Category Archives: Behind the Words

Never Assume Anything, I Presume

Man Scratching HeadI assume you are reading this because you presume my blog will be an accurate source of information about word usage. I can only assume that because I don’t know who you are nor why you are really reading this post. It’s just a guess. You, on the other hand, would presume my expertise, since I have identified myself as a professional editor. Until proven otherwise, a presumption carries more weight.

In everyday speech, “assume” and “presume” are often used interchangeably, but that’s incorrect. According to the website Grammarist, while both words can mean to take something for granted as true (among their other definitions), the difference is in the degree of certainty. A presumption is more authoritative; to presume is to make an informed guess based on evidence, while to assume is to guess with little or no evidence.

Take these examples:

Looking at the photo, I presumed the band had five members, but in concert it turned out to be a quartet.

I assumed the reporter had interviewed the band, although I did not know that he did.

In the first, presume is the better word to use, because the guess is based on irrefutable evidence. In the second, the guess is clearly a guess.

Got it? Whenever you’re having trouble finding the right words in your own documents, it’s time to hire an editor.

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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.

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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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Author Elmore Leonard: Less Was Elmore



American crime novelist  Elmore Leonard,  who died Aug. 20, was known for hard-boiled characters and lean prose. In a Detroit News obit,  editor and close friend Otto Penzler said Leonard wrote every day in longhand on unlined legal pads, ordering a thousand a year.

“I’ve seen his manuscripts,” Penzler said. “I can see the amount of rewriting he did. He didn’t change words so much as sentence structure … to maintain the cadence. There was a cadence to his writing, frequently compared to jazz.”

Good writing flows. Bad writing stumbles. When your own words are not in rhythm, you may need an editor to make them sing.

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Behind the Words: Oktoberfest

Munich Oktoberfest.

The advertising starts before Labor Day: Oktoberfest is coming! Since the calendar still says September, it seems as appropriate as Christmas advertising that starts at Halloween. In this case, however, jumping the gun may actually be justified.

According to Wikipedia,  the genuine Oktoberfest is a 16-day festival held annually since 1810 in the Bavarian city of Munich,  Germany, from late September to the first weekend in October. It is reportedly the world’s largest fair, with more than 5 million people attending annually.

Although it began when Crown Prince Ludwig, later to become King Ludwig I, was married to Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen on Oct. 12,1810,  the festival was eventually prolonged and moved ahead to September to allow for better weather conditions. Today, the last day of the festival is the first Sunday in October.

Other cities across the world also hold Oktoberfest celebrations, modeled after the original Munich event and often founded by German immigrants or their descendants.. It is generally an excuse for people to consume large quantities of beer and traditional German food such as bratwurst, strudel and red cabbage. The largest Oktoberfests outside of Germany are in the twin cities of Kitchener and Waterloo, Ontario, Canada; Blumenau, Brazil; Cincinnati, Ohio; and in Seattle, Washington’s Fremont neighborhood and the Bavarian-style tourist town of Leavenworth, Washington. The Leavenworth Oktoberfest, unlike most of the others, is actually held on the first three weekends in October.  What a concept!

If you don’t have your own reference library to fact-check terms like this, you can always rely on a nitpicking editor to do it for you.


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How to Find the Right Word: Extol or Exhort

Newspaper disappears!

The Newhouse newspaper chain has already converted its New Orleans daily to three times a week and announced plans to do the same in Syracuse at the beginning of 2013. It’s only a matter of time for Portland (Ore.) and the other Newhouse dailies.  As newspapers consolidate and convert to web transmission, reporters and editors lose jobs, of course. Even the remaining titans, such as the New York Times and Washington Post, have fewer eyeballs looking at each article.

Here’s one example: In its account of  a Washington Nationals’ bench-clearing fracas with the Chicago Cubs, the Post wrote: “[Manager Davey Johnson] extols his players to not let the opponent dictate when to stop competing.”

Unfortunately, the verb the writer intended was exhort. Extol means to praise highly, or exalt. The Post writer meant to use exhort: to urge by strong, stirring argument. Manager Johnson was encouraging his players to act in a specified manner, not lauding them for doing it.

Using extol instead of exhort is a common error. In Chocolat, the highly praised romantic comedy with Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp released in 2000, the town’s mayor – an educated man – tells the local priest, “She is extolling them to eat chocolate in Lent.” The mayor in that movie also meant exhorting. Or perhaps a simple “encouraging” would have done the trick.

Choosing the right words is hard.  A skilled editor  makes the process easier and improves the results. Take my word on it.

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Why “Adage” Stands Alone

The opening line of a newsletter caught my eye: “Failure to plan is planning to fail, the old adage goes.” 

Don’t burn bridges or mince words.

Not exactly. An adage is an old saying, a few words that express something considered to be a general truth or common observation. Since an expression must be around a long time in order to be considered an adage, labeling a phrase an “old adage” is redundundant.

 According to Wikipedia, an adage may be an interesting observation, practical or ethical guidelines, or a skeptical comment on life. As in the example cited above, they often involve a planning failure (as in don’t count your chickens before they hatch).

 But when is a phrase such as “don’t burn your bridges” something else? When an adage born of folk wisdom attempts to summarize a basic truth, it is known as a proverb or byword. An adage that describes a general rule of conduct is a maxim. A pithy expression that has not yet gained acceptance through long use, but is considered in particular good style is an aphorism, while one distinguished by wit or irony is an epigram.

 Don’t use a particular adage too often, however, because overuse can transform an adage into a cliché or truism. It’s sad to see an expression slide from “old saying” to “old saw.”

 In everything you write, it’s always important to find the right words, but it’s not always easy. A skilled editor can help get your points across effectively.


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