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.)

Usage is just what it sounds like. How are words used in language? Sometimes we use one word when we’re writing and another when we’re speaking. That’s usage. I’ll quote Bryan A. Garner’s introduction to the “Word Usage” section of the Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed.: “The great mass of linguistic issues that writers and editors wrestle with don’t really concern grammar at all—they concern usage: the collective habits of a language’s native speakers.” Which word do we use in a given situation: less or fewer? What are the nuanced differences between convince and persuade? Do we say “a myriad of” or “myriad?” (See that question mark? Its use is mechanics, but its placement is a question of style.)

Mechanics is an inclusive term for punctuation and spelling. Calling a run-on sentence a “grammatical error” is incorrect. It’s a mechanical (specifically punctuation) error. Here’s an example of one, I’ll just use a comma there instead of a period or a semicolon. That’s two complete thoughts, two independent clauses (that’s a technical term), with only a comma between them. The rules of mechanics tell us that it’s wrong. Mechanics are also covered to a point by style (as I pointed out in the previous paragraph). More about that later, too.

I don’t think I need to explain spelling.

Syntax tells us how we put words together and make phrases, clauses, and sentences. It’s different from grammar in that it describes how the words work together, but it works with grammar to allow us to speak and write. Without one, we can’t have the other. You may hear them spoken of together: grammar and syntax. Both are part of linguistics, which is the study of human speech. Syntax is why “the lazy dog caught the cat” means something different from “the cat caught the lazy dog.” (The latter makes better sense, don’t you agree?) Syntax is also why it sounds strange to us to say “the red big barn.” Native English speakers tend to put the more general descriptor first (“big”) and the more specific ones after (“red,” and perhaps “wooden” for good measure).

Then we come to style. Style guides contain guidelines (that’s why they’re guides and not rulebooks) for how the words look on the page, whether it’s an actual printed page in a bound book or a page on a website. They’re for written English, not spoken. Calling a style difference a “grammatical error” is an error itself. We don’t need to worry about style most of the time. Many writers have no clue about style guides; they don’t need to. Their editors need to, though. Of the five terms I’m covering, this one is perhaps the least important—and also the most contentious.

Perhaps the most familiar style point is the serial, or Oxford, comma. At least one satire site has published a faux news story about casualties caused during a battle over it between Chicago and AP style users. It’s the difference between the presence of a comma before the last item in a series (Chicago, APA, and MLA all use this) and the lack of a comma in that position (AP). Here’s an example: red, white, and blue flags OR red, white and blue flags. Here’s another: eggs, toast, and juice for breakfast OR eggs, toast and juice for breakfast.

Style also governs things like capitalization of terms, use of abbreviations and the styling of those abbreviations, and hyphenation guidelines. Guidelines. Not rules. Other style issues are margins, line spacing, use of italics and boldface, and index/reference list conventions. I’m not even trying to provide an all-inclusive list. Get yourself a style guide (AP for news style, APA for science, MLA for academic, Chicago for most everything else) and poke at it. Better yet, save a bunch of money. Get a copy of June Casagrande’s The best punctuation book, period. Why do I say this? Because most of what’s different from style to style is the punctuation, and punctuation is one of those triggers for people. This book covers the four major guides in a very accessible format.

The Chicago Manual of Style contains a chapter on grammar and usage as a reference for users of that style. The rules don’t change from style guide to style guide; they’re rules. However, Chicago has a section on grammar for users to ensure they understand things like how to use prepositions in parallel structure. It also contains a section covering common “problem words.” (I told you these things all work together, didn’t I?)

That’s a lot of information covered by the single heading of style. I say it’s perhaps the least important of the five, though, because our understanding of the words, whether spoken or written, is less affected by style considerations than by any of the other four points. If our grammar is poor, people will have trouble understanding us. If our spelling is poor, people will have trouble reading our words. If our punctuation is poor, the meaning of our sentences might not be what we intended. If our usage is poor, people may form a different opinion about us than if it were “standard” or “correct” (both contentious terms in themselves). If our syntax is poor, our message will almost certainly be garbled. (It’s rare to find truly poor syntax, thankfully. That’s because, much as with grammar, we tend to learn proper syntax by osmosis. We hear how words are put together to form phrases and clauses and sentences, and we copy what we hear.)

If our style is poor, though, the worst that’s probably going to happen is someone tagging our house with comma-laden graffiti.

Maybe.

 

NB: I purposely strove to keep this as general as possible, to touch on only major points and not fine ones. There are scads of books available that go into detail about grammar, usage, mechanics, syntax, and style. This is a blog post, not another book.

I’m loath to admit I loathe most country music.

That ought to raise a few eyebrows, but at least it won’t be for poor diction. (Also: Honestly? I’m not in the least bit loath to make that admission. There. I said it.)

Loath is an adjective; it means “unwilling to do something because it’s disagreeable for some reason.” I’m loath to eat raw octopus because the texture is offensive to me.

The unabridged Merriam-Webster online dictionary indicates that (much to the frustration of many copy editors) “loathe” is an alternate spelling.

Why does that frustrate some of us? Because, you see, loathe is the verb.There is no alternate spelling for the verb. It’s loathe. That’s it. And it means “detest, abhor.” I loathe the fact that “loathe” is an alternative spelling for loath.

I may be loosening up a little more in my pragmatic grammarian stance, continuing my journey toward descriptivism, but I still loathe this particular situation.

No guarantess

They're "captive," all right. This was on the back of the ladies' room toilet stall door.

They’re “captive,” all right. This was on the back of the ladies’ room toilet stall door.

The agency this poster promotes promises a “captive audience” for your advertisement. It’s one of those that specializes in pre-show theater ads, you see.

It does not, however, promise that all the words will be correctly spelled.

(This was the middle panel of a triptych. I saw nothing wrong on the other two. Perhaps I was too gobsmacked by this one to notice.)

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)

She left him at the alter

Well, no. She left him at the altar.

This particular pair of homophones is one of the most troublesome, based on what I see come across my desk. Perhaps I can provide some helpful hints for telling them apart, so you’ll know which one you should be using in a given situation. We’ll see . . .

An altar is a raised surface, first of all. It could be a simple table, or a flat rock, or perhaps an elaborately constructed piece of furniture with storage space underneath, hidden behind doors or curtains. But I digress. An altar is a surface on which one puts ritual items, for the purpose of then enacting said ritual. I’ll wager most of you readers are familiar with the altar at the front of a church (Catholic, Protestant, doesn’t matter — churches have altars). I’ll also wager that a number of you are equally familiar with the pagan analog, usually set at the center of the ritual space. (Not that I’d know about that or anything . . . ::cough::) If you’re writing about a ritual, you’ll likely need to use the word altar.

Altar can be used figuratively, as well. They worship at the altar of freedom.

Alter is foremost a verb, meaning to change something. I say “foremost,” because there’s also the psychiatric usage meaning “a distinct and separate personality” when talking about people with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID, formerly Multiple Personality Disorder [MPD]). She has fifty-four alters. However, unless you’re writing a piece on DID, you’ll probably be using the verb form and talking about something being altered. Think of “alterations” made to clothes by a tailor or a seamstress. They alter the clothing.

Alter is also the verb used to mean “to spay or neuter an animal.” The procedure changes the animal, so that it can no longer reproduce.

Alter is also the word in “alter ego,” meaning a different side of a personality or even a close friend who holds the same views as one’s own. It’s important to note, I think, that this is the common usage; we can all have alter egos, but not be diagnosed with DID. It literally means “second I.” Drinking brings out his alter ego; he’s quite the Jekyll and Hyde.

It will probably help to remember that “alter” is part of “alternative” and “alternate.” If you need a word that denotes change, something different from the expected, you want alter.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to alter my altar setup for the upcoming feast day.

It ain't fancy, but it's a mighty fine stone altar.

It ain’t fancy, but it’s a mighty fine stone altar.

The Beatles had it right — for a pun, anyway

Today’s tour of Homophone Hell visits several words: core, corps, corpse, and corp (the latter properly styled Corp.).

Why the Beatles? Some readers will recall the company founded by the Fab Four in 1968: Apple Corps. “Corps” is pronounced like “core,” and we know what an apple core is, right? The name’s a wonderful pun on that, in addition to playing on “Corp.”, which is short for “corporation.” More on those two later.

“Core” isn’t the real issue here. I very seldom see this one misused in print. Apparently it’s pretty easy for folks to grasp all around: the core of the matter, a reactor core, etc.

Now, to the problem children.

“Corps” is the word you see when someone talks about the full name of the U.S. Marines: The United States Marine Corps. It’s not an abbreviation. That’s the whole word, right there: corps. It’s also used in the Peace Corps and Job Corps. “Corps” isn’t always capitalized: The press corps was kept waiting for three hours while the Congress threw spitballs across the aisles at one another.

Say “core” when you see “corps,” and know that it means either an organized part of the military, a military group with two or more divisions (in the technical military sense of the word), or a group of people involved in an activity (that’s the press corps). It’s not the Marine Corp., unless you’re talking about a company (Marine) that uses “corporation” in its name (Corp.) — and then you’d say “Marine Corporation.”

“Corps” and “Corp.” seem to be the biggest problems, based on my experience as a copyeditor. (I’ll blame the words, not their users. It’s kinder to all concerned.)

Then we have “corpse.” It’s pronounced as you’d expect: korps. It means a dead body. While you might think it is a homophone for “corps,” it isn’t. (Or, think of it the other way around: “Corps” isn’t a homophone for “corpse.” Whichever way works for you is how you need to think of it.) While dead bodies are certainly offensive to some folks, the word “corpse” isn’t a big offender in this particular arena — I seldom see it misused.

All right, then. “Core” and “corps” are homophones. The latter means an organized group (military or otherwise). “Corpse” is pronounced with the final -s aspirated (meaning it’s a hissing sound). And “corp” isn’t correct unless it’s styled “Corp.” and is used instead of “Corporation.”

Now I think it’s time to check on the press corps, and perhaps send a few nasty emails to the Exxon-Mobil Corp. while I’m at it. Better yet, I’ll pack up some apple cores and ship ‘em off to my representatives. They didn’t earn fruit baskets this year.

He’s a real loose canon

An email last week reminded me of this particular bit of Homophone Hell: canon and cannon.

The correct word for the titular phrase is, of course, “cannon.” You know what cannons are. They’re those enormous guns, sometimes on ships, sometimes on the ground. They’ve got a wicked recoil when they fire, too. And on a ship, they had to be fastened in position or they posed even more of a danger because they could run a sailor over, being “loose cannons.”

So in our phrase up there in the title, what is “canon?” Well . . . substituting the definition for the word makes a sentence that’s utter rubbish. “He’s a real loose general law or criterion, or a collection of sacred books accepted as genuine.”

Likewise, if you talk about Star Wars canon or Star Trek canon or Whovian canon, you want the one-n spelling. You’re talking about the corpus of information that’s accepted to be the basis of those shows, the core, the “rules” if you will. “That fanfic isn’t canon, and I won’t read it.” It’s not cannon, either, but that’s beside the point. I suppose it could become ammunition . . . naah.

Dean Hamilton wrote a great blog post about these two words over at Tyburn Tree. (And it was his email to me last week that reminded me of this little trip into Homophone Hell!)

And of course, there really is a Loose Canon. Here’s a picture of it. You can get it for yourself over at the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

An actual Loose Canon with copyright and everything!

An actual Loose Canon with copyright and everything!

Do you complete me, or are you just being nice?

We’ll continue our tour through Homophone Hell today with complement and compliment. Technically, there’s a slight difference in the correct pronunciation of each word, but in practice they sound virtually identical.

“Complement” has to do with completing, making whole, or improving something.  Here are two examples of it as a noun: “Those pumps are a perfect complement to her suit.”  “The baby was born with less than the usual complement of toes.”  And here it is as a verb: “This dusting of glitter complements the winter scene on the card better than a smattering of sequins would.”

“Compliment” is also a noun and a verb, and it concerns saying nice things or the things being said. Here, it’s a noun: “I know you said my eyes reminded you of a Brown Swiss cow’s, but I didn’t take that as a compliment.” (Note: She should have. Cows have lovely eyes.) And in this sentence, it’s a verb: “The next time he compliments her eyes, he’ll know better than to use a farm animal in his wording.”

It will probably help to remember that “complete” and “complement” both contain e’s but no i’s, and that “compliment” and “nice” each contain an i and an e.

A compliment about the gift you received is a good complement to any thank-you note you write.

 

 

 

Sneak a peek at that peak to pique your interest

Well, I suppose you know what this post is about now, don’t you. We’re descending into homophone hell today with that terrible trio, peek/peak/pique.

Peek means to look quickly, usually surreptitiously and often from some kind of hiding place (like behind a curtain or around a corner). “Take a peek and see if Mom’s home yet!” There are two e’s in “peek,” and two e’s in “see” and in “eye.” That might help you, as a mnemonic.

Peak means the top of a mountain, or (as a verb) to reach the highest point of (something). “The Dow peaked at 14963.82 today at close of trading.” (Okay, it hasn’t closed yet today, but that’s where it sits right now as I write this post. That’s also not a peak, since it’s off by over 100 points . . . but I digress. The usage is correct, even if my facts are outright wrong.) There’s an a in “peak,” and an a in “mountain,” too. There’s also an a in “stand,” and you can stand on top of a mountain peak. One of those is bound to work as a mnemonic for peak.

Pique means to stimulate or irritate, as in to pique one’s interest in something or to be piqued by something. “He was quickly piqued by her rudeness to the waiter.” There’s an i in “pique,” and there are i’s in both “stimulate” and “irritate.” See the pattern to my mnemonics? Of course you do.

So . . . offer your readers a sneak peek into your next work. Dream of the day your career reaches its peak, and hope that it doesn’t decline too swiftly for you to enjoy the ride. And, if it does tank, don’t be piqued.

 

“Ex cathedral” is a great photo caption

This post could be subtitled “Know your Latin phrases.”

The correct phrase is ex cathedra, literally “from the chair.” The pope is said to speak ex cathedra, meaning he speaks with authority vested in him by virtue of his office.  The phrase can be used for others as well; anyone who speaks from an authoritative position can be said to speak ex cathedra (even copyeditors).

Seeing this spelled with an -l is jarring, to say the least. As someone said to me when I mentioned it, “That’d make a great caption for a photo of a pile of rubble.”

Unintentional humor has it place, but I’m pretty sure the writer of this particular work wasn’t looking for a laugh. Oops.