Inauguration Day was a glorious day, which I spent with my daughter and two of her friends from 7:00 in the morning to 6:00 at night
• getting into downtown Washington on the subway,
• shuffling along like a penguin in the crowds pouring out of the station,
• breaching a “secure” area to get onto the Mall,
• staking out our few square feet of space in front of a Jumbotron, where we stood for hours getting to know the people around us,
• finding a warm place after the swearing-in to hang out until crowds thinned at the closest sustation (which they never did), and
• finally giving up on public transportation and walking 20 blocks to a friend’s house where we waited for my husband to drive in from the burbs get us.
It was a marvelous, moving, historic day, and I thought of grammar only twice.
First during the oath of office when Chief Justice Roberts moved the adverb “faithfully” from the midst of a compound verb to the end of the sentence, where the word was left barely hanging on to the sentence, ready to be blown away by the chill gusts of the day. How awkward, and how much better as our forefathers wrote the words, with the adverb right there in the middle of the sentence’s predicate: “I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States.”
Afterall, didn’t Captain Kirk of the starship Enterprise not say, “to boldly go where no man has gone before”? There is absolutely nothing wrong in my grammar book with inserting an adverb in the midst of a compound verb.
The second time I had a niggling grammar thought was when President Obama, in his address, referred to the “selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job.” Oh dear, I thought, there’s that ubiquitous “they.” Why couldn’t he have said “see friends lose their jobs”?
Or maybe I’m the one who needs to change and accept this use of “they” with singular entities, either as a substitute for “his or her” or when referring to an entity comprised of many people. (I believe I heard Daniel Zwerdling on NPR this morning say something along the lines of “Before they took over, the administration planned. . . .”)
I’ll reserve judgment a while longer on “they” but may just have to give in if someone as well spoken as President Obama has accepted this useage.
After reading National Geographic' s November issue, a reader wrote that she had learned a new word, “diurnal.” She and her office looked it up online, then one of her colleagues passed the definition along to her 12-year-old son, who took the word to school. The son’s teacher gave her students an assignment to see how many unfamiliar words they could find in National Geographic.
It just shows you the power of print and is a prime example of how our magazine can both educate and entertain.
Determining when it’s appropriate to use a technical term or an obscure word—and possibly make readers stop reading and either run to their dictionaries or put the magazine down entirely—can be subjective. Words familiar to one person because of background or interests may be totally unfamiliar to another.
I remember my confusion as a young journalist in 1968 when, right out of college (with a history major and literature minor), I attended my first NASA press briefing, just before the launch of Apollo 8 (yes, I’ve been in this field a long time). Jargon like “delta V” and “translunar injection burn” almost propelled me into orbit, but before long I was easily spouting those phrases with the best of the press and finding that they helped me communicate clearly and precisely with astronauts, engineers, and scientists. Using them in the pages of National Geographic was a different matter. There they needed explanation.
Earlier this year, while preparing a photo portfolio celebrating the landscape of the Altiplano in Bolivia, editors and researchers debated wording in a picture caption and whether or not to use “sublimate,” the scientifically correct term, rather than “vaporize,” one that would be more immediately clear to a reader. Because our context was not scientific, we opted for the more familiar word and a more general definition, but not before an argument was made that there’s nothing wrong with sometimes making our readers stretch.
“Sublimate” would not have thrown me because it’s a word I learned while working on those space science articles years ago. However, even now, after decades of researching and editing, I find that I occasionally need to refer to a dictionary—for terms such as palimpsest, etiolated, and beef tea.
I hope I never stop learning. And, by the way, the word “diurnal” is the antonym of “nocturnal,” and means being active primarily during the day.
Here’s a current quandary of mine that I urge you readers (if there are any!) to comment on.
The October-November issue of Copyediting: Because Language Matters advises not to apply conventional rules about collective nouns too stringently or your writing will come off as jarring.
This is the example:
“Here’s hoping that this year’s crop of economic
advisers has the courage of their convictions.”
Here’s the advice:
“The word has . . . should be have. . . . It is really
a case of notional agreement: a crop of advisers
is notionally plural, which we can see because
‘their convictions,’ an instinctive use, so clearly
refers to the people and not to the noun (crop)
used for the group.”
I agree with this argument entirely. I’ve long felt that if the individuals and their actions within a collective are being emphasized, then a plural verb is correct. If it’s the single entity that is most important, then stick to the rigid singular. Remember to be consistent and don’t mix a singular verb with a plural pronoun in the same sentence.
“A new generation of scientists have begun a serious
assault on the mysteries of the canopy, and it will be
a pleasure to travel with them vicariously.”
“A smorgasbord of fruits plucked from the canopy
in Borneo owes its abundance to bats.” [both from NGM,
Now, here’s my quandary: Should I allow the argument of notational agreement to extend to companies, organizations, governments, and other single entities made up of individuals? For example, in a 2002 political cartoon by Tom Toles this statement emanates from Air Force One:
“We won control of Congress, but they are more
confused than ever.”
Or this example from a memo I recently received:
“The venerable Chautauqua Institution in upstate
New York is dedicating an entire week of their
nine-week summer program to literature.”
Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage defends this construction in an entry titled “on agreement: organizations considered as collective nouns.” Not only is it OK to treat companies as plural, but mixing a singular verb with a plural pronoun is permitted.
I’m not quite there—yet. What are your thoughts?
I’ve written before about danglers, modifiers—usually phrases—that are misplaced in a sentence and instead of clearly modifying what they are meant to, create confusion in the reader’s mind and may even lead to chuckles.
A phrase that set me off recently was one from a photo exhibit at National Geographic, featuring the work of four legendary photographers. The offending sentence, about photographer Kurt Wentzel, reads:
“After serving with the Allies in WWII, Wentzel’s boss
gave him one of his first assignments with the now
famous instructions: ‘Do India.’ ”
The person who had just served in WWII was Wentzel, but by the structure of the sentence that modifying phrase is linked to the boss, the only nearby noun to which a modifier can rightly attach. I was distracted almost too much to appreciate the simple instructions from a bygone era.
Since spotting this dangler in National Geographic’s own copy, I’ve had my eyes drawn to examples in other publications. Here are some.
• From the Washington Post, appearing both August 30 and 31 on a map:
“Unprotected during Katrina, floodgates have been built to
prevent the lake from surging into the city.”
Looking at the sentence by itself, I didn’t know what was unprotected during Katrina. It couldn’t be the floodgates, which had not even been built. With the help of the map, I concluded the phrase applied to three areas designated on the map. I know space is tight in map notes, but still, is that an excuse for obfuscation?
• Again from the Washington Post and pointed out by another reader in the August 30 “Free For All” column referring to an August 24 description of Joseph Biden:
“. . . a 65-year-old with white hair jogging to the lectern.”
At least this example has humor and can almost be forgiven because the writer does know the difference between a podium and a lectern and uses the correct term.
• Finally, an example in an email from a colleague and attributed to Groucho Marx:
“I once shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got
in my pajamas I don't know.”
This definitely left me chuckling, perhaps because I can hear in my mind Marx saying it. It was given as an example of a paraprosdokian (from the Greek words for "beyond" and "expectation"), a figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence or phrase is surprising or unexpected in a way that causes the reader to reframe the first part. To me it’s not a paraprosdokian so much as a perfect example of a misplaced modifier. Other examples of paraprosdokians that do not have danglers:
Where there's a will, I want to be in it.
I'm trying. . . very trying.
So watch those modifying phrases and make sure they’re attached to the right noun, but be creative and, just for the fun of it, think up sentences that are “beyond expectation.”
Do you remember learning about topic sentences and the construction of paragraphs when you were in school? My memory is faint, so when the subject of topic sentences popped into my mind (more later about why that happened), I turned to Writers Inc, A Student Handbook for Writing and Learning, the textbook my son used several years ago while attending public high school in Maryland.
Sure enough, fairly early in the book, was a section titled “The Parts of a Paragraph,” and the first subject addressed was the topic sentence. Following this were descriptions of the body and the closing of a paragraph, and then examples of expository, descriptive, narrative, and persuasive paragraphs. Each sample paragraph comprised about 150 words.
Now, to why I’m thinking so much about paragraph construction. This morning I revised the “Credits and History” section of the National Geographic Style Manual, which I had last modified a year ago and originally wrote several years earlier. As I updated information, I was hit by how long the paragraphs were. In my more recent writing—for emails, for this blog, for an internal grammar column for the NG staff—I have adopted, without thinking much about it, what seems to be de rigueur on the Web: punchy, short paragraphs separated by lots of space.
So in revising the manual text, I broke up several of the longer paragraphs and added space between them (with help from my techie friend Tom).
I created single-sentence paragraphs—though one, I admit, is fairly long at 49 words.
And even thought about non-sentence paragraphs.
Voilà! I can join the electronic age. No need to worry about effective topic sentences; just make each paragraph a topic sentence by itself.
But this I cannot do. I can't abandon the paragraph. I was taught too well in school how to logically develop paragraphs, how to construct complex sentences within those paragraphs, how to effectively string words and thoughts together for a purpose in a neat block of words.
So, although my paragraphs may be shorter than they once were, I will restrict the number of single-sentence ones I write. And I will hope that schools continue to teach paragraph construction and that writing 150-word paragraphs does not become a lost art.
In today’s world of sound bites and text messaging and email, when grammar is barely taught in schools, I fear that precision and correctness in word usage is declining. At least that’s what I conclude from the frequency with which I correct intelligent writers on the misuse of words like comprise and including or hear a reporter on television use that when who is correct.
On the other hand, when I do see or hear such terms used correctly, the writer or speaker climbs in my estimation, and I briefly feel hope for the future. Then, usually, reality hits. I predict that eventually common misusage will override correctness and future style guides, perhaps within my own lifetime, will no longer distinguish between comprise and compose.
Here, for those who still care about such distinctions, are guidelines from the National Geographic Style Manual on the proper use of those words:
The whole comprises its parts; the parts compose
Do not write comprised of: The group comprised
four men, not the group was comprised
of four men.
Four men composed the group or the
group was composed of four men, not four men
comprised the group.
And here are some recent examples:
• “Ethnic and racial minorities will comprise a majority of the nation’s population.” (I spotted this sentence in the August 14 New York Times and in my opinion it does not fit the definition of “the whole comprises the parts.” To be correct, the sentence should read, “A majority of the nation’s population will comprise ethnic and racial minorities.” Not very mellifluous to the ear, is it? No wonder few know how to use comprise correctly.)
• “The new force comprises 70 percent of all the matter and energy in the universe.” (National Geographic, November 2007)
• “Yellowstone National Park comprises 3,472 square miles of forest and grasslands and waters.” (National Geographic, October 2006)
• “Today the ‘downtown’ is comprised of a few houses and two small general stores.” (This comes from an early draft. The final wording in the National Geographic, January 2005, does not even use comprise.)
How many of you readers have rules for including and are you careful with who and that?
As a child, I enjoyed having pen pals and writing letters (on actual stationery with turquoise ink in an Easterbrook fountain pen). Maybe that is why today I enjoy corresponding with our readers when they have questions about grammar and word usage in the pages of National Geographic. Of course, I'm happiest when I don't have to admit an oversight on our part or the publication of an error.
Recently a reader challenged the use of us in this statement from the Stonehenge article in June: "Skeletal remains indicate that despite physically demanding lives, the people of Neolithic Britain were more light built than us."
The reader went on to say, "I was taught that it is understood that you are actually saying, 'more lightly built than we are built.' I know NG is not a grammar magazine, but I have a hard time believing that NG is wrong; on the other hand, my grammar ego is going to take it hard if I'm wrong!"
Fortunately, I was able to wiggle (or is it wriggle?) out of this one by responding:
"In this case both your grammar ego and ours can remain intact, although I believe you have a slight edge over us.
"The question with this particular construction is whether than
is a conjunction or a preposition. If it's considered a conjunction and
the sentence is shorthand for 'more lightly built than we are,' then
you're right, we should have said we. If than is considered a
preposition, which some grammarians argue, then us is correct. Since
the first version sounds rather stuffy and pedantic and the second one
incorrect to finely tuned ears, we should probably have recast the
"There are times when the pronoun used can change the meaning of the sentence. For instance:
He likes John more than she. [more than she likes John.]
He likes John more than her. [more than he likes her.]"
For a usage discussion of than as a preposition, here's what Merriam-Webster's unabridged online dictionary says:
Jack’s question after my last column—is it correct to say “Where is it at?”—takes me back to my childhood visits with my grandparents, who lived in a small town on the edge of the coal mines in eastern Pennsylvania. I can still clearly hear their next-door neighbor screaming to someone else in her house, “Where are you at?” At the time, I lived in a suburb of New York City, where this particular construction was unknown. So also was “Hi, ya,” a typical greeting in my grandparents’ town and one that I'm told was among the first words I spoke. When I returned home from summers spent in Pennsylvania, it would take several weeks for the regional dialect to fade from my speech.
The marvelous multivolume Dictionary of American Regional English, edited by Frederic Cassidy, says, in the entry for at, that it is used redundantly, usually at the end of a where clause, in the South and Midland part of the U.S. and labels it informal, occasionally jocular or for emphasis. So the construction is certainly found in informal speech in some parts of the country. The dictionary, known to wordsmiths as DARE, is an amazing compendium of regional word usage that has taken decades to produce and will not be complete until the final volume, Sl-Z, comes out next year.
Another similar phrase, perhaps more widely heard, is the idiomatic “where it’s at,” a slang expression that gained popularity in the hippie era and in the 1990s became the title of a Beck single as well as the title for a Michael Quinion "World Wide Words" column on the use of the “at” symbol. According to Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary the expression means
Thanks for asking the question, Jack. It’s been interesting to answer. My advice would be to refrain from tacking an unnecessary at on to the end of questions starting with where, but to feel free to be hip and use “where it’s at”—in moderation, of course.
I received a phone call last week from a grammar friend who was appalled to find this sentence in a National Geographic publication:
"When he invited my wife and I out to dinner with him and his fiancee,
I jumped at the offer."
Perhaps I’m more tolerant than my friend. I hear this overcorrection so frequently in speech, that I’m no longer appalled, just slightly annoyed. For those scratching their heads and wondering just what is the problem, lady, it's the first use of the pronoun I.
In the sample sentence, the object of the verb "invited" should be "my wife and me," the objective case—me, him, her, them. The second I is correct because it is a subject and rightly the nominative I —he, she, they.
The problem arises because we are so afraid of misusing an objective pronoun as a subject—him and me jumped at the offer—that we overcorrect and change a perfectly correct me to I. Overcorrection usually—but, alas, not always—happens when there is a noun coupled with the pronoun. If that noun confuses you, get rid of it and read the sentence without it: When he invited I out to dinner. Thanks for talking with I.
I’m too much of a lady to tell you how those two examples sound to my ear, but I hope you get the idea!
After I decided to write this blog about the misuse of the nominative I, examples leaped out from all directions.
• Luke Russert, whom I find to be an amazingly articulate and intelligent young
man, speaking on NBC about his father used “my mother and I” several times
as the object of prepositions when he should have said “for my mother and me”
and “to my mother and me.”
• An editor sent an email to a colleague saying,
"Thanks so much for taking a full hour to chat with Victoria and I.”
• And someone sent me an email that asked,
"Can you meet with Lynn and I tomorrow?"
So faithful readers, tune up your ears, listen to your colleagues, and, when necessary, gently remind them to use me as a direct object or as an object of a preposition.
Last weekend the scorching weather forced me finally to turn on the AC and take refuge inside away from weeding and pruning. I dipped into Jimmy Buffett’s A Pirate Looks at Fifty and, in a section where the author reminisced about his school days and writing about his summer experiences, encountered the phrase “in 400 words or less.”
Hmmm. In 400 words or less? In 400 words or fewer? Is one correct and the other wrong?
Much as I like to be neat and tidy, much as I see value in clear, consistent rules for writing, I also think we grammar gurus can be too dictatorial, insisting that there is only one correct way. We become Theodore Bernstein’s Miss Thistlebottom, expressing our own pedantic rights and wrongs.
Fewer/Less is not one of Miss Thistlebottom’s hobgoblins, yet I can imagine her saying, “ ‘Word’ is definitely a countable noun and ‘fewer’ should be used with countable nouns. Therefore one should say, ‘In 400 words or fewer.’ ”
But wait, Miss Thistlebottom. Can it not be argued that “400 words” is a quantity, a collective noun of sorts, as Mr. Bernstein himself argues in The Careful Writer? Shouldn’t Mr. Buffett be allowed to write “400 words or less” as a proper and accepted idiom? Shouldn’t grocery checkout signs be allowed to say “15 items or less,” which is easier on my ear than “15 items or fewer”?
I find myself favoring “less” in such instances, but tolerantly allowing others the use of “fewer.” This is a point of grammar that can be negotiated.
A colleague comments: “I agree with you that 15 items or less is fine. I just like the fact that where I shop uses the more formal form!”
Not all points of grammar can be negotiated. For instance, a pronoun used as a direct object must be in the objective case: me, not I. There is only one correct way to write “he invited my wife and me out to dinner.” To say “he invited my wife and I out to dinner” is just wrong, wrong, wrong.