How to Distinguish the Hyphen from the Dash

The last thing I expected on a football weekend across the country in North Carolina was a grammar lesson. But that’s what I got in Winston-Salem, sometimes referred to as “the Dash.” Or so I had read.

Winston-SalemI asked a volunteer at the visitors’ center if the city (and more recently, its minor-league baseball team ) took the nickname from the punctuation mark between the names of what were originally two adjacent towns (they officially merged in 1913). “No, she said, pointing to the tiny spot on a poster. “That’s not a dash, that’s a hyphen. A dash divides; a hyphen unites.”

We both chuckled, but I knew she had a point.

According to the website (I kid you not) dashhyphen.com:

“The hyphen is the shorter mark. often used to link two or more words together. For example: user-friendly, part-time, up-to-date, back-to-back. Note that a hyphen never has spaces on either side.

“The dash is the longer line used as punctuation in sentences – coming in between words (as in this sentence). It can also be used – as here – in pairs. For example: Paul sang his song terribly – and he thought he was brilliant!

He’s won the election—granted, there was only a low turnout—but he’s won!”

The eagle-eyed among readers of the preceding sentences may have noticed they included two different types of dashes, perhaps heightening the confusion. “The en-dash is the shorter version of the dash, named en-dash as it should be the same length as the letter ‘n,’ dashhyphen.com says. “The en-dash should always have spacing before and after. The first example above uses the en-dash. The em-dash is the longer version, named em-dash as it should be the same length as the letter ‘m.’ The em-dash should never have spaces before or after it. The second example above uses the em-dash. The first version, the en-dash, is the most commonly used form.” See dashhyphen.com for more detailed  information.

I smiled at the visitors’ center volunteer. “So ideally, you’d like this city and its baseball team to be nicknamed the Hyphen, not the Dash?” I asked. She nodded affirmatively.

Good luck with that, I thought. When good grammar and catchy marketing clash, we know what wins.

When you need a little help in either area, consider an editor.

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Don’t Forgo This Foregone Conclusion

Granted, writers don’t use the words “forgo” and “forego” too often. Many don’t realize that while both action verbs sound the same (homonyms), they mean something different. A conclusion can be foregone, for instance, but you forgo a decision. Huh?

Don’t fret, even the professionals get confused. Here’s a Washington Times headline from Oct. 1, 2014:  “Skipping the flu shot? CDC chief warns healthy adults to not forego flu vaccine.” Sorry: Adults who ignore this warning will forgo the vaccine, not forego it.

j0286670The phrase “a foregone conclusion,” meaning a result anticipated before it happens, is the most familiar usage of forego. In that phrase, foregone is the past participle of forego, which means to precede. Unfortunately, forgone (which again sounds the same) is the past participle of forgo, which means to do without.

And here’s the rub: Some dictionaries list forego as an alternate spelling of forgo, and forgo as an alternate spelling of forego. If that’s not bad enough, consider the past tense of these verbs: forewent and forwent. Who in their right mind wants to try using those two words in a sentence?

My recommendation: Let’s forgo both of them. Use precede for forego and abstain for forgo.

By the way, if you didn’t remember what past participle means, it might be time to throw up your hands and find an editor.

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Collective Nouns and Pronouns the Right Way

One of the most frequent errors I see in newsletters, emails and even in the media is non-agreement of collective nouns and pronouns. Most people know that collective nouns take singular pronouns (that is, a company wins its award, not their award). When the collective noun in question is a company or team name, however, confusion reigns; all the more so if the proper name is plural. Two recent examples:

AgriLife is one of the country’s largest purveyors of products for a simpler lifestyle. They have been very successful providing cheese-making kits to their customers for the past two years.

Smith Brothers Food Markets wants to emphasize their growing line of cleaned and pre-cut vegetables for busy, active cooks.

Team: Is it singular or plural?

Team: Singular or plural pronoun?

In both sentences, all the pronouns should be singular (it, its, itself, not they, their, themselves). While generic collective nouns (such as army, crowd, team) can be singular or plural, depending on whether the group is acting in unison or as individual members, named businesses, schools and organizations are always singular.

This seems logical to me. Many individuals comprise a business, company, governmental unit. school, or team, but each organization operates as a single entity.

As noted above, however, when the members of an unnamed group act in unison, everyone doing essentially the same thing at the same time, then the collective noun is singular and requires singular pronouns for agreement. But when an organization’s members act as individuals, taking separate or different actions, then the collective noun is plural and requires plural pronouns for agreement. While grammatically correct, this generates awkward-sounding sentences:

At the rehearsal, the cast took their places so that each actor could see the spacing between them.

The council disagree whether they should overturn the mayor’s veto.

If deciding whether a particular collective noun should be considered singular or plural confuses you, there are ways to write around it.

  • Substitute a plural noun for the collective noun, allowing use of the more natural-sounding plural pronouns: The cast (actors) earned $500 each for their roles.
  • Add the word members after a collective noun. Members, serving as a plural antecedent, requires a more natural-sounding plural pronoun: When the curtain falls, the cast members take their bows. The council members voted to return the surplus money to the taxpayers.

Still having a hard time with this collective thing? There’s a smarter, more effective alternative: Give up and hire an editor!

 

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Wilde About Editing

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde

An editor is never really satisfied with the words in front of him (or her). In the words of 19th century Irish playwright Oscar Wilde, “I was working all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.”

If you think an editor can help your own words communicate more effectively, find one who provides more production per hour than Mr. Wilde.

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Word Sick? How to Find Relief

pen_and_paper“I hate writing. I love having written.” This adage is variously attributed to such well-known authors as Dorothy Parker, Mark Twain, Eudora Welty, Neil Simon, Gloria Steinem, Joan Didion, Ernest Hemingway and William Zinsser, but it applies to less-accomplished writers as well. Anytime an average person has to write a letter to an insurance company, a cover letter for an important application, or a complicated legal disposition, for example, putting his or her thoughts down on paper or into a word-processing file can be daunting. If you’re not confident in your own way with words, an experienced editor can provide a map and a push in the right direction. “Being a good writer mostly means being a good observer and a good thinker,” editor and author Gene Weingarten notes in his introduction to his essay collection The Fiddler on the Subway. “With work, it’s possible to triumph over a lack of innate writing skill.”

That’s good to know, because Weingarten’s introduction also acknowledges that writing can be hard work and full of frustration. “A real writer is someone for whom writing is a terrible ordeal,” the Washington Post columnist writes. “That is because he knows, deep down, with an awful clarity, that there are limitless ways to fill a page with words, and that he will never, ever, do it perfectly. On some level, that knowledge haunts him all the time. He will always be juggling words in his head, trying to get them closer to a tantalizing, unreachable ideal.”

Aggravated by your own attempts to reach that ideal? Here’s a prescription for quick relief: Take two ibuprofen and call an editor in the morning.

 

 

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Improve Your Interviewing Skills

Among my many aggravations, none is more constantly inview than bad interviewing. Not interviewing for a job, but interviewing in an information-gathering, journalistic sense. Bad examples appear every day on TV, radio and the Internet.  Most of these talking heads don’t know how to conduct an interview. They make me want to holler.

In my dual roles as newspaper editor and professor of news writing, I taught and coached many inexperienced and aspiring journalists in how to conduct interviews. Not so they would become “gotcha” interviewers like Mike Wallace, but to help them come away from each interview with useful information and catchy quotes for their articles.  But interviewing people is hard, and it’s a hard skill to develop. An interviewer own confidence and personality are part of it, but there are also mechanics involved.

John McPhee

John McPhee

I recently noticed many of the points I had stressed in my classes and training sessions were reiterated in a 2014 New Yorker article by Pulitzer Prize-winning author John McPhee, who regularly contributes essays about writing to that magazine. A few of the interviewing tips we have in common (with McPhee’s words in quotes) are:

  • “Use a tape recorder, yes, but maybe not as a first choice — more like a relief pitcher.”
  • “Don’t rely on memory.” Regardless of how you’ve accumulated notes or recordings from an interview, transcribe them and flesh them out as soon as possible afterwards.
  • “Make clear what you are doing and who will publish what you write.” In other words, don’t take notes surreptitiously, when you think no one is looking.  Do it openly, and be up front about who you are and why you are asking these questions.
  • “Display your notebook as if it were a fishing license.  While the interview continues, the notebook may serve other purposes, surpassing the talents of a tape recorder. As you scribble away, the interviewee is, of course, watching you. Now, unaccountably, you slow down, and even stop writing, while the interviewee goes on talking. The interviewee becomes nervous, tries harder, and spills out the secrets of a secret life, or maybe just a clearer and more quotable version of what was said before. Conversely, if the interviewee is saying nothing of interest, you can pretend to be writing, just to keep the enterprise moving forward.”
  • “If doing nothing can produce a useful reaction, so can the appearance of being dumb.”

I’ve got a few a few more suggestions about interviewing.

  • An interviewer’s  most valuable questions are follow-ups  to the previous question that elicit further response: For example, “why?” “how?” “what did you mean?” or “could you please repeat that?”
  • Keep questions short while encouraging longer responses by asking the followup questions above.
  • Never suggest an answer with your question. For example, the question “How huge was that decision?” leads the responder to the prescribed answer. Questions should let the interviewee supply the descriptions, not merely agree with or refute the questioner’s.
  • Make an interview as conversational as possible. Look at the interviewee. Don’t let note-taking bog it down.
  • Before the interview, find out as much as you can about the person you’re interviewing.
  • Have at least a short list of questions ready when you start, and always be ready with the next question. Don’t allow dead air.
  • If you have questions that might irritate the interviewee, save them for last.
  • Don’t ask stupid questions.

McPhee also agrees with my personal philosophy on editing quotes to enhance their conciseness and communication without altering their content or meaning. “Once captured, words have to be dealt with,” he writes. “You have to trim and strengthen them to make them transliterate from the fuzziness of speech to the clarity of print. Speech and print are not the same, and a slavish presentation of recorded speech may not be as representative of a speaker as dialogue that has been trimmed and straightened. Please understand:  you trim and straighten, but you do not make it up.”

To bring that kind of editing sense and sensibility to your own documents, you probably need a professional. Hire an editor.

 

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Important Lessons About Writing

Editor CartoonOne of the writers I follow and greatly admire is Washington Post humor columnist Gene Weingarten, who was previously a reporter, editor and feature writer at the Post and other newspapers. In his current weekly column, always under 750 words, Weingarten epitomizes the value of economy in writing. And that’s just one of many valuable lessons that writers can get from his work.

In the introduction to a 2010 compilation of longer articles, two of which won Pulitzer Prizes for feature writing  (The Fiddler on the Subway), Weingarten writes that as a young reporter in Detroit he learned two truths about writing in one night while struggling with a story.  “The first is that without passion, you have nothing,” he writes. “The second is that the most important words in your story are the ones you don’t write. They’re the ones you imply—the ones that cause you to pop into the reader’s mind and get her to think ‘Aha!’ That’s how you transform her from a passive observer into an ally. And that’s when you win.”

Later in that introduction, Weingarten discusses the importance of rhythm  as part of that winning formula. “For a long narrative to have power, it can’t just be delivering information—it needs to create a textured experience, the way a movie does,” he explains. “A writer hasn’t the advantage of a mood-setting soundtrack, or actors who can communicate emotion with an expression or a gesture, but he has something of potentially greater impact: the descriptive power of words. Use them with care: arrange them shrewdly. Remember that sentences have cadence and meter and melody—don’t let them become a one-note lullaby. Interrupt the long with the short, the simple with the complex, and use them all to build a vivid narrative, a theater of the mind that each reader then edits and personalizes for himself. It’s a collaboration, this process. Don’t take your new ally for granted. Don’t bore her, even for an instant.”

Winning with words isn’t easy, but a skilled editor can help develop and fine-tune your game plan. Contact me for a free assessment of your own writing project.

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