Grammar Moses: The do's and don'ts of 'into' and 'in to'

I can't poke a lot of holes in the fine reporting being done at The Washington Post, where the staff has won more Pulitzer Prizes than I've dreamed of winning, but I will take this opportunity to mock an unintentionally funny photo caption it ran last week.

"A mother and her son turn themselves into U.S. Border Patrol agents to claim asylum last month after crossing the Rio Grande in El Paso, Texas," it read.

Did you catch the goof?

A prince can turn into a frog, or so the story goes, and your daughter's boyfriend can turn into a creep (just give him time), but how can a mother and son turn themselves into U.S. Border Patrol agents?

I would think that the U.S. Border Patrol honchos would require a rigorous training process, a swearing-in ceremony and all that - and that it wouldn't be up to the mother and her son to simply decide to become agents. Given the age of the boy in the photo, I doubt he'd meet the age requirement, either.

What, have I misunderstood the caption writer's intent?

A simple tap of the space bar fixes everything.

The caption should have read: "A mother and her son turn themselves in to U.S. Border Patrol agents ..."

See the difference?

What to do?

Bruce Spitzer, chairman and professor of education for the School of Education and Health Sciences at North Central College in Naperville, wrote with a question.

And when a professor asks me a question, I get queasy. But I have an answer I can offer confidently.

"What's the definitive word on 'Dos and Don'ts'?" he asked.

He cited a headline that read: "The do's and don'ts of offering encouragement" and asked whether if "do's" is correct, then wouldn't it be "don't's"?

That's an excellent question. The answer is ... complicated.

While the AP Stylebook prefers "do's and don'ts," Webster's New World cops out on the plural for "do," giving you a choice but preferring the apostrophe. Merriam-Webster also allows either plural for "do," but prefers without the apostrophe.

Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage and Bryan Garner both dismiss the apostrophe.

If you're looking for definitive answer, I can't give you one. If you're asking for my opinion, I think including the apostrophe in do's is silly.

I'm sorry for the lateness of my response, Dr. Spitzer. I hope you don't give me an incomplete for the semester.

Poor acoustics

Kelly Paetsch has been a general music teacher for about 30 years. She takes umbrage with people referring to a wooden hollow body guitar that amplifies the vibration of the strings instead of relying on pickups and an amplifier to make sound as "an acoustic."

"I wonder when the word 'acoustic' morphed into a synonym for guitar?"

Kelly, I think it's a simple matter of convenient abbreviation - a short way to differentiate between an acoustic guitar and an electric guitar.

In the context of a guitar class, the meaning seems pretty clear.

During a piano lesson, Frederic Chopin might have said "I play the acoustic," though it's unlikely he'd have tried to make any distinction given the invention of the electric piano was more than a century away. And he probably would have said it in Polish.

Now if Rick Wakeman were to say "I play electric" in the context of a piano lesson, well, I'd want to be the pupil. And I'd understand he was talking about keyboards and not guitars.

Given that you teach a variety of instruments, Kelly, I think you're amazing. And you have a right to be confused. As far as the mortals you teach, they're probably thinking too parochially.

We English speakers have a way of turning adjectives into nouns. Think of "the homeless," "the rich" and "the young and the restless."

Yes, we generally categorize people this way.

You need not look beyond the New Testament for evidence of this. Matthew 5:3 reads, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven."

And with that, I bid you Happy Easter.

Write carefully!

• Jim Baumann is vice president/managing editor of the Daily Herald. Write him at Put Grammar Moses in the subject line. You also can friend or follow Jim at

Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the "flag" link in the lower-right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.