Read an Excerpt
The Grammar Devotional
Daily Tips for Successful Writing from Grammar Girl
By Mignon Fogarty, Arnie Ten
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2009 Mignon Fogarty, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Week 1 Monday
The Burger of McDonald's: Making Possessive Names Possessive
Have you ever wondered how to make a possessive name such as McDonald's,Carl's, or St. Anthony's possessive?
The short answer is don't! Rewrite the sentence to avoid such a construction because, technically, you're supposed to add another apostrophe or apostrophe and s on the end — which looks ridiculous.
McDonald's's earnings were super-sized last quarter. (technically correct)
McDonald's' earnings were super-sized last quarter. (technically correct)
McDonald's reported super-sized earnings last quarter. (better)
An explanation for why there are two competing technically correct answers can be found here.
Week 1 Tuesday
I Love You: Subject Versus Object
To figure out things such as when to use who or whom or lay or lie, you need to be able to identify the subject and object of a sentence.
Fortunately, it's easy! The subject is the person or thing doing something, and the object is having something done to it.
Just remember the sentence I love you. I is the subject. You is the object of the sentence and also the object of my affection. How's that? You are the object of my affection and the object of my sentence. It's like a Valentine's Day card and grammar trick all rolled into one.
Week 1 Wednesday
Language Rock Star: Jed Hartman and the Law of Prescriptivist Retaliation
Hartman's Law of Prescriptivist Retaliation, coined by technical writer Jed Hartman in his Web-based column, Words & Stuff (http://www.kith.org/logos/words/words.html), states that "any article or statement about correct grammar, punctuation, or spelling is bound to contain at least one error." It is sometimes also known as McKean's Law after lexicographer Erin McKean or Skitt's Law for alt.usage.english (http://www.alt-usage-english.org) contributor Skitt, both of whom appear to have independently made the same observation. Any errors you find in this text were put there intentionally as a test to see if you are paying attention. Honest.
Week 1 Thursday
So Many Talents: Not Only ... But Also
When not only is followed by but also (or simply but), it's considered good form to make sure the parts that follow each set of words are formatted the same way.
He is not only a great swimmer, but also a great musician. (Good: the sentence uses two noun clauses, which are underlined.)
He is not only a great swimmer, but also plays amazing music. (Bad: the sentence uses a noun clause and a verb clause. It's bad because they don't match.)
You could make the second example better by rewriting it with two verb clauses:
He not only swims with ease, but also plays amazing music.
Week 1 Friday
Quiz: You're Welcome
Which of the following is incorrect?
a. Squiggly received a warm welcome.
b. Please welcome Squiggly.
c. Squiggly's arrival was a welcome distraction.
d. You're welcomed.
e. They welcomed Squiggly to the family.
The answer and an explanation are here.
Week 1 Saturday
A Supposed Rule: Supposedly [Versus] Supposably
It would be much easier if I could tell you that supposably isn't a word, but I can't. It is a word, but the problem is that supposably doesn't mean the same thing as supposedly and most people use it incorrectly.
The word you usually want is supposedly, which means roughly "assumed to be true" and almost always includes a hint of sarcasm or disbelief:
Supposedly, he canceled our date because of a family emergency.
She supposedly sent the check, but it was lost in the mail.
Supposably means "supposable," "conceivable," or "arguably." It is only a valid word in American English; the British wisely refuse to accept it.
Week 1 Sunday
Always make sure your thats are necessary. For example, these two sentences mean the same thing, so you can leave out the that.
The sandwich that I ate yesterday was delicious.
I ate yesterday was delicious.
If your sentence has multiple thats, see if you can take some out without changing the meaning.
I know that she would prefer that people call her Cookie.
I know she would prefer that people call her Cookie.
Unfortunately, many people delete thats even when they're needed for clarity. Here's an example of a sentence that could initially confuse readers when you omit the word that:
Aardvark maintains Squiggly's yard is too large. (wrong)
Because there's no that after maintains, readers could initially believe that Aardvark takes care of (maintains) Squiggly's lawn until they reach the phrase is too large. A that makes it clear Aardvark has an opinion, not a job.
Aardvark maintains that Squiggly's yard is too large.
Aardvark maintains Squiggly's yard.
Aardvark maintains that Squiggly's yard is too large.
Week 2 Monday
And per se And: Ampersands
The ampersand (&) is a symbol for and. Unlike the percent or degree symbol, you generally shouldn't use the ampersand except in the most informal situations. Some style guides allow them as part of a formal company name (Smith & Wesson, Tiffany & Co.). Other style guides recommend spelling out the and in such cases. Most style guides recommend using the ampersand when the rest of the name is also an abbreviation (AT&T) and in common expressions (R&D). As you see here, there are no spaces on either side of the ampersand when it is used in that way.
In common phrases, and can also be abbreviated using apostrophes for the missing letters: rock 'n' roll.
Week 2 Tuesday
People can be as passionate about language as they are about religion, and sometimes the two intersect. For example, linguists sometimes describe a word as a shibboleth. It means that the word tags you as a member of a certain group or class. For example, if you say irregardless, it tags you as someone who is poorly educated or doesn't use proper language.
Shibboleth is a Hebrew word, and its linguistic meaning stems from the Biblical story of the Gileadites, who used the word to identify Ephraimites. The Ephraimites could not pronounce the "sh" sound, so shibboleth came out sounding wrong, making them instantly identifiable.
WEEK 2 Wednesday
Language Rock Star: Samuel Johnson
Samuel Johnson was the lone author of A Dictionary of the English Language, which was arguably the most influential English dictionary from its publication in 1755 until the publication of the Oxford English Dictionary in 1928. It took Johnson nine years to write the nearly forty-three thousand entries. Although Johnson's dictionary was the first attempt at a comprehensive English dictionary and embraced the inclusion of multiple definitions and the use of illustrative quotations in a way no previous dictionary had, it also had biases and humor. For example, the definition for "lexicographer" included "a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge."
Week 2 Thursday
Who? What? Which? Interrogative Pronouns
It may seem odd that question words are pronouns. Don't pronouns stand in for nouns? Well, not all of them. The interrogative pronouns (who, whom, what, which, whose, whoever, whomever, whatever, whichever) are used to ask questions. Usually you can rewrite the answer to the question as the question itself with a noun or adjective in place of the pronoun.
Who wants chocolate? Squiggly wants chocolate.
Whom should we invite? We should invite Aardvark.
What is that class called? That class is called Fondue Basics.
Which car did they take? They took the green car.
Week 2 Friday
Word Scramble: Types of Pronouns
There are six major types of pronouns. See if you can unscramble their names.
The answer key is here.
Week 2 Saturday
How many Blondes does it take? [Blond Versus [Blonde
It sounds like a joke, but it's actually a legitimate question: How do you spell blond?
The word comes to English from French, in which it has masculine and feminine forms. As an English noun, it kept those two forms; thus, a blond is a fair-haired man and a blonde is a fair-haired woman. When you're using the word as an adjective, there is only one spelling: blond.
The blonde was delighted when Squiggly presented her with a dictionary.
She wondered whether Squiggly could be considered a blond. He was yellow, after all.
She had yellow-blond hair, but Squiggly only had yellow skin.
Week 2 Sunday
I like myriad 10,000 Maniacs songs — "These Are Days," "Candy Everybody Wants," "Few and Far Between," and probably more that I can't think of right now. But do a few make a myriad?
The word myriad is derived from the Greek word for ten thousand and has long since come to mean "a whole bunch" or "an uncountable multitude," so it's hard to argue that myriad is a good way to describe three or four songs. Various, a few, or many would probably be better choices.
Another hot debate is whether it is correct to say, "The forest contains myriad species" or "The forest contains a myriad of species." You commonly hear "a myriad of" and just as commonly hear people railing that it should be simply "myriad" because the word is an adjective and essentially equivalent to a number. You wouldn't say "There are a ten thousand of species," so you shouldn't say "There are a myriad of species," so the argument goes.
Believe it or not, most language experts say that either way is fine. Myriad was actually used as a noun in English long before it was used as an adjective, and today it's considered both a noun and an adjective, which means it can be used with an a before it (as a noun) or without an a before it (as an adjective). Nevertheless, if you choose to say or write "a myriad of," I must warn you that you'll encounter occasional but vehement resistance. You may want to cut out this entry, laminate it, and carry it in your wallet as a defense.
Week 3 Monday
Salutation Solutions: Hi Versus Dear
Technically, those e-mail messages you write should begin Hi, John — with a comma after Hi.
You see, Hi, John is different from Dear John because hi and dear are not the same kind of word. Hi is an interjection just like wow and ugh, and dear is an adjective that modifies John.
In Hi, John you are directly addressing John, which means the punctuation rules of direct address apply. From a comma-rules standpoint, Hi, John is no different from Thanks for coming, John or Wow, John, what were you thinking? You can end Hi, John with a period or, if you continue the sentence, a comma.
Week 3 Tuesday
A Book for Everyman: Each and Every
Each and every mean the same thing and are considered singular nouns so they take singular verbs. (Note the singular verbs in the following example.) If you want to get technical, you can use each to emphasize the individual items or people:
Each car is handled with care.
Inspectors scrutinize each egg to make sure it isn't cracked.
And you can use every to emphasize the larger group:
Every car should use hybrid technology.
The Egg Farmers of America want eggs on every table for breakfast.
People often say "each and every" for emphasis, but it is redundant, and I almost always advise brevity when it comes to usage.
Week 3 Wednesday
Eager Beaver: Anxious Versus Eager
To some, anxious has more of a negative connotation than eager. You're eager for your long-distance boyfriend's plane to arrive, unless you're going to break up with him. Then you're more likely to be anxious for his plane to arrive so you can get it over with. Anxious is evolving, though. The distinction between the two terms was much stronger in the seventeenth century. Today, many people use the words interchangeably.
I'm eager to see the dessert tray. (standard)
I'm anxious to see my ex-wife. (standard)
I'm anxious to get our new puppy. (fine, but sometimes disputed)
Week 3 Thursday
Manners Beats Grammar: Ordering Pronouns
"Me first" is a bad attitude in life, and so it is in grammar, too. When you put yourself in a list with others, it's a rule of politeness to put yourself last:
Squiggly and I are shopping.
Please send the recipe to Squiggly, Aardvark, and me.
When you're combining nouns and pronouns, the rule is to put the pronouns first, unless that pronoun is I or me. (Politeness trumps the other rule.) Although the sentences below illustrate the rule, they sound awkward. In most cases, you'd probably use plural pronouns such as they and us.
She and Squiggly went shopping.
Please send the recipe to her and me.
Week 3 Friday
Quiz: Disc Versus Disk
Circle the correct sentences below.
a. I stored my data on a compact disc.
b. I have a slipped disc in my back.
c. Does anyone use floppy disks anymore?
d. The disk failed in my external hard drive.
The answer and an explanation are here.
Week 3 Saturday
An Important Distinction: Historic Versus Historical
Historical refers to anything from the past, important or not. For example, any past presidential inauguration would be a historical event, and any book that focuses on history or past events would be a historical book.
Grandpa collects historical inauguration photographs.
Sir Fragalot enjoys historical novels.
Historic refers to something important or influential in history.
Obama's inauguration was a historic event.
The Gutenberg Bible is a historic book.
You can remember the different meanings of historic and historical by thinking that the ending "ic" means important, and they both start with i, and "al" is "all in the past," and those both start with a.
Week 3 Sunday
CamelCase (also known as medial capitals, intercaps, humpbacking, CapWords, and BiCapitalials, among other names) is the practice that has now become trendy of promoting a letter in the middle of a word to uppercase. Most often the capital letter in the middle seems to result from squishing two words together that would normally be separated by a space (e.g., MySpace), but occasionally the capital just seems to pop up at a convenient syllable (e.g., OutKast).
Although the phenomenon can be traced back to at least the 1950s, it gained steam among computer programmers (probably because spaces are often discouraged or disallowed in programming, so a convenient way to highlight multiple words in a file name or variable is to capitalize the first letter of each squished-together word). More recently, marketers decided it was a trendy way to make a company name stand out.
If a formal company name uses CamelCase (e.g., YouTube, PayPal, TiVo), use that form in your writing. But other than honoring official names, leave the camel at the zoo — don't go around calling a plain old help desk a HelpDesk. It's definitely unnecessary!
Leave the camel at the zoo.
Week 4 Monday
Parentheses and Punctuation
When a parenthetical statement falls at the end of a sentence, the placement of the terminal punctuation depends on whether the words inside the parentheses are a complete sentence.
Excerpted from The Grammar Devotional by Mignon Fogarty, Arnie Ten. Copyright © 2009 Mignon Fogarty, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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