Thursday, March 01, 2007

Special Word Problems

Special Word Problems

Collective Nouns and Singular or Plural

Couple is one of those words in which you need to determine if in the context of the sentence the sense is plural.

You have to look at the whole sentence to make that determination. Certainly, there are times when we can argue about whether the sense is plural or singular. That is alway true these kinds of gray areas between right and wrong rules.

  • When couple implies two people, then it takes plural verbs and pronouns:
    • The couple were married and left on their honeymoon cruise.
    • The couple were apparently hungry. They filled their plates to overflowing.
  • When couple implies one unit, use a singular verb and pronoun.
    • Each couple is going to leave a bag of groceries at the mailbox.
    • The couple was given a free pass to Disneyland.
Certainly, there are times when we can argue about whether the sense is plural or singular. That is alway true these kinds of gray areas between right and wrong rules.

Compose / Comprise / Constitute

  • Compose means to create or put together:
    • It can be used in the active voice:
      • Mozart composed many symphonies.
    • It can be used in the passive voice:
      • The United States is composed of 50 states.
      • The City Council is composed of four council members and the mayor.
  • Comprise means to contain, to include all or embrace.
    • Note that AP says it is best used only in the active voice, followed by a direct object That means you do not write is comprised of:
      • The United States comprises 50 states.
      • The city council comprises four council members and the mayor.
  • Constitute, means to form or make up. Again, AP is a bit mushy on this. It says it may be the best word if compose or comprise seem odd:
    • Fifty states constitute the United States.
    • Four council members and the mayor constitute the city council.
    • Three council members constitute a quorum.
You are going to see the rules violated in places. You can hear that in the way AP describes the rule. But to remain consistent in the style of our publications, follow these rules. They are the norm.

By the way: In this context, keep in mind that the word include is not synonymous with any of the above words. Include is correct when what follows is only part of the total:
  • The city council includes the mayor.
  • The United States includes two states not connected to its borders.

Good and Well

If you understand how the parts of speech work, you understand the distinction between these two words. You also understand that these two words are not interchangeable. Here is what AP says:
  • Good is an adjective that means something is as it should be or is better than average.
  • When used as an adjective, well means suitable, proper, healthy. When used as an adverb, well means in a satisfactory manner or skillfully.
Good should not be used as an adverb. It does not lose its status as an adjective in a sentence such as I feel good. Such a statement is the idiomatic equivalent of I am in good health. An alternative, I feel well, could be interpreted as meaning that your sense of touch was good.

Here is an example of this that AP is talking about:
  • I am not feeling very good today. I think I’m catching a cold.
    • In this usage good refers to the person's health.
    • If you were to use well, a reader could rightly infer you are referring to the person's ability to feel.
  • This rule also applies to the words bad and badly.

This, again, is an example of creating consistency with the gray areas of language rules. It also is an example of the journalist's first priority, which is always to the reader. Much as a doctor's motto is "Do No Harm," the journalist's motto is "Create No Confusion."

Oral and Verbal

Again, this is a gray area between rules of right and wrong. And I know we love rules so we don't have to think. In that context, AP is very rigid on this. It says:

  • Oral refers to spoken words:
    • He gave an oral promise.
    • Winston Churchill was renowned for his oral (speech-making) skills. (Note: While Churchill was a fine writer, you may recall from history that he helped sustain Great Britain during World War II through his ability to inspire people in his speeches to the nation.)
  • Verbal is used to compare words with some other form of communication: His tears revealed the sentiments that his poor verbal skills could not express.

While the oral rule is pretty clear, the verbal is not really as clear as it could be, which is a problem I sometimes have with AP. But essentially what this boils down to is that if it is speech you are writing about, then use oral. Any other construction, use verbal. Maybe this will make it clearer. You may well run into this some day during your career as a journalist in a story about disputants in a court case. Often a contract in which two people reach agreement but never sign a piece of paper -- an oral contract -- is considered as valid as a written contract.

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