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.

Me, Myself, and I: Reflections on Reflexive Pronouns

Lately I have noticed a lot of people using “myself” when they should be using “me.”

“Join Jack Brown and myself for our next podcast about Venetian canal cleaning methods.”

Nope. Sorry, I won’t be joining yourself for anything. I’ll join YOU, though. The word you want in that position, as the object of the transitive verb “to join,” is me. “Join Jack Brown and me for our next podcast.”

How can you tell? Well, would you say “Join I for my next podcast” if you were talking about just yourself? I didn’t think so. (See “Me and Julio” for more on this.) You’d say “Join me.” It doesn’t change when you add more people to the sentence. “Join Jack Brown, Mary Smith, and me for our next podcast.”

So when should you use those reflexive pronouns like myself, yourself, and themselves?

When the action is reflected back onto a noun or pronoun, you probably want to show that by using a reflexive pronoun. Here’s what I mean.

Mary bought herself a dress.

Mary bought a dress for herself.

The action (buying a dress) is turned back toward the subject (Mary). If you feel better using the preposition, use it. But you don’t have to, as you can see from the original example sentence. Inserting the preposition like that is just a test to check for correctness.

That’s not the same as “Mary bought a dress for her.” Who’s her? It’s not Mary, I can tell you that much; “her” is an objective case pronoun, so Mary bought that dress for some other woman — not for herself.

To be really grammatically picky: “Herself” is the indirect object in these sentences. In the second, it’s also the object of the preposition “for.” The “for” is understood in the first sentence (it’s not there, but we understand that’s what is meant).

You can also use reflexive pronouns for emphasis. I always think of the Grinch:

“And the Grinch, he himself, the Grinch carved the roast beast.”

Or this one:

“They themselves were thrown clear of the crash and miraculously survived.”

“I had myself a nice little nap after dinner.”

Those are all legitimate uses.

But please, people — please stop with the “Join Jack and myself for this party.” You don’t sound erudite. You sound foolish.

 

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).

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.

And Now, a Few Brief Words, or: Abbreviations, Acronyms, and Initialisms

FBI. CIA. NASA. IBM. S.H.I.E.L.D. i.e., e.g., and N.B.

The English language contains dozens of abbreviated forms, which tend to fall into one of three broad categories as presented in the title of this entry. We have abbreviations like i.e., e.g., and N.B. (which stand, respectively, for id est, exempli gratia, and nota bene — “in other words,” “for example,” and “note well,” or “HEY! Pay attention to this!”); we have acronyms, where each letter stands for a separate word and the letters together are pronounced as if they were in fact a word (NASA and S.H.I.E.L.D.); and we have initialisms, which look identical to acronyms but are pronounced like their individual components (eff bee eye, see eye ay [as opposed to aye, which rhymes with eye], eye bee em).

For the most part, abbreviations will include periods (i.e., e.g., N.B.). I say “for the most part” because over time, many of the most common two-letter abbreviations, like AD, BC, RN, MD, and so on, have lost their periods in favor of a simple closed styling. There is no one right answer to “do I use periods or not” in cases like these. Check your style book, if you’re being paid to adhere to one. Otherwise, pick a style and be consistent within your writing. Bouncing back and forth is crazy-making for readers and editors. You don’t want crazy readers and editors. Trust me. You don’t. Also for the most part, we pronounce the letters (eye ee, ee gee, en bee) of abbreviations rather than the entire word or phrase. Notable exceptions to this, I think, are the states’ names (I see IL, but I “say” Illinois). And I know there are those of you who really do say, in your heads or aloud, “id est” and “exempli gratia” instead of “eye ee” and “ee gee.” I still love you.

Also for the most part, initialisms won’t use periods, either. FBI, CIA, NSA, IBM — no periods. I’m sure there’re some out there that do. I don’t know what they are, but I know better than to say “no such thing exists.” I’d be wrong. It’s difficult to pronounce initialisms like words, because — most of the time — there aren’t enough vowels to make it possible. How would you say “NSA” or “FBI” or “CIA” as a word? That’s why they’re initialisms. Also, you need to use the word “the” with an initialism that’s the subject or direct/indirect object of a sentence or clause. “The FBI arrived yesterday to assist with the investigation.” “The sheriff’s department called the FBI.”  However, “FBI agents were on the scene.” (In that last one it’s a proper adjective.)

Acronyms normally don’t include periods, either. I included S.H.I.E.L.D. as an example to prove there are exceptions. (And as a nod to my comics-geek friends. Heh.) Marvel Comics came up with that one, and it’s always pronounced like the word “shield,” but it’s also always styled with periods. Originally, it stood for “Supreme Headquarters, International Espionage, Law-Enforcement Division.” However, in 1991 that was updated; now, it’s “Strategic Hazard Intervention Espionage Logistics Directorate.” (Thank you, Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S.H.I.E.L.D. ) NASA is a real-world example. National Air and Space Administration is a mouthful, so someone somewhere in their infinite wisdom said “we’ll pronounce it like a word, and say ‘nasa.’” The presence of vowels makes this mostly a no-brainer.

Then there’s the plethora of initialisms we use (I’ll admit it, I use them when it suits me) in texting or even in casual online posting. OMG. BRB. BBIAB. TTYL. GTG. We say the letters, or some of us say the entire phrase. Doesn’t matter. Some folks will call them acronyms.They represent a phrase, not an entity like NASA or S.H.I.E.L.D.

I’m not about to attempt an exhaustive treatment of this subject. There’re plenty of other blogs about that have already done so (I checked, I saw ‘em, but I didn’t read ‘em closely and I didn’t take notes). Also, check your style guide. Seriously. This kind of thing is covered by any major style guide you might choose. Pick a style and stick with it (unless, as I continue to say, you’re being paid to adhere to a specific one).

Time’s up. GTG. TTYL, folks.

(Credit for the below image goes to http://metaphorlookout.wordpress.com/2010/06/10/make-it-short-and-comprehensible/ )

acronym-intro

 

Subjected to your approval . . .

Before I get rolling here, I wish to thank Deborah Bancroft for suggesting this particular pair of problematic phrases. I welcome suggestions from you, readers, so please don’t hesitate to leave a note here via the Submissions form or to contact me by either Gmail or through my G+ profile. (I am also on the Book of Face, but am much less active there. It could be quite a while before I would find your message to me.)

Now. Where was I? Oh, yes. “Subjected to” and “subject to” are the subjects of this post. They do not necessarily mean the same thing. Except when they do. And yes, the one I used in the title is incorrect. Did you get that answer right? Did you know there was a quiz? There’s almost always a quiz . . .

The key here isn’t even the spelling. It’s the pronunciation. The meaning depends on the pronunciation of “subject” — subJECT means one thing, SUBject means another.

“Subject (sub – JECT) to” is an idiomatic expression meaning “to cause someone/something to experience something” (thank you to the Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms for that definition). This phrase may use “subject, subjected,” or “subjecting” and be correct. The accent is always on the second syllable for this particular meaning.

“As a teacher, I subjected my students to regular doses of Shakespearean language in everyday speech.”

“The auditor is subjecting all the ledgers to close scrutiny because of a discrepancy in the Entertainment entries for the month of May, 2011.”

“Be careful, or I’ll subject you to Coen Brothers movies for the rest of the weekend.” (For the record, I’m a huge Coen Brothers fan. Deal with it.)

“Subject (SUB-ject) to” indicates that one thing needs to happen before another will be allowed.

“Students’ attendance at the film night is subject to parental approval as indicated by returning a signed permission form.” [Unless the parental approval form is returned, the students cannot attend the movie.]

“The prisoner may be allowed more time in the yard. However, this is subject to her adherence to rules regarding conduct in the common areas within the block.” [If she doesn't behave indoors, she won't be allowed more time outside.]

“The vegan option for our feast menu is entirely subject to us being able to find the proper ingredients in time.” [If we can't find the right kind of tempeh or TVP, all bets for a vegan dish are off.]

And this post’s title? Rightly it should be “Subject to your approval.” I’m not causing the post to experience anything. Rather, I am writing it and and hoping that you will approve. So, subject (SUB-ject) to your approval, I might find encouraging comments on this post in a day or so.

On the other hand, I could be subjected (sub-JECT-ed) to your disapproval, indicated either by utter silence or by nasty notes left under my door. Or here. Or at G+. I’ll be wary, in any case.

Past due? You passed the deadline.

You’ve already guessed, I’m sure, because you’re smart people. Here’s another Homophone Hell pairing: past and passed. One’s a modifier or preposition or noun, the other a verb form. And as I was reminded late yesterday, they’re evil for some people. Let’s see if I can help.

Past can be a modifier, a preposition, or a noun. As a modifier, it can denote a time (“the past year,” where it’s an adjective because it modifies a noun) or a position of a verb (“a robin flew past the window,” an adverbial use telling us “where” as part of the prepositional phrase “past the window” modifying “flew”). As a preposition, it also denotes a position, but explains a time or place (“the shadows reached past the fence to the outer edge of the yard” [there's that adverbial use again, telling "where"] or “be ready at half past eight”).

Passed is the past tense of the verb to pass. (Note “past” in “past tense” — an adjective use.) “She passed her classes with B’s and C’s this term.” “The car passed that semi illegally.” “He passed away last year from complications caused by an infection.”

I don’t have a handy, brief, catchy mnemonic, but I will leave you with this:

She was so busy writing about her past, the dinner hour passed her by.

Always. ALWAYS.

Always. ALWAYS.

 

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.

[Expletive deleted]

Ha. Made you look, didn’t I?

This isn’t a post about those expletives, though. It’s a post about a different kind–the kind that’s a grammatical construction using a form of the verb “to be” along with “there” or “this” or “that” or “it” to start the sentence.

I’ve used it twice already, just to provide context.

I wrote about the passive voice and the “by zombies” test for it over at G+ some time back. Passive voice also uses forms of “to be” — but it’s not the same thing as the expletive construction. Here’s an example of passive voice:

The boy was chased through the graveyard.

“The boy” is the subject of the sentence. However, the boy isn’t performing the action; something or someone is doing the chasing. If we add “by zombies,” we can see that this is actually passive voice. Note that the meaning of the sentence does not change, nor do the forms of any words in the sentence. That’s the Zombie Test for passive voice. (See? Another example of expletive form.)

The boy was chased through the graveyard by zombies.

So how would this be written in expletive form, then?

There was a boy in the graveyard being chased by zombies.

It’s not nearly as exciting, is it. It’s even more boring than the passive construction. Here’s a link about expletive constructions and how to recast them. You’ll notice (if you click the link and read the article, that is) that even that website says “Most of the time expletive constructions . . . only add extra baggage to sentences.” And that’s true. Most of the time, they’re not the best choice. That’s especially true in nonfiction or academic writing. In fiction writing authors have more leeway, but should still be aware that overuse of this construction might slow the pace unnecessarily.

Zombies chased the boy through the graveyard.

or:

Zombies were chasing the boy through the graveyard. (We’re still in active voice here, just not in the simple past tense any longer.)

NOW we have a subject (zombies) acting on an object (the boy). While this is clearly an active-voice construction, it might not be the best choice for a given piece of work. Consider the type of writing you’re doing, the audience, and the intent of the work. If an expletive construction works best in a specific situation, there’s nothing wrong with using it. (LOOK! An expletive construction! “there’s nothing wrong with using it”)

I could recast that sentence: If an expletive construction works best in a specific situation, use it.

That rather defeats my purpose, though–I’m out to show you not only what that construction looks like, but also how it can be used. The point is expletive constructions have their place, and they can be used to good effect if used properly and sparingly.

That is our lesson for today. (Or I could say “That concludes our lesson for today” and avoid the expletive construction, using an active verb form instead. See? Easy. Honest.)

 

 

 

 

 

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.