Make Grammar Your Ally

In an advice column in the Washington Post Magazine, writer Bradley Demerich provides five pointers for success in online dating. Topping his list: grammar.

grammar“Good grammar and writing go a long way,” he writes. “Not only do they show that you have the cognitive ability to be a functioning adult, but they also give people fewer reasons to ignore your profile/messages.”

Demerich offers another piece of good advice on presentation: “When you’re finished writing something, proofread it. One young man put on his profile, ‘I am very good at showing of the making girls feel beauty.’ Not sure if he was typing quickly or if English is his second language; either way, it shows the importance of reading over (or asking someone to read over) your profile.”

That goes for online messages, LinkedIn pages and just about anything you have to write for or about yourself. Letters, emails, web page content, job applications, reports, white papers or anything else, written communication always requires and benefits from editing and proofreading.

So when you need another set of eyes and your mother or significant other won’t do, hire an editor. When readers are impressed, it will be worth it.

Leave a comment

Filed under Grammar, Writing Tips

They, It Isn’t So

Pronoun TheyThere’s much debate in editing circles about using “they” as a singular as well as a plural pronoun.  At the April 2015 conference of the American Copy Editors Society (ACES), the topic came up several times, according to linguist and Wall Street Journal language columnist Ben Zimmer, a panelist who also covered the event. Zimmer wrote he “found growing acceptance of a usage that has long been disparaged as downright ungrammatical.”

Standard grammar dictates “they” and its related forms agree with plural antecedents only. However, English lacks a gender-neutral singular third-person pronoun, and “they” has for centuries grudgingly served that purpose, much to the grammarians’ chagrin. Still, as pointed out by ACES panelists, writers from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Jane Austen have done it.

“They” often becomes singular in common usage. Usually its antecedent is generic, not referring to a single known person, as in, “The crowd screamed for a foul, and they clearly affected the referee.” Thornier situations ensue when the antecedent more clearly refers to one person, however. A follower of this blog may not like what they see in this sentence, for example.

Lately, transgender issues (including extensive coverage of former Olympic decathlon champion Bruce Jenner’s announcement) have highlighted the need for a more inclusive pronoun.  “The singular ‘they’ avoids having to assign a static role to someone transitioning from one gender to another,” Zimmer notes. “Many who identify as transgender or gender-fluid would prefer the use of the pronoun ‘they’ rather than he or she.”

Pronoun PosterIn my view, the best way to write your way out of this grammatical quandary is to make the antecedent of “they” plural whenever possible, as in these examples:

The job of an independent journalist is to find out what they can and let their readers and viewers know.

Better: The job of independent journalists is to find out what they can and let their viewers and readers know.

When a reporter digs out information, they are doing their job.

Better: When reporters dig out information, they are doing their job.

When that simple fix isn’t feasible, using “they” definitely sounds and looks (on the printed page) less clunky and more natural than singular alternatives that seek to include both genders, such as “he or she,” “he/she” or “(s)he.” Sweden has enjoyed some acceptance of the pronoun “hen” as a gender-neutral alternative to “han” (“he”) and “hon” (“she”), but English alternatives (also including “thon,”  “xe” and “ze”) have failed to gain traction. “They, “‘ on the other hand, is already in common use. “Even grammatical sticklers may be coming around to it,” Zimmer wrote in his column.

Ironically, as noted by Merriam-Webster associate editor Emily Brewster at the conference, the main force blocking acceptance of the singular “they” is persnickety editors who take it out. The esteemed Chicago Manual of Style (16th edition) says, “While this usage is accepted in casual contexts, it is still considered ungrammatical in formal writing.” So there.

Personally, if I thought the situation sensitive, I would ask the client for his or her (or the corporate “its”) preference. If you can’t make that kind of decision, better to hire an editor to make it for you.

Leave a comment

Filed under Behind the Words, Commentary, Grammar

How to Accentuate the Appositive

Commas can be  a writer’s best friend, but lately I’ve seen too many sentences  like this one:

Left-handed pitcher, Todd Jones, won 10 games for the Mariners last season.

Wyoming naturalist, John Smith, attended the reception.

Why commas in those sentences? In my opinion, inserting those two mental pauses disrupts the flow of the sentence. When that happens, the reader may stop.

commaThe commas are not necessary. Both sentences seem to treat the proper names “Todd Jones” and “John Smith” as appositives, not as the subjects of the sentences. An appositive is a noun or noun phrase that immediately follows and renames another noun or noun phrase. “Todd Jones” and “John Smith” qualify, I suppose, but as the Associated Press Stylebook notes, “A decision on whether to put commas around a word, phrase or clause used in apposition depends on whether it is essential to the meaning of the sentence (no commas) or not essential (use commas).”

In the sentences above, surely the names of the pitcher and senator are essential. So dump those commas. To keep these sentences grammatical and improve their flow, they could be rewritten in one of two ways:

Todd Jones, a left-handed pitcher, won 10 games for the Mariners last season.

John Smith, a Wyoming naturalist, attended the reception.

This is a more traditional use of the appositive, adding more specific description to the proper noun that precedes it. While the nonessential phrase “left-handed pitcher” and “Wyoming senator” could be dropped without destroying the sentences, the reader’s pause for the comma is shorter, less pronounced. The reader is willing to put up with the pause because the words and pause seem natural, like everyday speech.

However, my editing preference would be the leaner versions below, which eliminates the need for commas:

Left-handed pitcher Todd Jones won 10 games for the Mariners last season.

Wyoming naturalist John Smith attended the reception.

Putting the adjective phrase before the noun is terser, quicker to the point. Writing is all about establishing rhythm and flow, making the words easy to follow. When your ideas are strong, editing can make them stronger. See what a good editor can do for your writing.

Leave a comment

Filed under Editing Tips, Grammar, Writing Tips

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Commentary, Editing Tips, Grammar

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Behind the Words, Editing Tips, Grammar

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!

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Editing Tips, Grammar, Uncategorized

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Commentary