Last night my husband and I went to a lovely concert, a tenor singing Shubert’s “Winterreisse” (“Winter Journey”) a series of beautiful and sad songs accompanied by a piano. The program seemed so fitting for a cold night. The songs were written and sung in German, but on the wall above the singer an English translation was projected.
Being the grammatically compulsive person I am, I had to bring myself back to the music and try to ignore the fact that every time the word “its” was needed, “it’s” was written.
If it doesn’t mean “it is” or “it has,” you want “its,” the possessive form:
“It’s been cold and snowy in the East.” <——It has
“It’s cold even here in Los Angeles.” <——-It is
“The tree dropped its leaves.” <——-Possessive. The leaves belong to the tree.
People get confused because in English possessive nouns do take apostrophes. But possessive pronouns never do:
Hers, his, ours, theirs, yours—hold the apostrophes!
We all had that teacher who warned us never to use double negatives. Never say or write, “I don’t have no red shoes.” In fact, if you say that sentence with the emphasis on the word “no,” you might be saying, “I don’t have no red shoes; I have some red shoes.”
I don’t recall ever being warned about triple negatives, but they exist: “I wouldn’t like to say that I would never not wear a bikini.” Granted, that sentence is convoluted. It would be preferable to say, “I might possibly wear a bikini,” but the triple negative version is still grammatical.
Most double negatives we see are, in fact, ungrammatical. “I don’t have nothing to tell you” likely doesn’t mean “I have something to tell you.” It’s an ungrammatical way to say “I have nothing to tell you.” Sometimes, however, many of us talk that way when among people who know us very well. They are aware we know better but understand we are using a double negative in an attempt (albeit feeble) to be funny.
“If I was in Maine, I’d be shoveling snow right now.”
Anyone who knows me knows there is zero chance of my doing any such thing. I’d be inside, bitching and moaning about the miserable weather and pining for a warm beach.
Despite my lie, that sentence still should read, “If I were in Maine….” Why “were” rather than “was”? When a sentence is contrary to fact, use the subjunctive (did I just scare you?). In its most simple terms, the subjunctive is the verb form you use that seems to be wrong. We would never say, “I were in Maine last summer.” Of course we would use “was.” But in situations where the facts are otherwise, use the subjunctive:
“If I were king….” (but I’m not.)
As Tevya sang, “If I were a rich man….” (but he wasn’t.)
People who know how to make nouns plural in general often make up their own crazy set of rules when dealing with names:
I know two people who are Gonzalez’s, three Garies, two Barry’s and five Maxs.
Those should be Gonzalezes, Garys, Barrys and Maxes. Of course, you can just write that you have many friends named Gonzalez, Gary, Barry and Max. I can hear you breathing more easily.
People whose last name ends in a vowel are no different than your consonant-ending friends:
Castroes and Castro’s aren’t plurals for Castro. All you need is Castros.
I wrote a post last night about the difference between LIE and LAY and proofread it meticulously, looking for typos. Lesson to self: looking for typos isn’t enough; I need to look at the content as well. Two people wrote to me pointing out that my definitions were reversed, although my examples were correct. Mea maxima culpa! Here is the correct information:
Many people use these two words incorrectly.
LIE means to rest or recline.
LAY means to put or place.
When you go to the beach, you LAY your towel on the sand and then LIE on the towel.
Much of the confusion arises because the past tense of LIE is LAY: Yesterday I LAY down after work. For the present tense (used for something we do regularly, habitually) we say, I always LIE down after work. And for something you have done in the past and continue to do now, we use the present participle (the verb along with HAS, HAD or HAVE): I always HAVE LAIN down after work. You hate that word, LAIN, don’t you? But it’s correct.
As for LAY, I always LAY the mail on the kitchen table. Yesterday I LAID it there. I always HAVE LAID it on that table.
As I have mentioned, I read the obituaries in the Los Angeles Times every day to make sure my name is not listed. Today was another good day for me. However, I found an obituary for a retired police officer who, it was said, retired “after a lifetime of public servitude….”
servitude |ˈsərviˌt(y)o͞od| noun the state of being a slave or completely subject to someone more powerful.
The poor man. This is what happens when people try to make themselves sound important: they use fancy words, thinking they know what the definition is. They are close, but no one is going to pass out cigars. I’ve already written about often seeing simplistic used when the writer (or speaker) means simple. Again, hold the Cohibas.
If you have even a teensy doubt about the meaning of a word, use your dictionary first.
The most common sentence pattern in English is subject + verb + direct object (S+V+DO). For instance, The dog chewed the bone. But sometimes it’s more interesting to vary the pattern and put the verb first: Down the street ran the dog.
Try to avoid starting sentences with There is, There are, Here is, Here are. But if you do use one of those constructions, be aware that the subject is not There or Here. It will always be the first noun or pronoun after it:
There is someone knocking at the door.
Here are the reports you asked for.
There are two dogs fighting over the bone.
Here is the book you asked to borrow.
In yesterday’s post, I suggested you not write in anger. A reader made the comment that she has written angry letters, which felt good. I have done the same thing: written some real zingers that made me feel so much better. But the trick is not to send them.
As much as you might want to show how clever you, how superior you are, how right your position is—sleep on those angry letters. Read them again the next day. Chances are great you will decide not to send them; otherwise, you could easily demean yourself.
Certainly it is acceptable to express displeasure in a letter or e-mail. But use language that is dispassionate and does not put the other person on the defensive. This may be a good time to use the passive voice: instead of saying, “You did not do X,” instead you can write,”X was not done.” That way you are not pointing the finger of blame.
Some phrases you might find helpful: I have the impression that, an issue in dispute, we seem unable to come to terms, we have a difference of opinion, we have a complicated situation, I strongly disagree/oppose, we may need to break off discussion.
Think about what the word “revise” means: to see again.
When you write something, it’s a good idea to put it aside for awhile. Studies have shown that three days is optimal, but I realize most of us don’t have that much time. If you can put space between you and your work even for a few hours, chances are you will come back to it with new eyes. Sometimes when I have done this, my reaction has been, “I wrote this?” And I don’t mean that in a good way.
Never write in anger. Especially if you feel you have to write a critical piece, I urge you to put it away for as long as you can before sending it. Think about the person receiving it; try to anticipate the reaction. It might be a good time for some judicious editing—or deciding not to send the piece at all.
As a proud undergraduate alumna of UC Berkeley and a proud graduate alumna of UCLA, I was horrified to see the new logo for the university. Logos are written symbols and carry messages. The new logo looks to me like a urinal with a snake in it. Someone else suggested is resembles the Swedish flag being flushed down the toilet.
While the old logo will still appear on diplomas, the new one was developed because it reproduces better than the old one. It took eleven people three years to come up with this beauty!
An online uproar is happening as I type. I expressed my dismay on Facebook.
Hardly a day goes by when I don’t see importantly in writing: The company has been trying to solve its staffing problems, but more importantly, time is running out because workers are threatening to strike.
What is really being said is that it is more important that time is running out. Therefore, lose the —ly. It’s incorrect.
I saw a T-shirt that said, WHAT I IF TOLD YOU YOU READ THIS WRONG?
See how easy it is to miss typos and other errors? The best way I know to catch these glitches is to read out loud and slowly. Really, really slowly. One word at a time. If you read backwards, you will catch blatant spelling errors (but so will your spellcheck software); however, you won’t pick up missing words or inadvertent spelling mistakes (e.g., typing were for where, you for your).
As for reading out loud, you don’t have to use a stentorian voice and startle everyone else in your office or neighborhood. As long as you can hear your voice come out your mouth and go into your ears, that will do.
When we read silently and at our normal speed, we read what we think we wrote, not what we really did write. And sometimes what we really did write can be embarrassing. It’s worth your time to proofread carefully.
I often see and hear people misuse these two words. Here’s the difference:
BESIDES means in addition to, other than:
Three other people besides Tim joined us for pizza.
BESIDE means next to:
She placed her documents beside her purse so she wouldn’t forget them when she left.
There also is the idiomatic expression, to be beside oneself, not besides oneself.
These two words are often used interchangeably, but they mean different things:
FURTHER means additional or additionally:
She gave further instructions for the chemistry experiment.
FARTHER refers to distance:
He lives farther from the airport than I do.
I saw a cartoon eons ago that might help you remember the difference. In essence, it was a couple holding hands and walking in the woods. The woman said to the man, “Let’s go farther before we go any further.”
The odds are overwhelming that if you use different from you will be correct.
When you use a clause—a chunk of words with its own subject and verb (as opposed to a phrase, which does not contain a verb)—you can use either; I’ve underlined the clauses:
Today’s popular music is different from what it was when I was a teenager.
Popular music today is different than it was when I was a teenager.
THAN is used when making a comparison:
Now that Lennie has an iPad, he spends more time on it than on his computer.
Robin’s younger sister is taller than Robin.
This summer the East Coast was hotter than cities in the Sunbelt.
THEN is used when one thing results from or follows another or refers to a particular point in time:
Sandra filed her report and then danced down the hall.
Bob announced he was on a diet and then finished all the doughnuts in the box (to get rid of them, he said).
If you lived during the 1950s in America, you then knew the fear of nuclear war.
It’s price point. Why did this jargon spring up? What was wrong with price? Can you think of an instance in which price point says something good old price doesn’t? Neither can I.
“That HDTV is selling at a lower price point than it did last year.” See how well price would work in that sentence? It’s all you need. Get the point—and then lose it.
Death must sting very badly indeed because the word and its associates are so often avoided. People don’t die, they pass, pass on, pass away, expire (“like a magazine subscription,” in the words of the late—no, dead—George Carlin). Soldiers aren’t dead, they are fallen. People lose their spouses. They go to meet their maker, kick the bucket, join the choir invisible. If you want more euphemisms—words that try to make something bad sound more acceptable—go to YouTube and search for Monty Python’s hilarious “Dead Parrot” sketch.
If you’re writing about a geographic direction, do not capitalize the word:
We drove south on the San Diego Freeway for close to 75 miles. Boston is north of Providence.
However, if you are writing about a geographic area, do capitalize the word or words:
Charlie was born in the Midwest. Jamal works in the North. Eddie was married in Southern Maine. Syria is in the Middle East. Good restaurants abound in the Pacific Northwest.
In my decades of subscribing to The New Yorker (yes, “The” is part of the title), I don’t recall ever coming across a typo. But the December 3 issue contains the following sentence:
“Several nights a week, a group of sixteen strangers gather around his dining-room table to eat delicacies he has handpicked and prepared for them….”
The subject of that sentence is “group,” which is singular, even though a group is made up of more than one person. It’s called a collective noun. “Of sixteen strangers” is a prepositional phrase, and although every prepositional phrase contains—usually—a noun (in this case “strangers”) and sometimes a pronoun, that noun or pronoun in the prepositional phrase will never be the subject of the sentence.
Therefore, the correct verb to go with the subject “group” should be “gathers.” A group gathers.
The article is called “Toques From Underground” and focuses on a thirty-year-old chef in Los Angeles who cooks dinners you might or might not consider gourmet in his tiny apartment kitchen. Supposedly, it’s the toughest reservation in town. Based on the dishes this article highlighted, I think I am going to give it a miss. Anyone hungry for salted oak leaves served with pine broth and matsutake mushrooms? On the other hand, you can pay what you like when you leave.