January 24, 2022

'Into' or 'in to'?

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I was recently asked to settle an argument about whether you should write “I’m not into sports” or “I’m not in to sports.” Instinct may tell you it’s the first one, and you’re right. But understanding why is another matter — especially when you ponder similar sentences like “He’ll drop in to see you tomorrow,” in which “in to” should be two words.

So how might you find these answers on your own if you don’t have a personal grammar valet on call? The first one is easy. It’s in the dictionary — but you’ll find it only if you understand the importance of reading all the different definitions for a word. The second one requires a basic understanding of a concept called phrasal verbs.

To find out whether it’s “I’m not into sports,” look up “into” in a dictionary. In Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, for example, you’ll see it’s a preposition that’s “used as a function word to indicate entry, introduction, insertion, superposition, or inclusion.”

That’s not helpful, which is why you might be tempted to stop reading there. That would be a mistake because if you look at all the definitions, you’ll eventually get to 4c, which defines “into” as “involved with or interested in.” Merriam’s two examples: “into sports; not into her music.”

That fast, you have your answer: “into” is one word in “I’m not into sports.”

To understand why “in to” is two words in “He’ll drop in to see you tomorrow,” you need to know about phrasal verbs. Here's my recent column explaining this handy grammar concept.

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January 17, 2022

Should you pronounce the T in 'often'?

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Sometimes people ask me about pronunciation. And it always makes me sad. More often than not, the person asking the question has been haunted by it for years and never knew where to turn for an answer. They’re thrilled that, at last, they have found a language expert who can set the record straight once and for all.

The problem is: I’m no expert. Pronunciation isn’t my thing. When it comes to how certain words should sound, I have no more insight than anyone else. All I have is a dictionary. And that’s where it gets sad: Almost everyone has a dictionary, or at least access to one online, yet they don’t know that it holds the answer.

Take, for example, an e-mail I got from a reader named Ellen.

“I'm from downstate New York, where we pronounce the word ‘often’ without the T sound as ‘ofen.’ Since moving upstate three years ago, I have noticed that many people pronounce the T sound. Is there a right or wrong way to say this word? Is it a regional pronunciation? I do get teased often about my downstate accent and wondered if I am indeed mispronouncing this useful word?”

I told her that I don’t know anything about regional variations in how this word is pronounced. I was raised in Florida by New Yorkers and was taught that the T is silent. As I recall, most people around me used a silent T and those who didn’t stood out. But as for whether she is mispronouncing this word — well, that’s as easy for her to answer as it is for me.

In its entry for the word “often,” Webster's New World College Dictionary lists two correct pronunciations -- one with a T sound and one without. That tells you that both pronunciations as correct. However, because this dictionary lists the silent T pronunciation first, that means its preferred pronunciation is the one with the silent T.

So Ellen has been right all along. But so have her new neighbors.

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January 10, 2022

How to write these holidays

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The new year is here. What better time to learn how to write New Year’s, as well as Presidents Day, Mother’s Day and a full 12 months’ worth of hard-to-write holidays? Here’s your guide to navigating the apostrophes, plurals and capitalization of holidays in 2022.

New Year’s/New Year/new year. When you’re talking about the holiday, New Year, always start with capital letters. “Happy New Year!” If you’re adding the s, put an apostrophe in front of it: “a New Year’s resolution.” When you’re talking in a generic sense about the coming year, lowercase it. “Wishing you health and happiness in the new year.”

New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day. The Eve and the Day are part of the holidays’ proper names, so capitalize them.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The third Monday in January, Martin Luther King Jr. Day is written without “Rev.” or “Dr.” in both Associated Press and Chicago editing styles. No commas needed around “Jr.”

Valentine’s Day. Singular possessive. If you’re talking about your sweetheart or a card you’re sending, you can lowercase the v: Be my valentine. I’m sending a valentine. You can also call the holiday Saint Valentine’s Day.

Presidents Day. There are several correct ways to write this holiday, which falls on the third Monday in February. AP style says no apostrophe: Presidents Day. Chicago style writes it as plural possessive, with the apostrophe after the s: Presidents’ Day. But the federal government and some states now call it Washington’s Birthday. Take your pick.

St. Patrick’s Day. This March 17 holiday is singular possessive, so the apostrophe goes before the s.

April Fools’ Day. Treat this one as plural possessive, with the apostrophe after the s: Fools’. If someone falls for an April Fools’ Day trick, you can call them an April fool with a lowercase f.

Mother’s Day. Logic is useless for figuring out whether holiday names are singular possessive or plural possessive. Case in point: Mother’s Day. Yes, it’s a day to recognize all mothers. But it’s treated as a singular possessive, with the apostrophe before the s. Think of this as the day belonging to the person you can call Mother.

Fourth of July, July Fourth, the Fourth. Publishers spell out the word Fourth and capitalize it, even when it’s a nickname for the holiday: the Fourth. But that’s just because it’s a holiday. Regular dates usually use numerals: July 5, 2022, or July 5th, 2022.

Learn about Veterans Day, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and Xmas in my recent column.

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January 3, 2022

'Pawn off' for 'palm off'?

The expression "to pawn off" comes up a lot, including in published writing like a Los Angeles Times article some years back about about mooncakes — small, dense cakes filled with things like red bean paste or cheesecake. Apparently, mooncakes are like China's equivalent of our fruitcakes because they are a lot more popular with givers than with recipients.

“The 30 cakes that Zou had received from her employer and various clients weeks ago sat unopened and neglected under her desk as the 31-year-old marketing manager tried to pawn them off on anyone who would take them," the Times reported.

I got stuck at “pawn off." Did the Times mean “palm off”?

To “pawn” means “to give or deposit (personal property) as security for the payment of money borrowed.” So according to this definition, Zou was only pawing off the cakes if she was using them as collateral for loans.

The writer might have done better to choose “palm off.” According to the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, “palm off” means “to pass off by deception, substitute with intent to deceive. So if you’re trying to sucker your co-workers into believing that your mooncakes are anything more than trashcan ballast, you’re palming them off.

It would be natural to assume that “pawn off” is therefore a mistake. But that would be going too far. Here’s the same source on “pawn off”: “to dispose of by deception, as in 'They tried to pawn off a rebuilt computer as new.'  This expression may have originated as a corruption of palm off.”

That doesn’t mean it’s still a corruption, though: “pawn off. This is a peculiar expression,” writes Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, noting that almost no slang dictionaries or usage guides bother to mention it. It is, however, “easy enough to interpret: it must mean ‘palm off’ or ‘pass off’ or ‘fob off.’ … The Oxford English Dictionary thinks it erroneous for ‘palm,’ but it may in fact be a dialectical variant.”

In other words, you could argue that “pawn off” is an acceptable alternative to “palm off.” But why would you want to? It seems to me that “palm off” is the better choice.

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December 27, 2021

Writing resolutions for 2022

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Want to improve your communication skills in the new year? Here are some easy resolutions you can make.

I will remember the meaning of “if.” You’d be amazed how often I fix misused “ifs” in my editing work: “If the worst happens and you get into a car accident, continue reading for some expert tips and advice.” When your introductory phrase starts with “if,” the stuff that follows needs to be contingent on that “if.” No one who just got into a car accident is going to pull over to the shoulder, take out their phone and read those tips. Look for ways to reword. “What if you get in an accident? Read these tips so you’ll know what to do.”

I will look up a past tense or past participle in the dictionary. Dreamed or dreamt? Laid or lay? Hanged or hung? Most people never realize that the answers are at their fingertips. They are. To figure out tricky past tense forms or past participles, just look up the verb in the dictionary: dream, lay or hang. Then take note of the past tense and past participle forms that follow. For example, in the dictionary entry for “lie” you’ll see “lay, lain.” Dictionaries put the simple past tense first, then the past participle. So you know it’s “yesterday I lay down” and “in the past I have lain down.” If you see the word “or” or “also,” it means you can choose. For example, “hanged” and “hung” are acceptable as both simple past tense and past participles. “Dreamed” and “dreamt” are both OK in all past uses, too.

I will quit abusing single quotation marks. When you want something weaker than quotation marks but stronger than nothing at all, it’s tempting to use single quotation marks: The word ‘resolution’ gives me panic attacks. But single quote marks are only for quoted matter within other quotations. To shine the spotlight on a word you want to emphasize, use regular quotation marks: The word “resolution” gives me panic attacks.

I will put a comma before a direct address. Where does the comma go in “Hey Bob” — after “hey” or after “Bob”? The answer may surprise you: Even if this is your greeting for an email, the comma should go after “hey.” That’s because punctuation rules say a “direct address” — meaning when you call someone by their name or another moniker — is set off with commas. So what goes after “Bob”? How about a period, since “Hey” represents a complete thought and can be punctuated like a complete sentence. “Hey, Bob. How are you?” But “hey,” “hi,” “hello” and the like are different from “dear.” When you start correspondence with “Dear Bob,” the “dear” is functioning as an adjective. And because we don’t put a comma between an adjective and a noun — “nice car” — the greeting “Dear Bob” does not take an internal comma.

I will practice reshuffling adjectives. You know how sometimes when there are multiple adjectives before a noun it’s not clear whether they should be separated by commas: a bright, green, Hawaiian shirt vs. a bright green Hawaiian shirt? There’s an easy test you can perform. Move the adjectives around. If they work just as well in any order, use commas. If not, don’t. A Hawaiian green bright shirt is nonsensical. So no commas in a bright green Hawaiian shirt.

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December 20, 2021

Garden-path sentences, zegumas and syllepses

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A sign in front of a restaurant reads: “Today’s special. So’s tomorrow.” Not the best way to tempt hungry passersby, but an excellent way to catch the attention of language buffs like Grammar Girl Mignon Fogarty, who asked on Twitter: “Is there a linguistic term for a play on words like this?”

I didn’t know a language term to describe that (presumably hypothetical) restaurant sign, either. In comedy, a play on meanings like this is called a “reverse.” You lead an audience or reader down one line of thinking, then you end with a twist that undermines your setup. For instance, you might want to offer your wife as an example of a point you just made, “Take my wife …” Then you pull the rug out from under the audience by adding “please!”

Turns out, there are language terms that describe this kind of wordplay, too.

The best known is probably the garden-path sentence. The concept is very similar to the comedy reverse. “A garden-path sentence is a grammatically correct sentence that starts in such a way that a reader’s most likely interpretation will be incorrect,” says Wikipedia. “‘Garden path’ refers to the saying ‘to be led down (or up) the garden path,’ meaning to be deceived, tricked or seduced.”

Garden-path sentences aren’t always funny. When they happen by accident, they can confuse readers: “The man who whistles tunes pianos.” Here you might start off thinking that “tunes” is a noun because it’s so standard to say someone whistled a tune. But when you read on you see that “tunes” is a verb: He tunes pianos.

Other language terms describe similarly confusing sentences: Here’s my recent column covering zeugmas, syllepses, paraprosdokians and garden-path sentences.

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December 13, 2021

What's a clitic?

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T’was just weeks before Christmas 2021 when I heard a word I probably should have learned decades ago: “clitic.” It’s a language term. I’m supposed to know those. But this one has eluded me till now — just in time to explain the “t” in my cheery holiday “t’was.”

I’ll let Merriam-Webster sum it up: “Clitic: a word that is treated in pronunciation as forming a part of a neighboring word and that is often unaccented or contracted.”

In most cases, a clitic is a piece of a contraction. The “t” in “t’was.” The “ve” in “could’ve.” The “c” in “c’mon.” The “m” in “I’m.” The “ll” in “this’ll.”

A clitic represents a real word — usually a pronoun, auxiliary verb, determiner or particle. But instead of standing on its own, the clitic influences the pronunciation of a neighboring word. So in “t’was,” you have “t” representing the word “it,” but it’s pronounced like it’s all a single word, “twuzz.”

The clitic can also be pronounced as its own syllable, like “ll” in “that’ll.” Or it can be purely a spoken thing that doesn’t get expressed in written form, like the “t” you hear when someone says “He loves t’ dance” even though they would probably spell out “to” if they wrote it.

Here's more about the clitic in my recent column.

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December 6, 2021

Should you put a comma before too, either or also?

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I don’t remember much from school (who does?) but I do remember quite clearly being told that “too,” “either,” and “also” are set off with commas in uses like:

Greg saw it, too.

I’d like some, also.

Tina didn’t come, either.

The idea is that when one of these adverbs modifies a whole sentence, and especially when it comes at the end of a sentence, it should be set off with commas. That’s what I was told and that’s what I believed.

But lately, more and more professionally written and edited material seems to eschew these commas.

Greg saw it too.

I’d like some also.

Tina didn’t come either.

When they come midsentence, the commas don’t seem quite as expendable. Changing “I, too, saw the accident” to “I too saw the accident” creates a weird and perhaps momentarily confusing relationship between the adverb and the verb that follows. But these commas don’t seem quite as common as they once were, either.

Turns out that, as austere comma use continues to be the fashion, commas setting off “too” and similar adverbs are less important.

How do you know whether to use them? Well, many experts point out that the comma before a “too” or “either” can give it extra emphasis, setting it off from the pack and letting it stand alone. By skipping the comma, you deemphasize the “too” by integrating it into the sentence.

If you’re looking for a guideline, use the comma when you want the extra emphasis. Otherwise, skip it. Me, I find that old habits die hard. I’ll continue to use commas before “too,” “also,” and “either” whenever possible.

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November 29, 2021

Verbs easily confused in the past tense

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For some verbs, past tense forms are easy to confuse. Here’s a list of commonly misused past tenses and past participles. For some, Webster’s New World College Dictionary lists more than one correct options. In those cases, the dictionary often puts its preferred form first and uses "or" to introduce other acceptable.

 DIVE. Past tense: dived or dove. Yesterday he dived. Yesterday he dove. Past participle: dived. In the past he has dived.

 SPIT (meaning to eject from the mouth). Past tense: spit or spat. Yesterday he spit. Yesterday he spat. Past participle: spit or spat. In the past he has spit. In the past he has spat.

 SPIT (meaning to skewer on a stick). Past tense: spitted. Yesterday he spitted the roast. Past participle: spitted. In the past, he has spitted many roasts.

 SWIM. Past tense: swam. Yesterday he swam. Past participle: swum. In the past he has swum.

 GET. Past tense: got. Yesterday he got a lot of attention. Paste participle: gotten or got: In the past he has gotten a lot of attention. In the past he has got a lot of attention.

 RING. Past tense: rang or (now chiefly dialectical) rung. Yesterday he rang the bell. Yesterday he rung. Past participle: rung. In the past he has rung the bell.

 LIE (meaning to recline). Past tense: lay. Yesterday he lay down on the lawn. Past participle: lain. In the past he has lain down on the lawn.

 LAY. Past tense: laid. Yesterday he laid the book on the table. Past participle: laid. In the past he has laid the book on the table.

 LEND. Past tense: lent. Yesterday he lent me money. Past participle: lent. In the past, he has lent me money.

SHINE. Past tense: shone. Yesterday the sun shone brightly. Past participle: shone. In the past, the sun has shone brightly.

But: In one instance, Webster’s New World recommends shined. When you use “shine” as a transitive verb meaning to make something shiny or bright, the past tense and past participle are both shined.Yesterday he shined his shoes. In the past, he has shined his shoes.

 TREAD. Past tense: trod or treaded. Yesterday he trod lightly. Yesterday he treaded lightly. Past participle: trodden or trod. In the past he has trodden lightly. In the past he has trod lightly.

 WAKE. Past tense: woke or waked. Yesterday he woke early. Yesterday he waked early. Past participle: waked or woken. In the past he has waked early. In the past he has woken early.

 HANG (meaning to suspend, as a door from its hinges). Past tense: hung. Yesterday he hung the picture on the wall. Past participle: hung. In the past he has hung pictures on the wall.

 HANG (meaning to kill by suspending someone from a rope around the neck). Past tense: hanged. Yesterday he hanged the bandit. Past participle: hanged. In the past he has hanged bandits.

 BRING. Past tense: brought. Yesterday he brought flowers. Past participle: brought. In the past he has brought flowers.

 DREAM. Past tense: dreamed or dreamt. Last night I dreamed. Last night I dreamt. Past participle: dreamed or dreamt. In the past I have dreamed. In the past I have dreamt.

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November 22, 2021

How to write better sentences

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There’s no formula for writing a good sentence. But over the years I've spent a lot of time fixing truly awful sentences and, in the process, I've learned some ways to make sentences better. These tips won’t apply in every situation. But they’re worth considering when you find your sentence is in trouble.

TIPS FOR IMPROVING SENTENCES

1. Identify all the clauses in the sentence.
The mayor went to Washington because he had a meeting with the senator.

2. For each clause ask: Could the subject or verb be more vivid or substantive?
Bob’s desire was that he would come to occupy the Lou Larson’s job.  --->
Bob wanted Lou Larson’s job.
Ask: Does the main clause convey the most important information?
Paris is a place that gets a lot of tourists.  --->
Paris gets a lot of tourists.

3. Look for “upside-down subordination,” where the most notable information is trapped in a subordinate clause by until, after, before, if, when, because, etc.
When suddenly Officer Miller shot the robber, he knew it was a good decision.  --->
Suddenly, Officer Miller shot the robber. He knew it was a good decision.

more

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