My Favorite E-mail Exchange of Late
Posted by June on September 15, 2014
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Here's one of the most memorable e-mails I've gotten about my newspaper column, followed by my reply. You don't need to read the column that inspired it, but if you want to, it's here: http://bit.ly/1sYcTcV

Subject: You’re Very Disappointing

Dear Ms. Casagrande:

As a copy editor, you’re an embarrassment. You wrote “A group of university researchers working with some Facebook folks have recently determined that I’m not a dinosaur. Not yet, at least.”

Group is the subject of the sentence. It’s singular not plural. The verb should be “has.”  “Not yet, at least” is a fragment.

Your third paragraph starts with a sentence that begins with a conjunction. Your fourth paragraph ends with a sentence that begins with a conjunction.  Your tenth paragraph begins with a conjunction as does your twelfth. "Scooch" is slang.

You wrote “these memes mutate, but in the process they noticed” where the antecedent of “they” is “memes,” which can’t notice although you intended the antecedent to be researchers. You employed the same confusing word pattern in the last paragraph, which also began with another fragment.

Before you start criticism bad grammar in others, edit yourself.

Sincerely,

Paul S.

My reply:

Paul:

What a delight to open an e-mail with that subject line and see that the writer is wrong on every count. I make quite a few mistakes in my column and often get called on them. So your e-mail, in which you're wrong on every point, was a treat.

One at a time. You wrote:

<<Group is the subject of the sentence. >

Nope. When you have a noun modified by a prepositional phrase, there's no rule that says the head of the noun phrase is the subject of the verb. I explain in this link:
http://www.grammarunderground.com/a-flock-of-birds-flies-or-a-flock-of-birds-fly.html

<<Your third paragraph starts with a sentence that begins with a conjunction. Your fourth paragraph ends with a sentence that begins with a conjunction.  Your tenth paragraph begins with a conjunction as does your twelfth.>>

I'm afraid you've bought into an old superstition. There's no rule against beginning a sentence with a conjunction. Here's a column I did on that.

http://articles.glendalenewspress.com/2010-06-09/news/gnp-aword060910_1_sentence-rule-begin

<<Scooch is slang.>>

You're saying there's something wrong with that? 

<<You wrote “these memes mutate, but in the process they noticed” where the antecedent of “they” is “memes,”>>

After 13 years of fielding e-mails from people who, like you, are victims of grammar superstitions, I thought I'd heard it all. But this appears to be a new one: You seem to be under the impression that only the noun nearest a pronoun can function as its antecedent. That's just silly. I wrote, "The researchers were mainly interested in how these memes mutate, but in the process they noticed." The antecedent of "they" is the researchers.

<<edit yourself>>

Do you not know how publishing works? News media, etc., have editors, who read writers' work with the sole purpose of fixing errors. Had any of these things actually been mistakes, someone else would have fixed them (presumably).

You really should get your facts straight before you fire off e-mails with statements like "You're very disappointing" and "You're an embarrassment."

Best,

June Casagrande

P.S. If you're also under the impression that it's wrong to split an infinitive, end a sentence with a preposition or use "healthy" to mean "healthful" (common misconceptions among people like you), you should look those up, too.

 

 

 

A Hyphen in 'Co-worker'?
Posted by June on September 8, 2014
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Here’s a trend I’m not loving: “coworker.”

Perhaps it’s my AP Style background, but I greatly – greatly -- prefer “co-worker.” Without the hyphen, the first thing I see is “cow.” The whole word looks, at a glance, like it’s pronounced “cow irker.” I’ve worked with a lot of people over the years, and as far as I know, none of them has a history of harassing cattle.

Unfortunately, though both forms are correct, the one without the hyphen seems to be winning out. In fact, a few years ago, I specifically asked the copy editor of one of my books to keep a hyphen in “co-worker” and I even pointed her to a page in the Chicago Manual of Style that permitted it. But she overruled me.

The rules for hyphenating prefixes are different from general hyphenation rules. Basic hyphenation rules deal mainly with connecting two whole, distinct words like “good-looking.” “Co,” “anti,” “un” and a jillion other prefixes are not the same because they’re not words.

Both of the AP and Chicago style manuals say to use prefixes and suffixes as follows: Don’t hyphenate them, except when we say to. Then they go on to list tons of exceptions, many of them surprisingly sensible when you see them on paper. For example, “ex” is always hyphenated. And when you write out “exboyfriend,” you see why. It just looks bad. Proper nouns, numbers and terms that would put too many repeated letters in a row (antiinclined) take hyphens in AP and take either a hyphen or an en dash in Chicago.  

Plus, the style guides also include lists of exceptions, some of them quite detailed. Here’s AP on “co-“:

“Retain the hyphen when forming nouns, adjectives and verbs that indicate occupation or status: co-author, co-chairman ...

Use no hyphen in other combination: coed, coeducation, coequal, coexist.” more

Good Verbs, Lame Verbs: A Look at Three Writers
Posted by June on September 1, 2014
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Last week's podcast about action verbs was based on an old blog post I did examining pages from three books. The podcast generated an unusual amount of interest. So here, for a more thorough look at the basis of that podcast, is the original blog post. 

 

I got an itch to compare [Stieg Larsson's] verbs to some other writers’. Not that verbs are the biggest problem with Larsson’s writing. Far from it. Still, I was curious. So here is an inventory of verbs from a page of Larsson’s “The Girl Who Played with Fire,” a page of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” and a page of Stephen King’s “Just After Sunset.”

I list these verbs in their base forms -- i.e. “had been” and “were” are listed as “be.” Verbs forming independent clauses are in all caps. Verbs forming subordinate clauses are lowercase. Participial modifiers are not counted as verbs.

Larsson, page 414 -- 18 sentences:
1. BE
2. BE
3. RECALL, HAVE, be
4. BE
5. UNDERSTAND
6. BE, FIND, find
7. BE, gnaw
8. NOTICE, take, keep
9. BE, BE, summarize
10. HAVE, BE, clear out, throw
11. THROW
12. BE, FIND
13. SEE, remove, deal with
14. SPEND, MISS, COME, HAVE
15. FIND, contain
16. GO, try, find
17. BE
18. DISCOVER, GO, USE

McCarthy, page 136 -- 15 sentences
1. bend, see, FEAR, be, put
2. GO, CROSS
3. SET, TAKE, PUNCH, PUNCH, DRAIN
4. PULL, POUR
5. TWIST, MAKE, POUR, PUT, SHAKE
6. POUR, TAKE, STUFF
7. TAKE, GET, STRIKE
8. TRY, STOP, POUR
9. FLARE, say
10. NOD
11. RAKE, BLOOM
12. REACH, BLOW, HAND
13. SAY
14. TAKE
15. DO

King, page 61– 27 complete sentences
1. HOLD, LOOK
2. LOOK
3. cut, SAY
4. LOOK, CUT
5. CUT
6. TRY, scramble, go, thump
7. PIVOT, BE
8. SEIZE
9. DANGLE
10. GET, TURN
11. WAIT
12. BRING, WANT, MAKE
13. REMEMBER, choke up
14. BE
15. BE
16. BE, be, SOUND, slacken
17. HAPPEN, BEGIN
18. STARE
19. STARE
20. do, SAY, REACH, take
21. SAY, SWING
22. HAMMER
23. BURST, snap
24. RUN, PATTER
25. stop, SAY
26. LOOK
17. SAY, BRING

25% (ten) of Larsson’s verbs are “be.” Just over 25% (eleven) are nonphysical or mental actions like “recall, “understand,” “summarize,” “discover” and “find.”

2-1/2% (one) of McCarthy’s verbs are “be” and 2-1/2% convey a state of mind (“fear.”)

10% (five) of King’s verbs are “be” and most of the rest are actions.

The process I used to choose these pages probably wasn’t fair. I started with a Larsson page I had already noted as bad then flipped through McCarthy and King for pages that looked about as dense with narrative as the Larsson page (that is, pages that didn’t have much dialogue). Still, I bet that a fair and complete accounting of the verbs in all three books would show similar -- if not quite as marked -- tendencies. That is, McCarthy and King rely more on action verbs while Larsson’s work relies more on verbs that convey being, seeming, or thinking.

That’s partly why I prefer reading McCarthy and King.

Larsson structures a lot of his sentences like this:

“The reason for her visit to the crime scene was to get two pieces of information” and “Second was an inconsistency that kept gnawing at her.” (p. 414)

Notice how, in both, he hangs the main clause on “was” and crams the more interesting stuff into less-prominent parts of the sentence. Imagine he had written them:

“She visited the crime scene to find two pieces of information.”
and
“An inconsistency kept gnawing at her.”

See how the noun “visit” can be made into an action? See how “gnaw” can be made the main action in the sentence instead of just part of a relative clause in a sentence whose main verb is the ho-hum “was”?

I think there’s a lesson in here …

Can 'Wrong' Be an Adverb?
Posted by June on August 25, 2014
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A reader named Ed e-mailed me recently with this question:

"In the column that ran this past Sunday ... the following sentence/ phrase appears:  "thanks to all the horrible people... who just won't stop using the word 'over'  wrong. "

Isn't the last word of that sentence intended as an adverb and shouldn't it then be "wrongly" ?

Just a thought!

Is it just me, or is it astounding that someone would think this. Unless Ed travels in some truly unusual circles, I'm guessing he never hears "wrongly" modifying verbs: You're doing it wrongly. I answered the test question wrongly. And so on.

"Wrong" is so standard in these situations as to be nearly universal. Yet while reading a grammar column, taking a moment to focus on all things grammar, we can start to second guess our understanding of our own mother tongue. And of course, when we get the answer to Ed's question, we see once again that, in language, first instincts are usually better than trying to apply the incomplete education on grammar most of us got in school. By that I mean that, though Ed learned well that adverbs modify actions, no one taught him that adverbs aren't just words ending in "ly." Nor did anyone teach him where to find answers to questions like these. All he had to do was open a dictionary and he could have seen that "wrong" isn't just an adjective. It's also an adverb.

Here's what I told Ed:

Actually, "wrong" is an adverb, as well as an adjective and a noun. So is "right." So it's 100% acceptable to say stuff like "You're doing it wrong" and "You're doing it right." 

True,"ly" forms are often adverbs and if you drop the "ly" you often end up with an adjective, but that's not universal. Sometimes there's redundancy in the language, giving us "wrong" and "wrongly" both as adverbs. Of course, over time, the uses often sort of differentiate themselves. And nowadays, "wrongly" more commonly modifies adjectives and participles: wrongly accused, wrongly imprisoned.  So what you're observing is one of the many interesting quirks of the language!