Writers Talk About Writing
Hold That Apostrophe
In her 30 year career as a copy editor, its no surprise Pam Nelson has seen her share of grammar foibles. Hey, kidding about "its!" Now a features copy editor at North Carolina's News & Observer, she also writes the newspaper's popular blog on usage called the Triangle Grammar Guide. Readers from Raleigh, Durham -- and around the world -- shoot Pam their questions, rankles, bloopers, even a photo or two. We spoke to Pam about her grammar blog:
VT: What kinds of usage conundrums ruffle your readers?
Pam: People wonder about changing usage -- whether what they learned in school is still true or not. I point out that things do change; words that meant one thing can now mean something else. For instance, I wrote a recent post about "hopefully," which has always been one of those words copy editors hate because it means "in a hopeful manner," not "it is to be hoped." But I think that might be changing.
In one email a reader asked me about "healthy" and "healthful." What you should say is "healthful food will make you healthy." But the reader noticed that people are now using "healthy" for "healthful" and wondered about the change. I pointed out that really careful people use "healthful" when they mean "something that gives you health" but usage has indeed changed. "Healthful" is one of those words that is falling into disuse.
VT: People seem intimidated by grammar. How can they get over that?
Pam: I think almost everyone understands how to use words the right way. If you just follow your instincts, most of the time you'll get it right. People make mistakes when they're trying too hard and "hyper-correcting." That is deadly. That's where you go wrong. If you just use your natural speech, for the most part, most of the time you'll get it right. Most of the time you can tease out an answer even if you're not a grammar expert.
VT: How can people improve their grammar?
Pam: I tell people to read good writers and publications so they get familiar with good writing and good usage. I also tell them to use grammar and usage books -- I refer to them all the time. One of my favorites is the Writer's Digest Grammar Desk Reference. It's a spiral-bound book and it's really easy to use. The Gregg Reference Manual is another one I use. It's more for business communication but does a really good job explaining grammar-- and it's spiral bound, too. I also have a bunch of dictionaries on my desk and I use them a lot. If you're really serious about improving your usage, get a grammar book and use a good dictionary.