Grammatical glitches 2.0

Here is the latest in a series of posts on navigating the maze of English grammar, punctuation, and usage. 

One is the only-est number

Today, it’s common to see constructions like “It’s one of the only such schools in the country.” This statement would be true no matter how many such schools there were.
If “few” is meant, use it in cases of a small but unspecified number of things and reserve “only” for when something is the only one of its kind.  

Hyperventilating over hyphens

In many cases, a hyphen’s job is to keep the meaning from getting lost in a jumble of modifiers in front of a noun.

Case one: Adjective + adjective = adverb. 
In phrases like “a fast-moving car” or “a yellow-billed bird,” the adjectives “fast” and “yellow” are honorary adverbs. The hyphen signals this by indicating that they modify the second adjective, not the noun. Together, they form new adjectives: “fast-moving” and “yellow-billed.”

Case two: Adverb/adjective/noun 
Adverbs—like “often,” “seldom,” and most words ending in “ly”—don’t modify nouns. Thus, using a hyphen to signal that they modify the adjective is a needless complication. Examples of good usage: an often frustrating topic, a highly valued professor, an environmentally sound activity, a seldom read book.

Case three: Tough calls, like this real-life example: how to hyphenate “non degree granting program.” 
Answer: non-degree-granting program. Why? Remove the first hyphen and you’ve got a program that grants “nondegrees.” Remove the second and you’ve got a “granting program” that is “non-degree.” (A granting program that never went to college?)

Wrong way to be inclusive

Many years ago, this writer got a call from a reporter asking if a list of people named to a newly formed U of M committee was partial or complete. He was confused because a news release had stated, in effect, “The new committee includes Mary Jones, John Smith, … and Jane Doe.” The word “include” made it sound like a partial list. But a call to a knowledgeable party revealed it was a complete list. In general, avoid “include” with a complete list. The release should have read, ”The new committee members are …” If a partial list, make that clear: “The group includes, among others, John Doe …”

Of course, sometimes “include” stands alone because it clearly means a partial list: “People who use the public libraries include the mayor and most of the city council.”

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