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OPINION | WATCH YOUR LANGUAGE! Grammar kryptonite — part two

by Bernadette Kinlaw | March 29, 2021 at 1:57 a.m.

I'm back this week with language matters that the Associated Press Stylebook asked writers and editors about. These matters were dubbed kryptonite because the users were always unsure of the correct usage.

COMMAS AND QUOTATION MARKS

The relationship between a comma and a quotation mark is one of the few consistent rules in English. Still, I see it wrong nearly every day. Often more than once a day.

The rule is this simple: The comma goes inside the quotation marks.

From The Washington Post:

"What a consumer buys is driving what gets merchandised," she said.

"Our landlord has an office building downtown and we're going to put a second [refrigerated pasta-and-sauce vending] machine there for when people go back to the office," he said.

The period also always goes inside the quotation marks. Here's an example from the same Post story:

Of the first machine, he says, "people are super excited about it. Sometimes it's hard to keep up with the stocking of it."

(Now I really want to install a pasta-and-sauce vending machine in my home office.)

ACADEMIC DEGREES

I have to look these up nearly every time, too. I also work for a college alumni magazine, so I suppose this increases the occurrence.

I flipped through some language books and found no mention. But the AP Stylebook has rules on how to punctuate and capitalize them.

The recommended usage is bachelor's degree and master's degree. But guess what? It's an associate degree. Why? I don't know.

Also, when you add a detail, things change. It's a Bachelor of Arts or a Master of Science.

So adding the concentration means removing the apostrophe+s and using capital letters.

JUDGMENT, ACKNOWLEDGMENT

I don't know who is the arbiter of such things, but it has been decided that judgment has no e after the g, even though judge has an e after the g.

I'm so glad that Merriam-Webster had a few words to say about this spelling:

"Judgment can also be spelled judgement, and usage experts have long disagreed over which spelling is the preferred one. Henry Fowler asserted, 'The OED [Oxford English Dictionary] prefers the older and more reasonable spelling. Judgement is therefore here recommended.' William Safire held an opposite opinion, writing, 'My judgment is that Fowler is not to be followed.' Judgement is in fact the older spelling, but it dropped from favor and for centuries judgment was the only spelling to appear in dictionaries. That changed when the OED (Fowler's source) was published showing judgement as an equal variant. Today, judgment is more popular in the U.S., whereas both spellings make a good showing in Britain."

Acknowledgment follows a similar rule, even though acknowledge also has an e after the g. But Merriam-Webster is silent on the variant spelling.

COUPLE

I so dislike seeing couple in a sentence. Which verb to use always needs thought.

The AP says that if you're using couple in the sense of two people, use a plural verb.

If you're talking about a married couple, you want to use a singular verb.

Here are examples:

The couple met at a wedding. (Two people.)

The couple wants at least 12 children. (One unit of two clearly misguided people.)

But I don't like that this couple is described as a single unit, no matter how enamored the two of them are. I wouldn't say: "The couple were married last week. It wants to have four kids."

Merriam-Webster agrees on this strange construct: "When writing of a couple getting married, it is more common to use the plural form ('the couple are to be wed'). When writing of an established couple, it is more common to use a singular verb ('the couple has six puppies, each more destructive than the next')."

This is another situation where I am likely to rewrite the sentence. Just using the two instead of the couple usually suffices.

DISCRETE AND DISCREET

This one kills me. I also need to look it up every time.

Discrete is an adjective meaning distinct or standing alone.

The lesson was divided into six discrete parts.

I'll admit that I'm far more likely to use distinct than discrete.

Discreet is an adjective, too, meaning doing something prudently or doing something in an out-of-the-way place.

CANCELED

This word came up often when the pandemic first started. Even though I know the rule, I inevitably need to look it up. The proper spellings of the conjugations are cancel, canceled, canceling, cancellation.

If I had a nickel for each time I removed an extra l from canceled, I would really wonder where the nickels came from.

FARTHER AND FURTHER

Farther and further often get confused.

Use farther when you are describing a physical distance.

I need a car that can go farther on a tank of gas.

The walk home always seems farther than the walk to work.

Use further when you are describing more abstract things or degrees.

We have talked this idea to death. I doubt we can go further with it.

He embarrassed me further by mentioning my childhood nickname.

CITY

When you're writing about a city, and you absolutely feel you must include city alongside the name of the city, remember that the c is lowercase. People love to make the c uppercase.

Examples from The Post:

As she moved from her tiny town of Amboy to the nearest city of Mankato to study nursing, her politics migrated too.

My city of Perth came to a standstill.

Several people [were] injured in attack at Armistice Day ceremony in Saudi city of Jiddah.

Of course you use a capital c when it's part of the name: New York City, Kansas City, Oklahoma City. Otherwise, follow this example: The city of Seattle ...

(And, I'll add, you can often omit the city of. Enough people know that Seattle is, indeed, a city.)

Sources include The AP Stylebook, Merriam-Webster, American Heritage Dictionary, The Washington Post. Reach Bernadette at [email protected]

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