A Word, Please: Stay critical for a while

I've just been accused of schadenfreude — taking pleasure at someone else's misfortune. I'll admit I'm not above this rather base impulse. For example, the name Larry Craig still makes me smile. But in this case, I plead not guilty. You can be the judge.

I was reading a CNBC finance story on a Yahoo news site recently when I came across this passage: "Asset allocation strategists haven't had an easy time in recent years. They've grappled with deflation, recession, plummeting U.S. stock markets and surging foreign economies. And for awhile they dished out bigger weightings to defensive plays — bonds, cash and commodities."

There's a grammatical error in that passage, which I pointed out on my blog, which I in turn announced on Twitter. In my Twitter post, I added that it's "Nice to see the big guys stumble."

Someone who read my Twitter post passed it on to his own followers, but only after adding the keyword "schadenfreude."

By now some of you may be thinking, "Wait a minute. What error? I don't see an error in the CNBC passage." If you're in this group, you might be feeling grammatically inadequate, embarrassed or even ashamed. You're Exhibit A in my defense against the schadenfreude accusation.

First, here's the grammar issue: In the last sentence, "for awhile" should be "for a while," according to "Webster's New World Dictionary."

The one-word "awhile" is an adverb. The two-word "a while" is a noun phrase, built on the noun "while." Yes, "while" can also be a conjunction, as in "While you were sleeping …" But it's also a noun, as in "It's been a while since you've visited."

In the CNBC story, "awhile" came after "for," which is a preposition. Prepositions take objects, which are either lone nouns like "money," noun phrases like "the car" or pronouns like "us."

So after "for" you need the noun phrase "a while" and not the adverb "awhile." Here's how Webster's puts it: "Usage Note: 'Awhile,' an adverb, is never preceded by a preposition such as 'for,' but the two-word form a while may be preceded by a preposition. In writing, each of the following is acceptable: stay awhile; stay for a while; stay a while (but not stay for awhile)."

The CNBC writer and editors missed that. Here's why I call that good news. In the eight or so years I've been writing about grammar, I've never met anyone who wasn't at least a little embarrassed by his language shortcomings. And that includes some well-known grammar experts who've confessed to me their ongoing anxiety that they'll get caught making terrible mistakes, as they have in the past (a pain I know too well).

Then there are all the e-mails I've gotten from readers over the years, perhaps 30% of which have contained some disclaimer like, "Please forgive any grammar mistakes I've made in this e-mail."

So it seems that almost everyone worries they're grammatically inadequate. And it never occurs to these poor souls that it's all relative. No one knows it all. Everyone makes mistakes. But unless we understand that, it seems that grammar perfection is attainable, just not by us. So why not just give up?

That's why I'm glad to see professional word purveyors make occasional grammar mistakes. I'm not happy that they have egg on their faces. I'm happy because they lower the embarrassment bar for the rest of us. In doing so, they remind us that the goal is not perfection but progress.

And as for that Twitter guy who unfairly labeled my lily-white motives as schadenfreude, I hope he gets a canker sore.

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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