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.