When to correct people’s grammar mistakes

This paper says “TSP Report.” I think you mean “TPS.”

For Christmas last year, I got a T-shirt that read, “I’m silently correcting your grammar.” At first I thought it was a jerky gift (sorry, Jenny), but then I thought, “Eh, it’s true.” And now I kind of like it. As a copyeditor trained to spot every tiny error (Is that a hyphen instead of an en dash? No way, bugger.), I can’t help but see mistakes everywhere—on signs, in emails, in—gasp—newspapers. I just can’t turn off the editor.

But when I spot an error in other people’s speech and writing, I usually silently correct them, instead of actually telling them they made a mistake. Correcting people’s grammar is a quick way to lose friends and become known as a stuffy know-it-all.

However, there are times when you should correct people’s grammar. I’ve outlined the whens and when nots below.

People learning English
If you know someone who is learning English as a second (or third or fourth) language, and they ask you to point out when they make mistakes so they can get better, then it’s okay. However, pay attention to their mood. If they’re talking about a fight with their boyfriend or a bad day at class, then that’s probably not the best time for a grammar lesson.

Co-workers
Normally you should be hesitant about correcting co-workers’ mistakes. If you spot an error in a casual email, for instance, leave it. But, if you see a mistake that could have major consequences, politely point out the error when you have a moment alone with the colleague. One example of when it’s okay to explain an error would be if a co-worker asks you to look over a PowerPoint for a quarterly update meeting with the big bosses and you see they used affect when it should be effect.

Basically, if you fear a mistake will cause someone’s reputation to be at stake, point it out in a kind, nonjudgmental manner when you are in a secluded environment.

Significant others
I think it’s usually always okay to correct your significant other’s grammar—as long as they are allowed to make fun of you when you have to use a calculator to figure out a restaurant tip. However, if your partner asks you to stop, then do.

Friends and family
Don’t correct friends’ and family members’ grammar mistakes unless they ask you to. Otherwise, you may be minus a friend and stuck getting fruitcake at Christmas. If their mistakes really irk you, start a grammar blog and write about the errors there (wink, wink).

 

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Years old: Hyphen or no hyphen?

Today we’re discussing when to hyphenate the phrases years old and year old.

Let’s take a look at two sentences:

His son is four years old.
He has a four year old boy.

In the first sentence, you would not use hyphens. In the second sentence, you would, making it four-year-old boy. This is because the phrase four year old is modifying the noun boy.

A good clue to determine whether you should hyphenate the year old phrase is to see if a noun comes after it. If there is a noun, hyphenate:

six-year-old toy
fifty-year-old whiskey
eight-year-old cat

If the sentence is simply stating that someone or something is so many years old, then don’t use a hyphen:

Her dad turned sixty years old today.
His baseball card is seventy years old.

Quiz
Determine whether the words in italics should be hyphenated. The answers are at the bottom.

1) Sasha is eight years old.
2) She has a three year old turtle.
3) Maddie is a five year old girl.
4) The painting is one hundred years old.
5) He ate the hamburger that was fourteen years old.
6) He ate a fourteen year old hamburger.

Answers:

1) not hyphenated 2) hyphenated; three-year-old turtle 3) hyphenated; five-year-old girl. 4) not hyphenated 5) not hyphenated 6) hyphenated; fourteen-year-old hamburger.

Erin Servais has more than a decade of copy editing experience. Learn more about working with her on your next project: dotanddashllc.com

Inserting accent marks

There are times in writing when you have to deal with dreaded accent marks. I feel for you. I really do. I’ve typed enough French essays to cry cedillas. So here’s a handy list of accent mark names and how to insert the darn things in Microsoft Word.

Common accent marks:

  • á: accent acute
  • à: accent grave
  • å: bolle
  • ç: cedilla
  • â: circumflex
  • æ: ligature
  • œ: ligature
  • ø: streg
  • ñ: tilde
  • ä: umlaut

Inserting accent marks
When I’m working with accent marks, I use the old-fashioned long way of inserting them because I’m not one for memorizing a bunch of shortcuts.

The long way
In Microsoft Word, go to Insert, then Symbol. Select Advanced Symbol. A small screen will pop up with a list of letters with accent marks. Simply select the letter and corresponding mark you want and click Insert.

Of course, you can always use keyboard shortcuts, too.

For PC users, here’s a list of shortcuts:
accent acute: CTRL+’, the letter
accent grave: CTRL+`, the letter
æ ligature: CTRL+Shift+&, a, or A
bolle: CTRL+Shift+@, a, or A
cedilla: CTRL+(comma), c, or C
circumflex: CTRL+Shift+^, the letter
œ ligature: CTRL+Shift+&, o, or O
streg: CTRL+/, o, or O
tilde: CTRL+Shift+~, the letter
umlaut: CTRL+Shift+:, the letter

For Mac users, here’s what to do:
accent acute: Option+E, the letter
accent grave: Option+`, the letter
æ ligature: Shift+Option+’ (uppercase); Option+’ (lowercase)
bolle: Shift+Option+A, the letter (uppercase); Option+A (lowercase)
cedilla: Shift+Option+C (uppercase); Option+C (lowercase)
circumflex: Option+I, the letter
œ ligature: Shift+Option+Q (uppercase); Option+Q (lowercase)
streg: Shift+Option+O (uppercase); Option+O (lowercase)
tilde: Option+N, the letter
umlaut: Option+U, the letter

 

Types of questions

Is his eye falling out? His eye is falling out, isn't it?I wonder if his eye will fall out.

Is his eye falling out?
His eye is falling out, isn’t it?
I wonder if his eye will fall out.

Today we will discuss three types of questions: direct questions, tag questions, and indirect questions. We will also learn how to distinguish these types of questions and determine whether they require a question mark.

Direct questions
This is the most obvious form of question. Direct questions often begin with one of these words: why, what, where, how, when, if, are, will, can, how, is, do, should, could, would, or were. A question mark goes at the end of the sentence.

 

Examples:

How can you eat asparagus?
Where are my glasses?
Are you feeling okay?
Is this the path to world domination?
Would you feed my donkey tomorrow?

Tag questions
These questions turn a statement into a question. You can recognize tag questions because they usually contain a helping verb (examples: are, should, does, were, would) and a pronoun (examples: he, she, you, I) at the end. Often, they also contain the word not, which is usually abbreviated (n’t). A question mark goes at the end of the sentence.

Examples:

The plants are dying, aren’t they?
Your vacation was fun, was it?
He set the house on fire, didn’t he?
She should eat more asparagus, shouldn’t she?
You would like a new mousetrap, wouldn’t you?
You were at the hospital, were you?

Sometimes a single word can go at the end of a statement to change it into a tag question. Examples are: yes, no, right, and correct.

Examples:

That was the last donut, yes?
He just got out of jail yesterday, no?
She fixed the toilet, right?
We turn left, correct?

Indirect questions
This type is trickier. An indirect question notes the existence of a question, but it does not actually ask a question. A question mark does not go at the end.

Example:

The doctor asked if she knew she had two hearts.

This sentence acknowledges the doctor had a question, but the doctor doesn’t ask the question directly in the sentence. To make it into a direct question, we could write:

Did you know you have two hearts?

Here are more examples of indirect questions:

The alien wondered whether he could fix his spaceship.
I asked her if I could borrow her pickle.
My neighbor wondered if I would turn my music down.

Quiz
Read each sentence and determine if it is a direct question, a tag question, or an indirect question. Then decide if it needs a question mark.

1. Buffy took her pills, correct
2. Don asked if he could go to the bathroom
3. Ralph went to the theater tonight, didn’t he
4. Did you eat my squash
5. Mary should be a trapeze artist, shouldn’t she
6. I wonder if he will boogie
7. Are you going to be in the parade

Answers:
1. tag question, question mark 2. indirect question, no question mark 3. tag question, question mark 4. direct question, question mark 5. tag question, question mark 6. indirect question, no question mark 7. direct question, question mark

AP vs. Chicago

The Onion posted a funny (well, funny to me) article yesterday about copy editing:

4 Copy Editors Killed In Ongoing AP Style, Chicago Manual Gang Violence

NEWS IN BRIEF • News Media • News • ISSUE 49•01 • Jan 7, 2013
  • NEW YORK—Law enforcement officials confirmed Friday that four more copy editors were killed this week amid ongoing violence between two rival gangs divided by their loyalties to the The Associated Press Stylebook and The Chicago Manual Of Style. “At this time we have reason to believe the killings were gang-related and carried out by adherents of both the AP and Chicago styles, part of a vicious, bloody feud to establish control over the grammar and usage guidelines governing American English,” said FBI spokesman Paul Holstein, showing reporters graffiti tags in which the word “anti-social” had been corrected to read “antisocial.” “The deadly territory dispute between these two organizations, as well as the notorious MLA Handbookgang, has claimed the lives of more than 63 publishing professionals this year alone.” Officials also stated that an innocent 35-year-old passerby who found himself caught up in a long-winded dispute over use of the serial, or Oxford, comma had died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

This is obvious hyperbole about a real note of contention among punctuation slingers.

There are notable differences between these two styles. For starters, Associated Press style is aimed at newspapers. It’s founded on the idea that people must write briefly so as much information as possible can fit onto pages. Thus, only numbers one through ten are written out (numerals are used for higher numbers), state names use the postal code, and the Oxford (or serial) comma is nowhere to be found.

Chicago is focused on other publications, such as books. Space limits are not a focus, so numbers through one hundred are spelled out, state names are spelled out, and my beloved Oxford comma retains its prideful position.

Are you interested in learning more about the differences between these two styles? Here’s a link to AP vs. Chicago, a blog about the subject.