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PLEASE:Ted, rules, hyphens and style guides

A WORD,

August 30, 2006|By JUNE CASAGRANDE

Can Ted and I come to a wedding in Boston this October, the little cream-colored RSVP card wants to know. No, we can't. And because it's Ted's friend who's getting married, it's Ted's job to find the words to say so in the tiny space provided.

A writer himself, Ted doesn't need any help composing the note. But like a lot of writers, he occasionally feels the need for some grammar help. He has just one question: "Is it 'regretfully' or 'regrettably'?"

"I'm not sure," I say, too engrossed in the "Oxford English Grammar's" chapter on adverbials (yes, really) to pay much attention. "Look it up."

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Never one to miss an opportunity to administer a ribbing, Ted gibes, "Look it up? Aren't you supposed to be the grammar expert?"

Well, yes and no.

To Ted, members of my family and everyone who doesn't know what a linking verb is, yup, I'm a grammar expert. But people who actually understand the "Oxford English Grammar's" chapter on adverbials probably wouldn't agree.

Luckily, this matter has nothing to do with expertise.

Many people think that grammar is a system of rules and facts that you carry around in your head, at your disposal at all times. Regretfully vs. regrettably; pet vs. petted; pled vs. pleaded; have drank vs. have drunk; water-ski vs. water ski; fundraiser vs. fund-raiser; got vs. gotten — these are just a few of the things people think they're supposed to know. But they don't. So they're ashamed. Deeply ashamed.

Grammar snobs can smell these insecurities a mile away. Like vultures, they swoop in on this divide, twisting it into a divide-and-conquer. Theirs is a reign of terror. They say "dangling participle," the rest of us cower in shame because we don't remember what that means (some of us even check our zippers). Snobs say that "nauseous" doesn't mean "nauseated," we turn a pale green and try to change the subject.

What we don't know is that we're not expected to know everything. Being grammar-savvy doesn't mean knowing whether "water-ski" is hyphenated. It means knowing when and how to look it up.

There isn't a grammar snob, linguist, editor or idiot savant alive who has memorized every dictionary spelling that includes a hyphen. That's why everyone, present grammar experts included, need to open a dictionary to learn that "water-ski" with a hyphen is a verb, but the noun describing the equipment has no hyphen: "water ski."

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