Some Papal Reflections on Adjectives and Adverbs
Posted by June on November 11, 2019


In a recent speech to his communications staff, Pope Francis had a lot to say about adjectives and adverbs, citing examples of writing he’s “allergic to,” like “This is something authentically Christian” and “this is truly so.”

Then he noted: “We have fallen into the culture of adjectives and adverbs, and we have forgotten the strength of nouns … This is a mission of communication: to communicate with reality, without sweetening with adjectives or adverbs.”

If you’re looking for nits to pick in the pope’s statements, you’ll find them. “Authentically Christian,” you could argue, draws a contrast with the inauthentic kind. Also (and this is no small nit), in the sentence “This is something authentically Christian,” the word “Christian” is itself an adjective.

Still, his core idea — that adjectives and adverbs can dilute the power of the words they modify — just happens to be true. Sometimes.

Some adjectives and adverbs add nothing but emphasis, like “awesome” in “The awesome power of this cleaning product blows me away.” Those can usually be nixed.

Others, especially when they appear in the predicate of the sentence, convey information you can’t take out. “This new cleaning product is awesome.”

Here's my recent column on how to best use this advice.


The En Dash
Posted by June on November 4, 2019
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An en dash is roughly the same width as the capital letter N. Compare that to an em dash, which is about as wide as (you guessed it) an M. They’re both wider than a hyphen — the shrimp of the bunch.

On a Mac computer, you make an en dash by hitting the hyphen key while holding down the option key. For an em dash, hold down both the shift and option keys while striking the hyphen key. In Windows, an en dash is made with the control and minus keys, while an em dash is made with the control, alt and minus keys.

The en dash’s duties, like its size, are sort of in between the em dash and the hyphen. It’s often used for number ranges, like “fiscal year 2020–2021.” It can even mean “up to and including” or “through,” as in “Students ages 10–15 can enroll.”

But there are problems with this practice. For one, old-timey editors like me might have a serious (serious) problem with symbols used in place of words.

I, for one, never allow a “10–15.” I change it to “10 to 15.” The thinking here is that readers chugging along in a written work are in a my-brain-is-reading-words mode, not in a my-brain-is-translating-symbols-into-words mode. (And don’t get me started on the ampersand.)

If you’re going to use en dashes in running text, take this Chicago Manual warning to heart.

“For the sake of parallel construction, the word ‘to’ or ‘through’ (or ‘until’), never the en dash, should be used if the word ‘from’ precedes the first element in such a pair; similarly, ‘and’ should be used if ‘between’ precedes the first element.” In other words, “between 10–15” is a no-no, as is “from 10–15.”

Here’s my recent column on the en dash.

Rethinking the rethinking of hyphen rules
Posted by June on October 28, 2019


Recently, I wrote about some changes to the AP Stylebook’s rules on hyphens. Specifically, I reported that AP is going lighter on them, arguing that if a hyphen doesn’t do anything to make a compound modifier easier to understand, you can often ditch it.

“Use of the hyphen is far from standardized,” the AP social media team tweeted. “It is optional in most cases, a matter of taste, judgment and style sense.”

And tastes, it seems, have shifted toward fewer hyphens. But they haven’t shifted as far as AP thought. Shortly after announcing they were pulling back on hyphens in certain situations, AP got pushback, especially regarding sports terms.

For example, the editors earlier this year decided there should no longer be a hyphen in “first quarter touchdown.” That didn’t go over well.

“Some of you disagreed with our move to delete the hyphen from first-quarter touchdown, third-quarter earnings and other -quarter terms,” the AP Stylebook folks tweeted on Sept. 25. The result is a slight shift in rules, which I write about here.

A look at some more new words
Posted by June on October 21, 2019

If you’ve ever been called Johnny-on-the-spot, you might have beamed with pride. It meant you were, according to Merriam-Webster, “a person who is on hand and ready to perform a service or respond to an emergency.”

Dating back to the 1880s, this term was clearly intended as a compliment — praise for your resourcefulness, dedication and efficacy.

However, as of this year, if someone calls you Johnny-on-the-spot, you might want to ask a few follow-up questions before you thank them. That’s because the Oxford English Dictionary has added another definition for this term: “a small prefabricated structure containing a toilet.”

Last week, we looked at some notable recent additions to the Oxford English Dictionary. But there are lots more, some of which I look at in this recent column.