Monthly Archives: April 2013

“On Writing Well”

I have recommended this book by William Zinsser, a retired Yale English professor, for decades; it is as pertinent today as when it first was published in 1976.

The book extolls clear, concise writing.  Zinsser wrote, “Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.”

Those critical words describe much of what we read today, most especially what is churned out in the corporate world in an effort to appear “professional.”

Today Zinsser is 90 and blind from glaucoma, but he still coaches others by listening to them read their works in progress in his Manhattan apartment.  Accurately, Zinsser says, “People read with their ears, whether they know it or not.”

Yes!  I have always encouraged people to read their writing out loud. When we read silently, we read what we think we wrote, not what we actually did write. Hearing our voices provides an entirely different experience: we are much more likely to discover not only typos but also infelicitous phrases and parts that simply do not work.

If you can’t schedule a session with William Zinsser, book one with yourself and read your writing out loud (a quiet voice is all you need) and see if it doesn’t help you.

Now excuse me while I read this post out loud.

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The World Is My Oyster

Dumont Dunes, California. Rider (author) is on...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I started this blog in September 2012, I wondered if I would be able to find sufficient topics to write about.  Silly me.  Every day the world gives me something juicy.  Here is today’s offering.

I was in my orthopedist’s waiting room for my new knee’s one-year checkup. The only available magazine was Dirt Bike, about a vehicle I do not own and have no interest in. However, I did see the reason the magazine was in an orthopedist’s office; he certainly must deal with the results of some dirt bike wipeouts.

A letter to the editor contained the following sentence:

“If you meet one of these guys, start talking about [certain roads and trails] and you’ll see that grin on their face and a glean in their eye.”

Mr. Dirt Biker has two problems: he’s writing about “guys” (plural) but he allows them only one “face” and one “eye.” He needed to eliminate “one of” and just go with “these guys.” Then he would have to make “face” and “eye” plural.  One problem solved.

The second problem is that he used “glean” for “gleam.”  “Glean” means “to gather.”  I hope Mr. Dirt Biker is a better rider than writer.

My knee is great.  It was a very productive appointment.

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April 29, 2013 · 6:04 PM


Cover of "The Oxford English Dictionary (...

Cover via Amazon

If you’re not familiar with those initials, they stand for the Oxford English Dictionary, undoubtedly the most revered dictionary in the English-speaking world.  Not your typical dictionary, it gives not only etymology and spelling but examples of word usage from the first example to more recent ones, including dates of those instances. Researchers began working on it in 1857.

Today on “All Things Considered,” the about-to-retire Chief Editor of the OED, John Simpson, was interviewed. He has been delving into words at the OED for 37 years now and thought it was time to spend his time in areas less apt to change than is language.  In the interview, he was asked if the next revision of the OED would include words that first appeared not on paper but in cyberspace, and the answer was a definitive yes.

In case you think the OED would be a nifty dictionary for your bookshelf, it currently runs to

Cover of "The Professor and the Madman: A...

Cover via Amazon

20 volumes.  Years ago I joined the Book of the Month Club because as a bonus for signing up I could get the OED in two volumes, with four pages of the larger edition on each page. The slipcase contains a drawer with a necessary magnifying glass included.  You can get the OED online, but it is quite pricey.

A wonderful book about the OED and one of its most diligent and fruitful researchers is The Professor and the Madman, by Simon Winchester.  Here is a brief Amazon synopsis:

The Professor and the Madman, masterfully researched and eloquently written, is an extraordinary tale of madness, genius, and the incredible obsessions of two remarkable men that led to the making of the Oxford English Dictionary — and literary history. The compilation of the OED began in 1857; it was one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken. As definitions were collected, the overseeing committee, led by Professor James Murray, discovered that one man, Dr. W. C. Minor, had submitted more than ten thousand. When the committee insisted on honoring him, a shocking truth came to light: Dr. Minor, an American Civil War veteran, was also an inmate at an asylum for the criminally insane.

Tell me that doesn’t grab you!  The Professor and the Madman is a compelling book I recommend without reservation.

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April 27, 2013 · 12:55 AM

Yo! Yo?

You know I’m a grammar nut, right?  Grammatical errors are like fingernails on a blackboard to my delicate ears. Therefore, I was surprised to hear a story on today’s edition of “All Things Considered” dealing with gender-neutral pronouns and how some kids in Baltimore may ( repeat, may) have solved the problem.

Here’s the problem:  The masculine pronoun used to be acceptable in all cases until some uppity women (I was one of them) objected to sentences such as, “Everyone brought his outline to the meeting,” when some of the people at the meeting were female.

In the late 19th century, a concocted word, “thon,” was floated to solve the problem; supposedly it stood for “that one.”  Since “thon” didn’t fly, sentences like, “Everyone brought his or her outline to the meeting” started being substituted. However, although grammatically correct, it’s very awkward,

Back to the kids in Baltimore:  Teachers noticed them using the word “yo” to take the place of pronouns, both masculine and feminine.  “Yo moved my backpack!”  “Don’t go near yo backpack!”  “Yo lives in the building next to me.”

This word certainly eliminates having to using gender-specific pronouns. To my ear, it sounds awful, but some linguists think it may spread from Baltimore, particularly if celebrities start using it.

Here’s my prediction: Although “everyone/their” is still technically ungrammatical by 2013 standards, it is such a commonplace construction that it very well may become standard before too long. It eliminates gender and avoids having to invent some new pronoun to take the place of “he/she” and “his/her.”

What’s your take on “yo”? Do you think it is the gender-neutral pronoun of the future?





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Lie and Lay Redux

I’ve had a request to explain the difference between these two frequently confused words. I did post this last December, but for those of you who missed it or need a refresher, here you go:

LIE means to rest or recline.

LAY means to put or place.

When you go to the beach, you LAY your towel on the sand and then LIE on the towel.

Much of the confusion arises because the past tense of LIE is LAY:  Yesterday I LAY down after work.  

For the present tense (used for something we do regularly, habitually) we say, I always LIE down after work.  

And for something you have done in the past and continue to do now, we use the present participle (the verb along with HAS, HAD or HAVE):  I always HAVE LAIN down after work.  You hate that word, LAIN, don’t you?  But it’s correct.

As for LAY, I always LAY the mail on the kitchen table.  Yesterday I LAID it there.  I always HAVE LAID it on that table.

Now we can lay this topic to rest.

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“Myself” Is Almost Always Wrong

Somehow, I seem to know a few people who are lovers of  “myself.”  No, they are not in love with me.  They love the word–and unfortunately use it gratingly and incorrectly:

1. “Brenda and myself visited my cousin in Tucson.”

2. “John invited Brenda and myself for dinner this Saturday.”

Please, no!  Stop it, or I will be bald by Memorial Day!

“Myself” is NOT some elegant variation of “I” or “me.”  It never takes the place of either of those words. The  time to use “myself” is for emphasis at the end of a sentence when you have already mentioned yourself:

“I drove to Tucson myself.”  See that”I”?  That makes “myself” kosher.  I mentioned myself and then used “myself” at the end to emphasize the fact that no one else did any of the driving. I did it all myself.

In sentences 1 and 2, just leave out the other person temporarily and you will instantly know whether you need “I” or “me.”  You’d never say or write, “Myself visited my cousin in Tucson.” You know you would use “I.” Adding Brenda back into the sentence changes nothing.  It is “Brenda and I visited….”

In the second sentence, you’d never say or write, “John invited myself for dinner.”  You know the right word is “me.” Adding Brenda back to the sentence changes nothing: “John invited Brenda and me for dinner this Saturday.”

Have I made myself clear?

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Despite or In Spite Of?

A very smart person who reads my tips wrote recently to ask if a difference exists between “despite” and “in spite of.”  I figured if this V.S.P. was wondering, others might be as well.

The simple answer is that there is no difference.  You can say, “We held the meeting despite six people being away on a business trip,” or “We held the meeting in spite of six people being away on a business trip.”

But next time, plan your meeting for a time when everyone can attend.


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A Foreign Language?

You have to love the business world. It has concocted a whole new form of English that sometimes sounds so, so important and impressive—until you translate it into the everyday English most of us use and realize that so-called business English is nothing but puffery.

Good English is good English, no matter the context. We already have all the words we need to make our ideas readily understood.  There is no need for writing like this:

“This is a project for approval by the appropriate decision bodies.”

What, pray tell, is a decision body?  Is it a person (with a body, one would hope) who is authorized to make a decision in that office?  Or is it a committee (made up of several bodies) delegated to give approval?

All the writer needed to write was something like, “This project will ultimately be approved by [a named person or a specified committee].

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I Dare You to Translate This

I bring you another example from the corporate world:

“As projects tied to [this program] progress, a regular cadence of communication updates will be provided.”

“A regular cadence of communication updates”?  Who comes up with these phrases?  I am awed by the author’s sense of self-importance.  What guts, what courage, what chutzpah to write like that!

Here is my feeble attempt at guessing what the writer meant:

“You will get regular updates about the projects connected to this program.”

It’s a good idea to use the pronoun “you” to involve each reader. It’s also a good idea to use the active voice.  Another good idea (I’m full of them today) is to drop some of the slightly la-de-dah words, such as “provide,” and go for something really simple, such as “get.”  Stop “purchasing” and start “buying.”  Stop “progressing” and just “go.”






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Now Translate This!

Here is another jawdropper from the corporate world:

“…a strategic framework to catalyze positive and consistent operational improvements…”

What do you suppose that means?  Here is my guess—but it only a guess:

“…a plan to bring about positive, regular improvement [in some area, which is not defined but should be].”

Have you noticed these days how almost everything is defined as being “strategic”?  Apparently, if it’s not “strategic” it’s not important (in the corporate mind).  The most common use is a “strategic plan.”  Don’t all plans require strategy? You think through what is needed to solve a problem and then implement it. How can you plan without using strategy?

Too often writers don’t think about the words they want. Because we are bombarded with verbiage (that word carries a negative connotation) every day, we have these chunks of bullshit floating over our heads. It is so easy to write by just reaching up and grabbing a chunk that sounds oh-so-impressive and may hint at the meaning we want, and then shoving it into our own writing.  The result is vague, upholstered language that makes the reader guess at what we really mean.

It’s worth picturing your reader sitting across your desk while you explain in plain English what you really mean. It won’t take much time, and you will eliminate guesswork and errors caused by misinterpretation.

Off my soapbox I go.

Wikimedia Strategic Plan cover image

Wikimedia Strategic Plan cover image (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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April 15, 2013 · 7:42 PM

Grievous and Mischievous and Homogeneous (Oh My!)

The first two words are often given an extra syllable when spoken, but they don’t merit it.  It’s not GREE-vee-us, nor is it mis-CHEE-vee-us.

They are pronounced GREE-viss and MIS-chiv-iss.

As to the third mispronunciation:  the word is homo-JEEN-ee-iss, not huh-MOJ-en-iss.  The latter seems to be the affected person’s choice.  Instead of adding a syllable, as in the first two words, many people are dropping a syllable in homogeneous.

Thank you for your attention and consideration of my suggestions.


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Another Round of Shameless Promotion

cover for ebook

My ebook, Your Kid Said This! is now available on Amazon for the Kindle (PC and Mac), and through iTunes as well as Barnes and Noble.  You can read a free excerpt, and the whole shebang, complete with illustrations by children, will set you back $2.99.

I have collected adorable, funny, insightful quotes from children on various topics: Love, Sex, Brothers and Sisters, Grownups, Food, Potty Time, Language, Logic, Manners, Religion, School, Clothing, and Swearing.  I’d be so pleased if you would just take a look and read the free sample and then let me know what you think.

Thank you!



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April 12, 2013 · 8:53 PM

Translate This!

A friend in the corporate world sends me wonderful (read: hideous) examples of inflated writing she sees.  We both wonder where these words and phrases originate.  Do people sit in their offices deliberately trying to make something simple into something complex?  If so, what do they hope to accomplish?  Do they believe others will see them as more intelligent and professional?

Here is a sentence she sent me today.  What do you think it means?

“This probably works out better for you, in that it provides you more time to socialize the idea with the others.”

To socialize the idea with others!  Really?  I’m guessing the writer meant the recipient would have more time to send the idea to others and get their opinions so they could all talk about it and come to a decision.

Instead of the weird “socialize,” “discuss” would have done the job.

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The “Only” Problem

“Only” is the most commonly misplaced modifier.  Depending where you put it in a sentence, it changes the meaning entirely.

Here is a basic sentence:  I read the newspaper.  Now let’s play around with “only.”

1. Only I read the newspaper.  This says no one else in this house reads it; I am the only one who does.

2. I only read the newspaper.  I don’t do anything else with it: I don’t recycle it, I don’t line the birdcage with it, I don’t put it in the bottom of the cat’s litter box.

3. I read only the newspaper.  I don’t read books or magazines or anything else, just the newspaper.

4. I read the only newspaper.  This town has just one newspaper, so that’s the one I read.

5. I read the newspaper only. This has the same meaning as #3.

The trick with all modifiers is to put them right next to the word about which you want to give more information.


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Many people assume this word means “last,” “final,” or “ultimate.”  In fact, it means “next to last.”

English: A multi-volume Latin dictionary (Egid...

English: A multi-volume Latin dictionary (Egidio Forcellini: Totius Latinitatis Lexicon, 1858–87) in a table in the main reading room of the University Library of Graz. Picture taken and uploaded on 15 Dec 2005 by Dr. Marcus Gossler. Español: Diccionario de latín (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s the etymology:

ORIGIN late 17th cent.: from Latin paenultimus, from paene ‘almost’ + ultimus ‘last.’

OK, I admit to being a word nerd.  I love the way everything fits together, as long as you can find the right pieces of the puzzle.

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How Many Bodies?

Are everybody present and accounted for?

You know that sounds odd. Of course you would say and write, “Is everybody….”  Although “everybody” and “everyone” refer to a minimum of several people, we treat those pronouns as singular and use a singular verb. They mean “every body” and “every one of the 15,000 people here,” and yet crazy English grammar has made these words singular.

But language changes.  Stick around a few hundred years or so and the verb “are” might be preferred.

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Comma or No Comma?

This is an easy comma rule:

When you have two complete sentences separated by a conjunction (and, but, or, for, yet), put a comma before that conjunction:

(I wanted to go to the party)but (I wasn’t invited).


However, if what follows the conjunction isn’t a complete sentence, don’t use a comma:

 (I wanted to go to the party) but (wasn’t invited).



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You can see the Latin root for 10 in this word, and originally it meant to slaughter every tenth person.  We’ve loosened up a bit since those Roman days and usually use the word to mean widespread damage or destruction.

However, today’s meaning still does not mean total annihilation.  Some people or objects have to be left.  And don’t use “decimate” with a specific number, as in “Ninety percent of the island was decimated.”

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Old Books (But New to Me)

A dear friend recently gave me four tiny books, all written between 1915 and 1923, all having to do with English:  Better Say; Faulty Diction; S.O.S. Slips of Speech; and Mend Your Speech.

My husband and I are both language nerds (that’s a good thing) and have both enjoyed dipping into these four little gems and reading examples to each other.  (Aren’t we a fun couple?) To my surprise, many of the rules we use today were valid almost 100 years ago.  All languages change over time because of common usage but not as quickly as most of us probably imagine.

On the other hand, one of the books devotes a lot of space to making the distinctions among the following words: abrasion, cut, gash, graze, incision, scrape, scratch and wound.  I do hope you have not been using gash for cut!

I’ll be dipping into these four books from time to time to bring you rules of yesteryear that may or may not still be applicable today.

Of course, I have no idea why you can’t see all four books. But you get an idea of what they look like.


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April 4, 2013 · 11:54 PM

Do You Mean Dis— or Un—?

“The pitcher seemed disinterested for the first two innings, but then he came to life and struck out three players in a row.”

That pitcher may have appeared uninterested (meaning he didn’t seem to care, was not interested), but given his enormous salary and perks, it is highly unlikely he was disinterested (meaning unbiased).

A judge and jury should be/must be disinterested in your case, but it would be terrible if they were uninterested.

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Some New Words for You

This is a list of neologisms from a contest the Washington Post ran (neo=new, logos=having to do with words, both from Greek). If you’re drinking, it would be smart to put your cup down before reading.



1. Coffee (n.), the person upon whom one coughs.

2. Flabbergasted (adj.), appalled over how much weight you have gained.

3. Abdicate (v.), to give up all hope of ever having a flat stomach.

4. Esplanade (v.), to attempt an explanation while drunk.

5. Willy-nilly (adj.), impotent.

6. Negligent (adj.), describes a condition in which you absentmindedly answer the door in your nightgown.

7. Lymph (v.), to walk with a lisp.

8. Gargoyle (n), olive-flavored mouthwash.

9. Flatulence (n.), emergency vehicle that picks you up after you are run over by a steamroller.

10. Balderdash (n.), a rapidly receding hairline.

11. Testicle (n.), a humorous question on an exam.

12. Rectitude (n.), the formal, dignified bearing adopted by proctologists.

13. Pokemon (n), a Rastafarian proctologist.

14. Oyster (n.), a person who sprinkles his conversation with Yiddishisms.

15. Frisbeetarianism (n.), (back by popular demand): The belief that, when you die, your soul flies up onto the roof and gets stuck there.

16. Circumvent (n.), an opening in the front of boxer shorts worn by Jewish men.





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Hanged vs. Hung

HANGED is used for executions or suicide:  “The criminal was hanged.”  Sometimes you see “hanged to death” along with “strangled to death” and “starved to death.”  Those are all redundancies.  If you’re hanged, strangled or starved, you are dead.

HUNG is used for decor:  “Angela hung the picture of the well hung model on her bedroom wall.”


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