Friday, February 27, 2009

I'm a Question Mark Conservative ... Or Am I?

Technically, it's fine to eschew question marks when a question is really intended as a statement.
Who cares.
Can you believe it.
How do you like them apples.

But that's not how I roll. In my writing, it's:
Who cares?
Can you believe it?
How do you like them apples?

I know these aren't really questions seeking answers. I realize that they're intended as statements. But to me, it is their core essence as questions that makes them useful as statements. So I give 'em question marks.

I'm more prejudicial in the opposite situation: when people add question marks to statements and commands.
Guess what?

That, to me, is a command plain and simple. Though I suppose there's an argument to be made in favor of putting a question mark here, I'm anti-question mark in this situation. Or at least I thought I was until 15 minutes ago when I was writing an e-mail to a friend. I wrote:

I promised him I would help with the project for free. And, guess what? I

A moment later I noticed it and changed it.

And guess what. I flaked.

But for some reason, I didn't like that either. I recast my sentence ("and, suprise, surprise -- I flaked") and am now left wondering what got into me. (I'm also wondering: what got into me? And I'm even wondering what got into me?)

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Thursday, February 26, 2009

Moments in Copy Editing

Came across this the other day:

Let's look at four of the coolest, campiest and downright otherworldly attractions that make for a great side trip.

I scratched my head: "coolest, campiest and downright otherworldly"? It took me a while to decide that, indeed, this is a parallel problem. It seems to be setting up a list of adjectives in superlative form (est), but then the thing after the "and" is not superlative.

I changed it to:

Let's look at four of the coolest and campiest -- some downright otherworldly attractions that make for a great side trip.

Better? I think so. Still, there's something unsettling about this one ...

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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Wonderings and Googlings (Wherein I wonder about words, then I Google them)

LATE ADDENDUM: Same wonderings, better Googlings

In response to 8'FED's suggestions in comments below, I decided to try to Google smarter. Eschewing his scientific approach for what we'll call a journalist's approach (which 1. thinks in terms of news sources and 2. still allows for incredible laziness), I tried a Google News search instead of a Google Web search.

Low and bee-holed (I always wanted to write that), turns out Google has a new "Timeline" feature in its news archive search feature that sorts stuff by year. So here is a survey of "snarky" in Google-logged news sources for the last four years:

2005 = 1,660 hits
2006 = 2,540 hits
2007 = 2,690 hits
2008 = 3,000 hits.

So this new, more scientific evidence is better proof of how wrong I was when I guessed that "snarky" was on its way out.

Aaaah ... it's good to be right about being wrong.

* * * * BEGIN ORIGINAL POST ********

Okay, this one is hardly scientific. But it's the best I could do given the limitations of this here Google tool.

I wanted to know whether the word "snarky" had passed its prime. In my personal experience, its use peaked a few years ago and has been on the wane ever since. So I tried the following (obviously flawed) search terms and came up with some interesting results.

snarky and 2001 = 162,000 hits
snarky and 2002 = 181,000 hits
snarky and 2003 = 267,000 hits
snarky and 2004 = 378,000 hits
snarky and 2005 = 495,000 hits
snarky and 2006 = 673,000 hits
snarky and 2007 = 897,000 hits
snarky and 2008 = 1,141,000 hits

Obviously, not everyone who ever used the word "snarky" prefaced it with "I am writing this in the year 2007," for example. Still, to whatever extent searched pages contain mention of their dates of creation, this sure as heck disproves my "ding, dong, the snarky is dead" theory.

If only the stock market could reflect a similar pattern.

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Monday, February 23, 2009

Writers Should Stop Worrying About … (First in an occasional series on style points for which all writers should be granted absolution)


There are so many style points that writers think they’re SUPPOSED to know. So they’re embarrassed that they don’t know them. It’s a waste of valuable energy – energy that could be spent writing. A classic example: hyphenation.

Here, according to AP and its go-to dictionary, are some “correct” hyphenation choices.

A well-known couple
A recently married couple
A full-time worker
Joe works full time
The job is full-time
A copy-edited manuscript
A manuscript copy edited by Joe
A water-skier water-skis on water skis
Jane is a 12-year-old
Jane is 12 years old

No one expects writers to know all these. Heck, no one even expects copy editors to know all these. We have to look them up.

When it comes to hyphenation, the only things a writer needs to know are:

1. Hyphens are most commonly used to form compound modifiers that come before a noun, with the goal of avoiding confusion: “a man eating duck” vs. “a man-eating duck.”

2. Sometimes a hyphen is part of a word’s official spelling. Only the dictionary knows all these.

3. Hyphens are an art, not a science. Clarity and common sense trump the “rules.”

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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Typo du Jour

As I've said, I don't like picking on typos except when they're really funny or when I'm hard up for material.

SO, here's a little something I read on a travel forum.

"Don't be afraid to use lots of sunscream."

But, you know, now that we're on the subject ... I really have been seeing a lot of pretty bad typos online lately. Maybe it's the travel forums I'm reading, but it seems it's getting worse in my corner of the world. A whole lot of apostrophes shoved into plurals ("beach's") and conjugated verbs ("want's").

Eeek! What's happening to me? Am I in danger of becoming one of "those" people. (You know, the ones with the markers and sour expressions.)

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Words I'm Looking Up (One in an occasional, cleverly named series on words I'm looking up)


Open up an Associated Press Stylebook to the letter E and the very first entry you see is "each. Takes a singular verb." (At least, it's the first entry in the 1992 version I happen to have handy.)

So when we copy editors think of the word "each," we think of matters such as: There are 50 units, and each has (not have) stunning views.

The problem is that this only applies to "each" the pronoun. But each has other forms:

The college of engineering, college of business, and college of arts and letters each require department approval for admission.

If you're thinking like a copy editor (or at least a copy editor on autopilot), you'll hesitate at that each, as I did recently. Each is singular -- it says so right here in my AP Stylebook. Therefore, that should be "each requires," right?


This each is not a pronoun. It's an adverb. (It can also be an adjective.) So the subject of our example sentence is "the college of engineering, college of business, and college of arts and letters." It's a plural subject, in no way altered by that adverbial "each." Thus, the correct verb conjugation is "require."

Just somethin' on my mind as I head to lunch ....

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Wonderings and Googlings (Wherein I wonder about words, then I Google them)

"I friended him." = 940 hits
"I befriended him." = 628 hits

A story this morning on NPR about Facebook got me wondering whether "friend" as a transitive verb was poised to replace the word that has long done its job: "befriend."

Looks like it is.

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Thursday, February 12, 2009

This Citys Where Youll Glimpse Punctuations Future?

According to British publication Mail Online, the city of Birmingham is dropping apostrophes from road and street signs. Apparently, there were already so many apostropheless signs -- signs for places like Kings Norton, Acocks Green and Druids Heath -- that theyve given up.

I dont yet know how Ill feel about this once Ive formed an opinion. But I do know one thing: Im 100% sure that they should elect Cormac McCarthy as mayor.

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

I'm Not One to Pick On Typos, But ...

One I came across recently on a message board was just too good:
The place is run by Rasta's, and if you take the time to talk you'll learn they are non-violent and dolt on children.
Regarding yesterday's "the outdoors is"/"the outdoors are" conundrum: Neither "Garner's" nor "Fowler's" says whether "outdoors" takes a singular or a plural verb. Yesterday when I was running on too little sleep, this seemed baffling. Today, running on my full eleven hours (kidding), I'm having trouble remembering what was so perplexing. Seems there are few instances in which "outdoors" would seem to call for a plural verb like "are" and even fewer instances when "the great outdoors" would.

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Words I'm Looking Up (One in an occasional cleverly named series on words I'm looking up)


A colleague just asked me: Is it "the great outdoors are" or "the great outdoors is"? And I'm none too happy with what then transpired.

Webster's New World and American Heritage online give no instruction on whether the noun takes a singular or plural verb. and Merriam Webster online do. They both say it takes the singular verb: "The outdoors is a wonderful getaway location."

But I'm not sure I trust them. I'm disappointed that American Heritage online didn't have any further instruction because that's the dictionary that's usually best for this kind of thing. For many such gray areas, the American Heritage includes rulings of a Usage Panel -- experts who give their two cents.

For a moment, I tried to make this a Wonderings and Googlings topic. I tried Googling "the outdoors is"/"the outdoors are," "the great outdoors is"/"the great outdoors are." But it turned up too many wild cards -- stuff like "One person who enjoys the outdoors is" and "Some things you'll find in the outdoors are." Pretty useless.

I'll check my "Garner's" and "Fowler's" when I get home from the freelance gig tonight. Until then ... Oy. Just oy.

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Monday, February 9, 2009

New Contender for Most Grammar-savvy TV Show

In the past, I've dubbed "The Simpsons" the most grammatically savvy show on TV. But now it appears it has some competition.

In just a few short seasons, NBC's "30 Rock" has squeezed in at least four great grammar jokes.

1. In last week's episode, Tracy, the seemingly not-too-smart actor who's the star of the fictional sketch comedy show, tells a supposedly more educated character: "Don't end a sentence with a preposition."

2. In a previous season, Tracy humiliated an Ivy League writer by telling him his "who" should have been "whom."

3. Also last week, it was revealed that star Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) wrote a letter of complaint about the grammar in signage in the New York City subway. Her reasoning: Someone needs to defend "whom."

4. My favorite: Earlier this season, Salma Hayek was demonstrating to love interest Alec Baldwin the power of speaking quickly and authoritatively in Spanish. As she tore through several rapid-fire Spanish sentences, Alec's character Jack, overwhelmed with confusion and passion, at one point mumbled, "Was that the subjunctive?"

I never thought I'd hear the word "subjunctive" on prime time. And that's why "The Simpsons" writers should watch their backs.

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Thursday, February 5, 2009

Words I'm Looking Up (One in an occasional, cleverly named series on words I'm looking up)

(I love it when this happens.)


adv. as for example: 'great dramatists like Sophocles and Shakespeare' — Webster's New World College Dictionary's (sixth definition)

prep. such as; for example: 'saved things like old newspapers and pieces of string' — American Heritage Dictionary (fifth definition)

There's a cold war going on between me and another copy editor at my freelance job, although she doesn't realize it. Every time I copy edit a document that contains the this usage of "like," I leave it as is. But if she's the final proofreader, she changes each of these "likes" to "such as."

The reason? Traditionalists say that "like" means "similar to" — not "for example." So if you say that dramatists are like Sophocles, you're not saying he is one. You're saying that, though dramatists and Sophocles are similar, they are not the same animal. And indeed, if you're only reading the first four or five dictionary definitions of "like," you would reasonably conclude as much.

But if you read all the definitions of "like," you'll see that it's also a synonym for "such as." You could make a good case for preferring "such as." But you can't say that one is right and the other wrong.

Period. Done. End of discussion.

But for me, the fun part comes before we even read the definitions. That little "adv." before the Webster's definition and the "prep." before American Heritage delight me to no end. I just love it when dictionaries can't decide what part of speech a word is. It's all the more reason why Joe and Jane Doe should not feel bad about their grammar skills.

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Wednesday, February 4, 2009

NYT's Stumble Is My Certificate of Mental Health

Last month I wrote a blog entry about words that are out to get me. After some fancy footwork to try to deflect observations like, "Yeah, June, that's real sane," I identified the leader of the conspiracy -- the word "lead." I wrote:

Like some kind of evil twin, "lead" likes to stand in for "led," knowing full well that the metal "lead" sounds exactly like the past tense of the verb, which is spelled "led." The dastard.
So today, after nearly a month of scanning the street for men in white coats every time I step outside, today I opened the New York Times and saw

While indicating, again, that he is willing to be flexible, Mr. Obama dismissed some Republican criticisms of his program, saying that they "echo the very same failed economic theories that lead us into this crisis in the first place."


So now that we've established my sanity, let me tell you about the cabal of SUV drivers conspiring to obstruct my view of traffic ...

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Tuesday, February 3, 2009

At Long Last -- Grammar Snobbery Scientifically Explained

According to a piece on, there exist people who are snobby about grammar! (Who knew?) And, as if that piece of breaking news weren't enough, the article actually goes so far as to seek out and find a scientific explanation for the phenomenon.

Experts in the article say that grammar snobbery is most definitely probably might could can be explained as follows:

1. Hanging on to some kind of rule might be comforting to people.
2. Stress can affect how forgiving people are of spelling and punctuation errors.
3. An obsession with proper usage may be related to some kind of perfectionist streak.
4. Or it could have to do with childhood patterns of wanting to please adults or teachers by doing things right.
5. Putting somebody down by pointing out their bad spelling also could be a power thing.
6. Or it could simply be part of the brain’s natural function.
7. “Attribution theory comes into this as well. ... My mistakes are caused by external circumstances, but others’ are caused by a lack of skill or a character flaw.”
8. "Character has nothing to do with it."
9. Researchers at Oxford University believe the ability to spell may have more to do with our DNA than the amount of time we spend with our nose in a dictionary.
10. Others believe nutrition and sleep patterns can affect the way our brain manages the arduous task of learning the English language.

That's right, folks. With this kind of scientific insight, I bet we're just months away from developing a pill that will cure grammar snobbery altogether. If only we could develop a cure for grasping-at-straws feature writing ...

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Monday, February 2, 2009

Words I'm Looking Up (One in an occasional cleverly named series on words I'm looking up)


NPR's Day to Day had a story this morning about widespread harassment of women in Cairo. The reporter pronounced it HAR-as-ment, inspiring me to (finally) get around to checking this:

Webster's New World College Dictionary says you can pronounce harass with the stress on the first or second syllable, but its first choice is HAR-as. Interestingly, for the noun form, it offers only one pronounciation: HAR-as-ment.

Merriam-Webster online allows both pronunciations for the verb and both pronunciations for the noun. But for both, M-W's first choice is to put the stress on the second syllable: ha-RAS, ha-RAS-ment.

American Heritage Dictionary takes the time to include a whole usage note about disputes on how to pronounce harass:

Educated usage appears to be evenly divided on the pronunciation of harass. In our 1987 survey 50 percent of the Usage Panel preferred stressing the first syllable, while 50 percent preferred stressing the second. Curiously, the Panelists' comments appear to indicate that each side regards itself as an embattled minority.

Ironically, after all that, it offers only one pronunciation for the noun: ha-RAS-ment.

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