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Cover of "The Oxford English Dictionary (...

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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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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

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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I Am Annoyed By This Error EVERY DAY



This is not a sign for a puppy rescue group but merely an offering from a hot dog establishment.  The problem is that as one word, “everyday” is an adjective:  “Eating a hot dog is an everyday habit.”  What kind of habit (noun)?  An everyday (adjective) one.

However, this sign needed to make it two words.  Every day you can get a hot dog for $3.50.  Which day? Every day.  In this sense, “every” is an adjective modifying the noun “day.”

Go and sin no more.

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The Possessive Apostrophe Lives Another Day

Today’s Los Angeles Times ran a front-page story about the Mid-Devon District Council in England seriously considering eliminating possessive apostrophes from place names.  A national uproar ensued (as uproarious as the Brits allow themselves to get), and the online version of the LAT now has a story saying the council decided against dumbing down the language (further than it already is).

The article referred to “grocer’s English,” which we are all familiar with:  CARROT’S, TOMATO’S, etc., and said that it took a mere 110 years for Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles to add the apostrophe (originally omitted because of a faulty typewriter key, or so the story goes).

I have always wondered why the national organization called Boys and Girls Clubs doesn’t use apostrophes.  Those omissions bug me no end.  This is not difficult, people.

If you’d like to read the whole article, here’s the link:,0,7396379.story

England also has an Apostrophe Protection Society:

Long may it wave.  Rule Britannia!


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Seen Any Salad Fishermen Recently?

I met a friend for lunch yesterday and while considering the salad offerings, I came across this option:


Can’t you just see a boatload of fishermen (fisher people? fishers?) hauling up salad after salad containing wild, line-caught tuna?  That’s what the menu implied.

I just love misplaced modifiers.

Years ago I read a book by Anne Fadiman, Ex Libris, in which she describes (in chapter six as I recall) going out to dinner with her parents and brother and the four of them pointing out errors on the menu.  None of them was considering what to eat at that point; they had to make sure they spotted all the mistakes. I should have been born into that family.

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Is It the End of the Apostrophe?

After my last post with the photo of the sign for the “Sport’s Bar,” a reader e-mailed me saying that because so many people have trouble with apostrophes, particularly those showing possession, “they” (whoever “they” are) are predicting that punctuation mark may be eliminated.  Then you will be free to write “Joes car,” “Donnas career” and “the Joneses five cats.”

What do you think?  Do we really need the possessive apostrophe or will it go the way of the Stegasaurus? I doubt it will take anything as dramatic as a meteor to kill it.

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March 26, 2013 · 6:31 PM

Who’s the Sport?

Leaving a theater Saturday night, I saw this sign on a nearby pub. I’m sure more than a few people wondered why I was taking a photo of the sign, but you know why, right?  
Many, many times (most times), a word ending in S is just a plural. No apostrophe needed! The sign was made according to the all-too-common “rule” that must state, “If a word ends in an S, throw in an apostrophe before that S.”  

I guess this bar belongs to just one guy, a sport. As an unreconstructed English major, I could think only of The Great Gatsby, in which Gatsby repeatedly calls the narrator, Nick, “old sport.”  Maybe Nick came West and opened this pub. 

I’ll calm down now. 





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Counsel, Consul, Council

COUNSEL as a noun means “advice.”  As a verb is means “to advise.”  (Those two words are often misused; note the spelling.)   Madeline offered me valuable counsel.  She counseled me thoughtfully.

CONSUL is a government representative who is stationed in another country.   Our government does not have a consul in North Korea.

COUNCIL is an advisory group or assembly.  The Second Vatican Council was convened by Pope John XXIII.

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I Am So Sick of This!

What is it with many conservative members of the Republican party?  Or should I call it the Republic party?  That would be the equivalent of what they call the Democratic party: “the Democrat party.”  If they hate us, let them think “Ick!” and put the —ic at the end of the word.  Is that so hard?

My guess it’s a way to demean the opposition. I first noticed it coming from Limbaugh many years ago. It has spread widely.  Sometimes in my car I will put on the bloviating blimp just to see what is causing his neck veins to bulge on that particular day, but I can rarely stay tuned for more than a couple of minutes (which always seems to be sufficient time for several “Democrat” excoriations).

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Peaked vs. Piqued

These two words are often confused.

PEAKED means to have reached a high point:  Recently the stock market peaked, reaching over 14,000.

PIQUED means to have stimulated interest or curiosity:  Elizabeth’s interest in all Jane Austen’s novels was piqued as soon as she read the first sentence of Pride and Prejudice.

Even though Elizabeth was wild about Jane Austen’s books, her interest wasn’t peaked, although it may have reached a peak at a certain point.

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When you write items in a series, keep them all in the same form (parallel construction). It’s easy.

Incorrect:  Edgar is thoughtful, considerate and likes to help.

Correct:  Edgar is thoughtful, considerate and helpful.

Incorrect:  A good secretary is efficient, knowledgeable and can be relied on.

Correct:  A good secretary is efficient, knowledgeable and reliable.

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March 19, 2013 · 7:17 PM

Affect or Effect?

One word that drives me nuts is impact.  Call me hypersensitive, but every day I hear sentences like these:

How will this impact our bottom line?

The impact of her decision is going to be costly.

John’s speech impacted the audience so greatly that they gave him a standing ovation.  (Some would even dare to say John’s speech was impactful—but not around me.)

The only reason impact is so prevalent is that many people do not know the difference between affect and effect.  So they figure, “The hell with it” and use impact in all cases.  This default is in my Top 10 Everyday Verbal Annoyances.

AFFECT is a verb 99.9% percent of the time.*  Think of it as a verb 100% of the time:

How will this affect our bottom line?

John’s speech affected the audience so greatly…. 

Do you see the action in those two sentences?  You want the verb.  You can also think of the A in affect as an upside-down V, for verb.

EFFECT is a noun 99.9% of the time**, and again, go for 100%.  When you go to the movies, you see special effects.  Those effects are things, nouns.  Think of effect as referring to the end (or outcome, which is a noun).  If you need a noun, use effect. Whenever you write about a thing, use the E-word:

The effect of her decision is going to be costly.

* As for the other uses, affect can be a noun when it applies to a person’s facial expression.  Psychologists might refer to a patient’s “flat affect,” meaning that person has no expression on her face.

**  Effect is at rare times a verb and almost always is used in this manner:  Sandra’s actions will effect changes in her department.

I suggest you ignore the uses with asterisks and focus on the use of affect as a verb and effect as a noun.  Please lose impact except in rare cases.  Lose impactful permanently.  Thank you.


March 18, 2013 · 6:01 PM

Subject-Verb Agreement

If you can’t figure out what verb you need for your subject, here’s a handy hint:

The subject of a sentence is never in a prepositional phrase.

Why is that handy? Sometimes the subject and verb might be separated by one or more prepositional phrases, and it’s easy to mistake the noun in a prepositional phrase for the subject and choose the wrong verb.  (Almost every prepositional phrase ends in a noun.)

For instance:

The thought of lying on the couch after working for many long hours (is/are) appealing.

The prepositional phrases are of lying, on the couch, after working, and  for many long hours.

Every one of those ends with a noun (and yes, working is a noun in this case—it’s called a gerund, in case you were dying to know; when you can put the words “the act of” before a word that looks like an —ing verb, it’s a noun (gerund)).  But not one of those nouns is the subject.  The subject is thought, at the beginning of the sentence, so the verb has to be the singular is.  But you can see how some people might think the subject is hours and then use the plural verb are.

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March 17, 2013 · 10:33 PM

Flounder vs. Founder

Only one letter separates these two words, but they mean quite different things:

FLOUNDER means to flail, to struggle:  The tired swimmer floundered in the choppy ocean.  Think of a fish flopping around on the deck of a boat: a floundering flounder.

FOUNDER means to sink.  A ship might founder, as might someone’s plans:  Jason’s plans for reorganizing his department foundered because of a lack of funds.

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March 15, 2013 · 7:14 PM

Common Redundancies

Pay attention and you will frequently see and hear the following redundancies. To write (and speak) well, it helps to—gasp!—think about the words we use.  Strive to make your writing as concise as possible; if a word does no work, cut it out. Sharpen your axes:

Circle around

Absolutely free

Absolutely nothing

Free gift

True fact

The month of July

Final conclusion

I personally feel that

In my opinion, I think

Exactly identical

Entirely eliminated



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March 14, 2013 · 6:03 PM

Appraise vs. Apprise

Here are two more words that are often misused:

APPRAISE means to establish the value of something, to evaluate:  The expert appraised the antique furniture and paintings in the house.

APPRISE means to inform:  The owners of the house were apprised of their antiques’ value.

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March 13, 2013 · 6:33 PM

Insure vs. Ensure

A difference in meaning exists between these two words:

INSURE has to do with money changing hands:  You insure your house against fire, flood and earthquakes.  You insure a package at the post office.  You insure your car against damages.

ENSURE means to “make certain.”  By setting your alarm, you ensure you will not be late for your early morning flight. By reading a recipe before starting to cook, you ensure that you have all the ingredients and equipment necessary.  By drinking Ensure, you ensure you will get adequate vitamins and calories.  (This is not a paid announcement and I’ve never drunk Ensure, but I’m guessing that’s its purpose.)

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Language quotes

Since this is a language blog, here are some teasers from my new e-book, Your Kid Said This!   Children’s language and art are original and fleeting.  At some point they learn the prevailing rules and something happens to stifle that creativity.  Write down what your own children and grandchildren say while you still remember their precious words.

Samantha (5) came in the house and said, “Mommy! I have the hookups!”


Dani (6) announced, “The Hunchback of Motor Dame” is my favorite movie!”


Catherine (5) heard about Saddam Hussein and asked her mother, “Why didn’t that bad man live in a house like we do? Why did he have to live in a rock?”


Jonathan (3) had put a belt through a cardboard paper towel roll and was snapping it at a stuffed animal. He told his family, “Watch me lion tame at this elephant!”


After Jesse (7) moved to a new house, he told his grandmother he had his own closet but there weren’t any “hookers” in it.


Keegan (6) on discovering a cattail bush at the park:  “Mom! Look! A cocktail bush! We gotta plant a cocktail bush, cuz then we’d always have cocktails!”

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March 12, 2013 · 1:31 AM

My E-Book Was Born Today!

















Finally! For several years I have been collecting funny things children have said and now have them in an e-book: Your Kid Said This! 

The quotes cover various topics: Love, Sex, Manners, Swearing, Language, Logic, Brothers and Sisters, Grownups, Food, Potty Time, School, Religion and Clothing. It’s illustrated by children and will make you smile and possibly even LOL. Here’s the link to the book:

You can read part of it at no cost–and the whole shebang is only $2.99. OK, I’m done with my shameless self promotion. But I’m very happy with the result. It’s been incubating a long time.

cover for ebook


March 10, 2013 · 1:49 AM

Fewer wrinkles! Fewer!







You can count wrinkles.  Sad but true.  For things you can count, use FEWER.  After seeing this package advertising at Costco a couple of hours ago, I went to Trader Joe’s and stood on the express line, under a sign that said “12 Items or Less.”

It was not my day.  I hope I will have fewer days like this in the future.



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March 9, 2013 · 1:59 AM

Notorious vs. Famous

This word is so frequently misused:  many people think it is synonymous with “famous” or “renowned.”  It does mean those things—but always in a negative way.  Charles Manson and OJ Simpson are notorious.  Osama bin Laden was notorious.  You would never say the singer Adele is notorious.  President Obama’s daughters are not notorious. Santa Claus isn’t either.  Those last are all examples of people, real and not so real, who are undoubtedly famous—but they’ve done nothing to deserve to be called notorious. Save that for the baddies.

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Miscellaneous Lawyer Words and Phrases

I’ve given you lists of the “here” and “there” lawyer words—but they are certainly not limited to lawyers.  They have infected general business writing and are used by people when they are trying to sound tough and important.  Instead, these words make their writing bloated and self-important.  The only time I advocate using this language is if you want to sound mean and convey to adversaries that they are in a non-negotiable position, that you are not to be argued with.  You won’t sound nice, but you will be flexing your muscles.

Here are some more lawyer words that are normally best avoided:

1. whereby (by which, how)

2. wherein (in which, how)

3. whereof (of what)

4. the latter, the former (use the actual names)

5. the writer (I), the undersigned (I, we)

6. to my attention (to me)

7. As per our previous conversation (When we spoke yesterday (or whenever it was))

8. Should you have any questions, please advise (If you have any questions, please contact me)

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Lawyers’ Favorite “There” Words

I recently gave you some alternatives for lawyers’ “here” words. Today I’ll tackle “there” words.  Clear, straightforward English is always your best choice, even if it takes a few more words to make your point. You won’t sound so self-important and your readers will know immediately what you mean.

1. Thereafter (after that)

2. Thereby (because of that)

3. Therein (in that respect)

4. Thereof (from that)

5. Thereto (until that)

6. Thereupon (Immediately after that)

7. Therewith (with that)

There!  I feel better.

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That vs. Which

Many people think “that” and “which” are interchangeable, but it’s not the case.

One comma rule is that non-essential information is set off by commas:

1.     It rained on Sunday, which made skipping the picnic an easy decision.

2.     Adam is good at oil painting, which he practices daily.

3.     She loves attending NASCAR races, which she really can’t afford to do very often.

In all of those sentences, the main information comes before the commas.  You could leave the information after the commas out and your readers would still understand what you have written, even though they might find the information after the commas helpful or interesting.  But it is not essential information (essential to the understanding of the sentence).

Use a comma and “which” to set off non-essential information.

Now let’s look at “that”:

1.     It’s a lemon tree that is very close to her kitchen.

2.     He drives a car that is 14 years old.

3.     They live in the house that his grandfather built in 1920.

In these sentences the information beginning with “that” is essential.  If I just wrote the words before “that,” you’d ask, “What lemon tree?”  “What car?”  “What house?”

Use no comma and “that” to introduce essential information.

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“So” Again! Plus Other Problems

This from the head of the College Board, David Coleman, about the SAT.  Look at his language! (My comments in square brackets.)

COLEMAN: Right now, I think there’s a breakthrough that the SAT added writing, because we do want to make the claim that kids need to write to be ready. Like, duh, right. [Isn’t this professional!] To be ready for college and career, it obviously includes writing. But I have a problem with the SAT writing. So [“So” here adds nothing.] if you look at the way the SAT assessment is designed, when you write an essay even if it’s an opinion piece, there’s no source information given to you. So [another do-nothing “so”] in other words, you write like what you’re opinion is on a subject, but there’s no fact on the table. So [and yet one more] a friend of mine tutors in Hong Kong, and she was asked by here Hong Kong students, where do you get the examples for the essay? She said, you know, it’s the American way, you make them up. Now I’m all for creativity and innovation, but I don’t think that’s quite the creativity we want to inspire in a generation of youth. That is, if writing is to be ready for the demands of career and college, it must be precise [ah—he thinks writing should be precise] , it must be accurate, it must draw upon evidence. Now [another word adding nothing] I think that is warranted by tons [very precise, Mr. Coleman] of information we see from surveys of college  professors, from evidence we have from other sources, so [this “so” is warranted] I think there is good reason to think about a design of SAT where rather than kids just writing an essay, there’s source material that they’re analyzing.

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“Here” Ye, “Here” Ye

In the legal world, a push (OK, a gentle shove) is on for lawyers to use plain, everyday English.  Here are some of their old standbys  that use “here,” along with their alternatives.  You don’t have to be a lawyer to benefit from giving up this la-de-dah language.

1. Hereafter, hereby (now)

2. Herein (here)

3. Hereinafter (from now on)

4. Hereinbefore, hereto (until now)

5. Hereupon (immediately after this, right now)

6. Herewith (with this letter)

Don’t make your readers translate English into English.


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Find the Two Errors in This Sentence

Is that the greyhound who lives with the woman that takes in rescue dogs?

The mistakes are in the pronouns:

1.  It should be “the greyhound that….”  That and which are used for objects and animals.

2. It should be “the woman who….”  Who and whom are used for people.

One of these days I’ll tackle that vs. which and who vs. whom for you.

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How to Spell “Fish”

George Bernard Shaw was so frustrated by the vagaries of English spelling that he tried, unsuccessfully, to revise standard orthography: each letter should have only one sound.

The way he saw it, using English spelling to write “fish” could easily be GHOTI:




Got it?


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But/However; And plus

But and however both indicate a change in the direction your sentence is going, so don’t use them in the same sentence:  But Brenda, however, got the job although she isn’t the most qualified.

Choose one or the other:  But Brenda got the job although she isn’t the most qualified or However, Brenda got the job although she isn’t the most qualified.

I often hear and sometimes read sentences beginning with And plus.  Despite what all our English teachers told us many years ago, it is acceptable to begin sentences with And (or other conjunctions), but and and plus are redundant.  Again, choose one or the other.

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Upholstery Words

Here’s a list of what I call upholstery words; they are padding.  I’ll put clear alternatives in parentheses after them:

In order to     (to–those words “in order” never add any meaning)

The above-referenced location     (this location, that location)

Due to the fact that     (because, since)

Subsequent to     (after)

As per your request     (as you requested)

In lieu of    (instead of)

For the purpose of    (to, for)

In view of the foregoing     (therefore, so)

It may be said that, I just want to let you know that    (just say it)

Needless to say, it goes without saying   (skip it)

Executed on July 6, 2012        (just write the date  or say “signed on”)



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To Tell or Not to Tell?

What do you think I should do?  I have a friend who lives in another city.  Often on Facebook I see her posts involving her and another person; her style always goes for “myself,” as in, “Larry and myself went away for the weekend,” or “Larry and myself saw a great movie yesterday.

I guess it doesn’t take much to drive me crazy, but sentences like those do the trick.   I am so tempted to tell her that “myself” is used only for emphasis when you’ve already mentioned yourself:  “I planted those apple trees myself.” I think she sounds ignorant, yet she is a bright, talented person.

A voice in my head says to let it go.  What difference does it make?  But another voice says she is being judged unfairly because of her grammar, and that bothers me.  And yet a third voice tells me I can’t change the world’s grammar.

I doubt she reads my blog.  If she does and if she recognizes herself, my problem is solved.  I would hope it wouldn’t be a friendship breaker. What would you do?

Whoops!  I just realized I’d better not post this to Facebook.

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Words or Not Words?

Here’s a short list of commonly used words that aren’t standard—yet.  Obviously, all words are invented by people, so it may be just a matter of time until these are recognized as standard English.

1. Irregardless.  It’s “regardless,” but if enough people keep using the “ir” form, it just might stick.  Ick.

2. Orientate.  It’s “orient.”  Less is more.

3. Administrate.  “Administer” suffices.

4. More importantly.  Drop that “ly.”  What you’re really saying is, “It is more important….”

5.  Heighth.  It’s “height.”  Thop lithping.

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Malapropisms: The Wrong Word

I love it when I come across sentences that sound close to the intended meaning but still keep the cigar just out of reach. These are called malapropisms, named after Mrs. Malaprop, a character in a 1775 play by Sheridan, The Rivals.

For all intensive purposes, this sentence serves as an example.

Life is tough.  It’s a doggy dog world.

There’s no stigmata today to being divorced.

Ulysses S. Grant was a president and general of great statue.

My blind date was so awful: the guy told one boring antidote after another.

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A Few More Clichés

Since I wrote yesterday’s entry, I was e-mailed a few additions to the list:

Each and every (choose one; it’s redundant)

Cease and desist (ditto)

To be honest with you (wouldn’t you hope so?)

With all due respect (when someone says that, you know the respect isn’t there)

And last night, on “Downton Abbey,” a whopper of an anachronism appeared when one character said to another that his position in the family had required a “learning curve.”  No one said that in the 1920s!

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