MMs (Mechanics Moments)

Brief discussions of grammar, punctuation, and other hang-ups.

“Alright” Is All Right, But That Doesn’t Mean It’s the Best Choice

Over on Kboards today, I read a good thread on a perennial editing question, “Is ‘alright’ all right?” I have some thoughts on this matter … of course! To fail to care deeply about such minutia would be to abandon my self-definition as Really Quite Obsessive About Words. Buuuut, the thread seemed to have run its course, and I hate to stir things up by adding a post. Writers can get pretty exercised about this one. Because aren’t we all At Least a Little Obsessive About Words?

So, I’ll ask the question here: Is “alright” all right? And I’ll go right on and stake out an answer: Yes and no, but mostly no, but perhaps not for the reason you think.

First off, yes, you’ll see “alright” in the dictionary. And you’ll see “comprise” defined as “constitute” and “forte” pronounced for-TAY. Etc. That’s because these words are in the process of change. A century or three from now, few people will use “all right,” and no one will remember that “comprise” once meant “contain.” Dictionaries are generally descriptive, not prescriptive, so if people out there are using a particular word in a particular way, it will end up in the dictionary. That makes dictionaries not always useful in making editing choices. All many dictionaries will tell you is that, Yes, some people out there are using this word in this way. But you already knew that; if the word weren’t being used in the way you want to use it, it probably wouldn’t have occurred to you to use it that way. Some of the better ones have extensive usage notes. I think Dictionary.com is outstanding in that area. But many of them don’t.

Getting back to “alright”/”all right,” the problem is that the change to the word’s spelling is in process right now, not complete. Therefore, a substantial part of the population thinks of the new spelling as “wrong.” They remember being taught the mnemonic “‘alright’ is not all right” in grade school, and they took it to heart. They don’t necessarily spend their time navel-gazing about the idea that language is constantly shifting, and that spellings and definitions aren’t really right or wrong in some objective sense, but merely common or uncommon, accepted or not accepted. Most people don’t think of vocabulary that way. Words mean certain things and are spelled in particular ways; you know the right way, or you’re misinformed.

And importantly, the types of people who remember the rule they learned about “alright”/”all right” when they were eight years old are probably more likely to care about which spelling you use. Just think of it: They remember something from third grade! It’s practically super-heroic. You know what makes people remember stuff from way back when? Caring about it. Thus, these are the folks who get annoyed that so many people are “doing it wrong, these days.” Those who blithely go around using “alright”? I bet they’re less likely to get irked at seeing the form they don’t use. Early adopters of language changes are the more flexible folks. Because of educational experience or personality or something else, they’ve taken language flux on board more readily.

So, does one edit to please the uptight, old fashioned folks or the laid-back, rolling-with-change folks? You can probably guess my answer: When you’re editing and you encounter a word in the process of change, I think it makes sense to choose the older or more traditionally acceptable of the competing forms. The people who are still clinging to the old form/definition will nod and say, Ah, here’s a writer who really knows her stuff! And the people who’ve moved on to the newer form in their personal usage? They probably won’t be all that bothered about seeing the older form. They’ll be used to encountering it in formal documents, or they won’t notice the difference, or they’ll notice it and shrug it off. Some small percentage might think, Ah, that fuddy-duddy, still sticking to the old ways, resisting the natural evolution of language! But I bet they’re a small contingent.

So, yeah, there’s nothing really wrong with “alright,” and one day, it will reign victorious. The pull of “already” and “altogether” and “albeit” and “almost” and “already” and “also” and “always” is too strong to resist. “All,” bless its heart, is clearly a word destined to be chopped up and squished onto things. Why should “all right” remain a holdout?

BUT. Until it the contest is well and truly over and “all right” has come to sound archaic and/or pedantic, I think it will remain the safer choice.

MM: Understanding Apposition

Sorry for the long absence! I’m finally reasonably settled back into my “day job,” new house, and so forth. It’s about time to dig back into my shadowy secret life of fiction-writing, reviewing, and blogging. I figured I’d kick things off with a post about commas. I mean, really, you can never talk too much about commas, right? So here we go: apposition.

Apposition is the placement of two grammatical elements (words, phrases) side by side in a mutually defining or modifying relationship. Here’s an example:

My father, Frederick Brown, recently moved to Portland and bought a house next door to my sister Alice Smith.

In the above sentence, “my father” is in apposition to “Frederick Brown,” and “my sister” is in apposition to “Alice Smith.”

The $64,000 question is why “Frederick Brown” has commas around it but “Alice Smith” doesn’t. The reason? “Frederick Brown” is a non-restrictive or non-essential appositive — since the speaker only has one father, “my father” and “Frederick Brown” are synonymous. “Frederick Brown” doesn’t restrict the category of “my father,” so it’s non-essential. Non-essential or non-restrictive (these terms are interchangeable) appositives need commas before and after.

In contrast, “my sister” and “Alice Smith” might or might not be synonymous. Why? Because the speaker could have more than one sister. By not putting commas around “Alice Smith,” the speaker is as good as telling you that she has other sisters besides Alice. “Alice Smith” is a restrictive or essential appositive because the category of “my sister” needs to be restricted: which of the speaker’s sisters now has her father as a neighbor? Alice (rather than Susan or Tanya).

Errors in choosing whether or not to comma around appositives are quite common. My students often produce sentences like this one:

Shakespeare’s play, King Lear, is bleakly nihilistic.

Why is that wrong? Because Shakespeare wrote many plays, so “Shakespeare’s play” and “King Lear” are not synonymous. “King Lear” is an essential appositive because the category of “Shakespeare’s play” needs to be restricted. Therefore “King Lear” should not have commas around it.

Now if you said, “Shakespeare’s final romance, The Tempest, is less preoccupied with loss than his earlier forays into that genre,” you’d be fine. Why? Because Shakespeare could only have written one of his romances last. That category can, by definition, only include one play, so “The Tempest” and “Shakespeare’s final romance” are synonymous. “The Tempest” is a non-restrictive or non-essential appositive and therefore needs commas.

Incidentally, the same restrictive/non-restrictive rules apply to commas around clauses:

You should never ride motorcycles, which are dangerous.

You should never ride motorcycles that are dangerous.

In the first sentence above, “which are dangerous” is non-restrictive: the speaker is labeling all motorcycles dangerous and to be avoided. But in the second sentence, “that are dangerous” is restrictive: the speaker is telling you that only a subset of motorcycles (the dangerous ones) should be avoided. It’s nice when writers use “that” to begin restrictive clauses and “which” to begin non-restrictive ones; it makes the distinction more evident. But the which-vs.-that rule isn’t universal, and you will see “which” being used in both cases. That means the comma is the sole true indicator of restrictiveness vs. non-restrictiveness.

MM: Words That May Not Mean What You Think They Mean, Part 2

Here’s a quickie, and it’s actually about prefixes, not words: bi- and semi-. The old way, now dying:

If you wanted to describe something that happens every other year, you’d say it’s bi-annual or biennial.

If you wanted to describe something that happens twice a year, you’d say it’s semi-annual.

Bi-annual (and other bi- words … bi-monthly, bi-weekly, etc.) is replacing semi-annual, which is too bad, since the word is also retaining its original “every other” meaning. That means we’re losing the ability to distinguish quickly and easily between two rather different temporal characteristics. Nevertheless, it is happening — c’est la vie.

But it hasn’t quite finished happening yet. Some people still follow the old ways, so think before you bi-!

MM: Words That May Not Mean What You Think They Mean, Part 1

Today’s topic: words that are experiencing definition drift, but aren’t yet fully unmoored from their original meaning. That means you can “misuse” them without most people realizing it, but some pedantic subset of readers/listeners will snicker up their sleeves at you.

Here are two prime offenders:

1) Nauseous. Most people think of this word as synonymous with “nauseated,” as in, “I’m feeling nauseous this morning.” What does it/did it actually mean? “Nauseating,” as in, “I passed a nauseous car accident on the way to work.” So every time someone says, “OMG, I’m so nauseous today!” the pedants might think, “with that kind of vocabulary, you sure are!”

2) Disinterested. Many people think of this word as synonymous with “uninterested,” but it actually means “unbiased.” This one isn’t as far gone as “nauseous,” so beware.

That’s all for now, but I’ll probably rinse and repeat as I think of new examples.

MM: Countable Nouns

Language changes. Distinctions that were once important fade, becoming esoteric, then vanishing. Many people don’t notice such losses. Others do notice. Complaints about the current sad state of writing or the language are no new thing. For instance, Harvard started its expository writing program in 1897 because faculty members were so distressed at their students’ abysmal writing. One of their complaints: students seemed unable to keep straight the distinction between will and shall. The faculty was trying to hold back the tide on that one: the will/shall  distinction has since been lost to American English. And a hundred years from now, the who/whom distinction will probably have gone the same way.

This post is about another fading distinction: that between adjectives appropriate for “countable” and “uncountable” nouns. Have you noticed that many supermarkets have changed the signs on their express lanes to read “10 items or fewer,” rather than “10 items or less”? That’s because the pedants were getting on their cases. You see, items are countable, and you use fewer with countable nouns. Less is for uncountable things, such as rice. (Tip: Uncountable nouns generally don’t have a separate plural form — rice, flour, sand, air, gasoline, music, advice, etc.)

So, let’s take beans as our countable noun and rice as our uncountable one:

This burrito is too big! I’d like less rice and fewer beans.

This burrito has a greater amount of rice and a greater number of beans.

I don’t have many beans or much rice. I need to go shopping!

The less/fewer distinction is the most abused, but you’ll also see amount attached to countable nouns. The linguistic trend seems to be the replacement of countable with uncountable forms. In a hundred years, fewer and number might sound precious or archaic, as shall does to modern American speakers. But for now, I think the distinction still holds. By a single, countable thread.

MM: Eggcorns

Ah, they’re tricky little buggers!

An eggcorn is a word or phrase that speakers and writers tend to get wrong because the wrong version (which always sounds a lot like the right version) sort of makes sense. “Eggcorn” is the eggcorn for “acorn.” You can see the sense of it, right? An acorn is a tree’s seed, and a seed is a tree’s equivalent of an egg. Perfectly reasonable.

Some eggcorns show up a lot. It’s not “intensive purposes”; it’s “intents and purposes.” It’s not “tender hooks”; it’s “tenterhooks.” It’s not “a tough road to hoe”; it’s “a tough row to hoe.” And so forth.

Unfortunately, there’s no general rule for fixing eggcorns. They have to be hunted down individually. Your best bet may to find a long list of eggcorns and read it through. Maybe you’ll discover you’ve been eggcorning something. I thought it was “in like flint” for the longest time (it’s “in like Flynn”).

The main thing, I think, is to maintain your sense of caution, never assuming that what you think is right must, in fact, be right. If you have the slightest doubt, just feed the questionable phrase into Google with the word “eggcorn.” If you Google “doggy-dog world” and “eggcorn,” you’ll get your answer right away (it’s “dog-eat-dog world”).

A final thought: sometimes no one really knows which is the acorn and which the eggcorn. Is it “hone in on” or “home in on”? The mystery remains.

MM: Punctuating Parentheses

A writing teacher will generally tell you to use parentheses very sparingly. I agree. When overused, they 1) become an annoying tic and 2) can lead you to include stuff that you’d be better off cutting. But that’s not to say they aren’t mighty useful at times. It’s definitely worth mastering them, thereby enlarging your punctuation arsenal.

Parentheses = Invisibility Cloak

When you use a set of parentheses, you’re cordoning off its contents from the rest of the sentence. Whatever’s inside those parentheses becomes invisible to the main sentence’s syntax and punctuation. Writers run into problems when they don’t follow that rule. Here’s an example of incomplete invisibility:

Luckily, his pet crow, (which I call Poe), caws loudly to let me know when he’s around.

If the stuff inside parentheses is invisible to the main sentence, you should be able to pluck the whole parenthetical aside out without having to make any changes to the sentence’s syntax or punctuation. But when you try that with the example I’ve just quoted, this is what you get:

Luckily, his pet crow,, caws loudly to let me know when he’s around.

Two commas in a row can’t be right, so the punctuation surrounding the parenthetical aside must’ve been incorrect. In fact, the writer was treating the phrase “which I call Poe” as though it were part of the main sentence, not separated out by parentheses. Here’s how it should look:

Luckily, his pet crow (which I call Poe) caws loudly to let me know when he’s around.

When writers make punctuation errors within parentheses, it’s also often because invisibility is not being maintained. Such an error might look like this:

Luckily, his pet crow, (which I call Poe,) caws loudly to let me know when he’s around.

When you do the plucking-out test, here, you lose one comma but not the other:

Luckily, his pet crow, caws loudly to let me know when he’s around.

No way should there be a comma in that spot. The error reveals that, once again, invisibility is not being maintained. The writer is punctuating in and around the parenthetical aside as though it were part of the main sentence.

Commas = Sheep Dogs

Another error I see has to do with grouping. When it comes to parenthetical asides, commas and periods are sort of like sheep dogs: they “herd” the aside into the right part of the sentence. Here’s an example of “comma-herding” gone wrong:

After Saran-wrapping the latest condiment-shelf concoction, I crammed it between the others I’d created over the past few nights: a bologna and apple jelly sandwich, (eew!) a Swiss cheese and tartar sauce sandwich, (blah!) and a peanut butter, mustard, and pickle relish sandwich.

In the above sentence,  the “(eew!)” aside goes with “a bologna and apple jelly sandwich,” not “a Swiss cheese and tartar sauce sandwich,” but the comma has grouped the “(eew!)” with the latter. The same thing is happening with “(blah!)” — it should go with “a Swiss cheese and tartar sauce sandwich,” but the comma has grouped it with “a peanut butter, mustard, and pickle relish sandwich.” Here’s how the sentence should look:

After Saran-wrapping the latest condiment-shelf concoction, I crammed it between the others I’d created over the past few nights: a bologna and apple jelly sandwich (eew!); a Swiss cheese and tartar sauce sandwich (blah!); and a peanut butter, mustard, and pickle relish sandwich.

(Want to know why I’ve replaced the commas with semicolons? See my Mechanics Moment on semicolons and complex lists.)

When a parenthetical aside appears at the end of a sentence, you have to decide whether it should stand alone as its own independent clause (in which case there has to be a complete sentence within the parentheses) or be included within the main sentence. If it really is part of the sentence, the period needs to herd it into the sentence, rather than leaving it stranded. Here’s a stranded aside:

I can only see Grandpa Edgar and Kyle, and that’s because they still have work to do on this side. (helping yours truly)

It should be punctuated thus:

I can only see Grandpa Edgar and Kyle, and that’s because they still have work to do on this side (helping yours truly).

In contrast, an aside that stands as a real independent clause should be outside the main sentence’s period and should have an internal period as well:

I didn’t like pastrami or pimento cheese, so I knew I’d been influenced by some new visiting kid. (I’m a plain ole peanut-butter-and-jelly-with-Fritos-on-the-side kind of girl.)