October 23, 2017

When Commas Work in Pairs

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A reminder: sometimes commas work in pairs. When you drop the second one, you end up with bad punctuation logic:

The city of Pasadena, California has a playhouse and many museums.

Here we're separating Pasadena from California, but we're not separating California from the verb "has." The result is a sentence that says California has these things while that bit about the Pasadena has no logical attachment to the sentence. The idea is that commas can set off what's called parenthetical information. When you're talking about a city, the state it's in is parenthetical to the city name.

You can see the same logic at work with terms like "Inc." as well as years after dates.

Widgets, Inc., is based in Toronto.

On April 4, 2017, we attended a concert.

Without the second comma, you'd be giving the wrong impression about the relationship between Inc. and the words that follow or between 2017 and the words that follow. So keep an eye out for this one. It's a very common mistake.

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October 16, 2017

Parts of Speech Stepping Out

This week's podcast talks about how the "ing" form of a verb can be other things, like a noun, known as a gerund. But verbs aren't the only parts of speech that can function as other parts of speech.

Nouns can work as adjectives. Adjectives can work as adverbs. Prepositions can sometimes work as conjunctions. And nouns can work as verbs. Sometimes, they're listed in the dictionary as such: the preposition "like" is also listed as a conjunction. Sometimes they're not: the modifier "paint" in "paint store" is not in the dictionary as an adjective. Here's column I wrote recently covering all of these.

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October 9, 2017

No News Here on Split Infinitives

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Recent news stories loudly proclaimed that, at long last, it's okay to split infinitives.

Huh?

There's never been a ban on putting an adverb or other word between the "to" and the infinitive, as in "to boldly go." And even people who don't realize that tend to see the whole matter as a thing of the past: a lost-long-ago grammar crusade.

But apparently, a lot of people have been clinging to the idea much longer than I realized. Here's my recent column on this "news." 

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October 2, 2017

Once Again: Periods and Commas Go Inside the Quote Marks

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Consider this a semiannual reminder: In American English, periods and commas always go inside the quotation marks. Colons and semicolons always go outside. And exclamation points and questions can go inside or outside, depending on whether they apply to the whole sentence or just the quoted portion.

When Joe says the word "roof," it sounds like "rough."

Here's how Joe says the word "roof": "rough."

Have you heard how Joe pronounces the word "roof"?

It's a hilarious way to say "roof"!

The American rule on periods and commas is now widely disregarded, with casual posters on the web almost always guessing wrong. Wikipedia's official style does not follow this rule, hastening its death.

But it's not dead yet. For now, remember: A period or comma always comes before the closing quote mark.

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September 25, 2017

Editing Rules I Learned Wrong

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Once upon a time, I was a brand-new copy editor brimming with enthusiasm for my newly acquired editing knowledge.

Like a lot of brand-new copy editors, I didn’t have much context for understanding the rules. I didn’t realize that most were style conventions and not true grammar rules.

So I applied those style conventions with a passion reminiscent of guards in the Stanford Prison Experiment.

I’ve since learned that some editing rules shouldn’t be taken too seriously. And I’m always amused when I see a piece of writing edited with the same eager-beaver naivete.

Here are some of editing rules I and other editors have taken a bit too seriously.

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September 18, 2017

Some Thoughts on Semicolons

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I've gone soft on semicolons. For years, my position on these strange little squiggles has been as follows: I hate them.

I have good reason.

Semicolons don't come up much in my editing work. Most writers don't bother with them. Perhaps they understand how useful semicolons are not. Or maybe they're unsure how to use them and figure, "Hey, I've gotten this far without using semicolons. Why learn now?"

But the writers who do use semicolons — well, they're the reason I hate semicolons. Here's an excerpt from an article I edited in which the writer quotes a therapist at a spa. "'Now shower; and your skin will feel like new,' she said."

In that sentence, you could replace the semicolon with a period and start a new sentence. Or you could use a comma. Or you could use nothing. That raises the question: Why did the writer use the semicolon? I explore that question in full here.

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September 11, 2017

A Simple Rule for Hyphenating Prefixes

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Rules for hyphenating prefixes are all over the map, and they vary for prefix to prefix and from style to style: a pre-2010 preapproval for a coauthor and his co-publisher was nonbinding for non-natives. Those are all right. Unless your document is going to be published in a book, news media, or some outlet that aims to emulate one of those, you don't need to check a style book for every single prefix. Instead, here's a simple guide: If it looks okay without a hyphen, don't hyphenate it. If it looks funny without one, then hyphenate.

Pre1950? Of course not. You'd hyphenate that.

Exboss? Looks weird without a hyphen.

Copublisher? You could do that, I suppose. But it looks so much like the first syllable would be pronounced "cop" that a hyphen is a good call.

Sometimes it's a matter of opinion. I don't like "coworker" without a hyphen, so I hyphenate it. Others disagree, and that's okay, too.

Think of the closed form as your default. Use the hyphen only when that seems too odd. You'll be hyphenating prefixes as well as anyone.

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September 4, 2017

A Case Study in Ugly Sentences

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A recent column of mine turned into a case study in ugly sentences. Here's the sentence that inspired it, plucked from none other than the pages of the New York Times. (Yes, they're good. But no one's so good they don't crank out a stinker every once in a while).

“That a hacking operation that Washington is convinced was orchestrated by Moscow would obtain malware from a source in Ukraine — perhaps the Kremlin’s most bitter enemy — sheds considerable light on the Russian security services’ modus operandi in what Western intelligence agencies say is their clandestine cyberwar against the United States and Europe.”

When you're confronted with a sentence this bad, you can either do the sane thing and just move on to the next sentence. Or you can do the insane thing and stare at it transfixed till you've come to understand what makes it so ugly. Guess which one of those two things I did.

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August 28, 2017

A Quick Reminder about Compliment and Complement

 

It always surprises me when longtime writers don't know this one: a nice wine complements a meal. It doesn't compliment it.

I understand the attraction of using "compliment" here. Something that goes well with something else kind of flatters it. And flattery is akin to paying someone a compliment. But that's not what people mean when they talk about foods that go well together or furniture or colors.

The complement with the e in the middle is actually an extension of the idea of completing something. So a nice wine completes the meal and a nice piece of wall art completes the room. Yes, they flatter them, too. But just remember that if they go well together there's an e in the middle: The rug complements the room. If one says something nice to another there's an i in the middle: Beth complimented Erin's haircut. And two things that go well together are complementary while something given for free is complimentary.

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August 21, 2017

Are Typos Getting More Common?

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This sentence appeared on the New York Times website a few weeks ago: “In interviews with potential witnesses in recent weeks, prosecutors and F.B.I. agents have spent hours pouring over the details of Mr. Flynn’s business dealings with a Turkish-American businessman who worked last year with Mr. Flynn.”

Oops. There’s a typo in there — one of three I saw in major news outlets over the course of one day.

“Tesla is averaging around 1,800 orders a day for the Model 3 since it’s launch in late July,” a Yahoo Finance article reported that day.

“Chief of staff trying to reign in Trump in one major way,” an AOL headline announced.

Are typos getting more common? I explore the possibility in a recent column.

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