Friday, May 31, 2024

That historic verdict

The conviction yesterday of former President Donald Trump in a New York state court on thirty-four felony counts was, everyone agrees, historic, the first such conviction of a former president of the United Sates. But I am not concerned here with the rightness or wrongness of the verdict; instead, I have been asked was it "a historical event" or "an historical event"? 

Kai Ryssdal insisted on Twitter that it should be "an historic," and David Hobby (who took the photograph at the top of this blog) flagged me to weigh in. 

We use the indefinite article "a" before words beginning with "h" when the "h" is aspirated: a hat, a home, a haven. We use the indefinite article "an" before words beginning with "h" when instead of an aspirated "h" there is a vowel sound: an hour, an honor.  

The dispute rises over which indefinite article to use when a word begins with an "h" that is weakly aspirated because the stress comes on the second syllable of the word; thus some speakers say and write an historic or an hotel. (I doubt that you would say "a HO-tel" unless you were content to sound like a rube, but that's on you.) 

Bryan Garner, among other authorities, dismisses that argument, saying that everyone should "avoid pretense" and use "a" before all words beginning with "h," warning that practice to the contrary smells of affectation. 

Good people, this is America and English is your language, to wield it as it suits you, and I for one am sticking with an historic. People have been telling me that I "talk like a book" since the second Eisenhower administration, and I am not prepared to abandon the habits of a lifetime. 

Sunday, May 26, 2024

The routine of work

 Preparations: Small pot of tea brewed, 

a chocolate bar unwrapped. 

Coffee comes later.

To the proof pages.

One comma flicked away, 

another plugged in.

Homonyms reversed, 

subject mated to verb, 

phrase reduced to a word, 

Merriam-Webster consulted,

prolixity excised.

Pencil both lances and stanches 

until the stack is done. 

Rising from the desk

for a stetwalk to look 

at trees in the distance. 

Soon the sluice will open, 

texts flowing this way, 

to be plucked, one by one, 

ordered, scraped, and dispatched

until the edition closes. 

Only then the book, 

the chair, the strong light,

the drink that closes the day. 


Saturday, May 25, 2024

Buyer, beware

 The Kentucky Derby and the Preakness are past, the Belmont Stakes yet to be run. In Maryland we're all agog over the recently approved plans for Pimlico, spending $400 million in taxpayer funds to offer life support to a declining industry that kills horses. So the language of the track is all around us. 

And it is the track that give us a journalistic affection that annoys me almost above all others, reporting to the verb tout

We have it from late seventeenth-century Britain, where it means variously to get the secrets of the stable for betting purposes (to spy on) and to give a tip on a racehorse. The noun is for the person who exhibits such behavior. From that the senses extend to canvassing for customers, soliciting patronage, urging with annoying persistence, and soliciting importunately. 

Particularly in U.S. usage, it has come to mean to proclaim loudly or overly publicize. 

It owns its popularly in journalism to copy editors, always searching for a short word to fit into a tight count, and from the headline it descended into body copy. 

No doubt I am oversensitive from reading too many books, but whenever I see that some public official is touting a program, or some developer is touting a project for which, yes, again, taxpayers will bear the costs, the whole smarmy connotation from racing echoes in my mind. Boost, plug, and pitch, similarly, suggest that someone is enthusiastically offering dubious merchandise. 

Promote, publicize, and even proclaim do the job reporters want, without the seediness. They can always put their money on some other horse. 

Monday, May 13, 2024

Asked and answered

More in comments on "Ask me anything": We'll start with the semicolon.

1. What's an easy way to remember the proper times to use a semicolon versus a period?

2. When are sentences in parentheses in sentences appropriate?

You would use a semicolon to join two independent clauses that are closely related, viz., They ask me questions; I always answer them

But keep in mind that it is a judgment call to use the semicolon instead of writing two sentences. The semicolon is more common in formal writing and might look stiff in yours. Some people though, like the semicolon. Nicholson Baker not only pumps for the semicolon in "The History of Punctuation" (collected in The Size of Thoughts) but also applauds the Victorian custom of combining the semicolon with the em dash. (Admire if you like, but step back.) 

An alternative to the semicolon is the comma, found in the dreaded comma-splice run-on sentence: They ask me questions, I always answer them. You do not want to do this in formal writing, and you must not say that I gave you permission to do so. But if you are writing fiction, particularly dialogue, you will find yourself resorting to this comma, because people in speech string their clauses together loosely rather than composing them, and this construction will sound more natural. 

As to the second question, about parentheses, it is best to think of them as operating like an aside in drama. The parenthetical remark is a nugget of information that is not essential to the main line of thought but is tucked in to add a bit of context. 

But writing a parenthetical clause within a sentence can be dicey, distracting the reader, viz., Nicholson Baker not only pumps for the semicolon in "The History of Punctuation" (The essay is a review of a book on punctuation collected in his The Size of Thoughts) but also applauds the Victorian custom of combining the semicolon with the em dash. See?

Saturday, May 11, 2024

Of course it was about commas

 When I invited readers earlier today to ask me any question they care to about writing, editing, or English usage, this was the first to arrive: "Commas before 'too,' 'as well,' 'either,' etc. at the ends of sentences: yea or nay, and why?"

Commas often precede "as well" and "either" but may not be necessary. I would need to see a context. Periods, not commas, come at the end of sentences (well, sometimes ellipses). Using a comma before "too" is entirely discretionary; it is not necessary but can be used to place a little additional oomph on the word. 

Some commas are required in formal English. Instances include preceding a coordinating conjunction when two independent clauses are joined, setting off appositives, and separating the items in a series.* Know those places. 

But some commas are discretionary, used like the rests in music to mimic the slight pauses in speech. It is perfectly all right to use them thus, but be wary of going overboard. There is a tendency, much remarked upon, to indulge, knowingly or carelessly, in discretionary commas to an extent that the writer, or more properly the writer's voice, comes to resemble that of, one hesitates to point out, Henry James. 

*Regarding the Oxford comma, the final comma in a series: If you are following a stylebook, use it or not as the stylebook dictates; if you are not following a stylebook, use it or not as your taste dictates; if you are arguing in public over whether or not to use it, you are annoying people with trifles. 

Ask me anything

It’s my own fault. 

When The New York Times called to ask for my views on the sale of The Baltimore Sun to David Smith and Armstrong Williams, I was less than enthusiastic.* When Mr. Williams disparaged the singing of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” at public events, I pointed to some deficiencies in his argument

So perhaps I should not have been surprised when, looking for some past post, I clicked on the link to You Don’t Say at, I got “Oops! That page can’t be found.”

Now The Sun owns the blog posts I wrote as an employee and published on its website for more than fifteen years.** And if the management chooses to be petty and vindictive, it can do as it pleases with its property, including deleting it. 

But not all is gone; a search on the website, for example, turned up a handful of posts from 2019, and there may be more. Some posts that were picked up by Google News can still be found on search, but that search is also spotty.

Those posts enabled me to say nearly everything I know about writing and editing, and the tens of thousands of page views they got indicated that some readers found them of value. To my knowledge, two or three people actually subscribed to The Sun to be able to read them. 

So now I make this offer: Bring to me any question you have about writing, editing, or English usage, and if I think I can offer a useful answer, I will give one. Never mind that it may be something that I already wrote about. 

I have never been shy about repeating myself. 

*”I think it will mean disaster.”

**The blog you’re currently reading I created in 2009-2010 when I was laid off and have maintained since. 

Saturday, May 4, 2024

Prosy verse

 Fifty years ago I imagined that I might be a poet, but when Syracuse University turned me down for the creative writing program, then called to offer me a fellowship in the academic program in English in the graduate school, I accepted the verdict. 

But the impulse occasionally flickers, especially when a memory is triggered. This I felt impelled to write today, and you may think what you like of it. 


My grandmother kneels at the hearth, 

banking the coals in the fireplace,

while I lie under the quilt she made,

turning from the cold wall toward the glow, 

beloved, safe, and sleepy. 

She is gone, and the farm is sold. 

Nothing physical remains. 

But still at night I lie in bed

on the side that turns toward the glow.