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A Twenty-first Century Usage Guide

Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words by best-selling writer-editor Bill Bryson offers serious scholarship with a smooth, light touch. It’s a hard book to stop reading once you’ve opened it.

We have a lot of other reference books in our offices, but the most recent of those came out in 1983. That was way back in the dawn of the personal-computer age. Much has changed since then, including the language. Bryson’s book is addressed and attuned to the twenty-first century.

Our 1966 edition of Wilson Follett’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage spends 22 pages on the proper uses of shall and will, including the difference between sentences like I shall see him and I will see him, a difference that would be news to most everyone walking around in 2015. How refreshing, then, to find Bryson’s shall, will entry is less than a page long, concluding with “the distinctions are no longer all that important anyway.”

The book has 222 pages devoted to problematic words and phrases, plus a breezy introduction, an appendix on punctuation, a glossary to explain or review the basic parts of speech, and a list of suggested reading. The appendix, though a bit sketchy, includes an especially good discussion of commas. The glossary is handy, but also sketchy. For instance, verbs are “words that have tense,” but tense is not defined.

Among the spelling snags (dormouse, not doormousestratagem, not strategem), fine distinctions (liablelikely, apt, and prone are not interchangeable), and debunked superstitions (split infinitives are not wrong), several entries contain brief science, geography, and history lessons—things you never knew or knew you wanted to know: London’s Big Ben is not the clock, just the hour bell. Victorian sticklers wanted laughable changed to laugh-at-able.

Bryson’s first priority is the reader: “Readers should never be required to retrace their steps, however short the journey.” That could be the book’s mission statement. Writers will appreciate the author’s comprehensive collation of hazards and snares. How is blatant different from flagrant? Did you know that equally as is always wrong? Why say “the vast majority of” when you mean most?

One of Bryson’s many strengths is his sensitivity to ungainly wording (the fact that is best avoided; precautionary measure can usually be shortened to precaution). And he has amassed an astonishing array of redundancies. Bryson keeps them coming every couple of pages. Most look perfectly respectable until you think about them: admit to, brief respitecompletely surrounded, future plans, join togetherminute detail, old adage, personal friend, self-confessed, think to oneself, visit personally, weather conditions, and so on.

Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words respects traditional teachings yet acknowledges the inevitability of change. Check it out.

 

Pop Quiz

Correct any of the following sentences that need fixing. These sentences illustrate principles discussed in Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words. Answers are below.

  1. No sooner had he thought about her when she appeared before him.
  2. He did not feel he had received the kudos that were his due.
  3. I was one of over three hundred people that attended the sold-out event.
  4. Joe got his arm broken in the altercation.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

  1. No sooner had he thought about her than she appeared before him.
  2. He did not feel he had received the kudos that was his due. (Bryson: “Kudos, a Greek word meaning fame or glory, is singular.”)
  3. I was one of over three hundred people that attended the sold-out event. CORRECT
  4. Joe got his arm broken in the fight. (Bryson: “No one suffers physical injury in an altercation.”)

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Posted on Monday, May 11, 2015, at 9:57 pm


Media Watch

Here is another bundle of woeful lapses by the print and broadcast media.

• Triple trouble from an international news organization: “Garcia graduated law school in California and passed the state’s bar exam, but has been forbidden from practicing law.”

Using graduate as a transitive verb here is still frowned on by traditionalists. Make it “Garcia graduated from law school.”

The sentence would be tidier with a he before “has”: “but he has been forbidden …” And the final four words should be “forbidden to practice law.” The New York Times stylebook says: “Use to with forbid and from with prohibit: forbid them to attend; prohibit them from attending.”

• “Growing up near West Palm Beach, he and his mother lived in six different apartments.” The phrase “growing up” should describe the sentence’s subject, but note that there are two subjects, “he and his mother,” and his mother had already grown up. This is an unusual example of a dangler (the nemesis of callow or distracted writers). The sentence must be rewritten so that “growing up” applies only to “he”: “Growing up near West Palm Beach, he lived with his mother …” But that’s not all—why “six different apartments”? Aren’t all apartments different? “Six different apartments” seems to be an imprecise way of saying “six apartments at different times.” It would be better to write something like Growing up near West Palm Beach, he lived with his mother in six apartments over the years.

• “Neither the name of the victim nor the suspect was immediately released.” This sentence is ambiguous because of faulty parallelism. The sentence says the suspect was not released, but it wants to say that the suspect’s name was not released. We can make it right without changing a word: The name of neither the victim nor the suspect was immediately released.

• “The gift by Ronald Linde and his wife Maxine will go to support promising initiatives and research.” Why by? A book or a painting is by someone; a gift is from someone. And commas are needed around “Maxine”—since Mr. Linde can have but one wife at a time, we need not know her name to understand the sentence. In grammatical terms “Maxine” is nonessential (or nonrestrictive) information and therefore requires commas. So make it The gift from Ronald Linde and his wife, Maxine, will go to support promising initiatives and research.

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NOTE: For more on faulty parallelism, see our February 2014 post “Simple Words, Fancy Label.” For more on essential vs. nonessential phrases and clauses, see our three-part series on the subject, which ran August 19, 26, and September 2, 2014.

You’ll find these posts on the GrammarBook.com website. On the home page, click on the Grammar Blog tab, scroll down to Monthly Blog Archives in the right column, and select the desired month and year.

 

Pop Quiz

The following are sentences recently heard over the airwaves. See if you can spot the errors. Answers are at the bottom of the newsletter.

  1. “The proof, they say, are in three text messages.”
  2. “She is in unchartered territory.”
  3. “Bacteria thrives in a warm environment.”
  4. “I’m neither a comedian or an aspiring comedian.”
  5. “He realized he had spoke too soon.”

 

Pop Quiz Answers

  1. “The proof, they say, is in three text messages.”
  2. “She is in uncharted territory.”
  3. “Bacteria thrive in a warm environment.”
  4. “I’m neither a comedian nor an aspiring comedian.”
  5. “He realized he had spoken too soon.”

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Posted on Tuesday, May 5, 2015, at 6:29 pm


The Man Who Hated Semicolons

Ten years ago, the author Kurt Vonnegut stirred things up with four sentences he wrote in his final book, A Man Without a Country: “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”

One must consider the source here. Vonnegut was a world-renowned novelist who had earned the right to make outrageous statements. He was not condemning all semicolons; he was condemning all pretentiousness.

As Vonnegut well knew, semicolons have at least one legitimate role: to separate items in a series when one or more of the items contain commas. Look at this mess of a sentence: The conference has people who have come from Italy, Texas, Moscow, Idaho, Venice, California, and other places as well. How could a reader know that only three specific locations are mentioned? The simple fix is three semicolons:  The conference has people who have come from Italy, Texas; Moscow, Idaho; Venice, California; and other places as well. (Yes, Italy is a town in Texas.)

What Vonnegut disdained was the discretionary semicolon, used by writers to combine complete sentences when a period feels too final, as in this example:  I looked at her; she smiled; we danced until dawn. Here the semicolons blend three terse statements into one sentence, which, in the writer’s opinion, more faithfully evokes the flow of events on that enchanted evening. (Vonnegut would have preferred three short sentences.) Note that there are no conjunctions in the sentence. If the last clause were  and we danced until dawn, commas would suffice, and most editors would banish the semicolons.

Fledgling writers especially should be wary of semicolons where commas will do. One wonders what the Vonnegut of 2005 would have said about the following sentence, written by a twenty-seven-year-old novelist: “Kroner’s belief [was] that nothing of value changed; that what was once true is always true; that truths were few and simple; and that a man needed no knowledge beyond these truths to deal wisely and justly with any problem whatsoever.”

The young author would defend his semicolons, claiming they give more weight to each clause than a comma could. But many editors would want commas there. The sentence, by the way, is from Kurt Vonnegut’s first published novel, Player Piano (1950).

Less than twenty years after Player Piano, Vonnegut achieved success beyond his wildest dreams. He had found his voice and streamlined his approach. Taken at face value, Vonnegut’s writing tip is sound advice—for Vonnegut. Semicolons do not suit the inimitable laconic style he perfected in the sixties, when he was lionized by the Baby Boomer generation.


Semicolons: Pop Quiz

Supply the necessary punctuation. Our answers are below.

1. He was too critical she was not critical enough.
2. Vanitia told me her wishes; a white picket fence a wonderful husband two gifted children and a million dollars in the bank.
3. Vanitia told me her wishes a white picket fence a handsome, successful husband two intelligent, gifted children and a million dollars in the bank.
4. He walked down the street he could not find her he went home feeling hopeless.
5. He walked down the street he caught a bus and it took him home.


Pop Quiz Answers

1. He was too critical; she was not critical enough. OR He was too critical. She was not critical enough.
2. Vanitia told me her wishes: a white picket fence, a wonderful husband, three gifted children, and a million dollars in the bank. (Note the colon after “wishes.” Do not confuse colons with semicolons.)
3. Vanitia told me her wishes: a white picket fence; a handsome, successful husband; three intelligent, gifted children; and a million dollars in the bank. (The commas after “handsome” and “intelligent” make semicolons necessary.)
4. He walked down the street; he could not find her; he went home feeling hopeless. (Or periods.)
5. He walked down the street, he caught a bus, and it took him home.

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Posted on Wednesday, April 1, 2015, at 8:34 am


What Have We Learned This Year?

To close out 2014, we have put together a comprehensive pop quiz based on the year’s GrammarBook.com grammar tips. The quiz comprises twenty-five sentences that may need fixing. Think you can fix them?

Our answers follow the quiz. Each answer includes, for your convenience, the title and date of the article that raised the topic.

This quiz is by no means a pushover. Good luck, and we hope to see you back here after the holidays.

A Year of Blogs in Twenty-five Questions

1. The day was cold, cloudy, and a storm was coming.

2. He is either coming with us or he is waiting for the next train.

3. My friend (and her brother) are arriving today.

4. Dobbs is one of those people who loves Jane Austen.

5. A collection of books were on display.

6. She ordered him off of her property.

7. I asked him to lend me a couple dollars.

8. Both young actress’s dream is to play Juliet.

9. Roy and Juanita Simms arrived on foot because the Simms’ car was in the shop.

10. We were all in the mood for some New Orleans’ food.

11. When Nick writes a letter, you can’t tell his As from his Ss.

12. Who sang the song Bali Ha’i in the Broadway play called South Pacific?

13. Their favorite classic movies are based off of old fairy tales.

14. The couple was having their first quarrel.

15. A husband, who forgets anniversaries and birthdays, may be headed for divorce court.

16. A friend of mine, living in San Diego, loves the weather there.

17. My grandmother, Gladys, claimed she once had a drink with the writer, Norman Mailer.

18. When you decide to hone in on your weaknesses, you have a hard road to hoe.

19. That fancy place had a $18 dessert on the menu.

20. Some of Hemingway’s best books, i.e., The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms, were written before 1950.

21. The exhibit includes major works by many iconic artists: Ernst, Klee, Picasso, etc.

22. The jeweler has unusual gems such as black opals, star garnets, alexandrites, etc.

23. When they doubled my salary, I literally started living like a king.

24. He suggested a Donne sonnet, but soon learned she was disinterested in poetry.

25. His claim of owning a diamond mine in Delaware begs the question, Is this man sane enough to be walking around?

 

Jumbo Pop Quiz Answers

An asterisk (*) indicates that there are more correct answers than one.

1. The day was cold, cloudy, and stormy.* (An Unparalleled Letdown, 2-18)

2. He is either coming with us or waiting for the next train.* (Simple Words, Fancy Label, 2-25)

3. My friend (and her brother) is arriving today. [(All About) Parentheses, 3-23]

4. Dobbs is one of those people who love Jane Austen. (The Wicked Of3-31)

5. A collection of books was on display. (The Wicked Of, 3-31)

6. She ordered him off her property. (More Of, 4-16)

7. I asked him to lend me a couple of dollars. (More Of, 4-16)

8. Both young actresses’ dream is to play Juliet. (Apostrophes: Worth the Trouble, 5-6)

9. Roy and Juanita Simms arrived on foot because the Simmses’ car was in the shop. (Apostrophes and Proper Nouns, 5-13)

10. We were all in the mood for some New Orleans food. (Apostrophes and False Possessives, 5-19)

11. When Nick writes a letter, you can’t tell his A’s from his S’s. (Apostrophes: Not Always Possessive, 6-3)

12. Who sang the song Bali Ha’i in the Broadway play called South Pacific? (Italics vs. Quotation Marks, 6-16)

13. Their favorite classic movies are based on old fairy tales. (Based Off Is Off Base , 6-23)

14. The couple were having their first quarrel. (Collective Nouns and Consistency, 7-8)

15. A husband who forgets anniversaries and birthdays may be headed for divorce court. (Essential, but Is It Important? 8-19)

16. A friend of mine living in San Diego loves the weather there. (Essential and Nonessential Elements, Part II, 8-26)

17. My grandmother Gladys claimed she once had a drink with the writer Norman Mailer. (Essential and Nonessential Elements, Part III, 9-2)

18. When you decide to home in on your weaknesses, you have a hard row to hoe. (A House Is Not a Hone, 9-23)

19. That fancy place had an $18 dessert on the menu. (Wails from My Inbox, 10-2)

20. Some of Hemingway’s best books (e.g.The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms) were written before 1950.* (Note also the added parentheses in the sentence.) (i.e. vs. e.g.10-7)

21. The exhibit includes major works by many iconic artists: Ernst, Klee, Picasso, et al. (All About etc., 10-15)

22. The jeweler has unusual gems such as black opals, star garnets, and alexandrites. (All About etc., 10-15)

23. When they doubled my salary, I really started living like a king.* (Fighting for Literally, 11-11)

24. He suggested a Donne sonnet, but soon learned she was uninterested in poetry. (Don’t Dis Disinterested, 11-18)

25. His claim of owning a diamond mine in Delaware raises the question, Is this man sane enough to be walking around?* ( Begging the Question, 12-1)

 

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Posted on Tuesday, December 16, 2014, at 7:40 pm


i.e. vs. e.g.

Be honest now: do you know the difference between i.e.and e.g.? A lot of people think the two are virtually the same, but if they were, we’d only need one of them. So let’s break it down, once and for all.

Writers use i.e. to restate the subject at hand: A good Samaritan (i.e., my neighbor Blake Smith) drove my cat to the vet. In that sentence, i.e. tells the reader exactly who the “good Samaritan” was. One should use i.e. to identify, amplify, clarify, specify, or any combination thereof. Its purpose is to ensure that the reader knows beyond a doubt what or whom the writer is talking about.

The initialism i.e. is from the Latin id est, which means “that is.” In American English the and the are each followed by a period, and i.e. should be followed by a comma. Many authorities, including the redoubtable Chicago Manual of Style, discourage the use of i.e. in formal writing, advising that is instead. If for any reason a writer deems it necessary to use i.e., it should appear in parentheses: Winston Churchill spoke often of his “black dog” (i.e., his gloomy periods).

Writers use e.g. to give specific examples of the subject at hand. It is short for exempli gratia, a Latin phrase meaning “for example.” The e and the g are each followed by a period, and e.g., like i.e., should be followed by a comma. In formal writing it is advisable to write for example or for instance instead of e.g. But if a writer insists on it, e.g. and the example(s) that follow it should be placed in parentheses: High-fiber foods (e.g., lentils and broccoli) are good for you.

Sometimes the right choice requires careful thought, as in this case: Certain members of my family (i.e., Mom and Uncle Jake) are vegetarians. In that sentence, the i.e. tells us that Mom and Uncle Jake are the only family members who don’t eat meat. But what if we replace i.e. with e.g.: Certain members of my family (e.g., Mom and Uncle Jake) are vegetarians. Now the sentence means that there are other vegetarians in the family besides Mom and Uncle Jake.

That is no small difference, and it highlights the dissimilarity of i.e. and e.g. Confusing one for the other can result in misunderstandings at best and nonsense at worst. So remember to use i.e. when further identifying a subject, and use e.g. when giving specific examples of a subject. A handy memory aid: e = “example,” i = “identify.”

 

Pop Quiz

Which is the right choice? Answers are below.

1. Alicia likes Shakespeare’s classic plays (i.e.,/e.g., Othello and The Merchant of Venice).
2. Raul described geometry as “a fierce beast to handle” (i.e.,/e.g., a difficult course).
3. Many great directors (i.e.,/e.g., Orson Welles and John Huston) had a fondness for black-and-white films.
4. The absurdity of war is the subject of several major novels (i.e.,/e.g., Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five).
5. The standard discount (i.e.,/e.g., 10 percent) applies.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. Alicia likes Shakespeare’s classic plays (e.g., Othello and The Merchant of Venice).
2. Raul described geometry as “a fierce beast to handle” (i.e., a difficult course).
3. Many great directors (e.g., Orson Welles and John Huston) had a fondness for black-and-white films.
4. The absurdity of war is the subject of several major novels (e.g., Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five).
5. The standard discount (i.e., 10 percent) applies.

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Posted on Tuesday, October 7, 2014, at 3:25 pm