January 15, 2018

Peeve Alert: Reflexive Pronouns

 

Reflexive pronouns can get you in trouble with nitpickers. Example:

I'd like to thank everyone on behalf of Robert and myself.

Here, the reflexive pronoun myself is being used in place of a regular personal pronoun: me. That's not exactly the job reflexive pronouns were born to do.

The main job of reflexives is to suggest the subject of the verb is doing something to himself.

I talked myself out of it.

She cried herself to sleep. 

He gave himself a raise.

If you want to stay in the lanes of what's considered proper reflexive pronoun use, here's a simple trick: Never use a reflexive where a regular personal pronoun would do.

Thanks for visiting Barb and myself can be Thanks for visiting Barb and me. John and myself will plan the party can be John and I will plan the party.

Language is flexible enough that you can sometimes get away with using reflexives as personal pronouns. But in formal situations, or anytime you're worried you're being judged, don't.

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January 8, 2018

Spell-Check Won't Save You

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If you use Twitter and you're interested in real-world insights from working editors, check out the hashtags #SpellCheckCannotSaveYou #SpellCheckWontSaveYou and #SpellCheckCantSaveYou. They contain lots of real-world examples of writing mistakes that your spell-checker is powerless to prevent.

For example, if you searched Twitter today for #SpellCheckWontSaveYou, one of the recent posts you would see is from a user who goes by Mededitor, a professional medical editor whom I count among my online friends: “It is a principal that is understood by the companies.”

An extra hashtag he threw in, “#AmEditing,” tells you where he found this example sentence.

“Principal” is an error. The writer meant “principle,” which is a fundamental law, doctrine or assumption. Spell check didn’t save the writer. Mededitor did.

And there are plenty more. Here's a column I wrote about some more choice examples.

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January 2, 2018

A reminder about comma splices

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I used to never notice comma splices. Now I see them everywhere.

It's not that I don't like cake, it's that I'm full.

It's easy to see why the writer of a sentence like that one didn't think to break it in two. It's common to put two complete ideas into a single sentence. But usually, that means inserting a conjunction.

I appreciate the offer of cake, but I'm full.

Without a conjunction to join them, two complete clauses separated by a comma create a comma splice, which is an error. But it's easy to fix. If a conjunction can play a logical role between the clauses, you can insert one.

He sings and he dances.

If not, you can break the comma-splice sentence in two.

He sings. He dances.

Or you can use a semicolon.

He sings; he dances.

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December 26, 2017

8 Ways to Overcome Fear of Being Wrong About Grammar

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“Teachers are often scared of grammar.”

That’s the unhappy verdict of an article posted on the UK-based teacher support website Tes.com.

“The fear of being wrong with grammar is huge — the fear of being exposed,” University of Exeter professor Debra Myhill told the site. “You don’t get that as a literature teacher, because everything is about opinion — there’s no right or wrong. You can’t wing it as a grammar teacher.”

I stay out of education debates. I don’t have kids in school. I’m not a teacher. And I’ve heard enough uninformed criticisms of hard-working teachers to know that I don’t want to add another uninformed voice to the discussion.  But there's one thing I can offer: hope.

Here's my recent column offering 8 ways to overcome fear of being wrong about grammar.

 

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December 18, 2017

Capital or Lowercase Letter After a Colon?

 

There's something you need to know: This is correct.

There's something else you need to know: this is also correct.

There's another thing you might find interesting: this is not correct. In fact, it's wrong. 

One more thing that's incorrect: This.

If you're reading this, you probably know that two major editing styles dominate publishing. The Associated Press Stylebook is followed by a lot of news media, and the Chicago Manual of Style governs much of the book and magazine publishing worlds.

When they disagree, readers get conflicting messages about how to write things. Capital letters after colons are a classic example.

The two styles agree that whenever the stuff that follows a colon is less than a complete sentence, start with a lowercase letter.

I saw what he was wearing: jeans and a hoodie.

But they disagree on what to do when the colon introduces a complete sentence.

AP says to start with a capital letter.

I saw him: He was wearing jeans and a hoodie.

Chicago says to start with a lowercase letter if just one sentence is introduced by the colon, but use a capital if it's two sentences or more.

I saw him: he was wearing jeans and a hoodie.

I saw him: He was wearing jeans and a hoodie. His sneakers were Nikes.

Unless you're bound to one of these styles, you can choose whichever method you prefer. Personally, I find AP's rule easier to remember and apply: If it's a full sentence, start with a cap. If not, don't.

 

 

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December 11, 2017

Pleaded vs. Pled

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Recently, there was some speculation about the authorship of a Donald Trump tweet that hinged on the use of the past tense "pled." Trump's account had tweeted the former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn had "pled" guilty of lying to the FBI. Fearing the tweet amounted to an admission of obstruction of justice, Trump's lawyer John Dowd claimed responsibility for the tweet.

Some observers weren't buying it. The word "pleaded" seemed more lawyerly, they argued, and therefore "pled" could not have been written by an attorney.

"Pled" is actually a longtime peeve of mine. Years ago, I looked it up to prove that its users were wrong. Of course, I was the one who was wrong. "Pled" and "pleaded" are both acceptable past-tense forms of the verb "to plead."

But that's general usage. It's quite possible that, within their own close-knit profession, lawyers have their own standards and official or unofficial preferences for forming the past tense of "plead."

So what's their verdict? As linguist Ben Zimmer showed in a recent piece for the Atlantic, you can't spot a lawyer by his use of "pled."

 

 

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December 4, 2017

Merry Christmas from 'The Wilson's'?

 

Don’t touch that holiday greeting card. Don’t send out those event invitations. And whatever you do, don’t have a gift engraved, embossed or embroidered until you read this.

It’s time, once again, for our holiday tradition: warning hosts, hostesses and gift-givers of the most common mistakes of the season: incorrectly formed plurals, possessives and plural possessives.

Here's my column on how to avoid errors like "the Wilson's," "the Williams's" and "the Chavez's."

 

 

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November 27, 2017

Meet the Object Complement

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Look at this sentence: The news made Charles angry.

What’s the subject? It’s the news. What’s the verb? It’s “made.” The object, of course, is Charles. He’s the one being made. So what’s that “angry” doing in there? It’s modifying the object. Welcome to the wonderful world of object complements — sometimes crucial sentence elements that (spoiler alert) can also be nouns. Here's my recent column on these little-known but hardworking grammatical units.

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November 20, 2017

Envelope and Envelop

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Last week, I almost missed a pretty big mistake in an article I was editing. A travel piece said that the luxury of some hotel would "envelope visitors in luxury." I didn't catch it on the first pass. Only on the second read did I notice that the article needed the verb, envelop, and not the noun meaning something you put a letter into.

So keep an eye out for this one. And if you're prone to blow right past this error, you're not alone.

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November 13, 2017

It's OK to Hate 'Irregardless,' but ...

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A friend recently sent me a transcript of a delightful Garrison Keillor sketch in which he tries to promote good grammar to a folksy local. Among the gems in this sketch, he says "It's imperative that you learn about the subjunctive." This is especially clever because the subjunctive, for example the "be" in "It's crucial that you be on time," is used in imperatives (commands).

But in the same sketch, Keillor says that "irregardless" is not a word. Actually, it is. It's even sanctioned by dictionaries.

I don't know a single word-savvy person who advocates using "irregardless." All agree that "regardless" is always better. But that doesn't mean "irregardless" isn't a word.

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