Category Archives: Grammar & style

Grammar Goof of the Day

Ya gotta love the j-school grads that staff TV station websites these days. “J-school”: does that stand for “janitorial school”?

This week we have a report of this Herculean accomplishment:

Phoenix police: Man fatally stabbed 80 times, suspect jailed

Think of that! Killed the guy 80 times over! Sort of like the tailor who killed seven in one blow.

Does the old editor really have to hold forth about this moment of hilarity? Okay, okay…look:

You only die once. If you’re stabbed fatally, you’re stabbed fatally once. You do not die and then spring back to life at every blow. It may take 80 jabs to send you off to the other world, but you’re not stabbed fatally 80 times. Well, unless you’re a vampire and your assailant keeps missing your undead heart…

Is there a workaround? One could dream up a few…

Murder victim stabbed 80 times, suspect jailed
Violent knife attack kills man, suspect jailed
Stabbed 80 times, man dies, suspect jailed

If you really wanted to write like a grown-up, you’d replace the comma with a semicolon in that last one. But this is 21st-century journalism: we don’t do that because we don’t know any better and, by and large, neither do our readers.


Less is not more…

…Nor does “less” mean the same as “fewer.”

Saith our honored headline writer at AZ Family News:

Despite storms, less tax dollars spent on potholes

Lordie! Where do people learn to write like that? Leaving aside the ambiguity created by the passive voice (the dollars have a checkbook, maybe, allowing them to spend on potholes?), consider:

“Less” is for things that cohere, or that we perceive in general. It means “a smaller quantity” of stuff that we think of in the aggregate, as it were.

Less sugar
Less water
Less time
Less canine company
Less computer trouble
Less money

“Fewer” is for things that can be counted. It means a “smaller number” of things that we think of as a collection of individual things.

Fewer grains of sugar
Fewer gallons of water
Fewer hours, fewer minutes, fewer seconds
Fewer dogs
Fewer computer crashes
Fewer dollars

Less stuff. Fewer things. See?  It’s not that hard. Really. 😀


Bêtises of the Day…

Officials say witnesses reported seeing a black Chevy Cavalier driving at a high speed when the vehicle lost control and collided head-on into a mini van stopped at the red light. (“Phoenix Fire: 9 people hurt following head-on collision,” Fox 10 News, October 19, 2018.)

The vehicle didn’t lose control of anything. The idiot driver lost control.

When officials arrived on scene they found two adults with gun shot wounds and transported to the hospital. (“1 person killed, 1 hospitalized after a shooting in Mesa Saturday morrning,” Fox 10 News, October 20, 2018).

They found two adults transported to the hospital? By teleportation, no doubt.

That’s a “minivan,” by the way. One word. 🙄

“Gunshot,” too, come to think of it. When we say “words of one syllable” around that newsroom, we’re not kidding!

Destiny the cat is recovering with her new foster dad after being shot in the eye with a dart. ( “Valley cat shot in eye with dart recovering,” 12 News, October 20, 2018).

Kseniya Schminke first saw Destiny last Saturday, as she darted into a bush near 32nd Street and Thomas.

Snark! Nice pun there. Did you do that on purpose, dear reporter, or were you high on something? And why was Kseniya darting around in the shrubbery, anyway? The story stumbles on…

“I saw, what I originally thought was a screw driver, but later figured out it was a dart. You could see it’s eye was basically about to fall out. It was sad,” Schminke said.

Is there a reason for the comma between the verb and the object? Apparently not. “It’s eye”? Really, no one ever taught you to proofread? And if you meant “its,” are we talking about the dart’s eye or the screwdriver’s eye? “Basically”? Does this overused and pointless adverb have any meaning here? Don’t make your interviewee sound like a moron unless you intend to do so. Speaking of moronic quotes…

“It’s heartbreaking to realize that a human would do this to a defenseless animal and repeatedly. This person is a serial abuser and this neighborhood needs to be on the lookout and we need to find this person,” Sloan said.

Well, yeah. But what’s really heartbreaking is that people let their cats roam loose to be victimized by other cats, dogs, coyotes, automobiles, and lunatics. This cat would never have been injured if its owners had done the responsible thing and kept it inside or in their own yard. If it’s a feral cat, it would never have been injured if its predeceessors’ owners had spayed them.

Study: Arizona in the middle for politically-engaged states (KTAR News: October 21, 2018)

“A recent study from Wallet Hub found that Arizona was in the middle for states and their respective political engagement.”

Huh? What on earth is meant by “respective political engagement”?

No hyphen after an -ly word, by the way: politically engaged.

 Here are the differences among iPhone map programs (KTAR News, October 20, 2018)

“Anyone that was using an iPhone when they initially launched the Apple app remembers the widespread reports of incorrect directions along with lots of bugs and errors.”

We should know about bugs and errors…we certainly sprinkle our copy with plenty of them. 😀

Possibly the reporter meant “anyone who”? Who is a perfectly innocent non-gendered pronoun, and it works well to suggest you’re writing about a human being, not a one-eyed cat or a speeding Chevrolet.

“They”…the users launched the Apple app? Well, obviously the writer intended to refer to the Apple Corporation with the misbegotten “they.” But a corporation is an “it,” not a “they.”

You have to give KTAR credit, though: as infotainment goes, this bêtise-laden passage takes the cake! Not bad. Not bad at-tall…in the not good department, that is.

Too hilarious!

“Gifted”: Another Piece of Baleful Jargon

And this morning from a local news station we have this:

The 200 pound metal cross was gifted to the church when it was built 15 years ago.

Ugh, ugh, ugh, and UGH! Please don’t do that.

The word gift is what is called a “noun.” A noun is a word that denotes a person, a place, or a thing. In this case, the thing we’re talking about was a noun: in means the cross-shaped metal object that someone gave a local church some 15 y ears ago. Flipping that term over and forcing it to act as a verb (“to gift”) is simply grating. Obnoxious. Makes the writer sound like a ninny.

The verb form of the word gift is to give. Its past tense is gave and its past participle (a form you can use in this descrlptive context) is given:

She gave the cross to the church.
The cross was given to the church.

NOT the idiotic-sounding “was gifted to the church.”

“Gifted” can be used in an adjectival sense when referring to people — especially children — who have some special talent or extra smarts.

Johnny is a gifted child.
Jeanine is a gifted mathematician.

In this context, it’s an adjective (what kind of child? a gifted child). It is not a verb distorted to make like it’s the passive voice, as in “was gifted to the church.”

Note, in passing, two other annoyances in the newswriter’s sentence:

When you run two words (or a number and a word) together to form an adjective, they’re hyphenated. 200 + pound, meaning “something that weighs 200 pounds,” is 200-pound.

When you use a pronoun, you should be very clear about what the pronoun refers to. “It” is a pronoun that refers to…something. Was the cross built 15 years ago? Or was the church built 15 years ago?

It doesn’t take a special gift to figure this stuff out. Soooo…please stop doing that.

Make “Multiple” Go Away!

LOL! This rant is brought to you courtesy of  the academicese in the latest promotion and tenure documents sent over by one of my editorial clients. But the term in question also surfaces in journalese, officese, psychobabblese, bureaucratese, and just about any other -ese you can think of. The endlessly annoying “multiple” has burrowed its way into our language like a hive of multiple goddamn termites. It is a word almost devoid of meaning: it is so vague that you have no idea whether the speaker means “two” or “billions and billions.” Apparently people use it because it engages three Latinate-sounding syllables to say what one can say in one syllable without wasting breath, ink, paper, or bandwidth. Makes them sound brainy and important, eh?

Forgodsake, say what you mean. And never use a word that makes you sound like you’re speaking around a mouthful of marbles!

“Multiple” could mean . . .

  • some
  • lots
  • many
  • a number of
    • a large number of
    • a small number of
    • an infinite number of
    • a limited number of
  • quantities of
    • a large quantity of
    • a small quantity of
  • a lot
  • a few
  • a little
  • a couple
  • several
  • plenty
  • vast numbers of
  • a number that can be divided by another number without a remainder (four is a multiple of two; fifteen and twenty are multiples of five)
  • having several parts, elements, or members (a multiple-occupancy dwelling, a multiple birth)
  • of a disease, injury, or disability: complex, having several elements (a multiple fracture of the femur)
  • of an electrical circuit: one that has several points at which connection can occur
  • more than one
  • two, three, four, five…etc.
  • two or three, three or four, ten or twenty…etc.
  • a dozen (two dozen, three dozen, four dozen, etc.)
  • a half-dozen
  • dozens
  • hundreds
  • thousands
  • tens of thousands
  • millions
  • billions
  • trillions
  • zillions
  • more than we can count

The word “multiple” indeed does have meaning. Its specific meanings are bold-faced here. As for all the other words you think it means: please. Pick the word you mean. Not a piece of brain-numbing jargon.

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The Complete Writer:
The Ultimate Guide to Writing, Publishing, and Leading the Writer’s Life

Chapter 4

Not the corporate kind of overcapitalization! The writerly kind of overcapitalization.

This happens every time we at The Copyeditor’s Desk have to edit a set of author bios for an issue of one of our client scholarly journals. The journal’s senior editors ask contributors to toot their own horns in short squibs that are collected at the back of the book. And my, they do toot. In majuscule!

Olivia Boxankle is an Associate Professor of Cultural and Linguistic Studies in the Department of English at the Great Desert University. She earned her PhD in Postmodern Babble at Erewhon College, after which she spent ten years as Adjunct Instructor of Early Unemployability Studies at Podunk Community College, before joining GDU in 1999 as an Assistant Professor.

The tenure track does not confer divinity upon its members. Therefore, titles such as assistant professor, associate professor, or even full professor are not capitalized unless they are used as part of the person’s name.

  • Olivia Boxankle is an associate professor.
  • We saw Professor Olivia Boxankle’s outstanding presentation at last winter’s Modern Language Association conference.

Now let’s consider Prof. Harvey Wallbanger, who is president of the Great Desert University:

  • The newspaper mentioned the university President’s salary in an article reporting next semester’s 25 percent tuition increase.


The only person who gets to have his or her title as president capitalized is the President of the United States. Period. Well . . . unless you’re writing in and for some other country, in which case the title is lower-cased like those of other mortals.

  • Barack Obama was President of the United States.

Back to the bios: The name of an academic subject is lower-cased, unless it happens to be a proper name or place name.

  • She is a professor of geology.
  • She is a professor of ethnic studies.
  • She is a professor of Spanish.
  • She is a professor of English.

However, if we cite the name of an academic subject as part of a department’s name, it may be capitalized in that context:

  • She is a professor in the Department of Cultural and Linguistic Studies.
  • She teaches cultural and linguistic studies.
  • She teaches in the Ethnic Studies Department.
  • She teaches ethnic studies.

It seems so self-evident, no? Then why do people write things like a Professor of Ethnic Studies?

Because . . . in the corporate world, people’s titles are often capitalized because the boss said so. Or because the marketing department said so. Companies, like journals, magazines, and newspapers, have their own in-house style based on a standard style manual (Associated Press style, in the case of businesses) but with its own embellishments. One such embellishment is capitalization of the Honored Leaders’ titles, even though in the real world that would be . . . well, wrong:

  • Joe Blow is Chief Executive Officer of the Blowhard Corporation.

But books and scholarly journals generally follow Chicago style or the style manual appropriate to research articles for their discipline (such as the American Psychological Association or the Modern Language Association manuals). These tend to inveigh against pointless capitalization. You may have to glorify your current boss with capital letters. But once you’re no longer working at that company, knock it off!

And don’t do it at all for faculty members and their generic academic disciplines. It peeves the editor.


Am I the only old bat on the planet who tires of listening to the Millenial and the Urban open a discussion with the word “So…”?

Turn on NPR and you’ll hear it almost any day. A reporter asks some ambitious and highly accomplished young expert on this, that, or the other to opine or to explain, and the interviewee will respond, “So, Apple is coming out with a new iPhone the day after tomorrow and yada yada yada…”

Does it never occur to either the interviewer or the interviewee that the word so implies that what comes next follows logically from what came before? It is a word that has meaning: therefore, thus, ergo.

But nothing has come before. So is simply offered as a kind of transitional place-holder, a way of moving from the question to the answer. There really is no “so” there.

Ugh. What can one say in the face of such an inane habit? Other, perhaps, than “We do hope this one will go away soon…”

Don’t do that, dear smart and admirable young experts. Just answer the damn question. Please.

The Fine Points of Ellipsis and Suspension

Plowing through 12,000 words of academic research, I find Author frequently using ellipsis points to shorten lengthy passages of quotation. The result looks like this, a gentle snowfall of punctuation error:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which…hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. … And if ye call on the Father, who without respect of persons judgeth…every man’s work, pass the time… here in fear. …

[‘Scuse the religion: it was the only thing I could think of offhand that’s in the public domain.**]

This hiding of deleted words is called ellipsis, and the little dots that indicate the hiding are called ellipsis points. You also can use three little dots to indicate that a person’s voice trails off or that a piece of dialogue is interrupted. Like this:

Well, I don’t know . . .

In that case, the dots are called suspension points.

Author understands the principle that three ellipsis points indicate words were dropped out of the middle of a sentence, and four indicate some passage with a period was elided — possibly even a whole sentence — or more But he is being foiled by the Weirdness That is Word.

When you type three ellipsis points in a row — that is, three periods, one after another — Word automatically converts them to a single character, one that looks like this: … 

These are not really ellipsis points. WordPress calls that character a “three-dot leader.” Ellipsis points have spaces between them.

When you’re preparing a manuscript for publication, you should avoid letting Microsoft arrogate this detail unto itself, and instead insert ellipsis points and suspension points the way they will appear when typeset.

How is that?

With spaces in between them, like this:

. . .

A four-dot ellipsis includes the period; that is, the first dot indicates the period. So when you’re trying to indicate that a period appeared in a passage that was elided, place the period in its normal place, right next to the final character in the sentence:

a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. . . . And if ye call

A three-dot ellipsis indicates a word or three were omitted from a single sentence. In that case, you leave a space before the first ellipsis point and after the last one:

Christ, which . . . hath begotten us

Suspension points have just three dots, and they also have spaces between and around them.

I just don’t know . . .

If a comma is needed in a passage with an ellipsis, place the comma right before the ellipsis points:

Christ, . . . hath begotten us

Don’t worry if the ellipsis or suspension points break at the end of a line. Remember: what you see on a word-processed page is not what you will get when the copy is typeset. The graphic artist and the editor will make the points pull up, either by kerning the characters a bit or by deleting or inserting a word somewhere in the paragraph above them. It’s far more annoying and time-consuming for a typesetter to have to change every…single…aggravating…Word-induced…three-dot character than it is to make an occasional adjustment to pull up or push down a real ellipsis point.

So something that looks like this in your Word file:

yada yada yada. . .
. Blah blah blah

Will look like this in print:

yada yada yada. . . . Blah blah blah

It has its own internal logic. But once you see what the logic is, it’s pretty easy.

Check it out: Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition: 13: 48-56


**Here’s the original of the elided passage, FYI:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to his abundant mercy hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,

To an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you, [and on and on].

And if ye call on the Father, who without respect of persons judgeth according to every man’s work, pass the time of your sojourning here in fear: [and on and on]


Share that transitive ain’t the same as intransitive!

Author to reader:

“As I discuss, the whole point of the argument is…”
“She shared that her experience with whole-wheat bread has been…”

Oh, God. Please, please, please don’t write like that!

Often you see verb misuse of this ilk emanated by writers for whom English is a second language. They have an excuse. If you’re a native speaker, though, you don’t: in that case, what you’re emanating is not imperfect mastery of a bizarre language but just plain old jargon. It may appear in academic writing, where jargon is imagined to be state-of-the-art.

In English, verbs may be “transitive” or “intransitive.”

A transitive verb is said to “take an object.” It means the sense of the sentence moves directly through the verb to the noun or pronoun on the other side of the verb.

She saw a bird.
She spoke several words.
She discussed a proposition.
She drove her car.

An intransitive verb does not “take an object.” The action resides within the verb, all by itself.

The truth exists.
A river runs through it.
The accident happened last night.
She appeared to be inebriated.
He laughed because he was happy.

“Shared” is transitive: it takes an object. An object is a noun or pronoun, not a relative pronoun, relative adjective, or subordinating conjunction.

She shared a fact.
She shared an opinion.
She shared her experience.
She shared her clothes.
She shared her spaghetti.

But she did not share a dependent clause! She did not share “that yada yada yada.”

Similarly, “discussed” is transitive.

They discussed the movie.
They discussed the trip they planned to make.
They discussed Donald Trump’s hair.
They discussed the use of transitive and intransitive verbs.

But unless they were given to annoying affectations, they did not just sit around and “discuss.” Nor did they “discuss that…”

Some verbs are AC/DC this way: they may be used transitively or intransitively. For example, you could confide a secret (transitive: “secret” is the direct object of “confide”) or you could confide that you’re having an affair (intransitive: “that you’re having an affair” is a dependent clause, not an object of the verb). You could even intransitively confide in your best friend.

But share is not intransitive, except maybe as a moral precept passed from a parent to a selfish kid: Share, Jennifer! 

Neither is discuss, except possibly as an instruction in an essay question: Boxankle defines the Battle of Hastings as a turning point in Anglo-Saxon history. Discuss.”

When you write like this, blithely confusing transitive with intransitive verbs — and the lovely academics whose prose I edit often do so — you do not sound intellectual or generous-hearted or like a member of some high-brow in-group. You sound like you would benefit from a little more training in the English language.

Dangling Menaces

Problems with grammar can produce unintended consequences! Here are some funny examples of dangling modifiers and other word order issues.
Dangling modifiers — and other kinds of danglers — can be very funny, indeed.

Even the best of writers occasionally commits an error of word order, wielding a descriptive word or phrase in a way that causes it to say something altogether different from what the writer meant.

Our Hero is searching for a side road: Half-covered with fallen tree branches, he almost missed the entrance.

Those darned leaves will get in your eyes every time!

Like harpoons of steel, she flashed out her claws at the last moment…

Gotta love a steely woman.

The storm’s wind rolled through her hair like a flag…

Wait, what? The wind was like a flag? Hm… “Oh, say can you see…”? Not unless there’s a fair amount of smoke blowing around, I’d guess.

Notice that this windy thing is not a true dangling modifier, at least not in the same way as the hero half-covered with tree branches and the harpoon-like heroine.

In the first two instances above, a phrase appears to refer to a word that’s simply not the word the author intended to point to. This occurs because, for a variety of reasons we won’t go into here, the English language depends largely on word order to create meaning. By and large, a modifying phrase — especially one that begins with an -ed word (a past participle) or an -ing word (a present participle) — points to the noun or pronoun closest to it.

So, where our first brave author intended to say that the side road was half-covered in branches, the story’s hero stumbles into the traffic and ends up covered in branches himself. Mention of the side road occurred in the previous sentence, and so, understandably, Author figured the reader would draw the desired inference. And yes, sooner or later the reader does get the picture…but not before enjoying a hilarious little distraction in the unintended image.

The simile in “like harpoons of steel” succumbs to the same predicament: it also points to the nearest noun or pronoun, and suddenly “she” looks like a set of steel harpoons. A prickly sort, she is.

This utterance is a mishmash of misplaced modifiers. Fix it:

At the last moment, her claws flashed out like harpoons of steel.

The third example isn’t quite a dangling modifier. It’s just something that doesn’t make sense. Leaving aside the objection that wind doesn’t roll, exactly, we have the problem that it’s the woman’s hair the author wants to compare with a flag.

In theory, then, directly abutting “like a flag” with “hair” should work. But it doesn’t. Grotesquely, the sentence seems to say, “The wind rolled like a flag through her hair.”

Why? One reason is the position of hair as object of the preposition “through.” Through her hair is an adverbial prepositional phrase. So when we readers see “the wind rolled…through,…” we think the utterance is describing the action of rolling: thus our attention focuses on the verb, not on the hair.

But as we would see if we had the larger narrative context in front of us, Author wishes to paint a picture of the heroine posed dramatically (even melodramatically) with her hair flying in the wind.

Again, we’re distracted by a dangling monster. That critter needs to be shoved into line:

Her hair flew like a flag in the rolling wind.

I love this one:

Clutching at her torn nightgown, the woman’s breath came short and fast.

Oh, the drama! Oh, the bathos!

A couple of potential fixes come to mind:

As she clutched at her torn nightgown, the woman’s breath came short and fast.
Clutching at her torn nightgown, the woman panted.

She’s supposed to be scared half to death, so she probably could “pant in terror” or “gasp for air.” Or some such.

Moving hilariously on…

Hungry, it took me a while to fall asleep.

It’s hard for an indeterminate “it” to feel much of anything, even hunger.

Hungry, I took a while to fall asleep.

Talk about your month of Sundays:

On my twenty-sixth birthday in November 1992, I hiked…

This is a misplaced modifier.

In November 1992, on my twenty-sixth birthday, I hiked…

Moving on,

Hidden beneath fallen leaves, I wonder what the escapee thinks.

Surprisingly, the narrator is not hiding beneath a pile of leaves. Author is describing a small wildlife drama — a spider’s prey that manages to escape.

I wonder what the escapee thinks, hidden beneath fallen leaves.
Hiding beneath fallen leaves, what does the escapee think?

What think you, dear reader, of these danglers? And how would you deal with them:

Once completed, he would fill out and submit the application.
While riding the Natchez Trace, angry Choctaw Indians surrounded him.
Like a doe manipulated by a hunter, the flames drove the woman toward the building’s center.

Not quite as many dangling monsters as contributing authors. But close.

And that is why…

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