Thursday, October 14, 2010

Writing Effectively

Truly helpful – NOT! 

I love getting emails about this column. Even when I make mistakes, the reader emails are fantastic.

When I made the mistake a while back using the adverb badly instead of the adjective bad, my inbox was bursting with helpful corrections. Most of them were tremendously kind and read more like apologies than corrections. Others were more critical, but there’s no harm in that. I made a pretty basic mistake, so I deserved to be called out on it.

Last week, however, I got the most hilarious email I have ever received in regard (I think) to this column. I have to share it with you. The message line read, “Your article is wonderful!” This is the body of the email (italics are mine):

(NOT)You have made many mistakes in your recent articles.  Overall your articles have to many mistakes to be an efficient read, and a good use of time.

How truly helpful and beneficial to receive such a well-worded and specific critique of my work! I was pleased to get some constructive advice for improving my writing.

Okay, I’ll stop with the sarcasm and get to the grammar.

If you read, see or hear something which prompts you to write a letter to the responsible party, there are a few guidelines you need to keep in mind in order to be effective and in turn to keep from wasting your own and someone else’s time.

Be clear. Any time you feel the need to critique or compliment someone in a letter or email, it’s important to be as specific as possible. I write more for Current than this column, and I also do some other freelance writing. It’s entirely possible the email is criticizing something I wrote for another publication entirely. But who knows? The critique isn’t specific about the article, column or publication. It also doesn’t point out any specific mistakes. That could lead the reader to believe the complaint may not be based in fact.

Be professional. Using a decades-old single-word taunt isn’t the best foot to put forward. It’s important for your recipient to take your concern seriously and not double over laughing before making it to your first complete sentence. I realize I’m not setting a great example here with my heavy-handed use of sarcasm.

Be correct. I’m not saying I haven’t made any mistakes in recent articles. I’ve noticed typos and some formatting issues that I’m working to correct. What I mean here, though, is you should use correct grammar, spelling and punctuation. I notice at least four glaring errors in the text of the complaint.

Sign your name. Unless you feel threatened by the party in question (and I hardly think I am a threatening force), your signature shows that you are serious about the critique in question. Failing to sign is akin to heckling at a huge event: it probably won’t interrupt the show, and hecklers are rarely taken seriously by anyone – even those who may agree with them. And make certain the party you address can contact you for more information, an apology or a word of thanks. In this case, I have a rather anonymous email address, but it’s something.

And please, readers, keep the emails coming. I always enjoy thoughtfully written emails, even when they disagree with me.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Double Negatives

Ain’t No Mountain High Enough

You may be surprised to learn that I scored higher on the SAT in math than I did in language.  Quite a bit higher, actually.  It just so happens that I disliked math and put little effort into it.  Writing and literature, though?  Loved them.  Still do.

Still, I grasped math concepts with relative ease, so I performed well.  Take for example, the concept of two negatives making a positive in multiplication.  See there?  I know some math.

The double negative concept holds true for language, too, but unlike math where no one will do you bodily harm for putting two negatives together, two negatives in language can be deadly – at least to how people interpret you.

Here’s how the double negative works in language: I don’t have no explanation actually means that you must have some explanation.  Not having nothing means having something, right?  But people using double negatives rarely mean what their words really state.  In using a double negative, the speaker or writer actually winds up saying the exact opposite of what is intended.  Unless what is intended is to make oneself appear to be a fool who uses double negatives when, in fact, one is just a fool trying to lead one’s audience astray.

I haven’t the vaguest notion how the double negative came about.  Its relative commonness, however, indicates that it has been in existence for a long time and that it is a widely accepted construction in certain groups.  I know it was a problem for a number of students at my former school, and I hear double negatives used in situation comedies with relative regularity.  And it’s somewhat pervasive in music.

I have to say, though, that in the case of music, sometimes songs just work better with the inclusion of the double negative.  Hit me with the grammar stick, if you like, but I think that The Rolling Stones’s “Satisfaction” would be much less satisfactory if the lyrics were, “I can’t get any satisfaction.”

Besides that, the lyrics are so true if you interpret them as written: Mick Jagger, possibly one of the ugliest men on the planet, is not exactly short of satisfaction, I feel quite certain.  He just isn’t capable of getting no satisfaction.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Funner is Not a Word

Grammar fun at Disney

I recently returned from a terrific vacation in Disney World. My family and I had a fantastic time, and I had a reprieve from worrying about grammar – or so I thought.

On a late evening bus ride back to our resort from Downtown Disney, I noticed the flashing marquee for Pleasure Island. Its message to passers-by included the word funner. Seriously. My husband thought I was going into full cardiac arrest: “It’s okay, honey. I’m sure that sign is controlled by unschooled elves or something.”

Funner? This bothered me for two major reasons: 1. Dozens of kids would see that sign, which made it seem as though using a non-word is perfectly acceptable, and 2. Since this was the first time in my visits to Disney that I believe English was spoken by the minority of visitors, it seemed to me an ostentatious display of how Americans feel the need to butcher their own language for a world of non-English speakers to see.

Don’t even get me started on the new iPod touch commercial featuring funnest.


I’ll step down from my soapbox now and catch my breath. Certain misuses really get me riled up. I’m a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to the word fun. I don’t use it as an adjective, and I don’t like to hear it used as an adjective. So in my book, you can have fun, but not a fun time. But technically, if you look it up in the dictionary, you’ll find that in informal conversation or writing, using fun as an adjective is acceptable.

So what’s a guru to do? Here’s the thing, folks: grammar and language are fluid things. They change over time. I cringed, for example, last year when Webster decided to add ginormous to its dictionary. To me, it’s a parody of a word, but it’s recognizable nonetheless as a word. On the other hand, snarky is one of my favorite words, and it’s a relative newcomer to the vernacular of the average American, as well.

The same thing happens with usage. Over time, usage changes. Consider, for example, the word text. Until just a decade ago, text was a noun only, and few people would have questioned that. Now, however, with the advent of text messages, text has become a verb, with the jarringly awful-sounding texting and texted forms. Personally, I prefer He sent me a text message to He texted me, but I’ll lose that battle as time goes on.

My advice to those who hear words used in unfamiliar ways is this: try to keep an open mind – more open than mine, anyhow. While blatantly incorrect non-word usage (see funner and funnest above) is irritating, that’s part of how language evolves. I’m certain the first few times ginormous appeared in print it was looked at by many with disdain, but it became commonplace enough for Webster to recognize it as a real word. And Webster doesn’t add words in a willy-nilly fashion; they’re pros, you know.

Commas and Essential Information

Comma Chameleon

When the song “Karma Chameleon” by Culture Club came out in 1984, I was relatively young. And I was just certain that the lyrics were not, “karma, karma, karma, karma, karma chameleon,” but, “comma, comma, comma, comma, comma chameleon.”

I guess I’ve always had punctuation on the brain.

In any case, the chameleon is a good representative of the comma, because commas are tricky. There are literally dozens of rules about commas; I could do a ten-part series on comma use and still not cover all the bases.

That said, I do have a comma usage rule to share that you may not know. Most people know to use commas to separate items in lists and to set off words or phrases that otherwise interrupt the flow of a sentence. A comma rule of thumb that many people do not know refers to essential and non-essential phrases and words in a sentence. And it’s whether those words are essential that determines whether or not to use a comma.

For example, I have two daughters. Because both of my children are the same gender, if I write the sentence, “My daughter Emma is really excited about kindergarten,” placing Emma’s name in the sentence is essential to the meaning of the sentence.  Otherwise, you wouldn’t know which daughter I am referring to.

On the other hand, I only have one husband. If I write a similar sentence, “My husband, Bill, played college football,” I need the commas. If I don’t use the commas, it indicates to my readers that naming my husband is essential, thereby giving the idea that I have more than one husband and am breaking the polygamy law. And that’s not the impression I wish to give.

Think of it this way: If I remove Bill from the example sentence, the sentence still makes complete sense and you know exactly to whom I am referring. If I remove Emma, however, it leaves doubt.

It’s not just people’s names that need to be treated this way when it comes to commas. Any number of other things need the same care. Consider the following examples:

            Cold Play’s song “Viva la Vida” is one of my favorites.
            Michael Crichton’s first book, The Andromeda Strain, came out in 1969.
Cold Play performs dozens of songs, so the title of the song is necessary to the sentence and does not require commas. And although Michael Crichton published 25 books in his life, he only had one first book, so that title, when mentioned as above, needs the commas because it’s not essential to the meaning of the sentence.

This same rule of essential versus non-essential use is the drive behind another grammatical issue: restrictive and nonrestrictive relative clauses. Those probably sound intimidating, but they’re really not.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Capitalization of Job Titles

For the Sake of Vanity

Have you ever had a boss who thought he was more important than he actually was (or is)?  Even if you haven’t, you probably know the type: He values his own opinion above those of all others, he considers certain tasks simply beneath him, and he wants his job title capitalized all the time.  He, by the way, could just as easily be a she.  This shoe comes in peep-toe pumps, too.

As much as this person might annoy you, there is really only one thing you can do: stop capitalizing his (or her) job title.  In fact, with the information I am about to give you, you could stop capitalizing his job title almost all the time with just an adjustment to where it falls in the sentence.


That’s a maniacal grammarian’s laugh.  Use your imagination.

Seriously, though, there are only a few times when job titles should be capitalized.  Most of the time, they shouldn’t.  And when someone insists that his (or her) job title be capitalized all the time, we grammarians refer to it as vanity capitalization.  Capitalizing your job title when it doesn’t require capitalization is like laughing at your own joke.  Only in this case, the joke is really lame.  It’s an attempt to make something appear more important than it really is.

So when do you capitalize a job title?  When it precedes the persons’s name, essentially becoming a part of the name.

            Executive Vice President Michelle Williams will attend.
            Please forward all correspondence to Chancellor McAdams.
            All poo patrol volunteers should report to Head Poop Scooper Pam.

And even if the title precedes the name, if the title is preceded by an article (a, an, the), the title does not get capitalized.

            The head of mechanical engineering, Bob Cotterpin, is a nice guy.

Now, there are a few exceptions to these rules, but they are few and far between and not necessarily widely agreed-upon.  So stick with this as your basic guide.  If you need a more in-depth analysis, drop me a line, and I’ll try to help you out.

Oh, and if you want to make sure you never have to capitalize your boss’s title, just make sure it always follows his (or her) name.  Unless it’s part of the signature line of a letter – that’s one of those exceptions.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Adverb Abuse

How do you feel?

I knew that this was bound to happen eventually. Even gurus are not infallible. I made a grammar error in my own column. And my readers called me on it.  Lots of them.  Thanks, all!

The mistake in question occurred in my September 30 column, “Can’t We All Just Get Along?” In the final paragraph, I told readers not to feel badly if they have been treating certain singular indefinite pronouns as if they were plural. I should have told them not to feel bad. My bad (pun intended). A classic case of adverb overuse.

Anyhow, I thought I would let you know why I was wrong – in terms of grammar, anyway. Feel is one of those verbs that can function as either a linking verb or an action verb. There are a bunch of these tricky critters, among them grow, smell, seem, appear, and become (this is not an exhaustive list by any wild stretch of the imagination). When you use any of these two-function verbs as linking verbs, they are paired with adjectives: bad, good, quick, and so on. If you are using them as action verbs, they require adverbs: badly, well, quickly, and so on.

So if I say, “He smells bad,” I’m referring to his need for deodorant or other personal hygiene, but if I say, “He smells badly,” I’m letting you know that he has trouble recognizing when his kids have dirty diapers – or at least that’s what he wants his wife to think.

If you aren’t sure whether the verb in question is functioning as a linking verb or an action verb, replace it with a form of to be. In the first example above, smells is functioning as a linking verb; I could replace it with is and still have a logical sentence: He is bad. In the second example, smells is an action verb, proven by the replacement method: He is badly. Yikes.

I wasn’t trying to tell my readers that they need not have a deadened sense of touch if they make mistakes with indefinite pronoun agreement. That is, however, what I did. I think this issue stems from learning from a young age that adverbs modify verbs: we just get adverb crazy. Linking verbs are an exception, as you see.

Speaking of exceptions, you may be wondering about well and good. That, my friends, is an exception. It is grammatically correct to say, “I am good,” when referring to your general overall state of being. It is also correct to say, “I am well,” when you are speaking specifically of your health. Exception noted.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Comparatives and Superlatives

As best as possible
One of my sweetest and most loyal readers sent me the idea for today’s column.  It seems that another local publication recently printed a story containing the phrase, “as best as possible.”

Excuse me for a moment.  That’s so awful that I need to have a convulsion just to recover.  Thank you.

I didn’t see the article myself, so I’m hoping that the paid writer didn’t put together that doosey.  I hope it was a statement made by someone in the heat of the moment.  Someone whose emotions overrode his good grammatical senses.  Or something like that.  That sort of excuse would even give the editor an excuse for not editing out such a horror.  Otherwise, that copy editor is in serious danger of being fired.  Or he should be.

You see, when you construction the phrase “as ______ as possible,” an adjective or adverb in the blank cannot be comparative or superlative. 

Did I lose you with those fancy grammarian’s words?  Sorry about that.

Comparative adjectives and adverbs are ones that generally show the relationship between two things: better, worse, flatter, squishier, more, less.  Superlative adjectives and adverbs show something in relationship to several other things: best, worst, flattest, squishiest, most, least.

Because most comparative and superlative adverbs are formed by adding more or most (or less or least) to an –ly adverb (more slowly, less likely), the error with those is hardly an issue.  I mean, seriously, can you imagine constructing something like, “I want to move as more slowly as possible.”?  You’ll hit your head from the convulsion that construction induces.

And really, most adjectives and adverbs ending in –er or –est aren’t going to make it into that construction, either:

                as flatter as possible
                as squishiest as possible
                as less as possible

You’d have to be medicated in order to stop the convulsions.

But for some reason, some people put comparatives and – more often – superlatives into the “as _____ as possible” construction.  But not you, my faithful readers.  If you didn’t know better before, now you do. 

And the convulsions?  I’ll have as few as possible.