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

Thanks,

Gary

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!

 

Periods and Commas with Quotation Marks
Posted by June on July 14, 2014
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In the past, I've written about one of the red flags that alerts me that something I’m reading may not have been edited by professionals: an absence of commas after years, dates, and Inc. As in It was March 14, 2008 when Widgets, Inc. moved from Flint, Mich. to India. If that were professionally edited, 2008, Inc., and Mich. would all have commas after them.

But the other common thing I see that makes me question the professionalism of something I’m reading is a comma or a period after a closing quotation mark.

The company’s slogan was “Think different”.

She hates it when people say, “My bad”.

Known as “quantitative easing”, the process has its critics.

Assuming I’m not reading something edited in British style, when I see this, I know the text wasn't edited professionally. That's because, in American editing styles, a period or comma always comes before a closing quotation mark.

The company’s slogan was “Think different.”

She hates it when people say, “My bad.”

Known as “quantitative easing,” the process has its critics.

People who aren’t professional editors wouldn’t guess this because it makes no sense, especially in light of how question marks and exclamation points are handled. They can go inside or outside a closing quotation mark, depending on whether they pertain to the whole sentence or just the portion in quotation marks.

I used to watch “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”

Did you see “Last Comic Standing”?

The American rule for periods and commas is based on aesthetic considerations. Style makers decided a long time ago that it’s easier on the eye to just put the period or comma inside, even though it’s less logical and even though it contradicts the rules for question marks and exclamation points.

That’s the kind of thing you just have to know. In the Internet age, more and more of the writing we see online is produced by people who don’t know that. And chances are that, by not knowing the rules, they're slowly changing them.

But until that change is official, I’ll continue to consider a comma or period outside a closing quote mark as an indication that whatever I’m reading isn’t as professional as the writer might like me to think it is.

 

Longtime and Long-term
Posted by June on July 7, 2014
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Some writing mistakes are worse than others. If you were to write “I should of applied for the job,” that little “of” will reflect pretty badly on you in some people’s minds. It’s “should have” or “should’ve.” The preposition “of” doesn’t work that way. It can’t be used as an auxiliary verb.

 

On the other hand, if you were to write, “General Washington lead his troops into battle,” word-savvy readers might give you a pass on using “lead” when you meant “led.” After all, the metal is pronounced just like the past tense of the verb. And because it’s spelled just like the present tense of the verb (to lead), this mistake doesn’t necessarily mean that the writer doesn’t know the difference. It could just as easily happen to someone who does know the difference but isn’t paying close enough attention.

But there’s another class of mistakes: errors that aren’t really bad, but that peg the writer as someone who’s not a pro.

I’m thinking of the adjective “longtime,” as in a longtime companion or a longtime policy. It’s easy to assume that, like “long-term,” the adjective “longtime” should be hyphenated. And in fact, there’s nothing stopping you from doing so. Hyphens allow you to invent your own compounds. So you certainly can attach “long” to “time” this way if you want to. But doing so instantly pegs you as someone who doesn’t know that, unlike “long-term,” the adjective “longtime” is a closed form recognized by dictionaries as a single word.

It’s one of those facts that editors tend to know and non-editors don’t. So getting this one right can add a subtle touch of professionalism.  

Again:

long time = noun phrase: I haven’t see you in a long time.

longtime = adjective: They are longtime friends.

Comma Overload
Posted by June on June 30, 2014
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I hit an interesting milestone the other day. I was copy editing a marketing piece for a magazine and stopped dead when I realized I didn’t know whether to add a comma.

I’m not talking about a difficult comma issue, either. It wasn’t one of those things that sort of falls between the rules or one of those situations where you might want to disregard rules.

For example, I would class the following sentence as a little tricky comma-wise:

Before you go to bed, finish your homework, brush your teeth, and put on your pajamas.

In a publication that doesn't use serial commas, this is tricky because usually you don’t put a comma before the conjunction introducing the last item in a list: red, white and blue. However, there’s a separate rule that says you do often use commas between complete clauses: “Stan has made many friends since he retired, and Betty is no exception.” (This rule also allows you to omit that comma if the clauses are short or sentence is clear enough without it. But the basic rule is that complete clauses joined by a conjunction are separated by a comma.)

So which rule wins here? Me, I vote for including the extra comma after “teeth.” But anyone who disagrees is right, too.

Here’s a situation where, though the rules clearly call for a comma, you might want to skip it anyway.

On Tuesday, Larry spotted the car, which, he decided, was certainly the one he had seen speeding from the scene of the crime.

Do you keep that comma before “which”? The rules certainly say to. Nonrestrictive “which” clauses are supposed to be set off with commas. But when the “which” is immediately followed by another comma -- or when the sentence has a lot of other commas -- you can skip it.

But neither of these scenarios accounts for my confusion the other day. Nope, I was looking at a sentence like this:

The restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner.

And I could not for nearly a minute remember whether to put a comma after “lunch.” Why? Because for the last seven years or so, I’ve been editing in two different styles: AP and Chicago. AP says not to use the comma before the conjunction that introduces the last item in a list. Chicago says you should.

This comma before the conjunction is called the serial comma or sometimes the Oxford comma. And it’s strictly a style thing. Neither right, nor wrong -- except when you're trying to follow a specific style.

At that moment, after years of toggling back and forth between the two styles, some wiring in my brain began sizzling and smoking. Now, after years of being neutral on the serial comma controversy, I'm starting to wish publishing would just come to a consensus.