Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Comma Chameleon

I came across this comma usage in an AOL story today:

Congresswoman Maxine Waters of California said during an April 22, 2009 hearing on credit card reform conducted by the U.S. House Financial Services Committee …
For over a decade now, I’ve been getting paid to stick commas into passages like that: “ … an April 22, 2009, hearing …” The idea is that commas (among their other jobs) set off parenthetical information. So without a comma after 2009, the lone comma before it severs the first half of the sentence from the last. It’s almost like, if you read it aloud, it would be: “Waters said during an April 22. (Deep breath.) Two thousand nine hearing on credit card reform …”

The second comma makes clear that the first did not indicate a break in the sentence. It was working as part of a pair to set off parenthetical information.

People using “Inc.” almost always leave out the second comma. It’s easy to see why. The first comma could easily be seen as part of the proper name in “ABC Co., Inc.” Whereas a second comma comes at the point at which the name connects to the rest of the sentence. Still, according to us copy editors at least, if you use a comma before “Inc.” you need one after it.

But it seems that the second comma is getting less and less common. The lone comma seen in the AOL News example above seems to be becoming the norm. I’m left wondering whether I should change my mind about the necessity of that second comma and whether soon I’ll be starting every sentence I speak with, “Back in my day …”

P.S. I stole the headline for this piece from a 2006 Boston Herald interview about "Grammar Snobs." So, no props for me! P.P.S. I stole "no props for me" from the Seinfeld Soup Nazi, kinda. So maybe that makes me the Worst Person in the World. P.P.P.S I stole "Worst Person in the World" from Keith Olbermann, but I hope that's understandable, since I'm just a squirrel trying to get a nut ..."

And so on.

P.P.P.P.S. Apologies to Kurt Vonnegut.

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Monday, June 29, 2009

For Those Who Missed It Last Week ...

Language Log has a post that claims to trace to Cameroonian roots the chant at the end of Michael Jackson's "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'." (You know, "ma ma se, ma ma sa, ma ma coo sa," not, as I used to sing, "I'm the same I'm the sound of Michael's song." Talk about way off.)

Here's the link.

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Thursday, June 25, 2009

Moments in Copy Editing

A foreclosed home may be in need of major repairs.

... changed to ...
A foreclosed home may need major repairs.

This isn't a show-stopper by any means. It's certainly not like the "lump crap cocktail" I came across a while back.

But it's one of those little triumphs over wordiness and stiff language that give us copy editors a thrill. Aaah.

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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Agreeing to Disagree

While talking about healthcare yesterday, the president mentioned "Americans who like their doctor."

These constructions drive me nuts. On the one hand, it's odd to refer to a large group of Americans as having a single "doctor." On the other hand, "Americans who like their doctors" could be construed to mean that each American has at least two doctors.

So what's the right answer?

There isn't one. In fact, we don't even need a right answer. In all my years of being frustrated by this situation -- which is sometimes called "subject-complement agreement" -- I've never once seen it create confusion. Not even momentary confusion.

So, no problem, no frustration, right?


It must be because I work as a copy editor, but I can't seem to let this one go. In copy editing, precision is a virtue. We copy editors spend all day seeking out and destroying loose, imprecise, and ambiguous word arrangements. When we see, "Jen and Stephanie jumped into her car," it's our job to question that "her." Has the writer already explained that the women were standing next to Jen's Toyota? Then fine. But if not, we have to start looking for alternatives.

"The women jumped into Jen's car" could work, but only if we've already made clear who "the women" are.

And so on.

Seek out imprecision. Destroy it. Rebuild from the rubble. Then seek out imprecision in the new construction. The whole process relies on there being some concrete solution. It may be elusive, but somewhere out there is a wording that will nail it exactly, leaving no gray area, no possibility of confusion. "Jen and Stephanie jumped into Jen's car" is inelegant. But it's an option, dammit.

So my problem with Americans and "their doctor" is not about pedantry. It's about powerlessness. For example, I'm perfectly okay with using "their" in place of "his or her" in a sentence like, "Every visitor should lock their car." That's because, in this situation, you have a choice. You could say "his or her" car if you wanted to. A precision alternative exists. Eschewing it is a choice.

But when we say "Americans who like their doctor," we're not deliberately discarding a more precise alternative. The closest we can come to such an alternative would be a sentence that uses "respective." But that wouldn't work with our singular "doctor." "Americans who like their respective doctors" takes a plural. Therefore, "Americans who like their doctor" is not a pared-down version of a sentence that otherwise would contain the word "respective."

I prefer "Americans who like their doctors." It doesn't specify the exact American-to-doctor ratio, but it at least leaves open the possibility that each American has only one doctor.

That is, when you have 50 million Americans and 1 million doctors -- plural -- it's possible that each of those Americans sees just one of those doctors. But when you have 50 million Americans and a singular doctor, there's no way in hell that one doctor cares for all those Americans.

Here's a more eloquent illustration. It's from Barbara Wallraff: "In 'both men rely heavily on their wives,' the men may or may not be bigamists; but if the sentence is written 'Both men rely heavily on their wife,' then she most certainly is one."

That example aside, I think I'm in the minority on this. In the unscientific survey that is my life, I notice more people opting for the singular in these situations than for the plural.

The good news is that I've finally stopped trying to "fix" every sentence like this that comes across my desk. The bad news is that it feels more like defeat than choice.

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Monday, June 22, 2009

Words I Hate for No Rational Reason Whatsoever


I don’t hate the word “pepper,” I’m more than okay with “dine.” But together, they create a twanging sound in my brain that I find very unpleasant.


Unlike “pepper,” the word “sugar” irritates my ear all by itself. But “Sugarland,” which I heard mentioned on the radio this morning, has an irritating quality that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

Combining “sugar” with another word makes it much worse: Sugarloaf. Sugarbaker. My ear hates ’em. And remember that Suge Knight guy who was in the news some years ago -- the rap music executive? What an unfortunate position he was put in by the phonetic oddness of “sugar.”

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Satan-spawned Grammar is Now Elementary

I was curious about the term “grammar school.” Specifically, I wanted to find some way to track when, why, and to what extent the term “elementary school” in the U.S. has replaced the term “grammar school.”

I failed. But I did come across some other interesting tidbits. (Forgive me if you already know this. But it was news to me – and interesting, too – so I thought I’d pass it along.)

According to Wikipedia (I know, I know), grammar schools in the colonies were founded on the British model. The first such school in the new world was founded as the Latin Grammar School in 1635. Twelve years later, such grammar schools became the standard as the Massachusetts Bay Colony enacted something called the Old Deluder Satan Law, requiring any township of at least 100 households to establish a grammar school.

According to this site the Old Deluder Satan Law was a follow-up to the parental neglect law of 1642, which made parents ensure that their children knew the principles of religion and laws of the Commonwealth.

So Satan is behind this grammar stuff after all – just as so many frustrated students and baffled business-letter writers have long suspected.
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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

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

definately = 14,400,000 hits
definitely = 134,000,000 hits

"Definately" is one of the most common mistakes I see on message boards and forums. So I guess I shouldn't be surprised that it gets 10% as many hits as the correct spelling. Still ...

By the way, the first hit for "definately" is from the Urban Dictionary, which calls it "idiot-speak for 'definitely.'"

The first hit for "definitely" is a link explaining how to spell it.

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Friday, June 12, 2009

All This Scratchin' Is Makin' Me Itch

It's official. I'm now cuckoo nutty about sentences. After years of copy editing and obsessing about sentence structure, I passed into the realm of cuckoo nutty this morning when I read this first sentence of a Reuters story:

A loss in server connectivity that caused the New York Stock Exchange to halt trades in about 240 companies has been restored.

Now, normal people might read this and think, "Holy cow! I never realized how fragile are the financial processes on which our whole economy depends!"

Many others, especially in parts where I grew up, might read this and think, "Holy cow! I clicked the wrong link. I was looking for a TMZ story about Jon and Kate."

But I, cuckoo nuttier than all, think, "A loss has been restored? "

Thursday, June 11, 2009

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

newbie = 98,900,000 hits
newcomer = 23,900,000 hits

American Heritage online, Merriam-Webster online and Dictionary.com all define "newbie" as "newcomer." The two words are synonyms. But, on the Web at least, "newbie" is four times more popular.

I don't like "newbie." It reminds me of a "Seinfeld" episode in which Elaine, flirting with Newman, calls him Newmie. Creepy.

Still, looks like I'd better get used to it.

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Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Words I'm Looking Up


This was going to be a "Words that Should Get a Divorce" post about "walk" and "life," as in "walk of life." I'm a little bothered by the cliche -- or, I should say, by our dependence on the cliche -- but I honestly can't think of a better alternative for "They come from every walk of life."

From every realm of life? Every area of life? Every circuit of life? Every tour of life? Every peregrination of life?

See? I got nuthin'.

So, seeing as I'm clearly unqualified to depose this cliche, I figured I'd just look up its use of "walk" in Dictionary.com.

walk. n.
27. a department or branch of activity, or a particular line of work. They found every walk of life closed against them.

Maybe my dislike of this expression is a regional prejudice. After all, I'm in L.A. And nobody walks in L.A.

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Monday, June 8, 2009

The Greatest Thing I've Read All Year

My advice to writers just starting out? Don’t use semicolons! They are transvestite hermaphrodites, representing exactly nothing. All they do is suggest you might have gone to college. — Kurt Vonnegut

I came across this quotation in Armageddon in Retrospect exactly one week after I filed the manuscript for my new book — a book that contains an equally emphatic but nowhere-near-as-clever tirade against semicolons. Deadlines schmedlines. When you come across something like that, you'd be nuts not to submit a new version of the manuscript with a note to the editor, "Sorry, but I just had to include this quote. So I hope you don't mind reprinting all 200 pages ..."

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Friday, June 5, 2009

Possessive or Descriptor? (Or: 'Why Newspaper Columnists Should Stop Being Such Babies About Checking Their E-mail')

I got an e-mail yesterday from a former student of my Mediabistro class who wanted to know whether the school where she works should put an apostrophe in the name of its new building, which here we’ll call Explorers Hall. (Not its real name.)

Her bosses want it written thusly, with no apostrophe. She thought it needed one: Explorers’ Hall.

Because such apostrophes seem to be getting less popular every day, I thought I’d share my reply here.

* * * * * * * *

In the traditional view, things like Explorers' Hall are perceived to be possessive, which would mean they need the apostrophe.

It's Explorers' Hall if it's a plural possessive, Explorer's Hall if it refers to a single explorer (even a sort of abstract idea of "the explorer" as opposed to someone specific).

HOWEVER, more and more, publications are taking the interpretation that this Explorers is not a possessive but an adjective.

For example, the Los Angeles Times Style Guide tells users:

<<5. Special cases:
B. In some cases, the apostrophe is dropped when a word is primarily descriptive rather than possessive: citizens band radio, a teachers college, the homeowners association.
C. In the case of proper names, follow the usage of the entity involved: Department of Veterans Affairs, National Governors' Conference, Childrens Hospital (in Los Angeles), Children's Hospital (in Orange).
D. Note: Mother's Day, Father's Day, Veterans Day.>>

In other words, nobody knows.

Second HOWEVER: The people who pay attention to punctuation tend to think "teachers college," "workers compensation," "homeowners insurance," etc. are errors. Some don't know about the flexibility of the rules. Others simply disagree.

That's why, if it were my call, I would want to avoid the eye rolls and disparaging thoughts by including an apostrophe:

Explorers' Hall

If you don't, some people will think it was out of ignorance and not by choice.

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Thursday, June 4, 2009

Why Newspapers Columnists Don't Like to Check Their E-mail

June, as a former English teacher, I noticed your split infinitive in your first paragraph. I'm sure it was just a simple error, but it is one that irritates me. I hope you don't mind. I do enjoy reading your column!

It's so satisfying to hear that she enjoys reading a column in which I have repeatedly written, "There's no such thing as a split infinitive."

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Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Moments in Copy Editing

You can book a guided tour or just walk around the park at your leisure followed by a chocolate shake at Lenny’s CafĂ©.

With great copy editing power comes great copy editing responsibility. That's why I cannot condone stalking — even if the stalker is a delicious ice cream beverage. I changed it to: "and then stop at Lenny's Cafe for a chocolate shake."

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Tuesday, June 2, 2009


This was in my e-mail in-box today:

Dear Subscriber,

Coming soon, you can expect a little more out of your Los Angeles Times subscription. That’s because in addition to the award-winning content you already get, you’ll receive our exclusive monthly newsletter, “Above the Fold,” in your email.

Each month you’ll receive premium articles, reviews and exclusive sneak peaks of upcoming features. And look for exclusive perks in each issue designed especially for you.

Yup. They wrote "sneak peaks."

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