grammarNOW! Tip of the Week: The importance of proofing your writing . . . and the significance of a comma
In his blog of Feb. 15, regarding the novel Tribulation Force, Slacktivist bemoans absent editing. In particular, one example of a comma in this novel suggests a meaning completely opposite the author’s intent. Slactivist quotes:
Rayford watched the news and was certain Chloe had been correct. It had indeed been Buck Williams, not more than 30 feet from the witnesses and even closer to the gunman, who was now little more than charred bones on the pavement.
And then he goes on to comment:
Commas can be tricky. The sentences that follow the ones above make it clear that Jerry Jenkins didn’t mean to say, “It had indeed been Buck Williams . . . who was now little more than charred bones on the pavement.” What he meant to say was pretty much the opposite—that Rayford realized Buck hadn’t gotten charred:
Israeli television stayed with the images longer, and after watching the drama a few times, Rayford was able to take his eyes from the fire-breathing witnesses and watch the edge of the screen. Buck rose quickly and helped the dark-suited man next to him. Neither appeared hurt.
This is why re-reading what one has written, and then rewriting to clear up ambiguities, is part of most novelists’ approach. But Jenkins isn’t like most novelists and Tyndale House isn’t like most publishers. Jenkins first draft is his final draft, and Tyndale is happy to forward that manuscript along to readers. Other books arrive in stores and libraries pre-read, but not this one. When you read Tribulation Force all the way through, you get to experience the thrill of knowing that you’ve just accomplished something the authors themselves have never done.
The downside of this, unfortunately, is that you also have to supply the work of mentally rewriting the sentences Jenkins never bothered to revisit himself. “It had indeed been Buck Williams, not more than 30 feet from the witnesses and even closer to the charred bones on the pavement where the gunman had stood.” Much better. (But then again if the authors had re-read this passage, or if it had been read by a capable editor, then someone likely would have crossed out the whole page seeing as it only rehashes a bunch of stuff readers just finished reading.)
Everyone needs a copyeditor. The best writers—the best coyeditors—need copyeditors. In a shameless plug for my own service, see what I offer at grammarnow.com. Let me help you avoid being the subject of a critical blogger.
Articles are sometimes the most difficult thing about English, especially for non-native speakers. Here are some basic guidelines:
Use the when you want to be specific about a noun; use a when you want a more general reference.
Compare: the president (the one we both know I’m referring to) or a president (any president, no one in particular).
You would rarely use a before a proper noun because the name itself is a specific identifier. For example, you would not say, “May I introduce you to a Tom Selleck?”
You would, however, use the when you want to emphasize that the proper noun is the one everyone thinks of when they hear the name. For example, I once received an email from someone named Gary Larson. I had to ask, “Are you the Gary Larson?” I was referring to the comic artist, and he was not that talented person, but he does have his own talent and a very useful writing site at http://home.comcast.net/~garbl/.
There is the rare time when you might want to use a in a way such as this: He was in touch with a Dr. Kevorkian, but I don’t know why. Obviously, the speaker does not know the doctor’s reputation but expects that the name would have prominence in some circles.
There are many excellent online sources for this very subject; here’s one I like: http://www.ccp.rpi.edu/resources/handouts/nnes-esl-students/article-usage/.
Not at the end of a sentence that starts with Where, I hope!
Where are you at? is redundant. Both where and at ask the same location information, so the question should just be Where are you?
I know this usage is ubiquitous, among all ages and any other group distinctions you care to make. That doesn’t make it grammatical. I’m also aware that it has a long history. That still doesn’t make it grammatical.
Yes, we use informal grammar all the time (I won’t criticize your ain’t), but if you’re going to use wrong constructions, do so intentionally, not accidentally.
Of course, my criticism of at ending a sentence that begins with Where does not apply to one that begins with What.
What are you looking at? is just fine and should not be awkwardly manipulated to read At what are you looking? just to satisfy some pedant’s misinformed “rule” about not ending a sentence with a preposition. (See my Tip on that eventually.)
The next time you’re tempted to ask Where are you at?—please don’t! Just ask Where are you? instead.
If I’ve managed to stop just one usage, I’ll consider this a successful post. Maybe it will catch on.
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.