Subjunctive and the Art of the Existential 'There'
Posted by June on January 13, 2020
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“If there were a Form 3, you would have already filled it out.” Reader Jessica had a question about a sentence like this.

The speaker already knew about a Form 1 and a Form 2. The existence of Form 3, however, was hypothetical. So, Jessica wanted to know, is that “were” correct? Or should it be “was”?

There’s a one-word key to finding the answer: subjunctive. That’s the term for the grammar dynamic that determines whether “was” or “were” is best here.

Armed with that one little word, you can research the issue and arrive at an answer. But Jessica already knew that. She Googled “subjunctive” and still couldn’t figure out what it meant for her sentence.

“I haven’t been able to find any examples on the internet about ‘if there were ...’ Only examples of “If he/she/it were ...”

In other words, “there” is complicating the question of whether the verb should be “was” or “were.” But does the “there” really affect the verb?

In this case, no. But it’s good to understand both dynamics, the subjunctive and something called “existential there,” to work all this out. Here's my recent column to explain it all.


Would You Put a Hyphen in "a Northwestern California landmark"?
Posted by June on January 6, 2020
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Russ in New Jersey had a question about hyphens: In “northwestern California landmark” should “northwestern California” be hyphenated?

“I’m not sure if it’s simply a matter of preference or if the combination of a direction or geographic location and/or proper noun play into some rule,” he wrote.

My answer: I would never put a hyphen in “northwestern California landmark,” and I would be surprised and a little put off to see it hyphenated in a professionally edited publication. But I don’t know why I see it this way.

I’ve been doing this editing stuff so long that, in my mind, some things just are. No reason. Or at least, no reason I can remember. No one hyphenates “northwestern California landmark” so I don’t hyphenate “northwestern California landmark.”

But of course, the answers are out there. There’s even an answer to the question of whether the N in northern should be capitalized. They're all here in my recent column.

Are You Confusing Your Readers? Avoid These Pitfalls
Posted by June on December 30, 2019
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One of my greatest weaknesses in life is one of my greatest strengths as an editor: I’m easily confused. If I had a nickel for every time I said, “Wait, what?” while reading an article, I’d have a sum easily calculated by someone less easily confused.

My innate talent for dazed disorientation allows me to serve as the lowest-common-denominator reader. The floor. The “If I get it, everyone gets it” reader.

So I know a thing or two about the writing habits that confuse people. Here are some pitfalls to avoid if you want everyone, even me, to understand your writing: Watch for unclear antecedents. Don't put an organization's initials in parentheses after its full name. Don't use dashes or semicolons in a way that makes your sentences too long. Watch out for needless words and vague nouns. I discuss these in more detail in my recent column.

More on commas' job setting off nonrestrictive information
Posted by June on December 23, 2019


“A Bay Area real estate heiress whose family posted $35-million bail to keep her out of jail until her trial was acquitted Friday of killing the father of her children.”

That’s the nut of a story published recently by the Los Angeles Times that raised a question in a reader’s mind: Should there be commas after “heiress” and “jail,” wondered Carol in Southern California?

As is the case for so many questions that land in my in-box, I can’t offer a clear yes or no answer. But I can present an argument about why I believe the answer is no.

The reason lies in the concepts of restrictive and nonrestrictive information.

Commas set off nonrestrictive matter, but they’re not used around restrictive stuff.

To see the difference, compare these two sentences: The man who stole my purse was wearing a baseball cap. The man, who stole my purse, was wearing a baseball cap.

In most but not all situations, the second one would be wrong. Why? Because we can be pretty sure that “who stole my purse” is intended as information that identifies which man you’re talking about.

That clause restricts the scope of the subject, helping the reader better figure out which man is “the man” in question. So the information about purse-stealing is crucial to understanding which man is being discussed. Here’s more in my recent column on commas’ role identifying restrictive and nonrestrictive information.