Tuesday, November 9, 2010

And, Both, As well as—When we join things, are they always plural?

Which of the following is incorrect?

1. Both the status report on the bridge project, as well as the budget report, are in the folder.

2. The page proof as well as the list of corrections has been sent.

3. Smith, Michaels and Jones is our law firm.

I often see errors of verb agreement in business writing, even though at its most basic level, verb agreement is considered quite elementary. After all, almost no-one who writes professionally would say “the reports is in the folder” or “the project are complete.”

How, then, do we end up with verb agreement problems in professional writing? Often the problems occur when more than one subject precedes the verb in a sentence.

The basic rule for multiple subjects is that when two or more subjects are connected by the word “and,” a plural verb is used. For example, “My dog and my cat [a total of two pets] are [plural verb] hiding behind the couch.”

The second rule, however, is that if you use a connecting phrase other than the exact word “and,” the subjects do not add up. So when you connect two subjects with phrases such as “as well as,” “in addition to,” “along with,” the additional subjects do not count. For example, “My dog [the main pet I am discussing] as well as my cat [which does not count, because I used a phrase other than “and”] has [singular verb] fleas.”

Another problem that comes up with “and” versus other connecting phrases is the use of the word “both” in front of any other connector but “and.” The words “both” and “and” form a team, known as a correlative conjunction, and “both” cannot be used with other phrases. “Both Jack as well as Jill” is completely wrong. Either eliminate “both” or use “and” instead of “as well as.”

Finally, there is an exception to the “and makes plural” rule. I call it the macaroni and cheese rule. Some phrases containing the word “and” actually describe a singular thing, like macaroni and cheese. When you eat macaroni and cheese for dinner, you are eating one dish. The macaroni and the cheese are all mixed together to form one substance. So we correctly say “The macaroni and cheese [one substance] is [singular verb] good tonight.”

Not only other foods, such as spaghetti and meatballs, but also many proper nouns and job titles contain the word “and” but name a singular thing:

Steak and eggs is my favorite breakfast.

The Stars and Stripes is waving atop the flagpole.

Smith and Jones is the accounting firm.

Our secretary and treasurer is Mike.

With these rules and exceptions duly noted, by now you can be sure: No. 1 is incorrect, and Nos. 2 and 3 are correct.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Do I have to use have?

During my grammar classes, I have often been asked, “Can I delete the word have in this sentence? Isn’t it just wordy?”

The funny thing is, use of the word have is not a form of wordiness. When have is used in front of another verb, it is actually an auxiliary verb. That means it counts as part of the verb. And it creates a specific verb tense called the present perfect tense. Here is what that means.

The present perfect tense has two meanings. One meaning is that an activity that began in the past is still going on, as in

I have taught grammar classes for more than 10 years.

The second meaning is that an activity that began in the past has just now stopped:

I have finished writing the report. Now I am preparing to send it to the printer.

The first meaning is often used to describe a person’s experiences, as in

I have visited Canada five times.

I have tasted tomatoes straight from the garden.

I have completed one triathlon. (It was a sprint-distance one. But that is another story.)

The main thing to remember is that the word have is an important part of the verb, and not something to routinely delete. Deleting it changes the meaning. Look at the difference between these two sentences:

I have worked there 6 years. (Clearly, I still work there.)

I worked there 6 years. (I no longer work there.)

I hope I have given you enough information to prevent the gratuitous deletion of have!

Friday, September 24, 2010

How to present a numbered list in a sentence

There are several ways to give an enumerated (numbered) list in sentence form. One way is to put the number (not the number word) in parentheses, like this:

I came up with three reasons: (1) this is my first reason, (2) this is my second reason, and (3) this is my third reason.

Notice that the numbers are inside a pair of parentheses. It is not considered correct to use just one parenthesis after the number. If the introduction of the reasons is not a complete sentence, do not use a colon to introduce the list. Instead, do this:

My reasons are (1) this is my first reason, (2) this is my second reason, and (3) this is my third reason.

If the text of any of the reasons contains a comma, then you use semicolons between the items—but if that happens, you should consider making it a vertical list, like this:

I came up with three reasons:
1. This is my first reason, which contains a comma.
2. This is my second reason.
3. This is my third reason.

Another way to list reasons would be in separate sentences, using the ordinal forms of the number words, like this:

I came up with three reasons. First, this is my first reason. Second, this is my second reason. Third, this is my third reason.

Combining these into one big sentence with semicolons is not recommended, because if you are putting an enumerated list into one sentence, you use the numbers in parentheses as in my first example.

You can, of course, choose to use letters instead of numbers in all but the last situation.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Interrupting Yourself: Contrary Negatives

Seldom do we speak in a straight line. We pause, we go back, we interrupt ourselves, we repeat. The same is true in writing—even writing that is clear and concise. There are multiple ways to interrupt the flow of writing. Let’s take a look at the interruption called a contrary negative.

A contrary negative is a type of interruption that clarifies what we are talking about by stating what it is not. Here are some examples:

• The Tooltip, not the Screentip, gives the name of an icon or button on the screen.

• The left margin, but not the right margin, is indented for block quotes in our style.

Contrary negative interruptions always have a comma before and after. Make sure not to confuse them with the correlative conjunction not only, but also. This structure does not require any commas:

• Not only the background but also the entire text is selected by this method.

• The software handles not only pie charts but also bar, column, line, and scatter charts.

In a contrary negative, you are cutting out a possibility; with a correlative conjunction, you are adding a possibility. A possible memory aid is when you are cutting out a possibility, you also cut out that part of the sentence with commas.

So go ahead and interrupt yourself for clarity, but be sure to use the commas correctly.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Interrupting a sentence with no punctuation needed

In this series on interruptions in sentences, we have looked at interruptions in parentheses, interruptions with dashes, and interruptions with commas. But it is also possible to interrupt a sentence with no punctuation around the interruption. You do this when the interruption is actually a crucial part of the sentence. In grammar terms, this is called “essential.” These interruptions are “essential” because they help define or identify the exact thing you are talking about. They restrict the discussion to the exact item you mean. Here is an example:

The small arrow on the Styles group title bar opens the Styles pane.

The phrase on the Styles group title bar interrupts between the subject arrow and the verb opens. There is no punctuation surrounding this interruption because it is essential to help the reader find the exact arrow you are talking about out of all the arrows that might exist on a typical computer screen.

The poet Robert Frost wrote “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

Here there are no commas around Frost’s name because his name is essential to the sentence. It identifies which poet you are talking about. Without his name, the reader would have to ask, “Which poet, out of all the poets in the world and throughout history, are you talking about?”

Notice that if you put his name first, there would be no question of who you were talking about, because his name clearly identifies him. In that case any further description, such as the words a 20th-century American poet, would be a nonessential interruption and require commas:

Robert Frost, a 20th-century American poet, wrote “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

Here are some additional examples of interruptions:

1. The book that is in the center of the coffee table is very important to me.

2. World Art: The Essential Illustrated History, which is on the coffee table, is my favorite art book.

In sentence 1, the interruption is essential to identifying the book out of all the books in the world. The essential information cannot be surrounded by commas.

In sentence 2 the book has already been fully identified before the interruption. The interruption merely adds additional description that is not needed for identifying the item. Commas are needed.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Interruptions: Dashes versus Parentheses versus Commas

Three different punctuation marks battle for the opportunity to mark interruptions in your sentence. Which are you going to use? The answer should depend on the type of interruption and on its relevance to your sentence.

Some interruptions are completely irrelevant to the meaning of the sentence, and you want your reader to actually skip right over them and continue reading your sentence. This kind of interruption is indicated by parentheses. The classic parenthetical interruption is an instruction to the reader to look at a table, figure, bibliographical entry, or appendix for more information. Here are some examples:

Pie charts (see Figure 1) are designed to show the percentage breakdowns of the elements that make up a whole.

Whether the stone appears to travel in a straight line or a parabola is all relative (Einstein, 1950).

Other interruptions are actually part of your sentence, and you do want your reader to read them. The only reason they are considered interruptions is that they could have been left out of your sentence with no loss in clarity. These are signaled by commas. They are often commentary about the sentence or additional description.

The first singer, they all agreed, could actually win the contest. (independent comment)

The first singer, a young man from Alabama, could actually win the contest. (additional description)

The third kind of interruption is a surprise. Not that I am going to surprise you with what the third kind of interruption is—but that the third kind of interruption is literally a surprise to the reader. It is a sudden, unexpected interruption that may be even more important than the content of the rest of the sentence. This kind of interruption is like when your boring sitcom rerun is interrupted by a tornado warning in your area. When you return to your sitcom, everything is different. You don’t care as much about the sitcom as about the information contained in the interruption. Here are some examples:

Jane Smith—did I remember to tell you that she is the one who is making the final decision about whether we receive the $2 million contract?—is on the phone.

The supplies we ordered—the color laser printer, the high-resolution flat-panel monitors, and the upgrade to our Adobe Creative Suite software—will be here sometime this week.

Clearly, there are interruptions, and then there are INTERRUPTIONS. Punctuate them appropriately, and your reader will know exactly how to handle them.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Can you start a sentence with “hopefully”?

Short answer: Yes.

Long answer: Some people used to say you could not, but grammar books now say you can. The controversy used to be about whether hopefully is an “independent comment” like finally, actually, regrettably, fortunately, and many other words. These words act as asides to the reader to indicate the writer’s opinion or attitude about the entire sentence. If you need a more technical term, they are “sentential modifiers,” adverbs that modify the entire sentence.

If you are curious about some of the players in the controversy, they are The Careful Writer by Theodore Bernstein, The Chicago Manual of Style, and The Gregg Reference Manual. My opinion, stated above, agrees solidly with The Gregg Reference Manual. Chicago says that the usage I cite above is “here to stay,” but snips, “But many careful writers deplore the new meaning” [emphasis added—could this be a nod to readers of Bernstein?] Bernstein has not been updated, fyi, since 1965.

Yet another voice in the squabble is The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style, by Bryan Garner. The advice here? All the controversy has ruined this word. Never use it at all, because no matter what you do, someone will think it is wrong.

Meanwhile, Merriam-Webster.com utterly dismisses Bernstein and all critics and solidly supports the use of hopefully as an independent comment.

So there you have it. My vote is to use it until people get over its history. After all, most people have long forgotten the “impact” wars of the late 1980s. But on the other hand, I recently encountered “impact is a noun only” still alive and well in the style guide of a large organization. Ultimately, I guess, each writer must make up their* own mind.

*Watch for a future article on the use of their.