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Evolution or …?

Today we’ll home in on three examples of the English language’s capriciousness.

Self-deprecating  Few contemporary writers would hesitate to use self-deprecating to describe someone who is refreshingly humble. But the term’s wide acceptance is yet another triumph of the slobs over the snobs.

Technically, the correct term is self-depreciating. Although deprecate and depreciate appear almost identical, these words have different roots, and different meanings as well. Traditionally, to deprecate is to disapprove of or denounce. To depreciate is to devalue or downgrade. Because the two words are easily confused, most dictionaries caved forty or fifty years ago and started listing them as synonymous.

Why did self-deprecating prevail when self-depreciating is the right choice? Possibly because deprecating sounds mysterious and swanky.

It’s not as much fun to use depreciating, with its unwieldy extra syllable. It’s a dreary word that evokes decline and obsolescence.

Momentarily  Since the mid-seventeenth century, momentarily has meant “for a moment.” But in the twentieth century, casual speakers and writers started using it to mean “in a moment.” This johnny-come-lately meaning of momentarily has caught up with and maybe overtaken the traditional meaning.

There is quite a difference between for a moment and in a moment when you think about it. Most travelers are heartened when they hear “Passengers’ baggage will arrive momentarily.” But this announcement could be stressful news to traveling language sticklers—they might take it to mean that their arriving luggage will disappear after only a few seconds.

So why say something like Let’s speak momentarily and risk being misinterpreted? The solution is to drop momentarily and instead say either Let’s speak soon or Let’s have a short talk.

Presently  This word has changed meanings more than once since its arrival in the fourteenth century. At first it meant now. But today careful speakers and writers use it to mean “in the near future.” Others use it in its original sense. The 2014 edition of Webster’s New World lists both “in a little while; soon” and “at present; now: a usage still objected to by some.”

We recommend that you avoid this fussy word. If you tell a houseful of ravenous guests, “We are serving dinner presently,” many will think you mean right now and start elbowing their way to the front of the line.

Good alternative: “We are serving dinner soon.”
Not so good alternative: “We are serving dinner momentarily.”

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Posted on Tuesday, April 21, 2015, at 10:13 am

The Elusive En Dash

When a compound adjective precedes a noun it is describing, we often need a hyphen:
prize-winning recipe, twentieth-century literature. If a compound adjective comprises more than two words, we use as many hyphens as are needed: a three-day-old newspaper,
a dyed-in-the-wool snob.

But try to punctuate the compound adjectives in these phrases: a New York based artist,
a Charles Dickens inspired author, a post World War II novel. Most writers would take pains to avoid “New-York-based artist,” “Charles-Dickens-inspired author,” and “post-World-War-II novel.” Hyphenating open compounds like New York, Charles Dickens, and World War II feels wrong and looks weird.

Most of us would write New York-based artist, Charles Dickens-inspired author, and
post-World War II novel. We would respect the integrity of the compound proper noun, recognizing that a hyphen intrusion would not assist readers, and might confuse and distract them.

Some time ago, publishers decided that a hyphen was too puny to join open compounds to other words in a compound adjective. So they replaced the hyphen with the en dash, which is longer than a hyphen but shorter than a long dash. Here are en dashes in action:
New York–based artist, Charles Dickens–inspired author, post–World War II novel.

Most books and many magazines would pick the en dash over the hyphen in those three examples. The en dash is used for other purposes too. But you won’t find this mark in most daily newspapers—there is no mention of the en dash anywhere in the Associated Press’s influential stylebook for journalists. In fact, the most respected reference books and style guides of the twentieth century give short shrift to the en dash. H.W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage does not acknowledge its existence. Neither does Theodore M. Bernstein’s The Careful WriterWilson Follett’s Modern American Usage gives the en dash two sentences, and discourages its use.

Before the age of computers, only professional printers could make en dashes; everyone else muddled through with hyphens. Many people have never heard of en dashes, despite having seen them a thousand times. The irony is that although the en dash mostly goes unnoticed, its function is cosmetic. It resolves no ambiguities. It clears up no confusion. It does nothing that a hyphen can’t do and hasn’t done, except to look a bit more symmetrical in certain constructions. It is an elegant flourish that most readers haven’t been trained to recognize, let alone benefit from.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

If the en dash seems right for you, here is how to type one. On a PC, hold down the ALT key and type 0150 on the numeric keypad located on the far right of the keyboard. On a Mac, hold down the Option key and type the minus sign located at the top of the keyboard.


Pop Quiz

Supply the necessary punctuation. Answers are below.

1. Toby is a four year old terrier.
2. The apartment featured a bowling alley length hallway.
3. It was a Star Wars inspired fantasy.
4. The dessert had an ice cream like texture.
5. My terrier is four years old.


Pop Quiz Answers

1. Toby is a four-year-old terrier. (two hyphens)

2. The apartment featured a bowling alley-length hallway.
(OR bowling alley–length OR bowling-alley-length)

3. It was a Star Wars-inspired fantasy.
(OR Star Wars–inspired)

4. The dessert had an ice cream-like texture.
(OR ice cream–like OR ice-cream-like)

5. My terrier is four years old. (CORRECT)

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Posted on Tuesday, April 14, 2015, at 3:40 pm

Capitalizing Composition Titles, Part II

Some may question the need for a two-part series on this esoteric topic. But even those who consider themselves top-notch at identifying parts of speech in a word grouping will find composition-title capitalization a skill worth mastering.

Any title of more than two words can be a challenge. How would you capitalize a title such as not yet rich? Since the first and last word in any title are always capitalized, the only question is whether to cap yet. In this case, yet is an adverb, and adverbs are always capped. So make it Not Yet Rich.

Now suppose the title is rich yet miserable. This time yet is one of the seven coordinating conjunctions (the others are and, or, nor, but, for, and so). Since coordinating conjunctions are not capitalized in titles, the right answer is Rich yet Miserable.

Here are two correctly capitalized titles: Going up the Road and Going Up in a Balloon. In the first title, up is a preposition, and short prepositions are not capitalized. In the second title, Up is an adverb and should be capped.

Along the same lines, compare the following three titles: I Got It off the InternetPlease Put It Off for Today, and I Hit the Off Switch. In the first example, the preposition off is lowercase. But the word must be capped in the second example because put off, meaning “to postpone,” is a two-word phrasal verb (a verb of two or more words). One-word verbs, auxiliary verbs, and phrasal verbs are always capitalized. Off is also capped in the third sentence because the word functions as an adjective in that title, and adjectives are always capitalized.

Although the seven coordinating conjunctions are not capitalized, you may have noticed there are many more than seven conjunctions in English. Most of these are called subordinating conjunctions, because they join a subordinate clause to a main clause. Familiar examples include asalthough, beforesince, until, when.

There are three approaches to capping subordinating conjunctions: capitalize them all, lowercase them all, or capitalize them if they are words of four letters or more. Take your pick.

Try applying your own composition-capitalization policy to any sentence you see or hear. This is a great mental exercise, which will help keep you well grounded in the fundamentals of our language.


Pop Quiz

Capitalize the following titles. Extra credit: indicate which words could go either way. Answers are below.

1. oh, how i hate to get up in the morning
2. we will be there although it is madness
3. always look up as you go down the road
4. i thought it had no on button
5. pick me up on your way over here
6. my work: the search for a life that matters
7. have you heard of that of which I speak?


Pop Quiz Answers

1. Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning (OR how)
2. We Will Be There Although It Is Madness (OR although)
3. Always Look Up As You Go down the Road (as and down could go either way)
4. I Thought It Had No On Button
5. Pick Me Up on Your Way over Here (OR Over)
6. My Work: The Search for a Life That Matters
7. Have You Heard Of That of Which I Speak?

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Posted on Tuesday, March 10, 2015, at 9:53 am

Nice Publication—Until You Read It

A table by the front door of a hip Northern California restaurant is stacked with complimentary copies of a forty-three-page mini-magazine. This handsome brochure, produced by the company that manages the establishment, is printed on thick, textured paper. It’s full of sumptuous full-color photos depicting the glories of food and drink. Somebody spent a lot of time and money on this. But despite a generous budget and a staff of editors, the written content seems to be an afterthought.

The table of contents lists the wrong page for two of the magazine’s seven articles.

In an introduction, the editor-in-chief writes, “We are enamored by every inch of San Francisco,” even though enamored traditionally takes the preposition of or with. He goes on to call San Francisco “one of the most unique cities in the world.” A good copyeditor would remove “most.” All proficient editors know that unique—meaning “one of a kind”—should stand alone.

In a piece about a farmers’ market, we find “locally-sourced seafood” and “recently-opened bar.” An article about a Napa Valley honey farm refers to “strategically-placed bee hives.” Anyone who ever took Proofreading 101 knows that adverbs ending in ly should not be hyphenated. (And beehive has been one word for eight centuries.)

Proofreading 101 also drills students on avoiding danglers, yet this booklet is teeming with them. In an article about a seafood merchant named Joe, we read this: “Based in San Francisco, Joe’s fish can be found on dozens of menus.” (Joe is based there, not the fish.) A few pages later we find, “Open for breakfast and lunch, you can get the best eggs in the city …” (This inept sentence says that “you” are open for breakfast and lunch.)

Other gaffes range from clumsy to clueless. America’s “west coast” is mentioned but not capitalized. A fish’s texture is called “velvety-like,” even though velvety by itself means “like velvet.” Whoever wrote “a couple bites of leftovers” and “a couple calls came in” thinks couple is an adjective. In fact, it’s a noun, requiring of (“couple of bites,” “couple of calls”).

If a company wishes to make a good impression, you’d think fluent grammatical English would be a crucial part of the presentation.

This restaurant’s management group wouldn’t endorse serving baked orange roughy on paper plates with plastic utensils, or Russian osetra caviar on Wonder Bread slathered in Miracle Whip.

So why produce a sleek publication filled with gorgeous images, only to bring the whole thing crashing down with sloppy articles written by feckless amateurs? Maybe this inattention to detail says something dark about the company. Or maybe it’s just further evidence that clear and precise writing is becoming as outmoded and quaint as pay phones and post offices.


Pop Quiz
Fix any sentences that need correcting. Our answers are below.

1. The show’s lead role is played by a nationally-famous movie star.
2. Born and raised in Queens, Mr. Walken’s first education for the stage involved dance lessons.
3. The food of New Orleans is absolutely unique—and sinfully delicious.
4. We were lost until a kindly-looking man helped us find our hotel.


Pop Quiz Answers

1. The show’s lead role is played by a nationally famous movie star.
2. Mr. Walken was born and raised in Queens. His first education for the stage involved dance lessons.
3. The food of New Orleans is unique—and sinfully delicious.
4. We were lost until a kindly-looking man helped us find our hotel. CORRECT (“kindly” is an adjective here, not an adverb)

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Posted on Monday, January 26, 2015, at 5:22 pm

Fighting for Literally

There is no escaping the maddening phrase literally like. An Internet search yields teeth-grinders like these: “Being there was literally like stepping back in time.” “Eating this steak was literally like eating dirt.” “Neymar literally flops like a fish out of water.”

The words in the phrase literally like don’t belong together—literally refers to objective reality, whereas like introduces an analogy, and all analogies are subjective.

We should limit literally to unadorned descriptions of what exists or happens—and exclude it from our interpretations or opinions. Style guides are unanimous on the topic of literally: the word should never refer to anything but verifiable facts. The truth of any statement containing literally must be clear and indisputable to every sane living being, whether it’s a baker in Yakima or a ballerina in Yakutsk.

In 1909, the writer Ambrose Bierce offered this example of literally abuse in his booklet Write It Right: “His eloquence literally swept the audience from its feet.” Bierce’s comment: “It is bad enough to exaggerate, but to affirm the truth of the exaggeration is intolerable.”

Why undermine so powerful a word as literally when alternatives are readily available? Many authorities recommend virtually, and in a perfect world, virtually would be the ideal substitute. It works fine as a replacement for literally in the first example in the first paragraph: “Being there was virtually like stepping back in time.” But too often virtually sounds fussy. Note how humbler words work better with the other two sentences above: “Eating the steak was really like eating dirt.” “Neymar actually flops like a fish out of water.”

Something else to bear in mind: literally is an adverb. Many writing instructors recommend purging adverbs from your writing wherever possible. (Mark Twain once said, “If you see an adverb, kill it.”) Look again at the three original examples above. The adverb isn’t needed in any of them. Adding literally appears to be no more than an easy, lazy way to spice up three humdrum, cliché-heavy sentences. Roy H. Copperud addresses this ploy in his Dictionary of Usage and Style: “The habit of demanding that the reader be thunderstruck by commonplaces, which the meaningless use of literally exemplifies, is tiresome.”

No other word in English can quite say what literally says. That is why the fight to keep its authority uncorrupted is so important to us sticklers.


Pop Quiz

Is there a better way to say these sentences? Suggested solutions are below.

1. Literally nobody goes there anymore.
2. Misusing this word is literally the worst mistake you can make.
3. I literally died laughing and had to run out of the room.
4. These people must literally live in another galaxy.
5. The distraught man literally fell to his knees and prayed.


Pop Quiz Answers

1. Virtually nobody goes there anymore.
2. Misusing this word may be among the worst mistakes you can make.
3. I laughed so hard I had to run out of the room.
4. These people must live in another galaxy.
5. The distraught man fell to his knees and prayed.

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Posted on Tuesday, November 11, 2014, at 6:41 pm