May 20, 2024

The myth that won't die

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Recently I come across this “12 Common Grammar Mistakes You’re Probably Making Right Now” list in Business Insider. Number 10 on their list of mistakes: ending sentences with prepositions.

I thought that my was pretty much dead. But apparently not. So here’s what to know about the idea that you can’t end a sentence or clause with a preposition.

Prepositions are little words like “with,” “at,” “from,” “to,” “until,” “during,” “including” and many more. Many of them refer to physical proximity, like “from” in “the object fell from the sky,” and like “around” in “she ran around the house.” But others don’t, like “before” in “get it done before tomorrow” and “except,” as in “I saw every episode except the last one.”

Prepositions take objects — nouns or pronouns like “Mary” in “with Mary” or “the moon” in “to the moon.” The prepositions show relationships between the object and the rest of the sentence. “I’m talking with Mary. The rocket will go to the moon.”

Look closer and you can see the logic behind the myth: Prepositions take objects, so it’s weird to separate the two and leave the preposition just hanging out at the end of a sentence: “Mary is the person I’m talking with. The moon is the place the rocket will go to.”

You can also see that these forms are a little awkward. Clearly, it’s often best to follow a preposition with its object instead of stranding it alone at the end of a sentence.

But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong to end a sentence (or a clause within a sentence) with a preposition. And every expert out there agrees.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says, “Recent commentators — at least since Fowler 1926 — are unanimous in their rejection of the notion that ending a sentence with a preposition is an error or an offense against propriety.”

The above referenced lexicographer H.W. Fowler described this belief as a “superstition.”

The most famous pushback against this myth, “This is the kind of pedantry up with which I shall not put” (or any of several similarly worded variations), is often attributed to Winston Churchill. The real author is unknown, as research by linguist and columnist Ben Zimmer has revealed. But the lessons are clear. There’s no rule against ending sentences with prepositions and doing so — for example by contorting your sentence to avoid a simple wording like “put up with” — can be a terrible idea.

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May 13, 2024

'Metamorphosize'? Some words I looked up recently

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Some people think that professional editors and writers are walking encyclopedias of English usage. I don’t correct them. But the truth is that, the more of a “pro” you are, the more time you probably spend checking a dictionary. (And I can’t tell you what a relief it was when I finally figured out that I don’t have to memorize the answer to every possible writing conundrum before I could call myself a pro.)

Here are a couple of interesting things I've look up in dictionaries recently.

metamorphosize

This one came up in an article I was editing, in a sentence like “accessories metamorphosize an entire ensemble.” I wasn’t so sure. I checked a couple dictionaries and found no such word. But, from their entries, I could tell that the writer wanted verb metamorphose. No "ize." So accessories can  metamorphose an ensemble, but the dictionary says they don’t do it with an “ize.”

acronym

A lot of people think that CIA, FBI, and IBM are acronyms. But it depends on which dictionary you follow. Webster’s New World long took the position that initials do not an acronym make: “a word formed from the first (or first few) letters of a series of words, as radar, from radio detecting and ranging”

According to this definition, if you pronounce each letter individually, it’s just initials (or, if you prefer, an initialism). Only if you use those letters to form a new word does it count as an acronym.

Merriam-Webster’s, however, allows “acronym” to mean initialism.

forevermore

Before I saw it in print, I would have guessed this was three words. Or at least two. But no, according to Webster's New World, this one-word spelling of this adverb is correct.

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May 6, 2024

Advanced punctuation tips

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If you’re reading this, you probably know a thing or two about punctuation. But nobody — including punctuation book authors (ahem) — knows it all.

So here are some advanced punctuation tips for good punctuators who want to get even better.

A single quote mark followed by a double quote mark comes after a period or comma. Let’s say you’re quoting someone who’s talking about a specific word, so you put the quotation in regular quote marks and the word itself in singles, like this: “Stop saying ‘whatever.’” The rule that says periods and commas go inside quotation marks applies to single quotation marks, too. The order is period, single quote mark, double quote mark.

An apostrophe comes before a period or comma. Apostrophes look a lot like single quotation marks. Depending on the font, they can be indistinguishable. But they’re different. An apostrophe can represent an omitted letter: thinkin’, talkin’, sleepin’, etc. And unlike a single quote mark that would come after each of those commas, an apostrophe is part of the word. That’s why the apostrophe goes before a period or comma, even when it’s within a quotation: “He’s sleepin’.”

An em dash can have a space on either side, or not. Different publishing guides have different rules for whether you put spaces around a dash — like this, or not—like this. Either way is fine.

If you can rearrange the order of adjectives, they require commas between them. Why are there commas in “a red, purple, yellow and green shirt” but none in “a bright red Hawaiian shirt”? It’s because the adjectives in the first example all have the same relationship with the noun. You can swap the order and it doesn’t affect the meaning: a yellow, purple, green and red shirt. But in our second example, some adjectives are more closely related to the noun than others, so you can’t move them around. “A Hawaiian, red, bright shirt” just doesn’t mean the same thing.

Read more tips in my recent column.

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April 29, 2024

ChatGPT and me

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Recently I was hired to write a 200-word article based on an 800-word press release about a new coffee shop. I finished and turned it in, then it hit me: It’s just a matter of time before the client who hired me realizes AI programs can write these things for free.

To size up my competition, I pasted the original press release into ChatGPT and asked it to create its own 200-word article, then I compared our work.

ChatGPT bases its writing on lots and lots of online documents and databases, guessing what word should come next based on the words all those other articles used next. The result is a very slick, polished voice, along with a ton of cliches and empty sentences. But ChatGPT’s biggest weakness is that it has no idea what interests humans. What’s more, it doesn’t understand what words mean.

Compare our leads (note: I’ve changed some names and details because my work-for-hire doesn’t belong to me). ChatGPT’s opening sentence: “Caffe Maximo, the brainchild of industry veterans John Doe and Jack Jones, has unveiled its newest jewel in the crown — a bright and modern coffee haven nestled in Redondo Beach.”

A coffee shop is a “brainchild”? That’s a bit of a stretch. “Brainchild” usually means something that arose from an innovative idea, and I’m pretty sure these guys didn’t invent coffee shops. Also: “jewel in the crown”? That cliché only works when the reader knows what “crown” you’re talking about. Then there’s “a coffee haven,” which is odd, and “nestled,” which is shopworn and at the same time not quite accurate.

Here’s my first sentence: “Redondo Beach is finally getting a taste of the ‘farm-to-you’ coffee beloved by L.A.’s most discriminating chefs and connoisseurs.” My thinking here, as a human being, is that when a truly high-end coffee joint comes to town, readers care more about the coffee than, say, “unveiling a jewel in a crown.”

Because here’s what you wouldn’t know from reading ChatGPT’s version: This coffee brand is among the best — a Michelin-starred chef serves it in his restaurants, as do a number of other chichi California eateries. But ChatGPT never mentions this coffee brand’s impressive bona fides. You can read more about how I measured up to ChatGPT in my recent column.

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April 21, 2024

Is a word you hate on the rise? Ngram Viewer can tell you

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Years back, a reader of this column mentioned that, all of a sudden, she was hearing the word “whinge” everywhere. What was up with that, she wanted to know. I had no answer. To my recollection, that was the first time I’d ever come across the word “whinge.”

Back then, I didn’t know about Ngram Viewer — a Google service you can use to search published writing to learn how popular a word is over time. Ngram Viewer lets you choose from several different databases of published works, some dating back to 1800. Just put in the word and you’ll see the percentage of books your word appeared in, plotted over time.

That’s how I learned that my reader was right: “whinge,” which means to complain or whine, was extremely rare in print until about 1980, when it suddenly began skyrocketing, peaking in 2012. So I wondered: Is “whinge” replacing “whine”? Ngram Viewer lets you plot words in comparison to each other, so I typed in “whinge, whine” and saw that my theory was wrong. “Whine,” like “whinge,” also started getting more popular around 1980, peaking in the 2010s. Yet “whine” remains far more common — appearing about 40 times as often as “whinge.”

This all reminded me of another reader question I couldn’t answer many years ago: Is “fraught with” losing ground to just plain-old “fraught”? In my experience, definitely. I never heard “fraught” by itself until pretty recently. So I searched them both. It turns out that the standalone “fraught” has gotten more popular in my lifetime, but that’s only because it dipped in popularity in the decades leading up to the 1960s. For a century and a half before then, “fraught” without “with” was about as popular as it is today.

You can read what I learned about "bandana"/"bandanna," "immersive," "step foot" and more in my recent column.

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April 8, 2024

There's no such thing as 'quotation marks lite'

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This sentence contains an example of an error I see all too often, including in the work of professional writers: Known as ‘hashtags,’ these keywords are popular in social media.

That’s not how single quotation marks work. Yet almost every time I see this punctuation mark, this is how it’s used — a job I call “quotation marks lite.”

Regular quotation marks have several jobs. Their main job is to indicate direct quotations or excerpts. They can also indicate irony.

Finally, quotation marks can indicate that a certain word is actually a focus of the discussion. Consider this sentence: I know “that” is often overused. The quotation marks are the only way the reader can be sure that we’re talking about the word “that.” Without the quotation marks, what’s meant by “that” could be misconstrued.

This is a sanctioned use for quotation marks, one that the Chicago Manual of Style refers to as discussing “words as words.”

Not many people know this and instead think quotation marks only indicate direct speech. So when some people want to discuss a word itself, they figure that regular quotation marks don’t fit the bill. Single quotation marks seem like the perfect compromise: not too soft, but not so strong that they indicate direct speech.

Unfortunately, single quotation marks are not just milder forms of regular quotation marks. They have a specific job to do: They work within regular quotation marks.

Say you’re quoting someone who’s quoting someone else: Bob said, “Joe yelled, ‘Hello.’”

That’s when single quotation marks come into play. They do all the things regular quotation marks do, except they do them within regular quotation marks. Like their beefier siblings, single quotation marks can indicate “words as words,” but only within other quotations: Bob said, “Joe can’t pronounce ‘nuclear.’”

There are several reasons why these simple punctuation marks are so misunderstood.

First, a closing single quotation mark often looks identical to an apostrophe. This causes problems when a single quotation mark appears next to a period or comma. For example, see in our “nuclear” sentence above how the period comes before the single quotation mark as well as before the regular quotation mark?

An apostrophe would not go there. Because an apostrophe represents a dropped letter, it stays attached to the word it’s part of, so a period never comes before it: I’m just sayin’.

Second, many computer programs will change an apostrophe into an open single quotation mark. Type “‘Tis the season” or “the ‘90s” into a word-processing program and you’ll see what I mean.

Third, anyone who takes a cue from news media could be easily confused. In headlines, many news outlets use single quotation marks in place of regular ones.

But usually, unless you’re writing a quotation that appears within another quotation, there’s no call for single quotation marks. And if you’re ever tempted to use them as “quotation marks lite,” try to resist the impulse.

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April 1, 2024

'While' vs. 'although' or 'though'

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Here’s a word I change a lot when I’m editing: “while.” I see it used like this often: While pedaling along the beachfront sidewalk is delightful, so too is stopping for a snowcone at the beachfront snack bar.

A myth out there alleges that this is an outright error. The idea is that “while” means “during,” so you can’t use it to mean “though” or “although.” Not true.

while. conjunction:

1. … on the other hand … whereas

2. … in spite of the fact that, although (while respected, he is not liked)

3 … similarly and at the same time that (while the book will be welcomed by scholars, it will make an immediate appeal to the general reader)

That’s Merriam-Webster’s take on “while.” So clearly, according to definition 1, the example sentence about pedaling on the sidewalk is correct. But is using “while” this way a good idea? That’s a different question.

Whenever “while” comes before an action, especially an action expressed as an “ing” verb, it sounds like you’re using the other definition of “while”: “during the time that.” So “while pedaling” sounds like you mean “during the time that you’re pedaling.” And in this sentence, it’s going to be a long time until the reader gets your real meaning “while pedaling is …” When we get to the verb, "is," we can see that "while" was meant as “although.”

In my book, any “while” that can lead the reader astray should probably be replaced with “although” or “though.”

Although pedaling along the beachfront sidewalk is delightful, so too is stopping for a snowcone.

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March 25, 2024

My partner and I's?

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“My partner and I’s bikes were stolen,” a woman posted on my local Nextdoor.com recently.

Not familiar with Nextdoor? It’s the reason why, some years back, everyone you know in every town from coast to coast started talking about the crime wave hitting their neighborhood. The real crime was social media nudging out local news, siphoning advertising dollars away from professional journalism and toward a barrage of hysterical, context-free anecdotes about porch pirates and noises that sound like gunshots. But I digress.

Point is, a lot of folks go on this hyperlocal social media site to tell their neighbors about crimes, coyote sightings and whatnot and, when they do, they don’t always use perfect grammar. Nothing wrong with that. These aren’t doctoral dissertations. But sometimes the grammar is surprising. Revealing. Like “my partner and I’s.”

As kids, we got it drilled into our heads that “me” is often improper. “Kim and me are going to the park” was swiftly corrected by a parent or teacher saying, “It’s Kim and I, not Kim and me.” This valuable lesson about subject and object pronouns got filtered through our little kid brains and settled there as: “I” is bad. It doesn’t go with Kim or any other person. If you don’t want people to think you’re dumb, avoid “I” anytime there’s an “and” plus another person.

The result: Sentences like “The manager saw him and I” and “This is between you and I” and other “and I” structures that miss the mark of perfect grammar precisely because the speaker was trying too hard to be proper.

A lot of experts point out that these sentence structures are acceptable in casual speech. But that’s the problem. The folks using “I” this way are aiming for proper speech. They’re trying to be as grammatical as possible, and it backfires.

I explain how to avoid this problem in my recent column.

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March 18, 2024

Good things come to him who waits? Or he who waits?

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Recently, I reread something I wrote years ago about “good things come to he who waits” vs. “good things come to him who waits” and then, when I tried to summarize the lesson, I got it exactly wrong. Not only did I misunderstand the grammar, but I misunderstood what my 2016 self was trying to teach me. I just didn’t get it. But I’ll forgive myself because it’s a tricky issue.

The grammatically correct form is “him who waits,” with the object pronoun “him.” That may seem pretty obvious to anyone who understands that “to” is a preposition and that prepositions take object pronouns and not subject pronouns.

Give it to him, not give it to he.

Show it to us, not show it to we.

Tell it to her, not tell it to she.

You know this intuitively. But folks who pay very close attention know that sometimes, there’s an exception. When the object of a preposition or verb is not a single word but a whole clause, that clause needs a subject. In those cases, you can have a subject pronoun sitting right where an object pronoun normally goes.

Give the job to whoever wants it, not give it to whomever wants it.

Whoever is a subject pronoun. Yet here it sits where an object pronoun would normally go because it’s the subject of its own verb: wants.

It’s kind of like “I know he lied.” The whole clause “he lied” is the object of the verb, “know.” The point is, whole clauses can be objects.

In “Good things come to him who waits,” there’s a verb right there, “waits.” And it’s pretty clear who’s doing the waiting: he is. So it seems like the whole clause “he waits” should be the object of the preposition, which would make it “Good things come to he who waits.” But actually that’s wrong because “who” — not “he” — is the subject of the verb “waits.”
 
“Who” is a relative pronoun in our sentence. Relative pronouns — that, which, who and whom — head up relative clauses.

The cat, which was meowing, was gray.

The dress that caught my eye didn’t come in my size.

There’s the man whom I love.

There’s the man who loves me.

Relative clauses have a surprising job. They modify nouns. They’re basically adjectives. In “the cat, which was meowing,” the “which” clause modifies the noun “cat.” That makes the whole clause an adjective. In “the dress that caught my eye,” the “that” clause modifies the noun “dress.” Again, an adjective.

In “good things come to him who waits,” the relative clause “who waits” is also an adjective. So what is it modifying? The pronoun “him.”

In our sentence, the true object of the preposition is in fact the object pronoun “him.” The verb that comes after “him,” “waits,” already has its own subject, “who,” and together “who waits” is working as an adjective.

This isn’t just my analysis. Experts agree. Fowler’s Modern English Usage, for example, cites the following sentence as an error: “Any contact with Flora would have to include he who was keeping an eye on her.” That’s wrong, Fowler’s says. It should be “include him” because “him” is the true object of the verb “include.”

Of course, when a grammar rule is this complicated, no one’s expected to get it right. So I’ll forgive myself when I forget it all over again in the near future.
 
 

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March 11, 2024

Sentence-ending prepositions create an Insta uproar

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Can you end a sentence with a preposition? Yes. Can you say so online and not send angry social media users into attack mode? Apparently not.

That’s the lesson of a recent Instagram post by Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary that stated plainly and accurately: “It is permissible in English for a preposition to be what you end a sentence with. The idea that it should be avoided came from writers who were trying to align the language with Latin, but there’s no reason to suggest ending a sentence with a preposition is wrong.”

The denizens of Instagram weren’t having it.

“This represents something ugly,” one replied.

“I don’t like it,” said another.

The outcries came in spite of Merriam’s perfectly illustrating their point: “This is what we’re talking about.”

Not familiar with the issue? That’s OK. It gets less relevant with each passing year. Telling students not to end sentences with prepositions was a fad among teachers in decades past, especially in the 1950s and ’60s. The echoes of those lessons grow fainter every year. And because they were never based in fact anyway, you don’t need to worry where you’re putting your prepositions. But if you’re interested, here’s the lowdown in my recent column.

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