August 20, 2018

Words That Show Off Your Grammar Savvy

TOPICS:

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.

 

Click player above to listen to the podcast

  • DOWNLOAD MP3
  • PODCAST
  • Share
    SHARE
« Older Entries

August 13, 2018

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

TOPICS: , , ,

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.

Click player above to listen to the podcast

  • DOWNLOAD MP3
  • PODCAST
  • Share
    SHARE
« Older Entries

August 5, 2018

Great Literature Defies Grammar Rules — Beautifully

TOPICS:

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.”

Here's my Read It Forward piece looking at the grammar of some great lines from literature.

Click player above to listen to the podcast

  • DOWNLOAD MP3
  • PODCAST
  • Share
    SHARE
« Older Entries

July 29, 2018

Grammar Purity Is One Big Ponzi Scheme

TOPICS: ,

To hear some sticklers talk, you’d think that somewhere, in a classified location, there’s a top-secret grammar law library that houses the voluminous Grammar Penal Code: an official list of all the things you’d be “wrong” to do.

It’s wrong to split an infinitive, some say. It’s wrong to end a sentence with a preposition. It’s wrong to begin a sentence with and. It’s wrong to use take to mean bring. Hang around these people long enough, and you see the list of no-nos is endless.

Their source, conveniently, is never revealed. They know what’s wrong and they’re not telling you how they know—as if they have a copy of the Grammar Penal Code and you don’t, so you’re forever at their mercy. With every word you speak or write, you’re in danger of getting busted for breaking a rule you never knew existed.

Here’s where these nitpickers get their information: someone—a teacher, a parent, a know-it-all friend—told them there’s a rule against saying a certain thing, and they believed it. It’s as if they, too, were fooled into believing there exists some list of grammar crimes that only their teacher, parent, or friend was privy to.

My recent piece on LitHub, an excerpt from my new book "The Joy of Syntax," looks at the real source of grammar rules.

Click player above to listen to the podcast

  • DOWNLOAD MP3
  • PODCAST
  • Share
    SHARE
« Older Entries

July 23, 2018

Double Possessives and the Power of 'Of'

Bill in Williamsport, Pa., has a question about an odd possessive construction: “Joe is a friend of John’s.

To Bill, this structure seems redundant and awkward because it uses both “of” and an apostrophe to show possession. He prefers the more direct variation “Joe is John’s friend.”

Is he right? Is “a friend of John’s” redundant? In a word, yes. So if this were math or logic, “a friend of John’s” would be nonsense. But language isn’t always mathematical or logical, and when it’s not, that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

 “A friend of John’s” is something called a double possessive or a double genitive. The word “double” captures the problem Bill laid out: it uses two methods to show possession where only one is needed. “Of” creates possessives. So does an apostrophe plus an S. Here's my recent column that takes a thorough look at what's wrong — and what's right — with double possessives.

 

Click player above to listen to the podcast

  • DOWNLOAD MP3
  • PODCAST
  • Share
    SHARE
« Older Entries

July 16, 2018

6 Tricky Possessives That Can Trip You Up

TOPICS: , , ,

 

Possessives shouldn’t be difficult. In many languages, they’re not. In French, for example, to talk about the car belonging to Robert, you just say “the car of Robert”: la voiture de Robert. Spanish works the same way, with “de,” meaning “of”: el auto de Robert.

English isn’t as fond of simple formulas. We rarely use “of” to show possession. Far more often we use an apostrophe plus an S. It sounds simple, but in practice it’s anything but.

For example, when you’re talking about two phones on the table, one belonging to Beth and one belonging to Sam, are they Beth and Sam’s phones, or Beth’s and Sam’s phones?

Why do expressions like “three years’ experience” take an apostrophe?

If two attorneys general are on the same case, whose case is it?

Why is “whose” possessive while “who’s” is not?

And how do you show it when two passersby share ownership of something?

Here's how.

Click player above to listen to the podcast

  • DOWNLOAD MP3
  • PODCAST
  • Share
    SHARE
« Older Entries

July 9, 2018

Underway/Under Way, Never Mind/Nevermind, One-Time/Onetime

TOPICS: , ,

No matter how many years I work as an editor, no matter how much advice I dole out in this column, some words will always scare me.

Perhaps it’s because they came to my attention early in my editing career, when I cowered at the base of a steep learning curve wondering how I’d ever scale it. Or perhaps it’s because these words are just hard.

Behold: “underway.” Is it one word? Is it two? Do you hyphenate it as an adjective? Or do you just need an advanced understanding of adverbs to master it?

The answer (and this is why it still unnerves me) is: all of the above. Here's my recent column on "underway/under way," "one-time/onetime" and some other terms that still befuddle.

 

Click player above to listen to the podcast

  • DOWNLOAD MP3
  • PODCAST
  • Share
    SHARE
« Older Entries

July 2, 2018

5 Tips for Better Writing

TOPICS: , ,

Good grammar is important for good writing. But to be honest, that’s usually the easy part.

Avoiding subject-verb agreement errors such as “I goes” and pronoun case errors like “Me want” isn’t exactly difficult. Good basic grammar is usually a no-brainer, but good writing is another matter.

 There are a million ways to write badly while still observing the laws of grammar. So here, based on my work editing inexperienced writers, is my recent column with some tips for improving your prose.

Click player above to listen to the podcast

  • DOWNLOAD MP3
  • PODCAST
  • Share
    SHARE
« Older Entries

June 25, 2018

'That Works Out Great' or 'That Works Out Well'?

TOPICS: , , , ,

Ned in Albany had a question about the phrase, used in this column, “that works out great.” He asked, “Isn’t ‘great’ an adjective and what’s it modifying here? Shouldn’t it be ‘well’ in uncorrupted English?”

Well, no. Adverbs are subtler beasts than most of us are taught. We tend to think of them offshoots of adjectives. “Quick” is an adjective whose job is to modify a noun. “Quickly” is its adverb equivalent and its job is to modify verbs.

Often, that works like a formula. Add “ly” to an adjective and you have an adverb. But not always. If you’re fast at typing, you don’t type fastly. If you’re right about how to cut a pineapple, you don’t cut it rightly. If you wear ugly clothes, you don’t dress uglyly.

Here's my recent column about mastering the complexities of adverbs.

Click player above to listen to the podcast

  • DOWNLOAD MP3
  • PODCAST
  • Share
    SHARE
« Older Entries

June 18, 2018

Another Reason Not to Double Space (and more from the mailbag)

TOPICS: , ,

 

 I recently wrote a column pointing out that the practice of putting two spaces between sentences is obsolete, rooted in the days when typewriters gave every character the same amount of space.

Reader Cyndy, a professional typesetter (now referred to as a “desktop publisher”) who studied typesetting in college, had a lot of extra insight.

“When typing on a typewriter was the norm, double spaces indeed made the paragraphs easier to read. But when typesetting on computers came along, the issue of justifying a paragraph became the issue. (No staggered right anymore. It was a smooth line on both vertical sides of the paragraph or story.)

If you put a double space in there, justifying the type may have caused it to be ragged on the left side, because if the sentence ended at the end of the line and there was a double space, then there would be a space at the beginning of the next line, thereby killing the smooth vertical line.

Here's some more good stuff I got from readers recently.

Click player above to listen to the podcast

  • DOWNLOAD MP3
  • PODCAST
  • Share
    SHARE
« Older Entries