Me and Julio

Paul Simon’s lyrics notwithstanding, it’s nonstandard to say “Me and Julio went down by the schoolyard.” (Note, I didn’t say “improper” although I admit to having typed that initially.) Keep in mind, I write tips for standard English — not for dialects or regional speech or what have you. Those have their own grammars and their own rules, none of which I’m qualified to write about; I’m not a linguist.

How do you know when to use “me” and when to use “I?” Or “us” and “we?” (This is covered by a real, live rule — not a guideline. It’s a rule.) There are nominative case pronouns (like “I” and “we” and “he” and “she”) and objective case pronouns (like “me” and “us” and “him” and “her”), and they’re not interchangeable.So, how do you know which to use when you need to say that you and that guy and that woman over there all did something together, and you don’t want to name names?

Would you really say “Us went to the movies last night”? Would you? I highly doubt it. So, you wouldn’t say “Me went to the movies last night” either, most likely, or “Him went to the movies” or “Her went to the movies” or “Them went to the movies.” I hope you’re seeing a pattern here.

“We went to the movies last night.” That’s the nominative case; “we” is the subject of the sentence. If you went alone, you’d say “I went to the movies last night.” Now, let’s add more words and see what happens.

“James and me went to the movies last night.” Really? If you weren’t telling me James was with you, would you say “me went to the movies”? I didn’t think so. So, you don’t say it when you are adding James to the subject. “James and I went to the movies.” Take the other person (or people) out of your sentence and figure out which pronoun you’d use, and then use that one when you put the other people back in. You’ll still be correct.

“Paul and she went to the movies last night.” If Paul wasn’t in the picture, you’d say “she went to the movies.” There’s no need to change the word when you put Paul into the sentence. You can even put her first: “She and Paul went to the movies.” If you don’t want to name him, but you want to tell us that Paul and she went, you say “they went to the movies,” not “them went.”  Follow that logic out (because here’s a situation where logic actually works in English), and you’ll find that you can also correctly say “They and I went to the movies.”

Now, let’s look at which words to use with prepositions, like “between.” Prepositions take the objective case (me, us, him, her, them). “Just between us” is a phrase I’m sure you’ve heard often. It’s correct. So, again following the logic (which is a rare thing in English, so it’s pretty exciting!), you’d say “just between you and me” — NOT “just between you and I.” That’s a classic case of hypercorrection stemming from your mom (or me!) telling you not to say “James and me went to the movies.” If it’s wrong there, surely it’s wrong everywhere. Except it’s not.

“Join James and I for a Hangout-On-Air.” Think about that, given what I’ve explained. Is it correct? Remove “James and” from the sentence; what pronoun would you use to refer to yourself?

I’m not telling. Consider this a quiz. (You know I was a language arts teacher, long ago and far away.)

 

A guy walks into a pizza . . .

. . . and swears, because now his shoes are a mess.

Should you use “into” or “in to?” Well, it depends. (It always depends, doesn’t it?)

You walk into a building, or into a room. You’re moving; you are changing your location from outside to inside.

However, if there’s a pizza in the room you walk into, you “walk in to a pizza.” You walk in to the presence of pizza (presumably on a table or counter, not the floor).

I will quote Garner, so you will know I’m not blowing smoke: “These prepositions aren’t ordinarily interchangeable, and care must be taken in choosing between them: in denotes position or location, and into denotes movement. Thus, a person who swims in the ocean is already there, while a person who swims into the ocean is moving from, say, the mouth of a river. There are many exceptions, however, especially with popular idioms <go jump in a lake>.” (Garner’s Modern American Usage, page 450)

Similarly, you might say “I ran in the mall last week,” meaning you went for a run inside the mall (one would hope the mall sets aside times for such activity, so you weren’t running over little old ladies with shopping bags). “I ran into the mall last week” means something entirely different. Did you “run into the mall” because someone was chasing you from the parking lot? Or did you “run into the mall” to pick up a last-minute gift for someone? I hope these examples help delineate which preposition to use. People “walking into donuts” are likely to have pretty crumby shoes (as opposed to “crummy” shoes, which aren’t the same thing at all).

What a capital idea!

“Capital” and “capitol” are very easily (and very often) confused. “Capitol” is only and ever and always a building. Think of the round O-shape of a dome. Think of stone, of doors, of windows. All those things echo the “O” in “capitol.” One is bound to work for you as a mnemonic. If this word refers to a specific building, it will be capitalized as a proper noun or proper adjective. “Protesters in Washington, D.C. congregated on the Capitol steps.” However, it can just as easily be a common noun: “While the class was in the capital, they toured the capitol and other important sites”.

“Capital” is never a building. (This is one of the few times I feel safe using that adverb.) The capital can be a city (Madison is the capital of Wisconsin). It can be a letter (city names begin with a capital letter). It can mean “the center of a specific activity or industry” (Hollywood has been called the entertainment capital of the world). In the UK and countries where UK English is the usual, “capital” can mean “excellent,” as it does in the heading for this post.

For some reason, this pairing has been turning up all over of late in various grammar-related places. I’m far from the only one to have addressed it. Here is a link to the Grammarist article, which I think is one of the best.

“Disappear” is the new “impact”

I’ll bet some of you are already twitching. That’s good. Very good.

If you’re not twitching, perhaps the use of “impact” as a verb doesn’t bother you. I’m not sure why you’d be reading this, in that case, but whatever. All right. Verbing weirds nouns, as the saying goes. I’m all for usage like “an impacted wisdom tooth,” which is a long-standing medical special usage. I am NOT all for usage like “the latest civil unrest in Poughkeepsie has impacted the stock market.” No, sorry. It has affected or influenced the stock market, maybe. Not impacted it. Even though Garner classifies this as a stage 3 shift (well on its way to being common, but “still avoided in careful usage”), he still cautions against it. “Reserve impact for noun uses and impacted for wisdom teeth” (Garner’s Modern American Usage, p. 445).

This brings me to “disappear.” I’m noticing a disturbing trend (particularly in marketing and advertising) toward using this word as a transitive verb (one that takes a direct object), like this example: “Washing disappears the label.”

::Screams::

No. NO. Washing makes the label disappear. Washing removes the label. Washing is not a dictator with labels for political opponents. The label is not “disappeared.” NO.

The only time “disappear” is used as a transitive verb is when referring, as I just did, to political situations where someone in power is kidnapping opponents or families of opponents and whisking them away, never to be seen again, or is outright killing them. “Pinochet disappeared thousands of people during his time in power.” That usage is acceptable and correct. I quote from the Encarta World English Dictionary, meaning 4: “vt. CAUSE OPPONENT TO DISAPPEAR to make a political opponent disappear by arresting or killing the person without any process of law.”

This one’s not up for debate. If I see this usage in anything I’m editing, it’s gone. It’s sloppy, not edgy. For my money, it’s also highly disrespectful to the families of those who have been disappeared. I’m weird, I know.

Be discreet about your discrete affairs

Yes, folks, it’s another descent into #HomophoneHell this time. By request, even–you can thank my pal Deborah Bancroft over at Dispatches from Wordnerdia.

First, let me assure you that at this point in time, there’s no danger of these words becoming hopelessly confused to the point of losing one to the other. Not yet, anyway. Garner’s Modern American Usage categorizes the confusion of “discrete” for “discreet” as Stage 1 (just about everyone can recognize it’s an error), and the reverse as Stage 2 (becoming more common, but still not accepted in standard usage; while it might appear as a variant in a dictionary listing, that hardly condones the usage.) I’ll suggest that people are generally more familiar with “discreet,” and so tend to use that one instead of “discrete” more often than they do the opposite. (The majority of my personal experience with “discrete” occurred in high-school geometry class.)

Let me remind you at this juncture that a dictionary (any dictionary) provides a snapshot of usage at a specific moment in time (the copyright year). Just because something appears in a dictionary does not mean that thing is correct, necessarily; it means that thing is common enough to merit an entry. Depending on the dictionary, there could be a usage note attached to such an entry indicating that it’s nonstandard (or a variant or what have you). If you want to be sure of having information about proper usage, you need a usage manual. All right. Onward.

“Discrete” means “separate.” “Discreet” means “cautious, circumspect.” Indeed, they come from the same Latin word: discretus.  If you’re having several separate affairs, I suggest you be very cautious about discussing them with people lest they become intermingled (and thus neither discrete nor discreet).

As for a helpful mnemonic: The Es in “discrete” are separated by a T. Discrete = separate

.

Want to be discreet? Remember, three's a crowd.

Want to be discreet? Remember, three’s a crowd.

(image thanks to Morguefile.com)

When is a dictionary like a usage manual?

Well, depending on the dictionary, the answer could be “sometimes.” However, I’m getting ahead of myself. Someone asked me how Garner’s Modern American Usage compared to the OED. Honestly? That’s apples and oranges. And if you add stylebooks to the set, it’s apples and oranges and bananas.

I know you know what a dictionary’s for. That’s where you look up spellings, definitions of words, parts of speech, and sometimes — but only sometimes, depending on which dictionary you have — usage tips. If you’re a really bad speller, a “normal” dictionary might be next to useless. You’ll want a misspeller’s dictionary instead. If you’re a person who often can think of the concept of a word, but not the word, perhaps a reverse dictionary would work better for you. Here are five dictionaries I keep on my reference shelf, right here where I write and edit. I use the Encarta the most, but truthfully, I more often than not look online at the Merriam-Webster site. The Chicago style references M-W, so that’s where I go for “business.” I love my Encarta, though, for “pleasure browsing.” It contains a lot of usage information, but not as much as a dedicated usage manual.

Two general for general use, one for etymology, one for idioms, and a reverse. All helpful in their own ways.

Two for general use, one for etymology, one for idioms, and a reverse. All helpful in their own ways.

Next, I have two usage manuals. As the name would suggest, they’re dedicated to English-language usage. Not to spelling, or definitions, or how the words should appear on the page, but to how words are (or should be, or should not be) used. The paperback M-W I’ve had for years and years. The copy of Garner I just got a couple of weeks ago. I’m very, very happy with the latter most of all because of the “five stages of acceptance,” as I’ve taken to calling them. I wrote about those over on G+ not long after I got the book, in a post about the shift in meaning of the word “nimrod” from “mighty hunter” (the Biblical Nimrod) to “fool, idiot” (thank you, Bugs Bunny). That shift epitomizes Garner’s “stage 5″: “universally adopted except by a few eccentrics.” Once a change reaches stage 5, the ship has sailed. The train has left the station. Give it up; there’s no going back. I find Garner’s book most useful for identifying when it’s still worth fighting to retain a usage, or when it’s best to just let it go and grumble to myself.

I grumble a lot.

Garner and M-W, the two usage manuals I own

Garner and M-W, the two usage manuals I own

Then we have stylebooks. These are unlike either dictionaries or usage manuals. The main thrust of any stylebook is to engender consistency in presentation. Nearly all journalistic media uses the AP stylebook. That’s why for the most part when you’re reading a news item, it looks pretty much like every other news item out there as far as actual appearance. The title is capitalized a certain way. There’s a dateline, and the date is styled a certain way. Times are presented in a certain way. You get the drift, I think. You don’t use a stylebook to look up a definition of a word. You use a stylebook to see how a word should be presented (styled) in your work, to conform to that style. For example:

mecca Lowercase in the metaphorical sense; capitalize the city in Saudi Arabia.” (Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law 2012)

If you don’t know what “mecca” means as a metaphor, this won’t tell you. You need a dictionary for that. However, now you know that if you use this metaphorically, you don’t capitalize it. That’s a style issue. In the AP stylebook, this particular word is found right where you’d expect it: under the letter M, just like in a dictionary. In the Chicago Manual of Style, though, you won’t find “mecca” listed in that way. CMoS is positively labyrinthine compared to AP. They have different focuses, different audiences. I learned Chicago style long before AP, and I still have to look up some things to make sure I’m not mixing them.

I bought a copy of the New Oxford Style Manual so I would have a reference handy when I’m copy editing UK writers’ work. Not that it seems to matter much, honestly. I asked a number of them online if they used the term “full point” (which NOSM says is the preferred term, now) or “full stop.” No one had even heard of “full point.” The schools are still teaching “full stop.” Take THAT, NOSM. I won’t even go into the issues with quotation marks, save to say everything I thought I knew turned out to be wrong. Mostly. Apparently in the fiction market, dialogue is set the same way as it is in the US: double quotes for direct quotations, single quotes for quotes-within-quotes. BUT, in the nonfiction market, that is reversed — that is to say, it’s the way I expected, with direct quotes set in single quotation marks, and double ones used for quotes-within-quotes.

NOSM doesn’t reflect that, though, which I find interesting in the extreme. Anyway, here’s the third photo.

"The" UK stylebook (comparable to Chicago) on the left, CMoS 16th ed, and AP

“The” UK stylebook (comparable to Chicago) on the left, CMoS 16th ed, and AP

So, right. I can’t compare a usage manual to a dictionary to a stylebook. They’re different books with different purposes. Dictionaries have some elements of usage manuals; usage manuals have some elements of dictionaries; stylebooks might contain abridged dictionaries (the NOSM contains the New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors), and often contain brief notes about usage. But, all in all, one cannot replace another.

Musings for Grammar Day 2014

Time was, I taught middle-school English. (Except we called it “language arts” back then.) I drilled my students in the precision of grammar, in the parts of speech, in proper sentence construction, in the fine points of mechanics (where does that question mark go with those quotation marks, anyway?). I did very well with it, too, until we got to prepositions.

I couldn’t for the life of me get the concept of prepositions through their heads. I hadn’t yet learned the trick of “if you can do it to a box, it’s a preposition.” (In the box. On the box. Near the box. Inside the box. Between the boxes. And so on. Except of course that leaves out “for” and “of” because you don’t “do” that “to a box.” You don’t really “do” any of those things “to” a box, come to think of it. But I digress . . .) So, I abandoned grammar and quickly drew up lesson plans about Greek and Roman theatre, so they could unwind by making papier mache masks and cardboard sets.

We never did get back to the prepositions.

Since then, I’ve worked as a technical editor at two companies, as a retail associate and an assistant manager in a women’s specialty shop, as a creative director at what was then the premier role-playing company in the country, as a CNA on a locked Alzheimer’s ward, as a parts inspector, as a shipping clerk, as an assembler in an electronics plant, as a substitute teacher, and as a freelance copy editor. It always was going to come back to editing. Editing is very close to teaching, you see, except you’re working with one student on one project. Even when you have multiple concurrent projects, you’re still working one-on-one with the writers. It’s like tutoring, in that way.

I’ve continued learning as well. I have multiple dictionaries, multiple stylebooks, several usage guides (different from a stylebook, you know), and I read a number of language- and grammar-related blogs. (Not daily, but when I have a moment and want to unwind, or feel the need for some edification or validation. You can find them on the Blog Roll on the home page here.) I’ve gone from being a pretty strict prescriptivist (don’t you dare end a sentence with a preposition in your writing!) to what I term a “pragmatist.” (If you’re writing an informal piece, go right ahead and end that sentence with a preposition. If you’re writing a white paper, you’ll probably want to recast that sentence to avoid it, though; that requires the most formal usage, and you’d do well not to say things like “This was the part of the experiment the mice got the most tired of.”)

What about those split infinitives? Garner devotes a little more than one page to them in the latest edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage. “(S)plit infinitives where they feel natural” is categorized as a Stage 5 shift (“universally adopted except by a few eccentrics”). I could go on, but this post isn’t about split infinitives or Garner; it’s about ME. Split ye infinitives where ye may. ::cough::

And you can start a sentence with a conjunction, too. Sometimes it just makes sense to lead with one. Not always, but sometimes. You can even write in fragments, when you’re writing something informal like a blog post. Even a grammar blog post.

I recently learned the term “dog-whistle editing” from a post over at Copyediting.com. That’s when someone (like I used to be) fixes things that no one but another copy editor is likely to notice, and that don’t really matter except to the most discerning readers. Depending on the requirements of the audience, it might be all right to let some things slide. I’ve always said “Let the audience determine the language” (or words to that effect), meaning “write (and edit) for your audience.” If less formal usage is all right for the purpose, then less stringent copy editing will be all right, too. If the work requires the most formal level of usage, then the editing had better be at the upper level of precision. (And “alright” will never, ever be all right. Just letting you know that.)

Here’s a link, if you want to see for yourselves.

http://www.copyediting.com/should-you-be-dog-whistle-copyeditor

That blog post delineates what I’ve known for quite a while already. Seeing it in print is very gratifying, indeed. I know now that I’m not alone in thinking that I can—no, I should tailor my editing to the job, based on the material and the intended audience.

And I can still keep my own sanity by insisting on maintaining the difference between “convince” and “persuade.” It’s a win-win.

Review: Lapsing into a Comma, Bill Walsh

I don’t normally review books here, but for this one I’m making an exception. Lapsing into a Comma: A Curmudgeon’s Guide to the Many Things That Can Go Wrong in Print–and How to Avoid Them is a delightful and insightful work that would fit nicely into any copy editor’s reference shelf. (You might have to turn it sideways, but still. It would fit.) Walsh is copy editor at the Washington Post; journalistic concerns are prevalent in his writing for good reason. If that’s off-putting to you, get over it. Just because you have no need for datelines in your writing doesn’t mean you can’t make use of his assertion that every good copy editor needs the sensibilities of a 13-year-old boy. (It’s in there. I swear. And he’s right.)

Just over half the book is taken up by “The Curmudgeon’s Stylebook.” I hesitate to call this the meat of the work, because honestly the whole book is packed with important stuff. This section, though, is an alphabetical listing from “a/an” to “yes, I have/yes, I do.” (If you don’t know why that last entry’s needed, I envy you. I really do.) Preceding this are chapters with particular focus: how to think while using a stylebook (it’s not blind obedience to “the rules”), how to use a dictionary (in which I found out I did know what I was doing, despite what some folks tried to tell me!), how to deal with Information-Age trends (including a wonderful rant about the United Nations), how to “say what you mean and mean what you say,” why “innumeracy” is a problem (why is the sentence “An average caseworker might handle up to 100 cases a month or more” meaningless?), how to deal with sensitive issues like race, sex/gender, and the ubiquitous “singular they,” and how to manage punctuation.

Also included are two chapters specific to journalistic style, on  writing headlines and dealing with quoted material. For my money, those two are the least helpful pieces in the book. I don’t write headlines per se (I don’t count blog post titles as headlines, particularly), and I don’t use much directly or indirectly quoted material (as in, “Bill Walsh of the Washington Post admits that he’s never seen an entire episode of ‘Star Trek,’ but he still knows who Mr. Spock is”). YMMV, of course. (Don’t tell me you don’t know what that means. Get thee to the Urban Dictionary and look it up.)

All right. That’s what’s in the book. I would hope you can tell from my writing that Walsh is of the same mind as I on many things (especially that mind-of-a-13-year-old-boy concept), with the same “reverent irreverence” I tend toward. I had no idea of this before reading his book. It’s very heartening to me to find out I hold the same views as such a big fish as he. The need to think while using a stylebook is paramount to my work. To quote him: “A finely tuned ear is at least as important as formal grammar, and that’s not something you can acquire by memorizing a stylebook. But reading and thinking about a stylebook writer’s reasoning might help you develop that ear.”

I’m pretty sure my ear is under constant development, and I need to thank Bill Walsh for his contribution to that. To get your own copy, you can click the Amazon.com link below if you like.

Lapsing into a Comma, by Bill Walsh

 

 

 

Who did what, now?

Misplaced modifiers. The bane of writers and editors everywhere, from what I can tell.

“Even though he had practiced the trick for months, the rope failed at the last moment.”

Um . . . not quite. The rope hadn’t practiced (obviously, or it wouldn’t have failed, would it?). The fellow performing the rope trick had practiced, apparently to no avail. This is a misplaced modifier. More often than not in my experience fixing one of these requires rewording at least the latter part of the sentence. Here’s how I chose to fix this instance:

“Even though he had practiced the trick for months, he was unprepared for the rope to fail at the last moment.”

 

When that rope fails, who'll fall over?

When that rope fails, who’ll fall over?

A look at my bookshelf

Sometimes people ask me which books I use for my work. I figure everyone knows by now that I’m a Chicago Manual of Style 16th edition kinda gal when it comes to style, but what about other books?

I love my Encarta World English Dictionary, but honestly I don’t use it for my work. For that, I rely on the online Merriam-Webster entries. My reasoning is pretty simple. M-W is an established name in the reference world. Additionally, CMoS recommends M-W’s Collegiate Dictionary first, followed by those from Webster’s New World, American Heritage, Oxford University Press, and Random House. Encarta doesn’t have the same reputation (yet, anyway), despite it being the database used in MS Word. (Yep. When you click on the dictionary function within Word, you get Encarta entries.) For just browsing a hardcover dictionary, though, I adore my Encarta. (I do that. What? Why are you looking at me that way?)

I also have copies on my shelves of the New Oxford Style Manual (for UK usage), the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage, the Oxford Companion to the English Language, Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, and the Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms. Oh, and I also have that 2012 edition of the AP style manual for the day job. My copy of the MLA style guide is one edition behind, and I’ve never had cause to use it, but I keep it around anyway. One never knows when one might need it. If I end up editing something that requires the current version, I can get help at the Purdue OWL site.

Here’s a photo for you to peruse at your leisure. I like having my reference books within arm’s reach; this sits on top of my desk, to my left. Usually there’s a cat blocking the bottom shelf.

All of this is within arm's reach, just to the left of my workspace.

All of this is within arm’s reach, just to the left of my workspace.