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A new ‘Woe Is I’ for our times

[This week Penguin Random House published a new, fourth edition of Patricia T. O’Conner’s bestselling grammar and usage classic Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English. To mark the occasion, we’re sharing the Preface to the new edition.]

Some books can’t sit still. They get fidgety and restless, mumbling to themselves and elbowing their authors in the ribs. “It’s that time again,” they say. “I need some attention here.”

Books about English grammar and usage are especially prone to this kind of behavior. They’re never content with the status quo. That’s because English is not a stay-put language. It’s always changing—expanding here, shrinking there, trying on new things, casting off old ones. People no longer say things like “Forsooth, methinks that grog hath given me the flux!” No, time doesn’t stand still and neither does language.

So books about English need to change along with the language and those who use it. Welcome to the fourth edition of Woe Is I.

What’s new? Most of the changes are about individual words and how they’re used. New spellings, pronunciations, and meanings develop over time, and while many of these don’t stick around, some become standard English. This is why your mom’s dictionary, no matter how fat and impressive-looking, is not an adequate guide to standard English today. And this is why I periodically take a fresh look at what “better English” is and isn’t.

The book has been updated from cover to cover, but don’t expect a lot of earthshaking changes in grammar, the foundation of our language. We don’t ditch the fundamentals of grammar and start over every day, or even every generation. The things that make English seem so changeable have more to do with vocabulary and how it’s used than with the underlying grammar.

However, there are occasional shifts in what’s considered grammatically correct, and those are reflected here too. One example is the use of they, them, and their for an unknown somebody-or-other, as in “Somebody forgot their umbrella”—once shunned but now acceptable. Another has to do with which versus that. Then there’s the use of “taller than me” in simple comparisons, instead of the ramrod-stiff “taller than I.” (See Chapters 1, 3, and 11.)

Despite the renovations, the philosophy of Woe Is I remains unchanged. English is a glorious invention, one that gives us endless possibilities for expressing ourselves. It’s practical, too. Grammar is there to help, to clear up ambiguities and prevent misunderstandings. Any “rule” of grammar that seems unnatural, or doesn’t make sense, or creates problems instead of solving them, probably isn’t a legitimate rule at all. (Check out Chapter 11.)

And, as the book’s whimsical title hints, it’s possible to be too “correct”— that is, so hung up about correctness that we go too far. While “Woe is I” may appear technically correct (and even that’s a matter of opinion), the lament “Woe is me” has been good English for generations. Only a pompous twit—or an author trying to make a point—would use “I” instead of “me” here. As you can see, English is nothing if not reasonable.

(To buy Woe Is I, visit your local bookstore or Amazon.com.)

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Who, me?

Q: In Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, she uses this sentence to describe the sacrifices her parents made in raising her and her brother Craig: “We were their investment, me and Craig.” Surely that should be “Craig and I.”

A: Not necessarily. We would have written “Craig and I.” But the sentence as written is not incorrect. It’s informal, but not ungrammatical.

Here the compound (“me and Craig”) has no clear grammatical role. And as we wrote in 2016, a personal pronoun without a clear grammatical role—one that isn’t the subject or object of a sentence—is generally in the objective case.

In our previous post, we quoted the linguist Arnold Zwicky—the basic rule is “nominative for subjects of finite clauses, accusative otherwise.” In other words, when the pronoun has no distinctly defined role, the default choice is “me,” not “I.”

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary has this usage note: “I is now chiefly used as the subject of an immediately following verb. Me occurs in every other position.” The examples given include “Me too” … “You’re as big as me” … “It’s me” … “Who, me?”

“Almost all usage books recognize the legitimacy of me in these positions,” M-W says.

As we said, we think the compound “me and Craig” has no clear grammatical role. But digging deeper, we could interpret it as placed in apposition to (that is, as the equivalent of) the subject of the sentence: “we.” And technically, appositives should be in the same case, so the pronoun in apposition to “we” should be a subject pronoun: “I [not “me”] and Craig.”

That’s a legitimate argument, and if the author were aiming at a more formal style, she no doubt would have taken that route.

On the other hand, the same argument could be made against “Who, me?” Those two pronouns could be interpreted as appositives, but forcing them to match (“Whom, me?” or “Who, I?”) would be unnatural.

In short, the choice here is between formal and informal English (not “correct” versus “incorrect”), and the author chose the informal style.

By the way, as we wrote in 2012, the order in which the pronoun appears in a compound (as in “me and Craig” versus “Craig and me”) is irrelevant. There’s no grammatical rule that a first-person singular pronoun has to go last. Some people see a politeness issue here, but there’s no grammatical foundation for it.

That said, when the pronoun is “I,” it does seem to fall more naturally into the No. 2 slot. “Tom and I are going” seems to be a more natural word order than “I and Tom are going.” This is probably what’s responsible for the common (and erroneous) use of “I” when it’s clearly an object—as in “Want to come with Tom and I?”

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Compounding the problem

Q: In your “Compound fractures” post from 2012, you discuss hyphenating “potentially confusing compounds.” Shouldn’t that be “potentially-confusing”? I’m not being snarky, mind you, just trying to understand.

A: The use of hyphens in compounds is pretty straightforward—except when it isn’t.

One of the many exceptions to the conventions of hyphenation is that when an adjective is modified by an “-ly” adverb, the compound doesn’t get a hyphen.

Pat uses these examples in her grammar and usage book Woe Is I: “That’s a radically different haircut. It gives you an entirely new look.”

We’ve written before about when to hyphenate compound modifiers, but a little repetition never hurts.

You’re probably familiar with the general practice.

Two-word descriptions are hyphenated before a noun (“powder-blue suit,” “dark-haired toddler,” “well-done steak”). But if the description comes after the noun, no hyphen is used (“a suit of powder blue,” “a toddler who’s dark haired,” “a steak well done”).

The hyphenation of longer adjectival phrases before a noun is similar: “an up-and-coming playwright,” “run-of-the-mill special effects,” “a business-as-usual attitude,” “a ruthless, no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners corporate policy.” (Some of these may be hyphenated even after the noun: “The special effects were run-of-the-mill.” Check your dictionary.)

Now for some more exceptions.

Compound modifiers in which one of the words is “very,” “most,” “least,” or “less” (as in “most pleasing tune”) don’t have hyphens.

Some prefixes usually take hyphens (as in “self-effacing manner,” “quasi-official position”). Others sometimes do and sometimes don’t (“pre-,” “re-,” “ultra-,” “anti-”).

However, the hyphenation of prefixes is very fluid, and authorities may differ. A prefix that’s hyphenated in one dictionary or style guide may not be in another. If in doubt, check your dictionary or style manual.

In case you’d like a short refresher course on hyphens, we wrote in April 2013 about omitting part of a hyphenated term (as in “full- and part-time job”); in July 2012 about hyphens in dimensions (like “five-foot-six woman”); and in January 2012 about when to hyphenate a term like “African American.”

You can find others by putting “hyphen” in the search box on our  blog.

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Apostrophic illnesses

Q: I’m a physician who’s irritated by the increasing tendency for writers to omit the apostrophe in a disease named for a person, as in “Parkinson disease.” I resist this, and write “Parkinson’s disease,” which I think is correct.

A: You’re in an unfortunate position here. As a doctor, you’re caught between the recommended usage in the medical profession and standard usage everywhere else.

The AMA Manual of Style (10th ed.), for example, recommends dropping the ’s in such diseases, as does the 27th edition of Stedman’s Medical Dictionary.

Although Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary (30th ed.) says the ’s “is becoming increasingly less common,” it includes some diseases with the ending and some without to “reflect this ongoing change in usage.”

However, Merriam-Webster’s Medical Dictionary, which is intended for a broader audience, generally considers the ’s versions the usual forms, though it sometimes includes the stripped-down forms as acceptable variants.

As for common usage, the six standard dictionaries we’ve checked usually list only the ’s versions for these terms, though bare versions are sometimes given as acceptable or equal variants.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), for example, lists only “Parkinson’s” while The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) gives “Parkinson’s” as more common, but includes “Parkinson” as an acceptable variant.

The American Medical Association’s style guide acknowledges that the issue is still somewhat controversial, but says that the use of the ’s in medical eponyms, the technical term for things named after people, is a thing of the past.

“There is some continuing debate over the use of the possessive form for eponyms, but a transition toward the nonpossessive form has taken place,” the AMA guide says.

The AMA editors recommend dropping the ’s to represent “the adjectival and descriptive, rather than possessive, sense of eponyms” and to “promote clarity and consistence in scientific writing.”

We take issue here with the AMA editors. Technically, the ’s here is not possessive but genitive. As we’ve written before on our blog, genitives show associations and relationships much broader than ownership.

In a genitive construction like “last night’s mashed potatoes,” we’re not talking about ownership. The ’s here means “associated with” or “related to,” not “possessed by.”

Nevertheless, the misconception persists. The National Down Syndrome Society, in its Preferred Language Guide, gives this explanation for opposing the ’s:

“Down syndrome is named for the English physician John Langdon Down, who characterized the condition, but did not have it. An ‘apostrophe s’ connotes ownership or possession.”

In fact, the AMA stylebook cites the Down Syndrome Society’s language guide in support of its belief that a transition toward non-genitive eponyms has taken place:

“A major step toward preference for the nonpossessive form occurred when the National Down Syndrome Society advocated the use of Down syndrome, rather than Down’s syndrome, arguing that the syndrome does not actually belong to anyone.”

Other critics argue against medical eponyms whether they have apostrophes or not, saying the names may credit the wrong people or are out of date.

Victor A. McKusick, for example, says in Mendelian Inheritance in Man (11th ed.) that “often the person whose name is used was not the first to describe the condition … or did not describe the full syndrome as it has subsequently become known.”

Although “Down syndrome” is now more common than “Down’s syndrome” and standard dictionaries prefer the shorter form, most other medical eponyms still have the ’s in dictionary entries.

Of the 11 eponyms we’ve checked, “Alzheimer’s,” “Addison’s,” “Parkinson’s,” “Bright’s,” “Crohn’s,” “Hansen’s,” “Hodgkin’s,” and “Raynaud’s” diseases usually have the ’s. Only “Down,” “Munchhausen,” and “Tourette” syndromes are usually bare.

In fact, searches with Google’s Ngram viewer indicate that medical eponyms with ’s are overwhelmingly more popular in books than the stripped-down versions.

However, medical toponyms (diseases named after a place) don’t have apostrophes. For example, “Rocky Mountain spotted fever” or “Lyme disease” (named for Lyme, CT).

Note that the capitalized name in a medical eponym or toponym is traditionally followed by a lowercase generic term, as in “Lou Gehrig’s disease” or “West Nile virus.”

The old tradition of naming diseases or parts of the body for their discoverers dates back to the use of Latin medical terms.

An example is tuba Fallopii for the structures first described by the 16th-century anatomist Gabriele Falloppio, also known by his Latin name, Fallopius. Today we say “fallopian tubes,” which many standard dictionaries give with a lowercase “f.”

Since you are a physician, you may be interested in an excellent article we came across on the history of medical eponyms.

John H. Dirckx, a doctor who has written frequently about the language of medicine, says such terms “are cherished by most physicians who have a sense of history.”

Besides, he writes in a 2001 issue of the journal Panace@, they “are often embraced as a pleasant relief from polysyllabic terms derived from classical languages.”

They also have a “value as euphemisms,” he adds. A term like “Hansen’s disease,” for example, is a welcome replacement for “leprosy” and all that it conveys.

As for the ’s, he writes, “Some of the arguments offered by editors and others to justify exclusion of the genitive from eponyms are simply ludicrous.” (He mentions the objections we noted above, that the person didn’t have the disease or possess it.)

Such critics, Dr. Dirckx writes, “display ignorance of linguistics, a superficial and mechanistic view of language, disdain for tradition, and, sometimes, the arrogance of authority.”

He concludes, probably with tongue in cheek: “Will even the homely lay term Adam’s apple (nuez, prominentia laryngea) eventually come under the universal ban?”

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When the present is past

Q: I’m trying to figure out this sentence: “Something Grandma let me do that my parents wouldn’t is/was eat cake.” Which is it? I spent an hour online looking for the answer, and now I’m more confused than before!

A: Let’s reduce your sentence to its relevant parts: “Something Grandma let me do was/is eat cake.” (The intervening clause, “that my parents wouldn’t,” does not affect the grammar here.)

Do we choose “was eat cake” because the principal verb (“let”) is in the past tense? Or do we choose “is eat cake” because at the time Grandma allowed it, the question of cake-eating existed in the present?

You might argue either way. But since you’re talking about something Grandma allowed in the past (and probably the distant past), we think “was” is the better choice: “Something Grandma let me do was eat cake.”

Note that we said “the better choice,” not “the grammatically correct choice.” In our opinion, “was” is more natural here, but we’ve found no hard-and-fast rule about this, at least not one that’s convincing.

A similar but harder question has to do with a situation that is relevant to the present, but is mentioned in the past tense because the sentence’s main verb is in the past tense. This is what we mean:

“Pasteur believed that intense heat was the key to killing bacteria” (it still is the key) … “Skeptics denied that the Earth revolved around the sun” (it still does) … “Claire didn’t know where Idaho was” (it’s still there).

The grammarian Otto Jespersen says that in this kind of sentence even an “eternal truth” may be expressed in the past tense. He cites the example “My father convinced me that nothing was useful which was not honest.” (Essentials of English Grammar, 1931.)

And we find the linguist Renaat Declerck saying much the same 60 years later. “Contrary to what is sometimes claimed,” he writes, “the past tense can be used even if the complement clause expresses an ‘eternal truth.’ Using the present tense is never obligatory.” (Tense in English, 1991.)

In fact, the tense in the lesser clause is more likely to echo the past tense of the main clause. Or, as Declerck puts it, “temporal subordination is the default choice.”

Jespersen gives these examples of cases in which the situation in the second clause is still relevant to the present, and yet the past tense is used: “I tried to forget who I was” and “What did you say was your friend’s name?”

Obviously, the speaker could just as well have used the present tense, but didn’t. Why not?

Jespersen suggests that frequently the use of the past tense here “is due simply to mental inertia: the speaker’s mind is moving in the past, and he does not stop to consider whether each dependent statement refers to one or the other time, but simply goes on speaking in the tense adapted to the main idea.”

“A typical example,” Jespersen writes, “is found when the speaker discovers the presence of someone and exclaims, ‘Oh, Mr Summer, I didn’t know you were here.’ ”

Jespersen, Declerck, and others suggest that this sort of tense adaptation is especially common in indirect or reported speech—that is, a second-hand report of what someone said.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language says that in the following examples of reported speech, the choice of tense in the second clause is optional:

“Jill said she had too many commitments” … “Jill said she has too many commitments.”

Both sentences are correct, though the first suggests that Jill had too many commitments in the past, while the second suggests that she may still have too many.

As the Cambridge Grammar says, “the two reports do not have the same meaning, but in many contexts the difference between them will be of no pragmatic significance.”

However, in the sentence “Jill said she had/has a headache,” the book notes that “Jill’s utterance needs to have been quite recent for has to be appropriate.”

Declerck says the decision about the tense of the secondary clause “will generally be based on pragmatic considerations.” For instance, a speaker might shift to the present tense to indicate he thinks the situation is still valid or relevant.

He uses the example “He said that Betty is a very clever girl.” This shift “from a past to a present domain,” Declerck says, “is optional, since the speaker could also have chosen to keep the domain constant,” as in “He said that Betty was a very clever girl.”

As you can see, the choice here isn’t always clear.

It’s safe to say that when we speak of the immediate or recent past, we’re more likely to use the present tense in the lesser clause (“He learned that he has cancer”).

But when a shift to the present would be jarring, we stick to the past tense even when the situation is still true (“She knew Wednesday was his poker night”).

We can think of further examples in which the tense is optional but the choice of one over the other makes a difference, as in this sentence:

“He said on the Today show that gluten is becoming a national obsession.” (The use of “is” stresses that the situation is still unfolding.)

And in the next two sentences, the differing tenses indicate differing views of an event:

“Did you know that what you were doing is wrong?” (The speaker is stressing that it’s still wrong.)

“Did you know that what you were doing was wrong?” (The speaker is emphasizing what the person knew at the time.)

Finally, we’ll end this post with an example in which the secondary verb is clearly better in the present tense.

We were just thinking that it’s time to sign off.

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Are these dates of-putting?

Q: I’ve been reading a book that often uses this construction: “in April of 1887.” The “of” strikes me as superfluous, but is it wrong, as an editor I knew used to insist? I can’t find a rule in the usual publishing stylebooks.

A: Yes, this “of” isn’t necessary, but it isn’t necessarily wrong either, despite criticism from some usage authorities.

Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd. ed.), for example, considers the preposition “superfluous in dates.”

Garner’s suggests that “December of 1987 should be December 1987,” and that “February 2010 is better than February of 2010.”

We aren’t told why the “of”-free version is better, however. Apparently the judgment is based on conciseness—if a word can be dispensed with, it should go.

But we disagree. While it’s true that “of” isn’t required here, we don’t think it’s incorrect—and we’ve found no good reason to think it is.

Both The Associated Press Stylebook and The Chicago Manual of Style and Usage (16th ed.) say that where only the month and year are given, no comma is used between them. But they don’t say that “of” can’t be used.

In our opinion, this isn’t a matter of right or wrong. A writer’s decision to use “of” in a date or leave it out is simply a style choice.

For instance, “of” inserts a rhythmic beat that can give a measure of dignity to a sentence. Here’s what we mean:

“The images, sounds and stories of the second Tuesday in September of 2001 will be seared forever in the nation’s memory” (from Sept 11, 2001, an anthology compiled by the Poynter Institute for Media Studies).

And sometimes adding “of” to a date can make a sentence sound informal or conversational: “Aggressive stocks have really tanked since June of 1983” (from the New York Times, 1984).

The usage is found in literary writing as well: “In June of 1845 Emerson was writing to Elizabeth Hoar about a new enthusiasm” (from The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by Ralph L. Rusk, 1941).

For one reason or another, writers often choose to insert “of” between the month and the year. All of these examples appeared in the news during the first couple of weeks of August 2015:

“This isn’t the first time something heartwarming has happened at the restaurant that opened in December of 2013” (the Fresno Bee).

“In December of 1988, this culture of violence came to my very doorstep” (Huffington Post).

“The government had a deficit of $94.6 billion in July of 2014” (Reuters).

“Durham wrote that, in April of 2010, the FBI ‘tasked’ a mob  informant ‘to go see Gentile and engage him in general conversation’ ” (Hartford Courant).

A usage like “April of 2010,” with “of” preceding the year, may be a clipped version of older formulations:

“in March of the year 1781” … “in February of the year 1742” … “in the August of 1750” … “in December of the year 1832.” (All examples are taken from searches of 18th- and 19th-century literature.)

And “of” has long been used before the month in day/month formulations:

“the fifth day of May next”  … “on the 15th day of September last”… “the 22nd of October”  … “the 14th of this month.”

So all things considered, we see no reason to avoid “of” in dates, unless you want your writing to be clipped and fat-free—and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that.

Speaking of dates, you may be interested in a 2012 post of ours about how to punctuate them with commas, and a 2009 post on the use of the suffix “-th” in dates (as in “September 6th”).

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Parenthetical plural(s)

Q: Which of these sentences is correct? (1) “Select ‘yes’ if you plan on bringing guest(s) in addition to the one listed above.” (2) “Select ‘yes’ if you plan on bringing a guest(s) in addition to the one listed above.”

A: Neither #1 nor #2 works, we’re sorry to say.

There’s no graceful way to use the parenthetical plural—“(s)”—here without a rewrite. Perhaps, “Select ‘yes’ if you plan on bringing any additional guest(s).”

As volunteers on land-use commissions in our New England town, we’ve come across many parenthetical plurals in regulations.

We don’t particularly like them, but a parenthetical plural can  be helpful when it doesn’t disrupt the rest of the sentence.

The “(s)” leads to trouble, for instance, if it’s tacked onto a noun that’s the subject of a verb or that has a singular article (“a” or “an”).

The Chicago Manual of Style once answered a question similar to yours on its online blog. Here’s the reply:

“A term ending in ‘(s)’ is both plural and singular. If you must use such a device (and it can be a useful shorthand), you have to be prepared to adjust the surrounding context as necessary: for example, ‘the award(s) is (are) accounted for.’ A parenthetical plural verb must correspond to the parenthetical ending.”

The conclusion: “In general, avoid such shorthand unless it can be used simply and effectively, as in the following example: “Place an ‘about the author(s)’ statement on the copyright page (usually page iv).”

One more comment. Parenthetical plurals are particularly awkward when used in a series, or added to nouns ending in “y.”

Here’s an extreme example: “The sculptor(s) has (have) to know the type(s) of marble used, the place(s) of origin, and the stress(es) it (they) can withstand.” In such a sentence, it’s simpler and more elegant to use the generic singular throughout.

As for using a parenthetical plural with an irregular plural—like “woman(en)” or “child(ren)”—forget it.

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The rise and fall of capital letters

Q: In rereading Emily Dickinson’s poems, I’m impressed by her use of midline capitals. Can you shed some light on the capitalization of common nouns in 19th-century America? Is it intended for emphasis?

A: When William Caxton introduced printing to England in the 15th century, “great uncertainty” surrounded the use of capital letters, according to the linguist David Crystal.

In The Stories of English (2004), Crystal writes that capital letters were “first used for proper names as well as for sentence and verse-line openings.”

Later, he says, capitals “were extended to any words thought to be important (such as titles, terms of address, and personification) as well as to words receiving special emphasis.”

“During the seventeenth century, virtually any word might be capitalized, if it were felt to be significant, and compositors—to be on the safe side—tended to over-capitalize,” he writes.

In the 19th century, he adds, “a reaction set in against excessive capitalization … and we find the present-day system emerging.”

“Then as now there were heavy and light capitalizers, as well as heavy and light punctuators,” Crystal says. “Indeed, this is one of the areas where standard English is still most unstable, as a glance at the ‘sometimes capitalized’ note in modern dictionaries suggests.”

In The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, Crystal expands on some of these points, noting efforts by John Hart, a 16th-century grammarian and spelling reformer, to bring some order to the language.

“Hart recommended his readers to use a capital letter at the beginning of every sentence, proper name, and important common noun,” he writes. “By the 17th century, the practice had extended to titles (Sir, Lady), forms of address (Father, Mistris), and personified nouns (Nature).  Emphasized words and phrases would also attract a capital.”

By the beginning of the 18th century, Crystal writes, “the influence of Continental books had caused this practice to be extended still further (e.g. to the names of the branches of knowledge), and it was not long before some writers began using a capital for any noun that they felt to be important.”

“Books appeared in which all or most nouns were given an initial capital (as is done systematically in modern German)— perhaps for aesthetic reasons, or perhaps because printers were uncertain about which nouns to capitalize, and so capitalized them all,” he writes.

Crystal says the use of capitals “was at its height in the later 17th century, and continued into the 18th. The manuscripts of Butler, Traherne, Swift, and Pope are full of initial capitals.”

“However, the later 18th-century grammarians were not amused by this apparent lack of discipline in the written language,” he says. “In their view, the proliferation of capitals was unnecessary, and causing the loss of a useful potential distinction. Their rules brought a dramatic reduction in the types of noun permitted to take a capital letter.”

We’ll end with “This Is My Letter to the World,” a poem in which Emily Dickinson uses capital letters liberally:

This is my letter to the World
That never wrote to Me—
The simple News that Nature told—
With tender Majesty
Her Message is committed
To Hands I cannot see—
For love of Her—Sweet—countrymen—
Judge tenderly—of Me

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The geography of the apostrophe

Q: I thought you might find it interesting that city officials in Cambridge (England) have banned the use of the apostrophe in new street names. What are your thoughts?

A: We saw the same news stories you did. But a few days after you emailed us, there was a new development. The officials in Cambridge bowed to public pressure and reversed that ban on possessive apostrophes in signs marking new streets.

Here in the United States, we don’t see many possessive apostrophes (or periods, for that matter) in street signs. The authorities that regulate these things tend to discourage the use of punctuation. 

(And by the way, you might be interested in a post we wrote some time ago on the use of compass directions—like the confusing “No” for north—on street signs.)

Who gets to decide whether street signs can have apostrophes? In the US, as in Britain, this is up to local cities and towns.

In this country, the individual municipalities use guidelines established by state boards or commissions that regulate geographic names. All 50 states have such agencies.

The states in turn look to the federal government for guidance. And on the federal level, the use of apostrophes in the names of geographic features has been discouraged since 1890, when the US Board on Geographic Names was established.

This is why you almost never see apostrophes on federal signs and maps. The US board says in the FAQ on its website that when place names are in the possessive form, “the apostrophe is almost always removed,” though the “s” by itself is allowed.

What does the federal government have against apostrophes in geographic features? The agency itself can’t explain. “The Board’s archives contain no indication of the reason for this policy,” it says in the FAQ.

But it does dispose of a few old theories: “Myths attempting to explain the policy include the idea that the apostrophe looks too much like a rock in water when printed on a map, and is therefore a hazard, or that in the days of ‘stick–up type’ for maps, the apostrophe would become lost and create confusion.”

“The probable explanation,” the agency suggests, “is that the Board does not want to show possession for natural features.”

Elsewhere, in its editorial guidelines, the board says: “Apostrophes suggesting possession or association are not to be used within the body of a proper name (Henrys Fork, not Henry’s Fork).”

However, the guidelines add, “Apostrophes may be used within the body of a geographic name to denote a missing letter (Lake O’ the Woods) or when they normally exist in a surname used as part of a geographic name (O’Malley Hollow).”

As for street signs, the national board says that, unless asked for an opinion, it doesn’t get involved in the names of roads, streets, highways, canals, shopping centers, churches, schools, hospitals, airports, and other entities that are administered by local governments. 

So local agencies or municipalities are free to choose whether the names include a genitive or possessive apostrophe. But as we said above, the local agencies generally follow guidelines from their states, which tend to follow the federal government’s lead.

For example, the Hawaii State Board on Geographic Names lists apostrophes among “things to avoid.”

Many American place names that once had apostrophes officially lost them to government regulation back in the 19th century—notably Pikes Peak, named for the explorer Zebulon Pike, and Harpers Ferry, for a ferry operator named Robert Harper.

And for the most past, Americans haven’t been as bothered by all this as their counterparts in Britain. But even here, defenders of the apostrophe have occasionally (very occasionally) made themselves heard on the subject.

As a result, a handful of what the board calls “natural features” have been allowed to include an apostrophe denoting possession or association.

Here are the names, along with the years in which the board relented and gave them back their punctuation:

● Martha’s Vineyard (Massachusetts, 1933). The locals simply wouldn’t stand for “Marthas Vineyard” and mounted an intense campaign. It worked.

● Ike’s Point (New Jersey, 1944).  The argument, according to the agency: “it would be unrecognizable otherwise.”

● John E’s Pond (Rhode Island, 1963). This would be unreadable without the apostrophe. And spoken, the name would sound like “John S.”

● Carlos Elmer’s Joshua View (Arizona, 1995). The Arizona State Board on Geographic and Historic Names argued that three apparent names in a row would be confusing. (The third name is a reference to a stand of Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia) once captured on film by the photographer Carlos Elmer.)

● Clark’s Mountain (Oregon, 2002). Meriwether Lewis named the peak for William Clark, who climbed it in 1806. To commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark expedition, the Oregon Geographic Names Board, along with the Lewis & Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, asked that the apostrophe be restored.

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English English language Punctuation Style Usage

Plural prose

Q: I know a letter or number gets an apostrophe when made plural: x’s, 9’s, and so on. But what happens when letters make up an abbreviation: CEO, RN, MD, and so on? Does the abbreviation get an apostrophe when made plural?

A: There’s no single “rule” about this, since conventions vary widely from publisher to publisher, usage guide to usage guide.

On our blog, we generally follow The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.). Here’s what it recommends:

“Capital letters used as words, numerals used as nouns, and abbreviations usually form the plural by adding s. To aid comprehension, lowercase letters form the plural with an apostrophe and an s.”

The Chicago Manual gives these examples: “the three Rs … x’s and y’s … the 1990s … IRAs … URLs … BSs, MAs, PhDs.”

Unlike you, the Chicago Manual would not use an apostrophe with 9s. And as you can see from the examples above, it would not use apostrophes in CEOs, RNs, MDs, and so on.

We’ve had several posts on our blog about this subject, including ones in 2010 and 2009 about  pluralizing abbreviations.

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English English language Etymology Grammar Punctuation Style Usage Word origin

The comma in question

Q: I am editing a document that contains the following sentence: “The problem is, how do we properly make sense of it all and use it to our benefit?” My issue is the propriety of the comma. My first inclination is to rewrite the sentence, but I am having a hard time determining exactly what is improper about the original usage. What do you think?

A: You’re right in thinking that we don’t normally use a comma to separate a verb like “is” from its object. But when the object is a direct question, it’s usually preceded by a comma and followed by a question mark.

We’ve touched on this subject before on our blog, including postings in 2010 and 2008. This is an issue of style, rather than grammar or usage.

The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.) says a direct question like the one in your example “is usually introduced by a comma” unless it comes at the beginning of a sentence.

The Chicago Manual, which is widely used in the publishing industry, adds that such an interior question “may take an initial capital letter if it is relatively long or has internal punctuation.”

The style guide gives several examples, including this one: “The question on everyone’s mind was, how are we going to tell her?” Your sentence (“The problem is, how …”) is a parallel example. 

The Chicago Manual says an alternative is to rephrase and use an indirect question, as in “The question of how to tell her was on everyone’s mind.”

You didn’t ask about this, but a related issue is whether to use quotation marks to describe thoughts or questions that aren’t actually spoken.

“Thought, imagined dialogue, and other interior discourse may be enclosed in quotation marks or not, according to the context or the writer’s preference,” Chicago says. The style guide gives these two examples:

“I don’t care if we have offended Morgenstern,” thought Vera. “Besides,” she told herself, “they’re all fools.”

Why, we wondered, did we choose this route?

By the way, we noted in a posting last year that the word “comma” referred to a small piece of a sentence when it entered English in the late 16th century, but it soon came to mean the punctuation mark at the end of the piece.

Although English adopted the word from the Latin comma, it’s ultimately derived from the Greek komma (literally, a piece cut off), according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

Ayto adds that the Greek verb koptein (to cut) gave Russians the word kopeck and probably gave English the word “capon.”

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English English language Grammar Style Usage

The power of appositive thinking

Q: When a quote comes right after a verb like “said” or “asked,” we use a comma (e.g., God said, “Thou shalt not kill”). But do we still need a comma if we don’t use a verb (e.g., God’s statement “Thou shalt not kill” is one of the Ten Commandments)?

A: No, you wouldn’t use a comma to introduce the quotation in your second example.  

The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.) notes (as you point out) that a quotation “in the form of dialogue or from text is traditionally introduced with a comma.”

Elsewhere, the manual says, “a comma is used after said, replied, asked, and similar verbs.” 

But not every quotation requires an introductory comma.

For instance, the Chicago Manual says no comma is needed before a quote introduced by “that,” “if,” “whether,” or a similar conjunction.

We’ll invent some examples: “He wondered if ‘Thou shalt not kill’ was the fifth or sixth commandment” … “She asked whether ‘Thou shalt not kill’ or ‘You shall not murder’ was the proper wording” … “How can a murderer believe that ‘Thou shalt not kill’ is God’s law?” 

And your sentence—“God’s statement ‘Thou shalt not kill’ is one of the Ten Commandments”—illustrates another kind of quotation that doesn’t need a comma. 

In this case the quotation (“Thou shalt not kill”) is the explanatory equivalent of the subject (“God’s statement”).

An English teacher would call the quotation an appositive—something placed in apposition to a noun or noun phrase. Grammatically, “apposite” means equivalent (not to be confused with “opposite”).

Sometimes these explanatory equivalents are surrounded by commas and sometimes they’re not.

The Chicago Manual explains the situation in a nutshell here (brace yourself for more grammatical terminology):

“A word, abbreviation, phrase, or clause that is in apposition to a noun (i.e., provides an explanatory equivalent) is normally set off by commas if it is nonrestrictive—that is, if it can be omitted without obscuring the identity of the noun to which it refers. …

“If, however, the word or phrase is restrictive—that is, provides essential information about the noun (or nouns) to which it refers—no commas should appear.”

In plain English, put commas around an explanatory equivalent that’s dispensable—one that could be dropped without losing the point of the sentence.  But don’t put commas around one that’s essential to the point.

In your sentence (“God’s statement ‘Thou shalt not kill’ is one of the Ten Commandments”), the appositive (“Thou shalt not kill”) is essential, so you don’t need commas. If you dropped the appositive, the point of the sentence would be lost.

In a section on “maxims, proverbs, mottoes and other familiar expressions,” the Chicago Manual gives examples of two appositive sayings, one with commas and one without:

Commas used: “Tom’s favorite proverb, ‘A rolling stone gathers no moss,’ proved wrong.”

Commas omitted: “The motto ‘All for one and one for all’ appears over the door.” 

We’ve written before, including posts in 2011 and 2009, about why some explanatory equivalents are surrounded by commas and some aren’t. Here are examples of both:

“My husband, John, will be joining us for dinner.” (Commas used; you have only one husband, so the name isn’t essential information.)

“My friend Susan will be joining us for dinner.” (Commas omitted; she’s not your only friend, so her name is essential to identify which friend.)

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English English language Etymology Style Usage Word origin

Cardinal college

Q: I have a question about cardinals, not the baseball kind, but the Roman Catholic. Their title used to be inserted between a given name and a surname, as in “Francis, Cardinal Spellman.” But listening to coverage of the recent papal election, I realized that the custom seems to be about as extinct as people old enough to remember who Cardinal Spellman was. Is this usage just plain outmoded?

A: Well, the usage isn’t quite extinct, but it’s on the endangered list. For example, an article on the National Catholic Reporter website about the pope’s current trip to Brazil refers to the archbishop of Aparecida as “Cardinal Raymundo Damasceno Assis.”

 When we arrived at the New York Times in the early 1980s, more than a dozen years after Cardinal Spellman’s death, the newspaper followed the style you’re asking about, minus the comma.

But in 1999, after we’d left the paper to write books full time, the Times style manual updated the usage and recommended putting the title in front of a cardinal’s given name.

Typically, the Times was late to accept this new usage. We have an old 1977 Associated Press stylebook that calls for putting the title first. It describes the old practice even then as archaic except in formal documents.

Today US news organizations generally put the title before a cardinal’s given name. And that includes the Catholic News Service. Here’s the beginning of a March 13, 2013, article by the CNS about the last papal election:

“VATICAN CITY (CNS)— Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, 76, the leader of a large urban archdiocese in Latin America, was elected the 266th pope and took the name Francis.”

However, the Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.), which is widely used in book publishing, is still sticking with tradition. Chicago’s entry for religious titles includes this item: “Francis Cardinal George or, less formally, Cardinal George.”

As for the cardinals themselves, some put their titles at the beginning of their names and others put the titles between their given names and surnames. Most American cardinals still follow the old style, though there are exceptions.

The website of the Archdiocese of New York, for example, refers to its archbishop as Timothy Cardinal Dolan while the Archdiocese of Boston’s site refers to its archbishop as Cardinal Seán Patrick O’Malley.

The Archdiocese of Washington uses both styles on its Web pages. In the archbishop’s biography, for example, the heading refers to “Donald Cardinal Wuerl” and the text to “Cardinal Donald Wuerl.”

The English language pages of the Vatican website generally use the newer style, though the older usage is sometimes seen in headings.

In biographical notes for the College of Cardinals, for example, the archbishop of New York is referred to as “Cardinal Timothy Michael Dolan” under the heading “DOLAN Card. Timothy Michael.” (The Vatican often abbreviates “cardinal” as “card.”)

The Vatican Information Service and L’Osservatore Romano, the semiofficial newspaper of the Vatican, also use the newer style in referring to cardinals.

So does the website of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. On a page listing the cardinals leading American dioceses, the archbishop of New York is “Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan.”

As for the word “cardinal” itself, the ultimate source is cardo, Latin for “hinge.” But what in heaven’s name could a hinge have to do with a cardinal?

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins explains that the “underlying idea is that something of particular, or ‘cardinal,’ importance is like a hinge on which all else depends.”

Ayto says the English word is derived from the ecclesiastical Latin term cardinalis, “which in the early church denoted simply a clergyman attached to a church, as a door is attached to hinges.”

The Latin term, he writes, “gradually rose in dignity” through the Middle Ages as it was applied to the “princes of the Roman Catholic church.”

The earliest example of the English noun in the Oxford English Dictionary is from an 1125 entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, a collection of Old English writings that date back as far as the ninth century:

On thes ilces gæres sende se papa of Rome to thise lande an cardinal Johan of Crème.” (Modern English: “In the same year, the Pope of Rome sent to this land Cardinal Johan of Crème.” We changed the Old English letters thorn and eth to “th.”)

In this first OED citation for “cardinal,” the title appears before the given name. So how did it get between the given name and the surname?

Merrill Perlman, a former colleague of ours at the Times and a language maven for the Columbia Journalism Review, traces the practice to the naming customs of the aristocracy.

In her Feb. 21, 2012, Language Corner column, she writes that as the cardinals consolidated their power, “they were often referred to the way the nobility was.”

“Just as Alfred Lord Tennyson had ‘Lord’ as his middle name, so did the cardinals have ‘Cardinal’ as theirs,” she says. “And just as Tennyson was sometimes referred to as ‘Alfred, Lord Tennyson,’ so were Cardinals sometimes called ‘John, Cardinal Smith.’ ”

As part of the changes that began with the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, she adds, Popes John XXIII and Paul VI “started to refer to cardinals in less-formal proceedings as ‘Cardinal John Smith.’ ”

It was left to the individual cardinals, however, to choose how to refer to themselves. In a way, the ones who chose the new terminology were oiling a squeaky hinge and returning to a simpler past.

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English English language Punctuation Style Usage

The story behind the headlines

Q: I have been trying to find the point in time, and the reason why, the period was dropped from the end of newspaper headlines. Around Lincoln’s time, you would see something like “Man Steals Horse.” as a newspaper headline.

A: Periods began disappearing from the ends of major headlines in the late 19th century, according to our informal survey of historical newspaper databases.

That’s about the time when big-city newspapers began using periods only in smaller headlines and in “decks”—the smaller, descending headlines that appeared beneath major ones and in different typefaces.

In the 1930s the periods on such lesser headlines, too, began to disappear, and they had pretty much vanished by the end of World War II.

That’s the short answer. But in asking two former newspaper editors this question, you’ll get more than you’ve asked for. We can’t resist passing along the story behind the headlines.

When newspapers first began appearing regularly in America and in Britain, around 1700, headlines didn’t exist.

During the course of the 18th century, they appeared only rarely, according to David A. Copeland, the author of Debating the Issues in Colonial Newspapers (2000).

This meant that the news might change abruptly from paragraph to paragraph. Often a new article was marked only by the place and date where the report originated (as in “Paris, April 21—”).

This so-called “dateline” convention came about because “most of the early news reports were based on letters,” according to Kristina Schneider, whose study of headlines appears in the book English Media Texts—Past and Present (2000).

Finally headlines, as we know them, “started appearing quite numerously around 1800,” Schneider writes. (This must have been a great relief to the readers of the time!)

For most of the 19th century, headlines had periods at the end, as we found when we explored newspaper databases. These are some of the examples we collected—and brace yourself for lots of capital letters:

“OVERWHELMING CALAMITY.” (from the New-York Gazette, 1812);  “FUNERAL SERVICE OF NAPOLEON.” (from the Daily National Intelligencer, Washington, 1821); “REJECTION OF THE REFORM BILL.” (from the Detroit Free Press & Michigan Intelligencer, 1831);  “Shortest India Passage.” (from the New York Daily Times, 1853); “The Fall of Atlanta.” (from the New York Times, 1864).

The practice of ending headlines with periods wasn’t limited to newspapers, however. We found that 19th-century magazines and journals, in both the US and Britain, also used final periods in headlines.

A couple of examples: “RECENT DISCOVERIES OF WORKS OF ART IN ROME.” (from the Century Magazine, 1887); and “A COCKNEY ON A FOX-HUNT.” (from Punch, 1860).

Then in the late 19th century, periods began to drop out of major headlines. 

In the 1899 issues of the New York Times, for example, there are no periods at the ends of important headlines. But the headlines on decks, as well as on lesser stories (like “New Honor for Andrew Carnegie.”), still had periods.

Apparently, the policy was to omit periods in headlines (and accompanying decks) that were printed in capital letters. But lesser headlines, as well as decks printed in upper- and lowercase letters, ended in periods. This policy continued for several decades.

Here, for example, is a headline from the Times of Jan. 1, 1935. (In giving examples of headlines, we won’t try to reproduce the various typefaces and indents.)

PRISONER PASSES

A RESTLESS NIGHT

        ____

Hauptmann Tosses on His Cot

in Cell After First Day of

His Trial for Life.

        ____

PACES ABOUT NERVOUSLY

        ____

Wife, Sitting Near Him at the

Defense Counsel Table, Makes

No Effort to See Him in Jail.

Note the periods on those upper- and lowercase decks. But by 1937, even those periods had disappeared from the Times, as in this headline from Dec. 19, 1937:

NAZIS IN AUSTRIA

GAINING STEADILY

         ____

Leader Named by Hitler Works

Openly in Known Offices

Despite Ban on Party

        ____

ITS PRISONERS ARE AIDED

        ____

Get Money From Fund Set Up

by Ex-Governor—Hitlerites

Smash Jews’ Shop Windows

We found somewhat similar results in the Chicago Tribune, though the periods on decks stuck around for several years longer. Here’s a headline from the newspaper’s issue of Oct. 8, 1937:

WALLY OBEYS HER

DUKE AND ENDS

SHOPPING SPREE

         ____

She Buys Less Lavishly to

Please Husband.

The Tribune continued using periods in this manner throughout 1944, but stopped in early 1945. Here’s a headline from Dec. 6, 1945:

HITLER A RAVING

MADMAN IN LAST

HOURS OF BERLIN

        ____

Hanna Reitsch Tells of

Scene in Bunker

We can’t vouch for the evolution of headline style at every major metropolitan daily. But we think it’s safe to say that periods disappeared at mid-century, and that they vanished because there was no need for them.

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English English language Style Usage

A capital offense?

Q: I’m a New Yorker working in China. I recently began studying Mandarin via the CCTV.com video series “Growing up with Chinese.” Now, I’m a bit confused about something. Shouldn’t the “up” in the title be capitalized?

A: The capitalizing of words in titles is a matter of style, not grammar or usage. Different newspapers, magazines, book publishers, news blogs, TV shows, and other media organizations often have different styles for titles.

The two most common styles for titles, both online and off, are sentence style and headline style. We use sentence style for the titles of our posts while our old boss, the New York Times, uses headline style for the titles of most articles.

In sentence style, according to The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.), “only the first word in a title … and any proper names are capitalized.”

In headline style, Chicago says, the conventions of capitalization “are governed mainly by emphasis and grammar.” The style guide’s rules for headline-style titles include:

● capitalize the first and last words, and all major words;

● lowercase “a,” “an,” and “the”;

● lowercase all prepositions except when used as adjectives or adverbs;

● lowercase “and,” “but,” “for,” “or,” and “nor.”

The manual acknowledges that its rules are “occasionally arbitrary,” and many media organizations differ with Chicago on one point or another. The New York Times, for instance, uppercases all words over four letters, including prepositions.

Getting back to your question, the title of the CCTV.com video series (“Growing up with Chinese”) is properly capitalized if judged by the Chicago Manual’s principles for sentence-style titles.

CCTV.com, the English-language website of China Central Television, usually uses sentence-style headlines.

In headline style, according to the Chicago rules, the title of that educational video series would be “Growing Up with Chinese.”

There are two good arguments for capitalizing “up” in a title like this.

First, the word “up” is an adverb here, not a preposition. In headline style, major words like adverbs (including little ones) are capitalized.

Second, “grow up” is a phrasal verb, and all parts of a phrasal verb are uppercased in headline-style capitalization. “Growing up” is a form (the present participle) of “grow up.”

A phrasal verb consists of a verb plus another word—usually an adverb or preposition—that function together as a single unit. The two words together mean something different from the combined meanings of the individual words.

Common examples are “log off,” “back down,” “wear out,” and “give up.” 

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), labels “grow up” a phrasal verb, while Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and the Oxford English Dictionary simply call it an intransitive verb. (An intransitive verb doesn’t have a direct object.)

The OED says the verb “grow up” means “to advance to or towards maturity.”

Oxford’s citations include an example in the participial form. It comes from an 1875 translation of Plato’s Dialogues: “His children, one of whom is growing up.”

If you’d like to read more, we wrote a post a few years ago (“Ups and downs in titles”) about headline and sentence style.

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English English language Pronunciation Punctuation Spelling Style Usage

A classical education

Q: My question for you has to do with my son, Thales, who’s named after the ancient Greek philosopher. Is the plural possessive of his name Thales’ (like Achilles’) or Thales’s (like James’s)? Also, do you pronounce it with two syllables or three.

A: This is a complicated question, since Thales is a classical name being used by someone living now.

Ordinarily, as we’ve written on our blog, a name ending in “s” is made possessive with the addition of an apostrophe and a final “s,” as in “James’s sailboat.”

In the past, classical and biblical names were an exception. Those ending in “s” were customarily made possessive without the extra “s” (as in “Achilles’ armor” and “Jesus’ disciples”).

In modern usage, however, this custom is no longer universally followed, as we wrote in a posting last year.

Today, classical and biblical names ending in “s” are frequently made possessive just like other names—with the extra “s.” And they’re pronounced, as one would expect, with an extra syllable.

That’s the word from the Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.). Although some other guides recommend skipping the final “s,” the Chicago Manual says “such usage disregards pronunciation and is therefore not recommended by Chicago.”

Among the examples in the Chicago Manual are “Jesus’s adherents,” “Jesus’s sake,” “Tacitus’s Histories,” “Euripides’s tragedies,” and “Xerxes’s armies.”

This would seem to indicate that the name Thales, which has two syllables (THAY-leez), would become possessive as Thales’s, pronounced with three syllables (THAY-leez-ez).

But there’s a fly in the ointment. Chicago says possessive forms of classical and biblical names that end in an “eez” sound (like Thales and Hercules) are generally NOT pronounced with an extra syllable, even when spelled with an extra “s.”

So if you followed the Chicago Manual guidelines, you’d end up writing the possessive as Thales’s but not pronouncing the extra syllable, which seems silly to us. If that extra syllable is indicated in the spelling, it ought to be pronounced, in our opinion.

At bottom, of course, this is an issue of style, not correctness. In the end, the choice is really up to you (and to your son!).

Here’s what we advise. First, decide how you want to SAY the possessive form of his name, since you’ll be pronouncing it more often than you write it.

If you prefer to say “THAY-leez sailboat,” then spell it Thales’. But if you prefer to say “THAY-leez-ez sailboat,” with the extra syllable, then write the possessive form as Thales’s.

That’s the best advice we can come up with. If anyone questions your choice, you can argue reasonably for either one.

After all, your son isn’t a classical figure—he’s simply named for one: Thales of Miletus, one of the Seven Sages of ancient Greece.

People are entitled to decide how their names are pronounced, as we noted in a blog item a few years ago. So why can’t Thales decide how the possessive of his name should sound?

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Eeeeeeeek!

Q: While editing narratives, I encounter words that use extra letters to show that a character stretches out the word, as in “Waaaiiit!” I’ve suggested a hyphenated alternative, but “W-a-i-t!” looks bad to me in print. Another recurring problem is spelling a stretched-out sound like “VVRRROOOOOM.” Is there a style guide for such usages?

 A: You’re asking how to write out stretchy words that are used as interjections or exclamations, and there’s not much guidance around for this problem.

The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.) has this to say about interjections of the usual kind—those inarticulate noises we all make at times:

Webster’s lists such interjections as ugh, er, um, and sh. For those not found in the dictionary—or where a different emphasis is required—plausible spellings should be sought in literature or invented.” The examples given are “atchoo!” and “shhh!”

Note the triple “h” in that last one, which has extra letters (not separated by hyphens) added to the usual spelling.

We think this advice can be extended to the kind of usage you’re asking about—an elongated word or sound used as an interjection or exclamation.

Consequently, the repetition of letters, without hyphens, can show that an ordinary word is being used as an interjection (“Waaaiiit!” …  “Heeelllp!”). The use of hyphens (“W-a-i-t!” … “H-e-l-p!”) looks (to us, at least) as if the speaker is spelling the word instead of shouting it.

Like ordinary words, many that represent sounds—whether human or mechanical—are found in dictionaries. So there’s no mystery about their spelling.

Common examples include “ah,” “ugh,” “huh,” “uh-oh,” “uh-huh,” and “vroom.” Many that aren’t in dictionaries (or not in every dictionary) appear often in literature, like “eek!” and “hmm.”

If you’d like to emphasize that the word is being shouted or is particularly loud, you might simply capitalize it (“EEK!” … “VROOM!” … “UGH!”).

And if you’d like to elongate it to show that it’s drawn out, just repeat letters (with no extra hyphens): “ahhhh.” “hmmmm,” “uuhh-oohh,” and “eeeeeeeek!”

As we said, there are no hard-and-fast rules here. But we’ve tried to suggest what we think is the most reasonable—and readable—approach.

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Plural usage

Q: I am an academic scientist, and I often need to add an “s” to pluralize an abbreviation. I think one should be able to put an apostrophe before the “s” so as not to add to the confusion inherent in the abbreviation. For example, one refers to runs of adenine and thymine bases in DNA as ATs, but AT’s seems clearer. Even more confusing is a mixed case example like RNAi (interference RNA): I would like to pluralize it as RNAi’s. Thank you for any input.

A: Many people are violently against the use of apostrophes in plurals – any plurals, even abbreviations, numbers, and individual letters. But here, I think, we have to bow to readability rather than blindly follow rules that are mere stylistic conventions anyway.

This is what I say in the relevant paragraphs from the new third edition of my grammar and usage book Woe Is I:

“Over the years, authorities have disagreed on how we should form the plurals of abbreviations (GI, rpm, RBI), letters (x, y, z), and numbers (9, 10). Should we add s, or ’s? Where one style maven saw UFO’s, another saw UFOs. One was nostalgic for the 1950’s, the other for the 1950s.

“The problem with adding ’s is that we get plurals and possessives confused. Is UFO’s, for example, a plural (I see two UFO’s) or a possessive (That UFO’s lights are violet)?

“Here’s what I recommend, and what most publishers do these days. To form the plurals of abbreviations and numbers, add s alone, but to form the plural of a single letter, add ’s. CPAs, those folks who can add columns of 9s in their heads, have been advising MDs since the 1980s to dot their i’s, cross their t’s, and never accept IOUs. Things could be worse: there could be two IRSs.

“Why use the apostrophe with a single letter? Because without it, the plural is often impossible to read. Like this: The choreographer’s name is full of as, is, and us. (Translation: His name is full of a’s, i’s, and u’s.)”

Although the two examples you cite don’t involve single letters, I agree with you that readability should be a consideration. With that in mind, I think the lowercase “i” in RNAi should be followed by an apostrophe and “s” when pluralized. Ditto for other mixed-case abbreviations, even if the lower-case letters aren’t at the end.

But I’m of two minds about pluralizing AT and other all-cap scientific abbreviations. In general, I think “s” alone would suffice for the plural (ATs). But one might want to use apostrophes for consistency when citing both all-cap and mixed-case abbreviations in the same paper.

Unlike the rules for making nouns possessive, the ones for making unusual nouns plural are not written in stone and not universally agreed upon. Details of punctuation may differ from publisher to publisher and from country to country (American and British practices differ, for example).

In the case of a scientist like you, who may use scores of abbreviations at a time, there’s a lot to be said for consistency. If you want to use apostrophes to pluralize scientific abbreviations, go for it.

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English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics Spelling Style Usage

Honey, I sunk the boat

[Note: An updated post about “shrink,” “shrank,” and “shrunk” appeared on Jan. 2, 2020.]

Q: I’ve noticed that even the best-edited publications sometimes use “sunk” instead of “sank” for the past tense of “sink.” This leaves me with a sinking feeling. What can we do about the loss of a perfectly good four-letter word that can be spoken in any company?

A: Both “sank” and “sunk” are accepted for the past tense of “sink” in American English. The two are listed, in that order, as equal variants in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), and Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.).

So it’s correct to say either “the boat sank” or “the boat sunk.” The past participle is “sunk,” as in “the boat has sunk” or “the boat was sunk.”

In case you’re wondering, the same is true for “shrink.” The same three American dictionaries  allow either “shrank” or “shrunk” in the past tense.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says “shrunk” is “undoubtedly standard” in the past tense, though the preference in written usage seems to be for “shrank.”

In 1995, William Safire drew catcalls from the “Gotcha!” gang for using “shrunk” in the past tense in the New York Times. Why did he do it? Here’s how he explained it:

“Because Walt Disney got to me, I guess: the 1989 movie Honey, I Shrunk the Kids did to ‘shrank’ what Winston cigarettes did to ‘as’: pushed usage in the direction of what people were casually saying rather than what they were carefully writing.”

But back to “sunk,” which has bounced back and forth in acceptability over the centuries. Arguments over it are nothing new. For instance, we found a spirited defense of “sunk” in the past tense in an 1895 issue of the journal The Writer.

In the history of English, the use of “sunk” in the past tense has been “extremely common,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In fact, the OED cites Samuel Johnson’s dictionary of 1755 as giving the past tense as “I sunk, anciently sank.”

Johnson himself used “sunk” as the past tense, as in this citation from his treatise Taxation No Tyranny (1775): “The constitution sunk at once into a chaos.”

But Johnson was right: “anciently,” to use his word, the accepted past tense was indeed “sank.”

The verb was sincan in Old English, with the past tense sanc and the past participle suncon or suncen.

The old past tense seems to have been preserved into Middle English, the form of the language spoken between 1100 and 1500.

Here’s an example from Arthur and Merlin (circa 1330): “Wawain on the helme him smot, / The ax sank depe, god it wot.”

But in modern English, both “sank” and “sunk” have appeared as past tenses, and “sunk” may even have been preferred in literary usage. Here’s Dickens, for example: “ ‘Cold punch,’ murmured Mr. Pickwick, as he sunk to sleep again” (The Pickwick Papers, 1836).

The usage can be found in the Bible (1611): “The stone sunke into his forehead.” And here it is in Sir William Jones’s poem Seven Fountains (1767): “The light bark, and all the airy crew, / Sunk like a mist beneath the briny dew.”

“Sunk” was used by Addison and Steele in the Spectator in the 18th century, and by Sir Walter Scott in the 19th.

In fact, Scott’s novels are full of “sunk,” as in this passage from The Heart of Midlothian (1818): “Jeanie sunk down on a chair, with clasped hands, and gasped in agony.”

Today, the British prefer to reserve “sunk” for the past participle and use “sank” for the past tense, so the preferred progression in contemporary British English is “sink/sank/sunk.”

The lexicographer Robert Burchfield, writing in Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.), sums up the state of things in British English. The past tense, he writes, “is now overwhelmingly sank rather than sunk.” And today the preferred past participle is “sunk,” not the old “sunken.”

It seems that in American usage, too, most people prefer “sank” as the past tense, even though dictionaries allow “sunk.” As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says, “Sank is used more often, but sunk is neither rare nor dialectal as a past tense, though it is usually a past participle.”

Some commentators have suggested that the return of the “sink/sank/sunk” progression (along with a distaste for “sunk” as a past tense) may have been influenced by the similar irregular verbs “drink/drank/drunk,” “swim/swam/swum,” “ring/rang/rung,” and others.

This common pattern, by the way, probably inspired “brang” and “flang” as illegitimate past tenses of “bring” and “fling.”

And it probably also brought about “snuck,” the much-reviled past tense of “sneak,” which dictionaries now accept as standard English and which we’ve written about before on the blog.

To recap, these days it’s no crime (at least in American English) to say “the boat sunk in a storm” or “my  jeans shrunk in the dryer.”

But the grammar police will still fine you for using a past participle when the simple past tense is appropriate, as in “The bell rung” or “I drunk the milk” or “She sung off key.”

[Note: This post was updated on May 26, 2014.]

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