Monthly Archives: June 2013

Some Confusing Possessive Apostrophes Made Easy

No one has trouble making a dog possessive:  the dog’s collar.  Even more than one dog isn’t confusing: the dogs’ collarsBut a few situations make people scratch their heads:

What if the possessive word ends in a vowel?  How do you make the name Garcia possessive?  Just add ‘s to whatever the owner word is: José Garcia’s house.

What if the owner word ends in an S, such as Garcias?  Again, whatever the owner word is, add ‘s: the Garcias’ house. However, when you add that ‘s and the new possessive word ends in two or three esses, the preference today is definitely to remove that extra S: the bus’ doors, my boss’ desk. 

What if the possessive word ends in Z? Again, add ‘s: Julia Martinez’s office.

Here is the apostrophe rule distilled for you:

No matter what the word is you want to make possessive, take that owner word and add an apostrophe and an S.  Then, if the new word now ends in two or three esses, drop the S after the apostrophe. It’s that simple.

One caveat: Don’t reach deep into your apostrophe pocket and throw one in where it isn’t needed. Ask yourself if the word is just a plural: The Garcias are moving. Eggplants are on sale. Sarah has two bosses.

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Metaphors, Good and Bad

Metaphors make an implied comparison between ideas:  “All the world’s a stage….”

When they work well, they catch your attention in an unforgettable way.  A former editor of the now defunct Saturday Review, Norman Cousins, wrote, “…the wordsmith likes the clink and purr of words against each other. He likes the crackle of ideas well expressed. He delights, as some men do in thoroughbred horses and racing hulls, in prose that runs sleek and true to its conclusion.”  Despite the archaic use of the male pronouns, Cousins’ metaphor is ear-catching and lovely and true.

Other metaphors are also memorable, but not in the way their authors intended. Joe Garagiola said, “Nolan Ryan is pitching a lot better now that he’s got his curve ball straightened out.” Richard Nixon’s brother Donald referred to Watergate as “a political football to bury my brother.”

By all means, include metaphors in your writing. Just make sure they won’t be making others laugh unless you intended that result.

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Do you catch yourself saying or writing any of the following? Be aware they are redundancies.  Cut out the deadwood.

• Future plans

• Positive benefit

• Exact same

• End result

• Added bonus

• PIN number

• Repeat again

• Very/S0/Extremely Unique

• Free gift

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Be Wise

Do you take note when you see or hear people use the suffix “—wise”?  I do.

“Taxwise, the consequences will be significant.”

“I have branched out contentwise in my latest book.”

“Weatherwise, I prefer autumn to any other season.”

Commonly accepted uses of “—wise” are “otherwise,” “clockwise” and “counterclockwise.” Otherwise (ahem), other uses, although common, are generally considered a rather awkward manner of expression. It’s easy to avoid the suffix. Just try to be specific:

Clockwise Trail Access

Clockwise Trail Access (Photo credit: MTSOfan)

“The taxes will be significant if you decide to leave all your money to your no-good nephew.”

“My latest book’s content is different from that of my previous books.”

“I prefer autumn weather to that of any other season.”


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Mistakes in Movie Titles

For years I’ve been irked by grammar and punctuation errors in movie titles. I’ve wanted to use them in a post, but I hadn’t been able to think of more than two or three at a time.  Now, for your enjoyment or annoyance, here are 10 for your consideration. Try to figure out what the problems are before you read the explanations.

Wouldn’t you think with all the bazillions of dollars spent on most films that someone would be able to proofread the titles and make them right?


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Change Nouns Into Verbs

Every time you end a word with —TION, —MENT, —ANCE, and —IZATION you have made a noun.  Nouns can make your writing static. When you change those nouns to active verbs, you immediately zip up your writing.


Before:  Janie’s intention was to surprise her boyfriend with a birthday party.  After: Janie intended to….


Before:  Igor enjoyed the contentment of a warming fire in his humble home.  After:  Igor was contented by….


Before:  Lorenzo achieved dominance at the spelling bee.  After:  Lorenzo dominated….


Before: The realization of her error caused Margo embarrassment.  After: Margo became embarrassed when she realized her error.


Utilization is a noun you can deep 6 forever.  Don’t bother changing it to utilize; that’s just as bad.  Go with use.


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Wet or Whet?

Whistles and appetites frequently come with a word that sounds like “wet.” But do you need the “h”?

“Whistle” is a slightly humorous substitute for “mouth.” If you are thirsty, you want to “wet” your whistle.

“Whet” means “to hone or sharpen,” so you might be offered an appetizer that will “whet” your appetite and make you hungry for more.

WHET Water Bottle

WHET Water Bottle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Thoughts About Adverbs

Hopefully, actually, basically, amazingly, fundamentally, surprisingly, significantly, essentially—these are all common ways to begin a sentence, and you can throw them out. My favorite story about “actually” is from a friend whose young granddaughter started many sentences with that word.  Her grandmother asked her what “actually” meant, and Nicole thought about it and finally answered, “Actually, I don’t know.”

Adverbs can be redundant. There is no need for a band to blare loudly. Is there any other way to blare?  Do you clench your teeth tightly?  Laugh happily?  Weep sadly?  Are you totally amazed?  Can you be partially amazed?  Isn’t that like being partially pregnant?

When you use an adverb, determine whether it is doing any work. Does it contribute to the meaning of your sentence? If not, cut it out. It’s deadwood.

Adverbs (novel)

Adverbs (novel) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Even More Clichés

While I was on vacation last week, you sent me several good examples of clichés that bug you.  They bug me, too. Here are your suggestions:

 It is what it is

With that said

Pull the trigger

Sense of urgency

Walk it back

Walk it through

Turn the corner

Think outside the box

Here is a one-word cliché that makes me want to scream.  I must hear it and read it a total of 50 times a day—this is not hyperbole:   Starting a sentence with “So.”

“So I went out to dinner last night.  So they were out of chicken.  So what do you think I did?  So I ordered fish instead. So I ate it, but it wasn’t that great.  So where do you think we went after dinner?”

Do you see how you could easily omit every one of those “so”s and no meaning would be compromised?  Try it, I’ll like it.









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The Danger of Using Humor in Writing

I advocate using humor in writing, even in business writing—when it is appropriate. Used judiciously, it can lighten a fraught situation and relax your readers. The problem is that in writing, readers have only your words to go by.

On the telephone, they have your words but can also hear your tone of voice and inflections, which will help to guide them. In person, the people you are addressing not only have your words, tone and inflections but also your facial expressions and body language. Given the whole picture, it is far easier for them to understand when you are being funny.

In writing, something you state with a humorous intent might come across as sarcastic, snarky or downright nasty, even though that was never your plan.  I advise that if you have any doubts about trying to be funny in a particular situation, play it straight and leave the humor for your face-to-face encounters.

And please don’t signal your attempts at humor in writing with LOL or ;- ).  You want to come across as a professional, not as a 12-year-old.

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Two Vocabularies

So frequently I see people write in ways they are unlikely to speak. They will say, “I bought a new car” but will write, “I purchased a new vehicle.” In speech they will “go” someplace, but in writing they prefer to “proceed.”  They say their friend “quit her job,” but in writing she “resigned her position.”

In speech they “use” simple, clear English, but in writing they “utilize” a puffed-up variant.  When we write, our goal should be to use language that leaves no room for questions.  Straightforward English is best. Writing is not the time to prove how clever you are. If you are smart, people already know that. Write so your audience gets the point and doesn’t have to contact you for clarification. Having to do that annoys them, annoys you, and wastes time and money.

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What a Difference a Comma Makes

One use of the comma is that it sets off information that may be interesting but is not necessary for the reader to understand the sentence.  That information set off in commas is called “non-essential.”Here are a few examples:

1. My cousin, Juliet, lives in Seattle.

By using commas around her name, you are telling the reader  you have only one cousin and her name happens to be Juliet. If you remove the commas and her name, your readers will understand that you have only one cousin. If you keep her name but remove the commas, you are telling the reader you have more than this one cousin.  How many more?  We don’t know, but Juliet is not the only one.

2. Let’s eat, Eddie, before we pitch our tents.

As written, this sentence is what is called “direct address.” We are speaking directly to Eddie and saying we want to have a meal before we settle in for the night on our camping trip.  If you take those commas out, suddenly this becomes the cannibal camping trip, and Eddie is getting very, very nervous.

3. (X-rated)  Sam helped his brother, Jack, off his horse.

Speak the sentence without the commas.  See how important commas can be?



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Clarity, please!

Beautiful Downtown Burbank

Beautiful Downtown Burbank (Photo credit: kla4067)

Today I came across this sentence:  “[Name of restaurant] is opening its 17th storefront in Burbank.”  Let me tell you, beautiful downtown Burbank and its environs are not large enough to support 17 outlets of any restaurant, not even McDonald’s.  It would have been more accurate to say that the 17th outpost of this particular restaurant is opening in Burbank.


Simple proofreading, especially proofreading out loud, would have made the problem evident.  It’s a good habit to develop.





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Crazy English

If you haven’t noticed, English has rules that sometimes do not apply.  Here’s an example:

It would be grammatically correct to say, “Am I not a smart person?” It does sound rather stiff and formal, but you can see that the grammar is right. However, when my son was about two, he would joke and say, “Amn’t I a smart smartypants?”  Technically, he was being grammatically correct: “Am I not a smart smartypants?”  So why should we say, “Aren’t I smart?” It makes no sense.  We don’t say, “Are I not smart?”

In all my years of teaching English as a second language, I marveled at how any of my students were able to master the intricacies of our language. In fact, how do native speakers ever learn it?  We are all smartypants!


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