A Word, Please

People think that, because I edit professional writers' work, I have all the answers to the little language problems that plague regular folk. And, really, who am I to correct them? Perhaps some people need to believe that linguistic perfection is possible and syntactical superheroes exist. Admitting my own weaknesses — that would be downright selfish. So I let 'em think I'm that good.

But just between you, me and the bird whose cage this column will soon be lining, I still have a lot to learn. Every day, I have to look things up — words and usage matters and style rules that continue to elude me even after years of trying to pass myself off as an expert. Almost as often, I fail to catch the very errors I'm trying to root out.

Here are some of the words that, in recent months, have threatened to expose my weaknesses.

Predominately. I was proud of myself when I spotted this word in an article I was editing. Usually, I need a computer spellchecker to catch such subtle spelling issues. But this time, all by myself, I caught that "predominantly" was misspelled.

Except it wasn't. According to "Webster's New World College Dictionary," "predominately" is an adverb rooted in the verb predominate. That makes it a different word from "predominantly," which is an adverb form of the adjective predominant. But though the two adverbs are born of different word classes, they're still pretty much the same thing.

To predominate means "to have ascendancy, authority, or dominating influence" or "to be dominant in amount, number, etc., to prevail." Predominant, the adjective, means "having ascendancy, authority, or dominating influence over others" or "most frequent, noticeable, etc.; prevailing." But while "predominately" is sanctioned, it's still weird. The adverbs most familiar to us are the ones born of adjectives, not verbs. Happily from happy, quickly from quick, and so on. So I still prefer "predominantly."

Winded. Here's a sentence that almost made a monkey out of me: Guests sipped signature cocktails and nibbled hors d'oeuvres into the wee hours until the evening winded down and they went home with gift baskets teeming with treats from local merchants.

That "winded" that got past me twice and almost eluded me a third time during my final proofread. In the dictionary the publication follows, the preferred past tense of "to wind" is "wound." "Winded" is usually an adjective meaning out of breath.

Ambiance. Recently I came across the word "ambiance" and looked it up to see whether it should be spelled "ambience." A few months before I had done the same. And a few months before that I had done the same. There's no shame in not knowing which way to spell this word, especially when you consider that one major dictionary says it's "ambience" and another, the one I follow at work, prefers "ambiance." But having to look it up every couple of months — that's pretty bad. Still, it beats getting it wrong.

Childrens'. This oversight was particularly shameful. In an article written by a reading expert, there were three different mentions of "childrens' books." And, during two thorough reads, I didn't catch them.

It wasn't until I was about to give the story my stamp of approval when spellcheck caught this for me. The problem, of course, is you can't make a possessive out of childrens because there is no childrens. Children is already plural — no S required. So unlike dog, which forms a plural possessive with an S followed by an apostrophe, dogs', children forms its possessive with an apostrophe then an S: children's.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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