December 9, 2019

I appreciate you or your taking the time to meet me?

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Here’s something I bet you never knew was controversial: “I appreciate you taking the time to meet with me.”

Yes, language sticklers might have a problem with that, even though you need an advanced degree in English Rules That Aren’t Rules to understand why. Still, this form, called a “fused participle” by some, is an interesting quirk in the language.

The issue with this sentence is the word “you.” The writer could have easily used “your” in its place. That would have preempted any raised eyebrows.

But a lot of people would automatically opt for “you” here, creating a problem that’s best explained by Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage: “From the middle of the 18th century to the present time,” the usage guide writes, “grammarians and other commentators have been baffled by the construction. They cannot parse it, they cannot explain it.”

For an easy shortcut to avoiding this whole hornet's nest, just use "your" or another possessive form. For a big-picture understanding of fused participles and the alternative, the possessive with gerund, see my recent column.

 

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December 2, 2019

Conscience' sake, Ben and Lisa's cars and other special possessives rules

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Possessives aren’t as hard as they seem. Usually, if you just take it slow and remember the rules, you can avoid mistakes like “the Smith’s house” and “Charle’s mother” when you mean “the Smiths’ house” and “Charles’ mother” or the also-correct “Charles’s mother.”

Learn the rules, apply the rules and you’re home free.

But that’s not the end of the story. I just run out of space before I can get to the ugly truth: Special rules and exceptions further complicate the already difficult business of possessives.

These special situations turn the basic rules upside-down, telling us that a seeming possessive like “teachers college” might not take an apostrophe at all.

They tell us that that both “Ben and Lisa’s cars” and “Ben’s and Lisa’s cars” are correct. And they tell us that a singular, like “conscience,” runs contrary to simple possessive rules in “conscience’ sake.”

Here's a recent column with some special rules you should know if you want to fully master possessives.

 

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November 25, 2019

Happy Holiday's from the Weitz's? Nope. Here's your holiday greeting card punctuation guide

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It’s time again for our annual tradition: saving people from making embarrassing mistakes like “Seasons greetings from the Russo’s,” “Happy Hanukkah from the Weitz’s” and “This will be baby Mile’s first Christmas!” on holiday greeting cards.

So before you head to your city’s last surviving stationery store (which, by the way, should not be written as “stationary store” unless you wish to emphasize that it’s not on wheels), read this primer on avoiding common mistakes on holiday greeting cards. Most of the errors you see on cards involve plurals and possessives of names.

Double that up by making a name plural possessive and your odds of getting it right are infinitesimally small. It’s all because the English language cruelly uses the letter S both to form plurals and to form possessives.

But for a side of cruelty with that cruelty, the S formulas apply only sometimes. Other times, apostrophes and even the letter E get thrown into the mix.

To navigate the minefield that is your holiday greeting-card list, the trick is to take it slow. Here's my column showing you the steps you need to take.

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November 18, 2019

The Best Way to Irk an Editor? Use Too Many Capitals

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“I hesitated to write you because I’m sure you’ll catch many errors.”

“You’re probably noticing a ton of mistakes I’m making right now.”

“Please excuse the many embarrassing grammar errors you’ll probably find in this email.”

I hear stuff like this a lot. No one is 100% secure in their grammar knowledge, so it’s easy to feel insecure when exhibiting your language skills to someone who gets paid to find mistakes.

But if you think you can guess how editors scrutinize your writing, guess again. We’re not judgmental about most of the “errors” people worry about making — wrong verb tenses, wrong word choices, the occasional comma splice or dangler.

As we know well, everyone makes mistakes. Plus, when a sentence comes out naturally, that’s usually a good argument for it, whether it conforms to stickler rules or not. Casual speech and writing are fine with us.
We can be extremely peevish — just not in ways you’d expect. Exhibit A is a recent exchange between copy editors on social media that I look at in my recent column.

 

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November 11, 2019

Some Papal Reflections on Adjectives and Adverbs

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In a recent speech to his communications staff, Pope Francis had a lot to say about adjectives and adverbs, citing examples of writing he’s “allergic to,” like “This is something authentically Christian” and “this is truly so.”

Then he noted: “We have fallen into the culture of adjectives and adverbs, and we have forgotten the strength of nouns … This is a mission of communication: to communicate with reality, without sweetening with adjectives or adverbs.”

If you’re looking for nits to pick in the pope’s statements, you’ll find them. “Authentically Christian,” you could argue, draws a contrast with the inauthentic kind. Also (and this is no small nit), in the sentence “This is something authentically Christian,” the word “Christian” is itself an adjective.

Still, his core idea — that adjectives and adverbs can dilute the power of the words they modify — just happens to be true. Sometimes.

Some adjectives and adverbs add nothing but emphasis, like “awesome” in “The awesome power of this cleaning product blows me away.” Those can usually be nixed.

Others, especially when they appear in the predicate of the sentence, convey information you can’t take out. “This new cleaning product is awesome.”

Here's my recent column on how to best use this advice.

 

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November 4, 2019

The En Dash

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An en dash is roughly the same width as the capital letter N. Compare that to an em dash, which is about as wide as (you guessed it) an M. They’re both wider than a hyphen — the shrimp of the bunch.

On a Mac computer, you make an en dash by hitting the hyphen key while holding down the option key. For an em dash, hold down both the shift and option keys while striking the hyphen key. In Windows, an en dash is made with the control and minus keys, while an em dash is made with the control, alt and minus keys.

The en dash’s duties, like its size, are sort of in between the em dash and the hyphen. It’s often used for number ranges, like “fiscal year 2020–2021.” It can even mean “up to and including” or “through,” as in “Students ages 10–15 can enroll.”

But there are problems with this practice. For one, old-timey editors like me might have a serious (serious) problem with symbols used in place of words.

I, for one, never allow a “10–15.” I change it to “10 to 15.” The thinking here is that readers chugging along in a written work are in a my-brain-is-reading-words mode, not in a my-brain-is-translating-symbols-into-words mode. (And don’t get me started on the ampersand.)

If you’re going to use en dashes in running text, take this Chicago Manual warning to heart.

“For the sake of parallel construction, the word ‘to’ or ‘through’ (or ‘until’), never the en dash, should be used if the word ‘from’ precedes the first element in such a pair; similarly, ‘and’ should be used if ‘between’ precedes the first element.” In other words, “between 10–15” is a no-no, as is “from 10–15.”

Here’s my recent column on the en dash.

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October 28, 2019

Rethinking the rethinking of hyphen rules

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Recently, I wrote about some changes to the AP Stylebook’s rules on hyphens. Specifically, I reported that AP is going lighter on them, arguing that if a hyphen doesn’t do anything to make a compound modifier easier to understand, you can often ditch it.

“Use of the hyphen is far from standardized,” the AP social media team tweeted. “It is optional in most cases, a matter of taste, judgment and style sense.”

And tastes, it seems, have shifted toward fewer hyphens. But they haven’t shifted as far as AP thought. Shortly after announcing they were pulling back on hyphens in certain situations, AP got pushback, especially regarding sports terms.

For example, the editors earlier this year decided there should no longer be a hyphen in “first quarter touchdown.” That didn’t go over well.

“Some of you disagreed with our move to delete the hyphen from first-quarter touchdown, third-quarter earnings and other -quarter terms,” the AP Stylebook folks tweeted on Sept. 25. The result is a slight shift in rules, which I write about here.

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October 21, 2019

A look at some more new words

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If you’ve ever been called Johnny-on-the-spot, you might have beamed with pride. It meant you were, according to Merriam-Webster, “a person who is on hand and ready to perform a service or respond to an emergency.”

Dating back to the 1880s, this term was clearly intended as a compliment — praise for your resourcefulness, dedication and efficacy.

However, as of this year, if someone calls you Johnny-on-the-spot, you might want to ask a few follow-up questions before you thank them. That’s because the Oxford English Dictionary has added another definition for this term: “a small prefabricated structure containing a toilet.”

Last week, we looked at some notable recent additions to the Oxford English Dictionary. But there are lots more, some of which I look at in this recent column.

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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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