Triangle Grammar Guide

Longtime N&O journalist Pam Nelson writes about language use and misuse and answers questions about grammar and style. Readers can weigh in on what annoys them, too. Think of this as your online grammar class. Send e-mail to Pam at

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AP Stylebook changes for 2008 (second post)

Among the new entries in the Associated Press Stylebook for 2008 is one on "myriad." The AP says that "myriad" is an adjective and is not followed by "of." The dictionary that AP uses, though, gives the noun use of "myriad" first.

"Myriad" means an indefinitely large number; it is a synonym of "innumerable." Bryan A. Garner writes in A Dictionary of Modern American Usage that "myriad is more concise as an adjective than as a noun." Fowler's Modern English Usage points out that the word comes from Greek for "ten thousand." Almost no one adheres to that old meaning for "myriad."

Here is a post on The Mavens' Word of the Day about myriad as a noun. The American Book of English Usage also points out the long history of myriad as a noun. Merriam-Webster online also recognizes myriad as a noun.

As for me, I will use "myriad" as an adjective. I'd rather not fight about it. 

AP Stylebook changes for 2008

I ordered the new version of the Associated Press Stylebook for my home use (we expect to get them in office soon). The book has a summary of the changes right after the foreword on a page titled "What's New." One of the most interesting changes for grammar geeks is the "collective nouns" entry. Here is a part of the entry:

Collective nouns: Nouns that denote a unit take singular verbs and pronouns: class, committee, crowd, family, group, herd, jury, orchestra, team. ...

Team names and band names, however, take plural verbs. The Miami Heat are battling for the league's worst record.

That team and band names are to be treated as plural is a change. I am glad that the stylebook finally spells this out. Although we had been treating singular-sounding names as singular (The Who comes to mind), I agree with this rule. It's easier to apply it consistently.

P.S. I guess that should be "The Who come to mind." 

Let's get "its" right

My colleague Karen spotted this sign at Umstead State Park:


The sign writer needed the possessive "its" in the second sentence, of course. (Notice the wildlife crawling on the word "wildlife"!)

[P.S. added Monday morning: Take a look at the comments for a dissent and an answer.]

Nothing could be finer (adjective forms)

A reader from Charlotte, Anita Keller, sends two of her peeves:

The first is the trend toward not using superlatives [comment from Pam: and comparatives]. Example, "more quiet" for "quieter". It happens all the time. It seems I notice it more and more every day. The other gripe I have is how society now says "It was so fun". When I was growing up, learning English, it was always "so /much /fun" or "such fun". Why does that seem to have changed? What is the rule that prohibited "so fun" to start with?

As I told Anita when I replied to her e-mail message, I agree with her about the problem with using adjectives in the comparative and superlative forms. I think people have forgotten what they learned in the third or fourth grade. One-syllable adjectives and some two-syllable adjectives need -er or -est to make the comparative and superlative forms. Many adjectives of two syllables and all adjectives of three syllables or more need more or most (or less or least). Of course, irregular forms can throw us off -- good, better, best and bad, worse, worst. But if you are in doubt, look for the adjective in a good dictionary. The entry will give you irregular forms and will often give regular forms. If no form is explicitly spelled out, use the regular form. Most of the time, it seems to me, the sound will give you the right choice: warmer sounds right; more warm doesn't. An English as a Second Language site has a useful tutorial. You'll find a little test at the bottom of the page.

Although I am not bothered by "so fun" in speech, I avoid using "fun" as an adjective in writing. The usage is changing on this word, it appears, but you are safer sticking with the standard in writing. Use "fun" as a noun, and you won't offend.

Try a Triangle Grammar Guide quiz


Today's quiz is about word usage. You will read sentences and choose the best word for the blank. Usually, I draw from actual examples to make the quizzes, but this one uses made-up examples. Good luck with the quiz. Click here to begin.

Previous quizzes are available in the blog archive

Word usage: trustee and trusty

A current story in The News & Observer makes a passing reference to a "prison trustee." I thought the term was "trusty." So I checked online first and found this reference in the Columbia Guide to Standard American English. Then I checked the Associated Press Stylebook. Indeed, a trustee is a "person to whom another's property or the management of another's property is given," the stylebook says. A trusty is "a prison inmate granted special privileges as a trustworthy person."

I wonder if correction department lingo has changed over the years or if it's just a matter of mixing up two spellings. I did a quick search of the N&O's archives since 1990 and found a few references to "prison trusty." One story in our archives from The Fayetteville Observer about the Cumberland County jail has this passage:

"We refer to them as 'inmate help,' not trusties," said Deputy Sheriff John McRainey, the chief jailer. "We don't use the term 'trusty' any more."

Why not?

"In here, we don't trust anyone," he said. Though McRainey smiled, his tone affirmed that he wasn't kidding.


Everyone needs a copy editor

Gene Weingarten's Under the Beltway column in the Washington Post has a funny take on copy editing. We copy editors appreciate Weingarten's humor.

Old catchphrases

Some catchphrases died with the 20th century.

Grammar Guide: Looking for something?

We have updated the News & Observer blogs. That means the grammar guide has a new URL. If you have a bookmark (thanks!), you'll need to update it to (You need that "home" at the end.)

If you are looking for something that was on the blog before June 17, you can find it here.

This blog has a different comments system. If you are not a registered user of The News & Observer online, your comment will go into a queue for approval. I will check for comments regularly, and, unless you use foul language or violate standards in some other way, I will approve your comment for posting. If you want to register (it's free), you can go here.

If you don't wish to register but still wish to comment, you can send me e-mail and I will post your comment, with your permission. My e-mail address is


Copy editors

The New York Times' Editorial Observer by Lawrence Downes has an eloquent Elegy for Copy Editors. The piece begins with a lament that the Newseum in Washington has no exhibits about copy editors. In the changing word of online journalism, Downes worries, the time for thoughtful copy editing is vanishing. He lays out succinctly what copy editors do. Here is a quote:

The copy editor's job, to the extent possible under deadline, is to slow down, think things through, do the math and ask the irritating question.

A colleague at The N&O once said, "Copy editors are roadkill on the information superhighway." That was a funny line, and sometimes we feel that way. But the truth is that every piece of copy ever published in any form could benefit from a copy editor's eye. Even if the copy editor comes to the piece after it is published for the first time, he or she can still improve the next version.


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