Can the U.S. Possess?

I received a question from a reader this week about how to express the possessive of U.S. Several possibilities exist, including the following:

  • U.S.’s
  • US’s
  • US’

My instinct was to choose U.S.’s, but I consulted my usual sources to be sure. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any guidance on how to form the possessive of an abbreviation that ends with an s followed by a period. (While both U.S. and US are acceptable abbreviations, U.S. is more common in the United States and US in the rest of the world.)

What I did find, though, is that when a proper noun is used as an adjective, it’s not a possessive, and therefore doesn’t require an apostrophe. So, for example, it would be proper to write U.S. interests rather than U.S.’s interests. My recommendation is to follow this usage and avoid the problem of the possessive altogether. For instance, instead of writing the U.S.’s first president, you could use the first U.S. president. It looks much cleaner.

If United States is spelled out, the possessive is formed with an apostrophe but no s (for example, The United States’ first president was George Washington.) Since United States is plural in formation, it’s treated as a plural noun, even though it’s singular in usage.

I submitted a question to the Chicago Style Q&A to see what they recommend for the possessive of U.S. If they answer it, I’ll update this post with their reply.

Breaking the Rules: Question Marks in Dialogue and Informal Communication

When it comes to writing, rules can be a wonderful thing. They help ensure consistency, and they relieve writers from having to make endless decisions about mundane questions like which punctuation mark to use. Sometimes, though, usage rules can get in the way of clear communication. In creative writing or informal communication like email, writers have the freedom to reject those rules if they don’t find them useful.

The rules say to use a question mark in the following situations:

  • At the end of a direct question: Whose meatball is that?
  • To express doubt or uncertainty: Leona was born in 1960[?], which would mean her current age is 49.
  • To express confusion or disbelief: You call that a sandwich?

According to the Chicago Manual of Style, a “courtesy question” does not require a question mark. For example, “Will you please remove your shoes before entering the sanctuary” is a statement, not a question.

In Modern American Usage, Bryan Garner puts it this way: “A question mark follows every question that expects an answer.”

Sometimes, though, I expect an answer even if I don’t phrase the sentence as a question. Consider the following: “I wonder if I have time to stop at the post office before lunch?” This is the reverse of a courtesy question: it’s a question phrased as a statement. What I mean is, “I want to stop at the post office before lunch. Do you mind?” But this phrasing makes it awkward for someone to say, “I’ve got a 1:00 meeting.  I was hoping everyone could be at the restaurant by noon.” So I cloak my desire in an absent sort of wondering to make it easier for someone to tell me no. Continue reading “Breaking the Rules: Question Marks in Dialogue and Informal Communication”

Forceable vs. Forcible

library shelfMicrosoft Word 2003 tried to tell me today that forceable in the phrase forceable input should read forcible. But I’ve never been one to take Word’s word for anything. I checked a few online dictionaries and received little guidance. Most didn’t list forceable. Those that did, however, didn’t indicate that it was a variant of forcible.  Only that it was the adjective form of force. So what’s the relationship between these two words? Is forcible the preferred spelling?

Thank goodness for Bryan Garner. In Modern American Usage, he explains that forceable is not, in fact, a needless variant. Forcible means “effected by physical force against resistance,” as in forcible entry. By contrast, forceable simply means “able to be forced.” So in technical writing, an input that can be forced to change state is forceable.

Fowler’s Modern English Usage highlights other words where the meaning changes depending on whether the -able or -ible suffix is used. For instance, a disease is contractable, but elastic is contractible. Tea is infusable (infuse+able), while rubies are infusible (in+fusible). Many dictionaries seem to be losing these subtle distinctions, choosing one spelling or the other for both meanings. Let’s hope that Microsoft Word doesn’t become the ultimate arbiter.

Words Matter

What you see depends on where you stand
What you see depends on where you stand

Europe has what we do not have yet, a sense of the mysterious and inexorable limits of life, a sense, in a word, of tragedy. And we have what they sorely need—a sense of life’s possibilities. ~ James Arthur Baldwin

Americans were mystified yesterday by the news that Barack Obama had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  Europe, looking at the United States through its longer lens, sees the U.S. president differently than we do close up.

The Nobel committee praised Obama “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” Americans asked, what extraordinary efforts? Maybe he’s given some nice speeches, but what has he done?

The Nobel committee chair offered some clues in Friday’s announcement. “Those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world’s population. For 108 years, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has sought to stimulate precisely the international policy and those attitudes for which Obama is now the world’s leading spokesman.”

The committee chose Obama because he uses his position to champion the values they affirm. But can spokesmanship change the world? Do words matter? Continue reading “Words Matter”

Eminent Judge Sotomayor Is Not in Imminent Danger

During her Senate hearing this week, Judge Sonia Sotomayor seemed to make no major gaffe that would threaten her confirmation as the next justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. In fact, one of the few errors ascribed to her was her use of the word eminent rather than imminent. When asked about the right of self-defense, she replied that the law permits self-defense in situations presenting an eminent danger.

While listening to the exchange, I felt a brief twinge of confusion, but I didn’t consciously notice the error. My brain adjusted, replacing the offending word with the correct, similar-sounding one. The human mind is remarkably agile that way.

While this is true of word usage, it’s less true when it comes to grammar—such as when an adjective is used instead of an adverb. Think of usage as a curtain and grammar as the rod: A curtain remains functional even if it doesn’t quite match the decor. But when the rod’s integrity is compromised, it will tumble down, taking the most beautiful curtains with it.

When someone of Judge Sotomayor’s education and intellect misspeaks, it reminds us that we’re all fallible. Little errors like this are nothing to fret about. They don’t generally impede communication. In writing, however, such errors are more obvious and less excusable. One advantage of writing over speaking is the opportunity to edit. Make the most of it.

Don’t Worry, Be Happy: Anxious vs. Eager

I  hate to pick on CNN, but it happened again. I heard another grammatical error from a broadcaster who should know better: Wolf Blitzer used the word anxious today when he meant eager. In standard usage, to be anxious is to be filled with anxiety. A person who is looking forward to an event with pleasure, rather than gnawing uncertainty, is eager.

Does it matter? In casual conversation, probably not. Most people don’t know the difference, which suggests that the distinction will be lost before long. But eager is the more precise word. It doesn’t lend overtones of worry or distress. So if you’re trying to convey unwavering happiness, use eager.

In some circumstances, though, the ambiguity of anxious can work in your favor. It can add an undercurrent of tension to an otherwise benign or celebratory mood. In an essay, it can be ironic. In dialogue, it can betray a character’s nervousness about what ought to be a happy event: “I’m anxious to pick out my wedding dress!”

In most discourse, however, eager is the better choice. To grammarphiles like me, anxious sounds wrong; to sticklers, it is wrong, and they may  fault you for it. If you break the rules, at least do it knowingly so you won’t be caught off guard.

It’s Not Alright with Me…But Maybe It Should Be

You can understand why the average English speaker might not know that “all right” is supposed to be two words.  After all, the spelling “alright” is ubiquitous. It follows the same pattern as “already” and “altogether.” But usage experts still claim that it’s substandard.

I use “all right” exclusively, because I know what the experts say. Yet I question their wisdom. There’s more going on here than just spelling. “Alright” is an idiomatic expression. It doesn’t mean that all is right. Consider the following sentences:

This Wikipedia article is all wrong.

This Wikipedia article is all right.

This Wikipedia article is alright.

The first and second sentences seem to function as opposites of one another, while the third lies in between. If you wanted to rigorously follow usage rules, yet still avoid any chance of misunderstanding, you’d have to rewrite the last two sentences:

This Wikipedia article is correct.

This Wikipedia article is OK.

What’s the point of even having a word if you can’t use it?

The acceptance of a different spelling to accompany the different meaning strikes me as logical and useful, and the prohibition against it as pedantic and ultimately indefensible. The old spelling has nothing but history in its favor. Furthermore, the original spelling hasn’t got that much of a historical advantage. According to Fowler’s Modern English Usage, the idiom is first recorded in 1837, and the variant spelling in 1893. That’s a mere 56 years to evolve from two words to one—a long time by today’s standards, but back then, they mailed letters and read newspapers. Written language flowed at a slower pace.

So if you’re counting votes, put me down for “alright.” Even if I’m too much of a coward to use it.

I Feel Prettily?

“And now, a story we feel passionately about…” Kyra Phillips said today on CNN as she introduced a story on veterans’ benefits. I’m glad CNN is passionate about protecting the rights of our war heroes, but that use of “feel passionately” made me cringe. I don’t expect the average American to know that feel is usually a linking verb, and therefore takes a complement. But I do expect journalists to know it.

I learned that lesson back in fourth grade (yes, I was a grammar geek even then). In addition to the verb be, my teacher explained, ten other verbs are commonly used as linking verbs: appear, become, continue, feel, grow, look, seem, smell, sound, and taste. These verbs join the subject to another word in the sentence—a predicate noun, a predicate pronoun, or a predicate adjective. Never an adverb.

“We feel passionately” should have been “we feel passionate.” Why? Because “passionate” describes “we,” not “feel.” If it described “feel,” it would refer to the quality of the sense of touch. And I don’t think it’s appropriate for the people at CNN to comment during a news broadcast on the passionate nature of their feels.

This error is probably seen most frequently in the sentence, “I feel badly.” Unless the speaker’s tactile sense is impaired due to injury, degenerative condition, or genetic defect, that sentence should read, “I feel bad.” People seem to have less trouble with the other linking verbs, happily crying, “That sounds good!” or “That cheese smells bad!” But feel seems a troublemaker. So if you’re ever confused about whether to use an adjective or an adverb after the verb feel, remember Maria in West Side Story. She got it right.

Airport Signs Point to Change

While traveling recently through RDU Airport’s new Terminal 2 (that’s the one with the “C” gates—go figure), I noticed that the usual terms “Baggage Claim” and “Ground Transportation” were supplanted by “Bag Claim” and “Ground Transport.”  I can only imagine the tens of dollars the airport must have saved by eliminating nine letters from each of those signs; but is this good usage?

The style guides I consulted—Fowler’s Modern English Usage, Garner’s Modern American Usage, The Chicago Manual of Style, and The AP Stylebookhad nothing to say regarding the use of bag vs. baggage or transport vs. transportation. So I turned to the most modest of all reference books, the dictionary, for guidance. Both bag and baggage are defined as “luggage,” and both transport and transportation are defined as “a system for conveying people or goods.” It appears that in this sense, the word pairs can function as synonyms.

But another question remains: is there a reason to prefer baggage when it’s used as a modifier? Neither bag nor baggage is defined as an adjective, so grammatically, there’s no reason to use baggage claim rather than bag claim. That’s just what we’re accustomed to. The English language is constantly evolving, and Americans in particular prefer simplicity. So bag claim and ground transport it is, at least here in Raleigh-Durham. We’ll see if other airports go along.

“Open Mike” or “Open Mic”?

Yesterday’s STC Carolina Chapter event got me wondering: Is it open mike or open mic? I’ve seen it spelled both ways. So I checked my dictionary, which lists mike as the preferred spelling, and mic as a variant. Other dictionaries I consulted didn’t include mic at all. Still unsatisfied, I checked Bryan A. Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage (1998 edition).  Garner argues, “Whereas mike more immediately suggests the pronunciation, mic more immediately suggests the longer form. All in all, mic might be considered preferable.”

When faced with a situation where dictionaries and style guides disagree, I’m inclined to follow the style guide. After all, dictionaries are tasked with documenting what usage is, and style guides with what usage ought to be. So the next question I ask is, which spelling is more readable? Unfortunately, in this case, I find both spellings jarring, especially when divorced from the word open:

Turn up the mike’s volume.
Step back from the mic to avoid feedback.

Given that both spellings are informal anyway, perhaps the best approach generally is to spell out microphone except in dialogue and quotations, and reserve the short form for spoken language. But open microphone just won’t do. Spelling out the full word in a common colloquialism sounds pedantic.

So the next question is, who’s the audience? Most audiences won’t care, and if they question your spelling, they’ll consult a dictionary. So use mike. But an audience of writers may care, and like Bryan Garner, they may be unimpressed by the dictionary’s capitulation to sound over sense. It comes down to personal preference. You’re probably safe either way, as long as you’re consistent. Keep in mind, though, that the masses will win out eventually. When it comes to spelling, they always do.