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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October 8, 2018

X's, Xs or Xes?

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“Three people sign a treaty with just a large X. In an article referencing the treaty, they are referred to as the three ... Xes, X’s or Xs?”

That’s a question an editor posed to fellow editors recently on social media. But here's a question: Why would an editor have to ask? Why would he anticipate that fellow editors could disagree?

Editors are supposed to know such things, right? It’s our job, isn’t it? We’re human repositories of knowledge about all the rules that govern language, are we not?

Of course not. And that’s not how editing works. It’s not even how language works. If you read between the lines, there’s good news here: It’s OK to not have all the answers about punctuation and grammar because editors don’t have all the answers.

How did Hollandbeck’s peers answer? By the time 34 people had chimed in, the results were: 3% preferred Xes, 50% preferred X’s, 47% preferred Xs.

Who’s right? Technically, they all are. But if there's one to avoid, it's probably Xes. Here's my column that explains.

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October 1, 2018

Pompeo Gets Kooky About Commas

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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, it seems, is a little obsessive about commas. According to press reports, he’s been sending out directives to staff that they should follow certain strict guidelines. Here’s one example of incorrect comma use he sent to staffers.

“The administration is committed to achieving a lasting and comprehensive peace agreement, and remains optimistic that progress can be made.”

Pompeo said that’s an error because there should be “no comma when single subject with compound predicate.”

I found Pompeo’s choice a little odd. So I did some asking around. Here's my recent column about my conclusions.

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September 24, 2018

Can you use 'like' to mean 'such as'?

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I like “like.”

Specifically, I like “like” to mean “such as.” And the reason I like “like” is because so many of the writers I edit have been conditioned to dislike “like.”

It, like, drives me bonkers.

“Along with exciting new menu items such as tilapia tacos and roasted corn guacamole, you’ll find innovative craft cocktails such as mango margaritas, along with new seating options such as patio, bar and dining room.”

Are all those “such ases” really necessary? No. Are any of those “such ases” necessary? Again, I would argue no.

I delve into the origins of this trend, along with some guidance on how to use "like," in my latest column. 

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September 17, 2018

'Myself' and Other Reflexive Pronouns

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“Myself” can be a pretty controversial pronoun.

Take the following example: “Cindy and myself will give the presentation.”

Word to the word-cautious: People hate that. Even less-awkwardly-worded variations evoke ire: “The presentation will be given by Cindy and myself.”

In sentences that use “or,” the “myself” sounds better. “The presentation will be given by Cindy or myself.” But, really, this poses the same problem: Technically, reflexive pronouns like “myself” don’t work this way.

As idioms, all these ways of using “myself” are fine. No one can say you’re wrong if you construct sentences like these. But if you want to hew as close as possible to the rules of syntax, use reflexive pronouns only for their designated job: referring back to the subject, as in “I taught myself” or “I rewarded myself” or “I sent myself an email.”

Here's my recent column offering a basic overview of reflexive pronouns.

 

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September 10, 2018

And I, And Me: How to Always Get Them Right

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In a tweet reposted by someone I don’t know, someone else I don’t know broadcast the following message: “Sending warm wishes to you and your family from Boomer and I.” (Who said technology isn’t bringing us closer together?)

Boomer, apparently, is the cute dog whose picture appears beneath the text. “I,” apparently, is a human who either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that he should have used “Boomer and me.”

But I have a problem with this usage. I’m convinced that, almost without exception, when someone chooses “from Boomer and I” over “from Boomer and me” it’s not by choice but because they believe “me” would be a mistake. They’re wrong. Here’s my recent column offering a simple trick for how to always get this right.

 

 

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September 3, 2018

Helter Skelter Apostrophes

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I don’t remember where, I don’t remember when, but at one point in my childhood I found myself holding a copy of “Helter Skelter,” Vincent Bugliosi’s bone-chilling account of the Charles Manson murders. I didn’t read it.

I was probably 9 or 10 at the time and not really one to devour 680-page, true-crime procedurals. But there were pictures that, I feel, authorized me to dispense the following unsolicited piece of parenting advice. Hey parents: Don’t leave copies of “Helter Skelter” lying around the house.

Mumble-mumble decades and countless desensitizing movies later, I found the courage to actually read it. I’m about halfway through. (Don’t tell me what happens! I have a good feeling about this Squeaky gal.)

Funny how time changes a person. Back in elementary school, I was shocked by, you know, home-invasion stabbing murders by Beatles-obsessed racist sex cults.

 Today, I find myself shocked by passages like this one: “In this instance, it led to Aaron Stovitz’ being yanked off the Tate-LaBianca case.” And this one: “Manson borrowed Swartz’ ’59 Ford.” And this one: “Ruth Ann answered Gutierrez’ questions.”

And it gets freakier when you consider the context. Those bits were sprinkled among others like “Tex’s orders” and “Susan Atkins’ attorney.”

Thus, halfway through the book, I’m left with just one possible conclusion: The title “Helter Skelter” refers to the method used for forming possessives. Here's my recent column examining when to put an apostrophe and S after Z, X and S

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August 27, 2018

Crooks Don't Need Good Grammar

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People often ask me whether good grammar is important. There’s usually a subtext to their question. It’s, “Validate all the sweat and effort I’ve put into learning how to speak and write properly.”

My pat answer tends to disappoint: Proper grammar is like a nice suit. It might be crucial when applying for that dream job, but you can ditch the starched-shirt formality if you’re going to a backyard barbecue.

Today, I stand corrected. Turns out good grammar and even 10th-grade writing skills are immaterial to one of the most important jobs in the country provided that, along with your resume, you send a mountain of cash.

Behold the language skills of a man accused in federal court of slipping $16 million of other people’s money to one Paul Manafort, while simultaneously seeking a job as Secretary of the U.S. Army.

Stephen M. Calk, trusted custodian of depositors’ savings at Chicago’s Federal Savings Bank — an institution focused on serving veterans with home loans and the like — submitted his application materials to Manafort well after the latter was officially removed from the presidential team. This was around the same time he approved $16 million in loans to Manafort.

And it gets worse, as I explain in my recent column.

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August 20, 2018

Words That Show Off Your Grammar Savvy

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Before the age of social media, I had a theory that certain words used certain ways were hallmarks of the grammar-savvy.
I would hear “I have drunk” or “I couldn’t care less” or “there are a lot” and assume I was listening to a highly educated user of the English language.

With the explosion of social media, a lot of my presumptions have been confirmed. Social media posts provide a trove of data showing patterns among editors and other grammar-savvy types.

Some terms that separate the great users of language from all the rest: lay, drunk, swum, sneak peek, and couldn't care less, when used just right, are hallmarks of English language mastery. Here's what you need to know.

 

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August 13, 2018

If He Was or If He Were? Subjunctive Can Reveal Meaning

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One of the most fascinating things about language is that we can use it so well, so expertly, without understanding how we do it.

The following two sentences are perfect examples.

If the burglar was smart, he left the country.

If the burglar were smart, he would have left the country.

Specifically, I’m talking about the difference between “was” and “were” in sentences like these. “Was” suggests it’s possible the burglar had a good head on his shoulders. “Were” suggests he did not.

Any native speaker can pick up on that. But if you asked 100 of them to explain what’s going on with those two verbs, somewhere between 99 and 100 would have no idea.

And if they spent all day reading dictionary definitions they would be no closer to understanding the basis of these different meanings of “was” and “were.”

To understand them from an academic perspective, you need to start with a single word: subjunctive. That’s the grammar term that describes what’s going on here. And I explain it in full in my recent column.

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