Get Grammatical or Get Lost

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

No, I’m not telling the ungrammatical to take a hike. But I am saying that without a basic understanding of certain rules of our language, your thoughts will be in danger of getting lost on the reader.

As a public service, here are a few of the errors I frequently come across so you, dear writer, may avoid them:

Uninterested v. Disinterested

Uninterested means not interested in something. Disinterested means objective.

“Many young people today are disinterested in marriage.” WRONG.

A good umpire is disinterested in the outcome of a game, but he should never be uninterested.

Yet virtually every time I see disinterested it’s misused. Maybe people think it sounds more sophisticated. That excuse doesn’t interest me at all.

Begs the Question

You’ll read or hear this almost every day. Like on the news, when a talking head spouts, “He said cows should be outlawed, which begs the question: Where will we get our steaks?”

No! Begs the question does not mean demands that the question be asked. That doesn’t even make sense on its face. If a question demands to be asked, it isn’t begging, is it?

Question begging is actually a fallacy of logic. It means someone has assumed, rather than proved, a premise. Thus, in a debate, you might hear, “My esteemed opponent has begged the question.”

This is a fight we’ve probably lost, but I can’t help digging in my heels. Whenever I hear someone on TV casually drop “That begs the question…” I always beg to differ.

The Wandering I

It was drummed into us as kids that using me instead of I is wrong.

“Me and Henry rode bikes today.”

“No, dear, that’s Henry and I.”

So the kid starts saying things like:

“That belongs to Henry and I.”

Wrong-o. But it’s a mistake made all the time. I heard this on TV the other day: “That means a lot to my wife and I.”

Ack!

You can easily determine the correct usage by removing the first noun from the sentence. Would you say, “That means a lot to I”? Of course not. “That means a lot to me” is correct, so stick the wife back in there and you’ve got it right.

“Henry and me went to the store.” Would you say, “Me went to the store”? Only if you’re Tarzan. Otherwise, “Henry and I …” is correct.

Its v. It’s

It is so easy to make this mistake, because it’s looks like a possessive since we use the apostrophe that way in other places. The cat’s mat is on the floor can easily become, in another context, It’s mat is on the floor.

It’s (did you see that?) tricky because it’s is really a contraction, a combo of it and is; and its is possessive, but without the apostrophe.

When I’m typing fast, I sometimes make this mistake, and its it’s irritating. Just train yourself to take a little pause and ask, “Do I mean it is?” Then type accordingly.

i.e. v. e.g.

E.g. is short for the Latin phrase exempli gratia, which means “for example.”

“There are lots of ways to lose money in Vegas, e.g., blackjack and craps.”

I.e. is short for id est, “that is.”

“The police who violated the Fourth Amendment—i.e., busted down the guy’s door—should have secured a warrant.”

In other words, e.g. sets up one or more examples, while i.e. supports just one clarification.

An easy way to remember this is to think of the e in e.g. as standing for example, and the i in i.e. as standing for in other words.

Also, when you use either of these babies in a sentence, they are lowercase and followed by a comma, e.g., The boys will get to pick among their favorite games, e.g., Bone Storm and Gilstrap’s Revenge. 

Literally

My head literally explodes when I hear people misuse literally.

No it doesn’t, for literally means exactly, in a factual sense. People misuse literally because they think it provides added force to their point: He was literally as big as a house! 

Don’t use literally unless you are trying to make clear an actual fact. And you don’t have to use figuratively at all. When you say He was as big as a house people will understand what you’re trying to convey. You don’t have to gild the lily, as they say (which reminds me that you should avoid clichés like the plague).

Complement v. Compliment

When something goes with something else and produces a nice effect, it complements the other thing. “Her orange scarf complemented her ensemble.”

A compliment is something nice you say about somebody. “The speaker paid Mrs. Hanson a compliment.”

You most often find this error when these words are used in their –ary form, as in this example I came across recently: “If you’re not sure where to begin, try taking a picture of a single book against a simple, complimentary (but not overpowering) background.”

No, the wallpaper is not paying the book a compliment. 

Now, I admit I am no grammar expert. I still think a gerund is a fuzzy pet you keep in a cage. But when I’m unsure about some usage rule, I’ll pause to do a quick search on the internet, or look up the issue in one of my reference books (my favorite is Write Right! by Jan Venolia.)

So what are your pet peeves of language blundering?

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Editing is Dying, Grunting Soon to Follow

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

In some places in our fair land, if all is still in the night, you might hear the plaintive cry of the whippoorwill. In other locales, if the moon is full, the howl of a lonely coyote may break the silence. In the city you are sure to pick up the distant toot of an automobile horn, or the exasperated utterance of the infuriated cab driver, or perhaps the variegated cursings of the long-distance trucker in search of a greasy spoon.

At my house, I have come to anticipate the sardonic tones of a wifely expostulation that sounds like this: “Oh, come on!”

You see, Mrs. B knows the language. She knows grammar. She has to. She’s a realtor here in Los Angeles, and one of her tasks is crafting engaging copy about the properties she’s representing. Often, when she’s in her home office, I’ll hear the “Oh, come on!” and it usually means she’s just read, with a mixture of amusement and horror, another agent’s prose on the Multiple Listing Service.

Once, she saw this description of a view property up on a hill: You’ll be high in the heaves!

I don’t know about you, but living in a house where I’m constantly calling Ralph on the big white telephone is not my idea of heaven.

Another time she saw: This is a lovely home, completely remolded.

I’d rather just keep the old mold, wouldn’t you?

Cindy began collecting these items. A few more from her list:

Master suit with walking closet.

Hardwood floors, and a wet bat.

Many widows make this home light and airy.

Okay, typos. We all make them. But what about obvious errors of grammar from outfits that ought to know better? Like, say, newspapers and television channels? At one time all newspapers employed steely-eyed copy editors who were fully grounded in the rules of grammar and the elements of style. Not so much anymore in this epoch of shrinking revenues and staff cutbacks.

That’s why you see more errors popping up in newspapers, print and digital, than ever before. Things like:

The glamorous 17-year-old wants to be a policewoman some day, like her dad.

Golfing Immortal Dies at Age 69.

His face was familiar to movie fans, with or without his ever-present cigar.  

Include Your Children When Baking Cookies.

Prostitutes Appeal to Pope.

The other evening I heard “Oh, come on!” and went to investigate. Cindy was scrolling through the blurbs on a certain movie channel. These are no doubt written by unpaid millennial interns or staffers who’d rather be playing Realm Grinder in their cubicles. Cindy showed me the blurb for a movie called Johnny Belinda starring Jane Wyman (who won the Oscar as Best Actress for her performance). Here’s the blurb:

Sensitive portrayal of a deaf woman who is raped, then tried for his subsequent murder in a Nova Scotia fishing Village.

Oh, come on!

Okay, I know I’m sounding more and more get-off-my-lawnish these days, but really. Let the basic rules of grammar fray and in a few generations we’ll all be milling around, grunting and gesticulating, trying to get someone to tell us where the bathroom is. Frustration will mount, with anger soon to follow, and soon enough we’ll be tearing into each other with our teeth. Which is sort of what Twitter is like right now.

Wuts 2b dun?

Remember when education used to begin at what we called grammar school? Please, teachers and parents, don’t let the children down. Make them memorize the following poem:

Every name is called a NOUN, as field and fountain, street and town.
In place of a noun the PRONOUN stands, as he and she clap their hands.
The adjective describes a thing, as magic wand or bridal ring.
The VERB means action, something done, to read and write and jump and run.
How things are done the ADVERBS tell, as quickly, slowly, badly or well.
A PREPOSITION shows relation, as in the room or at the station.
CONJUNCTIONS join—in many ways—sentences, words or phrase and phrase.
The INTERJECTION cries out “Hark! I need an exclamation mark!”

Maybe we can nudge the language pendulum back the other way. We’d better try.

Dont u agree?

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Gerunds Be Gone

Nancy J. Cohen

What’s wrong with this sentence: “Shutting off the ignition, she threw her keys into her purse and emerged into the bright sunshine.”

How can you throw your keys into a purse when you are using them to shut off the ignition?

This type of “ing” phrase is called a gerund. I never knew what it was until a critique partner pointed out that I was using them liberally. And I hate to say it, but this was several years into my published works. Even now, I’m not sure this is the correct grammatical term.

I learned my lesson, and as I’m now going through my backlist mystery titles making updates and tightening sentence structure, I am finding more phrasing like the one above.

Beware these illogical phrases in your own work. Here are some examples:

NO: Flinging the door wide, she stepped inside the darkened interior.
YES: She flung the door wide and stepped inside the darkened interior.

NO: Taking a sip of orange juice, she put her glass down and opened the newspaper.
YES: After taking a sip of orange juice, she put her glass down and opened the newspaper.

NO: Racing down the street, she came to a halt when the light turned red.
YES: She raced down the street, coming to a halt when the light turned red.

NO: Shaking the lady’s hand, she stepped back to admire her cobalt dress.
YES: After exchanging a handshake, she stepped back to admire the other woman’s cobalt dress.

It’s okay to use an “ing” phrase in thoughts. For example, you can say, “Wishing she could change the events of the past few hours, she sped down the road.

What is your grammatical Achilles Heel?

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To Hyphenate or Not to Hyphenate?

… that is the question

by Jodie Renner, editor, author, speaker

[Check out my two handy, clickable, time-saving resources for writers, editors, students, and anyone else with writing projects: Quick Clicks: Word Usage – Precise Word Choices at Your Fingertips and Quick Clicks: Spelling List – Commonly Misspelled Words at Your Fingertips. With all kinds of internal links, they’re both super quick and easy to use!]

Today I’m wearing my “Grammar Geek” hat to talk about using hyphens in fiction, nonfiction, blog posts, articles, etc. Hyphens, properly used, can actually eliminate confusion and clarify meaning. And chances are that even if you’re a really good speller, some or a lot of you, like me, often forget whether a term is hyphenated or not, so here are a few handy guidelines.

~ Is it one word, two words, or hyphenated?

According to Chicago Manual of Style (that and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary are considered the go-to resources for copyeditors and proofreaders), “Far and away the most common spelling questions for writers and editors concern compound terms—whether to spell as two words, hyphenate, or close up as a single word.”

When we’re busy writing, it’s easy to forget, for even the easiest words, whether it’s one word, two words, or hyphenated. Often, it can be all three, depending on the part of speech.

For example, it’s “lookout” for the noun –“Let’s head to the lookout” – but “look-out” for the adjective – a look-out tower – and “look out” for the verb – “Look out for snakes.” Similarly, castoff is a noun – “It’s a castoff”; cast-off is an adjective – “She wore cast-off clothes”; and cast off is a verb – “He cast off the boat and we headed downriver.” Many others follow the same pattern: cooldown (noun) – “We did a 10-minute cooldown”, cool-down (adj) – cool-down exercises, and cool down (verb) – “Time to cool down”. Same thing with login (noun), log-in (adj), and log in (verb). And finally, takeout (noun, M-W), take-out (adj., M-W), and take out (v, M-W).

See a pattern here? Very often, the noun form is one word, no hyphen, the adjective form is hyphenated, and the verb is two words. (Although English being English, of course there are always exceptions!)

~ Hyphen between prefix and root word?

And what about all those words with prefixes like re, un, de, pre, bi, mid, over, under, semi, sub, etc.? Is it re-read or reread?  over-conscientious or overconscientious? extramarital or extra-marital? under-employed or underemployed? semicircle or semi-circle? sub-category or subcategory?

Merriam-Webster and Chicago Manual of Style both favor not hyphenating after a prefix, so according to these two recognized authorities, none of the above should be spelled with the hyphen. But British and Canadian dictionaries seem to hyphenate them more often.

However, for some reason, Merriam-Webster puts a hyphen after the prefixes self and well, as in self-defense, self-discipline, well-mannered, well-endowed, etc.

And sometimes you need the hyphen to clarify meaning. For example, you recover a lost wallet, but you re-cover a sofa. Similarly with re-creation of the scene of a crime, to avoid confusion with recreation as leisure-time activities.

~ Hyphenate compound modifiers before a noun?

Today’s post is mainly on using hyphens (or not) for compound terms (phrasal adjectives) that describe a noun, as I get asked about this a lot. For example, is it …?

A general guideline is to hyphenate two or more modifiers before a noun (so an adjectival phrase), especially if to leave as two words could cause confusion; but to leave as two separate words when they come after the noun or verb (often functioning as an adverb).

For example, “He’s a high-profile actor” but “He maintains a high profile.”

“It’s a middle-class neighborhood,” but “The neighborhood is middle class.”

“He asked an open-ended question,” but “The question was open ended.”

“It was a hands-down win,” but “They won hands down.”

“It was a computer-literate group,” but “The group was computer literate.”

“The school has a hands-off policy,” but “Keep your hands off.”

“They had a hand-to-mouth existence,” but “They lived hand to mouth.”

“The witness was an off-duty police officer,” but “He was off duty at the time.”

“I bought a flat-screen TV,” but “The TV has a flat screen.”

“My to-do list,” but “My list of things to do.”

“We strolled past side-by-side boutiques on the street,” but “Two clothing boutiques stood side by side on that street.”

“This thriller will keep you on the edge of your seat,” but “It’s an edge-of-your-seat suspense.”

~ Hyphenate to avoid confusion.

To avoid confusion or ambiguity, it’s often best to hyphenate.

For example, there’s a big difference in meaning between a small animal hospital (an animal hospital that’s small) and a small-animal hospital (a hospital for small animals). Same with a small business owner and a small-business owner. And the hyphen in “three-ring binders” tells us that three is the number of rings, not the number of binders, as might be assumed with “three ring binders.” Similarly, the hyphen in “much-needed advice” connects the much with the needed, so we know the advice is greatly needed, not that there’s a lot of needed advice. And the hyphen in “fast decision-making” shows us that decisions must be made soon, not that they’re quick decisions.

Sometimes, to clarify, you also need to separate a word into two. For example, a used-book store is different from a used bookstore. And high school-age children could imply something different from what was meant.

~ Hyphenate where numbers are involved.

Chicago Manual of Style says to also hyphenate adjective-noun modifiers, especially where the adjective is a number:

For example, a twelve-step program, a five-year-old child, a five-dollar bill, a ten-mile hike, a six-foot-tall man, a ten-pound fish, a 16-foot square room.

Notice how when hyphenated before a noun, the plural is dropped: for example, a woman is five feet tall, but she’s a five-foot-tall woman. Pregnancy lasts nine months but it’s a nine-month pregnancy,

~ Multiple hyphens in a phrase.

Hyphenate when three or more words form an adjective (or rephrase the sentence to avoid it):

high-school-age children (to avoid confusion with “high school-age children” (not a good thing!), a sixty-foot-long boat, an over-the-counter drug, a winner-take-all contest, a one-on-one game.

~ But don’t hyphenate after –ly adverbs:

Since the ly ending with adverbs signals to the reader that the next word will be another modifier, not a noun. For example, a sharply worded reprimand, a smartly dressed woman, a hastily written email.

~ The trend toward closed compounds (one word, no hyphen):

Common usage has a tendency to simplify terms. “Web site” gradually became “website”; “e-mail” is increasingly “email”; “on line” changed to “on-line” to “online”. (Also, “Internet” became “internet,” which makes perfect sense to me – why capitalize it, since we don’t capitalize other means of communication, like telephone, newspapers, television, etc.)

If you want even more detail and examples on hyphenation, you can register at Chicago Manual of Style online and do a search for “hyphens” or “hyphenation” or go to these numbers: 5.91 and 7.77 to 7.85.

Also, see my blog post, How and When to Use Hyphens, Dashes, and Ellipses.

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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How to Procrastinate


There are three steps to successful procrastination:

1.

***

Let me put it another way. I am currently in the throes of NaNoWriMo, so it seems a bit odd to pause for a meditation on procrastination. But I spend a good deal of online time chatting with fellow writers, and in one loop a discussion broke out on, of all things, the proper use of the singular possessive apostrophe (talk about having too much time on your hands!)

This is what I mean. Should you write Dickens’ books or Dickens’s books? The former sounds better, but the latter is the accepted form. I pulled out my Strunk & White and found the rule to be that for ancient proper names, like Jesus and Moses, the form is: Jesus’and Moses’. Which seems to me a little unfair to Dickens, as it’s merely his accident of birth date that gets him the extra s at the end.

One of the other writers cited the “Bible” – The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition. She said CMOS “goes for  ‘s for singular nouns ending in s––even Jesus’s name.”

Unwilling to leave it at that, and feeling a bit anti-authoritarian that day, I took five minutes and wrote a drinking song, to be sung around a table with other writers, steins of beer in hand, and sung directly to CMOS:

Your singular possessive
Is singularly regressive
And your S’s just make messes!
Halaloo halalay!

[Pause for drinking, and pounding steins on table]

When it comes to guys like Dickens
Your injunction is for chickens.
Here is what I say:
I will do it Jesus’ way!
Halaloo halalay!

[Finish with more drinking]

And that’s how you procrastinate.

What about you? What are your favorite ways to keep from working on your books? What do you find yourself doing when you know you should be writing? 
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The Great Semi-Colon Debate

by James Scott Bell

And you didn’t think there was one, did you?
Well, there is. At least I’m declaring it so, here and now.
When it comes to fiction, I think of semi-colons the way I think of eggplant: avoid at all costs. As Kurt Vonnegut once said, “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons ,,, All they do is show you’ve been to college.”
The semi-colon is a burp, a hiccup. It’s a drunk staggering out of the saloon at 2 a.m., grabbing your lapels on the way and asking you to listen to one more story.
Not that I have an opinion, you understand.
Okay, I’ll modify things a bit. For non-fiction, like essays and scholarly writing, the semi-colon does serve a purpose; I’ve used them myself. In such writings you’re often stringing two thoughts together for a larger point, and the semi-colon allows you to clue the reader in on this move.
But in fiction, you want each sentence to stand on its own, boldly. The semi-colon is an invitation to pause, to think twice, to look around in different directions, to wonder where the heck you’re standing. Do you want that? Or do you want your story to move?
The semi-colon is a stone that causes the reader to stumble.
Not that they’ll notice this on a conscious level. Most won’t think, “Why’d he use a semi-colon here? I’m being taken out of the story!” No, but it will have that very effect, on a subconscious level. It will weaken the reading experience in a small way. Not fatally, but why would you want even a small speed bump in your story?
The semi-colon is especially grating in dialogue:
“We must run to the fire,” Mary said. “It is going to burn the town; that is a disaster!”
What’s that semi-colon doing there? Is it making Mary’s dialogue stronger or weaker? Is it adding to the intensity of the moment or diluting it?
Semi-colons. For academics, yes. For novelists, no.
I’ll leave you with this clip from a poem entitled “On Punctuation” by Elizabeth Austen. You may then offer your own opinion on the great semi-colon debate!
 . . .as for the semi-
colon call it what it is

a period slumming
with the commas

a poser at the bar

feigning liberation with one hand

tightening the leash with the other
 . . .
“On Punctuation” by Elizabeth Austen, from The Girl Who Goes Alone. © Floating Bridge Press, 2010

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Open Tuesday Rant: I Beg You to Stop

James Scott Bell


All right, I want you all to stop it.


I’m not the Language Sheriff. Grammar was not my strongest subject in school. I doubt I can tell a gerund from a gerbil. But there are some obvious sins that are creeping into our mother tongue. And some of them are worth beating back with a stick.


This is one of them.


“Begs the question” does not mean “Invites the question.”


It doesn’t. No matter how many times you use it that way, no matter how many talking-heads-trying-to-sound-smart blabber it on TV. Whoever started this trend should be taken out back and slapped around with a copy of Strunk and White.


Begs the question is a fallacy of logic. “Begging” here does not mean “pleading.” It is an alternative use of the word, and it means to “assume the answer.” It’s a form of circular reasoning.


Professor: Make an argument that war is always wrong.


Student: War is always wrong because too many lives are lost.


Professor: That begs the question. You assume that loss of life is, ipso facto, wrong. But you have yet to prove that. Loss of life might very well be justified for a greater purpose. Try again.


Student: Will this be on the test?


That’s what begging the question means. So when I hear some White House correspondent tell the home studio, “The President has decided to visit the Gulf Coast again, which begs the question, Will that do anything to stop the leak?” I want to make him eat his microphone so he can’t do any more damage with it.


So that’s my rant. Do not, under any circumstances, use begs the question as invites the question.


Now it’s your turn. What language sins drive you batty?

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