February 6, 2023

Subject-verb agreement in the real world

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“Bank owned properties, commonly called REO or real estate owned, is one of the most common foreclosure investment practices today.” This sentence, which I saw on a real estate website, shows how easy it is to create a subject-verb agreement error.

Verbs should agree in number and person with the subject. Usually, this is simple: It’s “I am,” not “I are.” It’s “he walks,” not “he walk.” But it’s not always that easy. 

The longer your sentence, the easier it is to lose track of which word is supposed to be the subject, making it that much easier to use the wrong verb conjugation. 

In “Bank owned properties commonly called REO or real estate owned is one of the most common foreclosure investment practices today,” the main verb is “is.” The subject it’s supposed to agree with is a little hard to pin down because it’s surrounded by so much other stuff. But when you zero in on it, you see that the real subject is “properties.” So at its core, this sentence says “properties is.” Of course, it should be “properties are” in which a plural verb matches a plural subject. But the writer stumbled and there was no editor on the job to catch him. 

Whenever your subject gets complicated, pay careful attention to the verb to make sure the two agree.

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January 30, 2023

Comma question from a friend

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A friend asked me about the commas in this sentence, which appeared in a textbook she was editing: "Greta had learned about different cultures, and perhaps more importantly about her own.”

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 it: "Greta had learned about different cultures, and, perhaps more importantly, about her own."

There’s no single answer here, but, as I told her, I like her commas better because they're more logical. Technically, you’re not supposed to 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.

So here 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 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.

These folks think the adverb form, “importantly,” is wrong here because adverbs describe the manner in which an action takes 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 adverbs can modify whole sentences or thoughts, as in “Unfortunately, my flight was canceled.” So “importantly” is always an acceptable way to modify a whole thought.

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January 23, 2023

How to get past participles right every time

I’m a little fussy about past participles. Unjustifiably fussy. It may have to do with the fact that I married someone from small-town Massachusetts, where everything is “I have ate this” and “I should’ve went to that” and “You could’ve brung your sister.” And every time I visit, I have to mute the little voice in my head that says, “It’s I have eaten this” and “I should have gone to that” and “You could’ve brought your sister.”

I should let it go. It’s a waste of energy to expect people to use my preferred past participles, especially because most of the past forms that make me flinch aren’t wrong, exactly. “Dreamt” is as correct as “dreamed,” whether I like it or not.

Even when I’m right, it’s silly to care. People don’t say, “I have lain on the beach for an hour.” They say “laid.” According to leading dictionaries, “laid” is wrong in this context. But it’s a moot point. People aren’t going to start using “lain” in casual conversation.

If you don’t want to accommodate my absurdly stringent standards, you don’t have to. But if you’d like to know how to choose stickler-approved past participles, here’s a primer.

The past participle is the form of the verb that goes with “have.” Take the verb “begin,” for example. In the present it’s “I begin.” In the simple past tense it’s “I began.” But in past tenses that use a form of “have,” you say, “I have begun.” So “begun” is the past participle of “began.”

When “have” is in the present and working as an auxiliary, the verb tense is called the present perfect: I have begun. But when the auxiliary is “had,” which is the past tense of “have,” it’s the past perfect: I had begun. But those labels aren’t important. Either way, the word you’re pairing with “have,” “has” or “had” is a past participle.

For regular verbs, past participles are identical to simple past tense forms. For example: Today I walk. Yesterday I walked. In the past I have walked. Just add “ed” at the end of the verb.

Irregular verbs don’t follow a formula for their past tenses. Sometimes, the past participle is identical to the simple past tense: Today I think. Yesterday I thought. In the past I have thought. Other times, the past participle is different: Today I know. Yesterday I knew. In the past I have known.

In many cases, there’s more than one correct past participle. You can say, “I have swum in that lake many times” or “I have swam in that lake many times.” They’re both right.

The hardest thing about past participles isn’t choosing the right one. It’s knowing how to look them up. They’re all in the dictionary, but you have to understand how dictionaries communicate this information to you. Here's my recent column explaining how you can look them up.

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January 16, 2023

Some editor peeves for 2023

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I think I speak for a lot of editors when I say: Bad grammar doesn't bother us as much as you'd think. Everyone makes grammar mistakes. Instead, we have our own unique peeves, many of them based on the errors professional writers make over and over and over. Here are a few of mine.

Quotations that haven’t been set up properly. “‘They are the finest educators in the country,’ said John Doe, president of the education association, speaking of Barb Taylor’s team.” If you have to add “speaking of,” “referring to” or something like that in a speech tag, you’re doing it wrong. In this example, which I adapted from a real article, the reader has to slog through almost 20 words to learn the meaning of the first word, “they.” Fix this by talking about Barb Taylor’s team before you quote John Doe.

Ampersands on auto pilot. “We’ll serve beer and wine, gin & tonic and rum & Coke.” Some people think ampersands show closer connections than the word “and” can show. So “beer and wine” can be connected with “and,” but for the inseparable pair “gin & tonic,” only an ampersand will do. This makes good sense except for one tiny detail: There’s no such rule. In running text, just use “and.”

For every organization, a force-fed abbreviation. Lots of writers believe that readers need to be taught the initials of every organization immediately after its full name: The National Assn. for Abbreviation Obsessives and Similarly Afflicted Individuals (NAAOSAI). Sometimes they’re training readers in how to read the rest of the article: “Memorize this abbreviation now if you want to understand what I’m saying from here on!” Rude. Other times, the abbreviation never appears again. The writer is just saying: “Stop what you’re doing and note that this organization has initials.” Rude and pointless. The Associated Press Stylebook agrees with me: “Avoid alphabet soup,” the guide says. “Do not use abbreviations or acronyms that the reader would not quickly recognize.” Instead use words the reader knows: the association, the group, the club or, if all else fails, its full name.

Needless words. I recently edited an article that started a sentence with “But what’s possibly most important to acknowledge is that …” This type of wordiness is a big problem if you want your readers to remain conscious. This phrase should be chopped out entirely, or at least pared down to “perhaps most important.” Always look for opportunities to streamline your sentences. Instead of saying the company “is committed to providing” quality care, say the company provides it. Instead of saying the organization’s leaders “make a point to” invest in their local community, just say they invest in their community. Instead of saying an adviser “serves to” guide students, just say she guides them. Instead of saying that patients experience “symptoms such as” headache and fever, just say they experience headache and fever. Instead of saying, along with “a host of partners like” the Humane Society, the ASPCA and others, just say along with the Humane Society, the ASPCA and others. Instead of saying the school superintendent “was pondering the idea of finding” a way to shelter homeless students, just say she was looking for a way. Instead of saying that the common cold and flu viruses “gain entry into” the body, just say they enter the body. Instead of saying “start by separating three eggs,” just say “separate three eggs.” These real-world examples all show how, by cutting out needless words, you can hold your readers attention while saving them a lot of time.

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January 9, 2023

When to cut 'both'

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Here’s a word that makes me all chop-happy when I edit: “both.”

I comes up a lot in sentences like this one: “The hospital provides a supportive work environment for both doctors and nurses to provide superior patient care.”

 That “both” is, technically, just fine. It’s used correctly, of course. But it has one drawback. And when you weigh that drawback against the benefits of this “both,” I see no reason to leave it. 

The drawback is that “both,” when immediately followed by a plural noun, might momentarily be construed to be modifying that noun only. In other words, a someone looking at the phrase “both doctors and nurses” might first read it as “both doctors” and wonder which two doctors you’re talking about.

Granted, they wouldn’t be confused for long. It only takes a split second to realize that “both” is modifying the whole noun phrase “doctors and nurses.” But if your goal is optimum clarity, precision, and economy of words — which mine usually is when I’m editing — you have to question that “both.”

 Does it really add anything that offsets its drawbacks? Not in this sentence. “The hospital provides a supportive work environment for doctors and nurses” says it all just as well with fewer words. So I would chop “both” out of the sentence without hesitation.  

Writers use “both” more often than needed because, in spoken English, it can add some emphasis. It can say: Wow. Not just doctors but even nurses have a good gig here. But in print it doesn’t always have the same effect. Readers can’t always “hear” the way the word sounds in the writer’s mind. So “both” can do more harm than good.  

Sometimes “both” can achieve the desired effect in print. Used well it can drive home that “wow” point quite well — even before a plural noun it doesn’t modify alone. That’s why I weigh the merits of “both” on a case-by-case basis.  

But my simple rule of thumb is: If “both” isn’t adding anything to the sentence and it comes before a plural noun that isn’t its sole partner, “both” is an extra word we can do without. 

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January 3, 2023

Editor grievances

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In an old “Seinfeld” episode, perennially hotheaded Frank Costanza resurrects a holiday he invented years before, Festivus. Instead of a Christmas tree, there’s a Festivus pole. Instead of carols, there are “Feats of Strength.” But perhaps the most important Festivus tradition is “The Airing of Grievances,” in which the family members sit around the dinner table while Frank tells them all the ways they’ve annoyed him over the past year.

Me, I’d never trade the eggnog and mistletoe to get screamed at. But now that the gifts are unwrapped and the cookies are long gone, I have some bones to pick with certain writers. So here, in my recent column, is a deep dive into my 2023 editor grievances: Quotations that haven’t been set up properly. Ampersands on auto pilot. Organizations' initials in parentheses after the name. Needless words.

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December 26, 2022

The best thing about the subjunctive: It's usually optional

The subjunctive isn’t as scary as it sounds. Technically, it's optional.

Consider a sentence like “It’s crucial that he goes to college.”

One letter, the “s” at the end of “goes,” makes that sentence indicative as instead of subjunctive. Normally, starting off with something like “it’s crucial” sets up the subjunctive mood. And if we instead said, “It’s crucial that he go”  instead of “goes,” it would have been subjunctive. But because we used “goes,” it was not.

The subjunctive is a grammatical mood that occurs in statements contrary to fact: wishes, suppositions, demands, commands, and statements of necessity like “it’s crucial that.”

In those sentences, the subjunctive replaces the regular conjugated verb, like goes, with the base form of the verb, like “go.” Sometimes there’s no difference between the indicative and the subjunctive because the conjugated verb is identical to the base form of the verb. “I go to work” is indicative. “It’s crucial that I go to work” is subjunctive, but there’s no audible difference because both forms of “go” are the same.

In the past tense, the subjunctive applies only to the verb “be,” which becomes “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.

One of the most interesting things about the subjunctive is that grammar guides don’t say you must or even should use it. So it’s not wrong, exactly, to say “It's crucial he goes” instead of the more proper subjunctive “It's crucial he go.”

It’s up to you.

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December 19, 2022

Em dashes, en dashes and hyphens

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For as long as I can remember, I’ve been giving this note to my editing clients: “Replace floating hyphen with proper em dash.” It comes up when I’m proofreading images, like PDFs, and I see a hyphen with just a space on either side connecting two parts of a sentence – like this. But it wasn’t until very recently someone asked me about the term “floating hyphen.” Is that a real thing?

Of course it is, I said. Then I googled it and learned that, apparently, I had made the term up. But my point remains true: A hyphen is not an em dash. Nor is it an en dash. Each of these three punctuation marks has its own special job.

Em dashes, often simply called dashes, are sentence punctuation — a way to connect ideas and phrases and clauses. If you don’t want to use them, you don’t have to. Commas, parentheses and colons can usually get your point across in any spot where you might use a dash.

But if your sentence already has enough commas or if you want to create visual emphasis — like this — you can use em dashes to signal a change in sentence structure or thought. Or you can use em dashes to set off parenthetical thoughts — and who doesn’t love those? — in a sentence. They can also set off lists of items — names, places, things — mid-sentence or at the end. You can even use em dashes for dialogue, datelines or taglines or to show that speech was cut off mid-sentence.

Personally, I consider it a mistake to use an em dash between complete clauses — this sentence is an example. A period or possibly a semicolon would be better. But not everyone agrees with me.

News publications usually put a space on either side of an em dash — making it sort of float. Book and magazine publishing usually omit the spaces—their dashes touch the word on either side. Both are correct. Here's more in my recent column.

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December 12, 2022

Happy holidays from the Miller's? How not to mess up holiday greetings

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Sending out holiday greetings this year? Christmas cards, emails, posts on the family Facebook page and party invitations are all wonderful opportunities to embarrass yourself with punctuation and grammar mistakes. So here, continuing my annual tradition, is the 2022 edition of the most common holiday greeting grammar flubs and how to avoid them.

Wrong: Happy holidays from the Miller’s! Right: the Millers. If your last name ends with any letter other than S, Z, X, Ch or Sh, make it plural by just adding S. No apostrophe. Two people named Miller are the Millers. Three people named Smith are the Smiths.

Wrong: Happy holidays from the Ricci’s. Right: the Riccis. A name that ends in a vowel may look weird with an S at the end, but that’s no excuse to add an apostrophe. If your last name is D’Angelo, two of your family members are D’Angelos.

Wrong: Happy holidays from the Jones’, the Ramirez’s or the French’s. Right: Joneses, Ramirezes, Frenches. Seeing a theme here? No matter the name, you should never use an apostrophe to make it plural. These names work just like common nouns ending in S, Z, X, Ch and Sh, which add ES to form the plural — bosses, blintzes, axes, marches, marshes. So two Ramirezes, no apostrophe.

Wrong: We’re visiting the Miller’s house, the Ricci’s house, the Williams’ house, the Jones’s house, the Ramirez’s house or the French’s house. Right: The Millers’, Riccis’, Williamses’, Joneses’, Ramirezes’, Frenches’. Unlike plurals, possessives actually do take apostrophes. But when you’re talking about something that’s owned by more than one person, like a house, first make it plural — one Williams, two Williamses — then add the possessive apostrophe at the end: the Williamses’ house.

Here's more in my recent column.

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December 5, 2022

'Alright' isn't quite 'all right'

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Style guides, notably the Associated Press Stylebook, have long considered “alright” an error: the correct spelling should be “all right,” they say.

But if you're not following a style guide, "alright" isn't so bad. Merriam-Webster is okay with it. Webster's New World College Dictionary calls it a "disputed spelling" of "all right." American Heritage dictionary calls it nonstandard.

So if you want a safe choice, go with "all right." Otherwise, "alright" is alright.

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