April 19, 2021

Of 'of'

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For a tiny word, “of” causes a lot of trouble. It pops up where it doesn’t belong in sentences like “I should of known.” It baffles even word-savvy users in expressions like “too big of a deal.” And it has an uncanny power to promote wordy, inefficient prose.

If you grew up speaking English, you never really had to learn “of.” Unlike “photosynthesis” or “gerrymander” or “noun” or any other word that teachers actively teach, “of” is so fundamental to the language that we can use it intuitively almost as soon as we start stringing sentences together.

A lot of English speakers probably don’t know that “of” is a preposition. Most of us couldn’t give a good definition for it. And most of us, if we ever looked it up in a dictionary, would struggle to understand what we were reading. For example, here’s the first definition of “of” in Merriam-Webster’s: “used as a function word to indicate a point of reckoning: ‘north of the lake.’” Here’s definition two: “used as a function word to indicate origin or derivation: ‘a man of noble birth.’”

When you think about how poorly we understand “of,” it’s amazing we can use it at all. No wonder we stumble sometimes. Here's my recent column about these common errors.

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April 12, 2021

Prescriptivist grammar rules that are dying out

About a decade ago, I read a blog written by a linguistics student who proclaimed, “Prescriptivism must die!!!”

He was talking about the school of thought that believes that textbooks and other language authorities should lay down rules about how to use certain words and grammatical structures. This school of thought, which ruled the day in the 1950s and ’60s, says we need a Big Book of Grammar No-Nos and that everyone who doesn’t follow those rules is wrong.

The alternative to prescriptivism is descriptivism, which points out that language rules aren’t static and can’t be forced. What was wrong a century or two ago is right today. For example, the word “girl” used to mean a child of either sex. So it would have been wrong to insist “girl” referred specifically to a female child. Our language is always in flux, with every word in transition between incorrect and correct. So it doesn’t make sense to insist that “cool” is a temperature and not a state of Fonziness.

Some say this is linguistic anarchy. Not true. Descriptivism recognizes that language has rules. They’re just more liquid than prescriptivists would like. And those rules are made by everyone who speaks the language, not a few tweedy academics trying to boss everyone else around.

But it seems to me that prescriptivism is already dying. Here, in my recent column, are some prescriptivist rules I used to hear a lot and don't hear anymore.

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April 5, 2021

Shined or shone? 4 tricky past tenses

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No matter how long you’ve been speaking English, no matter how hard you’ve worked to perfect your grammar, some past tense verbs can stump you.

For example, the day after you decide to grin and bear it, would you say “I grinned and bore it?” Beared? Born?

That shiny car you saw yesterday, would you say it shined as it drove by? Or it shone?

Would you say you weaved baskets or that you wove them?

The questions are frightening, but luckily the answers aren’t far out of reach. Dictionaries list past-tense and past participle forms for every irregular verb. So you can always look them up — if you know how.

Here's my recent column that looks at four verbs with tricky past tenses: shine, weave, bear and bare.

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March 29, 2021

7 tips to take on bad writing

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There are a million ways to write badly, from corny dialogue to illogical juxtapositions of facts. But at the sentence level, some problems crop up again and again. And a lot of them are easy to fix, or at least improve.

Here are seven tips for fixing some of the most common writing problems I encounter.

1. Make sure the main clause of your sentence contains the information you most want to highlight. Compare these two passages. “After shooting his business partner in the face, John felt tired.” “John shot his business partner in the face. He collapsed, exhausted.” Your main clause is the marquee position in any sentence. Readers automatically know this is the main point. A subordinating conjunction like “after” suggests the stuff that follows is not the main point. So give your best information the billing it deserves by making it your main clause.

2. Break up long sentences. Compare: “I fired him even though I didn’t want to because he gave me no choice.” “I fired him. I didn’t want to. He gave me no choice.” Shorter sentences pack a punch. Longer sentences use connectives like “because,” which create a hierarchy among the ideas, subordinating some information in a way similar to what we saw in our first tip.

Five more, which are explored in full here in my recent column, are:

3. Choose the most specific and tangible nouns and verbs.

4. Delete adverbs that don’t add information.

5. Fix unclear antecedents.

6. Dispense with state-of-mind verbs.

7. Ditch connective words and phrases.

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March 22, 2021

A test to decide whether to delete adverbs and adjectives

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“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

“When you catch an adjective, kill it.”

“Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs.”

These three bits of writing advice, from experts Stephen King, Ben Yagoda and the team of Strunk and White, aren’t just their authors’. They’re pervasive in writing and teaching circles.

The idea behind them is that “A totally scary and extremely mean-looking person hurriedly moved toward me” is a poor substitute for “Freddy Krueger lunged at me.”  Some people rely too much on adjectives and adverbs to convince readers of whatever point they’re trying to make. But it’s usually better to give readers solid, efficient, information-packed nouns and verbs and let them draw their own conclusions.

A lot of writing experts take issue with this advice. Just telling students and writers to avoid adjectives and adverbs is stupid, and often hypocritical, these folks say. As an example, linguist Geoffrey Pullum points out the Strunk and White dictate: “The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place,” and Pullum notes that Strunk and White themselves needed three adjectives to say it: weak, inaccurate, and tight.

So what’s a writer to do?

Well, in my editing work, I scrutinize a lot of adjectives and hack out a lot of adverbs. In the process, I’ve noticed something that could help struggling writers: The adjectives and manner adverbs that are worth keeping are often the ones that add new information. The ones that should go are usually the ones that contain value judgments. They tell readers how to feel about something rather than giving them the facts and letting them decide for themselves.

Compare:

a totally awesome and cool car

and

a sleek, high-performance sportscar

“Sleek” and “high-performance” are a lot more substantive than “totally awesome” and "cool." They contain at least some solid information. That’s why the second sentence is much more like one you’d find in a professionally written and edited article.

Some adjectives are even more information-packed: A red Italian sportscar.

Manner adverbs like uniquelyexquisitelytotally, and my personal least-favorite truly often do more harm then good. However, manner adverbs like slowlyquicklyeventuallydrilysolemnly, and rarely usually contain information above and beyond what the verbs and nouns can offer. When they do, they're justifying their own existence.

“Dave quickly moved toward the door” tells us more than just “Dave moved toward the door.” But “Frank angrily punched his boss in the back of the head” doesn’t measure up as well against “Frank punched his boss in the back of the head.”

So when you’re wondering whether your adjectives and especially your adverbs measure up, ask yourself whether they contain any solid new information. If the answer’s no, it may be time for them to go.

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March 15, 2021

Login or log in? Water-ski or water ski? Tackling tricky hyphenation issues

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Do you ever login to your email? Or do you log in? Either way, do you use your log-in? During the holiday season, do you use gift wrap to gift-wrap gifts? Do you use your pickup to pick up the kids as they hang out at their favorite hangout?

If you find these matters intimidating, don’t. Even people with excellent language and punctuation skills can be stumped when it’s time to decide whether a term should be one word, two words or hyphenated.

Really, how could you guess that a water-skier water skis on water skis? And even if you did suss out that water-skiing takes a hyphen, your sussing skills would betray you if you had to write about skeet shooting, which is not hyphenated.

If you don’t want to stress over these matters, good news: You don’t have to. No one is expected to know them all. Not even copy editors commit all these terms to memory.

But if you would like to approach these hyphenation situations with greater confidence, you need to know where to look them up and how. Here's my recent column on how to tackle even the trickiest hyphenation questions.

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March 8, 2021

'Baited breath' and other commonly confused expressions

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We modern English speakers don’t use “bate” as a verb. So it’s logical to assume the term is “baited breath.” But in fact, “bated” derives from the verb “abated,” and “bated breath” gets credited to Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice”: “Or shall I bend low and in a bondsman’s key, with bated breath and whisp’ring humbleness, say this …” So to wait with bated breath means you’re holding your breath, literally or figuratively, in anticipation. “Baited breath” is, as Garner’s Modern American Usage puts it, “a bungle.”

Everyone has their own misheard expressions, like "toe-headed" instead of the proper "towheaded" and "baited breath" instead of the correct "bated breath."

Spit and image/spitting image. Whet your appetite. All intents and purposes. Bald-faced lie. Here's a closer look in my recent column.

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March 1, 2021

Should you put a question mark after 'who knows?'

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A while back, Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez spent the night in a tent in front of City Hall to get the pulse of the local incarnation of the Occupy Wall Street protests.

He learned a lot, he said, but the experience still left some questions unanswered: “Will it grow into a cohesive movement? Who knows.”

I don’t know, either. But what I do know is that I stopped reading there. The period after “knows” got my attention. Lopez or his editors could have just as logically opted for a question mark. Yet the period won them over.

“Who knows” is a question, not a statement. So why no question mark?

There are two ways to look at this, both acceptable in professional publishing.

One way, as stated above, is summed up thusly: A question is a question is a question, and it takes a question mark. The other way to look at it is: Lopez wasn’t really asking. Thus, you could argue, it was a rhetorical question.  And since he wasn’t asking anything, the question mark isn’t necessary.

Both interpretations are fine. But, personally, I prefer the former.  A sentence structured as an interrogative – even if it doesn’t seek an answer -- has a different quality than does a declarative. Instead of “who knows,” Lopez could have said “no one knows” or “I doubt anyone knows,” both of which are structured as declaratives. But his choice of “who knows” conveys something different – a mystery, a riddle, a thing to be pondered. In other words, it has a questioning quality. And, after all, structurally it is a question.

Another question that’s often meant as a statement: “Why not?” I often see this written “Why not.” And why not? The writer isn't really seeking an answer, right? Well, I wasn’t seeking an answer to that “right,” either. Yet that clearly requires the question mark.

In fiction, many questions meant as statements end in periods.

Bad guy: “Get in the car.”

Hero: “And if I don’t.”

Bartender: “Here’s your drink, sir.”

Customer: “You call this a martini.”

Neither the Chicago Manual of Style nor the AP Stylebook addresses this matter directly.  But Chicago includes an interesting note about “courtesy questions.” “A request courteously disguised as a question does not require a question mark.” An example: “Will the audience please rise.”

But the wording “does not require a question mark” suggests that the question mark may nonetheless apply.

Me, I’d put a question mark after all those – the hero’s, the customer’s, the request to rise, and even “who knows?”

But you don’t have to do it my way. Whenever you’re certain the question seeks no answer, you can choose for yourself. The question mark suggests that, if the sentence were spoken the speaker's voice would lilt up at some point to intone a question. The period suggest a flatter sound, which can help a fiction writer keep their tough guys from sounding like Valley girls.

Whatever you do, watch out for “Guess what.” This is not a question. It’s a command -- an imperative. And a question mark after “guess what” makes no sense at all.

I can only think of one example of a rhetorical question that I would not end with a question mark. It comes from an old Simpsons episode in which Homer is trying to guess how many roads a man must walk down before you can call him a man. “Seven!” he guesses.

Lisa: “No, Dad. It’s a rhetorical question.”

Homer, thinks about it a moment, then blurts out, “Eight!”

Lisa: “Dad, do you even know what rhetorical means?”

Homer: “Do I know what rhetorical means!”

 

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February 22, 2021

Cache for cachet, an apostrophe without an S to form a possessive and other issues from the week in editing

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A week in the life of a copy editor wouldn’t make for a good movie — a lot of sitting, staring and tapping at the comma key on a computer. But for language nerds and people who’d like to improve their grammar skills, an ultra-condensed week in the life of a copy editor could make for an entertaining way to spend five minutes. So here are a few of the more interesting language issues this copy editor came across last week.

“Living at this address carries a certain cache.” Sentences like this justify my paycheck. As a copy editor, I specialize in knowing about commonly confused words like “cache” and “cachet.” For whatever reason, it seems very few non-editors know that “cache” is pronounced “cash” and if you want the two-syllable word that means prestige, it gets a T on the end.

“Yesterday, Popov’ mother drove her to the store.” Possessives can be hard. Possessives of words that end in S are harder. But possessives of words that end in Ch, X or Z shouldn’t be. And that goes double for words that end in V. There are no special rules for forming possessives of words that in end in one of these letters. Just add an apostrophe and an S: Popov’s mother, just like Smith’s mother or Lurch’s mother or Chavez’s mother.

I also encountered:

Wellbeing

Where Everyday Is the Weekend

Under the auspice of the charitable foundation

Thank you to whomever sent me these beautiful flowers

You can read about how I handled them all in my recent column here.

 

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February 15, 2021

Why you should choose till over 'til

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I don’t see the contraction ’til much anymore. I used to see it a lot, but I suspect that ever-more-advance spell-checkers on our computers, phones and social media platforms have learned to flag or correct ’til.

Don’t see a problem with ’til? Technically, there isn’t one. In general usage, ’til is not an error. But in professionally edited writing and other formal situations, the correct single-syllable alternative to “until” has no apostrophe and takes two Ls: till.

Here’s the widely influential Associated Press Stylebook: “till. Or until. But not ’til.”

And here’s the equally influential Chicago Manual of Style: “till. This is a perfectly good preposition and conjunction (open till 10 p.m.). It is not a contraction of until and should not be written ’til.”

That bit about contractions is key. One might naturally assume that someone is just using a shortened form of “until” when he says “till.” But till doesn’t come from until at all. Here, in my recent column, is the full story.

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