Saturday, June 20, 2009

Readers get A's for their Q's

What is more enjoyable than a good, old-fashioned question-and-answer session? Well, here’s what I come up with: ice cream, golf, movies, good books, the beach … wait a minute. I’d say almost everything is more fun than boring questions and answers. But we’re going to do a Q-and-A format today because these are special Q’s — they come from you, faithful readers. So by definition they are fascinating.

Q: In the sentence “Everyone should mind their manners,” “their” is plural and hence is not in agreement with the singular “everyone.” The correct version, “Everyone should mind his or her manners,” sounds clumsy, and so everyone simply minds their manners! What’s the solution?

A: Like it or not, many experts now allow that inconsistency as standard. My ongoing advice: Make it all plural (“People should mind their manners”).

Q: I read and re-read my work and still end up with errors. I write my book club blog, commercial real estate descriptions for work and personal and business letters. How can I become a better proofreader of my own writing?

A: First, know that you will seldom, if ever, see a perfect document ... and that goes for novels, ads, technical reports, cereal boxes, you name it. So don't be too hard on yourself. Second, find someone with a good eye to be your backup proofreader. Third, create good (well-proofed) templates whenever possible, then use those to reduce typos. This might be a good tactic for business letters. Fourth, read your writing out loud and slowly. That will help you find missing words, especially. Finally, if it's something really short (say a bit of real estate description), try reading it backwards slowly, one word at a time, after you've read it aloud. Going backwards will help expose spelling/typing errors.

Q: I'm so long beyond my grammar books, I need a new, succinctly written guide. Any suggestions?

A: I always tell people that two main rules apply: (1) If a style guide is designated for what you’re writing, follow that; (2) Be consistent throughout the writing assignment. That might mean choosing a style guide to follow if none is specified. Some of the most popular guides are the Associated Press Stylebook (for journalists), the APA Style Book (the American Psychological Association has a style guide that is widely used not only in scientific writing but also in many university settings) and the Chicago Manual of Style. Investigate several until you find one that seems friendly.

Q: Please write a column on the ridiculous phrases that are acceptable, such as “near miss.” Isn’t a near miss a hit?

A: hahahaHAHAhaha. That's a great thought. In fact, "near miss" is a quasi-legal term that refers (or at least referred originally) to the actual distance between or among objects that almost collided. In other words it was a miss in which the objects came perilously near each other.

Q: My sister is a cheat. Should I tell on her?

A: Wrong column. You want Annie’s Mailbox.

Q: My alma mater advertises this: “… every student receives an extraordinary education in a fun environment." I was always taught that “fun” is a noun, as in “to have fun.” I realize that “fun” is used increasingly as an adjective, and I know that it is colloquial, meaning enjoyable, but I still don't like it, especially advertising quality education in a college or university. It sounds ignorant and smacks of slang to me. (I'm not really a curmudgeon, at least most of the time!)

A: Having spent the last eight years of my employment marketing a private college, I feel that your university went with the “fun environment” phrasing precisely because it is, as you said, colloquial, a slang use. The goal is to sound very informal in an attempt to appeal to high school students. Unfortunately, “fun” as an adjective is now widely accepted in informal use, along with (and this part could send you over the edge into permanent curmudgeon-ness) “funner” and “funnest.” I'm not kidding. I'm not pleased, but it's true.

Q: I hear the state of Massachusetts sometimes pronounced “Massatusetts,” with the “chu” changed to a "t.” Also, the word “nuisance” [two syllables] is sometimes heard as three syllables: nu-i-sance. Finally, the word “mischievous” [three syllables] is often pronounced mis-chee-vee-ous, with four syllables. Are any of those pronunciations correct?

A: No, but they are among the funnest.