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Handy Hint: Upmost vs. Utmost

Which is correct?
A) Grammar is a subject of the upmost importance.
B) Grammar is a subject of the utmost importance.

Whether or not you agree with the statement, the correct answer is B. Many people mistakenly use “upmost” when “utmost” is the word they want. The confusion stems from not only their similar sounds but also their similar meanings. (And probably because “upmost” looks more like a real word.)

According to Merriam-Webster, “upmost” is the shortened form of “uppermost,” which, as you would expect, means “situated in the highest or most prominent position,” whereas “utmost” means “situated at the farthest or most distant point” or “of the greatest or highest degree, quantity, number, or amount.”

It helps to think of “uppermost” in a literal sense (e.g., on the highest shelf) and “utmost” more figuratively (e.g., of the highest importance): the reference books of utmost importance were located on the uppermost shelf. When in doubt, use “utmost” (how often do you come across “uppermost”?), or, better yet, substitute a word whose meaning you’re sure of.

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Handy Hint: Because vs. Since

Which is correct?
A) I’m writing about word usage because it’s a popular topic.
B) I’m writing about word usage since it’s a popular topic.

If you read the results of my recent poll, you know both statements are true. But what about using the word “since” in place of “because”? I wish I could say it’s one of those trick questions where they’re both correct, but, as with many word usage issues, it’s not that simple.

Most editors—as well as their style manuals and reference books—will tell you it’s perfectly OK to use “since” in this sense (as in answer B). The Chicago Manual says the belief “the word relates exclusively to time” is “erroneous,” citing hundreds of years of causative usage. The AP Stylebook takes a slightly less supportive stance, stating “since is acceptable in a causal sense when the first event in a sequence led logically to the second but was not its direct cause.” Merriam-Webster uses each word in the definition of the other. So we’re all pretty much in agreement, yes? Not quite.

Unfortunately, words with dual meanings can create confusion. For example, “I’ve been planning to write a word usage post since it was voted the most popular blog topic” could mean from the time of the vote or because of the vote. For this reason, more cautious grammarians recommend we narrow the meaning of “since” to a past point in time.

And they do have a point, which most grammar texts acknowledge and some style guides embrace. The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, which is used in the social and behavioral sciences, advises, “since is more precise when it is used to refer only to time (to mean ‘after that’); otherwise, replace it with because.”

As always, if there’s the potential for misunderstanding, choose your words carefully. But in general, here’s one word usage issue that’s not really an issue. Most of us, including myself, use both “since” and “because” to indicate causation. When I try to maintain a distinction between the two, it seems forced.

Now, I wouldn’t necessarily argue this point on a copy editing test. But if you’re hired and put in charge of the style guide …

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Handy Hint: A While vs. Awhile

Which sentences are not correct?
A) John and Jane have been dating for a while.
B) John and Jane have been dating for awhile.
C) John and Jane started dating a while ago.
D) John and Jane started dating awhile ago.

The answer is B and D. This one comes up so much I almost included it on my Big Offenders list.

The adverb “awhile” actually means “for a while,” so it doesn’t make sense to say “for awhile” (or “for for a while”). But if you remove the “for” from sentence B, it works (“John and Jane have been dating awhile”).

Likewise, if “for a while” doesn’t fit, like in sentence D, neither does “awhile” and the noun phrase “a while” is the right choice (John and Jane started dating “a while ago,” not “for a while ago”).

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Handy Hint: On to vs. Onto

It’s easy to pass over this one in conversation, but when editing, you may find yourself coming to a complete halt to decide between the two. According to Merriam-Webster, “onto” is a preposition meaning “to a position on” (he hopped onto the bike). Separately, “on” is an adverb and “to” is a preposition, which refer to position and movement respectively (he hung on to the handlebars).

For me, those definitions are too similar to quickly make a distinction. It helps to determine whether “on” is part of the verb it’s modifying (hopped on), but fortunately, The Chicago Manual of Style offers a more useful trick: mentally say “up” before “on.” If the sentence still makes sense, then “onto” is probably the right choice (he hopped up onto the bike).

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Handy Hint: Hyphens and Adverbs

Copy editors love hard-and-fast rules (they make our job easier), but unfortunately, there aren’t many of them. Even though we have style guides, it seems a lot of “rules” are open to interpretation – and misinterpretation. So it’s no wonder we’ve latched onto the “don’t hyphenate adverbs ending in ‘ly'” rule for compounds. I’ve even posted about it.

But take a closer look the next time you see an “ly” word. Not all of them are adverbs (e.g., friendly, lovely). And some function as both an adverb and an adjective. Remember, adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs (e.g., early English literature) whereas adjectives modify nouns and pronouns (e.g., early-onset Alzheimer’s).

Hopefully this post will help prevent, rather than contribute to, the hyphen madness caused by this sometimes tricky punctuation mark.

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The Tricky Past Tense

A friend of mine recently asked if the past tense of “dream” is “dreamed” or “dreamt.” Dreamed or dreamt. Dreamt or dreamed. The more I thought about it, the more they both seemed correct. She also wanted to know whether to say she “blow-dried” or “blew-dry” her hair. “Blew-dry” didn’t sound quite right, but “blew” is the past tense of “blow,” isn’t it? I couldn’t answer that one either.

Luckily, the dictionary came to my rescue. According to Merriam-Webster, both “dreamed” and “dreamt” are acceptable (that’s an easy one), and “blow-dried” is the past tense of “blow-dry” (turns out the past tense of “blow” doesn’t matter). The moral of the story? With all of our fancy style manuals and grammar books, sometimes the good ol’ dictionary is still our best resource.

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Handy Hint: Toward vs. Towards

Which sentence is correct?
A) John walked toward Jane.
B) John walked towards Jane.

Both are! For those of you who resolved to improve your grammar in 2008 (good for you!) I’m starting you off with an easy one. There’s really no right or wrong answer, but to clarify, “toward” (without the “s”) is American English and “towards” (with the “s”) is British English. The same holds true for other words ending in “ward,” such as “backward” and “forward.” So it really just depends on which side of the pond you live.

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Handy Hint: Orphans and Widows

Some editors never see their work past the manuscript stage, but others are responsible for proofreading layouts and should know the difference between orphans and widows. Although both are single lines separated from the rest of a paragraph, orphans are left alone at the bottom of a page, and widows are on their own at the top.

A handy way to distinguish the two comes from The Elements of Typographic Style, by Robert Bringhurst: orphans “have no past, but they do have a future,” and widows “have a past but not a future.” Minor wording adjustments should take care of the problem.

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Copy Editing vs. Proofreading

The terms are often used interchangeably, but technically, they serve separate editorial functions. Generally, copy editors rework content and correct grammar, punctuation, and style whereas proofreaders make sure these edits are accurately laid out.

While there is some overlap between the two, they require different skills, including different editing marks. Although both are valuable parts of the production process, copy editors typically make more substantive edits than proofreaders and tend to earn more as a result.

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Handy Hint: Compounds and Hyphens

Compound modifiers, also known as adjectival or adverbial phrases, are made up of two or more words that describe a noun. In general, hyphenate them when they come before a noun, such as “low-income family” or “open-minded person.” However, if the first word is an adverb ending in “ly,” such as “highly respected journalist,” leave the hyphen out. Since it’s clear these adverbs modify other words, the hyphen is unnecessary.

It’s a Punctuation Celebration!

For some people, the holiday season starts with Halloween; for others, it’s Thanksgiving—or the day after—and for a festive few, the party never stops. But for language lovers, it’s National Punctuation Day, “a light-hearted opportunity to teach good punctuation” from founder and former newspaper reporter Jeff Rubin, aka Punctuation Man. (Despite his journalistic background, he endorses the serial comma.)

The seventh-annual punctuation celebration features a haiku contest (e.g., “Punctuation marks: / Commas, colons, periods / That give words meaning”). Hundreds have already entered, and winners will receive—what else?—punctuation prizes. (Visit the website for submission guidelines and other ways to participate.)

The holiday has a punctuation publication, The Exclamation Point, with book recommendations, literacy news from around the world, and articles about Punctuation Playtime, a “program that teaches elementary school students punctuation in a fun and engaging way” from Rubin and his wife, Norma.

There are also the requisite T-shirts, cards, and mugs, but of course the best way to celebrate is to learn the rules of proper punctuation. It’s easier than it sounds, and the National Punctuation Day website has plenty of products and resources to help you do so.

The 16th Edition Is Here! The 16th Edition Is Here!

When the new edition of The Chicago Manual of Style arrived in the mail recently, my reaction was akin to Navin Johnson’s in The Jerk when the new phone book arrives (hence the title of this post). Upon seeing the soothing baby blue cover, the first words out of my mouth were “It’s beautiful.” After a quick flip through, my next words were “This is as overwhelming as it is exciting.”

As any editor can attest, the release of a new version of your style guide of choice brings mixed emotions: On the one hand, you’re happy to get an updated manual, which often elaborates upon or resolves issues that have been plaguing the previous edition for years. On the other hand, there’s a lot to learn, particularly in a tome the size of the Chicago Manual, not to mention a price tag ($65 in this case, if you didn’t take advantage of one of the special offers beforehand).

Fortunately, Chicago has provided an overview of what’s new in this edition, which reflects “editorial style and publishing practices in the digital age.” Given how much of editing has moved away from paper, I was happy to see proofreading guidelines for web-based documents and an electronic-editing checklist among the new additions. There’s also a “new and improved hyphenation guide,” presented in a table. Make sure to check out the significant rule changes (e.g., “Web site” is now “website”!), but don’t worry: “the fundamental principles of ‘Chicago style’ remain the same.” It appears most changes were made with simplicity or popular usage in mind.

Chicago’s very own “subversive copy editor,” Carol Fisher Saller, has kindly posted tips for learning the sixteenth edition on her blog. She also conducted an insightful interview with the Manual‘s principal reviser, Russell David Harper, the second installment of a two-part behind-the-scenes look at the revision process.

I thank Chicago for trying to make the transition easy for us editors, but I plan to hold on to my fifteenth edition, at least for now. Speaking of earlier editions, in honor of this latest release, Chicago is making the first edition of the manual, published in 1906, available as their free e-book for September (a new e-book is offered every month through their Digital Editions program) and as a downloadable pdf. A quick perusal of its contents will turn any anxiety you feel about the sixteenth edition into gratitude.