There's no such thing as 'quotation marks lite'
Posted by June on April 8, 2024
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This sentence contains an example of an error I see all too often, including in the work of professional writers: Known as ‘hashtags,’ these keywords are popular in social media.

That’s not how single quotation marks work. Yet almost every time I see this punctuation mark, this is how it’s used — a job I call “quotation marks lite.”

Regular quotation marks have several jobs. Their main job is to indicate direct quotations or excerpts. They can also indicate irony.

Finally, quotation marks can indicate that a certain word is actually a focus of the discussion. Consider this sentence: I know “that” is often overused. The quotation marks are the only way the reader can be sure that we’re talking about the word “that.” Without the quotation marks, what’s meant by “that” could be misconstrued.

This is a sanctioned use for quotation marks, one that the Chicago Manual of Style refers to as discussing “words as words.”

Not many people know this and instead think quotation marks only indicate direct speech. So when some people want to discuss a word itself, they figure that regular quotation marks don’t fit the bill. Single quotation marks seem like the perfect compromise: not too soft, but not so strong that they indicate direct speech.

Unfortunately, single quotation marks are not just milder forms of regular quotation marks. They have a specific job to do: They work within regular quotation marks.

Say you’re quoting someone who’s quoting someone else: Bob said, “Joe yelled, ‘Hello.’”

That’s when single quotation marks come into play. They do all the things regular quotation marks do, except they do them within regular quotation marks. Like their beefier siblings, single quotation marks can indicate “words as words,” but only within other quotations: Bob said, “Joe can’t pronounce ‘nuclear.’”

There are several reasons why these simple punctuation marks are so misunderstood.

First, a closing single quotation mark often looks identical to an apostrophe. This causes problems when a single quotation mark appears next to a period or comma. For example, see in our “nuclear” sentence above how the period comes before the single quotation mark as well as before the regular quotation mark?

An apostrophe would not go there. Because an apostrophe represents a dropped letter, it stays attached to the word it’s part of, so a period never comes before it: I’m just sayin’.

Second, many computer programs will change an apostrophe into an open single quotation mark. Type “‘Tis the season” or “the ‘90s” into a word-processing program and you’ll see what I mean.

Third, anyone who takes a cue from news media could be easily confused. In headlines, many news outlets use single quotation marks in place of regular ones.

But usually, unless you’re writing a quotation that appears within another quotation, there’s no call for single quotation marks. And if you’re ever tempted to use them as “quotation marks lite,” try to resist the impulse.

'While' vs. 'although' or 'though'
Posted by June on April 1, 2024

Here’s a word I change a lot when I’m editing: “while.” I see it used like this often: While pedaling along the beachfront sidewalk is delightful, so too is stopping for a snowcone at the beachfront snack bar.

A myth out there alleges that this is an outright error. The idea is that “while” means “during,” so you can’t use it to mean “though” or “although.” Not true.

while. conjunction:

1. … on the other hand … whereas

2. … in spite of the fact that, although (while respected, he is not liked)

3 … similarly and at the same time that (while the book will be welcomed by scholars, it will make an immediate appeal to the general reader)

That’s Merriam-Webster’s take on “while.” So clearly, according to definition 1, the example sentence about pedaling on the sidewalk is correct. But is using “while” this way a good idea? That’s a different question.

Whenever “while” comes before an action, especially an action expressed as an “ing” verb, it sounds like you’re using the other definition of “while”: “during the time that.” So “while pedaling” sounds like you mean “during the time that you’re pedaling.” And in this sentence, it’s going to be a long time until the reader gets your real meaning “while pedaling is …” When we get to the verb, "is," we can see that "while" was meant as “although.”

In my book, any “while” that can lead the reader astray should probably be replaced with “although” or “though.”

Although pedaling along the beachfront sidewalk is delightful, so too is stopping for a snowcone.

My partner and I's?
Posted by June on March 25, 2024

“My partner and I’s bikes were stolen,” a woman posted on my local recently.

Not familiar with Nextdoor? It’s the reason why, some years back, everyone you know in every town from coast to coast started talking about the crime wave hitting their neighborhood. The real crime was social media nudging out local news, siphoning advertising dollars away from professional journalism and toward a barrage of hysterical, context-free anecdotes about porch pirates and noises that sound like gunshots. But I digress.

Point is, a lot of folks go on this hyperlocal social media site to tell their neighbors about crimes, coyote sightings and whatnot and, when they do, they don’t always use perfect grammar. Nothing wrong with that. These aren’t doctoral dissertations. But sometimes the grammar is surprising. Revealing. Like “my partner and I’s.”

As kids, we got it drilled into our heads that “me” is often improper. “Kim and me are going to the park” was swiftly corrected by a parent or teacher saying, “It’s Kim and I, not Kim and me.” This valuable lesson about subject and object pronouns got filtered through our little kid brains and settled there as: “I” is bad. It doesn’t go with Kim or any other person. If you don’t want people to think you’re dumb, avoid “I” anytime there’s an “and” plus another person.

The result: Sentences like “The manager saw him and I” and “This is between you and I” and other “and I” structures that miss the mark of perfect grammar precisely because the speaker was trying too hard to be proper.

A lot of experts point out that these sentence structures are acceptable in casual speech. But that’s the problem. The folks using “I” this way are aiming for proper speech. They’re trying to be as grammatical as possible, and it backfires.

I explain how to avoid this problem in my recent column.

Good things come to him who waits? Or he who waits?
Posted by June on March 18, 2024
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Recently, I reread something I wrote years ago about “good things come to he who waits” vs. “good things come to him who waits” and then, when I tried to summarize the lesson, I got it exactly wrong. Not only did I misunderstand the grammar, but I misunderstood what my 2016 self was trying to teach me. I just didn’t get it. But I’ll forgive myself because it’s a tricky issue.

The grammatically correct form is “him who waits,” with the object pronoun “him.” That may seem pretty obvious to anyone who understands that “to” is a preposition and that prepositions take object pronouns and not subject pronouns.

Give it to him, not give it to he.

Show it to us, not show it to we.

Tell it to her, not tell it to she.

You know this intuitively. But folks who pay very close attention know that sometimes, there’s an exception. When the object of a preposition or verb is not a single word but a whole clause, that clause needs a subject. In those cases, you can have a subject pronoun sitting right where an object pronoun normally goes.

Give the job to whoever wants it, not give it to whomever wants it.

Whoever is a subject pronoun. Yet here it sits where an object pronoun would normally go because it’s the subject of its own verb: wants.

It’s kind of like “I know he lied.” The whole clause “he lied” is the object of the verb, “know.” The point is, whole clauses can be objects.

In “Good things come to him who waits,” there’s a verb right there, “waits.” And it’s pretty clear who’s doing the waiting: he is. So it seems like the whole clause “he waits” should be the object of the preposition, which would make it “Good things come to he who waits.” But actually that’s wrong because “who” — not “he” — is the subject of the verb “waits.”
“Who” is a relative pronoun in our sentence. Relative pronouns — that, which, who and whom — head up relative clauses.

The cat, which was meowing, was gray.

The dress that caught my eye didn’t come in my size.

There’s the man whom I love.

There’s the man who loves me.

Relative clauses have a surprising job. They modify nouns. They’re basically adjectives. In “the cat, which was meowing,” the “which” clause modifies the noun “cat.” That makes the whole clause an adjective. In “the dress that caught my eye,” the “that” clause modifies the noun “dress.” Again, an adjective.

In “good things come to him who waits,” the relative clause “who waits” is also an adjective. So what is it modifying? The pronoun “him.”

In our sentence, the true object of the preposition is in fact the object pronoun “him.” The verb that comes after “him,” “waits,” already has its own subject, “who,” and together “who waits” is working as an adjective.

This isn’t just my analysis. Experts agree. Fowler’s Modern English Usage, for example, cites the following sentence as an error: “Any contact with Flora would have to include he who was keeping an eye on her.” That’s wrong, Fowler’s says. It should be “include him” because “him” is the true object of the verb “include.”

Of course, when a grammar rule is this complicated, no one’s expected to get it right. So I’ll forgive myself when I forget it all over again in the near future.