Tag Archives: adjectives

#Diagramming challenge No. 2 (sentence and answer)

For our second sentence to diagram, we’ll stay fairly simple — no compounds or subordinate clauses — but we’ll pile up a few more modifiers and have an imperative verb:

Scene from “The Wizard of Oz”

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#Diagramming challenge No. 1 (sentence and answer)

At the recent ACES: The Society for Editing conference, I gave a session on diagramming sentences. It was during the last session period of the conference, on a sunny Florida afternoon, and more than 100 people packed the room to learn, or refresh their memories, about sentence diagramming. (We’re talking about the classic “Reed-Kellogg” method here, not the tree diagrams of great utility to linguists.)

Diagramming has fallen out of favor as a pedagogical tool (it was of questionable effectiveness anyway), and it’s not necessarily something that will make you a better editor. However, it can be helpful to visualize a sentence’s structure, and the “puzzle” aspect of it makes it nerdy fun for many of us who love language. Plus, it’s really easy to spot a dangling participle when you’re diagramming.

The enthusiasm at the conference for diagramming was such that I thought it might be fun to continue the practice, with weekly (ish) “diagramming challenges.” This is the first, and we’ll start simple:

Princess Leia in “The Empire Strikes Back”

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‘Bleaching’ the vibrancy out of words

English has a whole category of words called “contronyms” — words that have opposing definitions, such as “cleave” meaning both join and cut apart,”sanction” meaning both allow and prohibit, and, to the consternation of many of us, “literally” meaning both actually and figuratively. (See more contronyms at Mental Floss and Daily Writing Tips.)

But English also has descriptive phrases that consist of seemingly opposite adverbs + adjectives, such as:

  • This cake is awfully good.
  • Her sister is terribly nice.
  • This hugely insignificant change won’t affect anything.
  • These immensely small subatomic particles were discovered only recently.
  • The blue shirt is a little big on you.
  • That couch the Bundys bought at the flea market is pretty ugly.
"Disaster Cake" by An Italian Cooking in the Midwest.

Awfully good or just awful? “Disaster Cake” by An Italian Cooking in the Midwest.

I’m thinking here about phrases used without irony, sarcasm or poetic license. I wondered whether this phenomenon has a name, so I went digging (figuratively) to find out. I looked in books, I looked online, I asked around. Continue reading

Don’t sweat it: Due to / because of

It's good enough for the University of Kansas.

It’s good enough for the University of Kansas.

Earlier this year, I gave a presentation called “Sweat This, Not That: Real Rules vs. Grammar Myths” at the American Copy Editors Society national conference. The point of the presentation was that it’s easy for editors to get hung up on “rules” of language that are nothing more than peeves, shibboleths or outdated rules – and that wasting time and energy focusing on these can distract us from spotting and fixing more serious errors.

By now we all know (I hope) that it’s OK to split infinitives, end sentences with prepositions, begin sentences with conjunctions, and use the passive voice and sentence fragments judiciously. But there are other oddly persistent language “rules” that editors need not worry about.

In this post I want to talk about “due to” vs. “because of” and why there’s no reason to rack your brain trying to figure out when to use which. This is where some of you may gasp and say, “but they’re NOT interchangeable,” and a few of you might even think that this is another sign of the Decline and Fall of the English Language. To address the first, they aren’t exactly interchangeable, but they are much more flexible than certain strictures would allow, and to address the second, people have been complaining for centuries about someone or other ruining the language, and English is doing just fine. Continue reading

Comparatives and superlatives

Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on June 9, 2011.

Two recent related questions prompted this post: one on whether “funner” is a word, and one on “stupider” vs. “more stupid.” (Thanks, @kellidubya and @joshwood)

These forms are called comparatives: adjectives that, as the name implies, indicate a comparison between two entities, times, states of being, etc.

Maria is the younger of the twins.
Scott is happier now that he learned to rumba.
Is the sky over Kansas really bluer?

In English, comparatives are formed in one of two ways:
1. Adding “-er” to the adjective: older, faster, greener, smarter
2. Putting “more” in front of the adjective: more ancient, more rapid, more verdant, more intelligent

There’s not a hard and fast rule — this is English we’re talking about — governing when to use “-er” and when to use “more.” But typically, shorter adjectives take “-er” and longer ones take “more” — “funner” being one of the exceptions to that guideline. “More” is acceptable with any adjective, but it usually sounds odd when used with one that can take “-er.” Some comparatives sound fine either way, like “stupider” and “more stupid.”

Don’t use both “-er” and “more,” though — “more yummier” is fine if a 5-year-old says it, but adults should know better.

Adverbs can have comparatives, too, but most of the time they’re formed with “more” (i.e., people read more quickly than they talk).

On to superlatives: When you’re talking about more than two things, you need superlatives, which are the “-est” and “most” forms. The same guideline for comparatives applies: shorter adjectives form a superlative with “-est” and longer ones with “most.”

Ophelia is the oldest of the triplets.
That is the most frustrating package to open.
The sky today is the bluest I’ve ever seen it.

Do you feel smarter?

Which one? What kind?

Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on Dec. 6, 2010.

Which” and “what” each have more than one function in English, but what we’re talking about in this post is when they’re used as interrogative adjectives, that is, in front of nouns in a question:

Which theater did you say that movie was at?
What show did you see?
What college did she go to?
Which subjects did she study?

In most instances, either “which” or “what” is fine; they’re largely interchangeable. So much so, in fact, that when a few of us copy editors delved into our dozens of grammar and usage manuals — and we always love an excuse to do that — we found the topic addressed in only one book, and not our usual go-tos of Garner, Fowler, Bremner and Walsh. Even Strunk and White have naught to say on the topic.

But, if you want to be particular, here’s the guideline as found in Karen Elizabeth Gordon’s “Torn Wings and Faux Pas”:

“Which” is preferred when there is a limited number of choices:
Which topping do you want, pepperoni or anchovies?
And “what” is preferred with unlimited choices:
What foods did you try in Italy?

Before a stated or implied “one,” always use “which”:
Which (one) of your cousins got married last year?

And before “of these,” always use “which”:dresses
Which of these bridesmaid dresses is the least ugly?

Luckily, no one seems to have a problem with using the other interrogative adjective, “whose,” besides writing it like the contracted form of “who is.”