Tag Archives: editing

Never let it rest

On several occasions recently, I’ve made a mental note to look up a specific rule of grammar pertaining to comparative and superlative adjectives. As is often the case, once I go searching, I find it’s not that easy.

In elementary school, these adjectival forms were presented in a nursery rhyme beginnig with “Good, Better, Best.” If it weren’t for the fact that I often hear the superlative used incorrectly, I’d say there’s no need for a refresher. (Better, the comparative, pertains to two items, as in “She is the older of the two children.” Best, the superlative, pertains to three or more, as in “He is the tallest boy in the class.”) I’ll come back to violation peeves in a moment, though I’ve griped before.

Here’s the use about which I was uncertain. Maybe you know.

Is it “one of the more…” or “one of the most…” and is there a difference? Finding a definitive—and authoritative–answer has taken deep mining.

To the ear, or my ear anyway, “one of the more” seems incorrect, simply because there are likely more than two nouns being compared. Without thinking too hard, I’d be inclined to say “one of the most.”

In fact, I was editing something yesterday when I came upon “one of the more” and changed it. Oops?

As I always do, I combed through my various style guides and grammar books and found nothing firm on the subject. However, I did read through volumes of online debate.

Some of the word usage bloggers insist that “one of the biggest” is absolutely incorrect, but I found their logic a bit flimsy. Others argued to the contrary.

I invite your comments on the subject. Does either comparative or superlative prevail when following “one of the” and why? Your opinions are welcome, but I’d really appreciate it if you’d cite your sources. Please don’t support your position with the notion that the other one sounds funny. We all know there are plenty of correct phrases in English that sound funny. As much as we might wish otherwise, not sounding funny is no basis for grammatical correctness.

Back to basic comparative and superlative, I wish people with two children stopped referring to one as the oldest and the other the youngest, when one is the older and the other the younger. Easy enough.

One blog I read cited lexicographer H.W. Fowler‘s assertion that exceptions can be made for idioms. I’m not sure I buy into that.

For example, if comparative (the –er form of an adjective) applies to only two, then why do humans put our “best foot forward?”

Likewise, why do we strive to have “the best of both worlds?”

This is one of the things that most keep me up at night. Or is it more?

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Them’s fightin’ words

A recent piece in the Chicago Tribune caught my attention online. Columnist Heidi Stevens asked readers which words they believe are most likely to start a fight. This wasn’t about let’s-step-outside kinds of  words. She wanted to know: Over which words will people go to the grammatical mat?

It’s probably a safe bet that anyone reading this blog has, at one time or another, gone fist to cuffs, in the verbal sense, over proper word usage.

What got my attention about the piece is that it began with a word over which I once lost a bet. I’m fairly sure I’ve told you this story. I once bet my husband that “irregardless” could not be found in the dictionary. It can. The way I should have phrased the bet was that “irregardless” is an incorrect form of “regardless.” Foolish me.

Stevens cited other examples I’d seen cause disagreements, including “adverse” versus “averse” as well as another one I had to have hammered into me long ago by an editor. I should have known better, but I learned my lesson and never forgot it. As an editor myself, I’ve turned around and taught it to quite a few writers. But not before going to the mat on it. It has to do with the word “comprise.” A whole is not “comprised of” its parts. The whole “comprises its parts” or it “is composed of” its parts. “Comprised of” is incorrect. I was 30 before that one sank in.

Arguing about grammar and word usage can be thorny. Many of us are accustomed to correcting people, especially if we are editors. It’s our job. We aren’t always accustomed to having our edits challenged. I’m not sure I’ve ever argued with an editor, but I have learned good lessons from several.  (I did have a manager once who hated the word “it” and edited it out of everything I wrote.)  It’s interesting to see how arguments progress until one party produces hard proof. (I used “it” four times in that paragraph. So there.)

I tell you, many of the subjects we’ve addressed here have sprung from disagreements. Being proven wrong is one of the best ways to learn; I know.

My advice: Don’t hesitate to engage in debate about words. Just be sure your argument is phrased in such a way that your position can be supported by a source you and your opponent both trust. Irregardless.

Note: Earlier I wrote “fist to cuffs.” I looked it up and found several alternate spellings, including “fisticuffs,” “fisticuff” and “fist-a-cuffs. Anyone?

Another note: This is a tricky week for Word Nymph. If, among the planes, trains, automobiles, weddings, funerals and business trips, an entry isn’t posted promptly, please be patient. Today’s is my 300th post. Surely there are one or two in here you haven’t read yet.

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A reaching offense

Adding to the growing commentary on the steady decline of the English language as we once knew it, The Washington Post Magazine’s Gene Weingarten has written one of the cleverest pieces to date.

Please read “Goodbye, Cruel Words” for yourself because I will most certainly fail to do it justice here. Readers, this figurative obituary of the language is right up our alley with real-life examples of ridiculous errors in grammar, usage and syntax committed by some of the most highly regarded newspapers.

Please note: the piece calls attention to a once-trendy, now overused phrase to which I ashamedly plead “Guilty.”

I probably picked it up 10 years ago in my corporate days; my dealings with corporate clients since that time have etched it ever more deeply into my lexicon. And, truthfully, I’ve always liked it.

As Weingarten introduces it, “[no] development contributed more dramatically to the death of the language than the sudden and startling ubiquity of the vomitous verbal construction ‘reach out to’ as a synonym  for ‘call on the phone,’ or ‘attempt to contact.’” He calls it “a jargony phrase bloated with bogus compassion – once the province only of 12-step programs and sensitivity training seminars…”

Bingo.

I wonder if “reach out” started with AT&T’s tear-inducing television commercials of the 1980s, “Reach out and touch someone.” As Weingarten points out, reaching out was a gesture of sensitivity or support. It probably derived from “outreach.”

Looking back on the countless meetings I’ve attended in the last 25 years, I can almost trace the phrase’s road to ubiquity, including a U-turn in its meaning. Reaching out has gone from a gesture of good will to one of asking a favor or, in the extreme, groveling.

Come to think of it, I have “reached out” quite a bit over the years.

“We need to get Sen. Smith on board with this.” “I’ll reach out to him.”

“I’ll reach out to XYZ Corp. for a $50,000 sponsorship.”

“I’ll reach out to Mary to see if she’ll be the closing speaker for the conference.”

Guilty as charged. Not because I’ve spent my career calling people to ask them for things, but because I’ve done so using a vomitous verbal construction.

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The girl with the red pen

A couple of years ago, before grownups were allowed on Facebook, I set about finding my childhood BFF.  More aptly Best Friends for Then, she and I lost touch after high school, much to my profound disappointment.  Thirty years after graduation, my search eventually led me to her.  She was living several states away.  I contacted her via e-mail and we arranged to speak by phone one evening.

We got the life updates out of the way, shared information about our parents and kids and quickly returned to the past.  She reminded me of something that brought me tremendous remorse.  It must have been equally painful for her but at the time I was unaware.   

She remembered that back in middle school, she’d pass me notes during class.  And she remembered (gasp!) that I would correct her spelling and grammatical mistakes with a red pen before passing the notes back. 

As we chatted on the phone that night, her daughter walked in and asked who was on the phone.  She said, “I am talking with Monica.”  Her daughter said, “oh, isn’t she the girl with the red pen who used to correct your notes?”  Ouch.

To my friend I offer my deepest apologies.  I give myself an F for my overzealous behavior and hope to some day earn back that second F in BFF.

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