Letting Go of Bad Teaching -- Or Not
Posted by June on August 18, 2014

The people who read my column tend to be older than the people who read this blog. Just today I got an e-mail from someone talking about what he was taught in school in the 1940s.

So perhaps that sheds a little light on a very common dynamic that occurs between me and my column readers.

I’ll write a column saying something like, “A lot of people are taught that it’s wrong to (blank),” with “blank” being any of a hundred different grammar issues, “However, it’s not wrong to (blank), as evidenced by X, Y, and Z sources and also by A, B, and C sources.”

Then, very often, I’ll get an e-mail that basically says the following.

“I was taught that it’s wrong to (blank).”

No kidding. It happens a lot. They’re not writing to argue the rule or to challenge my sources or to question the wisdom of choosing to blank. They state only that they were taught that blanking is wrong. As if this were news to someone who just wrote a column about how people were taught it’s wrong.

It’s interesting. It’s as though they’re so steeped in an idea they were taught long ago -- so invested in it -- that their only response to learning they were taught something wrong is to say that they were taught it.

I guess I can relate to how hard it is to let go of ideas. But it’s interesting to get these e-mails because they suggest the possibility that the longer you’ve held an idea the harder it is to even hear the position of someone who disagrees.

Readers of this blog often disagree with me, too. But when they do, they construct rational arguments or cite sources or point out some aspect of the situation I may have overlooked. They never say simply, “I was taught that blanking is wrong.”

Could be as simple as the difference between blog readers and community newspaper readers. Still, it’s interesting ...


An Apostrophe in 'Couple's Massage'?
Posted by June on August 11, 2014
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A co-worker who was editing a travel article asked me the other day how to write about a massage for couples. Is it a couple’s massage, a couples’ massage, or just a couples massage, he wanted to know.

He had come to the right place. I spent quite a bit of time researching this very subject for my punctuation book. So, from that on-high position of authority, I was able to tell him with great authority and absolute certainty that I don’t know.

Okay, that’s overstating it a bit. I do know what to do in these situations. But issues like “couple’s massage,” “couples’ retreat,” “shopper’s paradise,” “chocolate lover’s package,” “teachers college,” and “farmers market” are anything but straightforward. In fact, when I surveyed working copy editors to include their opinions in the book, they split on how to handle a lot of these. So not only are the rules unclear, but they’re open to the full range of interpretations.

For certain terms, like "teachers college," style guides have specific rules. AP says no apostrophe in "teachers college." "Farmers market" often has no apostrophe. "Couples’ retreat" might be plural possessive whereas "couple’s massage" is often singular possessive.

At the heart of all these issues are two questions that will lead you to the best choice: 1. Is the emphasis on the singular noun or the plural? 2. Is actual possession emphasized? 

If you’re talking about “a shopper’s paradise,” it seems to me that you’re emphasizing a singular fictional individual who serves as a sort of representative: the shopper. If you’re talking about a “couples’ retreat,” to me that sounds like it’s emphasizing multiple couples at once. Thought it’s sort of a toss-up whether it’s possessive or not. It would make just as much sense to think of “couples” as an adjective here: couples retreat.

If you disagree, your opinions are valid, too. But if you want to know mine, here are the picks I’d probably make:

farmers market

chocolate lover’s package

couples’ retreat

couple’s massage

shopper’s paradise (especially if it began with “a” – a shopper’s paradise. Not because the “a” necessarily modifies “shopper.” It could be modifying “paradise.” But because its presence there creates that singular vibe anyway.)

The Difficulty with Danglers
Posted by June on August 4, 2014


Danglers are easy to spot but can be surprisingly tough to fix.

As a working mom, finding time to get enough sleep is difficult.

Technically, this is a dangler because the modifying phrase -- the stuff that begins with “as” -- isn’t right next to a noun or pronoun it should be modifying. The whole dangler concept, in fact, is based on the idea that any phrase that functions like an adjective, modifying a noun, should be right next to the noun.

As a working mom, Jane finds it hard to get enough sleep.

Here, the modifying phrase “as a working mom” is right next to the noun it modifies, Jane. So this sentences does not containa dangler. But in the prior example, that same phrase is positioned next to the word “finding,” which is clearly not the noun that we’re describing as a working mom. That’s the difference.

This one was easy to fix because we made up a person and rejiggered the main clause so that her name would be the first thing to come after the modifying phrase. But what if we don’t want to get specific about the working mom in question?

As a working mom, a woman finds it hard to get enough sleep.

Awful, huh?

A working mom finds it hard to get enough sleep.

Here we dispensed with the modifying phrase altogether and pilfered its noun to make it the subject of our single-clause sentence. That’s okay, I suppose. But this sentence now seems lacking.

On option, of course, is to just ignore the fact that our first sentence contained a dangler. After all, the whole point of all this grammar stuff is to ensure clarity. And that sentence was pretty clear from the get-go. Still, it lacks precision, which I value a lot. So I would definitely look for ways to improve the sentence before throwing my hands up.

When a word or phrase that’s dangling is a participle, the error is called a (wait for it) dangling participle. This can either mean progressive participle like "walking," "knowing," "realizing," or "yelling," or a past participle like "surprised," "shaken," "hired," or "thought." And it can mean either a lone participle like “Surprised, Roger jumped sky high,” or a longer participial phrase like, “Surprised by screams of his friends and family, Roger jumped sky high.”

But even noun phrases can dangle:

A man of great courage, the steps John took were impressive.

The steps aren’t a man. So this is a dangler, and it’s definitely one I would fix: John was a man of great courage, and the steps he took were impressive.

But, in my experience, sometimes it's best to let a dangler slide.


Drive Safe vs Drive Safely: Another Flat Adverbs Question
Posted by June on July 28, 2014


I’ve written a lot about flat adverbs in the past. But the subject still generates a lot of reader questions. So it's always worth revisiting. Here's an e-mail I got recently on the subject, followed by my reply.

Hi June,

Just read your column in the Burbank Leader and I have a question.  I've been telling our chauffeurs to always "Drive safely" while others tell them to "Drive safe".  As an instinctive grammarian, I feel comfortable saying safely, but am I right?



Here's how I replied to Gary:

"Drive safely" is more proper. You use an adverb because you're actually modifying the action -- describing how the driving is to be done. (In other words, "drive" is not a linking verb. It's a garden-variety action verb.)

HOWEVER, there exist things call "flat adverbs" -- adverbs without the ly tail -- that are also acceptable. So "Drive safe" is arguably okay. Though personally, I don't recommend it in formal contexts. A lot of people think it's an error and so it may not be worth the grief!