Category Archives: words

Style and grammar, or why lots of things aren’t ‘wrong’

What do we talk about when we talk about grammar?

Strictly speaking, grammar is the unique patterns of a language, the system of how speakers can put together words and sentences. Grammar encompasses morphology (how to form words), syntax (how to form sentences) and semantics (what words and sentences mean). This is what linguists talk about when they talk about grammar.

The following areas are not grammar in the strict definition, but fall under the larger definition of grammar as “rules and principles of language”: punctuation, phonology (the sound system), orthoepy (correct pronunciation), orthography (correct spelling) and lexicon (vocabulary and usage). These (plus morphology, syntax and semantics) are what most people talk about when they talk about grammar.

The second definition of grammar is pretty broad, but there are language-related rules that fall outside of grammar. Many of these are style rules: whether to put the period inside or outside of quotation marks, whether e-mail is hyphenated or a single word, and so on. Style rules are set to ensure consistency in writing, so readers aren’t distracted by small differences. (And yes, readers do notice when things aren’t consistent.)

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The Versatile Blogger Award

The charming and talented Grammar Girl nominated this blog for a Versatile Blogger Award, and according to the rules (posted in full below), I have to list seven interesting things about myself and nominate 15 other noteworthy bloggers. Sounds like fun!

Thanks are in order

Thanks to Mignon Fogarty, aka Grammar Girl, for tagging us in her Versatile Blogger post — and also for offering grammar advice in a fun, non-threatening way, and being an overall Nice Person.

Seven interesting things about me

Let’s keep this professional, shall we?

  1. My favorite piece of punctuation is the semicolon.
  2. My most embarrassing newspaper correction was having to write that rabbits aren’t rodents (they’re lagomorphs, and I should have known that from college biology).
  3. I have literally (and I mean this literally, not figuratively) dozens of books on language, grammar, usage and words on my desk, and dozens more at home.
  4. I was trained as a linguist but am employed as an editor, so there’s a constant descriptivist vs. prescriptivist tug-of-war going on in my head.
  5. That said, I do  have language peeves. I can’t help it.
  6. I think that learning a foreign language gives people invaluable insight into their own language as well as into another culture.
  7. My favorite Grammar Rock is, of course, “Conjunction Junction.”

15 worthwhile blogs

Most blog posts I find through links on Twitter, but there are a few blogs I go to regularly because they’re worth keeping up with. Here are 15 that I hope you all will enjoy as well:

1. Headsup: The blog — A blog on editing and journalism run by Fred Vultee, a professor at Wayne State University.

2. Lingua Franca — The Chronicle of Higher Education’s blog on language has several regular authors: Lucy Ferriss, Allan Metcalf, Geoffrey K. Pullum, Carol Fisher Saller and Ben Yagoda.

3. Regret the Error — Craig Silverman, now with Poynter, tracks errors and discusses accuracy and verification.

4. You Are Not So Smart — Not a language or journalism blog, but a myth-buster backed up by scientific research. Fun and interesting.

5. You Don’t Say — A blog on language and editing, with a weekly joke, by John McIntyre of the Baltimore Sun.

6. Blogslot – Musings on language and editing by Bill Walsh of the Washington Post (also the author of “Lapsing Into a Comma”).

7. Overheard in the Newsroom — Because sometimes you need a laugh.

8. Language Corner — Merrill Perlman’s writings on words and language at Columbia Journalism Review.

9. That’s the Press, Baby — A more philosophical look at the world of journalism, and department stores, by David Sullivan in Philadelphia.

10. Johnson – The language blog of the Economist, for an across-the-pond perspective.

11. Language Log — This one gets a bit technical at times, but if you’re really into language and linguistics, it’s a must-read.

12. The Wordnik blog — Fun with vocabulary.

13. Separated by a Common Language — U.S./U.K. language differences, by Lynne Murphy.

14. Mind Your Language — The language blog of the Guardian style editors, for more across-the-pond perspective.

15. The Grammar Guide — Pam Nelson’s blog on language and editing.

The rules

Here are the rules, but, as Grammar Girl suggested, feel free to disregard them.

1. In a post on your, blog, nominate 15 fellow bloggers for The Versatile Blogger Award.

2. In the same post, add the Versatile Blogger Award.

3. In the same post, thank the blogger who nominated you in a post with a link back to their blog.

4. In the same post, share seven completely random pieces of information about yourself.

5. In the same post, include this set of rules.

6. Inform each nominated blogger of their nomination by posting a comment on each of their blogs. (Or post to Twitter.)

When spell-check won’t help: How typos sneak into writing

(Revised from a guest post originally written for that also appeared on

Writers and editors have a lot to juggle in making prose presentable: big-picture items like accuracy, clarity, flow and structure, as well as details like grammar, spelling, punctuation and word choice. Details matter: one wrong word — even one wrong letter — can change the meaning of a sentence, or make it confusing. This is why editors especially need a keen eye for detail (plus a sense for smooth writing, and that little bell in your head that goes off when something seems not quite right).

One of the regular features Grammar Monkeys does on Twitter is “When spell-check won’t help”: sentences that have a wrong word that’s still a word. It’s not flagged by spell-check, but it’s a mistake that can throw the whole sentence off — or make it unintentionally funny. We find a lot of these in copy, and now people tweet them to us as well (thanks to @grammarsnark, @madbeyond, @EATutor and @bergly for some of the examples below).

These errors fall into several types:

The one-letter-off typo
One letter can make a big difference.

“The nation’s intestate highway system.” (interstate)
“The company’s head of new-produce development” (new-product)
“The heaving helping of caviar” (heaping)
“The pops concert, canon launch and fireworks show” (cannon)
“Moral was low in that office” (morale)
“A list of businesses that asses the additional charge.” (assess)

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The world’s a smorgasbord for English

“English doesn’t borrow from other languages. English follows other languages down dark alleys, knocks them over and goes through their pockets for loose grammar.”

English samples a little from all the world's languages.

The origin of this quote is uncertain, but its accuracy is not in doubt: As languages go, English takes what it needs from wherever it can.

Of the hundreds of thousands of words that make up English, the vast majority come from either Germanic or Latin sources.

Most of our short one- and two-syllable words for common objects, actions and qualities (house, hat, run, sing, green, etc.) and basic bits of grammar (the, one, and, in, etc.) are Germanic.

Most of our longer words — ones that have a root and a prefix or suffix — are Latin, or Greek. These would include such patriotic words as independence, constitution and government, and such workaday words as computer, television and refrigerator.

But English is not at all particular about where it picks up its words: The world’s languages are just one big smorgasbord (that one’s from Swedish) for our mother tongue to nibble from.

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Portmanteaus: Word mashups

This cake is choctacular!

“A Lick and a Promise” is a mockumentary about stamp collecting.

We’re doing a webinar on knot-tying.

These three sentences contain what linguists call “portmanteau words” or “portmanteaus,” which are basically word mashups: Take two existing words that you want to combine — chocolate and spectacular, for example — and mash them together, usually the front part of one with the back part of the other.

The word “portmanteau” — originally meaning a suitcase — was given this new definition by Lewis Carroll (of “Alice in Wonderland” fame), and anyone who’s read his poem “Jabberwocky” can understand why he needed a word for this:

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Humpty Dumpty later explains to Alice:
“Well, ‘slithy’ means ‘lithe and slimy.’ ‘Lithe’ is the same as ‘active.’ You see it’s like a portmanteau — there are two meanings packed up into one word.”

Many portmanteaus arise in the technical sphere, often because the words they combine are long, like modem (modulator + demodulator) and malware (malicious + software).

And a lot of portmanteaus are used for fun, like bootylicious and shopaholic. But some portmanteaus, like smog and humongous and motel and even Internet, are so common that we don’t even realize they’re combinations of two words (smoke + fog, huge + monstrous, motor + hotel, inter + networking or internetworking + networks).

The key to portmanteaus is that they have to be easily understood even though they may not be “real” words. You might not find guesstimate or sexcapade in the dictionary, but you know what they mean.

*Edited Jan. 20 to change origin of Internet