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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.

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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

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


Year-End Quiz

To close out 2015 we have put together a comprehensive pop quiz based on the year’s GrammarBook.com grammar posts. The quiz comprises twenty-five sentences that may—or may not—need fixing. Think you can fix the ones that need help?

You’ll find our answers directly below the quiz. Each answer includes, for your convenience, the title and date of the article that raised the topic.

This quiz is not for dilettantes. Good luck, and we hope to see you back here after the holidays.

 

Jumbo Pop Quiz: 2015 in Twenty-five Questions

1. I have an affinity for pizza.

2. People that like a couple drinks before dinner are my idea of good company.

3. Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.

4. We dined with people from Chicago, Illinois, Brooklyn, New York, and San Diego, California.

5. There are three different pools on the property.

6. Do you have any future plans you can tell us about?

7. It was a hazel doormouse with golden-brown fur and large black eyes.

8. Fifty dollars are too much to pay for a toaster.

9. The differences between us and them are miniscule, so take your pick.

10. Toby has gotten himself into trouble this time.

11. The dry soil has drank up every last raindrop.

12. The hotel is in close proximity to the corporate, financial, and fashionable heart of the city.

13. In Big Sur the view from our balcony was simply incredulous.

14. Erik was born on June 5, 1975 in Oslo, Norway.

15. Hanging around with fantastic writers rubs off on you after awhile.

16. Choose the more likely sentence:
A) Ruben compared Giorgio’s spaghetti to dog food.
B) Ruben compared Giorgio’s spaghetti with dog food.

17. Here is what I want from the store: Onions, potatoes, and broccoli.

18. The challenge so enervated her that she rushed out and sprinted two miles.

19. These two crooks just wanted to steal each others’ money.

20. Storm clouds creeped unnoticed over the distant mountains.

21. Luckily, the guide found them and lead them to safety.

22. She loved three men equally, so choosing a husband was a difficult dilemma.

23. McCloy knew he’d lied to Anita, but his alibi was, “I didn’t want to hurt her.”

24. The conflict centers around the atrocities of war.

25. I am writing in regards to employment opportunities at your firm.

 

Jumbo Pop Quiz Answers

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

1. I have a fondness for pizza.* (Words in Flux, 1-13)

2. People that like a couple of drinks before dinner are my idea of good company. (Nice Publication—Until You Read It, 1-27)

3. Let him who is without sin cast the first stone. CORRECT (Media Watch, 2-17)

4. We dined with people from Chicago, Illinois; Brooklyn, New York; and San Diego, California. (The Man Who Hated Semicolons, 3-31)

5. There are three pools on the property. (Media Watch, 5-5)

6. Do you have any plans you can tell us about? (A Twenty-first Century Usage Guide, 5-12)

7. It was a hazel dormouse with golden-brown fur and large black eyes. (A Twenty-first Century Usage Guide, 5-12)

8. Fifty dollars is too much to pay for a toaster. (What Kind of Rule Is Usually?, 5-19)

9. The differences between us and them are minuscule, so take your pick. (Spell Check, 5-26)

10. Toby has gotten himself into trouble this time. CORRECT (Misbegotten Views on Gotten, 6-30)

11. The dry soil has drunk up every last raindrop.
(Irregular Verbs Can Be a Regular Pain, 7-7)

12. The hotel is close to the corporate, financial, and fashionable heart of the city.* (Don’t Put It in Writing, 7-14)

13. In Big Sur the view from our balcony was simply incredible. (Grammar, Vocabulary Go Hand in Hand, 7-28)

14. Erik was born on June 5, 1975, in Oslo, Norway. (Media Watch, 8-4)

15. Hanging around with fantastic writers rubs off on you after a while. (Media Watch, 8-4)

16. A) Ruben compared Giorgio’s spaghetti to dog food. (Compare To vs. Compare With, 8-18)

17. Here is what I want from the store: onions, potatoes, and broccoli. (Colons and Capitals, 8-25)

18. The challenge so energized her that she rushed out and sprinted two miles. (You Can Look It Up, 9-15)

19. These two crooks just wanted to steal each other’s money. (Each Other vs. One Another, 9-29)

20. Storm clouds crept unnoticed over the distant mountains. (Why Irregular Verbs Are Strong, 10-6)

21. Luckily, the guide found them and led them to safety. (Why Irregular Verbs Are Strong, 10-6)

22. She loved three men equally, so choosing a husband was a difficult predicament.* (Slipshod Extension, 10-13)

23. McCloy knew he’d lied to Anita, but his excuse was, “I didn’t want to hurt her.”* (Slipshod Extension, 10-13)

24. The conflict centers on the atrocities of war.* (When Idioms Become Monsters, 10-20)

25. I am writing in regard to employment opportunities at your firm. (Give the Gift of Pedantry, 12-1)

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Posted on Tuesday, December 15, 2015, at 2:31 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 Tuesday, March 31, 2015, at 8:34 am


(All About) Parentheses

The singular form is parenthesis, but the plural parentheses is the word you’re more likely to see. Both words have a wide range of related meanings, and what some people identify as a parenthesis, others call parentheses.

So let’s keep it simple. For our purposes, a parenthesis is one of a pair of curved marks that look like this: ( ), and parentheses are both marks.

A symbol, number, word, phrase, or clause that is in parentheses explains, supplements, or comments on something in the sentence. Material in parentheses can be removed from a sentence without changing that sentence’s overall meaning or grammatical integrity.

Note the use of is in this sentence: My friend (and her brother) is coming today. The subject is My friend. Despite appearances, parentheses are never part of the subject. Remove them and we’d have two subjects, My friend and her brother, which would require the verb are coming. The use of parentheses is a clue that the writer was more concerned about the friend than about the brother.

Parentheses, long dashes, and commas are the three punctuation marks that indicate an interruption in the flow of a sentence. (Some might add semicolons, which can turn two simple sentences into a single, more complex sentence: Their eyes met; she smiled.)

Commas, the least intrusive of the three, signal the presence of relevant but nonessential data. Long dashes either expand upon the main point or take a slight detour from it. Parentheses by their very appearance let the reader know that the information fenced off by those vertical curves is a departure from the rest of the sentence. To illustrate:

Blaine, who was born in 1797 and died in 1860, did not live to see the Civil War.

Blaine—he was born in 1797 and died in 1860—did not live to see the Civil War.

Blaine (1797-1860) did not live to see the Civil War.

Sometimes the choice is clear. For instance, you’d never see this sentence: Blaine—1797-1860—did not live to see the Civil War. But it is also true that a writer’s use of one of these marks instead of another is often a matter of personal taste.

Parentheses can be used to form a separate sentence, as here: I hoped my friend was coming. (He canceled at the last minute.) But the writer could also have done this: I hoped my friend was coming (he canceled at the last minute). Note the placement of the period; if parentheses end a sentence, the period goes after the closing parenthesis.

Commas virtually always follow parentheses rather than precede them. This sentence is incorrect: When he got home, (it was already dark outside) he fixed dinner. Make it When he got home (it was already dark outside), he fixed dinner.

Writers have a lot of leeway with parentheses, as long as they heed a few simple guidelines. Used shrewdly (and sparingly!), parentheses add color, nuance, and spice to your writing.

 

Pop Quiz

Correct any sentence that needs it.

1. When Tony showed up, (he was right on time) we had a long talk.

2. Do not exceed 25 mph (you will be cited.)

3. After the hike, Mark took a long drink of water (he really needed it!)

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. When Tony showed up (he was right on time), we had a long talk.

2. Do not exceed 25 mph (you will be cited).
OR Do not exceed 25 mph. (You will be cited.)

3. After the hike, Mark took a long drink of water (he really needed it!).
OR After the hike, Mark took a long drink of water. (He really needed it!)

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Posted on Sunday, March 23, 2014, at 9:25 pm