You want me to use WHAT?

Substitute or replace?

A few years ago I’d have wondered why this is even a question. At the time (let’s say, ten years ago or thereabouts) I had yet to see them used the way I do now, with what is to me alarming regularity.

I even checked Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd Edition) to see if there was an entry with a language-change index rating. There is not.

Then I pulled out my dog-eared Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (copyright 1989, a full 20 years earlier than Garner’s 3rd), and lo. An entry. At the time I purchased this book, I had never encountered the usage discussed.

And I should probably tell you what that usage is, shouldn’t I. I get so discombobulated when I see it, I have trouble being clear. It makes me verklempt, I tell you. Continue reading

Superannuated Syntax: Bradford, Edwards, and Holmes

What do those three men have in common?

One is fictional. Two were ministers. The phrase “There but for the grace of God goes [name]” is associated with all three.

“But for the grace of God”? What does “but for” mean in that phrase? I’ll wager you’ve heard it often, and perhaps even said it, but what does it mean? Continue reading

Agree to Disagree? Or: How Many Is (Are?) a Team?

It’s been a while since I wrote about subject-verb agreement. In fact, it’s been close to a year. I’ll leave the searching to you, though. I don’t want to take away all the fun.

The concept of agreement means that we want the same “number” (singular or plural) for our subject and our verb. When they don’t agree, we notice. Not because we know some arcane rule. Because it just sounds wrong. Very, painfully, obviously wrong. Most of the time, anyway.

The cat were lazing in the window.

How many cats? Only one? Then it’s “was lazing,” not “were.” Two or more? Then we need to fix “cats” and leave “were” alone. That one’s pretty clear, and a simple contextual reading will probably suffice for clarification. (This bypasses the rules for the subjunctive mood in English, which does weird things with number and tense, like “God save the queen” and “if I were you.” This isn’t that, and I’m not going there right now.)

But look at this one:

The A-group, as he called his team, were clocking out at the end of the shift.

On a quick read that sounds all right, maybe. Depends on how you like your collective nouns. They swing, you know. Singular or plural, either way, depending on the concept of “notional concord.” It also matters whether you’re an AmE or BrE speaker/writer. In the United States, we tend to treat “team” as a singular entity, like we do with companies. “Apple is announcing a new gadget.” “The team is entering the stadium.” (BrE speakers/writers tend to say “Apple are announcing a new gadget.” Looks weird to me, but it’s their style.) That matters, because the audience brings its expectations along to your work. What are your readers likely to expect? Go with what they’ll think. It’ll save you hassle in the long run (fewer 1-star reviews from grammar pedants worse than me).

If you’re an AmE speaker/writer, I suggest going with “The A-group, as he called his team, was clocking out. . . .” No one will argue with you, I don’t think. To check the flow and sense of it, remove what’s set off by the commas. “The A-group was clocking out.” If that sounds right to you in that form, it’s still right when you put that phrase back in: “The A-group, as he called his team, was clocking out.”

Certainly one could argue that a team comprises several members, and therefore could be considered as plural. That’s notional concord at work. What sounds right to you? What makes sense to you? After you figure that out, then ask the same about your audience. What will make them scream? Pick the other one.



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).

Prepositions, Churchill, and You

“This is the sort of pedantic(bloody/tedious) nonsense up with which I will not put.” — Sir Winston Churchill (perhaps, perhaps not)

First, I shall provide a link so I don’t have to summarize here. I suspect many of you know where I’m headed with this already. Those who don’t, clickity the link, please. We’ll all wait.

::whistles and has a cup of tea::

Excellent. Now, to business.

It’s nonsense that you should avoid ending a sentence with a preposition, if that’s how it sounds best and makes sense. Blame the essayist John Dryden, since apparently he’s the one who started all of this back in 1672. (If you’ve read the article you know this already. If you haven’t read it, and think perhaps now you should, please do so. We’ll still be here when you come back.) Patricia O’Conner, in her wonderful handbook Woe Is I, puts the blame on Robert Lowth, a English clergyman and Latin scholar, and sets the date fuzzily at the eighteenth century. In any case, who done it doesn’t matter. It was done. (And yes, that’s passive construction. However, I can fairly safely say this was not done by zombies.) Anyway . . .

Many idioms employ prepositions, and altering the word order can create mayhem with your meaning. Turn up (as in “turn up the volume” or “something’s bound to turn up”), lean on (as in “put pressure on someone for answers”), space out (as in “sorry, I spaced out there for a minute”). You can think of more, I’m sure. Cambridge put out a whole dictionary full.

The point of all this is to assure you that there’s no need to twist your sentences into pretzels to avoid ending them with prepositions. There’s simply no reason to do so. If what you have to say sounds best and makes sense with a preposition at the end, run with it. As long as it’s not something that’s really incorrect, such as “Where are you at?” (the “at” is redundant; where already contains the sense of location or placement), no one has any reason to be concerned for your grammatical soul.

My normal caveats apply. If you’re writing dialogue, clearly you might well have a reason to have a character use nonstandard grammar. These hints are generally for more formalized writing, or for the narrative surrounding your dialogue. If you’re writing an academic paper, you will do well to avoid terminal prepositions (ones at the end of sentences) in favor of more standard, formal language. Even journalism (or what passes for it these days) should hew to a slightly more formal standard; avoid ending sentences with prepositions if you can, while maintaining clarity and sense.

Otherwise? No one should care what word your sentence ends with.

(Thanks to a G+ pal who asked me about this earlier today, thus sparking this post! You shall remain nameless. Fear not. I won’t turn you in. Heh.)

I’m not making this up. Honest.

I’ve been ranting a lot here and elsewhere about the sorry state of ebooks from indie authors, relating to the (apparent) lack of editorial skills (paid or otherwise) applied to those ebooks. I decided to provide concrete examples from the book I’m currently trying to read. I say trying, because I want to read it, I want to enjoy it, but the appalling number of errors is really harshing on my serenity, dude.

I won’t name names or titles, or say where I got the book. I will say I’m glad I didn’t pay for it, though. If I’d parted with any money for this I’d be pretty upset. More upset than I already am. At least having paid nothing for it, I can’t bemoan the loss of money I could have spent on, I don’t know, food or gas or something useful. All I’m losing is time.

These, then, are actual errors from an actual book. I’m not making this up. Honest.

I will note that I’m only 25% of the way through the book, according to my Kindle. I took a tip from another editor and started highlighting errors as I came across them. What an eye-opener that was! I mean, I knew there were errors; I can’t not see them. Proofreading is hardwired into my brain. However, highlighting them makes them seem that much worse. Now I really can’t not see them.

Some of them I’ll explain, some I’ll let speak for themselves. By all means comment if you don’t understand why I’ve called something an error. I’ll do my best to enlighten. I will also state that I’m not quoting full sentences, but only the portions containing the error. It’s also important to know that the writer is from the UK, so some of the mechanics just drive me batty on principle and some of the word choices are unfamiliar to me.


no sights, no sound (For parallelism, I’d change that to “sounds” in this description of a setting.)

standing next to it, was M (Delete that unnecessary comma.)

lit up the lens of his glasses (Unless he’s wearing a monocle, he has lenses, plural.)

gunge (As an American English speaker, I didn’t know this word. It’s a UK term that I figured out contextually and then checked against a dictionary online. If I had been editing I might’ve queried it even after finding the definition. Therefore, this isn’t so much an error as a language issue–but I’m still pointing it out as something that can stop readers in their tracks.)

” . . . we can-.” (Oh, dear me. No. Not even in British usage. If the sentence/thought isn’t finished, there’s no period, no full stop, whatever you wish to call that dot at the end. Also, rather than a hyphen, I’d have used an em-dash to indicate the sudden breaking of the thought/speech. This particular mechanical error occurs throughout the book. I cheated and looked ahead, so I know.)

“Just one . . . at a time”. (Again, no. The period’s at the end of the spoken sentence, so it goes inside the closed quotation mark. I’ve read quite a few blogs lately about US vs. UK mechanics, and quotation marks with other punctuation is one of the most confusing things on both sides of the pond. However–no. It’s a sentence; it has a definite end; put the period inside the quote.)

alright (It’s not all right to use this. It’s all wrong. Two words. Always. All right? Thanks.)

small with a blue studs on top (It’s either a single stud, or perhaps this is a possessive missing its apostrophe and its object. I think it’s the first, and I’d delete that “s” on the end of “stud.”)

industrial sized Hoover (Adjectives made from two words–called compound adjectives–are often hyphenated. “Industrial-sized.” To a point this comes down to the editor’s preference in conjunction with a style guide, such as the CMoS. I far prefer the unambiguous hyphenation to an open version that in some cases leads to confusion or misunderstanding. That, and I like the look of the hyphenated form. So there. I suspect that in this case one might argue that “industrial-sized” is a temporary compound. I’ve not looked for the term in any dictionaries, so I can’t say. The concept is familiar to anyone who shops at places like Sam’s Club or Costco, though.)

give a once over (The idiom is hyphenated. “Once-over.”)

cotton weaved interior (I’m not entirely clear on the intent, here. I think the writer means the interior of this particular wig is woven from cotton. I’d have suggested changing it to “woven cotton interior.” On further discussion with the writer, I might have ended up with something more like “woven cotton cap,” since I believe that’s what the base of a wig is called–the part that fits the head like a cap, that is. I’m indulging in conjecture, of course.)

cheers and laughter . . . was a cacophony (I’d recast this, because while it seems a quick fix to say “were” and have the plural form for the plural subject, we’re also in that messy area of reciprocity. The sentence can’t be easily reversed using the same words (“cacophony” as the subject requires “was,” but “cheers and laughter” as the subject require “were”). I’d suggest recasting the sentence entirely to avoid the issue, and perhaps use the verb “created” instead of the form of “to be,” which is the heart of the problem.)

To the greying ice cream man, he couldn’t help but think . . (The greying fellow is the “he” following the comma. The sentence needs to be recast to eliminate the clumsiness. Perhaps “To the greying ice cream man the crowd looked like nothing so much as a cross between . . . .” Trust me, that’s where the sentence was going. I didn’t want to type the whole thing as it appears in the book, though.)

white-clothed (Again, this needs a hyphen.)

The driver slammed the breaks (No he didn’t. He slammed the brakes. A live proofreader would’ve caught this one.)

her inner thighs ran red raw from . . . (It took me a while to realize what’s needed here, I think because I was getting numb from the number of errors assaulting my editorial senses. Inserting a comma after “red” helps quite a bit, but I still would query the “running red” part. I know the condition the author’s describing, and I wouldn’t use the term “running” with it. “Were chafed and red,” perhaps. The way it’s written sounds like a hemorrhage.)

marine life getup (Another case here of needing a hyphen to create an adjectival compound. “Marine-life.”)

baggy (Pants are baggy. The plastic bag is a “baggie.”)

un-amused (Here’s one of the hyphens that was missing from the compound adjectives. It doesn’t belong in this word; “unamused” is a closed form.)

pre-occupied (Here’s another one. Delete it and close the space. “Preoccupied.”)

buy one get one free offer (Now we’re back to needing hyphens. “Buy-one-get-one-free offer.”)

collapse on to the floor (Usage problem. One could say “collapse on the floor” or “collapse to the floor,” but “collapse on to” is just poor usage.)

oxidisation (Aside from the UK s-for-z spelling issue, this just isn’t a word. The one the writer wanted was “oxidation.”)

pressed him for a minutae (sic) more (Just–no. No. One cannot have “a minutiae.” “Pressed him for more minuitae” preserves the author’s word choice and is grammatically correct. I had originally written another suggestion with a different word entirely, but I like this one much better. And I corrected the misspelling.)

spaghetti bolognaise (If you’re going to write about a food, know how to spell it. Particularly when the food is regional Italian, like “spaghetti Bolognese.” Capitalize the “B” because this is a proper adjective.)


That’s where I stopped taking notes for the time being. You’ll notice I’m not fussing about pacing, or characterization, or plot, or any of those bigger things. I’m not a story/fiction/developmental editor. I’m a copy editor and a proofreader. I see these little things that many people seem to consider “nitpicking.” They’re far from nitpicking, though. They’re signs of someone with an imperfect grasp of grammar and mechanics who would have done well to have hired someone like me–or any other professional copy editor/proofreader–to look over the work before publication. Then, readers like me wouldn’t find themselves becoming irritated and unable to enjoy the story because of the plethora of errors in the “nitpicky stuff.”

I’ll also say: I learned a new phrase from this book. “Keep schtum” means “keep quiet, particularly if you’ll get in more trouble otherwise.” While it sounds Yiddish, it apparently came from the criminal culture of the UK. It might come in handy someday, so I’ll tuck it away for later.

I would hope that this has shed some light on how a typical copy editor’s brain works while they’re reading. (I think I’m typical, anyway. I’m damned good at what I do, but I don’t think I’m all that special when compared to other professional copy editors.) That’s why I did it. Not to point at a writer and chastise his work. Not to complain for no reason. To point out the kinds of errors commonly made, to explain how I would correct them and why, and to provide an example of why writers really should drop some cash on professional editing and proofreading for their hard work. That’s all, really.

Thanks for reading.



“Then” is not “than,” folks.

I see this mistake more often than (not “then”) I care to admit. This time, though, I’m not the one who caught it. That credit goes to “Mr. Rewrite,” aka Steve Elliot. I’ll be adding a link to his blog on our Blogroll after I post this.

“Then” indicates a time-relationship. “I did this. Then, I did that.” “Push the red button and then evacuate the premises.”

“Than” indicates the second item in a comparison, or a contrast. “I’d rather fight than switch” was a well-known Taryton cigarette slogan, back when that kind of thing was still allowed on television (which is why I still remember it–the advertisements were stupid, even to my grade-school sensibilities).

Here, then, from via Mr. Rewrite, is one of the most unfortunate instances of then/than confusion I’ve seen in a long time. The shirt in question is bad enough for other reasons, but top those off with poor grammar and . . . well. ::sigh::

Sports-team rivalry gone very wrong indeed

Mmm–tasty child labor!

Our first entry in the “Prepositional weirdness” category (also known as “It’s only a preposition; how important can it be?”) comes from Thanks go out again to Scott Douglas for sending this.

Tasty child labor!

How important can a preposition be? Well–it can make the difference between a headline no one would look askance at for grammatical reasons, like “Chocolate produced by child labor, says new report,” and one like Salon’s, which stopped our contributor and at least me for a long moment. “Chocolate produced from child labor”? I suppose if I were to think about it long enough I might be able to come up with a reason for using “from” instead of “by” that didn’t have anything to do with a) sheer laziness or b) poor usage, period.

I don’t feel like thinking that long, though.