Monthly Archives: June 2014

So What?

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I think I may have ranted about this fairly recently, but I’d like you to consciously listen to people around you today or—if you can stomach it—this week and become aware of how many sentences are being started with the word “So.”

I am now seeing this fairly often in writing as well, which makes me not happy at all. “So” legitimately means “as a result”: “Benjamin failed his driving test twice, so he is very nervous he won’t pass on his final chance to take it again.”

That, however, is not how the word is flooding discourse these days. It’s being used as the very casual, conversational beginning of sentences:

So did I tell you about the new manager in Human Resources?

So a new series is starting on HBO tonight.

So I’m wondering when my niece is going to finish college.

So the new plan is to limit department meetings to 30 minutes.

In each of those sentences, the word does no work. You can erase it and no meaning is lost, no confusion ensues. Pay attention in the next few days. Good chance you even will catch yourself saying “So” when it is extraneous. If it carried meaning, I would have no problem with it. However, it’s just deadwood. Chop it out.

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An Apostrophe Dilemma Solved

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What do you write when two or more people possess the same thing? Do you use an apostrophe for each of their names or just one apostrophe?

“John and Serena’s car is a bright red.” By using the apostrophe only in Serena’s name, you are signaling that John and Serena both own that car. Use a possessive apostrophe only in the owner’s name closest to the item.

If each one of them owns a separate car, use possessive apostrophes for both owners: “John’s and Serena’s cars have adjacent parking spots in the office garage.”

 

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How Different? From? Than? To?

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“Different from” is most commonly used and is the only word you can use when the phrase precedes a noun or pronoun: “My house is different from others on our block.” “Girls are different from boys.”

Before a clause, however, “different than” is called for: “Technology is far different today than it was a mere five years ago.”

“Different to” is primarily British and is rarely seen or heard on these shores.

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More Favorite Clichés From Journalism

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Thanks to CG for sending me an enormous list of journalism clichés compiled by Carlos Lozada at the Washington Post. I’ve put quite a few of them on my blog recently, but here’s a new crop to, shall we say, enjoy. Lozada finds these by scanning the newspaper, but if you work in the corporate world they will be very familiar to you. Once these clichés are unleashed, they tend to spread throughout the land, infiltrating advertising, the classroom, the courtroom, the boardroom, even so-called areas of entertainment.

You may be taken by a new-to-you turn of phrase. Social media easily encourage their use. Within mere days, words that seemed fresh and new are suddenly old hat, so last year, five minutes ago. They have become a cliché, to be avoided like the plague.

Here, for your avoidance, are many. I assume they will all look very familiar to you:

If you will (actually, I won’t)

A cautionary tale

Needless to say (then don’t say it)

Suffice it to say (if it suffices, then just say it)

This is not your father’s [anything]

[Anything] 2.0 (or 3.0, or 4.0…)

At a crossroads (unless referring to an actual intersection)

The powers that be

Outside the box (describes creative thinking — with a cliché)

A favorite Washington parlor game

Don’t get me wrong

Yes, Virginia, there is a [something]

Christmas came early for [someone]

Chock full (“full” is fine by itself)

Last-ditch effort (unless ditch-digging is involved)

Midwife (as a verb, unless involving childbirth)

Cue the [something]

Call it [something]

Pity the poor [something]

It’s the [something], stupid

Imagine (as the first word in your lede)

Time will tell if [something]

Palpable sense of relief (unless you can truly touch it)

Sigh of relief

Plenty of blame to go around

Rorschach test (unless it is a real one)

Turned a blind eye

Underscores

Cycle of violence (unless referring to a particularly vicious Schwinn)

Searing indictment

Broken system (or, “the [anything] system is broken”)

Famously (if readers know it, you don’t need to tell them it is famous; if they don’t know it, you just made them feel stupid)

The Other (or “otherize,” “otherization” and other variations)

Effort (as a verb)

 

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Choose One

Since “however” and “but” both indicate a shift in the direction of your writing, don’t use them together, as in this example: But Jane, however, decided to move to Houston. Choose one: But Jane decided to move to Houston or However, Jane decided to move to Houston.

Similarly, I often hear people say, “And plus.” Again, choose one, since they both are words adding information.

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More Journalism Clichés

UnknownThese were compiled by Carlos Lozada, of the Washington Post. Clichés are new and interesting when we first hear them, but by the fifth time we are yawning. Here are just a few more of the 135 he listed. Avoid these like the plague (joke):

What happens in [somewhere] stays in [somewhere]

Oft-cited

Little-noticed

Closely watched

Hastily convened

Much ballyhooed

Shrouded in secrecy

Since time immemorial

Tipping point

Inflection point

Point of no return

 

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Verbing and Nouning

Verbing and nouning are favorite pastimes of so many writers. Surely you know what these two words mean. No?

Verbing takes a verb and turns it into a noun: James, that was a brave ask you put forth at the meeting this morning, and because of your bravery we scored a huge get.

As an old “Calvin and Hobbes” cartoon pointed out years ago, “Verbing weirds language.”

Conversely, nouning takes what is usually a noun and verbifies it (as I just did): James suggested we conference about the budget this afternoon. We need to find a solve for our fiscal woes. We all remember how James orchestrated last year’s recover, so we hope he can do it again.

People use this kind of language thinking it makes them look important and knowledgeable. It doesn’t. It makes them look pompous and ridiculous. Straightforward, simple English is best.

 

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A Pulitzer Prize-Winning Misplaced Modifier

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First of all, I have to tell you that I loved Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, all 700-plus pages of it, so much that I know I will read it again. It was that enthralling: an exciting, educational, sad, funny, well-written, captivating book. Second of all, I have to tell you (in case you somehow missed this) that I am a grammar nerd of the first order. So when I came across a second misplaced modifier in this wonderful book, well, how could I let it pass without comment? I always wonder where the editors are who miss these bloopers.

Here is the cast of characters in this example: Popper is a tiny dog belonging to the protagonist, Theo. Boris is Theo’s closest friend, someone he met in middle school. The narrator is Theo:

“Popper—damp, but otherwise looking none the worse for his adventure—stiffened his legs rather formally as Boris set him down on the floor and then paddled over to me, holding his head up so that I might scratch him under the chin.”

Obviously, Popper was the one hoping for a chin scratch, but the way the sentence is constructed, Boris did two things: he put the dog on the floor and then paddled over to Theo to get his chin scratched. How to fix this? The sentence is fine up to the setting-on-the-floor part. It could be rewritten this way: “…stiffened his legs rather formally as he was set down on the floor and then paddled over to me….” You can probably think of other ways to avoid this misplaced modifier.

The rule about modifiers is that you have to ask yourself who did the action and then put that person’s (or in this case, dog’s) name or pronoun immediately following the modifier. I do love them, though. The results are often inadvertently very entertaining.

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Chagrined and Nonplussed

These are two bad feelings to experience.

Many people think CHAGRIN means a feeling of sadness, but it actually means  embarrassment or humiliation as a result of failure:

Larry was chagrined when he failed to get a minimum passing score on the chemistry final.

If you are NONPLUSSED (this can also be spelled with one S, although two are preferred), you feel confused and don’t know how to act:

Nonplussed, Larry thought he would be the valedictorian, but stunned by his failing chemistry grade he gradually acknowledged that honor was not to be his.

You may be aware that a different meaning for “nonplussed” is starting to overtake the original meaning as a result of common usage: people are using the word to indicate a lack of concern or caring, which is the opposite of the word’s original meaning:

Larry was nonplussed after he failed the chemistry exam because he hadn’t cared whether he made valedictorian.

This other usage is still cited in dictionaries by a note indicating that it is not yet standard; but my bet is that within 10 years it will have overtaken the historical definition. All languages change.

 

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Journalism Clichés

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Carlos Lozada at the Washington Post listed clichés frequently seen in the media, clichés he would like to abolish. Here is a portion of the phrases he finds annoying and ready for destruction. Do you agree?

Christmas came early for [someone]

Chock full (“full” is just fine by itself)

Last-ditch effort (unless ditch-digging is involved)

Midwife (as a verb, unless involving childbirth)

Cue the [something]

Call it [something]

Pity the poor [something]

It’s the [something], stupid

Imagine (as the first word in your lede)

Time will tell if [something]

Palpable sense of relief (unless you can truly touch it)

Sigh of relief

Plenty of blame to go around

Rorschach test (unless it is a real one)

Turned a blind eye

I’m voting with Lozada.

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Do You Move In to or Move Into?

Here’s a question a reader posed. It is worth some thought:

A person is moving from one apartment to another. Would you say she is moving into the new apartment or moving in to it?

I vote for the first option. She is moving all her belongings inside the new digs; therefore, she is moving into it.

If you say she is moving in to that apartment, you are thinking of the verb as “moving in.” But that “in” is extraneous. She’s moving. You could save space and trees (OK, a tiny tree) by simply stating she is moving to her new apartment.

Feel free to disagree.

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What Kind of Word Nerd Are You?

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I found this quiz posted at http://www.ragan.com, written by Laura Hale Brockway . You probably can guess my score (and I’m damned proud of it!).

What kind of word nerd are you?

Step 1. Answer the following yes/no questions. (Be honest. This is a judgment-free zone.)

1. Do you subscribe to one or more style guides (or have one or more style guides on your desk)?

2. Do you catch typos all around you, even when you’re not looking for them?

3. Do you find yourself correcting the grammar in the books you read to your kids? (“Junie B. Jones” is the worst.)

4. Can you quote from “Eats, Shoots and Leaves?”  [Note from Judi: Yes, but I also wrote to the editor because the book contains about 10 major errors, most not attributable to the author’s English upbringing.]

5. Have you had more than one heated argument about the use of the serial (Oxford) comma?

6. Does seeing 1990’s or 30’s drive you to drink?

7. Do you feel an immediate sense of camaraderie with anyone who uses “comprise” correctly?

8. Can you spell “minuscule,” “inadvertent,” “supersede,” and “ophthalmologist” correctly? (Could you have done so before I just showed them to you?)

9. Is the hyphen your least favorite punctuation mark?

10. Do you use the word “decimate” correctly?

11. Do you giggle when you end a sentence with a preposition and know why it’s acceptable to do so?

12. Do people refuse to play Words with Friends or Scrabble with you?

Step 2. Count the questions to which you answered “yes.”

Word Nerd Elite—You answered “yes” to 10 to 12 questions.

You are in the upper echelon of word nerdiness. Very likely you are the primary person in your department or company whom others ask when they have a grammar or punctuation question. You may have even played dueling style guides with a co-worker. Finding typos on signs or in movie credits might feel like a victory for you. Welcome to the club. We meet for drinks every month on penultimate Wednesdays.

Word Nerd Moderate—You answered “yes” to 5 to 9 questions.

You exhibit a few of the telltale signs of word nerdiness. You probably know and use one style guide very well. Though you know the arguments for and against its use, you’re lukewarm on the serial comma. You have a pretty easy time keeping your composure when playing Scrabble.

Word Nerd Lite (or should that be light?)—You answered “yes” to 0 to 4 questions.

Other than one or two minor eccentricities, you’re not really a word nerd at all. You leave it to others to find typos and argue about word usage. Perhaps you’ve read “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” and you remember the joke about the panda. You haven’t quite memorized your style guide, but you have a few key sections highlighted.

Good job!

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More Verb Variants

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She dived or she dove?

I recently wrote about “snuck” as a variant for “sneaked.” It’s no longer considered substandard, so you don’t have to sneak around if you’ve snuck it into your writing.

A few more verbs I’ve thought about since I wrote that post: “weave,” “dive” and “get.”

Which form do you prefer for the past tense of “weave”: “weaved” or “wove”? How about the past tense of “dive”? “Dived” or “dove”? Any of those words are acceptable.

The past participle of “get” gives you a choice as well. (The past participle may be a scary-sounding phrase, but all it means is the verb form that includes “has,” “have” or “had.”) Now I will get back to “get”:

Do you say, “I have got my flu shot” or “I have gotten my flu shot”? For some unknown reason, I am a “gotten” person, but either is correct. Both come from Middle English. The only time you will definitely need “got” instead of “gotten” is to show ownership:

“I have got three dollars in my wallet.” You wouldn’t use “gotten” in that sentence.

 

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I Don’t Get It, Part 2

The other day I wrote a post about a newspaper ad that bugged me. No matter how I tried to insert the ad, I couldn’t get it to post. I’ve now cropped it and hope it will work; it will make the post comprehensible. Here goes:

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Yes! Here’s the rest of what I wrote, as a reminder:

From the initial idea to the finished ad in the newspaper, did not one person see the error and correct it? This happens so frequently, I have to wonder if editors exist any longer.

This ad is aimed at “graDuation” celebrations, but “congratulations” is not related. These two words are derived from entirely different Latin verbs. True, many people do pronounce “congratulations” as if the T were a D. But it’s not. Was the word never underlined, indicating a problem with it? Did not one person notice the error?

I may have to drown my sorrow and frustration in a two-pound lobster.

Unknown

 

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P.S. for Sneak vs. Snuck

A reader commented that she thought “snuck” was the past tense of “sneak.”

It can be, in a casual sense: Robert snuck into his bedroom to make sure his favorite magazine was well hidden under the mattress.

But in a more formal context, you would write and say, Robert sneaked into the boardroom to retrieve the laptop he had forgotten after the meeting.

Present tense: sneak (snuck is not used in the present tense)

Past tense of either verb: sneaked or snuck

Past participle: has, have or had snuck or has, have or had sneaked.

 

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Sneak vs. Snuck

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A few years ago I was taken aback (is anyone ever taken aforward?) when I came across “snuck” in an article in the New York Times. I was certain that couldn’t be an acceptable form of “sneak,” and I began consulting dictionaries to see where “snuck” stood.

It seems that “snuck” snuck into American English as far back as the 19th century and is now considered a standard variant of “sneak.” To my ear, it sounds considerably more casual than “sneak,” but if you are comfortable using it and you feel the context is correct, go right ahead.

It’s a question of your style matching the situation. If you are writing an important corporate document, “sneak” would likely sound more appropriate. In a casual email, even in the business environment, I could see “snuck” getting through without anyone waggling an eyebrow.

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I Don’t Get It


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From the initial idea to the finished ad in the newspaper, did not one person see the error and correct it? This happens so frequently, I have to wonder if editors exist any longer.

This ad is aimed at “graDuation” celebrations, but “congratulations” is not related. These two words are derived from entirely different Latin verbs. True, many people do pronounce “congratulations” as if the T were a D. But it’s not. Was the word never underlined, indicating a problem with it? Did not one person notice the error?

I may have to drown my sorrow and frustration in a two-pound lobster.

Unknown

 

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Reblogging and Forwarding

I have been writing these tips for a couple of decades, initially for my corporate clients. They still receive them, but I also post them on Facebook, LinkedIn and StumbleUpon. I have never charged for them and never will; I just send them out into the ethers, hoping someone will find them helpful.

If you want to reblog them or forward them to an individual, to a faculty or to a corporation for distribution, feel free. You don’t need to ask me. (Now if you want to publish them in book form under your name, that’s a different story.)

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Sensual vs. Sensuous

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What did Estée Lauder intend when she named this perfume?

 

I’m addressing these two words in response to a reader request. Here goes:

SENSUAL refers to the fulfillment of the senses, most particularly in a sexual sense:

For example, most readers of Fifty Shades of Gray (of which I am not one) found it a gratifying sensual experience that enhanced their own sex lives.

Traditionally, SENSUOUS is defined as appealing to the senses rather than to the intellect. It can refer to any of the senses. “Elena found that swimming naked was a particularly sensuous experience.” In that sentence, it would appear that Elena was responding to her sense of touch.

However (and you knew that was coming, didn’t you?), both these words are now most commonly used to refer to sexual gratification.

Languages change.

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That vs. Which

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I’ve used this before but it’s been a while, and I’ve added a short quiz at the end.

Many people think “that” and “which” are interchangeable, but it’s not the case.

One comma rule is that non-essential information is set off by commas:

1. It rained on Sunday, which made skipping the picnic an easy decision.

2. Adam is good at oil painting, which he practices daily.

3. She loves attending NASCAR races, which she really can’t afford to do very often.

In all those sentences, the main information comes before the commas.  You could leave the information after the commas out and your readers would still understand what you have written, even though they might find the information after the commas helpful.  But it is not essential.

Use a comma and “which” to set off non-essential information. You’ll also need a comma at the end of the non-essential information if it comes in the middle of the sentence.

Now let’s look at “that”:

1. It’s a lemon tree that is very close to her kitchen.

2. He drives a car that is 14 years old.

3. They live in the house that his grandfather built in 1920.

In these sentences the information beginning with “that” is essential.  If I just wrote the words before “that,” you’d ask, “What lemon tree?”  “What car?”  “What house?”

Use no comma and “that” to introduce essential information.

Here is a short quiz for you to see if you understand the difference:

1. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House (which/that) is in Chicago is one of his masterpieces and is open to the public.

2. The calendar (which/that) has an enormous butterfly on the front is my favorite.

3. Cadillacs had the biggest fins (which/that) was the style in the 1960s.

 

(Answers: (1) which (and you need a comma not only before which but also after Chicago) (2) that (3) which

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