Tuesday, September 21, 2010

How to make a word plural

Just add an s or es. It's that simple, really. We learned this in grade school, right?

Somehow this simple rule has been forgotten by the masses. I see plurals made with an apostrophe and an s everywhere these days.

Here is a good but bad example from Restaurants.com:

Open for breakfast and lunch, the Raven Grill offers a casual dining atmosphere with great service and a diverse menu that has become popular for golfer's, locals and business traveler's alike.

Why did they think they needed an apostrophe in golfers and travelers? And if they are following some unknown rule, why not add an apostrophe to locals? We'll never know.

Tip: Never use an apostrophe to make a word plural. Never, ever, ever.*

Even dates and numbers don't need an apostrophe when made plural.

Wrong: I was born in the 1950's
Right: I was born in the 1950s

Neither do capitalized acronyms:

Wrong: Learn your ABC's
Right: Learn your ABCs

Nor do proper nouns, like first names or family names:

Wrong: Tom's, Dick's, and Harry's (unless you are making them possessive rather than plural)
Right: Toms, Dicks, and Harrys

Wrong: I visited with the Smith's
Right: I visited with the Smiths

More examples I often see with apostrophes that don't need them:

ifs and buts
dos and don’ts
threes and fours
yeses and nos

*OK, you're right, there is at least one exception to the "just add an s or es" rule. It is hardly worth noting, because it tends to make people default to using an apostrophe just to be safe, but I'll include it anyway (I know you're curious):

Wrong: I added xs and ys to my list.

Right: I added x's and y's to my list.

In other words, if you are making single, lower-cased letters of the alphabet plural, you may correctly add apostrophes with your s's.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Please send it to myself...um...me?

I don't know how many times I've heard otherwise intelligent people asking someone to "send such-and-such to Bob and myself." That's impossible, because only I can send, or do, something to or for myself.

What you do need to know: the word myself goes only with what I can do to, or for, myself.

What you don't need to know: the technical term for the "-self" and "-selves" words.* Trust me, unless you're in an English class, nobody cares.

Wrong: Copy that email to Mom and myself, would you?
Right: Copy that email to Mom and me, would you? (Not "Mom and I," but "Mom and ME.")

Tip: If you're talking about something someone else will do, or is doing, to or for you, use me rather than myself.

* Reflexive pronouns. They are myself, yourself, himself, herself, itself, ourselves, yourselves, and themselves. (Don't even think about using hisself or theirselves, or I shall have to beat you with an English grammar textbook.)

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Stink, stank, stunk—what you need to know

I was confused about the difference between stank and stunk. Are you?

Did you ever hear someone say, "Manning really stunk when he threw that pass"? (This would never happen, incidentally, because Manning doesn't stink, ever.)

What that football fan really meant was, "Lienart really stank when he threw that pass." Or he might say, correctly: "Manning never has stunk at football." (Unless you're referring to Grandma Manning, and even then, she's probably a powerhouse.)

Tip: Use has, hasn't, or hadn't with stunk, but stank stands alone, as will anyone who stinks.

Myriad—many, lot, bunch, or ton?

Would you write, "A many of friends"? Nope. Then don't write, "A myriad of friends" either. Neither a nor of goes with myriad.

Myriad means either ten thousand or a very great or indefinitely great number of persons or things. (Source: Dictionary.com)

Tip: Use myriad the same way you use many. Myriad soldiers stormed the castle. I found myriad bargains at the mall.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Is that i.e. or e.g.?

Do you ever wonder when to use "i.e." and when to use "e.g."? Or do you just throw in an "i.e." as your all-purpose solution, figuring there's no big difference?

Well, there is a difference, and if you're interested in what it is and why it matters, read on.

The boring stuff: Both come from Latin—id est directly translated is "that is (to say)," or "which means," while the translation of exempli gratia is "for the sake of example," or, more commonly, "for example."

They are not interchangeable. As an editor, I often see "i.e." used where "e.g." is meant, and I change it. Learn the difference, and you'll instantly impress the next editor to read your work.

Tip: Use "i.e." to mean "that is," but use "e.g." to mean "for example."
Easier Tip: Think of "e.g." as "example given."

Em dash, en dash, hyphen...whaaaat?

If you haven't heard of an em dash or en dash, don't feel left out. The distinction between them and the rules for their use are usually limited to formal writing.

If, however, you'd like to know what they are and how to use them, read on.

Hyphen: short (-)
En dash: longer (–)
Em dash: longest (—)

Most people use a simple "space hyphen space" to indicate a pause or set off a phrase; for example, "He went to town - despite my objections - and bought me roses." For informal writing, that's fine. Everybody's used to it, and ever-helpful Word will even change the hyphen to an en dash. (Word is wrong, but try telling that to Microsoft.)

As an editor, I would replace that series of "space hyphen space" with an em dash and no spaces. That's the proper way to indicate a break or pause or to set off a phrase. The sentence now reads, "He went to town—despite my objections—and bought me roses."

Where do you use the shorter (en) dash? En dashes are used in place of "to" in a series, for example, "October 2–10."

If you want to use em or en dashes, the easy way to insert them is to memorize the keystrokes for each. For em, type Alt0151. For en, type Alt0150.

Tip: (1) Never use spaces with en or em dashes. (2) Don't get too hung up on ens, ems, and hyphens unless you're writing a résumé, a college paper, or another type of formal communication.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Lie vs. Lay

Just about everybody mixes up the words "lay" and "lie." Here is an example:

Wrong: He lied down. (Or, "He laid down.")
Right: He lay down. (If it was himself; or, if it was a package or something he was carrying, "He laid it on the table.")

But that's not the most common error made with "lie" and "lay." It gets confusing when you change the tense, because then wrong becomes right:

Wrong: He lays down.
Right: He lies down.

Heard on the local news: "The man was laying on the ground." (Laying what? An egg? He was actually lying on the ground.)

Wrong: Lie that package on the table. (Doesn't sound right, does it?)
Right: Lay that package on the table.
  • Generally things you are holding are things you "lay" down. A purse, a baby, a package, a grocery bag.
  • Conversely, you, your husband, or your toddler should "lie" down when sleepy.
  • Teach Rover to "lie down," not "lay down."

Tip: A hen lays eggs. You lay your head on the pillow. Pretty much everything else lies.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Lead, Lead, Led

You need to know the difference between "lead," "lead," and "led." You'll only get caught on this one if you use it in your writing, and then only if your reader is as sharp as, well, a freshly sharpened pencil.

Wrong: I lead the team to victory last season.
Right: I led the team to victory last season.

Mistaking "lead" for "led" is a very common error, even in newspapers where copy editors should have caught it. Now that you know about it, watch for it and let me know when you see it in print.

TIP: Just remember that the past tense of "lead" is always "led." The word "lead," when pronounced like "led," means that black stuff in the center of your pencil (that's actually graphite, but you know what I mean).

If everybody does it wrong, does that eventually make it right?

Does widespread incorrect usage over time create a sense that wrong is the new right? I suspect the misuse of pronouns with gerunds is more prevalent among English speakers than almost any other grammatical error. Or maybe it's just a pet peeve of mine right now, so I notice it everywhere.

I want to use gerunds correctly. Really I do. But they're used incorrectly so commonly now, my using them correctly (which I just did) may sound affected ("speaking or behaving in an artificial way to make an impression").

You probably hear the correct usage one in 100 times. Develop an ear for the difference (see the blog post below), and let me know what you've heard. Or what you've seen in print—writers get the usage wrong nearly as often as speakers. Here's one I just noticed in a professional writer's blog: "My wrestling match with God ended with me accepting the reality that God had called me to write..." ("me accepting" should be "my accepting").

Anybody know what a gerund is?

When it comes to using gerunds (a noun made from an action word by adding "ing"), just about everybody gets it wrong. Can you hear the difference in these examples?


Wrong: You snoring will keep me awake.
Right: Your snoring will keep me awake.
(It isn't you keeping me awake; it's your snoring.)

Wrong: Will me finishing the dishes make you happy?
Right: Will my finishing the dishes make you happy?
(It isn't me that will make you happy; it's my finishing.)

Wrong: The dog barking kept him awake.
Right: The dog's barking kept him awake.
(It isn't the dog that kept him awake; it's the dog's barking.)

And here's one I just saw on a major newspaper's website:
"...yet she recalls the Secretariat saga gripping people around the world."
(Should be, "...yet she recalls the Secretariat saga's gripping people around the world."

TIP: Use a possessive pronoun (or possessive proper noun) before a gerund.