Compare to vs. compare with
Posted by June on August 15, 2022
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When I was a beginning editor, old-timers coached me on the difference between “compare to” and “compare with.” They were different, these experienced editors explained, and couldn’t be used interchangeably. “Compare to,” they said, shows how things are alike, as in “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” and “compare with” means to examine the differences and likenesses of two or more things, “How do last year’s earnings compare with this year’s?”

It wasn’t till much later I learned that editors can be wrong. How does that happen? How do people who get paid to fix word usage 40 hours a week misunderstand word usage? They assume that the rules of their job apply to the whole world. Imagine a teacher who every day tells kids, “No chewing gum! Spit it out!” walking up to a fellow shopper at her local grocery store and saying, “No chewing gum! Spit it out!” So when these veteran wordsmiths told me “compare to” and “compare with” were a matter of right and wrong, not a matter of style, they were wrong.

If you’re an editor who works for a publication that uses Associated Press style, you’d be correct to enforce a difference between “compare to” and “compare with” in articles you edit because that’s AP’s rule: “Use ‘compared to’ when the intent is to assert, without the need for elaboration, that two or more items are similar: ‘She compared her work for women’s rights to Susan B. Anthony’s campaign for women’s suffrage.’ Use ‘compared with’ when juxtaposing two or more items to illustrate similarities and/or differences: ‘His time was 2:11:10, compared with 2:14 for his closest competitor.’”

The Chicago Manual of Style, which book editors follow, has the same rule. So if you’re writing for publication, by all means follow their advice. But in the real world, worrying about whether you should put “to” or a “with” after “compare” is a waste of time.

In fact, you probably comply with the editing guides without realizing it. Here's my recent column explaining how.

'Can' vs. 'may'
Posted by June on August 8, 2022
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In the 1800s, using the word “can” to ask for permission was considered standard English. But in the century that followed, something happened. Grammar fussbudgets got it in their heads that “can” should refer to ability and “may” should refer to permission. So if you ask whether you can go to the bathroom, you’re not asking to be excused but instead asking about the state of your own digestive health.
Where did they get this idea? No one knows. But it could have to do with the fact that “may” was being used for permission centuries before “can” existed in our language. And if you go back far enough, you unearth a rather delicious irony: In the eighth century, “may” referred to ability — just as “can” does today. Theoretically, you could have said, “I’m so powerful that I may lift this boulder over my head.” Around the same time, “may” adopted a second meaning, possibility, which is still in use today: It may rain tomorrow. This is also when “may” started to refer to permission: May I please be excused?

About 200 years later, “can” showed up in the language. At that time, “can” didn’t refer to ability, exactly. It meant to know something or to know how to do something. So you could have said “I can do math,” but you couldn’t say “I can lift this boulder,” since boulder-hoisting doesn’t require know-how.
It took a few more centuries before “can” came to mean “to be able to do something” — at a time when “may” was already doing that job. And by the year 1500, “can” and “may” had overlapping meanings.
So for hundreds of years, “can” and “may” both meant to be able to do something or that something was possible. During that time, “may” also meant to have permission, while “can” did not. That changed around 1800 when “can” started being used to refer to permission, making “Can I go to the bathroom?” proper speech. Then came the pushback.

Here's my recent column on "can" vs. "may" and why the rules aren't as strict as your mother taught you.

Commas between coordinate adjectives
Posted by June on August 1, 2022
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One of the most common things I change in the articles I’m editing is demonstrated in sentences like this: “The menu includes a delicious, macadamia-crusted sea bass and a selection of seasonal, red wines.”

If you don’t see an error in there, don’t feel bad. Depending on how you look at it, there may not be one. But on my watch, those commas are just not okay.

A basic guideline for commas is that they should be used between “noncoordinate adjectives.” The quickest way to get a handle on noncoordinate is to think about coordinating conjunctions, specifically the coordinating conjunction “and.”

With that in mind, it’s easy to remember this rough guideline: if the word “and” works well between the adjectives, you can put a comma between them. If it doesn’t, don’t.

So we can apply that to our sentence above by trying “and” in place of those commas. Does it make sense to call the dish “a delicious and macadamia-crusted sea bass”? Does it seem right to say “a selection of seasonal and red wines”? I don’t think so.

Another test to tell whether your adjectives qualify as “coordinate” or not is to try moving them around. Coordinate adjectives, because they all modify the noun in the same way, can go anywhere. Think about “a fast, easy, fun hike.” That’s a hike that’s fast and easy and fun, right? And it’s just as logical to say it’s an easy and fun and fast hike.

It doesn’t work the same way with our original example. A macadamia-crusted delicious sea bass doesn’t say quite the same thing as a delicious macadamia-crusted sea bass. It’s as though “macadamia-crusted” is integral to “sea bass” in a way that “delicious” is not.

Ditto that for “red seasonal wines.” Red wine is a thing. Seasonal is just a word we’re using to throw some added description on top of this well-known thing. So seasonal red wines seems different from red seasonal wines.

The choice isn't always clear. For example, “a seasonal local wine” could in fact be a “local seasonal wine.” And the good news is that you do have the leeway to go with your own judgment in these situations.

But when in doubt, just apply the “and” rule. Whenever “and” sounds a little off between two adjectives: no comma.

It's OK to use 'can' to mean 'may'
Posted by June on July 25, 2022
LABELS: , ,

In the 1800s, using the word “can” to ask for permission was considered standard English. But in the century that followed, something happened. Grammar fussbudgets got it in their heads that “can” should refer to ability and “may” should refer to permission. So if you ask whether you can go to the bathroom, you’re not asking to be excused but instead asking about the state of your own digestive health.

Where did they get this idea? No one knows. But it could have to do with the fact that “may” was being used for permission centuries before “can” existed in our language. And if you go back far enough, you unearth a rather delicious irony: In the eighth century, “may” referred to ability — just as “can” does today. Theoretically, you could have said, “I’m so powerful that I may lift this boulder over my head.” Around the same time, “may” adopted a second meaning, possibility, which is still in use today: It may rain tomorrow. This is also when “may” started to refer to permission: May I please be excused?

About 200 years later, “can” showed up in the language. At that time, “can” didn’t refer to ability, exactly. It meant to know something or to know how to do something. So you could have said “I can do math,” but you couldn’t say “I can lift this boulder,” since boulder-hoisting doesn’t require know-how.

It took a few more centuries before “can” came to mean “to be able to do something” — at a time when “may” was already doing that job. And by the year 1500, “can” and “may” had overlapping meanings.

So for hundreds of years, “can” and “may” both meant to be able to do something or that something was possible. During that time, “may” also meant to have permission, while “can” did not. That changed around 1800 when “can” started being used to refer to permission, making “Can I go to the bathroom?” proper speech.

Then, in the 1900s, came the pushback. Here's my recent column documenting how the issue got so controversial and why it's OK to use "can" to mean "may."