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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Avoid Clichés in Your Writing

Clichés, overused words and phrases, should be eliminated from your writing. “They are boring and abused and about as fun to read as the instruction manual of a Dustbuster,” Writer’s Digest editor Brian A. Klems warns. “Writing is supposed to be a creative process, and there’s nothing creative in rehashing some trite phrase that is so old it was probably used by Moses as he parted the Red Sea.”

Klem polled other Writer’s Digest editors and compiled a list of 12 clichés they would most like to see permanently retired. They are (in no particular order):

1. Avoid it like the plague
2. Dead as a doornail
3. Take the tiger by the tail
4. Low-hanging fruit
5. If only walls could talk
6. The pot calling the kettle black
7. Think outside the box
8. Thick as thieves
9. But at the end of the day
10. Plenty of fish in the sea
11. Every dog has its day
12. Like a kid in a candy store

As Klem notes, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

But how can writers tell when a word or expression has become a cliché? After looking at the list above, if you still can’t figure it out for yourself,  it’s time to find an editor.

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How to Get Your Juju Working

Hart Seely’s The Juju Rules: Or, How to Win Baseball Games from Your Couch has received many deserved accolades since its publication in April 2012.  Part personal memoir, part ode to the New York Yankees and part manual for obsessive fan behavior, The Juju Rules is a book any fan of baseball writing would enjoy.

Juju has a long tradition in baseball and in baseball literature. It was a favorite topic of Henry “Author” Wiggen, the pitcher-writer-narrator of The Southpaw and other Mark Harris baseball novels. To Seely, “Juju is the anecdotal science of influencing the outcome of sporting events through seemingly unrelated acts, in the comfort and privacy of your home. ”

This got me to thinking, though: Does juju differ from mojo? After moving into Safeco Field in 1999, the Seattle Mariners used the slogan “Sodo Mojo” for a few seasons, and it worked better than any other slogan they’ve had before or since (including the ill-timed “Believe Big” (2008), which resulted in a 101-loss season and declining attendance). With Sodo Mojo, the Mariners won 116 games in 2001, an all-time record for Major League Baseball.  On the other hand, the Mariners are one of only two major-league franchises never to have reached the World Series, let alone win it (with better juju, the Yankees have won 27).

Muddy Waters

When the Mariners introduced their slogan, few fans understood it without a dictionary. “Sodo” refers to the area where Safeco Field is located (SOuth of the demolished KingDOme,  or alternatively, SOuth of DOwntown). “Mojo” is more-or-less a synonym for juju.  Wikipedia notes that mojo  is “a magical charm bag used in voodoo, which has transmuted into a slang word for self-confidence, self-esteem or sex appeal,” as in blues guitarist Muddy Waters’ signature song, “Got My Mojo Workin’.”

My exhaustive research could only deduce that both mojo and juju can refer to a spoken or otherwise transmitted spell or to an object manipulated for that purpose. Both of African origin, the words mojo and juju can denote a magic spell or hex, a magical power (as in he works his mojo on the tennis court, or the blues band has lost its mojo), or  to a fetish, charm or amulet and the magic they possess.

Well, Frank Sinatra called it “Witchcraft,” Dr. John called it gris-gris, the Mariners called it mojo, and Seely is calling it juju.   “All thinking fans instinctively recognize the secret influence we wield over sporting events,” Seely writes in an essay on “We know enough not to change seats during a rally or to announce that our favorite point guard hasn’t missed a free throw in his last 40 tries. We never mention the no-hitter in progress, and we keep doing whatever it takes, as long as the dice are rolling our way. We practice juju, a mystical connection to the sports universe that has been around since the first foot-race between man and lion.”

Juju or mojo? If you can’t pick the right word on your own, hire an editor.

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Sorting Out a Real Dilemma

Spring training in Arizona.

Baseball’s spring training is in full swing, giving followers of our national pastime their annual opportunity to blow the dust off their stable of  horsehide clichés for another season. From every training camp in Florida and Arizona, including that of my adopted team, the perennially woeful Seattle Mariners, local media coverage will be full of  “things have never looked better,”  “he showed up in the best shape of his career” and “the offense will improve. These are major-league hitters.” Even if they hit .188, apparently.

In the Washington Post, baseball beat reporter Adam Kilgore tried to display overwhelming optimism for the hometown nine when he wrote the decision by the Washington Nationals (or “Natinals,” as the jerseys of two players read during one game in the 2009 season) to limit pitching wunderkind Steven Strasburg  to 160 innings this season might cause “a pleasant, yet thorny, dilemma”  for the Nats if they find themselves in a playoff race next September.  A playoff appearance would be their first since moving to Washington from Montreal in 2005; would they risk Strasburg’s future to get a playoff berth now?

Nationals Park, Washington, D.C.

However,  Nats fan and self-appointed Proofreader General of the United States Roland Sweet points out that  Kilgore’s copy editor should have trashed that description, specifically the “pleasant” part. Dilemma denotes a choice between equally unpleasant alternatives: a lose-lose situation.

In baseball terms, the opposite of a dilemma would be the New York Yankees trading their expensive yet ineffective left-hander A.J. Burnett and nearly $20 million to the Pittsburgh Pirates for two minor leaguers. This action not only cleared space in the Yankees’ starting pitching rotation for better alternatives, but also allowed the Bronx Bombers enough payroll space to sign two-time Seattle Mariner Raul Ibanez, a mainstay of the Philadelphia Phillies’ championship season, as their primary designated hitter. Dump a chump, sign a champ. That’s what’s known as a win-win proposition.

Home of the Washington Natinals.

Back to dilemma.  According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, “Although some commentators insist that dilemma be restricted to instances in which the alternatives to be chosen are equally unsatisfactory, their concern is misplaced; the unsatisfactoriness of the options is usually a matter of how the author presents them. What is distressing or painful about a dilemma is having to make a choice one does not want to make.

“The use of such adjectives as terrible, painful and irreconcilable suggests that dilemma is losing some of its unpleasant force. There also seems to be a tendency toward applying the word to less weighty problems (the New York Rangers solved their goaltending dilemma).

When you can’t sort out your own writing dilemma, perhaps a professional editor can help. When it comes to predicting baseball’s pennant races, however, you’re on your own.

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