Some frequently asked questions, tips, and links
Have a question? Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or ask on Twitter, @EditorMark.
You "lay" something. But, annoyingly, "lay" also is the past tense of "lie." Lay an object down. Lie down. He lay down. If you just took a nap, you say "I lay down for a bit" or "I decided to lie down." If you say "I laid down for a bit," few would bat an eye, but we usually reserve "laid" for when there is an object involved: "She laid the scissors on the mantel."
Do I affect the effect or the other way around?
The noun is usually "effect," and "affect" is usually the verb. As verbs, to "affect" is to influence and to "effect" is to bring about. Effect something and take the credit. Usually we talk about "effecting change," meaning you are creating the change. Affecting something means you don't create it, you just influence it.
Is it ever OK to use "they" to refer to an individual
We do it all the time in speech. In writing, it would sure be useful, wouldn't it? You will find that sticklers stickle, and it's still best to look for a way to write around the issue, but "they" as a singular, genderless pronoun is gaining acceptance.
Is it still rock 'n' roll? Rock and roll?
It's a style point. The Associated Press Stylebook goes with "rock 'n' roll," except when it refers to the "Rock and Roll Hall of Fame." Merriam-Webster's 11th Collegiate, which is the official dictionary of the Chicago Manual of Style, goes with "rock and roll" while acknowledging "rock 'n' roll" as a variant. But Merriam-Webster's Unabridged Dictionary takes the opposite tack: "rock and roll" is given as the alternative spelling. In edited English in the 1950s, both versions seem equally as common.
What's up with "alright" not being a word?
Well, it is a word in that it's used quite a bit and we all know what it means. But dictionaries don't accept it, and neither do most copy editors. There is no good reason, really, as "alright" serves a purpose that "all right" doesn't quite manage. I wish we'd get over that one already. But I'll continue to edit it to be two words until society catches up with common sense.
Beside or besides? Toward or towards?
"Beside" means physically next to. "Besides" means "other than." They used to be interchangeable, but they've grown distinct. "Toward" and "towards" (along with other -ward words) are interchangeable, but Americans tend to leave off the "s" while British English writers tend to leave it on.
Should it be 12 items or fewer or 12 items or less?
It depends. We've used "less" for a quantity, whether countable or not, for a thousand years, and we're still doing it. Use "fewer" if you are emphasizing the individual items, but don't fret if you are just referring to an amount. The phrase "140 characters or less" gets 17 times as many Google hits as "140 characters or fewer."
If I'm talking about a cat, is it "awe cute"? "aww, cute"?
Awe traditionally is fear, respect, wonder. Awesome things are usually not fear-inducing these days, but as awesome as your cat may be, you are looking for "aw, cute." Some dictionaries have relented on common usage and accept "aww, cute." Very common is the variant "awww, cute." "Awwww, cute" even gets 421,000 Google hits.
As anyone who has ever heard of Ireland will tell you, today is St. Paddy’s Day, a shortening of the Gaelic “Pádraig.” Keep them happy and avoid "St. Patty’s Day.” But there is no need to upbraid anyone for "Patty" unless you also correct "saint" and "day" and are willing to do so in Irish.
Lá Shona Fhéile Pádraig.
It was "daylight saving" in the bill (it failed) that first introduced it to the British Parliament in 1908, and that has been the standard formation. The plural form is just as common, though, and many dictionaries recognize the variant. There is no need to capitalize. Here is more on the timely subject: http://markallenediting.com/2015/10/30/in-standard-usage-daylight-saving-time-wins-out/
This is not really a question I'm frequently asked, but I was asked at least once. The short answer is just don't. If you would like a longer answer, I wrote about it here: https://markallenediting.com/2016/04/15/possessive-of-a-title-in-quotes-just-dont/
No. The Latin in- prefix can be confusing because it can mean one of two things. It's either the equivalent of the Germanic "un-," as with "inconceivable," or it's an intensifier, the same as "en-" (a French version of "in-"). The "in" in "intensifier" is an intensifier, and so is the "in" in "inflammable." If you say "flammable," you avoid the chance of being misunderstood, but context usually makes "inflammable" clear enough.
I always think of Crete, which is a large Greek island. Crete is a discrete part of Greece. "Discreet" means quietly careful or judicious. Some people remember "discrete" by the "t" separating the first "e" from the second "e," keeping them discrete.