“bad” vs. “poor”

A friend of mine recently passed judgment on (what turned out to be a correct) usage of a comma in a Facebook post by saying, “That’s a really bad use of a comma.” I found myself cringing at his use of the word “bad”. ‘You mean a poor use of a comma,’ I thought to myself but did not say. Then I stopped to wonder why I had had such a gut response. Review of the Gregg Reference Manual, AP Stylebook and  the Chicago Manual of Style, as well as a quick Google search for Anglicistic discussions about the usage of “bad” vs. “poor”, and consultation of Webster’s New World Dictionary for the definitions and usage of both words, brought me to accept a consensus that there is no difference between the use of “bad” and “poor”, as they both essentially mean the same thing (“not good”). Just the same, I will continue to go with my gut as to which sounds better in what context.

Hyphenation (or, my personal to-do list)

According to the AP Stylebook: “Use of the hyphen is far from standardized. It is optional is most cases, a matter of taste, judgment and style sense. But the fewer hyphens the better … “. The decision whether or not a phrase should be hyphenated has caused many people many headaches.

Here are a few guidelines I trust:

A hyphen should be used to connect words in contexts where not to do so would cause a glitch in the logical decoding of a written communication. The example given in the 2011 AP Stylebook is “small-business owner.” One might argue that the larger context of the writing will lead the reader to the correct interpretation of the phrase, for example, in a trade magazine devoted to business topics one would not expect to be reading about diminutive people who own businesses; however, decoding is meant to be linear, and the import of good writing is self-contained. Notice that the hyphen is made necessary by the presence of two nouns following an adjective, in order to make clear which noun is meant to be modified: “She runs a small business” or “He is a business owner” do not present an issue.

Hyphens are used to create a single concept from multiple words, to create either a noun or an adjective: “That coat is run-of-the-mill.” “The party is come-as-you-are.” “Her husband is a stick-in-the-mud.” Leaving the hyphens out would cause the brain to stumble upon an illogical word order.

The rule of hyphenating a multiple-word phrase which expresses a single modifier applies to adverbs as well, except those which end in -ly, since that suffix of itself denotes modification of the subsequent word: “user-friendly interface” but “environmentally friendly products.”

Some styles accept turning a word phrase which might be hyphenated into a single compound word. For example, I have edited many articles concerning “health care” in the past several years and have come to follow what seems to be a trend, at least according to Googled examples: Instead of talking about health-care plans, health-care costs, etc., one sees “healthcare” used as a single word.

Two terms I struggle with are “high school student” and “middle-school student.” To my eye it simply looks right to hyphenate the latter and not the former, but I have no rational basis for doing so.



Become Yourself

As an adult, I have often been told that I look like my mother, although mostly by my mother’s friends and my father’s family, not by my mother’s family, who consider me to favor my father. I am able to identify similarities to both parents in my face, and, since I turned 45, I have been somewhat startled to see my maternal grandmother’s face echoed in my own reflection on a few occasions. Nearly sixteen years ago, John and I beheld our oldest daughter for the first time in a sonogram image taken to confirm my pregnancy at about 10 weeks. Even in the womb, the barely formed face was to me reminiscent of my husband’s mother (“Yikes, she already looks like my mother-in-law!”). When K was born, I looked into her beautiful, wrinkled little-old-man face and thought of my mother’s father, beloved Grampa, who had left this earth seven years before. My maternal grandmother, Gramma, with the help of my Aunt Jean, made the effort to call me at the hospital to congratulate me on the birth, and I was pleased to tell her that K would be named for her. A couple of weeks later I was able to introduce K to her namesake, among other members of the family. I pointed out how K’s dark brows reminded me of Grampa; my mother thought K looked like my husband, others said she had my eyes, my mother’s mouth, etc. Gramma heard all of this, studied the baby for a moment, and pronounced, “She has her own face.” Lately, that memory has been resonating for me, as I look at my own face in the mirror. Instead of seeing my mother’s mouth, my father’s eyes, his father’s nose, and even the bone structure of Grampa’s mother, all jumbled together, I am now beginning to recognize that it is, indeed, finally, my own face.

“Annie” Jumps In

November 2, 2012


I taught my dog Annie how to jump off a dock today – well, it wasn’t really a dock, it was a boat. Not an ordinary boat, either, but a custom craft designed especially to allow crews to practice rowing together in double-file. It even has a name, the Judge Lincoln, which is as venerable-sounding as it looks, with its dirty metal hull showing patches of darkness through rusted holes. When not in use, which is most of the time, the Judge Lincoln rests at the edge of the Exeter River, behind the unrusty metal bleachers of the Phillips Exeter Academy track and varsity soccer field. What makes it resemble a dock is the fact that it is rectangular in shape rather than oblong with pointy ends. Normally one does not find it perpendicular to the shore, but on this particular day it was. This particular day was a lovely and unseasonably warm November Friday, and Annie and I were alone on our usual mid-day walk. She is a blonde hound mix who loves to swim, and she loves to fetch sticks, so we often combine the two. It occurred to me that although Annie has been known to leap with great enthusiasm from the side of the riverbank, she had never leapt from something man-made and dock-like, and I saw an opportunity in the Judge Lincoln. It was not difficult to coax her to get on the boat or to walk out toward the end, but when I threw a stick into the water beyond the edge of the boat, Annie’s response was to stand looking at the splash as it dissipated, and then at the floating stick, whining with uncertainty. I called her back and she ran around off the boat and retrieved the stick with a good will, leaving from the river’s edge. I set her back on the boat again and again threw the stick, meanwhile trying to handle my cell phone as video camera to capture the moment she decided to jump off. I succeeded only in getting a quick pan of the river and back again as the camera followed the movement of my body throwing the stick. This time Annie put all four paws on the edge of the boat, closer to the water, again whining, but still unsure what to do. She ran around off the boat and entered the water from the riverside again, retrieving the stick. I gave her a treat and a hearty “Good dog!” each time. The third time she hesitated, muzzle quivering, paws inching closer to the edge. I decided to intervene, and nudged her off the edge with my foot. Once in the water, Annie immediately “got it,” and after she brought the stick back she went out unbidden to the edge of the boat, and looked back at me; this time when I threw the stick she confidently leapt off after it. She became so excited with her own achievement that she started jumping off the edge even before I threw the stick, like a child enamored with an amusement park ride, she wanted to go again and again. I finally got the perfect footage for posterity, and I had to call a halt to Annie’s fun, because although the air was warm the water was not, and Annie was shivering uncontrollably. I imagined her doggie lips blue with cold. It crossed my mind that we all may come to such a point as Annie did, poised teetering on the edge of the boat, when the intervention of a well-meaning toe in the behind can propel us beyond our fear to a realization of our own potential.

Using commas correctly around a relative clause (bleeding into “that” vs. “which”)

According to the Webster’s New World College Dictionary, 4th Ed., a clause is “a group of words containing a subject and a finite verb.” Relative clauses provide additional information about a noun without the need for creating a separate sentence. The way I remember the correct use of commas around a relative clause is by following the rule “either one uses two commas to get to the predicate of the sentence, or one uses none.” When a clause adds information which is useful but not necessary to the intended meaning of the sentence (a nonrestrictive clause), insert a comma both before and after the clause; when the clause provides information necessary to the intended meaning or context of the sentence, use no commas. Example: “The goldfish I bought last week has grown a full inch.” The clause “I bought last week” restricts the world of goldfish to the one I bought last week, as opposed to:  “The goldfish, which I bought last week, has grown a full inch.” Here, the information that I bought the goldfish last week is unnecessary to my main point that it — and the verb context provides there is only one —  has grown an inch. In the first sentence, I could have written “The goldfish that I bought last week …” AP Style tells us we can and ought to leave out the connective pronoun “that” where it is unnecessary to provide context, and as I prefer tight sentences I tend to apply that rule. However, the Chicago Manual of Style states (in 5.202): “In polished American prose, “that” is used restrictively to narrow a category or identify a particular item being talked about; “which” is used nonrestrictively – not to narrow a class or identify a particular item but to add something about an item already identified.”