Verbal Energy

The editor gets her in-box to zero, or tries to

On her way out of town, the Monitor's language columnist considers just what Ben Bernanke means by 'tapering' and whether it's OK to use 'since' to mean 'because.'

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Productivity guru David Allen maintains that much of the sense of peace and freedom that our best vacations afford us owes to all our efforts to bring order to our little corners of the universe before we depart.

That sweep through the in-box to check for overlooked credit-card bills or wedding invitations can assuage anxieties we haven't quite acknowledged are there. And there's clarity in knowing what must get done before, and what must wait until after.

And so, as I wrap up a big project and prepare for a brief trip, I'm going through my editorial in-box to see what's piling up.

Recommended: Test your grammar 'smarts' with our quiz!

The end of irony: Part of the news landscape in Boston this summer has been the trial of accused mobster James "Whitey" Bulger. The federal prosecutors have paraded some unlovely people into the courtroom to make their case, including one referred to, without irony, as his "partner in crime." Think how often people use that phrase jokingly to refer to their partners in some completely legitimate business or other activity. What a shock to hear the phrase in its literal meaning. I'm not sure I'll be amused the next time I hear it used in jest.

Tapering over our differences: Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has moved markets with his utterances about when the Fed might start "tapering" bond purchases. Taper, as a verb, comes from the term for a kind of candle that narrows at its tip. But taper is also the term for a long, wax-coated wick used to light a lamp. The original verb sense of taper, in the 1580s, was to "shoot up like a flame or spire," according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.

The sense of diminution came later. One can only imagine how the markets would have reacted had people thought Mr. Bernanke was saying that Fed purchases of bonds would "shoot up like a flame."

Thank you, Copyediting: Two recent items from this helpful newsletter's weekly tips column have simplified my life this summer.

One is on the supposed "rule" that you can't use since to mean "because." Language blogger Arnold Zwicky calls this one of the "zombie rules" of copy editing: They never die, even though the circumstances of their birth are unclear.

Zombie rules are often those etched in an editor's memory by a particular English teacher, or some other imprinting character.

The writer at Copyediting noted, "Although since has continuously been used to mean 'because' since 1540, occasionally this zombie rule rises up to trouble decent copyeditors."

The column went on to identify respected sources who give their blessing to since used to mean "because." I now feel prepared to challenge anyone I need to on this one.

The other "rule" involves the simple word of. Which would you write, Copyediting asks, "All the examples are drawn from published works" or "All of the examples are drawn from published works." The answer: You can do either. When you combine "all" with a pronoun, you need the "of": "All of us send best wishes." But with "all" plus a noun ("all the examples") you can follow your own preference.

Some insist it has to be one or the other: "all the examples" or "all of the examples." But either may be, as Copyediting notes, "a rule we can let go of."

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