Friday, July 28, 2017

Look smart in print II.

Earlier this month I wrote a piece with some tips about writing in English to help my readers look like -- in the words of William Wordsworth -- "big ol' smarty pants." Even in an age where the average Internet troll writing something like

u can suk my weenr u asphole

can potentially reach more readers than Wordsworth did in his lifetime (and find a college professor who will defend him as a superior poet to Wordsworth for doing so), it pays to look smart when you write. Or at least it prevents paying for looking dumb. 

my pen is mitier tehn teh sord

Here's seven more tips to help you produce prose that won't get the grammar police after you.

1. Even though increasing the power of an engine may make it seem super, the phrase is souped up, not suped up. (Hyphenate it as an adjective: a souped-up AMC Pacer). It seems weird -- we know via Campbell's that soup is good food, but really? And the answer is, yeah. "Soup" was slang for performance-enhancing drugs used to illegally fix horse races, according to various sources including (and if you can't trust them for language lessons, whom can you trust?). There is some controversy about the origin, but regardless, put that O in souped. Just like the Ford Pinto -- can't spell souped without an O! 

2. Speaking of sports, if something is a lock, it's a shoo-in, not a shoe-in. Think of it as shooing in a golf ball on the lip of the cup ("Come on, ball, roll in!") or starting a race five feet from the finish line. A shoe-in would be, I dunno, a hippie protest where everyone piles up their stinky ol' moccasins. 

3. If you're shimmying up a pole, you may be dancing in a gentleman's club frequented by gentlemen of a loose nature (not looking at you, Stiiv) (necessarily). You shinny up and down ropes and poles -- not really ladders, as the shinny is the classic crossed-ankle maneuver they tried to teach me in gym class while I hung there like a fat piƱata. A shimmy is a dance move. I can't do that either. 

4. A vise is the tool that squeezes stuff; a vice is the sinful thing that you should stop doing. (Still not looking at you, Stiiv.) (Maybe a glance.) I always laugh when text says something like the hero felt he was caught in a vice grip. Oh, naughty hero!

5. Your ancestor is a relative in a direct line who came before you; a descendant is your progeny, descended from you. This has only become a problem in the last few years, and I have no idea why. Suddenly I see sentences like "What will our ancestors say when they inherit our polluted world?" And I think, "Not much, because they're dead." 

6. Onto is one word -- except when it's not. You can leap onto a desk if you've ever been voted "most limber boy," but most of us would prefer not to try if we want to hold on to our dignity. Onto is the preposition, on to uses on as part of the verbal phrase (as in grab on, hang on, etc.). Is there an easy way to tell the difference? Why, yes there is! The Chicago Manual of Style puts it this way: "One trick is to mentally say 'up' before on: if the sentence still makes sense, then onto is probably the right choice." You can leap up onto a desk, but you can't hold up on to your dignity or anything else. To complicate matters, into does not quite follow the same rules. We'll leave that for another time and hold on to our sanity.

7. Okay, it's time to finally attack the lay / lie / laid / lain thing. Lie is what you do (in the present tense), lay is what you do to something else. (Stiiv, I'm warning you, get your mind out of the gutter.) So you lay your book on the desk and lie down on the sofa. The main confusion occurs because lay is the past tense of lie, while laid is the past tense of lay! So yesterday you laid your book on the desk and lay down on the sofa. If you can remember that you have 95% of the lay/lie thing licked. Lain is not needed very often; it is the past participle of lie, as in this from Housman:

Oh I have been to Ludlow fair
And left my necktie God knows where,
And carried half way home, or near,
Pints and quarts of Ludlow beer:
Then the world seemed none so bad,
And I myself a sterling lad;
And down in lovely muck I've lain,
Happy till I woke again. 

But as I say, most of the time it's just: I lie down now, I lay down yesterday, I lay the brick down on an egg, I laid the brick on an egg yesterday. Future tense is just like the present: I will lie down when I get home; I will lay the brick on some eggs.

Merriam-Webster has chickened out on this whole lay/lie thing, crawling under the blanket and saying that lay "has been used intransitively in the sense of 'lie' ⟨lay down for a quick nap⟩ since the 14th century" and it's only recently (meaning since 1700) that anyone said lay can only be used in the intransitive sense to lay an egg. Well, Webster, you know what they didn't have in the 14th century? Dictionaries. And you know why we have dictionaries? To bring order and understanding to a chaotic world. Do you want to render yourself useless, Webster? Do you want chaos and ignorance to become the order of the day again? 

I thought not. Compose yourself, Webster; you're becoming a complete mess.

No comments: