December 17, 2018

Can a Movie Be Entitled?

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A copy editor recently posed an interesting question to colleagues on social media: Should he continue trying to maintain a distinction between “entitled” and “titled”? Or should he start allowing “entitled” to refer to the name of a book, movie or other work?

It’s an esoteric issue, to say the least — rooted in a disparity between editing styles.

The Associated Press Stylebook has, for decades, issued this simple and clear advice regarding the word “entitled”: “Use it to mean a right to do or have something. Do not use it to mean titled. AP’s examples of correct usage: “She was entitled to the promotion” and “The book was titled ‘Gone With the Wind.’”

Pretty straightforward stuff, provided you don’t follow the Chicago Manual of Style. This guide, which is used by most book publishers, doesn’t register an opinion one way or the other.

So what's a conscientious writer to do? I tackle that in this recent column.

 

 

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December 10, 2018

How to write holidays all year long

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Is it Mother’s Day, as in one mother, or does the name recognize that the day belongs to all of them, making it Mothers’ Day?

Do veterans really own their day, which would make it Veterans’ Day, or are they recognized in a more adjectival fashion, which would make it Veterans Day?

And what might St. Patrick and St. Valentine say about all this?

The proper way to write holidays has little to do with logic or punctuation rules. Instead, holiday names like Valentine's Day and Presidents Day are written as they are simply because that's how people have written them. Here's a quick rundown  of the proper holiday names to use all year long.

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December 3, 2018

5 Very Useful Grammar Terms

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As we saw recently, some language terms are fun to learn. Squinting modifier. Dummy operator. Eggcorn.

Others, not so much. Grammar is famous for its unfriendly jargon. But some of these less-fun-to-learn terms are very useful. They convey concepts that help you use the language better. My picks for the terms most worth learning: object pronoun, copular verb, adverbial, modal auxiliary and restrictive. If you don't have a full grasp of all these terms, this quick overview  will be well worth your time.

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November 26, 2018

Who and Whom as Explained by a Comma Queen

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"Copy editors never get credit for the sentences we get right, but confuse 'who' and 'whom' and you are sure to be the center of attention, at least briefly," writes Mary Norris, author of "Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen," in this week's New Yorker.

She's right, on several points. Yes, copy editing goes completely unnoticed when done well. Yes, the copy editor's work is cast into the spotlight only when she slips up. And yes, anyone can mess up who and whom, even a copy editor.

Norris, the longtime New Yorker copy editor who stepped down a few years ago, has some excellent advice for getting "whom" right.
"My test for the correct use of 'who' or 'whom' in a relative clause—'who I know will use it judiciously'—is to recast the clause as a complete sentence, assigning a temporary personal pronoun to the relative pronoun 'who/whom.' 'I know she will use it'? Or 'I know her will use it'?" Here's Norris's complete explanation.

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November 19, 2018

Holiday Cards: Making Last Names Plural or Possessive

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Every year I write a column about how to make last names plural or possessive on holiday cards. This year, the advice comes in handy decision tree format. Just answer these simple questions to know whether you're visiting the Williams' house, the William's house or the Williamses's house. (Spoiler alert: It's the last one.)

1. Do you want to make a last name plural? If yes, go to question to 2. If no, go to question 6.

2. Does the name you want to make plural end in S, Z, Ch, Sh, X or a similar sound? If no, add S with no apostrophe. The Smiths, the Carters, the Wilsons. If yes, add ES. The Joneses, the Walshes, the Gomezes, the Williamses.

3. Does the name you want to make plural end in a vowel? If yes, don’t let that confuse you. Names that end in vowels do not have special rules for forming plurals or possessives.

If you feel an overwhelming urge to throw in an apostrophe because Medici with an S at the end seems to suggest a different pronunciation, like “Medi-sis,” resist that urge. Just add S with no apostrophe: Medicis, Casagrandes, Kowalskis, Ferreros.

4. Does the name you want to make plural end in a Y? If yes, that changes nothing. True, one berry and a second berry are two berries. But Mrs. Berry and Mr. Berry are the Berrys. Mr. O’Leary and Mrs. O’Leary are the O’Learys.

5. If you made a last name plural, do you now want to make it possessive, for example, to refer to a house that belongs to a family or a party being thrown by a family? If no, you’re done. Have a nice holiday with the Smiths or the Walshes or the Berrys.

If yes, you’re almost done. Just take that plural we formed in the previous steps and put an apostrophe at the end. The Smiths’ house. The Walshes’ New Year’s Eve party. The Gomezes’ daughter. The Berrys’ Christmas tree. The Williamses’ son. There are no exceptions.

All plural last names form the possessive with a simple apostrophe at the end. Now you can have a nice holiday at the Smiths’ house or enjoy the Walshes’ party or pig out on the Berrys’ berries.

6. Do you want to make a singular name possessive? If yes, add apostrophe plus S: Mr. Smith’s car. John Doe’s house.

7. Do you harbor some vague idea that there’s a special rule for names ending in X or Z? If yes, banish the thought. Max’s job is never Max’ job. Mr. Valdez’s house is never Mr. Valdez’ house.

8. Do you still not trust me on No. 7 because you’re absolutely sure you heard somewhere that words ending in X or Z get special treatment? You’re not crazy.

Over the years, lesser authorities have advocated special rules for these words. But those authorities never had much authority. The rules today are universal: Singular words that end in X or Z form their possessives with an apostrophe and an S: Alex’s house. Chaz’s car.

9. Do you feel confident in your ability to write out those holiday cards? If no, repeat steps 1 through 7. If yes, have a wonderful holiday.

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November 12, 2018

7 Language Terms That Are Actually Fun to Learn

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Grammar jargon is enough to turn most people off of grammar forever. One ill-timed utterance of a term like “doubly transitive post-prepositional verb” and you might never take an interest in the subject again. But some language terms are actually fun.

Squinting modifier, anyone? How about an eggcorn? How about a nonce word or a dummy operator?

My recent column examines these and other language terms that are actually fun to learn.

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November 5, 2018

When Should "I" Come First?

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I and several readers were communicating recently about the practice of putting “I,” “me” or “my” first in a compound-noun phrase. In fact, two back-to-back emails posed the same question: Isn’t it wrong to put oneself first in a compound subject?

For example, Carol in Glendale had come across a passage to the effect of “I and my 13 fellow campers.” She doesn’t like that. Can you blame her?

Rod in Burbank found his fodder in this column. When writing about possessives recently, I had suggested the form “Both my and my wife’s families are based here in South Florida.”

Rod was fine with the grammar but still thought the passage needed improvement.

“My objection is a nongrammatical point. I was always taught that ‘I’ came second. ‘My wife and I went to South Florida,’” Rod wrote. Thus, by extension, the same rule that applies to “I” should also apply to “my,” Rod noted.

That would would give us “Both my wife’s and my families are based here in South Florida.”

I agree with Carol and Rod. Both these passages would be better with the first-person pronoun in the second-place position. Here the column I wrote in response.

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October 29, 2018

Can You Have 'A Vast Majority'?

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“Isn’t ‘a vast majority’ an abomination of an expression?” Jeff in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., wants to know. It’s not the “vast” part that has Jeff curious. It’s the “the” part.

Hear him out: “In any group or set there has to be a number that’s the majority, right? If 100,000 people were surveyed and 60,000 agreed with a certain proposition, it wouldn’t be correct to say, ‘A vast majority of those surveyed agreed with XYZ proposition,’ would it?

Because there aren’t two or multiple majorities within the group on that proposition, only one majority. And that would be ‘the’ majority, not ‘a’ majority. Do you agree?”

Jeff has a point about the logic of using “the.” Articles like “a” and “the” indicate whether the nouns they modify are specific or just one in a crowd. But that doesn't mean your options are limited, as I explain in this recent column.

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October 22, 2018

A Tricky Case for Choosing 'Me' Over 'I'

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Betsy in Albany had a great question about “I” versus “me.” Consider the sentence: “John’s hidden agenda was to make George and I say nice things about him.”

Should that “I” be “me”?

I talk a lot about choosing between subject pronouns like “I” and object pronouns like “me.” If you’ve been paying attention, you know the answer has a lot to do with whether the pronoun is the subject of a verb. The litmus test is usually just: Look for a nearby verb and ask if it’s missing a subject. If so, you probably need “I.” Conversely, if there’s a verb or preposition nearby that seems to need an object, you probably want “me.”

I see now that I’ve let you down. If you look at “say” in “make George and I say nice things,” you could easily conclude that it needs a subject like “I.” After all, it’s “I say,” not “me say.”

That would be wrong. The correct pronoun in this sentence is “me.” The reasons are complicated but worth a moment of your time. Here's my recent column looking at why this sentence calls for "me" and not "I."

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October 15, 2018

Yes, Possessives Really Can Be Hard Sometimes

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Recently I sat at a traffic light behind a taxi emblazoned with the words “Peoples’ Taxi.”

The message was a powerful one: This taxi isn’t just for people. It’s for all the peoples — the people of the USA and the people of Kyrgyzstan and any people who might consider themselves denizens of the International Space Station.

I kid. I kid the Peoples’ Taxi — and I do so not because they made an unforgivable error but because I’m perennially frustrated by just how hard possessives can be. They should be easy. The rules are simple enough. But in the real world, possessives are a minefield of opportunities to mess up.

That’s true even for people who work with words all day long. Take this sentence I saw recently in a BuzzFeed article: “But most family’s don’t include a member of Congress.”

That one’s pretty bad.

Here’s another I spotted around the same time: “Both mine and my wife’s family are based here in South Florida.”
That’s not bad at all, really. But it’s not quite right, either.

Here's my recent column examining the correct way to handle all three of these tricky possessives.

 

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