What a dictionary is and isn’t, from this editor’s point of view

I’m not a lexicographer, but I know several from Twitter. That’s my disclaimer. What I’m writing here is taken from English-language dictionaries themselves (did you know the print versions usually include a “how to use this book” section?), personal experience, and Twitter discussions.

Dictionaries do not dictate how you are allowed to use a word. They do, however, tell you how words are used. Do you see the difference? They’re showing you a snapshot, in essence, of the English language at a moment in time. The definitions change with the language, but not as quickly as language changes. For a word to enter a dictionary, or for its definition to change, that word must appear in print in places where the lexicographers can cite it. That can be news media, fiction, nonfiction, periodicals, personal correspondence made public, transcripts of speech, websites, and so on. Continue reading “What a dictionary is and isn’t, from this editor’s point of view”

REVIEW: The Perfect English Grammar Workbook, McLendon

Any grammar text that makes me literally laugh aloud is a winner on at least one level. Making grammar fun is one of my personal goals, so I always enjoy seeing others succeed at doing so. I laughed a lot during my read-through of Lisa McLendon’s workbook. This is a very good thing.

Not only does she know her grammar (she’s the one who teaches the Deep Grammar classes at various editing conferences), she explains it in plain language. No small feat, that. Lisa won me over right off the bat with her statement that she’s not a “grammar cop,” but rather a “grammar cheerleader.” I don’t know as I’m bubbly enough to be one of those, but I appreciate the imagery, that’s for sure. Continue reading “REVIEW: The Perfect English Grammar Workbook, McLendon”

My gift to you: LINKS! (Post the first of over a dozen!)

While I’ve been less than perfect about posting here, I’m very active over on G+. In fact, most of my business is done there, whether it’s getting referrals or discussing projects. Because I spend so much time there, I’ve embraced the Collections feature and set up sixteen groupings of posts. I won’t link to all of them here (my Editing Projects, for example, aren’t really germane to everyone in the blogosphere, and the GRAMMARGEDDON! posts are already here, duh), but I’ll post a link to each Collection with a brief description of it so you good people can see the rest of my inspiring content. ::cough::

I just realized I’m posting at least a dozen links over the next few weeks. Rather like an editorial “Twelve Days of Christmas.”

But not. Anyway . . .

First up, in keeping with the theme of this blog, is my GUMmy Stuff. These are all about grammar, usage, and mechanics. Some of them are original content, some are links to other folks’ blogs, some are cartoons, but all are focused on GUMmy Stuff.

Here you go. Don’t get stuck in there. It can be messy.

GUMmy Stuff (Grammar, Usage, Mechanics)

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.) Continue reading “Let’s chew some GUM.”

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.