January 13, 2020

Subjunctive and the Art of the Existential 'There'

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“If there were a Form 3, you would have already filled it out.” Reader Jessica had a question about a sentence like this.

The speaker already knew about a Form 1 and a Form 2. The existence of Form 3, however, was hypothetical. So, Jessica wanted to know, is that “were” correct? Or should it be “was”?

There’s a one-word key to finding the answer: subjunctive. That’s the term for the grammar dynamic that determines whether “was” or “were” is best here.

Armed with that one little word, you can research the issue and arrive at an answer. But Jessica already knew that. She Googled “subjunctive” and still couldn’t figure out what it meant for her sentence.

“I haven’t been able to find any examples on the internet about ‘if there were ...’ Only examples of “If he/she/it were ...”

In other words, “there” is complicating the question of whether the verb should be “was” or “were.” But does the “there” really affect the verb?

In this case, no. But it’s good to understand both dynamics, the subjunctive and something called “existential there,” to work all this out. Here's my recent column to explain it all.

 

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January 6, 2020

Would You Put a Hyphen in "a Northwestern California landmark"?

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Russ in New Jersey had a question about hyphens: In “northwestern California landmark” should “northwestern California” be hyphenated?

“I’m not sure if it’s simply a matter of preference or if the combination of a direction or geographic location and/or proper noun play into some rule,” he wrote.

My answer: I would never put a hyphen in “northwestern California landmark,” and I would be surprised and a little put off to see it hyphenated in a professionally edited publication. But I don’t know why I see it this way.

I’ve been doing this editing stuff so long that, in my mind, some things just are. No reason. Or at least, no reason I can remember. No one hyphenates “northwestern California landmark” so I don’t hyphenate “northwestern California landmark.”

But of course, the answers are out there. There’s even an answer to the question of whether the N in northern should be capitalized. They're all here in my recent column.

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December 30, 2019

Are You Confusing Your Readers? Avoid These Pitfalls

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One of my greatest weaknesses in life is one of my greatest strengths as an editor: I’m easily confused. If I had a nickel for every time I said, “Wait, what?” while reading an article, I’d have a sum easily calculated by someone less easily confused.

My innate talent for dazed disorientation allows me to serve as the lowest-common-denominator reader. The floor. The “If I get it, everyone gets it” reader.

So I know a thing or two about the writing habits that confuse people. Here are some pitfalls to avoid if you want everyone, even me, to understand your writing: Watch for unclear antecedents. Don't put an organization's initials in parentheses after its full name. Don't use dashes or semicolons in a way that makes your sentences too long. Watch out for needless words and vague nouns. I discuss these in more detail in my recent column.

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December 23, 2019

More on commas' job setting off nonrestrictive information

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“A Bay Area real estate heiress whose family posted $35-million bail to keep her out of jail until her trial was acquitted Friday of killing the father of her children.”

That’s the nut of a story published recently by the Los Angeles Times that raised a question in a reader’s mind: Should there be commas after “heiress” and “jail,” wondered Carol in Southern California?

As is the case for so many questions that land in my in-box, I can’t offer a clear yes or no answer. But I can present an argument about why I believe the answer is no.

The reason lies in the concepts of restrictive and nonrestrictive information.

Commas set off nonrestrictive matter, but they’re not used around restrictive stuff.

To see the difference, compare these two sentences: The man who stole my purse was wearing a baseball cap. The man, who stole my purse, was wearing a baseball cap.

In most but not all situations, the second one would be wrong. Why? Because we can be pretty sure that “who stole my purse” is intended as information that identifies which man you’re talking about.

That clause restricts the scope of the subject, helping the reader better figure out which man is “the man” in question. So the information about purse-stealing is crucial to understanding which man is being discussed. Here’s more in my recent column on commas’ role identifying restrictive and nonrestrictive information.

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December 16, 2019

Adieu, Apostrophe Protection Society

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Great news for everyone on Team Laziness and Ignorance. We won!

That’s the parting shot from the founder of the Apostrophe Protection Society, 96-year-old retired journalist John Richards, who shut down the group’s website after 18 years of unsuccessfully battling the ignorance of all us ignoramuses.

Actually, his farewell was a little wordier: “We, and our many supporters worldwide, have done our best but the ignorance and laziness present in modern times have won!” These words make clear that you’re either with Richards or you’re ignorant and lazy. And I’m not with him.

Yes, I know it’s odd for a grammar columnist who gives advice on apostrophes to ally with Team Ignorant About Apostrophes. But if Richards is going to divide the world into supporters and dummies, I say pass the dunce caps.

I’m actually a fan of proper apostrophe use. And I’ll confess I wince a little when I see them misused. But my philosophy, with apologies to Eugene Debs, is: Wherever there is a less-educated class being ridiculed by people who went to better schools, I am in it. If you’re going to brand as “lazy” a widowed mother of three who has to work two jobs while taking care of an elderly parent with Alzheimer’s just because she doesn’t share your priorities, you’ve lost me.

But for folks who do have the time and energy to care about apostrophes, here, in my recent column, is a quick overview of rules that can help you avoid this kind of ridicule.

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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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