April 22, 2019

Forwent? Forewent? Foregone? Forgone?

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“Forgo” is, for my money, one of the most misused words in writing. People tend to assume there’s an E in there: forego. And spell-checkers don’t correct them. That’s because “forego” is also a word. It’s just not the word people usually want.

In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen “forego” used correctly and on purpose. Here’s Merriam-Webster’s: “forego: to go before; precede.” So if you were talking about someone whose reputation preceded him, you’d say, “The story of his mishap foregoes him.”

And, really: How often do you hear something like that?

The past tense forms are even weirder: “The story of his mishap forewent him” shows the proper simple past tense. Here’s the past participle in action: “The story of his mishap has foregone him.” Not a popular turn of phrase.

Interestingly, this “foregone” does live on in one tiny corner of the language: a “foregone conclusion” uses this past participle as a modifier. The expression is so ingrained that Merriam’s online dictionary even has an entry for the whole phrase.

“A foregone conclusion: something certain to happen. ‘At this point, his victory seemed to be a foregone conclusion.” So, yes, that’s the same forego we never use in the present tense.

The word we do sometimes use — or try to use — is “forgo.” That means to do without. As Merriam’s defines it, to “forgo” is “to give up the enjoyment or advantage of; do without.”

For example, “Those guys never forgo an opportunity to turn a profit.”
Note that it has no E. Any copy editor will tell you that most writers put an E in there anyway. We know because it’s our job to take it out.

Google “forego” misused in an example phrase of your choosing, and you’ll see that it’s a very popular error. I got 640,000 hits for “I had to forego,” with examples like “I had to forego my own creative projects” and “I had to forego a lot of immediate financial rewards.” Again, those should be “forgo.”

The past forms of “forgo” are uncommon, bordering on odd. The simple past tense is “forwent”: “When they were in business, those guys never forwent an opportunity to profit.” That form is so uncommon that my Microsoft Word spell-checker flags it as an error.

The past participle is “forgone”: “In all their years in business, those guys have never forgone an opportunity to profit.”

Here's my recent column with a more thorough look at forgo, forego and their past forms.

 

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April 15, 2019

You can be nonplussed, so why can't you be plussed?

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I’ve never been plussed. And, according to dictionaries, neither have you. There’s no such word, say Merriam-Webster, Webster’s New World, American Heritage and, I’m sure, many others.

My personal experience confirms this. Never have I heard anyone say, “Gee, Bob sure was plussed by the company’s latest earnings report.”

That’s contrary to what would seem a reasonable assumption: If you can be nonplussed, when you’re not that, you must be plussed. But no. No plussed for you.
We see this from time to time in English. A word starts with a negative prefix like “non” or “dis,” yet the root word can’t stand alone without the prefix.

You can’t just chop off the first syllable to un-negate it. If you could, people would walk around in a near constant state of being gruntled, punctuated by short bursts of acting chalant.

But “nonplussed” isn’t what it appears. Here's a look at where this word came from and how to use it.

 

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April 8, 2019

What It Is Is ...

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What it is is a travesty.

That’s a bad sentence. No question. Most editors would recast it as simply “It is a travesty” and not give it another thought. But what if it was in a quotation? Or what if, for some reason, the editor wasn’t at liberty to revise with such a heavy hand?

How would you deal with “is is”?

It’s a real conundrum: “Sentences with this ungainly construction seem much on the rise, although samples can be found in older sources,” notes Garner’s Modern American Usage.

Here's everything you need to know about when "is is" is grammatical and how to punctuate it.

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April 1, 2019

When to Hyphenate Prefixes

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There’s nothing wrong with hyphenating “multi-cultural.” There’s nothing wrong with not hyphenating “multicultural.” There’s nothing wrong with doing it both ways in a single document.

But it’s very wrong to do it both ways in a single document you’re trying to pass off as well-polished writing.

In the world of professional publishing, there’s one thing that’s more wrong than being wrong: being inconsistent. And perhaps no element of editing creates more opportunities for inconsistency than prefixes.

Some prefixes use hyphens to attach to a word. Some don’t. Some work better with an en dash than a hyphen. Many have strict rules on whether to hyphenate them. Others leave it at your discretion. Still others are subject to rules that change depending on which editing style you want to follow. Here are some tips for navigating these waters.

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March 25, 2019

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Have you ever noticed that some publications write “advisor” while others write “adviser”?

If so, you’ve noticed that it happens a lot — so much that you’ve probably figured out that neither spelling is a mistake. No way would half the professional publishing world spell a word wrong every time they use it. Indeed, it’s no mistake.

“‘Adviser’ and ‘advisor’ are both correct,” advises Merriam-Webster’s dictionary. “Some people feel that ‘advisor’ is more formal, and it tends to be found more often when applied to official positions, such as an advisor to a president. When referring to someone who is serving in a military role, especially when using the term as a euphemism (as when claiming that troops are actually military advisers), then ‘adviser’ is somewhat more common.”

People guess that the biggest thorn in an editor’s side is bad grammar. It’s not. Grammar errors are easy to spot and fix. Alternative correct spellings, on the other hand, are a never-ending pain in the neck. We have to pick not just a correct spelling but the one that’s been preselected by whatever style we’re following. Here's my recent column on some of the alternative correct spellings that cause the most trouble.

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March 18, 2019

How to Use a Colon: The Basics

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The colon has a couple of different jobs, all of which can be explained in these broad terms: A colon introduces something. Sometimes, the idea is just to tell the reader, “Here you go. Here’s that thing or things I wanted to tell you about.” But to master their use, you need a deeper understanding of the basics plus a few advanced insights. For example, in Associated Press Style, you use a lowercase letter after a colon unless the stuff that follows is a complete sentence. But in Chicago style, you use a lowercase letter after a colon unless the stuff that follows is two or more complete sentences.

Another fine point about colons that a lot of people miss: Don't use one after the word "including" or to introduce objects of a verb. That is, in "Bruce likes apples, oranges and pears," no colon follows the word "likes." And though that's pretty clear in a short sentence like this, longer sentences make this fact harder to keep a grasp on. Here's my recent column covering everything you need to know about colons.

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March 11, 2019

Some Things You Just Gotta Know

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Years ago, I worked for a team of editors who hired someone from another department in the company. It became clear pretty quickly that the newly minted editor was out of his element — not the born wordsmith his colleagues were.

Like those other editors, he would send me, the copy editor, an email to tell me when an article was waiting to be reviewed in a shared computer folder.
But, whereas the others would tell me there was a story waiting for me in the queue, he would report he’d sent me something in the “cue.”

Some things you’ve just got to know. If you’ve heard the expression “eek out a living,” you’re not going to check your dictionary to see if that’s a valid definition of “eek.” Only by having read and noted, either consciously or subconsciously, that the correct term is “eke out a living,” would you understand that “eek” is an error.

My recent column looks at some other things that, as I’ve learned in my editing career, you’ve just got to know: ordnance, till, sleight and why you shouldn’t use a serial comma before an ampersand even if you use a serial comma before “and.”

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March 4, 2019

Happy National Grammar Day!

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Monday, March 4, is National Grammar Day.

The holiday was started 11 years ago by author, super-mom, and all-around cool person Martha Brockenbrough, Founder of Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar, Brockenbrough started the holiday 11 years ago as a way to help people focus on grammar learning. Organizations like ACES, the American Copy Editors Society, come up with creative ways to celebrate every year, like these fun punctuation cookies ACES aces showed off last year.

My personal recommendation on how to spend the holiday: Spend a little time thumbing through the front matter of a dictionary — especially the "How to Use This Dictionary" stuff. It helps you unlock mysteries like, for example, whether you can use "graduate" as a transitive verb or whether it needs a preposition "from" to connect it to an object.

Another way to celebrate: Check out Saturday Evening Post copy editor Andy Hollandbeck's post: Celebrate National Grammar Day by Not Being an Insufferable Know-It-All.

 

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February 25, 2019

Do You Know About Nominalizations?

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Here's a terrible sentence:  "The delaying of the closing of the stores until 10 p.m., which was a decision of the CEO, enables the staff to have greater productivity and the company to have greater profitability."

If you wanted to make this better, it helps if you know the term "nominalization."

A nominalization — or buried verb — is a noun rooted in another part of speech, usually a verb or an adjective.

The adjective "happy" has the corresponding noun form "happiness." The verb "delay" has the corresponding noun forms "delay" and "delaying." The verb "change" has the corresponding noun form "change." For example, in "I changed my hairstyle," change is a verb, but in "I made a change to my hairstyle," it's a noun.

So you can see that some nominalizations are formed by adding a suffix like "ness" or "ing." Other times they're identical with their verb forms. What makes them nouns is how they're used in the sentence.

Of course, not every word derived from a verb that ends in "ing" is a nominalization. Again, it depends how it's used in a sentence. In "I am painting my house," the -ing form is functioning as a verb, so it's not a nominalization.

In "I took a painting class," the -ing form is functioning as an adjective. But in "Painting is fun," it's working as a noun: Painting is actually the subject of the true verb "is." So this is a nominalization. In fact, this particular kind of nominalization has its own name. It's called a gerund, which means any "-ing" form of a verb doing the job of a noun.

Nominalizations are serious problems for some writers. If you accept the principle that the best writing uses vivid subjects and lively verbs (as most professional writers and editors do), you can see how nominalizations can hurt your writing. Here's a column on how to best deal with nominalizations.

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February 11, 2019

6 Punctuation Mistakes That Fly Under the Radar

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Punctuation errors are often pretty glaring. A missing period at the end of a sentence, an extra period in the middle of a sentence or a comma placed outside of quotation marks leaps right out at editors and avid readers.

But other punctuation errors aren’t as easy to spot. Here are six that you may not be catching:

Hyphen instead of an em dash

Hyphen instead of an en dash

Parentheses instead of brackets inside a quotation

Ellipses for effect inside a quotation

A question mark with “Guess what”

No comma to set off a direct address

If you think you could commit any of these minor but meaningful punctuation flubs, here's a full explanation of how to avoid them.

 

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