Predominantly or predominately?
Posted by June on August 2, 2021

A while back I was editing an article and came across a sentence like “The community is predominately white.” It took me till the second read to notice that “predominately” wasn’t “predominantly.” And I was pretty proud of myself when I caught this “error.” But luckily I wasn’t so cocky as to trust my own judgment. I looked them up.

It turns out that “predominately” and “predominantly” are both legitimate. And if there’s a difference between them, it’s very subtle. This is from "Webster's New World College Dictionary":

predominate: 1. to have ascendancy, authority, or dominating influence (over others); hold sway 2. to be dominant in amount, number, etc.; prevail; preponderate. Related forms: predominately: adverb

predominant: 1. having ascendancy, authority, or dominating influence over others; superior 2. most frequent, noticeable, etc.; prevailing; preponderant. Related forms: predominantly: adverb

“Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage” argues that the words are basically synonyms. So how do you know which one to choose?

Well, if you want to follow someone else’s lead, you could do worse than to take the "Associated Press Stylebook’s" advice:

"predominant, predominantly: Use these primary spellings listed in 'Webster's New World' for the adjectival and adverbial forms. Do not use the alternatives it records, 'predominate' and 'predominately.' The verb form, however, is 'predominate.'"

Plus, Merriam-Webster's usage guide calls “predominately” a “less frequently used alternative” to predominantly. So that could be construed as yet another reason to stick with “predominantly.”

Of course, follow their cue only if you want to march in step with the majority. If you march to the beat of your own drummer, “predominately” is valid, too. It's just not predominant.

Ganging up on the myth that you can't end a sentence with a preposition
Posted by June on July 26, 2021

As every qualified language commentator under the sun has been saying for years: There’s no rule against ending a sentence with a preposition. Yet the myth lives on. When I wrote a recent column about a co-worker of mine who’s still victim to the myth, I got a number of e-mails from readers who were surprised to hear it.

The sticking power of bad information never ceases to amaze. So, in yet another drop-in-the-bucket attempt to counter the bad information, here are a whole bunch of experts on the subject.  

 “The preposition at the end has always been an idiomatic feature of English. It would be pointless to worry about the few who believe it is a mistake.” – Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage

 “Superstition. … Good writers don’t hesitate to end their sentences with prepositions if doing so results in phrasing that seems natural.” – Garner’s Modern American Usage

 “The ‘rule’ prohibiting terminal prepositions was an ill-founded superstition. Today many grammarians use the dismissive term ‘pied-piping’ for this phenomenon.”

 “That is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I shall not put” – Unknown (Surprised? If you think this was a Winston Churchill quip, you’re not alone. Even the Chicago Manual of Style attributes it to him. But have researchers discovered that it probably wasn’t!)

 “‘Never end a sentence with a preposition.’ … Wrong.” –Washington Post Business Copy Desk Chief Bill Walsh

 “Good writers throughout the history of English – from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Alison Lurie and David Lodge -- have not shrunk from ending clauses or sentences with prepositions.” – Word Court author Barbara Wallraff

 “Not only is the preposition acceptable at the end, sometimes it is more effective in that spot than anywhere else.” – William Strunk, Jr., The Elements of Style

 “For years and years Miss Thistlebottom has been teaching her bright-eyed brats that no writer would end a sentence with a preposition if he knew what he was about. The truth is that no good writer would follow Miss Thistlebottom’s rule. – Theodore M. Bernstein, “The Careful Writer” (copyright 1965)

 “Superstition.” – H.W. Fowler

Crash blossoms
Posted by June on July 19, 2021

It was the headline that launched a thousand linguistics blog posts: “Violinist Linked to JAL Crash Blossoms.”

In 2009, a copy editor spotted this headline in Japan Today. Then he logged on to an internet language forum to ponder the question: “What’s a crash blossom?”

The rest is linguistics history. What had been a nonsensical pairing of two words became a term referring to just such nonsense. Today, crash blossom means any headline that invites a misreading — especially a ridiculous one.

For example, the Japan Today headline didn’t mean that a violinist is linked to mysterious things called crash blossoms. It meant that a violinist who is linked to a crash is blossoming in her career.

How do we know that? Certainly not from the grammar.

As written, the headline has two meanings — one logical, the other nonsensical. We need logic to tell us which of the two valid interpretations is more likely.

Headline writing, which crams big ideas into very tight spaces, is uniquely vulnerable to such misunderstandings. Lots of well-known examples go back more than a century.

“British Left Waffles on Falklands.”

“Giant Waves Down Queen Mary’s Funnel.”

“McDonald’s Fries the Holy Grail for Potato Farmers.”

“MacArthur Flies Back to Front.”

“Eighth Army Push Bottles Up Germans.”

“Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim.”

Here's a closer look at crash blossoms in my recent column.

'Try to' vs. 'try and'
Posted by June on July 12, 2021

“I have been arguing with my husband about the word ‘try’ for years and I think you might be the right person to help me figure it out,” a reader wrote recently. “I was taught that it is unacceptable to say ‘try and’ because it should be ‘try to.’ An example would be as follows: ‘I am going to try to remember to turn off the light’ instead of ‘I am going to try and remember to turn off the light.’

“Can you help me? Is one actually correct or is it just one of those things where both are acceptable and it’s just one of my unfounded, not-backed-up-by-reality peeves?”

As I explained, "try and” is both right and wrong, though I’ll confess I have a strong preference here. “Try and,” though acceptable, defies my sense of logic and order. When I come across it in my editing work, I always change it to “try to.” Here's a closer look in my recent column.