Usage and Grammar

Q. My daughter is filling out a college application that tells her to “write a brief answer (150 words or less) to both of the following questions.” The two questions are unrelated. We’re wondering whether to read that as “write 150 or less on each of the questions” or “write 150 words or less on both questions together.”

Q. My colleague and I are editors and are debating the form of the verb in the sentence “As a schematic design (fig. 1), there are a main reactor for the co-precipitation reaction, a cation reactor for the Ca2+ diffusion, and an anion reactor for the diffusion of phosphate ions.” I say that the sentence should read, “there is a main reactor,” but my colleague says there are three items in the list and hence the verb should take the plural form. Could you please help resolve this debate?

Q. Should the following sentence use the plural of century? Even in the late third and early fourth century[ies?], military resources were stretched.

Q. Hello, I saw Barack Obama speak and he seemed to make a grammar error. I was wondering if I was missing something. He said, “President and Mrs. Bush invited Michelle and I to come to the White House.” Another time he said, “It was for Michelle and I.” Shouldn’t it be “Michelle and me”? My husband thinks I’m crazy to spend my time thinking about things like this, but it bothers me.

Q. “The first of which is better.” I said this is a sentence fragment, but a student pointed out that it has a subject and predicate. Who’s correct?

Q. I work as an assistant editor, and I’ve been having trouble with the phrase “as well as.” In some sentences, it means “in addition to,” as in the sentence “I ate the burger as well as the fries.” In other cases, it is used as a form of comparison, as in “I play the guitar as well as the piano,” meaning that I play both instruments with equal skill. Is one of these uses incorrect?

Q. I am an editor at a city magazine, and our copy department just had a spirited discussion over the phrase “last September.” The issue in which this phrase will appear hits newsstands in December 2008. Would the phrase “last September” then refer to September 2007 or September 2008? The phrases “last Tuesday,” “last week,” “last month,” and “last year” all refer to the unit of time immediately before the current one. Does “last September” merit a special consideration?

Q. What determines the verb of an adjectival clause—the subject of the main clause or the noun to which the adjectival clause most closely relates? Here’s an example: “One of the paradoxes that emerges from studying scientific discovery is . . .” Many years ago, when grammar was still being taught, I learned that the noun “paradoxes” (to which the pronoun “that” relates) would dictate a plural verb, “emerge,” in the dependent clause. I continue to make this kind of change in scholarly editing but oftentimes meet with authors’ resistance. What is your stance on this?

Q. Greetings. I’m working with the Knowledge Management team in an IT company, responsible for content management and development. My supervisor advised me to write only per, not as per in a sentence. Is it as per the Chicago Manual of Style? Please oblige me with your reply.

Q. My colleagues are divided in their opinions about “storing data in a computer” versus “storing data on a computer.” Which is correct? Thanks.