March 30, 2020

Staying neutral in the comma wars

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There’s a cartoon about commas going around on the Internet.

The first panel reads: “With the Oxford comma: We invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin.” The illustration shows four people: two men, one bearing a resemblance to John F. Kennedy and the other to Stalin, and two women in G-strings and high heels.

The second panel reads: “Without the Oxford comma: We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin” above an illustration of just two people: men resembling JKF and Stalin, who themselves are wearing G-strings and high heels.

If you’re looking to pick a side in a silly war, you can stop reading now. That’s all the ammo you need to join the legions of people who believe that the Oxford comma is king. But if you want a clear picture of why this just isn’t so, here’s a column I did explaining it.

 

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March 23, 2020

The syntax of great writing

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that great writers make fools out of great editors.

Great editors say, “Avoid passive voice.” Then a writer like Ian McEwan starts Atonement with a whopper of a passive in the very first sentence: “The play—for which Briony had designed the posters, programs, and tickets, constructed the sales booth out of a folding screen tipped on its side, and lined the collection box in red crepe paper—was written by her in a two-day tempest of composition, causing her to miss a breakfast and a lunch.”

Editors say you should use correct punctuation. Yet Cormac McCarthy dispenses with apostrophes at will.

An editor who noticed a writer switching from the third-person to the second-person would fix it immediately. Yet in Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut switches from his third-person narration to directly command the reader in the second-person imperative: “Listen.”

Some editors (present company included) would tell you to avoid cleft sentences, which start with “it is,” then relegate the meatiest information to a subordinate clause. Yet Jane Austen, in Pride and Prejudice, got away with “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

The remarkable part: in every instance, the defiance pays off. Each of these sentences is far better than any by-the-book rewrite could have produced.

Why do they work? Magic, mostly. But to see how, exactly, the magic manifests itself, you need a basic understanding of syntax. Here's a piece I did examining what these writers did and why it worked.

 

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March 16, 2020

'Are' vs. 'is' writ large

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“There are a variety of Medicare supplement plans on the market.”

For an editor, this is not a difficult sentence. We see stuff like this all the time and don’t blink an eye. But sometimes things that shouldn’t trip me up trip me up. Things I’ve known for years — things I’ve researched and confirmed and committed to memory — seem to fall right out of my brain.

And so it was when I found myself staring at that sentence, which appeared in an article I was editing recently, and stopped dead in my tracks. “There are a variety”? “There is a variety”? For some reason, I couldn’t remember despite having researched the matter multiple times in the past.

To get to the answer, there are a couple of issues to consider. One is whether “variety” is singular, which would require the singular verb “is,” or whether it’s plural, requiring the verb “are.”

The second issue is whether “variety” governs the verb at all. Could “plans” be the subject of the verb? If so, there’s no question the verb should be “are,” as in “There are plans on the market.”

Finally, there’s a question of whether “existential there” changes the equation. In my recent column, I start with that one.

 

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March 9, 2020

The unbearable likeness of 'like'

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The word “like” may not look dangerous. But if you use it in ways offensive to certain sticklers, it’s guaranteed some readers will look down their nose at you.

No, I’m not talking about the verbal tic of saying, “like, you know, like, whatever.” I’m talking about far more common, far more respectable uses, like the one I use in this sentence or the one in the famous old ad “Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should.”

“‘Like’ has long been widely used by the illiterate; lately it has been taken up by the knowing and the well-informed who find it catchy, or liberating, and who use it as though they were slumming.”

Ouch. These rather harsh words from “Elements of Style” authors William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White were published first in 1959 in reference to “conjunctive like” — that is, using “like” as a conjunction. Here's what you need to know.

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March 2, 2020

Possessive with gerund

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A while back, I mentioned a CNN article “about the president making an unannounced stop.”

Two readers emailed with the same question. Here’s Bill in Niskayuna, N.Y.: “I was taught that a noun or pronoun preceding a gerund … should be in the possessive case, as it’s acting as a modifier. Thus, that would result in ‘the president’s making an unannounced stop.’”

This is a common view, but it’s a little off. To understand why, we need a quick refresher.

A gerund is the form of a verb that ends in “ing” and is used as a noun. Compare “Jen is walking” to “Walking is good exercise.” In the first sentence, the subject is the noun Jen and “walking” is a verb. But in the second sentence, the subject — the thing performing the “action” of the verb — is “walking.”

There’s a word for this: Anytime an “ing” form of a verb is functioning as a noun it’s called a gerund.

But “ing” verb forms can do other jobs, as well. They can function as part of the verb, which we saw above in “Jen is walking.” These participles can also act as modifiers — adjectives, really: “We went on a walking tour.”

This is also how we understand participles in sentences like “We saw Jen walking.” Here, the object of the verb is Jen — she’s the one we saw. The word “walking” is technically modifying the noun Jen. So here, too, “walking” is a participial modifier.

But what if the object of the verb isn’t so much the person as the action? For example, “I love Betty’s singing” or “I don’t like Betty’s dancing.” I explore the answer in this column.

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February 24, 2020

Punctuation marks that eliminate the need for other punctuation marks

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“How do you feel about commas after em dashes?” a writer asked on Twitter recently. “For instance: If you want to have a great Sunday — and by ‘great’ I mean emotionally and spiritually satisfying —, then you should consider the one-hour bath.”

The question left me speechless. It’s like asking if you’d put two commas after Washington, D.C., if the name appeared in a list like, “We visited Washington, D.C.,, Chicago and Nashville.”

It’s like asking whether it’s a good idea to put an ellipsis before a colon, as in “Beth made an important observation …: the door was unlocked.”

The answer to all these questions is an emphatic “no.” The reason: Sometimes one punctuation mark can preclude the need for another. Here, laid out in my recent column, are some examples.

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February 17, 2020

4 proven ways to make yourself less clear

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When we talk about language and grammar, there’s an unspoken yet universal agenda: clarity.

The whole point of written communication is to get information to your reader as effectively as possible, meaning with as little confusion as possible. Grammar, punctuation and proper usage are tools to get you there.

But what if you don’t want to be clear? What if your No. 1 writing goal is to weasel your way around a point or a piece of information you’d rather not highlight, for whatever shady reason you may have?

Well, grammar is your friend too. After all, if you understand how to write clear, vivid prose, the secret to underhanded obfuscation is at your fingertips. Just do the opposite of that clarifying stuff. Helpful grammar concepts for all you devious purveyors of murky message include
upside-down subordination, nonspecific nouns and verbs, nominalizations and passive voice. Here’s my recent column on how to abuse them.

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February 10, 2020

Subjunctive Mood

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The subjunctive mood refers to sentences that express wishes, suppositions, statements of necessity, demands and other “contrary to fact” statements. “If he were taller” is an example of a contrary-to-fact subjunctive. He’s not taller. He’s as tall as he is. So this is subjunctive.

Compare that to “If he was being honest, you’ll get all your money back.” In this case it’s possible he was being honest. Time will tell. So it’s called “indicative,” which for our purposes just means “not subjunctive.”

The difference is reflected in the verb. In the past tense, the subjunctive applies only to the verb “be,” and it’s formed by replacing “was” with “were.” “If he were being honest” (which means he wasn’t) versus “If he was being honest” (which means it’s possible).

In the present tense, the subjunctive applies to all verbs, and you form it by replacing the conjugated verb with the “base form” of the verb.

Compare “Zach locks up the office at night” with “It’s crucial that Zach lock up the office at night.” “Locks” is the conjugated form. “Lock” is the base form. And by putting “it’s crucial” at the head of our sentence, we’re creating a statement of necessity that triggers the subjunctive mood.

Here's more on the subjunctive in my recent column.

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February 3, 2020

'Til and Till

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One of the most surefire ways to tell whether an article has been professionally edited is the word 'til. 

This contracted form of until correctly uses an apostrophe to indicate omitted letters. But though it's technically right, it's a dead giveaway that the writer or editor didn't know what he was doing.

Professionals, when they want a shorter form of until don't use 'til. They use till.

Anyone who hasn't studied a style guide might think this is an error. A till, in many cases, is a drawer in a cash register famously featured in the sentence "He had his hand in the till." So anyone with good language fundamentals but no editing training would logically conclude that till is the error.

It's not. The word till used to mean until actually predates until itself. Till is the original. That's why style guides say to use this original word and not a contracted version of a its younger cousin.

And while, technically, the contracted for 'til is legit -- you can, after all, contract anything you want -- it's a sure-fire sign that the editor doesn't know editing. Want to know more? Here's a column that goes deeper.

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January 27, 2020

Beware the Frankensentence

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The Frankensentence is a useful concept. The idea is that in English, which lets you use any number of connective tools to cobble together phrases and clauses, it’s possible to cobble together so many phrases and clauses that your reader gets lost — or at least turned off.

The word “and” is a major culprit in a lot of Frankensentences. Abuse it just right and you can make a sentence go on literally forever. Another popular suture for Frankensentences is the humble comma, which at times is an “and” in disguise.

Semicolons are worse offenders. The whole purpose of a semicolon is to join sentence elements so unwieldy that a simple comma can’t handle the job. Subordinating conjunctions and relative pronouns can create Frankensentences, too. Here’s my recent column on how to avoid all these pitfalls.

 

 

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