Positive or Negative?

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© Judi Birnberg

Don’t write “can’t” when you really mean “can”:

See if you can’t get Jim to give you the proposal by noon.

Whenever possible, it’s better to state things positively.

Instead of writing, We can’t refund your money because you haven’t submitted your form, try this: As soon as you submit your form, we will be able to refund your money.


Filed under All things having to do with the English language

Nix the Cooperation


Thank you for your cooperation.


This is a very common closing to a business letter (and it’s also a cliché).

Here is the typical situation: You have asked your readers to do something you know they don’t want to do. They have neither the time nor interest, but you need their help. You give them the order, but to sweeten the deal you then add, Thank you for your cooperation.

Can you see how insincere that sounds? They are going to cooperate only because they have to (or else).

Generally, in business writing you want to get to the point and get out as quickly as possible. However, this situation calls for more words so your readers will understand you know you are imposing on them.

Try something like this:

Jackie, I know you are exceedingly busy this week, and I greatly appreciate your taking the time to help me out with this project. Thanks so much for lending a hand; I’ll do the same for you whenever you need my help.

Five words or a whole paragraph? If you write the paragraph, your co-workers will likely have more respect for you. That’s important.

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Biannual and Biennial

Aren’t these two words confusing? Bi— means two, but which one refers to twice a year and which one means every two years? Here’s the scoop:

BIANNUAL means something that happens twice in one year: We change our clocks biannually.

BIENNIAL means an act that occurs once in every two years: United States congress members are up for re-election biennially.

I think these definitions are ones you just have to memorize. If you can think of a helpful trick, let me know.


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Past vs. Passed



These two words are commonly mistaken for each other or thought to be able to be used interchangably.

PAST refers to a previous time:
History refers to past events.
• I knew Robert in years past, but would not have recognized him today.
• Past behavior is often predictive of future behavior.

PASSED is the past tense of the verb TO PASS and has several meanings:
• It can mean to have skipped your turn: Erica passed her turn at bridge.
• Another meaning, in sports, is to have moved an object from one player to another: The hockey player passed the puck to his teammate.
• It also represents the movement of going by another person: Jessica passed (by) her ex-boyfriend in the hall but pretended not to see him.

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Sensual vs. Sensuous

SENSUAL always connotes sexual lust and attraction. Reserving the honeymoon suite included a sensual couple’s massage.

The renowned 17th century English essayist and poet John Milton (Paradise Lost) coined the word SENSUOUS to distinguish it from “sensual.” It refers to being aware of bodily sensations: e.g., sensuous smells, tastes, tactile feelings. Swimming slowly in tropical waters is a sensuous experience.

The things you can learn from an English teacher!

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Tropical Waters © Judi Birnberg

Tropical Waters © Judi Birnberg


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Horde or Hoard?

These two homonyms are often confused, but their meanings are quite different.

HORDE is a crowd, often rowdy or tumultuous. Picture Walmart when it opens on Black Friday.

HOARD is a stash of valuables, often hidden, such as the paintings and artifacts the Nazis confiscated during WWII. You may have read or seen The Monuments Men or The Rape of Europa, both dealing with that subject. You may also be familiar with the television show Hoarders, in which the items collected do not seem particularly valuable except to the person hoarding them. I shudder.



A hoard of wine bottles?

A hoard of wine bottles?

copyright Judi Birnberg





Filed under All things having to do with the English language

A Few Confusing D Words

Here are three sets of similar words all starting with D that have different meanings from their near doubles.

DEFINITE and DEFINITIVE: Definite means specific, precise.
The driving teacher gave definite instructions about what her student should expect on the road test.

Definitive means conclusive, final. The algebra problem, complicated as it was, had a definitive solution that few students were able to reach.

DEFUSE and DIFFUSE: Defuse means to make a situation less harmful. The crowd was getting agitated, but the master of ceremonies’ good nature was able to defuse the nerves of the people in the audience.

Diffuse means to disperse or disseminate, to spread over a wide area. The natural gas that had been escaping for months is now more diffuse so that residents can return to their homes.

DISASSEMBLE and DISSEMBLE: Disassemble means to take apart. When she was only six years old, Katie disassembled the clock to see how it worked.

Dissemble means to conceal, perhaps to lie. Katie dissembled about taking the clock apart when her parents found the parts strewn across the floor of her room.

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