Wednesday, July 15, 2009


One lump, or two?

This morning I’m heading to California for a brief two days at the Conference on Email and Anti-Spam — I’m on the program committee again, which means I had to got to peer review some of the papers.

Yesterday morning, I got a note from the airline:

From: [the airline]
To: [me]
Subject: It’s time to check-in
Dear Barry Leiba,
Ready for your upcoming flight? Save time and check-in online now whether you are traveling with or without baggage. And don’t worry about reconfirming your flights - you’re all set!
It’s nice to know that I’m all set, but....

Sometimes, as English evolves, phrases morph into single words. Sometimes they go through an intermediate hyphenated stage first. “Today” and “tomorrow”, for example, each used to be two words: “to day” and “to morrow”. Then they were hyphenated: “to-day” and “to-morrow” took us into the 20th century. And now they’ve bonded, and no one separates them any more, except perhaps to be quaint and harken back to an older time.

Some words remain separate, never joining. “A lot” is always two words; there’s a lot of “alot” about, of course, but it’s unequivocally wrong. That may change some day, but I hope it doesn’t happen on my watch. “No one” is another that stays separate, and if you write it as a single word you’ll perhaps forgive me for thinking you’re talking about Herman’s Hermits.

But there are words that confuse us, because sometimes they stick together, and sometimes they travel separately. But words aren’t done to taste, as sugar in tea. The rule for many of those is that when they’re verbs they remain separate, and they can become one word or be hyphenated only as modifiers or nouns. “I use my everyday dishes every day.” When I see a sign that says something like, “Good food, everyday!”, I want to find a saw (to fix that saw?; sorry).

“It’s time to check-in,” fails, here. We have a verb, so it should be “check in”, two words. You check in at the check-in desk, take your purchases to the checkout counter to check out, log in from the login screen, and back up your hard drive with a backup program. There was a good turnout for the parade because so many people turned out.

And that last example shows how you can be sure: it’s in the past tense. We’d never be tempted, there, to use “turnedout” or “turned-out”, would we? With a present- or future-tense sentence, you might want to say, “I’d better backup my hard drive tonight,” but you’d never go for, “I backedup [or, perhaps worse, backuped] my hard drive last night.”

And with that, I’m off to California to talk more about how to fight spam.

Remember to back up your hard drive. Every day.


Thomas J. Brown said...

Brilliant! This is something that I've been wondering about for a while. Thanks! -)

Anonymous said...

I must admit I do get 'a lot' wrong quite alot. Either that or I'm just ahead of my time...