Style guides differ on Word of the Decade


An earlier version of this column was published on the blog of ACES: The Society for Editing.

It was the decade of the epicene pronoun, as the usually plural they gained new acceptance with its singular sense as a way to avoid assumptions or make generalizations about gender. 

They was declared by the American Dialect Society to be the Word of the Decade at its annual conference in New Orleans on Jan. 3. In early December, they was chosen as Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year after a big spike in lookups and because the sense of the word as a nonbinary preferred pronoun was added to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary in September.

It’s good choice: the new sense of they has become established in the past five years and there is an emerging acceptance of they as a substitute for more specific pronouns.

Editors generally appreciate what’s happening to they because it fixes a flaw in the English language. But changes, especially gradual changes, create uncertainty. Usage guidelines are easiest when there is no wiggle room; singular they creates questions. The one situation where style guides agree that singular they is fine — as a person’s preferred pronoun — is actually an uncommon use.

imageNot yet fully endorsed 

Outside of the personal pronoun use, the Associated Press Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style still advise that the epicene they is not yet fully accepted and that it is better to resort to he or she or write around constructions that otherwise would require a singular pronoun. 

The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association released its seventh edition in the fall of 2019, and it followed the lead of these other style guides with new advice on they as a pronoun for those who identify as neither male nor female. But APA Style goes further than  AP Style or Chicago, advising that “writers should always use the singular they to refer to a person who uses they as their pronoun.”

The Chicago Manual of Style 17th edition, updated in 2017, advises: “When referring specifically to a person who does not identify with a gender-specific pronoun, they and its forms are often preferred.” It also says, “In general, a person’s stated preference for a specific pronoun should be respected.”

The AP Stylebook, in an entry added in March 2017, suggests that repeating a person’s name or rewording is preferable to using the epicene pronoun, but it allows for they with explanation.

The American Medical Association’s AMA Manual of Style also now endorses they for when “rewriting the sentence as a plural would be awkward or unclear.” That language is in AMA’s 11th edition, scheduled to be published in February 2020.

The Modern Language Association’s MLA Handbook and the U.S. Government Publishing Office’s Style Manual, both updated in 2016, are silent on the epicene they.

Accepted use is a rare use

The nonbinary use of the pronoun is new and specific. The number of people who prefer they as their personal pronoun is relatively small. Those who identify as male or female tend to prefer that gender’s pronoun regardless of what sexual characteristics they were born with. To simply use they to refer to a transgender person can be insulting. (Note that a construction using personal pronouns was selected as the American Dialect Society Word of the Year for 2019.)

We can’t declare yet that we have resolved the bigger problem of English lacking a broadly accepted gender-neutral singular pronoun. But we do seem to be on the path. Even if the gender-nonbinary they is limited in usage, it may open the door for other senses of gender-neutral they. 

It’s useful to think of the singular they in its various senses. Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary lists four senses, the Oxford English Dictionary has three, the American Heritage Dictionary has two (along with a 482-word usage note), and these various senses don’t quite align. We can consider:

  1. They for a person who identifies as gender nonbinary and prefers they as a personal pronoun.
  2. They used with a singular antecedent like “everyone” though in a plural sense.
  3. They to describe a hypothetical or real but unknown individual.
  4. They with a specific person whose gender is deliberately concealed.
  5. They with a known person whose gender is unknown or only assumed.

Preferred personal pronoun

We’ve already taken a look at this first sense, but it’s worth adding that to use he or she based on a person’s biological sex at birth is inaccurate if that person no longer identifies with that pronoun. If we desire accuracy, we can no longer assume binary pronouns do the job.

Singular they with a plural meaning

The second sense is common in writing and it seems particularly persnickety for an editor to change it. This is the “Everyone should take out their pencils” example: Everyone refers to individuals, but it’s clearly used in a plural sense. (The plural pencils emphasizes the plural sense.)

Hypothetical or unknown individual

The third sense, describing a hypothetical person, is less common and it’s generally changed by editors of formal writing. But it’s unlikely to raise an eyebrow in conversation or in informal writing. The OED offers nine examples since the middle of the fifteenth century, including this 2019 tweet from Shristi Uprety (@_ShristiUprety): “My personal rule is to never trust anyone who says that they had a good time in high school.” And from 1968: “When somebody becomes prime minister they’re immediately put on a pedestal.” For a person who is real but unknown, editor Patricia E. Boyd offered me this example: “Someone broke into my apartment. They stole my TV set.”

Anonymous individual

The fourth sense is accepted usage in the AP Stylebook, which says: “A singular they might be used when an anonymous source’s gender must be shielded and other wording is overly awkward.” A recent example of this is the frequent use of they when referring to the Ukraine whistleblower, including this sentence from The Guardian online: “Their alleged name and photograph have been circulating in conservative media for months. Despite whistleblower protection laws, they have to be driven to work by security detail to protect their safety.”  The pending AMA Manual of Style also speaks to this sense, saying “this construction can be useful in medical articles in which patient identifiability is a concern (eg, removal of gender-specific pronouns).”

Unknown gender 

The final sense — a specific person with an unknown or assumed gender — is somewhat common in conversation, but it hasn’t been considered acceptable in anything but the most informal written usage. Even that may be changing.

“Henry called me yesterday, and they said I should come in today.”

This example avoids assuming a gender for Henry, and we may see greater acceptance in the coming years among writers who don’t want to make assumptions. APA Style already speaks to this: “If you do not know the pronouns of the people being described, use ‘they’ instead or rewrite the sentence.” In my made-up example, the issue is easily resolved by a rewrite.

While APA Style endorses this use, it goes well beyond what AP Stylebook or CMOS advise. But give it another decade, and we may find they as a fully accepted universal pronoun. They has the potential to be the Word of the Decade for the 2020s as well.

If ‘they’ is singular, does ‘themself’ naturally follow?

Respected reference sources have signaled a modicum of acceptance of the pronoun they in a singular sense. The Associated Press Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style
relaxed their prescriptions for singular they in recent months, allowing it in limited Image showing Chicago Manual of Style entry (5.48) on singular "they."
circumstances.
This is another step in a trend toward accepting they when referring to a single individual, usually an individual who is hypothetical, someone who is real but of indeterminate sex, or someone who doesn’t personally conform to the binary genders of male and female.

If we accept the singular they, the slippery slope argument suggests that we soon will have to accept the singular pronoun themself. If they is OK as a singular pronoun, it follows that we should at least consider themself as a reflexive pronoun:

The person who wins the prize will find themself set for life.

Themself has been used that way for hundreds of years, though it rarely appears in writing these days. If you are writing or editing in Chicago style, you have that guide’s blessing start bringing it back. AP style is not there yet. Continue reading

Great writing informs great copy editing

The ending lines of The Great Gatsby make any good list of the best closings in literature. The last line is perfect while the penultimate paragraph is perplexing:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.
It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch our arms
further . . . And one fine morning —

Savor that paragraph for a moment divorced of the final paragraph. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s impeccable wording seems imprecise, uncertain, elusive. The punctuation, defying convention, serves as visual poetry, echoing the grasping thought process of the narrator. Its uncertainty contrasts with the final line, one of realization and acceptance, the end of youthful optimism:

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

It’s hard to consider the penultimate paragraph without the last. But I wonder how many people stop at it and think, “Gosh, this could use a good editor.”

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Possessive of a title in quotes? Just don’t

English has a lot of conventions—best not to call them rules—that sometimes fall apart when we try to apply them in all possible situations. Sometimes, it’s best to just not go there.

If we want to make a noun possessive, we typically add an apostrophe and an s. Mark’s wise words, for example.

It was pointed out to me by a fellow copy editor that Amy Einsohn, in The Copyeditor’s Handbook, recommends making a phrase or title in quotation marks possessive in the same way. The result is not pretty. Continue reading

In standard usage, ‘daylight saving time’ wins out

The end of daylight saving time offers an opportunity for people prone to correcting to remind us the middle word is singular—”daylight saving time”—although in casual use, it’s just as often rendered plural.

The form “daylight savings time,” exists for no particular reason except for our predilection to pluralize “saving.” There is little harm in the variant form, and most good dictionaries record “savings” as an alternative.

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Bard Day celebration offers much to read about

It’s Shakespeare’s 450th birthday, more or less, and all of Twitter is a stage for stories about the immortal one.

There is no time for me to read of Shakespeare morning until night, so I created a list of links pulled from Twitter today for your leisurely reading enjoyment, The first one is my own, so I may be a poor jurist. But all the others I have read or intend to read.

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ACES 2014 National Grammar Day Tweeted Haiku Contest entries

A little bit of what I’ve learned on Twitter

The following column originally appeared on Copyediting.com in two parts. As I have no space limitations, here it is in its entirety for your convenience.

The first part is here: http://www.copyediting.com/dont-be-intimidated-twitters-learning-curve#sthash.3kcwQN11.dpuf

And here is the second part: http://www.copyediting.com/twitters-place-engage-wordies#sthash.IXRo0pir.dpuf

Twitter is technically simple, but conceptually difficult. When I started, I tweeted useful tips and followed people who I thought might be interested. Eventually, I started following people I thought were interesting. It took me a long time to understand that people talking to me weren’t necessarily talking to everybody and that when I said something, people weren’t necessarily listening. I think I’ve experienced all the Twitter epiphanies, but it took me a long time.

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Habitat for Humanity house is a fitting tribute to a nice guy

My plan was to drive back to Grand Rapids, Mich., today and spend Saturday pounding nails and raising walls on a Habitat for Humanity home. But I’m not over a stomach bug that has been bothering me for a week now. I can’t risk making someone else sick, so I’ve sent my regrets, bitterly disappointed that I won’t be able to pay such a fitting tribute to my old boss and friend, Andy Angelo.

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More from me at the Copyediting newsletter blog

More from me at the Copyediting newsletter blog

I’ve joined the blog team at Copyediting newsletter, so I’ll be posting there regularly and here maybe not as much. But I’ll try to add a link to those that are of interest, which I hope will be all of them.

Today, I wrote about my lifelong confusion about the rules of cricket and a cricket-related correction in the New York Times.

An excerpt:

I was probably not yet 10 when I told a family friend visiting from England that I could not fathom the rules of cricket. The next 15 minutes were consumed with a detailed explanation of wickets, stumps, overs, and silly mid-offs that made me somewhat the wiser until the waiter brought my chicken and I forgot all that I had learned.

I have since read explanations of the game and watched amateurs play in a park, but what I manage to learn never stays. Cricket confounds my attempts to retain, like a dream just before waking. But I do know just enough about cricket to know I should never assume I know anything about cricket.

See the rest at Copyediting.com.

And please send me suggestions for things you’d like to see in future columns. Today’s is a sort of error-of-the-week format, so I’d love to hear about the brilliant saves or near-saves of other copy editors.

Made-up ‘rules’ may offer a path to clarity

Columnist and language expert Ben Yagoda resorted to all caps in a brief Twitter exchange on the difference (if any) between “since” and “because.”

“There is NEVER confusion,” he said several weeks ago during a chat sponsored by the American Copy Editors Society.

That was in response to my assertion that “because” remains safer than “since” where there may be confusion with a time element.

I tell my copy editing students to beware of absolutes in writing. Absolutes in all caps are especially risky. Yagoda offers a defense of his position in the Lingua Franca column in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

sincebecauseCopy editors, despite their best intentions, can come across as stuffy and pedantic because we sometimes perpetuate standards of English usage that may differ from the way people casually speak and write. “Because” vs. “since” provides a fair example. In the wild, “since” is used for “because” with aplomb and very few bar fights can be attributed to disputes over this usage. The distinction between “since” for time and “since” for cause is not something to fear, but I do think it is something to consider.

Sometimes in the debate between what is a real rule and what is a made-up rule (tricky, as there is no rulebook), we overlook the reality that “rule” can sometimes be shorthand for “good writing.”

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Here are the winning winners in the Tweeted Haiku Contest

Arika Okrent’s 17 syllables captured the hearts of the judges, but there were scores of worthy entries in the National Grammar Day Tweeted Haiku Contest. The initial screening of 269 entries down to the top 10 resulted in 17 possibilities, and then judges asked to add another 11 back to the mix.

The five-judge panel then went into seclusion in the virtual grammar conclave for most of Sunday before they emerged with a winner, four runners up, and a mess of honorable mentions.

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arika okrent / the judges loudly proclaim / winning haikuist

Arika Okrent tapped into a universal feeling of realization and dread when she wrote her winning entry for the 2013 National Grammar Day Tweeted Haiku Contest:

arika-okrentI am an error
And I will reveal myself
After you press send

Soon after, she tweeted an amendment:

Make that “send”

“It became a self-fulfilling haiku,” Okrent said. “I wish I could say I planned it that way.”

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Warning: political content; but politics affects us all

This has nothing to do with words and everything to do with politics. For that, I apologize, but I hope you read it anyway.

Gov. Romney has said that the election means something at the state, local and personal level, and that we should ask ourselves what kind of America we want for our children. I agree. I think the values of the nation and our economy are much bigger than any president, but I think policy does affect our country today, our personal lives, and our future. I take the election personally.

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Funny, but it’s still rock ‘n’ roll to me

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (small)

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (small) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been tweeting in lieu of blogging lately, but sometimes a matter deserves more attention than a string of related tweets. Such is the case with “rock ‘n’ roll.” Dictionaries and style guides differ on how to write a colloquial expression written informally for 60 years or more. “Rock and roll” seems fine and formal, but “rock ‘n’ roll” appears to be the more common form.

Even in the 1950s, it was rendered as “rock ‘n’ roll” as often or more often than “rock and roll,” according to Google Books data. Take a look here: http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=rock+and+roll%2Crock++%27n%27+roll&year_start=1950&year_end=1980&corpus=0&smoothing=3

The Associated Press Stylebook prefers “rock ‘n’ roll,” but points out that it’s the “Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.” The New York Times agrees with “rock ‘n’ roll,” as does Yahoo! and the Better Homes and Gardens style guide (everyone seems to have an opinion). Style for Britain’s Guardian newspaper is rock’n’roll, no spaces. National Geographic says “rock-and-roll.”

The American Heritage Dictionary gives “rock-and-roll” as its first spelling. Merriam-Webster Unabridged calls “rock and roll” a variant of “rock ‘n’ roll.” Merriam-Webster Collegiate calls “rock ‘n’ roll” a variant of “rock and roll.” [Update: see comments]

The Oxford English Dictionary has “rock and roll” references going back to 1939, but that was something else. As with many good phrases, the better use came later. Early references from the 1950s in the OED vary, and include the spelling  “rock ‘n roll” on an early (jazz) album sleeve. But let’s agree to avoid that; the second apostrophe serves a purpose.

Chicago Manual of Style suggests we make sure the first apostrophe in rock ‘n’ roll is truly an apostrophe and not a single open quote mark.

I remember copy editing a syndicated Dave Barry column that started with a note to editors. Not a note intended for publication, but an appeal to editors to keep his spelling, which I think was “rock and roll.” But there’s probably at least a 70 percent chance that I’m wrong on this.

Last word (for now) goes to Bryan A. Garner, who offers no clear advice other than the suggestion that “rock” has become so common, we probably don’t need to worry so much.

I may return to this post another day, so I’m happy to hear your insight into this important topic.

Allow me to dangle the winning haiku in front of you

Judging for the 2012 National Grammar Day Tweeted Haiku Contest was as difficult as any in the history of the event. Nearly 200 entries were submitted. The best way to get the full flavor of the event is to visit the Storify that contains them.

But save that for after the big announcement. Judges had a clear favorite:

Being a dangler,
Jane knew it would have to come
out of the sentence

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March forth and write haiku to celebrate National Grammar Day

Without grammar, your
haiku would fall to pieces.
I think I’ll tweet that.

The National Grammar Day Tweeted Haiku Contest is back. Nearly 180 poems were entered into last year’s contest. They were brilliant. Even picking the best 10 was very difficult. But, National Grammar Day falls on a Sunday this year, so the organizers decided they could handle having another go at it.

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Don’t discount the editor when the focus is ‘online-first’

Newspapers have been quick to tell us about the latest trends and help us prepare for a changing world. But they’ve been amazingly slow to recognize the changes that are necessary to remain relevant. And now, as newspapers finally enter the 21st century, “online-first” operations risk losing what made them great in the first place: the trust of the communities they serve.

I hope that the successor to Booth Newspapers in Michigan can combine an online focus with a newspaper’s commitment to truth and accuracy. I’m watching with interest as my former colleagues transition to new roles with MLive Media Group, the statewide news operation that has veteran journalists focusing on delivering the latest news online.

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I don’t know why you say ‘good-bye’

I’d like to say goodbye to “good-bye.”

The unhyphenated “goodbye” gets nearly five times as many Google hits. “Goodbye” is the preferred spelling in the Associated Press Stylebook. The American Heritage and Webster’s New World dictionaries list goodbye as the first spelling. Bryan Garner in “Garner’s Modern American Usage,” compares the hyphenated form to the archaic “to-day.”

Merriam-Webster, though, includes only “good-bye” and “good-by.” Many style guides, including the Chicago Manual of Style, prefer a Merriam-Webster dictionary, so “good-bye” is with us for now.

The word in any form is only a few hundred years old, stemming from the earlier “good morning” and “good day,” etc., and a shortening of the phrase “God be with you.”

Addendum (May 26, 2013):

Merriam-Webster’s newest dictionary, the Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, has no hyphens in its entry for “goodbye,” giving only the “goodby” variant. I would guess we’ll see the hyphen slip away in the new online Unabridged at some point soon.

Oops

Everyone said it’s easy. I was up late trying to figure out how to include all my website information in one place, and I failed. Or at least fell asleep. All I succeeded in doing was transferring the URL to my blog, so my site exists only on a hidden server somewhere and on my hard drive.

If you are looking for http://www.markallenediting.com, I hope to have my information back up here soon. If you need anything in the meantime, I’m at markallen@copydesk.org, 614-961-9666, @EditorMark on Twitter and (sometimes) copyeditor1 on Skype.

If you are looking for editormark.wordpress.com, my blog postings are all below.

If you are looking for my archive of tweeted tips, most of them also are on this site — I copied them to my blog when I reached about 500. Scroll down to find them.

Thanks for your patience.

Mark

Grammar Girl’s book for students is approachable, orange

Grammar was not my subject. In high school English class, we did a unit on grammar every semester. It always seemed to be the same thing to me. The work was either obvious (I could recite “Grammar Rock” with the best of them) or unnecessarily confusing (English is like that). The book we used seemed authoritative, but there just seemed to be more rules and guidelines in there than anyone could possibly know. There wasn’t, it turned out, but it seemed that way.

I might be decades behind the time in my perception of grammar textbooks, but the criteria I would use to judge are the level of detail (less is more), the level of intimidation, and the clarity of the rules listed.

My first impression of Mignon Fogarty’s new student grammar is that it’s very orange. It’s inescapably orange with a cover reminiscent of the old Chicago Manual of Style (now blue) and a matching orange inside for headings, examples and shading. Its title opts for bravado over brevity: “Grammar Girl Presents the Ultimate Writing Guide for Students.” It has cartoon drawings, most featuring the familiar Aardvark and Squiggly (a snail) of previous Grammar Girl books. We can give it points for lack of intimidation right away.

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Read this for free, and then feel free to use useful idioms

I strolled away from Google Plus to visit Twitter a few moments ago, and I pointed out that “for free” is criticized because “free” often works better in half the space. Usage guru Bill Walsh of the Washington Post pointed out that the real criticism is that “free” is not a noun, a more challenging argument.

The idiom forces “free” into the position of a noun, as if it is the same as “zero dollars” or “no pay.” It’s hard to reconcile, so it might always be considered nonstandard, or as Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says, “not used in writing of high solemnity.”

But the phrase, apparently only decades old, is very widely used. Blind condemnation sometimes takes an understandable statement and exchanges it for something confusing.

“I worked for free” is more clear than “I worked free” or “I worked for nothing.” “It is impossible to live for free” is not the same as “it is impossible to live free.”

If the meaning doesn’t change, “free” is the better choice. But “for free” is too established and too useful to be disallowed.

Holiday’s name is self-evident: It’s the date on which it falls

You are free to parade, grill, engage in pyrotechnics, and otherwise celebrate Independence Day, but don’t feel it necessary to call it that.

The celebration of the nation’s birthday has the distinction of being the only official holiday named for a date rather than a person or event. There is a temptation to write it as the more descriptive and proper sounding “Independence Day,” but the holiday was originally known by the date on which it falls.

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AP doesn’t impose style; house style reflects readers

The best written works contain clarity, consistency and elegance. These are the goals of style books.

My first AP Stylebook was a 1976 edition acquired in 1979 when I started high school. I read every entry. I didn’t memorize it, but I at least knew where to look up whatever question I had. Over time, my knowledge of the book diminished rather than increased, but nowadays my online subscription means searching is just as fast as it was when I was 15.

Jojo Malig, an editor in Manilla, Philippines, wrote a column for the Poynter Institute’s website in which he asked several editors about the necessity of multiple style books, such as the Chicago Manual of Style and house style guides. I suggested that local style guides are an important supplement to the AP Stylebook or whatever style book a publication uses as its main guide.

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Favorite resources for freelance editors

This list of links was presented as a handout at the “Freelancers Forum” session at the American Copy Editors Society conference in Phoenix in March 2011. It was compiled by Mark Allen, Kate Karp and Liz Smith. It’s not intended to be exhaustive, but it represents some of our favorite places to find help when we are editing at home.

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Think like a plumber to spell ‘fluoride’ correctly

The “ou” spelling (loud, gout, rough) is more common than “uo,” especially when the combination forms just one syllable. Where this combination does appear, we sometimes struggle with the spelling.

If you tend to consult your toothpaste tube every time you have to spell “fluoride,” it might help to know that most words that start “flu” are related to the concept of “flow.” “Fluoride” comes from the element “fluorine,” from the Latin “fluor,” meaning “flowing.” “Fluor” was first applied to minerals useful as fluxes, a term familiar to anyone who has soldered a copper pipe. Flux (related to “fluctuation”) comes from the past participle form of the Latin “fluere,” which means “to flow.” The look of fluor-type minerals when exposed to ultraviolet light gives us the word “fluorescent.”

So, if you can associate the thing you find in toothpaste with the word “flux” (things may be “in flux,” a “flux capacitor” powered the time machine in “Back to the Future”), that might help you remember the spelling of “fluoride.” And “fluorescent.”

“Flu,” by the way, also related to “flow.” “Flu” is a shortening of “influenza,” which comes from “influence,” which had to do with astrology, or the effects that flowed from the stars.

I’m tempted to keep exploring the pathways I keep uncovering on this etymological journey, but I think it’s time I got back to work.

Fulsome: Whether full or foul, make sure meaning is clear

The word “fulsome” presents a problem that usage and etymology fail to sort out. It either means “abundant,” “offensive” or, perhaps as a compromise, “offensively abundant.” Dictionaries usually give at least the first two meanings while most usage guides insist on the third. The Associated Press Stylebook says “it means disgustingly excessive” and should not be used to mean “lavish or profuse.” The BBC News Styleguide says, probably incorrectly, that “fulsome is not a close relative of full, and does not mean generous.”

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Well formed haiku bring/National Grammar Day glory/tweet your best today

Dozens of 17-syllable poems have already been submitted for The National Grammar Day Tweeted Haiku Contest. Follow the Twitter hashtag #grammarday, the official hashtag of National Grammar Day.

Check them out here: http://twitter.com//search/GrammarDay.

I’m hosting the haiku contest to help celebrate the binding principles of the English language. The top prize is a copy of “Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing,” by National Grammar Day host Mignon Fogarty, and your choice of a t-shirt or mug with my favorite piece of writing advice at my new Café Press shop: www.cafepress.com/EditorMark.

For all our finalists, glory and accolades await.

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National day of grammar/send in your best poem/enjoy glory and prizes

Grammar, usage and style are what we use to hold language together so it appears with a sense of order and fulfills its basic function. The English language is alive and constantly changing. The rules either allow for flexibility or, after some struggle, change to fit the needs of the language. This change comes not from chaos but from order, and National Grammar Day celebrates our collective, ordered approach to the English language.

Haiku is a Japanese poetry form familiar to schoolchildren with a structure and style that  allows for flexibility. Strictly speaking, it should focus on nature or the seasons, but it often strays from convention. While critics might carefully count syllables, the point is not conformity but a sense of rhythm that produces a desired effect.

Twitter is a medium that allows quick communication of brief messages to those who have opted to hear what the writer has to say. It celebrates brevity and clarity of language in an era of verbosity.

To help celebrate the binding principles of the English language, I’m hosting a contest featuring the Japanese form of haiku through the medium of Twitter. The National Grammar Day Tweeted Haiku Contest will convey upon the winner the glory and immortality that comes with having his or her winning haiku permanently embedded in digital archives somewhere. Also, prizes.

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Parts of (a) sentence(s) sometimes must agree to disagree

Winston Churchill said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the other forms. Languages are produced democratically, and perhaps none remains more democratic than English. In other words, English is messy. It has conflicting rules about certain things and no rules where there really ought to be one.

If we had a language run by a benevolent oligarchy, we’d have a neutral third-person singular pronoun by now. We don’t. And for now, we just have to live with it.

Another case where our language fails us is in the awkwardness of linking an object to a plural subject, also known as subject-complement agreement. Should we refer to one object or multiple objects? This is a consistent question I get, and it always causes me to scratch my head.

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502 (give or take) short tips on grammar, usage, style

I started an almost-daily offering of a grammar, usage or style tip in April, 2009, and last week I tweeted my 500th tip. Here is my archive to date, which also can be found at my business website, http://www.markallenediting.com.

If you want a big gun, ask for a “cannon.” One “n” is for a law or principle, literary works, or a piece of music. The camera is Canon.

Mackinac Island is in the Straits of Mackinac, which link Lakes Huron and Michigan under the Mackinac Bridge. All are pronounced “Mackinaw.”

The coat, blanket and city are all Mackinaw. The word starts with the Ojibwe and comes through French Canadian, hence the pronunciation.

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Copy editors no longer need to keep paper books on hand

This column appeared in the September-October newsletter of the American Copy Editors Society.

I visited a transferring co-worker to wish her well and to see what I could liberate from her cube after she left. The pickings were slim, sadly, except for an impressive Random House Webster’s Unabridged. I considered how it would look in my cube, but I left empty-handed. My cubicle remains devoid of reference books.

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