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Cheap Talk Can Cost You

A word nerd’s burden: someone said to me, “I guess I can’t say anything around you.” It was a lighthearted remark … I hope.

Saying is far different from writing, and the spoken word deserves a lot more leniency. I don’t want people to think I go around rating everyone’s conversational acumen, waiting to pounce. That’s not my style. Besides, I don’t always speak standard English either. Sometimes it’s more fun not to.

However, it’s different when someone misspeaks over the airwaves. Even if it’s a talk show featuring casual chit-chat, lots of people are tuned in, and the participants must not forget Rule One of being on the air: Watch what you say and how you say it.

So when a great athlete—I’ll call him “E.J.”—declares in front of a national audience: “Kenny and Charles is both right. They shoulda did it another way,” civilized people rightly cringe. Other more-articulate athletes squirm. Parents scowl, aware that this man is a role model for their kids. Teachers worry that their students will follow in his grammatical missteps.

This is not to disparage E.J., one of ten kids who grew up in a working-class family in the Midwest. Matching his physical genius with a relentless work ethic, he became a winner who played on five championship teams. When E.J. retired, he became as brilliant in business as he’d been in sports, and today he is one of the great rags-to-riches success stories in America.

Now why can’t this bright, accomplished man speak decent English? Kenny and Charles is? Shoulda did? Awful—and I don’t mean the shoulda, which I can live with when it’s spoken.

I’ve read that E.J. has someone on his payroll to monitor his verbal skills. If so, start earning your money, buster. On the other hand, some might say it really doesn’t matter anymore. Would better language skills have made E.J. more successful? Doubtful—you can’t get more successful.

Still, I keep thinking of that line from Citizen Kane: “It’s not difficult to make money … if all you want is to make money.” Is it too old-fashioned to think that “having it made” is about more than wealth and fame? There used to be something called class.

There is an annoying argument that good English is irrelevant if you get your point across. Sometimes it might be true, but there are other times when being articulate carries the day, and these may be some of the most significant times of your life: when you have to speak at a formal occasion, when you bare your soul to a friend or loved one, when you meet someone you’ve always respected and admired, when you’re interviewed for a dream job, when you have to make an important presentation, when you propose marriage …

Or how about when you’re in charge and it’s vital to establish your authority. There’s no harsher critic than a subordinate. Respect is never just given away; it must be earned. I was watching one of those inside-prison documentaries and a commotion broke out in the prison yard. A guard had to act fast to restore order. He barked out, “Get on your backs—face down!”

That’s anatomically impossible.

Such a remark can be costly after order is restored. I’ve no doubt that for a long time afterward, that guard was a source of wicked glee for the inmates.

Some occasions are too solemn for foolish language lapses. At a memorial service, a well-meaning soul remembered a renowned artist with these ill-advised words: “Although Michael achieved notoriety, he was a simplistic man.” What he meant was, “Although Michael achieved fame, he was a simple man.” Trying to convey Michael’s integrity and charm, the speaker instead called the dear departed notorious, and kind of a simpleton.

This person’s ineptitude was an affront to both the mind and the heart. Vain and insecure, he dumped fame for “notoriety,” a five-syllable blunder, and swapped simple for “simplistic,” another fancy-sounding but inappropriate word, which further undermined his entire tribute.

It can’t be said enough: Simplify, simplify, simplify.

Tom Stern

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Posted on Tuesday, March 11, 2014, at 6:50 pm


Hyphen Help Us

Nobody writes “electronic mail,” but how do you write the abbreviation—is it e-mail with a hyphen or its successor, email? It is a small matter that has larger implications: how, why, and when do accepted words and terms change forms?

It seems no less than a miracle that all right has survived this long, despite the perennial threat of alright. It’s probably only a matter of time until want to becomes wanna, and going to becomes gonna. (Or worse: even “I’m gonna go” is preferable to the trendily inarticulate “I’m-a go,” which one now hears with dispiriting regularity.)

It is doubtful that anyone under thirty writes “e-mail.” A modish blog site called Mashable declares e-mail an “antiquated tech term.” Mashable gloated when, in 2011, the Associated Press Stylebook started recommending email.

As you may have noticed, many blogs and periodicals, and even some books, already write “email.” Others are holding out, including the San Francisco Chronicle, defiantly championing e-mail despite being just down the road from Silicon Valley.

The writer Roy Blount Jr. is a passionate crusader for e-mail. In his book Alphabet Juice, Blount states, “email is an e-barbarism,” pointing out that “you wouldn’t write Abomb for A-bomb, or opositive for O-positive, or Xray [for X-ray].”

The GrammarBook.com staff won’t deny that we are in Blount’s corner, but at the same time we bristle at being labeled “antiquated.” Those who care about good grammar are already dismissed as querulous fussbudgets by most of the young and the hip; who needs more of that noise?

But bear in mind that the ascendant Millennial Generation is, to put it mildly, not noted for its language skills. Millennials are mystified by hyphens, and when they use them at all, they tend to use them incorrectly. (Many of them think a hyphen is a cute little long dash.) So in retrospect, it’s likely that e-mail was in trouble from the start.

There you have it. It’s the dilemma of sticking with something that works just fine vs. learning to live with a slick new version, however inane, vulgar, and wrongheaded it may strike you.

Readers, now it’s your turn: send us an electronic mail and weigh in on all this.

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Posted on Monday, March 3, 2014, at 6:17 pm


Simple Words, Fancy Label

Whether you realize it or not, you’re well acquainted with correlative conjunctions. It’s a lofty term for phrases people say every day. The most common correlative conjunctions include either … or, neither … nor, not only … but also, and both … and. Here is a list of other familiar ones:

whether or
rather … than
as many … as
just as … so
hardly (or scarcely) … when
no sooner … than
what with … and

People constantly mishandle correlative conjunctions. This is due to faulty parallelism, which we discussed last week. Look at these innocent-looking sentences:

Either you’re with me or against me.
She not only invited us in but she also cooked dinner.
He was both happy about the promotion and he was nervous about it.

All three are flawed.

You’ll notice that the sentences each contain two sections. The second section should parallel the first one as closely as possible. However, in the first example, Either is followed by a complete sentence (you’re with me), but or is followed only by a phrase (against me). That is a classic case of faulty parallelism.

To fix it, we could add a second you’re to the or section: Either you’re with me or you’re against me. Another option is to place you’re in front of the entire either-or construction: You’re either with me or against me. When we do this, You’re governs both the either and the or parts, and both parts consist of prepositional phrases (with me, against me). That makes a clear, balanced sentence.

Let’s home in on the second example. Since She precedes the entire correlative conjunction (not only … but also), She affects both parts equally, making the second she unnecessary: She not only invited us in but also cooked dinner. Our other choice is to rewrite the first part to match the second: Not only did she invite us in but she also cooked dinner.

On to the final one. Removing the second he was gives us He was both happy about the promotion and nervous about it. Note that each component now features an adjective (happy, nervous), a preposition (about), and a noun (promotion, it). You can’t get more parallel than that. But we can do even better: He was both happy and nervous about the promotion.

There’s no avoiding sentences with correlative conjunctions. Making sure they are parallel lends clarity and style to speech and writing.

 

Pop Quiz

Are these sentences parallel? If not, can you fix them?

1. Not only am I angry but disappointed.

2. The book both fascinated me and it taught me a good lesson.

3. She’d rather stay at home than to go out.

4. I had hardly left when you arrived.

5. He’s either going today or he’ll be going tomorrow.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. I am not only angry but disappointed. OR Not only am I angry but I am disappointed.

2. The book both fascinated me and taught me a good lesson.

3. She’d rather stay at home than go out.

4. Hardly had I left when you arrived.

5. He’s either going today or going tomorrow. OR Either he’s going today or he’ll be going tomorrow. OR He’s going either today or tomorrow.

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Posted on Tuesday, February 25, 2014, at 6:56 pm


An Unparalleled Letdown

Bad grammar weakens good writing, but some bad writing is grammatically flawless. Today we’ll discuss parallel structure and show how faulty parallelism can ruin a sentence without breaking any rules of grammar.

Self-editing is part of writing. We could write I wrote the letter. I signed the letter. I sent the letter. But we discover at an early age that we don’t need three sentences. Instead, we compress the information into one sentence: I wrote, signed, and sent the letter.

That’s where parallelism comes in. When two or more elements (wrote, signed, sent) are given equal consideration in the context of a sentence, they should be as similar as possible: wrote, signed, and sent are all active verbs in the past tense, giving the sentence parallel structure. That is what makes I wrote, signed, and sent the letter simple, direct, and clear.

Now consider this rickety sentence: She lost her agent, publisher, and her books weren’t selling. That’s like saying She lost A, B, and 3; what happened to C? This is verbal bait-and-switch. The reader expects another noun after agent and publisher, and feels cheated when the third element is a clause instead. Why not rewrite the sentence with two independent clauses: She lost her agent and publisher, and her books weren’t selling.

A different kind of faulty parallelism: On my vacation, I want to sit back, relax, and to have fun. To keep things parallel, either remove the second to and say I want to sit back, relax, and have fun, or put to in front of all the verbs: I want to sit back, to relax, and to have fun.

Here’s a mistake you see all the time: DeWayne is as smart or smarter than Hank. Did you catch it? As it stands, the sentence states DeWayne is as smart than Hank, or smarter. Make it DeWayne is as smart as or smarter than Hank.

We close with this monstrosity: “The five-bedroom estate home features distinct architectural finishes, wraparound terraces with eastern- and western-facing views, and is near downtown Lafayette.”

The writer has us anticipating a third noun to go with “finishes” and “terraces.” So how about something like “and an ideal location just minutes from downtown Lafayette.” When we read instead the feeble “and is near downtown Lafayette,” we almost feel betrayed.

Pop Quiz

See if you can fix these sentences’ faulty parallelism.

1. I have earned two degrees, entered the health care field, and have lost forty pounds.

2. I wasn’t informed or interested in the offer.

3. Juanita is proud of her painting and how well she writes.

Pop Quiz Answers

1. I have earned two degrees, entered the health care field, and lost forty pounds. (OR have earned, have entered, have lost)

2. I wasn’t informed about or interested in the offer. (OR I wasn’t informed of or interested in the offer.)

3. Juanita is proud of her painting and her writing. (OR She is proud of how well she paints and writes.)

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Posted on Tuesday, February 18, 2014, at 2:05 pm


Media Watch 2

Recent cringe-inducers from the print media …

An upscale music venue ran ads for “An Evening With Marilyn McCoo & Billy Davis Jr.” The second line said, “Formally of the 5th Dimension.” It was only after several weeks that someone caught the silly gaffe and sheepishly changed “Formally” to “Formerly.”

From an article about a musician: “He hardly fit the paradigm of an insecure singer/songwriter.” Why not “singer-songwriter,” with a hyphen, instead? In recent years the slash has become all the rage, but many authorities dismiss it as a substandard option—“a mark that doesn’t appear much in first-rate writing,” says Bryan A. Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage. “Use it as a last resort.”

A columnist wrote, “It is I who is the bamboozled one.” At least he didn’t write “It is me.” But written correctly, the sentence would say, “It is I who am the bamboozled one.” In technical terms, the relative pronoun who agrees with its antecedent (“I”) in both number and person. If who is representing I, it must take am, the same verb that I takes.

A curious sentence about a San Francisco neighborhood: “They can kiss goodbye to Alamo Square.” No, they can say goodbye to Alamo Square. Or they can kiss Alamo Square goodbye. They could even give the beloved locale a kiss goodbye. But “can kiss goodbye to”?! Maybe the copyeditor was on vacation.

A world-famous writer of steamy novels fired a broadside at critics of her larger-than-lifestyle: “Reading the latest vitriolic article about the hedge around my house, my reaction was enormous sadness.” The sentence falls apart under close analysis: it says her “reaction” can read articles. A best-selling author who writes danglers? Say it isn’t so. She should have either replaced “Reading” with “When I read” or changed the second part to “I reacted with enormous sadness.”

Even seasoned professionals are liable to make loopy mistakes when they don’t proofread.

 

Pop Quiz
The following are sentences recently heard over the airwaves. See if you can spot the errors.
1. “If he believes that canard, he’s grieviously mistaken.”
2. “It depends on Hillary Clinton or whomever gets the nomination.”
3. “I want to see if I have this correctly.”

 

Pop Quiz Answers
1. “If he believes that canard, he’s grievously mistaken.”
2. “It depends on Hillary Clinton or whoever gets the nomination.”
3. “I want to see if I have this correct.”

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Posted on Tuesday, February 11, 2014, at 5:41 pm