Thursday, February 25, 2010

One that Just Won't Die

Grammar myths are notoriously impervious to truth. But one has a staying power that continues to amaze me. It came up again at a talk I gave today at Glendale Community College.

It's the idea that you can't use "more importantly" to start a sentence. The correct form, according to the folks who believe this is, "more important." It's the logic that's so fascinating.

Take the sentence: "More importantly, the mayor voted for the measure." Opponents of this "more importantly" say that this sentence suggests that the mayor's voting was done in an important manner -- that he puffed up his chest as he dropped his ballot in the ballot box, perhaps while wearing spats and a monacle or standing under a banner that says "mission accomplished."

Here's how I tackle this myth. I say, "Ironically, not all adverbs modify actions. Actually, there are things called sentence adverbs that are different from manner adverbs. Unfortunately, they're not as well known. Tragically, I'm not very good at coming up with examples. Happily, the last five sentences prove that adverbs don't have to modify actions."

Now, what's interesting to me is that the folks who oppose "more importantly" already know that "ironically," "actually," "unfortunately," "tragically," and "happily" can all work this way. But they never apply this knowledge to question the idea that "more importantly" can only be a manner adverb and not a sentence adverb.

I guess it's human nature to embrace ammo for playing "gotcha." But it's weird how we (I'm guilty, too) are so reluctant to question it.

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Thursday, February 18, 2010

And Now for Something Completely Unrelated to Language

I got an e-mail from Hawaiian Airlines to enter a sweepstakes to win 1 million miles on that airline. The second prize is a five-night stay, sans airfare, at an Outrigger resort.

I would like either of those things very much. I entered. Then I read the rules.

The grand prize is valued at $25,000, on which the winner has to pay taxes. The e-mail said that 1 million airline miles could equal 25 round trips from the mainland. If you're in the 25% tax bracket and you use all the miles, each of those tickets valued at $1,000 costs you about $250. But instead of paying it a few months before you go and paying it directly to the airline, you're paying it to Uncle Sam, probably years before you'll ever cash in on the benefits.

From the West Coast, fares to Hawaii sometimes get as low as $280. Right now, Hawaiian Air has fares starting at $360. From the East Coast? Well, Hawaiian doesn't fly to the East Coast. So it's not like some lucky winner could be enjoying an $800 New York-to-Kona flight in exchange for a $250 tax burden.

The tax benefits for the airline, however, seem kind of sweet: an instant $25,000 write-off on earnings that would put (I'm guessing here) perhaps $8,000 or more directly in their pockets in return for just a commitment to sometimes let some winner occupy some seats on a plane.

Oh, and that five-night stay at an Outrigger Resort? Well, the official rules value that at just under $3,300 -- that's the amount you have to claim to Uncle Sam. That comes to about $660 a night. If you're in a 25% tax bracket, that's $165 a night you pay up front in the form of taxes.

Outrigger Reef on the Beach, one of their better properties and a place I'd very much like to stay, can be booked select nights in March for $169 a night.

So, when you take into account the taxes, neither prize seems like much of a prize.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not siding with that dude who flew his plane into an IRS building today. On the contrary, it seems to me that corporationsn with fancy accountants could be having a bigger impact on my bottom line than the IRS is. (After all, somebody has to pick up the tax slack to maintain all those roads that lead into and out of the airports served by Hawaiian.)

Of course, that's just from reading some of the fine print in one document. Maybe other documents affecting every other corporation's tax obligations don't contain anything so conveniently self-serving.

So what would I do if I won 1 million free miles on Hawaiian? I honestly don't know. It'd be hard to say no thanks. But it's quite possible I'd decline the second-place prize.

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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A Spelling Thing That Has Long Irked Me

Kooky and Cuckoo. That's bothered me ever since I was a kid. I guess I thought that if kooky is with K's and O's, cuckoo should be kookoo.

Never looked it up till now, though. Sure enough, American Heritage supposes that "kooky" came from "cuckoo."


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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A Tip for Would-be Writers of Feature Articles

There's something novice writers of feature articles do a lot. And once you've been editing their copy for a couple of mumble-mumble years, you start to see it as a red flag that the writer hasn't really mastered the craft yet. It goes a little something like this.

"Base-running is a really important skill for a player to have," Joe Lean, coach of the Terryville Tigers, said.

Marcus Markham, coach of the PS148 Panthers, agreed: "Every player needs to train hard for base-running."

A sentence that is sandwiched between two quotations and that says only that one person "agreed" shows that the writer was just pasting quotations together. It tells us that the writer herself didn't have any more solid information to share with readers. Or that she's not experienced enough to understand that you don't have to include every good quotation. She doesn't get that redundancy wastes the reader's time. And she's still too timid to say anything in a story that isn't clearly attributed to someone else.

I suppose there are some cases where this structure would be justified. But it's such a hallmark of inexperienced writers that it should only be used as a last resort.

What's worse is that, often, the second quotation is followed by solid and interesting facts.

Marcus Markham, coach of the PS148 Panthers, agreed: "Every trainer needs to train hard for base running." In fact, Markham is so convinced of this that he makes his players report to the field three times a day to run for five minutes.

All the info before "he makes his players report" is wasted ink. If the writer would have gotten straight to that interesting bit of info, the writing would be more like the stuff you see in top-quality publications.

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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Fine Art of Headline Writing

One of those words has to be the verb -- it has to be. I just know it! If only we could tell which one.

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Wednesday, February 3, 2010

'Supposably' Is In the Dictionary

Merriam-Webster says that the adverb form of "supposed" is indeed "supposedly," but the adverb form of "supposable" is "supposably."

Webster's New World is a little vaguer, noting "supposably" only as a "related form" of supposed. However, because WNW has a separate listing for "supposedly" and none for "supposably," there's no doubt which form they prefer.

So, what, exactly is the difference between the adverb form of "supposable" and the adverb form of "supposed"? In their adjective forms, they're clearly different. But as sentence adverbs, the distinction blurs.

I'm going to have to think on this one for a long, long time (after I stop retching, of course). Until then, I'll file this under "things I should have looked up a long time ago."
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Monday, February 1, 2010

What I Hate About Whom ...

Lately, every "whom" I see seems so unnatural to me. Right, wrong -- it doesn't matter. It still takes me out of the writing.

Of course, if I were the editor, I definitely would have used "whom" here -- just because you get so much guff if you don't. But still ...

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