With a Little Help From My Friends

As I was getting ready to embark on my first overseas trip, to London and Paris, I found myself worrying about what I should wear. “I am terrified of looking unsophisticated,” I said to my friend Tanya, a well-heeled traveler who was born in Greece and has lived and worked in Switzerland and Boston, as well as having visited other parts of Europe. I was going to be mixing with people who were graduates or parents of graduates of a very prestigious prep school, people who (I presume) know how to put themselves together. Tanya volunteered to come to my house the morning before we were leaving, to evaluate what I had chosen to pack and to loan me her favorite “classic” clothes — black, of course: a long, weighty skirt, a sheer caftan which went past the hips, and a pair of elastic-waisted pants which gave the appearance of flowing down to one’s ankles. “The more seams a pair of pants has,” Tanya told me, “the further it is from haute couture.” I had already packed a pair of black pants, although mine weren’t elastic-waisted. It turns out Tanya and I are exactly the same size, and although none of the items she brought me were what I would have chosen for myself, I could relate to the person I became when I put them on; I looked like a woman of substance. I demurred about putting her special clothes at potential risk of loss or damage, but she told me that she was unlikely to wear them again, and she wanted her clothes to live vicariously through me. I decided to pack them, as I had no idea what to expect and at least I would have the choice of wearing them.

I showed her the jacket I had bought the week before, specifically for this trip, which John and the girls thought was so ugly: a pink, white and black plaid fitted suit jacket with black piping. “That’s definitely going! Perfect!” Tanya cried, to my gratification. It came with a knee-length black skirt, which I packed as well. She recommended that everything I bring be complementary and multi-purpose, as space to pack was at a premium, and weight of luggage to be hauled around should be taken into consideration. “You can wear the same pair of black pants for six days, I don’t care if they stink!” was Tanya’s opinion. It was best to stick with black and white or cream-colored basics, and add accents of color as possible. “Do you have anything like a shawl? Maybe plum, or red?” Tanya asked. I had forgotten the deep red pashmina that my mother-in-law had given me, hanging in my closet, and I brought it out. “Perfect!” Tanya cried again, and she showed me how to wind it around my neck as a scarf when I was wearing it with my outer coat (a London Fog, by the way, also black), and then to drape it over my shoulders for evening wear over the black pants and a black silk blouse I have had since the mid-’90s. I fretted about the shoulder pads on the blouse. “Nobody will be looking at your shoulders,” said Tanya. “Hold out your arm as though you are holding a wine glass.” John brought me back a set of pearls from China last summer, two strands which can be worn separately or attached to each other to form either a double strand or one long single strand. It would never have occurred to me to wear them as a long single strand, as I thought that was reminiscent of my grandmother’s time, but Tanya said the long strand would go well with the shawl or the caftan, as the pearls gave me a look of height which I lack, at five-foot-four. I was able to get on the plane to London feeling more secure about the image I was going to make. It turned out that I didn’t wear anything except black pants with any of the tops I brought, and I only wore Tanya’s pants once, with my black silk blouse and the red pashmina as a shawl, along with the pearls as a long strand, to an evening function at the Royal Automobile Club. I am grateful to Tanya for showing me that everything I needed was already in my closet, that I just needed help to know how to put them together.

A taste of fame, “renown”

In a recent client edit I stumbled over the word “reknown” and realized that I needed to look up the correct spelling. I was sympathetic with the author’s mishap, as I have made the same mistake myself; the lure of adding “re” to “known,” a word the silence of whose “k” we have had drilled into us since first grade, is very strong. However, the correct spelling is “renown,” most often seen in such a sentence as “Stephen Hawking is a scientist and author of great renown.” The word carries a connotation of honor along with notoriety, fame with class. While looking for the word in the Webster’s New World Dictionary, I discovered the basis for a helpful way to remember the correct spelling of “renown”: There is no word in the English language (at least not in this particular dictionary) which begins with “rek – .” The words beginning with “re” go straight from “rej – ” to “rel – .” Onward on our own path to renown! … or not.

The rule of commas: inside or outside the quotation marks?

I was once asked by a client whether a comma following quoted material should go outside the quotation marks. Doesn’t it make sense, for example, to put the comma outside when one is listing items: My favorite Green Day songs are “Holiday”, Jesus of Suburbia”, and  “St. Jimmy”? I found myself mulling the question, but then looked in both the Chicago Manual of Style and the Gregg Reference Manual and found the same rule stated very succinctly in both: “Periods and commas always go inside the closing quotation mark. This is the preferred American style.” [CMS, 247] Confusion is understandable, however, as the British rule is to place the comma outside the quoted material, on the grounds that (as in the example above), it is punctuating the whole sentence and not the quoted material.

Eat your broccoli (or, how to present single letters in text for maximum readability)

It never ceases to amaze me that, while my brain has no difficulty coming up with the spelling of “hors d’oeuvre”, I have to look up the word “broccoli” on a regular basis to remind myself that it has two c’s and only one “L” and not the other way around. Have you noticed any words that give you such pause?

I decided to capitalize the “L” in the above sentence in order to make it crystal clear that the letter is an “L” and not a one or an “I”, and also to set it off in quotation marks to help the brain read it as intended. I think that “L” is the only letter in the Arabic alphabet likely to be confused with another symbol when typed.

As for the “c”, I believe that although in general it is not correct to use an apostrophe to signify the plural as opposed to the possessive, when one is speaking of multiples of a single letter, the use of an apostrophe is really the best choice to get the concept across, and as the plural state of the letter is then apparent, the quotation marks are no longer needed.

An apostrophe is particularly appropriate if the letter to be multiplied is “a”, since it is of itself a standalone word, to which adding an “s” without an apostrophe creates another word, “as”. As in many cases, context is also a factor to readability.

I am pleased that my daughter gets a lot of A’s on her report card.

Editing/proofreading for a new year

My tip: If you are editing or proofreading a written work with the word “January” in it and the subject is not Elvis Presley (whose birthday is January 8, 1935), check to make sure that the numerical year has been augmented, if it should be. Chances are that the author forgot to add 1 to the figure.

Pay particular attention to copyright notices, schedules and calendars.