Monthly Archives: May 2014

Sympathy or Empathy?


It’s probably not necessary to define “sympathy,” the feeling of commiseration for the problems of another. (But I just did.)

“Empathy” is not just a fancy synonym for “sympathy.” It contains the idea that the empathic person holds a very deep understanding of the problem or feelings of another, often with the idea that the listener has experienced that same troubling situation as the speaker or writer.

If you are divorced and your friend is telling you about his painful split from his partner, you can certainly be empathic. You have gone through a very similar situation. If you have not been divorced, you are sympathetic. There is nothing wrong with that; but empathy denotes a much closer understanding of the problem.

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Because or Since?


People wonder if BECAUSE and SINCE can be used interchangeably; in most cases they can be.

BECAUSE indicates a reaction: “Because we had neglected to have our tires checked for two years, we found they were out of alignment.”

SINCE indicates either reaction or time: In the above sentence, you can substitute “since” for “because” without changing the meaning. That sentence shows cause: your tires were out of alignment as a result of not checking them for a very long time.

SINCE also indicates time: The cartoon above gives a good example of the fact that “since” can sometimes lead to an ambiguous statement. That’s something to watch out for.

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Five Expressions You Might Want to Lose


Looking through a copy of Real Simple while getting my hair cut, I came across these suggestions from five people highly concerned with language. See how many you hear and use:

1. “It is what it is.” John McWhorter, a linguistic professor at Columbia University and the author of several books on language (my favorite being Word on the Street), says this sentence is a cruel response. If someone has revealed a difficult situation and you reply, “It is what it is,” you are offering no empathy, no suggestions, nothing but a dismissal. You are saying nothing is to be done. That may be the case, but empathy is what the speaker is looking for.

2. “To your point” is the suggestion of Nancy Gibbs, editor of Time magazine. She asserts that people use this wording not to agree with what has been said but in fact to make a contradictory point. If you’re going to disagree, say so: “I see your point, but I cannot agree with it.”

3. “Don’t take this personally” comes from Peggy Newfield, a specialist in business etiquette. No matter what follows that admonition, the receiver is going to take it personally. What you say may be very hurtful. Think before you give advice and choose your words carefully.

4.Whenever you ask, “When are you going to…?” you are pointing out something you feel the other person hasn’t yet done but should do. “When are you going to have a baby?” “When are you going to find someone to settle down with?” “When are you going to buy a house?” Questions like these make the recipient defensive. The answers to these questions are really none of your business. So says Emily Yoffee, who writes the “Dear Prudence” advice column.

5. “No problem.” This is a major peeve of mine and of Liv Tyler, the actor, who has written a book with her mother, called Modern Manners. You have just said “Thank you,” and you get “No problem” for a reply. Saying thanks is not a problem. What happened to “You’re welcome” or “My pleasure?”




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What Is Your Criterion?

imagesDoes that subject line look odd to you? If you are referring to only one standard, then “criterion” (singular) is correct:

“My criterion for listening to modern classical music is that it must have a melody I can remember.”

“Criteria,” the plural, is used for more than one standard:

 ” I have several criteria when looking for a new car: it has to be affordable, comfortable, miserly on fuel, and better looking than the Aztec.” *

* Apologies to Walter White

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Complement or Compliment?


Both these words are used frequently, but their meanings differ considerably:

COMPLEMENT means to fill out or complete. It’s easy to remember this definition if you focus on the E in complete.

Maria’s sweater complements her eyes.

COMPLIMENT expresses praise or acknowledgement.

Maria complimented her co-worker on her editing skills.

The nice-nice words you write at the end of a letter, memo or (possibly) an email, such as Sincerely, Best regards, etc., are called the complimentary close.

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Only on Tuesday’s

2014-05-10 18.50.34

A rather blurry shot through a window, inviting one and all to come hear some jazz—but only on Tuesday’s. Why that apostrophe, you might ask? (I hope you ask.)

Because “Tuesdays” ends in S, and some people have a compulsion to throw an apostrophe into every word ending with an S, even when the word isn’t possessive.

It’s just an ordinary plural, people. Curb your apostrophe mania, I beg of you.


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Another Way Commas Are Essential for Meaning


Another way a comma can clarify your meaning is the following:

Sometimes commas are used to set off non-essential information. By non-essential, I mean that if the words set off by commas were removed, your readers would still fully understand what you mean.

Here are two examples:

1. Let’s eat, Grandma.  If you remove that comma, you are telling your readers that you are a cannibal. But it really isn’t necessary to add “Grandma” because you are obviously speaking directly to her. You are simply saying to her, “Let’s eat.”

2. My ex-husband, Igor, lives in a dungeon. By setting Igor’s name off in commas, you are telling your readers that your ex lives in a dungeon, but it isn’t essential they know his name is Igor. You can remove his name and your readers will still understand your meaning completely. However, if you remove those commas around his name (and leave his name in), you are implying that you have at least one other ex-husband whose name is not Igor and probably does not live in a dungeon.

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