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Essential, but Is It Important?

Commas are tricky little devils. Anyone who wants to use them correctly will at some point encounter the terms essential and nonessential. The rule is that so-called essential elements should not be enclosed in commas. Conversely, nonessential elements require commas fore and aft.

By “elements” we mean clauses, phrases, and even single words. Today we will focus on the difference between essential and nonessential clauses (a clause always contains a subject and verb).

Consider this sentence: People who stay out in the sun too long get a bad case of sunburn. Note the lack of commas. That’s because the clause who stay out in the sun too long is essential. Without it the sentence is silly: People get a bad case of sunburn.

Look at what happens if we fence off the essential clause with commas: People, who stay out in the sun too long, get a bad case of sunburn. The commas isolate people from the clause that explains which people we are talking about. That’s as misguided as writing The book, I’m reading, is good.

Now look at this sentence: Barton Blain, who once threw a punch at the mayor, ate corn flakes for breakfast. Unlike people in the previous paragraph, Barton Blain is already specifically identified. That makes the clause who once threw a punch at the mayor nonessential, requiring commas.

Do not be distracted by this usage of essential and nonessential. That Blain assaulted an elected official is certainly surprising, even alarming, but it is not essential in the grammatical sense; it is added information, and its removal would not alter the sentence’s basic point: that Blain had corn flakes for breakfast. Maybe the writer was being grimly humorous, or was trying to shock us, or—who knows? Our only concern here is that the writer correctly used commas to set off a nonessential clause.

So anyone who would master comma usage must realize that the terms essential and nonessential have nothing to do with values or ethics and everything to do with making a sentence say what its author intends.

 

Pop Quiz

Are the following sentences punctuated properly? Answers are at the end of the newsletter.

1. The carpenter, who fixed our floor, is the one I’d recommend.
2. I’m talking about Derek Jones who climbed Mount Whitney, not Derek Jones who swam the English Channel.
3. A ten-year-old girl, who doesn’t obey her parents, is headed for trouble.

 

Pop Quiz Answers
1. The carpenter who fixed our floor is the one I’d recommend. (remove commas)
2. I’m talking about Derek Jones who climbed Mount Whitney, not Derek Jones who swam the English Channel. (CORRECT)
3. A ten-year-old girl who doesn’t obey her parents is headed for trouble. (remove commas)

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Posted on Tuesday, August 19, 2014, at 11:14 am


People vs. Persons

The noun person has two plurals: persons and people. Most people don’t use persons, but the sticklers say there are times when we should. “When we say persons,” says Wilson Follett’s Modern American Usage, “we are thinking, or ought to be, of ones—individuals with identities; whereas when we say people we should mean a large group, an indefinite and anonymous mass.”

The traditional rule is that persons is used for either an exact or a small number. So we might estimate that a hundred people were there. Or if we know the exact number, we’d say ninety-eight persons were there.

As for “a small number,” how small is “small”? In Words on Words, John B. Bremner suggests fewer than fifty. Theodore M. Bernstein concurs, saying in The Careful Writer that fifty people is acceptable. To Bernstein, two people is nearly unthinkable but 4,381 persons is “quite proper.”

Meanwhile, the language moves on. In A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, Bryan A. Garner calls the persons-people distinction “pedantic.” Garner says that twelve persons on the jury “sounds stuffy” and that most Americans today would say people instead. Roy H. Copperud agrees. In A Dictionary of Usage and Style he dismisses the grammatical superiority of persons as “superstition,” a law that “usage has in fact repealed.”

Because persons sounds aloof and clinical, the word still thrives in legal, official, or formal usage. A hotel chain’s website offers “options for three and more persons.” Elevators carry signs saying, “Occupancy by more than eight persons is unlawful.” The Department of Justice has a database called the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.

A more timely debate these days would be people vs. folks. Traditionalists regard folks with suspicion and contempt. Bernstein says, “Folks is a casualism … not suitable for general straightforward writing.” Bremner calls it “deliberately folksy” and “corny in formal speech and writing.” But judging by its growing popularity and acceptance in this informal age, folks will probably be synonymous with people in another ten years.

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Posted on Tuesday, August 12, 2014, at 11:02 am


Media Watch

• From a review of an exhibition: “The society had in their possession a card imprinted with a 1872 photograph.” Two booby prizes in one sentence: society is singular, so make it “had in its possession,” not “their.” As for “a 1872 photograph,” is that the way you would say it? The misguided decision not to use an stems from the belief that an should only precede a vowel, and the 1 in 1872 isn’t even a letter. However, the actual rule is that an always precedes a vowel sound, which is why we say “an honor,” even though the silent h is technically a consonant.

• From a newspaper editorial: “California will join other states who have made alterations to their sentencing codes.” Make it “other states that.” A state is not a person, and who applies only to humans.

• “It was all so cliché.” What’s wrong with “It was all such a cliché”? Cliché is a noun, not an adjective. To sticklers, this sentence sounds as silly as “It was all so paper clip.”

• From a book review: “It’s impossible to predict it in advance.” Oh dear. Either change “predict” to “know” or delete “in advance.”

• “Their reticence to challenge the union is why this ruling is essential.” The writer meant “reluctance to challenge.” The two words are not synonyms; reticence means “habitual silence” or “reserve.”

• From a profile of an athlete: “His single-minded passion is one of the many qualities that has made him a star.” Make it “one of the many qualities that have made him a star.” The subject of the verb is “qualities,” not “one.” Many qualities have made him a star; his single-minded passion is one of them.

• “The inmates are trying to put distance between the men they are now with the crimes that landed them here years ago.” Make it “and the crimes.” Would you say, “The distance between my house with your house is three blocks”? The writer forgot the first half of his sentence before he finished the second half. And then he just couldn’t be bothered to proofread the mess he’d made.

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Posted on Thursday, August 7, 2014, at 8:13 am


The Best Thesaurus

Have you ever needed a better word than the only one that comes to mind? Nowadays, the easy solution is to type that word plus “synonym” into your Google search box. Call me old-fashioned, but I turn to a book: the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus. Anyone serious about writing needs this book—a quantum leap in thesauruses (thesauri?), and so much more besides.

Every writer but the most gifted needs a resource for synonymous words and phrases, but for years all I ever saw was something called Roget’s Thesaurus. Call me a nitwit, but I just couldn’t figure the damn thing out. Why couldn’t I just look up a word and find a list of synonyms after it?

Then in 1978 came J.I. Rodale’s Synonym Finder. At last, a thesaurus that worked like a dictionary. I still have my copy, and it still comes in handy, but the OAWT is even better. The front cover says, “For the writer in everyone.” An excerpt on the back dismisses utilize as a pretentious way of saying use. Yes! I liked this book before I even opened it.

The OAWT is the Swiss Army knife of wordbooks. Though it’s a straight Rodale-style thesaurus most of the way, there’s a lot more after the last entry (zoom, which can mean both “charge” and “enlarge”). There is a handy 24-page refresher course on the rules of grammar, followed by a spelling guide that includes a substantial list of commonly misspelled words (e.g., inoculate, minuscule, Philippines) and familiar foreign-language terms (roué, serape, Zeitgeist), after which comes a capitalization and punctuation guide. Taken as a whole, these breezy, easy-to-understand sections provide a solid understanding of how our language works.

The most fun comes at the very end: a list of clichés and, better yet, a collection of redundancies. Writers will squirm at the clichés, knowing they’re guilty of having used several of them: acid test, all in all, done deal, duly noted, in the near future, touch base, wreak havoc, and so many, many more. The redundant phrases are startling: many seem fine until you think about them: advance warning, brief moment, climb up, empty space, false pretenses, plan in advance, whether or not, written down.

Here are a few features that I think make OAWT the thesaurus of the 21st century: Unlike Rodale, OAWT uses your word correctly in a sentence or phrase before offering alternatives. If a word has two or more meanings, each gets its own paragraph of synonyms—easy, for instance, has seven paragraphs, from uncomplicated to promiscuous. You’ll find notes on “Easily Confused Words” throughout, like after founder or rack, to alert you about flounder and wrack. “The Right Word” sections deal with fine distinctions, helping writers choose between, say, riddle and conundrum. “Word Banks” are comprehensive lists of everything from amphibians to knitting terms to wine grapes. “Word Notes” and “Usage Notes” explain the finer points and pitfalls of common words and phrases.

Hard-core word nerds will have beefs. I wasn’t thrilled with the hedging on media (it’s plural, OK?). There are opposing points of view on the validity of the disinterested-uninterested dichotomy (to me there’s no question disinterested means “unbiased,” not “apathetic”). On the other hand, I found terrific passages on troublemakers like comprise, data, impact, and like.

Memo to smart alecks: the OAWT indeed does offer synonyms for synonym … and for thesaurus.

Tom Stern

 

Pop Quiz

Can you spot the commonly misspelled words? (gleaned from the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus)
Suggested answers are at the bottom of the newsletter.

1. We will be happy to accomodate all those in attendence.
2. The chauffer flinched when the lightening struck the limouzine.
3. Stealing the promissory note was a heinious act.
4. The mechanic sat in the restaurant feeling susceptible to melancholy.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. We will be happy to accommodate all those in attendance.
2. The chauffeur flinched when the lightning struck the limousine.
3. Stealing the promissory note was a heinous act.
4. All correct.

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Posted on Monday, July 28, 2014, at 1:52 pm


Nothing Is True Forever

Just about every week, GrammarBook.com receives emails like this: “My brilliant ninth-grade English teacher drilled into us that so-and-so, but now you say such-and-such.” The painful truth is that with each new generation the rules change.

If you were in high school in the 1970s, it’s a safe bet that your brilliant English teacher lectured you about the word hopefully. Forty years ago this word polarized America. People loved to say it, and language snobs loved to hate it. The veteran TV journalist Edwin Newman had a sign in his office that said, “Abandon ‘hopefully’ all ye who enter here.”

Nobody claimed that hopefully was invalid—it was the way everyone used it that was unacceptable. The word’s strict meaning is “filled with hope,” as in Hopefully, I knocked on my true love’s door. But few used it that way. It came to mean “it is hoped that,” as in Hopefully, my dream will come true.

The authorities were up in arms for several reasons. For starters, hopefully became a fad word, like today’s awesome or amazing. You couldn’t walk down the street without hearing it everywhere. The more people said it, the more grating and vapid it became.

Beyond that, language scholars saw hopefully as a cop-out—no more than a glib way of avoiding “I hope.” It’s intentionally unclear who is hoping in Hopefully, my dream will come true. The word just floats there, unattached. Are you saying the whole universe hopes your dream will come true? Are you really that special?

Those who weren’t there can’t know how passionately the sticklers despised hopefully. “Its detractors were operatic in their vilifications,” says writer Geoff Nunberg. The odd thing was that the same detractors had no objection to other “floating” adverbs, such as thankfully, happily, and frankly.

For decades the venerable Associated Press Stylebook said in its entry on hopefully: “It means in a hopeful manner. Do not use it to mean it is hoped, let us hope or we hope.” So imagine the surprise of many who opened the 2012 edition and found this: “The traditional meaning is in a hopeful manner. Also acceptable is the modern usage: it’s hoped, we hope.”

Now, after all these years, the uproar is a dim memory, and the word is accepted in most quarters (although you will never see a floating hopefully in this space).

So much for that English teacher’s scolding in 1979. To the dismay of traditionalists, a language’s rules are bound to change when enough people refuse to obey them.

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Posted on Monday, July 21, 2014, at 10:25 pm