I could, if I wanted to (“I can not” versus “I cannot”)

There’s a fine difference between “can not” and “cannot.” The first implies the existence of ability and choice. The second doesn’t. Here’s how it works.

I cannot swim. I can’t. I don’t know how. I never learned. (Growing up a hundred miles from any body of water with a mother afraid of water because a childhood friend of hers drowned in a quarry will do that to a person.) Swimming pools aren’t a sufficient impetus. Sorry.

If I knew how to swim, I could rightly say “I can not swim.” I can choose not to. I can, or I can not.

I can not drive. I can choose not to. I know how, and I’m quite good at it, but I can not drive if I don’t feel like it. However, it’s incorrect of me to say “I can’t drive” because I can. On the other hand, if my car’s in the shop, I can rightly say to someone “I can’t drive to the meeting.” I’m not able to. I don’t have a choice. I can’t.

The “can not” construction isn’t common, but it’s not wrong, either. It might be useful at times. Remember, though, that “can’t” means “cannot,” and can’t be used to mean “can not.”

If you can’t, you can’t. Period. There’s no choice in the matter.

Wishin’ and Hopin’ and Prayin': The Subjunctive Mood in English

First, here’s a link to an excellent web article on the subject if you’d rather not read my ramblings.

Read about it at Grammar Monster.

My usual explanation of subjunctive mood involves “Fiddler on the Roof.” Tevye sings about what he would do if he were rich. Not if he was rich. It’s an impossible dream (which is a totally different musical, I know) he can never achieve, so he uses the subjunctive mood. Well, maybe not Tevye, but the lyricist. Thank you, Sheldon Harnick.

People get confused, though, and think that every time they use “if” they need to use “were.” That’s simply not how it works. “If I was older I would be eligible for more discounts.” I will be older, eventually. There’s nothing hopeful or impossible in that situation. I will be older, and I will get more discounts when I am. “If I was dead, I wouldn’t have to worry about grammar.” Nothing hopeful or impossible there, either. I will be dead someday, and when I am, I won’t have to worry about grammar anymore. Continue reading

Which or That? Who Cares?

If you’re a speaker/writer of American English (AmE), these two relative pronouns may well strike terror into your heart. Which one to use? How to keep them straight in your head?

If you’re a speaker/writer of British English (BrE), you probably wonder what I’m on about in that first paragraph. (That is, unless you’re also versed in the quirks of AmE usage.) Continue reading

Let’s chew some GUM.

Grammar, Usage, and Mechanics. And we’ll throw in Syntax and Style for good measure. And no, those won’t be capped for the entire post. That’d be silly. First use is plenty, because now you readers know what the Important Terms are going to be for the rest of this discussion. (That’s a style thing. You’ll learn more about it later.)

We can’t write or speak—we can’t use language—without at least four of those things. Grammar tells us the rules that explain how our words work. It tells us about nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, pronouns, prepositions, and more. It tells us what we need for a complete sentence (a subject and a verb). It tells us how to form a question. Grammar is a set of rules. Not suggestions, not guidelines. Rules. And you know what? Most of us learn these rules by osmosis. We absorb them from hearing other people talk; we are exposed to them when we read. (Sadly, we may read poorly-written material and learn the wrong things, but that’s another post for another time.) Continue reading

Fifty Shades of WTF?

I just wrote a fairly long post at G+ in which I dissect an article from People Magazine. In it, the grammar checker Grammarly takes E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey to task.

To no one’s surprise, I hope, it fails miserably. Mechanical checkers cannot possibly parse the nuances of writing, grammar, usage, mechanics, and style. The proof’s right in the article, linked from my post there.

And I’m linking to that post from here, because writing it once was enough.

Read and enjoy.

Go read my rant here, please. 

When style guides conflict

And they do, quite often.

My current project uses APA (also called, colloquially, “science”) style. Now I’m a CMoS gal, and I know AP pretty well, but even when I had to write reference papers in APA style for my most recent degree work, I didn’t run up against this particular guideline that’s driving me bats.

More bats than usual, that is. Continue reading

Kitty Pryde can be unphased.

I saw it again today: “phase” for “faze.” Let’s look at these words, folks. I know I can straighten you out.

If you want to tell me that something didn’t upset you, didn’t bother you, you’ll say “That didn’t faze me in the least.” FAZE. The word, an Americanism, dates to 1830 and can be traced to Kentish dialect, Old English, and Proto-Germanic. You can look it up for yourself at the Online Etymology Dictionary. Likewise, you can be “unfazed.” Whatever it was didn’t bother you. You’re unfazed. “Yeah, that truck nearly sideswiped me when I skidded on black ice, but I was in control. Didn’t faze me at all.” (You’re a bald-faced liar, but you’re using the correct word. I’ll let it slide. Heh.)

If you’re Kitty Pryde, you can be unphased—but the preferable term is “out of phase,” honestly. Ask Marvel Comics. They’ll set you right. PHASE. This word can be traced to both Latin and Greek. Again, don’t take my word for it. Look here for yourself. There’s phase as in “she’s going through a phase” and phase as in “we’ll phase this in over time.” Phase. A much newer meaning from science fiction and comics has to do with being out of sync, literally; that’s what happens with Kitty. She phases by dropping out of (or is it into?) sync with time and space. Are you a mutant like her? I didn’t think so. (You might be weird in your own wonderful way. I can’t say, as I don’t know you.)

I’m delighted to see that this error is only given a Stage 2 rating on Garner’s Language Change Index. It’s not too late to stop the trend. Just because “everyone says it” doesn’t make it right. And so far, we’re still a long way off from “everyone.” Frankly, the confusion fazes me every time.

Guidelines Are Not Rules (and Vice Versa)

Just a friendly reminder that in English, there are precious few rules and a metric ton (which is a tonne) of guidelines. Style guides do not agree. Dictionaries might not even agree. Grammar guides will agree on most things but not on everything.

What’s a rule?

“Start a new sentence with a capital letter and end it with terminal punctuation.”

That’s about as close to a rule as you’re going to get. And even here there are exceptions. If the sentence is in dialogue, it might NOT begin with a capital letter (it could be an interruption of the previous speaker’s words). The terminal punctuation might NOT be a period, a question mark, or an exclamation point, if the speaker’s drifting off into thought or being interrupted — then it might end with an em dash for an abrupt intrusion or with suspension points to signal the drifting.

No one HAS to follow the guidelines YOU like. And they’re not WRONG if they don’t. They’re making their own choices. They get to do that, and so do you.

Here’s another rule. “An independent clause contains a subject and a verb.” A complete thought contains a subject and a verb (or a noun phrase and a verb phrase, to use different terminology for the same thing). But what about “COME HERE!”? That’s a complete thought, and there’s no noun phrase in sight. That’s because the subject/noun phrase is understood to be “YOU.” “YOU COME HERE!” The subject is clear but it doesn’t appear in print.

If you’re new to this writing thing, do yourself a favor. LEARN THE RULES of grammar before you go breaking them. Having to relearn grammar SUCKS. Learning it and THEN choosing to break the rules? That can be a lot of fun.

I’m all for more fun  in 2015.

Quick Usage: Coach or carriage?

Generally speaking, a coach is closed and a carriage is open.

Think of a stagecoach. It’s closed. There are doors, and a seat up front for the driver. Or, think of a coach of state like the royals ride in from Buckingham Palace to Westminster or to Parliament. Closed.

Then, think about the carriages in Central Park,  NYC. They’re open, with a bench for the driver. No doors, no roof, nothing. Open.

The words aren’t readily interchangeable, regardless of the Wikipedia article about them.

Speak your peace? Or hold it?

Think about it for a moment. How can one speak one’s peace? Peace is quiet, isn’t it? If you’re speaking, you’re not quiet. And what you have to say might well disturb the peace. I can hold my peace at a wedding (“speak now, or forever hold one’s peace”) to maintain the decorum and not embarrass the bride or groom (or their parents, or their aunt Maisie, or the dog . . .).

I can speak my piece, though. Perhaps it’s a piece I’ve memorized, or perhaps it’s a piece that just comes to mind during a heated conversation. Usually when we say someone spoke their piece, they weren’t necessarily being kind. “I went to the board meeting last night and spoke my piece about their stupid plans.” A common variant of this is “say one’s piece.” The meaning’s the same. You speak. It’s anything but peaceful.