’s get out of this town, doll. You and I have a train to catch.”

I hope you enjoyed this jaunt into a Roaring Twenties speakeasy as much as I! This decade provides so many scenic and stylish details that it is very fun to write about, and I’ve been looking forward to writing a mystery-themed post. That brings me to our next grammar topic: clarity in pronouns.

You might ask, what is a pronoun? It is a word that replaces something else.

You might also ask, why do we use them? Here’s why:

The desire to write a mystery-themed post brings the author to the grammar topic presently shared between the author and the readership.

Does that sentence sound more confusing, wordy, and clunky? You bet your gin and tonic! And it’s because it lacks the pronouns of, “That brings me to our next grammar topic.” Each pronoun stands in for another word, phrase, or concept to simplify the sentence.

Used correctly, pronouns allow language to flow more clearly and easily, like a well-made cocktail. However, when you use them incorrectly or ambiguously, they can muddle your meaning worse than an overly minty julep!

Pronouns comprise such a broad and deep topic that they could be the subject of a dozen blog posts. To spare us all, I’ve selected a few, commonly misunderstood topics to review here:

Subjective and objective case confusion, who versus whom, and ambiguity.

First, let’s talk about cases (of pronouns, not private detectives). The subjective case is used to replace subjects: the nouns taking action or direction through verbs. Subjective pronouns include I, you, he, she, they, it, one, and we. Here are a few examples:

  • “If you (Elysia) can’t solve this robbery, I (Maisie) am done for.”
  • She (Elysia) perched on a stool.
  • They (fictional robbers) must’ve known our schedule.”


Next, let’s deal with the objective case, which includes pronouns that take the place of objects: the nouns that are directly or indirectly acted upon. Objective pronouns include me, you, him, her, them, it, one, and us. Objective pronouns often follow prepositions. Examples:

  • “We haven’t even paid for it (the liquor) yet.”
  • “The tall one kept his gun on me (Maisie).”
  • “Who could fault you (Maisie) for that?”


Two issues often cause case confusion. The first is that several of the pronouns (you, it, and one) are the same in either case, which means our eyes and ears are less trained to catch errors in case when those pronouns are used. The other, more prevalent issue is compound subjects and objects. Do these sentences sound wrong?

  • Me and you have a train to catch.”
  • Her and Maisie have a train to catch.

The cases are mixed up! You can tell by reading each noun or pronoun on its own. “You have a train to catch” or “Maisie has a train to catch” is fine, but “Her has a train to catch” is a nonstarter, and “Me have a train to catch” only works for the Cookie Monster. This sentence requires “You and I” or “She and Maisie.”


The compound subject issue is one many of us learned to correct early on, with parents and teachers chastising our, “Can me and Katie go swimming?” with “Katie and I.” However, at some point this self-correction may have crossed into new error territory. Do these sound wrong?

  • “They’ll have to come after you and I.”
  • They’ll have to come after she and Maisie.

You wouldn’t say, “They’ll have to come after I,” or “They’ll have to come after she.” Even though we’ve been conditioned to auto-correct with “and I” or “she and,” these are compound objects that require objective pronouns, like “me” and “her.”


Savvy readers might see what looks like an error at the beginning of this explanation: “I hope you enjoyed this jaunt into a Roaring Twenties speakeasy as much as I!” This sentence is, in fact, correct because the comparison is between how much you enjoyed the jaunt and how much I enjoyed the jaunt. Here’s why this distinction is important:

  • Carl’s wife loves gin more than he. [more than Carl does.]
  • Carl’s wife loves gin more than him. [this is very sad for Carl: his wife loves gin more than she loves him!]


Whew! That was a lot about cases. Here’s a quick explanation of who versus whom. Some people think that “whom” is simply the more formal version of “who,” but it isn’t.

“Who” behaves like a subjective pronoun, and “whom” acts like an objective pronoun. Note how they were used in the story:

  • Who could fault you for that?” [what person could]
  • Whom are you harming by running? Him? Them?” [harm occurring to someone]

I phrased that last quote so that “him” and “them” were used alongside “whom” for a reason: I think it helps to remember that the pronouns ending in -m do the same job of replacing objects. If you would fill in “them” in a sentence, then it’s time to use “whom.”


Finally, watch out for ambiguity in pronouns. Misuse of pronouns can create confusion instead of clarity. I tried to work in a few examples in the dialogue:

  • He moved so quickly” could refer to either of the men mentioned, which is why Elysia questions the statement.
  • Likewise, “They were heavy” could refer to men or crates until a clarification is made.

In Elysia’s notes, “their motive” and “their opportunity” are intentionally ambiguous. If I had said “her” from the outset, the reader would have known that Elysia suspected Maisie from the beginning, and our mystery would have been spoiled!

You were probably taught in school that “they/them/their” are third-person pronouns to be used in the plural only—when referring to two or more nouns, and that a singular person should be referred to as “he or she.” Historically, at least over the past few centuries, reserving “they” for plurals was largely considered correct.

However, numerous bastions of the English language, including the Oxford English Dictionary, have recently revised their official standards to accept “they/them/their” as singular third-person pronouns. The use of the singular “they” is seen as a practical modern adaptation, as well as a respectful way to ensure that people of all genders are included in our collective use of language. If you would like to learn more about the history and meaning of “they,” I suggest checking out this great, detailed article!


I hope today’s mystery and explanation have provided some food for thought about how we use pronouns. Remember, the goal in using them is clarity! If you’re unsure of which word to use, consider what it’s replacing.

What other questions about pronouns do you have? Let me know in the comments section, and check back on May 27 for our next Grammar Adventure.

In the meantime, happy reading and happy writing!





A Tale of Three Sisters (Adventures in Grammar #1)

In a faraway land, there once lived three sisters, each quite lovely and quite contrary. They were always arguing—with passersby and with each other.

The youngest sister was called But. Her name was a sore spot; it often made her the rump of jokes. She always crafted quick, clear arguments, but she interjected a lot.

The middle sister was named Although. She loved poetry, the way the words washed into each other. She liked the sound of flowery arguments, although their logic was sometimes harder to follow.

However was the eldest. She was pensive in her arguments and preferred to think through her words before speaking. Her younger sisters tended to bubble over; she, however, loved the power of a good dramatic pause.

One warm spring afternoon, the sisters sat in the shade of a yew tree outside their home, weaving blankets and words.

Although eyed But’s blanket. “Although your pattern is pretty, I think my style of weaving is faster.”

But shook her head. “I’ve nothing against yours, but mine is definitely the fastest.”

However smiled while she listened to her sisters’ squabbling. Her fingers wove quickest of all; she wouldn’t bother jumping into the argument just to say so, however.

At that moment three travelers rode past. So taken were they with the lovely sisters that they dismounted their horses and bowed deeply. The sisters were pleased, and they invited the travelers to tea.

In the sisters’ parlor, conversations wove around the room. The youngest of the travelers, a charming man with ink on his cuffs, gazed into But’s eyes. “Milady, has anyone asked permission for your hand in marriage?”

But stared back. “No one has, but whom would they ask? My hands are my own.”

“Of course,” the young man stammered. “Well… Would your hands have any interest in becoming a lawyer’s wife?”

But eyed his ink-stained sleeves and his kind face. “They would not,” she said, “but they would have great interest in becoming a lawyer… and perhaps, one day, a wife.”

The first traveler’s face lit up. “I can help you learn if you like,” he offered. The other sisters were so happy for But that they invited the travelers to stay for dinner.

Inside the dining room, laughter rippled through the air. The second traveler, a stormy-eyed lady with a fine ruffled collar and swords at her waist, knelt at the table beside Although. “Milady, your poetic words and ways fill my heart like the sea fills my soul. Would you consent to travel the world with me?”

Although smiled. “Although I have never desired to sail the wild ocean, I feel I would always find safe harbor with you. I shall.”

The second traveler’s face brimmed with delight. The other sisters were so glad for Although that they invited the travelers to stay for stargazing.

Outside in the mild evening, a comfortable quiet settled over everyone. The oldest of the travelers, a man with gentle eyes, leaned closer to However. “I have loved and lost before,” he began. “I am older and sadder than I used to be, yet my heart still yearns to love. If I gave it to you… would you give me yours in return?”

A shooting star whistled across the sky above them. However cast her eyes down. “I cannot make such a weighty decision so quickly.”

The third traveler’s face fell. The others looked soberly at each other.

However,” she added, “you may ask me again at another time.”

He looked up hopefully. Another shooting star whisked past overhead.

The fragrant days of spring passed around the sisters’ home. But left for the city with her suitor to earn her letters as a lawyer, but she returned home every so often, always with ink smudges, heavy books, and a content smile.

However’s suitor visited frequently, bringing her gifts of lilacs and daisies and lilies and roses to set upon her table. However was always happy to see him. When he asked for her heart, however, she always deferred. “Another time,” said she.

The days warmed into the gleam of summer. Although sailed out of the harbor with her love to travel the world and fill it with poetry. Although the seafaring life pleased her greatly, she returned home every so often with sea glass and shanties and stories.

However’s patient suitor still visited often, bearing baskets of berries and sweet summer fruits to share on stargazing picnics. However was always elated to see him. When he asked for her heart, however, she continued to put him off.

Finally, the air began to blow cool, and the leaves turned to fiery shades. The summer was surrendering to the dreariness of autumn. However’s suitor knocked once more on her door, this time empty-handed.

“I have nothing left to offer you,” he said sadly. “I have brought you the most beautiful offerings that spring and summer can tender, and now cold autumn comes. If you have no further interest in my heart, I would ask that you return it.”

However stepped out. “I could never give my heart to someone so fast and all at once,” she said.

Her suitor turned away.

She laid a hand on his shoulder. “However… I have given you a piece of my heart with every kind word and every thoughtful act. My patient, gentle love, you now possess it all.”

His eyes lit up like stars at her words. The brightness of autumn bloomed around them, no longer dreary in the slightest with their hearts to kindle and warm each other. They were married as soon as But and Although could be summoned home.

However, who loved the power of a good dramatic pause, had found something she loved much more.

And they all lived happily, merrily, and still a bit contrarily, ever after.

I hope you liked this little tale of three sisters! The word nerd and folktale fan in me really enjoyed writing it. I wanted to start this blog series with a commonly confused topic; I always review the but/although/however conundrum when I’m tutoring. In conversation, we tend to use them interchangeably, but they each have a distinct grammatical job to do.

So… (rubs hands together—here we go!)


How are “but,” “although,” and “however” actually different?


But is a coordinating conjunction. Some English teachers call these “FANBOYS” conjunctions (For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So) to help students remember them.

Coordinating conjunctions are used to join two independent clauses (complete thoughts) when the thoughts have equal weight in the sentence. Examples:

  •    She always crafted clear arguments, but she interjected a lot.
  •    The sisters were pleased, and they invited the travelers to tea.
  •    “I’m older and sadder than I used to be, yet my heart still yearns to love.”


Although is a subordinating conjunction. There are many, many subordinating conjunctions! Common ones include although, because, since, if, when, while, and so on.

Subordinating conjunctions are also used to join independent clauses, but they do so by making one clause subordinate (dependent)—meaning it’s no longer a complete thought on its own. Commas are placed after subordinate clauses but typically not before them.* Examples:

  •    I can help you learn if you like.
  •    She smiled while she listened to her sisters’ squabbling.
  •    “Although your pattern is pretty, I think my style of weaving is faster.”

*There are, of course, exceptions! An exception even appears in the story: “She liked the sound of flowery arguments, although their logic was sometimes harder to follow.”

This is an example of an adverb of concession. When an independent clause is followed by a contrasting clause, it does receive a comma to support the logical turn in the sentence. English, amirite?


However is a conjunctive adverb. What does that mean? Well, adverbs are modifiers: they change how another word (usually a verb) is used in a sentence. A conjunctive adverb modifies the meaning of a whole sentence. They are standalone words and phrases like however, on the other hand, as a matter of fact, thus, therefore, first of all, and so on.

Conjunctive adverbs are used to fill in the logic between two complete thoughts. They can be placed anywhere in a sentence. Since they stand alone, conjunctive adverbs are set apart from the rest of the sentence with commas. Examples:

  •    She, however, loved the power of a good dramatic pause.
  •    She wouldn’t bother jumping into the argument just to say so, however.
  •    Finally, the air began to blow cool.


I hope that the characterizations I’ve given to these words throughout the three sisters’ story—But as a quick-minded interrupter, Although as a poet, and However as a lover of dramatic pauses—will make it easier to remember their various purposes.

Thanks for reading! Check back on February 19 for the next Grammar Adventure.

In the meantime, happy reading and happy writing!