March 16, 2020

'Are' vs. 'is' writ large

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“There are a variety of Medicare supplement plans on the market.”

For an editor, this is not a difficult sentence. We see stuff like this all the time and don’t blink an eye. But sometimes things that shouldn’t trip me up trip me up. Things I’ve known for years — things I’ve researched and confirmed and committed to memory — seem to fall right out of my brain.

And so it was when I found myself staring at that sentence, which appeared in an article I was editing recently, and stopped dead in my tracks. “There are a variety”? “There is a variety”? For some reason, I couldn’t remember despite having researched the matter multiple times in the past.

To get to the answer, there are a couple of issues to consider. One is whether “variety” is singular, which would require the singular verb “is,” or whether it’s plural, requiring the verb “are.”

The second issue is whether “variety” governs the verb at all. Could “plans” be the subject of the verb? If so, there’s no question the verb should be “are,” as in “There are plans on the market.”

Finally, there’s a question of whether “existential there” changes the equation. In my recent column, I start with that one.

 

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March 9, 2020

The unbearable likeness of 'like'

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The word “like” may not look dangerous. But if you use it in ways offensive to certain sticklers, it’s guaranteed some readers will look down their nose at you.

No, I’m not talking about the verbal tic of saying, “like, you know, like, whatever.” I’m talking about far more common, far more respectable uses, like the one I use in this sentence or the one in the famous old ad “Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should.”

“‘Like’ has long been widely used by the illiterate; lately it has been taken up by the knowing and the well-informed who find it catchy, or liberating, and who use it as though they were slumming.”

Ouch. These rather harsh words from “Elements of Style” authors William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White were published first in 1959 in reference to “conjunctive like” — that is, using “like” as a conjunction. Here's what you need to know.

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March 2, 2020

Possessive with gerund

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A while back, I mentioned a CNN article “about the president making an unannounced stop.”

Two readers emailed with the same question. Here’s Bill in Niskayuna, N.Y.: “I was taught that a noun or pronoun preceding a gerund … should be in the possessive case, as it’s acting as a modifier. Thus, that would result in ‘the president’s making an unannounced stop.’”

This is a common view, but it’s a little off. To understand why, we need a quick refresher.

A gerund is the form of a verb that ends in “ing” and is used as a noun. Compare “Jen is walking” to “Walking is good exercise.” In the first sentence, the subject is the noun Jen and “walking” is a verb. But in the second sentence, the subject — the thing performing the “action” of the verb — is “walking.”

There’s a word for this: Anytime an “ing” form of a verb is functioning as a noun it’s called a gerund.

But “ing” verb forms can do other jobs, as well. They can function as part of the verb, which we saw above in “Jen is walking.” These participles can also act as modifiers — adjectives, really: “We went on a walking tour.”

This is also how we understand participles in sentences like “We saw Jen walking.” Here, the object of the verb is Jen — she’s the one we saw. The word “walking” is technically modifying the noun Jen. So here, too, “walking” is a participial modifier.

But what if the object of the verb isn’t so much the person as the action? For example, “I love Betty’s singing” or “I don’t like Betty’s dancing.” I explore the answer in this column.

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February 24, 2020

Punctuation marks that eliminate the need for other punctuation marks

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“How do you feel about commas after em dashes?” a writer asked on Twitter recently. “For instance: If you want to have a great Sunday — and by ‘great’ I mean emotionally and spiritually satisfying —, then you should consider the one-hour bath.”

The question left me speechless. It’s like asking if you’d put two commas after Washington, D.C., if the name appeared in a list like, “We visited Washington, D.C.,, Chicago and Nashville.”

It’s like asking whether it’s a good idea to put an ellipsis before a colon, as in “Beth made an important observation …: the door was unlocked.”

The answer to all these questions is an emphatic “no.” The reason: Sometimes one punctuation mark can preclude the need for another. Here, laid out in my recent column, are some examples.

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February 17, 2020

4 proven ways to make yourself less clear

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When we talk about language and grammar, there’s an unspoken yet universal agenda: clarity.

The whole point of written communication is to get information to your reader as effectively as possible, meaning with as little confusion as possible. Grammar, punctuation and proper usage are tools to get you there.

But what if you don’t want to be clear? What if your No. 1 writing goal is to weasel your way around a point or a piece of information you’d rather not highlight, for whatever shady reason you may have?

Well, grammar is your friend too. After all, if you understand how to write clear, vivid prose, the secret to underhanded obfuscation is at your fingertips. Just do the opposite of that clarifying stuff. Helpful grammar concepts for all you devious purveyors of murky message include
upside-down subordination, nonspecific nouns and verbs, nominalizations and passive voice. Here’s my recent column on how to abuse them.

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February 10, 2020

Subjunctive Mood

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The subjunctive mood refers to sentences that express wishes, suppositions, statements of necessity, demands and other “contrary to fact” statements. “If he were taller” is an example of a contrary-to-fact subjunctive. He’s not taller. He’s as tall as he is. So this is subjunctive.

Compare that to “If he was being honest, you’ll get all your money back.” In this case it’s possible he was being honest. Time will tell. So it’s called “indicative,” which for our purposes just means “not subjunctive.”

The difference is reflected in the verb. In the past tense, the subjunctive applies only to the verb “be,” and it’s formed by replacing “was” with “were.” “If he were being honest” (which means he wasn’t) versus “If he was being honest” (which means it’s possible).

In the present tense, the subjunctive applies to all verbs, and you form it by replacing the conjugated verb with the “base form” of the verb.

Compare “Zach locks up the office at night” with “It’s crucial that Zach lock up the office at night.” “Locks” is the conjugated form. “Lock” is the base form. And by putting “it’s crucial” at the head of our sentence, we’re creating a statement of necessity that triggers the subjunctive mood.

Here's more on the subjunctive in my recent column.

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February 3, 2020

'Til and Till

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One of the most surefire ways to tell whether an article has been professionally edited is the word 'til. 

This contracted form of until correctly uses an apostrophe to indicate omitted letters. But though it's technically right, it's a dead giveaway that the writer or editor didn't know what he was doing.

Professionals, when they want a shorter form of until don't use 'til. They use till.

Anyone who hasn't studied a style guide might think this is an error. A till, in many cases, is a drawer in a cash register famously featured in the sentence "He had his hand in the till." So anyone with good language fundamentals but no editing training would logically conclude that till is the error.

It's not. The word till used to mean until actually predates until itself. Till is the original. That's why style guides say to use this original word and not a contracted version of a its younger cousin.

And while, technically, the contracted for 'til is legit -- you can, after all, contract anything you want -- it's a sure-fire sign that the editor doesn't know editing. Want to know more? Here's a column that goes deeper.

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January 27, 2020

Beware the Frankensentence

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The Frankensentence is a useful concept. The idea is that in English, which lets you use any number of connective tools to cobble together phrases and clauses, it’s possible to cobble together so many phrases and clauses that your reader gets lost — or at least turned off.

The word “and” is a major culprit in a lot of Frankensentences. Abuse it just right and you can make a sentence go on literally forever. Another popular suture for Frankensentences is the humble comma, which at times is an “and” in disguise.

Semicolons are worse offenders. The whole purpose of a semicolon is to join sentence elements so unwieldy that a simple comma can’t handle the job. Subordinating conjunctions and relative pronouns can create Frankensentences, too. Here’s my recent column on how to avoid all these pitfalls.

 

 

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January 20, 2020

'Fraught' Instead of 'Fraught With'?

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Reader Janice has noticed a trend involving the word “fraught.”

“Things used to be fraught with something (danger, enmity, etc.),” she wrote. “But now they are just fraught.”

To Janice, the result is both grating and a bit confusing: “Leaves me wondering just what is being conveyed.”

I haven’t noticed the same trend, and, using a few language research tools, I can’t tell whether Janice is observing change in the works or whether it’s just her own experience. A Google search shows that “fraught with” was about four times as common as “fraught” alone over the past five years.

In the five years prior, “fraught with” beat out lone “fraught” by just two to one. So to whatever extent we can rely on my Google search abilities, the trend is in the direction opposite the one Janice has noticed.

Google Ngram viewer, which searches books, does show a slight uptick in “fraught” without “with” in the years leading up to 2008 (the most recent year this tool searched).

So we’re left with no clear picture of whether people are dropping the “with” after “fraught” more than they used to. And, more important, whether it's okay to do so. Here's my recent column on the subject. Spoiler alert: It is okay.

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January 13, 2020

Subjunctive and the Art of the Existential 'There'

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“If there were a Form 3, you would have already filled it out.” Reader Jessica had a question about a sentence like this.

The speaker already knew about a Form 1 and a Form 2. The existence of Form 3, however, was hypothetical. So, Jessica wanted to know, is that “were” correct? Or should it be “was”?

There’s a one-word key to finding the answer: subjunctive. That’s the term for the grammar dynamic that determines whether “was” or “were” is best here.

Armed with that one little word, you can research the issue and arrive at an answer. But Jessica already knew that. She Googled “subjunctive” and still couldn’t figure out what it meant for her sentence.

“I haven’t been able to find any examples on the internet about ‘if there were ...’ Only examples of “If he/she/it were ...”

In other words, “there” is complicating the question of whether the verb should be “was” or “were.” But does the “there” really affect the verb?

In this case, no. But it’s good to understand both dynamics, the subjunctive and something called “existential there,” to work all this out. Here's my recent column to explain it all.

 

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