Guide to Grammar and Style — M


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From the Guide to Grammar and Style by Jack Lynch.
Comments are welcome.


An absurdly overused cliché. There's no logical reason not to treat massive or massively metaphorically; the problem is that it seems to be our age's only intensifier.

In today's news alone I read about “a massive nationwide manhunt,” “massive civilian casualties,” a “massive lead in the race,” a “massive height advantage,” “a massive systems failure,” a “massive tourism injection,” “massive corruption,” “massive goodwill,” “massive devastation outside the Australian embassy” prompting a “massive security increase,” “massive car-bombings” and a “massive hurricane” each prompting “massive evacuations,” a “massive recall,” a “massive crisis that hit the airline industry,” and “George Bush's massive failure.”

Can we please look for something a little more creative? [Entry added 14 Sept. 2004.]


The niggling technical details of writing — spelling, punctuation, indenting, double spacing, all that sort of thing — are known as mechanics. Amateur writers often think they're above such picayune matters; pros realize that sloppiness always lowers them in the eyes of their audience. [Entry added 14 July 2000]


According to the purists, a plural noun: “The media are,” not “the media is.” The singular is medium. See Agreement and Data.


A methodology is the study of, or a system of, methods. Usually you mean method instead of methodology. Like functionality, methodology is a favorite of longwordophiles.

Microsoft Word.

MS Word, in its many versions, is now the most common word processor on both the PC and the Macintosh. It's so widespread, and so meddlesome, that it deserves a special note. The “AutoCorrect” feature, in particular, is a damned nuisance. It was designed by and for people who like high-tech toys, not by and for people who write.

An incomplete list of the problems:

  • The auto-correction of spelling might be okay for memos, but it's disastrous for English papers, especially if you're writing about anything more than a few decades old. When you're quoting a work, you have to follow the spelling and capitalization exactly. Don't let your word processor “fix” what ain't broke.
  • Word wants to make the letters that accompany ordinal numbers — the st in first, the nd in second, the rd in third, and the th in other numbers — superscripts: not 11th, but 11th. Humbug. Look around: you'll notice that no professionally printed books use superscripts, and neither should you. Besides, most house styles say most ordinal numbers should be spelled out: eleventh.
  • Word turns straight quotation marks into curly ones (they call them “smart quotes,” but I remain skeptical about the intelligence of the operation). No serious problem there, except that the curly quotation marks can be difficult to transmit electronically (they're not part of the standard ASCII code). But Word also plays with apostrophes, turning them into paired single quotation marks (also known as “inverted commas”), and it often makes a mess of it. Worst is Word's habit of turning initial apostrophes into open single quotation marks. When you refer to decades with an initial apostrophe, it should be '60s, not `60s, but Word doesn't care. Ditto some mostly obsolete words like 'tis: apostrophe, not open single quotation mark as in `tis.

Solutions? For starters, turn off the superscript ordinals; there's no reason for them in the world. (It's under “Tools,” at least in the current versions of Word.) You can also turn off the “smart quotes,” but if you prefer to keep them, you can force an apostrophe that goes the right way by typing two apostrophes — one will automatically be open, the other close — and then deleting the first one.

See also Spelling Checkers and Grammar Checkers for comments on how word processors' attempts to be helpful can get in the way of good writing. [Entry added 5 April 2001; revised 1 June 2004; revised again 12 Jan. 2005.]

Mixed Metaphor.

In a metaphor, one thing is likened to another — whether my love to a red, red rose, or the thing that supports a tabletop to a leg. Vivid and thought-provoking metaphors are called “living”: when Homer likens the sunlight at dawn to rosy fingers, he invokes an unexpected image. Over time, though, many once-living metaphors become old hat, and by the time they've simply become the usual way to refer to something — the lip of a jug, the eye of a needle — they're called “dead.” Of course many fall between the two classes.

(A digression: some distinguish metaphor from simile, insisting that a metaphor is implicit, whereas a simile explicitly likens one thing to another with “like” or “as.” Others treat simile as a kind of metaphor, one that happens to use “like” or “as.” I'm easy.)

A vivid metaphorical imagination is a sign of a good writer; a bad one is a sign of a bad writer. Here's the danger: it's possible to use metaphors badly without knowing you're using metaphors at all, because they're far more common than we realize. The secret is to pay attention to those between living and dead (we might call them “moribund”). If we forget that they're metaphors, they can become hopelessly scrambled. Consider this sentence, a more or less realistic example of business writing:

We were swamped with a shocking barrage of work, and the extra burden had a clear impact on our workflow.

Let's count the metaphors: we have images of a marsh (swamped), electrocution or striking (shocking), a military assault (barrage), weight (burden), translucency (clear), a physical impression (impact), and a river (flow), all in a mere twenty words. If you can summon up a coherent mental image including all these elements, your imagination's far superior to mine.

That was a made-up example; here's a real one, from The New York Times, 11 June 2001:

Over all, many experts conclude, advanced climate research in the United States is fragmented among an alphabet soup of agencies, strained by inadequate computing power and starved for the basic measurements of real-world conditions that are needed to improve simulations.

Let's see: research is fragmented among soup (among?); it is strained (you can strain soup, I suppose, but I'm unsure how to strain research); and it is starved — not enough soup, I guess. Or maybe the soup has been strained too thoroughly, leaving just the broth. I dunno.

It's not just journalists who make blunders like this. Joseph Addison, one of the most important writers of the eighteenth century, included these lines in his Letter from Italy:

I bridle in my struggling Muse with pain,
That longs to launch into a nobler strain.

Samuel Johnson took him to task in his Lives of the Poets:

To bridle a goddess is no very delicate idea: but why must she be bridled? because she longs to launch; an act which was never hindered by a bridle: and whither will she launch? into a nobler strain. She is in the first line a horse, in the second a boat; and the care of the poet is to keep his horse or his boat from singing.

This doesn't mean metaphors can never be mixed. Sometimes they're good for comic effect. Sometimes they make for vivid characterization: Hamlet has a famous one, when he considers whether he should “take arms against a sea of troubles” — arm yourself all you like; the sea doesn't care — but it's dramatically effective. Most of the time, though, mixed metaphors show a writer not in control of his or her material.

The moral of the story: pay attention to the literal meaning of figures of speech and your writing will come alive.

Don't, by the way, confuse mixed metaphors with mangled clichés — though a mixed metaphor might result from a botched cliché, they're not the same thing. If there's no metaphor, there's no mixed metaphor. [Revised 11 June 2001; revised 21 Dec. 2004.]


A modifier simply gives additional information about a word: instead of “bench” — any old bench — we get “wooden bench”; instead of “read” — read how? — we get “read quickly.” Modifiers are usually adjectives or adverbs.


Traditionally, momentarily meant for a moment, not in a moment. The battle may be lost by now, but I confess I still get antsy when I hear things like “We'll be taking off momentarily.” [Entry added 14 Sept. 2004.]


Mood is a property of verbs that's a little difficult to describe, because we don't always indicate moods with inflections in English. Here's what the American Heritage Dictionary has to say:

A verb form or a set of verb forms inflected to indicate the manner in which the action or state expressed by a verb is viewed with respect to such functions as factuality, possibility, or command.

The most familiar mood is the indicative: it indicates that something has happened, is happening, or will happen. I've never done a systematic survey, but I'd guess that a large majority of clauses spoken or written in English are indicative.

Another mood we have in English is the imperative, which gives an order. “You'll get out of here” is the indicative; it says something that will happen. “Get out of here” is the imperative: it's not making a prediction about what will happen, but making a demand. Most imperatives in English are the same form as the infinitive (without the particle to).

There's also the subjunctive mood, which marks a “contingent or hypothetical action” (American Heritage Dictionary again). Compared to many other languages (and even compared to earlier versions of English), modern English doesn't do much with subjunctives; it probably won't be long before they're completely gone. But they're still occasionaly used in cases that are conditional or contrary to fact. [Entry added 3 January 2005.]

More So.

Two words, not one. [Entry added 14 Sept. 2004.]


The use of Ms. (often without the final period, Ms) in place of either Mrs. or Miss — in other words, as a title for a woman that makes no reference to her marital status — was controversial for a long time. Through the 1970s and '80s many politically active feminists argued for it, and many people at the other end of the political spectrum resolved not to use it because they resented the politics of those who did.

(By the way, the title didn't originally come out of the feminist movement; it was suggested as long ago as the early 1950s, and began picking up adherents in the early '60s. It really caught on after Gloria Steinem founded Ms. Magazine in 1971.)

Whatever your take on the politics, though, plenty of time has passed since the early '70s. By now even most culturally conservative publications have recognized that it's convenient to have a title that you can apply to any woman without having to do research on whether she's married. It's now the default way to refer to women, in the same way Mr. is the default way to refer to a man.

One useful caution comes up in the usage note in the American Heritage Dictionary: “Some women prefer Miss or Mrs., however, and courtesy requires that their wishes be respected.” Good advice, I think. [Entry added 21 December 2006.]


As a reflexive pronoun (“I hurt myself”) or an intensifier (“I did it myself”), the word is fine. But a romance with the long word often leads people to use myself where I or me is preferable. My guess is that eighty-three percent of myselfs in business writing could safely disappear, and no one would miss them. [Entry added 14 Sept. 2004.]


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From the Guide to Grammar and Style by Jack Lynch.
Comments are welcome.