10 More Tips to Improve your Grammar, Diction and Punctuation (the second blog in this series) . . . .

In this posting (the second in my series on the principles of editing), I draw from the e-newsletter of American “Grammar Girl,” Mignon Fogarty, and on my own experience, as a writer and editor. So let’s continue . . . .

(1)   My pet peeve this week is this construction: “There is  . . .  many ways to answer this question,” or “There’s . . .  many ways to answer this question.” Wrong! These constructions have become commonplace in the media, in business, and in casual conversations. They always annoy me. They should say “There are . . . many ways to answer this question.” The imprecision evident in this error tends to support irresponsibility in speakers, toward whatever concept they are discussing. Politicians are among the worst offenders. Let’s try not to give in to bafflegab!

(2)   Readers of newspapers available online may wonder when to capitalize the “the” in their names. Is it “The Globe and Mail” or the “Globe and Mail”? Mignon Fogarty argues that it depends: the Chicago Manual of Style recommends always leaving the article (“the”) uncapitalized. But the Associated Press (AP) recommends capitalizing it, when the newspaper itself does.  You will likely be able to tell what practice the newspaper has, based on how it is indexed in the database/browser you are using. But if not, Fogarty cites a list of international newspapers, by their formal names and according to country of origin, in Wikipedia at http://bit.ly/149irTU .

(3)   “Ironic” versus “ironical.” “Ironical” is an adjectival form of the noun, irony. But “ironical” means the same thing as “ironic.” The former, Fogarty says, is the “old-fashioned” version (and is more commonly used in the U.K.). North Americans are more likely to look askance at it. Therefore, you’re better off with “ironic.”

(4)   “Hanged” versus “hung.” “Hanged” is the past participle of the verb “to hang,” where it refers to someone being killed by being hanged by the neck in a form of capital punishment. (E.g. Louis Riel was hanged for treason.) “Hung,” by contrast, is the past participle of “to hang,” where the meaning is to suspend something from above with the lower part not attached. (E.g. I hung the ornament on the Christmas tree.)

(5)   Why is there an apostrophe in “Hallowe’en”? One early spelling of the word was “all hallows’ even” (i.e. in the evening). The “all” and the “s” got dropped. Then “hallow” and “even” became a closed compound and the apostrophe took the place of the “v.” The result was “Hallowe’en.” Other words in English have gone through transitional spellings like this.

(6)   What is the difference between common nouns and proper nouns? Business people often capitalize words unnecessarily. Proper nouns (words denoting a person, place or thing) get capitalized and common nouns do not. So, names are an easy example of a noun that would be capitalized. But Fogarty notes that some nouns seem as though they could “go either way.” Her example is “Internet” –language experts from the Chicago Manual of Style and Yahoo Style Guide recommend capitalizing that word, because it’s a large, specific network that people visit. By contrast, the word “website” is not capitalized, because the Internet is populated by many websites, so that the term could describe many different locations.

(7)   “Impact” as a noun, versus as a verb. An increased focus on records and levels of performance have resulted in people using “impact” as a verb, notably starting about 1970 (Fogarty reports). Great writers resist trends that give way to jargon and bafflegab.

(8)   What is the plural form of the noun “hippopotamus,” from the Greek word, “hippopotamos,” meaning “river horse”? Some Latin nouns become plural by changing the ending to “–i” (e.g. fungus becomes fungi). But that is not the case for Greek nouns. Because it is a Greek word, the standard plural is correctly “hippopotamuses.” However, some dictionaries persist in listing “hippopotami.”

(9)   How do you spell the name of the Jewish Festival of Lights? Hanukkah or Chanukah? The original word was transliterated (Fogarty reports) from Hebrew to English, so that these and other spellings are used, including, also, “Hanukah,” and “Hannukah.” Fogarty observes that this is a classic example of why associations or organizations need to have their own style guide to govern common usage. The best practice is to choose one of these spellings and to use it consistently, throughout your document.

(10)  Here’s a fun one (but admittedly not likely to be used in business writing): why does religious music (carols, hymns, etc.) say “The Lord is Come” instead of “The Lord has Come” (such as in the Christmas carol, “Joy to the World”)? Fogarty reports that the usage is based on an archaic form of English that was common in 1719, when Isaac Watts wrote those words. “Is come” is common in English Literature from Chaucer through to the 1900s. She says that one reason why the usage may have died out is that it caused confusion, since the written in the form of the contraction “he’s come” could mean both “he is come [i.e. he is here]” and “he has [already] come.”

So there are another 10 tips to correct the grammar in your day-to-day speaking and writing. Thanks to Mignon Fogarty (aka “Grammar Girl”) for her email newsletter, which provided the lion’s share of the content of today’s blog. Don LePan has a more scholarly approach to common usage, which I’ll visit in my upcoming blogs on grammar, style and punctuation . . . To be continued!

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