Category Archives: Grammar Monkeys

Typo hunters in Wichita

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

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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.)
Continue reading Typo hunters in Wichita

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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:

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

Because
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.

Because
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.

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

Because
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.

Percents and percentage points

Originally published on Grammar Monkeys on Aug. 13, 2010.

Sometimes in journalism we have to — gasp! — do math, because it’s part of the news. We have to get the numbers right, just as we have to get the facts right and the language right. To those who think a journalism or communications degree means you can forget about math, think again: Math is a key part of many news stories, corporate memos, nonprofit reports, etc. And it needs to be done correctly.

So, in the spirit of the upcoming election season and its steady stream of polls, a note on the difference between “percent” and “percentage point.” This is also relevant when talking about tax rates, test scores, and so on.

Percent is a fraction of something. Percentage points are how percents are measured.

They are not the same thing, so if you are comparing two percents or rates, be careful how they are expressed. Here are a few examples:

Continue reading Percents and percentage points

The typo fixers

Originally published on Grammar Monkeys on Aug. 8, 2010.

We see typos every day — on signs, on the Web, on shirts, in books. Most of us shake our heads and move on, or snap a picture to post online. But as Benjamin Herson, one of the co-authors of the new book “The Great Typo Hunt,” observes, “a typo that everyone walks past and no one ever corrects signifies a much deeper communication breakdown.”

typoHerson traveled the country with his buddy Jeff Deck in 2008 spotting and attempting to fix all manner of typos, using Sharpies and “elixir of correction” and chalk and markers, even climbing ladders to rearrange letters. Their book chronicles this adventure — quixotic though it might have been — including the federal case that got made out of one of their fixes. It’s a fun and interesting book, with insights into language and culture that go way beyond misplaced apostrophes. An example: One worker was particularly steadfast in her refusal to let them fix an error, telling the pair, “I would rather have a sign spelled incorrectly than a tacky-looking sign.”

Read a full review of the book here.

Some questions, some answers

Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on July 16, 2010.

We get lots of questions on Twitter, mostly ones about grammar, spelling and usage (we do answer, and we’re happy to help), but there are some questions we’ve had a few times that we thought we’d answer here on the blog.

1. Do people really mess this up?
Almost all of our examples come from real news stories we edit or read online. Some come from news releases. We change the wording sometimes to fit into 140 characters, to protect the guilty, or just to make the example a little more silly. But yes, people really mess this up.

2. How do you come up with answers to questions?
We have piles of word books here on the Eagle’s copy desk, both the serious kind and the fun kind. The one we usually consult first is Garner’s Modern American Usage, which we consider the definitive reference on, as the name implies, modern American usage. We have various dictionaries, general and specific, even an OED. We have books of grammar tips, grammar reference books, punctuation books, style manuals, and usage manuals old and new and British and American.

books3

And there’s the Internet, which has some great reference sites as well, and is also a good way to find out how often certain usages appear in contrast to others. Even with all of this knowledge at our disposal, there are still some questions to which there is no one right answer. So we discuss, sometimes noisily, which way it should go (in the process annoying the sports desk).
Continue reading Some questions, some answers

Fussbudgets and freewheelers

Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on June 18, 2010.

In discussions of language and grammar, you may have heard the terms “prescriptivist” and “descriptivist.” These are the two extremes: the fussbudgets and the freewheelers. But a lot of us, even editors, fall somewhere in the middle.

Prescriptivists adhere to a rigid standard of letterslanguage, with clearly defined right and wrong ways to say something, never mind how many people use different forms, never mind whether these “wrong” forms are perfectly clear and grammatically unobjectionable. They “prescribe” the proper way to speak and write; anything less is a degradation of the language.

These are the folks who form organizations like the Queen’s English Society or the Academie Francaise, defending the language from change, and, therefore, degradation. (Some interesting reaction to the QES is here and here.)

These are also the folks who write us letters — letters, not e-mail — enumerating a week’s worth of split infinitives that appeared in the newspaper.

Descriptivists, on the other hand, think that language is whatever people speak. They “describe” language without passing judgment.
Continue reading Fussbudgets and freewheelers

Home, home on the range

Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on May 20, 2010.

Often when writers are trying to illustrate the varied nature of a set of items, they use what’s called a “false range.” This is the construction “everything from … to” or “ranging from … to” that throws in a couple of items to show diversity. The problem is that most of these items don’t fall along a real continuum, a Point-A-to-Point-B line, hence the appellation “false” for the range.

This movie has everything from fistfights to car chases to shootouts.
Really? Everything? Talking animals? Tender romance? Discussions about the nature of existence? Aliens?

The upscale women’s boutique has merchandise ranging from handbags to jewelry.
Just what all is in between handbags and jewelry? Clothes? Nope. Shoes? A few. Sunglasses? Bingo! Fancy pens? Yep — who knew?

RainbowJello

The kitchen serves up everything from squid to paella to buffalo.
Again, everything? Even rainbow Jell-O?

Fortunately, there are easy fixes for false ranges.
– Drop any mention of the range: This movie is packed with fistfights, car chases and shootouts.
– Use “include”: The upscale women’s boutique has merchandise including handbags and jewelry.
– Use “a variety of”: The cooks serve up a variety of dishes, such as squid, paella and buffalo.

Sometimes, a range is valid. If you’re talking about “prices ranging from $5 to $50” or “snakes ranging from the tiny ‘Leptotyphlops carlae’ to the giant anaconda” — those are true continuums, and a range is appropriate. You can even use figurative, if cutesy, A-to-Z ranges, since A to Z is an actual range — just be aware that “from Albuquerque to Zanzibar” doesn’t make for particularly inventive writing, and “from Australia to New Zealand” is wrong on a couple of levels.

That and which: Is it all relative?

Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on March 31, 2010.

Some say that “that” and “which” are interchangeable. But are they? Careful writers still say no, and that distinct usage of the two words is necessary to distinguish two different kinds of relative clauses.

A relative clause is a dependent clause that gives more information about the noun (or pronoun) it modifies.
Here’s an example:
The dinosaur bones, which were found last summer, were the remains of a ferocious beast.

dinosaur
Relative clauses fall into two types: restrictive (also called essential) and nonrestrictive (nonessential).

Restrictive clauses, as the name implies, restrict the noun. What this means is that there is a larger group that the noun could belong to, but the restrictive clause lets us know that it’s more narrowly defined.
Here’s an example:
Continue reading That and which: Is it all relative?

What is a gerund, anyway?

Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on March 17, 2010

Last week we talked about participles, which are verbs that work like adjectives. Gerunds are also based on verbs, but they work like nouns.

Gerunds have only one form, and it looks exactly like the present participle — ending in “-ing.” But you can tell a gerund is a gerund because it functions as a noun in the sentence. This means gerunds can be subjects or objects:
Cooking doesn’t have to be complicated. (subject)
Everton has finally mastered braising. (direct object)
Lucinda knows everything about baking. (object of a preposition)

A gerund can have adjectives of its own:
Uniform slicing and dicing makes a successful stir-fry.

Gerunds can also be part of a whole phrase:
Properly preparing an assortment of sushi can be time-consuming.
Some cookbooks have step-by-step photos for creating fancy desserts.

Fused participles
Gerunds don’t usually wind up in “dangling” situations as participles do, but there is one little picky problem area that occasionally arises.

There are sentences that work like this:
Otto’s overseasoning of the sauce ruined the whole dish.
The diners love to watch the chef’s grilling their food right at their table.

Generally, these constructions use a possessive in front of the gerund, called “genitive with gerund.” But in some cases, called “fused participles,” you’ll see a non-possessive form — either a noun or an objective case pronoun — instead of a possessive. And then the gerund turns back into a participle, modifying the noun:
The diners love to watch the chef grilling their food right at their table.

In the past, some usage experts said sentences like the example above are always wrong, because there’s the tiniest possibility it could be unclear.

Nowadays, we know that sometimes it’s better to use the possessive; sometimes it’s better, or at least less awkward, to use a non-possessive noun; and sometimes the context pretty much demands a non-possessive noun, as in this sentence:
The new cook was responsible for the pie bubbling over and burning.

This is really a picky point, though, and with gerunds, you don’t need to worry about errors on the scale of dangling participles.