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).

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.

“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.”

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.

 

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.)

“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 offthebench.nbcsports.com 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 Salon.com. 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.