April 23, 2018

Whoa, There. What's with 'Woah' and 'Whoah'?

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Like a lot of little girls, I was obsessed with horses. I found a trove of horse stories in my school library and dived head first into "Old Bones the Wonder Horse" by Mildred Mastin Pace and "The Golden Mare" by William Corbin.

By the time I was 9, I'd seen the word "whoa" in print so many times, it was unfathomable that anyone might spell this horse command differently. Then, about a year ago, I noticed a stranger on social media responding to a news story with "woah."

"Woah"? Really?

Not long after, I saw this spelling again. Then, just a few days before this writing, I saw a tweet from Atlantic magazine editor David Frum responding to a news item with (get this): "whoah.

Here's my recent column on how to spell it correctly. 

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April 16, 2018

Hard-learned Grammar Lessons

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You learn something new every day.

In most professions, that's a good thing. But for copy editors, it's a kick in the pants. It means there's something you should have learned years ago but didn't. It means that, even as you were getting paid to catch errors, you were blind to some. It hurts.

For editors — or anyone who wants to use the language well — humility is key. You have to know when to look up stuff, even if it's stuff you've already looked up a hundred times. And you have to accept that after years or even decades on the job, you can still get sucker-punched by your own ignorance.

Yes, I'm talking about myself.

Here's a column I wrote recently about the discoveries that still sting, including bouillon vs. bullion, compose vs. comprise, and how to spell embarrass.

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April 9, 2018

Spat, Slayed, Lain: Tricky Past Tense Forms

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Regular verbs form their past tenses and past participles according to simple formula: just add “ed.” Today I walk. Yesterday I walked. In the past I have walked.  Irregular verbs follow no pattern at all. Today I eat. Yesterday I ate. In the past I have eaten. They’re easy to find in the dictionary. The past tense and past participle are listed right after the entry word, in that order.

But knowing where to look for answers is just half the battle. You also have to know when to look for answers.

Certain words require extra vigilance. You need to be on the lookout for them because they can trip you up when you're not paying attention.

With that in mind, here’s a column a wrote highlighting seven verbs  whose past participles require extra care.

 

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April 2, 2018

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Last night, Joe dreamt of Mary. Or would it be better to say that he dreamed of her? More important: How can you know for sure?

Past participles confuse a lot of people. Take it from someone whose Boston-area in-laws opt for forms like "I should have ate" and "I could have went." When we need a verb form to go after "have," we reach for the one that sounds best. And what sounds best is whatever we're most accustomed to hearing.

Most of the time, that works out great. In any aspect of language, the most natural-sounding, most popular form is correct about 99% of the time. But the other 1% of the time, things can get ugly.

Even more important than getting past participles "right" is knowing how to make good choices. Here's a quick overview of past participles and how to look them up.

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March 26, 2018

So Many Spelling Errors, So Little Time

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"As manager of the restaurant, Milton likes to keep the staff appraised."

"The cocktail will be rimmed with a blend of exclusive Mexican-salts, and garnished with a fresh-cut lime and spiral-cut jalapeno, skewered by a mini beach umbrella, and complimented by rose pedals."

"A uniformed chauffer who will serve you champagne in crystal flukes from a silver tray."

These are just a few of the error-riddled sentences that made it into my most recent column. Here's how to never make these errors yourself.

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March 19, 2018

Is 'Whom' Dead?

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"Who Cyril Ramaphosa should fire."

That was a recent headline for an Economist magazine article about the new South African president. But one of the biggest questions it raised had nothing to do with global politics. Why not "whom"?

The magazine's editors didn't wait for others to ask it.

"Some readers might have wondered whether someone should fire our proofreaders," they wrote in a follow-up. "Shouldn't that be 'Whom Cyril Ramaphosa should fire'?"

I look at their answer in this recent column.

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March 12, 2018

Even More Word Choice Errors

Keeping the staff "appraised." A cocktail "complimented" by a garnish. That garnish? Rose "pedals."

I seem to be stumbling into a lot of errors in my reading lately, both in the stuff I'm paid to edit and in stuff I'm reading that, presumably, someone has already edited. As always, these commonly confused terms are all great opportunities for the rest of us who want to avoid errors. Here's my recent column covering some of these.

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March 4, 2018

National Grammar Day!

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Sunday, March 4, is National Grammar Day.

The holiday was started 10 years ago by author, super-mom, and all-around cool person Martha Brockenbrough, Founder of Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar, Brockenbrough started the holiday ten years ago as a way to help people focus on grammar learning. Organizations like ACES, the American Copy Editors Society, come up with creative ways to celebrate every year, like these fun punctuation cookies ACES aces showed off last year.

My personal recommendation on how to spend the holiday: Spend a little time thumbing through the front matter of a dictionary — especially the "How to Use This Dictionary" stuff. It helps you unlock mysteries like, for example, whether you can use "graduate" as a transitive verb or whether it needs a preposition "from" to connect it to an object.

Or, if that's not fun enough, go back to the cookies idea.

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February 26, 2018

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"One of our pet peeves is the evolving usage of 'said' instead of 'asked' immediately preceding the utterance of a question," noted readers Bill and Julie, who gave this example: "He said, 'Where are you going?'"

"We are hearing this more and more often in everyday conversations involving questions, in TV advertisements and on social media. ... "Do you have any idea why? Is it because 'said' is easier to pronounce than the tongue twister 'asked'? We were taught one shouldn't say a question. A question should always be asked," they added.

I haven't noticed the same trend. But I do have some guidelines to follow for using speech tags well. Here's the column I wrote in response to Bill and Julie's question.

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February 20, 2018

Taking Literally Too Literally

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The city was brought literally to its knees.

When he heard the news, he literally flew off the handle.

She literally went ballistic.

If you like unambiguous communication, if you like logic, if you like having a word that means "take these words at face value and don't mistake them for mere metaphor," then you hate how the word "literally" is used in these sentences.

But what if you don't stop there? What if you hate, "It knocked him literally unconscious" when referring to someone who walked into a pole and fell to the ground, where he lay nonresponsive? What if you hate, "The business literally shuttered its doors" to describe a store where slats of wood were hammered over the entrance? What if you hate, "I'm literally freezing to death" spoken by a character in a novel right before he dies of exposure?

Then you just might be Trigger Smith, proprietor of a bar called the Continental in New York City's East Village, where a few months ago Smith posted this sign in the window in all capital letters: "Sorry, but if you say the word 'literally' inside the Continental, you have five minutes to finish your drink and then you must leave."

Here's the rest of my column on Smith's anti-literally crusade.

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