I know there’s a rule . . . but where?
Carol Fisher Saller
Writers and editors are used to keeping reference books close at hand or bookmarked online. Even so, there are times we’re simply at a loss. How do you find a grammar or usage rule when you don’t know what it’s called or where to look it up?
Here at the University of Chicago Press, we can knock on just about anyone’s door to ask, “What’s the rule for that thing I always forget?” and miraculously get an answer.
But what if you don’t work in a building full of experts? What if you want to know whether it’s OK to begin a sentence with hopefully, or whether none is always singular?
Here are a few tips for flushing out an elusive style or grammar rule when you’re stuck.
- Check a dictionary. They’re not just for definitions. Good dictionaries often give usage advice as well, and the writers of dictionaries are good at guessing what troubles us. If you look under the word hopefully in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), for example, there’s an explanation of why it’s just fine to use the word to modify a whole sentence (“Hopefully, the rain will end soon”). As for none, M-W clarifies that it is “singular or plural in construction,” and it lists both “not any” and “not one” among the meanings.
- Consult a usage dictionary. This type of reference is especially organized to handle questions of grammar and usage. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language is famous for its “Usage Panel,” a group of dozens of writers and language experts who vote on whether constructions should be accepted as standard or not. Under hopefully, we find a short history of objections to the meaning “it is to be hoped that,” concluding with “In 1999, 34 percent of the Usage Panel accepted the sentence Hopefully, the treaty will be ratified. In 2012, 63 percent accepted this same sentence. But a significantly larger percentage—89 percent—accepted a comparable use of mercifully in 2012, indicating that it is not the use of hopefully as a sentence adverb per se that bothers the Panel. Rather, hopefully appears to be serving as a shibboleth to reveal whether a speaker is aware of the traditional canons of usage.” Likewise, the entry for none offers helpful advice: “Choosing between singular or plural is thus more of a stylistic matter than a grammatical one. Both options are acceptable.”
- Search online. First, use a dictionary to find what part of speech you’re dealing with (noun, verb, pronoun, adjective, etc.), then type both the word and the part of speech into Google. Adding the part of speech will direct your search to grammar discussions. Searching for “adverb hopefully” turns up many discussions of whether it’s grammatical to begin a sentence with hopefully. Searching for “pronoun none” is similarly effective.
- Join an online grammar or style discussion or e-mailing group. LinkedIn, Copyediting-L, and the subscriber’s Forum at CMOS Online are a few places where writers and editors hang out and answer each other’s questions.
Carol Fisher Saller is editor of the CMOS Online Q&A and author of The Subversive Copy Editor: Advice from Chicago (or, How to Negotiate Good Relationships with Your Writers, Your Colleagues, and Yourself). You can find her on Facebook and Twitter (@SubvCopyEd).
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