January 18, 2021

Of mannequins and manikins

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Recently I was reading an article about a study on the efficacy of cloth masks for COVID-19 protection. Researchers tested masks by putting them on mannequins, the article reported. Except the illustration that accompanied the article didn’t call them mannequins. In the images, the dummies were referred to multiple times as “manikins.”

I stifled an “aha!” and basked in a moment of smug satisfaction. Then I reined in my typo-slayer triumph. As I’ve learned over the years, it’s always a bad idea to get cocky about a language issue without looking it up first. So I looked up “manikin.”

Merriam-Webster’s set me straight. “Manikin” is not a spelling error. It’s a synonym of “mannequin.” Less frequently, so is “mannikin.”

Often, variant spellings like these result from people accidentally misspelling a word over and over for years. But that may not be the case here. Here's what I learned about the origins of "manikin" and "mannequin" and why both were correct in the article.

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January 11, 2021

John Le Carre's adverb advice missed the mark

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David John Moore Cornwell, better known by his pen name John Le Carre, passed away in December. The author of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” and “The Spy Who Came In From the Cold” leaves behind a legacy of treasures not just for readers but for any writer who would learn from a master. Take, for example, this expert bit of writing wisdom attributed to Le Carre: “I don’t use adjectives if I can possibly get away with it. I don’t use adverbs. I try to make the verb do the work.”

As someone who spends her days fixing bad writing, I can tell you there’s gold in those words, especially the part about adverbs. Novice writers use adverbs hoping they’ll strengthen their writing, but their efforts usually boomerang. For example, which has greater impact? “The spy brutally and cruelly totally gunned down the traitor” or “The spy gunned down the traitor”?

Adverbs often weaken the information you’re trying to strengthen. So whenever you notice one in your writing, try taking it out. If the passage is better, leave it out. If not, put it back in. Make this a habit and you’ll become a better writer. Guaranteed.

But despite Le Carre’s obvious wisdom, there’s a problem with his advice: Le Carre, it seems, didn’t know what adverbs are. Turns out he used them all the time. Here's my column on the point that Le Carre missed about adverbs.

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January 4, 2021

When to use 'healthful' in place of 'healthy'

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Traditionalists have long argued that “healthful” means “promoting good health” while “healthy” means “in good health.” So a person can be healthy but a diet or lifestyle cannot. It must be healthful.

If that was ever true, it’s not now.

Webster’s New World College Dictionary:  healthy. adj. 3. healthful

Merriam-Webster’s online. healthy. adj. 3. conducive to health

I think most people would say that “healthy diet” is more popular and more natural-sounding than “healthful diet.” So why do some publications still use “healthful” and, just as interestingly, why do I often change “healthy” to “healthful” when I’m copy editing marketing pieces?

It’s because, in language, you have to pick your battles. And, when you do so, you have to take into account your reader and the context in which you’re writing. Readers who believe “healthful” can’t mean “healthy” notice what they believe to be an error. And errors, real or perceived, are distracting. So you may want to make the safe choice by opting for “healthful.”

Context counts. If I were editing articles for a well-respected major publication, I would choose “healthy diet” instead of “healthful diet.” But much of my editing work is for smaller, less respected, sometimes advertorial publications. Readers might assume, rightly so, that editors and writers of smaller publications are less knowledgeable than wordsmiths working for the big boys. So they might be quicker to assume that a “healthy diet” in one of my publications is the result of ignorance and not a choice.

That's why, often, I cave in to the misinformed sticklers and change all "healthy" to "healthful."

 

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December 28, 2020

How to Write Book and Movie Titles

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Do book and movie titles go in italics or quotation marks? There’s no right or wrong answer. It’s just a matter of style. Then I pause to watch their faces light up with joy and relief. But that’s not what happens. The inquisitive expressions don’t fade because they didn't want to hear “Don’t sweat it.” They wanted more specific instruction. So here’s what I tell them.

 Click here to read the rest...News style harkens back to the days when printing presses were like dinosaurs: huge, clunky, and destined for extinction. Most couldn’t make italics. So newspapers put book and movie titles into quotation marks.

<<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, which have a greater need to print things like tables and charts and excerpts, have had a greater need for flexible printing options, including italics. So, because they can, they 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, like the people in those grammar seminars, you need a thorough how-to, just consult a style guide. Or 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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December 21, 2020

You or a loved one 'has' coverage or 'have' coverage?

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Even though I've been editing a long time, I regularly find myself stumped by some language or editing conundrum whose answer I used to know.

Here’s an example: “How to know if you or a loved one have coverage.” When I came across a sentence like this recently, I didn’t notice the verb. Nor did I notice the verb in a nearly identical phrase that appeared later: “How to know if you or a loved one has coverage.” Eventually I saw they were different. “Have,” in the first example, is conjugated for the second-person singular subject: “you have.” In the second example, “has” is conjugated for the third-person singular: “a loved one has. ”

I’ve tackled these “or” situations hundreds of times over the years. But this time I just couldn’t remember which one was correct. So I had to brush up on the rules.

As I relearned, the answer isn’t simple. “Or” is unique among conjunctions because the way it joins nouns has a different meaning than the way its fellow conjunction “and” joins nouns. When a compound subject contains “and,” it’s easy to make the verb match: You and a loved one have coverage. By nature, “and” makes singular things plural: Ned is. Nancy is. Ned and Nancy are. It’s obvious you need the plural verb.

Here's the full story in my recent column.

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December 14, 2020

Avoid too many Ss for appearance’ sake

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I don’t hear many people saying “for goodness’ sake” these days. “For conscience’ sake” and “for appearance’ sake” are pretty much nonexistent in my world, too. In fact, the only “for … sake” expression I hear lately includes a word I wouldn’t use in this space even if I could.

So you might think, as I did, that these terms are on the outs. Therefore, you might figure, there’s no use worrying about whether they’re written with an apostrophe, as in “goodness’ sake,” with an apostrophe plus an S, as in “goodness’s sake,” or with neither, as in “goodness sake.”

But that assumption would be wrong. Between 1950 and 2008, “goodness sake” doubled in popularity in books published in the United States., according to Google Books’ Ngram Viewer. So it’s still worthwhile to know how it and similar expressions are written.

The problem is, there isn’t much agreement among style guides about how to write “for … sake” terms. They can’t even agree how to categorize the issue.

To find recommendations in the Chicago Manual of Style, for example, you have to look under “possessives.” In the Associated Press Stylebook, the discussion is filed under apostrophes. In usage guides such as Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage and Fowler’s Modern English Usage, you have to flip through alphabetized listings to the letter S, for “sake.”

Their advice, once you find it, is equally confusing. Here's the full explanation in my recent column.

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December 8, 2020

How to avoid misplaced apostrophes during the holidays

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Christmas cards, holiday video greetings, mailed gifts and business correspondence prove the holidays are a rife with opportunities to show the world you don’t know how to form plurals and possessives of proper names.

To avoid embarrassing mistakes on holiday greeting cards and other correspondence, memorize this rule: Never use an apostrophe to form a plural. One Wilson, two Wilsons. One Smith, two Smiths. This doesn’t change simply because a name ends in a vowel or vowel sound. One Macini, two Mancinis. One Wu, two Wus. One Zooey. Two Zooeys.

The impulse to add an apostrophe is strong when the name ends with a vowel, as in Wu or Eli. Without an apostrophe, the letter S seems to change the pronunciation of the vowel, giving you words that sound like “wuss” or “Ellis.” Ignore that impulse. The rule stays the same. Two Wus. Two Elis.

To make a plural of a proper name, in most cases, just add S. If the name ends in an S or Z sound, like Williams or Chavez, add ES. The Williamses. The Chavezes. So if you’re writing that you spoke with Mr. and Mrs. Chavez, do not write “the Chavez’s.” They’re the Chavezes. No apostrophe.

Here, in my recent column, are some other apostrophe issues you'll want to get right this holiday season.

 

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November 30, 2020

'Whom' is hard, 'whomever' is harder

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If you’re looking for a reason to avoid using “whom,” the best one I know is illustrated in this sentence from an ESPN blog:

“The game will be determined by whomever can pass better.”

That was penned by a professional wordsmith who recognized that the sentence structure called for an object. That’s why he used “whomever,” which is an object pronoun, instead of “whoever,” which is a subject pronoun. But it was the wrong call.

I see this error a lot. It’s one of those rare mistakes that may actually be more common among professional writers than among amateurs. I suppose that’s because professional writers feel more obligated to use “whom” and “whomever,” whereas amateurs don’t feel the need to sound so formal.

“Whom” and “whomever,” experts say, are for formal speech and writing. In informal speech and writing, you can just always use “who” and “whoever” and not worry whether they should have had Ms in them.

And professional writers seem to get the basic concept: who and whoever are subjects, whom and whomever are objects.

An object is either the object of a transitive verb, like “cake” in “We ate cake,” or the object of a preposition, like “Pete” in “The book was written by Pete.”

Our ESPN writer knew that “by” is a preposition. So whatever followed “The game will be determined by” was an object. But, in this case, the object is not a single pronoun like “whomever.” It’s a whole clause like, “whoever can pass better.”

Clauses need subjects, and subjects must be in subject form. Compare “he can pass better” to “him can pass better.” The first one, which uses a subject pronoun, is clearly right while the second, which uses an object pronoun, is clearly wrong.

But here's the clincher: A subject needs a clause even if that whole clause is itself functioning as an object. So the subject form, “whoever,” is needed to make the true object, the clause, make sense: The game will be determined by whoever can pass better.

When in doubt just remember that whenever a word seems to be filling the job of both an object and a subject, the subject form wins. Or try plugging in "he" and "him." If the subject pronoun -- "he can pass better" -- works and the object pronoun "him" -- "him can pass better -- doesn't, then you know you want the subject "whoever."

Sadly, a lot of people who know the basic difference between who and whom don’t know how to handle this specific dilemma. The “whoever” vs. “whomever” issue gives them away. That’s why, if you don’t know how to use all these pronouns in all these situations, you may be safer ignoring “whom” and “whomever” altogether.

 

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November 23, 2020

How to punctuate 'Hi, John' as an email greeting

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Hi John,

How many emails and other correspondence are punctuated exactly that way, with no comma after “hi” but a comma after “John”? Most, it seems. This form is so common that it’s become acceptable. Use it if you like.

But if you want to get really technical, there’s a better way.

According to the Chicago Manual of Style, a “direct address” should be set off by commas. A direct address occurs when you call someone by a name or other term used like a name.

Goodbye, Norma Jean

Hey, dude

Listen, punk

Excuse me, ma’am

I swear it, officer

Chief, you gotta believe me 

Norma Jean, dude, punk, ma’am, officer and Chief – those are all direct addresses because they’re all things people are being called directly. When we say they’re supposed to be “set off” with commas, that means that when one appears in the middle of a sentence it should have a comma on either side.

Goodbye, Norma Jean, and good luck.

Hey, dude, that’s awesome.

If a direct address is at the end of a sentence, of course, the period at the end of the sentence precludes the need for a second comma.

Goodbye, Norma Jean.

But almost every time I see a direct address in my e-mail in-box, it has no comma before the name.

Hi John,

Usually, however, there is a comma after the name. But that doesn’t quite make sense, either, because it’s not in the middle of a sentence.

I think I know why people punctuate email greetings this way. It has to do with the common “Dear John,” greeting.

“Dear” isn’t the same as “hi.” "Dear" is a modifier, and you don’t use a comma to separate modifiers from the things they modify “lazy, cat.” They work as a unit: “lazy cat.”

A comma after "Dear John" makes more sense than a comma after "Hi, June." "Dear John," begins a thought — it’s just part of a sentence. "Hi, John." is a complete thought and a complete sentence.

So when I start an email with “hi” or “hey” or “hello” followed by a name, I set the name off with a comma and end the line with a period or colon.

Hey, John.

But if you want to keep using

Hey John,

no one is likely to have a problem with it.

 

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November 16, 2020

Can You Use 'That' and 'Which' Interchangeably?

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Anyone who’s followed the Associated Press Stylebook or the Chicago Manual of Style has been told there’s an important difference between “that” and “which.”  The relative pronoun “that” is for what are called restrictive clauses while “which” is for nonrestrictive clauses. For example, “Hand me the pen which I like” should be “Hand me the pen that I like.”

But style guides aren't grammar books and the rules within aren't necessarily universal grammar rules. This is one of those rules.

If you’re writing or editing according to AP or Chicago style, you should observe their distinction between “that” and “which.” But if you’re not, well, then you don’t have to worry about it. Here is the difference.

A restrictive clause, also called an “essential” or “defining” clause, narrows down the thing it refers to. Compare:
The cars that have flat tires will be towed.

with

The cars, which have flat tires, will be towed.
In the first example, the “that” clause actually narrows down which cars we’re talking about. Only the ones that have flat tires will be towed. In the second example, all the cars will be towed. The “which” clause lets us know that they all have flat tires. But that in no way separates the ones to be towed from others. “The cars” will be towed. All of them. Period.

In other words, a restrictive clause restricts its subject. A nonrestrictive clause does not: It can be lifted right out of the sentence without losing specificity of your subject.
That’s the basic difference between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses. But, despite what some style guides say, there’s no rule that says you can’t use “which” for a restrictive clause. British speakers especially do it all the time. “The teeth which are causing him the most pain will be extracted.”

If I were editing an article with that sentence in it, I would change the “which” to “that,” only because I work in AP style. But I certainly wouldn’t call it wrong.

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