Yost Complains About Worlds Easiest Job
The mating and young rearing season of rabbits is highly variable and generally dependent upon environmental conditions (that relate to resource availability). Typically, rabbits will mate between Feb. and Oct. They have a gestation of 28 days and produce up to 7 litters of 1-12 young PER YEAR (average 3 litters of 5 young per year). The reproductive strategy of rabbits is to produce many offspring annually, wean them quickly and then repeat the process. So a female rabbit could produce anywhere between 7-84 young per year.
– Some woman named D.D. posting on Yahoo! Answers
A lot of people think writing is a very easy job (“It’s just typing words into a computer for goodness’ sake!”), but nothing could be further from the truth.
Take that first sentence right there, for instance. It looks simple enough, and it was just the first sentence that I typed for this column, but, before I could finish that sentence and move on to the next one, I had to decide whether it should read “nothing could be further from the truth,” or “nothing could be farther from the truth.”
Now, I had a pretty good idea that the correct answer was “further,” but, if I make a mistake, about 100,000 people see it, so I needed to be sure. I looked online and there was a little bit of controversy on the farther/further distinction, so I had to walk down the hall and ask Elaine Hammer, who – as one of her many important jobs here – copy edits the articles and columns that go into the Rhino Times. She explained why the correct answer was “further.”
The rule is this: You use “farther” when it’s a physical distance, and you use “further” when you mean, as I did in that first sentence, “in addition” or “to a greater extent.”
And, while we’re still on the subject of the first sentence in this column, I also had to figure out whether or not to capitalize “goodness’ sakes” and I also had to figure out whether it was goodness’ sake, with no s on the end of “sake,” or “sakes,” and also whether “goodness” was possessive with an apostrophe on the end – that is, was it “for goodness sakes” or “for goodness’ sake”?
The reason I had to decide about that apostrophe is because “for goodness’ sake” is, get this, what’s known as “a special case usage of a singular common noun ending in an ‘s’ or an ‘s’ sound that is followed by a word beginning with ‘s.’”
Whew! Are you starting to realize how hard my job is? I hope so. I mean, for goodness sakes – oops, I mean goodness’ sake – just one single sentence is more than any human should have to think about in a week.
The reason I had to see if “Goodness” might be capitalized is because I’ve seen it that way before and because the word is really standing in for “God” in that phrase – and, well, quite frankly because you always have to worry a great deal about the minefield that is capitalization.
Well, you don’t – but I do.
At the old Rhino Times, we used to have a copy editing team – Rachel and Jonathan – and one day Rachel and I were having a long conversation about whether to capitalize something, and she told me, “Capitalization is the hardest thing we do. We spend half of our day deciding what to capitalize and what not to capitalize.”
Recently, I was using the word “earth.” Do you know when “earth” is capitalized? I saw one source that said if you list it in a sentence with other planets then you capitalize it, and if not, then you don’t. The truth is more complicated.
A lot of people I know think that when you are talking about the planet, Earth is capitalized and, when you are talking about dirt, it is earth with a little “e.” That’s a nice theory but that would make too much sense and it would make my job too easy, so of course it is not the case.
Here you try it, which of these is correct?
(A) The earth rotates on its axis.
(B) The Earth rotates on its axis.
The correct answer Is A, because there is a “the” before the word “earth.” If the sentence were, “Everyday, Earth rotates on its axis,” then it would be capitalized.
However, in other cases in the language, when you put “the” before a proper noun, it doesn’t change whether or not that noun is capitalized. One highly irritated writer on the internet pointed out in a blog post that you write “the Arctic” and “the Brooklyn Bridge” without lower-casing those proper nouns.
Like capitalization, plurals can cause you big problems. If you’re writing a Facebook post, you might get by with just throwing an “s” or an “es” on the end of everything – but, trust me, if you’re writing for a newspaper, that doesn’t cut it.
Here, let’s give you another quiz. If you have one genius in the room, you use the word “genius,” but what if there are eight or nine in a room? In that case, according to Dictionary.com, which is based on the Random House Dictionary, would you say …
OK, do you have your guess?
Now, the answer is that it’s a trick question because it depends what type of genius you are talking about. Dictionary.com lists 10 possible meanings of the word “genius” – it means everything from a person having “exceptional natural capacity of intellect” to “the guardian spirit of a place” to “a person who strongly influences for good or ill the character, conduct of destiny of a person, place or thing.”
Of the 10 uses, for uses two, three or eight you use “geniuses,” for uses six, seven, nine and 10, you use “genii,” and for uses one, four and five, there are no plurals.
What?? Huh? Could you please make my job any harder? “Genius” should, like all sensible words, just have one plural that covers all groups of two or more for every meaning of the word. But having a different plural for different types of geniuses or genii – well, that’s quite wack.
“Genius” is the only word in the English language where you can tell if you are described by the word based on whether or not you know its plural. Knowing the plural of genius makes you one, but that is not true in the case of other plurals. For instance, knowing the plural of goose does not make you a goose.
As a writer, I also have to worry about all sorts of matters related to the word “that.” Go back to the first sentence for a minute. As if it weren’t complicated enough, I had to spend a fair amount of time and mental energy wondering whether the start of the first sentence should be, “A lot of people think writing is a very easy job” or go with, “A lot of people think that writing is a very easy job.”
The “that” conundrum pops up many times during each article or column. Usually what happens is this (and this is no joke): I write the sentences with lots of thats in them, and then, when I’m revising the piece I take them out. Then, when I am revising some more, I add them back in, and then finally I take them out again in the last version.
Then, before it’s published, Elaine puts them back in.
Which is fine because, when it comes to “that” in sentences, it is almost always an agonizingly close call – on the one hand, it does help the reader a little bit to include “that,” but, on the other hand, it is an unnecessary word and you should always try to remove all the unnecessary words that you can unless you happen to be being paid by the word in which case the thats should be as prevalent as baby rabbits in the spring.
Stop for a second and look at that last reference. As soon as I wrote “as prevalent as baby rabbits in the spring,” it hit me that I have absolutely no idea under the sun when rabbits actually copulate and spawn. So, even though you just read that and didn’t have to give it it much thought, I had to go online and read articles about rabbits copulating, and that means I ended up reading about all sorts of things about rabbit reproduction before I found out what I needed.
And that’s inevitably the time when someone calls me and says, “What are you doing?” and I say, “Reading about rabbit copulation habits,” and they say, “I thought you had to work today,” and then I say, “I am working.”
Elaine and I also had a discussion last week because I had written “a couple days later.” I didn’t think anything about it but she asked me if I did not mean to say “a couple of days later,” and we had to decide if you have to add the “of.”
Now, on the one hand, that should be an easy decision because everyone acknowledges that “couple of days later” is fine, but, on the other hand “a couple days later” (with no “of”) sounds better to me. It is just breezier and it uses less words, and it’s more informal and it is the way I talk as well – so I like it better and I want to use it even if it isn’t the “safest” choice.
Using “of” is the old stodgy way of doing it. It is certainly grammatically correct; so people tell me, well, just use that and be done with it. And I could do that and then I could go hunting with a musket and start wearing a big Abe Lincoln top hat around town and women could start wearing long Victorian dresses on hot days, and I could tip my hat to the highly uncomfortable women I pass on the street who are sweating profusely, not to mention aching from the tightness of their whalebone corsets. You may want to live in that world but not me.
You know, it’s 2014, so maybe we can drop the “of”s and the corsets and the top hats.
Figuring out the right word to use is also quite a mentally taxing chore of grand proportions.
Last week, I was writing about cows and I needed to know if the word “cow” always meant a female of the species because I was making a joke about bulls and cows getting together. And here’s what I found when I looked it up.
“All cows are mature female bovines, which have given birth to at least two calves. Heifers are females, who have not delivered at all during their lifetime. Steers along with bulls on the other hand are males.”
Aggghh! It depends on how many calves they’ve had? What? Why? You see. So now I have to know how many calves the imaginary cow in my head had – if it is even a cow and not a heifer. But I just know what it looks like; I don’t know its sexual history.
Trust me, it is all very, very exhausting mentally and sometimes I feel like I am going to snap.
And all this is just the writing part of my job. Don’t get me started on all the research and interviews for articles I have to do, and the fact that I have to go to long commissioners meetings on the first and third Thursday of the month.
Or is it the first and third Thursdays of the month?
BY Scott D. Yost
February 6, 2014
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