A Word, Please

Ed in Albany, New York, had a question about a recent column in which I mentioned people “who just won’t stop using the word ‘over’ wrong.”

Here’s Ed: “Isn’t the last word of that sentence intended as an adverb and shouldn’t it then be ‘wrongly’? Just a thought!”

“One cannot use anything ‘wrong,’ only ‘wrongly,’ ” a reader named Mario instructed me back in 2005. “In your incorrect use of ‘wrong,’ there is no doubt that you are wrong. I therefor(sic) challenge you to admit your mistake in a follow-up article for all to read. I am not holding my breath.”

Just days later, another reader had similar thoughts: ” ‘Wrong’ can be used as a noun or an adjective, but never an adverb. … I look forward to reading your ‘mea culpa’ in your next article.”

Here’s how I responded to those other two in a 2005 column: “Please open your dictionaries to the word ‘wrong.’ Please see that, following the first cluster of definitions under ‘adj.,’ adjective, comes the abbreviation ‘adv.,’ adverb. ‘Wrong’ is an adverb. And you are both wrong.”

We’re taught that adverbs are like adjectives except they end in ly and instead of describing nouns they describe verbs. That horse is beautiful. That horse runs beautifully.

That’s true often, but not always. Sometimes words without “ly” endings are adverbs. (She sings well.) Sometimes words with “ly” endings are adjectives. (She is lovely.) Sometimes words with “ly” endings are nouns. (They are a family.) Some words do double duty as both adjectives and adverbs. (That car is fast. That car goes fast.)

I also got a question this week about hyphenation. Hyphens create “compound modifiers,” words that work together to modify another word. (A flesh-eating virus. Lead-based paint.)

But what do you do when the compound is three words and two of them already are sort of a team? That is, if you want to say that a recipe was inspired by a greasy spoon, would you write “a greasy spoon-inspired recipe” or “a greasy-spoon-inspired recipe”? To say that your patio is shaded by an olive tree, would you write “an olive tree-shaded patio” or “an olive-tree-shaded patio”?

Those two examples were offered by a reader named Al.

Hyphenation rules aren’t iron-clad, but if you want my two cents, both of Al’s examples should have not just one hyphen but two. An olive tree-shaded patio leaves open the possibility of a patio painted an olive color and shaded by an oak tree. The extra hyphen, in this example at least, shows at a glance that all three words are working together to do one job.

A Word, Please

Twice in the recent past, people have asked me about “compare to” and “compare with.” What’s the difference, they wondered. How do you know which one to use?

The subject is a sore spot for me. For years my job was to edit press releases, many of them for companies reporting quarterly earnings. Every time these companies compared their quarterly income or their dividends or their costs per share “to” the previous quarter, I’d change it to “with,” certain I was fixing an error.

So it stung when, eventually, I learned that the rule of which I’d been so sure wasn’t a rule at all.

The idea I was operating under was that “compare to” means to liken and “compare with” means to examine to discover differences as well as likenesses. Therefore, you might compare someone to a summer’s day, but you’d discuss how your first-quarter earnings compare with last quarter’s.

Bossy language commentators have, for years, peddled this rule. Here’s Theodore M. Bernstein’s 1965 “The Careful Writer.”

“The choice of ‘to’ or ‘with’ to follow ‘compare’ is not a matter of indifference. When the purpose is to liken two things or to put them in the same category, use ‘to.’ When the purpose is to place one thing side-by-side with another to examine their differences or their similarities, use ‘with.’ “

If you follow this guideline, you get good results. To say “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day,” as Shakespeare did, simply sounds better than “Shall I compare thee with a summer’s day.” Putting a modern spin on this phrase doesn’t change this: “Can I compare you to a summer’s day” sounds better than it would with “with.”

So what’s the problem?

It’s that Bernstein and a host of others who laid down this law went too far. Just because one preposition sounds better than another doesn’t mean one of them is wrong.

Prepositions have a unique function in the language. Unlike other parts of speech that are governed by strict laws of syntax, prepositions are sometimes governed solely by idiom.

For example, it’s ungrammatical to say “Us go to the store,” but it’s not ungrammatical to say “I differ at him.” That first example violates grammar laws because those laws say that subject pronouns like “we” should be the subjects of verbs, not object pronouns like “us.”

“Differ at” is, obviously, a wrong way to say “differ with.” But its wrongness has nothing to do with the rules of syntax.

Instead, it’s bad because that’s just not how people say it.

This is what we mean by idiom. It’s like precedent. And the dynamics of idiom are why it’s just as right to say “differ from” as it is to say “differ with.”

Bernstein himself agreed emphatically on this point: “The proper preposition is a matter of idiom,” he noted in the “The Careful Writer.” Adding that, when a preposition doesn’t come naturally, sometimes “the only thing to do is to consult three knowing friends and get a consensus.”

So by his own logic, “compare with” can’t be written off as ungrammatical.

If people customarily use “compare to” and “compare with” as interchangeable, then they are. But do they?

According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, people tend to follow the stickler rule in the active voice. That is, they use “compare to” to show how one thing is like another and they use “compare with” to explore ways in which they might differ.

In the passive voice, however, “compared to” is often used as a substitute for “compared with.”

Think of the sentences “Compared to you, I’m a fast runner” and “This year’s earnings, compared to last year’s, are somewhat encouraging.”

Both those sentences defy the stickler rule, yet both sound fine, which means both are OK.

June Casagrande is author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.”

She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

A Word, Please

I got an email recently from a reader whose spell checker flagged the word “uninvolved” as an error.

I’m not sure what software she was using. My Microsoft Word doesn’t have a problem with “uninvolved.” But her spell checker didn’t like it one bit.

Spell check programs vary greatly. But there are two observations we can make about spell checkers that are, in fact, universal: 1. You can’t live with ’em. 2. You can’t live without ’em. There’s no question that spell checkers can save your hide. Words like embarrass, supersede, naive, liaison and many others are easy for a human to misspell. But a computer can catch them every time.

Then there are repeated words like “the the,” “on on,” “at at” and so on. As anyone who’s ever failed the “Paris in the the spring” test can attest, the human eye tends to gloss over such hiccups. But my computer never fails to point these out.

So in some ways, a spell checker is smarter than its user. But in other ways, spell checker is just dumb.

For one thing, no spell checker program I’ve ever seen can understand prefixes and suffixes. These little bits let you to make up your own words that, though not in any dictionary, are 100 percent correct, even though spell checker doesn’t realize it. Uninvolved, unagitated, precoughed, codesigner, antiworker, bicycleborne – the red lines I’m seeing under these words as I type make clear that spell checker disapproves. But spell checker is wrong. Prefixes and suffixes, which usually work without hyphens, can create new terms that, though not in a dictionary or database, are legitimate.

Another problem with spell checker is that it creates a false sense of security. Say, for example, you’re writing a document that mentions the name Mahar multiple times. When you run spell checker, the program pauses at the first instance of the word. So you click “ignore” because you know the word is right. Now, assuming you didn’t click “ignore all,” spell checker will flag this word every time. So you’ll just keep automatically clicking “ignore,” failing to notice that in one place you misspelled it Maher.

But even if you do click “ignore all,” chances are that you’ll let a Maher slip in. That’s because when we use “ignore all” it’s often in long documents with lots of names, so we lose track of which ones we’ve already blessed with the “ignore all” button. We end up clicking “ignore all” for both Mahar and Maher. That’s why, in longer documents, the only way to ensure unusual names are spelled correctly is to click “ignore all” plus pay careful attention every name spell checker questions.

Another weakness of spell checker: It will let you write as two words things you should have written as one word. You can write about a well spring, flag ship, big foot, king pin and hall mark, and spell checker won’t know that you really wanted wellspring, flagship, bigfoot, kingpin and hallmark. To its credit, though, my Microsoft Word does know that “my long time companion” should be “my longtime companion.”

But the biggest weakness of spell checker is that its ignorance of homophones – words that are pronounced the same even though they’re spelled differently, which humans screw up a lot. Computer spell checkers are notoriously ill-equipped to catch these errors.

Take the sentence, “In the 1960s, the Beatles lead the nation and the world to new places.” See the typo? Neither does my spell checker. “Lead” should be “led.”

“My boss complemented my performance.” spell checker has no idea I meant “complimented.”

Do you have the metal to pass mustard by being discrete as you pedal your wears and meat out punishment to the palettes of dinners? spell checker is cool with that. Unfortunately, I meant “mettle,” “muster,” “discreet,” “peddle,” “wares,” “mete,” “palates” and “diners.”

The bottom line about spell checker is that you just can’t trust it, just as you shouldn’t trust yourself without it.

June Casagrande is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

A Word, Please

A user on Twitter asked me recently about the difference between “affect” and “effect.” Specifically, she wanted to know which to use in the phrase “the affect/effect of celebrity endorsements.”

The difference between “affect” and “effect” is Grammar 101. It’s one of the first things any aspiring copy editor is sure to note. And it’s something I’ve written about so many times I’m always surprised when people have to ask about it.

So naturally, I answered the question wrong. In a moment of haste, I glossed right over the words “the” and “of,” instead reading the example as something like “Such and such will affect celebrity endorsements.”

Had that been her question, my answer would have been right. Unfortunately, the words “the” and “of” in the phrase “the effect of celebrity endorsements” make all the difference in the world, rendering this a passage clearly in need of a noun. Yet I told her to use the verb “affect.”

There’s an important lesson in here about carelessness. Unfortunately, I may be more in need of that lesson than anyone reading this. But here it is anyway: When you’re minding your p’s and q’s, mind your p’s and q’s. A great many language errors are born not of ignorance but of haste. Those can be a crying shame for anyone who took the time to learn a language rule but nonetheless gets it wrong, especially if she gets it wrong in a public forum.

Of course, slow, cautious reading and writing aren’t the only ingredients for proper use of “affect” and “effect.” You have to know the difference, too.

In most cases, the difference is simple. “Affect” is a verb, and “effect” is a noun. So if you’re using it as an action, as in “Caffeine doesn’t affect me,” you usually want the one that begins with A. If you’re treating it as a thing, as in “Caffeine has a bad effect on me,” you usually want the one that begins with an e.

To remember this, I used to think of the term “side effect,” which is clearly a noun, and I would note that the E at the end of “side” prompts me to use an E to start the next word as well.

“Affect” and “effect” are usually simple. But, like many things in language, there’s a twist. Luckily, it’s rare and hardly ever comes up in casual writing. If you’re still on shaky ground with “affect” and “effect,” you might want to just think of the former as a verb and the latter as a noun and leave it at that. But if you can handle a wrench thrown into the works, here it is: Sometimes “effect” is a verb and sometimes “affect” is a noun.

The form of “effect” that’s a verb seldom comes up in casual conversation. You hear it more in formal contexts like academia and government in sentences like “This new policy will effect positive change.” See how “effect” is working as a verb here? The verb form of the word “effect” means to cause something or to make something happen.

The noun form of “affect” is even rarer. It comes up mostly in contexts that have to do with psychology, such as “Patients showed perfectly normal reactions and affects.” Here’s how Merriam-Webster defines this form of affect: “the conscious subjective aspect of an emotion considered apart from bodily changes” or “a set of observable manifestations of a subjectively experienced emotion.”

Again, those are rare. In most cases, the difference between affect and effect is the simple difference between nouns and verbs. But to get them right, it also helps to be awake.

June Casagrande is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.