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Opinion: Quirks of language confront us all the time

It was hard to watch the new movie "The Dilemma" without considering the true meaning of the word "dilemma."

So many people use that word incorrectly. And when this newspaper lets slip an improper use of "dilemma," a former boss here is quick to pounce, sending e-mails reminding us what the word really means.

I often hear people say they've got a dilemma on their hands. Maybe they can't decide between going to lunch or working through the noon hour. Maybe they can't decide between the BLT or the club sandwich.

Neither is truly a dilemma.

According to The Associated Press Stylebook, a dilemma "means more than a problem. It implies a choice between two unattractive alternatives."

The movie, by the way, got it right. The lead character catches his best friend's wife cheating. He figures he has to tell his buddy, but doing so may jeopardize a lucrative project upon which he and his friend are working. I won't spoil the ending, but that really is a dilemma.

Although I don't edit much news copy anymore, the movie got me thinking about word usage -- not only the words The Daily Republic and other newspapers tend to get wrong, but even words we get right but people assume we've gotten wrong.

First, a note to all English teachers who will pore (that's the correct word, by the way) over this: The Daily Republic, like most if not all newspapers that subscribe to The Associated Press, makes its final decisions on usage according to The Associated Press Stylebook. Any editor worth his grease pencil dedicates time to memorizing the AP book, but things still slip through.

We always are miserable when any grammatical mistake goes through the process, but it happens. Generally, folks understand and we appreciate that.

And why wouldn't they be forgiving? I can't go anywhere without hearing people tell me they "seen" somebody or "seen" a movie recently. That's like fingernails on a chalkboard, but I never say anything.

Here are a few examples of AP style that are commonly mistaken, either by writers or readers:

• It/its: You see this most often in the sports pages. In truth, a team, a school or a town is an "it" and not a "they." Mascots, however, are "they." Therefore, when sports reporters write that the "Kernels won their fourth game" or "Mitchell won its fourth game," it's correct.

However, it is grammatically incorrect to say "Mitchell won their fourth game." It sounds odd, but it's absolutely true.

• Under way: Two words.

• Toward: Never towards.

• Jibe/jive: Stories and numbers don't jive. They jibe. Example: Your numbers don't jibe with mine.

• Cancel: According to the AP Stylebook, it's cancel, canceled, canceling and cancellation. Most people want a second "L" in canceled and canceling.

• Quotation marks: The correct form is to use double quotation marks for all uses.

Examples: "The girl is pretty," said the boy. That girl is "pretty," according to many of the boys.

It's wrong to use single quotes like 'this' in regular copy.

Exceptions: Single quotes are employed when a quote is found within a quote and also in headlines.

• Exclamation points: The Daily Republic rarely uses exclamation points. In fact, I suggest writers only use one or two per year maximum. The Associated Press book tells us to use them "very rarely" and adds that "there are writers, misguided souls, who think that an exclamation point anywhere adds a dollop of emphasis."

I tell writers they will know an exclamation point when they hear it.

Generally, we see them most in letters to the editor, and those incorrectly used exclamation points more often than not are simply removed.

• Ellipsis: What is an ellipsis? Good question, because I worry that few people understand what it is and its use.

An ellipsis is three periods in a row (...), generally found in a quote. It is inserted to show the reader that other, usually less important, words have been left out for the sake of a cleaner quote.

If a source tells us that "I told her that, for whatever it's worth I guess, I don't like her brother," the quote very likely will appear in the newspaper as "I told her that ... I don't like her brother."

Many people use an ellipsis as a way to pause or hesitate. Although that's correct in the real world, it's usually not the case in the world of newspapers.

• Couple: AP tells us that "when used in the sense of two people, the word takes plural verbs and pronouns." Therefore, it's correct to say "the couple were married Saturday."

• Adviser/advisor: Ahh, now this is a problem.

The AP book -- the literary and grammatical bible for a newsroom, remember -- tells us it's adviser, with an "e." This is contrary to popular spelling, but the newsroom, when discussing financial or educational mentors and the like, are supposed to use the word "adviser." In business briefs and ads that are sent to us from local companies, we often let this rule go unheeded.

Adding to the confusion is the Advisor, the free shopper owned by The Daily Republic that is delivered to approximately 19,500 readers in the region. Notice that it's spelled with an "or" at the end and not "er."

Each week, I wish I would make the executive decision to end that practice, just to make the shopper's title jibe with our own rules. But I don't, and I won't.

When The Daily Republic purchased that publication in the 1990s, it was already spelled that way, so I guess we'll leave it as is.

It's actually quite a dilemma.

Wait. No, it isn't.

Either way, it sure looks weird to me.

Korrie Wenzel was sports editor and editor before becoming publisher of The Daily Republic.