Solons mull grammar, word choices

North Carolina’s lawmakers are spending part of this legislative session on wordy matters, as documented in the Under the Dome blog.

  • First, the Dome tells us in a series of posts about how legislators use titles of bills to make them more politically palatable. That’s why we have the North Carolina Racial Justice Act and the School Violence Prevention Act, among others.
  • Second, we have news of a bill that would ensure that legislation is gender-neutral — the generic “he” would be “he or she.” The issue came up earlier this year when the state’s governor, Beverly Perdue, was described as “he” in an education bill.

Perhaps it’s time that the General Assembly write a stylebook to handle these matters. That’s what newspapers, magazines and book publishers do. The legislators are welcome to start with this one.

UPDATE: The posts on the Dome blog have been compiled and rewritten into a front-page story in The News & Observer.

Yes, it’s National Grammar Day

Today is National Grammar Day. My feelings about this occasion are the same as they were National Buy A Newspaper Day — I offer support, but with reservations.

My reservations are similar to those expressed by a friend and former colleague, Pam Nelson of Triangle Grammar Guide. Here’s an excerpt from her recent post about National Grammar Day:

I would like writers to use lay and lie correctly and to get out a dictionary to be sure of the homonyms they use, but I refuse to get my unmentionables in a bunch over some deviations from the standard, especially in everyday speech.

So yes, let’s recognize how good grammar fosters communication. But let’s not become the pests who have given grammar a bad name. It’s easy to go overboard, after all.

So much for the reservations. Let’s get to the grammar. Here are three books that discuss the topic. Each is accessible, informative and entertaining:

  • “Booher’s Rules of Business Grammar,” by Dianna Booher
  • “When Words Collide,” by Lauren Kessler
  • “Lapsing Into A Comma,” by Bill Walsh

If you prefer your grammar lessons online, take a look at this collection of links.

Cover letters need editing

A recent Q&A on cover letters stayed near the top of the “most popular” list at the New York Times site for nearly a week. It’s certainly a timely article, with many people (including journalists) on the job market. And yes, those letters still matter in the age of the e-mailed résumé.

The last question in the Q&A is an important one. It’s about common mistakes in cover letters. Here’s part of the answer:

A cover letter with typos, misspellings and poor sentence structure may take you out of the running for a job. If you cannot afford to pay someone to review your cover letter and résumé, enlist a friend or a family member with good language skills to do it instead.

It’s true. Those things can take you out of the running for a job. I’ve seen that happen in newsrooms and in academia. If you are on the job market or want to go to graduate school, make sure those letters are clear and clean.

Listen to your grammar

Some people make decisions about grammar based on how a sentence sounds. If you are one of those people, this new feature at The Wichita Eagle is for you.

Each Monday, Grammar Monkeys will offer grammar tips in a podcast. The first post is about “lay” versus “lie.” Give it a listen.

When to pack and unpack your adjectives

The wise FEV offers solid advice about those pesky adjectives in this well-written post on Headsup: The Blog.

That insightful post reminded little old me of this adjective-themed episode of the nostalgia-inducing “Schoolhouse Rock.” Here’s my favorite part:

We hiked along without care.

Then we ran into a bear.

He was a hairy bear.

He was a scary bear.

We beat a hasty retreat from his lair.

And described him with adjectives.

Enjoy the 1970s-era video. If you are afraid the catchy song will get stuck in your already clogged brain, just read the clever words.

Which one and that one

Fellow editing blogger Craig Lancaster at Watch Yer Language recently took note of a column by James Kilpatrick. The topic of the column was “that” versus “which.” The didactic Kilpatrick expresses his disdain for “which.”

I liked Craig’s measured response to Kilpatrick, in which he diagnosed a blend of tact and grammar in working with writers who struggle with this problem. I also like this advice on “which” from After Deadline, a blog by a deputy news editor at The New York Times.

Kilpatrick is wrong to throw out “which” altogether. After all, it’s not that complicated to determine which is correct.

Places to go for grammar

This blog is about editing, which includes grammar. But it’s not a grammar blog.

Some readers find their way here looking for grammar tips. They will find some here and there, but such posts are infrequent.

If you are here for grammar and only grammar, allow me to point you in some helpful directions. The New York Times has an excellent topics page about grammar. Grammarphobia, led by “Woe Is I” author Patricia O’Conner, is also a great resource.

If you are looking for grammar exercises, here are some sites to visit:

  • Triangle Grammar Guide by copy editor Pam Nelson includes fun, five-question grammar quizzes. Here’s the full collection of those.
  • Newsroom 101 has exercises on topics such as subject-verb agreement and dangling modifiers.
  • The American Copy Editors Society site has a few grammar quizzes in this trove of tests.
  • NewsU offers “Cleaning Your Copy,” a course by copy editor Vicki Krueger. This one is the “Dark Side of the Moon” of NewsU — it has been on the “Hot Courses” list for as long as I can remember.

All of these sites are free. Enjoy!