I'm one of the people who get annoyed when people misuse "literally." Example: "I literally laughed my head off." No, you didn't. Your head is still attached to your body. "Literally" came in the news again this month when a dictionary somewhat legitimized its misuse. I understand language changes, and words shift meaning. "Awesome" used to mean "full of sublime wonder" and now more often means "really, really cool." But "literally" is a useful word with a specific meaning that no other word has. I think that English speakers should strive to maintain the integrity of the word.
But it's important to recognize the role of the dictionary there. It lists the meanings that are in use, and that one is certainly in use. I wouldn't call that legitimizing the misuse, especially given that most dictionaries note the objections or label the usage "informal."
The same goes for the recent "twerk" controversy: Would you RATHER not be able to look something up and learn what the heck the kids on your lawn are talking about?
By the way, I was thrilled to read "one of the people who get annoyed." Too many people hypercorrect such things and would say "I'm one of the people who GETS annoyed." Which would be dead wrong.
All the fuss over accepting "literally" made me think of a song by the Horrible Histories (BBC) crew, introduced to me by my daughter. A sample: "We're tearing up this place tonight --Literally!" Love your blog!
Ha! No matter how well established the non-literal meaning is, you'd be a fool not to recognize that, for whatever reason, it's seen as comical in a way that the allegedly parallel "really" and "very" and "totally" and "completely" are. And I think you have to adjust your usage accordingly.
If acceptance is crowdsourced (and of course it is), why wouldn't opprobrium work the same way?
"The all-new 2014 car." vs "The all new 2014 car." I see the first in commercials, but is the hyphen correct? This one drives me insane, pun intended.
Yes, you do want a hyphen in an all-new 2014 car. (I think it's mandatory under the federal safety standards -- blame Ralph Nader.)
Without a hyphen, the "all" is left floating. "All" and "new" work together as a unit, a compound modifier. It's easier to visualize in the plural: Without the hyphen, "all new 2014 cars" means all of the cars that are new. With it, "all-new 2014 cars" are 2014 cars that are all-new.
At first I thought you were objecting to the "all" as redundant. I don't think it is. A new 2014 model is new even if the design is unchanged from 2013, but "all-new" suggests a retooling.
Why do so many writers and newspaper opt for the metaphor instead of the proper word?
Well, to flounder isn't a metaphorical way of saying founder. To founder is to sink. To flounder is to struggle, as a flopping fish might.
To split or not to split infinitives?
Of all the rules-that-aren't, that might be the one that riles me the most. Split infinitives are fine. Often they're preferable to the alternative. And you can tell when a writer or editor or speaker has bent over backward to awkwardly unsplit an infinitive. (See what I did there?) I once heard Paul Harvey talk about an executive coming around "personally to thank the employees." As opposed to coming around impersonally?
Is there any easy way for me to learn and remember the distinction between "anytime" and "any time"? Not sure why I've never been able to figure this out. Thanks.
Substitute "at any time" and see whether it makes sense. If so, "anytime." If not, "any time."
Similarly, "awhile" means "for a while."
Regarding the Editor's Note: Is "most" necessary in your phrase ..."choose the most relevant questions...."
Sure. There are degrees of relevance, so the most relevant questions is a subset of the relevant questions.
First, I'm bummed that I won't be able to participate live. As a technical editor, I'm fangirling over here. Yay grammar (and punctuation, and word choice, and...all of it). My question is about words that, in writing, require a sense of time. Where do you stand on using "while" instead of "although" or "since" instead of "because"? I always correct those words, knowing that "while" and "although" are used in instances referring to time (at the same time that, since the time that...) However, I find myself saying these words in everyday conversation. Thoughts?
I see no problem with those senses of "while" and "since," as long as there's no ambiguity. Sometimes there's ambiguity.
Why does "sanction" mean BOTH "approve" AND "punish" .. or sanguine mean BOTH "bloody" and "bloodless"?... BUT 'fill out" and "fill in" mean the same thing? My own guess is evolving geo-divergent meanings over time ... such as "mickel" and "muckel having SAME meaning in Scotland ... BUT OPPOSITE meanings in England ... as in "many a mickel maketh a muckel".
"Sanction" is a contranym -- the word exists with two opposite meanings. "Cleave" and "dust" are some other examples. And, more controversially, "literally." It's a funny language.
Please comment on comma, semicolon and colon usage rules. Semicolon is a particularly vexing issue for me; I worry too much about whether it or a comma is correct.
If you're combining two clauses that would work as sentences on their own, a comma alone creates a comma splice. So you should either use a semicolon or put "and" after that comma. "I looked outside; it was raining." "I looked outside, and it was raining." (There are short, snappy exceptions, as in "I came, I saw, I conquered.")
In a series, a semicolon is a supercomma -- you need it only if any of the items you're listing contain a comma. That's why there are so many in obituaries, where survivors are listed after "brother," "sister," etc.
I try to be disciplined when I use a colon, writing the part of the sentence before the colon as an independent clause and not using the colon to separate a verb or preposition from its object. Yet, I increasingly see this practice being disregarded in major media, especially with the word "includes" used before a colon. Am I out of step with this practice now, and have the rules about proper colon use changed?
You are correct. If a sentence makes sense without the colon (or any other punctuation), leave it out. "The players include Nadal, Djokovic and Murray." If you need it, you need it. "The lineup was as follows: Nadal, Djokovic and Murray." Sometimes the colon is optional and a dash would also work -- maybe even a period, if you don't mind intentional fragments. "The lineup was classic: [or --] [or .] Nadal, Djokovic, Murray."
What's the reason that, in down-style headlines, the word after a colon is so frequently capitalized -- even if the word after the colon isn't a proper noun and isn't the start of a clause?
Capitalizing the first word after a colon in headlines every time is a standard convention. Maybe not universal, but pretty common. It's a visual thing: It just looks better that way.
If you can help me 'get' apostrophe use, I'll be your biggest fan. I get the contraction ones, such as "it's" for "it is". When to use one for possessives and other escapes me completely. Is there an easy-to-remember rule??? College grad, retired fed, voracious reader....flummoxed by a tiny apostrophe...
It is a cruel language sometimes. If you call the Smiths "the Smith's," as the mailbox-woodburning industry is wont to do, people will shout at you, "APOSTROPHES ARE FOR POSSESSIVES!" So then you use "it's" as a possessive and they shout even louder.
Whereas nouns are made possessive with an apostrophe and an s, possessive pronouns are inherently possessive. "Its" just exists; you don't need to take "it" and rig up an apostrophe-S possessive. Same with hers, yours, ours, theirs. Aside from pronouns, a possessive will involve an apostrophe. The letters s and x and z and plural vs. singular and dueling style guidelines (Hughes' or Hughes's?) complicate matters, but there will be an apostrophe.
Are there ever editorial limits on the number of words per sentence as well as the number of sentences per paragraph? A faithful reader of our house organ criticized a recent article for having more than 17 words in several sentences and more than 17 sentences in more than one paragraph. Do you have a standard for this? Concerned
Some editors impose arbitrary limits on the number of words in a sentence or paragraph. Or they count words in an introductory phrase to decide whether it gets a comma. I find such practices silly, and obviously there's no official rule unless a publication decides to impose one.
Something that seems to have switched over rather abruptly a couple of years ago is the disappearance of some irregular past participles. For example, I haven't seen "shone" for a while; it's always "shined" which just sounds wrong to me. Was there a vast conspiracy of editors plotting to subvert the language or am I just being a grumpy old stick-in-the-mud?
So many past participles are irregular in this language, you'd have thunk the grammar gods were playing a joke on us. It's hardly surprising that new ones have snuck in.
Bill, where do you stand on the number of spaces between sentences?
One space between sentences.
Here's a obnoxiously specific question. I edit for a writer who often has this kind of pattern to his sentence: independent clause, "and," independent clause, "but," independent clause. When the first two independent clauses act as a unit, does the i.c./c.c. comma rule still apply? Here's an example--I want to tell the writer to find another way to say things and he often needs to rethink the length and complexity of his sentences, but he says that I should worry about grammar errors, not reworking his sentences.
Your example seems fine to me, and it's a good example of how commas are flexible. You would use a comma after the "and" if the "but" clause weren't there, but not the way you wrote it.
If the pattern is repeated so often that it becomes a noticeable tic, of course, that's another story.
Is "percent" always singular, always plural, or either depending on context? My thinking is that you'd say "50 percent of the apples are rotten," but "50 percent of the apple is rotten."
You are 100 percent correct.
I want to scream whenever I watch a movie or TV show with dialogue containing grammatical errors. The one I hear most frequently is the misuse of pronouns. For example, a character might say something like, "She gave the gift to Tom and I." Do you think it would ever come to pass that basic rules of grammar would be changed to accommodate common usage? Yes, I do agree it feels as though ignorance is being rewarded.
I don't think something that basic is subject to crowdsourcing, but perhaps one could observe that the usage is part of a certain informal dialect.
"You know you are a grammar geek when..." an essay on grammar has you literally "LOLing". As a grammar purist, I begrudgingly accept your point about language changing. And I also chuckled with recognition about usage errors inevitably being made by the very people who call themselves purists. As an editor, I still am traumatized with embarrassment by some errors I made over a decade ago. I also appreciated your citing of the contradictory usages of sanction and dust. Thanks for the food for thought! srsly!
Muphry's Law is bound to apply in a chat like this, which brings to mind my subtitular admonition "Don't Be a Jerk."
Can I vote we eliminate the phrase "try AND" from our lexicon and replace it with the correct "try TO"?
In "Yes, I Could Care Less," I discuss that and similar examples of an illogical idiom dueling with a logical version that's still current. My point, in short: Why NOT use the logical version? Same with "I couldn't care less" instead of "I could care less."
I'm surprised there aren't other questions for you yet! So here's one. Did you master grammar because you're a natural language learner kind of guy, or were you taught advanced grammar using diagramming? What are your thoughts on its usefulness in teaching advanced grammar?
I've never diagrammed a sentence in my life. I think diagramming tends to lead people astray, as with the "I am one of those people who DOES" error. It's an example of a little knowledge being a dangerous thing.
Ending a sentence with a preposition -- also "a rule that isn't"?
Yep, another of the classics.
Why do young people in the media insist on using the word "reticent" when they mean "reluctant" - do they think they are being more sophisticated, showing off their vocabulary, or what?
It's tempting to blame young people and/or the media, but I think you'll find that "reticent" has been used to mean "reluctant" for a long time. It's understandable: Reticence is reluctance to speak.
Thankfully, smart writers and editors are reluctant to abandon the distinction.
I have noticed an increase in the use of hyphenating multiple adjectives preceding a noun. For example, what used to be "thin cotton dress" is now sometimes punctuated as "thin-cotton dress." Is there a rule to follow when confronted with these situations? Is it merely a dictate of an organization's house style guide? Would "thin, cotton dress" be inaccurate? I think the hyphen applies only either of the adjectives cannot stand alone (for example, using "blue-gray" to describe something that is neither color, but is truly a mix of blue and gray). What do you think?
I admit to being a bit of an extremist on hyphenating compound modifiers. My new book includes a chapter called "A Hyphen Manifesto." I just think it's easier to hyphenate as a general rule than to try to cook up reasons not to do it.
"Thin cotton dress" is an interesting example, because it tests the usual test. Is the dress thin, or is the cotton thin? Well, both, in a way, so I'd give the tie to the non-hyphenated construction.
The comma is also an interesting close call. Are you describing a cotton dress as thin, or are you describing a dress as both thin and cotton? When in doubt, leave it out.
I edit documents for the federal government (yes, I know), and aside from those fools who Capital Every Word for importance (I once asked someone if they regularly wrote in Old High German), my pet peeve is the use of impact by anyone other than a dentist. Is the fight on that one lost by now?
I think "impact" is tainted as biz-speak in a way that, say, the formerly reviled "contact me" is not.
I'm with you on capitalization. You can major in English, but you major in history, not History.
Hi Bill! If you're unmarried, we might be a match. Anyway, I have a question about words with multiple hyphens. I am a big fan of the hyphen, but I sometimes encounter a problem with multiple hyphens. For example, consider the following sentence : Housing demand depends on mortgage-rate levels. Would you agree that the latter sentence is punctuated correctly? My rationale is that you hyphenate "mortgage-rate" because those words are acting together as a single modified of the word, "levels." ("What type of levels influence housing demand?" "Mortgage-rate levels.") But what if I wanted to shift the sentence around a bit, as follows: Housing demand is mortgage-rate-dependent. Now, technically I would use two different hyphens in the final compound word. I'd use the regular hyphen (the one next to the "0" on a keyboard) between "mortgage" and "rate." I'd use an en-dash (ALT+0150 on your keyboard's numeric keypad) between "rate" and "dependent." The rationale is that demand is ultimately rate-dependent (so that's the dominant relationship being expressed, warranting a stronger/longer dash), and the kind of rate on which housing demand depends is the "mortgage" kind -- still important, but of a weaker importance than the relationship between "rate" and "dependent". Does this make sense? Am I crazy? Is Fowler rolling in his grave right now?
More on (moron?) hyphens! I love it.
Mortgage-rate levels is technically right, though I humor the anti-hyphen people by giving them the close calls. Here, you could look at it as "rate levels for mortgages" instead of "levels of mortgage rates." And you're right on the en dash, but that's too fussy for us newspaper types. Books and formal papers only.
(And I'm sure if you asked my wife nicely ...)
Does everyone (including editors) need an editor? Or do you believe there are people who can effectively edit their own work?
An editor who edits his own work has a fool for a writer. Or something like that. (Or is it "their own work"? That's another subject!)
Do articles in the sports section of the Post get copy-edited? What about the stuff that doesn't get printed -- blogs and whatnot?
Yes, sports copy gets edited, even the blogs. But sports copy is often subject to extreme deadline pressure, so it's hard to make it perfect. That's true for almost everything at a daily newspaper, but it's especially true when we're writing about a baseball game that ended 15 minutes after the story was supposed to be typeset.
Nice hyphen in "copy-edited," by the way!
Although technically grammatically incorrect sometimes, isn't it better/easier to just say something wrong, such as using a preposition to end a sentence with, than to wrap yourself in convoluted verbiage to avoid it?
You're right about wrong but wrong about right. Or ... I think you've illustrated why that so-called rule isn't a rule at all.
It seems that a lot of news organizations, particularly smaller ones, are either firing or cutting down on their copyediting staff. It's becoming increasingly difficult to find an online news story that isn't riddled with errors. Is copyediting dead in an Internet-driven society? Will people simply stop expecting error-free copy from news sites? And should we care?
Two powerful forces are at work in what some call the War on Copy Editing. One, media organizations are struggling financially, and so polish gets cut before content. And two, the Internet means there's a deadline every second. Immediacy is bigger than it used to be.
So there's a balance to be struck. I think the news sources that pay attention to the details will stand out and will be judged as more credible. Readers will notice. Obviously the ones that pay attention to fact-checking will stand out.
As an editor, I'm noticing a troubling trend in the corporate world: the growing use of the word "assure" in lieu of the correct "ensure." I chalk this up to two possibilities: first, either it's a legal maneuver, so you're not technically guaranteeing anyone anything; or second, people really don't know the difference between assure, ensure, and insure.
I can assure you that I've ensured I'm insured.
One issue that irks me is the use of who vs. that. I hear it a lot in conversation, tv scripts, and even news broadcasts.
That one strikes me as only mildly objectionable. I mind "who" for a company more than I do "that" for a person.
I don't mind useful new words entering the dictionary, but I do mind the acceptance of usage/words/spellings that have gained currency because of errors. For instance, "miniscule" is now accepted as the spelling of "minuscule." I'd like "all right" not to become "alright." I wish people didn't say they were "nauseous" when they are nauseated. Language changes, yes, but to our detriment when we are deprived of useful meanings and distinctions. Are there campaigns in existence to fight such trends? Last night I dreamed that a burglar stole my old Chicago Manual of Style (one that allows the serial comma!). I swear that I had no idea you would be chatting today.
You can campaign (I know I do!), but most of the time you're going to lose. To quote Paul Simon, "Who am I to blow against the wind?"
In your first answer you said: By the way, I was thrilled to read "one of the people who get annoyed." Too many people hypercorrect such things and would say "I'm one of the people who GETS annoyed." Which would be dead wrong. I'm confused on the subject-verb agreement. Can you explain why it's "people" and not "one" in this construction? By the way, I was thrilled to read that sentence, too, because the writer used, "people WHO" and not "people THAT," which is a particular pet peeve of mine. Was always taught that "who" is correct after a reference to a person. Thank you.
In "I'm one of those people who do X," you're talking about people who do X and asserting that you're one of them. If you mean that only you do X, then why are you mentioning "those people"? You're just emphasizing that you're a person, nothing more, and saying that by the way, in an unrelated matter, you do X?
Growing up, my family had WTOP on in our house (instead of music) all day, so I developed a good ear for grammar. So in place of the "if in doubt..." rule about the use of commas, I just decide if the sentence needs a breath pause if read aloud. Any important exceptions to the use of commas by (imaginary) sound?
Sound is a great way to decide comma questions.
How about "to thank the employees personally"?
That would work, too. It's what I'd do if I were working for the Economist, whose stylebook bans split infinitives.
(Yes, I said "whose" with an inanimate object. Because "whichse" isn't a word.)
should I give it up on this one too?
I think that distinction is very much alive in careful writing.
Is there still a chance of restoring the expression "wait on" to mean what someone providing a service does, and no longer to use it in lieu of "wait for" (someone or something)?
I'm an editor. I still get the lay/lie/laid/etc. mixed up.
I still say "lay down" in my civilian life.
I find that people who say "nauseous" when they mean "nauseated" ARE nauseous, although they don't realize it.
That distinction is probably ready for the assisted-living facility.
What is your answer to responding to the question "How are you?" I was taught to say I'm good, when I am referring to a general sense of being (using the adjective form with the linking verb), but to say I'm well, when I had previously been sick. I have been in many arguments over this. People tell me to use the adverbial form "well," but I respond you would not say I'm happily, you would say I'm happy.
It's probably silly to think too deeply about greetings and responses, but yes.
I mean, "How do you do?" What the heck does that mean? I love Kramer's reply on "Seinfeld": "I do GREAT."
I have a question about hyphens (then again, who doesn't). If I say, "I'm a detail-oriented person," I need a hyphen (obviously). But what about a sentence like "I'm very detail oriented." Hyphen? No hyphen?
Yes, hyphen. I have a hard time articulating why, because there are some examples that go the other way. "He is well respected."
At what point does bad grammar become idiom? The expression used to be "I could hardly care less." "Hope you have a nice day" became "Have a nice day," sounding like an imperative creating an obligation to the listener. Outside the news and law enforcement fields, it's common to say "My house was robbed last week, but fortunately no one was home." Haven't we absorbed these culturally?
As the title indicates, my new book, "Yes, I Could Care Less," wrestles with that question. Short answer: Language change happens, and some changes stick better than others. "Contact" as a verb was scorned by Strunk and White, but you'll see it even in well-edited publications today. Virtually nobody gives it a second thought. But "impact" as a verb is still frowned upon, outside a dental context. Something called "register" comes into play: Expressions and usages that are just fine in conversation are avoided in writing. Usages that are just fine in some writing are avoided in the most formal writing.
Give it to the readers and I straight, will we see a relaxing of many formal rules of grammar to accommodate shorter forms of communications (e.g., texting and twitter) and because the "masses" have taken over the written language and are using common patterns of speech? Me and my wife think so. Me and my wife also think it's a good thing that modern digital communications have created new forums and engaged more people in writing, and so I don't want to appear elitist, because I know spelling and grammar change over time; but between you and I, I'm bothered by the such rapid destruction of norms by the "masses". (We can put quotation marks on any side of punctuation, right?)
I haven't joined the "logical punctuation placement" cause. I think the illogical American placement of all commas and periods inside quotation marks just looks better.
On your larger point, again, I'm "bothered," too, but it's more like "Jeez, why does everyone wear flip-flops everywhere?" bothered than "How about that situation in Sudan?" bothered. Perspective!
Do you start a sentence with "While" or "Although"? Also, what are your thoughts on the use of "impact" as a verb?
Why wouldn't you be able to start a sentence with "While" or "Although?" And, yes, "while" can mean "although" there.
As a Portuguese-English translator, I'm aware that in the past five years there has been another set of reforms of the spelling of Portuguese words, in order to create greater uniformity among its users in a range of nations on different continents (Brazil, having the largest number of Lusophones and the most streamlined spellings, is exerting the most influence). It would be so nice if there could ever orthographic reform to make English usage more uniform throughout the world, so we don't have such odd spellings as practise, recognise or humour (after all, the British don't use "doctour," do they?).
Could you PLEASE explain to me the right way to say this? I feel bad that my friend's mom died. I feel badly that my friend's mom died. I think I always pick the wrong one, but when I hear other people make their choice, I often think THEY are wrong. HELP!!
You feel bad. To feel badly would be to have a faulty sense of touch, or faulty motor skills. Or perhaps you forgot to complete your employer's mandatory sexual-harassment training.
1. I've noticed more people who are using an apostrophe when writing the plural form of a word. 2. In VA it is common for the Richmond Times Dispatch newspaper use Va as an abbreviated form of Virginia. When the abbreviations for states were changed some years ago I thought all the letters were supposed to be capitalized. Please respond. Thanks
You're talking about postal abbreviations. Most newspapers don't use those, and for good reason. A lot of people outside the states in question would have a hard time figuring out what MS and MA and AK mean.
When people hear I'm an editor, they make the tired (and slightly snide) joke that they need to watch what they say -- and more recently, what they write in an email. My first thought: Do I seem like that much of a jerk? How do you put people at ease in casual interactions?
E-mail, not email!
(I'm such a jerk.)
I have a different beef re "Jeez, why does everyone wear flip-flops everywhere?" NOT everyone wears flip-flops, and those who do may well not where them everywhere. Dare I say that I wish everyone would stop generalizing about everything?
What do we want?
When do we want it?
Which is correct: One in five children are malnourished or one in five children is malnourished?
The general consensus of opinion ...
I mean, the consensus is that it's "one ... is."
I enforce that standard at work, but I don't buy it. You have a ratio there, and I think "are" makes more sense. You're not just talking about the "one."
How about "I feel SAD that my friend's mom died"?
Sure, but maybe you don't exactly feel sad -- you didn't even know the woman. But you feel bad, as in sympathetic.
I've got two degrees from the University of Chicago so hopefully you'll trust me that I know better, but the problem I have with a lot of the grammar police stuff is that people rarely explain what the big deal is. So what if you split an infinitive? Or if "literally" doesn't literally mean what the speaker thinks it does? So long as the idea is being clearly conveyed I'm just not sure I see the big deal. Violating the rules of the road brings serious and obvious consequences. Violating the established rules of grammar brings . . . new usages of English. Considering that your typical 19th century prose is often painful to read I'm not sure change is a bad thing.
But the fact that people care about such things means you risk losing them if they think you sound stupid.
Unlike your earlier statement, I've regularly proved the subject-verb accuracy of "one of the people who want" by using a diagram. It's so easy to show the relationship of the subordinate clause's subject (who) as it directly relates to the antecedent (people). Thus, who becomes plural and takes a plural verb. Hope you agree?
Right. I have no doubt that a correctly diagrammed sentence would prove me right, but I've run into a lot of people who took Diagramming 101 but not Diagramming 102.
There are times when turning a noun into a verb makes sense, but some (like "gifting") just grate, and are unnecessary anyway when a viable alternative ("giving") already exists.
Yes. And "gifting" is kind of skunked. Grammar geeks have been criticizing it for so long, it probably can't recover.
Have we lost the war on 'decimate'? I find even authoritative figures using the word to mean a lot more than 'reduce by 10%'.
How often do you really need to say "Reduce by 10 percent"?
My freshman English professor told me to never use "Reason why." It is redundant. Reason is why. He said use one or the other, but not both. What is your take on this?
"The reason why" and "the reason is because" are mild redundancies. I don't use them, but I don't get worked up about them either.