Monday, September 15, 2008

Making 'Em Gasp in Grammar Class

A while back I devised a little grammar/style course for Mediabistro, which I taught again recently. I noticed that there are a few issues that always elicit gasps of surprise from students. So I thought I’d pass along a few.

* I always ask students, which is right: “I can’t wait ’til tomorrow” or “I can’t wait till tomorrow”? They always answer the first one and they’re always shocked to learn that the preferred form is the second one. As a shorter alternative to “until,” the preferred form is till, not ’til, because till is a synonym for until that actually predates it. Therefore, there’s no need to shorten until. (Indeed, in-the-know folks consider this a point that separates themselves from less-savvy writers, such as the people behind those “No payments ’til January” ad copywriters.)

* The reason “I feel bad” is usually the correct choice over “I feel badly” is the same reason we say “I feel happy” instead of “I feel happily.” The concept is that of linking verbs, also called copular verbs. These special verbs take adjectives, not adverbs, as their complements.

* I always ask students: Which is right: "In school I got As and Bs” or “A’s and B’s” or “A’s and Bs”? They always answer the first or second one. None of them ever guesses the third or the possibility that all are correct. But they are all acceptable.

In fact, the third example, which uses an apostrophe in A’s but none in Bs is taken straight off the front page of the Los Angeles Times. It's their style. The reason: Apostrophes, which most often form possessives or denote omissions (as in contractions), can also be used “to avoid confusion.” With the letter grade of B, adding an S does not form a new word. But add S to the letter A, and you have a new word: As. That’s why all three of these choices are valid options.

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Joel said...

I messed up and used "til" (is it that much worse without the apostrophe?) even in the last 24 hours. I'm pretty sure your point about it is news to me. So thank you. Well, you could have been quicker and saved me the embarrassment, but that's forgivable.

Don't you have something in one of your books about "feeling badly"--as in, that it would describe someone who gropes awkwardly as opposed to fingering deftly? "Feel badly" is what adolescents do when they discover petting. Maybe that's not exactly what you said, but something like that, I thought I remembered. Anyways, "feel badly" makes me laugh. "I feel happily" in the context of "copular" makes me laugh too. Maybe I shouldn't confess that though.

The bit about A's and Bs is interesting. I'm not a big fan of apostrophes outside of what I consider their normal, wholesome uses: in possessives and contractions and as single quotes. Like, isn't there supposed to be an apostrophe in "80's" too? It never feels right. Feels creepy. In fact, I'd say it feels badly. It would make me happy if you said that was optional. Maybe you already have and I've forgotten.

June Casagrande said...

Yeah, I made a purile joke about "feeling badly" in "Mortal Syntax." I was young then ("then" being 2007). I was just thinking the other day how quickly I've tired of jokes like that. I'm so last year.

Anyhoo, if you're going to crop "until," definitely keep the apostrophe to denote the omitted letters. But don't worry about the recent slip-up. I bet nobody noticed.

Re 1980s and '80s.

Most say do it as above. The New York Times (the Mary, Mary quite contrary of the newspaper world, just as the New Yorker is the Mary, Mary quite contrary of the magazine world), writes them:

1980's and 80's.

Don't mind them. They're just being wankers. (Their choice isn't wrong, just very unpopular.) I stick with:

1980s and '80s

(Note to self: stop wearing acid-wash jeans and patent leather belts.)

Adrian Morgan said...

In an apostrophe argument on Usenet I once pointed out that if your DVDs were stolen you might say you were de-DVD'd . . .

-- Adrian (

June Casagrande said...

Good one!

(Any why do I have the feeling that was one frightening apostrophe argument?)


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