Stylebook Entries I Have Loved

English: A standard USB connector.

English: A standard USB connector. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Abbreviations. [stuff deleted] Ordinarily use periods in abbreviations when the letters stand for separate words: F.C.C.; I.B.M.; N.R.A. …In an acronym — an abbreviation pronounced as a word — omit periods. Ordinarily uppercase such an expression if it is up to four letters long: NATO; CUNY; AIDS; SALT. Acronyms of five or more letters are upper-and-lowercased: Unicef; Unesco; Alcoa; Awacs. …Omit periods in certain technology terms for which the full expression is unfamiliar or rarely used: USB, PDF, URL, DSL.

charge. [stuff deleted] In an account of an arrest or a criminal proceeding, charge ideally means the formal allegation submitted to a court by a prosecutor or (in the case of an indictment for a serious crime) by a grand jury. At a minimum, charge may refer to the official allegation lodged by the police at the time of booking. But the informal, usually imprecise account given at the scene of a crime is not a charge. Thus: The police accused Mr. Kuzu of having thrown a brick through the supermarket window and having threatened the manager with a pistol.

conditional tenses. When a sentence expresses the dependence of one event on another, convey the two ideas in verb tenses that work together — always matched, never mixed:

      If Governor Agnello runs, Mr. Karitsa will be on her ticket. (An if clause in the present tense; a then clause in the future tense.)
      If Mr. Karitsa refused the job, Dr. Arniotis would get it. (An if clause in the past tense; a then clause in the conditional tense.)
    If Dr. Arniotis had wanted the job, he would have said so. (An if clause in the past perfect tense; a then clause in the conditional perfect.)
A picture of an old Cracker Jack box

A picture of an old Cracker Jack box (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

crackerjack is slang for excellent or outstanding. Cracker Jack is the trademark for glazed popcorn.

dash. The dash is often misused for the comma: Pat — who was badly hurt last year — was pronounced fit today. And it is often overused. A sentence with more than two dashes is confusing because a reader cannot distinguish between the asides and the main narrative.

dialect. The writer should consult an editor, and both should hesitate, before trying to render dialect in direct quotations. [stuff deleted] Usually the decision should be that word order and turns of phrase paint a clearer picture than eccentric spelling. A classic Times article captured the Lower East Side of Manhattan when it quoted an onlooker, spelling intact, about the inevitable hot dog vendor at a political campaign appearance: “Sure. For Rockefeller he gives discounts.”

gild the lily is an accepted phrase for overembellishment, but writers who wish to delight the exacting reader will use Shakespeare’s actual words, from “King John”: “To gild refined gold, to paint the lily.”

hoi polloi is Greek for the many, meaning the masses (and not, as sometimes supposed, for the elite). Do not precede the phrase with a redundant the. And unless the intent is unmistakably ironic, avoid the expression as patronizing.

hopefully. In the sense of let us hope, this adverb inflames passions. Widely heard in speech, it is also approved by most dictionaries and usage manuals, in sentences likeHopefully, Congress will pass the law. Grammarians equate that usage to universally accepted constructions with frankly and mercifully. But traditionalists insist that hopefully can be used only to mean in a hopeful manner, as in The ambassador sought hopefully for an agreement. In surveys of skillful writers and teachers, large majorities cling to the restriction. So writers and editors unwilling to irritate readers would be wise to write they hope or with luck. With luck, writers and editors will avoid wooden alternatives like it is hoped or one hopes.

kipa, the Hebrew word for skullcap, is increasingly used by American Jews in place of the Yiddish yarmulke. In print, skullcap is often preferable because it is universally understood.

lectern, podium. A speaker stands at or behind a lectern and on a podium.

The Chandos portrait, artist and authenticity unconfirmed. National Portrait Gallery, London. (Credit: Wikipedia)

manner born. The quotation, from “Hamlet,” is to the manner born, not the manor.

more honored in the breach. The passage more honored in the breach than the observance, from “Hamlet,” refers to a custom that is more honorably ignored than followed — not one that is more often ignored.

participles as nouns. Beware of a present participle (the ing form of a verb) when it directly follows a noun or a pronoun. Look twice at the meaning of the phrase, because the participle often plays the role of a noun in such a sentence. And when that happens, the previous word should be possessive (his, her, their, Ms. Lamm’s).

personal names and nicknames. [stuff deleted] An exception may be made for organized-crime figures, whose nicknames are customarily shown this way: Leslie (Racko) Lamm. Note that this style means the bearer is popularly called Racko Lamm. If the surname is not spoken as part of the nickname, do not use the parenthetical style, which would be misleading. In other words, if Toby Agneau is known simply as Toby the Nose, do not write Toby (the Nose) Agneau. And since the style clearly implies unsavory ties, use these nicknames only when such ties are well established.

Tontons Macoute. The Haitian Creole name (always plural) for a militia that terrorized the population under the Duvalier dictatorship is still sometimes applied to similar gangs. The name, from the singular Uncle Knapsack, alludes to the boogeyman of folklore.

sweatshirt, sweatsuit. But: sweat pants.

whiskey, whisky. Use whiskey (and whiskeys) as a general term for liquors distilled from a mash of grain, and in specific references to the Irish and American versions. Use whisky (and whiskies) in specific references to Scotch and Canadian varieties. Also see alcoholic beverages.

Wiffle Ball

Wiffle is a trademark for plastic balls and bats. But whiffle ball is a generic term for the equipment and the game played with it.

zeitgeist. When it appears in an English phrase, lowercase the German noun meaning “spirit of the age.” Still better, resist it, as pretentious.

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Hyphenate Them All, and Let God Sort It Out

There is, I have learned, a broad gray area between editing and jittery, ham-fisted niggling. Consider the hyphen, so squidgy and so inconspicuous. And so much discussed. It is a key, of sorts. Fresh copy editors happily indulge in frequent hyphenation, which leads ripened ones to nourish the idea that moderation in hyphenation is a sign of sophistication. The would-be (hyphen!) authorities, falling assfirst out of the journalism tree, who compose whole hyphen chapters festooned with examples and exceptions, do not help. What is needed is a practical rule, simple to remember, that people who do not obsess unnaturally over these things can apply without fuss.

The problem is, this is not easily forthcoming. The battleground, chiefly, is the phrasal adjective (or compound modifier), when two or more words immediately precede, and together describe, another word. Phrasal adjectives appear when you turn expressions like a minimum of two drinks into a two-drink minimum. The whole point is an echo of the schoolyard coda, Go along to get along. Linking two to drink with a hyphen demonstrates that two and drink go along together to describe minimum.

The importance of the hyphen is easily demonstrated by any phrase that contains a negative or pejorative adjective like unfair, corrosive or hazardous, as in the phrase hazardous-materials team. A strict reading, without the hyphen, can lead to ambiguity. (Is the team hazardous? Be honest, it probably is.) Using a hyphen makes clear at least one meaning of the sentence; writers tasked with discussing a bumbling, rubber-suited (hyphen!) cleanup crew are on their own.

In fact, it is this ambiguity that leads experienced editors to argue that many hyphens are unnecessary. The classic example, proffered by the hyphen advocate Bill Walsh, is orange-juice salesman. No one, these subtlety-seekers (hyphen!) argue, is going to think the salesman is orange. Not so fast. I have seen enough handwritten faxes sent to newsrooms in the dead of night to know that sooner or later, somewhere, someone is going to think so; and enough other people will be tripped up by the absurdity, if only momentarily. If you are writing to be clear, then be clear.

Once the careful writer has embraced that simple-to-remember (hyphens!) rule, refinements and exceptions can be considered.

  • Extra hyphens are needed in phrasal adjectives of more than two words, as in championship-game-winning hit, and in cases with more than one phrasal adjective, as in second- and third-grade students.
  • Skip the hyphen with quotation marks (“ice cold” beer), proper nouns (that Ted Williams swing), and in most phrases that end in -ly (an early morning meeting). These already are sufficient clues that a phrasal adjective is at work.
  • If, despite the ambiguity, the meaning of the phrasal adjective remains substantially clear, as in health care plan (a “care plan for health” equates roughly with a “plan for health care”) or if part of the phrasal adjective can be deleted without substantially changing the meaning, as in light blue scarf, then the use of a hyphen can be safely dispensed with.

Examples like these are not as common as you might think, however, and a great many can devolve into matters of whisker-tugging (hyphen!) debate, as in foreign aid bill or real estate agent. Never mind that often what you are dealing with is not a phrasal adjective at all.

What you are left with is a nettlesome problem, perhaps not worth the calories expended in thinking about it. But if it matters to you, and if you are not sure what to do, hyphenate first and wait for someone else to ask the questions.