October 14, 2019

Clatfart, fannybaws, grognard: Some recent additions to the Oxford English Dictionary

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Great news, everyone! The Oxford English Dictionary has finally — finally — added a verb form to its definition of “clatfart.” That’s right. The noun we all love, meaning “gossip,” is now also a verb meaning “gossip.”

And it’s not just intransitive, as in, “Excuse us while we clatfart,” but it also has a transitive sense, meaning it can take a direct object: “Please don’t clatfart the news of our growing family just yet.” Finally!

What’s that, you say? You weren’t aware people use “clatfart” as a verb? And what’s that, you say? You weren’t aware the word existed in the first place?

Don’t feel bad. It’s new to me, too. But it just goes to show you how much fun and learning there is to be had by skimming lists of words and word senses added to the Oxford English Dictionary, or OED. Here are some of my favorites, old and new, that the OED has added to its dictionary recently.

 

 

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October 7, 2019

Merriam-Webster Adds Nonbinary 'They' to Dictionary

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Merriam-Webster’s dictionary has added nonbinary “they” to the dictionary.  This pronoun is different from singular “they,” which has been in use for about 600 years as an alternative to “he or she” in instances where you don’t know the sex of the person being discussed.

“No one will buy this product if they don’t know what it does.” In that sentence, “they” refers to a singular, but you don’t know if it’s a “he” or a “she.”

People object to this on the grounds that “they” should be plural, darn it. But it’s both plural and singular because six centuries of usage made it so. Nonbinary “they” is similar. The “nonbinary” part is a reference to individuals who don’t identify themselves as either male or female.

The difference: Unlike singular “they,” which often refers to unknown or hypothetical individuals, nonbinary “they” can and often does refer to individuals whose identity is known but whose gender isn’t categorized as male or female. Here's some more on nonbinary "they" in my recent column. 

 

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September 30, 2019

How do 'as well as' and similar terms affect verb agreement?

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Mayor Carlson, along with his deputies, plan to visit the memorial.
Mayor Carlson, along with his deputies, plans to visit the memorial.

Which is right? Plan or plans? And, more important, why is this question hard? The concept at work here, coordination, is simple and, in most cases, 100% intuitive to native English speakers.

None of us doubts that “Mayor Carlson is here” takes a different verb form than “Mayor Carlson and his deputies are here.” We don’t have to puzzle it out.

The “and,” a coordinating conjunction, coordinates the subject, making it plural. So you need a plural verb.

But replace “and” with “as well as” or “along with” or “in addition to” or “not to mention” and suddenly making the verb agree with the subject doesn’t seem so easy anymore. That’s why coordination issues account for some of the most common errors I see in my editing work. Here’s my recent column that looks at how “as well as” and other terms affect verb agreement.

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September 23, 2019

When to put a comma in "The book 'Moby Dick'"

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“Idaho Poet Laureate, Paisley Rekdal, will be the featured keynote speaker for the ACES 2020 annual conference.”

The tweet from the American Copy Editors Society drew immediate scrutiny.
“Is this how we’re supposed to punctuate this sort of sentence now?” asked a comma-savvy observer.

The folks at the copy-editing professional association did what professional copy editors always do when busted making a mistake. They ’fessed up.

“That’s a goof,” the ACES rep admitted. “And it’s a good reminder that even editors need editors.”

For an error like the one in that tweet, it takes a pro to bust a pro. Many wouldn’t realize that there should be no commas around the name Paisley Rekdal because the rules governing commas in this situation aren’t well understood.

The question of whether to use one here rests on whether the second noun phrase, the poet's name, is the main noun phrase or something called an appositive. Here's my recent column explaining the difference.

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September 9, 2019

6 Tips for Using Hyphens Like a Professional Editor

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Have you noticed that, lately, you’re less inclined to stick a hyphen between words? That is, you’re looking at a term like “a time honored tradition,” realizing you could put a hyphen in “time-honored,” then thinking, “Nah. It’s clear enough as it is.”

You’re not alone. Hyphens, it seems, are becoming a little passe. Even the Associated Press Stylebook is going lighter on the hyphens these days. And if you’re wondering how that’s possible, it’s because hyphenation has always been as much an art as a science.

“Use of the hyphen is far from standardized. It is optional in most cases, a matter of taste, judgment and style sense,” is how a tweet from the AP Stylebook puts it.

That’s great news for people who don’t want to fuss over hyphens. But it can be bad news for folks who do — writers who want their punctuation to look as professional as possible.

So, with those eager-to-please hyphenaters in mind, here's my recent column offering are six tips to let you hyphenate like a professional editor.

 

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September 2, 2019

Grammar Experts Weigh In on the Tweeter in Chief

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On May 25 of this year, Donald Trump took to Twitter to attempt a swipe at Senator Mark Warner of TK: "Their is nothing bipartisan about him," Trump tweeted. It wasn't the first time the man tasked with representing the American people so thoroughly exposed his poor language skills. And heaven knows it won't be the last. But it marked the first time grammar and legal writing expert Bryan Garner, author of Garner's Modern American Usage, could no longer hold his tongue.

"You mean 'There is nothing bipartisan about him.' Not 'their,' which is the possessive form of 'they.' Wouldn’t it be worth $75,000 a year to pay for a Presidential Proofreader so that you’ll have the semblance of literacy?" Garner replied.

Lexicographers, copy editors and grammar experts face an unprecedented dilemma in the tweeter in chief. Do you make an issue of Trump's egregious language gaffes that degrade the office and swipe at the dignity of the United States of America? Or do you let it slide? For most language experts, the latter is often the best course simply because pointing out Trump's shameful gaffes would eat up hours every week. But with just a little prompting, you can get Twitter's greatest language experts—including Mary Norris, Peter Sokolowski, Kory Stamper, Jonathon Owen and Garner—to let loose. The New York Times did just that, and the results are glorious.  Pour yourself a hot cup of covfefe and check it out.

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August 26, 2019

Uncommonly Fussy Writing Rules Now Rule House of Commons

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If you wanted to put together a list of writing rules for an organization you run, there would be nothing wrong with that.

“OK , team. Let’s make it a policy to always include ‘Inc.’ with our company name. Let’s use serial commas. Let’s make ‘healthcare’ one word, and let’s follow the American punctuation style of always putting a period or comma before a closing quotation mark.” No problem here.

Note that none of these are universal rules. You could pick the opposite in every instance and be just as correct. Either way, it’s perfectly reasonable to lay out guidelines for how your subordinates should write official correspondence. No one will be offended. The odds you’ll make national news headlines are slim to none.

No, if you want your style guide to draw international media attention and tons of scornful commentary, you need to be a real jerk about it.

Pick some just-for-control-freak’s-sake style imperatives, toss in a few throwbacks to another century, then add just a pinch of narrow-minded isolationism and you have the style rules just imposed on the subordinates of Jacob Rees-Mogg, the newly appointed leader of Britain’s House of Commons.

“The Conservative Party politician, who is an Old Etonian and stickler for tradition, has outlined an extensive list of words that his staff are banned from using in correspondences with his constituents and fellow MPs,” writes CNN.

Here are some writing rules the U.K. politician seems to have pulled out of his ear.

 

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August 19, 2019

We all have our peeves (even when we know we shouldn't)

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Early on I got it in my head that you should never use "there's" before a plural. "There's," is a contraction of "there is," which has a singular verb. There is milk in the fridge.

For something plural you'd use "there are": There are strawberries in the fridge.

But does that mean it's wrong to say "there's strawberries"? How about if we put a singular-sounding modifier in there like "a lot": There's a lot of strawberries?

"There's" before a plural isn't wrong. Yet it's one of those peeves that I still can't shake, even though I know it's not an error. Others include "chaise lounge," "chomping at the bit," "beg the question" and "hone in on" — all of which I discuss more fully in this recent column.

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August 12, 2019

Some subject-verb agreement errors are trickier than others

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Many of the grammar mistakes people warn you about are sheer fiction.

The old “Don’t split an infinitive” is the quintessential example. Putting an adverb like “boldly” after the particle “to” but before the base verb “go” is not an error, contrary to what anyone will tell you. That means you’re able to boldly go there anytime you see fit.

But some grammar mistakes are all too real and, in some cases, easy to make — even for people who know their stuff. Topping the list of easy-to-make grammar mistakes are verb-agreement errors. And topping the list of easy-to-make verb-agreement errors are what are called relative-pronoun-antecedent-agreement errors.

Take, for example, this sentence that came up in my editing this week. “She’s one of the nurse practitioners who oversees the clinic. “That’s a mistake. Contrary to every instinct that might tell you that “who” goes with “oversees,” in this sentence it should be “oversee.” Here, in my recent column, I show you how to handle these.

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August 5, 2019

So you want to sound proper ...?

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Proper English isn’t correct English. At least, it’s not the only correct English in town. It’s more like a flavor. Or a style.

It’s the type of English used in academic and literary as well as professional and diplomatic circles. An ambassador hosting a foreign emissary would never say, “Tell me you ain’t leaving so soon.”

Sticklers spend a lot of time telling people that informal English is incorrect English. That’s why people like me spend a lot of time pointing out that terms like “ain’t” aren’t wrong.

You can use them if you want to. But we seldom get around to asking the next logical question: Do you want to? Even people who understand that less-formal English is as correct as the proper kind still might like to master the proper kind. It’s nice to know how, even if you know it’s not necessary.

Here's how proper types say to handle a range of terms, including "whom," "lay" and "lie," "between" and "among," and "anxious" and "eager."

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