Grammar Corner

A thread to get your grammar questions answered. Ladies and Gentlemen, the host our show, Mitchell Dwyyyyy-eeerr!Our first question comes from Reid:

I’m not sure about the use of comma and quotes in the following sentence:

I would say yes, but with some exceptions

I want to put a comma after “say,” but that seems inappropriate. Also, in the past, I would have put “yes” in quotes, but at some point I started noticing that publications would drop the quotes (or maybe I’m remembering that wrong. My sense is that the quotes are optional now. Help me out, Dr. Grammar. (I’m only calling you that for this post, as it fits with the vibe.)

31 thoughts on “Grammar Corner

  1. Singular They

    I recall we talked about this before, but I can’t remember if you brought the following point: the singular “they” is equivalent to “he/she” or “s/he.” Would you agree with that? If so, I’m going to use the singular they a lot more. I’ve had two approaches–alternate between “he” and “she” (trying in the name of gender equality) or the “he/she” abomination. I obviously hate the latter, and the former is getting tiresome, and I like the gender neutral (or gender ambiguous) quality of the singular they.

    But are there times when the singular they is not appropriate? I liked the suggestions in this, although I haven’t opened up to “themself.”

  2. We’re in a period of transition, and it’s impossible to tell where we’re going to land. Young Americans are increasingly sensitive to even the he/she singular binary. I’m sure you know that some college professors are now asking their students what pronoun they prefer to be referred to as.

    When is it inappropriate to use singular they? I’d say when you’re writing for an audience who might judge you unfairly for using it.

    One of the websites (Buzzfeed?) surveyed copy editors at a conference, asking which one issue each of them wished people would take seriously, and “embrace the singular they” was among the popular responses.

    I don’t like it in my own writing, so I’m more likely to restructure the sentence if I get tired of “he or she” and “him or her.”

    I’m mildly surprised and encouraged by your distaste for “he/she.” We have something in common!

  3. I’m sure you know that some college professors are now asking their students what pronoun they prefer to be referred to as.

    No, I didn’t. I’m not sure how I feel about that. Merriam-Webster did talk about how the singular they would work for trans-gender people, and I think that’s kinda cool.

    I’d say when you’re writing for an audience who might judge you unfairly for using it.

    I don’t think the link mentions this one, but it’s a good point–at least if it matters to you if the audience judges you unfairly.

    I’m mildly surprised and encouraged by your distaste for “he/she.” We have something in common!

    It just got really tiresome, and the visual and aural clunkiness of it started to repulse me.

    By the way, no comment about my first question?

  4. Sorry; I missed that one.

    You still use quotation marks for direct quotes.
    : he said I couldn’t go
    : he said, “You can’t go.”

    So in your example sentence, it works with the quotes
    :he said, “yes.”

    or without
    :he said yes.

    because in this case, “yes” can be a direct quote or it can be a meaning for whatever he said.

    Notice that in my examples, there is a quote after “says” when it’s followed by a direct quote. Still a thing. 🙂

  5. addition:

    In less formal writing, I often discard the quotation marks even in a direct quote, for stylistic reasons. I do a lot of Q-A formatted writing, and I like to preserve the voice of the answerer as much as possible, especially if it’s a good voice. So in order not to interrupt the flow of that voice, I’ll often write something like:

    : I said I’m all tired from walking up that hill and she said you should really think about getting in shape because that hill isn’t getting less steep and you still have a job up there.

    It’s a signature of Cormac McCarthy’s style not to use quotation marks anywhere. I love the effect it has on the narrative voice.

  6. …or it can be a meaning for whatever he said.

    What do you mean by that, exactly? I ask, because I think this gets to the situation I’m really asking about. I know that how to punctuate a direct quote, but it’s the second situation…that I think you’re describing above.

    Here’s the type of situation I’m thinking of:

    Would you say QBs should have good footwork? I would say yes.

    In the second sentence, “yes” isn’t a direct quote, but I kinda confused by that. I mean “yes,” but I didn’t say the word “yes” out loud, so I assume that makes it not a direct quote–a direct quote being words or sentences someone says out loud. Does that make sense?

    By the way, I have a hard time thinking of different ways of writing the two sentences above–without using “yes” or “no.” Using words like “affirmative” or “negative” seem awkward, but I struggle to find another way of asking a yes or no question rhetorically and then providing an answer for it. Do you know what I’m saying?

  7. Me: Dad, can I go to the carnival with Samantha?
    Dad: I would be a tyrant to say no.

    Direct quote:

    Mom: What did your dad say when you asked him about the carnival?
    Me: He said, “I would be a tyrant to say no.”

    Meaning:

    Mom: What did your dad say when you asked him about the carnvial?
    Me: He said yes.

    See? He said, “Yes.” would be a direct quote. He said yes is yes as a meaning.

  8. Yeah, it’s totally clear, when you can see all the sentences side by side. For whatever reason, I become uncertain and insecure when I’m writing “yes” or “no” as a meaning.

    What about my other question, regarding following a rhetorical yes or no question with sentence other than something like, “I would say yes.”

    (Also, what about a comma before “yes.” Optional, right?)

    It’s a signature of Cormac McCarthy’s style not to use quotation marks anywhere. I love the effect it has on the narrative voice.

    I like this, too, but I don’t know if the effect on voice is the reason. I feel like the effect is more visual, creating a clean, spare visual effect, which seems totally apropos for McCarthy’s writing style.

  9. By the way, I have a hard time thinking of different ways of writing the two sentences above–without using “yes” or “no.” Using words like “affirmative” or “negative” seem awkward, but I struggle to find another way of asking a yes or no question rhetorically and then providing an answer for it. Do you know what I’m saying?

    I do. And there are lots of ways of saying the same thing without that construction. You could say “I would say so” or “I would say not.” You could say “It seems to me that _____” or “It would appear ______.”

    Alternately—and this is the way I would go—you could severely limit the frequency with which you use the device in question. I call it Interviewing Yourself. People in radio and TV interviews do it all the time. “Do I think we should have run the ball more? Yes. Is it my job to question the coaches? No. Will I get in trouble for mentioning this in public? We’ll see!”

    There was a time when this might have been effective, but the more I pay attention to the really good speakers and the really good writers, the more keenly aware I am that they don’t use this device. If you care about writing excellently, you might avoid the device entirely.

  10. Why do you think “interviewing yourself” device is something that good writers avoid? Are you saying that primarily because you don’t see writer you respect use that device? Or is there another reason?

    I think asking and then answering rhetorical questions can be effective–if you get a sense that the reader, at that specific moment in the piece, may have that exact question. A part of me feels like if most readers would have that question at that point, then asking that question rhetorically can be be an effective way not only to be clear, but to earn the reader’s trust. As a reader, I think that’s the effect it has on me.

    By the way, thanks for the suggestions.

  11. When I was teaching speech classes, I taught my students a list of captures (it was right out of the Speech 151 courses we all took at Manoa), the first of which was the rhetorical question. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it’s the easiest of the devices. Students would use it for every speech, and over time we all realized how tiresome and easy a device it is. Watch a few TV infomercials and you’ll see what I mean.

    After a couple of semesters, I still let them use it, but I would forbid it after their second speech assignments. Find a better way, one that doesn’t seem so easy, I told them. They did, and the speeches were much better.

    If I think the reader, at a specific moment, is asking a question, I just answer it without posing the question. Try it. It may be a little more challenging, but the overall composition is much better.

    Writers I admire do avoid the device, but that’s not how I came to my position. I just noticed compositions without rhetorical questions were better, and when I get the chance to critique others’ work, I always flag rhetorical questions, suggesting the writers try something else. When they do, the writing is almost always better.

    A better use of the device, and the reason I don’t tell people just not to use it at all (as opposed to the ellipsis, which I do tell writers not to use at all, or at a maximum three times in their entire lives) would be not to pose the question I think the reader is asking at that moment, but to pose the question I think the reader should ask at that moment. It’s a way of giving the reader the benefit of the doubt while also raising him or her up to where you think they should be, a different version of a conversational device I use where I say, “You’re already aware of X, but here’s Y.”

    You don’t have to agree with me, but I would encourage you to pay close attention to writing you think is good, and see if you don’t agree.

  12. Find a better way, one that doesn’t seem so easy, I told them.

    Asking a good question at the right moment isn’t always easy though,
    and I tend to think it’s closer to the opposite.

    I just noticed compositions without rhetorical questions were better, and when I get the chance to critique others’ work, I always flag rhetorical questions, suggesting the writers try something else.

    Would you say this is the case for writing that is highly abstract and conceptual–like philosophical writing? A part of me suspects that in this type of writing, a rhetorical question can be helpful–a place where readers can get their bearings. In writing like this, vague definitions and concepts can easily fly by. By asking a question–e.g., “What do we mean by ‘being’ in this context?”–the writer allows the reader to catch their breath, while also focusing their attention on a key concept. I think readers can also assume too much about their understanding, and asking a question can suggest that the reader should also be asking the same question at this point. It’s way of reminding them: “Hey, are you fully understanding everything I’m saying?” It can be also add a more concrete, straightforward flavor to the writing, which is a really good change of pace. Writing about philosophy or architecture can be incredibly abstract and abstruse in my experience, and rhetorical questions can really help make the writing more concrete, down to earth, even.

  13. I understand your feelings about this, but I just disagree. I think you can accomplish the same thing without asking those questions, which I (still) think is easier to write and frustrating to read. It’s okay. We can disagree on one or two things in our lives. 🙂

    1. You might also like a YouTube channel called Hot for Words. Might not want to look at it on a work computer though. Despite appearances, the host presents some really good stuff, if she’s still at it.

  14. What do you think of the following sentence?

    Is it grammatically correct? Appropriate? It seems awkward to me, and I almost always avoid writing a sentence like this. Oh, I’m talking about the “my and Wittes’s” part. It would be nice to have this form available, though.

  15. It’s correct but it’s awkward. I avoid (always, not almost always) the construction as well. Because conventions of etiquette say to put yourself second, it would more politely be “Wittes’s and my latest piece,” but it’s just as easy and much less awkward to say “The latest piece by Wittes and me” or “The latest piece I wrote with Wittes.” If you can construct it with two sentences so that the second can just say “Critics of our piece, don’t think I don’t notice…”

  16. it’s just as easy and much less awkward to say “The latest piece by Wittes and me” or “The latest piece I wrote with Wittes.

    They’re less awkward, but they’re wordier and could be clunkier, depending on the rest of the sentence.

  17. Yes. It’s one of those rare situations where I recommend more words rather than fewer, since more words can make the communication clearer and more elegant.

  18. Calling the alternatives more elegant or even clearer seems to be pushing it. I can go with less awkward, though. In general, I think the alternatives can be frustrating as I try to write using the fewest words possible.

  19. Oh, you can definitely mess up using more words. I’m not saying you’re surely going to be more elegant or clearer. I’m saying if you can be more elegant and clearer using more words, it’s worth it to avoid the construction you give as an example. And you can.

  20. I just didn’t think the alternatives you gave were more elegant and clearer–and I don’t mean that as a criticism to you specifically. I think I feel the same about the alternatives I come up with as well.

  21. Oh, I wasn’t talking about this specific case. I could try to address that, but I was speaking generally.

  22. This isn’t related to grammar, but it’s kind of relevant to this space.

    I’ve been hearing “spitting image” so much lately and almost never hear the original idiom “spitting image” is a bastardization of: “spit and image.”

    The idiom comes from one of the Biblical creation stories: God formed Adam from his spit and mud, and created him in his own image.

    It’s been misused as “spitting image” so much now that if you use the original idiom, people don’t know what you’re saying or they assume you’ve got it wrong. In this case (as in many cases in our language), the wrong idiom has replaced the original idiom in usage AND meaning. If you say someone is the “spitting image” of someone else, everyone knows what you mean, but if you say “spit and image,” it’s a distraction because people are unused to hearing (or reading) it.

    This bothers me and I’m not sure what my position is anymore. I would correct writers on this all the time a few years ago. Now I might have to correct it in the other direction.

    1. What about the possibility that “spitting image” isn’t an error so much as a stickier idiom than “spit and image?” For example, someone may have just used “spitting image” and that one stuck and became more popular. If this is the case, would “spitting image” actually be wrong?

      1. The meaning would derive from the original context. I assume “spit and image” referred to a close to exact copy of the original. (That’s what “spitting image” means, right? Or am I messing that up?) Then again, Adam isn’t an exact copy of God, so much as…I don’t know, the closest thing to God in all of creation?

        In any event, my sense is that idioms can evolve, creating a wide gap between the original meaning. I think words, phrases, and idioms can have a certain “vibe” that go beyond what the words actually mean. I don’t see any problem with this; it just seems like what happens in language (at least the English language).

        How would the etymology factor into this?

      2. What I meant by what would it mean, is how would “spitting image” possibly have come to mean what it means. There’s an etymology of “spit and image” that points to the Biblical creation story. Where would “spitting image” have come from, is the question?

        You’re saying what I’m saying about the changing of idiomatic language. The question I have is whether we should do anything to correct malapropisms. When people say “A and B are ‘one in the same'” instead of “one and the same,” does it even matter in the long run if it’s a malaprop? Who’s to say “one in the same” isn’t the “spitting image” of 100 years from now? When is it worth trying to help people understand that “oh mighty dollar” isn’t the idiom? Ever?

        1. What I meant by what would it mean, is how would “spitting image” possibly have come to mean what it means. There’s an etymology of “spit and image” that points to the Biblical creation story. Where would “spitting image” have come from, is the question?

          I thought it was a bastardization of “spit and image?” Or are you asking how “spit and image” morphed into “spitting image?” If this is what you mean, I think someone could have just said, “Spitting image” and that stuck. This is more of a phonetic or vibe thing versus something that is linked to the actual meaning of words. What I’m about to say isn’t a good example, but sometimes I’d say, “Man, I want to roast,” and what I mean is that I’m really want to eat. But “roast,” as a verb is an act of cooking in a certain way. I’m using as it as a synonym for eating or a type of eating. I realize that it doesn’t make sense to use “roast” this way, but it’s more of the vibe or sound.

          The question I have is whether we should do anything to correct malapropisms. When people say “A and B are ‘one in the same’” instead of “one and the same,” does it even matter in the long run if it’s a malaprop?

          I don’t have a good answer for this, but I would like at the nature of the idiom. For example, I tend to favor correcting something like, “I could care less” to “I couldn’t care less”–assuming the person meant I can’t care less then I already do. But even something like this, I don’t think there would be a desire to correct this.

          But “spitting image” seems different. It’s more like shorthand for something else, rather than a grammatically incorrect statement. This seems closely related to slang which either wouldn’t be used in formal writing, or may obtain enough acceptance that it could be.

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