Bloody Well Write

April 30, 2009

Pluperfect joke: Grammar is funny

G’day, lovers and loathers of the English language. This is just a quick something-something to help you while away your last afternoon of April 2009. I’d never heard this joke before and was impressed that an Aussie had made the cut as the lead. So, without further ado:

An Australian man wins a trip to Boston. His mates have been telling him how good the seafood is in Boston, and he can’t wait to hit some restaurants. He arrives and, after freshening up at the hotel, wanders out to catch a taxi and hopefully be directed to a decent seafood place. Unbeknownst to him, his cabdriver is a post-grad student going for his doctorate in linguistics and grammatical syntax. The Aussie says, “Hey, mate, where can I get scrod?”

The cabdriver turns to him with a look of intellectual curiosity and replies, “Sir, I have heard it asked for in many ways, shapes and forms, but I’ve never heard it in the pluperfect subjunctive before.”

That’s ace!

Lest you think that this is all just fun and games over here at, here’s some info on what the heck pluperfect is:

The pluperfect tense is a perfect tense that exists in most Indo-European languages; it is used to refer to an event that has been completed before another past action.

Take a look at this: “The blind man, who knew that he had risen, motioned him to sit down again.” He had risen is an example of the pluperfect tense.* It refers to an event (someone rises from his seat), which takes place before another event (the blind man notices the fact that the other has risen). Because that second event is a past event and the past tense is used to refer to it (the blind man knew), the pluperfect tense is needed to make it obvious that the first event has taken place even earlier in the past.

Bloody oath!

Does anyone else have a hankering for a coldie?

Happy trails!


*From Charles Dickens’ “Barnaby Rudge: a Tale of the Riots of ’Eighty.”

April 28, 2009

Articles: a and an

Filed under: grammar,Uncategorized — bloodywellwrite @ 8:10 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Most English grammar rules are governed by spelling. As you might have noticed throughout your formative years, though, the English language is not one to be harnessed in by a few pesky rules. No — rules be cursed! Patooey on grammar rules!

Thus it is with the two articles a and an. A and an are not followers, people. They don’t follow the flock of rules. They follow rules of sound instead of spelling. (OK, so they are followers, but they follow the edgy, nonconformist rules, so there.) And really, that’s perfectly OK with me. The sound makes it easier to figure out which one is correct for a particular sentence. Here’s the gist:

A: Use a before consonant sounds (a frog, a home, a historic event, a unique plan, a one-time offer, a 4-3 split). Note that just because the following word begins with a vowel or numeral doesn’t mean that an is the correct choice. That h in historic is a sounded h. Remember: It’s the sound of that first letter, not the first letter itself.

An: Use an before vowel sounds (an apple, an ergonomic chair, an honorable mention, an NBC affiliate, an 85-year-old turtle). Note that just because the following word begins with a consonant or numeral doesn’t mean that a is the correct choice. That h in honor is a silent h. Remember: It’s the sound of that first letter, not the first letter itself.

An 85-year-old turtle is still a spring chicken (life expectancy 200 years).

An 85-year-old turtle is still a spring chicken (life expectancy 200 years).

Happy trails!


April 27, 2009

Italics for words as words — say what?

Italicizing words is fun, if you ask me. It lets me, as a writer, pretend I’m a designer (or at least that’s what I tell myself when no one’s around). It lets me put a visual emphasis on a word or group of words that I really want to stand out. Italicizing is empowering.

Like all those in positions of power, though, I have to be monitored.* Without checks and balances, I might italicize every fifth word — and I don’t have to tell you, dear reader, how that would undermine the grammatical potency of my beloved italics.

Enter the AP Stylebook’s rules and regulations on the very restrictive use of italics (cymbals clash) in the English language.

Italic typeface cannot be sent through AP computers. Why? Because the typeface doesn’t transmit through all computers. In these times, it’s confounding, really. The AP folks are, therefore, especially strict about not allowing italics in print. Instead of italics, they surround the word or phrase with quotation marks. However, they do make concessions for those who have italics available to them.

So here’s the lowdown on when to use italics, keeping in mind that strategically placed italics work best when used very, very sparingly:

• Italicize words, letters and numbers used as such.
(NOTE: This is the only example of italics that the AP Stylebook gives as kosher.) This includes words used a words. What exactly does that mean? Words as words means that you’re writing a word down strictly as a word; you want the reader to see the word itself and not its meaning. You’re not trying to use it for what the word represents:

• The words handbag and purse are not perfectly interchangeable.
• Always remember that there’s a rat in separate.
• His 6s and 7s were below his expected scores.

• Italicize words for emphasis. Doing this is pretty much a no-no in AP Stylebook terms, but as a writer who likes to add a bit of visual drama to the page, I’d say it’s OK in very limited quantities: And when I say very limited quantities, I mean very limited quantities.

"Yes, well, life is not all shoot-shoot, bang-bang, you know." —Chief Inspector Clouseau

"Yes, well, life is not all shoot-shoot, bang-bang, you know." —Chief Inspector Clouseau

It’s slightly interesting to note that even though the AP Stylebook demands no italics, it uses italics throughout the stylebook; its key states, “Examples of correct and incorrect usage are in italics.” Looks like a classic case of “Do as I say, not as I do,” doesn’t it? Hmph. Sort of makes me feel like Chief Inspector Clouseau — Aha! Coght ewe, shiftee EhPee Styealebouk, wit yur  craftee words-as-words trickeree!

And — that’s it. No more bullets, just the two (really, just the one if you want to be an AP stickler.) I’m holding myself back so that I don’t italicize the entire entry. I have a will of iron today, so all’s good.

*Oh, the power that I have at my beck and call — it’s enthralling how powerful I really am. So, so powerful. Can’t even count the ways in which my power is the best power around. Crazy-powerful. It’s almost unreal, all that power.

Happy trails!


April 24, 2009

Appreciating you and your

Filed under: AP Stylebook,grammar — bloodywellwrite @ 9:55 pm
Tags: , , ,

This is a quickie for a late Friday afternoon.

I just learned the reason why you would want to use you versus your in the following sentences:

I really appreciate you helping me with this.
• I really appreciate your helping me with this.

Thanks to the AP Stylebook Web site, under the “Ask the Editor” section, I found the answer:
Either is correct, depending on where you want to put the emphasis: on the person or on the act?

Question answered!

Happy trails!


April 22, 2009

Referencing months or How time flies when you’re having (grammatical) fun

Filed under: AP Stylebook,grammar,punctuation — bloodywellwrite @ 7:56 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

It seems to be so true: Time absolutely stands still when you’re watching the proverbial pot boil, and it zooms past you when you’re having a decent time of it. It also goes by a lot faster with every month of your existence, doesn’t it? Hmmm? Just sayin’.

Yes, well, it does — except in AP Stylebook terms. The way to treat months in copy is pretty clear and pretty stable as far as those folks are concerned. So let’s try to slow time down a bit while we’re having all this fun with grammar.

Across the board, the specific months are capitalized:

When including a specific date, abbreviate only:

  • Jan.
  • Feb.
  • Aug.
  • Sept.
  • Oct.
  • Nov.
  • Dec.

When calling out only a month and year, the year is not set off with commas;
when calling out a month, day and year, the year is set off with commas:

  • My middle finger was slammed in the front door in September 1971; I have the scar to prove it.
  • Sept. 16 was quite a memorable day.
  • Her birthday is May 18.
  • July 3, 1971, was a sad, sad day for Doors fans.
  • Friday, Nov. 27, will be a great day to do some serious shopping.

One last thing: Be careful when referring to ambiguous dates in the past or the future. If it’s May and you say, “I’m going to buy a car next July,” does that mean you’re going to buy one in two months or in a year and two months? It may be clear to you, but it’s ain’t clear to me (and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who just might be confused). I’ll tell you one thing, though — if you get a Mini, I’m going to be very, very envious, no matter in which month or year you buy it.

My orange Mini. Someday.

My orange Mini. Someday.

Remember: Getting your point across clearly is a terrific thing. Really good writers can get their readers to see exactly what they want them to see; it’s not necessarily the quantity of words they use, but the quality of words that does the job. I guess that translates into all sorts of aspects of life, doesn’t it?

Happy trails!


April 16, 2009

The en dash and em dash or How two goldfish came into — and quickly exited — my pre-wedding life

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who love fish (as pets) and those who, uh, don’t really get it. The same might be said for dashes; some people love ’em like mad, and some people, uh, don’t really get ’em.

Me? I fall into opposite camps. I don’t really get the whole fish-as-pets thing. They’re sort of cool to watch for a while, but fish can’t snuggle. Fish can’t cheer you up by nuzzling your cheek when you’ve had a bad day. Fish can’t wake you up by walking up and down, up and down your legs.

On the other hand, I totally get dashes. I think they are fabulous. They clarify. They add visual interest. They inadvertently amuse by infuriating the designers you work with. They give your brain a tweak while you’re writing.

What’s the fuss? Heck, what’s the real story? (There is a story here, but I’ll get to the fish later.)

There are two kinds of dashes: en dashes and em dashes. (Hyphens are not really dashes and are thus relegated to a separate entry.) The em dash began as the length of a “typical” m and the en dash began as the length of a “typical” n. These length conventions are not necessarily followed in these days of a gazillion font styles. When using an em dash, though, almost always include a space on each side of the dash. (Attributions are exempt.)

The em dash is used to set off parenthetical statements. Although commas and parentheses can be used for the same function, the em dash is — by far — the most emphatic separator of the three. It can also indicate a sharp transition: The coyote must attempt to catch the roadrunner — but at what cost?
The em dash can also be used for a series within a phrase: His menu listed the pies — pumpkin, blueberry and mud — that he made weekly.

Use the em dash in attributions, without a space: Oh, I don’t think I’m a lot dumber than you think that I thought I was once. —Ben Stiller as White Goodman in “Dodgeball”

The en dash is used in ranges:
• 45–50 clowns
• 11:00 a.m.–2:30 p.m.
• Ages 2–3
• November–December 1967

The en dash is also used in relationships, including compound adjective situations. These usages, however, can depend on your level of comfort in deviating from AP Stylebook guidelines. AP does not recognize en dashes as valid. So in the following instances, a plain, ol’ hyphen will suffice, but the more adventurous writers (and designers) can use the en dash for a slightly more fine-tuned approach:

• KU beat Nebraska 76–39 (whoomp!)
• New York–London flight
• A 5–4 vote

As far as I know — and that’s not very far when a PC’s concerned — there are no shortcuts to create an en or em dash on a PC. Here’s how to create the dashes via computer longhand for both a PC and a Mac:

• Go to Insert in the program menu and open up Symbol.
• Highlight the appropriate dash located there.
• Click on Insert.

Macs do have shortcuts, so you don’t have to move your mouse around through various windows.
Here’s how to create the dashes on a Mac:

En: Option+hyphen
Em: Shift+option+hyphen

Gee, I almost feel as if I could pass for IT support sometimes. Lasts for about three seconds before my head starts to implode.

So — what’s my big fish story?

Well, I was working at another ad agency in town when I became engaged (to one of the agency IT guys — OK, you got me). Our co-workers threw us a shower, and one gal — the one we all fondly referred to as Martha Stewart because she was crazy-creative in all creative endeavors — gave us a pair of goldfish. She had already named them En Dash and Em Dash, in my honor as the agency editor-proofreader. Cool, funky gift, not to be forgotten.

En Dash and Em Dash

En Dash and Em Dash in better days

I took them home in their baggies and put them into a small bowl. The next morning, I thought it would be a good idea to give them some fresh water. Fresh water is good, right? Right, I thought. I went to work and came home. My roommate told me to look at the fish, because they were “hanging out” at the bottom of the bowl. Well, they couldn’t be dead, I thought, because dead means floating, right? Right.

I looked at the bowl. Those fish weren’t floating, that’s for sure. But they were sideways. At the bottom of the bowl. Not swimming. Just … sideways. Ugh. I had killed En Dash and Em Dash, in less than 24 hours.

Imagine my horror at finding out that you can’t just use tap water for fish. How the heck was I supposed to know that, the fish virgin that I was? I felt horrible. So burial was my responsibility for these two unlucky souls. I took them to my roommate’s bathroom and — whoosh — they were gone. Just couldn’t bring myself to flush them down my own toilet. Isn’t that nuts?

I never told our Martha Stewart friend. I couldn’t bare the embarrassment, frankly. Now, almost six years later, I’m hoping that, if and when she reads this entry, she can forgive me for being such a cad. SD, I’m sorry!

OK, that’s it for today. I’m going to go re-mourn the loss of the goldfish while listening to some em dash–free Arlo.

Happy trails!


April 14, 2009

The this-is-how-to-use-a-hyphen-correctly entry

A hyphen is that short, little bugger that joins two or more words to form an adjective and, at the very same time, makes middle schoolers’ heads spin. Really, it is nothing more than a clarifier, making the very complicated English language a little less complicated for the reader. At least, that’s its intent. The writer, though, may have something else to say about it. Ahem.

Since the hyphen is trying to simplify our lives, let’s give it a chance by trying to understand where it’s coming from. (Yes, yes, “from where it is coming” is the oh-so-proper way to write but, really, who talks that way anymore? Ending in a preposition is completely acceptable for all but the highest of highbrows. Onward and upward.)

The hyphen is used to form various compound words. If in doubt about adding a hyphen to two words, look for ambiguity that may lurk: Bob will speak to small businessmen sounds as if the businessmen are either vertically challenged or small-boned; the sentence probably should read like this: Bob will speak to small-business men. If adding a hyphen would clear up a misunderstanding, the hyphen probably belongs between the two words.

The problem with this second sentence is that women are presumably not going to be in or allowed at this meeting, which raises other ethical and moral questions. If you are 100 percent sure that no women will be in the audience, leave it as is; but if women will be present, you can change it to Bob will speak to small-business men and women or Bob will speak to small-business owners. Problem solved.

Many combinations that are hyphenated before a noun are not hyphenated when they occur after a noun: He works full time. A full-time employee gets an assigned parking space.

You can also use a hyphen to avoid duplicated vowels and triple consonants: anti-intellectual, shell-like. These are tricky, though, because the AP Stylebook does not always follow Merriam-Webster’s recommended spelling.

For example, AP uses a hyphen in pre-emptive, but Merriam-Webster does not: preemptive. What’s a writer to do? I’d say to use your best judgment. My best judgment says to follow AP, except that AP is sometimes the last style guide to make a change, which leads me to ultimately recommend following Merriam-Webster’s spelling. As an added incentive, the AP Stylebook states,  “… follow Webster’s New World, hyphenating if not listed there.”  I use Merriam-Webster Online; preemptive is there, so that’s what I use.

Hyphens also help to break up a word that must be carried over to the next line due to space restrictions, such as in the short columns of a magazine article. But if you don’t have to use them, don’t, for the simple fact that they tend to clunk up the readability of the piece.

How often should you use hyphens? As often as necessary to make the copy clear and interesting. All those hyphenated words acting as adjectives can spice up your writing, that’s true. But just as too many spices can gunk up the flavor of homemade soup, so can too many hyphenated words make your copy tank. You want your writing to be interesting and engaging, not a just a display of how cleverly you can write.

That being said, I’m a fan of hyphens. Not an over-the-top, need-to-be-medicated kind of fan, but a fan nonetheless. I like to choose clarification over ambiguity. I dig creative, unexpected writing. And the inner designer in me likes the visual aspect of the joined words — sort of breaks up the flow of letters on the page (like my other good friend, the em dash — love the em dash, maybe a little too much.)

It’s time to address one of my grammar pet peeves: hyphen usage with -ly words. There are very few instances when a word ending in -ly actually needs a hyphen. Examples:

• A word ending in -ly (such as family) in which the ending -ly is not a suffix added on to make the root word an adverb or adjective: A family-friendly restaurant is correct. (Family is a root word that happens to end in -ly, so it is OK to have a hyphen follow it.)
•  The case of multiple hyphenated words, no matter if there is an -ly word included or not: Sid penned a not-so-creatively-written poem.

Other uses for the hyphen include numerals, such as to separate figures:
• Odds: The odds were 5-3.
• Ratios: The ratio was 10-to-1. It was a 10-1 ratio.
• Scores: KU won 88-64.
• Vote tabulations: The House voted 230-205.

Another rule to consider is suspensive hyphenation. It connects two words or numbers to a noun without losing the reader: He expected to have a 10- to 15-year career in pro wrestling.

Finally, there is e-mail. Yes, with a hyphen. That one, unless the stars realign and the earth swallows up logic and spits it back out as the New Word, probably ain’t gonna change. You see, e-mail stands for electronic mail. That e is a placeholder for a full word. As Bill Walsh of The Washington Post so eloquently put it in his book “Lapsing Into a Comma” (Page 16, if you’re curious):

“No initial-based term in the history of the English language has ever evolved to form a solid word — a few are split and the rest are hyphenated. Look at A-frame, B-movie, …H-bomb, I-beam, … X-ray, Y-chromosome, Z particle and scores of other such compounds.”

Take that, email.

Happy trails!


April 10, 2009

Going postal

Filed under: grammar,Jajo,post office,punctuation — bloodywellwrite @ 3:36 pm
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Art imitates life. Or is it the other way around? Or maybe both, depending on the day? Today’s entry developed directly from one of my work experiences yesterday.

A few of us went to the main post office here in town to learn a bit about mailpiece design. (Yes, the one-word mailpiece is, according to the post office, a legitimate term, and since I’m discussing postal issues, I’m deferring to its spelling preference.) We even scored a tour. The bummer was that we were there during off-peak hours, so all the belts were stationary, no whistles were toot-tooting and no one was shouting orders to and fro. In fact, there were very few folks around. But there were some chicks (dyed bright green and orange, no less) in cartons, chirping their little lungs out, waiting to be shipped out in time for Easter.

But I digress.

We learned about acceptable sizes for letters and postcards — including the “official” tapping-an-envelope-through-a-slot-to-see-if-its-size-is-legit method — and whether or not we should design an envelope out of metallic paper (not recommended); but what really caught my attention was the shtick about addressing a letter or parcel, particularly the punctuation (or lack thereof) within an address.

Read the entire article at Bloody Well Write’s new location.

April 6, 2009

Down with capitalization aggravation!

If you want to sit around and chat with like-minded folks who are concerned with the state of the English language, especially the capitalization conundrum, you better pull up a comfy chair and get yourself (and others — hey, you’re not rude) an oversized bottle of red zin, because it’s going to be a long discussion.

In a relatively fruitless effort to be short and sweet on a subject that is neither short nor sweet, here are a few (!) AP Stylebook rules. Sit back, grab your glass and enjoy.

What needs to be initial-capped:

• Internet and Web  (when referring to the World Wide Web: Web site, Web browser), no matter where it lands in the sentence

• Places and their derivatives (America, American, Americanism)

• Days of the week and months (Thursday, Saturday, May, November)

• Organizations and their abbreviations (American Kennel Club, AKC)

• Geographic areas when referred to as areas (the Northwest, the East Coast)

• Rank, position and family relationship unless preceded by my, his, their or other possessive pronouns (President Obama, Professor H. Higgins, Uncle Albert, Dr. Doolittle)

• Most titles and works of art (initial-cap the first word, last word, each important word and each pronoun/article of four or more letters), including titles of books, plays, pamphlets, periodicals, movies, radio and television programs, operas, ballets, records, tapes, CDs, sculptures and paintings, and the names of ships, airplanes and spacecraft. Some examples follow:

•    The Chicago Manual of Style

•    “On the Road”

•    “West Side Story”

•    The New Yorker

•    “There’s Something About Mary”

•    “Seinfeld”

•    “Swan Lake”

•    “Room at Arles”

•    Voyager 2

What doesn’t:

• The seasons (winter, spring, summer, fall)

• Words that indicate direction (We flew west to get to Los Angeles)

• Family relationships w/ possessive pronouns attached (my uncle Ivan)

• Multiple titles directly in front of a person’s name, even if each title on its own would normally be uppercased (J. Crew chairman and CEO Millard Drexler)

What about headlines?

Well, friends, it may as well be a crapshoot, as far as I’m concerned. The AP Stylebook explains that headlines only get the first word initial-capped, plus any proper nouns (as in someone’s name or a specific city or such). Fine. But then I check out The Washington Post’s Web site: Its headlines show every major word uppercased. Same with The New York Times’ Web site. But then I look at the Chicago Tribune’s Web site and presto! They follow AP. Same with the Los Angeles Times. And any number of other sites have any other number of alternate capitalization options. It boils down to each company’s particular or chosen style guide.

So what’s a writer to do?

Well, if you follow AP, you have your answer: Uppercase only the first word and any proper nouns. If you say, “Pooh-pooh on AP,” then you’re left to your own grammatical devices. I don’t know exactly why some papers choose to follow AP and some go rogue; my guess would be that they either do not know better (highly, highly unlikely) or they simply choose to uppercase every major word because it looks good, more prominent — as a headline should look. Maybe old habits simply die hard. Who knows?

Here’s what I do know.

The ad agency I work at (Jajo, if you’re interested) likes the AP format. I’ve come around to being OK with that. I’ve got old-school-itis, in that the all-caps thing looks more headline-ish to me. However, I get why the fewer-caps style makes sense. After all, most headlines are meant to read like sentences, albeit stilted ones, so why not cap them accordingly?

So yes, that’s my recommendation: Initial-cap the first word and any proper nouns. No more, no less.

Warning: Diversion ahead!

I do have to moan a bit about one headline convention that I do not get: punctuation. To me, punctuation includes periods, question marks, exclamation points, etc. So if you’re not supposed to have ending punctuation marks, why do question marks squeeze in? Granted, they help make the point of the question. But it’s selective punctuation.

And worse than that, I sometimes see a headline that has two (count ’em, two) sentences; the first sentence ends with a period but the second doesn’t. Good grief! That bugs the bejeebers out of me. If anyone has the answer, by all means, leave a comment so I can learn to just let it go.


Happy trails!


April 3, 2009

The affect effect

Filed under: grammar — bloodywellwrite @ 3:50 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

I am lucky. I’m surrounded by really smart people. At work, at home, in my personal life — it’s really fantastic. And yet those two words manage to cause serious confusion. Which is correct, affect or effect? Heck, should I use affect or effect? I sometimes have to think about it; it’s not something that necessarily comes naturally to me. So what gives?

Both words are grammatical over-achievers, acting as verbs and nouns. That complicates things. But really, they boil down pretty well. Here’s the lowdown on their meanings:

Affect (noun) = something to avoid in layman’s terms. If you’re a psychologist who understands the following description, by all means, go to town using affect in the noun form (this is directly from Merriam-Webster): the conscious subjective aspect of an emotion considered apart from bodily changes. Also: a set of observable manifestations of a subjectively experienced emotion: The patient showed incredibly unusual affects.

Affect (verb) = to influence: The tasty pasta meal she just ate will positively affect her performance in the half-marathon tomorrow.

Effect (noun) = the result: The effect was spectacular. Also: an impression. He screamed just for effect. Also: a symptom: The effects of the sleeping pills hadn’t worn off by lunch. Also: having legal validity: The seat belt law is still in effect.

Effect (verb) = to cause: He will effect several changes throughout the company.

If you don’t want to memorize definitions, here’s an easy way to remember:

Affect is the action word (the verb). You’re doing something, affecting something. I am cooking chili, affecting the outcome by stirring in cilantro.

Effect is the result of what happens after the thing that you did. The effect of serving the chili for dinner was that my kids had full tummies and slept like babies that night — and that’s a terrific effect!

I hope that the effect of this blog entry is to affect your grammar usage in a most positive way.

Happy trails!


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