Beware of non-words

Grammar Cop has cited writers in the past for using words that aren’t words. Irregardless is one. Reoccur is another. Neither is a real word, but writers use them instead of regardless and recur. 

Here’s another. Unthaw. The word is  thaw.  Unthaw isn’t a real word, but if it were it would be a synonym for freeze. 

Watch out for those pesky non-words. When in doubt, check a reliable dictionary. 

It’s Unprofessional

It’s a little thing, but it disturbs me. Why why why can’t otherwise educated people spell the possessive form of it correctly? THERE IS NO APOSTROPHE! This morning, I received an emailed health bulletin to which I subscribe touting the benefits of a particular mineral. When I reached the last paragraphs, I read:
it’s amazing benefits…

It’s a little thing, but it isn’t a typo. It’s a spelling error. Why send out professional letters or print promotional material if you can’t spell correctly? It makes the issuer appear unprofessional. The fact that many readers accept or ignore the spelling error is particularly disturbing.

Grammar Cop is citing this offender. I now worry what other areas of the company’s output is sloppy or suspect. Before you comment that Grammar Cop is a nut job, please know that this isn’t the first offense for this publication. Everyone is entitled to a second chance, but I’ve seen it repeatedly.

ITS is the possessive form. IT’S is a contraction.

End of rant.

Dangling Participles?

Writers, do your editors red-mark you for dangling participles? Or do you have a grammar cop critique partner who cites you for a dangler? Have no fear. Grammar Cop is here.

First, know what is meant by participle. A participle is a verb behaving as an adjective…sort of. For example, in the sentence Sensing that she was stressed, I kept my mouth shut, the phrase Sensing that she was stressed modifies the pronoun and serves as an adjective. Yet the phrase also reveals the “why” of the subject’s behavior, serving as an adverb. Regardless of the participle’s label, it modifies the subject of the sentence. That’s crucial for writers to remember when self-editing.

The trouble arises when the participle doesn’t modify the subject. It’s left dangling. For example, Sensing she was stressed, a hush fell over the room.  Seems absurd, right? The room can’t sense her feelings of stress. The people in the room might, if the writer is using third-person omniscient point of view.

My pet peeve is the participle growing up. Be careful or you might commit a gaffe like Growing up, my parents didn’t know where our next meal would come from. or Growing up, there was no remote control for the television. Growing up is a dangling participle in either example. The subject of the sentence is not modified by the participle.

Participles are useful when applied correctly. Just don’t let yours dangle.

It’s not that difficult!

Grammar Cop has been on hiatus, but now she’s back and on a familiar rant. Apostrophes! Stop using apostrophes incorrectly. It isn’t that difficult. 

Do NOT use apostrophes for pronoun possessives: hers, his, yours, ours, theirs, its. 

Do NOT use apostrophes (except in cases of acronyms) for plural: ATMs or ATM’s 

It’s is a contraction of it and is. Its is the possessive of it. It’s not that difficult!

Rant over.

Flout and Flaunt

Two verbs writers occasionally confuse are flout and flaunt. They may look similar, but they aren’t synonyms.

Flaunt means to show off.  She flaunted her wealth by driving her Mercedes convertible everywhere.

Flout means to scorn or show contempt. She flouted the traffic laws with her excessive speeding. (Flout can be used also as a noun meaning scornful insult, but I’ve seen only Shakespeare do it.)

Next time you’re tempted to write She flouted her wealth, be sure you mean she scorned it. Otherwise, change to She flaunted her wealth.

Happy writing!

The Comma Clause

Questions about commas outnumber all other Grammar Cop questions. Why is the comma so confusing? For one thing, usage and preferences vary. One editor may prefer all but the simplest clauses be offset by commas while another may be a comma minimalist. Author Steve Berry once told me he’s the self-proclaimed comma-kasee. He rarely uses a comma and sells a lot more books than I, so who am I to judge? 

Here are a few basic rules to help you. Keep in mind, however, no matter what you read or hear, your publisher has the final authority. Only debate a comma placement when it is a matter of changing the sentence’s meaning. Before you debate with an editor, be sure you have a clear understanding of clauses and sentence structure.

Comma Rules in a Nutshell:

An independent clause (Subject + Verb) doesn’t need a comma. A dependent clause does. 

Consider this paragraph:

My backpack weighs a ton. The straps, which bear the weight of six textbooks and a laptop, must be reinforced. I wouldn’t wear a backpack but need my hands free for the handlebars of my bicycle. No matter how often I organize and repack the books, I have no space available for my iPod.

The first sentence is easy. It’s a simple, independent clause. The second sentence is a compound sentence because we add the dependent clause modifying the subject straps. The dependent clause, so named because it’s not a complete sentence on its own, should be set aside with a pair of commas (think of them as parentheses). If you delete the dependent clause, the sentence still stands: The straps must be reinforced is an independent clause.

Unless a dependent clause is used as an introductory clause, it should be offset by a pair of commas, one at the beginning and one at the end of the clause. The straps, which bear the weight of six textbooks and a laptop, must be reinforced. Commas aren’t necessary in I wouldn’t wear a backpack but need my hands free for the handlebars of my bicycle. “I” is the subject of both wouldn’t wear a backpack and need my hands free. If written as two independent clauses, it would need a comma before the conjunction but I wouldn’t wear a backpack, but I need my hands free for the handlebars of my bicycle.

Commas have other uses, too, i.e. separating items in a series: Inside my backpack are pencils, a calculator, textbooks, and a laptop. 

A rule of thumb is write the sentence first without commas. If it makes sense without a pause, leave it alone. If you find the sentence convoluted and confusing, you need a set of commas.

Wherefore art thou Romeo? Or are you Uninterested? ☺

Here’s trivia for you. The word wherefore is an adverb from Shakespeare’s time. It means why. Or as a noun, it means purpose. It doesn’t mean location. Wherefore art thou Romeo would’ve had a comma after thou if Juliet had been asking his location. But she’s asking why her love for him torments her heart when he’s forbidden to her by her family. Deny thy father and refuse thy name…

Light years is a measure of distance, not time. That planet is light years from our galaxy. You don’t say She’s light years ahead of him in class. Years will suffice.

Here’s one that trips me up: disinterested and uninterested. There is a difference if you’re <ahem> interested. 😉 Disinterested means impartial. Uninterested means indifferent. Through years of usage, however, they’ve evolved into synonyms. I’ve read both A legal mediator is uninterested in the dispute and A legal mediator is disinterested in the dispute. I’ve decided to avoid using either word and reach for the Roget’s for an alternative.

Do you know the true meaning of impeach? Some think it means to remove from office. However, one may be impeached (charged) without being convicted. Remember President Clinton? Charges were brought against him for improper conduct in office, but he wasn’t convicted. Two presidents have been impeached in the United States, but neither have been removed from office.

Most writers know the difference between council and counsel, but what about consul? Consul is a noun meaning a representative or ambassador who resides in a foreign country to represent his nation’s citizen’s interests. The British consul met with the tourist about his lost passport. 

That’s today’s hodgepodge of trivia. (FYI hodgepodge refers to a mix or conglomeration. The term evolved from a soup or stew made of assorted foods cooked in a common pot during the fifteenth century.)