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Monthly Archives: September 2011

Grammar’s Hall of Shame: Common Errors

Adam and Eve expelled

The Shame of Bad Grammar

The following expressions pop up often, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re wrong, wrong, wrong! Learn their corrections and you’ll be able to float above the ignorant masses on a cloud of grammatical unimpeachableness.

Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep

Many people don’t realize that lie and lay are two different verbs. Lying is something you do; laying is something you do to something (or someone). You can lie in bed all day, lie on the beach, or lie low; or you can lay a book on the desk, lay carpet, or lay an egg.

So why all the confusion? Because of the sheer ass-backwards nature of the English language, the past tense of lie is lay. Now you lie in the arms of your beloved; yesterday you lay in his arms. The past tense of the verb lay, on the other hand, is laid: now you lay down your burdens, but yesterday you laid them down. The past participle (that’s when the verb follows have, had, or will have) of lie is lain: I had just lain down for a nap when I noticed the smell. The past participle of lay is laid: I discovered my cat had laid a dead mouse on the pillow.

Got it? If not, you’re not alone. But these examples should help:

Lie (Something You Do)

  • Now: This is where we lie in wait for the politician, ready to discharge our cans of spray cheese when he comes around the corner.
  • Then: This was where we lay in wait for the politician, ready to discharge our cans of spray cheese when he came around the corner.
  • With have: We have lain in wait for him many times, but so far he has evaded our righteous rain of cheese.

Lay (Something You Do to Something or Someone)

  • Now: The vampire lays his unconscious victim on the divan and arranges her hair so it spills fetchingly across the cushions.
  • Then: The vampire laid his unconscious victim on the divan and arranged her hair so it spilled fetchingly across the cushions.
  • With have: This vampire has laid many a local lass on his divan. (I mean he put them down—get your minds out of the gutter!)

And please don’t say you’re going to lay low—you can lie low, but lay low is something you did in the past:

  • I’m going to lie low until the Apocalypse is over.
  • Last year I lay low until everyone had forgotten my embarrassing faux pas.

You may come across a reference to someone being laid low. In this case, the person has been laid low by something (an illness, say). Since the illness is doing the action to someone, the correct verb is lay:

  • She was laid low by a combination of alcohol and roller derby. (Alcohol and roller derby laid her low.)

Just Between You and I

People often use this construction when they want to sound posh, but the correct phrase is “just between you and me.” The test is to remove the other person and try the sentence with just I or me:

  • Jules and I are far too busy to attend your orgy. (I am far too busy.)
  • The instructions for infiltrating the cell were sent to Dmitri and me. (They were sent to me.)

This kind of mistake is called a hypercorrection. It’s what happens when you’re so anxious not to slip up, you overshoot the mark and end up mangling your grammar in an effort to sound clever.

Whom May I Say Is Calling?

The classic example of a hypercorrection is the well-known scene in which a butler picks up the phone and snootily asks, “Whom may I say is calling?” As any butler worth his bow tie knows, the correct question is “Who may I say is calling?” How can you tell? The simplest method is to rearrange the sentence, starting with the word after who/whom, then substitute he or him for the tricky whom. If he works better, the word you want is who; if him sounds right, you want whom. (If you want to get technical, he and who are subjects, while him and whom are objects—they receive the action of the verb.)

(Who/Whom) may I say is calling?

  1. Rearrange: May I say (who/whom) is calling?
  2. Swap: May I say (he/him) is calling?
  3. You would never ask, “May I say him is calling?” so who is the correct choice.

From among the many yodelling candidates, I chose the one (who/whom) I thought was most limber.

  1. Rearrange: I thought (who/whom) was most limber.
  2. Swap: I thought (he/him) was most limber. (He works best.)
  3. Answer: From among the many yodelling candidates, I chose the one who I thought was most limber.

(Who/Whom) did you choose to take to the herpetologists’ convention?

  1. Did you choose (who/whom) to take to the herpetologists’ convention?
  2. Did you choose (he/him) to take to the herpetologists’ convention?
  3. Answer: Whom did you choose to take to the herpetologists’ convention?

If you still feel uncomfortable with whom, don’t worry: it’s perfectly acceptable to jettison it altogether in favour of a universal who. These days the only people who persist in using whom are grammarians, anal-retentives, and butlers.

Would of, Could of, Should of

It may sound like “I should of known,” but this expression actually contains a contraction of should have—should’ve. Just as in can’t (cannot) and don’t (do not), the apostrophe is a reminder of absent letters that have moved on to better things:

Would’ve = would have

Could’ve = could have

Should’ve = should have

  • Wrong: I would of tackled the Daleks single-handedly, but my sonic screwdriver was running low on batteries.
  • Right: I would’ve tackled the Daleks single-handedly, but my sonic screwdriver was running low on batteries.

The same principle applies to the word y’all. You may for some mysterious reason feel the urge to write ya’ll, but remember that the word is a contraction of you all, so the apostrophe falls into the place of the missing letters:

  • Wrong: Do ya’ll serve grits here?
  • Right: Do y’all serve grits here?

You can find more about apostrophes and contractions in Apostrophes and How to Use ’Em.

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Writing Titles

Pile of books

These Books Have Titles

How do you format a book or movie title? Italics or quotation marks? Here are the rules for any kind of title you might use, and some you probably never will.

Headline Style

Write all titles in headline style. That’s to say, capitalize most—but not all—of the words; see Headline Styling to learn which ones. Other languages, however, have their own rules about these things, so if your title is in a foreign language, don’t mess with it:

  • The French movie La cage aux folles was remade as The Birdcage, though where birds come into it I don’t know.

In bibliographies, some people write titles in regular sentence style instead of headline style. Feel free to do this if for some reason you wish to make your life more complicated.

Italics and Quotation Marks

Almost all titles are further set apart by either italics or quotation marks. During the age of the typewriter, underlining was an acceptable substitute for italics, but these days it’s likely to be mistaken for a Web link and is therefore best avoided. Underlining does come in handy when you’re writing longhand, but who does that anymore?

When you’re italicizing a title that already contains a word in italics, the two italics cancel each other out, like sound waves, and the word is written in regular (roman) font:

  • Her Aquanet-laced memoir was called Notes From the Girls’ Bathroom Circa 1987.

If you’re putting quotation marks around a title that already contains quotation marks, use single marks inside and double marks outside:

  • The Tragic Death of Joe ‘Train-Wrestler’ Johnson” is a famous 1930s folk song.

Now you know how to use italics and quotation marks, but the tricky question is when to use them.

Titles of Books (and Book-Type Stuff)

Write book titles in italics, even if you’re friendly enough with the book to refer to it by an abbreviation such as OED (that’s the Oxford English Dictionary for you non-language-geeks).

Enclose titles of short stories and essays in quotation marks. Also use quotation marks for the titles of book chapters or other book parts, but note that this only applies to titles—just mentioning chapter 3 or the introduction doesn’t require quotation marks or capital letters.

  • Kafka’s short story “Metamorphosis” is a favourite of depressives and entomologists.
  • The second chapter of A Room With a View is ominously titled “In Santa Croce With No Baedeker.”

Write the titles of book series and editions in headline style without either quotes or italics:

  • In Churchill, Manitoba, the His Dark Materials series has led to a rash of disappointed polar-bear tourists.

Movie and TV Titles

Write the titles of movies and television shows in italics. TV episodes, however, should be written with quotation marks. Should you ever find yourself writing the title of a radio show, treat it the same as a TV show.

  • One of the best—and longest—movie titles is Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.
  • Law and Disorder” is the infamous Brady Bunch episode in which the actor who played Greg was stoned during filming.

Titles of Web Sites

The titles of Web sites should be written in headline style without quotation marks or italics. For the titles of all other online materials, the Chicago Manual of Style recommends the same treatment as print materials: italicize titles of book-length items and use quotation marks with titles of article-length items.

  • I found the article “How to Remove Tapestries From Anthills” on the Useless Tips site.

Magazine and Newspaper Titles

Italicize the titles of magazines, periodicals, journals, and newspapers. If a title starts with the, write the word in lower case and don’t italicize it. Use quotation marks for the titles of articles, but italicize titles of newspaper sections that are published separately.

  • A precocious child, he liked his parents to read to him from the Economist at bedtime.
  • I photocopied “Tying Flies and Flying Ties: A Deconstruction of Masculinity” from last month’s Postmodern Angler.
  • Her latest novel was ruthlessly eviscerated in the New York Times Book Review.

Titles of Plays, Poems, and Music

Italicize the titles of plays:

  • In his opinion, the gay subtext of The Importance of Being Ernest is barely sub.

Write poem titles with quotation marks. Book-length poems are an exception; their titles should be italicized. Untitled poems use their first lines as titles. In these cases, use quotation marks but not headline style; that is, don’t add any capital letters beyond those already in the first line.

  • Memorizing “There Once Was a Girl From Nantucket” does not make you a connoisseur of poetry.
  • Most readers relish the torments of Dante’s Inferno but lose interest in the holier thrills of his Paradiso.
  • I love the unexpected imagery of e.e. cummings’s “the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls.”

Treat music titles much the same as poems: italicize titles of operas and long compositions, but put titles of ordinary-length songs in quotation marks. Album titles should be italicized.

  • Die Fledermaus is an opera about a giant bat running amok in 19th-century Germany.
  • If you sing “The Piña Colada Song” one more time, I’m going to throttle you.
  • Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon and MGM’s The Wizard of Oz make an eerie combination.

Titles of Works of Art

Italicize the titles of paintings, statues, drawings, comic strips, and other works of art. The only exceptions are photograph titles, which you should put in quotation marks, and works of art from ancient times, which are so familiar they don’t need marks or italics.

  • Looking at Picasso’s Guernica gave the general indigestion.
  • Far from refreshing her, the family holiday made her feel like the subject of Dorothea Lange’s famous “Migrant Mother” photo.
  • The Venus de Milo is best known for what she lacks: arms.

These complicated and rather arbitrary rules may be tiresome, but they’re worth memorizing if you want to look intelligent. After all, there’s no point in pompously citing Foucault’s Madness and Civilization or Dalí’s The Persistence of Memory if you flub the delivery and undermine your intellectual street cred.

Quote Me: How to Use Quotation Marks

 

Quotation marks and naked ladies

The Strategic Placement of Quotation Marks

Quotation marks quarantine words from the rest of your sentence. They set words apart, and they usually have very good reasons for it. Here you’ll find some of these reasons, as well as tips on how to keep your quotation marks from becoming tangled up in your other punctuation.

Isn’t It Ironic?

Lots of people slap quotation marks around anything they want to emphasize, in the misguided belief that these marks exist to make words stand out. In fact, a single word in quotation marks usually means the opposite of what it says:

  • This member of the “weaker” sex routinely wrestled alligators before breakfast.

The words so-called express the same thing without quotation marks:

  • This member of the so-called weaker sex routinely wrestled alligators before breakfast.

So “fresh” apples suggests something wormy, while an “employment” opportunity probably involves a balaclava and a sawed-off shotgun.

Weird Words and Slang

Quotation marks set apart technical terms or obscure slang—anything the reader might find unfamiliar:

  • Upon achieving “satori,” or oneness with all beings, the monk ran to the pub and bought everyone drinks.

Don’t overdo it, though, as putting widely familiar terms in quotation marks will only make you look hopelessly out of touch:

  • As I “tweeted” on my phone and drank “chai” at my local cafe, I felt like quite the “hipster”! (Please avoid this, for everyone’s sake.)

When you’re writing about words, quotation marks clarify your subject:

  • “Antidisestablishmentarianism” is a word better known for its length than its meaning.

Or you can use italics instead:

  • The songwriter apparently plugged in baby whenever he found himself at a loss for words.

Speech, Speech!

Quotation marks, as we all know, show when someone is speaking:

  • “Don’t worry, darling,” she purred. “We’re all friends here.”

They also show when you’re repeating someone else’s words:

  • In The Little Prince Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

If you decide to set apart quoted text in some other way—by indenting it, for example—quotation marks become overkill and should be left out:

  • In The Little Prince Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote,

It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.

Put quotation marks around an expression to keep it from blundering confusingly through the rest of your sentence:

  • Even his dog gave him the old “It’s not you, it’s me” routine.
  • Her screenplay had the usual “Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets eaten by zombies” plotline.

Titles of articles, essays, short stories, poems, songs, book chapters, and television episodes should be enclosed in quotation marks (more on this here):

  • “Law and Disorder” is the infamous Brady Bunch episode in which the actor who played Greg was stoned during filming.

When Punctuation Collides

Using quotation marks with other punctuation can be tricky, and it doesn’t help that there are two sets of rules—US and British. When a comma or a period is not part of the quoted matter, British writers leave it outside the quotation marks. American writers, on the other hand, like to keep commas and periods inside the quotation marks under all circumstances. Canadians, of course, are free to be confused by both systems.

  • British rules: One teacher called her “impossible”, another “diabolical”.
  • US rules: One teacher called her “impossible,” another “diabolical.”
  • British & US: The aliens announced, “We’ve come for your poodles.”
  • British & US: “I’ve made more balloon animals than you’ve had hot dinners,” the clown said wearily.

In the third example, the final period is part of the aliens’ sentence, so even the Brits keep it inside the quotation marks. Similarly, in the fourth example the comma after dinners stands in for the final period of the clown’s speech.

Note that a comma goes before speech (as in the third example) but isn’t needed for quoted words that flow easily with the rest of the sentence (as in the first and second examples). If you’re not sure whether to use a comma or not, read the sentence out loud and put in a comma if you naturally pause:

  • He never would have told her to “keep the home fires burning” if he’d known her history of pyromania.
  • He told her, “Playing with matches is all very well, but a good insurance policy will keep you warm at night.”

Fortunately, all nationalities agree that exclamation points, question marks, colons, semicolons, and dashes should snuggle up to the words they’re attached to. That is, they belong inside quotation marks if they’re part of the quoted matter and outside if not:

  • Her essay in Comics Today, “Pow! Zap!”, was well received by fanboys.
  • I can’t believe they offered him a lifetime supply of chocolate and he said “no”!
  • How can you possibly forget the words to “Kumbayah”?
  • She asked wistfully, “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” though her boyfriend’s name was Bob.
  • For the next class read “From Weapon to Toy: A Concise History of the Yo-yo” in Modern Collector; the pamphlet “Walking the Dog and Other Tricks”; and “Yo-Yo Ma: American Cellist.”
  • Remember those touching words from Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”: “Scaramouche! Scaramouche! Will you do the fandango?”
  • “Lice have certainly”—he paused and scratched his head—“never been a problem at this school.”

If you find yourself in a situation where you need two sets of quotation marks at once, use single marks for the inside pair:

  • “I just saw him giving his ‘sister’ a snog!” she snapped.

Quotation marks are pretty straightforward. Just remember to be consistent—pick a set of rules and stick to them like tar—and to save your punctuation for when you really need it.