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A Word, Please: Shy reader asks some compelling grammar questions

I have a secret inquirer. It’s like a secret admirer, but with less admiration and more grammar questions.

A newsprint-shy reader in Burbank had a couple of questions for my eyes only. Not for publication. But he hit on some good topics — ones that perplex lots of people.

So, without revealing his name (you don’t know him, anyway), we’ll just address the issues he raised.

First: “importantly.” My secret inquirer isn’t the first to ask me about this controversial word. Many have asked:

What happens when adverbs like “importantly,” “firstly” and “hopefully” don’t logically modify the verb. If you say, “More importantly, I invested in corn futures,” do you mean you dialed into your online brokerage with a puffed-up chest and a haughty air?

If you say, “Hopefully, it will rain,” are you saying that each little raindrop is dreaming of the lakes and oceans where it could end up?

I’ll answer those questions with a question: Is it OK to say, “Unfortunately, I lost my car keys”? Is it OK to say, “Frankly, I hate beets”? Of course it is.

Adverbs don’t just modify actions. They can also provide commentary on whole sentences. Those are called sentence adverbs. Unlike manner adverbs, they need not describe the manner in which the action is taking place.

Mr. X also wanted to know about “bored by,” “bored with” and “bored of.” Which is right?

The service I bring to readers, my one contribution, is not that I know all the answers. It’s that I know where to turn for answers.

Whereas most people must resort to methods such as, “Hmm. Which sounds right?” I have access to higher authorities such as usage guides, style guides and dictionaries.

Unfortunately, in this case, a head-scratch and a “Well, which sounds right?” is the higher authority.

“The proper preposition is a matter of idiom,” writes Theodore Bernstein in “The Careful Writer.” He continues, “and idioms, if they do not come 'naturally,' must be either learned or looked up.”

Where do you look them up? You can try a dictionary, but “dictionaries do not in all instances provide this kind of information,” Bernstein warns.

When you can’t find an answer there, “the only thing to do is to consult three knowing friends and get a consensus."

If you count me among your knowing friends, I give a thumbs up to “bored with” and “bored by,” but a thumbs down to “bored of.” It just doesn’t sound like good English to me. Your results may vary.

Not all of the inquiries I got this month were anonymous. Reader Mark named himself and his wife in his question.

“After discussion with my wife, Jess, I realized I'm still uncertain about how to properly state the possessive for her name. Jess’s? Jess’? How about our friends, the Ross family? Ross’, Ross’s?”

When a word ends with S, it’s hard to form a possessive or a plural possessive because the rules are so wacky.

Start by identifying whether your word is singular, such as Jess or Mr. Ross, or plural like the Rosses or multiple Jesses. I deduced from context clues that Mark has just one wife named Jess, so he needs a singular possessive.

There are two correct ways to make a singular noun ending with S into a possessive. The most widely recommended way is to add both an apostrophe and S: Mark gets along great with Jess’s mom. Some publications omit the extra S, which is OK, too: Mark gets along great with Jess’ mom.

When you have a plural, like two people with the last name Ross, first you make the noun plural: the Rosses. Then, to make it possessive, you follow the simple universal rule that applies to regular plurals. Just add an apostrophe: the dogs’ tails, the Rosses’ house, the Gomezes’ children.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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