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Guide to Grammar and Style — N

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From the Guide to Grammar and Style by Jack Lynch.
Comments are welcome.

Nature.

No offense to the ecologists, but nature is often useless. Decisions of a delicate nature would be better if they were just plain old delicate decisions.

Nauseous.

Ask an old-timer, and he'll tell you that nauseous means causing nausea, not suffering from it. The word for the latter is nauseated. A decaying carcass is nauseous, and (unless you go for such things) will probably make you nauseated. [Entry added 14 August 1999]

Necessitate.

Ugly business jargon. If you mean require, say require or rework the sentence so that necessitate is not necessitated. [Entry revised 14 August 1999]

Neologisms.

Greek neo, “new,” and logos, “word”: new words. (The accent is on the second syllable: “nee-AH-lo-jiz-ms.”)

They come about by different means. A list, by no means comprehensive, of the ways new words enter a language:

A few things to note about neologisms. Remember, all words were once necessarily neologisms; they all had to be new to English at one time or another. Bear this in mind before you make any sweeping pronouncements about them. Individual neologisms might be good or bad, useful or useless, clever or dimwitted, appealing or ugly as sin — but there's nothing “improper” about them in principle, whatever you think of particular examples.

Coining your own neologisms requires caution. First, you have to be certain your audience will understand their meaning; second, you have to be sure readers won't be distracted — that is, annoyed — by the novelty or informality. Too often neologisms are ugly and graceless: things like rearchitecturing, foundherentism, and to repristinate. It's therefore wise to ask yourself whether there's already a good word in the language that does the job.

It's hard to offer a prognosis on the lifespan of a neologism. Some stick around and become part of the standard language; others blossom, flourish, and die in a few years; others still are meant to be used only once (they're called nonce words). It's a safe bet Walpole didn't expect greenth would be widespread; he was simply playing with the language. (James Joyce's Finnegans Wake is filled to bursting with nonce words.) [Entry added 21 Dec. 2004; revised 9 May 2007.]

Network.

Network was very happy when it was just a noun; when you're outside the computer lab, don't force it to serve double duty as a verb. Networking summons up images of yuppies in power ties.

"Never” and “Always.”

Any grammatical or stylistic rule beginning with “Never” or “Always” should be suspect, and that includes the ones in this guide. No word or construction in the language is completely valueless (even if some come pretty damn close). Apply all guidelines intelligently and sensitively, and forsake pedantic bugbears in favor of grace. See Audience and read it twice.

Nor.

Although there are other possibilities, you can't go wrong if you use nor only after the word neither: instead of “Keats did not write novels nor essays,” use either “Keats did not write novels or essays” or “Keats wrote neither novels nor essays.” (You can, however, say “Keats did not write novels, nor did he write essays.”)

Normalcy.

The traditional word is normality. Warren G. Harding famously used normalcy in a speech in 1920, calling for “a return to normalcy” after the Great War. (Harding didn't make it up; it first showed up in English in 1857. But it was never common, and Harding seems to have coined it anew. He certainly gave it new currency.)

Now, Harding was no inspiring speaker; William McAdoo commented, “His speeches left the impression of an army of pompous phrases moving over the landscape in search of an idea.” H. L. Mencken was even more forceful:

He writes the worst English that I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.

Some people have therefore been knocking normalcy as a semiliterate barbarism ever since.

The masses, though, don't give a hoot about Mencken's concerns, and probably don't even remember we ever had a president called Harding. Normalcy has become ever more common since. Most usage guides now consider it Standard English; some even suggest it's preferable to normality.

My advice? There's no point in fulminating over the word; it's probably here to stay. On the other hand, enough people dislike the word that it's probably wise to avoid it in your own writing. [Entry added 21 Jan. 2005.]

Not un-.

This phrase, as in “The subtleties did not go unnoticed,” is often an affectation. Be more direct.

Noun.

A noun, as the “Schoolhouse Rock” song would have it, is a person, a place, or a thing. Piece o' cake.

Well, a qualified piece o' cake. We have to define thing broadly enough to include things that aren't particularly thingy. Heat is a noun; January is a noun; innovation is a noun; asperity is a noun.

Linguists use the term noun phrase to refer to any word or group of words that's used as a noun: his far-seeing eye, for instance, is a single noun phrase, even though it's made up of a possessive pronoun (his), an adverb (far), a participial verb (seeing), and a noun (eye). I've disavowed any intention of using the terms of contemporary linguistics in this guide (not because they're bad, but because they're likely to be unfamiliar to my readers), but this one is worth knowing.

See also Pronoun. [Revised 11 June 2001; revised 1 June 2004.]

Novel.

Many people use the word novel to refer to any book — a sloppy habit you should break. A full, proper definition of the word won't be easy; literary critics wrangle over whether many books deserve to be called novels. But virtually every definition of the term includes these four elements:

There are inevitably problematic cases. How long is “long”? What about the so-called “nonfiction novels” that became popular in the 1960s (like Truman Capote's In Cold Blood or Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test)? What about “verse novels” (like Aleksandr Pushkin's Yevgeny Onegin)? Some authors mix elements of the novel with other genres; they may include nonfictional elements in their fiction or fictional elements in their nonfiction. All of these borderline cases can be grounds for legitimate argument.

But don't use the word willy-nilly for any old book. Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, for instance, is not a novel (it's a collection of verse narratives); Hamlet is not a novel (it's longish and fictional, but it's a play, not a narrative); A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is not a novel (it's a long prose narrative, but it's nonfiction). Plays, biographies, travel narratives, works of criticism, and so on are not novels.

The same goes for the word story: although the term is broader than novel, it still applies only to narratives. [Entry added 9 May 2007.]

Number.

Number — not numbers, for which see below — is a term in grammar. In English, nouns and verbs can take the singular number (for one thing) or the plural number (for more than one). Some languages have other possibilities: Homeric Greek, biblical Hebrew, and modern standard Arabic, for instance, have a dual number for things that come in pairs; I'm told there are languages with a trial number for three things, and some with a paucal number for “a few” things.

But modern English has just the two, singular and plural. We mark the plurals of most nouns with an s or es. The plurals of most pronouns take different forms: not I (first-person singular) but we (first-person plural); not he, she, or it (third-person singular) but they (third-person plural). Modern standard English doesn't distinguish singular and plural you, though forms like y'all, youse, and yuns show that many speakers would like them.

In verbs, at least most regular verbs, the plural tends to be the “uninflected” form, and we usually add s or es to the third-person singular: from the infinitive to look we get the third-person singular “he, she, it looks.”

But you know all this, or at least you do if you've been speaking English for more than a few months. Why should you care? There are a few occasions where even native speakers get tripped up; three come to mind:

Follow the cross-references for more details. [Entry added 21 Dec. 2004.]

Numbers.

The high school rule about spelling out numbers less than one hundred (some say ten; it's a question of house style) and writing them as numerals above has enslaved too many people. It's a good start, but here are a few more guidelines.

Never begin a sentence with a numeral: either spell out the number, or rewrite the sentence to move the number from the beginning.

Very large round numbers should be spelled out: not 1,000,000,000, but one billion — an American billion, that is; the British used to use billion for a million million, though they're increasingly using the American standard. If ever you need real precision in expressing very large numbers, scientific notation might make sense.

In a series of numbers, either spell them out or use numerals for every member of the list: don't switch in the middle, as in “pages thirty-two, ninety-six, 107, and 235.”

Dates should always get numerals: “October 3, 1990.”

There's almost never any reason to use both numerals and words for the same number: unless a law firm is paying you enough money to butcher the language with impunity, steer clear of abominations like “two (2)” or “12 (twelve).”

The only time you should mix spelling and numerals is in very large numbers: not 8,600,000, but 8.6 million.

Use numerals for anything difficult to spell out: not four and sixteen seventeenths, thirteen thousand three hundred twenty six, or three point one four one five nine. You can spell out simple fractions like one-half or two-thirds. [Revised 1 June 2004.]


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From the Guide to Grammar and Style by Jack Lynch.
Comments are welcome.