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    Using the Right Word: interstate, intrastate

    Monday, March 22, 2010

    Interstate means "connecting or existing between two or more states"; intrastate means "occurring or existing within a state."

    (From Write for Business, page 233, and Proofreader's Guide PDF, page 45)

    When Proper Grammar Makes One Ignorant

    Wednesday, March 03, 2010

    I write for a living. So do most of my friends. We care about language use, and sometimes we debate a particular issue of grammar. Often we point to historical sources to support our views, but sometimes the sources disagree.

    Consider the use of hopefully in the sentence "Hopefully it won't rain."

    When asked what he would say to a friend who used hopefully in this manner, the late, great Isaac Asimov responded that he would not have such friends.

    I love Isaac Asimov, and he gave a pretty funny reply. But when grammar is used as a measuring rod for friendship, something's wrong.

    Purists would argue that when the adverb hopefully is used in the example above, it isn't modifying any specific word or phrase. Recently, however, hopefully has gained acceptance as a "sentence adverb," which is to say it can modify an entire sentence. See "Grammar Girl's" discussion of hopefully.

    A similar debate rages on about the "serial comma." (Some may fault me for discussing punctuation in a grammar post, but for most people "grammar" is a catch-all for correct language.) For journalists, a list such as "peaches, porridge and poultry" should have only one comma. For most everyone else, such lists need two commas to avoid potential confusion, as in "I'd like to thank my parents, God and Coach Simmons."

    I'd suggest that debating the serial comma is like arguing whether (or not) to extend one's pinky while sipping tea. If you're drinking from a mug and need that pinky to help hold it, by all means do so. If you're using a more delicate teacup and the pinky won't fit, curl it under or stick it out - whichever you prefer. True gentility does not judge people whose preference differs.

    When we use good grammar, we show respect to our readers by adhering to a standard that makes our words and meaning easier to grasp. If as a result we appear intelligent and trustworthy, that is merely a fringe benefit.

    When grammar is used to judge other people, however, it becomes snobbery. Snobbery is prejudice, and prejudice is a matter of ignorance. So yes, it is possible for proper grammar to lead a person into ignorance. Fortunately, with an open mind, that pitfall is easy to avoid.

    - Lester Smith

    Let Me Guess

    Wednesday, February 17, 2010

    English is an ever-evolving language that, according to editor Patricia T. O'Conner, may have the most words of any modern language. As a living language, it is full of "quirks and surprises" and a mind boggling, ever-changing set of standards for proper usage.

    There are countless books and Web sites devoted to proper usage. These sources agree on most usage issues, but not all of them. Mitchell Ivers, another editor, says that it's up to the writer to "know the distinctions to make educated choices."

    Of course, you already know the difference between your and you're; their, they're, and there; and so on. And when you do have a question, you know where to turn for help, either a business-writing handbook or the Net. (Write for Business, for example, lists more than 100 commonly mixed pairs, many of which are also covered here on our Web site.)

    But as I discovered during the past few days, there are all kinds of quirky (interesting, amusing, odd) usage issues that never make most business-writing resources. What follows are a 15 of them. All except the last three will apply to most business writing.)

    • peruse (This word is commonly, and incorrectly, used to mean "to skim," when it really means the opposite - "to read thoughtfully and carefully.")
    • unique (The word needs no help; to say "very unique" is redundant.)
    • lawyer, attorney (A lawyer has a law degree; an attorney acts in a lawyerly way for a client.)
    • persuade, convince (Persuade involves action - and usually teams up with the word to; convince involves thought - as in "convince her that or of…")
    • impact (Don't use as a transitive verb: not "The proposal impacted their second-quarter forecast"; instead "The proposal affected their second-quarter forecast.")
    • both agree (a slight redundancy)
    • bemused (Incorrectly used as a synonym of amused; bemused means "to make confused.")
    • cache, cachet (Cache is pronounced "cash" and means "hiding place." Cachet is pronounced "ca-SHAY" and means "a seal, noting official approval.")
    • loath, loathe (Loath means "unwilling"; loathe means "to hate.")
    • prescribe, proscribe (Prescribe means "to recommend"; proscribe means "prohibit.")
    • try and, try to (Use try to, not try and.)
    • on behalf of, in behalf of (On behalf of means "in place off" - as in "On behalf of the sunshine committee…"; in behalf of means "in the interest of" - as in "We raised $4,000 in behalf of the earthquake victims.")
    • gourmet, gourmand, glutton (A gourmet is a connoisseur, a gourmand is an eager consumer, and a glutton is an overeater.)
    • biceps (A singular and plural form.)
    • Afghan, Afghani (An Afghan is a person, a blanket, and a type of dog; the monetary unit of Afghanistan is the Afghani. [I'm sure that I've heard commentators say the "Afghani people."])

    My sources for these examples are Lapsing Into a Comma by Bill Walsh, the Random House Guide to Good Writing by Mitchell Ivers, and the Times Online Web site, listing commonly misused pairs in business writing.

    Your Turn: Are you aware of any usage issues that that don't appear in most common resources? If so, please share them with us.

    - Dave Kemper

    Dialectically Speaking

    Wednesday, January 13, 2010

    In my previous post, "The Cash Language," I provided a brief history of Standard English (SE) - the variety of English anointed by educated, influential people as the dialect to use in business, education, and government.

    You should already know all that you need to know about SE - that is, if you were paying attention in school - or you should, at the very least, know where to look if you have any questions. A business-writing handbook, a dictionary, language Web sites, and a trusted co-worker/editor are indispensable SE resources for any workplace writer.

    In truth, there are not that many differences between SE and non-standard variations of American English (NS). As one linguist put it, "The differences boil down to the details," as you will see in the table that follows.

    Note: Remember that a grammatical form that is verboten in SE may be perfectly acceptable in another dialect. So we're not talking about errors here, just variations.

    Differences in… NS SE
    expressing plurals
    after numbers
    10 mile 10 miles
    expressing habitual
    He always be early. He always is early.
    expressing ownership My friend car… My friend's car…
    expressing the third-
    person singular verb
    The customer ask… The customer asks…
    expressing negatives She doesn't never… She doesn't ever…
    using reflexive
    He sees hisself… He sees himself as…
    using demonstrative
    Them reports are… Those reports are…
    using forms of do He done it. He did it.
    using or not using
    a double subject
    My manager he… My manager…
    using or not using
    a or an
    She had angry caller.
    I need new laptop.
    She had an angry caller.
    I need a new laptop.
    using or not using
    irregular forms of
    the "be" verb
    This list be helpful. This list is helpful
    using or not using
    the past tense of verb forms
    Carl finish his… Carl finished his…
    using ain't versus
    using isn't or aren't
    The company ain't… The company isn't…

    Final Thought: Some of us use an informal style of SE in everyday conversation and switch, quite smoothly, to a more formal style of SE when called for. SE is, in effect, our all-purpose dialect. Other people may use a different dialect in some informal situations, then have to switch to SE in other situations. For these individuals, switching from one dialect to another may not be that easy, depending on their experiences and training. Some experts would say that it is, in effect, a form of translating - a challenge indeed.

    - Dave Kemper

    The Cash Language

    Wednesday, January 06, 2010

    A very long time ago, in a course in Old English literature, my professor often used the terms "mutability" and "immutability" when we discussed heroic verse. (Mutability means "prone to frequent change" and immutability, of course, mean the opposite: "not subject to change.")

    The heroes in this literature existed in a world of "mutability under heaven," a gloomy, chaotic, violent, battle-strewn world that could be put right only through "a consciousness of God's immutability," his laws governing sin and salvation - or something like that.

    Recently, while considering the albatross known as Standard English (SE), I found these two terms returning to mind. When we think of the conventions of SE, don't we treat them as the immutable laws of the language, handed down to us from above? Don't we perceive them as providing order to what would otherwise be a chaotic writing world?

    But of course, SE doesn't come to us from on high, not by a long shot. Its origins, in fact, are rather pedestrian, at least from I've been able to discover. SE came into being primarily because merchants in London way back in the 14th century needed a consistent or codified language to conduct business. Yes, that's right; we can thank moneymakers for SE.

    These merchants spoke primarily an East Midland dialect of English, so when it came to establishing a codified form of English, this particular dialect became the standard. There were other key influences, to be sure, but none were more important than this dialect.

    As the East Midland dialect gained prominence and status as the written standard, other regional dialects were relegated to use in daily conversation. That is, of course, still true today. The variations of English we each use in casual conversation are generally not the same as what we use in our writing. And while official documents were once written in Latin or French, that changed over time, too, with the standardization of this hybrid dialect.

    With this codification process in place, the natural development of English slowed down. It would, after all, be hard to codify a language if it were constantly undergoing significant changes. Dictionaries are the direct result of codification.

    To say that SE has experienced an incredible run is a gross understatement, considering that its forming dates back to the Middle Ages. And it is probably more important than ever in today's world. Just how important? Well, SE is the dialect of education and status in the United Kingdom, the United States, and beyond. The main purpose of our schooling has been to provide SE instruction. (Think of all of those composition and grammar books you had to deal with in school.) To be sure, our schools have provided math, science, and history instruction, but these disciplines have never been as important as SE instruction.

    SE is also considered the cash language, the language of commerce, used throughout much of the world to conduct business, set policy, and so on. It is the dialect that English language learners everywhere want to learn. Individuals in English-speaking countries who are not fluent in SE are at an extreme disadvantage when it comes to career opportunities.

    Surprisingly, there aren't many grammatical differences between SE and other common dialects, and you may be aware of most, if not all, of them. (See my next blog entry.) Remember to always have on hand a business-writing handbook such as Write for Business to answer any questions about the conventions of SE. And by all means, find a trusted colleague who will check your workplace writing for correctness. Your future may depend on it.

    - Dave Kemper