Grammar Pet Peeves: It’s All Right

You know what I think? People love grammar. With that, more grammar pet peeves!

Have Went
More and more often these days, I hear people say have went when they mean have gone. I don’t mean to overstate this, but this is one of those grammar mistakes that makes me want to stab myself in the neck with a fork—though it’s not as bad as Shea saying “Go Yankees” in his Southern accent. The past participle of to go is gone, which you would use with auxiliary verbs like has, have, is, am, etc. The simple past is went, which should not be used with an auxiliary verb.

So you would say, “I went to Yankee stadium and was surprised that they did not have grits at the concession stand.” Then you would say, “I should have gone to a Houston Astros game instead.” Every time you say “have went” instead of “have gone,” a little part of grammar enthusiasts dies inside, even if they don’t hear you say it. It’s like a disturbance in The Force.

Capitol Building
The dictionary definition of the noun capitol (lower case, with an O) is “a building occupied by a state legislature.” So the phrase capitol building is redundant, because capitol by definition is a building. It would be like saying, “I live in that house building” or “I’m going to see a baseball game in that stadium building.”

Similarly, the proper noun Capitol (upper case, still with an O) refers specifically to the building in Washington DC where Congress meets. So if you write, “National Capitol Building,” you’re being triply redundant, since Capitol by itself is already the national building you’re talking about. (If you click on the image here, you will see that Wikimedia user Scrumshus committed this error in the caption. Nevertheless, thank you, Scrumshus, for the copyright-free photo.)

Capital (with an A) can be a noun or an adjective and it means a lot of different things (it’s a little like Smurphy that way). As a noun, capital can be an upper-case letter, money, or a city that hosts the government of a political region. As an adjective, it can mean important, super-duper, related to money, or fatal.

Myself
In the most recent installment of Grammar Pet Peeves, Friend of IBD Greg wrote this in the comments section:

Why no mention of the most annoying (and unfortunately most popular) grammar flub out there: “myself”? What can we do about people’s obsession with this word?

Whenever I hear people say myself when me or I would work, it makes me think of the Austin Powers quote, “Allow myself to introduce…myself.” (For the record, Austin’s first myself is incorrect; the second is correct.) Here’s my theory: People are unsure about the appropriate use of me and I (which I wrote about back in the first installment of this series), so they use myself instead, just to be absolutely sure that they’re wrong.

If you’re in court, you might hear a mobster say, “He would not give the money that fell off the back of that truck to myself,” when what he really means is, “He would not give the money that fell off the back of that truck to me.” You might also hear him say, “Tommy and myself broke that jerk’s thumbs,” when what he means is “Tommy and I broke that jerk’s thumbs.”

As a reflexive pronoun, myself is correctly used as an object of a verb. For instance, “I hate myself for rooting for the Yankees” or “I smacked myself with a hammer.” Or if you are Austin Powers, “Allow me to introduce myself.”

A preposition is something you should never end a sentence with.
Also in the comments of the most recent installment of this series, Friend of IBD Betty wrote, “I dislike sentences that end in prepositions.” Betty’s phrasing here is perfect, because while some people are surprised to learn that it is grammatically correct to end a sentence with a preposition, a lot of people simply don’t like it. (Betty didn’t say it was wrong; she just said that she doesn’t like it.)

The Grammar Girl blog lists the rule that you should not end a sentence with a preposition as one of the top 10 grammar myths. Author Mignon Fogarty explains it like this:

Here’s an example of a sentence that can end with a preposition: What did you step on? A key point is that the sentence doesn’t work if you leave off the preposition. You can’t say, “What did you step?” You need to say, “What did you step on?” to make a grammatical sentence…. Yes, you could say, “On what did you step?” but not even grammarians think you should. It sounds pedantic.

I reference Grammar Girl a lot in these pet peeve posts, and I wonder if you feel, as I do, that Grammar Girl (on the right) is the secret, daytime alter ego of the esurance girl. Or possibly vice versa. At any rate, the point is don’t be afraid to end a sentence with a preposition.

Alright
It’s hard to call this a pet peeve because I just learned about it, but it’s interesting (to me, anyway), so I thought I’d share. It seems that alright is not a word. Or to be fair, if it is a word, it’s recognized in most style guides and dictionaries as “nonstandard,” which means, “You can use it, but if you do you’re stupid.” We’re so accustomed to seeing words like altogether and already (which are indeed words), that we took the two-word phrase all right and made it alright. Again, there’s a good post on this on the Grammar Girl blog.

So now the stodgy prescriptivists (“Without grammatical structure and rules, language will cease to exist”) and the free-love descriptivists (“Language is a like an organism, man, and it can’t be restrained”) can argue over whether alright gets to be a word.

Well, alright, it’s a capitol idea for myself to stop now, because I have really went on. ‘Til next time!

Get to Know a Typeface! Connecticut State of Mind

We recently received this question from Friend of IBD Patricia Perry through our Ask a Nerd! link:

I am a font nerd. I collect fonts much the same as other folks collect small china porcupines. I recently discovered “Connecticut.” I am in love with this font. Although it is not appropriate for every venue, I find its form and grace appealing. What are your thoughts on this cute little font?

To my knowledge, Patricia has never been in my house and I’m certain that she does not have a key to the safe in the basement, so I’m a little freaked out that she knows about my china porcupine collection. Nevertheless, Patricia is the one and only person ever to review our book on Amazon and she gave it five stars, so any question Patricia asks, we answer.

I had never heard of Connecticut as a typeface before (though I do know that there’s a suburb of New York City called Connecticut*). There’s not a lot of information about the typeface available online, but my guess is that it was designed by someone with artistic talents, but not much experience in typeface design. The first clue to this effect is that it’s available as a free download from a number of sites, including FontPark and Fonts 101.

I agree with Patricia that Connecticut is graceful. (I can’t believe I wrote “Connecticut” and “graceful” in the same sentence after this month’s college basketball championship.) The individual letterforms are great. They have an elegant, organic form, accentuated by tall ascenders, like those seen in the lower-case h and d in the sample above.

What bothers me is the way the letters interact with one another. You can see what I mean the sample above (which was created by a random text generator). The typeface is meant to emulate script writing, so it bothers me the way the letters don’t connect. This can be seen most clearly in the space between the i and s of is.

Look at the h and e in Shea. Not only does the terminal stroke of the h not connect with the e, but the angle of the stroke where the h would connect to the cross stroke of the e is different, so the illusion that you’re looking at handwriting is broken.

I would take Patricia’s comment that this typeface is not right for every venue one step further. I’d say that with this typeface, you have to not only choose the appropriate venue, but also use it in specific ways. I would definitely not use this typeface for large blocks of text at a small point size. But at a large size, short words, like my favorite Scrabble word Qi, emphasize the elegant, organic form while offering the opportunity to minimize the issues caused by the way the letters interact (if you’re only using this typeface for one or two words at a large size, you can take them into Illustrator and fix those issues).

There’s a lot to like about Connecticut (the typeface, not the cheating basketball team and its corrupt coach). Patricia’s affinity for its grace and elegance is certainly warranted. But as with many free typefaces that do not come from established, well-known typeface designers, it’s important to use it carefully and pay attention to the details.

And whatever you do, avoid the Merritt Parkway at rush hour.

*Note to Shea: This joke is funny because Connecticut is not just a suburb of New York, it’s its own state. I thought I’d explain, given how little time in your life you’ve spent in or near New York.

Getting Your Letter Spacing Right

Earlier this year, I found myself in Malaysia, which is odd, because I don’t remember leaving myself there. (Please click here for an audio file of the rim shot that joke deserves.)

I was on Pangkor Island, standing at the end of a dead-end street that, had it continued, would have dumped travelers right into the Straits of Malacca. Luckily for travelers, the road ended and this giant billboard prevented people from accidentally ending up with soggy shoes.

Before I continue, I should point out that a few weeks ago, Shea wrote a post asking what sort of posts you, our readers, would like us, your bloggers, to write about. One response that cropped up several times was that you would like an occasional post about the nuts and bolts of interpretive design. (Very few of you said, “More baseball!”) So because you asked for it, here’s a post about letter spacing.

A lot of people use the terms kerning and letter spacing interchangeably. These people probably have more active social lives than we do, but they are using these terms incorrectly. Both relate to the space between individual letters, but kerning means to tighten the spacing, while letter spacing means to increase the space. And neither of these should be confused with tracking, which refers to letter spacing throughout a block of type rather than between individual letters. (Remember, you people asked for this.)

Anyway, back to Malaysia: I was drawn to the billboard in the same way local TV journalists are attracted to abandoned warehouse fires. (“It’s so awful, I have to show everyone!”) I just couldn’t ignore the stacked type, the faux Polaroids, and the composition that makes it look like all of the design elements were loaded in a cannon and fired at the billboard from 100 yards away.

This sign was nearly the width of a two-lane street, and they still ran out of room for the word “beach” in the bottom right corner. Perhaps had they not letter spaced those lower-case characters in the sentence “Keep the cleanliness of the beach,” they could have kept that whole sentence on the billboard. (Besides, readers recognize words as shapes, so letter spacing lower-case type is generally frowned upon.)

The first thing I noticed that made me break out the camera was the script type “Ceria di Pangkor,” set in our old default typeface friend Mistral. Script typefaces are meant to be strung together to look like handwriting. When you letter space them, it breaks the connection between the letters and makes it look like you were writing during a bumpy van ride.

As you blow type up (and by that I mean making it larger, not actually exploding it), the imperfections and inconsistencies in letter spacing become more obvious and distracting. Basically, the larger the type, the more important it is to pay attention to the space between individual letters. The word Pulau (island) pictured here drove me crazy. The blue outline actually causes some of the letter combinations (“ul” and “au”) to touch while others (“Pu” and “la”) are left with space between them. At this large scale, that letter spacing issue is obvious and distracting.

Letter spacing is more art than science. Most computer fonts have letter spacing built into individual characters (one of the many things Comic Sans does poorly), but variations in the shapes of letters and the immense number of character combinations make letter spacing nearly impossible to automate.

Typographers have devised lots of tricks and techniques to help them get it right. Some typographers like to look at their type upside down or in a mirror. (There’s a good post about this on the website Type Cast Creative, where the image above came from.) Others like to imagine balloons of equal volume squeezed between each letter. (The image here is from a website called Computer Arts.) One of my grad school professors swore by the practice of simply covering the bottom half of the type with a sheet of paper to see where the issues might lie. These techniques help us see the gaps between the letters as abstract shapes rather than seeing the letters of the words.

Certain types of letters are more likely to cause issues. Tall, skinny characters likes lower-case i and l or the number 1 are likely to have more space on either side that needs to be tightened up (which is why the year 2011 is going to be a bad one for typography). Round characters like o and e should be tightened up so that their middles come close to touching while their tops and bottoms are far apart. Angled characters like the capital letters A and V or the number 7 are likely to start out too far from their neighbors.

Regardless of which technique you use, the first step is to recognize that the computer does not do everything for you. Getting your letter spacing right means understanding that any display type, whether it’s in a brochure or on a billboard, requires attention to detail.

Had enough? Next week, tune in for jokes about baseball and photos of our kids!

Technical note: Every layout program has its own way of handling letter spacing. I work primarily with Adobe products, and I really like the “Optical” setting (as opposed to “Metrics”) in the kerning menu.

Ask a Nerd: Are Script Typefaces Legible?

Dear nerds,

I have been thoroughly enjoying the many discussions about different typefaces. I’m wondering what your thoughts are about scripted type (type that copies cursive handwriting). Some coworkers of mine and I have had some interesting discussions about using scripted type for subtitles on interpretive signs. Althought it might “set a mood,” my concern is that it might be difficult to read for certain audiences. I know studies have been done on the effect of all caps on reading speeds. Have you encountered similar studies that look at the effect of scripted fonts for interpretive panels?

Thanks for your continued help, Cal

Cal,

There has been a lot of research on typography, much of it contradictory or too specialized for general usefulness. Also, as my grad school roommate Kristy Pennino points out, most of the research is done by behavioral psychologists and not typographers. Still, there are certain points of agreement, like the fact that upper- and lower-case letters are more legible than all caps, as you point out.

Here’s an important point researchers agree upon related to your question: Regular, roman (not italics) type is more legible than slanted, italics, or oblique type. Typically, these studies relate to italicized versus roman type, but since most script typefaces are slanted, you can draw your own parallels. You can find a couple studies related to this subject on the Education Resources Education Center (ERIC) website:

EJ416365 – The Effects of Italic Handwriting on Legibility: The Methods and Findings of a Three-Year Study

ED265540 – An Evaluation of the Speed and Legibility of Italic Handwriting

Another important factor is the difference between legibility and readability. Certain typefaces are more legible than others because of the clarity of their design. At a certain size and/or a low enough word count, however, even less legible typefaces are still readable. That is to say, if you have few enough words and a large enough point size, you can get away with using a script typeface.

phils-small

philswinIn the examples here, the traditional serif typeface Adobe Garamond is more legible than Edwardian Script. In the longer sentence at the smaller point size, “The Phillies are World Series champions,” the script typeface is difficult to read and should not be used, but in the simple, two-word “Phils win!” both are readable and either one would be acceptable.

An article on Wikipedia (I know, weak reference, but it’s still a good point) has this to say:

“If the columns of a newspaper or magazine or the pages of a book can be read for many minutes at a time without strain or difficulty, then we can say the type has good readability.”

Think about how long you are asking visitors to read certain passages when making decisions about your typefaces. Once you get one short phrase or sentence, I’d err on the side of the more traditional, non-slanted typeface for better legibility.