Sign Up For Our Free Grammar E-Newsletter

Confessions of a Guerrilla Grammarian

I was on a mission. It was dicey. It was bold. It had cloak-and-dagger undertones, although the weather was too balmy for a cloak, and rather than a sharp weapon I was wielding a Sharpie Permanent Marker.

Let me set the scene. I live in a charming little tourist trap in Northern California. A couple of years ago the town built a state-of-the-art downtown public restroom. This smallish structure is sleek and sturdy: red brick with gray granite base molding and thick translucent glass-brick detailing.

It opened to great fanfare, but right from the start, something was amiss. And I came to realize that if I didn’t fix it, who would?

I will leave it to my fellow nitpickers to determine whether what I did was the act of a righteous crusader or a nuisance with too much time on his hands.

The two entrances to the facility each feature a white-tile sign. One says “MENS RESTROOM” and the other says “WOMENS RESTROOM.”

For months I walked by those illiterate signs, trying not to look. And as I’d pass, it seemed the signs would taunt me: “Hey, grammar boy,” they’d sneer. “Apostrophes? We don’t need no stinkin’ apostrophes!”

Finally I snapped. One sparkling summer evening I grabbed my Sharpie and fairly galloped downtown. I made my way through a swarm of out-of-towners and painstakingly affixed the requisite punctuation mark to each sign.

I felt I was striking a blow for all long-suffering sticklers who have to stand by helplessly as innocent apostrophes are routinely abused and neglected. Believe me, the sight of MEN’S and WOMEN’S has never been so sweet.

My deed went unnoticed by the early-evening crowd, most of them woozy from exorbitant gourmet burgers and extortionate Hawaiian ice cream. But had I been arrested for defacing public property, I’d have said: “Officer, this is not vandalism. The vandals are the ones who put up those brain-dead signs. What sort of terrible example is this town setting for young people, or visitors from other countries who are trying to learn English?”

I hope you don’t see me as one of those so-called taggers—no-talent grandstanders who go around sabotaging public property with their garish, illegible, or vulgar graffiti. On the contrary, what I did was more like removing a road hazard. That is just good citizenship.

Try telling it to the town’s maintenance department. Every time I walk by the building now, I notice my apostrophes getting fainter—someone is rubbing them out. In what bizarre universe does that constitute civic improvement?

I have a feeling that those signs haven’t seen the last of me and my Sharpie.

Tom Stern

 

Pop Quiz

The following were taken from actual public signs. Can you fix what ails them? The answers are below.

1. “No dog’s allowed except guide dog’s”

2. “Employee’s must wash there hands before returning to work”

3. “Amazing value everyday”

4. “Violators will be towed and find $50”

5. “Use as part of a prudent diet together with regular excercise”

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. “No dogs allowed except guide dogs

2. “Employees must wash their hands before returning to work”

3. “Amazing value every day

4. “Violators will be towed and fined $50”

5. “Use as part of a prudent diet together with regular exercise

 

To comment on this grammar tip, click on the title.

Posted on Wednesday, June 29, 2016, at 10:01 am


Copy Editors Are People Too

There can’t be many books about the life and adventures of a professional word doctor, but one that came out in 2015 is definitely worth a look.

It’s Between You and Me, by Mary Norris, a longtime New Yorker copy editor who calls herself a “comma queen.” Norris admits that the book’s very title is a grammar lesson: “My fondest hope is that just from looking at the title you will learn to say fearlessly ‘between you and me’ (not ‘I’).”

Copy editors are those driven souls who spend their days fixing authors’ manuscripts. They cherish a perfectly sharpened No. 1 pencil as if it were a flawless diamond. And they look askance at technology, which breeds terrible language habits. Norris once texted a friend “Gute Nacht” (good night in German), and her autocorrect changed it to “Cute Nachos.”

Norris touches lightly on her pre-New Yorker days. In her teens she checked swimmers’ feet at a public pool and later delivered dairy goods on a milk truck. She first started reading The New Yorker in graduate school at the University of Vermont. She got an entry-level job at the magazine in 1978 and worked her way up to copy editor, working with a roster of illustrious writers that included Philip Roth, James Salter, and George Saunders.

Much of this tidy two-hundred-page book is an informal but informative discourse on grammar and punctuation. The author’s voice is warm and cordial, and also self-assured and feisty. Reading Between You and Me is like sitting at Norris’s table while she speaks about her life and her passion for language.

There are ten chapters, whose titles reflect the book’s breezy tone. Chapter One is called “Spelling Is for Weirdos.” A later chapter is titled “A Dash, a Semicolon, and a Colon Walk into a Bar.”

Early in the book Norris profiles Noah Webster, whose greatest achievement was 1828’s An American Dictionary of the English Language. This hugely successful work established the legitimacy and singularity of the American language.

Webster was an odd man who sometimes just made stuff up and claimed it was true. But he was a scholar of great influence who counted George Washington and Benjamin Franklin among his friends (Franklin felt that the letters c, w, y, and j should be removed from our alphabet).

We have Webster to thank for the American spelling of jail instead of gaol and mold instead of mould. America’s u-less spellings of words like color and flavor (as opposed to the British preference for colour and flavour) are Webster’s doing. He also got the k removed from the end of such words as music and traffic, and got re changed to er at the end of theater and center. But he was unsuccessful in his attempt to get ache changed to ake or soup to soop.

Norris is no prude. She sometimes uses language that would make your Aunt Matilda blush. (“Profanity ought to be fun.”) Still, she is a traditionalist. Even though some publications are now endorsing the “singular they” in sentences such as  someone forgot their keys, instead of his or her keys, Norris won’t hear of it: “ ‘their’ when you mean ‘his or her’ is just wrong.” This past January must have been a bleak month for Norris. That was when the American Dialect Society proclaimed the singular they the Word of the Year for 2015.

This “comma queen” takes her commas seriously: she once asked a writer to justify his use of the comma in “a thin, burgundy dress.” But then Norris is deadly serious about all punctuation—that’s her job. Most amateur writers misuse or ignore hyphens, but they are crucial in the war against ambiguity—can you see the difference between a high-school principal and a high school principal? (“If the school principal is high she should be escorted off the premises.”)

Apostrophes are also endangered. “Are we losing the apostrophe?” Norris asks. “Is it just too much trouble?” The mark’s mistreatment has led to the formation of England’s Apostrophe Protection Society.

Dashes—as opposed to hyphens—can replace quotation marks, periods, colons, and semicolons. Ah yes, semicolons: “Used well, the semicolon makes a powerful impression; misused, it betrays your ignorance.”

Copy editors have devoted their lives to the principle that if people would be conscientious about English, more would be right with the world. Those to whom good grammar and good writing are stimulating topics should spend a little time with Mary Norris. She’s classy company.

To comment on this grammar tip, click on the title.

Posted on Wednesday, June 8, 2016, at 9:38 am


Punctuation or Chaos

She said I saved the company

No one knows for sure what the above sentence means. It consists of six everyday words, and the first five are monosyllables, yet this simple declarative sentence has at least three quite different
meanings—maybe more, because with no period on the end, the reader can’t even be sure the sentence is complete. As it stands, we don’t know whether “she” or “I” saved the company. We don’t even know who was talking. Look:

She said I saved the company.
• She said, “I saved the company.”
• “She,” said I, “saved the company.”

Without punctuation marks, a sentence is thrown into chaos. So please spend a few minutes assessing your punctuation proficiency by taking the quiz below. The answers directly follow the test.

* NOTE: This quiz addresses punctuation rules and conventions of American English.

Punctuation Quiz

1.
A) The ship arrives at 8 p.m.. Be on time.
B) The ship arrives at 8 p.m. Be on time.
C) A and B are both correct.

2.
A) The teacher said, “This is an example of ‘an eye for an eye.’ ”
B) The teacher said, “This is an example of ‘an eye for an eye’.”
C) The teacher said, “This is an example of ‘an eye for an eye’ ”.

3.
A) Lamar is a bright, happy, child.
B) Lamar is a bright happy child.
C) Lamar is a bright, happy child.

4.
A) If I may be perfectly frank I think it’s a bad plan.
B) If I may be perfectly frank, I think, it’s a bad plan.
C) If I may be perfectly frank I think, it’s a bad plan.
D) If I may be perfectly frank, I think it’s a bad plan.

5.
A) Ask me Wednesday. We will know more then.
B) Ask me Wednesday; we will know more then.
C) A and B are both correct.

6.
A) We have come up with a travel choice for this summer; Mexico City.
B) We have come up with a travel choice for this summer: Mexico City.
C) A and B are both correct.

7.
A) The four siblings can read each other’s minds.
B) The four siblings can read each others’ minds.
C) The four siblings can read each others’s minds.
D) The four siblings can read each others minds.

8.
A) All the student’s favorite teacher is Mrs. Baines, but Mrs. Baine’s idea of a good time is fishing.
B) All the students’ favorite teacher is Mrs. Baines, but Mrs. Baine’s idea of a good time is fishing.
C) All the student’s favorite teacher is Mrs. Baines, but Mrs. Baines’ idea of a good time is fishing.
D) All the students’ favorite teacher is Mrs. Baines, but Mrs. Baines’s idea of a good time is fishing.

9.
A) Our daughter is two-years-old now.
B) Our daughter is two years old now.
C) Our daughter is two-years old now.
D) Our daughter is two years-old now.

10.
A) After reviewing the up to date documents, she pushed for environmentally-friendly practices.
B) After reviewing the up to-date documents, she pushed for environmentally-friendly practices.
C) After reviewing the up-to-date documents, she pushed for environmentally-friendly practices.
D) After reviewing the up-to-date documents, she pushed for environmentally friendly practices.

11.
A) These are just words on paper- you can choose to disagree with them.
B) These are just words on paper – you can choose to disagree with them.
C) These are just words on paper—you can choose to disagree with them.
D) A, B, and C are all correct.

12.
A) I hope you enjoyed yourself (why do I worry about that?).
B) I hope you enjoyed yourself (why do I worry about that?)
C) I hope you enjoyed yourself (why do I worry about that.)
D) I hope you enjoyed yourself (why do I worry about that).

 

ANSWERS

1. B) See Periods, Rule 2

2. A) See Quotation Marks, Rule 7

3. C) See Commas, Rule 2

4. D) See Commas, Rule 4a

5. C) See Semicolons, Rule 1a

6. B) See Colons, Rule 1a

7. A) See “Each Other vs. One Another” (Newsletter of Sept. 29, 2015, tenth paragraph)

8. D) See Apostrophes, Rules 1c and 2a

9. B) See Hyphens, Rule 4

10. D) See Hyphens, Rules 1 and 3

11. C) See Hyphens, intro (first paragraph)

12. A) See Parentheses, Rule 2b

To comment on this grammar tip, click on the title.

Posted on Wednesday, April 13, 2016, at 9:43 am


Media Watch

Let’s begin this installment of “Media Watch” with a headline we could do without:

• “Manning and Co. bring in ’da noise”

Did you catch it? Why the apostrophe? It should not be there unless one or more letters are omitted from the front of da (like the missing be in ’cause). That’s not the case; da is a condescending spelling of the, as uttered by a rowdy football fan. It appears that the headline writer added the apostrophe as a wink to the reader, a way of saying, “Of course, I don’t talk like these hooligans.”

• “This ugly episode must be overcome in favor of defeating ours’ and Russia’s mutual enemy.”

Another diseased apostrophe. The possessive pronoun ours never takes an apostrophe, any more than yourshers, or theirs does. But even if we remove it we are still left with the frightful ours mutual enemy. The sentence calls for the possessive adjective our. So make it either our and Russia’s mutual enemy or Russia’s and our mutual enemy.

• “RMJ is an acronym for Recycle My Junk.”

No, RMJ is an initialism. There is a key difference between acronyms and initialisms. If you can say it as a word, as with NASA or ROM, it is an acronym. If you pronounce each letter, as with FBI or RSVP, it is an initialism.

• “His choice is Jackson, whom he said already knows the job.”

Why is it that so many people seem to use whom only where they shouldn’t? Look what happens if we move he said to the back of the sentence: His choice is Jackson, whom already knows the job, he said. Obviously, the right choice is who, the subject of knows—and emphatically not the direct object of said. So make it His choice is Jackson, who he said already knows the job.

• “Ironically, Shakespeare’s greatest literary contemporary died the same day he did.”

The first word should be “Coincidentally.” When something is ironic, it has a grimly humorous or paradoxical twist, as if the universe were playing a wicked practical joke. Thus, it is ironic if a speeding car crashes into a “drive carefully” sign. But where is the irony here? Do not use ironically when referring to an odd or remarkable coincidence, such as two famous writers dying on the same day.

• “Before they fled, he and his mom had a going-away party.”

The article was about a fugitive who had committed quadruple homicide. We understand that we’re living in the Age of Informality, but there is something spectacularly inappropriate about calling a sociopath’s enabler mother “his mom.”

 

Pop Quiz

The following are sentences recently heard over the airwaves. See if you can make them better.

  1. “It fell a tenth of an inch short of the all-time record.”
  2. “It’s complete trash, garbage—there are other adjectives I’d like to use.”
  3. “One of the suspects immigrated from Syria.”
  4. “How dare him say that?”
  5. “He and his company are flaunting the system.”

 

Pop Quiz Answers

  1. “It fell a tenth of an inch short of the record” (all-time record is a pleonasm).
  2. “It’s complete trash, garbage—there are other nouns I’d like to use.”
  3. “One of the suspects emigrated from Syria.”
  4. “How dare he say that?”
  5. “He and his company are flouting the system.”

To comment on this grammar tip, click on the title.

Posted on Tuesday, February 9, 2016, at 3:19 pm


Resolutions for Word Nerds

Below you’ll find our New Year’s resolutions for self-appointed guardians of the English language. We language cops need our own code of ethics to protect us from ourselves and shield others from our self-righteousness.

The Stickler’s Ten Commandments for 2016

1) Thou shalt proofread. Proofreading your work is a dying art—but why is that? Do we really think that everything we write is effortlessly perfect on the first try?

2) No correcting someone’s informal correspondence. If you get an email that says, “We just want whats our’s,” stifle that impulse to respond with a dissertation on apostrophes. Maybe your correspondent is just kidding around—or didn’t proofread.

3) … And casual conversation gets a lot of leeway too. Language purists ought to ease off when people are just relaxing and making small talk. No one ever mistook a Super Bowl bash for a summit conference.

4) No using fancy words when simpler ones will do. A barrage of big words is impressive the way a mesomorph bench pressing six hundred pounds is impressive.

5) Always look it up. Twenty-first century technology makes it quick and painless to look up words like mesomorph. But for whatever reason, most people just won’t do it.

6) No correcting strangers. Grownups are so touchy nowadays.

7) Do correct your kids’ grammar. It’s not belittling if you do it right; they may even thank you someday. The English they hear all the time—from their peers, the media, even some teachers—sets a horrid example. Good English deserves equal time.

8)But keep it private. Never give grammar lectures within earshot of innocent bystanders or service animals.

9) No excuses when you slip. We all make mistakes. If you’re nailed red-handed, don’t try to wiggle out of it.

10) Know what you’re talking about. Here is something your English teacher never told you: the rules change. So before you cry foul, how do you know you’re right? There are many myths about “proper” English floating around.

A century ago, contact as a verb was banned in polite society, and anyone who said, “I will contact you soon” was dismissed as a philistine. In the 1970s, hopefully was considered a ghastly vulgarity, and anyone who said, “Hopefully, the disco won’t be too crowded tonight” could be ostracized from the cool crowd. Today, no one has a problem with contact or
hopefully … but you may find yourself ostracized for saying “disco.”

• Do you have your own “commandments” to add to the list? Please send them in. We would enjoy receiving and sharing them.

To comment on this grammar tip, click on the title.

Posted on Tuesday, January 5, 2016, at 11:09 am