Sorry, Bessie, About Your Short, Miserable Life (But Thanks for a Delicious Dinner!)

Last night my boyfriend and I met up with a friend at a popular burger joint in honor of her last night in town. At the end of the evening, my boyfriend slid his receipt across the table toward me so I could read the fine print at the bottom. He was impressed that the cows weren’t given growth hormones or antibiotics; while I agreed that was great and all, I was more interested in the confusing and perhaps ill-advised wording of the blurb:

Never happy. Always miserable?

Tell me: Are these cows happy, or are they completely and utterly (or should I say “udderly”? Har har) dejected?

Now, I understand this is a receipt. It’s not a published novel. It’s not a finely edited dissertation. It probably wasn’t written by a professional writer. Heck, they probably don’t expect anyone to actually read it. Nonetheless, there needs to be some clarification here.

The cows are “never never happy.” So does this mean they are “never, never happy”? Perpetually despondent? Depressed creatures from the day they emerge from the womb to the night their miserable little throats are slashed (or however they’re killed – I avoid learning too much about that to the best of my ability)?

“Our cows are never, never happy! Don’t feel guilty about eating meat, folks; you put them out of their misery! They would thank you if they weren’t inside your gut right now!”

Alternatively, are they “never never-happy”? Always blissful? Merry animals strolling through lush pastures while chewing their cud and swishing their tails?

A little punctuation can make a big difference.

These are two completely divergent scenarios. Frankly, either way I’m a bit horrified, as it makes me sad to think about Bessie joyously interacting with humans until the day they betray her in the worst possible way. Like many people, I prefer to think my delicious burger slathered with bacon and basil pesto was not once part of a living, breathing thing that I perhaps would call “cute” after seeing it produce a particularly long yawn. And I would prefer my receipt not remind me of this.

After further examination of the remainder of the blurb, this became a clear case of trying too hard or being too clever for your own good. After all, the cows are “never given growth hormones” (“never” #1), “never given antibiotics” (“never” #2) and “raised with care” (“happy,” although that is debatable considering being raised with care doesn’t necessarily make one joyful). This adds up to “never never happy.” I get it. But unless this restaurant wants customers to start hearing woeful moos emerging from their stomachs, I’d rework it.


It’s Here! It’s Here! The New AP Stylebook Is Here!

Yesterday I returned from a meeting to find the 2011 AP Stylebook waiting for me on my chair. After emitting a short squeal of delight, I snatched it up and began to caress it lovingly. It’s so shiny. And pretty. And it smells a little bit like heaven. Well, no, it doesn’t. Heaven smells like chocolate-chip cookies baking in the oven. Everyone knows that. But the AP Stylebook smells like the library in heaven (of course there’s a library in heaven, silly!).


Isn’t she lovely?

The version I’d been using was the 2008 edition, so it was time for an upgrade (there certainly have been plenty of updates since then). And sure, I have access to the online version, but I prefer picking up the book, which is never more than a foot away from me, and flipping to the appropriate page rather than going to the website, logging in and doing a search.

Anyway, for those of you doubters out there, I thought I’d highlight a few entries from the AP Stylebook to show you why I find it so handy. You can find answers in this book to questions you never even knew you had. It’s amazing. Note: These aren’t necessarily entries new to the 2011 edition. 

  • Heaven. I looked this word up when writing the first paragraph in this blog post because I wasn’t sure whether I should capitalize it (and whether the fact that I’m not exactly religious made a difference). The AP Stylebook has one-word entries when it’s simply a matter of spelling or capitalization, and this was one of those instances; on Page 129, it simply says, “heaven.” No further explanation needed.

  • Myriad. On Page 187, this entry reads, “myriad (adj.) Note word is not followed by of: The myriad books in the library.” Did you know you don’t use “of” with “myriad”? It seems like that’s the only way I ever see it (kind of like “comprised of”). Told you! Handy!

  • AARP. From p. 1: “AARP Use only the initials for the organization formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons.” This makes sense considering people are eligible for full membership benefits at age 50, and no one is retiring at 50 in this economy.

  • Health care. According to Page 129, “health care” (no further explanation given) is two words. Given how often I’ve seen it as “healthcare,” however, I wouldn’t be surprised if this changes in future editions.

  • Smokey. On Page 258 I learned that it’s “Smokey Or Smokey Bear. Not Smokey the Bear. But: A smoky room.” File this away under “Who knew?” – I totally thought it was “Smokey the Bear”! Thanks, AP Stylebook!

Yes, the AP Stylebook is both handy and informative. I’m not saying I’m going to go home and curl up with a nice glass of merlot (lowercase; however, uppercase “Chianti” because that is “a bold, dry red wine made in the Chianti region of Italy”) while devouring it for pleasure, but like I said, it’s never far from my reach. Or my heart.


When I’m Happy, I Just Smile

Occasionally I have such a strong reaction to a novel I’m reading that I blurt something out loud. For example, I recently finished A Storm of Swords, the third book in George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series, and when I got through that infamous scene (if you’ve read it, you know what I’m talking about; if not, I’m not going to ruin it for you but rather command that you run out and buy this series right now and get to reading. Yes, now. I’ll still be here when you get back), I screeched, “George R.R. Martin, I hate you and the horse you rode in on! Hate! HatehatehateHATE! You are an evil blankity-blanking blank! Blank. BLANK!”

… or something along those lines. I don’t remember exactly.

About a year ago I was reading Shogun by James Clavell when I experienced a similar moment. My reaction wasn’t quite as passionate, but it was just as immediate and stunned: “Dear god, you can tell a man wrote this book.”

Sure, this goes both ways. You can toss some Jane Austen my way, and I probably will agree it sounds like a woman wrote that. But I’m not talking about the subject matter or plot. I mean, OK, maybe there are some gruesome beheadings and other acts of violence throughout this novel, but the particular sentence that struck me wasn’t from one of those scenes. In fact, it was from a simple discussion between two women. Gyoko, basically a madam, is discussing the price of one of her ladies with another character. Everything was fine until I read this sentence:

“My only concern is for Lord Toranaga,” Gyoko answered with practiced gravity, her anus twitching at the thought of two thousand five hundred koku so nearly in her strong room.

I don’t think I need to explain my reaction.

Try to tell me a man didn’t write that. Go on. See if you can do it with a straight face.

Also, tell me that phrasing didn’t make you wonder if “strong room” was a euphemism for something else.


Grammar Guidance Goodness: Compose vs. Comprise

Welcome to the first edition of Grammar Guidance Goodness (hereafter known as GGG)! I figure that if I’m going to reference the word “grammar” in my blog name, I’m pretty much required to discuss the rules of grammar on a somewhat regular basis. Instead of focusing on obvious, easy problem areas such as “you’re” vs. “your” or “their” vs. “they’re” vs. “there,” however, I plan on tackling more subtle or less common issues – ones that may confound even the most seasoned editors.

The topic of today’s GGG isn’t quite that complicated, but it’s one that many people don’t seem to realize is even an issue (as well as a pet peeve of mine). It can be boiled down to one basic rule:

Never use the phrase “is comprised of.”

Ever.

Here’s the deal. The definition of “comprise,” according to the AP Stylebook, is “to contain, to include all or embrace.”

Incorrect: A Tito’s and soda is comprised of Tito’s vodka, club soda and lime.
Correct: A Tito’s and soda comprises Tito’s vodka, club soda and lime.

That may look, and sound, funny to you. Somehow “is comprised of” has become an accepted error, much like using “which” when it should be “that.” If you don’t like it, there are alternatives.

Correct: A Tito’s and soda contains Tito’s vodka, club soda and lime.
Correct:
A Tito’s and soda is composed of Tito’s vodka, club soda and lime.

Those variations are perfectly acceptable. They may not sound as fancy, but they work.

Note that with “comprise,” the subject is the entire item; that is, the whole (Tito’s and soda) comprises the parts (Tito’s vodka, club soda and lime). If you want to reverse the order and talk about the parts making up the whole, use “constitute.”

Incorrect: Tito’s vodka, club soda and lime comprise a Tito’s and soda.
Correct:
Tito’s vodka, club soda and lime constitute a Tito’s and soda.

One final note: Only use “comprise” if you’re listing all the parts. If what follows is part of the total, use “include.”

Incorrect: A Tito’s and soda comprises Tito’s vodka and club soda.
Correct: A Tito’s and soda includes Tito’s vodka and club soda.

That’s just gross. You really need that lime.


Where Have All the Copy Editors Gone?

As an editor, I’ve seen a lot of ugly writing in my day. Some of it still makes me cringe – or laugh – but in general, it doesn’t faze me. In fact, I’m grateful for all the crappy writers out there; if not for them, I’d be sitting on my couch in my cute sleep pants from Old Navy watching a rerun of “Law & Order: SVU” right now. Hmm, that actually doesn’t sound so bad. Let me clarify: If not for them, I’d be unemployed right now.

I differentiate between trained writers and non-trained writers, however. That is, if your degree is in political science, I’ll forgive you when you confuse “affect” with “effect.” But if you have a degree in journalism, or even if you don’t but your title involves the word “editor” or “reporter” or a variation thereof, well, I might go all get-off-my-lawn with you over a simple mistake.

It’s easy to pick on CNN.com over this. Finding a mistake on CNN.com has become such a regular occurrence that it’s like taking candy from a baby – no, easier than that, like taking candy from a fetus (this makes no sense). Take this recent gem:

A fine editing gem from CNN.com

Gah. Painful. I realize it’s easy to mistype and use one word (“work”) when you mean another (“week”), but this is supposed to be a news site run by professionals. Someone – the reporter, his/her editor, the copy editor, the person who actually uploads the content onto the site – should have caught it. Processes should be in place at a major news organization to avoid such errors.

“Oh, come on,” you say. “That’s one little word in the middle of a paragraph in the middle of a story. These things happen!” Fair enough. But what about the below example?

Another fine, fine editing example from CNN.com

Try to defend this one. Do it. I dare you. It’s in the very first sentence. It’s within the first six words. And it’s enough to make any reader pause and back up. It’s that obvious.

Leaving CNN.com alone for now (I’m starting a collection of these, by the way, and plan on posting them on an as-needed basis), here’s another example. This one came from the website of the Houston Chronicle, but the story came straight from none other than the Associated Press:

How many homes are we talking about here, kids?

The Associated Press! The very creators of my beloved stylebook! To be fair, when I refreshed the page a few hours later, the second “homes” had been changed to “churches.” Someone caught that one – eventually.

I realize there are many reasons why it seems, to me at least, that errors by professional writers are becoming more and more common. We’ve become a demanding public that wants the latest news now. Quantity seems to be becoming more important than quality. Journalism schools are closing, perhaps resulting in fewer, or not as well-trained, editors and writers. Heck, maybe I’m becoming a better editor and finding mistakes I would’ve missed in the past (though I kind of doubt it).

I’m sure I make mistakes sometimes as well, although I have no proof because I refuse to look at anything I worked on at my job after it comes in from the printer. And sure, you’ll probably find mistakes on this blog. Of course, this is a one-woman show here, and I’m not getting paid for my blog. Keep that in mind.

It’s sloppy. Plain and simple. And I fear it’s only going to become more and more common as people continue to text more and more and use annoying shorthand in place of actual words. So, yeah, go ahead and get off my lawn already. And wake me when it’s time for supper.


Bye-bye, Borders

The first time I went to a Borders, Kip Winger was giving an in-store performance. Yeah, that Kip Winger.

Is it any surprise I became a big fan of the store?

Years ago, when I was in a long-distance relationship, I spent many a lonely Friday night (remember when the big bookstores used to stay open until 11 p.m.?) at Borders, drifting from aisle to aisle, searching for new books by trusted authors, reading up on the sexual compatibility of Cancers, sucking down an Oreo Javakula at the in-store Seattle’s Best. So when I found out last week that Borders is closing all its stores in Austin, my first reaction was extreme disappointment. My second? “Oooh, I bet they’re having some great sales. Better get over there before it’s too late.”

I went to two of the three Austin stores this weekend, and everything was at least 70 percent off. I ended up buying eight books. A couple of them were actually on my wish list on Paperbackswap.com, which is pretty exciting. A few more were by authors whose work I’ve enjoyed in the past. Only one book was a completely random purchase (although I did check the Amazon reviews on my iPhone in the store before buying it; they were passable).

Total cost: $28.66. Not terrible.

I was pleased with my haul, but I have to say, a bookstore going out of business is a depressing sight. They’d placed all the picked-over books in the middle of the store, surrounded by a massive expanse of nothingness. Huge, glaring clearance signs were everywhere. Even the nicked bookshelves were for sale. And I realize I’m absolutely part of the problem. If I buy a book new, it’s usually from Amazon (or, worse, from the Barnes & Noble across the street from my house). I would say I can’t remember the last time I went to BookPeople, our local bookseller, except I do remember and it was only a couple of weeks ago – but that was at my boyfriend’s urging, and I didn’t buy anything (he did, at least, but I can’t take credit for that. Oh, wait, I drove us there! Phew. There’s my contribution).

I felt properly shamed.

So long, Austin Borders, and thanks for all the books.


The Importance of Word Choice (or How Not to Anger Your Fans)

One thing I plan on writing about a lot on this blog is word choice. After all, the rules of grammar are needed to ensure we communicate clearly – but what’s the point of being grammatically correct if you use the wrong word and your message is completely misunderstood?

Case in point: Let’s say you’re the head basketball coach at a fairly large state university in the Midwest. When you joined the program, it was in pretty bad shape, and in your five years there, you’ve turned things around. You still haven’t taken a team to the Final Four, but you went to the Elite Eight a couple of years ago, and the fans love you. Then the university where you served as an assistant coach for 17 years fires its coach and comes sniffing around. What do you say to the media when they ask if you’re interested in that position?

“I plan on being at [state university in the Midwest] for a long time, retire here. I’m happy. I think that’s the most important thing. It’s always about being happy.”

Note the word used in the first sentence: “retire.” Now let’s look up “retire” in Webster’s New World College Dictionary:

to withdraw from one’s position or occupation: conclude one’s working or professional career 

Ah, so what you’re saying is you’re going to stay in this position until you’re done coaching and ready to chill out with your millions on a tropical island. You’re 51 years old, so fans can rest assured that they probably have at least a good 15 years left to cheer you and your teams on.

But wait! Less than three weeks - not 15 years - later, you say this:

“I am extremely excited to once again be a part of this special [other university]. With the continued passionate support of all [other university's mascot] fans, I am confident that we will have the opportunity to succeed on and off the court and continue to build on the [other university's] championship tradition.”

This is a prime example of using the incorrect word. You didn’t mean “retire.” What you meant was “stay here until someone offers me a lot more money.” Perhaps you didn’t understand the definition of the word “retire.” Perhaps that involved too many words and your mouth was already tired from talking out of both sides of it while negotiating contracts with the two schools. Perhaps that was simply too straightforward.

Whatever the case, your word choice stunk, and you did not communicate clearly. Perhaps your new university should’ve saved some of that cool $2.2 million they’re paying you to buy you a dictionary.


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