November 27, 2023

'Said' vs. 'says' in quotation attributions

TOPICS: , , ,

Readers probably don’t care much whether an article or story attributes quotations with “says” or “said.” Nor do many care whether it comes before or after the name: said Jones, Jones said — it just doesn’t have a big effect on the reader.

Yet, to me, it’s becoming a bigger issue every day.

When I was first learning to edit, it was at a publication where very specific views on both matters reigned: The first was that newspaper writing should aim to be conversational — real-world language that doesn’t draw attention to itself but that downplays itself in order to emphasize the message.

That was the reason we put “said” after the name, unless there was a reason not to. In everyday conversation people don’t say things like, “Said my friend, mall parking is free.”

Regardless of the verb, English shows a strong preference for placing a verb after the subject in declarative sentences. So even though you could sometimes say, “Drove Gerald,” chances are you’ll always opt for “Gerald drove.”

As for “said” versus “says,” the former is usually more precise. “Says” is present tense and describes an ongoing action. So when you’re reporting something someone said in the past and just once, “said” is more logical.

So I edit according to these principles. And, the more I do, the more invested in them I become. It’s especially annoying to me that, when writing feature articles, many writers never, ever, ever put the “said” after the name. Every attribution is “said Wilson.”

Obviously, when a modifying noun or phrase follows the quotation attribution, "said" works best when it comes first:

… said Wilson, author of three math textbooks.

… said Wilson, the company’s president and CEO.

said Wilson, who saw the accident from his balcony.

In those cases, you need to place the modifying phrase next to the thing it modifies, "Wilson."

One more point about “said” and “says”: Consistency is important, but it shouldn’t trump logic. If you’re writing something using the “Wilson says” form, make "says" your default choice throughout, except when you want to emphasize that it was said in the past and just once. Likewise, if you’re writing in the “Wilson said” style, stick with “saids” everywhere unless you’re quoting something he says repeatedly.

Whatever you do, don’t get irked if an editor changes it. We can be a little rigid on this matter. Ahem.

Click player above to listen to the podcast

« Older Entries

November 20, 2023

Phrasal verbs: You can look them up, but you can't look up them

TOPICS: , , ,

Can you back your hard drive up? Or must you back up your hard drive? Can you calm yourself down? Or must you calm down yourself? Can you blow balloons up? Or must you blow up balloons? Can you hang the phone up? Or must you hang up the phone? Can you keep the shenanigans up? Or do you keep up the shenanigans? Can you look the contract over? Or must you look over the contract?

And what if we replace all those nouns with pronouns? Like, for your hard drive: back it up or back up it? For balloons: blow them up or blow up them? For the phone: hang it up or hang up it? For the contract: look it over or look over it?

Like so many other aspects of English, phrasal verbs are easy to use but hard to understand. To use them, a native speaker can just follow their gut. You already know that if you’re helping a friend cope with a divorce, you’d say, “You’ll get over him” and not “You’ll get him over.” Yet, remarkably, you’d probably pick a different spot for the pronoun when suggesting she “think it over.”

A phrasal verb isn’t just a verb that teams up with a preposition. Instead, a phrasal verb is a two- or three-word combo that has at its head a verb and has a different meaning from the verb alone. For example, when you run out of a building, you’re not using a phrasal verb. You’re using “run” to mean “to move on your feet faster than walking.” So it has the same meaning with “out” as it does standing alone.

But “run out” is a phrasal verb when it means to exhaust a supply of something. When you say you run out of milk, you’re no longer talking about breaking into a jog. The meaning is different.
Learn more in my recent column.

Click player above to listen to the podcast

« Older Entries

November 13, 2023

'Awhile' or 'a while'?

TOPICS: , , ,

To understand when “a while” is preferable to “awhile,” you need a firm grasp on grammar concepts most of us are never taught: the true nature of adverbs, how adverbs differ from adverbials and how prepositions work with objects. Yet people who never learned those concepts often get “a while” and “awhile” right anyway.

For example, when I do a Google search for “Let’s just wait for a while,” which is correct, I get about 470,000 hits. But when I search for “Let’s just wait for awhile,” which is wrong, I get fewer than 16,000 hits.

Here’s what most English speakers don’t know they know about “a while” and “awhile.”
For starters, we’re talking about different parts of speech. “A while” is a noun. Well, technically it’s a noun phrase because it has more than one word. But that’s splitting hairs. A noun phrase works just like a noun.

“Awhile” is an adverb. Contrary to what your third-grade teacher may have led you to believe, adverbs aren’t just those ly words that describe actions. Instead, an adverb answers the question “when?” “where?” or “in what manner?” Plus, sentence adverbs like “therefore” and “however” modify whole clauses or sentences. So if you look up “tomorrow” in a dictionary, you’ll see that it’s both a noun and an adverb. That makes sense because it answers the question “when?” Another example: “There” is also an adverb because it answers the question “where?” Sometimes, these rules for adverbs are a less intuitive, which is why it’s not completely clear that “awhile” answers the question “when?” But it deals with time the same way, so it’s an adverb.

“For” is a preposition. Prepositions take objects, which are always either nouns, pronouns or whole phrases or clauses working as nouns. So when you buy a gift “for Walter,” the noun “Walter” is the object of the preposition. If you’d rather say you’re buying a gift “for him,” the pronoun “him” is the object of the preposition.

Adverbs can’t be objects of prepositions. You can’t say “for quickly” or “at happily” or “with slowly.” And because “awhile” is an adverb, you can’t say “for awhile.” Only the noun form can go there: for a while.
You might guess that, if “awhile” can’t be used as a noun, then “a while” can’t be used as an adverb. So you’d surmise that “stay awhile” is correct and “stay a while” is wrong. Not so. The reason: adverbials. Here’s the full story in my recent column.

Click player above to listen to the podcast

« Older Entries

November 6, 2023

'Chaise lounge' and 'chomping at the bit'?

TOPICS: , , ,

For years, every time I saw “chaise lounge” or “chomping at the bit” in an article I was editing, I changed it.

By traditional copy editor standards, they should be “chaise longue” and “champing at the bit.” Our name for the long chairs called chaises actually comes from the French, in which “chaise longue” literally means “long chair.” Yet for decades, careless American writers have glossed over that last word and assumed it was the English word “lounge.”

Likewise, “champing” isn’t a verb that comes up much these days. According to Webster’s New World College Dictionary, it means “to chew hard and noisily.” And, based on my experience as a kid hanging around horse stables, it’s the standard word for describing how horses chew. In my mind, it’s a horse-folk term.

Horses aren't a primary mode of transportation these days, so it makes sense that we’d be more comfortable with the idea of “chomping” than with the horse-centric “champing.”

But recently, I’ve started to feel funny about “fixing” them. When I do, I feel that I’m clinging to some bygone standard that is losing relevance by the minute. The “traditional” forms seem less realistic all the time.

A Google search confirms what my gut’s been telling me:

champing at the bit: 45,000 hits

chomping at the bit: 1.28 million hits

chaise longue: 24,600,000 hits

chaise lounge: 12,300,000 hits

It’s easy to see which way the tides are turning.

Click player above to listen to the podcast

« Older Entries

October 30, 2023

When not to capitalize job titles


Most of us have bosses. And even long after the days when people were inclined to call a boss "Mr." anything, most of us nonetheless feel obligated to show them a little deference. 

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," but, "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.

“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.

Click player above to listen to the podcast

« Older Entries

October 23, 2023

Yes, you can use 'between' to refer to more than two


Can two people talk among themselves? Can three people have disagreements between them?

According to some of the more strict language authorities, no. That’s not how “among” and “between” work. But in the real world, the definitions are more forgiving.

Let’s start with this rule for publishers explained in the Chicago Manual of Style: “‘Between’ indicates one-to-one relationships (between you and me). ‘Among’ indicates undefined or collective relationships (honor among thieves).”

What if you have one-on-one activities within a group of more than two? For example, when you’re talking about pairs of member countries of the European Union that trade with each other? The Chicago Manual says “between” works in these situations because you’re still talking about one-on-one exchanges: “‘Between’ has long been recognized as being perfectly appropriate for more than two objects if multiple one-to-one relationships are understood from the context (trade between members of the European Union).”

The equally influential Associated Press Stylebook has the same rule: “The maxim that ‘between’ introduces two items and ‘among’ introduces more than two covers most questions about how to use these words: ‘The choice is between fish and tofu. The funds were divided among Ford, Carter and McCarthy.’” AP agrees that one-on-one relationships within larger groups get “between,” as well: “‘Between’ is the correct word when expressing the relationships of three or more items considered one pair at a time: ‘The games between the Yankees, Phillies and Mets have been rollicking ones.’”

As far as anyone can tell, this rule dates back to 1851 when the “Grammar of English Grammars” (not published, as far as I know, by the Department of Redundancy Department) by a language expert named Goold Brown, insisted that “between” used for more than two people or things “is a misapplication of the word ‘between,’ which cannot have reference to more than two.”

Other grammar authors followed Brown’s lead, and the idea caught hold that you can never say, as Jane Austen did: “This, of course, is between our three discreet selves.”

But years before these experts starting say this use of "between" for more than two was wrong, other experts — notably, one Noah Webster — said it was fine. Here's the full story in my recent column.

Click player above to listen to the podcast

« Older Entries

October 16, 2023

Which Thursday is next Thursday?


If it’s Wednesday and you went to the dentist six days ago, did you go last Thursday? Or just Thursday? What if your appointment is six days in the future? Would you say you’re going next Tuesday? And if you’re talking in October about your appointment 11 months ago, would you say that was last November?

Now imagine you’re the listener, not the speaker. If your friend says in October she went to the dentist last November, would you assume it was 11 months prior or 23 months prior? And if she says she has an appointment next Tuesday, would you assume that’s the nearest Tuesday or the one after that?

The words “next” and “last” are trouble. Consider this reader email sent to longtime Atlantic and Boston Globe language columnist Barbara Wallraff and published in her 2002 book “Word Court”: “I am writing this note on a Wednesday. In my mind, next Tuesday is six days away and next Thursday is eight days away. To my wife, next Thursday is tomorrow.”

Before I saw this, I figured there were two ways to interpret “next” when it modifies a day of the week. Either it means the day soonest to come, which would mean that 24 hours after Wednesday is indeed next Thursday, or it means the one after that — that on Wednesday, tomorrow is this Thursday, six days in the future is this Tuesday and in 13 days comes next Tuesday. But this Wallraff reader apparently had a third take: “next” means a day that follows the beginning of a new week, presumably on Sunday.

So what’s right? What do “next” and “last” mean in these contexts? The answer, I regret to inform you, is that there is no answer.

“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 Wallraff, who acknowledges there’s no clear rule. She recommends this way of looking at it: “The ‘next’ in the phrase typically [refers] to next week. Never, not even on Wednesday, is ‘next Thursday’ tomorrow.”

For all the trouble these words cause, there’s a surprising shortage of help to be found in language guides. So it took a bit of research to come up with this guidance in my recent column.

Click player above to listen to the podcast

« Older Entries

October 9, 2023

Here's why a ship can 'flounder' even though ships usually 'founder'


“The ship floundered in rough seas and eventually sank.”

“The ship floundered in the swells off of the Outer Banks for a while before breaking apart.”

“When a cargo ship floundered on the shore, it was often considered providence.”

When I searched Google recently for wrong uses of the verb “flounder,” I found a lot of flubs. Or did I? On second glance, I’m not sure any of the errors I caught by searching the term “ship floundered” were actually errors. On the contrary, the error may have been mine for believing the grammar scolds who complain that almost no one uses “founder” and “flounder” correctly.

“People commonly confuse ‘flounder’ and ‘founder’ because they sound similar and have similar spellings,” one blogger warns. “The words ‘flounder’ and ‘founder’ are easily confused,” says another. And there are lots more where these two came from. For the most part, these online language commenters are right: The verbs “flounder” and “founder” are easy to confuse. But what’s remarkable is that, at least in a nautical context, you’re likely to get them right even if you’re confused.

I explain why in my recent column.

Click player above to listen to the podcast

« Older Entries

October 2, 2023

Faulty predication


An inauguration is where we get to see the president sworn in.

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 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, 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.

Click player above to listen to the podcast

« Older Entries

September 25, 2023

What's a fused participle — and is it really an error?


I saw you working hard.

I appreciate you working hard.

At a glance, these sentences seem grammatically identical. But in fact, the grammar of the second one is wildly controversial, with some experts insisting it’s an error called a “fused participle.”

The fused participle concept comes up most often in the sentence: “I appreciate you taking the time to meet with me.” Critics of this form say it should be: “I appreciate your taking the time to meet with me.” And that one-letter variation, “your” replacing “you,” makes all the difference in the world. But to understand how that changes the grammar, you need to zoom in on how all the parts work together in the sentence.

In “I saw you working hard,” the object of the verb “saw” is “you.” I saw you. The next word, “working,” is a verb participle functioning as a modifier — essentially an adjective. It may seem odd to classify a verb form as an adjective, but we use verb participles this way all the time: a cooking class, a walking stick, your thinking cap, growing pains, a hiking excursion. In all these examples, a verb participle is modifying a noun, meaning it’s working like an adjective. The participle in “you working” has the same role, even though it comes after the noun.

So when you say, “I saw you working,” you get a grammatical sentence with a verb (saw), followed by its object (you), followed by a modifier of that object (working).

But in “I appreciate you driving him home,” the object of the verb “appreciate” isn’t really “you.” You’re not saying, “I appreciate you as a person” or “I appreciate that you exist.” It’s the driving that you really appreciate. So “driving” is the true object of the verb “appreciate.” Yet the first word after “appreciate” isn’t “driving.” It’s “you.” Between the verb and its true object, there’s another word — “you” — just sitting there with no grammatical job to do. The participle “driving” is just kind of fused to “you” with no clear role. From a standpoint of pure grammar, it’s nonsensical. Here's the full story in my recent column.

Click player above to listen to the podcast

« Older Entries