July 6, 2020

The incredibly treacherous single quotation mark

 

Single quotation marks are hard. Lately, it seems they’re practically impossible. More and more I see professional editors and professionally published writing use them wrong.

To get an idea of how these little marks are confounding even professional users of punctuation, look at the following two sentences.

“Jessie just looked at me and said, ‘Goodbye,'” Ben said.

“That house is the Smiths’,” Stephanie said.

Note the punctuation at the end of each quotation. Care to guess which is correct? Is it the example where both punctuation marks come after the comma? Or is it the example in which the comma sits between the two other punctuation marks?

Answer: It was a trick question. Both are punctuated correctly. My recent column explains why.

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June 29, 2020

Sometimes apostrophes are hard

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Admit it. You’ve been stumped by apostrophes before. There’s no shame in it — even for word-savvy types who know all too well the difference between “lets” and “let’s” and who can spot a misplaced apostrophe in “Welcome to the Smith’s house” from a mile away.

Apostrophes are used in many situations — too many, really — ranging from the super-easy “the dog’s tail” to the super-arcane “attorneys general’s.”

In my recent column, I looked at at the far end of the difficulty spectrum: The apostrophe uses that can stump even the very best of punctuators. Here are some of the toughest situations for knowing when to pull out an apostrophe.

Do’s and don’ts
Attorneys general’s
Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Presidents Day, Veterans Day
Single quotation mark instead of apostrophe in ’80s
Goodness’ sake, conscience’ sake, appearance’ sake
Kids’ and children’s
A’s and Bs and c’s and d’s

All those are correct. Here’s why.

 

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June 22, 2020

'Slinked' or 'slunk'? 'Swam' or 'swum'? Getting the answers is easier than you think

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Award-winning Miami Herald reporter Julie Brown tweeted recently about a former politician who “slinked off and went home.”

A follower was not pleased: “I love you Julie, and your work,” a reader named Bill replied. But I can’t let ‘slinked’ go. ‘Slunk,’ please.”

Brown was contrite: “It’s not a word I use very often. Hopefully the Twitter word police will forgive me.”

Somewhat coincidentally, I saw these Tweets not long after starting to write a column on past tense verbs. The example I had in mind was “swum.” After all, when’s the last time you heard the word “swum”? When’s the last time you used it?

But the slinked/slunk debate illustrates the same problem as does swam/swum: People don’t know where to turn for help choosing past tense forms (though that doesn’t stop some of them from telling others which to choose).

Good news: You never have to guess. The answer's as close by as the nearest dictionary. I explain how to find it in this recent column.

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June 15, 2020

Tips for Writing Better Sentences

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There’s no formula for writing a good sentence. There’s not even a formula for knowing what a good sentence is. The very idea is subjective. But sometimes bad is universal. Here are some tips I came up with by analyzing some truly awful sentences and considering what could make them better. These tips won’t apply in every situation. But they’re worth considering when you find your sentence is in trouble.

TIPS FOR IMPROVING SENTENCES

1. Identify all the clauses in the sentence.
The mayor went to Washington because he had a meeting with the senator.

2. For each clause ask: Could the subject or verb be more vivid or substantive?
Bob’s desire was that he would come to occupy the Lou Larson’s job.  --->
Bob wanted Lou Larson’s job.
Ask: Does the main clause convey the most important information?
Paris is a place that gets a lot of tourists.  --->
Paris gets a lot of tourists.

3. Look for “upside-down subordination,” where the most notable information is trapped in a subordinate clause by untilafterbeforeifwhenbecause, etc.
When suddenly Officer Miller shot the robber, he knew it was a good decision.  --->
Suddenly, Officer Miller shot the robber. He knew it was a good decision.

 Click here to read the rest...

4. Consider whether each clause/action should be made into its own sentence.

Karen knew that removing her coat would send bill the wrong signal and didn’t want to give him any ideas because that could lead to trouble.  --->
Karen knew that removing her coat would send Bill the wrong signal. She didn’t want to give him any ideas. That could lead to trouble.

5. Look for other sentence elements, like participial phrases, that could be made into separates sentences.
Having been in a lupus survivor for 15 years, John knew what to do.  --->
John had survived lupus for 15 years. He knew what to do.

6. Look for passive voice and try converting to active voice. Compare:
The coffee was served.  --->
The waiter served the coffee.

7. Look for actions and descriptions converted into abstract objects (nominalizations) and consider changing.
It’s clear she has happiness. --->
It’s clear she is happy.

8. Look for modifiers that can be deleted without loss of meaning, especially adjectives and manner adverbs.

9. Root out verbose expressions and linking terms: thereforefurthermorethusfor his partdue to the fact thatit is his opinion that and some instances of in addition to and from blank to blank.

10. Look for poorly placed modifying phrases and look for ways to rework the sentence.
Steve photographed an elephant in his pajamas.
The elephant appeared just after Steve had leapt out of bed wearing his pajamas.
Wearing his pajamas, Steve leapt out of bed and photographed the elephant.
Steve was still in his pajamas when he photographed the elephant.

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June 8, 2020

'Do': The dummy operator

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Have you ever thought about the word “do”? My advice is don’t.

The word “do” is one of the bugbears of English that make our language incredibly difficult to master — for nonnative speakers and even for people born into the English-speaking world. Almost no one fully understands “do.” The people who use it correctly do so through osmosis, not understanding.

To see what I mean, consider the formula for making questions in Latin-based languages like French. In other languages, to make a question, you often just take a statement and swap the places of the subject and verb. “Vous voulez fromage” (You want cheese) becomes a question when you switch the positions of the pronoun and the verb: “Voulez-vous fromage?” Simple.

There are exceptions, of course — situations trickier than this. But this is the basic formula. It’s called inversion, because you invert the position of the subject and verb.

Try that in English. “You want cheese.” “Want you cheese?” “He saw a great movie last weekend.” “Saw he a great movie last weekend?” As we’ll see in a minute, sometimes this process actually works in English.

But not in these examples. Examine all these questions and you can see that something is missing — a little-understood word known as a dummy operator. It’s the word “do,” and it’s how we form questions like “Do you want cheese?” and “Did he see a great movie last weekend?”

“Do” has two main jobs. First, it’s a regular old verb. “Do the dishes.” “I don’t do windows.” “I do.” In that job, it works the same as any other garden variety verb. But on top of that, it has a special job — that of dummy operator. Here's a column on what dummy operators are and how you use them every day without thinking about it.

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June 1, 2020

'John and I' or 'John and Me'?

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In casual conversation, most people I know don’t worry too much about sounding proper. They don’t bother with “whom.” They say, “There’s a lot of people here” instead of “There are a lot of people here.” They opt for forms like “Joe is taller than me” instead of “Joe is taller than I.”

But there’s one situation in which it seems everyone is bent on sounding as proper as possible. Consider the sentence “I’m so happy you were able to spend time with John and I.” Choosing “I” over “me” in sentences like this seems to be the preferred form of practically every English speaker with even the slightest interest in sounding educated.

Unfortunately, in this case, trying to sound like you have good grammar makes things worse because the grammatically correct form is “with John and me,” not “with John and I.”

I have a theory about why this hypercorrection is so common. When kids say stuff like “Katie and me are going outside” or “Kevin and me are playing video games,” many parents are swift to correct them. Kids assume that “I” is more proper than “me.”

But that’s not always the case. If you really want to sound like you know your stuff, you need to understand the difference between subject pronouns and object pronouns.

I, you, he, she, it, we and they are subject pronouns. They perform the “action” of the verb. I walk fast. You work hard. He is nice.

But when they function as objects, most of these personal pronouns take different forms. Me, you, him, her, it, us and them are object pronouns. “You” and “it” are the oddballs, functioning as subjects and objects. Here's how to use them.

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May 25, 2020

Can you start a sentence with 'he,' 'she' or 'they'?

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“Good sentences don’t start with He/She/They.”

That’s a lesson that, according to a Twitter post, a teacher recently passed on to a child.

In context, the lesson seems a little less atrocious: The teacher was talking about the first sentence in a child’s answer to an essay question, meaning the child’s own writing hadn’t yet named an antecedent for the pronoun. In that case, maybe it’s a good idea to teach kids to use a full noun, like Joe, before you start referring to that noun with a pronoun, like “he.”

But that’s not what the teacher said, so the lesson a child would walk away with, carrying it with him for his lifetime, is that it’s bad to start a sentence with one of those pronouns.

You probably don’t need me to tell you that’s ridiculous. But to illustrate, I thought I’d take a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel off my bookshelf and see how well it lives up to this teacher’s high standards. Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” which won the prize for fiction, has on its first page a sentence starting with “he.” On page two, four sentences start with “he.” On page three, seven sentences start with “he.” Another Pulitzer winner, Colson Whitehead’s “The Nickel Boys,” has its first sentence-commencing “he” on page one of chapter one, with lots more on subsequent pages.

So, no. It’s not true that good sentences can’t start with “he,” “she” or “they," as I explain fully in this recent column.

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May 18, 2020

Navigating the gray areas in punctuation rules

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Consider the following two sentences.

“Days are usually great, but, when they aren’t great, they still pass in 24 hours.”

“Every word should bring something to the table and, if it doesn’t, it should be chopped out.”

In both examples, a conjunction is connecting independent clauses. In the first, that conjunction is “but.” In the second, it’s “and.” But the “but” has a comma before it and the “and” does not. What, Liz wants to know, is the right way to handle these?

The rules for commas seem, at first glance, to be pretty clear. They state that when any of the coordinating conjunctions “and,” “but” or “so” connects two clauses that could stand alone as sentences, put a comma before the conjunction unless the whole sentence is short, simple and poses no danger of confusion. In other words, use a comma before the conjunction — or don’t.

That’s why both these sentences are punctuated correctly. It’s also why you could change your mind about both — removing the comma after “great” and inserting one after “table” — and still be correct.

Punctuation rules are full of gray areas where you can call the shots. Here are some more thoughts on navigating these gray areas.

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May 11, 2020

Coronavirus Slang

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Are you enjoying your coronacation? Or is it making you coronalusional? Are you surrounded by covidiots? Do you go to the opposite extreme by hamsterkaufing every scrap of food you get your hands on?

Either way, your experience is being captured by a slew of new coronavirus slang terms. The U.K.'s Daily Mail newspaper recently published a list of Covid-inspired expressions popping up in the language. Like a lot of reporting about language, take this with a grain of salt. It may have more to do with a news outlet eager to publish a fun story about new words than having a meaningful impact on the language. But who knows whether any or all of them could catch on?

Here they are.

Coronacation — forced time off work due to the virus

Coronalusional — having delusional or strange thoughts due to pandemic

Covidiot — someone disobeying lockdown or self-isolation rules

Covid-19(lbs) — weight gained during lockdown

Corona Bae — the partner you are quarantining with

Drivecation — holiday in parked motorhome

Hamsterkaufing — stockpiling food like a hamster (German)

Iso — isolation (Australian)

Isobar — fridge well-stocked with alcohol to get through the pandemic

Isodesk — home workplace

Miley Cyrus — coronavirus

Morona — person behaving moronically during the pandemic

Post-rona - when the pandemic is over

The rona - another word for coronavirus (Australian)

Quarantine and chill - chilling at home during the pandemic

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May 4, 2020

Em and Em: Dashes Two Ways

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I've been seeing a lot of double-hyphens used as em dashes lately -- like this. That's okay in a pinch, but a real computer-generated em dash — like this — looks more professional. On a Mac computer, make one by holding down the Shift and Option keys they hitting the minus sign. On a PC, hold down Control and Alt then hit the minus sign. You can also set your computer's autocorrect to change double hyphens to em dashes, too.

If you want to emulate the style used by most news media, Associated Press style, put a space on either side of the dash — like this. If you want your writing to look more like it was published in a book, follow the Chicago Manual of Style and omit the spaces—like this.

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