Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Lead, or get the lead out

First, I apologize for the title of this blog. I just couldn't resist.

The thing is, lots of people get confused about the word lead in its different pronunciations and meanings.

First let's review.
Lead (pronounced leed) often is a verb, present tense, as in Lead us out of the maze.
Lead (pronounced leed) can be a noun, as in, Take the lead since you know the route.
Led (pronounced led) will be a verb, past tense, as in I led them out of the maze last night.
Lead (pronouced led) can be a noun referring to a heavy metal, as in That table is as heavy as lead.

Most errors I've seen result from people thinking the past tense led should be spelled lead.

Or they know the difference but just don't realize they've typed the wrong word.

In any case, a quick review of one's writing will help avoid this error.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Loosen up, but not too loose!

I always wonder what causes trends in language, trends that take a simple word and change it from correct usage to incorrect. This happens more often than you might think, and one such trend I've noticed with increasing frequency of late is the use of loose when the meaning people intend to convey is lose.

The pronunciation is different, of course, as well as the spelling, so what makes it difficult to differentiate between loose (loos) and lose (looz)? What's so hard about a sentence such as "If you play loose and easy with your money, you can lose your fortune overnight"?

The differences seem clear to me. However, if you're having difficulty remembering which spelling you should use, try thinking "loose as a goose" and notice the similar spellings. If you know that loose rhymes with goose, you're not likely to write that you're about to loose your mind.

At least I hope you won't.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Apostrophe: It’s Not Just for Decoration

It seems to me that people tend to toss apostrophes around as though these punctuation marks were intended solely for decorative purposes. I recently came across a sentence that read, “Do publishers and author’s really feel that.…” Why on earth would the writer make publishers plural (correctly) but throw in an unneeded apostrophe to make that second noun—author—both singular and possessive? Is there some convoluted logic in these instances, or do people have no idea what an apostrophe is used for?

Of course—and perhaps this is what confuses people—the apostrophe has many purposes other than making words possessive. It’s used in contractions as a replacement for letters (such as “it’s” for “it is”). It’s also used to guide us in correctly reading “minding our p’s and q’s.”

But these uses are fairly straightforward and don’t really seem to be an adequate reason for just tossing an apostrophe into a word when it has no purpose.

What about you? Have you seen instances recently of misused apostrophes? If so, I’d like to hear from you.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Give Me a Break

Recently I've read two books published by prestigious publishers in which the homonym "break" was used in place of "brake." I know that such mistakes are easy to make, especially considering that many of us tend to rely too much on spellcheckers, but various people read a book before it's actually printed. 

Authors are frequently not dependable when proofing their own work because they tend to "see" what they think they wrote. However, I'd like to believe that editors or copy editors might be especially vigilant regarding this type of error. 

Apparently I'm wrong.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Getting Our Just Deserts: Not So Yummy

There are many words that have similar spellings, similar (or identical) pronunciations, and entirely different meanings. Take, for example, dessert and desert

Actually, dessert is clear enough. It’s a noun referring to that part of the meal that many of us look forward to while munching on our vegetables.

But what about desert, the noun, and desert, the verb, which are spelled the same, pronounced differently, and have very different meanings?

The verb desert (which is pronounced the same as dessert) means to abandon or fail (as in “She deserted her post because her courage deserted her”). Not a sentence we would write, of course, except to illustrate a point.

The noun desert is also easily defined, as in an area that is dry and usually covered in sand. The adjective desert (as in “desert conditions”) is also easily understood. This noun and this adjective are pronounced the same.

But what about the noun desert (pronounced like the noun dessert or the verb desert) when it refers to receiving an appropriate punishment or, less commonly, an appropriate reward. “He received his just deserts” is a phrase frequently used to indicate someone “got what was coming to him.”

Personally, I tend to misspell the latter noun as dessert rather than the correct desert. The dessert spelling and meaning seem to fit better to me. After all, we often tell children we’ll withhold dessert if they don’t behave. But if they misbehave and are thus not allowed to have dessert, we say they are getting their just deserts. 

Gads! I need some chocolate!  

Friday, April 17, 2009

To Compliment or to Complement: That Is the Question

Most of us know the difference between compliment and complement, but do you ever have to stop and think which to use?

 The two meanings, of course, are quite different. To complement is to add to something or to complete something, as in “His new necktie complements his suit.” To compliment is to admire or praise, as in “I complimented him on his new necktie.”

 There is a similar difference, of course, between complementary and complimentary.  One would say, “She purchased a coat with a complementary hat and scarf.” However, if the hat and scarf were gifts from the merchant, we would say, “She purchased the coat, but the hat and scarf were complimentary.”

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Those Tempting Exclamation Points

I recently received a question about when the use of an exclamation point is appropriate. I've already written about that tempting little punctuation mark on my website, but it never hurts to repeat a warning. Do not overuse the exclamation point!

And please, please, please, do not use multiple exclamation points!!!!

What's the harm, you ask? Between friends, in an email perhaps, there's no real harm. But in writing for people outside your immediate sphere, whether you're writing fiction or nonfiction (and especially in the business world), the exclamation point should be avoided. 

There might be a legitimate reason for using an exclamation point if one were writing a user's manual and it was necessary to warn of a potential danger, although even then, I'd suggest writing the word in all caps (DANGER!).  Oops. See that exclamation point at the end of DANGER? I found I just couldn't write the word "Danger" followed by a simpering little period. In addition to screaming the word by using all caps, I needed to emphasize it by adding that exclamation point.  

So you see, they really are tempting little punctuation marks.  All we can do is try to avoid them. Sigh!

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Are you eager or anxious?

Few people these days appear to worry about the correct usage of "eager" versus "anxious," especially in speech, but the careful writer should take note of the difference between the two and use the appropriate word. The word "anxious" implies that there is some degree of anxiety involved in the situation. Additionally, "anxious" is followed by "about" or "for" while "eager" is followed by "to." Thus, one would not be "anxious to go to the new play that has been getting such good reviews." You would be "eager to go" although you might be "anxious about fighting the crowd" when you get there.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

A Day Late

I just missed (by ten minutes) blogging on National Grammar Day during the actual day itself (March 4). You didn't know there is a National Grammar Day? Neither did I until yesterday. If you'd like to know more, you can do a search and easily find it online. It's an interesting site with lots of good information.

And maybe next year, I'll manage to mention National Grammar Day on the day itself. Or here's a thought: maybe even on the day before.

In any case, I hope you enjoy the site, or that you have at least learned something new: There's a National Grammar Day.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Losing misplaced modifiers

Misplaced modifiers have become so common, we frequently read right over them because we usually know, from context, what the author intended to say. But take the sentence out of context and you may well be lost.

For example, I was recently reading a book by one of my favorite authors when I was jarred out of the story by a dangling modifier. The sentence ran somewhat along these lines: “Prodding her horse along, a tiny cabin came into sight.”

What the sentence really says, of course, is that a tiny cabin is prodding a horse, but logic tells us this can’t be what the writer intended to say. And when you read the sentence in context, you know who is riding the horse and where the tiny cabin is located.

Still, a careful writer should eliminate misplaced modifiers so that his or her writing can be as clear as possible.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Unique is . . . well, unique.

You've heard it before, I'm sure. If a thing is unique, then it is one of a kind. Thus, a thing cannot be more unique or less unique or almost unique. If a thing is unique, then it is unique. Period.

But how many times do you see something described as "very unique"? Often enough, perhaps, that you no longer flinch or even stop to think that you've run across an error.

The Chicago Manual of Style explains that "unique" is an uncomparable adjective that "describes an absolute state or condition," and the style manual lists other uncomparables as "entire," "impossible," and "pregnant."

So let us remember that just as one can't be almost pregnant, neither can one be almost unique. You either are, or you aren't.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Those Pesky Possessives

Showing possession is, in most cases, simple enough. For a singular noun, you add an apostrophe and an s (as in "the horse's mouth"). For plural nouns, a single apostrophe (the bakers' convention). 

All very straightforward. Except for the exceptions, of course.

One exception relates to plural nouns that don't end with an s (children's, women's, etc.), not a problem for most people.

Then there are nouns that are plural in form but singular in meaning (politics' shortcomings) and, similarly, names of organizations or places that end in an s even though the entity is singular (United States' policies). 

My problem with possessives arises when the word ends in an s that is pronounced. I prefer adding an apostrophe and an s so the word becomes, for example, "Dallas's" as in "Dallas's population is growing." But my experience with publishers is that they prefer to omit the possessive s on all words ending in s so that the sentence would become "Dallas' population is growing."

I assume the publishers prefer to be consistent rather than worrying about whether the s is pronounced or not, and if you sign a contract with a publisher that uses this particular style, well, you have to accept their style.

But they'll never make me like it.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Confusing "Lie" and "Lay"

Is there an easy way to remember the difference between "lie" and "lay"?  If so, I hope you'll share it with me because I've always found those words confusing.  And unless you can tell me an easy way to keep up with the correct usage, I'll keep having to jog my memory occasionally by checking with the experts.

"Lie" means to recline.  "Lay" means to place.  I lay the book on the table. The book lies on the table.  That seems easy enough. 

But wait.  What about the past?  Yesterday I laid the book on the table and it lay there for hours. Right?  I'm not sure.  I'll have to look that up.  Along with "It has lain there before." 
Okay. It seems I was right. For lie (to recline), I would say "I'm going to lie down," "I lay down for an hour yesterday," and "I have lain down for an hour every afternoon this week."  For lay (to place), I would say "I usually lay the book on the table," "I laid it there yesterday," and "I have laid it there before." 

I still find that confusing.  

But one really good bit of news.  The word "lie," when used as a synonym for telling a falsehood, is consistent: You lie, you lied yesterday, and you have lied frequently. (No offense intended.)  

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

ME is more important than you think.

"Jack is holding the tickets for Doris and I."

If the sentence above makes you cringe, I assume you know that the objective case should follow a preposition. In other words, Jack should be holding the tickets for Doris and me.  After all, you wouldn't say, "Jack is holding the tickets for I," would you?

But add another noun to the equation and many people choose I over me, presumably because they think I sounds better and that me sounds incorrect.

What about you?  Are you seeing more and more instances of public figures or writers misusing me and I? If so, I'd like to hear from you.  Send your examples.  I'd love to know how  widespread this practice has become.

Monday, February 16, 2009

My first post: A disclaimer

Having spent the majority of my adult years as an academic editor, I learned two important things about our language. First, it is constantly changing.  Second, no matter what you want to prove about usage and grammar, if you search diligently, you can find an expert who will agree with you. But be aware that despite the ambiguity among experts, I'll state my opinions about what I find to be preferable.

Thus, I'm sure that my musings will find favor with some but certainly not with everyone.  If you agree with me, feel free to say so.  If you disagree, please state your objections to my view politely.  And if you are just wondering about something to do with usage or grammar, chime in and ask.  If I don't know the answer, I'll try to locate one for you.