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"Grammar Geekery" - A Washington Post Column Written by Bill Walsh

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(Scroll down and read the third paragraph of Post #4)

It's Attorneys General, not Attorney Generals.

Now, if someone would only point me to the generally accepted rules for capitalization in titles, I would be in their debt. I don't know what they are, so I tend to capitalize most everything, sometimes making exceptions for words that are two-letters or less.

The 1990 Iraq War changed the meaning of the term "decimate" forever. At least research the original etymology, and be aware that it has been bastardized within the past 25 years. This one bothered me for a long time, and is a concrete example that if you don't stand up early on and fight, things will slip away before your very eyes - forever.

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Per one of the cups above - - I didn't even know that less/fewer were one of those confusing/often used improperly words until recently.

I'm still not sure what the problem or issue is, and I've been likely misusing both of them, but since I discovered it, I've been seeing it pop up all over the place.

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Per one of the cups above - - I didn't even know that less/fewer were one of those confusing/often used improperly words until recently.

I'm still not sure what the problem or issue is, and I've been likely misusing both of them, but since I discovered it, I've been seeing it pop up all over the place.

This is one that never bothered me because I don't think it's violated very often, but if you visualize it, you can "see" that "fewer" refers to individually countable items. Using that as your base, it's easier to see that "less" refers to a blobbish mass, or fungible items such as rice, grass, sand on a beach, etc.  ("There's less orange juice in my glass than yours." - I suspect you've been intuitively using this correctly all along because you'd never say, "There's fewer orange juice in my glass than yours." On the other hand, you might say, "There are less apples on my plate than yours," so maybe this is the way it's usually mistaken.)  Note that if the container goes from being a "plate" to an "industrial-sized bin," the items become fungible, i.e., uncountable, and it becomes correct to use "less." I think. "There seem to be less apples in that five-ton bin on the left."

Related: "The snowflakes are beautiful!" I understand you have the option of saying, "The snow is beautiful!" but who looks at individual snowflakes? And yet, saying "The snowflakes is beautiful" sounds completely, totally wrong; unlike "The rice is good." Thought: Maybe it has to do with the "s" on the end which forces a plural?

BTW, Bill on Capitol Hill runs a very entertaining chat (and occasional column) involving this very thing, called "Grammar Geekery," and now that I'm thinking about it, I'm going to dedicate this post to him. I have never seen him write something that doesn't make good sense, and I'm *so* happy to find out he's a proponent of the singular "they" ("Whenever one of my family members shows up, they're treated like royalty.") It's either that, or fuss with (s)he's, etc. which I hate.

Regarding the first question in that chat, I researched the proper use of "myself" many years ago, and it stuck with me. From what I read, there are three, and only three, times when you can use it and not sound like a boxer being interviewed after getting pummeled.

1) As a reflexive (i.e., the subject and object are both the same person): "I hurt myself."

2) As an intensive (i.e, for emphasis that you're talking about yourself <--- see that reflexive usage there?): "I, myself, wouldn't do such a thing."

3) As a quasi-noun meaning "my one, true self": "I'm just not myself today."

That said, in all three of these examples, "I" has already been referenced, so Bill's simpler answer may well be sufficient. Now that you've read this, you're going to notice how many *idiots* giving speeches or being interviewed use "myself" as an object - sometimes even a subject - to try and sound educated. ("My wife and myself personally flew over the disaster area ....")

And all this grammar geekery having been said, I, myself, :) write like I talk, so I often know I'm making a mistake, and do it anyway 'cuz it's what I'm shootin' fer. Still, it's nice to at least know what's correct so you can make an informed choice. You can be a black belt in karate and never let anyone know.

I've just decided it might be fun to bring back some obsolete terms. ("You ignorant funge!")

I'm also curious if anyone here has ever needed to make a dash because of their colon or their period.

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(Scroll down and read the third paragraph of Post #4)

Now, if someone would only point me to the generally accepted rules for capitalization in titles, I would be in their debt. I don't know what they are, so I tend to capitalize most everything, sometimes making exceptions for words that are two-letters or less.

As a one-time copy editor, I can give you the Chicago Manual of Style rules for capitalizing titles (from a 30-year-old memory; I can't quote them): Capitalize the first and last word, no matter what they are. Otherwise, don't capitalize articles and prepositions, no matter how long they are. Do capitalize every other word, no matter how short. Thus, an imaginary book title: He Is without Mercy. I think most American style sheets follow this practice, as do most UK sources. It's obviously very different in other languages.

The 1990 Iraq War changed the meaning of the term "decimate" forever. At least research the original etymology, and be aware that it has been bastardized within the past 25 years. This one bothered me for a long time, and is a concrete example that if you don't stand up early on and fight, things will slip away before your very eyes - forever.

Ahem. The usage you decry is much older than you imagine. From the OED entry:

b. rhetorically or loosely. To destroy or remove a large proportion of; to subject to severe loss, slaughter, or mortality.

1663   J. Spencer Disc. Prodigies vi. 96   The..Lord..sometimes decimates a multitude of offenders, and discovers in the personal sufferings of a few what all deserve.

1812   W. Taylor in Monthly Rev. 79 181   An expurgatory index, pointing out the papers which it would be fatiguing to peruse, and thus decimating the contents into legibility.

1848   C. Brontí« Let. 28 Aug. in E. C. Gaskell Life C. Brontí« (1857) II. ii. 76   Typhus fever decimated the school periodically.

1875   C. Lyell Princ. Geol. II. iii. xlii. 466   The whole animal Creation has been decimated again and again.

1877   H. M. Field Lakes of Killarney 340   This conscription weighs very heavily on the Mussulmen..who are thus decimated from year to year.

1883   L. Oliphant Haifa (1887) 76   Cholera..was then decimating the country.

I don't actually remember the loose sense of "decimate" figuring largely in the discourse of that particular conflict, but I was probably preoccupied with other aspects of it.

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Related: "The snowflakes are beautiful!" I understand you have the option of saying, "The snow is beautiful!" but who looks at individual snowflakes? And yet, saying "The snowflakes is beautiful" sounds completely, totally wrong; unlike "The rice is good." Thought: Maybe it has to do with the "s" on the end which forces a plural?

It's count vs. non-count nouns. Snow is non-count, so you use "less;" snowflakes are count, so you use "fewer." Rice is like snow; we don't talk about "rices" unless we're talking about different varieties. And this is one of those things that I actually learned as a teacher of English as a foreign language that I previously just did without thinking.

Azami (also an EFL teacher) tells me that prescriptively (i.e., the rule), you should use "less" and "fewer" as described above. Descriptively, we use "less" for both count and non-count nouns: "There are fewer cars on 16th Street today" and "There are less cars on 16th Street today." Generally, we don't use "fewer" with non-count nouns.

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I don't actually remember the loose sense of "decimate" figuring largely in the discourse of that particular conflict, but I was probably preoccupied with other aspects of it.

Wolf Blitzer used it incessantly. I was an adult, and I remember the war coverage being the first time I'd ever noticed the term, and got very annoyed at how often reporters used it - so, that at least means something, though I'm not sure how much.

On other notes, can you imagine a Pentagon Correspondent with a more appropriate name than Wolf Blitzer?

Trivia: Did you know that Wolf Blitzer never set foot in Iraq? Many people "remember" him reporting from the front lines; he never left Arlington.

It's count vs. non-count nouns. Snow is non-count, so you use "less;" snowflakes are count, so you use "fewer." Rice is like snow; we don't talk about "rices" unless we're talking about different varieties. And this is one of those things that I actually learned as a teacher of English as a foreign language that I previously just did without thinking.

Azami (also an EFL teacher) tells me that prescriptively (i.e., the rule), you should use "less" and "fewer" as described above. Descriptively, we use "less" for both count and non-count nouns: "There are fewer cars on 16th Street today" and "There are less cars on 16th Street today." Generally, we don't use "fewer" with non-count nouns.

This is my point: Nobody in the history of the world has ever counted snowflakes! I understand the word "flakes" *sounds* like a countable noun, but in reality, snowflakes are not countable. And I guess you could say the same thing about Corn Flakes.

(More of a bemused observation than an actual complaint.)

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Wolf Blitzer used it incessantly. I was an adult, and I remember the war coverage being the first time I'd ever noticed the term, and got very annoyed at how often reporters used it - so, that at least means something, though I'm not sure how much.

I didn't have cable service in 1990-91, so CNN was not part of my world. It still isn't, but for other reasons.

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I didn't have cable service in 1990-91, so CNN was not part of my world. It still isn't, but for other reasons.

Larry King? :)

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Re: Capitalization in titles. I left out conjunctions. Aside from the first and last words of a title, which are capitalized no matter what, you don't capitalize articles, conjunctions, or prepositions, no matter their length. You capitalize all other words, also no matter their length.

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Re: Capitalization in titles. I left out conjunctions. Aside from the first and last words of a title, which are capitalized no matter what, you don't capitalize articles, conjunctions, or prepositions, no matter their length. You capitalize all other words, also no matter their length.

So in other words: "I Left My Heart in San Francisco because a Nun Came Up to Me and Impaled Me with an Umbrella, Thus Causing My Cardiac Unit To Plop Out of the Newly Formed Gash in My Sternum?"

It's too bad leleboo moved - this stuff is right up her alley.

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So in other words: "I Left My Heart in San Francisco because a Nun Came Up to Me and Impaled Me with an Umbrella, Thus Causing My Cardiac Unit To Plop Out of the Newly Formed Gash in My Sternum?"

It's too bad leleboo moved - this stuff is right up her alley.

I believe at least one word in your title is "wrong" under the Chicago or similar rules, but only because I probably misstated the rules. "To" in "to plop" is a "particle" that acts as a marker of the infinitive verb, and is treated as a preposition in determining whether to capitalize. While "up" is often a preposition, in "she came up to me" I think it's either an adverb or part of a phrasal verb (to come up) and should be capitalized in your title, as you did. Now that I think about it, though, isn't "thus" in your title a conjunction, and not to be capitalized? A very thorny issue.

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...

This is my point: Nobody in the history of the world has ever counted snowflakes! I understand the word "flakes" *sounds* like a countable noun, but in reality, snowflakes are not countable. And I guess you could say the same thing about Corn Flakes.

(More of a bemused observation than an actual complaint.)

Snowflakes are visibly plural. Just because no one can get a complete count doesn't mean they aren't "countable." It's like thousands of speeding cars on two hypothetical Los Angeles freeways as viewed from a small plane at low altitude. You could begin counting but not get a complete or accurate count. Thus, still countable and we might observe that "Freeway X typically has fewer cars than Freeway Y at rush hour."

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Not analogous.

Rice is to snow as snowflakes are to grains (of rice).

Okay, so snowflakes is (ha! singular!) like saying rice grains, sand grains, or grass blades - I can see that.

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I first time I tried sea urchin I was less than 10 years old and was by our Japanese hostess warned that I would not like it.  She was right.  The second time I loved it.  Although I cannot remember my first bite of Indian pickle, I am certain it was a similar circumstance.  

Forgive me for veering wildly off topic, but wouldn't it be funny if a grammar nazi swooped in and insisted it should be "fewer than 10 years old"?

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Forgive me for veering wildly off topic, but wouldn't it be funny if a grammar nazi swooped in and insisted it should be "fewer than 10 years old"?

Wouldn't it be even funnier if a Nazi moderator moved your post to the "Grammar Geekery" thread? :lol:

"A place for everything, and everything in its place."

-- Charles A. Goodrich, a former website host who lost all his readers

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Forgive me for veering wildly off topic, but wouldn't it be funny if a grammar nazi swooped in and insisted it should be "fewer than 10 years old"?

The reason we correctly use less, not fewer, in this instance (less than 10 years old) is because in English the convention for denoting age is to use the verb "to be" not "to have."  The use of the verb "be" logically causes age to become a quantity, not a count. If we instead used the verb "have," as they do in Spanish, then we would indeed say he has fewer than 10 years. But as it is, we are speaking of a quantity of age, not a count of years, so we correctly say "less than 10 years." Got that?

One way I assess the classiness of supermarkets is by looking at their express line signs.  Wegmans' and Publix's, for example, say "fewer than 10 items", while Winn-Dixie (and I'm pretty sure Wal-mart) say "less than 10 items." You can pick up clues about a company from things like that.  I can't say about Safeway and Giant since I don't live in DC these days.

Speaking of Wolf Blitzer, one of my pet peeves about CNN is the constant use of epicenter when center would do. This particular malaprop is showing up everywhere these days.   Using "epicenter" is an attempt to make something seem really really the very very center of whatever it is, but of course center is already a superlative -- you can't be any more at the center of something than the center.  Epicenter actually has only one valid meaning: it is the point on the earth's surface directly above the center of an earthquake, so it's not even a "center" to start with.  The ultimate stupidity occurred on CNN yesterday when they said "the epicenter of the earthquake was 50 miles below the surface." Stupidity is as stupidity does.

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Speaking of Wolf Blitzer, one of my pet peeves about CNN is the constant use of epicenter when center would do. This particular malaprop is showing up everywhere these days.   Using "epicenter" is an attempt to make something seem really really the very very center of whatever it is, but of course center is already a superlative -- you can't be any more at the center of something than the center.  Epicenter actually has only one valid meaning: it is the point on the earth's surface directly above the center of an earthquake, so it's not even a "center" to start with.  The ultimate stupidity occurred on CNN yesterday when they said "the epicenter of the earthquake was 50 miles below the surface." Stupidity is as stupidity does.

Before this big snowstorm hit, I overheard someone say that we were in the "epic center" of the storm. He really seemed to think it was the right phrase. For all intensive purposes, in this case, it's a good description.

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Before this big snowstorm hit, I overheard someone say that we were in the "epic center" of the storm. He really seemed to think it was the right phrase. For all intensive purposes, in this case, it's a good description.

Wow!  Two eggcorns in one post, one a compound eggcorn/malaprop, and the second used to comment on the first.

We are all susceptible.

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Wow!  Two eggcorns in one post, one a compound eggcorn/malaprop, and the second used to comment on the first.

We are all susceptible.

 

No, some of us have a sense of humor! :)

Mike purposefully wrote that.

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No, some of us have a sense of humor! :)

Mike purposefully wrote that.

That was my assumption.

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but of course center is already a superlative -- you can't be any more at the center of something than the center.  

And for your math geeks out there, the same goes for a "straight line" and a "round circle"

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And for your math geeks out there, the same goes for a "straight line" and a "round circle"

Us math geeks will tell you there's no such thing as a straight line: A "straight line" isn't a redundancy; it's a paradox.

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