September 21, 2020

When you're smizin', it doesn't mean the whole world should smize with you

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Attention denizens of the English-speaking world: Supermodel and television personality Tyra Banks would like a word.

That word: smize. Where she would like it: Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.

Smize, a Tyra Banks original coinage, means to smile with one’s eyes. And it’s gained some traction, securing spots in several online dictionaries.

Merriam’s, however, remains a holdout. But Banks and her people aren’t relenting.

“We call them. We email them. We show them the cover of the Wall Street Journal,” Banks recently told National Public Radio.

“We show everything, all this stuff. And they’re just like ... ‘We’ve had our eye on smize for a couple of years.’ And I’m like, ‘You know what? Now you’re just hating.’”

And with that, Banks makes her second-most important contribution to the language, redefining “hating” to mean “practicing lexicography.”

Lexicography, the act of creating dictionaries, doesn’t work like the maître d’ at a fancy restaurant. Important people can’t strong-arm or cajole or smize their way to the front of the line. The process for adding new words to the language is far more democratic than that. Read how words really get into the dictionary in my recent column.

 

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September 14, 2020

'As well as' can't do everything 'and' can do

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“As well as” can join two nouns that are the subject of a sentence, “John as well as Jane is here.” In these cases, it’s hard to know whether you want a singular verb like “is” or a plural verb like “are.” Inexplicably, everyone handles these situations well.

But “as well as” can also add an item to the end of a list: “Specialties include pasta, steaks, chops and fresh seafood, as well as craft cocktails.” That’s where people mess up, instead structuring sentences like this: “Specialties include pasta, steaks, chops, fresh seafood, as well as craft cocktails.”

Notice how the “and” before fresh seafood has disappeared. The result: a grammatical error based on the belief that, because “as well as” works kind of like “and,” it can replace “and.” Not so.

“And” is classified as a coordinating conjunction and, as a member of that club, it has a special power: It can be used in lists to signal that the next item will be the last item in the list. You don’t say the flag is red, white, blue. You say it’s red, white and blue. You don’t say your piggy bank contains pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters. You say it contains pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters.

“As well as” can’t do “and’s” job in those situations because it’s not a coordinating conjunction. Some people call it a quasi-coordinator because it has some properties of “and” but not all. Here's my recent column with everything you need to know.

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September 7, 2020

John as well as Jane is, or John as well as Jane are?

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You probably use “as well as” from time to time in your speech and writing. And chances are you’ve been using it so well, so effortlessly, that you have no idea how difficult it is to employ.

Behold: “He, as well as the producer, are Broadway newcomers.”

“The theme, as well as the writer’s art, makes the novel a work of art.”

“Available evidence as well as past experience suggests as much.”

“John as well as Jane was late for dinner.”

All these sentences are lifted from Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English usage, the first three are real-world examples and the fourth a deliberately simplistic made-up usage. But they all prove the same point: As a coordinator — meaning a term that, like “and,” links nouns and other parts of speech — “as well as” is a minefield.

Look at the verbs to see what I mean. In the first example, the verb “are” suggests that the subject is plural — that “he as well as the producer” is grammatically the same as “he and the producer.” Hence it’s a plural subject with a verb to match: “he as well as the producer are.”

Now look at the verb in the second example, “makes.” That’s conjugated for a singular subject, like “Ed makes.” Yet the presumably singular subject of this sentence, “the theme, as well as the writer’s art,” is grammatically the same as “he as well as the producer.” Yes, this one has commas and, yes, those commas seem to have an effect on whether the subject is plural. But commas alone don’t explain why “the theme, as well as the writer’s art” takes the singular verb “makes.”

So what’s going on here? I explore the intricacies of as well as in my latest column.

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August 31, 2020

How to Write Book and Movie Titles

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Do book and movie titles go in quotation marks or italics? Neither way is wrong. It’s just a matter of style. AP style, which is followed by a lot of news media, uses quotation marks.  Click here to read the rest...

The actors in “Star Wars” went on to have varying degrees of success.

Johnny read “War and Peace” in school.

Magazine titles they just capitalize, skipping the quote marks.

Jane writes for the Time and Newsweek.

Book publishers, who mostly follow the Chicago Manual of Style, skip the quotation marks and just italicize those titles instead.

We read The Road.

Book publishers also italicize magazine titles, but put article titles and chapter titles in quotation marks.

If you don't need to conform to either style,  you could just pick one way, saying using quotation marks, and stick with it. Either way, there’s no need to worry you're doing it wrong.

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August 24, 2020

Some comma mistakes are real killers

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Comma mistakes happen all the time, but serious comma mistakes — errors that change your meaning or mislead your reader — are rare.

It seems like every day I see a comma placed after a quotation mark, as when someone writes about a specific “word,” but writes it “word”, which is wrong according to American punctuation rules.

Another mistake I see a lot is unneeded commas between adjectives. A gaudy Hawaiian shirt should have no comma because you only put commas between adjectives when the word “and” would make sense there. It’s not a gaudy and Hawaiian shirt. It’s a Hawaiian shirt that is gaudy. People who don’t know that write gaudy, Hawaiian shirt and I even see gaudy, Hawaiian, shirt, with a comma before the noun. (Tip: If you can’t swap the order of the adjectives, don’t put commas between them. It’s not a Hawaiian gaudy shirt, so no commas in gaudy Hawaiian shirt.)

These mistakes are harmless. No one is going to misunderstand what you’re saying about the shirt or the word “word.”

But other comma flubs are bad. None more so than leaving out the comma before someone’s name when speaking to them directly: Let’s eat Grandma. Add a comma and you have a warm invitation to break bread with a loved one. Without a comma, you’re Hannibal Lecter.

Here are some more examples of comma errors that can change your meaning.

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August 17, 2020

Yes, you can end a sentence with a preposition

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Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of “most common grammar mistakes” lists on the internet. And, over the years, I’ve learned they’re almost always wrong. That is, in every published list of the grammar mistakes you’re supposedly making, there’s usually one or two that aren’t mistakes at all. It’s the author who’s mistaken.

But that experience didn’t prepare me for a post I came across recently on yourdictionary.com titled “18 Most Common Grammar Mistakes.” Though this list contained more than one bit of misguided advice, No. 9 stopped me in my tracks.

“Nine. Another common grammar mistake is ending a sentence with a preposition,” the author wrote. “A preposition, by its nature, indicates that another word will follow it. In casual conversation, this type of error is no big deal, but you should avoid this mistake in your writing.

For example: Incorrect: ‘What reason did he come here for?’ Correct: For what reason did he come here?’”

This just isn’t true. Never has been. It’s a superstition — one that’s been debunked over and over by every credible authority under the sun. In fact, this fake rule has been exposed so many times in recent years that I figured it was fading into memory. But nope. It persists. Here's my recent column explaining the underlying grammar concepts and why this supposed rule is wrong.

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August 10, 2020

Why you should resist the urge to uppercase titles, products and more

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If you’re writing about the president of a company, do you write his title with a capital P? What if he’s the president and founder?

What if he’s the chief executive officer, which everyone knows stands for CEO and not ceo? Do you capitalize the name of a local restaurant’s signature chili-spice fried chicken or their beef Wellington? And what’s up (literally) with bloody marys?

In a written work, too many capital letters can be the hallmark of an amateur — or a sales pitch. Companies like to treat their products, properties and people as if they’re all proper names even when they’re not. Timid writers seek to oblige, uppercasing words out fear of dishonoring someone’s title or trademark.

But if you want your writing to look more like professionally edited work, you should do the opposite. Newswriting shuns the idea that news articles should be deferential to business. If a nationwide restaurant chain wants everyone to refer to their spicy shrimp tacos as Spicy Shrimp Tacos, too bad.

If the same three words in a generic sense can describe the tacos, that’s how news most news publications lean. Obviously, that doesn’t work with a dish like Hula Pie because hula pie in the generic sense doesn’t mean anything. So the only times you’ll see a traditional news outlet treat a product as a proper name is when the name can’t be interpreted as generic description.

But those aren't the only cases when you should resist the urge to capitalize. Here's my recent column outlining even more.

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August 3, 2020

Can you evacuate a person?

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In a long-ago episode of "The Wire," a reporter had written in an article that people were “evacuated” from a burning building. Wrong, her editors tell her. You don’t “evacuate” a person from a building. To evacuate a person, she's told, means “to give them an enema.”

The reporter picks up a copy of Webster’s New World College Dictionary — the Associated Press Stylebook’s designated dictionary and therefore the very one that newsroom would use — and affirming that, yes, the editors were right. “Evacuate” cannot be used to describe removing people from a building.

I wasn’t buying it. The fact that the show knew which dictionary to use had impressed me so much that I almost believed they were telling viewers the truth about its contents. But not quite.

So I picked up my own copy of Webster’s New World.

The first two definitions show that to “evacuate” a person can indeed mean to give him an enema. They are: 1. to make empty; remove the contents of; specif., to remove air from so as to make a vacuum; and 2. to discharge (bodily waste, esp. feces).

But the third definition was different:

3. to remove (inhabitants, etc.) from (a place or area), as for protective purposes

That means that you can evacuate a person by removing him or her from a place. And it contains another lesson, too. Never get your facts from people whose primary job is to entertain.

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July 27, 2020

5 ways good sentences go bad — and how to fix them

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Have you ever read a sentence that just didn’t work but you couldn’t put your finger on what was wrong? Have you ever written one?

Reader-unfriendly sentences are everywhere. Many you can fix just by making sure the main clause contains a tangible subject and an action-oriented verb, like changing “It was the act of shooting the bandit that got the deputy a promotion to sheriff” to “The deputy shot the bandit. The mayor promoted him to sheriff.”

Other bad sentences are more complicated. Dangling participles, misplaced prepositional phrases, passive voice, nominalizations and vague words are common culprits. Here's my recent column on how to spot them and how to fix them.

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July 20, 2020

Bad Advice

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Don’t split an infinitive. Don’t end a sentence with a preposition. Don’t begin a sentence with “and.” Don’t use passive voice.

If these rigid proscriptions have been rattling around your head since your school days, veteran Baltimore Sun copy editor and Loyola University Maryland editing instructor John McIntyre would like a word. Well, two words, actually: “Bad Advice.”

That’s the title of McIntyre’s new book, whose subtitle tells you everything else you need to know about what’s inside: “The Most Unreliable Counsel Available on Grammar, Usage, and Writing.”

It’s a tiny tome. Just 51 pages. But it contains pretty much everything you ever wanted to un-know about grammar but didn’t know you needed to un-know it.

McIntyre explains: “Many of the things you are getting wrong in writing are not your fault: you have been badly advised. You have been taught superstitions about English that have no foundation in the language. You have been hobbled with oversimplifications. You have been subjected to bizarre diktats from supposed authorities.”

From there, McIntyre handily obliterates practically every piece of bad advice you ever got, starting with “one of the oldest zombie rules”: Never end a sentence with a preposition. Here's my recent column rounding up some of the book's best tips.

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