Tag Archives: grammar

Make Grammar Your Ally

In an advice column in the Washington Post Magazine, writer Bradley Demerich provides five pointers for success in online dating. Topping his list: grammar.

grammar“Good grammar and writing go a long way,” he writes. “Not only do they show that you have the cognitive ability to be a functioning adult, but they also give people fewer reasons to ignore your profile/messages.”

Demerich offers another piece of good advice on presentation: “When you’re finished writing something, proofread it. One young man put on his profile, ‘I am very good at showing of the making girls feel beauty.’ Not sure if he was typing quickly or if English is his second language; either way, it shows the importance of reading over (or asking someone to read over) your profile.”

That goes for online messages, LinkedIn pages and just about anything you have to write for or about yourself. Letters, emails, web page content, job applications, reports, white papers or anything else, written communication always requires and benefits from editing and proofreading.

So when you need another set of eyes and your mother or significant other won’t do, hire an editor. When readers are impressed, it will be worth it.

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How to Accentuate the Appositive

Commas can be  a writer’s best friend, but lately I’ve seen too many sentences  like this one:

Left-handed pitcher, Todd Jones, won 10 games for the Mariners last season.

Wyoming naturalist, John Smith, attended the reception.

Why commas in those sentences? In my opinion, inserting those two mental pauses disrupts the flow of the sentence. When that happens, the reader may stop.

commaThe commas are not necessary. Both sentences seem to treat the proper names “Todd Jones” and “John Smith” as appositives, not as the subjects of the sentences. An appositive is a noun or noun phrase that immediately follows and renames another noun or noun phrase. “Todd Jones” and “John Smith” qualify, I suppose, but as the Associated Press Stylebook notes, “A decision on whether to put commas around a word, phrase or clause used in apposition depends on whether it is essential to the meaning of the sentence (no commas) or not essential (use commas).”

In the sentences above, surely the names of the pitcher and senator are essential. So dump those commas. To keep these sentences grammatical and improve their flow, they could be rewritten in one of two ways:

Todd Jones, a left-handed pitcher, won 10 games for the Mariners last season.

John Smith, a Wyoming naturalist, attended the reception.

This is a more traditional use of the appositive, adding more specific description to the proper noun that precedes it. While the nonessential phrase “left-handed pitcher” and “Wyoming senator” could be dropped without destroying the sentences, the reader’s pause for the comma is shorter, less pronounced. The reader is willing to put up with the pause because the words and pause seem natural, like everyday speech.

However, my editing preference would be the leaner versions below, which eliminates the need for commas:

Left-handed pitcher Todd Jones won 10 games for the Mariners last season.

Wyoming naturalist John Smith attended the reception.

Putting the adjective phrase before the noun is terser, quicker to the point. Writing is all about establishing rhythm and flow, making the words easy to follow. When your ideas are strong, editing can make them stronger. See what a good editor can do for your writing.


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How to Distinguish the Hyphen from the Dash

The last thing I expected on a football weekend across the country in North Carolina was a grammar lesson. But that’s what I got in Winston-Salem, sometimes referred to as “the Dash.” Or so I had read.

Winston-SalemI asked a volunteer at the visitors’ center if the city (and more recently, its minor-league baseball team ) took the nickname from the punctuation mark between the names of what were originally two adjacent towns (they officially merged in 1913). “No, she said, pointing to the tiny spot on a poster. “That’s not a dash, that’s a hyphen. A dash divides; a hyphen unites.”

We both chuckled, but I knew she had a point.

According to the website (I kid you not) dashhyphen.com:

“The hyphen is the shorter mark. often used to link two or more words together. For example: user-friendly, part-time, up-to-date, back-to-back. Note that a hyphen never has spaces on either side.

“The dash is the longer line used as punctuation in sentences – coming in between words (as in this sentence). It can also be used – as here – in pairs. For example: Paul sang his song terribly – and he thought he was brilliant!

He’s won the election—granted, there was only a low turnout—but he’s won!”

The eagle-eyed among readers of the preceding sentences may have noticed they included two different types of dashes, perhaps heightening the confusion. “The en-dash is the shorter version of the dash, named en-dash as it should be the same length as the letter ‘n,’ dashhyphen.com says. “The en-dash should always have spacing before and after. The first example above uses the en-dash. The em-dash is the longer version, named em-dash as it should be the same length as the letter ‘m.’ The em-dash should never have spaces before or after it. The second example above uses the em-dash. The first version, the en-dash, is the most commonly used form.” See dashhyphen.com for more detailed  information.

I smiled at the visitors’ center volunteer. “So ideally, you’d like this city and its baseball team to be nicknamed the Hyphen, not the Dash?” I asked. She nodded affirmatively.

Good luck with that, I thought. When good grammar and catchy marketing clash, we know what wins.

When you need a little help in either area, consider an editor.

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Don’t Forgo This Foregone Conclusion

Granted, writers don’t use the words “forgo” and “forego” too often. Many don’t realize that while both action verbs sound the same (homonyms), they mean something different. A conclusion can be foregone, for instance, but you forgo a decision. Huh?

Don’t fret, even the professionals get confused. Here’s a Washington Times headline from Oct. 1, 2014:  “Skipping the flu shot? CDC chief warns healthy adults to not forego flu vaccine.” Sorry: Adults who ignore this warning will forgo the vaccine, not forego it.

j0286670The phrase “a foregone conclusion,” meaning a result anticipated before it happens, is the most familiar usage of forego. In that phrase, foregone is the past participle of forego, which means to precede. Unfortunately, forgone (which again sounds the same) is the past participle of forgo, which means to do without.

And here’s the rub: Some dictionaries list forego as an alternate spelling of forgo, and forgo as an alternate spelling of forego. If that’s not bad enough, consider the past tense of these verbs: forewent and forwent. Who in their right mind wants to try using those two words in a sentence?

My recommendation: Let’s forgo both of them. Use precede for forego and abstain for forgo.

By the way, if you didn’t remember what past participle means, it might be time to throw up your hands and find an editor.

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Collective Nouns and Pronouns the Right Way

One of the most frequent errors I see in newsletters, emails and even in the media is non-agreement of collective nouns and pronouns. Most people know that collective nouns take singular pronouns (that is, a company wins its award, not their award). When the collective noun in question is a company or team name, however, confusion reigns; all the more so if the proper name is plural. Two recent examples:

AgriLife is one of the country’s largest purveyors of products for a simpler lifestyle. They have been very successful providing cheese-making kits to their customers for the past two years.

Smith Brothers Food Markets wants to emphasize their growing line of cleaned and pre-cut vegetables for busy, active cooks.

Team: Is it singular or plural?

Team: Singular or plural pronoun?

In both sentences, all the pronouns should be singular (it, its, itself, not they, their, themselves). While generic collective nouns (such as army, crowd, team) can be singular or plural, depending on whether the group is acting in unison or as individual members, named businesses, schools and organizations are always singular.

This seems logical to me. Many individuals comprise a business, company, governmental unit. school, or team, but each organization operates as a single entity.

As noted above, however, when the members of an unnamed group act in unison, everyone doing essentially the same thing at the same time, then the collective noun is singular and requires singular pronouns for agreement. But when an organization’s members act as individuals, taking separate or different actions, then the collective noun is plural and requires plural pronouns for agreement. While grammatically correct, this generates awkward-sounding sentences:

At the rehearsal, the cast took their places so that each actor could see the spacing between them.

The council disagree whether they should overturn the mayor’s veto.

If deciding whether a particular collective noun should be considered singular or plural confuses you, there are ways to write around it.

  • Substitute a plural noun for the collective noun, allowing use of the more natural-sounding plural pronouns: The cast (actors) earned $500 each for their roles.
  • Add the word members after a collective noun. Members, serving as a plural antecedent, requires a more natural-sounding plural pronoun: When the curtain falls, the cast members take their bows. The council members voted to return the surplus money to the taxpayers.

Still having a hard time with this collective thing? There’s a smarter, more effective alternative: Give up and hire an editor!


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Word Sick? How to Find Relief

pen_and_paper“I hate writing. I love having written.” This adage is variously attributed to such well-known authors as Dorothy Parker, Mark Twain, Eudora Welty, Neil Simon, Gloria Steinem, Joan Didion, Ernest Hemingway and William Zinsser, but it applies to less-accomplished writers as well. Anytime an average person has to write a letter to an insurance company, a cover letter for an important application, or a complicated legal disposition, for example, putting his or her thoughts down on paper or into a word-processing file can be daunting. If you’re not confident in your own way with words, an experienced editor can provide a map and a push in the right direction. “Being a good writer mostly means being a good observer and a good thinker,” editor and author Gene Weingarten notes in his introduction to his essay collection The Fiddler on the Subway. “With work, it’s possible to triumph over a lack of innate writing skill.”

That’s good to know, because Weingarten’s introduction also acknowledges that writing can be hard work and full of frustration. “A real writer is someone for whom writing is a terrible ordeal,” the Washington Post columnist writes. “That is because he knows, deep down, with an awful clarity, that there are limitless ways to fill a page with words, and that he will never, ever, do it perfectly. On some level, that knowledge haunts him all the time. He will always be juggling words in his head, trying to get them closer to a tantalizing, unreachable ideal.”

Aggravated by your own attempts to reach that ideal? Here’s a prescription for quick relief: Take two ibuprofen and call an editor in the morning.



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Good Grammar Is a Necessity, Not a Luxury

Good grammar and writing skills are important to presenting you and your business in the most positive light, according to Kyle Wiens, CEO of  the free, online repair manual iFixit.

“Good grammar is credibility, especially on the Internet. In blog posts, on Facebook statuses, in emails, and on company websites, your words are all you have. They are a projection of you in your physical absence. And, for better or worse, people judge you if you can’t tell the difference between their, there, and they’re.

“Good grammar makes good business sense — and not just when it comes to hiring writers. Writing isn’t in the official job description of most people in our office. Still, we give our grammar test to everybody, including our salespeople, our operations staff, and our programmers. If it takes someone more than 20 years to notice how to properly use “it’s,” then that’s not a learning curve I’m comfortable with. So, even in this hyper-competitive market, I will pass on a great programmer who cannot write.”

Read Wiens’ full article on why he won’t hire people who use poor grammar here.

And when you’re not comfortable with your own writing or grammar prowess, maybe it’s time to hire an editor to polish your words.

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MLB Managers Get E’s for Grammar

While it’s not part of their official job description, two Major League Baseball managers provided useful grammar lessons this week. Who says sports isn’t educational?

Mariners manager Eric Wedge (center) addresses players at spring training.

Seattle Mariners manager Eric Wedge benched starting shortstop Brendan Ryan after the normally slick-fielding Ryan failed to complete two double plays because of poor relay throws to first base. Asked whether he told Ryan why he was sitting, Wedge said to reporters, “I think it’s inferred.” Seattle Times reporter Geoff Baker blogged that Wedge had replied “with a long, drawn-out roll of the r’s” to emphasize his point.

Sorry, Skip, but it’s “E-Wedge” on that one. Riding the bench might make Ryan infer that was his manager’s message, but Wedge was actually trying to imply it, not infer it.  Use “imply” when something is suggested without being explicitly stated, and use “infer” when someone is trying to arrive at a conclusion based on evidence. To imply is active: Wedge’s action with Ryan implies that the manager is benching the shortstop because of the poor defensive execution, while Ryan might infer that Wedge didn’t think highly of his recent level of performance.

Eric Wedge

Wedge certainly comes across as a stern, no-nonsense guy in his media interviews and also in recent TV and radio commercials in which he talks off-the-cuff about winning and player accountability when they come to the ballpark.  Current Miami Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen, on the other hand, has as a former player and then a manager with the Chicago White Sox, carefully developed a different persona:  a full-nonsense guy. If Major League Baseball were casting the new film version of the classic TV comedy The Three  Stooges, Ozzie could easily play Larry, the one with curly hair. Ozzie tried to blame his latest gaffe, praising Fidel Castro in a Time magazine interview, as an unfortunate facet of English being his second language (he was thinking one thing in Spanish but saying another in English, he claimed). Still, Guillen appeared genuinely contrite at his press conference held to explain his comments and admitted the furor has left him sad, embarrassed and feeling stupid. “I am stupid,” he said at one point, “but I’m not dumb.”

Ozzie Guillen

Well, not exactly. If Ozzie had wanted to say he was “incapable of human speech,” he would have been correct, but obviously lying. However, since “stupid” and “dumb” are really synonyms (both defined as “lacking intelligence”), then Ozzie’s statement is clearly incorrect. If Ozzie admits that he’s stupid, he is also admitting he’s dumb – about as dumb as he was when he started praising Fidel Castro in the first place.

Of course, using baseball managers as examples of proper wordsmithing implies they ought to know something about it. They don’t. That’s why they need an editor.

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How to Avoid Common Grammar Goofs

Sometimes you come across something so good that you wish you had thought of it yourself.

I just love 15 Grammar Goofs That Make You Look Sillyon Copyblogger, particularly the way writer Brian Clark and designer-illustrators at BlueGlass have put them together visually.  I advise anyone who has to occasionally write letters or presentations for business, or even in personal situations, to print out this list, hang it  above their computer screens, and look at it whenever there’s any doubt about what word or usage is needed in these common situations. You certainly don’t want to be the one looking silly, either.

f your writing needs more attention than merely avoiding the errors on this list, however,  it might be time to find an editor. Your words should always leave the right impression.

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Punctuation for the 21st Century

The constantly shifting sands of grammar and usage has been a frequent topic on this blog. Punctuation, a major subset of grammar, is a frequent source of disagreement and confusion.

The interrobang in Palatino Linotype.

A recent Wall Street Journal article by Henry Hitchings (“Is This the Future of Punctuation!?”) delivers a lighthearted history of punctuation marks and also discusses some others, historic and current, that I have never heard of.  The interrobang , for instance, is a combination of an exclamation mark and a question mark. According to  language  expert Michael Quinion,  a New York City ad agency invented it in 1962.

“For decades,” Quinion writes, “advertising copywriters had used both marks together to imply various blends of question and exclamation. The combination might indicate a rhetorical question allied with an exclamation, or a shout of wonder and curiosity. It might also mark that mixture of incredulity and dismay which any parent may produce at stressful moments: “You did what?!'”

Interesting, but most of us find it hard enough to keep track of the punctuation marks we already use. But if you’re among the many who have trouble remembering whether to write it’s or its, or when to use a comma, a dash or a semicolon, there’s no reason to get your shirt in a knot over it. Just hire an editor to get it right for you.

Hitchings’s latest book, The Language Wars: A History of Proper English, has just been published.

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