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Media Watch

• From a review of an exhibition: “The society had in their possession a card imprinted with a 1872 photograph.” Two booby prizes in one sentence: society is singular, so make it “had in its possession,” not “their.” As for “a 1872 photograph,” is that the way you would say it? The misguided decision not to use an stems from the belief that an should only precede a vowel, and the 1 in 1872 isn’t even a letter. However, the actual rule is that an always precedes a vowel sound, which is why we say “an honor,” even though the silent h is technically a consonant.

• From a newspaper editorial: “California will join other states who have made alterations to their sentencing codes.” Make it “other states that.” A state is not a person, and who applies only to humans.

• “It was all so cliché.” What’s wrong with “It was all such a cliché”? Cliché is a noun, not an adjective. To sticklers, this sentence sounds as silly as “It was all so paper clip.”

• From a book review: “It’s impossible to predict it in advance.” Oh dear. Either change “predict” to “know” or delete “in advance.”

• “Their reticence to challenge the union is why this ruling is essential.” The writer meant “reluctance to challenge.” The two words are not synonyms; reticence means “habitual silence” or “reserve.”

• From a profile of an athlete: “His single-minded passion is one of the many qualities that has made him a star.” Make it “one of the many qualities that have made him a star.” The subject of the verb is “qualities,” not “one.” Many qualities have made him a star; his single-minded passion is one of them.

• “The inmates are trying to put distance between the men they are now with the crimes that landed them here years ago.” Make it “and the crimes.” Would you say, “The distance between my house with your house is three blocks”? The writer forgot the first half of his sentence before he finished the second half. And then he just couldn’t be bothered to proofread the mess he’d made.

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Posted on Thursday, August 7, 2014, at 8:13 am


The Best Thesaurus

Have you ever needed a better word than the only one that comes to mind? Nowadays, the easy solution is to type that word plus “synonym” into your Google search box. Call me old-fashioned, but I turn to a book: the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus. Anyone serious about writing needs this book—a quantum leap in thesauruses (thesauri?), and so much more besides.

Every writer but the most gifted needs a resource for synonymous words and phrases, but for years all I ever saw was something called Roget’s Thesaurus. Call me a nitwit, but I just couldn’t figure the damn thing out. Why couldn’t I just look up a word and find a list of synonyms after it?

Then in 1978 came J.I. Rodale’s Synonym Finder. At last, a thesaurus that worked like a dictionary. I still have my copy, and it still comes in handy, but the OAWT is even better. The front cover says, “For the writer in everyone.” An excerpt on the back dismisses utilize as a pretentious way of saying use. Yes! I liked this book before I even opened it.

The OAWT is the Swiss Army knife of wordbooks. Though it’s a straight Rodale-style thesaurus most of the way, there’s a lot more after the last entry (zoom, which can mean both “charge” and “enlarge”). There is a handy 24-page refresher course on the rules of grammar, followed by a spelling guide that includes a substantial list of commonly misspelled words (e.g., inoculate, minuscule, Philippines) and familiar foreign-language terms (roué, serape, Zeitgeist), after which comes a capitalization and punctuation guide. Taken as a whole, these breezy, easy-to-understand sections provide a solid understanding of how our language works.

The most fun comes at the very end: a list of clichés and, better yet, a collection of redundancies. Writers will squirm at the clichés, knowing they’re guilty of having used several of them: acid test, all in all, done deal, duly noted, in the near future, touch base, wreak havoc, and so many, many more. The redundant phrases are startling: many seem fine until you think about them: advance warning, brief moment, climb up, empty space, false pretenses, plan in advance, whether or not, written down.

Here are a few features that I think make OAWT the thesaurus of the 21st century: Unlike Rodale, OAWT uses your word correctly in a sentence or phrase before offering alternatives. If a word has two or more meanings, each gets its own paragraph of synonyms—easy, for instance, has seven paragraphs, from uncomplicated to promiscuous. You’ll find notes on “Easily Confused Words” throughout, like after founder or rack, to alert you about flounder and wrack. “The Right Word” sections deal with fine distinctions, helping writers choose between, say, riddle and conundrum. “Word Banks” are comprehensive lists of everything from amphibians to knitting terms to wine grapes. “Word Notes” and “Usage Notes” explain the finer points and pitfalls of common words and phrases.

Hard-core word nerds will have beefs. I wasn’t thrilled with the hedging on media (it’s plural, OK?). There are opposing points of view on the validity of the disinterested-uninterested dichotomy (to me there’s no question disinterested means “unbiased,” not “apathetic”). On the other hand, I found terrific passages on troublemakers like comprise, data, impact, and like.

Memo to smart alecks: the OAWT indeed does offer synonyms for synonym … and for thesaurus.

Tom Stern

 

Pop Quiz

Can you spot the commonly misspelled words? (gleaned from the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus)
Suggested answers are at the bottom of the newsletter.

1. We will be happy to accomodate all those in attendence.
2. The chauffer flinched when the lightening struck the limouzine.
3. Stealing the promissory note was a heinious act.
4. The mechanic sat in the restaurant feeling susceptible to melancholy.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. We will be happy to accommodate all those in attendance.
2. The chauffeur flinched when the lightning struck the limousine.
3. Stealing the promissory note was a heinous act.
4. All correct.

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Posted on Monday, July 28, 2014, at 1:52 pm


Nothing Is True Forever

Just about every week, GrammarBook.com receives emails like this: “My brilliant ninth-grade English teacher drilled into us that so-and-so, but now you say such-and-such.” The painful truth is that with each new generation the rules change.

If you were in high school in the 1970s, it’s a safe bet that your brilliant English teacher lectured you about the word hopefully. Forty years ago this word polarized America. People loved to say it, and language snobs loved to hate it. The veteran TV journalist Edwin Newman had a sign in his office that said, “Abandon ‘hopefully’ all ye who enter here.”

Nobody claimed that hopefully was invalid—it was the way everyone used it that was unacceptable. The word’s strict meaning is “filled with hope,” as in Hopefully, I knocked on my true love’s door. But few used it that way. It came to mean “it is hoped that,” as in Hopefully, my dream will come true.

The authorities were up in arms for several reasons. For starters, hopefully became a fad word, like today’s awesome or amazing. You couldn’t walk down the street without hearing it everywhere. The more people said it, the more grating and vapid it became.

Beyond that, language scholars saw hopefully as a cop-out—no more than a glib way of avoiding “I hope.” It’s intentionally unclear who is hoping in Hopefully, my dream will come true. The word just floats there, unattached. Are you saying the whole universe hopes your dream will come true? Are you really that special?

Those who weren’t there can’t know how passionately the sticklers despised hopefully. “Its detractors were operatic in their vilifications,” says writer Geoff Nunberg. The odd thing was that the same detractors had no objection to other “floating” adverbs, such as thankfully, happily, and frankly.

For decades the venerable Associated Press Stylebook said in its entry on hopefully: “It means in a hopeful manner. Do not use it to mean it is hoped, let us hope or we hope.” So imagine the surprise of many who opened the 2012 edition and found this: “The traditional meaning is in a hopeful manner. Also acceptable is the modern usage: it’s hoped, we hope.”

Now, after all these years, the uproar is a dim memory, and the word is accepted in most quarters (although you will never see a floating hopefully in this space).

So much for that English teacher’s scolding in 1979. To the dismay of traditionalists, a language’s rules are bound to change when enough people refuse to obey them.

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Posted on Monday, July 21, 2014, at 10:25 pm


Jargon Is No Bargain

Almost a century ago, in 1916, the British author, editor, and literary critic Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (1863-1944) published On the Art of Writing. The book’s fifth chapter is titled “Interlude: On Jargon.” Quiller-Couch abhorred jargon, a catchall term for pompous, bloated, clumsy, hackneyed, or impenetrable writing.

Quiller-Couch, who wrote under the pen name “Q,” extols “the active verb and the concrete noun.” He deplores “dissolving vivid particulars into smooth generalities.” If writers say what they mean in a strong, clear, direct voice, they can avoid the jargon trap. “Jargon is by no means accurate, its method being to walk circumspectly around its target; and its faith, that having done so it has either hit the bull’s-eye or at least achieved something equivalent, and safer.”

Jargon is not necessarily long-winded. Q offers this sentence from a popular novel: “I was entirely indifferent as to the results of the game, caring nothing at all as to whether I had losses or gains.”

It’s just twenty-three words, but for Q that’s fifteen too many. First step: “Cut out the first ‘as’ in ‘as to,’ and the second ‘as to’ altogether.” Second step: change “had losses or gains” to “won or lost.” Third step: “if you care not at all whether you win or lose, you must be entirely indifferent to the results of the game. So why not say ‘I was careless if I won or lost,’ and have done with it?”

Q disdains words and phrases such as case, instance, nature, condition, persuasion, degree, as regards, with regard to, in respect of, in connection with. “They are all dodges of Jargon, circumlocutions for evading this or that simple statement: and I say that it is not enough to avoid them nine times out of ten, or nine-and-ninety times out of a hundred. You should never use them.”

Jargon diminishes us not just as writers but as human beings: “If your language be Jargon, your intellect, if not your whole character, will almost certainly correspond. Where your mind should go straight, it will dodge: the difficulties it should approach with a fair front and grip with a firm hand it will be seeking to evade or circumvent.”

The comic highlight of the chapter finds Q rewriting Hamlet’s classic soliloquy. Here are Shakespeare’s first five lines:

To be, or not to be—that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them.

Here is Q’s jargon version:

To be, or the contrary? Whether the former or the latter be preferable would seem to admit of some difference of opinion; the answer in the present case being of an affirmative or of a negative character according as to whether one elects on the one hand to mentally suffer the disfavour of fortune, albeit in an extreme degree, or on the other to boldly envisage adverse conditions in the prospect of eventually bringing them to a conclusion.

“That is Jargon,” says Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, “and to write Jargon is to be perpetually shuffling around in the fog and cotton-wool of abstract terms.”

 

Pop Quiz

Here are some examples of jargon. Can you improve these sentences?

1. As regards the suspect, he was apprehended by a resident of an adjacent dwelling unit.

2. Upon receipt of this memo dated July 26, please be herewith informed that our new parking policy will be effectuated immediately.

3. In my case, I became instantly immersed in an ineffable atmosphere infused with elation.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. As regards the suspect, he was apprehended by a resident of an adjacent dwelling unit. (A neighbor caught the suspect.)

2. Upon receipt of this memo dated July 26, please be herewith informed that our new parking policy will be effectuated immediately. (Our new parking policy takes effect on July 26.)

3. In my case, I became instantly immersed in an ineffable atmosphere infused with elation. (Suddenly I felt happy beyond words.)

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Posted on Monday, July 14, 2014, at 10:50 am


Collective Nouns and Consistency

In American English, most collective nouns take singular verbs—except when a sentence emphasizes the individuals in the group, not the group as a whole.

In a sentence like The faculty is organized into eight departments, the collective noun faculty is singular. But consider The university’s faculty are renowned scholars in their own right. In that sentence, faculty is plural because it refers to the members rather than to the unit. Some sentences could go either way. In a sentence like The faculty disagrees/disagree on the need for a new facility, it’s a judgment call whether to make faculty singular or plural.

Would it be bad form for faculty to be “it” in one sentence and “they” in another? Many authorities say yes. Claire Kehrwald Cook, a renowned copyeditor turned author, says, “Keep it consistently singular or plural … The shifting from singular to plural may be distracting if the sentences occur close together.” English scholar Bryan A. Garner takes it a step further: “If in the beginning of an essay, the phrasing is the faculty was, then every reference to faculty as a noun should be singular throughout the whole.”

That may be solid advice, but it feels a bit extreme. If faculty is singular in the first paragraph of a five thousand-word story and plural in the final paragraph, one in a hundred readers might notice the discrepancy, and one in a thousand might care. Nonetheless, Garner’s perfectionism is a goal worth shooting for.

If consistency with a collective noun is commendable in essays, it is essential in sentences. Yet we read things like the following all the time: I hope the company gets what they’ve asked for. The writer sees no problem in making company singular (gets), then plural two words later. It’s a mystery why nobody spotted the problem and made the obvious fix: I hope the company gets what it has asked for.

Here’s another: Technology allows us to rethink how the public interacts with their government. We can all agree that “with its government” is clunky. Instead let’s remove the s from interacts. There is nothing grammatically wrong with how the public interact with their government.

Still, there are those who would rather not pair a collective noun with a plural verb. All right then, why not change the public to the people? Or remove the unnecessary their, which gives us Technology allows us to rethink how the public interacts with the government, a decided improvement on the original.

Although collective nouns can be singular or plural, depending on context, keeping them singular is the preference of many writers. All others should avoid the trap of having it both ways—ideally in the same story, but unquestionably in the same sentence.

 

Pop Quiz

Are these sentences all right? If not, can you fix them? (Answers are at the bottom of the newsletter.)

1. The jury reached its verdict after they deliberated for three days.
2. The pair was last spotted leaving their home in separate cars.
3. After they won, the team was shouting and congratulating themselves.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

There are many good alternatives. Here are our suggestions.

1. The jury reached its verdict after deliberating for three days.
2. The pair were last spotted leaving their home in separate cars.
3. The players were shouting and congratulating themselves after the team won.

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Posted on Tuesday, July 8, 2014, at 4:43 pm