About Verbicide, Capitals, and the Rules for Gerunds


bookdoctorBy Bobbie Christmas, Book Doctor

Q: Today’s “word of the day” was “verbicide,” but the definition left much to be desired. Will you give us some examples?

A: Verbicide refers to the killing of a word, the distortion of a word in a way that obliterates the original definition. A word that comes to mind is “awesome,” which originally had a religious implication, something that struck awe, fear, and wonder in a person. Today we use the word “awesome” to mean almost anything good, pretty, interesting, or even expensive. Examples: We went out on an awesome date. He took me to an awesome restaurant. We spent an awesome amount of money. I told him that he’s awesome. As you can see from the examples, the word has lost its original power.

Along the same lines, the word “heavenly” once had a religious connotation, but through misuse, today it can mean anything that is tasty, delightful, or pleasing; for example: We ate a heavenly dessert.

Another victim of verbicide is “decimate.” It originally meant “cut down by one-tenth,” as in “The first attack decimated the battalion of one hundred men, leaving only ninety to fight the second attack.” Through misuse, the word has come to mean obliterated, annihilated, or destroyed.

Q: Which is correct, Mile Marker or mile marker? Several government Internet sites show the two words to be capitalized; several do not (no consistency whatsoever).

Here are some examples from our writer’s novel:

At mile marker 333, the truck began a steep descent.

A mile marker showing zero indicated the state line.

Jackson’s city limit sign was in front of mile marker 029.

Is this correct?

A: Chicago style capitalizes brand names and proper nouns, but mile markers do not fall into those categories. The government can follow any style it wishes, but novels should follow Chicago style, so all the examples from the writer’s novel are correct as written.

Q: Last week at a critique group someone had “the black actor.” A newer member asked about capping when it comes to black, caucasion, etc.

I think it should be black, caucasion, hispanic, and latino, because they aren’t proper nouns, such as Native American and African-American. Am I right?

Because hispanic and latino aren’t nationalities or proper nouns, just descriptions, I think they should not be capitalized, but my spell-checker keeps wanting to capitalize them. Please let me know if I’ve learned the rule correctly.

A: At times our computer spell-checkers give you a chance to rethink your choices, but such spell-checkers do not necessarily follow Chicago style. You are correct when it comes to using black and white in lowercase to refer to nicknames for races; however, races—not nicknames for the races—are capitalized.

Chicago style dictates that except in titles, we do not capitalize the term “black” when it refers to dark-skinned groups of people; however, Negro, which is the proper noun for a race, is capitalized. Similarly, “white” is not capitalized as the term of light-skinned people, whereas Caucasian is. Other groups capitalized (and note the lack of hyphenation, unless used as an adjective modifying a noun) include the following: Aborigines, African Americans, American Indians, Arabs, Asians, the British, Chicanos, European Americans, the French, French Canadians, Hispanics, Hopis, Inuits, Italian Americans, Jews, Latinos, Native Americans, New Zealanders, Pygmies, and Romanies. Let’s also not forget the natives in Canada, which are called First Peoples and First Nations.

Q: Can you please refresh my memory about the official rule for using “your” in the following example? “I don’t understand why your going makes a difference.”

A: Here’s the explanation from my Purge Your Prose of Problems desk reference book:

Gerunds take possessive modifiers. If this declaration confuses you, you’re not alone. Most speakers and few writers understand this oddball rule. Gerunds create nouns from verbs and end in –ing; for example: using, having, needing, and dancing.

Let’s examine the following sentence with a gerund and a modifier: “My going depends on your being there.” Some writers and speakers have the urge to say “depends on you being there,” but the preferred style is the possessive: “depends on your being there.”

Other correct examples: “Rather than my repeating the information, read it for yourself” (not “Rather than me repeating the information”). “He asked if I objected to his borrowing my book” (not “He asked if I objected to him borrowing my book”).

Bobbie Christmas, book editor and owner of Zebra Communications, will answer your questions, too. Send them to Bobbie@zebraeditor.com. Read more Ask the Book Doctor questions and answers at www.zebraeditor.com.


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