Monthly Archives: September 2010

Typo hunters in Wichita

Originally published on Grammar Monkeys on Sept. 27, 2010.


Jeff Deck and Benjamin Herson at Watermark Books

Typo hunters Jeff Deck and Benjamin D. Herson stopped in Wichita on Monday night on their book tour for “The Great Typo Hunt.” The book chronicles their cross-country odyssey of correction a couple of years ago, which included several hundred typos spotted, a few hundred typos fixed, and one federal court case. Before their lively reading to a packed house at Watermark Books — including a quiz that determined who the “Grammar Hawks” and the “Grammar Hippies” are, and a list of the five worst typo-caused disasters in history — they had time for a little chat.

The pair said they haven’t been actively hunting typos as much on the book tour because they’re focusing more on touting the importance of proofreading — heading typos off at the pass, as it were. That, however, doesn’t mean they didn’t find any here in Wichita. (Billboard on Kellogg that says “Lets” instead of “Let’s,” this means you.)
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Why we need punctuation

Originally published on Grammar Monkeys on Sept. 24, 2010.

Punctuation marks are like road signs for readers: they show you where you’re going and what’s ahead. If they’re missing or wrong, a reader can get lost.
So, in honor of National Punctuation Day today, here are a few examples of why we need punctuation:


Fresh fish
Doesn’t mean the same thing as
“Fresh” fish

Heavy equipment operators
Are not the same as
Heavy-equipment operators

Because semicolons make a list like this much easier to read:
Karl Swartz of Morris, Laing, Evans, Brock and Kennedy, Jason Bock of Fleeson, Gooing, Coulson and Kitch, and Paul McCausland of Young, Bogle, McCausland, Wells and Blanchard.

Sue’s sister, Sadie, sells satin shades.
Tells a reader something different from
Sue’s sister Sadie sells satin shades.

Because direct address
Let’s eat, people.
is not the same as direct object
Let’s eat people.

Beers for everyone!
Doesn’t mean the same thing as
Beer’s for everyone!

Who’s the man?
Doesn’t mean the same thing as
Who’s the man!

Because some questions need a punch
What the … ‽

Maybe so, might as well

Originally published on Grammar Monkeys on Sept. 20, 2010.

Modal verbs express possibility/probability, necessity/obligation or ability/willingness. They show up as a base verb with a modal auxiliary, such as may, might, should, ought to, must, can, could, would, wish to. Shall and will function sometimes as modals and sometimes as simple future tense markers, depending on context.

There’s a lot of nuance in modals, and here we’ll take a look at two that are close but not exactly the same: may and might.

pasta1If you say “I may order that pasta,” you’re likely — but not certain — to order it. Perhaps you’ll end up not ordering it, but you’re indicating a strong-ish possibility.

If you say “I might order that pasta,” there’s a little more hesitation, you’ll order it if it doesn’t have mushrooms in it, if it comes with a tasty sauce, if the special isn’t something you’d rather have, etc.

Some sentences are too close to call, with the may/might choice not yielding much difference: “We may/might go swimming tomorrow, depending on the weather.”

And many people don’t distinguish these two in their speech or writing, so it’s hard to put a lot of stock in the difference if you don’t know how closely the source adheres to the distinction. Use context as your guide.

Problems with “may” and “might” arise in two areas: past tense and negatives.

In the past tense, the difference is amplified, with “may” implying possibility and “might” implying something that didn’t happen but could have.

Here’s an example: “Tornado sirens may have given the family time to get to the basement before the storm hit.” From this, we know they survived the storm and could credit sirens for that. But if the sentence is: “Tornado sirens might have given the family time to get to the basement before the storm hit,” we know there weren’t any sirens and the family didn’t make it to the basement in time.

Also, “may” has “might” as its simple past-tense form, which shows up when there’s another past-tense verb in the sentence: “We thought we might have time to see the Wax Museum.” “Luella said she might be able to bring a mince pie.”

By the same token, in hypotheticals and contrary-to-fact situations, which call for the subjunctive, might is the only choice. “One might think someone with that attitude would have been fired long ago.” “I might be going to the picnic, if liked blistering heat, sticky humidity and ants.”

With negatives, the permission sense of “may” is often stronger than the possibility sense: “You may not eat that squid; it’s for the party.” Meaning you are not allowed to do so, though it is certainly physically possible.