Category Archives: All things having to do with the English language

Do You Misplace Your Modifiers?

Misplaced modifiers happen when a word or group of words ends up modifying (giving information about) another word in the sentence. Often, the results are very funny.

I found this in one of my favorite magazines, The Week, which is a digest of articles from around the world. In an article on street food, with an accompanying recipe for Dan Dan Noodles (too complicated for me), Kate Jacoby and Rich Landau, chefs at a Philadelphia restaurant, V Street, declare, “We want the stuff that a little old lady is frying up in her flip-flops….”

Where to begin? First of all, how does the little old lady stand the heat? How does the food stay on her flip-flops? And do we really want to eat food cooked on a shoe and redolent of the odor of the foot that recently occupied that flip-flop?


You need to know that a modifier needs to be placed next to the word about which it gives information. Here’s an example:

“I met Harry only once before.” How many times did you meet Harry? “Only” once.

But here’s the problem: most people would write (and say), “I only met Harry once.” However, you didn’t “only” meet. You did meet. “Only” tells you how many times you met him: Once.

“Only” is the most commonly misplaced modifier. Others to watch out for are “hardly,” “even,” “scarcely,” “nearly,” “almost” and “just.”

Fix the modifiers in the following sentences:

1. “I almost ate the whole pizza.”
2. “The sweater was what Anna had been looking for in the store window exactly.”
3. “Paul’s boss nearly decided to pay him $700 a week.”

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Where Are the Positives?

The other day I was thinking about words, as I often do, and came up with a few that are negative but have no positive: I thought of unbeknownst and unwieldy, wondering if something we are familiar with could be knownst, and if something easy to handle is wieldy.

I was mayed and jected by my conclusion, that indeed no positives exist for them.

In fact, I felt downright gruntled and consolate. But I was definitely hibited and decided to stage a promptu tryout of my new positive words. I was proud of how sipid they were. They were ane and challant! I was couraged as I approached strangers and began to talk in my most communicado manner. But how sad I soon became as these strangers held me in dain, trying to make me feel less ept. I had givings and found myself in a souciant mood, realizing I would have have to try another day to spread my new and enhanced vocabulary.

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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, VIN number

• Repeat again

• Very/So/Extremely unique (Unique means one of a kind; there’s nothing else like it.)

• Free gift

• Hot water heater (it’s actually a cold water heater)

• Open trench (have you ever seen a closed trench?)

• Revert back

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A Quick Latin Lesson for Your License Plate Frame

Although I never studied Latin (and truly wish I had, and I’ll tell you why in a minute), I get a teensy bit annoyed when I see a female driving a car with her license plate frame announcing that she is an Alumni of UCLA or some other university. She’s an alumna. Here is a quick Latin lesson for you:

Alumnus: one male graduate

Alumna: one female graduate

Alumnae: more than one female graduate

Alumni: more than one male graduate, or a mix of male and female graduates.

My regret: I wish I had studied Latin because it is the foundation of all Romance languages. French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and Romanian are the ones we are most familiar with, although dozens of others are in the same grouping.

As a word nerd, I am fascinated by language similarities and differences. Latin would have increased my vocabulary in English and also in the Spanish I did study. I figure, the more languages we know, the better. It’s a small world.

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What's an Initialism?

Initialism is a word I had not seen nor heard before today’s blogpost at, written by the brilliant and hilarious Patricia T. O’Conner, she of Woe Is I fame (among her many other linguistic accomplishments).

Her post was about using or omitting apostrophes in abbreviations. A reader asked Pat which plural was correct: PJs, PJ’s, pjs pj’s, P.J.’s. The answer is that you can find support for just about every variant, but the most commonly accepted seems to be plain old PJs. That is, unless your PJ’s pants (possessive) have a hole in the seat.

Did you know that PJs is an initialism? Neither did I. It means an abbreviation pronounced by saying each letter separately : PJs, USA, ATM, TV, RPMs, IRS, DOJ, UCLA, NYU, OMG, for example.

When you pronounce an abbreviation as a word, that is an acronym. (I’ve discussed this before in my blog.) An acronym is an abbreviation, but not all abbreviations are acronyms. Here are some acronyms: NASA, scuba (so common it’s lost its caps), radar (ditto), fubar (look it up), RAM, AWOL, POTUS, SCOTUS, FLOTUS.

This post is my holiday gift to you. What? You were expecting jewelry, candy, money? I’ll see what I can come up with, ASAP. Until then, enjoy the day.

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Merriam-Webster's 2019 Word-of-the Year

It’s THEY. Why would that have been chosen as the WOTY? Everyone knows what they means, don’t they? Look at that last sentence I wrote: Everyone is singular and they is a plural pronoun. Not so long ago, that would have been considered a grammatical error. However, it’s very common for people to use that “incorrect” construction, the singular they, in speech and in everyday informal writing.

But Merriam-Webster is calling attention to this use of they for a serious reason. The LGBTQ community has been advocating for an inclusive pronoun that does not refer to any specific gender. Trans people are troubled by the use of he and him or she and her; Jamie may have been assigned one gender at birth but later transitioned to another gender. Do we refer to Jamie as she or as he? Or is Jamie gender-fluid? Sometimes, Jamie may even be referred to by the de-humanizing pronoun it.

To be respectful of the variety of human identity and sexual orientations, they has been adopted to represent everyone. If you don’t know what pronoun a person prefers, my thinking is that they would welcome you asking them.

Language changes. All languages change. Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Emily Dickinson all used they/them/their in their writing when referring to one person. But then The Grammarians (you know, people like me) insisted on strict pronoun agreement: singular with a singular referent, plural with plural. I no longer do. If a person is comfortable using they as their pronoun, I respect that. I hope you’ll think about what making this small gesture might mean to that person.

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Double Ownership

This post is about apostrophes. What do you do when more than one person shares ownership in something?

Donna’s pets are Shetland Sheepdogs. Donna is the sole owner, so you just add ‘s to her name.

But Donna has a husband, Frank. The dogs belong to both of them. Donna and Frank’s pets are Shetland Sheepdogs. What happened to Donna’s apostrophe? Here’s the deal: When two or more people share ownership, only the person closest to the item owned gets an apostrophe.

Which of the following two examples is wrong?

Ryan and Thad’s wives

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure

If you think Ryan and Thad share wives, then neither example is incorrect. But chances are Ryan and Thad each has his own wife, so Ryan needs an apostrophe too.

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