Dave's Writing Guide

Typos, style-o's, capitalization-o's, and everything-else-and-in-between-o's.

Punctuation Exchange Program

Problem(s)

Pistons pick Singler to play in Spain (AP)

Solution(s)

Pistons’ pick Singler to play in Spain (AP)

Explanation

The AP has done it again.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I’m as big a fan of the Associated Press as anyone. But when grammatical errors (or typos, perhaps [to be fair]) derail a perfectly good headline, changes need to be made, says I. Drastic changes. Changes that could, say, lead to the hiring of a heretofore unknown blogger as headline editor…?

Okay, maybe not. But let’s take a look at the problem sentence.

I will admit that I get most of my news from My Yahoo! (or most of the news that hasn’t been filtered through the people I follow on Twitter, or my friends on Facebook). For me, it’s certainly the first place I go for NBA news. So imagine my surprise when I open up my page and see this headline:

A headline from Yahoo! news.

“Why would the Pistons send a rookie to play in Spain?!” I thought. But then, taken aback by my own thought, I thought anew, “Wait… Why would the Pistons be sending any players to play in Spain? Is there some sort of international tournament where each NBA team sends a single player? No, that’s stupid. Is there some sort of exchange program going on? No, that’s even stupider.” Finally, curious and out of ideas, I clicked on the article and read it, and figured it all out.

At the time, the NBA had locked out its players, and many players—rookies included—were seeking employment overseas. When the lockout ended, most came back. Pistons’ rookie Kyle Singler, though, did not, electing to remain in Spain, where he had played during the lockout. So what the headline was actually saying was that the player that the Pistons had selected early in the second round of the 2011 NBA Draft was going to play in Spain, rather than the NBA.

Now, I may be a curmudgeon, but the interpretation I described above was my very first interpretation that popped into my head after I’d read the headline, and it gave rise to confusion. I didn’t go looking for this fight: It found me!

Since the actual meaning is recoverable, though (after all, both sentences sound the same), one might wonder, what’s the big deal? Why do we need an apostrophe there? Well, actually, we don’t need an apostrophe there. But, at the same time, there must be an apostrophe there. Let me explain.

In English, there’s no phonological difference between “Pistons pick Singler” and “Pistons’ pick Singler”. In English orthography, though, we have a convention of placing an apostrophe after a plural noun to indicate that it possesses the next noun—and even though we can get by without it (and many do), it’s a fairly well-known convention. Because of that, its absence may give rise to ambiguity in an otherwise unambiguous sentence. That is, the very fact that it can be there means that if it’s not there when it “should” be, its absence could very well cause our brains to explode.

We wouldn’t have this problem if we did like German does (for the most part) and got rid of our lousy apostrophes. Consider the following comparison between German and English:

  • Peters Auto “Peter’s car”

Look at that! Possession without an apostrophe. Why do we even need the apostrophe in “Peter’s car”?! “Peters car” is just fine!

Alas… I fear we’re stuck with our apostrophes, be they genitive, contractive, or distractive. So keep using them, whether you like them or not. It will help those of us who continue to misread headlines that should be interpretable with or without a correctly-placed apostrophe.

On the other hand, if you want to make sure I actually click on a link…

Anchors Away…?

Problem(s)

Now, in getting under weigh, the station generally occupied by the pilot is the forward part of the ship.

Solution(s)

Now, in getting underway, the station generally occupied by the pilot is the forward part of the ship.

Explanation

The astute reader will recognize the problem sentence from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (which I refuse to hyphenate). I was quite astounded when I first read it—and astounded anew when I saw the spelling “under weigh” again later on in the book. There is no difference in usage from our own “underway”: it’s just spelled as two words, and “weigh” is used instead of “way”.

Curious to see when the change occurred, I checked my favorite free online English etymology website (Etymonline.com), and was quite astonied to see that the entry for “underway” makes absolutely no mention of “under weigh”! Perhaps, I thought, this was simply an idiosyncratic feature of Melville’s writing, and everyone else used “underway” before and after. But lo! Etymonline.com lists the date of origin as 1934 (with reference particularly to ships). Moby Dick was published in 1851.

Without a paid subscription to the OED, I don’t think I can solve this puzzle. I will note, though, that the spelling “under weigh” appears in even older works (I heard rumblings about it appearing in The Count of Monte Cristo), and also that there’s no question that “underway” is the correct spelling at this point in time. However, it also seems to be the case that “under weigh” is older than “underway”, and that the two expressions mean roughly the same thing. I’ll leave it to you to draw your own conclusions.

Oh, and here’s a freebie: The title is properly “anchors aweigh”, not “anchors away”. It would seem that the US Navy has successfully preserved that expression, at least.

Coming Down the Mountain

Back in ancient times, I maintained basically a homemade, hand-coded blog for giving style and grammar advice to students. Since then, I stopped teaching, and also (finally) gave up on coding my own PHP (which was probably a good idea, since I don’t know PHP). Instead, I’ve turned to WordPress, and in so doing have resuscitated not only my book reviews blog, but also this blog: Dave’s Writing Guide.

Since I no longer have students, the purpose of this blog will be both to champion the cause of precision in writing, and to fight against the tyranny of prescriptivism. It’s a fine line I walk, but walk it I shall.

If you decide to follow this blog, you’ll be treated to periodic updates (highly periodic, if that makes any sense [and I think it does]), fierce rhetoric, my own unique brand of punctuation (which I will defend to the death), frequent parenthetical comments, and a plethora of example sentences featuring ice cream. If that sounds good to you, read on! If it doesn’t, head over to YouTube and type “funny cats” into the search window. Either way, you will not be disappointed.

Thanks for stopping by.

An-aphylactic Shock

Problem(s)

An euphoric end to a bittersweet Olympics (AP)

Solution(s)

A euphoric end to a bittersweet Olympics (AP)

Explanation

No, no, no, no, no, no, NO!

Ack! You have got to be kidding me! This is an actual headline (hence the lack of punctuation) from the Associated Press—and to prove it, here’s a screenshot:

An terribly horrible headline.

Ahem. So. Let us start by reviewing the appropriate way to use the English indefinite article—again.

In English, words that begin with a consonant sound are preceded by the “a” variant of the indefinite article. Words that begin with a vowel sound, on the other hand, are preceded by “an”. It’s that simple.

Turning our attention to this problem sentence, the word “euphoric” begins with a vowel letter, but does not begin with a vowel sound. The distinction is crucial. As such, it should be “a euphoric”, just as one would say “a yellow banana” and not “an yellow banana”.

But this is no simple typo. No indeed: I know the secret behind this error.

Returning to a previous error, stuffshirts and blowhards think it sounds hoity-toity to say “an historic” instead of “a historic”. It’s wrong, of course (just as wrong as it would be to say “an hoity-toity idiot”), but they think it’s “proper”, and so they go about making asses of themselves by saying “an historic event”.

Now let’s look at our problem sentence. The context is the conclusion of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. In summing it up, one simply had to pay tribute to the memory of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili who died tragically in a freak accident during a training run literally hours before the opening ceremonies. As such, the article needed a bit of solemnity, even in discussing the national high experienced by Canada after the Canadians’ victory over Team USA for the gold medal in hockey.

When dealing with solemn or serious matters, all writers have a tendency to “write up”—that is, to try to use more formal language than they would ordinarily. Knowing that writing something like “an historic” has a kind of solemn and prestigious air, this writer (David Crary, in case you’re curious), no doubt, looked at the similarity between the words “historic” and “euphoric” (both trisyllabic, both end in “-oric”…) and thought, “Gee, you know what? If it’s formal to say ‘an historic’, I’ll bet it’s formal to say ‘an euphoric’, too!”

And that’s how we got the headline quoted above.

If David Crary ever happens to read this, I offer this advice: Trust your gut. Your first reaction (hopefully to write “a euphoric”) is often the correct reaction when it comes to usage. Don’t let that internal editor confuse and bamboozle you. Chances are he’s had one too many and is up to no good.

(And no, in case you were wondering, I will not consider seriously the possibility that we’re intended to pronounce “euphoric” as the Greeks do. “Euphoric” is now an English word, and we’re not giving it back!)

They Have the Internet on Computers Now…?

Problem(s)

I just found out how to make ice cream on the Internet!

Solution(s)

I just found out how to make ice cream on the internet!

Explanation

Ignoring the ambiguity of that problem sentence, most dictionaries and style guides will tell you to capitalize the word “internet”. Always.

And they’re serious!

I don’t know when the stylistas went insane, but it was some time before they decided that the word “internet” was as important as our first person singular pronoun.

For their sake, let us review the case for the capitalization of “internet”.

One ought always to capitalize a proper noun. Is “internet” a proper noun? Let’s give it a shot. “Hey, I saw that article on Internet the other day!” Uhh…no.

Every so often, place names that are not proper nouns are capitalized as if they were. The word “Capitol” comes to mind. But before we get into a discussion about whether the internet is important enough of a place to be capitalized, is the internet a place? No.

We’re rapidly running out of possibilities… Uhh, let’s see… Single-letter abbreviations are capitalized (so M.D. is capitalized, but the “grad.” in “grad. student” isn’t). Is “internet” a single-letter abbreviation? No.

Hmm… Acronyms are generally capitalized. Is “internet” an acronym? Hmm… “Information Network to Expedite Really Neat Electronic…Treatises”? No.

Is “internet” the name of a country, like the Netherlands? Nope.

Okay. So what’s the deal? Why is this word capitalized? Frankly, I find it disturbing. Capitalizing the word “internet” is precisely the type of thing that George Orwell would want to warn us against. The internet is not a person! It’s not even a place! As I understand it, it’s a series of tubes that…can get clogged, and make it so your e-mails don’t arrive when you think they ought…

Seriously, the “internet” is nothing more than a series of servers around the world connected by wires (or now wirelessly, making the connection even more tenuous). If the internet is a place, then so is the telephone grid, or the mail system. We don’t capitalize those, though.

So, if you’re capitalizing the word internet, I ask you—I beg you, from the bottom of my heart: Stop it! Just stop it! There’s no point to it! It’s nonsense! Whenever I see the word “internet” capitalized, I feel like strangling myself with a live cobra. (That’s one of the many reasons why I don’t read The New Yorker anymore.)

I’m not too worried, though. Capitalizing “internet” takes a lot more effort than not capitalizing it. Seeing as it’s also unnecessary, I bet the practice will have disappeared in about fifty years. In the meantime, I’ll be waiting. And watching. On the internet!

Hopefully

Problem(s)

Hopefully I’ll be able to eat some ice cream tomorrow.

Solution(s)

I hope that I’ll be able to eat some ice cream tomorrow.

It is my hope that I’ll be able to eat some ice cream tomorrow.

I live hopefully knowing that it may come to pass that I’ll be able to eat some ice cream tomorrow.

Explanation

What’s wrong with the problem sentence above? Let’s see what the internet has to say:

Everyone uses “hopefully” as a shortcut for “I hope.” It is not. Yes, the dictionary allows it, but that’s just bending to popular usage. In my book, there is only one correct use for “hopefully.” It’s a synonym for “prayerfully”—as in, “She looked up hopefully and said, ‘Dear Lord, please make it rain soon, or we’ll have no harvest.'” Do you want to say “I hope”? Then say “I hope.”

This quote comes from an essay by Jesse Kornbluth, founder of HeadButler.com. Jesse is a journalist, a writer, a contributor to several magazines (their titles don’t matter—they’re magazines), and the holder of a BA in English from Harvard. He is not, however, a linguist.

The funny thing about non-linguists is that they fall into two categories: regular folk, and grammarians. Both camps know next to nothing about language that instinct hasn’t taught them, but what distinguishes grammarians is that they insist (stridently? Sure, why not: stridently) that they know more about language than both regular folk and linguists.

The case of “hopefully” is a fine example. If you break it down (ooh, morphemically! Ha. Take that, Marantz!), what you get is “hope”, a verb, which means what it means (to believe, falsely, that one’s thoughts and silent protestations are able to effect some sort of change in the world [note that it need not be in the future, e.g. “I hope he got home okay.” That subtle distinction—in this case, the difference between the deontic and epistemic use of “hope”—is something the grammarian usually fails to pick up on (or have a name for, for that matter)]), followed by the suffix “-ful” (no longer spelled “-full”, even though its etymology is rather transparent), which indicates (metaphorically, mind you) that the modified noun is “full of” whatever is specified, the combination of which gives us the adjective “hopeful”: roughly, “to be full of hope”. To this is then added the handy “-ly” suffix (cognate to German “-lich”, which is cognate to English “like”, etc.) which makes an adverb out of the whole monstrosity, leaving us with a meaning something like “to act/behave in a manner that is characterized by being full of hope”, or perhaps something even more prolix that need not be written down.

The problem, then, is that as it is written in the problem sentence above, the word “hopefully” is devoid of content. Who’s doing what hopefully? Is it “I”, the subject? If it were, the literal meaning would be “Tomorrow, I will be able to eat ice cream, and I will be able to do so in a hopeful manner.” Given that meaning, it’s a bit odd that the adverb is preposed, but stranger things exist in print.

Unfortunately, there’s one little problem: That’s not what the sentence means. Instead, “hopefully” functions as an optative marker. In plain English (man, there’s an expression, if I’ve ever heard one!), what this means is that the word “hopefully” is there solely to indicate to the reader or listener that the content of the sentence is something that has not happened yet, but which the speaker wishes to happen. Some languages (Ancient Greek among them) encode this grammatically. English, though, at some point in time decided to borrow the word “hopefully” to fulfill the purpose, and it’s done a fine job ever since.

“N-now, just wait a minute, there!” cries Jesse K. Prescriptivist. “That’s not what the word means! You can’t do that!”

Jesse K., I gots two words for you: BOOOO HOOOO! Or, to put that in 1337: qq moar n00b.

Let’s examine the “logic” of the prescriptivist’s argument. “Everyone says x to mean y, but they ought not, because it means x.” Everyone, you say—even you? (I bet you do.) If that’s the case, by what authority can you claim that x means x and not y? The response is simple enough: “It used to mean x, and we have documented proof that it did.”

Okie doke. Let’s go with that. For fun, let’s take a look at another function adverb: “already.” Its etymology is pretty darn clear: it’s a combination of the words “all” and “ready”. In fact, you can see it acting as it ought in a sentence like, “Are you all ready?” (In this sentence, the subject is addressing multiple people.) Somehow or other, though, the two words got jammed together—respelled, too (they complain about “alright”, but not about “already”. Why, I wonder…?)—and the meaning was “corrupted”, so that now it’s used as a kind of emphatic completive marker (if you say “I ate”, surely it means that the action was completed some time in the past, but it simply doesn’t carry the force of “I ate already”).

I don’t see any grammarians claiming that “already” is an abomination any longer. Why? Presumably because its innovation predated their existence. Is that, then, the prerequisite for acceptance? Clearly the history of “they” being used as a singular third person pronoun contradicts this, but we’ll stick with it for now.

Logically, then, there’s but one thing to do: Wait for everyone who’s bothered by the optative usage of “hopefully” to die, and then we’ll have no more bother. If you’re a student, use “hopefully” to your heart’s content. If your teacher gives you trouble, send them here. If they still give you trouble, find a new class. Certain things you simply do not need.

But let’s back up a moment. Just how on Earth did “hopefully” come to be used as an optative marker, anyway?

What the grammarian probably did not notice in reading this write-up is that I’ve committed the exact same “error” with words other than “hopefully” several times already. Do a search for the word “unfortunately”, for example. Just what’s up with that? “Fortune” is chance; “fortunate” is an adjective used with a noun that has benefited by chance; “unfortunate” is the opposite (someone who’s been afflicted by bad luck, let’s say); “unfortunately”, then, is someone who has acted in a manner that can be characterized as unfortunate. If you take a look at that sentence, whose action is being characterized as unfortunate? No one’s? Then why is that sentence fine and a sentence beginning with “hopefully” wrong?

And it doesn’t end there. Consider: “Sadly, there is no more ice cream to be had.”

Or, “Happily, there’s an ice cream parlor just around the corner.”

Or, “Malheureusement, je ne sais pas le mot française pour ‘ice cream’.”

What’s going on here? Even the French betray “common sense”?!

Of course, that’s not what’s happening. What is happening is a process common to human languages everywhere. Specifically, an adverb’s meaning is being extended metaphorically to convey the attitude of the speaker. You might think of each adverb as modifying the phrase “I say”, in which case “hopefully” fits right in (think about it: “I say hopefully that I’ll be able to eat ice cream tomorrow”). Rarely does a speaker explicitly inform the hearer that they are in the process of speaking, though, so what the adverb modifies is an idea.

To put it bluntly, not only does complaining about the “misuse” of “hopefully” betray a general lack of understanding as to the nature of language, it is, to use the most insulting term available to an academic, misguided. Hopefully the grammarians of the world will come to understand this, but I’m not holding my breath.

If the use of “hopefully” as an optative marker saddens you, though, I sympathize. After all, there are tons of English speakers running around right now pronouncing “important” as if it were spelled “impordant” (it’s like nails on a chalkboard to me). But what is one to do? Innovations occur everyday in every language. Some innovations are quashed early on; some are picked up and become features of the language. One can try to predict what will catch on, or even serve as a guide, but ultimately, it’s out of our hands. If you’re feeling down, though, I recommend Ambrose Bierce’s Write It Right. In Bierce, not only will you find a true prescriptivist (and a brilliant writer), but you’ll find someone who will criticize your own English (yes, even modern day “grammarians’”)! Did you know that “obnoxious” doesn’t mean “annoying”? Or that one ought not say “as for me” but “as to me”? No? Then go read Write It Right right away! You’ll either be horrified at how your own English has been corrupted, or you’ll come away with a better sense of just how language evolution works.

P.S.: Speaking of errors, Kornbluth, I was reading your article here, and was shocked to learn that J. D. Salinger had apparently written a short story I’d never read which shared a title with his 1961 novel Franny and Zooey! I was about to turn to Google to find out more, when I read on and saw that I was mistaken, and that, instead, you simply failed to correctly punctuate the title. Imagine my dismay! In case you hadn’t learned this one yet, the titles of shorter works (like short stories) are enclosed in quotation marks; the titles of longer works (like Salinger’s novel) are underlined (though thanks to the lazy newspaper industry, italics are also acceptable). Whoa, hey, did you hear that? That was the sound of you getting OWNED. That one was free. The rest will cost you.

She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain

Problem(s)

Ice cream has become to be something more than just a dessert to me.

Solution(s)

Ice cream has come to be something more than just a dessert to me.

Ice cream has become something more than just a dessert to me.

Explanation

You only get one “be”, so use it wisely!

(Note that “become” and “come to be” are not always interchangeable. Consider: “He became a teacher” ≠ “He came to be a teacher.” Oh, and how about “You’re becoming a nuisance” vs. “You’re coming to be a nuisance”?)

Powerful Stench?

Problem(s)

The permanent closure of my local ice cream parlor caused me to wreck havoc on the city.

The permanent closure of my local ice cream parlor caused me to reek havoc on the city.

Solution(s)

The permanent closure of my local ice cream parlor caused me to wreak havoc on the city.

Explanation

One letter can make a world of difference. Take our first problem sentence above. If we want to be technical, what that sentence actually conveys is something like the following: In my town, there was a local ice cream parlor that was closed. Its closure made me so upset, that I located havoc—the entity, here apparently anthropomorphized—and I beat the living tar out of it. Furthermore, I did this while standing on top of the city. (Oh, though if we wanted to change the text style and capitalization, what I could be wrecking is the new hit TV show Havoc on the City!)

If we then take a look at problem sentence number two, we’re in for even more fun. In this scenario, the ice cream parlor’s closure made me so upset that I decided to utilize my mighty stink glands to stink up havoc (again, the allegorical entity), and I did so while standing on top of the city. (I should note, though, that even this interpretation is problematic, as it would force us to accept a new variant of “reek”: a transitive verb meaning “to cause to reek”.)

The specific errors here differ, but the source is the same. Both “wreck” and “reek” are common words. “Wreak”, on the other hand, is far, far from common. In fact, I’m pretty sure the word “wreak” only occurs in the phrase “wreak havoc” (this expression, by the way, is a fun one since “havoc” is pretty rare itself, unless you’re a fan of the X-Men [though even there, his name is properly spelled “Havok”]). As a result, if you’ve heard it for the first time, or have never seen it in print, it seems reasonable to infer that the word “wreak” is either actually “reek”, used in some odd way you haven’t encountered previously, or that you misheard, and the word is actually “wreck”.

This latter interpretation is ingenious, in my opinion, because it plays on the context in which the word “wreak” is used. If a speaker uses the phrase “wreak havoc”, the context is probably negative (defined in the simplest way, to “wreak havoc” is to do something bad). Similarly, the verb “wreck”, defined simply, is to do something bad to something else. Since the semantic domain of both words is the same, and since the phonological forms are similar, it’s perfectly logical (or, perhaps, analogical) to assume that “wreak havoc” is actually “wreck havoc”, and that the meaning of “wreck” has been extended metaphorically to cover a situation that focuses on the act of wrecking something. The syntax of the verb, of course, has to be modified to allow for a direct object that itself isn’t “wrecked” (unless “wreak havoc” is interpreted as a phrase similar to “kick the bucket”), but given that words are used in such bizarre ways in English already, no English speaker can be blamed for making such an assumption.

Back to real world English, the status of this error, though, is that it is an error, and it’s not accepted even in non-standard writing. It will happen from time to time, of course, but just as we can’t get away with writing “for all intensive purposes”, so are we unable to get away with writing “wreck havoc”. As with other expressions, this is simply one to memorize, just as one must memorize that the word for “duck” is “duck” and not “cordoofle”.

Be Fruitful

Problem(s)

So far, those efforts have not born fruit.

Solution(s)

So far, those efforts have not borne fruit.

Explanation

In the latest installment of my ongoing series “It Can Happen to Anyone”, I bring to you the problem sentence above, written by a reporter from Reuters. I found it today (that is, the date listed above) in an article about the release of U.S.-Iranian reporter Roxana Saberi. So, hey, if it can happen to a reporter that works for Reuters, it can happen to anyone!

This particular error involves one of those little-used irregular verbs “to bear”. To conjugate “bear” properly, one writes “bear” in the present, “bore” in the past”, and “borne” in the compound past tenses (“has borne”, “had borne”, etc.). The latter is a homonym of the much more common “born”, and the meaning is related (I’m sure the words are related, as well), so it’s no wonder that a writer would slip up and write “born” when they meant “borne”.

At this point in time, though, I would say that “born” is not an acceptable replacement for “borne”. It may be one day, but that day has yet to come, in my opinion. Most of the time the word “borne” is used in fixed expressions, though, so if you simply learn them by rote, you’ll avoid slip-ups. In fact, when it comes to English spelling, I think it’d be helpful to learn everything by rote. The rules and generalizations that exist simply aren’t useful enough to warrant learning the whole mess as a system as opposed to a series of unfortunate accidents.

Mos Defiantly

Problem(s)

I defiantly think we should go get ourselves some ice cream.

Solution(s)

I definitely think we should go get ourselves some ice cream.

Explanation

I see this one again and again, and I often wonder why. Well, no, that’s not quite true. Really what I wonder is what the world would be like if the writer actually intended to use “defiantly”. Take our problem sentence. In the terrible world that sentence presupposes, not only is it apparently a crime to go get ice cream, but it’s considered inappropriate—treasonous, if you will—to even opine that anyone should go get ice cream. Thus, in suggesting that the group get ice cream, the speaker is engaging in an act of defiance.

I suspect that what might be happening here is writers are misspelling “definitely” as “definately”, or perhaps “definatly”, and the word processing program they’re using, trying to make sense of what’s been typed, suggests “defiantly”. Without thinking, the writer approves the change (or perhaps the program sneakily changes it for them), and thus “defiantly” defiantly strong-arms its way into whatever’s being written.

This is one of the problems with smart technology. The writer must be smart enough to figure out how the program is going to use its smarts in a silly way, and then must take measures to prevent its smarts getting in the way of readability. For even though anyone reading the problem sentence above will likely figure out what the writer intended, the comical imagery the error conjures up in the mind of the reader is something that one will likely want to avoid in academic and formal contexts.