Bloody Well Write

December 31, 2008

To uppercase or not to uppercase

Filed under: AP Stylebook,grammar,punctuation — bloodywellwrite @ 9:23 pm
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There are about nine hours left in 2008 if you’re in the Central time zone (and you’re reading this right now, which is not likely the case). And, wherever you are, you are possibly thinking about asking all of your e-mail buddies and Facebook friends and Twitter followers what they have planned for New Year’s Eve.

Or is it “New Year’s eve”?

Maybe “new year’s eve”?

Argh.

I know. I know exactly what you’re going through: the great spelling dilemma of the ages — how to correctly spell/uppercase/lowercase your query so as to avoid seeming like a complete and utter oaf.

Here is your answer, short and sweet, lifted straight from Page 167 of my AP Stylebook:

These are correct: New Year’s, New Year’s Day and New Year’s Eve. This is also correct: What will the new year bring?

Ah, lovely. Now we can all raise our scotches, mojitos and hot chocolates in a unified toast to the new year, 2009. May it be a year full of good health, lots of laughs, a decent amount of inspiration and fully proper grammar.

Happy trails!

SAK

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December 23, 2008

False ranges or How to dumb down your varietal writing with everything from goo-goo goggles to veggie hammocks

Here’s the deal: All kinds of writers, from journalists to comic-strip creators, from advertising writers to unauthorized biographers, use ranges to imply vast coverage of whatever they are writing about. And the vast majority use ranges incorrectly. I just did.

Take, for example, the second half of this blog’s headline. What is the true range? From goo-goo goggles to veggie hammocks — what does that mean? How are they possibly related? They both might be made out of plastic. OK, fine. They both could be purple. Or made in 1969. But where does that leave the range?

Look at this entry’s first paragraph. What is the true range between each grouping of writers? There’s a disconnect occurring. No true range, no obvious connection, no-good writing.

If you look the word “range” up in the dictionary (Webster’s New World College Dictionary is AP’s dictionary of choice, but you Web-savvy folks can check out Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary), you’ll get several definitions. The two that fit this topic are as follows:

1) A series of things in a line (implying some sort of relation)
2) A sequence, series or scale between limits (again, implying a relation)

Look “range” up on OneLook.com (a fantastic Web site that pulls definitions from nearly a bazillion dictionary sites), and you’ll see the quick definitions on the right side of your screen, including this one: a variety of different things or activities (“He answered a range of questions”).

So what’s the message here? It’s this: Writers tend to use this false range as a prop. Writing that a five-and-dime carries everything (everything!) from Andalusian apples to Zippo lighters is just not gonna work. Do they sell time-shares in Connecticut? Sand from Perth? Yellow polka-dot bikinis? Eyebrow dye? Not a single noun can be excluded. “Everything” means everything. That’s one hell of a range. Hell, that’s one hell of a store.

Writing that a plane can travel from Anchorage to Zimbabwe is fine; that’s a true range. There are geographic points to be plotted. There’s an alphabetical range, as well, although it’s a little more of a stretch.

If you really want to include a range in your writing, try using some version of “a variety”: The five-and-dime sold a variety of products, including blow-up Nietzsche dolls and Roseanne Roseannadanna wigs. The cookbook included recipes as varied as green-bean pudding and hambone tartare.

For more rantings on false ranges, check out theslot.com, the Web site of one of my all-time favorite editing ranters, Bill Walsh. He’s the copy chief (national desk) at The Washington Post, has written two books (“opinionated guides for editors and writers,” per his Web site) and is as entertaining a grammar enthusiast as I have come across. He also has a blog. Ba-da-bing — there’s my Bill Walsh plug. He rocks.

I hope that you had fun with this read and especially that you’ll come back for another go at the word game. Keep me company. Send your feedback. Pass on ideas for future entries. Then take a load off and have some ice cream. There’s always time for ice cream.

Happy holidays and — as always — happy trails!

SAK

December 16, 2008

Who’s on first?

Filed under: AP Stylebook,grammar — bloodywellwrite @ 10:48 pm
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Barney Frank, the 14-term Democratic congressmen from Massachusetts, is chairman of the House Financial Services Committee. He was on “60 Minutes” last week talking with Lesley Stahl about the possible auto industry bailouts. He made a comment that could just about be a mantra for the Democratic Party: “No, we’re not propping up companies. … We’re propping up individuals. The world doesn’t consist of companies. The world are people. The country is people.”

OK, so “The world are people” and “The country is people” aren’t exactly examples of exemplary grammar. They’re not the point of this discussion. The point is, for grammar’s sake, determining when to use “who” versus “what.”

Frank said it philosophically: Companies are not the focus. They are not, perhaps, worth saving. Individuals, on the other hand, are: They are (or should be) the focus, and they are (or, again, should be) worth saving. And individuals grouped together form companies, the country, the world.

Get to the point, you say. Well, companies are things, not people. They are each a “what” and, as such, should always be connected with “that”:

• “Companies who value employees” is incorrect.
• “Companies that value loyalty” is correct.

Frank’s heart was in the right place when he said, “The world are people. The country is people.” Unfortunately, those aren’t grammatically correct, either. Like companies, countries and worlds are things — not people — and deserve “it,” “what” and “that” as descriptors.

Conversely, people are each a “who,” not a “what or a “that.” Think of “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas”: It’s “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas,” not “The Grinch That Stole Christmas.” All those Whos down in Whoville are “Whos,” not “Whats,” and they (the singing, happy Whos who care not a whit for presents or spangles or shiny toot-tooters) live in Whoville, not Whatville.

People (and Grinches) are whos. Companies and anything else that can’t move of their own volition are whats.

What about Max, the Grinch’s overworked dog? Is Max a who or a what? According to the AP Stylebook, Max has a name, so Max is a who. Even if we don’t know an animal’s name, as long as we know that the animal is a he or a she (or a used-to-be he or she), we still call it a who. Any animal without a given name and without a determined sex is considered a what.

So there’s the lowdown on “who” and “what.” Who knows what’s up with I Don’t Know, Because and Why? Those are for another day (maybe Tomorrow!).

Happy trails!

SAK

December 11, 2008

The Americanization of language

Filed under: grammar — bloodywellwrite @ 10:18 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

So here I am, sittin’ on the Group W bench. I mean, I’m just sittin’ here, thinkin’ ’bout writin’ my next blog.

OK, so, I’m not sitting on or anywhere near a Group W bench. Thank the gods for that one, I guess. But I love Arlo Guthrie’s tunes so much, and they enter my mind at random times, and just now was one of those times. Perhaps because the subject of this blog revolves around language changing due to popular usage, and Arlo’s simple yet masterful storytelling style often changes the way I talk or think. So I’m offering that little snippet as homage to Arlo. Gotta love Arlo.

Now the thing is, this is only my second entry on Bloody Well Write and I have already received suggestions for topics, which I’m thinking is pretty cool. So I’m taking one of these suggestions to heart.

I overheard some co-workers lamenting the various spellings of certain words (theater vs. theatre, gray vs. grey, color vs. colour) and I told them — briefly — about Noah Webster’s “Dictionary of the English Language.” One guy said, “Hey, that’s what you should write about. It’s very Cliff Clavin, the sort of offbeat information that people love to hear.” Or, as the case may be, that they love to read. So here’s a little background on Mr. Webster and his effort at cleaning up the American language:

  • Noah Webster was born in Connecticut in 1758. At 16, he went to Yale College (during the American Revolutionary War) and earned his law degree. He practiced for a while and then set up a few schools, which succinctly tanked. He moved to New York City to edit a newspaper; he then started his own paper.
  • Webster wrote “A Grammatical Institute of the English Language,” which consisted of a speller, a grammar and a reader. His intention was to save “our native tongue” from “the clamor of pedantry” that marked English grammar and pronunciation. He also believed that the people must guide the language; the “general custom is the rule of speaking — and every deviation from this must be wrong.” His trifecta, of sorts, was the most popular American book of its time; by 1861, it was selling 1 million copies a year and earning him a royalty of less than a penny per copy — a decent return in those days.
  • Webster is known as “the father of copyright” due to his efforts that led to the federal copyright law of 1790.
  • In 1807, Webster began writing “An American Dictionary of the English Language.” He learned 26 languages, including Sanskrit, in order to substantiate his work. Wanting to standardize and simplify American speech since Americans spelled, pronounced and used words differently throughout the country, he often changed “c” to “s” (“defence” became “defense”) and “re” to “er” (“centre” became “center”); he changed double l’s to single l’s (“traveller” became “traveler”); and in later editions, he dropped the “u” in words such as colour or favour and the “k” in words such as “musick.” He also added distinctly American words, such as “hickory” and “chowder.”
  • Webster completed the dictionary in Paris, which was then published in 1828. It contained 70,000 words, 12,000 of which had never appeared in a published dictionary.
  • Webster died May 28, 1843.

So there’s a little history lesson on the simplification of the English language. Pretty interesting, I think. Who knows how “American” language will transform itself in the future? With all the texting that is going on these days, abbreviations such as DV8 (“deviate”), ENUF (“enough”), PEEPS (“people”) and PLS (“please”) just might make it into the popular lexicon.

And what goes around comes around, right? So since we started with Arlo, our favorite all-American singer who sings it like it is — no complications, just pure and simple words woven for the listening ear — we’ll end with Arlo: “Good morning, America. How are you? Don’t you know me? I’m your native son.”

Happy trails!

SAK

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