Word Count

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.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday October 19th 2006, 9:41 PM
Comment by: E. Mike S.
I like good, handy grammar references, too. Even though I teach grammar and composition to middle-schoolers, I still find much value in such resources and will certainly keep in mind the two mentioned by Ms. Nelson. An online source that I've found to be valuable to my students and me is the late Dr. Charles Darling's Guide to Grammar & Writing ( http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar). If you haven't visited this site before, you'll be surprised at its completeness and ease of use.
Sunday October 29th 2006, 12:01 PM
Comment by: Henry B.
Using natural speech can help, but for formal writing very few people actually use good grammar. I teach my ESL students the difference between acceptable informal speech and writing and formal writing. You're right, both evolve.
I learned that a good way to avoid bleeding all over a writing (over-correcting) is to read for meaning and impact first. A writer should put his/her work aside for about a day or two and then reread it to see if it is understandable and has the desired meaning.
Grammar and punctuation should come at the end.
Thursday November 2nd 2006, 12:35 PM
Comment by: Kim F.
But what about the subjunctive?
I hear/read very few instances lately of "If it were a different time,...". Instead, "If it was a different time,..." seems to be taking hold. Is this an example of language evolving, or just bad grammar? What do people think?
Thursday November 2nd 2006, 3:10 PM
Comment by: Norma R.
I notice that when you mention the title of a book, you underline it. Recently I've been told that underlining is out; setting a title in quotes is in. What's the correct and current way? Is it different depending in what kind of publication (such as newspaper, or book, or Visual Thesaurus)?
Monday November 6th 2006, 5:49 PM
Comment by: anna S. (South Africa)Top 10 Commenter
The VT editor here... Thanks for your note, Norma. We underline the titles of the books because we create them as links (so you can check them out on Amazon). So it's more of a web thing than a grammar thing! Thanks for your support, Harris
Tuesday January 23rd 2007, 5:00 PM
Comment by: Terry Ellen C.
To Harris, the VT editor:
You seem to say that you underline book titles because they are links, not because they are book titles. All those years ago, we learned that one is supposed to underline titles.

I understand what you said about links to Amazon showing up underlined. If underlining isn't correct for book titles, why don't you use quotation marks as well - doing the right thing along with the web thing?

Since links without underlines are possible in a web page, why doesn't VT use correct format, regardless of linking?

Wednesday January 24th 2007, 9:31 AM
Comment by: anna S. (South Africa)Top 10 Commenter
Many thanks for your comment, Terry Ellen. You make a good point. You know, I've been considering this issue, too... I decided not to put quotes around "linked" books to avoid visual clutter -- using both quotes and underlines seemed too much. Hmmm, our hyperlinked online world is evolving grammar conventions! Thanks again, Harris

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