Archive for January, 2011
First, the common misspelling “alot” is not a word. When you mean a great deal or much, the correct spelling is “a lot”: two words. Examples:
Valentine’s Day is coming, and I plan to eat a lot of chocolate.
A lot of the time, I prefer to use “most” rather than “a lot.”
It shouldn’t take a lot of examples for you to get this right.
The word that is spelled with two lls is allot. It means “to give out, set aside, assign, or distribute”:
The rules allot each of the debaters 5 minutes per topic.
The judges will allot $500 to each winner.
“Allot” is NOT what you mean when you write a lot.
The phrase a lot is overused and should be reserved for informal writing or speech. Try for a more specific word choice in formal writing.
Stephen Fry is widely known for his kinetic typography. I particularly enjoy this piece on language, in which he discusses the “rightness” and “wrongness” of grammatical usages and attitudes toward language use. It’s thought provoking and entertaining—fun to watch.
First read the cartoon Candorville: Scare Quotes.
What are “scare quotes?” you ask. They’re the quotation marks people use to call attention to a word or phrase. Unfortunately, 99 times out of 100 they’re misused, causing the writer to look foolish or worse (stupid) or causing the message to become funny rather than achieve its probably serious intent. For some laughs, visit these sites, whose collections of misused quotation marks are just a few great examples of unintentional grammatical humor:
A verb is in passive voice when the action described by the verb is done to the subject rather than the subject doing the action. Example:
- The new advertising campaign was successfully handled by Mario. (subject: campaign; action: was handled)
The action (was handled) is done to the subject (campaign) by someone or something (in this case, Mario).
Here is that sentence in the active voice:
- Mario successfully handled the new advertising campaign.
The subject (Mario) does the action (handled).See the difference?
Passive verbs are always formed with some form of “be” plus the past participle of another verb. More examples:
- The sweater had been lost by Tracy for a week before she told her sister.
- The accident was caused by faulty brakes.
- Carlo was chosen class president.
The action in an active sentence moves more directly from subject through verb to object. Revisions for the above sentences:
- Tracy lost the sweater a week before she told her sister.
- Faulty brakes caused the accident.
- We selected Carlo to be class president.
Even though you may have had an overzealous English teacher telling you to avoid it, the passive voice is not always incorrect. It most certainly has an effective time and place for use. You can usually determine when that is by asking if the revision is awkward and stilted. Of course, when you are asked to rewrite, then you must.
The most common problem with passive voice, besides overuse, is that a subject is often omitted, causing confusion or misreading. Most of the time in business writing, passive is used to avoid a sense of informality resulting from the use of “you” or “I.” However, there are many other ways to revise a sentence to avoid the personal pronouns (which are becoming less problematic in today’s writing).
Word processing software will always identify passive voice for you so that you can decide whether your phrasing is the most effective. Always try to restructure it in the active voice, but then determine which is most effective.
You can find much more about active and passive voice at many of the resource sites linked from mine.
Just ponder this one paragraph in the article by a very literate, and funny, writer:
Interestingly, the indiscriminate use of “iconic” coincides with the profusion of computer icons, emoticons, and so forth. Perhaps those ideograms may be changing the language at a level we’re not entirely aware of — turning English into an amalgam of the alphabetic and the logographic, the result of which could be a debasement of words, an elevation of graphemes, a diminution of our ability to use abstractions with precision, and a consequent epistemological degeneracy.
Hinkle is only half serious here, and there are laugh-out-loud moments later in the article. Wonderful insights on an overused word.
The distinction between these two usages has to do with sound, not just with letters.
The article a is used before words, acronyms or abbreviations beginning with a silent vowel sound or a consonant sound, including /w/ and /y/ sounds (such as the long /u/): a word, a year, a useful invention. The article an is used before words beginning with a silent consonant or a vowel sound: an uncle, an apple, an epidemic, an offer, an income, an eerie movie.
Linguists tell us that an is the older form and that in Middle English it occurred before all nouns. Yet today, children typically use the simple a before nouns (e.g. a apple). Eventually, we correct them, or they figure it out themselves by hearing the correct usage.
With acronyms and abbreviations
Use the same guidelines as above and determine whether the letters are pronounced as a word (NASA, thus a Nasa experiment) or as individual letters (NFL, thus an NFL player). Sometimes letters used as abbreviations may imply a word that our minds read as a word rather than as letters. If that is the case, use the appropriate article depending on how your reader will see and mentally hear it. For example, would your reader say SQL as see-quel or as s-q-l?
On the subject of a/an before h
At one time in the history of English, all forms of the word “history” were pronounced with silent “h.” They aren’t now, but some people continue to pronounce them that way, particularly “historic(al).” Here are some sources discussing usage preferences (and that’s what it is—not a rule):
Evans and Evans:
The form _a_ should be used before an _h_ that is pronounced, as in _history_ and _hotel_. Formerly these _h_ sounds were not pronounced and _an historical novel_, _an hotel_ were as natural as _an honorable man_, _an hour_, _an heiress_. This is no longer true and these archaic _an’s_, familiar from English literature, should not be repeated in modern writing.
Evans, Bergen and Cornelia Evans. A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage. New York: Random House, 2000.
There is a lingering tendency on the part of some American writers to use ‘an historic document,’ though they wouldn’t be caught even in a British pub saying ‘an hotel.’ But the preferred form these days, on both sides of the Atlantic, is ‘a historic document.’ [I don’t know who prefers it, but maybe B. has done a study.—grammarNOW!]
Bernstein, Theodore. Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins: The Careful Writer’s Guide to the Taboos, Bugbears, and Outmoded Rules of English Usage. Centro Books, 2006.
———. The Careful Writer. Free Press, 1995.
_A_ is used before all consonants except silent h (_a history, an hour); _an_ was formerly usual before an unaccented syllable beginning with h and is still often seen and heard (_an historian, an hotel, an hysterical scene, an hereditary title, an habitual offender_). But now that the h in such words is pronounced, the distinction has become anomalous and will no doubt disappear in time. Meantime, speakers who like to say _an_ should not try to have it both ways by aspirating the h.
Burchfield, R. W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Chicago Manual of Style 15 (7.46):
The indefinite article a, not an, is used in American English before words beginning with a pronounced h. See also 5.73.
a hotel, a historical study
_but_ an honor, an heir
University of Chicago Press Staff. The Chicago Manual of Style. University of Chicago Press, 2010.
Although I realize I’m in the minority, it’s just awkward for me to say “a historic moment.” My first grammar commandment: Know Thy Audience!
A Case for the Serial Comma
The serial comma is the final comma before a conjunction (and, or, . . .) in a series. Its omission can result in confusion at worst or humor at best. That’s why most style guides prefer it. Here is an example of a humorous need for it (after the name Kristofferson).
The quote under the photo, in case you can’t read it, is this:
MERLE HAGGARD: The documentary was filmed over three years. Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.
A comment on the caption, attributed to my copyediting colleague Bob Allen, in eastern Washington:
With those two ex-wives, I understand why Merle looks so Haggard.
Or just those who might be curious. Welcome to the grammarNOW! Tips blog. Here you’ll find my occasional musings on grammar and language, interesting tidbits and humor I find in the language (yes, Virginia, there are funny things about grammar!), and probably most important: grammar tips!
For those who have been signed up for a week or for years to receive the grammarNOW! Tip of the Week, you’ll now find it here. You can register to receive a notice of each week’s posting or have it delivered by RSS feed, if you prefer. The Tips have been rewritten and redesigned to be more useful and now include comments on language and humor in grammar. Please feel free to use this new format to respond to the Tips—a process you’ve never had the ability to enjoy before. I’m excited to see where such conversations take us.
Please send in your suggestions for ideas you’d like to see covered in the Tips or grammar and language discussions you’d like to pursue.
This is my first blog, so bear with me. I’ll get better at this as we go along. Check out the posts on the site and, please, SAY SOMETHING! Join the conversation.