Who’s Hotter: Marsha’s or Laurie’s?

This can be an awkward, puzzling construction if you aren’t sure of what you’re doing:

I gave a warm hug to Cindy and Jan’s mother.

I gave warm hugs to Laurie’s and Marsha’s mothers.

In the first sentence, Cindy and Jan have the same mother, so you give the apostrophe only to the second name. In the second sentence, Laurie and Marsha have different mothers, so you give the apostrophe to each one. Whether or not you pluralize the mother depends on your meaning. If it’s an either-or situation, you leave the mother singular, as in I can’t decide whether Laurie’s or Marsha’s mother is hotter. If it’s an and situation, pluralize the mother as in the example above.

This is really only part one of a tricky issue. Group possessives can be messy, sticky, and ugly. We will look at the rest of the weird constructions later.

Mumbo-Jumbo Monday

When DailyWritingTip.com first went live, I was determined to present short, readable, easily understood tips for writing while avoiding as much of the grammatical mumbo-jumbo as I could. I hope I’ve stuck to this wherever it was possible, but I know that in the two months I’ve been meeting you in this space, I’ve used words like modifier, infinitive, and parallelism.

The truth is that any time you’re trying to communicate about a topic that requires at least some thought, you will find yourself adopting or creating language specific to that topic. When you order a plate lunch in Hawaii, for example, you are sometimes asked if you want “mac or toss.”*  This qualifies as jargon, because it has a very specific meaning and because the meaning is pretty much restricted to a certain realm. You’d look pretty funny working in a shave ice store, for example, if you asked the customer who ordered a “large strawberry with azuki”** if he or she wanted “mac or toss?”

For this reason, I am introducing a new intermittent feature, Mumbo-Jumbo Monday. On one or two Mondays per month, I’ll explain some kind of grammatical jargon and provide examples, hoping to beef up your writing vocabulary. It is a fact that language skills affect thinking skills, and the more robust your vocabulary, the more flexible and powerful your thinking will be.

I will still try to keep things as clear and non-mumbo-jumboey as possible, but it never hurts to learn a few new words. Okay, it hurts sometimes. I did say we’d only do this once or twice per month!

* macaroni salad or tossed salad

** large snow-cone with strawberry syrup and sweetened Japanese-style azuki beans

*** now I’m jonesing for shave ice

Friday Quiz: Detroit Free Press

I like the Detroit Free Press, mostly because I’m a fan of Mitch Albom (of Tuesdays with Morrie fame), an articulate sportswriter who is also a weekly contributor to the Sports Reporters, one of the best sports-talk programs on the tube.

Not even the Freep, however, gets a pass on this, another of my peeves. There is a grammatical error in this selection from an article that ran on April 20. Can you spot it? Click continue reading below to see if you and I agree!

detroit free press

Continue reading Friday Quiz: Detroit Free Press

While Wiping the Photocopier with Facial Tissue, I Cut My Finger and Needed an Adhesive Strip

You already know that Kleenex, Xerox, and Band-Aid are brand-names and that they have become so much the standards in their markets that many people use their names to refer generically to the products themselves, regardless of manufacturer. When most of us ask a friend for a Kleenex, for example, we are not referring specifically to the Kleenex brand, and we claim to be Xeroxing something even if the photocopying is being done on a Canon copier.

Pick up any magazine whose target readership is professional writers, and you will see how  companies struggle aggressively against this genericizing of their brand names. There’s a reason writers are being targeted: A huge step in a brand name’s becoming a generic term is the addition of the brand name to the general lexicon. If it can be demonstrated in court that almost EVERYBODY uses Kleenex to refer to facial tissue and that the Johnson & Johnson company has not worked to prevent this, the brand name is much more likely to become legally generic.

Companies who own the brand names would like you either to write Kleenex brand or Kleenex facial tissue, attaching either the acknowledgment of the brand name or the product’s generic description to the name itself, at least on first mention. As you have undoubtedly already observed, both suggestions are severely lacking in elegance. Additionally, the writer of creative prose who wishes not to contribute to the genericizing of brand names is faced with the dilemma of either writing what a character would actually say or contributing to companies’ losing their grips on their products’ names.

It’s an inconvenience, but I believe in a right and wrong here, and it is worthwhile always to strive to be right. If your character would never say, “Somebody get me an adhesive strip!” or “Somebody get me a Band-Aid brand!” you’ve got to find a plausible, elegant way to communicate the same idea. One way might be to write, “Somebody get me something to put on this cut!” or “Please bring the first-aid kit!” These sound more realistic than the other suggestions and still communicate enough to the reader.

There’s always another way to write anything. Please consider respecting brand names.

Tunnel of Agony

If you are past a certain age, you learned to type on a typewriter. The mechanics of a typewriter, especially a manual typewriter, dictated certain practices and techniques that are no longer necessary on today’s computer keyboards. The keys on a manual typewriter, for example, required a certain amount of force that required a steady downward movement with the fingertips and a quick follow-through, almost as if each finger were digging a small hole in the sand. The typist also had to return the carriage to the left margin with a sweeping left-to-write push, as if he or she were batting flies.

Electric typewriters required far less force and introduced the RETURN key, but even their mechanics required some of the same elements of technique as were used on the manuals. People who learned on manuals tended to type the same way when they moved to electrics, only with quite a bit less force on the keys. This resulted in much, much faster typing.

The computer keyboard, though, requires barely any force at all. A light, feathery touch on the keys brings the desired results and the physical closeness of each key to its buddies means even less movement up and down the keyboard. This has resulted in one very, very unhealthy practice that just about everyone I know, even people who learned to type on manual typewriters, has adopted: Resting the wrists on the edge of the keyboard, on the table in front of the keyboard, or on the surface of the laptop computer, one wrist on each side of the touchpad. This forces your hand into an awkward position (whether you think it’s more comfortable or not!) that, if maintained, will result in a repetitive stress injury such as carpal tunnel syndrome.

In my years as a computer teacher, I have begged, pleaded with, admonished, and threatened my students, insisting they type with their wrists off the keyboards, forearms parallel to the floor, but it has been to no avail. My colleagues, administrators, and students all do it, no matter how many horror stories I relay about RSIs.

Don’t take your heath for granted. You will probably be in front of a computer more and more as this world changes, and you need those wrists. It may slow you down at first, and it may feel awkward and weird to type with correct technique, but you will eventually type faster and for longer periods. If it holds off the ravages of time and typing as well, you may consider that gravy, but I will consider it a primary success.

Check out Healthy Computing for information about ergonomics, technique, and other preventative measures. I would especially like to direct you to the page on stretching, which is the one healthy habit I’ve been able to force upon my students, who have begun every computer class with these stretches for going on six years now.

Now get those wrists off the keyboard or tabletop, and learn to type correctly!

Usage Tuesday: Gimme One Reason

The reason I’m still here is because my battery is dead and I don’t have jumper cables.

In general, it’s a good idea not to use reason … is because. Because is a reason, so this phrase is redundant. Your writing will be much more elegant if you simply say reason … is that as in “The reason I’m putting on weight lately is that I use ice cream to medicate emotional pain.”

The reason why I asked you here is to ask you an important question.

Similarly, reason why is also redundant. In most cases where you catch yourself writing the reason why, you can simply drop the why, as in “The reason I asked you here is to wish you a good trip.”

The American Heritage Book of English Usage tends to be forgiving of constructions that have long histories of use by reputable writers. Although I’m a big fan of the American Heritage Dictionary (I consider it the best dictionary in English), I have to disagree with this line of reasoning, since even good writers can get sloppy, lazy, or careless. Remember that good writing is clear and graceful, and these two examples, while not unclear, are definitely inelegant. However, if you’d like to consider the opposing view, please do check [links removed because the AHBofEU is no longer available online] for two short discussions of these issues.

Just Say It

In general, it’s a good idea to avoid the repetitious use of words. If in your proofreading you notice you use great or interesting more than a couple of times per page, you might want to grab that red pen and find some synonyms. However, there are certain words that, by virtue of their ubiquitousness, become almost invisible, and this invisibility serves you well.

“You bought a new dress,” he observed.

“Yes,” she replied, “I bought it for you.”

He exclaimed, “I’m not sure that’s my size!”

“Oh, I think it’s exactly the right size,” she countered.

In this case, using all these words when said would have been just fine is a major distraction. You want the reader’s focus to be on the quotes, not on the way you describe the quotes, and said is practically invisible. Grab a great novel like Lonesome Dove and you’ll see what I mean. Conversations fly across the pages and you barely notice the verbs Larry McMurtry uses to describe them. He almost exclusively uses said. In this way, when you really, really want to underscore the fact that something someone says is muttered, mumbled, shouted, or spat, you can use those words to much more pleasing effect.