June 24, 2019

Time to talk y'all

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Mike in Newport Beach writes: “Recently, while my wife was watching Chip and Johanna’s show, ‘Fixer Upper,’ on HGTV, I noticed on the closed captions a translation of Chip’s speech. He’s from Waco, Texas, and commonly uses the contraction ‘y’all.’ My Southern friends say that the word ‘y’all’ is totally acceptable if you live south of Virginia and east of El Paso, Texas. I was fascinated when Chip used the contraction ‘y’all’s’ and it appeared on the closed caption, with two apostrophes right in print. Questions: 1. Is y’all acceptable English? 2. Is y’all’s a word?”

Here's how I answered.

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June 10, 2019

Dreyer's 'Nonrules' You Can Ignore

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They say that a lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its shoes on. The source of this pithy saying is a perfect example: It’s usually attributed to Mark Twain, though the New York Times reports it was most likely Jonathan Swift.

But we need an equally pithy saying for what happens next: The lie colonizes the world and decrees that under no circumstances should the truth be granted a visa for entry.

That’s how grammar myths work — especially the grammar myths that were all the rage in the 1950s and 1960s.

These misguided “rules” traveled around the world at lightning speed, carried on the tongues of folks who love to say, “You can’t split an infinitive” and “You can’t start a sentence with ‘and.’” And despite the efforts of many language experts determined to set the record straight, the lies linger.

In his best-selling new book, “Dreyer’s English,” Penguin Random House copy chief Benjamin Dreyer delivers these “nonrules” the bludgeoning they deserve.

Could his be the final death blow to these superstitions? We can only hope. Here are Dreyer’s “nonrules” and why you can, with his blessing, ignore them entirely.

 

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May 28, 2019

Some words are just hard to keep straight ...

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A lot of tricky word issues I’ve committed to memory, like “lay” and “lie.” But others I have to look up every time.

Adverse and averse.
Emigrate and immigrate.
Continual and continuous.
Aesthetic and esthetic.

Those are just a few of the terms that I can never seem keep straight in my mind, as I show in this recent column.

 

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May 20, 2019

'Cannabusiness,' New Meanings for 'Chipmunk' Enter the Oxford English Dictionary

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Dictionaries add words all the time. But really, it’s not the dictionaries adding words to the language. It’s us. Dictionaries just record the words we’ve anointed by using them enough to indicate we really have made them part of the language.

That’s an art, of course, not a science. Most dictionaries drop words, too, banishing from their pages terms we’ve banished from our speech and writing.

But there’s an exception: the Oxford English Dictionary, or OED — a historical record of the language where words check in, but they don’t check out.

“As a historical dictionary, the OED is very different from dictionaries of current English, in which the focus is on present-day meanings,” the editors explain on the dictionary’s website.

“You’ll still find present-day meanings in the OED, but you’ll also find the history of individual words, and of the language — traced through 3 million quotations, from classic literature and specialist periodicals to film scripts and cookery books,” the editors added.

For this reason, the OED has a singular place in the language — an authority held above all others.

So when this dictionary adds words, it’s worth taking notice. The new words can be a window into our minds and our culture.
Take, for example, a few of the OED’s 2019 additions, which are featured in my recent column.

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May 13, 2019

In the long run, grammar bullies always lose

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Once upon a time there was a word that meant “a male or female child.” One day, people started using it wrong.

For some reason, they started using it to mean only a female child. Suddenly, a term that had long included males meant “definitely not male.”

We can imagine the fallout. Surely some people were misunderstood. Surely others decried this change as imprecision in the language. Still others likely saw it as part of a disturbing trend — a dumbing down of the entire language. No one listened. And that’s how we got the word “girl” as we know it today.

This is where words come from. They evolve slowly, often through misuse.

Grammar bullies don’t like this process, so they try to stop it. But they always fail. Here's a column I wrote about two famous grammar bullies, William Safire and James Kilpatrick, who tried to police the language and failed.

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April 29, 2019

English scores the No. 33 spot on the weirdness scale

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There are a lot of weird languages in the world. Some have clicking noises. Some have throat-clucking noises. Some have no way of forming questions other than a Valley girl upward lilt at the end of the sentence.

Some have a whole letter for the sound your breath makes when you blow on glass to write your initials in the condensation.

That’s a lot of weirdness. So, it’s a big deal that, according to a group of linguists who set out to rank 239 languages by how weird they are, English scored the No. 33 spot.

Obviously, there was some whimsy to their science. For one thing, 239 languages make up only a small fraction of the 7,000 or so out there (depending on who’s counting).

Plus, “weirdness” isn’t exactly a scientific concept. Researchers have yet to invent a weird-o-meter. But the linguists’ findings nonetheless shed some light on languages, in general, and our own in particular.

How, exactly, do you scientifically determine whether a language is “weird.” Well, you don’t, obviously, because the idea is so vague and subjective. But you can do what the folks at the blog Corpus Linguistics did. You can look at the parts of a language and how they work together and compare these features to other languages to see which ones follow common patterns and which don’t.

Here's my recent column on some of their most interesting observations.

 

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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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