Superannuated Syntax: Say what, now?

In the last week or so I’ve had conversations around the ‘net with people about syntax, word choices, and usages that confound many “modern” readers and writers and speakers of English (native and otherwise). One such usage is “suffer” in the sense of “allow.” “Suffer the children” does not mean “the children are suffering.” It means “allow the children” (“suffer the children, and forbid them not, to come unto me,” in context as attributed to Christ in Matthew 9:14, KJV). Anyone who says otherwise has fallen victim to superannuated syntax.

I deliberately avoided calling this series “Outmoded Syntax” because that’s associated with programming, and this ain’t that.

In any case, this series is meant to talk about phrasing we don’t hear much anymore and wording that confuses “modern readers,” and maybe even to provide some tips and suggestions for strengthening historical fiction by using appropriately outdated choices (in appropriate ways, of course). I’ve not yet decided on that part of it, but know I’m thinking about it.

To kick things off, here’s a link to a post at from 2012 about the language of Christmas carols. Chock full of superannuated syntax/usage/vocabulary!

A market for farmers

I missed the #ACESchat on Twitter yesterday, but I caught up afterward and was happy to see all the discussion about apostrophes creeping in where they really don’t belong (but being accepted regardless). The two big examples discussed were “farmers/farmers’/farmer’s market” and “Veterans/Veterans’/Veteran’s Day.”

First off: If the VA says it’s “Veterans Day,” that’s what it is. They get to decide that, not us. We might be unhappy, but come on. It’s akin to telling someone their name is misspelled because you don’t like the variation they use. Get over it.

It’s a day to honor veterans. The day doesn’t belong to veterans, so there’s no reason for an apostrophe (singular OR plural possessive).

Of course that logic breaks down with “Mother’s Day” and “Father’s Day.” Those are days for honoring parents, but they’re possessive. Because English. Get over it. Check your preferred style guide and move on. Thanks.

Now, as for “farmers market”: Again, it doesn’t belong to the farmers. It’s there for the farmers to sell their produce, wares, whatever. Same as with [fill in the blank] union. Teamsters union. Service workers union. Teachers union. The union is there for the benefit of the workers. It doesn’t belong to them. No need for the possessive form. CMoS says “farmers’ market,” so that’s what I would use if I were being paid to conform to style. However, I personally prefer “farmers market” with no apostrophe. There’s a general moving away from apostrophe usage in this kind of construction, these days. Yay for living language and the attendant mechanics!

Then we come to “children’s hospital.” By the same logic, it should be “children hospital.” But that sounds wrong, looks wrong, and so on — because it’s never been styled that way, that I can find. It’s always plural possessive. The hospital doesn’t belong to the children; it’s for the use/benefit of the children. Like “animal hospital.” Why don’t we say “animals’ hospital” then? Because English. Suck it up, buttercup, check your stylebook, and move on.

The longer I’m in this business, the more strongly I consider one question above all the others: Will the reader know and understand what the words mean? Will the difference between “farmers’ market” and “farmers market” cause confusion? If the answer is “no,” I don’t worry about it. (Again, unless I’m being paid to conform to a specific style manual.)


I feel it necessary to thank the following for their input during the ACES chat on 12/3/14, since that chat and their thoughts inspired me to create this post: Mededitor, MANUAL OF HULK, and DriftingEarth.

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.

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.

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.

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.

“Amongst” or “among?” Honestly — it doesn’t matter. But . . .

My colleague Deb Bancroft asked me about this one a month or so ago. I’ve debated writing this long enough. I’m among friends, right?

“Amongst” is the older form of the word. There’s no difference in meaning between the forms, none whatsoever. “Among” is the same thing as “amongst.” My personal preference is for “among,” and as I often say: “Unless I’m reading Austen, I don’t want to see amongst in a book.” And for the most part that’s true.

However, if you’re writing a period piece and the older form makes better stylistic sense, by all means use it. If you’re writing a fantasy piece and you’ve chosen to use more archaic or even obsolete language as flavor for your characters’ speech, by all means use it.

Just don’t use it in your term paper about mitochondrial DNA, okay? Cool.

If your character might use these, then you might want "amongst."
If your character might use these, then you might want “amongst.”

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. ) 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.

ETA: Some acronyms become words over time, like scuba (Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus) and laser (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation). I have my Twitter editor-friend Mededitor (@mededitor) to thank for this. I write on the fly, so some things simply don’t occur to me. Thanks, Med!

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 )