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Grammar And Style Guide - T

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As in "There's no accounting for" (de gustibus non est disputandum). Few people want to hear it — we all crave authoritative answers — but taste is part of any discussion of language. The rules go only so far; after that, all you've got to guide you are preferences.

Me, personally, myself, I'd sooner go to my grave than use "disconnect" as a noun ("There's a big disconnect between what he says and what he does"): I feel so dirty when I have to say it. The word lifestyle makes my teeth itch, and I'd rather gnaw my own leg off than say something like "any way, shape, or form." (Ditto phrases like "Me, personally, myself.")

But they're not right or wrong, and certainly not the sort of thing that a grammar guide can settle definitively: there's no authoritative answer. I find them ugly as sin, but your mileage may vary. They're a matter of taste.

I, of course, am convinced I have impeccable taste; and like most people who set up linguistic soapboxes, I sometimes offer opinions on such questions. I like to think I'm rarely perverse or pedantic, and I flatter myself that I have a better ear for style than many. But take my opinions for what they're worth: they're one guy's judgment on what sounds good. And on many issues, that's all you get.

See Audience, Bugbears, Grammar, House Style, Prescriptive versus Descriptive Grammars, and Style. [New entry, 16 March 2001.]

That versus Which.
According to the more quibbling self-styled grammar experts, that is restrictive, while which is not.

Many grammarians insist on a distinction without any historical justification. Many of the best writers in the language couldn't tell you the difference between them, while many of the worst think they know. If the subtle difference between the two confuses you, use whatever sounds right. Other matters are more worthy of your attention.

For the curious, however, the relative pronoun that is restrictive, which means it tells you a necessary piece of information about its antecedent: for example, "The word processor that is used most often is WordPerfect." Here the that phrase answers an important question: which of the many word processors are we talking about? And the answer is the one that is used most often.

Which is non-restrictive: it does not limit the word it refers to. An example is "Penn's ID center, which is called CUPID, has been successful so far." Here that is unnecessary: the which does not tell us which of Penn's many ID centers we're considering; it simply provides an extra piece of information about the plan we're already discussing. "Penn's ID Center" tells us all we really need to know to identify it.

It boils down to this: if you can tell which thing is being discussed without the which or that clause, use which; if you can't, use that.

There are two rules of thumb you can keep in mind. First, if the phrase needs a comma, you probably mean which. Since "Penn's ID center" calls for a comma, we would not say "Penn's ID Center, that is called CUPID."

Another way to keep them straight is to imagine by the way following every which: "Penn's ID center, which (by the way) is called CUPID. . . ." The which adds a useful, but not grammatically necessary, piece of information. On the other hand, we wouldn't say "The word processor which (by the way) is used most often is WordPerfect," because the word processor on its own isn't enough information — which word processor?

A paradoxical mnemonic: use that to tell which, and which to tell that.

Thesis Statements.
The first thing is to know the difference between a topic and a thesis — they're very different beasts. A topic is the broad area you're investigating; a thesis is a specific claim you're making and defending. Here's a typical topic: "American identity in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf." Here's a typical thesis: "By naming the parents of an imaginary dead child George and Martha — like the Washingtons — Albee suggests that their 'child' (America) is similarly stillborn." Note that a thesis statement takes the form of a declarative sentence. If you say, "I want to write about so-and-so," you probably have a topic; if you say, "I want to write that so-and-so is so-and-so," you're probably getting closer to a real thesis.

Another characteristic of theses is that they're controversial — not in the way debates over welfare or abortion are controversial, but they have to be argumentative. A good test to see whether you've arrived at a worthwhile thesis: if a reasonable person can disagree with it, it's probably on-track; if no one in his or her right mind would argue with it, you're still too vague. No reasonable person would argue with you, for instance, if you said "Literacy is important in Frederick Douglass's Narrative." (A tip: avoid the word "important" in a thesis statement; it's almost always wishy-washy.) You need something capable of generating a debate; it has to pass the "Well, duh!" test. You want to be both precise and controversial.

Your thesis statement should usually come close to the beginning of your paper, but it doesn't have to be the very first sentence — or even the very first paragraph, depending on the length of the paper. Sometimes it's wise to start with something else, the better to grab the reader's attention. But you should get to your thesis statement pretty quickly, so your reader knows where you're going.

For more comments along the same lines, see the Thesis entry in my guide, "Getting an A on an English Paper."

Third Person.
See First Person.
Ick. Thus is already an adverb; it doesn't need a -ly.
The titles of books and other long works (plays, long poems, operas, &c.) are either italicized or underscored (see Italics); the titles of shorter works (essays, short poems, &c.) appear in quotation marks. For borderline cases, the test is whether it could be published as a book on its own: even if you're reading King Lear in a larger anthology, it's long enough that it could be a book, so it gets italics. Don't fret the occasional necessary judgment call.

In most house styles, all the major words in an English title are capitalized — "major" meaning the first word, the last word, and everything in between except articles, conjunctions, and prepositions: A Tale of Two Cities (preposition of gets no cap), "I Have a Dream" (article a gets no cap). If there's a subtitle, the same rules apply to the subtitle, even if it begins with an article, conjunction, or preposition: Authors and Owners: The Invention of Copyright (conjunction and and preposition of get no caps, but article the is the first word of the subtitle). There are other styles; some publications capitalize only the first word and proper names, and there are different rules for other languages. But it's usually safe to capitalize everything but the articles, conjunctions, and prepositions.

Many guides call for omitting initial articles in titles if the titles follow a possessive: "In his Tale of a Tub, Swift satirizes zealots" (the title is A Tale of a Tub, but "his A" sounds clumsy); "In Ann Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho" (the title is The Mysteries of Udolpho, but the the can go). Another possibility — and sometimes a better one — is to leave out the possessive ("his," "her") when it's unnecessary. When readers see "as Fitzgerald writes in his Great Gatsby," there's little chance they'll be confused into thinking Fitzgerald wrote it in someone else's Great Gatsby — you can leave out the "his" and use the The. [Revised 13 Sept. 2003]

See Wasted Words.
Writing should flow. Each sentence should follow on the one before it, and each paragraph should pick up where the previous one left off. Try to make the connections between your sentences and paragraphs logical and explicit. The paragraph's topic sentence is a good place for this, and mastery of transitional words and phrases like therefore, however, on the other hand, and so forth is a must. See Paragraphs.
Transitive versus Intransitive Verbs.
Not as difficult as some people think. A transitive verb takes a direct object: it shows action upon someone or something. Intransitive verbs take no direct object; they need only a subject to make a sentence.

Some transitive verbs: Hit (you hit something or someone; you don't just hit); climb (you don't just climb; you climb something); and bring (bring what?). Intransitive verbs: sleep (you don't sleep something; you just sleep); and fall (while you can fall down the stairs, you don't fall the stairs).

There are a few things worth noticing. First, just because something grammatically needs a direct object doesn't mean we actually use it. If someone said, I swung the bat and hit, we don't have to ask what he hit; the direct object ball is understood.

Second, many intransitives might look like transitives, as in She walked three hours. Here three hours is not really a direct object; it doesn't say what she walked, but how long (it's actually an adverbial phrase).

Third, many verbs can be both transitive and intransitive: while a word like ran is usually intransitive, it can also be transitive in "He ran the program for two years." Children can play catch, or they can just play. Even sleep, given above as an intransitive, could become transitive if we said He slept the sleep of the righteous.

The only real danger is when you start changing verbs willy-nilly: "We have to think quality" (giving the intransitive think a direct object; you probably mean "think about quality," if you mean anything at all); "I hope you enjoy" (instead of enjoy it).

Try And.
"Try and" is common enough in speech, but it's out of place in formal prose. Use "try to." [New entry, 3 November 2000.]