Monthly Archives: November 2012


Don’t let this English-teacher term worry you.  All it means is that you refer to something in words different than the ones you just used:

1.  George Washington, Father of his Country, built Mount Vernon.

2.  Paris, the City of Light, is almost deserted in August, when residents go on their vacations.

3.  Hawaii, the Big Island, has an active volcano.

4.  Carolyn, my friend from high school, lives in Montana.

I’ve underlined the appositives in those sentences.  What do you notice about them?  They are all set off by commas on both sides.

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Three Grammar Rules to Break

We were all taught some so-called unbreakable grammar rules.  But language changes–it grows by adopting and creating new words, and it also shrinks by discarding old rules that are no longer useful or make sense.  Here are some of them:

1. Never start a sentence with And or But.  Why not?  You can start a sentence with any word in the language.  What makes these two words different?  Nothing.

2.  Never end a sentence with a preposition.  Again, this makes no sense.  If it sounds better to put your preposition at the end, feel free.  Otherwise, you might end up with a sentence like, “With whom was that person I saw you?”  We are all more comfortable with “Who was that person I saw you with?”

Want to hear a prepositional phrase joke?  (You didn’t know one existed, did you?)

A young woman who lived in the South was invited by her Harvard boyfriend to fly to Cambridge and attend a fancy party.  She was all a-twitter, and being a very friendly person, at the party she sat next to a Muffy or a Buffy and started talking to her.  Soon she asked M (or B), “Can you tell me what this fork is for?”

M (or B) sneered at her and condescendingly said, “Up here, we don’t end sentences with prepositions.”

The Southern belle then said in her sweetest Southern accent, “Oh, I’m sorry!  I am so sorry!  Let me try again:  Can you tell me what this fork is for…………….bitch?!”

3.  Never use the passive voice.   If you want to avoid blaming someone or avoid taking the blame yourself, the passive voice is handy:  Mistakes were made.  The report was misplaced.  One time when you are compelled to use the passive voice is in the following sentence:  I was born in (name your location).  Otherwise, you would have to say My mother bore me in (location).  Weird, right?

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Besides vs. Beside

BESIDES means in addition to, other than:

Three other people besides Tim joined us for pizza.

BESIDE means next to (as in alongside of):

She placed her documents beside her purse so she wouldn’t forget them when she left.

I often hear people say something like, “I was besides myself when I heard her exciting news!”  How can one be next to oneself?  If you are really wildly excited, you are beside yourself.


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Literally? Really?

Back to the Tampa soap opera.  I read that Jill Kelley’s identical twin sister, Natalie, told the press that she and Jill are so close they are “literally inseparable.”  Yet nothing I have read or heard has ever noted they are conjoined twins.  No, Natalie, you are not literally inseparable, you are figuratively inseparable.  This  distinction is not hard to understand.  Try to get it.

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What’s Wrong With This Title?

Yesterday I read an ad for a toy. This is the title over the photo:

Light up kid’s imaginations everyday!

What lit up was my annoyance.  Did you catch two problems?

1. If you are referring to imaginations, then kids needs to be plural, but the apostrophe in this ad makes kid’s singular.  It should read kids’ imaginations.

2. Everyday is an adjective: Brushing your teeth is an everyday occurence.  When do you brush your teeth?  Every day.  Two words!  Day is the noun and every is the adjective telling you which day.  Light up your kids’ imaginations every day.

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Is It Really Strategic?

From the New Oxford American Dictionary:

strategy |ˈstratəjē|

noun ( pl. strategies )

a plan of action or policy designed to achieve a major or overall aim: time to develop a coherent economic strategy | shifts in marketing strategy.

• the art of planning and directing overall military operations and movements in a war or battle. Often contrasted with tactics (see tactic).

• a plan for such military operations and movements: nonprovocative defense strategies.

ORIGIN early 19th cent.: from French stratégie, from Greek stratēgia ‘generalship,’ from stratēgos (see stratagem) .


I am so ready to pull out my curls when I hear the related word “strategic” bandied about—and bandied it is.  It wasn’t just during the interminable political campaign we just lived through.  The word is endemic in advertising, in education, in business.


Think about it:  if a strategy is a plan, then why the need to have a strategic plan? All plans involve strategy.  Strategic initiatives, strategic positions, strategic paradigms, strategic benchmarks, strategic dialogs—give them a rest!  If any planning goes into an endeavor (and it does), that endeavor is by nature strategic.  Lose the redundancy and clear the air.


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To Split or Not to Split

I’m sure you have all been warned at some time not to split infinitives when you write.  But do you know what an infinitive is?

It is the form of the verb with to placed before it:

To eat, to sing, to go, to ponder, to do, to split

I am here to give you permission to split any infinitive you choose, as long as your sentence sounds better that way:

To hungrily eat, to lustily sing, to boldly go (the world’s most famous split infinitive), to moodily ponder, to enthusiastically do everything

If you don’t like the way your sentence sounds when splitting the infinitive, just try out the adverb in other places in the sentence, and you will discover the best spot for it.

This so-called rule against splitting infinitives arose because pedants in the mid-18th century thought applying the rules of Latin grammar would result in the best written English.  In Latin, it is impossible to split an infinitive—but English is amenable to it and I hereby give you all permission to do it.

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Before You Buy Holiday Cards

If you want to send a card that says SEASON’S GREETINGS, check the card to make certain that apostrophe is in place.  The greetings belong to the season—one season.  I have seen cards printed with no apostrophe and others printed with an apostrophe after the final S in SEASONS.  You are not sending greetings for multiple seasons.

People go crazy with apostrophes.  When they see a final S, they reach into their bulging apostrophe pocket and hurl one at the word.  That’s why you will see signs in grocery stores telling you to buy APPLE’S, RADISHES’ AND PASTA’S.  None of those words is possessive; they are merely plurals.  I saw a sign painted on the side of a truck that bragged the company had ‘The Best Plumber’s in Town.”

If I could get $5 for every missing or misplaced apostrophe, I would be a rich woman in two weeks.

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Eliminating Gender in Sweden

Here is the beginning of an article in today’s New York Times:

STOCKHOLM — At an ocher-color preschool along a lane in Stockholm’s Old Town, the teachers avoid the pronouns “him” and “her,” instead calling their 115 toddlers simply “friends.” Masculine and feminine references are taboo, often replaced by the pronoun “hen,” an artificial and genderless word that most Swedes avoid but is popular in some gay and feminist circles.

In the little library, with its throw pillows where children sit to be read to, there are few classic fairy tales, like “Cinderella” or “Snow White,” with their heavy male and female stereotypes, but there are many stories that deal with single parents, adopted children or same-sex couples.

Girls are not urged to play with toy kitchens, and wooden or Lego blocks are not considered toys for boys. And when boys hurt themselves, teachers are taught to give them every bit as much comforting as they would girls. Everyone gets to play with dolls; most are anatomically correct, and some are also black.

The article goes on to state that teachers were made aware that when boys fell down, they were consoled for a shorter time and sometimes told, in essence, to suck it up.  Girls got more cuddling and comfort.  Now the teachers are treating all the children as equally as possible.  Male teachers were also hired.

Does this attitude strike you as too extreme?  My take is that avoiding gender-specific pronouns is silly because it is unlikely even Swedish society is going to abandon them. Girls know they are girls and boys know they are boys in most cases. In addition, children are more influenced by their home environments than by their schools.  But I see nothing wrong with allowing all the “friends” to play with whatever appeals to them and for the teachers, male and female, to dole out love and comfort equally.

Tell me what you think.

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E-Mail Can Be Dangerous

The recent flap over the affair between Gen. David Petraeus and Paula Broadwell (even Dickens would be amused by her last name, not to mention the title of her biography of him, All In—but I digress) illustrates the potential danger of e-mail indiscretions.  Ms. Broadwell thought another woman was infringing on her territory, so she allegedly sent her threatening e-mails.  The other woman, a Ms. Kelley, went to the FBI to report those e-mails, and as a result the FBI uncovered evidence of the affair between Petraeus and Broadwell.

But the plot gets thicker:  Ms. Kelley was allegedly having an affair with another general, John Allen, and the FBI uncovered between 20,000 and 30,000 e-mails between those two.  Look at those numbers!  How did they have time even to brush their teeth? Meanwhile, four families are suffering pain and humiliation.

The moral of this story is, never put anything in an e-mail you would not be willing to see on the front page of tomorrow’s New York Times.  Deleted e-mails live on a server somewhere and can be recovered.

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Accentuate the Positive

It’s easy to be positive when writing, either personally or in business, if you deliberately think about how you can do so.

Instead of writing, “We can’t refund your money until you remit your expenses,” turn that sentence around and make it positive:

“As soon as you remit your expenses, we will refund your money.”

Some of the most appealing and persuasive words in the English language are please, thank you, yes,  free, save, new, results, easy, money, now, guarantee, discovery, health, sale, safety, proven and love.

If you use those words, make sure you are using them accurately.  When you make promises, keep them.

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Imply or Infer?

Many  people think imply and infer are synonymous.  They aren’t.

Imply means to hint at something that is not overtly stated:

When the weather forecaster called attention to those dark, threatening clouds over Denver, she implied that rain or snow might fall.

When you infer, you come to a conclusion based on the implication that was made:

When Susan saw the dark, threatening clouds over Denver, she inferred that snow or rain might be on the way.

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Avoiding Sexist Writing

Most sexist writing I encounter seems to be unintended.  It used to be that masculine pronouns were used for all people, male and female.  Then along came Gloria Steinem, who noticed that women constitute approximately 51% of the population.  With that observation was born the construction of “he and she” and “his and her,” both quite awkward.

It’s very easy to solve this problem tactfully: make your subject plural.  Instead of writing, as Henry Adams did, A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops, it is easy to change it to a plural subject and pronoun:  To paraphrase Henry Adams, Teachers affect eternity; they can never tell where their influence stops.

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Lay Off It

Browsing through an issue of People today while in the dentist’s waiting room, I glanced at an article about some young guy whose name I can’t recall (I have never heard of most of the People people and all look no older than 14), as he raved about how he loves to work in his bedroom because he said he’s lazy and just likes to lay [sic] around.

Lay means to put or place.

Lie means to rest or recline.

I always lay the mail on the table.  Yesterday I laid it on the table.  I always have laid it on the table.

I like to lie in my hammock.  Yesterday I lay in my hammock.  I often have lain in my hammock.

Not hard, right?  Right.


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Spacing After Colons

I was just asked a question about the number of spaces to use after a colon.  It used to be standard to use two spaces after both a period and a colon. Now one space after a period is acceptable, even preferred. (I still have trouble making my thumb obey and hit the space bar only once.)

I have never read anything about spacing after a colon, though, so I tried it: what do you think about one space?  Or look at this:  here are two spaces.

One space looks fine to me. What do you think?

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Example of an Oxymoron

I took this photo last week in Rhodes, Greece.  I love to visit supermarkets in other countries, looking for new and unusual products.  I discovered that a sign saying “Supermarket” in Turkey and Greece most often means a very small market, usually no larger than a typical American bedroom.  This sign, at least, is accurate in that the owners may think their business is super, but they realize it is mini.





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Sic, Sic, Sic

[Sic] is Latin and means so or thus.  It is used, always in brackets (not parentheses), immediately after an error in either speech or writing that is being quoted.  It indicates that the writer who has used that quotation knows that the word immediately before [sic] is an error.  It is used so that you, the reader, will know the error was not made by the writer you are reading but by the writer being quoted. 

Incidentally, [sic] never indicates that any material has been omitted; to show that, you use ellipses (… at the beginning or in the middle of a sentence or …. at the end).

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I Dislike “Like”

Like my husband and I were like having lunch in a nice like restaurant not too long ago, and like next to us was seated a table of like six lovely young women, obviously there to like celebrate the like recent like engagement of one of them.  We couldn’t like help overhearing  their like conversation, and I have to like tell you I did not like it—because every other word out of their mouths was like:

“Like I am so excited because he like decided to move back here from like Hong Kong, and like now we don’t have to like make that endless flight like every three weeks.”

People are also using like to substitute for say or said:

“He told me he was like moving back here, and I’m like, ‘That is so great!’ “

(All and go also take the place of say or said:  “I’m all, ‘That is so great!’ “ or “I go, ‘That is so great!’ “

Please, don’t go there.  Most people don’t enjoy hearing the English language butchered.  If you wouldn’t write it, don’t say it.

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So? So what?

Have you noticed a fairly recent societal verbal tic in which people start their sentences with the word So?  I first became aware of it when MegWhitman was running for governor of California and when answering interviewers’ questions, she began almost every response with “So.”  

Interviewer:  How do you plan to help the California economy grow?

MW:  So we have a plan that will create many new jobs in the technology sector.

Now I am hearing this introductory So constantly, in response to questions but also to make general  conversation:

“So I decided to blow off studying and see a movie instead.”

“So I hope I remember to set my clock back on Saturday night.”

“So the days are getting shorter.”

It doesn’t mean “therefore” in these cases.  It’s just filler.  So stop it already!


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Me either or Me neither?

I was asked today which answer is correct:  Me either or Me neither.

Let’s think about the choices.  First of all, both are somewhat slangy.  They are actually saying I don’t either and Neither do I.

If someone states a negative, such as I don’t like okra, the more common answer would be the one also containing a negative:  Me neither.  However, Me either isn’t going to make anyone tsk at you.  But if the statement were I love (or hate) okra, your answer would probably be Me too.

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