June 17, 2024

Guys can bring their girlfriends or girlfriend?

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“‘Guys are allowed to bring their girlfriend/girlfriends to the event.’ Are both OK?”

That’s what a user on an English language message board wanted to know a while back. And if you’ve never thought about this issue before, prepare for some brain pain.
As you know, subjects and verbs should agree. You walk. He walks. The verb changes form to match the number of the subject. That’s agreement. But objects don’t agree with subjects. You may walk the dogs if there’s more than one. Or you may walk the dog if there’s just one. The subject and verb have no bearing on how many objects you have.

In some sentences, however, that doesn’t work out so well.

For example, try the plural object in our sentence above and you get: “Guys are allowed to bring their girlfriends.” That has a nice mathematical balance to it. There are a number of guys, along with a number of girls. So it’s true, yet the meaning isn’t clear. With “girlfriends” in the plural, you could be saying that every guy has more than one girlfriend — that each guy should bring all his girlfriends. Surely that’s not what the writer meant.

The singular object must fit the bill then, right? “Guys are allowed to bring their girlfriend.” But that seems to suggest that all the guys — no matter how many — share just one girlfriend. Doubtful that’s what the writer meant, either.

Regular readers of this column know that, often, when grammar gives you an either-or, which-is-right scenario, the answer is: both. It’s rare to come across a which-is-right question in grammar where the answer is: neither. But, technically, that’s the case here: Neither the plural object nor the singular object captures your exact meaning. That means neither is wrong, either. So just go with whatever you prefer and take comfort in these words from Barbara Wallraff’s “Word Court”: “When one is at pains to make clear that the individuals in the subject are to be paired one apiece with the persons, places or things in question, the number of the noun can’t be relied on to make the point.” More detail here in my recent column.

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June 10, 2024

'Peruse' is more flexible than some people think

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Recently I learned that pretty much everyone who’s ever opined about the word “peruse” was wrong, kind of. And the people who corrected the people who opined wrongly were also wrong, kind of. And that I, myself, never quite understood the real deal with “peruse,” even though I thought I had it all figured out.

Here’s the most common way I see “peruse” used these days: “Peruse the charming boutiques.” “Peruse the delicious menu options.” “Peruse the aisles.” In other words, I see “peruse” used to mean “browse.”

Ten or 20 years ago, the only “peruses” I ever noticed referred to reading, not looking at merchandise. From here, the controversy heats up because there are different ways to read something. You can read something closely and carefully, you can skim it casually, or you can read it while paying just the normal amount of attention. And in the early 1900s, people started saying that only one of those is correct.

“Peruse should not be used when the simple ‘read’ is meant,” argued author Frank Vizetelly in the 1906 “A Desk-Book of Errors in English,” which is cited in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. “Peruse,” Vizetelly argued, means “to read with care and attention … to examine with critical care and in detail.”

The idea caught on, and within a few decades this rule was standard in prescriptivist handbooks of English like Eric Partridge’s influential 1942 guide “Usage and Abusage.” “Peruse is not synonymous with ‘to read,’ for it means to read thoroughly, read carefully from beginning to end,” Partridge wrote. “One peruses a contract, one reads an (ordinary) advertisement.”

The idea stuck, and to this day anyone who uses “peruse” to mean “skim” or “read” can draw sneers from adherents of this long-held belief.

Strangely, though, it seems Vizetelly based this rule on nothing but his own beliefs. “While we cannot be sure, it appears that this notion of the correct use of ‘peruse’ was Vizetelly’s own invention,” Merriam’s explains. “It was certainly born in disregard of dictionary definitions of the word and in apparent ignorance of the literary traditions on which those dictionary definitions were based.”

Read more in my recent column.

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June 3, 2024

Two-letter words are the biggest typo risks

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For years, I’ve been writing a weekly grammar column for some small community newspapers. I try never to look at it in published form. The reason: typos. 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.

Take, for example, the time I made an error in the following 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 –
out loud.

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May 27, 2024

Ask not when America lost its British accent — ask when Brits acquired it

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Have you ever watched one of those cheesy basic-cable docudramas set in colonial times? Me neither. But I’ve seen a lot of promos for them. And it always makes me smile that George Washington, John Hancock and the gang are so often portrayed as having posh British accents.

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.

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May 20, 2024

The myth that won't die

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Recently I come across this “12 Common Grammar Mistakes You’re Probably Making Right Now” list in Business Insider. Number 10 on their list of mistakes: ending sentences with prepositions.

I thought that my was pretty much dead. But apparently not. So here’s what to know about the idea that you can’t end a sentence or clause with a preposition.

Prepositions are little words like “with,” “at,” “from,” “to,” “until,” “during,” “including” and many more. Many of them refer to physical proximity, like “from” in “the object fell from the sky,” and like “around” in “she ran around the house.” But others don’t, like “before” in “get it done before tomorrow” and “except,” as in “I saw every episode except the last one.”

Prepositions take objects — nouns or pronouns like “Mary” in “with Mary” or “the moon” in “to the moon.” The prepositions show relationships between the object and the rest of the sentence. “I’m talking with Mary. The rocket will go to the moon.”

Look closer and you can see the logic behind the myth: Prepositions take objects, so it’s weird to separate the two and leave the preposition just hanging out at the end of a sentence: “Mary is the person I’m talking with. The moon is the place the rocket will go to.”

You can also see that these forms are a little awkward. Clearly, it’s often best to follow a preposition with its object instead of stranding it alone at the end of a sentence.

But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong to end a sentence (or a clause within a sentence) with a preposition. And every expert out there agrees.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says, “Recent commentators — at least since Fowler 1926 — are unanimous in their rejection of the notion that ending a sentence with a preposition is an error or an offense against propriety.”

The above referenced lexicographer H.W. Fowler described this belief as a “superstition.”

The most famous pushback against this myth, “This is the kind of pedantry up with which I shall not put” (or any of several similarly worded variations), is often attributed to Winston Churchill. The real author is unknown, as research by linguist and columnist Ben Zimmer has revealed. But the lessons are clear. There’s no rule against ending sentences with prepositions and doing so — for example by contorting your sentence to avoid a simple wording like “put up with” — can be a terrible idea.

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May 13, 2024

'Metamorphosize'? Some words I looked up recently

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Some people think that professional editors and writers are walking encyclopedias of English usage. I don’t correct them. But the truth is that, the more of a “pro” you are, the more time you probably spend checking a dictionary. (And I can’t tell you what a relief it was when I finally figured out that I don’t have to memorize the answer to every possible writing conundrum before I could call myself a pro.)

Here are a couple of interesting things I've look up in dictionaries recently.

metamorphosize

This one came up in an article I was editing, in a sentence like “accessories metamorphosize an entire ensemble.” I wasn’t so sure. I checked a couple dictionaries and found no such word. But, from their entries, I could tell that the writer wanted verb metamorphose. No "ize." So accessories can  metamorphose an ensemble, but the dictionary says they don’t do it with an “ize.”

acronym

A lot of people think that CIA, FBI, and IBM are acronyms. But it depends on which dictionary you follow. Webster’s New World long took the position that initials do not an acronym make: “a word formed from the first (or first few) letters of a series of words, as radar, from radio detecting and ranging”

According to this definition, if you pronounce each letter individually, it’s just initials (or, if you prefer, an initialism). Only if you use those letters to form a new word does it count as an acronym.

Merriam-Webster’s, however, allows “acronym” to mean initialism.

forevermore

Before I saw it in print, I would have guessed this was three words. Or at least two. But no, according to Webster's New World, this one-word spelling of this adverb is correct.

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May 6, 2024

Advanced punctuation tips

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If you’re reading this, you probably know a thing or two about punctuation. But nobody — including punctuation book authors (ahem) — knows it all.

So here are some advanced punctuation tips for good punctuators who want to get even better.

A single quote mark followed by a double quote mark comes after a period or comma. Let’s say you’re quoting someone who’s talking about a specific word, so you put the quotation in regular quote marks and the word itself in singles, like this: “Stop saying ‘whatever.’” The rule that says periods and commas go inside quotation marks applies to single quotation marks, too. The order is period, single quote mark, double quote mark.

An apostrophe comes before a period or comma. Apostrophes look a lot like single quotation marks. Depending on the font, they can be indistinguishable. But they’re different. An apostrophe can represent an omitted letter: thinkin’, talkin’, sleepin’, etc. And unlike a single quote mark that would come after each of those commas, an apostrophe is part of the word. That’s why the apostrophe goes before a period or comma, even when it’s within a quotation: “He’s sleepin’.”

An em dash can have a space on either side, or not. Different publishing guides have different rules for whether you put spaces around a dash — like this, or not—like this. Either way is fine.

If you can rearrange the order of adjectives, they require commas between them. Why are there commas in “a red, purple, yellow and green shirt” but none in “a bright red Hawaiian shirt”? It’s because the adjectives in the first example all have the same relationship with the noun. You can swap the order and it doesn’t affect the meaning: a yellow, purple, green and red shirt. But in our second example, some adjectives are more closely related to the noun than others, so you can’t move them around. “A Hawaiian, red, bright shirt” just doesn’t mean the same thing.

Read more tips in my recent column.

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April 29, 2024

ChatGPT and me

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Recently I was hired to write a 200-word article based on an 800-word press release about a new coffee shop. I finished and turned it in, then it hit me: It’s just a matter of time before the client who hired me realizes AI programs can write these things for free.

To size up my competition, I pasted the original press release into ChatGPT and asked it to create its own 200-word article, then I compared our work.

ChatGPT bases its writing on lots and lots of online documents and databases, guessing what word should come next based on the words all those other articles used next. The result is a very slick, polished voice, along with a ton of cliches and empty sentences. But ChatGPT’s biggest weakness is that it has no idea what interests humans. What’s more, it doesn’t understand what words mean.

Compare our leads (note: I’ve changed some names and details because my work-for-hire doesn’t belong to me). ChatGPT’s opening sentence: “Caffe Maximo, the brainchild of industry veterans John Doe and Jack Jones, has unveiled its newest jewel in the crown — a bright and modern coffee haven nestled in Redondo Beach.”

A coffee shop is a “brainchild”? That’s a bit of a stretch. “Brainchild” usually means something that arose from an innovative idea, and I’m pretty sure these guys didn’t invent coffee shops. Also: “jewel in the crown”? That cliché only works when the reader knows what “crown” you’re talking about. Then there’s “a coffee haven,” which is odd, and “nestled,” which is shopworn and at the same time not quite accurate.

Here’s my first sentence: “Redondo Beach is finally getting a taste of the ‘farm-to-you’ coffee beloved by L.A.’s most discriminating chefs and connoisseurs.” My thinking here, as a human being, is that when a truly high-end coffee joint comes to town, readers care more about the coffee than, say, “unveiling a jewel in a crown.”

Because here’s what you wouldn’t know from reading ChatGPT’s version: This coffee brand is among the best — a Michelin-starred chef serves it in his restaurants, as do a number of other chichi California eateries. But ChatGPT never mentions this coffee brand’s impressive bona fides. You can read more about how I measured up to ChatGPT in my recent column.

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April 21, 2024

Is a word you hate on the rise? Ngram Viewer can tell you

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Years back, a reader of this column mentioned that, all of a sudden, she was hearing the word “whinge” everywhere. What was up with that, she wanted to know. I had no answer. To my recollection, that was the first time I’d ever come across the word “whinge.”

Back then, I didn’t know about Ngram Viewer — a Google service you can use to search published writing to learn how popular a word is over time. Ngram Viewer lets you choose from several different databases of published works, some dating back to 1800. Just put in the word and you’ll see the percentage of books your word appeared in, plotted over time.

That’s how I learned that my reader was right: “whinge,” which means to complain or whine, was extremely rare in print until about 1980, when it suddenly began skyrocketing, peaking in 2012. So I wondered: Is “whinge” replacing “whine”? Ngram Viewer lets you plot words in comparison to each other, so I typed in “whinge, whine” and saw that my theory was wrong. “Whine,” like “whinge,” also started getting more popular around 1980, peaking in the 2010s. Yet “whine” remains far more common — appearing about 40 times as often as “whinge.”

This all reminded me of another reader question I couldn’t answer many years ago: Is “fraught with” losing ground to just plain-old “fraught”? In my experience, definitely. I never heard “fraught” by itself until pretty recently. So I searched them both. It turns out that the standalone “fraught” has gotten more popular in my lifetime, but that’s only because it dipped in popularity in the decades leading up to the 1960s. For a century and a half before then, “fraught” without “with” was about as popular as it is today.

You can read what I learned about "bandana"/"bandanna," "immersive," "step foot" and more in my recent column.

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April 8, 2024

There's no such thing as 'quotation marks lite'

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This sentence contains an example of an error I see all too often, including in the work of professional writers: Known as ‘hashtags,’ these keywords are popular in social media.

That’s not how single quotation marks work. Yet almost every time I see this punctuation mark, this is how it’s used — a job I call “quotation marks lite.”

Regular quotation marks have several jobs. Their main job is to indicate direct quotations or excerpts. They can also indicate irony.

Finally, quotation marks can indicate that a certain word is actually a focus of the discussion. Consider this sentence: I know “that” is often overused. The quotation marks are the only way the reader can be sure that we’re talking about the word “that.” Without the quotation marks, what’s meant by “that” could be misconstrued.

This is a sanctioned use for quotation marks, one that the Chicago Manual of Style refers to as discussing “words as words.”

Not many people know this and instead think quotation marks only indicate direct speech. So when some people want to discuss a word itself, they figure that regular quotation marks don’t fit the bill. Single quotation marks seem like the perfect compromise: not too soft, but not so strong that they indicate direct speech.

Unfortunately, single quotation marks are not just milder forms of regular quotation marks. They have a specific job to do: They work within regular quotation marks.

Say you’re quoting someone who’s quoting someone else: Bob said, “Joe yelled, ‘Hello.’”

That’s when single quotation marks come into play. They do all the things regular quotation marks do, except they do them within regular quotation marks. Like their beefier siblings, single quotation marks can indicate “words as words,” but only within other quotations: Bob said, “Joe can’t pronounce ‘nuclear.’”

There are several reasons why these simple punctuation marks are so misunderstood.

First, a closing single quotation mark often looks identical to an apostrophe. This causes problems when a single quotation mark appears next to a period or comma. For example, see in our “nuclear” sentence above how the period comes before the single quotation mark as well as before the regular quotation mark?

An apostrophe would not go there. Because an apostrophe represents a dropped letter, it stays attached to the word it’s part of, so a period never comes before it: I’m just sayin’.

Second, many computer programs will change an apostrophe into an open single quotation mark. Type “‘Tis the season” or “the ‘90s” into a word-processing program and you’ll see what I mean.

Third, anyone who takes a cue from news media could be easily confused. In headlines, many news outlets use single quotation marks in place of regular ones.

But usually, unless you’re writing a quotation that appears within another quotation, there’s no call for single quotation marks. And if you’re ever tempted to use them as “quotation marks lite,” try to resist the impulse.

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