Those two little words, when used together, can cause a lot of trouble. Here's what you need to know to avoid it. (Spoiler: The anti-"have got" cops don't quite get it.)]]>
In the past, I've written about one of the red flags that alerts me that something I’m reading may not have been edited by professionals: an absence of commas after years, dates, and Inc. As in It was March 14, 2008 when Widgets, Inc. moved from Flint, Mich. to India. If that were professionally edited, 2008, Inc., and Mich. would all have commas after them.
But the other common thing I see that makes me question the professionalism of something I’m reading is a comma or a period after a closing quotation mark.
The company’s slogan was “Think different”.
She hates it when people say, “My bad”.
Known as “quantitative easing”, the process has its critics.
Assuming I’m not reading something edited in British style, when I see this, I know the text wasn't edited professionally. That's because, in American editing styles, a period or comma always comes before a closing quotation mark.
The company’s slogan was “Think different.”
She hates it when people say, “My bad.”
Known as “quantitative easing,” the process has its critics.
People who aren’t professional editors wouldn’t guess this because it makes no sense, especially in light of how question marks and exclamation points are handled. They can go inside or outside a closing quotation mark, depending on whether they pertain to the whole sentence or just the portion in quotation marks.
I used to watch “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”
Did you see “Last Comic Standing”?
The American rule for periods and commas is based on aesthetic considerations. Style makers decided a long time ago that it’s easier on the eye to just put the period or comma inside, even though it’s less logical and even though it contradicts the rules for question marks and exclamation points.
That’s the kind of thing you just have to know. In the Internet age, more and more of the writing we see online is produced by people who don’t know that. And chances are that, by not knowing the rules, they're slowly changing them.
But until that change is official, I’ll continue to consider a comma or period outside a closing quote mark as an indication that whatever I’m reading isn’t as professional as the writer might like me to think it is.
Some writing mistakes are worse than others. If you were to write “I should of applied for the job,” that little “of” will reflect pretty badly on you in some people’s minds. It’s “should have” or “should’ve.” The preposition “of” doesn’t work that way. It can’t be used as an auxiliary verb.
On the other hand, if you were to write, “General Washington lead his troops into battle,” word-savvy readers might give you a pass on using “lead” when you meant “led.” After all, the metal is pronounced just like the past tense of the verb. And because it’s spelled just like the present tense of the verb (to lead), this mistake doesn’t necessarily mean that the writer doesn’t know the difference. It could just as easily happen to someone who does know the difference but isn’t paying close enough attention.
But there’s another class of mistakes: errors that aren’t really bad, but that peg the writer as someone who’s not a pro.
I’m thinking of the adjective “longtime,” as in a longtime companion or a longtime policy. It’s easy to assume that, like “long-term,” the adjective “longtime” should be hyphenated. And in fact, there’s nothing stopping you from doing so. Hyphens allow you to invent your own compounds. So you certainly can attach “long” to “time” this way if you want to. But doing so instantly pegs you as someone who doesn’t know that, unlike “long-term,” the adjective “longtime” is a closed form recognized by dictionaries as a single word.
It’s one of those facts that editors tend to know and non-editors don’t. So getting this one right can add a subtle touch of professionalism.
long time = noun phrase: I haven’t see you in a long time.
longtime = adjective: They are longtime friends.]]>
The President or the president? General Manager Susan Brady or general manager Susan Brady? Capt. John Miller or captain John Miller? Here are some guidelines to help you decide.]]>
I’m not talking about a difficult comma issue, either. It wasn’t one of those things that sort of falls between the rules or one of those situations where you might want to disregard rules.
For example, I would class the following sentence as a little tricky comma-wise:
Before you go to bed, finish your homework, brush your teeth, and put on your pajamas.
In a publication that doesn't use serial commas, this is tricky because usually you don’t put a comma before the conjunction introducing the last item in a list: red, white and blue. However, there’s a separate rule that says you do often use commas between complete clauses: “Stan has made many friends since he retired, and Betty is no exception.” (This rule also allows you to omit that comma if the clauses are short or sentence is clear enough without it. But the basic rule is that complete clauses joined by a conjunction are separated by a comma.)
So which rule wins here? Me, I vote for including the extra comma after “teeth.” But anyone who disagrees is right, too.
Here’s a situation where, though the rules clearly call for a comma, you might want to skip it anyway.
On Tuesday, Larry spotted the car, which, he decided, was certainly the one he had seen speeding from the scene of the crime.
Do you keep that comma before “which”? The rules certainly say to. Nonrestrictive “which” clauses are supposed to be set off with commas. But when the “which” is immediately followed by another comma -- or when the sentence has a lot of other commas -- you can skip it.
But neither of these scenarios accounts for my confusion the other day. Nope, I was looking at a sentence like this:
The restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner.
And I could not for nearly a minute remember whether to put a comma after “lunch.” Why? Because for the last seven years or so, I’ve been editing in two different styles: AP and Chicago. AP says not to use the comma before the conjunction that introduces the last item in a list. Chicago says you should.
This comma before the conjunction is called the serial comma or sometimes the Oxford comma. And it’s strictly a style thing. Neither right, nor wrong -- except when you're trying to follow a specific style.
At that moment, after years of toggling back and forth between the two styles, some wiring in my brain began sizzling and smoking. Now, after years of being neutral on the serial comma controversy, I'm starting to wish publishing would just come to a consensus.
Proper grammar, usage and punctuation are all well and good. But content is even more important than form.]]>
Sometimes I feel bad for the Bettys of the world. And by Bettys I mean people like a reader named Betty who wrote to beg me to write a column about how young people use “I’m like.”
Here’s what she wrote:
Could you please cover this phrase, "I'm like," in your Times Union word column? I can't go anywhere without hearing people use the phrase "I'm like" in their conversations over and over again. It turns my stomach to think that the English language is going downhill with young people and even some 30s and 40s doing the same. Is it possible to change this trend? I would like to see your comments in the Times Union soon.
Betty (a former teacher who is very upset)
E-mails like this usually irk me. But for some reason I sort of felt bad for Betty. That bit about her stomach turning over the how the English language is going downhill. ... Where do you begin?
I told her, of course, that I can't help her. My job is to talk about rules and syntax and dictionary definitions – not to tell people what choices they should make in casual speech.
I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I probably use this expression, too. (I’m not sure, actually. I don’t pay such close attention to my own speech in informal contexts. But I bet that if I did I’d notice I use “I’m like” and “I was like” a lot.)
Use just one space between sentences and a full space on either side of an ellipsis. Dashes take a space on either side in AP style but no spaces in Chicago style. And initials, like W. E. B. Dubois take no spaces in AP but do take spaces in Chicago. Here are the details plus a few exceptions ...
The Huffington Post has a weird headline-capitalization policy that throws me for a loop every time I visit the site. Their policy: Capitalize the first letter of every word in headlines. Every Single Word. It’s not wrong. It’s not bad. But it looks bad to me because I know that’s not how most pros do it.
I often try to make the case that little deviations from professional publishing standards can hurt your image even among people who don’t know those standards. For example, a reader who doesn’t know that a comma always comes before a closing quotation mark in American English may subconsciously notice that that, when someone breaks that rule, something just “doesn’t look right.” I have a vested interest in believing this. If people pick up on little markers of unprofessional writing, well, then, my job as enforcer of rules is that much safer.
In the case of headline capitalization, it’s not so much about rules as it is about standards. Most publishing outlets follow some system in which most but not all words in a headline start with a capital letter. The exceptions are the articles a, an and the (unless the very first or last word of the headline); the conjunctions and, or, but, and so; and short prepositions – usually just those with three letters or fewer or, in some cases, of four letters or fewer.
But Huffington Post formats its headlines like this: Suspect In Shooting Had A Record and Senator's Rating Plummets To Record Low.
Just about anywhere else in the news world, the words in and a would be lowercase in the first headline and to would be lowercase in the second. So these headlines don’t look great to me. But that’s probably just me ...
If you're in law enforcement, by all means treat these as separate words. But self-appointed grammar cops don't have the same authority.]]>
Little grammar and usage issues that drive other people nuts don’t bother me. That’s because a lot of the “errors” that annoy a lot of people are superstitions – stuff like how you supposedly can’t use “like” to mean “such as” or how you supposedly can’t begin a sentence with the word “and.” Not true and not true.
A lot of real errors don’t bother me, either, because I know how hard it is to avoid every grammar, punctuation and usage pitfall in the world. So when I see “chomping at the bit” in place of the more accurate “champing at the bit,” it doesn’t bug me.
But that doesn’t mean I'm immune to petty feelings about other people's writing. It's just that my copy editing experience just channels my peevishness toward other things -- weird little issues that almost no one else would object to.
Lately, the thing that bothers me most is a dash or hyphen used as a word -- specifically the word “to,” “through” or “until.”
Class is 1-3 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays. The camp is for children 5-9.
I hate that.
My reasons aren’t great. The most forgivable reason is I have to change these when I edit. At the newspaper where I work, the style is to use actual English words in these constructions. “Class is 1 TO 3 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays.” “The camp is for children 5 THROUGH 9.”
This is a style thing, by the way. Technically, it’s not wrong to use punctuation here. But in running text, I think it’s awful. When you read, your brain is in what I call “word mode.” It expects to see words.
That’s why I think Chicago’s style of writing out a lot of numbers creates better flow than you’d get with numerals. Compare “There were plenty of people at the concert, at least fifty of whom were passed out on the ground” to “There were plenty of people at the concert, at least 50 of whom were passed out on the ground.”
It might be just me, but I’m convinced that when you’re reading, words flow and things that aren’t words break that flow.
In graphic elements like information boxes, dashes and hyphens in ranges or time spans are just fine. When in complete sentences, I think words are the better choice.
Sure, you're finished with that meal. But are you also done with it?]]>
A while back, I got an e-mail from a reader named Randy who had come across this passage in a news article: "Pat Haden didn't fire Kiffin. He fired himself.
"What does this technically mean? " Randy asked. "Who fired himself? Who is out of a job? Haden or Kiffin?"
In fact, Randy already knew who got fired. And any reader who knew that Haden was the one with the power to fire someone probably didn't have any trouble figuring out the sentence. Still, Randy was troubled by the imprecision of it all. Plus he had vague recollections of being taught that the last noun to come before a pronoun is necessarily its antecedent.
"I see a lot of sentences where it seems the writer simply relies on me to intuit who or what the pronouns refer to by the context of the sentence(s). In other words, I should 'know what the writer means'… pay no attention to what the sentence really says. And maybe that’s a valid position? Maybe context defines usage? I doubt that, but who knows, anymore."
Here's what I told Randy:
The problem you're writing about is call an "unclear antecedent." Exactly as you described, it occurs when a pronoun's "antecedent" -- the thing or person to which it refers -- is unclear.
If I were copyediting an article and saw this sentence, “Pat Haden didn’t fire Kiffin. He fired himself.” I would absolutely replace the word "he" with either Haden or Kiffin (whoever did the firing).
To me, even if a reader who applies analytical efforts to the sentence can figure out who dunnit, it doesn't matter. The act and the responsibility of writing are to explain things -- not to burden the reader to puzzle them out.
Any pronoun that requires some prior knowledge on the reader's part is not okay with me. If it's not clear from the article alone who did the firing, then a pronoun with an unclear antecedent should be replaced by a noun that leaves no doubt.
To make the best choice between "than I" and "than me," you need to know a little about conjunctions and clauses. Once you do, you'll understand that "than I" is more grammatical, but "than me" is okay, too.
Here's an e-mail I got recently from a guy who runs a car service: "I've been telling our chauffeurs to always 'drive safely,' while others tell them to 'drive safe.' As an instinctive grammarian, I feel comfortable saying 'safely,' but am I right?"
It's a good question, with no good answer. Yes, "safely" is the syntactically correct choice and undeniably more proper. "Drive safely" uses an adverb because it's actually modifying an action -- describing *how* the driving is to be done.
However, I told Gary, there exist things call "flat adverbs" -- adverbs without the ly tail -- that are also acceptable. And, as often as not, these are words we usually think of as adjective forms: drive slow, think quick, shine bright, hold me close, and others simply choose the form without the "ly" and use it in the place of an "ly" adverb.
It's an established practice in English, going way back to Shakespeare days, meaning that "drive safe" is in fact a safe way to go. On the other hand, because so many people think it's an error, it may not be worth the grief.
How do you ensure one sentence flows logically from the one before? Here are some tips.
“Each” is a weird word. Sometimes it’s definitely singular: “Each is able to decide for himself.” But other times, it’s not so clear: “A number of families will participate and each have their own priorities.”
In the first example, the verb that follows is “is,” which is a singular conjugation suggesting that the pronoun itself is being thought of as singular. But in the second example, we have the plural verb form “have,” suggesting that this instance of “each” is thought of as plural.
So what’s the deal? Well, there’s no rule saying when you should treat “each” as singular or plural in every instance. But there are some patterns you can take your cue from.
For example, when “each” stands all by itself in a sentence, it’s usually singular, as in “Each is able to decide.” But when it’s followed by “of,” you have to go with your gut. That’s because the noun that follows “of” is always plural: “each of them,” “each of my cats,” “each of the senators,” and so on. That casts a strong flavor of the plural onto the whole the noun phrase. “Each of them are equipped to step in and help” sounds no worse than “Each of them is equipped to step in and help.”
So in these cases, you can usually conjugate your verb in whatever way sounds most natural to you.
But when in doubt, treat “each” as singular. That’s usually the safest bet. And when you consider that a lot of people out there are under the misperception that “each” is exclusively singular, it makes this choice all the safer.
Sometimes, your word-processing software is a life-saver. Other times, it can actually trip you up. Here are some ways to get the most of out it.]]>
Here, in a nutshell, is how to write questions that art quotations, how to write them in parentheses, how to write them in the middle of other sentences and some other finer points of writing and punctuating questions correctly.]]>
Ever hear someone say that he’s going to make a concerted effort to do something -- finish a project, make good on a New Year’s resolution, something like that?
Well, here’s an interesting fact about that term: Technically, one person can’t make a concerted effort. That’s because most definitions of concerted require more than one person to do it.
This is from Webster’s New World: Concerted: Planned or accomplished together; combined: "We made a concerted effort to solve the problem."
And here’s Merriam-Webster’s: Concerted: 1. mutually contrived or agreed on: "a concerted effort"; 2. performed in unison: "concerted artillery fire."
I’m omitting some of the definitions that have to do with music because they’re not what we’re talking about. But the very idea of a concert nonetheless illustrates what’s wrong with one person making a “concerted effort.” There’s no mutual contriving or agreeing. There’s no one to perform in unison with.
In the online version of the dictionary, Merriam-Webster’s has a little summary definition before the full definitions that says: “done in a planned and deliberate way usually by several or many people”
The word “usually” here provides you with the only possible loophole for using the term “concerted effort” to describe the actions of just one person. But it’s not necessarily a loophole you want to squeeze through.
So if you want to describe the effort of one person and you find “concerted effort” on the tip of your tongue, consider replacing “concerted” with “concentrated” or “deliberate” or “strenuous” or any other word that actually means what you want to say.
Ampersands annoy me. I’m not sure why. Well, I have some reason, but it’s not proportionate to my disgust.
Here’s my thinking: When a reader is chugging along reading a passage, his brain is in word mode. Ampersands aren't words. They're symbols. And it seems to me that they're jarring to a mind focused on forming words from sounds and sounds from letters.
I first started thinking about how we digest words when I learned that the Chicago Manual of Style prefers to write out numbers. Before then I had worked only in AP style, which prefers to numerals for most numbers greater than nine (in most cases).
So in AP style, you’d say that someone is 33 years old, but in Chicago style, you’d usually say she’s thirty-three. AP style is influenced by a longtime concern of news editors: space. Back in the days when all news was on newsprint, it was very important to use the space on a page as efficiently as possible. That is, when you’re printing a half million copies of something, you want to employ every tool at your disposal to keep the page count down. So AP almost always opts for shorter forms like 33 instead of longer forms like 33.
When I started using Chicago style, I saw a wisdom in its rule about numbers: the words “thirty-three” flow into the other words in the surrounding sentence. My brain is seeing letters and thinking sounds -- sounds that come from the letters themselves. Numerals seem to tap a different part of my brain. The sounds associated with them seem farther removed.
It’s almost like toggling between words and pictures in a graphic novel. Your brain has to change gears. And in straight text, that breaks up the flow.
And this, in a nutshell, is why ampersands in running text drive me nuts. When you’re reading running text, your brain is in word mode -- using letters as cues to sound. Like numerals, ampersands offer no phonic help whatsoever. Plus, they’re visually jarring and look unprofessional.
But that’s just my opinion. I could be wrong ...]]>
Contrary to what some people say, "continual" and "continuous" are sometimes synonymous. But only "continuous" is used for spatial relationships like "a continuous row of buildings." Here's the full explanation ...]]>
Here’s a sentence, slightly disguised, that I came across in my editing work recently:
AeroSpain, the international airline of Spain, offers airfare and vacation packages to these fantastic destinations with a bonus to Paris or London.
When people think about the writing problems that must be dealt with in the editing process, they think of spelling errors and grammar problems and punctuation mistakes and even factual errors. But in fact, perhaps the most common problems I deal with are visible in that sample sentence above:
“… destinations with a bonus to Paris …”
Huh? “With a bonus to”? What does that even mean?
Errors of this nature are especially frustrating because you can almost -- almost -- understand what the writer meant. In fact, that’s probably why problems like this survive all the way to the copy editing process: it kindasorta made sense to the first editor who read it. But when it gets to the person who has to scrutinize every word, a problem passage like this poses a problem because it can be impossible to fix without knowing what the writer was trying to say.
Over the years, I’ve noticed that prepositions are usually major culprits in these “huh?” sentences. Their use can be extremely subtle and often purely idiomatic.
They offer wonderful escapes to Paris and London.
They offer wonderful trips to Paris and London
They offer wonderful destinations to Paris and London.
Why does “to” work with “escapes” and “trips” but not desintations? It just does. It’s not about grammar: “escapes,” “trips” and “destinations” are all nouns. So it’s not their part of speech that determines how any of them will work with the preposition “to.” It’s simply about meaning. And the only way to make sure your words make sense together, unfortunately, is to stop and ask: “Do my words make sense together?”
Careful writers limit their use of "literally" to its strictest sense. Others take that too far ...
It’s been a long time since I learned the difference between “compose” and “comprise.” So long, in fact, that recently I’ve altogether forgotten how I used to do it. In spite of what I once learned, I keep writing stuff like, “These words do not comprise a complete sentence.”
According to style guides, that’s a mistake. Though dictionaries will cut you more slack. Here’s what style guides recommend.
“‘Compose’ means to create or put together,” the AP Stylebook says. “‘Comprise’ means to contain, to include all or embrace.”
You could say the whole comprises the parts, but the parts compose the whole. So you’d say a pie comprises many ingredients, or many ingredients compose a pie.
I know that second example sounds weird. That’s because we usually use “compose” in the passive: A pie is composed of many ingredients. But that’s just an inverted way of saying the same thing.
According to style guides, comprise “is best used only in the active voice.” This means it’s frowned upon to use the word “of” after any form of “comprise.” That’s an easy guideline. Nine times out of ten, when a writer has “comprised of,” she meant “composed of” anyway.
But it’s also important to remember that, according to the style guides, one thing comprises many and not the other way around.
Dictionary definitions are more flexible.
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary: “comprise. 1. to be made up of (something): to include or consist of (something). 2. to make up or form (something).”
Webster’s New World College Dictionary: “comprise. 1. to include; contain; 2. to consist of; be composed of: a nation comprising thirteen states 3. to make up; form; constitute: in this sense still regarded by a few as a loose usage: a nation comprised of thirteen states.”
And here’s what Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage recommends: “Our advice to you is to realize that the disputed sense is established and standard, but nevertheless liable to criticism. If such criticism concerns you, you can probably avoid ‘comprise’ by using ‘compose,’ ‘constitute,’ or ‘make up.’”
If businesses had their way, news media would serve no purpose other than to promote them.
Front-page articles would be dedicated to the rich, satisfying flavor of this or that brand of cigarette. Headlines would tout how a sale at a local retailer blows away the competition and is, in fact, the greatest thing to ever happen to readers of that publication. Company names would be in 30-point type everywhere they appeared and bolded and surrounded with dollar signs, too.
Companies’ interests simply aren’t the same as readers’ interests. So for that reason, editors like to keep them reined in. And editing styles include rules to do so.
For example, E*Trade, the online brokerage firm, uses an asterisk in its name. If I were an exec at that company I would, of course, want it to be written that way in print. Helps grow the brand, and all that.
Other companies have different approaches. Capital letters are a big favorite among ATTENTION-SEEKING COMPANIES. Some make their names all caps (ARIA resort), others go all lowercase (smart fortwo), and still others get funky with their caps (iPad). Caps can cry “look at me, know my brand” in the pages of an article that should be serving the reader, not the people who want to take advantage of the reader’s attention to sell him something. That’s what ads are for.
That’s why in many cases editing styles advocate capitalizing and punctuating company names as though they were garden-variety proper nouns. In my editing work, whenever there's mention of those little two-person golf-cart-like cars, I make sure they're written Smart Fortwo, with the first word of each proper noun capitalized. E-Trade gets a hyphen, not an asterisk, and Macy’s gets an apostrophe. And the self-proclaimed ARIA resort is the Aria in any page I’m editing.
Of course, you can’t always get away from funky tradenames. Both Chicago and AP styles say to uppercase the second letter of iPad and iPod. AP says that, at the beginning of a sentence, IPad and IPod start with a capital I, even though the P remains capped. Chicago lets you keep the first letter lowercase even at the beginning of a sentence.
If you don’t have a stylebook handy, you can just follow this simple principle: Don’t let companies use your publication as a marquee. Whenever possible, treat them like most proper nouns, beginning with a capital, proceeding with lowercase and containing no smiley faces, snowflakes or peace signs. When that looks too weird, you can cave a little.]]>
A lot of people use vis-a-vis to mean "regarding." But maybe it's best to not use it at all ...]]>
I’ve always been pretty opposed to using apostrophe to form plurals, except when absolutely necessary.
Learn your ABCs, not ABC’s.
The company bought some Boeing 747s, not 747’s.
Schools used to focus on the three Rs, not R’s.
It happened during the 1850s, not 1850’s.
In my world, the only time you use an apostrophe to form a plural is when it’s absolutely necessary for clarity. The most common example is in business signs in all capital letters: RETIRMENT PLANS AND IRA’S EVALUATED, DVR’S REPAIRED – stuff like that.
Also when you’re writing a passage that mentions individual letters, like Mind your p’s and q’s and Her name sure has a lot of i’s in it, apostrophes are the only way to show that the s is doing a different job than that of p, q and i.
Otherwise, in the editing rules I follow, apostrophes in plurals are a big no-no.
But, as I’ve learned the hard way, you should never be too quick to judge someone else’s punctuation and grammar, because in their world it just might be right.
This came to mind recently when I opened an old copy of “Words Into Type,” which was once one of the most definitive guides in publishing. Here’s what I read in the section on plurals:
The plural of a letter, figure, character, or sign is expressed by adding to it an apostrophe and s.
During the 1850’s
Anyone who subscribes to my view that apostrophes don’t form plurals and who saw these forms in written text might assume the apostrophes were errors made of ignorance. But in fact, they could be well-informed choices.]]>
When a noun like baseball or vacation works like an adjective, as in baseball player and vacation day, it becomes part of a class known as attributive nouns.]]>
Next time you hear someone ranting about how the language is going to hell in a handbasket or complaining about people misusing this or that word, ask him to define the word "girl."
In my experience, "girl" is the best example of why the language Chicken Littles don't have a leg to stand on.
You see, we actually use the word "girl" wrong, according to an older standard, that is. In the 1300s, "girl" meant a child of either sex. Yet today it means only a female child, and we use it to deliberately exclude males.
Think for a moment what it was like getting from that linguistic Point A to our Point B. There must have been a lot of confusion along the way, right? No doubt it gave language doomsayers plenty of fodder. Could you blame any witness to this transition for thinking it was a problem Could you blame him for decrying the ignorance that fueled this change or the chaos that would ensue?
With 700 years' perspective, we know that such doomsayers would have been wrong. The word "girl" as we use it today is perfectly peachy. People aren't confused by it. No one sounds ignorant for using it. Communication hasn't broken down.
In other words, what was once a wrong usage of "girl" is now right. And clearly that's not a bad thing.
When sticklers fuss over "misuse" of words like "literally" and "healthy" and "aggravate," it's because they just don't understand how words change. They don't understand that this evolution is not a bad thing. It just appears bad to anyone who lacks historical perspective.
And nothing proves this as well as a brief history of the word "girl."
These two terms are worth keeping straight.]]>
Some adverbs are filler you're better off without ...]]>
Private schools are notoriously known for their small class sizes.
It's been years since I saw this sentence in an article I was editing. But it stands as one of my favorite cautionary examples about adverbs.
The adverb "notoriously" shouldn't be in that sentence. Period. It's redundant with the word "known" -- kind of like saying "famously famous." Except it's worse because "notoriously" has a negative connotation -- it means something is bad -- though everyone agrees smaller class sizes are good. So instead of underscoring the writer's point, the "notoriously" undermines it.
How did this adverb end up here? Did the writer really think that "known" failed to tell the full story? Probably not. More likely, the writer was aiming for a certain oomph and was more focused on things like rhythm and drama than on the substance of her words.
That's fine in a first draft. My own writing tends to produce an alarming number of adverbs like "very" and "really" and "actually." But when I reread what I've written, I try taking them out. Here's what I've learned in the process: Some adverbs help your sentence, others hurt it. Often, the difference is as simple as this: The adverbs that add information help, the ones that add only emphasis hurt.
Mary quickly left the room.
Here the adverb "quickly" tells us more about what's going on than we could glean from just Mary left the room. There's real information in that adverb.
Joe quickly ran away.
In this sentence, "quickly" isn't pulling its weight. The verb "ran" already conveys quickness. So here the adverb adds nothing.
Unnecessary adverbs can be a cue to the reader that the writer isn't a pro. Compare, "The senator was totally, absolutely, unbelievably contrite" with "The senator was contrite." See how the stripped-down facts have a certain power butthe adverbs come off almost like pleading -- a weak attempt to convince the reader of something, as if the facts alone weren't enough. Pros don't do that. Which is why the adverbless alternative sounds more professional. Which is why the only adverbs that appear in your writing are ones that survived the survival test.
This puts some distance between you and the material, which can make a huge difference in how many errors you catch. I had to learn this the hard way.
My deadline for my newspaper column is 10 a.m. on Friday. For years I would start writing it at about 8 a.m. on Friday then give it a careful proofread before sending it in. Then, in the following days, I would blame the editors for the myriad typos. Sure, I typed ’em, but someone should’ve caught ’em, right?
It was a moot point because I already knew no one would. The paper where the column ran was understaffed and underfunded, and if I thought editors were going to magically improve their typo-catching stats, I was out of my mind.
So after the millionth time I caught superfluous words in my published grammar column (unnecessary little words like “of as,” “the in,” and “at from” are my most common typos – the detritus of rewritten sentences), I realized that spotting the typos after they came out in print was easier than it had been to catch them before. The reason: time. The few days between when I wrote the column and when I saw it in print gave me the fresh eyes I needed to see it clearly. And I didn't like what I was seeing.
So I started writing my column on Thursday night, then rereading it Friday morning before sending it. This new procedure didn’t cure my sloppiness. In that arena, I’m hopeless. But it helped me see much of my sloppiness before the rest of the world could. And two or three published typos a year is a lot better than two or three a month.]]>
Sometimes it seems apostrophes are trying to trip you up. Here's what to watch out for.]]>
Ever wonder how spelling and grammar affect a web page’s online rankings? For example, when Google ranks WordPress blogs, do their computer algorithms take grammar and spelling into account?
That question was posed to Google’s Matt Cutts, who posted the reply on his YouTube Channel. The answer was interesting because, though Google doesn’t assess the grammar and spelling, the company points out there’s a clear correlation between a page’s success and its grammar and spelling.
“The more reputable pages do tend to have better spelling and better grammar,” Cutts said. “So if you can put in the time to make sure that a page is edited well, you’ll find it’s probably not just a good overall piece of content that’s more likely to stand the test of time, but probably users will appreciate it. People can understand when they land on the page whether something is a little bit, you know, knocked out quickly versus someone put a lot of work into it -- whether there was a copy editor or someone did fact checking or they’re an expert on the subject. ... I would encourage people pay attention to these things maybe not for the search rankings directly but just because it’s a good experience for users and users appreciate that and will be a little more likely to bookmark you and come back.”
Another user asked Cutts whether bad grammar in comments matters. Specifically, a user wanted to know whether he should correct the grammar in the comments on his own blog. According to Cutts, there’s no reason to. Grammar and spelling in the comments section doesn’t affect rankings. “I wouldn’t worry about the grammar in your comments, as long as the grammar in your own page is fine.”
"Just make sure that your own content is high-quality," Cutts said.
It's everyone's favorite peeve: "literally" in sentences like "The town was brought literally to its knees." But is it wrong?]]>
Here’s a little reminder about “that” and “which”: Editing styles have some strict rules on their usage, but they’re not universal grammar rules, just a style thing.
Here’s the rule, according to the Associated Press Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style: “which” can’t be used for restrictive clauses. Only “that” can introduce restrictive clauses.
Restrictive clauses narrow down the things they refer to. Compare:
The hats that have feathers sell the best
The hats, which have feathers, sell the best.
In the first example, the clause beginning with “that” actually narrows down which hats we’re talking about. Only the ones that have feathers are being discussed. In the second example, all the hats are being referred to. The “which” clause lets us know that they all have feathers.
So a restrictive clause restricts -- narrows down or specifies -- its subject. A nonrestrictive clause does not: It can be lifted right out of the sentence without losing specificity of your subject.
And AP and Chicago agree that you can’t use “which” for a restrictive clause.
“The hats which have feathers sell the best.” That, according to the style guides, is wrong because the clause is supposed to be restrictive. How do we know that the writer meant this clause to be restrictive? The lack of commas. Commas set off nonrestrictive information. To the lack of commas around the clause makes it restrictive.
There’s some logic at the heart of the style rule: Most American English speakers usually use “which” only for nonrestrictive clauses, leaving the other job to “that.” You can also see that keeping these two separate can clear up the potential ambiguity of sentences like “The hats which have feathers will sell best.” (That is, if you doubt the writer’s punctuation skills, you couldn’t be sure whether she meant only the hats that have feathers sell best or whether she meant all the hats sell better than other merchandise and oh, by the way, they all have feathers.)
But unless you’re editing in one of those two styles, you don’t have to worry about this. In my experience, most people manage “that” and “which” clauses well, leaving no question as to what they meant.
Sometimes there's more than one right way to spell a word. How do you know? And how do you know which spelling is better? The answers are in your dictionary.]]>
In that book, Ephron recalls a lesson from her high school journalism teacher, Charles O. Simms, on how to write a story lead – the first sentence or paragraph of a newspaper story.
“He writes the words ‘Who What Where When Why and How” on the blackboard,” Ephron recalled. “Then he dictates a set of facts to use that goes something like this: ‘Kenneth L. Peters, the principal of Beverly Hills High School, announced today that the faculty of the high school will travel to Sacramento on Thursday for a colloquium in new teaching methods. Speaking there will be anthropologist Margaret Mead and Robert Maynard Hutchins, the president of the Univesrity of Chicago.’
“We all sit at our typewriters and write a lead, most of us inverting the set of facts so that they read something like this, ‘Anthropologist Margaret Meand and University of Chicago President Robert Maynard Hutchins will address the faculty Thursday in Sacramento at a colloquium on new teaching methods, the principal of the high school Kenneth L. Peters announced today.’
“We turn in our leads. We’re very proud. Mr. Simms looks at what we’ve done and then tosses everything into the garbage. He says: ‘The lead of the story is “There will be no school Thursday.”’”
I wish I’d thought of that. I wish I could say that, as I was reading the assignment, I figured out the right answer before it was revealed. I did not.
If there’s ever been a better lesson about reader-serving writing, I’ve never found it.
One of the most common mistakes in hyphenation is also one of the easiest to avoid: Adverbs ending in "ly" shouldn't be hyphenated. Here's the full story.]]>
Not long ago, I turned the car radio to a local NPR station and caught the second half of a story about computers writing poetry. The expert they quoted, whose name I didn’t catch, said he believed that he will live to see a computer become a top poet.
I had just seen the movie “Her,” in which a man falls in love with a highly sophisticated operating system. Its premise didn’t seem so implausible to me. With that movie fresh in my mind, neither did the idea of a computer that crafts words into art expressing the human experience.
And that’s when it hit me: My skill set will expire. If computers can write poetry, surely they’ll be able to do everything a copy editor does, probably better.
I had never worried about this much. Microsoft Word’s grammar checker certainly doesn’t make me feel threatened. The technology is weak and the information it's been fed is even weaker. For example, when I run the grammar checker on a document with the sentence “She is the oldest of the two,” the software flags it with the warning “Comparative use,” presumably because whoever programmed it was victim to the myth that superlatives like “oldest” can’t be used for groups of just two; for comparisons between two, the myth goes, you need the comparative “older.” That’s not true. But don’t tell grammar checker that.
I’ve seen a lot of ads lately for Grammarly, a program that claims to be much better at fixing your grammar. Because that company is trying to sell itself as, well, worth buying, it seems better positioned to someday put copy editors like me in the unemployment line.
But has that someday arrived? To find out, I entered some text in the Try Grammarly Now box on its website, which was supposed to show how well the program can fix whatever writing you paste into the box. I wanted to know how good Grammarly was at assessing not grammar errors per se, but poor writing choices. So I entered the sentence:
“While Joe attended Harvard, he never went on to a successful career.”
The word “while” is a good example of why copy editors have value. It can mean either “during the time that” or “although.” But it creates problems because people often use it in the “although” sense not realizing it could be misread to mean “during the time that.”
So in this sentence, “While Joe attended Harvard” momentarily sounds like we’re going to talk about something that happened when Joe was a student. But the second of half of the sentence describes what happened after he graduated. So that “while” could lead some writers down the wrong path and is exactly the type of thing I would fix.
Would Grammarly catch it? I pasted the whole sentence into the box and hit “Check your text.”
Here’s Grammarly’s analysis: “This text is too short. Grammarly needs more context to accurately detect mistakes.”
Looks like I won’t be applying for that greeter job at Walmart just yet.]]>
Why is so much business writing so bad? I'm not sure. But yours doesn't have to be.]]>
Here’s something I see a lot of in my copy editing work: He’ll interview author Rob Peters and an accountant Jane Farrell.
Or sometimes it will look like this: He’ll interview author, Rob Peters, and an accountant, Jane Farrell.
But almost never will it look like this: He’ll interview author Rob Peters and an accountant, Jane Farrell.
As you may have guessed, that’s unfortunate because the last one is actually correct.
Knowing when to use commas in these situations lies in understanding appositives. And the easiest way to think of an appositive is as a renaming of something just said:
… my husband, Ted …
… the teacher, a great person ...
... your car, a 2009 Acura …
An appositive is a noun phrase that stands in apposition to another, where “apposition” means “a grammatical construction in which two usually adjacent nouns having the same referent stand in the same syntactical relation to the rest of a sentence.” (You can see why I led with the CliffsNotes version.)
Simply put, if you’re just throwing in a name or another noun that repeats another noun, that's an appositive. An aside. An extra parenthetical bit thrown in. And once we undertsand that, the “Chicago Manual of Style’s” advice is clear:
“A word, abbreviation, phrase, or clause that is in apposition to a noun is set off by commas if it is nonrestrictive -- that is, omittable, containing supplementary rather than essential information. If it is restrictive -- essential to the noun it belongs to -- no comma should appear.
“The committee chair, Gloria Ruffolo, called for a resolution.
“Stanley Groat, president of the cporporation, spoke first. …
“My older sister, Betty, taught me the alphabet.
“My sister Enid lets me hold her doll. (I have two sisters.)”
See how in the first sister example the lack of commas tells us that the speaker only has one older sister? And see how in the second sister example the lack of commas tells us that Enid is just one of two or more sisters?
Now think about “the baker Rob Peters” vs. “the baker, Rob Peters.”In the first, you’re using the name to make clear which baker you’re talking about. In the second, you’re implying that the reader already knows that you’re talking about one specific baker and that, by the way, his name is Rob Peters.
Ditto that for:
“I read the book, ‘Blue Skies” vs. “I read the book “Blue Skies.’”
In the first one, it’s clear you’ve already established with the reader that you’re talking about a single, specific book, even if you haven’t named it yet: “I went to the store. I thumbed through a book I couldn’t put down. I bought it, along with a music CD. When I read the book, “Blue Skies,” it changed my life.”
But in the second one, you’re probably referencing the book for the first time.
Again, it all boils down to whether the second noun phrase is a mere repeat of the first or whether they’re working together in a way that makes them inseparable.
“I love grammar!” a woman who works in my building announced.
She had opened her newspaper the day before and, to her surprise, saw a picture of me -- someone she’s seen milling about on the fifth floor of her office building regularly for years. The community news division of the Los Angeles Times had just launched a Pasadena local news insert in the main paper. In it was my grammar column accompanied by my headshot.
The Pasadena resident and L.A. Times subscriber was thrilled. She and her friends frequently talk about grammar and all the awful mistakes people make, she told me. So she was excited to see a grammar column in her paper.
My stomach sank.
I get a lot of e-mails from “grammar fans” that say pretty much the same thing: They’re delighted to see that someone – finally – is fighting the good fight against sloppy usage and eroding grammar standards.
And I always wonder: Are these people who have only recently discovered the column? Or are they longtime readers who are just really good at selective interpretation?
The latter seems common. For example, here’s some “praise” I got recently from a reader: “Hallelujah! Someone (besides my dorky self) is pointing out that ‘is comprised of’ is always wrong.”
That’s not what I said, even though that's what he read.
But some people – a lot, in fact – think that anyone who takes an interest in grammar is crusading for the readers’ own personal peeves.
So it’s quite possible that the people who cheer my "crusade" are not new readers but long-term readers who just hear what they want to hear. Eventually I disappoint them all. I’m not the enforcer they want me to be. In time they see that I’m not lecturing about the evils of split infinitives or sentence-ending prepositions or sentences begun with “and” or whatever other peeves they harbor.
I’m used to that – in my e-mail in-box. But now, for the first time, I was facing one of these prescriptivist grammar fans in person. And I knew it wasn’t going to end well.
A few weeks later, she asked me to write a column about how it’s wrong to say “I graduated college” instead of “I graduated from college.” It’s not. Both are acceptable. I told her so. Soon after, she mentioned the terrible mistake people make when they used “robbed” in place of “burglarized.” I told her, with a “Don’t shoot the messenger shrug,” that too is okay. I cited dictionaries. I cited usage guides. I talked about how style guide rules are not universal rules. But she was having none of it.
There’s been a distinct chill in the air on the fifth floor ever since.]]>
There's no one way to avoid gender bias in your writing. A balanced approach that considers the reader -- all readers -- is usually the best course.
I’ve spent a lot of time arguing that it’s okay to use “they” and “their” to refer to a singular person of unknown sex.
For example, “Every visitor should be sure they pick up their keys from the valet.” A lot of people say that’s wrong because “visitor” is singular but “they” and “their” are plural. But in fact, this isn’t quite wrong. And it’s getting less wrong every day. Dictionaries now indicate that “they” and its cousins have plural as well as singular definitions. Even if dictionaries didn’t allow this, common sense (aka idiom) would: You just can’t expect people to speak like: “Every visitor should be sure he or she picks up his or her keys from the valet nearest his or her parking space to assure he or she is not charged for overnight parking of his or her vehicle.”
That’s just not gonna happen.
Yes, you could assign a sex to the hypothetical person. But that can be distracting. Choose male and it seems a little sexist. Choose female and it seems a little odd. Obviously, if you’re talking about people in situations predominated by one sex or the other -- say, nail salon customers -- this is less weird. But collectively, English speakers have given some singular meaning to “they” and “their,” and there’s nothing wrong with that.
So on a recent day at work I must have sounded like I was possessed by the ghost of William Safire.
An article I was editing contained long, repeated, excessive uses of the singular “they.”
“When you buy a fine timepiece for that special someone, you want it to be something they will treasure forever: Every time they look at it, you want them to think of you. You want them to know that you kept them in mind as you shopped, that you remained keenly aware of their taste, their style, their preferences.
What’s wrong with that? Grammatically: nothing. Realistically: everything. It comes off as completely unprofessional if for no reason other than the fact that pros don’t write like that. Or at least their editors don’t let them get away with writing like that. The passage above is completely inconsistent with anything you’d read in a quality publication.
What do professional writers do instead? Anything and everything to avoid such excessive and unsightly use of singular “they” and “their.” The writers swap out the pronouns for nouns. They recast sentences to eliminate the need for a pronoun. They employ some passive voice. They slip in the occasional “he or she” or “him or her.” And occasionally they might even let a “they” stand. But they never just let a barrage of “theys” and “theirs” fly as they might in casual conversation.
“When you give (REWORDED TO ELIMINATE NEED FOR A PRONOUN) a fine watch, you want to choose a piece that your special someone (REPLACES PRONOUN WITH NOUN PHRASE “YOUR SPECIAL SOMEONE”) will treasure forever. Every time he or she (COORDINATE SUBJECT REPLACES “THEY”) looks at it, the timepiece should evoke (CLAUSE RECAST SO THAT “TIMEPIECE” BECOMES THE SUBJECT) fond memories of you, the giver. A carefully chosen watch says that your recipient’s (NOUN PHRASE “YOUR RECIPIENT” REPLACES PRONOUN) taste, (DELETED UNNECESSARY "THEIR") style, and uniqueness were forefront in your mind."
So, except in dialogue and other extremely colloquial forms of writing, there’s never an excuse to use “they,” “their” and “them” to the extent that the writer of the above passage did.
The English language is loaded with words that are easily confused with each other. The only way to avoid errors is to know the pitfalls in advance.]]>
Is it Safe for Women to Travel Alone in India?
So close. But that's not quite what you were aiming for.
As most people know, very small words in a title case headline start with lowercase letters. But not all small words. Just some of them.
Let me back up and say that headline capitalization isTravel not a right-or-wrong thing. There are no grammar or writing rules at work here. Just conventions -- standards followed by publishers to ensure that the work they produce is polished according to some simple, consistent logic.
That logic varies a bit from publisher to publisher, but some points are nearly universal. For example, every headline style I know of says to lowercase many prepositions, articles, and conjunctions but to uppercase verbs, nouns, and pronouns.
are not. "Is" is a verb and "it" is a pronoun. So while "in" would usually start with a lowercase I in a title case headline, "it" and "is" would start with a capital I. In other words, the part of speech is more important than how long the word is.
But prepositions have another twist: If a preposition is integral to the verb -- as in what's called a phrasal verb -- keep it uppercase.
Human Rights Advocates to Look In on Prisoners
Here, the word "in" is part of a phrasal verb. When you take "in" from "look in," it changes the meaning. Throw up, count down, call out, ask out, run over -- these are all examples of phrasal verbs in which the second word can't be removed without changing the meaning. For headline capitalization purposes, prepositions that are part of a phrasal verb get higher billing that regular old prepositions.
If you want a simple set of guidelines for capitalizing your own headlines, here, based on a lot of news styles, is what I would recommend:
Capitalize the first letter of most words.
Lowercase articles (a, an and the) unless the very first or very last word of the headline.
Lowercase short conjunctions (and, so, but, and or)
Lowercase prepositions of three or fewer letters (in, at, to, on) but capitalize the first letter of longer prepositions (without, from, until, through, etc.). Disregard this rule if the preposition is part of a phrasal verb.
Pay careful attention to “is” and “it.” A verb and preposition, respectively, these should probably start with a capital letter in your headlines.
Professional writing is efficient and free of unnecessary words and loose structures. Here's how to tighten up your prose.]]>
Last week I wrote about a reader I call Bert, who on two occasions has referred to people who know less about grammar than he does as “the great unwashed.” Here's another e-mail he sent about one of my recent newspaper columns.
“This morning’s article reminds me of another of my ongoing complaints: the placement of the word 'only.' It is common to hear and read “only” toward the beginning of a sentence or thought, when it should be much later in order to modify what really is intended to be modified. Your article (four paragraphs from the end) says, 'People only began fussing over it in the mid-1960s.'
“You don’t mean that they only began, and didn’t continue or conclude; I’m sure that you mean that they began fussing only in the mid-1960s. Your next paragraph correctly places the 'only': ' . . . "healthy’ means only ‘in good health’" . . .' - right? Nearly 100% of the time, Americans and Brits misplace a modifying 'only,' and while we understand the meaning, careful consideration shows that the 'only' is modifying the wrong thought when so placed.”
What’s Bert’s source, you may be wondering? He doesn’t have one. It’s simply not a rule that you must place “only” closest to the term it modifies. Like a lot of adverbs, “only” can modify whole sentences or thoughts. So its placement is flexible, just like “Soon I will leave,” “I will soon leave” and “I will leave soon.”
Plus, when nearly 100% of English speakers do something a certain way -- well, sorry Bert, but that’s how grammar rules are made. And saying that 99-plus percent of the population should do things your way just doesn’t fly.]]>
Sometimes an apostrophe is just what you need to make a letter or a set of initials into a plural. More often, though, no apostrophe is needed. Here's an overview.]]>
If you searched the archives on this site, you might get the impression that the people who write to me are all a little off. But, really, most of them are pretty great.
Then there’s Bert.
Bert, not his real name, lives in Newport Beach, Calif., where he reads my column in his local community news insert to the L.A. Times. He writes to me from time to time, always seemingly under the assumption that he has something to say that I'll agree with.
All the ideas Bert has ever communicated to me boil down to one message:. He and I are better than most people. His reasons have to do with grammar. Though I can’t help but wonder if my column were about gardening, politics, education, cooking, chess, relationship advice, or any of a million other topics, he’d find in them some reason to look down on others.
I used to be nice to Bert, giving him the kid glove treatment in e-mails that explain why he’s wrong. But then Bert wrote this:
“These days, the great unwashed seem to be convinced that I is classier than me, no matter its position in a sentence or phrase. Of course, me all to often becomes the subject (Me and Jim went.) ... Ugh!
“I have a New Yorker cartoon that shows two men, one of whom says (in the caption), 'You have no idea what it’s like to be a just between you and me person in a just between you and I world.” ...
“I’m a grammatical traditionalist and a curmudgeonly Professor Emeritus [state university name omitted].”
While there are many things that might strike you about this message (including the misspelling of “too”), here’s what most struck me: the juxtaposition of the words “the great unwashed” and “professor.” A man so critical of people whose grammar skills he considers subpar that he calls them “the great unwashed” is ... an educator.
An educator who looks down on the uneducated.
Gross, Bert. Truly gross.
Perhaps more than any other punctuation mark, the exclamation point is slave to fashion.]]>
Of all the old-fuddy-duddy books in my language library, one of the fuddy-duddiest is Theodore M. Bernstein’s “The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage.” I don’t recommend it. There’s some good information in there, there's also a lot of opinion presented as fact. And because you can’t tell where research-based advice ends and the writer’s biases begin, this book can leave unwary readers misinformed.
However, there’s one little nugget of wisdom in this book that I find myself citing over and over. No other source I know of expresses it as well. In fact, most don’t address the topic at all. It has to do with prepositions.
I have an affinity with him or I have an affinity for him?
I am uninterested in that subject or I am uninterested by that subject?
She differs with her husband on that point or She differs with her husband on that point?
Are you enamored of a certain person or enamored by him?
Are you embarrassed by something or can you be embarrassed of something?
These are the types of questions that leave English speakers baffled. It seems like there’s nowhere to turn because, in a lot of cases, there isn’t. Sometimes the dictionary will drop a hint. But when it doesn’t, you’re high and dry. There is no Big Book of Which Preposition to Use With Which Adjective, Noun, or Verb. As a comprehensive listing, the information just isn't available.
Bernstein is one of few who dare to offer a blanket solution. And it’s a good one. Here’s what Bernstein says about all these preposition conundrums and more:
“These are questions that cannot be answered with rules. The proper preposition is a matter of idiom; and idioms, if they do not come ‘naturally,’ must be either learned or looked up. ... If a desired idiom cannot be found here or in an unabridged dictionary (and dictionaries do not in all instances provide this kind of information), the only thing to do is to consult three knowing friends and get a consensus.”
In other words, whenever you're wondering about a matter like "I'm angry at him" vs. "I'm angry with him," there is no better authority than the ear of a native English speaker, except of course that of four native English speakers.]]>
Just in time for your long, long New Year's resolutions list, here's a primer on how to produce letter-perfect bulleted lists!]]>
I got an e-mail from a reader named Mike who had a question about the sentence “Soon I will go to the office,” which I had used as an example in a piece I wrote. Mike wanted to know “Shouldn't there be a comma after soon?”
Sure. Or not. Whatever.
A comma after a short introductory word, phrase, or clause, I told him, is optional. So in "Soon I will go to the office," no comma is needed.
“On Tuesday I will go to the office.” “On Tuesday, I will go to the office.”
You could go either way on these. It depends solely on which way you, the writer, feel best conveys the way you want it to come across.
But the longer the introductory matter, the greater the likelihood a comma will help.
“On the third Tuesday of the month, I go to the office.”
Technically you could skip the comma in the sentence. But I wouldn’t.
“On the third Tuesday of every month that ends in the letter Y, I go to the office.”
In this one, by the time you get to the main clause (“I go”), you’re in so deep that it’s hard to remember a main clause is even coming. So in that case, I’m guess that about 99% of editors would agree a comma is needed.
It’s just one of many areas of the language in which good judgment reigns supreme.]]>
Try as you might to avoid them, sometimes there's no good way to avoid using semicolons. Usually, that means a series or a long, unwieldy list that just can't be rewritten. Here's how to use those semicolons well.
Catching errors is hard -- especially in your own writing. Here are some tips to help you seek and destroy typos and grammar mistakes.]]>
Are commas too scarce these days?
That’s the gripe of a reader who wrote to me recently. Here’s what he said: “I find that in today's writing, (even in professionally edited books), there seems to be a lack of what I call "comma sense." I find it more difficult to read something when commas have been omitted; or perhaps the author or editor doesn't see the need for them.”
I agree with him that commas are in somewhat short supply these days. But I disagree that it’s a problem.
Some commas are optional, like the one after a short introductory phrase. For example, “On a recent afternoon I went to the park.” You could put a comma after “afternoon” or not. It’s up to you.
Because rules allow people to make many of their own comma calls, the comma’s popularity runs in trends. Right now, sparse comma use is the reigning aesthetic, with the always-contrary New Yorker magazine being the most obvious exception.
Personally, I'm a devotee of the aesthetic that uses fewer commas. To my eye, unnecessary commas do more harm than good: They break up the flow of the sentence. They slow down the reader. They take a unit that could have been a snapshot of a single idea and break it into chunks the reader has to assemble himself into a single message. So in the publications I edit, I lean toward fewer rather than more commas.
But really, as long as clarity or correctness isn't on the line, it's a matter of taste ... and fashion.
Italics only apply to writers in some styles, and underlining doesn't come up much in professional writing at all. Here's a snapshot of when to -- and not to -- use them.]]>
“Data” is an English word that, like many words, is formed from the Latin. When we adopted it, we sort of pushed aside its Latin singular form, “datum.”
But sometimes it just seems kind of odd to treat it as a plural. “I’ve seen the data and it’s shocking” sounds less weird than “I have seen the data and they're shocking.”
If you find yourself in a situation where you’d really rather treat "data" as a singular, you can. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary says it’s “singular or plural in construction.”
The dictionary adds: "Data leads a life of its own quite independent of datum, of which it was originally the plural. It occurs in two constructions: as a plural noun (like earnings), taking a plural verb and plural modifiers (as these, many, a few) but not cardinal numbers, and serving as a referent for plural pronouns (as they, them); and as an abstract mass noun (like information), taking a singular verb and singular modifiers (as this, much, little), and being referred to by a singular pronoun (it). Both constructions are standard. The plural construction is more common in print, evidently because the house style of several publishers mandates it.”
So, like so many other issues in language, it comes down to whether you’re worried what other people think of your English skills. If you’re not too worried about stickler readers judging you, then you’re free to follow Merriam-Webster’s advice.
It's holiday greeting card season. And you know what that means: Humiliating grammar and punctuation errors. So I'm rehashing these reminders about mistakes to watch out for.
Happy holidays from the Smiths!
Notice how there's no apostrophe in that? One Smith, two Smiths. And it doesn't matter if your last name ends with S, Z or X. Happy holidays from the Williamses. Happy holidays from the Gomezes. Happy holidays from the Delacroixes. No apostrophe is needed to form the plural of a name.
Only if you were showing possession would an apostrophe apply. We're going to the Smiths' house (plural possessive). We're going to Mr. Smith's house (singular possessive). We're going to the Gomezes' house (plural possessive). We're going to Mr. Gomez's house (singular possessive).
If the opening line of your card has both a name and a greeting, separate those elements with a comma and end the sentence with a period, exclamation point, or colon.
Hi, Joe. Happy holidays, Beth! Hey, mom.
This is preferable to the more common
with comma at the end because it conforms with publishing style rules that say to set off a “direct address” like a name with a comma.
However, if you’re opening with just a name and some other word modifying it, like Dear Joe, My beloved Beth, or Dearest Mom, don’t put a comma between those. Also, a greeting like this you can end with a comma or a colon, but note that a period or exclamation point wouldn’t make as much sense because -- unlike Hey, Joe -- Dear Joe is not a complete sentence.
Christmas and New Year’s are proper nouns and are thus both capitalized. Happy and merry are not (though of course you'd capitalize them at the beginning of a sentence). Nor is holiday. New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day are also proper names that should be capitalized. But dictionaries disagree on the singular new year. Webster’s New World College Dictionary lowercases new year. But Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary says to capitalize New Year. Except in the most generic of contexts, I like the capitalized New Year better.
So you could write:
Wishing you and merry Christmas and a happy New Year! or … and a happy new year!
Both are fine.
The spelling of Hanukkah can be tricky because this word is transliterated from a different alphabet, and people disagree on which English letter best represents any particular foreign sound. But if you might want to note that Hanukkah is the preferred spelling of Webster’s New World and Merriam-Webster’s and, yes, it's capitalized.
Greeting cards have a way of inviting in some of the most incriminating spelling and grammar errors (maybe we’re so worried about coming up with something to say to Grandma that we forget to police ourselves), so watch out for these common typos.
Never use of in place of have or its abbreviated form 've in the terms could’ve, would’ve, should’ve, might've, or their spelled-out forms could have, would have, should have, and might have.
Remember the difference between let’s and lets: Let’s get together in the New Year means let us get together. Whereas the one without the apostrophe is the verb to let conjugated in the third-person singular: Uncle Lou really lets his hair down during the holidays.
Remember to watch their, they’re, and there, as well as who’s and whose.
Their shows possession – We will go to their house for Christmas dinner. They’re means they are. And there is a place.
Whose shows possession – Whose turn is it to cook? Who’s is always a contraction of who is or who has: Who’s going to cook this year?
When in doubt, find out. Ask a friend, check a dictionary, or run a quick Google search.
And happy holidays!]]>
The construction "from blank to blank" does not, by necessity, take a comma -- a fact that a lot of writers miss.]]>
I was like, “No way.”
The word “like” is legend among grammar grumblers. There are several uses of "like" that they take issue with. But the one they hate most is when it's a synonym for “said.”
“I was like, ‘totally.’”
“She was like, ‘Right?’”
And so on.
This use of “like” has been annoying parents for so long now that the annoyers are becoming parents themselves. And by the time the perpetrators of X, Y or Z language atrocity enter adulthood, their language quirks usually become mainstream, accepted, correct.
No, that’s not a bad thing. That’s how pretty much every word became a word and how every correct usage today became correct usage. Everything was wrong once. So I was wondering if “like” had yet gained any respectability as a formal substitute for “said.”
I’m not finding any evidence that it has. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary does not mention the usage. And Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, which is normally the first to defend such contested constructions, doesn’t mention it either.
So technically “I was like, ‘No way” isn’t sanctioned in formal speech yet.
Still, I kind of like it. It has a connotation that “said” does not. It suggests a reaction that may or may not have been overtly spoken. So it affords the user a freedom that “said” does not.
“I was like, ‘No way’” can mean that those were the words you spoke or that those were the words that ran silently through your head. But “I said, ‘No way’” leaves no such wiggle room. So this usage of “to be like,” which I bet will be sanctioned someday, can be a lot more fun.]]>
Nominalizations - nouns derived from verbs or adjectives - can turn an interesting action or description into an inanimate thing. And that, at times, can make for bad writing. Here's how to handle nominalizations well.]]>
A friendly reminder: Don’t say “between you and I.” And don’t say “The boss wants to talk with Bob and I” or “Thanks for meeting with John and I.”
It’s me. Me, me, me. In all those sentences, “I” is a poor choice. Yes, you could argue that the “I” form is idiomatic. But why would you want to? You’re just inviting people to look down their noses at you. And because it’s just as easy to use “me,” there’s no reason to come off like you don’t know the difference between object and subject pronouns.
And if you don’t know the difference now, you will in about thirty seconds. Here goes: “I” is a subject pronoun, which means it acts as the subject of a verb. “Me” is an object pronoun, which means it works as the object of a verb or the object of a preposition. So it’s:
I am here = I is the subject of the verb am
I believe in hard work = I is the subject of the verb believe
I knocked his block off = I is the subject of the verb knocked
Kiss me = me is the object of the verb kiss
He saw me = me is the object of the verb saw
Come with me = me is the object of the preposition with
Talk to me = me is the object of the preposition to
Easy right? Yes. And contrary to popular belief, it’s just as easy when you introduce another person. Nothing changes.
She and I are here = I is a subject of the verb are
Brad and I believe in hard work = I is a subject of the verb believe
My trusty robot and I knocked his block off = I is the subject of the verb knocked
Kiss my baby and me = me is the object of the verb kiss
He saw Craig and me = me is the object of the verb saw
Come with Claire and me = me is the object of the preposition with
Talk to Steve and me = me is the object of the preposition to
When in doubt, just try the sentence without the other person. If it’s “me” when Steve, Claire and the gang are absent, it’s “me” when they’re present, too.]]>
Most people use dictionaries to look up definitions and spellings But in fact, the dictionary holds the answers to a lot of seemingly tough grammar questions -- if only you know how to use it.]]>
I’m a fan of the primetime comedy “Parks and Recreation.” It’s funny, endearing, smart and, as a bonus, features beauty shots of City Hall in my hometown, Pasadena, California.
The show centers around the life of Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), who in the beginning of the series was a city staffer in the parks department but who eventually gets elected to the city council. From there out, she becomes what they call a “councilor.” Not a councilmember, not a councilwoman. A councilor.
I like it.
Moons ago, I worked as a city hall reporter for a small community paper and as editor of another small community paper. In both towns, the elected local representatives called themselves “councilmembers.” If I remember right, this was also what they were called in official records and documents. But it made no difference to us. Our style was to use “councilman” or “councilwoman.”
This kind of gender specificity seems archaic, akin to terms like “lady doctor.” But after the thousand times I had to change “councilmember” to “councilwoman,” I was pretty much indoctrinated.
I don’t cover city government anymore, but I do edit stories about organizations that designate people to speak on their behalf. In their minds, one of these officials is called a “spokesperson.” But a lot like “councilmember,” “spokespersons” don’t exist in my editing universe. You’re either a spokesman or spokeswoman.
The Kool-Aid I drank must have been supersized, because “member” and “person” always sound wrong to me tacked on the end of a word like “council” or “spokes.”
A nice, generic word that sweeps all this bad blood under the rug seems just what the doctor ordered. That’s why I like “councilor.”]]>
"One of the only," some people say, doesn't make any sense. But when you look up "only," things start to look different.]]>
For example, I see "whom" used a lot in ways such as this: “John is a man whom I know will always help us when we need him.” People who know that “whom” is an object figure that, in a sentence like this, it’s functioning as an object of the verb “know.” But it’s not. The object of the verb “know” in this sentence is not a single word but a whole clause “who will always help us.” Clauses need subjects. The verb “help” in this clause needs a subject. So correct here would be the subject pronoun “who”: “John is a man who I know will always help us.”
Sometimes it seems “whom” is just mean. And because it’s fading from all from the most formal uses, it’s tempting to look forward to the day we can bid it good riddance.
But here’s why “whom” is not going to die: in one specific construction, people clearly prefer it.
“I’m spending the day with my sister, with who I share many interests.”
That’s totally unnatural, right? Even in the most casual usage, someone who finds herself hemmed in to a sentence like this is going to say “with whom I share” and not “with who.”
In fact, anytime the pronoun comes immediately after a preposition, people seem to prefer “whom”
True, this situation doesn’t come up much. Casual speech usually sidesteps these constructions, for example by putting the pronoun at the beginning and the preposition at the end (“Who are you going to the movies with” instead of “With whom are you going to the movies”). But in those less-common situations, I don’t see “whom” disappearing anytime soon.
It's writing 101: Subjects and verbs must work together ...]]>
Here’s what a reader asked her: “A friend and I cannot agree on the meaning of phrases combining ‘depectively’ and a modifier – for example, ‘deceptively easy.’ I contest that something that is deceptively easy is, in fact, easy and is deceptive because it appears difficult. My friend argues that a deceptively easy task is one that appears easy but is difficult. Please help.”
Good one, huh? I always sort of took the former view: that "deceptively" before an adjective means that it has the qualities of that adjective, just it’s hard to see it at first. So someone who talks in a lot of big words but express a simple message is expressing a deceptively simple idea.
Unfortunately, Wallraff reported, it’s not that simple.
“The sad truth is that at this moment in history ‘deceptively easy’ means nothing in particular,” she wrote, citing the American Heritage Dictionary.
Here’s what that dictionary has to say.
“When deceptively is used to modify an adjective, the meaning is often unclear. Does the sentence ‘The pool is deceptively shallow’ mean that the pool is shallower or deeper than it appears?”
Unlike many other dictionaries, American Heritage likes to cite a Usage Panel -- a group of esteemed wordy types from all across the word-pushing world -- for matters like these. Here’s what American Heritage reported: “When the Usage Panel was asked to decide, 50 percent thought the pool shallower than it appears, 32 percent thought it deeper than it appears, and 18 percent said it was impossible to judge. “
As a result, American Heritage gives this advice, which is basically the same as Wallraff’s: When the context does not make the meaning of ‘deceptively clear, the sentence should be rewritten, as in; The pool is shallower than it looks’ or ‘The pool is shallow, despite its appearance.’”]]>
A quick refresher on the basics ...]]>
Every wonder how to punctuate bulleted lists? You're not alone. Here are a couple of easy approaches.]]>
“I picked at it and squoze it and so forth and messed myself up a little,” he reported.
Aside from the question of why a public figure would say something so gross to reporters, this statement raises the obvious question: Squoze? Really? Is that, like, a word?
Not according to grammar-nazi columnist James Kilpatrick, who wrote that he had never heard such a thing. And not according to Webster’s New World dictionary or Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, both of which note that the past participle of “squeeze” is “squeezed” and only “squeezed.”
And with that, we enter the realm of “dialectical past tenses.”
Words like “thunk,” “brung,” and “squoze” can be heard in certain little subgroups around the country. For example, “squoze” is most common in regions that grow oranges, according to Merriam Webster's Dictionary of English Usage. Past forms like this are not “standard,” which means that they’re not widely used, so dictionaries don’t include them.
Remember, that's how dictionaries work: All they do – for every word, spelling, pronunciation, definition, and inflected form – is report how we, the English-speaking people, use the language. They don’t tell us what’s right or wrong. They listen to us, then report back what they heard in tomes called dictionaries. We take these rulings as right and wrong. That’s our choice and it’s a good one. After all, there’s no better referee of the language in existence. Still, “squoze” is only wrong if we decide to put that label on terms excluded by dictionaries.
I actually do. In my work as a copy editor, I need a referee. I need someone to just “make the call” on a million little matters. I accept dictionaries' decisions as matters of right and wrong. But linguists aren't fond of labels like “wrong.” They prefer labels like “dialectical” and “nonstandard.”
So while I can assure you that the word “squoze” won’t show up in any article I’m editing (outside of a quotation of course), you can think what you will about Reagan’s having squoze a growth on his nose.]]>
As I’ve reported before, I don’t like it when there's, a contraction of there is, comes before a plural. Like: "There's people inside" or even "There's a lot of people inside."
It's an unusual situation because usually a pronoun before a verb dictates the number of the verb (He is here. They are here.) But there can be different from he or they because it can work as something called the “existential there,” which does not dictate the number of the verb.
“There is a car parked on the street.”
“There are cars parked on the street.”
Notice how the verb changes even though there doesn’t? With existential there, the real and intended subject isn’t there, even though there is positioned like a subject, right before the verb. These sentences really say:
“A car is parked on the street.”
“Cars are parked on the street.”
We can tweak them a little to give them emphasis by putting “there is” in front, nudging the real subject to a sort of second-fiddle position. Nonetheless, the traditional take on these types of sentences is that this “notional subject” -- the word car in "There is a car parked on the street" or "There are cars parked on the street" -- still dictates the number of the verb (is or are).
Yet people don't always do it this way. In a lot of cases, especially when there are intervening words like a lot, people use there plus the contracted form of is before a plural.
“There’s a lot of cars parked on the street.”
Is it wrong? Not exactly. It’s considered a pretty standard idiom. But, as I’ve reported in the past, it has long bothered me anyway. That’s probably because I learned it was “wrong” before I learned that it is, in fact, okay. And usually what happens is that, once I learn something is okay, it slowly begins to sound okay to me.
So it seemed I should give a little update on where I stand today on there’s before a plural. Here goes: I still don’t like it. It still sounds bad to me. It still has a ring like “Joe want money” or “Cats is cuddly.”
Will I ever change my mind? I’ll keep you posted.]]>
Apostrophes are culprits in some of the most common mistakes you don't want to make.]]>
Years ago, someone told me you can’t use the word “quote” to mean “quotation.” As in, you can’t say, “There aren’t enough quotes in this article.” You have to say, “There aren’t enough quotations in this article.”
I think it came with a little lecture on nouns vs. verbs – that is, that “quote” is a verb, you quote someone, and “quotation” is a noun, you use his quotation. But I’m not sure. It was a long time ago.
When you get a piece of advice like this, the logical thing to do is check it. The answer’s as close as the nearest dictionary. So of course, I didn’t. I just spent the next who-knows-how-many years deleting “quote” and replacing it with “quotation” anytime I was worried who might see it.
There’s an old saying about laziness – something about how it ends up causing you more work. I’m sure I could find it if I tried.
But instead, I’ll spend my one precious bit of energy today looking up “quote.”
Surprise, surprise. In Merriam-Webster’s, Webster’s New World, and American Heritage dictionaries, after its main entry as a verb, it says that “quote” can also be a noun -- a synonym of “quotation.”
So all these years I could have been saying, “Let’s add another quote” or “I don’t like this quote” instead of worrying that I’d get rapped on the knuckles for not using “quotation” instead.
What’s that famous quote? “Better late than never”?
A common mistake you don't want to make ...]]>
<<Regarding ending sentences with prepositions … We should avoid the practice because ending a sentence on a preposition almost always creates a passive sentence.>>
I wrote back, trying to get to the bottom of what he was talking about -- and trying to explain passives. He must have seen that his grasp of passives wasn't what he thought it was, because he backed off on that argument. But he stood firm against sentence-ending prepositions.
<<Sentences that end on prepositions are longer, less comprehensible and less exciting than necessary. For example: That is the table the book is on. The book is on the table.>>
Sigh. I shouldn’t be shocked to see such a twisted grasp of the issue. And I shouldn't have been shocked that it came from someone who identified himself as a professional writer who taught English. But I was.
Yes, “That is the table the book is on” is a clunkier sentence than “The book is on the table.” But the clunkiness is not caused by a sentence-ending preposition. It’s caused by a desire to say something quite different from the other sentence. In the longer sentence, the point is that THAT is the table. The whole first clause is dedicated to clarifying which table we’re talking about. “The book is on the table” says something else.
So I e-mailed him the following examples:
Who are you blowing kisses to? / To whom are you blowing kisses?
A claw hammer, not an ax, was the tool he murdered her with. / A claw hammer, not an ax, was the tool with which he murdered her.
What are you talking about? / About what are you talking?
In none of these does a sentence-ending preposition cause a passive. (A passive, as I tried to explain to him, occurs when the object of a transitive verb, like “dinner” in “Joe cooked dinner,” is made the grammatical subject of the sentence, as in “Dinner was cooked by Joe.")
Nor does a sentence-ending preposition in these examples create sentences “longer, less comprehensible and less exciting than necessary.”
He wrote back that the claw hammer example (which, by the way, I borrowed from Strunk & White) would be better as just “He murdered her with a claw hammer, not an ax.” I agreed. But that wasn't the point. The point was that, some sentences work best with a preposition at the end. And there's no reason to object when they do.
That’s why they jump so fast to correct you when you end a sentence with a preposition or split an infinitive or use “between” where they think you should use “among” -- or whatever rule they have the hots for.
I’ll confess I’m not immune to those impulses. And working as an editor and proofreader makes it worse. It’s my job to stay on high alert for errors, crouched and ready to pounce.
And though I’m convinced that language peevishness is a very bad idea, I still can’t help but be irked by a few things I consider wrong, like the punctuation in the following sentence:
My wife likes to use the word “fantastic”, though I prefer “wonderful”.
In British English, that would be correct. But in American English, periods and commas go inside the quotation marks. And, no, it doesn’t matter whether they’re conceptually part of the quotation. It’s a style convention decided long ago for aesthetic reasons.
Unfortunately, most people don’t know this rule. Instead, when faced with a sentence like the one above, people try to apply logic instead. But the rule isn’t logical. (Especially when you consider that there’s a different rule for quotation marks and exclamation points. Those can go before or after a closing quotation mark, depending on whether they pertain to the whole sentence or just the quoted part.)
So virtually all the writing you see on the Internet that isn’t professionally edited gets it wrong.
As a result, the rule is probably dying. But it’s not dead yet. And until it is, seeing a period or comma after a closing quotation mark will continue to bring out in me something I wish wasn’t there.
This friend is not just a professional writer but also a longtime copy editor. In fact, she’s the person I ask to cover for me on some of my freelance jobs when I go on vacation. She knows her way around the language. But she felt she needed my help recently. She was proofreading a manuscript of a novel for a friend and needed to know how to form the plural of “ho,” as in the slang term for “whore.”
“Any thoughts on this?” she asked.
I didn’t want to think. I wanted to know. So I went to Merriam-Webster’s website, m-w.com. (I chose Merriam-Webster over Webster’s New World, which at yourdictionary.com, because I knew she was editing a book and books are usually edited according to the guidelines in the Chicago Manual of Style, which uses MW as its go-to dictionary.)
I’ll confess, I was a little surprised to see what happened when I typed in “ho.” I got this.
ho – plural hos or hoes – slang: whore
There it was.
Now, dictionaries always list their preferred forms first. So from this we know that Merriam-Webster considers hos the standard plural. But personally, if I had the leeway, I’d go with hoes. Its similarity to the garden tool makes it easier to recognize the sound, unlike hos, which looks more like it would rhyme with Ross.
I told my friend so. She agreed. And I got to be the answer lady, just because I knew where to look for an answer.]]>
When a pronoun like he or she could refer to any of a number of people, you've committed an error known as an unclear antecedent. And it can be really annoying to your reader.]]>
Here are two weird words: wrong and right. And when I say they’re weird, I mean their adverb forms.
Do it right. Don’t do it wrong.
In both those sentences, right and wrong are functioning adverbially. They’re modifying the verb do. But neither ends with ly.
That’s not weird in and of itself. There are lots of “flat adverbs” in English. For example, if you look up quick and slow in the dictionary, you’ll see they can be used as adverbs in place of quickly and slowly.
But right and wrong are different because they’re actually more standard as adverbs than their ly counterparts: rightly and wrongly.
Do it rightly and Don't do it wrongly both sound weird compared to Do it right and Don't do it wrong.
Of course, glaringly obvious reality doesn't stop everyone. Some are too eager to leap to assumptions you're wrong, like the guy who e-scolded me years ago when I wrote the sentence: Be careful not to use it wrong.
Here was his reply:
It seems that you do not agree that only adverbs can modify verbs. ... One cannot use anything "wrong," only "wrongly." "Incorrectly" would be a more appropriate adverb to use. ... In your incorrect use of "wrong" there is no doubt that you are wrong. I therefor challenge you to admit your mistake in a follow-up article for all to read. I am not holding my breath."
More amazing: He was one of two people who wrote to spank me for that "error."
I did, in fact, print their remarks in a subsequent column (without too much snickering at the misspelled "therefor"), with the note:
Please open your dictionaries to the word "wrong." Please see that, following the first cluster of definitions under "adj.," adjective, comes the abbreviation "adv." Adverb. "Wrong" is an adverb. And you are both wrong.
Two good words to keep straight ...]]>
Here’s an example from a Yahoo Finance headline I saw a while back:
Stocks Pull Back: Why it Might Not Last
One look at that headline and I know that someone in the organization doesn’t know what he or she is doing. The reason: the lowercase I in “it.”
A lot of editing styles capitalize the first letter of most words in a headline, but they make exceptions for some prepositions, articles, and conjunctions – especially short ones of three or fewer letters – unless they come at the beginning or end of the headline.
“Simpson Back in Jail” – Here, the word “in” is lowercase because it’s a short preposition that doesn’t happen to be the first or last word. But if "in" were first or last word, the "i" would be capitalized: “In Jails, Healthcare Suffers” or in “Sheen Decries the Mess He’s In.” (Not great headlines, I know. They’re just for illustration.)
Now, these capitalization rules aren’t a matter of right and wrong. This is a style thing. But when you’re making a clear effort to follow this style, you don’t want the world to see that you don’t know how.
In the case of our Yahoo headline, the editor was probably used to seeing “Simpson Back in Jail” and gave “it” the same treatment as “in.” That was a mistake.
"In" is a preposition. "It" is a pronoun.
I see the same mistake with “is.” Just because it’s a two-letter word starting with I doesn’t mean it should be treated like “in.” "Is" is a verb.
Some online publications just skirt the whole issue by capitalizing every single letter, including all the prepositions, articles and conjunctions: “Simpson In Jail And Out Of The Way.” At least in this style you don’t have to test your editors’ knowledge of prepositions, conjunctions and articles. But it sure looks ugly.
The best course is just to learn the basic parts of speech before you publish.]]>
Here’s another thing I can’t help but wince at, even though I know grammar wincing is pointless:
There’s a lot of people outside.
I don’t know how I got so invested in the idea that that should be There are a lot of people outside. But I, unwisely, let it rub me the wrong way every time I hear “there’s” before a plural.
Here’s the idea:
There’s is a contraction of “there is.” Is is singular. It goes with a singular subject, the dog is, versus are which is for a plural subject, the dogs are.
Sentences like There is a dog outside or There are dogs outside are kind of special. Notice that the grammatical subject of both is there. So theoretically the verb shouldn’t change. But in fact, these sentences are unusual. In There is a dog outside, there is functioning as a pronoun, but the real intended subject of the verb isn’t there. It’s dog. This sentence really means “A dog is outside.”
Grammarians label this “the existential there.” The word there is the grammatical subject and dog is something called a notional subject. It’s sort of the intended subject even though it’s been upstaged from the subject position by the pronoun there.
In these sentences, the verb is supposed to agree with the notional subject. So There are dogs and There is a dog are both correct because the verbs match the notional subject.
But over the years, there’s has become a handy shorthand for either there is or there are, especially when the next word to follow is some modifier like a lot, which has a singular flavor.
That's why There’s a lot of dogs outside sounds much better than There’s dogs outside.
Either way, though, you can get away it: “Like other grammatical subjects, [there] often determines the number concord, taking a singular verb even though the notional subject is plural” says the Oxford English Grammar. “This usage is common in informal speech.”
In other words, I should loosen up a bit on this one.
Nothing says "I wasn't paying attention to what I was writing" like a tense shift. The secret to avoiding them? Stay alert.]]>
Here’s what AP says:
co- Retain the hyphen when forming nouns, adjectives and verbs that indicate occupation or status: co-author, co-chairman, co-defendant, co-host, co-owner, co-partner, co-pilot, co-respondent (in a divorce suit), co-signer, co-sponsor, co-star, co-worker.
Use no hyphen in other combinations: coed, coeducation, coequal, coexist, coexistence, cooperate, cooperative, coordinate, coordination.
Elsewhere in the guide, AP encourages hyphenation of compounds that create double vowels, like re-enter. So under co-, AP notes that coordinate and cooperate are exceptions. I assume that’s because they’ve become standard words in English and are no longer considered compounds as much as they are freestanding words.
The Chicago Manual of Style, in its 15th edition, left a lot of wiggle room in their rules, basically allowing users to choose between coworker and co-worker. But its 16th edition takes a firmer stance.
Compounds formed with prefixes are normally closed, whether they are nouns, verbs, adjectives, or adverbs.
Chicago of course makes some exceptions. Most notable is that you should use a hyphen to separate “combinations of letters or syllables that might cause a misreading.” One of the examples they give is “pro-life.”
Yet under the entry for the prefix co-, Chicago actually includes coworker as an example of a word that does not take a hyphen.
Personally, I don’t see why prolife would be any more troublesome than coworker. In the latter, you’re actually spelling the word “cow” with your first syllable, whereas pro plus L doesn't make a separate word.
I don’t normally argue with style guides’ rules. As far as I’m concerned, they’re just referees making calls – many of them just for consistency’s sake. And I don’t consider style issues particularly important – after all, if serial commas were so important, everyone would have agreed on their utility long ago. Yet serial commas are optional, so I’m fine with letting style guides tell me whether or not to use them.
But coworker is different. It’s ugly, weird and, well, cow-like. Me, I’ll use co-worker every time I have an option, which, if you know how to read between the lines of a style guide, is pretty often.
We usually think of pronouns as just words like he, him and his. But indefinite pronouns are important to understand, too.
Here’s a word that came up in an article I was editing the other day: fuschia. The article was describing the color of something, and I blasted right through the sentence without a second thought. When I got to the end of the article, I did what I always do: I read it again. (In copy editing classes, we teach students to always read everything at least twice. Do this enough and you’ll see why. It’s pretty much impossible to catch every error and every questionable issue on the first pass.)
Reading through the article a second time, I noticed a few little things that needed questioning. But I didn’t hesitate at “fuschia.”
Finally, just before I was about to send the story back to the editor, I did another thing I always do: I ran spell-check.
Say what you will about spell-check. I know it’s downright stupid at times. Its ignorance of how prefixes and suffixes work is especially annoying: Spell-check doesn’t get that a prefix or suffix can create words that aren’t in the dictionary but are nonetheless perfectly legitimate. So it tells you that perfectly fine words are wrong.
But, weaknesses aside, spell-check has one strength: it can scrutinize every letter of every word much more easily than a human can. And guess what it stopped on: fuschia. So I fixed it and took another quick look at the rest of the document. Then, out of reflex, I hit spell-check again. It stopped on just one word: fuchia, which is how I had “corrected” the spelling of fuschia.
I got it wrong when I wasn't trying, then I got it wrong again when I was.
Turns out, it’s spelled fuchsia, which I will ever after remember as “fuk-see-ya.”
Joe is dating a beautiful supermodel.
Joe is dating a supermodel.
Clearly, the noun “supermodel” does not need to be propped up by an adjective. It’s plenty powerful enough on its own.
Naturally, adjectives exist for a reason. You can’t just take the adjective out of the sentence: “For a supermodel, she wasn’t particularly beautiful.” But especially before a noun, an adjective can come off like a weak attempt to convince your reader of something he should be able to decide for himself.
So adjectives have enough problems of their own. Yet marketers, it seems, are determined to bludgeon them into complete meaninglessness. They do this by using adjectives as mere noise. In marketers’ hands, adjectives are often born just to be ignored.
Take, for example, the Kashi brand cereal flavor in my cupboard right now: Island Vanilla.
Really, Kashi? Is that supposed to mean anything other than “vanilla plus some extra syllables to make it sound like something more than plain-old vanilla”?
Here’s another Kashi flavor I like: Harvest Wheat. Again, what is the modifier telling me about what I can expect when I open the box? Nothing. In all the memory banks of my mind, there’s nothing of substance that conveys the difference between “harvest wheat” and plain-old “wheat.”
Kashi isn’t alone in this practice, not by a long shot.
Ragu has a flavor called Garden Vegetable, as opposed to what? Factory Vegetable?
Luden’s makes Wild Cherry cough drops, which we can only presume are superior to those awful farmed cherries.
And Kettle Chips come in this flavor: Backyard Barbeque. (You can almost taste the chain-link fence and kiddie pool.)
And what might a blind taste test tell us about the difference between chocolate and Dutch chocolate, between vanilla and French vanilla?
Examples of this kind of hot-air blowing are too numerous to count. And while it’s standard marketing procedure, I can’t help but think we should all be wee bit insulted by it. When marketers slap meaningless words onto product names in this fashion, it’s worse than telling people “Don’t think.” It’s telling people: “We know you don’t think and we’re so confident about it that we’re going to rub your noses in it.”
Okay, maybe that’s a little hypersensitive. But it’s still an insult to consumers and an act of violence against adjectives.
Think for a moment about the following adjectives: poor, downtrodden, wealthy, well-to-do, meek.
They’re definitely adjectives, right?
Well, here’s a cool thing about English: Sometimes you can use adjectives as nouns (and, I should add, vice-versa). And when you do, there’s even a name for them. They’re called nominal adjectives.
That is, poor people can be referred to as the poor. And that can work as a noun in a sentence: The poor often live in bad school districts.
Ditto that for wealthy. The wealthy often live in good school districts.
And everyone knows who shall inherit the earth: the meek.
Even the following use can be considered an example of a nominal adjective in use:
I tried on the blue shirt but bought the red. Here, the red is functioning as a noun -- the object of the verb bought -- even though it’s just shorthand for the red shirt.
That’s a little different because the red isn’t as substantive a noun as the poor, which is well-known to be a thing (“things” being members in good standing of the group known as nouns.)
And there you have yet another interesting (to some people) trait about the English language …]]>
Some people love to use ellipses. Some abuse them. But almost everyone seems to have some questions about how to use them properly. Here are the basics.]]>
that and which
toward and towards
among and amongst
amid and amidst
underway and under way
cellphone and cell phone
healthcare and health care
child care and childcare
For about 99% of the population, these choices matter not at all. That is, you can say your character ran toward the explosion or he ran towards it. They mean the same thing. And almost no one will notice your choice anyway.
But editors will. And if you put the sentence "Joe ran towards the explosion" under the nose of an editor or copy editor, chances are it'll get changed to "toward," even though you may not notice it.
The reason? Well, a lot of editing choices are about consistency, some are about efficiency, some are about voice and some, like that and which, are about nothing at all.
Style guides say that you can't use which for what are called restrictive clauses: That is the car which I'll be driving. But that's just a style rule, not a grammar rule. And most people wouldn't put which in that sentence anyway. Either that or nothing at all would be better.
For cases like health care and healthcare in which you have to choose between a one-word and a two-word form, it often doesn't matter. Dictionaries disagree on which is correct, and some allow both. So you can either check your preferred dictionary or just not worry about it.
As for amongst and amidst, however, I'd actually recommend cashing those in for their shorter cousins, among and amid, in most cases. The longer forms are so unpopular in professional publishing that they carry a subtle air of amateurishness in a lot of cases. Or maybe that's just my warped view. Bottom line: Unless you're the editor, you probably don't have to worry about any of these.]]>
Here’s a word that separates the careful writers from everyone else: lineup. You know you’re reading something that’s not edited by a pro when you see: “On Saturday night, the club will have a great line-up.”
Just as telling: “On Saturday night, the club will have a great line up.”
And this mistake you don’ see as often, luckily: “The patrons had to lineup in front of the building to get in.”
That last one is a particular danger to anyone who doesn’t know to be skeptical of spell check. Most spell-check programs don’t question the one-word lineup because it is, in fact, a legit word. Yet it’s still wrong in that sentence. Here’s why.
The one-word lineup is a noun: We have a great lineup of performers today. The coach something-something’d the starting lineup. (I don’t speak sports. But you get the idea.)
The verb form is two words: Line up the planters against the wall. The children should line up outside the building at 8 a.m.
There’s no need to ever hyphenate it. Though, technically, according to the rules of punctuation, you could turn the two-word form into an adjective by writing "The line-up procedure is as follows." But that’s rare, and most people would probably just use the noun attributively (as an adjective) there anyway: The lineup procedure is as follows.
To write like a pro, use the one word lineup when you need a noun, use the two word line up when it's a verb, and never hyphenate it.
Well, those rules aren't so clear. Here's how to navigate them.]]>
“Spring is a wonderful time to visit,” says tourism board representative Jane Doe.
“The potholes will be fixed by summer,” said the mayor.
“The new Jetta has also been redesigned,” spokesman Joe Dane says.
The reason these drive me nuts? I have to change them to
tourism board representative Jane Doe SAID
the mayor SAID
spokesman Joe Dane SAID
Why do I have to change every “says” to “said” and put every one of them after the name instead of before? Because that’s how I first learned to do it, darn it.
In my first couple editing jobs, I was exposed a lot to the idea that news and feature articles should 1. use everyday, conversational language and 2. make sense.
The word “says” in “Joe Dane says” suggests he does so regularly. That’s different from “said,” which suggests he said so in an interview with a reporter. A reporter can know whether Dane said something in an interview, but he probably doesn't know whether Dane runs around saying it all the time. What’s more, it wouldn’t matter that much if he did. We’re not reporting on the man’s habits. We’re reporting on the car, and Dane’s telling us once that it’s redesigned is all that’s probably relevant to the story.
As for the part about using everyday language: In conversation, you don’t say, “Said Betty, lunch will be served in the conference room.” You say, “Betty said lunch will be served in the conference room.” Putting “said” or “says” before the name is contrary to normal conversational language and often Yoda-like (Rants on, she does).
So I like my quotation attributions in the past tense and in most cases I like the “said” to come after the name. The obvious exception, of course, is when something else must immediately follow the name. Like, “The Jetta has been totally redesigned,” said Joe Dane, president of North American sales.
But here’s why I can’t defend my position: These aren’t rules. Not in the larger world, anyway. And though some publications may have a policy of not using present-tense quotation attributions or ones that put the “say” part before the name part, it doesn’t mean you can’t do it that way. It just means that no one who writes for a publication I edit can do it that way.]]>
It was my job to proofread it.
And I did. Well. I found a missing closing parenthesis in the tiny agate type in the winner listings. I found a wrong verb tense in the middle of an article. I found missing italics on several web addresses. (It’s this publication’s style to put them in italics. If that’s not your style, that’s okay, too.)
And after finding these couple of needles in this big, brain-numbing haystack, I was pretty proud of myself, as I usually am. (Hey, catching typos is hard.) I put the marked-up copy back on the editor’s desk and went home for the day.
The next morning, however, I changed my tune when I walked in and my editor held up a copy of the front page. Luckily, he was laughing when he pointed to the title of the publication, which ran across the cover page in huge type: “The 2013 International Wine, Beer and Spirits Competion.”
Competion, not competition.
I learned years ago that the best way to catch these types of errors is to look at a document several different ways. There’s the up-close, magnifying-glass-in-hand scrutiny that let me catch those missing italics and parenthesis. Then there’s the take-a-step-back second look. I literally move the pages farther from my eyes, glance at the document as a whole, try to imagine I’m the reader seeing it for the first time, and look at the big picture stuff you just don’t notice when you’re holding that magnifying glass.
I look at the photos. I look at the captions. I look at the layout. And I read the headline and subhead.
That arm's-length portion of the process is usually all it takes to catch big errors. But not always. For whatever reason, I just don’t always see every error. And I like to believe it’s not just me.
The lessons here? When proofreading, there are no limits you should not go to in order to catch errors. Stand on your head if it helps. Read out loud. All future typos are, quite simply, inexcusable.
But yesterday’s typos – well, nobody’s perfect.]]>
Do you know about quasi possessives? You probably should. Unlike so many other things in language you can figure out on your own, quasi possessives are one of those things you just have to know. And since you’re visiting a grammar site, chances are you’re one of the people who’d like to know it. So here goes.
You know how people talk about a hard day’s work or two weeks’ pay or getting your dollar’s worth? Well, those are all considered quasi possessives. They get treated as possessives even though they don’t convey the same degree of “ownership,” if you will, as do regular possessives.
AP discusses these in its on using apostrophes and says that phrases as a day’s pay, two weeks’ vacation, three days’ work and your money’s worth all get the possessive treatment.
The Chicago Manual of Style calls this the “possessive with genitive,” which I don’t love because “genitive” roughly translates to “possessive,” making the whole term seem a bit nonsensical. However, this use of the word “genitive” is a nod to the fact that there are two ways to form possessives in English. Either with an apostrophe plus S (or, in the case most plurals, just an apostrophe): Joe’s house, the Smiths’ daughter. The other way, and this is more consistent with English’s Latin roots, is to use of: the house of Joe, the daughter of the Smiths.
As Chicago describes it, forms like a week's pay are a carry-over from the latter: “Possessive with genitive. Analogous to possessives, and formed like them, are certain experssions based on the old genitive case. The genitive here implies ‘of’: in three days’ time, an hour’s delay, six months’ leave.”
If it helps to think of these as “three days of time” or “an hour of delay,” do. But I find it easier just to remember that these expressions are possessive-like. Or, as both guides recommend, you can also tweak the sentence so you have a hyphenated compound like “a six-month leave” or “a two-week vacation.”
For more than a decade now, I’ve been hearing bone-chilling tales of undead teachers haunting former students from the great beyond with bad information: You can’t end a sentence with a preposition. You can't use healthy to mean healthful. You can't start a sentence with but.
The stubborn persistence of these bad teachings never ceases to amaze me. But from time to time these chilling tales go beyond the pale, wowing me with just how bad bad information can be.
Case in point, an e-mail I got recently:
Dear June. Today, in your column from the Pasadena Sun section of the L.A. Times, you used "the writer got bogged down." I will never forget several teachers, including one particularly memorable Mrs. Hamilton, telling me that using "got" in any sentence anytime was simply being lazy, that it was bad English, uncouth, uneducated, etc. You get the point.
Yup, there was once a teacher who took it upon herself to single-handedly condemn a well established and highly useful word. I particularly like that “uneducated” part -- and the irony of how it came from someone who needed only to open a dictionary to see that she was misinforming her own students. Of course, I didn’t say so to the poor guy in so many words. Instead, here’s what I wrote:
The most common objection to got is that have and got are redundant in phrases like "I have got quite a few friends." Yes, it's inefficient, but it's accepted as an idiom. Every major language authority I know of agrees it's a valid option.
We editors usually trim the gots out. Especially in news writing, which prizes efficiency, "He has got $20'" is a poor alternative to "He has $20." But that's an aesthetic. Not a grammar rule.
From what you're saying, your teacher was condemning the word got in all its uses. And, yes, that's extreme to the point of being illogical. Got is the past tense of get, which can be both a regular verb and an auxiliary verb: "They got married."
It sounds as though Mrs. Hamilton would have everyone say, "They were married." But if so, that's just a personal preference she was trying to pass off as a rule. There isn't a dictionary under the sun that would back her up.
"I hear a lot of stories about teachers who used to lay down laws that weren't laws. (It's wrong to end a sentence with a preposition. It's wrong to split an infinitive. It's wrong to begin a sentence with and.) These kinds of unfounded prohibitions were very fashionable in educational circles for a while. But they never were rules. It's unfortunate kids got so much bad information.
Hope that helps! - June
In many areas of life, such cavalier carelessness is a bad idea. But in this case, not thinking is actually better than thinking. That’s because possessives, and especially possessives of singular words that end in S, can drive you nuts if you think about them. Most people are sure that there can be only one right way to make James possessive. But in fact the rules are a mess, the language referees disagree, and on any given day you might see James’ in a newspaper and James’s in a book.
Here, according to some of the best-known language guides, are examples of correctly formed possessives of singular proper names ending in S.
Chicago Manual of Style
Associated Press Stylebook
The boss's words
The boss' sake
The boss' seat
Strunk & White's The Elements of Style*
I should note here that the Elements of Style is not an official style guide, nor do experts consider it a real language authority. But millions of people who own the book don’t know that. So it adds to the conflicting advice floating around out there.
What should you do? Pick a style -- either the “book style” of writing James’s or the “newspaper” style of writing James’ and just use that form consistently. Those funky special circumstances you see above – stuff like “boss’s word” vs. “boss’ sake” and “Jesus’ followers” -- no one expects you memorize all those. If you really need your writing to be bullet proof, you could consult a copy of AP or Chicago. But otherwise, just pick James’s or James’ and use it consistently.]]>
First to go will probably be the verb form of awake. In my world, it’s only used as an adjective. I was awake. I never hear it as a verb: When I awake.
This verb use has a distinctly Jane Austen ring to it. I shall awake before dawn. Nobody talks that way anymore, at least not anywhere I can hear them. Everyone uses wake up, woke up, and woken up.
But until the dictionaries drop it, you can continue to use it in all its weird forms without worry, right along with its weird cousins.
To form the past tense and the past participle of awaken and awake, just add “ed.”
Yesterday I awakened.
Yesterday I awaked.
In the past I have awakened.
In the past I have awaked.
Again, I’m betting that “Yesterday I awaked” and “In the past I have awaked” aren’t that useful to you. And you may not like “awakened” in casual speech, either. But that could come in handy in certain types of writing, especially fiction, where characters’ speech peculiarities so often help round them out as people.
If you forget the past tenses of any of these, remember: They’re all right in the dictionary. They’re listed right after the main entry for the word. Plus, some of these past tenses even have their own entries at m-w.com. So they’re easy to find.
Okay, I’m hamming it up a bit. But it’s just weird to write in a newspaper column perhaps a dozen times that there’s no rule against splitting infinitives and still get e-mails like one I got recently asking about a quote that appeared in the column.
The quote was lifted from another article in which a scientist was talking about proton therapy. He said that this kind of therapy “makes it feasible to just hone in on the actual tumors.”
Notice how there’s a word between “to” and “hone”? Well, so did a reader.
<< Thank you for your enjoyable column in today's paper, "A Misspoken Word Makes a Point." In the quote you use as an example, is it now all right to split infinitives, as in "Proton therapy makes it feasible to just hone in ...?" Maybe precise speech is just a dying entity. I used to collect entertaining malapropisms but there are too many nowadays.>>
So I had to be the heavy again and tell him that something he’s probably accepted as fact for decades is just myth.
<<It's not wrong to split an infinitive. Never has been.>> I wrote back. <<The idea that you can't is a longstanding myth. Garner's Modern American Usage calls it a "superstition." Every language authority under the sun, including Strunk and White's "The Elements of Style" agree on this point.>>
And thus, another small-town newspaper reader gets the bad news. One down, five million to go …]]>
They watched “Casablanca.”
That’s different from most book publishing, which uses italics. And once you understand it’s just a style thing, that’s easy enough. But it can get harder.
For example, what if you wanted to make the movie title possessive?
What if you wanted to make it plural, say, envisioning a scenario in which there were two of the same film?
Well, I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that the style guides don’t say. The good news is that the style guides don’t say. That means that, while you can’t get it right. Technically, you can’t get it wrong, either.
And here’s some better news: I recently asked some fellow copy editors what they would do, and it turns out even professionals disagree on this one.
Well, actually, they all agreed on one thing: These unsightly constructions should be avoided whenever possible. Good editors recast sentences whenever they can to spare readers such visual assaults. But when it came to where to put a plural S or a possessive S and an apostrophe, they disagreed on whether it should be inside or outside the quotation marks.
I learned many years ago that the plural or possessive S goes inside the quotation marks. Unfortunately, I don’t remember where I learned it and, because I can’t find any documentation of it now, I suspect I was putting blind faith in a source that didn’t deserve it.
Still, the lesson stuck. So if you want my personal preference, it’s this: Put all that stuff before the closing quotation mark.
If only they had made two different “Casablancas.”
If there were two of the same film, then both "Casablancas'" lead actors would be famous.
"Casablanca's" actors were critically acclaimed.
A myth out there alleges that this is an outright error. The idea is that “while” means “during,” so you can’t use it to mean “though” or
“although.” Not true.
1. … on the other hand … whereas
2. … in spite of the fact that, although (while respected, he is not liked)
3 … similarly and at the same time that (while the book will be welcomed by scholars, it will make an immediate appeal to the general reader)
That’s Merriam-Webster’s take on “while.” So clearly, it’s correct to use it as in the example sentence above. But is it a good idea? That’s a different question.
Whenever “while” comes before an action, especially an action expressed as an “ing” verb, it sounds like you’re using the other definition of “while”: “during the time that.” So “while pedaling” sounds like you mean “during the time that you’re pedaling.” And in this sentence, it’s going to be a long time until the reader gets your real meaning “while pedaling is …” When we get to the verb, "is," we can see that "while" was meant as “although.”
In my book, any “while” that can lead the reader astray should probably be replaced. “Although pedaling along the beachfront sidewalk is delightful, so too is stopping for a snowcone.”
Recently, a reader of my column wrote to ask about "won" vs. "beat." He wanted to know whether “John won his opponent" can be used to mean "John beat his opponent."
Also, isn't "won" also referencing ownership? Jon won the trophy. I hope you have the time to respond as I have a bet with my wife on the correct use.
After a few minutes of staring at my computer screen like a dog stares at a TV test pattern, here's what I replied:
Are you saying you've heard folks say "John won his opponent" to mean he defeated his opponent? That's a new one on me.
As a transitive verb, Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary definitions of win include to get, to gain, to attain, and to be successful in. In none of those usages does it seem that a person could logically follow (unless, of course, the person is the prize: Achilles won Briseis). The only times a human seems an appropriate object of that transitive verb is in definitions like to win someone over and to gain someone's support or sympathy -- neither of which equates to defeat.
So, unless I'm missing something, the Ravens didn't win the Patriots.
Does "win" mean "ownership"? Not necessarily. Some definitions include enough elbow room for that, others don't seem to. You don't really own an argument you won, do you?
Anyway, I hope that helps (and I hope your wife doesn't hate me now!).
A team of rivals was/were meeting the statehouse.
A bunch of whiners is/are affecting morale.
A flock of birds fly/flies by every day.
Everyone knows that a team was meeting but rivals were meeting. Everyone knows that a bunch is affecting but whiners are affecting. And everyone knows that a flock flies but birds fly.
But when noun phrase contains a singular noun and a plural noun, things can get pretty confusing. How do you know which noun should govern the verb?
Actually, the answer is easier than most would guess. You just take your pick. It’s up to you.
When your subject is a noun phrase with more than one noun, like “a team of rivals,” either one can "do" something. That is, either noun can get a verb. So choosing the verb depends only on which one of the nouns most seems to you like the one performing the action of the verb.
If you think the focus is more on the individual rivals than the whole team, you can write “A team of rivals were.” If you think it's more about the team, you can write “A team of rivals was.”
There really is no right or wrong way. And your own ear is by far your best guide.
However, I have a way of looking at these structures that may help.
Every noun phrase -- a team of rivals, a bunch of whiners, a flock of birds -- has a head noun. Now, recall that a prepositional phrase is a preposition like “of” plus its object, which is always a noun or pronoun. The "of rivals" and "of whiners" are prepositional phrases within the larger noun phrase.
The job of a prepositional phrases is to *modify.* They act sort of like adjectives or adverbs, depending on where they’re placed and what they point to. In a team of rivals, a bunch of whiners, and a flock of birds, the “of” phrases are all modifying nouns (team, bunch, and flock). So they’re really functioning like adjectives of those nouns. That’s how we know that team, bunch, and flock are the head nouns in their respective noun phrases.
Now, there’s no rule that says that the head noun gets the verb. There’s no reason nouns in the prepositional phrases can’t be doing some action. But I give head nouns a little more authority. As a default, I figure the head noun should get first stab at governing the verb. Only if it sounds funny do I make the verb agree with the object of the preposition.
So how would I write our three example sentences? Let’s see …
a team of rivals were (I feel that the rivals here are more important than the team.)
a bunch of whiners are (Ditto. Whiners seem to rule this noun phrase.)
a flock of birds flies (Here, I think the emphasis is on the whole flock.)
But if you disagree, your opinion is as valid as mine.
That's the peculiar power of "every."]]>
One letter, the “s” at the end of “goes,” makes that sentence not subjunctive, even though saying “it’s crucial” is a classic indicator of a sentence in the subjunctive mood. Had the speaker said, “It’s crucial that he go,” that would have been subjunctive. But because he said “goes,” it was not.
One of the most interesting things about the subjunctive is that, of all the books that discuss and explain it, I don’t know of any that say you must or even should use it. All the discussion out there is about how to use it and when to use it, conspicuously absent of words like “should.” Books and experts just sort of talk about the subjunctive as if it’s required, without ever saying that it is.
So you can’t, technically, say it’s wrong to opt for “It's crucial he goes” over the more proper subjunctive “It's crucial he go.”
Personally, I’d prefer the subjunctive in this case. Here, long form, is how to use the subjunctive. The short version goes as follows:
The subjunctive occurs in statements contrary to fact: wishes, suppositions, demands, commands, and statements of necessity like “it’s crucial that.”
In those sentences, you can just use the base form of the verb, like “go,” instead of an inflected form, like “goes.”
In the past tense, the subjunctive applies only to the verb “be.” Its form is “were.” So in the past tense, be can become was, as in “I was going.” But if you put this as a statement contrary to fact, like a wish, you’d use the subjunctive “were”: I wish I were going.
Or not. It’s up to you.
These two little words cause a lot of problems for a lot of people. Here's how to keep them straight.
It's one of the most popular mom corrections of all time: the idea that you can't say "I'm done" to mean you've finished eating. Unfortunately, Mom had it wrong ...
As I’ve discussed here before, “affect” is usually a verb and “effect” is usually a noun. So you would say “I’m affected by coffee because caffeine has a strong effect on me.” That “affect” is a verb -- it’s an action coffee is performing -- and that “effect” is a noun -- a thing.
If you’re having one of “those moments,” which I sometimes do, you can forget which is which. The confusion is compounded by the fact that “affect” can sometimes be a noun meaning a person’s emotional state. Also, “effect” can be a verb. Ever hear someone talk about wanting to “effect positive change”? That’s the verb form of “effect.” It means “to bring about” and is a distinct word from the verb “affect.”
But those uses are rare compared to the main definitions of “affect” and “effect.” So it’s safe to say that “affect” is almost always a verb and “effect” is almost always a noun.
Here’s how I remember that whenever my brain seizes up: I think of the term “side effect.” That, to me, is clearly a noun -- a thing. And I note that the “e” in “side” prompts me to write “e” in “effect.” So that reminds me that the noun form is the one that begins with “e.”
I suspect that, for some people, that’s not at all helpful. Only if you think of the first "e" as a prompt for the second does this make any sense at all. But it works for me.
Think it's wrong to say "Drive slow"? Not so fast ...
The context was something like “Brazil is a predominately Portuguese-speaking country.” I didn’t notice the spelling of predominately until my second read. And spell-checker didn’t take notice either.
I quietly congratulated myself for catching the error, changed it to predominantly and continued reading the piece. But a few minutes later, I got the urge to check a dictionary. To my surprise, it was in both Webster’s New World College Dictionary (the dictionary required by the style guide I was using that day) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (which is the one I use when I’m editing in Chicago style). Both list predominately as a variant of predominantly.
I understand that the dictionaries’ job is to document usage, but the weird thing was I don’t think I’d ever seen predominately before. Unless this spelling had been slipping unnoticed under my nose for years, I had only ever seen predominantly.
Not that it mattered. In editing, we always use to the dictionary’s preferred forms and never the variants. So predominantly was the right choice for the article.
But the whole thing was pretty surprising – not just that a spelling I’d never noticed before warranted listing in the dictionary, but because it’s a strange one.
Adverbs often derive from adjectives: smart/smartly, nice/nicely, true/truly. So the adverb predominantly makes sense as a form of the adjective predominant. But predominate is a verb, and verbs don’t usually spin off adverb forms: walk/walkly, know/knowly, keep/keeply, dominate/dominately.
Chalk this one up as another example of our ever-surprising language.
Here’s another item from the “People are annoying me so you need to tell them to stop” mailbag.
<<Something that drives me crazy is the word “awake.” I hear newscasters saying, “I was woked up.” He "woked me up." "I was waked up," "wokened up." Could you please do an article on proper usage of the word? Articles in newspapers are always using it incorrectly too, so it isn't just young people who have their words autocorrected. It's adults who are intelligent but must have been absent on the days when they had spelling and grammar. Thanks for your help....>>
I understand what this person was asking. She wanted me to write a column about a usage problem she’s noticed. But requests of this nature always rub my journalistic sensibilities the wrong way. As a former news reporter, I’m pretty invested in the idea that the news media’s job is to inform readers, not to exploit their attentions by telling them how they should talk in order to stop bugging one person.
On the other hand, a good topic is a good topic. And though I’ve never heard anyone say they were woked, I agree that past tenses and past participles of wake and awaken are tricky.
According to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, “wake” gives you a number of past-tense forms to choose from.
For the simple past tense, Merriam-Webster’s prefers “woke.” But it also recognizes “waked.”
Yesterday I woke.
Yesterday I waked.
And, yes, you can use “up” if you want to with any of these, according to Webster’s.
Yesterday I woke up.
Yesterday I waked up.
As for the past participles, Webster’s allows three forms. (Remember that past participles the ones that work with forms of “have.”) For wake, the preferred past participle is “woken.” But they also allow “waked” and “woke.”
In the past I have woken.
In the past I have waked.
In the past I have woke.
In the past I have woken up.
In the past I have waked up.
In the past I have woke up.
So two of our correspondent’s examples are, in fact, wrong. There is no woked. But it’s not wrong to say “I was waked up.”
This form is a little different from our other examples because it’s passive. But passive participles are identical in form to past participles. (Pete had eaten the cake. The cake was eaten by Pete.) So that means that, yes, you can say “I was waked up” if you like.
Oops. What the writer should have written -- or, more precisely, what the copy editor should have caught -- was that wretched should have been retched.
The disheartening thing about this error is that it appeared almost 300 pages into an otherwise very well copy edited book.
Whoever was copy editing this book knew what she or he was doing. Yet even a team of professional editors with great skills aren’t immune to letting typos slip by. That’s troubling because it means that, no matter how hard you try to make a written work perfect, there are no guarantees.
Plus, some typos are particularly easy to make. Wretch and retch are among them.
According to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, a wretch is a person. Specifically:
1 : a miserable person : one who is profoundly unhappy or in great misfortune
2 : a base, despicable, or vile person
It’s one of those words you hear a lot in old-timey dialogue, especially British. For example, in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, a character refers to juries as “vulgar grovelling wretches.” And of course, the term “poor wretch” comes up in pretty much every piece of fiction with a Dickensian tone.
From wretch, comes the adjective wretched. But it’s not pronounced like the verb retched. Wretched has two syllables, RETCH-id. And it means:
1. deeply afflicted, dejected, or distressed in body or mind
2. extremely or deplorably bad or distressing <was in wretched health> <a wretched accident>
3. being or appearing mean, miserable, or contemptible <dressed in wretched old clothes>
The verb retch is simpler. It means only 1. to vomit, 2. to make an effort to vomit.
There’s no trick to keeping them straight, other than just being on your guard. Which, somewhere around page 300 in a 900-page novel, is no small feat.
The term "I couldn't care less" could be losing ground to "I could care less." But should you use it? Ummm ... I'm going to say no.
There’s a good chance you knew that already. I knew it for years, right up until I stumbled across some bad information on the subject, which led to a series of unfortunate events.
For years I knew the term as “all told.” Again, that’s correct. I considered “all told” a close cousin of “when all is said and done.” That’s not exactly right, but it’s a good way to think of it because it equates the telling in “told” with the saying in “said.” Both words refer to talking.
Then, some years ago, I came across a wrong bit of information. I read, I don’t remember where, that “all told” is wrong and that it should be “all tolled.”
I wrote a column about it before I realized it wasn’t true. A writer friend of mine who read the column repeated its incorrect message in a book. Only by sheer luck did we realize the error before the book went to press.
To get this right, remember that it’s about telling – when all has been told. But for a historical understanding of the term, well, that’s not exactly how it works.
“One archaic meaning of ‘tell’ is ‘to count,’” says Garner’s Modern American Usage. “Hence the idiom is ‘all told’ -- ‘All told there were 14 casualties’ -- which dates from the mid-19th century. Some people write ‘all tolled,’ perhaps because ‘toll’ can mean ‘to announce with a bell or other signal.’ But this is an error.
Here are two words that make a lot of mischief: next and last.
We will be there next Tuesday.
The event took place last March.
If you’re speaking on a Wednesday, does “next Tuesday” mean six days in the future? That is, the Tuesday nearest on the horizon? If so, what if you’re speaking on a Monday? What, then, does “next Tuesday” mean? One day from now or eight days from now?
As for “last March,” people often use it to mean the most recent March. Others use it to mean the March prior to that.
So what’s right? Well, it doesn’t seem there is a right. The situation is a mess.
“In ‘next’ I think I detect the handiwork of the same folks who decided that Sunday should be not only the first day of the week but also half of the week end,” writes Barbara Wallraff in Word Court.
Wallraff has a helpful take on the matter, though I think mine, which I’ll get to later, is even more helpful. Here’s Wallraff on structures like "next Thursday."
“The ‘next’ in the phrase typically [refers] to next week. Never, not even on Wednesday, is ‘next Thursday’ tomorrow.”
Basically, she argues, “next” usually means in the following week.
This problem doesn't bother me because I just adhere to some common newspaper guidelines. In a newspaper, there is no next Tuesday or last March. The Tuesday following the publication date is just Tuesday. The Tuesday after that is identified by the date -- not the day of the week. “Performances will take place on Tuesday and on May 21.” We would write it that way even if those two performances are exactly a week apart.
Same idea for last. An event that occurred in a March less than 12 months ago occurred not “last March” but just "in March.” If it happened the March prior, it happened “March 2012” or whatever year applies.
“The political showdown that occurred in March was reminiscent of the events of March 2012.”
An event that will occur in the coming March is not “next March.” It’s just March. “The president is scheduled to visit the Middle East in March.” If it’s more than 12 months away, you mention the year. “The president is scheduled to visit the Middle East in March 2015.”
Dropping “next” and “last” altogether seems the only surefire way to make your meaning clear.]]>
Actually, it’s not as big a shame as it may seem. A lot of those “slight of hand” hits were pointing out the error of spelling it “slight.” But many other were errors: “Best slight of hand you’ll ever see,” boasts one YouTube video.
A particularly notable slighting of "sleight" appeared in a link to a Daily Mail headline, “Magician used slight of hand skills to steal money while working at the cheese counter at Harrods.” What’s interesting about this one is that, when you click the link, you see that the headline was changed to say that the magician “used talent to take money with one hand and hide it with the other.”
Neither “slight” nor “slight” comes up anywhere in the story. So the editors caught the error after the article was posted and, in fixing it, decided to steer clear of the whole mess.
Don’t make this mistake. Trickery involving sneaking movements is “sleight of hand.”
According to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, sleight is a noun meaning deceitful craftiness, stratagem, dexterity or skill. Of course, you never hear it used that way. The only time it comes up is in the term “sleight of hand,” which is probably why the dictionary has a listing for the whole term.
sleight of hand
a: a cleverly executed trick or deception
b: a conjuring trick requiring manual dexterity
a: skill and dexterity in conjuring tricks
b: adroitness in deception]]>
Back when I first started editing for newspapers, I learned it was always two words. Or possibly one. Then I learned that whatever I had learned the first time was wrong. Then I learned that it was a style thing.
Then I learned that it was a dictionary thing. Then I learned it was a part-of-speech thing.
Then I learned that I had better look it up.
In the publishing industry’s two preferred dictionaries, underway is one word. But if you look closely, you notice a little “adj” next to it. This one-word form is an adjective and only an adjective. Therefore it modifies a noun. An underway process. An underway voyage.
But, really, how often do you hear it used that way? Rarely.
More often, you hear it in sentences like: The voyage is under way. The renovations are under way. But in these sentences, it does seem so much like and adjective that’s modifying a noun. It seems more like a sentence element telling us when something is going on.
The party is here.
The meeting is tomorrow.
The time is now.
The meeting will happen soon.
Now, to understand under way, you have to understand how here, tomorrow, now, and soon are functioning as adverbs.
Remember that adverbs don’t just modify verbs. They answer the questions when? and where? too.
(For more on that, here’s a podcast: http://www.grammarunderground.com/lesser-known-adverbs.html)
And if you look up here, tomorrow, now, and soon in the dictionary, you’ll see that they’re all classified as adverbs when they do this job.
So in The voyage is under way, unless the writer’s emphasis in on the adjective concept (an underway voyage), chances are it’s being used adverbially. And because dictionaries don’t list the one word form as an adverb, you have to use two.
And that, in turn, would explain why both the Associated Press Stylebook and the New York Times Manual of Style and Usage’s recommend that you use two words in these senses.
under way -- Two words in virtually all uses. The project is under way. The naval maneuvers are under way. One word only when used as an adjective before a noun in a nautical sense: an underway flotilla.
So basically, it’s almost always two words. What did I think was so hard about that?
How do you like that sentence? Does anything strike you as a little off? How about this one:
A hurricane is when wind speeds reach 74 miles per hour.
The purpose of toothpaste was invented to help people care for their teeth at home.
When I’m editing newspaper articles, from time to time I find myself staring at a sentence like one of these and scratching my head. The sensation is a little like getting rear-ended at a traffic light. You just sit there blinking, trying to figure out what’s wrong with the world, momentarily unable to remember how the world is supposed to be.
There’s a term for this problem. It’s called faulty predication. And it’s explained like this: Faulty predication occurs anytime a subject doesn’t make sense with the verb. More precisely, it happens when the subject can’t logically do or be whatever the verb says it’s doing or being.
Let’s look at our first example. An inauguration is where we get to see the president sworn in.I chose this one because it’s nice and fuzzy. Is it okay? Is it not?
The subject is “an inauguration” and the verb “is” says that it is “where.” Technically, that doesn’t make sense because an inauguration isn’t a place. But can you stretch the meaning to “where” to something like “an event at which,” giving us “An inauguration is an event at which we get to see the president”? Possibly. And you certainly could make the argument that the reader understands what you mean. But it’s pretty sloppy. I wouldn’t let it stand in an article I was editing.
Ditto that for “A hurricane is when.” Technically, a hurricane isn’t a when. More precise would be “a hurricane occurs when” or “a hurricane is what happens when."
Our final example, “The purpose of toothpaste was invented” isn’t as forgivable. It’s illogical. The purpose was not invented. The purpose of toothpaste is … Toothpaste was invented for the purpose of … There are a number of ways to extract a logical statement out of this sentence, as long as you’re focused on the illogic of saying the purpose was invented.
The only way to avoid faulty predication mistakes is to stay vigilant and, especially, to reread what you’ve written. When in doubt, just ask yourself: Can my subject really do what I’m saying it’s doing? If not, look for a better way to make your point.]]>
Next week: Indirect Objects
In no time, Fry is wearing ‘80s-style suspenders and talking business nonsense. When the pair create a ridiculously over-the-top TV commercial for Planet Express, Fry smugly defends it on the basis that “It grows the brand.”
The line is meant to make Fry look like an idiot, and it succeeds. But, setting aside the question of whether it’s silly to use these business clichés, we can ask: Is that even correct? Can you use “grow” that way?
Let’s find out.
In case you don’t recall, most verbs can be classified as transitive or intransitive. Transitive verbs take objects. Lou watched TV. Betty knits sweaters. The workers built a house. Objects “receive the action” of the verb. In other words, they’re the things the verb is acting upon.
Intransitive verbs are actions without objects. Karen slept. Bert walks. We spoke.
But, of course, many verbs are both. Lou watched. Betty knits. Bert walks the dog. We spoke the truth.
We all know “grow” as an intransitive verb. Flowers grow. Children grow. Love grows. The question is, can it function transitively? Can it act directly upon something? And to get an answer, we need look no further than the dictionary.
Merriam-Webster lists “grow” first as an intransitive verb. But right under that listing, it says this:
1. a: to cause to grow: ‘grow wheat.’ b: to let grow on the body: ‘grew a beard’
2. to promote the development of: ‘start a business and grow it successfully’
So yes, you can say “grow the brand.” But that doesn’t mean you should.]]>
These types of mistakes aren’t egregious or shameful by any stretch. But they still require correction. They’re still, in some cases, mistakes. And the often harmless habit of writing a one-word term as two words can sometimes go really bad (titmouse, anyone?).
So here’s a tip: Whenever you’re not sure whether a noun is one word or two, and you’re not inclined (for whatever reason) to take the time to find out, just make it a habit of typing it as one word.
That will improve the odds that spell-check can help you. If you type skincare as one word, a good spellchecker might flag it (though mine, for some reason, does not). But spell checker would never flag the word skin or the word care. A compound made of two words squished together is less likely to pass muster with spell-check than the two halves we already know are valid words.
It could tell you that your word needs to be split up, but it will never tell you that two words like over and priced need to be squished together.
Of course, this is just for rushed writing that doesn’t need to be perfect. If you need to meet a higher quality standard, first check the one-word form in the dictionary, where you’ll see that a pickup is a noun meaning a truck or a retrieval of a package or a person. Then also check the root word, in this case pick, where you could see that it’s often paired with up to create a slightly different meaning.]]>
According to the dictionary, yes, you can.
Download audio file (0113-Graduate-College-vs-Graduate-From-College.mp3)]]>
People often use forego to mean "to do without." Not a good idea ...]]>
Most of the errors I see in print are in articles I’m editing. It's my job to find them. So I've never shocked to see that mistakes happen. Writers, even very good writers, make mistakes they know better than to make.
I’m talking about the absent-minded typos like “your” in place of “you’re” made by people who have demonstrated many times over that they know the difference.
But when I read message boards, blogs, and other stuff online, I see a lot of errors that I know aren’t just careless. A lot of people really just don’t know better, and you can tell because they make the same mistakes over and over.
So, after a morning of skimming Internet message boards, here are the ones that, at the moment, get my "For the Love of Pete Don’t Make This Mistake" Award.
“A lot” shows up a lot as “alot.” In some ways, that seems pretty understandable. It’s just a very easy mistake to make. On the other hand, it’s downright iconic: People who have taken the trouble to learn anything about grammar and spelling don’t make this mistake. So the ones who write "alot" make a strong statement about how they want to be identified by readers.
“It’s” as a possessive shows up quite a bit. Again, understandably so. When you think about how to form the possessive of “it,” the points of reference that pop into your mind are usually singular possessives like “dog’s” and not possessive determiners like “ours.” But, in fact, “its” is a possessive determiner. In other words, it's more like an adjective than a possessive noun. And, like “ours,” it takes no apostrophe. The "it's" with the apostrophe is a contraction of “it is” or "it has."
The No. 1 "For the Love of Pete Don’t Make This Mistake" mistake is similar to the “its” vs. “it’s” problem. It happens when people use apostrophes for form plurals.
Do the bus’s run all night?
Where can we get good empanada’s?
How are the noodle’s?
Awful stuff. Never form a plural with an apostrophe unless you’ve tried it without one and ending up with something too weird, like when you say your child got all A’s in school and without an apostrophe your reader really could think you meant the word "as."
A lot of writers put commas in the construction "from blank to blank." So I spend a lot of time taking those commas out.
Download audio file (0106-Comma-in-From-To-Constructions.mp3)]]>
On an episode of 30 Rock, television executive Jack Donaghy tries to sabotage his network by greenlighting a slate of awful shows. Along with programming like Mandela starring Joe Rogan and a full hour of Gary Sinise’s band, one of the worst is called Homonym! It’s a game show that works like this: The host reads aloud a word to a contestant, just a word, and the contestant has to guess which meaning of the word is intended without any context.
Host: “Okay, your next word is meat.”
Contestant: “Um, when two people run into each other.”
Host: “Sorry. It’s the other one. Your next word is stare.”
Contestant: “Uh, okay, the things you climb –“
Host: “No. It’s the other one.”
Contestant: “It’s always the other one! Let me see the card!”
Host: “No! Never! Next word: sent.”
Contestant: “I don’t care. Cent like a penny.”
Host: “No. Sorry. No.”
Lights begin to flash.
Host: “It’s a Homonym! double-down. That means you get to guess again: sent.”
Contestant (brightening): “Okay, um, scent like a smell or an odor.”
Host: “No, it’s the third one.”
Contestant: “Go **** yourself.”
It was hilarious. But I couldn’t fully enjoy it because I was distracted by the fact that those aren’t homonyms. They’re homophones.
The Oxford English Grammar says that homonyms are "distinct words that happen to have the same form." Examples include the bank where you put money as opposed to the bank of a river. The bird called a duck is a homonym of the act of moving your head out of harm's way really fast: to duck. So homonym means, basically, "same name."
Words that spelled differently are but pronounced the same are "homophones." Ate as in he ate some cake and eight as in the number before nine are homophones. So are peak and pique, hair and hare, and cue and queue. In other words, homophones, as the “phone” part suggests, are all about sound. So meat/meet, stare/stair, and cent/scent/sent are homophones.
So what about words like dove in “A dove flew by” and dove in “He dove into the pool”? Words that are visually (graphically, if you will) the same but pronounced differently? Those are homographs, according to Oxford. Some more examples: the verb lead and the metal lead; does the present singular of do, versus does, the plural of the female deer doe; sow, as in putting seeds in the ground, versus, sow, a female pig.
So homonyms are named the same. Homophones sound the same. Homographs look the same.
Download audio file (0105-Compare-To-and-Compare-With.mp3)
For the first 9-1/2 years, the column never appeared in a community where I actually lived. This can be a little confusing to community news readers, who expect their news to come from – you know – the community and who sometimes ask me to give talks at schools and civic organizations several light years away from my home.
But I’ve always been happy with this arrangement. For one thing, I don’t have to feel like some grammar ambassador in my own home town. But, more importantly, I never actually have to see the column in the paper.
I don’t like to look at my own column. The reason: typos. For the last ten years, it seems like about half the times I've seen an installment of my column online it has had some embarrassing error. I never know who to be angry at: the dodo who made the mistake (me) or the editors who might have caught it. Either way, it's a team effort to make me look bad, and I'm captain of the team.
At least the errors weren't showing up in print in my own home town -- that is, until, recently. That blissful separation was shattered a little over a year ago when the Los Angeles Times added a Pasadena section of the paper.
Here’s how I found out my column I would be in that section: I opened the paper one morning and saw it there. No one asked me. No one told me. And you better believe no one offered to pay me. They just started running it periodically -- I assume whenever they needed some light filler material squeezed between articles about Rose Queens and face-melting heat waves.
Now my typos taunt me where I live – literally. Like the one in this column installment.
The error was in the sentence: Webster's New World College Dictionary is more reluctant to embrace the hyperbolic usage, instead adding to one it its definitions this note: “Now often used as an intensive to modify a word or phrase that itself is being used figuratively: ‘she literally flew into the room.'”
Don’t see the typo? That’s okay, neither did I and neither did the editor who checked it before passing it on to the four publications in which the mistake appeared. The typo is “it its.” I meant to type “of its.”
This is a classic example of my own typographical Achilles’ heel. If there’s one error in something I wrote, chances are it's a wrong or extra preposition, article, or pronoun. These little words make mischief when I delete part of a sentence to rewrite it but fail to delete all the words. So I end up with something like “at on,” “to about,” or “at to.”
I guess I’ll just have to implement a policy of reading every word – especially the little ones –
Download audio file (0101-Done-vs-Finished.mp3)]]>
So, once again, I had to explain that this belief someone has held so dear for so long isn’t exactly true.
Look up “less” in Webster’s New World and you’ll see immediately that it can be a synonym for “fewer.”
So it's not necessarily wrong to say "10 items or less." Still, e-mails like these always give me an excuse to address a more interesting issue with “less” and “fewer” – the idea that the difference is all about count nouns vs. mass nouns.
People who say that “10 items or less” is wrong often believe it’s because “less” is for quantities – stuff like water, courage, money, and food. These are called mass nouns. Conversely, these folks think that “fewer” is for countable things, called count nouns -- bananas, guns, friends, dollars, etc.
Ninety-nine percent of the time that explanation works. But it’s actually not quite right. The traditional distinction between less and fewer isn't about mass nouns vs. count nouns. It's about singular things vs. plural things.
Mass nouns usually are singular: You say you have less money not because money is a mass noun but because money is singular. You say you have fewer dollars not because dollars is a count noun but because it is plural.
That makes a difference in a situation like this: Say you’re in the express lane and you realize you have 11 items, so you decide to remove one. According to the mass-noun/count-noun explanation, you now have one *fewer* item because “item” is a count noun.
But that’s wrong. You actually have one less item. That’s because “less” modifies singular things like “item” even as “fewer” modifies
plural things like “items.”
Of course, that’s if you want to follow the sticklers.
If you want to follow the dictionary, you don’t have to worry about it at all.
Copy editors notice a lot of little stuff that other people might not. The online news sites and articles that continue to nudge out traditional news outlets often contain tiny hints that they’re being produced by people who aren’t as well versed in language and style as older forms of media.
One of the most common examples has to do with headline capitalization. A lot of online writing uses sentence case for headlines, with the first letter of most words capitalized.
Fed Chair Will Keep Interest Rates Low
Often, it works out just fine, as in the headline above. But some situations seem to stump less experienced editors and designers
Fed Chair To Keep Interest Rates Low
See that “to”? Well, traditional news style calls for that to be lowercase.
Fed Chair to Keep Interest Rates Low
A lot of inexperienced editors don’t realize that, so they just “initial cap” every word. But more of them, it seems, know that some words in headlines are supposed to be lowercase. And they know those tend to be short words. So many guess correctly that the t in “to” is lowercase, yet they still make other mistakes.
How to Know When it is Time to Make a Will
The capitalization in that last headline doesn’t conform with editing style.
Knowing Which Loved One to Make Your Will Out to
Neither does that one.
These two examples illustrate why it’s often a good idea to know and follow capitalization style for headlines: It just looks more professional, even to readers who aren’t consciously focusing on capitalization.
So here’s a simple system offered by AP that you should consider for any headlines you write:
Capitalize the first word of every letter except articles, coordinating conjunctions, and prepositions of three letters or fewer. There’s one exception: Any word that is the first word in the headline or the last word should be capitalized, regardless of its part of speech. So that last headline, in AP style, would leave one “to” lowercase and capitalize the other:
Knowing Which Loved One to Make Your Will Out To
The biggest problem writers have with this simple system is remember that is and it, unlike in, are not prepositions. Is is a verb and it is a pronoun. So they’re always uppercased in AP style headlines.
Candidate Asks What It Is
By the way, the Chicago manual uses a similar system, except it doesn’t contain the same three-letter stipulation for prepositions, etc. So while in AP you’d write “Many Shoppers Wait Until Last Minute” in Chicago that could be “Many Shoppers Wait until Last Minute.”
Here's why it's important to keep straight reign, which means to rule like a king, and rein, which is a strap on a horse's bridle or the act of using reins -- literally or figuratively -- to keep something under control.
Download audio file (0103-Reign-vs-Rein.mp3)
Do you like clichés?
No, of course you don’t. No normal person would answer that question with a yes. I hate them, too. Or so I would have said till I flipped past an entry on clichés in Garner’s Modern American Usage.
Here are the terms that were listed there:
at the end of the day
but that’s another story
comparing apples and oranges
conspicuous by its absence **
far be it from me
fast and loose
get with the program *
his own worst enemy
if you catch my drift *
moment of truth
more in sorrow than in anger **
more sinned against than sinning **
my better half *
nip in the bud
on the same page
pulled no punches
six of one, half dozen of the other
throw the baby out with the bathwater
The ones with two asterisks next to them I don’t remember ever hearing before I looked at this page in Garner's, at least not in that exact phrasing. The ones with the single asterisks I dislike. Every single other one, I must confess, I like.
I know that some of these cliches shut people’s brains right off.
For example, people who’ve heard “at the end of the day” once too often grow to really hate it. And I get why overused and well-used expressions garner so much contempt. Their actual words lose mean and they become sort of a humming nod to a vague idea created by brains in off-mode and appealing to brains in off-mode.
Yet, somehow, “on the same page” fills a need that “in agreement,” “collaborating” or any other term doesn’t quite fill.
“Throw the baby out with the bathwater” seems a great way to communicate the idea of discarding too much good along with the bad. And “moment of truth” -- come on. Are there any better words in the world to express the idea of the moment – the one life-changing moment – in which a flash of insight or clarity will change everything forever?
As someone who writes about language, I feel almost obligated to chant the “avoid clichés” team motto. But perhaps saying “avoid clichés” is itself a cliché that supplants a once substantive message with droning noise that has lost all meaning.
And by the way, if, like me, you’ve been told that cliché can only be used as an adjective, as in “a clichéd expression” and not as a noun “it’s such a cliché,” that’s not true. It’s a noun, too.]]>
Download audio file (0104-Beg-the-Question.mp3)]]>
The newspaper column that I write always ends with an e-mail address, JuneTCN@aol.com, where readers can contact me. And they do , often to cheer on my fight against bad grammar and to ask me to tell people to stop engaging in some linguistic habit that drives them nuts.
That would be lovely if 1. I had ever given the tiniest indication that I was in fact “fighting” against bad grammar and
2. I had any desire to tell people how to use the language.
I don’t do either in my column. Never have. I just talk about questions that come up and the answers I find.
Usually those answers are not what grammar-cop types want to hear -- research almost always proves them wrong in matters like whether you can use “hopefully” to mean “I hope that” or “healthy” to mean “healthful” (answer to both: of course you can).
Lucky for them, the things I actually say needn’t stand in the way of their hearing whatever they want to hear.
I’ve written about this bizarre dynamic before, but it happened again recently after I wrote a column about the word literally.
In the column, I explained that some dictionaries allow the word to be used as an intensive – that is, figuratively. According to those
sources, it’s fine to say, “I literally flew out of the room.” And I said so in the column.
What happened next shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did. Not one but two readers wrote to congratulate me on my column railing against people's excessive and wrong use of literally.
“Thank you SO much for addressing the overuse of “literally”! That’s been bugging me for some time now. At work, I’m surrounded
by young women who use that word constantly."
She wasn't done.
"Would you consider writing a column about the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs? I keep reading about people filing bankruptcy and graduating college. UGH!”
Download audio file (0099-Less-vs-Fewer.mp3)]]>
Is an ing word like running a noun, a verb, an adjective?
The answer: All the above. And knowing which form it's taking in a sentence can help you write better.
Download audio file (0111-Identifying-I-N-G-Forms.mp3)]]>
Here’s an interesting email I got a while back:
<<I enjoy your column and am curious about your opinion of the Time Warner ads enticing us to “Enjoy summer better” and “Enjoy back to school better.” My initial reaction was a snicker and comeback: “I already enjoy it good,” but I can’t figure out why it irks me. Is it nasty grammar, stinky syntax, or just me?>>
Usually people who write me have a specific problem with a usage and ask me whether I agree that a usage is wrong. But in this case, she didn’t have a specific problem. It was kind of my job to figure out her problem -- then address it.
I did the best I could. Here was my response:
<<I'm not sure what exactly the issue is with "Enjoy summer better," either. Perhaps it's rooted in an idea that "better" is an adjective and therefore can't modify a verb like "enjoy"? It actually is both an adjective and an adverb: http://www.yourdictionary.com/better. In the latter form, it means "in a more excellent manner" or "in a more suitable way."
So "better" is grammatical as a modifier of "enjoy." But it's a little unidiomatic. It's more common to say you enjoy something "more" than to say you enjoy it "better." So, yeah, it's a kind of odd.
The other issue could be that "better" always suggests a "than."
"I like Joe better" only works in a context in which the listener already knows who I'm comparing Joe to.
Your example sentence leaves the "than" concept implied. "Enjoy summer better than you would have without our service" is, I suppose, the general idea. But without an explicit "than" or any context to suggest one, a lone "better" seems a little out of place.
As for "Enjoy back to school better," it's a bit of a stretch -- though not wrong, per se -- to treat "back to school" as a noun. Still, I'm sure most linguists would argue that it's sufficiently established as a noun to render this sentence grammatical.
Hope that helps!>>
I suppose that’s why so many copywriters and even features writers think that the titles of company bigwigs must be capitalized in every circumstance.
Joseph Jeeves is the President and Chief Operating Officer.
Mary Jessup is the Executive Vice President in Charge of International Mergers and E-Commerce Manager.
I long ago lost my ability to be objective about all the things that may be wrong with that approach. Instead, my measured opinion on all this caps is a straightforward “yuck.”
Professional publishing doesn’t like using this many caps. So, if you want your writing to look like something in a professionally written publication, neither should you. The easiest thing to do is just to never capitalize them at all. But if you want to emulate the news media, consider the Associated Press Stylebook's recommendation:
"In general, confine capitalization to formal titles used directly before an individual’s name. The basic guidelines:
"Lowercase and spell out titles when they are not used with an individual’s name: The president issued a statement. The pope gave his blessing."
Plus, AP warns, while you might use caps in Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, commas could change that.
“Lowercase and spell out titles in constructions that set them off from a name by commas: The vice president, Nelson Rockefeller, declined to run again.”
In other words, when there are commas separating it from the name, it’s not part of the name. You’re not saying Vice President Nelson Rockefeller. You’re saying: The vice president, who is named Nelson Rockefeller.
The bottom line: To make your writing look professional, avoid capitals whenever possible, and resist the urge to pay homage to anyone with capitalization like: Nelson Rockefeller, Former Vice President of These United States, Distinguished Gentleman, and Exceedingly Wealthy Individual.]]>
Download audio file (0105-Compare-To-and-Compare-With.mp3)]]>
Proofreading is very different from reading. At least, for me it is. When I’m proofreading, I’m looking for commas and skipped words and extra words and sentences without subjects and faulty parallels and a million little things like that.
In that mode, I can read a whole article twice and learn nothing from it. A piece on a restaurant, for example, could contain lots of information on the food it serves, the chef’s background, its history, and on and on. But if you quizzed me on any of it I’d flunk. Reading for information and reading for errors are two very different mental processes.
Interestingly, the other mode doesn’t quite work the same. When I’m reading for content – articles, books, etc. -- certain typos and editing matters jump out at me. I suppose it’s just because I’ve invested so much energy into whatever mental faculty scans for typos that it’s hard to turn off.
And that’s unfortunate because the minute a misplaced comma or other typo catches my eye, it automatically flips a switch in my mind, turning off the brain engine that reads for substance and powering up the part that scrutinizes form.
Then it’s hard to get back into whatever I was reading.
The most common errors that do this to me have to do with commas. They’re illustrated in this sentence:
It was March 14, 2009 when Widgets, Inc. moved its headquarters from Flint, Mich. to Detroit.
I guess if we’re being technical, the comma choices in that sentence aren’t really errors. But from an editing standpoint they are. And when I see them in published material, I think: This piece was not edited by professionals well versed in style.
It’s an instant prejudice that will color my perception of the source forever.
Here’s where the commas in that sample sentence fell short. In professional editing, years, “Inc.,” and states after cities are considered parenthetical information. They’re set-asides, if you will.
My wife, Mary, works in entertainment
My wife, Mary works in entertainment.
The name Mary is just an aside – a “by the way, the person I just referred to as my wife happens to be named Mary.”
A similar principle applies to years, Inc.s, and states. They’re often included parenthetically. But that’s not as intuitively clear. They’re actually a little different. Mary, in the example above, is something called an appositive, whereas years, Inc.s, etc. are not. So, unlike with the Mary business, the comma rules for Inc. and states you actually have to know. Lately it seems that fewer and fewer of the people producing written content do.
Here are the rules of most professional editing:
* Years after a specific date are set off with commas: “March 14, 2008, was a good day.” But a month and year without the date does not take commas: “March 2008 was a good month.” The same is true of seasons. No comma: Spring 2008 was a good time for me.
* Inc., LLC, and items like that don't need commas. Widgets Inc. had a great quarter. That’s purely a style matter – and one that doesn’t come up much in journalism because Inc. is usually omitted altogether: Widgets had a great quarter. But if a comma comes before Inc., one should always come after.
* States after cities get the same treatment. Any time there’s a comma before “Mich.” one should come after, too. (By the way, news style prefers these abbreviations to two-letter postal codes like MI and book style just spells them out. But all these forms are acceptable.)
What's difference between 'historic' and 'historical'? You probably already have a good idea.
Download audio file (0107-Historic-vs-Historical.mp3)]]>
This one came up in the context “a terrine of soup.” I hesitated, trying to remember whether I’d seen it spelled “tureen.” Indeed I had. Webster’s New World has entries for both.
“terrine: noun. An earthenware dish or casserole in which a pâté or any of various similar meat or vegetable mixtures is cooked and served.”
“tureen: noun. A broad, deep, usually covered dish used for serving foods such as soups or stews.”
So, if we take this exact wording to heart, you can cook food in your terrine, but you can only serve it in a tureen.
Just a fun-to-know word meaning “to twitter.” Of course, that was written before the advent of the Twitter. So it’s probably lost some of its currency.
I came across an example of the word meatloaf” but written in the plural, meatloafs. The plural of loaf is loaves. So I wondered whether the same formula applied to meatier masses.
But that raised another question. Can meatloaf be a countable noun, like car? Or is it what we call a “mass noun,” like spaghetti, which in English is considered a mass and not a singular thing that can be multiplied into plural things (explaining why no one says, “I’m so hungry I could eat three spaghettis.”)?
Neither Webster's New World College Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Online, American Heritage via Dictionary.com nor Dictionary.com's own entry offers a plural form or any discussion of whether meatloaf can be a count noun.
Usually, any word that has an irregular plural form gets special mention in the dictionary. For example, under child you’ll see children. Similarly, under loaf Webster's tells us the plural is loaves. But it does not offer any similar notation under meatloaf. So we're left to assume one of two things: Either dictionaries aren't down with meatloaf as a count noun or it follows the same rule as every other regular noun in the dictionary, forming the plural by just adding S.
I'm still not sure what to do about this one.]]>
Download audio file (0108-Rob-vs-Burglarize.mp3)]]>
Download audio file (0109-Disinterested-vs-Uninterested.mp3)
Every time I see “waver” in print, I experience one brief moment of thinking it should be “waiver.” And vice-versa: anytime I see “waiver” I think it should be “waver.” It only takes me a split second to realize I’m wrong. But it’s still a little unnerving to have my mental defaults exactly backward.
For the record, here, per Merriam Webster, is the difference.
waver: verb. to vacillate irresolutely between choices; fluctuate in opinion, allegiance, or direction
waiver: noun. the act of intentionally relinquishing or abandoning a known right, claim, or privilege; also : the legal instrument evidencing such an act.
More simply, to waver is to change your mind. A waiver is a legal relinquishment or exemption.
And here’s another word that always give me pause: smartphone. There’s still no consensus on whether it should be one word or two. But indicators I’m seeing definitely indicate that the trend is toward one word.
Webster’s New World College Dictionary -- the one AP users are supposed to follow -- doesn’t have an entry for the one-word “smartphone” yet.
That means, by implication, that you can only use the words that are in the dictionary: smart and phone. However, some publications I edit that follow a basic form of AP style have decided in-house style should be one word, smartphone.
Merriam Webster, by the way -- the Chicago Manual’s default dictionary -- does have a one-word entry. So in book and magazine style, if you will, smartphone is the clear choice.]]>
This is especially true of usage guides. I stumble across language issues I never even knew existed, like about how the Shakespeare reference “hoist with his own petard” is better written, according to Garner’s Modern American Usage, “hoist with his own petar.”
The problem with flipping through usage guides is that you can end up with just one opinion on a usage matter and confuse it for something more universal. But I find that Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage poses the least danger of that. This usage guide seems the most reluctant to prohibit usages its authors don’t like. So it’s a safe bet you’re not learning a prohibition that's not really a prohibition.
So on a recent gray day I picked it up for a casual flip-through and learned that, apparently, there’s a controversy over the words complexioned and complected. Sticklers say the first one is the only correct choice. MWDEW begs to differ.
“complected: Not an error, nor a dialectal term, nor an illiteracy, nor nonstandard – all of which it has been labeled – complected is simply an Americanism. …. Until the early 20th century it excited no notice except from compilers of Americanisms and regional terms. Beginning with [“A Desk-Book of Errors in English” by Frank Vizetelly published in 1906], however, it began to raise hackles. … There seems to be no very substantial objection to the term, other than the considerable diffidence American usage writers feel about Americanisms. It is irregularly formed, to be sure, but so are many other words. It has been used by some of our better-known authors.”
So that fast I find out that some people say you should call someone “light-complexioned” and not “light-complected” and that those people are just talking smack.]]>
Download audio file (0110-Myriad.mp3)]]>
Download audio file (0102-Anxious-vs-Eager.mp3)
Except the thing is, sometimes it isn’t. And, when it’s not, sometimes it’s my job to act like it is anyway, which makes me feel like a bit of a schmuck.
Case in point: Not long ago, one of the section editors I work for mentioned “accoutrements” in an article headline. Spell check didn’t have any problem with it. So it was printed and laid out on the page before it landed under my nose.
I whipped out my red pen and swapped out the R with the first E, changing A-C-C-O-U-T-R-E … to A-C-C-O-U-T-E-R … accouterments.
The original spelling wasn’t wrong. It just didn’t happen to be the preferred spelling in the dictionary we use, Webster’s New World College Dictionary.
I’ve been an even bigger schmuck about “ambience.” For years, every time I saw that in an article I changed it to “ambiance” because that’s what a quick check of Webster’s New World’s online edition led me to believe was the preferred form. When another editor finally questioned me about it, I explained that the A spelling was the preferred form, at which point she opened the hard copy of Webster’s New World and showed me that, now “ambiance” is the alternate spelling. The preferred form is “ambience.”
Then there’s the world-famous “doughnuts” vs. “donuts” issue. Both are right. But at the newspaper I always change “donuts” to the longer form because that’s the official, preferred spelling.
So sometimes spelling doesn’t matter … unless, of course, you’re paid to be pettier than the pettiest person alive …
Actually, it's all of the above. And knowing what job it's doing can help you write better sentences.
Download audio file (0111-Identifying-I-N-G-Forms.mp3)]]>
So here’s a question: If you were not, as I did above, looking for a way around writing the past tense of “underlie,” how would you have put that in the past tense?
In the past, principles underlied older systems of government?
When the question popped into my head recently, I had to confess I had no idea. I know that the past tense of lie is lay. But underlie is its own word. And the standard way past tenses are formed is by adding ed or, sometimes after changing a y to an i. So if the verb underlie is regular, its past tense would be underlied. As in, “Different principles underlied older systems of government.”
But that just doesn’t sound right. And when we tinker with different forms, most would agree that underlay sounds best of all. “In the past, different principles underlay those systems of government.”
Mark this as exhibit ZZZZ in the case to prove that the ear usually guesses right.
Here’s what Webster’s New World College Dictionary says.
underlie. transitive verb underlay, underlain, underlying
to lie under or beneath: trusses underlie the roof
As I’ve mentioned before, dictionaries have a system for telling you the past forms of verbs. After the main entry, they list the past tense and past participle in bold, in that order.
So open the dictionary to blow and you’ll see right next to it blew then blown. That’s how you know how it’s “Today the winds blow. Yesterday they blew. In the past they have blown.”
However, if you look up walk in most dictionaries, you’ll see no such forms after the main entry. And if you didn’t know how to use your dictionary, you might think that the publishers had left you hanging. But actually, the absence of past forms is just as informative as their inclusion. Most dictionaries include past forms only for irregular verbs. Regular verbs get their past forms the same way: by adding ed for both the simple past tense and the past participle. And they explain this stuff right up front in the section on how to use the dictionary. So because no past forms are listed in the entry for walk, you know it’s: Today they walk. Yesterday they walked. In the past they have walked.
So, based on the dictionary entry for underlie, we know it’s “Today these principles underlie government. Not long ago, other principles underlay government. In the past, many different principles have underlain government.”]]>
Some of my column readers couldn’t, even after I explained which and why. Obviously, that one’s on the explainer. I’ll try harder here after you’ve had a chance to mull over the question.
Here’s your first hint: Yes, one of these is a complete sentence. But only one. The rest aren’t errors, mind you. There’s nothing wrong with punctuating an incomplete sentence as if it were complete. When you do so, it’s called a sentence fragment. And writers -- even many of the very best writers -- use sentence fragments all the time.
I think that’s what tripped up the couple of readers who wrote to object to my saying that “onward” and “outside” are not complete sentences. If you yell either of these words at someone, your point is 100% clear and complete. So why was I being such a pain and refusing to acknowledge they’re complete sentences?
Well, as I wrote in a subsquent column, just because a thought is clear and complete doesn’t make it a complete sentence.
A complete sentence must contain at least one clause. A clause is a subject and a verb, and neither can be left implied, with one exception: Imperatives, that is, commands, always leave their subjects implied. It’s not a problem because the subject is always the same: “you.” So when you tell someone “Eat!” the subject is already built in to the verb, if you will.
But in four of our five sentences above, not only is there no subject, there’s no verb either. Outside! Now! Onward! and Beautiful! aren't verbs. Yes, they make clear the verbs that they’re implying. (Go) outside! (Do it) now! (Move) onward! (That is) beautiful! But remember that the verbs must be explicit in order to make for a complete sentence.
So on our list only Stop! is a complete sentence because it’s the only one that meets the criteria of having a verb (which must be explicit) and a subject (which, in commands only, can be left implied.)
Download audio file (0097-Acronym.mp3)]]>
To hear me talk about the e-mails I get from readers of my column, you might think I get a lot. I don’t. Unfortunately, of the e-mails I do get, about half of them are to point out mistakes I made. And about 95 percent of those aren’t real errors. They’re based on misconceptions that, ironically, I have addressed over and over again in the column.
Here’s an example:
“In your June 10 column you refer to "editors like me." Unless you're speaking of editors who bear similarities to you, I think the phrase should be "editors such as me.”
The author of this e-mail has been writing to me for at least seven or eight years. I’m sure I’ve mentioned the “like” vs. “such as” issue before in the column, just as I have here. Yet this reader often seems to think he’s educating me about issues I had no idea existed until he e-mailed me.
The issue of whether “like” can be a synonym for “such as” is an old one, and it’s well-known among people who pay attention to language. The popular misconception is that it cannot: “like” means "similar to” and “such as” means “for example” and that anything else equals bad grammar.
Not so. “Like” isn’t just a verb meaning “bearing a resemblance to.” It’s also a preposition that can mean “such as,” according to Merriam Webster’s.
Every other source I checked agrees. Yet I doubt I've convinced my e-mail friend and I'm even more doubtful that I've convinced him that I.]]>
Download audio file (0089-Faze-Principal-Site-etc.mp3)]]>
Of course, today, any teenager can produce highly professional looking publications complete with not just italics but pretty much any formatting, symbols, or graphics under the sun. So AP's style may be a little outdated. But, in what may be an example of “If it works, don’t fix it” thinking, quotation marks around book, movie, TV show, and other titles contineus to be AP’s official style.
The Associated Press Stylebook just happens to be one of the book titles I write about most, along with the Chicago Manual of Style. I always put them in quotation marks – have been for years. I do the same for dictionaries, which I also mention a lot. Then just the other day, I got an e-mail from an editor at one of the papers that runs my column. He was writing to tell me I was doing it wrong. The style guide titles should not be in quote marks, he said.
He pointed me to listing in AP for “composition titles,” which says to put quotation marks around “book titles, movie titles, opera titles, play titles” and more. That’s as far as I ever remember reading in the guidebook. I never noticed the second half of that sentence: “… except the Bible and books that are primarily catalogs of reference material. … this category includes almanacs, directories, dictionaries, encyclopedias, gazetteers, hadnbooks and similar publications.”*
I’ve been doing it wrong all these years, even though clear instructions were under my nose the whole time.
*Exact wording taken from the 1992 edition.]]>
The timing was kind of strange. The e-mail about phrasal verbs that inspired this week's podcast was one I had actually received months ago. It sat in my "interesting topic to write about" mental pile for quite a while before I was finally ready to put up a podcast about it.
Though it wasn't the first time someone had asked me about word order in expressions like "lock him up," this is nonetheless a pretty rare topic for my in-box. It had been years since I'd last explained the concept of phrasal verbs to anyone.
But, just as I was ready to run the podcast here, I got an e-mail from a man named John telling me about a correction his daughter had made to a political sign. The sign had the expression "taking our country back." I don't know whose sign it was or why it had such an effect on the daughter, but she contacted the campaign with a correction. “She notified them [it] should be ‘taking back our country’ because ‘taking back’ is a verb phrase and should not be split by ‘our country.’"
No. 1: It's a phrasal verb, not a verb phrase. A verb phrase usually means stuff like "am walking," "had gone," "would have quit." That is, it's usually a participle like "walking" or "gone" plus an auxiliary or two, like "am" or "had." Plus there can be other stuff in between. Grammarians often use the term "verb phrase" to refer to just a single word verb. That's handy when you're analyzing the syntax of a sentence: chopping it up into noun phrases, verb phrases, etc.
Phrasal verbs, as we discuss in this week's podcast, are things like "bring up," "call off," "take down," "throw up," and "make up." They're combos in which the second word actually gives the verb a different meaning than it has when it stands alone. That is, to call means to communicate. To call off means to put an end to. So that's a phrasal verb.
No. 2: You can put the object of a phrasal verb anywhere it sounds best, as in "call the wedding off." And sometimes it clearly works best in the middle. Compare "bring it up" with "bring up it" and you'll see what I mean.
So don't every let someone tell you you're wrong to go with your gut on the word order in terms like "run him over," "call him out," "make something up," and on and on. Anyone who says you can't is just misinformed.
Yup. Though not everyone realizes it.
Here's the full story ...
Download audio file (0093-Placement-of-Objects-of-Phrasal-Verbs.mp3)
I don’t focus on pronunciation matters. In general, they don’t much interest me -- probably because they don’t frighten me. I know that pronunciation is dictated by usage -- we speakers are the ones who vote for our preferred pronunciations every time we speak. So it’s literally true that, if everyone else pronounces a certain word a certain way for long enough, I can, too.
But there are a few pronunciation matters I find interesting, mainly because they came on my radar before I realized how the rules get laid down.
The one that’s one my mind today is “forte,” as in “Working with computers is definitely your forte.” Everyone pronounces that “for-tay.” I thought nothing of doing so myself until I came across an old Mallard Fillmore comic strip shredding to bits anyone who pronounced it that way. It should be pronounced, the author insisted, just like “fort.”
Sound like hogwash? Of course it is. But don’t take it from me. Here’s the word on dictionary.com, which will pronounce it for you if you press the little audio button saying you can pronounce it either “fort” or “for-tay.” In keeping with their phonetics designations, however, they write the pronunciations differently than I did here, using instead a w and an r. So they write that first pronunciation as “fawrt,” which seems pretty apt considering the curmudgeonly cartoonist who inists that’s the only right way to say it.]]>
Download audio file (0088-Pique-vs-Peak-to-precede-89.mp3)]]>
rock n’ roll
rock and roll
Due to an unusual number of live musical performances mentioned in my editing work recently, most of these forms have come across my desk of late. Yes, they’re all perfectly clear and understandable. But that’s not enough for editors. We have to worry about the whole consistency issue, too. So I always change them to rock ’n’ roll.
I never bother to look it up. I know it’s rock ’n’ roll. I’ve been doing this a long time. But when I’m passing along what I know to other people -- mainly, here -- I always double-check my facts.
So I turned to Webster’s New World College Dictionary, which is the final word on these matters at the publication I edit. Here’s what I learned: The entry for rock ’n’ roll gave this for a definition: rock-and-roll.
Whenever a dictionary entry for one word refers you to the entry for another, that’s the dictionary’s way of saying that the other is the main entry -- in this case, that rock ’n’ roll is merely a variant of the preferred rock-and-roll.
That surprised me: Where did I get the idea it was rock ’n’ roll? I checked the house style guide for the publication and that’s where I found it: Our house style is rock ’n’ roll, which trumps even our house dictionary, which, thought it allows rock ’n’ roll, clearly prefers rock-and-roll. That was a relief. It meant 1. that I haven’t been doing it wrong all these years, and 2. that I don’t have to switch to the weird-looking rock-and-roll.
By the way, in case you’re more interest in book-writing style, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary doesn’t like rock ’n’ roll as a first choice, either. According to that dictionary, which many in the book publishing world follow, rock ’n’ roll is acceptable, but the preferred form is rock and roll.
So Sammy “There’s Only One Way to Rock” Hagar was wrong. So very, very wrong ...]]>
Download audio file (0092-When-to-Capitalize-After-a-Colon.mp3)]]>
It makes sense. People on this side of the Atlantic weren’t oo far removed from people in Britain
In fact, many were themselves Brits fresh off the boat. So you could see how they might do lots of crazy British things, like fancify their Rs and eat kidney pie.
I never questioned those highfalutin historical accents at all – I figured they were somewhere close to the truth – until I got a copy of Patricia T. O’Conner’s Origins of the Specious. Just a few pages into the introduction, I read this:
“I’m sometimes asked, ‘When did we Americans lose our British accent?’ Answer: We didn’t lose it. The British once spoke pretty much as we do. What we think of as the plummy British accent is a fairly recent happening.”
In the following chapter she explains how this happened. The Englishmen and –women of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries sounded a lot like the Americans of today. What we think of as a British accent (and the many variations within that could be construed as separate accents) didn’t develop until after the American Revolution.
Then, shortly after we broke away, a fashion started forming among educated folks in English who thought it sounded jolly good to start doing things like dropping their R sounds in words like “far” and “church” and adding other little fancy-sounding flourishes to their speech.
A lot of the Americans who had the closest ties with England – you know, people in New England – picked up the habit. Which is why parking a car too far in Harvard yard is a punchline-worthy activity.]]>
Download audio file (0094-Since-and-Because.mp3)]]>
Download audio file (0096-Lighted-vs-Lit.mp3)]]>
There were many factors that precipitated the American Revolution. Colonists had grown tired of living under oppressive British rule. But without a doubt, the rallying cry of “no taxation without representation” is remembered as the most important sentiment that lead to the rebellion and, ultimately, the Declaration of Independence.
There’s an error in there. I didn’t want to say so before you read that because it’s the type of error that’s not too tough to spot if someone tells you one is in there. But it’s very, very easy to overlook if your brain isn’t in typo-hunt mode.
The error is “lead.” It should be “led.”
This is one of the most common mistakes I see. No one’s immune. Even people who know that the past tense of the verb lead (which rhymes with weed) is led (which rhymes with bed). The problem is that there’s another word, lead, which rhymes with led. It’s a metal (not to be confused with medal).
So anyone, it seems, can write, “the most important sentiment that led to the rebellion” instead of “lead to the rebellion.” And editors and proofreaders who aren’t consciously looking for this error can let it slip right past them, too.
The only way to avoid this error is to pay special attention to every instance of “lead.” If it’s being used as a verb and it’s supposed to be in the past tense, it should be spelled “led.” Another way to look at it: if it’s a verb that rhymes with bed, again: it’s led, not lead.]]>
Download audio file (0087-Can-Apropos-Mean-Apropriate.mp3)]]>
If you don’t see an error in there, don’t feel bad. Depending on how you look at it, there may not be one. But on my watch, those commas are just not okay.
A basic guideline for commas is that they should be used between “noncoordinate adjectives.” The quickest way to get a handle on noncoordinate is to think about coordinating conjunctions, specifically the coordinating conjunction “and.”
With that in mind, it’s easy to remember this rough guideline: if the word “and” works well between the adjectives, you can put a comma between them. If it doesn’t, don’t.
So we can apply that to our sentence above by trying “and” in place of those commas. Does it make sense to call the dish “a delicious and macadamia-crusted sea bass”? Does it seem right to say “a selection of seasonal and red wines”? I don’t think so.
Another test to tell whether your adjectives qualify as “coordinate” or not is to try moving them around. Coordinate adjectives, because they all modify the noun in the same way, can go anywhere. Think about “a fast, easy, fun hike.” That’s a hike that’s fast and easy and fun, right? And it’s just as logical to say it’s an easy and fun and fast hike.
It doesn’t work the same way with our original example. A macadamia-crusted delicious sea bass doesn’t say quite the same thing as a delicious macadamia-crusted sea bass. It’s as though “macadamia-crusted” is integral to “sea bass” in a way that “delicious” is not.
Ditto that for “red seasonal wines.” Red wine is a thing. Seasonal is just a word we’re using to throw some added description on top of this well-known thing. So seasonal red wines seems different from red seasonal wines.
The choice isn't always clear. For example, “a seasonal local wine” could in fact be a “local seasonal wine.” And the good news is that you do have the leeway to go with your own judgment in these situations.
But when in doubt, just apply the “and” rule. Whenever “and” sounds a little off between two adjectives: no comma.]]>
My friend, Tracy, thought it would be better if she moved the commas around and wanted to know if I agreed. Here’s how she wanted to write
Greta had learned about different cultures, and, perhaps more importantly, about her own.
“Am I off the wall?” Tracy asked.
Here’s my reply: “I like your commas a lot better. They're more logical. Technically, you don't usually put a comma before an ‘and’ that doesn't precede a whole clause. Though you can if you really want to indicate a strong division or pause.
“Your commas do a more logical job of setting off a parenthetical -- ‘perhaps more importantly’ -- from a sentence that otherwise wouldn't need a comma: ‘Greta learned about different cultures and about her own.’"
And by the way if you bristled about the use of “importantly” instead of “important,” you’re not alone. Tracy didn’t like it, either, just like the many people who prefer “important” to “importantly” in contexts like these.
The objection is often rooted in the idea that the adverb form is wrong here because adverbs describe the manner in which an action is taking place. From this perspective, “Greta learned about different cultures, most importantly, her own,” suggests that the adverb “importantly” is modifying the verb “learned,” saying that she somehow went about learning in an important way. That would be true if adverbs only modified verbs. But in fact they can modify whole sentences or thoughts, as in “Unfortunately, my flight was canceled.”]]>