Getting One's Fix
Posted by June on August 24, 2015

Here’s a weird thing I often have to fix. See if you can spot it in this passage.

The amusement park offers many adrenalin-pumping rides, from the death-defying Zipper to the classic flume, complete with splash landing.

See anything there you’d fix?

If not, don’t feel bad. It’s an odd one. It’s “adrenalin.” I change that to “adrenaline.”  In the dictionary I must follow in most of my editing work, Webster’s New World College Dictionary, “adrenalin” used in this sense isn’t strictly an error. But it is inferior to “adrenaline.”

Why? Because, according to Webster’s, the spelling that ends with an N is a trade name for epinephrine. It starts with a capital letter: Adrenalin.

The term that ends in E is usually the correct generic term for the hormone that gives you a rush on a roller-coaster or a boost of strength when you’re in real danger. The definition leaves a little room for debate, however. It says that the generic term is USUALLY spelled “adrenaline.” So you could interpret that to mean that the alternative is another, albeit less popular, correct spelling. But me, I go follow the dictionary’s cue and stick with “adrenaline.”

Merriam-Webster’s, by the way, isn’t as flexible. In that dictionary, “Adrenalin” is always a trade name and always starts with a capital letter. The one that ends with an e, “adrenaline,” is the generic term.


Where to Put Your 'Only'
Posted by June on August 17, 2015

Here’s a reminder about the word “only”: You can put it wherever you like. But some people don’t know you can put it wherever you like, so they’ll think you’re wrong any time you don’t put it where they like.

The myth – and it’s one I, myself, once believed – is that “only” must be placed immediately next to the word it modifies.

If this were true, “I only want candy” would mean that wanting is the sole thing you do with candy. You don’t buy it. You don’t make it. You don’t even eat it. You only want it.

According to this belief, you would have to say “I want only candy” when you mean that candy is the only thing you want. You don’t want cookies. You don’t want fish and chips. You want only candy.

The nice thing about this idea is that it helps you remember that, sometimes, putting “only” next to the word it modifies can erase all doubt about your meaning. And I like the idea of laser precision in language. But you don’t have to. There’s no rule that says “only” must be placed right next to the word it modifies. On this matter, the only real rule is clarity. So on this matter, as in many others, your only real obligation is to the reader.

Sneaked vs. Snuck
Posted by June on August 10, 2015


Until just over a century ago, if you did the thing we called sneak, but you did it yesterday, you would have sneaked.

This follows the pattern all English verbs use to form their past tenses. Today I walk, yesterday I walked. Today I bake, yesterday I baked. Today I peek, yesterday I peeked. So for the longest time it was Today I sneak, yesterday I sneaked.

But sometime in the late 1800s, people started replacing sneaked with snuck. Today I sneaked, yesterday I snuck. And here’s the weird part: No one knows why, according to the blog at Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. People just started using it.

That kind of thing happens in language all the time. A lot of our regular verbs were once irregular, but people started applying the "ed" formula we see in walked, baked, and peeked. It’s a natural process.

But snuck is different for one very important reason: No other English verb follows this pattern. So it’s like people who needed to use the verb “peek” in the past tense began to eschew "peeked" in favor of "puck." No one knows where that “uck” ending came from or why.

All they know is that, in the past 120 years, “snuck” has gained solid legitimacy as an alternative to “sneaked.” Merriam Webster’s even reports that “over the past 120-odd years, ‘snuck’ has become by some estimations the more common past-tense form. Some people object to the sneaky upstart – especially speakers in British English – but it appears regularly and without commentary in respected publications on both sides of the pond.”


Stannis on 'Fewer'
Posted by June on August 3, 2015

There’s a JPEG out there on the Internet spoofing “Game of Thrones” character Stannis Baratheon as a grammar snob. If you’re very behind in your viewing, here’s your spoiler alert: a spoiler is coming.

Stannis’s young daughter, Shireen, is tied to a post and set on fire. Wailing, the little girl asks, “Why are you sacrificing me after spending less than three weeks stuck here?”

In the next panel, her father, whose affection for proper grammar has been, until this point, eclipsed by love for his little girl, replies: “Fewer.”

I’ll admit I laughed. But in fact, whoever wrote the joke had his facts wrong. Shireen’s grammar was fine – even if you’re taking a very conservative approach to less and fewer.

Why? Because “fewer” modifies countable, plural things – individual units. Fewer items, fewer calories, fewer side effects. But Shireen wasn’t talking about weeks as individual units. She was talking about thing that is singular in concept: a single duration of time. And singulars are modified by “less.”

Fewer than three weeks would mean exactly two weeks or exactly one week or exactly no weeks. It couldn’t mean two weeks and six days. Or two weeks and five days. Or two weeks and four days and nine hours.  So unless Shireen had some reason to think of each week as significant in its distinction from the other weeks, she meant it as a single span of time. And anything less would be “less than three weeks,” not “fewer than three weeks.”