Dave's Writing Guide

Typos, style-o's, capitalization-o's, and everything-else-and-in-between-o's.

Category: Typos

Punctuation Exchange Program

Problem(s)

Pistons pick Singler to play in Spain (AP)

Solution(s)

Pistons’ pick Singler to play in Spain (AP)

Explanation

The AP has done it again.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I’m as big a fan of the Associated Press as anyone. But when grammatical errors (or typos, perhaps [to be fair]) derail a perfectly good headline, changes need to be made, says I. Drastic changes. Changes that could, say, lead to the hiring of a heretofore unknown blogger as headline editor…?

Okay, maybe not. But let’s take a look at the problem sentence.

I will admit that I get most of my news from My Yahoo! (or most of the news that hasn’t been filtered through the people I follow on Twitter, or my friends on Facebook). For me, it’s certainly the first place I go for NBA news. So imagine my surprise when I open up my page and see this headline:

A headline from Yahoo! news.

“Why would the Pistons send a rookie to play in Spain?!” I thought. But then, taken aback by my own thought, I thought anew, “Wait… Why would the Pistons be sending any players to play in Spain? Is there some sort of international tournament where each NBA team sends a single player? No, that’s stupid. Is there some sort of exchange program going on? No, that’s even stupider.” Finally, curious and out of ideas, I clicked on the article and read it, and figured it all out.

At the time, the NBA had locked out its players, and many players—rookies included—were seeking employment overseas. When the lockout ended, most came back. Pistons’ rookie Kyle Singler, though, did not, electing to remain in Spain, where he had played during the lockout. So what the headline was actually saying was that the player that the Pistons had selected early in the second round of the 2011 NBA Draft was going to play in Spain, rather than the NBA.

Now, I may be a curmudgeon, but the interpretation I described above was my very first interpretation that popped into my head after I’d read the headline, and it gave rise to confusion. I didn’t go looking for this fight: It found me!

Since the actual meaning is recoverable, though (after all, both sentences sound the same), one might wonder, what’s the big deal? Why do we need an apostrophe there? Well, actually, we don’t need an apostrophe there. But, at the same time, there must be an apostrophe there. Let me explain.

In English, there’s no phonological difference between “Pistons pick Singler” and “Pistons’ pick Singler”. In English orthography, though, we have a convention of placing an apostrophe after a plural noun to indicate that it possesses the next noun—and even though we can get by without it (and many do), it’s a fairly well-known convention. Because of that, its absence may give rise to ambiguity in an otherwise unambiguous sentence. That is, the very fact that it can be there means that if it’s not there when it “should” be, its absence could very well cause our brains to explode.

We wouldn’t have this problem if we did like German does (for the most part) and got rid of our lousy apostrophes. Consider the following comparison between German and English:

  • Peters Auto “Peter’s car”

Look at that! Possession without an apostrophe. Why do we even need the apostrophe in “Peter’s car”?! “Peters car” is just fine!

Alas… I fear we’re stuck with our apostrophes, be they genitive, contractive, or distractive. So keep using them, whether you like them or not. It will help those of us who continue to misread headlines that should be interpretable with or without a correctly-placed apostrophe.

On the other hand, if you want to make sure I actually click on a link…

An-aphylactic Shock

Problem(s)

An euphoric end to a bittersweet Olympics (AP)

Solution(s)

A euphoric end to a bittersweet Olympics (AP)

Explanation

No, no, no, no, no, no, NO!

Ack! You have got to be kidding me! This is an actual headline (hence the lack of punctuation) from the Associated Press—and to prove it, here’s a screenshot:

An terribly horrible headline.

Ahem. So. Let us start by reviewing the appropriate way to use the English indefinite article—again.

In English, words that begin with a consonant sound are preceded by the “a” variant of the indefinite article. Words that begin with a vowel sound, on the other hand, are preceded by “an”. It’s that simple.

Turning our attention to this problem sentence, the word “euphoric” begins with a vowel letter, but does not begin with a vowel sound. The distinction is crucial. As such, it should be “a euphoric”, just as one would say “a yellow banana” and not “an yellow banana”.

But this is no simple typo. No indeed: I know the secret behind this error.

Returning to a previous error, stuffshirts and blowhards think it sounds hoity-toity to say “an historic” instead of “a historic”. It’s wrong, of course (just as wrong as it would be to say “an hoity-toity idiot”), but they think it’s “proper”, and so they go about making asses of themselves by saying “an historic event”.

Now let’s look at our problem sentence. The context is the conclusion of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. In summing it up, one simply had to pay tribute to the memory of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili who died tragically in a freak accident during a training run literally hours before the opening ceremonies. As such, the article needed a bit of solemnity, even in discussing the national high experienced by Canada after the Canadians’ victory over Team USA for the gold medal in hockey.

When dealing with solemn or serious matters, all writers have a tendency to “write up”—that is, to try to use more formal language than they would ordinarily. Knowing that writing something like “an historic” has a kind of solemn and prestigious air, this writer (David Crary, in case you’re curious), no doubt, looked at the similarity between the words “historic” and “euphoric” (both trisyllabic, both end in “-oric”…) and thought, “Gee, you know what? If it’s formal to say ‘an historic’, I’ll bet it’s formal to say ‘an euphoric’, too!”

And that’s how we got the headline quoted above.

If David Crary ever happens to read this, I offer this advice: Trust your gut. Your first reaction (hopefully to write “a euphoric”) is often the correct reaction when it comes to usage. Don’t let that internal editor confuse and bamboozle you. Chances are he’s had one too many and is up to no good.

(And no, in case you were wondering, I will not consider seriously the possibility that we’re intended to pronounce “euphoric” as the Greeks do. “Euphoric” is now an English word, and we’re not giving it back!)

She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain

Problem(s)

Ice cream has become to be something more than just a dessert to me.

Solution(s)

Ice cream has come to be something more than just a dessert to me.

Ice cream has become something more than just a dessert to me.

Explanation

You only get one “be”, so use it wisely!

(Note that “become” and “come to be” are not always interchangeable. Consider: “He became a teacher” ≠ “He came to be a teacher.” Oh, and how about “You’re becoming a nuisance” vs. “You’re coming to be a nuisance”?)

Powerful Stench?

Problem(s)

The permanent closure of my local ice cream parlor caused me to wreck havoc on the city.

The permanent closure of my local ice cream parlor caused me to reek havoc on the city.

Solution(s)

The permanent closure of my local ice cream parlor caused me to wreak havoc on the city.

Explanation

One letter can make a world of difference. Take our first problem sentence above. If we want to be technical, what that sentence actually conveys is something like the following: In my town, there was a local ice cream parlor that was closed. Its closure made me so upset, that I located havoc—the entity, here apparently anthropomorphized—and I beat the living tar out of it. Furthermore, I did this while standing on top of the city. (Oh, though if we wanted to change the text style and capitalization, what I could be wrecking is the new hit TV show Havoc on the City!)

If we then take a look at problem sentence number two, we’re in for even more fun. In this scenario, the ice cream parlor’s closure made me so upset that I decided to utilize my mighty stink glands to stink up havoc (again, the allegorical entity), and I did so while standing on top of the city. (I should note, though, that even this interpretation is problematic, as it would force us to accept a new variant of “reek”: a transitive verb meaning “to cause to reek”.)

The specific errors here differ, but the source is the same. Both “wreck” and “reek” are common words. “Wreak”, on the other hand, is far, far from common. In fact, I’m pretty sure the word “wreak” only occurs in the phrase “wreak havoc” (this expression, by the way, is a fun one since “havoc” is pretty rare itself, unless you’re a fan of the X-Men [though even there, his name is properly spelled “Havok”]). As a result, if you’ve heard it for the first time, or have never seen it in print, it seems reasonable to infer that the word “wreak” is either actually “reek”, used in some odd way you haven’t encountered previously, or that you misheard, and the word is actually “wreck”.

This latter interpretation is ingenious, in my opinion, because it plays on the context in which the word “wreak” is used. If a speaker uses the phrase “wreak havoc”, the context is probably negative (defined in the simplest way, to “wreak havoc” is to do something bad). Similarly, the verb “wreck”, defined simply, is to do something bad to something else. Since the semantic domain of both words is the same, and since the phonological forms are similar, it’s perfectly logical (or, perhaps, analogical) to assume that “wreak havoc” is actually “wreck havoc”, and that the meaning of “wreck” has been extended metaphorically to cover a situation that focuses on the act of wrecking something. The syntax of the verb, of course, has to be modified to allow for a direct object that itself isn’t “wrecked” (unless “wreak havoc” is interpreted as a phrase similar to “kick the bucket”), but given that words are used in such bizarre ways in English already, no English speaker can be blamed for making such an assumption.

Back to real world English, the status of this error, though, is that it is an error, and it’s not accepted even in non-standard writing. It will happen from time to time, of course, but just as we can’t get away with writing “for all intensive purposes”, so are we unable to get away with writing “wreck havoc”. As with other expressions, this is simply one to memorize, just as one must memorize that the word for “duck” is “duck” and not “cordoofle”.

Be Fruitful

Problem(s)

So far, those efforts have not born fruit.

Solution(s)

So far, those efforts have not borne fruit.

Explanation

In the latest installment of my ongoing series “It Can Happen to Anyone”, I bring to you the problem sentence above, written by a reporter from Reuters. I found it today (that is, the date listed above) in an article about the release of U.S.-Iranian reporter Roxana Saberi. So, hey, if it can happen to a reporter that works for Reuters, it can happen to anyone!

This particular error involves one of those little-used irregular verbs “to bear”. To conjugate “bear” properly, one writes “bear” in the present, “bore” in the past”, and “borne” in the compound past tenses (“has borne”, “had borne”, etc.). The latter is a homonym of the much more common “born”, and the meaning is related (I’m sure the words are related, as well), so it’s no wonder that a writer would slip up and write “born” when they meant “borne”.

At this point in time, though, I would say that “born” is not an acceptable replacement for “borne”. It may be one day, but that day has yet to come, in my opinion. Most of the time the word “borne” is used in fixed expressions, though, so if you simply learn them by rote, you’ll avoid slip-ups. In fact, when it comes to English spelling, I think it’d be helpful to learn everything by rote. The rules and generalizations that exist simply aren’t useful enough to warrant learning the whole mess as a system as opposed to a series of unfortunate accidents.

Don’t Tread on Me

Problem(s)

Our fathers commemorated the Massacre of the fifth of March, 1770, till that dark hour was lost in the blaze of the fourth day of July, 1776, and the events which followed it.

Solution(s)

Our fathers commemorated the Massacre of the fifth of March, 1770, ’til that dark hour was lost in the blaze of the fourth day of July, 1776, and the events which followed it.

Our fathers commemorated the Massacre of the fifth of March, 1770, until that dark hour was lost in the blaze of the fourth day of July, 1776, and the events which followed it.

Our fathers commemorated the Massacre of the fifth of March, 1770, till that dark hour was lost in the blaze of the fourth day of July, 1776, and the events which followed it.

Explanation

Ordinarily, my problem sentences involve ice cream, but this one I took from an actual publication I saw in Boston. This came from a paper on display in the Boston Public Library devoted to the papers of early female abolitionists. This particular paper was published on April 9th, 1852 in Boston, and is in remarkably good condition.

Regarding the error, you may have seen the spelling “till” for the abbreviation of the word “until” marked wrong by teachers, mavens and gadabouts. I myself thought that I had been mistaken in my use of “till” for “until” when I realized that it wasn’t being marked as incorrect by the spellchecker because it’s spelled the same as the verb “till” (e.g. “to till soil”). It may indeed be the case that the only appropriate way to spell the abbreviation of “until” is “’til”, with one ell and an apostrophe.

That aside, though, I’ve put this sentence here as proof that not only does the variant “till” for abbreviated “until” exist in print, but it’s far from new. Indeed, if it was commonly accepted in 1852, that means it’s been around for well over a hundred years—and here’s the proof:

A bit of an old newspaper.

So, if we err, then we err in good company, so if you want my advice, feel free to “till” till the cows come home!

Update: Ooh, this just in! An alert reader has pointed out that “till” existed as an independent preposition before “until”, and that the latter was a derived form not unlike “unto”. I did some digging, and I guess the spellings “till” and “til” were both acceptable if you go way, way back. Now, it seems “til” is unacceptable, as is the odd “’till”, but everything else goes!

A Rite of Passage

Problem(s)

Why doesn’t it list my favorite flavor of ice cream on my driver license?

Why doesn’t it list my favorite flavor of ice cream on my drivers license?

Why doesn’t it list my favorite flavor of ice cream on my drivers’ license?

Why doesn’t it list my favorite flavor of ice cream on my driver licence?

Why doesn’t it list my favorite flavor of ice cream on my drivers licence?

Why doesn’t it list my favorite flavor of ice cream on my drivers’ licence?

Why doesn’t it list my favorite flavor of ice cream on my driver’s’ liscensce’?

Solution(s)

Why doesn’t it list my favorite flavor of ice cream on my driver’s license?

Explanation

Many have trouble even saying this one, let alone writing it. So, how does it work? First, unless, you’re British, it’s “license”: one c, one s—in that order. Don’t like it? Move to Britain. Then you can spell it licence all you want (and defence, etc.). Alternatively, you can start speaking with a British accent, and spelling “color” colour, calling the subway the tube, and eating fish and chips, bangers and mash and shepherd’s pie. Be wary of talking to anyone who might actually be from Britain, though, because they’ll probably find you out and expose you. If you find yourself in a situation that would force you to either reveal your identity or speak phony British English to a Brit, I strongly recommend you rely on your ninja school training to escape. What’s that? You didn’t go to ninja school?! Well, then. I guess you’d better start spelling it “license” straight away, hadn’t you?

Of course, the major problem people have is usually with the first part: the driver. If you take a step back and think of this as a phrase rather than a compound, I think you’ll see why the solution sentence above is correct:

Heather is a driver.

All drivers need licenses.

Therefore, Heather needs a driver’s license.

That is, a license needed by a driver. Ta da!

If you’re confused, though, don’t feel bad, by any means. If Wikipedia can be trusted (and I think we all know the answer to that), apparently the official term used in the United States is (drumroll please!): “driver license.” Ha! What a hoot! The “official” term is something that almost none of us ever say. Oh well. That’s the government for you.

If you’re ever in a bind, remember: a license is something that must be owned or obtained by a driver in order for them to drive. As for whether it should be “driver’s” or “drivers'”, well, if many drivers need licenses, then it stands to reason that a single driver needs a license, right?

This brings up the issue of pluralization. I’ve often seen plurals such as “drivers’ licenses”, or “drivers licenses”, “driver’s license’s”, “driver license’s”, “drivers’ licenses’”, and any combination of the preceding. This one shouldn’t cause trouble as long as you remember what the noun is: license! The whole “driver’s” part is just extra information, and doesn’t need to change.

I can certainly understand why one would resort to one of these odd pluralization strategies (it’s the influence of that naughty ‘s at the end of “driver’s”! It’s always up to no good!), but if you’re in a spot, remember: You’re bigger than the English language. You own it. You create it on a daily basis! It does what you say, not the other way around! You shouldn’t be afraid of the English language: It should be afraid of you! So if it tries to confuse you with its tricksy apostrophes, hyphens and esses, you just grab it by the shoulders, and say, “Hey, buddy! You’re my language!” You show it who’s boss! Don’t you take no guff from no language! It has to answer to us, not the other way around!

Abstract Statuary

Problem(s)

The court agreed with Roe that the statue was vague and violated her right of privacy under the ninth and fourteenth amendments.

Solution(s)

The court agreed with Roe that the statute was vague and violated her right of privacy under the ninth and fourteenth amendments.

Explanation

It’s rare that I’ll add a problem sentence that doesn’t involve ice cream—let alone a real example—but this one was just too unintentionally amusing. The problem sentence above was in a paper submitted to me on abortion. The thing that amuses me is the vague statue that violated Roe’s right to privacy. I imagine it was probably something by Henry Moore peeking its head into the young woman’s boudoir…

Anyway, this example illustrates two important points I want to comment on. First, spellcheck will not catch every typo. Sure, it’ll flag it if you type “jugde” or “trhough” or “teh” (though that last one not for long, I’ll bet), but notice that here the author misspelled “statute” without the last “t”, giving us the correctly spelled word “statue”. Spellcheck is a fantastic machine, but it can’t pick up on your intentions (if it could, we might not need writers any longer. I bet Calvino would go for that). So, what to do? Proofread. Even better, get someone else to proofread—that’s the best. Why? First, if you made an error that you’re not sure about, you’re not going to catch it, so there your eyes won’t be any help. Second, an outside reader will be seeing your text for the first time, and will give it the proper attention. When you read over something you’ve written, you get bored, if you’re like me. After all, I know what I wrote; why would I want to read it again?! Plus, you’re likely to just gloss over the mistakes, since you know what you intended to write, and you don’t need to read every word to get it. An outside reader, of course, will need to read every word.

The second point is about typing. Typos are different from misspellings. If you type “disenfranchisement” as “disinfranchisement”, and upon reviewing it you don’t know what the error is, then, yes, you’ve misspelled a word. But if you type, “Yesterday, I went to teh store”, does anyone really think you don’t know how “the” is supposed to be spelled—a word you’ve typed literally more than a billion times (probably; think about it)? No, of course not. It’d be absurd to think that. So why do you think we still make the error? After all, everyone does it. There’s not some magic age we reach where we suddenly stop typing “teh” on accident every once in awhile. So what’s the reason?

Consider this: Provided you’re not dyslexic, would you ever handwrite “teh”? Have you ever? I certainly can never remember doing that. I mean, think of cursive. You’d have to try to write “teh”; no accident would ever produce it. Yet it happens in typing all the time. Why? Because typing is a mechanical procedure that relies on finger dexterity. With handwriting, you just need to know how to form the letters, and what order the letters come in. With typing, you need to, first, have the keyboard memorized (unless you want to take forever to type anything), and then you need to trust that your brain is going to send the signals to the correct fingers in the correct order, and do so extremely fast. Plus, we’re not talking about our money fingers—the index and the middle—oh, no: all four fingers, even lazy ring and hopeless pinky, have to get in on the action. Plus—and this is by far the best part—the job is split between two different hands! Never mind that most of the world is right-handed; the heavy-hitters of the English orthography a, e, t, r and s are all on the left-hand side of the keyboard. What genius thought that up?! Just think about “the”: That’s left-hand index; right-hand index; and left-hand middle. Left-right-left? Is it any wonder that we sometimes slip up and do both the left-hand letters first, it being our uncoordinated hand? And if we’ll admit that, shouldn’t it be shocking to ever produce an entire 2,000 word text without a single error?! Shouldn’t that be the odd occurrence, and not the occasional typo?

Armed with this information, remember: the typo is a mechanico-muscular error. It’s not like a misspelling; you needn’t be ashamed (though even with a misspelling, I mean, come on: the English orthography looks like it was designed by a moron with a blindfold). Accept the fact that as long as typewritten text is our main means of communication (because, let’s face it, that’s what it is nowadays), there will be typos: by you and everyone. We try to minimize them, but they will always crop up, because of the peculiarities of the system we’ve developed. So, whenever you type anything, expect typos, and try to look out for them.

Furthermore, let’s help each other out. This isn’t a test: if someone produces a typo, let them know. It’s just like someone who comes out of the bathroom with toilet paper on their shoe. Yes, it’s embarrassing, so the afflicted will want to know, but there’s no reason to be a jerk about it. Who likes the person who makes fun of someone with toilet paper attached to their shoe? There’s a word for that type of person: bully. You’ll encounter typo bullies in your day-to-day life, but don’t sweat them: they’re not human. If you want to help them out, send them here, and I’ll set them straight.

If You a Bull Bucka

Problem(s)

All American’s agree that being able to eat ice cream is more important than voting.

Solution(s)

All Americans agree that being able to eat ice cream is more important than voting.

Explanation

I have a theory regarding the peculiar use of the ‘s plural with nationalities. It all started with Bob Marley. One of the reasons Bob Marley decided not to have his cancerous toe amputated is that according to Rastafarian religion, the body must be kept whole. As a result, the cancer spread throughout his body, and he died young. So influenced are we by the man and his message, that we’ve extended his ideals to writing. Thus, the mighty term “American” must be left whole. To keep it whole, the lowly plural s must be separated from the word with an apostrophe, so that it doesn’t violate the sanctity of almighty “American”. (Bob Marley would be down with that, right? Wasn’t it he who said, “The Caribbean has no greater friend than the American government. It’s beneficence and power is not only to be respected, but to be loved. Let us all worship at the feet of our magnanimous neighbor to the north!”? I’m pretty sure he was the one that said that.)

Though my theory is sound (it must be: it’s a theory), it doesn’t quite explain how we can get away with attaching the “n” to “America” without the aid of an apostrophe (i.e. “America’n”). Hmm… Perhaps “America” and “American” are two different wholes that must not be violated. Yes, that must be it! This is the one true theory!

Until the unbelievers are converted, you might think about checking over what you’ve written to ferret out any misplaced apostrophes. “American’s” refers to something owned by one American; “Americans” is multiple Americans that don’t own anything; and “Americans'” is a bunch of Americans that own everything. What type of American (or Rastafarian) are you?

The Center for Diseased Embedding

Problem(s)

I’ve got ice cream imbedded in my brain.

Solution(s)

I’ve got ice cream embedded in my brain.

Explanation

I just don’t know what to say about this. I really don’t. My worthless Micro$oft Word thinks “imbed” isn’t misspelled. So does the program that checks the spelling on this very browser. If we can spell it “imbed” or “embed”, then why don’t we have “imbue” and “embue”? Or how about “imbarrassed”? “Empression”? “Impirical”? “Embibe”? I mean, it’s the same invironment: Unstressed syllable with the Latinate prefix “en-” before a labial consonant. Why is it that we only have “(i/e)mbed”? I’m at a loss for words. I…I just don’t know… I guess I need some sort of inplant to help me to khoaughwppe… (Cope.)