Usage bite: Two Words

And always two.

Two cute babies

“I love you a lot, little brother! And pleeease remember: a lot is always two words.”

Grammar Bite: Misplaced Modifiers

Watch out for misplaced modifiers.

A modifier is a word or phrase that describes something. A modifier at the beginning of a sentence is considered “misplaced” when it doesn’t match up with what follows, which can cause confusion for your reader. For example, I recently received an email from an organization I support financially. Here’s how it began, “Dear Dean: As a faithful supporter of our organization, we are requesting your participation in a special research project.” Continue reading “Grammar Bite: Misplaced Modifiers”

Grammar Bite: Subject-Verb Agreement

Subjects and verbs must agree.

As a copyeditor, a common grammar issue I find in a piece of writing (besides punctuation problems) is subject-verb agreement difficulties.

In simplest terms, in any sentence, verbs must agree with their nouns in number, whether singular or plural. Look for the subject of the sentence and don’t be distracted by intervening prepositional phrases, the may be the most common cause of subject-verb agreement problems. Consider the following example:

“The box of chocolates (has/have) fallen on the floor.” The correct verb is has, although many writers would mistakenly write have. How can you be sure? Trust your ear. Remove the prepositional phrase (of chocolates) and hear what makes sense: “The box [singular subject] has fallen [singular verb] on the floor.”

Another example: “The main argument of the defense attorneys (is/are) that the defendant wasn’t anywhere near the scene of the crime that day.” Remove the prepositional phrase (of the defense attorneys) and what remains? “The main argument [singular subject] is [singular verb] that the defendant wasn’t anywhere near the scene of the crime that day.”

Questions or comments? Let me know.

Me, Myself, and I: Using These Pronouns Correctly

Are you using the correct pronouns?

“Would you like some ice cream?” asked Mother.

“Yippee! All three of us would!” cried six-year-old Dean.

“Three? I only see you.”

Dean - Me
Me

“Oh, no, there are three: me, myself, and I. That means three bowls of ice cream!”

“Oh,” she said, coughing once and rolling her eyes.

Thus began Dean’s disastrous, short-lived career as a stand-up comedian.

But seriously, folks—when do we use the pronouns me, myself, and I? Specifically, how do we properly use reflexive pronouns (myself, yourself, herself, ourselves, etc.)? Are they just another way of saying I/me, you, her, and us? Continue reading “Me, Myself, and I: Using These Pronouns Correctly”

Zapping Three Grammar Myths We’ve All Heard

It’s time to debunk these grammar myths.

I learned a few things in grammar school. For example, I learned that boys shouldn’t dip girls’ pigtails into the inkwells. I lived near the Little House on the Prairie then and went to third grade with “Half Pint” Ingalls. Okay, maybe not, but my ancient schoolhouse in Moorhead, Minnesota, did have desks with inkwells—dried up, yes, but I could still fantasize about dipping Half Pint’s pigtails into the inky blackness on my desk. Naughty little fantasizer! Something to be punished for. 

 I learned the hard way not to push friends down the cement steps while waiting in line to go back to class after recess—because, supposedly, friends don’t appreciate that. Oh, bother!

 I also learned not to run into the classroom coat closet to escape from the acrid smell of vomit when a classmate heaves his entire lunch onto his desk and the floor—because not all 30 panicked kids can fit in a coat closet filled with Minnesota-winter coats, mittens, and snow boots. Such things can trigger lifelong bouts of claustrophobia.

 It’s strange to think that this could come from a grammar school: I vaguely remember learning a couple of things about grammar somewhere in my youth or childhood. I learned how improper it was to begin a sentence with a conjunction, or to split my infinitives, or to end a sentence with a preposition. I have no specific memory of these heavenly dictums, but everyone from my generation simply knows such proscriptions are writ large in the canon of divine grammar and must be avoided on penalty of death. I never actually saw a student receive that penalty. Apparently, some teachers stopped short of killing their students. Instead, they rapped their knuckles with a ruler, which explains why most adults hate grammar.

Nonetheless, what a joy to grow up and learn that Miss Grundy may have gotten a few things wrong in the dark days of the Grammatical Inquisition. Today, I am going to take my trusty keyboard and explode three grammar myths. ZAP! There, it’s done. Too simple, you say? Let me explain: Continue reading “Zapping Three Grammar Myths We’ve All Heard”

Five Commonly Confused Word Pairs

Only 1 in 97 people keep all of these straight.

Some pairs of similar words are commonly confused in speech and in writing. There is no “speech-checker” to catch our oral miscues, unless we hang out with grammar snobs who don’t care if they keep on friendly terms with us. And with technologically as advanced as Microsoft Word’s spelling-and-grammar checker is, it doesn’t catch everything. How well do you know the differences below?

Gist vs. Just

As a kid, my teachers persistently corrected students who sloppily said things like, “I jist tapped that boy a little on his cheek—not enough to knock out that bloody tooth there on the floor.” So when we grew up, some of us were so paranoid about not saying “jist” when we should have said “just” that we now reflexively say “just” when we should say “gist” (pronounced jist). Confused? No? Well, I’m not done yet. Gist means “the main point or part.” When we’re talking about the main point or part of this article with all our friends (yes, all of them), it’s okay to call it the gist of the article—jist don’t call it the just.

Moot vs. Mute

Then there is the infamous moot–mute mix-up. Continue reading “Five Commonly Confused Word Pairs”

Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch–A Short Book Review

Vex, Hex coverConstance Hale provides one of the most thorough treatments of verbs I’ve read.* The book is aimed at writers, both novice and experienced, and unless you hold a PhD in English composition, you will learn something useful to make your writing better. Do you know all about verb tense, mood, and voice? How well do you understand participles, gerunds, irregular verbs, and phrasal verbs? Do you know why these things matter—and they do matter—and how mastering them will help your writing shine brighter? Hale’s book provides the answers.

The title is a bit awkward (try saying it three times fast!)—I think “Let Verbs Power Your Writing” by itself would have been just fine—but “vex,” “hex,” “smash,” and “smooch” provide the framework around which Hale organizes each chapter, and the scheme works pretty well. At times she ventures into murky waters where even she may be out of her depth. For example, I’m still scratching my head at how “tight-fisted” is a past participle (instead of an adjective), as she asserts on page 224. But for the most part, she’s spot on. She includes many examples from real life and literature to illuminate the concepts, along with plenty of endnotes and an extensive bibliography to warm the hearts of readers who care to dig deeper.

I highly recommend this book to writers, wannabe writers, copyeditors, and students (high school and college), and I know that I’ll regularly pull it off my bookshelf to consult for my own writing.  Δ

*Constance Hale, Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch: Let Verbs Power Your Writing (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012).

© 2018 by Dean Christensen (The Dean’s English)

Commonly Misused Latinate Abbreviations in American English

Have you mastered these everyday abbreviations?

Latinate abbreviations (i.e., abbreviations of Latin expressions used in English) can serve as useful tools to enhance our writing. If improperly used, they can detract from our writing and reflect poorly on the writer. Here are some of the most common Latinate abbreviations, their meanings, and notes on their usage. Notice in particular the placement of the periods.

etc_word-art
et cetera

Et cetera, abbreviated etc., means “and so forth” (literally, “and others of the same kind”). Note three things about this abbreviation: (1) It is etc., not ect., and it is not pronounced eck-cetera; (2) It is not “and etc.,” (which would literally be “and and so forth”—that’s redundant); and (3) etc. should be used sparingly in formal writing because it’s a vague term that can make the writer seem lazy—it places the burden on the reader to imagine what specifically the writer is referring to.

e.g._word-art
exempli grata

Exempli grata, abbreviated e.g., means “for example.” Note three things about its use: (1) it is always followed by a comma[1]: The vendor on the corner is selling flowers for Mother’s Day (e.g., red and yellow roses and white and pink carnations); (2) in formal writing, it should be used in parenthetical statements (as in the previous sentence). In the main text it is better to use words like “such as” or “for example”; (3) be careful not to confuse it with i.e., which means something quite different. Continue reading “Commonly Misused Latinate Abbreviations in American English”

The Lowly Comma: Eight Ways to Fix Its Misuse and Abuse

The way we use commas either helps or hinders our writing.

What punctuation mark has caused more problems than the comma? Rhetorical question, you say? What’s rhetorical? you ask. I’d tell you if I knew. But today I’d like to discuss the most abused, misused, overused, and misunderstood punctuation mark of them all: the comma.

Author Amy Einshon calls commas the “copyeditor’s nemesis”[1] because comma misuse is one of the toughest grammar nuts to crack. Yes, commas can be difficult, but with a little effort, we can master them (or die trying). Continue reading “The Lowly Comma: Eight Ways to Fix Its Misuse and Abuse”