My blog is all confused. Or else, more likely, I am. I thought I might e-mail posts while on a recent trip but never did. When I returned home, almost all my previous posts were missing. However, a quasi-duplicate blog seemed to spring up that contained all the old posts—but it looked very strange. So I have copied those posts here. I couldn’t figure out how to put them below my most recent post, so they appear above.
From now on the new posts will appear at the top of the blog. If I were more savvy, none of this would have happened. I apologize for your annoyance.
Well over 25 years ago I stopped teaching college English and began leading writing seminars for corporations. For at least a decade now, I have been e-mailing a weekly business writing tip to hundreds of people I know in the corporate world. They, in turn, disseminate these tips within their companies, and people also send them to friends and relatives. I honestly have no idea how many people end up reading (or not reading) these tips every week.
Some have suggested I start a blog, so here I am, feeling my way, and probably on the cusp of making many mistakes. Please bear with me. This photo of me was taken at a painting workshop; I am much more left-brained than right-brained.
If you would like me to write about particular topics or writing problems, just let me know. I’ll be happy to address them.
Last week I wrote about the difference between long and lengthy and how the latter has a negative connotation, implying something is going on longer than it needs to. A long speech may be hard to listen to, but a lengthy one may verge on torture. Most people use lengthy because they think it sounds more professional. It isn’t.
The same can be said about simplistic. It is not a fancy-schmancy way to saysimple. It means something that is overly simple, and therefore inadequate. Roger’s simplistic explanation left the audience with more questions than answers.
Don’t write to impress. Write to be clear and understood. Isn’t that what you want from others’ communications?
This is Sasha, one of our two Russian Blue girls. You can see she does the SundayNYT crossword in ink, too, but she hasn’t gotten very far. Of course, her native language is written in Cyrillic, so our alphabet is difficult for her.
Something I came across today that annoys me no end: when people want to indicate someone has made a complete change in a position, they often will say the person did a 360˚. Even I, the mathematical moron, know that 360˚s will bring you back to where you started; it’s a full circle. You need to cut that circle in half and do a 180˚.
Every day: the New York Times and Los Angeles Times
Book I just finished and loved: Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel. It covers just a few years, focusing on Thomas Cromwell and his relationship with Henry VIII, who is trying hard to get rid of Catherine of Aragon, marry Anne Boleyn and make England Protestant. So well written. I will soon begin the sequel, Bring Up the Bodies.
Recently finished: Arguably, by Christopher Hitchens. A collection of this contrarian’s essays, covering every imaginable topic from light to heavy. The breadth and depth of his knowledge were extraordinary; I cannot think of another writer as brilliant, not in our times at least. You might not agree with every position he takes, but you can’t deny his genius. A real loss when he died last December at only 62. He has another book that just came out, Mortality, chronicling his dealing with esophageal cancer and impending death. Not cheerful, but as ever, brilliantly written.
Currently reading on my iPad: Again—Ulysses, by James Joyce. I read this when I wake up in the middle of the night. I read it in college and dipped into it again quite a few years ago. It’s slow going because Joyce’s language is so dense and is usually stream of consciousness, but the book is so entertaining that I keep going. I figure I’ll finish it in about 2018.
What are you reading?
A loyal reader suggested I go over when you use each of these adjectives.
We all were taught early on to use “a” before a word starting with a consonant and “an” before a word beginning with a vowel. But following that rule can sometimes get you in trouble.
It’s not whether a word begins with a consonant or vowel. What is important iswhat it sounds like the word starts with:
“Hour” starts with a consonant—but we say/write “an hour” because the “h” is silent.
We also say/write “a yellow dog.” “Y” is considered to be a type of vowel, but here it definitely has the sound of a consonant.
It was considered correct until fairly recently to use “an” before “history,” “historian,” “historical” [film/book/play, etc.], but the Association of Cranky English Teachers (of which I am a charter member) decided it was also fine to use “a” before such words.
So with “a” and “an,” use your ears, not your eyes.
Eggs or eggshells? I often hear people say they have to “walk on eggshells” when referring to a sensitive situation with another person. Think about it: if you’re walking on eggshells, the damage has already been done. You can tromp all you want on those eggshells, but they’ve been well and truly broken before you showed up. Walking on eggs, however, takes much more finesse.
Talk about an odd combo.
I strongly suggest you subscribe to A.Word.A.Day athttp://wordsmith.org/awad/. You will have a new vocabulary word e-mailed to you M-F, that includes not only the definition but also etymology and a link to the Visual Thesaurus. Each week’s words are always somehow related (except when the author has a week of miscellaneous words). I think you’ll enjoy it.
You often hear people say they “could care less” about a situation. Think about those words. If you could care less, then you are saying you do care to a certain extent right now.
If you “couldn’t care less,” you are saying you don’t care at all right now, so caring any less is impossible. This is the amount of caring you want to state.
I have a problem, and I’m hoping one of you techy people might be able to solve it for me.
Along the right margin of this blog is a sidebar. In that sidebar, I want to have links to the writing tips I have already sent out. The links there now are just to what I have already written about on the blog in this past week. I cannot figure out how to have links to the old tips without putting those tips into the message space on the blog. I want you to be able to click on the link and be taken to the entire message. I have gone to the forums and searched for how to do this but am coming up blank. Any ideas? You have no idea how much I will appreciate any leads you can give me.
Somehow, people have gotten the idea that I is a classier pronoun than me. It isn’t. They weigh exactly the same on the pronoun scales. It just depends whether you need to use a subject (I) or an object (me).
Not a day goes by that I don’t hear someone say, “Between you and I.” After all prepositions, such as between, on, on, from, to, for, around, under, over, etc., you need to use the object pronoun: me. Between you and me, this is not a hard rule to learn.
Often, people can’t decide if they need I or me, so they fall into what I call “the hell with it” rule and use myself instead, as in “Call Kevin or myself if you have any questions.” Please don’t! Myself is not a substitute for I or me. If you get rid of Kevin temporarily, you’ll instantly know you need me. Use myselfonly when you have already mentioned yourself: ”I wrote that article myself.” It’s used for emphasis at the end of a sentence, not in place of I or me.
Got it? Good!
Finding a juxtaposition of signs like these makes my day.
How often have you seen or heard this construction?
There’s three reasons to buy your tickets early.
Omit the contraction and you will see you are saying, There is three reasons to buy your tickets early. There is three?
To restore agreement to your sentence, you need to write, There are three reasons…. Making that into a contraction, however, is awkward: There’re three reasons…. Ick.
Starting sentences with There is or There are (or Here is or Here are) is a weak construction. Better to write, Buy your tickets early for three reasons—and then list them.
When people see an abbreviation, many refer to it as an acronym, thinking they mean the same thing. They don’t.
You all know what an abbreviation is. An acronym is also an abbreviation—butone that is pronounced as a word:
Snafu (it lost the caps when it became a common word)
MOMA in New York and LACMA in Los Angeles
You’d never say “Oosuh” or “Yoosuh,” so USA is not an acronym, just an abbreviation.
All acronyms are abbreviations, but not all abbreviations are acronyms.
(If you’re not sure what snafu and fubar stand for, look them up in your online dictionary and you will discover the slightly off-color meanings.)
Yahoo’s Daily Writing Mistakes
I discovered a blog I think you’ll enjoy. Its author, Laura, finds howlers from the Yahoo main page and comments on them. It would appear Yahoo can’t come up with a couple of bucks to hire a proofreader—so this blogger gets to poke fun daily. There is also a lot of great information in this blog: see her list of commonly confused words along the left margin.
Not a lot can be said about periods except that people don’t use enough of them. Long, complicated sentences that ramble on and on will not endear you to your audience. Short sentences are good. It’s fine to have the occasional long sentence for variety as well as some medium-length sentences, but you can see by this very sentence I am writing that you are getting very bored and wish I would stop, even though I have so much more to tell you. Write unto others as you would have them write unto you.
I can point out a few particulars about the use of periods:
1. If your sentence ends with an abbreviation that usually takes a period, don’t add an extra one at the end: A lot of auto manufacturing has moved to the Southern part of the U.S. You’ve noticed that many abbreviations that used to take periods no longer do; I suggest you follow your company’s style guidelines.
2. If you use an ellipsis (…) to end a sentence, meaning you are deliberately omitting spoken or written information, use the three dots for the ellipsis and add a fourth dot for the final period: The Congressional Record noted the senator’s remarks on trade parity, health care, climate change….
Are you familiar with the NPR weekend show “Car Talk”? Hosted by Ray andTom Magliozzi, aka the “Tappet Brothers,” aka Click and Clack, they have offered hilarious advice to callers with car troubles. They recently decided to end their broadcasts after I-don’t-know-how-many years, but you can find archived shows on their website.
They often refer to a Cambridge, MA law firm, Dewey, Cheetham and Howe; I doubt you can get an appointment with one of their
chiselers lawyers, but I did take this picture when I was in the Boston area. The name of this firm is just one of a multitude of hilarious people and positions supposedly instrumental in putting the show together. Sometimes you have to repeat the names a few times to get the jokes. Here is a link to the full list:
“Car Talk” credits
When my husband and I hear mispronunciations on television or radio, we swivel our heads toward each other and “tsk.” Sometimes we even “tsk tsk.” Here are some culprits that trigger our “tsk” response:
EX cetera It’s ET cetera. Surprisingly prominent people say EK.
EX presso Look at the word the next time you’re in Starbucks. It’s ES presso.
EX pecially Again, say it as it is spelled: ESpecially
Supposively It’s pronouced as it’s spelled: supposEDly.
Relator A person who sells real estate is a REALtor: Real tor. This is not hard.
Nucular Please! It’s NU CLEAR. I cringe.
Jewlary Ever seen it spelled like that? Then why say it that way? It’s JEWELry.
Aks It’s spelled ASK. It’s also pronounced that way.
Liberry LiBRARy. Don’t be lazy.
Febuary FeBRUary. See Liberry.
Send me your favorites. This topic could go on forever.
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Robert Genn, a deservedly noted Canadian artist and founder of the everything-for-artists website The Painter’s Keys, sent me this photo of a ferry ticket he recently received. I am also appending his note to me. Enjoy!
I thought this might interest you. I recently took a ride on BC Ferries to
one of our more remote islands where marmots are considered endangered. For
some reason I was given an adult marmot ticket.
When I got off the island a few days later there was no mention of marmot on the ticket. I can only conclude that they were letting marmots on the island but not off. Do you think it’s possible I looked like a marmot when I got on but not when I got off? Do you think I should stop making those funny little noises?
Every day I check the obituaries (just to make sure my name isn’t there). I often read about fascinating lives. Sometimes, however, I read things that make me laugh—usually caused by a grammar, punctuation or usage error. Here is the first sentence of a recent find:
“Dr. [X] was a doctor who practiced medicine for the joy of helping others, not for the money or notoriety.”
You know what “notoriety” means, right? Yes, it means “famous,” but always in a pejorative sense. It is a synonym for “infamous.” OJ Simpson is notorious. Osama bin Laden is notorious. Benedict Arnold is notorious. Chances are this doctor would not have wanted to be notorious under any circumstances.
Perhaps I should start an editing service for people writing obituaries for their relatives. Before they send them in to the newspapers, they could run them by me to make sure they don’t say anything that will make readers laugh or groan. I could call it “Your Last Letter.”
Or maybe I should just stick to corporate editing.
Here’s a sign I just saw. Now I’m wondering what untrue authentic food is. Like an open trench (ever see a closed trench?) or a hot water heater (in fact, it’s a cold water heater), the restaurant must have thought the extra word added more accuracy. Instead, it made this reader wary. Moving on.
For some reason, about is rarely seen in business writing. Is it thought to be too common, too ordinary? I have no idea why it is shunned, but I’m encouraging you to rediscover its charms.
Here are the words you love to use in about’s place:
With regard to (not with regards to; regards are what you give to
With respect to, In respect to
In reference to
These all tend to sound extremely formal. Most of your business writing should be in a conversational voice, the way you would talk to someone sitting across your desk from you. Don’t be afraid to sound human. Your writing will be clear, and people will enjoy reading what you write.
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After writing that subject line, I am imagining pregnant women in their ninth month Googling that word and finding this post. Sorry, ladies. I’m about to tackle the grammatical variety of contractions. Today’s newspapers had reviews of Arnold Schwartzenegger’s new book, Total Recall. (I take that title with a large shaker of salt.) He is quoted as saying he wanted to change his famous line from “The Terminator,” “I’ll be back!” into “I will be back!” because he thought the contraction was “too feminine.” I have never considered contractions to have gender, but I know some people are reluctant to use them because they think contractions are too casual.
We use contractions all the time in speech. If we didn’t, many of our sentences would come across as stilted. Think of “He did not say when he would be back” compared to “He didn’t say when he’d be back.” Few people, except for new English language learners, would use the first sentence. However, omitting contractions, combined with an appropriately stern tone of voice, can make your sentences, spoken or written, seem more forceful, whether you are male or female. Perhaps that is what Arnold meant to say. Contractions in both spoken and written language are acceptable and usually desirable. Only if you want to come across as not-to-be-argued-with should you always go for the non-contracted form.
I’ll be back.
I took this picture in Spain a couple of years ago. It struck me as funny that “bagel” hasn’t been turned into a Spanish word but has been adopted in its English form, which comes from the original Yiddish:
ORIGIN early 20th cent. (as beigel): from Yiddish beygel .
Nary a day goes by that people don’t say to me, “No problem.” It is always in response to my having thanked them for something (usually a small act) such as handing me change, opening a door, telling me where I might find an item.
What I want to say to that “No problem” is, “I never said it would be a problem.” I don’t. Yet. But where has “You’re welcome” gone?
My husband and I are both bookaholics. Our house walls are convex from the pressure of the thousands of books we own. Two summers ago we donated almost 1,000 books to local libraries so I could have shelf space in a room I transformed into an art studio. Our garage is stacked with boxes labeled BOOKS TO READ/REREAD. Once books land in the garage, it’s unlikely we will ever lift the box lids to see what lies inside. But we might. Someday. It could happen.
We used to take going into a bricks and mortar bookstore for granted. No longer. Not only have our local, beloved indies closed, but even the big box Barnes and Noble and Borders have disappeared. Gone is the thrill of entering those stores and being hit with the delicious smell only a new book can deliver. We still buy books from Amazon and even use our library cards. We realize we don’t have to own every single book we want to read.
Holding a book made of paper, turning the pages, going back to look up something I read 53 pages earlier, rereading the information about the authors and studying their photographs—I still love that experience. But a new love has entered my life and provides competition for the paper books: my iPad.
It is so handy. I can take it on a trip and carry with me, for just the weight of the device itself, all the books I have downloaded as well as all those I may decide to download while I am away. For now, though, its biggest selling point is that when I wake up in the middle of the night—and that is pretty much a given—I can read myself back to sleep without disturbing the blissfully snoozing man next to me. I set the iPad on the so-called Night Theme, and the text shows up white against a black background. I can turn the lighting on it very low so I don’t get any glare.
Recent articles have stated that people who read on tablets during the night sleep more fitfully than those who do not—it’s something to do with the bright backlighting that decreases melatonin levels by 22%. I haven’t noticed any difference since my iPad and I have been meeting in the middle of most nights, perhaps because I use the Night setting and keep the backlighting low. I’m still plowing my way through Ulysses, still enjoying it, and the iPad is saving my marriage.
What I don’t do in the middle of the night: check my e-mail or play Spelltower or other word games. Sometimes I’m tempted, but I stick to being an invisible escort as Leopold Bloom makes his way through Dublin on June 16. I am getting so much more out of Ulysses than when I first read it in college. Am I smarter? I doubt it. But I have fewer distractions in my life now.
Which do you prefer? Paper or tablet?
People often ask me what the most common written error is that I see. The first time I was asked, I didn’t have to stop to ponder the answer. It was then and still is ITS and IT’S. This is so simple: if you can’t make it into two words (either it isor it has), then you want the possessive form, its.
It’s cooler today in Los Angeles than it has been for the last three weeks. (It is)
It’s been hotter this summer than any other I can remember. (It has)
In English we use apostrophes to show possession in nouns. But thepossessive pronouns—such as hers, theirs, ours, its—never take apostrophes.
I don’t make this stuff up; I just teach it. So don’t blame me.
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Don’t you just love your spellcheck and grammar-checking programs? Aren’t they wonderful? They take all the tedium out of writing and do the hard part for you! Or maybe not.
Definitely not. I have yet to find any decent grammar-check programs. Many of their suggestions are blatantly incorrect. Don’t even bother to use them. Your best bet is to proofread meticulously and out loud, both looking and listening for problems.
As for spellcheckers, their only worth is in picking up obvious typos. But if you’ve typed any when you meant to write and, or typed manger when you meantmanager (I cannot tell you how often I have come across that one in corporate writing), your spellchecker isn’t going to highlight those words.
A common cause of errors in writing is when we go back and change a few words in what we originally wrote. But that might have changed the entire meaning of that sentence, causing your readers to scratch their heads.
Here’s what you need to do for everything you write, from a one-sentence e-mail to a 50 page report: proofread out loud and agonizingly slowly. When we proofread at our normal silent reading speed, we read what we think we wrote, not what we actually did write. Proofreading isn’t fun, but it does keep us from looking foolish.
Often in writing you see question marks following sentences that begin with I wonder or Guess.
With I wonder sentences, you are stating that you don’t know the answer to something—but you are not asking a question. I wonder how long my flight is going to be delayed is not asking for information. It’s a declarative statement saying you don’t know how much longer you will be frothing at the mouth at JFK or LAX. It’s another way to say, I am wondering. You wouldn’t use a question mark after that, would you?
Guess where I was born similarly is not a question. It is a statement, a command, telling your audience to figure out where your birthplace was.
So hold your question marks for actual questions. Most will start with who, what, where, when, why, how much, how many, would you, could you, can you, have you.
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I saw this sign on the coast of Maine. I’m imagining some funky red frames that look like a lobster.
I’m sure other customers were wondering why the crazy lady was taking a photograph of this sign. I had to. I simply had to. If “all” cashiers are not authorized to do the actions listed on the sign, it implies that some cashiers may have that authorization. How is the customer to know who wields that power?
The fact is that “no” cashiers are authorized to make those changes. I guess “all” seemed more inclusive to the sign writer.
See those quotation marks around the information about using credit cards? Nobody said that. Too often, people use quotation marks to call attention to words. Keep them just for quoting spoken or written information from another source.
That “pond” is an annoying way Brits refer to the Atlantic Ocean. Anglocreep is making its way into American English, according to a recent article in the New York Times. What with the enormous popularity of “Downton Abbey” and an entire generation with the Harry Potter novels embedded in their brains, words once considered strictly British are now making their way into everyday American conversation.
Do you call your buddies “mates”? Do you “ring” them on your “mobil”? How about saying “No worries”? Do you “queue” at the movies? Do you excuse yourself to go to the “loo”? Farewells have been abandoned for the once ubiquitous Italian “ciao” in favor of “Cheers!”
If you travel to the British Isles, just be careful when saying you will “chat up” someone. Americans have taken it to mean you will talk—but across that pond, it means to try to seduce with words, to lure that person into your bed.
I’m not saying never to use the words make or made, but avoid them when you can.
Don’t make a reservation, recommendation, proposal, improvement, reduction, suggestion, donation, revision, or change.
Instead, reserve, recommend, propose, suggest, revise or change. You get the idea. You can use the “search and destroy” function on your computer to find all your uses of make or made in a document, and then get rid of those fillers when possible.
I was recently on a trip and thought I might post to this blog while away. It didn’t happen. Now that I am back, the great majority of my previous posts seem to have disappeared. I have a record of them, so I can re-post them, but I don’t seem to see how I can add them to the bottom where they belong. I will dump them all at the top of the posts and then add new ones.
A nuisance for both you and me. Sorry.
A friend e-mailed me a photo of her new kitten, a beautiful little guy she found in a plastic bag on the beach. (Can you imagine what kind of “person” could do that? Me either.)
In writing back to my friend from my iPad, which has auto-correct set to ON, I wanted to say her tiny kitten was “purrfect.” Yes, I know it’s corny, but there you have it. Every time I wrote “purrfect,” auto-correct decided I meant “putrefaction.” It took me several attempts to finally rid my screen of that putrid word. Imagine if I hadn’t been proofreading and had sent that e-mail as “corrected.”
I do like auto-correct when it fixes obvious typos I’ve made, but I (and you) still have to proofread carefully and slowly, making sure we are not inadvertently sending embarrassing messages. I know entire websites exist that are devoted to auto-correct’s wacky fixes.
I live in Los Angeles, where we get no rain from approximately April until November. When the rains finally begin again, even though only a drizzle may be expected, the local newscasters come on the air with dire warnings of STORM WATCH! in gigantic letters accompanied by ominous music. What would they make of Sandy?
The worst seems to be over for the East Coast, but life is still far from normal. Material things can be repaired or replaced. Your life cannot, so stay safe and wait until things settle down. Having experienced the 1994 Northridge earthquake at relatively close range, I know how disruptive these natural events can be. In the midst of the devastation, you wonder if life will ever get back to normal. It will. Meanwhile, stay safe and know that better days are ahead.
Most of us learn what oxymoron means when we are quite young. Is it the appeal of the x and y paired with moron? Knowing what the word means doesn’t stop some people from creating some inadvertent doozies, however:
One of those hard and fast rules we were all taught early on was that double negatives were a no-no. In most cases that rule still holds, primarily in our business writing. But in casual writing to friends and acquaintances, a sentence like “I’d love to go to the concert with you, but I ain’t got no money” will not heap scorn upon you. It will be understood that you are acknowledging yet making light of your financial situation.
Sometimes double negatives are a way to avoid hurting someone: “I didn’t say I don’t like your outfit” is a much softer way to say you are not crazy about the other person’s new clothes. It implies you see room for improvement, but you are being kind.
Remember that barely, hardly, scarcely, never, neither and nor are all negatives, so if your verb is negative (such as was not, were not, has not, have not, am not, is not) adding one of these adverbs is going to result in a sentence you probably don’t want the world to see.