Dave's Writing Guide

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

Headlining

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, till that dark hour was lost in the blaze of the fourth day of July, 1776, and the events which followed it.

Explanation

You might recognize this problem sentence from the last “error” I posted. Indeed, it is the very same sentence, but the error is different. You might notice that one too many words is capitalized in the problem sentence—namely, the word “massacre”. It’s not at the beginning of the sentence, it’s not a name, it’s not a month or day of the week, it’s not the pronoun “I”—it’s not anything: it’s just a noun. Therefore, when it comes to hitting the shift key or not, you should not.

But here’s a question. This sentence was printed in an actual newspaper in 1852, and it was accepted at the time. Why would it be? What’s the deal with capitalizing some random word?

Here’s where it all comes from. In the German language, all nouns (though not all pronouns, oddly enough) are capitalized. So, if you’re speaking German, you have to capitalize every Noun you write, whether it be an unimportant Noun like Book, an important one like Ice Cream, or one related to Architecture like Buttress. The result is that German looks like the previous sentence in print.

English is not like this, but if you’ll recall, there were a lot of German speakers in America shortly after its founding. Somehow, their spelling habits worked their way into the public consciousness (look at the Declaration of Independence, for example). As with many customs that are assumed and not taught, though, the practice was borrowed imperfectly. Basically, people just capitalized any old word they wanted to look important—even verbs! There was little systematicity (what rule, after all, would call for only the word “massacre” to be capitalized in the problem sentence above?), and each writer did things a little differently.

Fast forward to modern times, the practice of random capitalization has gone the way of the dodo. One simply can’t capitalize Whatever one feels to be Important anymore, I’m afraid. If you feel like emulating the old style, though, remember two things: First, there was no real systematicity to what they were doing; and second, you can’t capitalize everything, like the Germans do, otherwise the capitalized words won’t stand out—and that’s what people were going for back then.

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!

You Can Hang Out With All the Boys

Problem(s)

All hard working men love ice cream.

Solution(s)

All hard-working men love ice cream.

Explanation

No, I am not being persnickety: this is a real problem. Take a gander at that problem sentence. Can you think of another interpretation than the sense given in the solution sentence? Any other interpretation? Perhaps instead of “men that are hard-working”, you might read “working men that are…” Well. Ahem.

So. Presuming that is not what you meant to say, this is the reason we have hyphens! No, they’re not just for breaking up long words at the end of a line (and they most certainly are not dashes!), they actually serve a regular purpose. Whenever we come up with a coinage like “hard-working” that, for whatever reason, hasn’t been accepted as a single word (see if Google auto-corrects your word, and you’ll know if it’s been accepted [and what do you know! “Hardworking” has been accepted! But let’s pretend for the sake of argument that it hasn’t been yet]), the elements that comprise it must be separated by a hyphen. This is crucial when the interpretation of those elements as a string would lend the sentence a different meaning. In order to keep those interpretations separate, we must use a hyphen with one, and a space with the other.

In case you’re wondering why we don’t run into this problem in speech, let me remind you that writing is nothing but an approximation of spoken language, and its most obvious deficiency lies in its representation of intonation. The phrases “hard working men” and “hard-working men” have distinct intonational patterns, and would never be confused by a native English speaker (or listener). In writing, all we have to go on is the absence or presence of a hyphen. Since little bits like hyphens, commas, dots on i’s, etc., are the likeliest to be left out, what we’re confronted with, more often than not, is an absent hyphen. Consequently, confusion can arise—even if the context would otherwise make it clear.

But, hey, I’m a reasonable guy. If I look at the problem sentence above, I’ll probably interpret it correctly. (Well, if I feel like it.) But know ye this: internet humor is puerile. Desire ye that your written words be made a mockery of on internet fora and blog posts? Nay? Methinks my case resteth.

But in This Ever-Changing…

Problem(s)

The world in which we live in is full of ice cream.

Solution(s)

The world in which we live is full of ice cream.

The world we live in is full of ice cream.

Explanation

I think what’s happening in the problem sentence above is a kind of garden path effect. Specifically, the writer is in the process of writing the sentence, writes “in which”, and then by the time s/he gets to the end of “we live”, working memory fails, and another “in” is inserted. Oops!

Since English allows us to use prepositions either as post-verbal particles (or adverbs) or as true prepositions, we have two options when we create a relative clause. The first solution sentence gives us one option: a preposed preposition with a relative pronoun; and the second solution sentence gives us the other option: no relative pronoun of any kind, and the preposition “in” used adverbially. If a writer forgets (working memory, remember) which strategy they’ve chosen, though, problems like this can occur. It happens to everyone every now and again, so try to anticipate troublesome errors like this one.

Like a Bunny

Problem(s)

I ate that ice cream cone as quick as I possibly could.

Solution(s)

I ate that ice cream cone as quickly as I possibly could.

Explanation

Is this an error? Yes. Should you feel bad about it? No. Why? I’ll explain.

Language, like all other living entities (doubt you that language lives? It is born, grows, produces offspring, adapts, reacts to external influences, and ultimately dies. It’s as alive as alive gets, if you ask me), evolves. As it evolves, it teeters between two ideals: maximum intelligibility and ease of use. The easiest language to use is one with only one word—let’s say, “blork”—but using such a language is rather difficult, since it’d be nearly impossible for anyone to figure out what the heck you meant when you said, “Blork!” On the other end of the spectrum is a language that is maximally transparent semantically. In this language, each entity would have a different word, and there would be ways to express every possible tense (one second before now; two seconds before now; three seconds before now, etc.). It’d be impossible for a human to compose even a single sentence in such a language, let alone use the language on a day-to-day basis. How, then, do we achieve the delicate balance we’ve achieved with natural human languages? Simple: we compromise.

In this great linguistic compromise we call natural language, as is the case with any compromise, each side gives something and gets something. The languages we use (English, Spanish, Tagalog, etc.) are not very easy to use, and are not semantically transparent. In fact, at times, they’re rather difficult, and downright ambiguous. When a language gets too difficult to use, it’s usually simplified; when it becomes too ambiguous, complexity is introduced into the system to clear up the confusion.

So, back to the above problem sentence. In order for a language to be maximally transparent, every word should be marked in some way to let the user know what role each word is playing in the sentence. As such, if you have an adverb, it should be marked as an adverb. In English, we have the handy -ly prefix to take care of the job. What’s it accomplish for us? Basically, we can tell the difference between the sentences “I make it happy” (I cause some entity to be happy) and “I make it happily” (I create some entity and do so happily). If we had no -ly, both sentences would be “I make it happy”, and the hearer might be confused as to what the intended meaning is supposed to be. Thus, we’ve defeated ambiguity. Hurrah!

Now take a look at the problem sentence above, and ask yourself: Is there any possible reading that allows for “quick” to be interpreted as an adjective? What would be quick? The ice cream cone? I? Even if it were “I”, pronouns usually aren’t modified by adjectives in this way. No matter which way you slice it, whether it’s “quick” or “quickly”, that word has to be an adverb. Has to; there’s no way around it. So, leaving transparency aside, since this is not an ambiguous sentence, let’s return to ease of use. What’s easier: a sentence where an adverb is “marked” by its position in the sentence and by a special suffix, or a sentence where an adverb is “marked” merely by its position in the sentence? Unless my arithmetic is off, one thing is simpler than two things, so a sentence with only one thing is easier to use. In fact, a sentence with double marking can be called by an even uglier name than “ambiguous” that hasn’t been mentioned yet: redundant!

As languages change, the fight between transparency and ease of use causes redundancies to be added to languages where there were none prior, and old redundancies to be removed. I have a feeling that the -ly suffix may be on its way out in English (and sticklers out there, don’t blame the youth: blame “hard”. Think about it). So if you find yourself in speech or in writing accidentally leaving that -ly off a word like “quick” in a context like “X verbed Y as Z as…”, don’t feel bad. After all, it’s just redundant morphology. When it comes to paper writing, though, you should try to keep old Uncle Ly around, because you know them sticklers: they’re ignorant, hateful, joyless beings who sustain themselves by belittling others. Don’t feed the sticklers! We have other ways of dealing with their kind.

I Who Is…?

Problem(s)

But to me, who know what it really is, its transformation makes no matter, for I will have it repaired at the first village where I can find a smith in such a way that it will not be surpassed or even equaled by the one that the god of smiths himself made and forged for the god of battles.

Solution(s)

But to me, who knows what it really is, its transformation makes no matter, for I will have it repaired at the first village where I can find a smith in such a way that it will not be surpassed or even equaled by the one that the god of smiths himself made and forged for the god of battles.

Explanation

The astute reader of the above will note that the problem sentence comes from Don Quixote by Cervantes (Don Quixote here is talking about a brass barber’s basin he fancies to be a helmet). That sentence was written (i.e. translated) by Walter Starkie, the famed Irish scholar. Notice anything odd about it? If you do, you’re not alone; if you don’t, you’re not alone.

English, like any number of old, abandoned bicycles rusting on the side of the road, is broken, and the problem and solution sentences above are prime examples of its sorry state. (Don’t believe me? Here’s further evidence.) When we use “who”, generally there is no problem, because we’re usually talking about someone else, e.g., “The guy who’s on the phone dropped his hat in that volcano.” When the target of relativization (in this case, “the guy”) is a third party (pretty much any noun or a pronoun like “he”, “she”, “it”, or even “they”), the verb that follows “who” is conjugated in the third person, and we don’t give it another thought. When, for whatever odd reason, though, you want to relativize “I”, the mighty capitalized pronoun, you immediately run into a dilemma. Consider:

  • “I eat ice cream.” (Good!)
  • “I eats ice cream.” (Bad!)
  • “I who eat ice cream.” (Good?)
  • “I who eats ice cream.” (Probably bad?)
  • “Give the ice cream to me, who eat ice cream.” (Good?!)
  • “Give the ice cream to me, who eats ice cream.” (Suddenly not so bad anymore?!)
  • “Who eats ice cream?” “I do.” (Good!)
  • “Who eat ice cream?” “I do.” (Bad!)

It gets a bit confusing. Is “who” a third person pronoun? How could it possibly be a first person pronoun? Does “I” pass some of its first-person-ness onto the “who” by means of some nightmarish Chomskyan mechanism? The amusing thing is it doesn’t matter, because whatever explanation one comes up with, the data is bound to be refuted by the next passerby. And why? Because English is broken!

So, what to do? If you’re writing an essay for, I don’t know, school, I’d say just never, ever relativize “I” or “me”. I bet you can get through every essay you’ll ever write for school without having to do it. If you have to, try to do it in the past tense where English forgets that verbs can agree in person and/or number (the sole exception being that dirty verb “was”, which, truth be told, probably isn’t a true conjugation of the verb “to be” at all, if you go back far enough). If you absolutely have to, ask your professor and/or teacher: make them fix English.

Into the Valley of Death

Problem(s)

I’ve eaten thir-teen-thousand six-hundred, eighty nine ice cream cones since I turned twenty.

Solution(s)

I’ve eaten thirteen thousand, six hundred and eighty-nine ice cream cones since I turned twenty.

Explanation

It’s rare that one actually wants to spell out a long number like 13,689, but just in case, this is how you do it. To summarize:

  • Commas go where they would in the number (after “thirteen thousand”, and not elsewhere).
  • Two digit numbers greater than twenty that aren’t divisible by ten are written with a hyphen; other numbers (e.g. numbers in the hundreds, thousands and millions [save instances like “sixty-nine thousand”, which is a two digit number followed by a separate number word]) are not.
  • It is generally “proper” to include the word “and” to separate the hundreds number from the number that follows (e.g. “one hundred and one”, “six hundred and twenty-seven”, etc.).

Now, to address a common question: Can one just write 13,689? Sure, why not? If you do, though, the number one rule is: be consistent! Never write something like, “This past summer, I saw one horror movie, 3 comedies, 5 dramas, and eight sports movies”. It’s simply confusing to the eye. So when it comes to numbers, find a style you like, and stick with it (unless you have a persnickety professor who demands you do it in a particular way, in which case, do it like s/he says until the end of the class, and then go back to doing it how you like).

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.

American Idyll

Problem(s)

Imagine it: an ice cream parlor in every home. Idyllic? Perhaps. Worthwhile? Without question.

Solution(s)

Imagine it: an ice cream parlor in every home. Idealistic? Perhaps. Worthwhile? Without question.

Explanation

Yours truly has been guilty of this one in the past (read that aloud: it’s probably still true). We have the word “ideal”, and one is bound to hear the word “idyllic”, and so it’s natural to think (if one doesn’t see the spelling) that the latter is related to the former. Such, however, is not the case.

The word “idyll” refers to a type of poetry (or, originally it did). An idyll is a kind of pastoral poem, talking about peasant folk out in the fields, tall grass, shrubbery, etc. (think William Wordsworth). To describe this type of a poem, one uses the word “idyllic”. The poems are always positive (or at least the ones I’ve read), talking about how the peasants out there in the fields are so much better than cityfolk like us, because they’re closer to the land, it’s peaceful, with a tranquil landscape, etc. (Dang… Two etceteras…) As such, the word “idyllic” was extended to describe a pastoral landscape. So, if you head out to a field of wheat, and the weather’s mild, and there’s a breeze blowing, and there’s no one around, and it’s quiet, and you can hear nothing but nature, it’d be okay to call that scene idyllic. That this was an ideal setting for some is what I think led to problems.

So now we have the sense out there that one definition (or, perhaps, the definition) of “idyllic” is “referring to lofty ideals”, so that someone who gives an inspiring speech can be referred to as idyllic. Thus they relate, erring. In fact, the word “idyllic” is just a specialized term that worked its way out into the world of general discourse simply because it sounds like it could be an adjectival form of “ideal”. Alas, would that it were so!

Since it is not so, I recommend you leave “idyllic” for Wordsworth, no matter how fancy it sounds, and stick with “idealistic”.