Stop Fighting the “Good” Fight

March 4 is National Grammar Day. I can observe the occasion in no better way than with a reblog of this post by Kory Stamper of Merriam-Webster.

harm·less drudg·ery

Today is National (US) Grammar Day, one of the high holy days for language lovers (along with free ice-cream day at Ben & Jerry’s). Dorks like me paint it as a fun time to celebrate English, but let’s be honest: it’s a slyly divisive holiday that’s generally observed entirely by pointing out how other people are Englishing all wrong. (Never you, dear reader. You English perfectly). On National Grammar Day, pedants crow and everyone else cowers. There will be countless articles on everyone’s pet peeves and slideshows of apostrophe abuse. People will proudly declare themselves to be grammar nazis, as if it’s okay to just this once obliquely compare yourself to the most infamous genocidal nutjob in Western history. At least one writer will trot out the favorite metaphor among those who care about grammar: “fight the good fight.”

That will be the article which will cause me to roll my eyes and close…

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We’re needy

Have you noticed the word need being used a lot? If you pay attention, you’ll hear it everywhere.

Today I went to a shipping company’s store and saw this poster on the wall.


Can the china in the poster need to be delivered overnight?

The poster uses the transitive verb need in a way that used to be unconventional. Now, the usage has become embedded in the American lexicon beyond all hope. Even in formal settings.

In July 2014, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking about conflict in Gaza, said, “This needs to end for everybody.”

In January 2014, President Obama stood before Congress and the American television audience and delivered his State of the Union address. The president’s speechwriters had armed him with these words: “This needs to be the year Congress lifts the remaining restrictions.”

Conflict can’t need. A year can’t need. Teacups can’t need to travel.

When Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary gives example sentences for the transitive verb (a verb that takes an object) need, people are the subjects who need something.MW need

When John Kerry said “This (the strife) needs to end for everybody,” he meant everyone needs the strife to end. When the president said “This needs to be the year,” he meant the people need this to be the year. When the customer being quoted in the shipping poster says teacups need to travel, the customer means the sender (or the recipient) needs the teacups to travel.

More appropriate terms would have been ought to, has to, or should. A stronger word would have been must.

When speakers or writers project their own need onto objects or ideas by saying the object or idea needs something, they come across as tentative. It’s as if they’re ducking the blame: “Don’t blame me. The teacups are the ones that need to travel.”

In a related quirky use, sometimes an individual with a need projects the need onto another person, to avoid being direct. “You need to fill this out,” a medical receptionist said while handing me a form. I thought, “I do? Strange; I don’t feel a need.” In fact, the receptionist was uncomfortable stating a request. The words she was uneasy saying: “Please fill this out.”

This indirectness or softening seems to have caught on relatively recently. In my school days, I never heard a teacher issue a feeble “You need to be quiet.” Teachers were comfortable using what grammarians call the imperative mood. They stated commands.

Be quiet. Please sign here. The strife must end. This must be the year.

Speakers and writers who overuse need seem too timid to use strong, explicit words. They should get over it. Audiences crave clarity.

Of course our language is constantly changing and evolving. I embrace that. But this imprecise and bashful application of need is an example of language evolution that I could do without.

Is this a tempest in a teapot? I don’t think so. Sure, the transitive verb need is often used of things, and that usage sounds sensible some of the time (my car needs an oil change). But it sounds dissonant when oddly projected onto a thing that is not in need (that dog needs to stop barking; the rain needs to end).

This use of need in casual conversation is here to stay; there’s no fighting it.

But business writers, speechwriters, and other professional communicators should show more sophisticated use of the language. They should give their audience what it—yes—needs: direct, clear expression.

Clarity. That’s every editor’s cup of tea.

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I like it, I use it, and I recommend it

The serial comma — the comma before and in a series, as in the title of this post — aids in understanding. It clarifies. It makes reading more effortless for the reader.

The Chicago Manual of Style supports the serial comma’s use. (The comma is sometimes referred to as the Oxford comma.) The AP Stylebook does not, in most situations.

Roy Peter Clark, the distinguished writing teacher at the Poynter Institute, prefers the serial comma. In an essay here, Clark goes so far as to say the AP Stylebook should adopt the comma.

This clever infographic from outlines the issue.



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Altered states

Say what you want about the U.S. Postal Service; it knows how to run an effective promotional campaign. At least it did 50 years ago: That’s when it introduced the zip code. Along with the zip code, the Postal Service issued new two-letter state abbreviations.

Before the roll-out, people addressing mail wrote out state names in full, or abbreviated them using a style they had memorized in school: Tenn. and Calif. and W. Va.

In 1963, the Postal Service introduced two-letter state abbreviations, with uppercase letters and without punctuation. The Postal Service ran an ad campaign that lodged the new abbreviations into people’s brains.

zip all
The campaign, featuring the memorable character Mr. Zip, was one of the most successful in American advertising. Over time, the two-letter state abbreviation became so ingrained that people not only used the style for addressing their mail; they began using it every time they wrote the name of a state. Even in sentences.

That’s when people entered a state of confusion.

The two-letter, all-caps, punctuation-free state abbreviation was intended for the outside of envelopes and packages, to speed processing. Postal abbreviations do not belong in sentences.

When the name of a state stands alone in text, writers should spell it out:

The people of California have seen extreme weather lately.

When a city and state are referred to together, until now AP Stylebook advised writers to abbreviate the state using the traditional style:

The climate in Hollywood, Calif. is drier than the climate in Hollywood, Fla.

For the 2014 edition, AP Stylebook changed that. The “journalist’s bible,” as it calls itself, now advises writers to spell out state names in the body of stories. AP says the abbreviations should continue to be used in datelines, lists, tables, photo captions, and such.

The Chicago Manual of Style prefers spelling out the state name, even when it follows the city name. (In tables, bibliographies, and lists, Chicago prefers the two-letter postal abbreviation, allowing the traditional style as an option.)

Here are the traditional state abbreviations:

state abbrevs

By the way, did you know ZIP is an acronym for zone improvement plan? AP Stylebook still tells us to write the 50-year-old ZIP in uppercase letters. Chicago uses lowercase letters for zip code, like it does for the acronyms radar and scuba. (This blog follows Chicago style. Some house styles use Zip, with an initial cap.) The AP Stylebook has accepted far newer usages – don’t get me started on the 2011 Stylebook’s hyphenless email – and I think it’s time for AP to put its stamp of approval on the lowercase zip code.


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Oh, sure

Assure. Ensure. Insure. Do you use these similar-sounding verbs correctly?

Many people don’t. For example, I phoned a large, well-regarded organization and heard this announcement: “In order to assure excellent customer service, your call may be monitored.” Assure was the wrong word; the greeting should have used ensure. People sometimes use insure incorrectly, too.

To insure means to protect against financial loss. People insure their cars, homes, and art collections. In the 1940s, Betty Grable’s movie studio insured the star’s “million dollar legs” with Lloyd’s of London.beatles help silhouette

To ensure means to make certain or to confirm. We say, “to ensure success.” When ensure is followed by a clause, adding that after the verb usually makes things clearer: “to ensure that we will succeed.”

To assure means to promise. Assure is a transitive verb, so it requires an object—and a personal object, at that. We assure a person: “I can assure you.” (You is the object of assure.) The journalist Nelly Bly said, “The more I endeavored to assure them of my sanity, the more they doubted it.” (In this example, them is the object of assure.) If you write assure and notice that it has no object, change it: use ensure instead.

  • If you refer to financial protection, use insure. “Insure your home against fire and flood.”
  • If you promise and have an object, use assure. “He assured me.”
  • In all other cases, use ensure. “Phone to ensure that school will be open.”

The Beatles sang “I’m not so self-assured.” Maybe these guidelines will, ahem, “Help!”

(Decades ago, insure had another definition, interchangeable with ensure. That usage is archaic. Writers should limit insure to matters of financial protection. And pay no attention to old British “life assurance” company names. Is it any wonder people get confused?)

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You live only once

bmw adThe acronym YOLO (you only live once) was in the running for 2012 Word of the Year according to the people at Oxford American Dictionary. Several things about that idea gave me heartburn, especially the fact that YOLO involves a misplaced adverb.

Writers frequently place only in a less-than-ideal position in sentences. In my editing, I relocate only several times each week, to remove ambiguity. Only is routinely misplaced in conversation, and that’s not such a big deal. But when it’s time to put words in writing, thoughtful communicators should be more careful.

BMW has adopted the slogan, “We only make one thing.” But BMW does not only make one thing. The maker of the ultimate driving machine also designs that thing, markets that thing, and finances that thing. The slogan should be “We make only one thing.”

A misplaced only can cause confusion for readers.

If I wrote, “I am only editing two reports,” would you know what I meant? Maybe I meant that I’m not drafting the reports or printing the reports; I’m only editing them. How would you be sure of my meaning?

I should write, “I am editing only two reports.” A better placement of only, close to the word being modified, removes the ambiguity: I’m not editing three or four reports; only two reports.

The so-called word YOLO might lose some of its zing if the adverb were better placed and it became YLOO. But writers ought to try to place only in the position that best helps readers understand which word or phrase is being modified.

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Is that all there is is?

is isToday I was named in Language Log, in a contribution by Ben Zimmer, distinguished language columnist for The Boston Globe (now for the Wall Street Journal).

When I watched today’s White House press conference, I noticed that the president repeatedly used a faulty phrase. I took to Twitter and shared my observation with fellow language lovers and word nerds. Ben Zimmer wrote his column about it.

The phrase in question is “is is.” People mindlessly say it, as in, “The trouble is, is that the Nats aren’t pitching well.” (The correct expression would be, “The trouble is that the Nats aren’t pitching well.”) As smart as the president is, he seems to have latched onto this construction after hearing other people use it, and he unthinkingly put it into his vocabulary. The habit makes him seem less smart than he is.

He made a similar lapse in the same press conference when he said “as best as they can.” “As best as” is an idiom. It is not standard English. As best they can, or as well as they can, would have been correct.

My concern was not political in nature, of course. Any prominent, respected communicator being broadcast or streamed would have prompted my tweet by saying “is is” repeatedly.

When defective words and phrases creep into our language because people hear and repeat things without pausing to question them, our language becomes a little less lovable.

Read Zimmer’s analysis:

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Not that again

The February post on this blog discussed when to use that and when to use which.

That can be troublesome in another way, too: by its absence.

Many writers have developed the habit of leaving out the word that. Omitting that can cause confusion. If a reader must go back and reread a sentence because an omitted that made the sentence unclear, communication is ineffective.

I recently read a sentence that began, “We anticipate the report . . .”

How did your brain process that phrase? My brain thought the next words would probably tell me when we anticipate the report. I was ready for something like, “We anticipate the report by Friday.” The phrasing had set my expectations.

But in fact, the second half of the sentence was, “will contain your recommendations.” Wait, what? I stumbled, then read it again:

We anticipate the report will contain your recommendations.

Readers should not have to read a sentence once, pause to recover from mental whiplash, and read the sentence a second time. Readers should not have to work so hard.

The writer created a miscue by omitting that:

(Improved) We anticipate that the report will contain your recommendations.

With that included, the reader can easily understand the sentence and move on.

Another example:

Hatfield County claimed the property was worth $1 million.

Did you start out thinking that Hatfield County claimed the property? The omission of that can cause confusion for a moment.

(Improved) Hatfield County claimed that the property was worth $1 million.

Here’s one more example:

She demonstrated the system
saves time.

Where would a that help the reader?

The Associated Press Stylebook says, “When in doubt, include that. Omission can hurt. Inclusion never does.”

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Hyphen nation

Everyone knows that hyphens are used at the end of a line of type to indicate that a word continues on the next line.

Beyond that use of hyphens, some people run into confusion.

Some get downright grumpy when it comes to using hyphens in phrasal adjectives.

The journalist Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves, a humorous book about punctuation, explains that the hyphen joins words to aid understanding. Her chapter on hyphens defends the honor of sober pickled-herring merchants who have never touched a drop.

Without a hyphen, the phrase “long term plan” might leave a reader wondering whether there is something called a term plan, and he’s reading about a long one. With a hyphen, the phrase “long-term plan” lets the reader be sure he is reading about a plan for the long term.

The rule is this: If two consecutive words work together as an adjective to modify a noun that follows them, those two words should be hyphenated.

The rule is not just for two words; it is the same when any number of words work together as a modifier before a noun:

an easy-to-reach shelf

the head-over-heels-in-love couple

No hyphen is necessary if the noun does not follow the modifying words:

the up-to-date report

the report is up to date

An exception to the hyphen rule applies when the first word in the compound adjective ends in –ly. In that case, the meaning is clear without a hyphen. For example:

an openly hostile environment

a clearly attainable goal

Hyphens have other uses, too. We’ll save those for another day.


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That vs. which

Some writers struggle to choose between that and which. And some writers don’t struggle at all; they choose which because they think it sounds more correct or more formal. The writers in the second group are often wrong.

The wonderful writing teacher William Zinsser puts it simply: “Always use that unless it makes your meaning ambiguous.” In most situations, Zinsser says, that is what you would naturally say and therefore what you should write.

Readers who want a grammar rule for this guidance can have one. It’s a matter of restrictive clauses and nonrestrictive clauses.

That introduces restrictive clauses:

The leftover vegetables that are in the refrigerator would make a good stew.

“That are in the refrigerator” is a restrictive clause; it clarifies the specific vegetables being referred to. The writer is not referring to the vegetables that are in the root cellar; she is referring to the vegetables that are in the refrigerator.

Which is for nonrestrictive clauses:

The leftover vegetables, which are in the refrigerator, would make a good stew.

“Which are in the refrigerator” is nonrestrictive. The sentence would be clear without this clause; the clause simply provides additional information. It’s as if the writer were saying, “The leftover vegetables would make a good stew. Incidentally, they are in the refrigerator.”

This discussion of “that” versus “which,” like everything else in this blog, assumes U.S. English. Users of British English should pay no attention.

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