Tag Archives: business writing

Continuous vs Continual

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These two words are not synonymous. Continuous  means an unbroken event or series of events. Continual means events that occur repeatedly but not in an unbroken period of time:

The snow fell continuously from Monday through Thursday, leaving four feet of snow over much of New England. (It never stopped snowing.)

The snow fell continually from Monday through Thursday, leaving three feet of snow over much of New England. (It snowed on and off during those four days.)

I wish I had a simple way for you to remember the difference between these two words. The only idea I can come up with is that continual is a shorter word than continuous; the snow that falls continually has breaks, so it falls for a shorter period of time. Any better suggestions will be greatly appreciated.

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Singular or Plural?

I often hear people talk about a phenomenon, which refers to one thing or situation, when they need the plural of phenomenon—which is phenomena, referring to more than one thing or situation.

• Global warming is a potentially disastrous phenomenon.

• The phenomena that contribute to global warming are being studied extensively in hopes of avoiding worldwide catastrophes.

Another pair often misused are criteria (plural) and criterion (singular). If you have only one standard that must be met, you want criterion.

But here’s one you can stop worrying about: datum. That’s the singular of data. Today, data is used for both singular and plural.  Why? Because common usage changes all languages. However, if you are using data as a plural, make your verb plural also:

The scientific data are unequivocal that ocean temperatures are rising rapidly.

 

 

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Where Are the Editors?

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This morning I read an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times by a man extolling the advantages of couples sleeping in separate bedrooms. Given the situation in his household, he made a convincing personal argument. He ends the essay by writing that the two-bedroom solution might not work for everyone, “but for my wife and I,” it is working well.

OK, so he didn’t know that when deciding between I and me, if you temporarily remove the other person, you’ll immediately know which pronoun to use. He never would have written, “for I, it’s a good solution.” Adding his wife back in changes nothing. It still should be “for my wife and me.”

The author made the error—but where was the editor of the op-ed page of the LA Times? I can come to only two conclusions: either no editor exists for op-ed pieces, or there is an editor but that person also is ignorant about which pronoun to use. Either situation saddens me. You, too?

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Punctuation—It Matters

 

© Judi Birnberg

 

 

 

In Just My Typo, edited by Drummond Moir (gotta love his name), he cites a 19th century example of carelessness:

A New Orleans cotton broker sent a telegraph to New York, asking if he should buy cotton at the current prices. He received an answer of “No price too high.” Naturally, he bought as much as he could, only to discover that the answer should have been punctuated as follows: “No. Price too high.”

One tiny dot on paper can make a world of difference.

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Discreet vs. Discrete

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Will she be discreet?

These two words are pronounced identically and are commonly mistaken for each other.

DISCREET means circumspect, prudent, careful. If you are discreet, you will avoid gossiping or criticizing others. You try to avoid embarrassing others. Roger promised he would be discreet after his best friend told him he was thinking of divorcing his fourth wife.

DISCRETE means singular, unconnected, separate. Academy Awards are given in multiple discrete categories.

 

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Editing Goes Beyond Proofreading

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Surely you know how often I urge you to proofread everything you write. Proofreading will turn up careless errors in spelling, punctuation and grammar, as well as typos. Yes, you should still check for all of these, but editing goes beyond that.

Editing makes certain your writing is clear. Are you sure you are conveying the message you intended? Have you assumed your readers know what you know? If so, then why are you writing? You are imparting new information. But you have to be confident you are not confusing your readers, that your information that is new to them is presented logically and cogently.

Editing makes certain your writing is concise. Look for digressions and extraneous words. Get rid of redundancies: last but not least, at this point in time, absolutely complete, true fact, four P.M. in the afternoon, new innovation, blue in color, exactly identical, etc.

I have noticed that when I edit and change wording or move things around, when I then reread what I’ve written I often find I have left a word out or need to remove a word I had inadvertently left in when I revised. This is the time to read your text out loud (quietly, but still audible to you) and one. word. at. a. time. That way you will send your document out without embarrassing glitches. If you read at your normal silent speed, you will very likely speed over them.

Remember, revise comes from the Latin, to see again. 

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Hanged vs. Hung

 

One of my favorite programs is “The Great British Baking Show.” In an early season, a show photographer caught this image of a squirrel on the grounds where the program is shot. (The contestants often use nuts in their recipes, and this photo does indicate a squirrel that is definitely well hung. But I digress.)

My husband and I hung some of my paintings today. Since everything I do makes me think of language, of course I thought of the difference between hanged and hung, two words that are frequently used interchangeably and incorrectly. I originally wrote this post over four years ago, without the squirrel, so I thought I’d do a rerun. Here’s the scoop:

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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Adverbs as Time Wasters

Adverbs are having their celebrity moment. The problem is that they are usually time and space wasters. How many times have you seen (or written) sentences containing the following?

Clearly

Actually

Basically

Virtually

Personally

Simply

Arguably

Absolutely

Instead, use a verb that carries precise meaning; then you’ll have no need to add a superfluous adverb. If a television is blaring, no need to say that it’s blaring loudly. When someone shouts, it won’t be done quietly.

A friend’s young granddaughter was fond of starting most sentences with “actually.” When her grandma asked her what “actually” meant, Nicole gave it serious thought and finally answered, “Actually, I don’t know.”

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How Do You Like This Euphemism?

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Euphemisms are generally used to change something icky into something more palatable. As George Carlin said, “Sometime in my life—no one asked me about this—toilet paper became bathroom tissue. The dump became the landfill. And partly cloudy became partly sunny.”

I was in a medical center the other day, where an information station was set up under an umbrella. Emblazoned on the umbrella were the words SERVICE AMBASSADOR. I find nothing distasteful about the word INFORMATION, but I am entertained by the thought of a group meeting to find a supposedly better (and definitely more pompous) description of the services offered under that umbrella. SERVICE AMBASSADOR: Do you suppose the, ahem, ambassadors who staff that desk need congressional confirmation?

Keep it simple. Not everything needs to be prettied up. In most cases, your readers aren’t fooled.

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Superfluous Words

 

 

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© Judi Birnberg

I’ve taken the following list from Maxwell Nurnberg’s Questions You Always Wanted to Ask About English*

* but were afraid to raise your hand.

It’s good to be concise when we write; see if you can spot the redundancies in these sentences:

  1. If all of us cooperate together, we’ll get somewhere.
  2. It was the general consensus of opinion that war was inevitable.
  3. He shook his fist as he rose up to speak.
  4. He was guilty of a false misstatement.
  5. He told ties, socks, shirts, and etc.
  6. He must now realize the fact that we are no longer able to help him.
  7. In my opinion, I think the situation has grown worse.
  8. He carefully examined each and every entry.
  9. He was miraculously restored back to health.
  10. His score for 18 holes never exceeded more than 75.

(Mr. Nurnberg certainly could have thrown a few examples in using females.—JB)

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What Is Business Writing?

© Judi Birnberg

 

Somewhere, somehow, people in the business world got the idea that using everyday English for their written communications was just not professional. The simplest sentence turned into a Pronouncement From On High. It was taboo to write As we discussed yesterday. Writing As per our previous conversation/dialog yesterday…. was suddenly seen as elegant and professional. The Latin phrase and redundancy made it even weightier. Bravo for you, middle manager!

I spent over 20 years in the corporate world leading business writing seminars in which participants came to see this stilted and pretentious style of writing as an impediment to communication. I urged them to write as if they were speaking to the recipient sitting across their desk. No one speaks in that bureaucratic manner, so why write that way? Obviously, the corporations that hired me knew what I was teaching and wanted their employees to lose the jargon. I did my little part, but I am quite sure the pompous style still lives at many companies. Simple, straightforward, everyday English ensures that all recipients will understand the message. It saves time and money. Questions about intent are no longer necessary. Say what you mean, just as if you were talking to your audience face to face. Business writing is clear, direct, and concise. That’s all it takes.

 

 

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How to Punctuate “However”

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Punctuating however depends on where it falls in a sentence.

At the beginning or the end, set it off with a comma:

However, American presidential campaigns seem to go on forever.

American presidential campaigns seem to go on forever, however.

If however occurs in the middle of a sentence, use commas around both sides of the word (see cartoon above):

American presidential campaigns, however, seem to go on forever.

If it comes between two complete sentences you have a couple of choices:

Use a period and a capital letter: American presidential campaigns seem to go on forever. However, people are looking for ways to shorten the process.

Use a semicolon: American presidential campaigns seem to go on forever; however, people are looking for ways to shorten the process.

What you can’t do is put commas around both sides of however:

American presidential campaigns seem to go on forever, however, people are looking for ways to shorten the process.  <———- This is a no-no.

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What Do You Call* or **?

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Watching a news program last night, I heard a well known reporter for Bloomberg say “asterick” not once but twice. No such word exists.

One of those marks is an “asterisk.” More than one are “asterisks.” Neither one end in the “—rick” sound. The final syllable of both words contains “—risk.”

Say or write “asterick” at your own risk.

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The Most Persuasive Words

 

Unknown-1.pngHere’s a list of words that are widely considered to be the most persuasive you can use. Notice that most are short and all are commonly used. Nothing fancy here:

• yes

• free

• easy

• new

• money

• save

• now

• results

• love

• sale

• health

• benefits

• discovery

• guarantee

• proven

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Similar Sentences, Different Outcomes

I’ve had a book for eons, Questions You Always Wanted to Ask About English (but were afraid to raise your hand), by Maxwell Nurnberg. Many of the exercises make you think. Look at these pairs of very similar sentences and answer the questions:

A. Which sounds more conspiratorial?

  1. We’d like to invite you to dessert with us tomorrow evening.
  2. We’d like to invite you to desert with us tomorrow evening.

B. Which draft board’s needs were the greatest?

  1. The medical board accepted men with perforated eardrums.
  2. The medical board excepted men with perforated eardrums.

C. Which question would an investigator ask about a specific group?

  1. Were there voices raised in protest?
  2. Were their voices raised in protest?

D. Which Joe is the eager beaver?

  1. Joe submitted to many orders.
  2. Joe submitted too many orders.

E. Which statement is concerned with ethical standards?

  1. The principles in the case are well known.
  2. The principals in the case are well known.

Remember, if you write an actual word, even if it’s wrong, your spellchecker won’t pick it up. Proofread meticulously.

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There’s a Name for It

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Have you noticed how so many politicians drone on and on and on and on, frequently using the conjunction and, as I just did, to connect clauses, phrases, and complete (and sometimes incomplete) sentences? Trust me, they do it:

“And just let me add, Ms. Reporter, that we are going to have a budget by next week, and some people have said we won’t have one until September, and I know they are skeptical, and I want to reassure you that the American people won’t be willing to wait that long, and you’ll see how efficiently Congress can work.”

Wake up, please, just long enough for me to tell you that using a conjunction repetitively is a figure of speech called polysyndeton.  You will probably forget that Greek word in about 15 seconds, as will I, but we can at least recognize that poly means many, as in many, many ands, ors, buts, fors, and yets.

Sloppy speech and writing result from lazy thinking. It really is a good idea to choose your words carefully before committing them to the screen or the airwaves.

“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than speak and remove all doubt.”

This quotation is variously attributed to Lincoln, Voltaire, Mark Twain, Samuel Johnson, and that most prolific of authors, Anonymous.

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Some Random Comma Rules

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In the following examples, I’m going to put an X where a comma belongs.

I’ve noticed that a use for commas I learned as a child has been disappearing (see above):

Thanks for everythingX Laura.

GoX Bears!

Both of those sentences should take a comma before the official names. This may be a battle I’ve lost, but I’m still using this rule in my own writing.

Some commas are needed for clarity:

When I was about to enter the houseX my cousin showed up.

Don’t forget a comma when your sentence ends with a confirming question:

You finished the report yesterdayX didn’t you?

 

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Quotation Marks, Part 6

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© Judi Birnberg   There must be a comma and quotation marks somewhere.

Did you know periods and commas always go inside quotation marks? Would I lie to you? (The Brits do the opposite, however.)

Here are a couple of examples:

Our teacher assigned us to read Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw.”

“The Turn of the Screw,” a short novel by Henry James, is considered a type of ghost story.

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Quotation Marks, Part 4: Quotes Within Quotes

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Sometimes you need to use both double and single quotation marks in one sentence. Remember, this is the American manner of punctuating. The British system is the opposite of ours: they use single quotes where we use doubles.

Here is an American example: Joginder stated, “My classics professor assigned the first 40 pages of ‘The Odyssey’ for our next meeting.”

Normally, you would put “The Odyssey” in double quotes, but because it is within a statement that needs double quotes, you use single quotes for the “inside” one.

Joginder may ask, “Did Seema really say, ‘Why would I date him after the rude comment he made to me?’ “

That is a quoted question within another quoted question. Both sets of quotation marks come at the end of the sentence. It’s important to leave a space between the single and double quotes. Singles always come inside doubles (in America).

You may quote me.

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Quotation Marks, Part 3

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If a person has a nickname commonly associated with the given name, don’t use quotation marks around the nickname. For example, just write James (Jim) Cooper. But when the nickname is unexpected, use the quotes: James “Hotshot” Cooper.

Yogi Berra’s given name was Lorenzo Pietro, later anglicized to Lawrence Peter. At some point he acquired the nickname “Yogi,” but before long no one remembered the Lawrence Peter part and he became Yogi without the quotation marks.

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Quotation Marks, Part 2

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Sometimes we write a document in which we use a word in a way that differs from its more usual meaning. If you write that a location is filled with bugs, you need to put that word in quotation marks. Otherwise, people will be rushing to call an exterminator.

However, after the first use of bugs, omit the quotes for that word and for all other forms of it (bugged, bugging, etc.). You’ve already clued your readers in to the fact that you are referring to listening devices. No need to call an exterminator.

 

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When to Use Quotation Marks

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©Judi Birnberg  There Are Quotation Marks in Here Somewhere

Obviously, use quotation marks around the exact words (direct quotes) that someone spoke or wrote. Don’t go by what you see in ads: quotation marks are often used there to get your attention and for emphasis, but they are almost invariably used incorrectly. For instance:

EAT HERE! “Best hamburger in the universe!” Chances are, no one ever said those words  in quotes except possibly the mother of the cook.

If you are using an indirect quote, do not use quotation marks:

Rodney stated he had eaten the best hamburger in the world. 

Use quotation marks around song titles, names of TV shows, short poems, articles, and essays. Names of magazines, newspapers, and book titles are set in italics. Therefore, you would refer to The Atlantic and then to an article in the issue, “The Making of an Unexpected President.”

Newspapers have their own style guides, which seem to have adopted putting book and movie titles in initial capital letters, no quotation marks, no italics. Unless you are hired by a newspaper, use the rules I’m listing here.

I’ll cover more uses of quotation marks in my next few blog posts.

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What’s Wrong With These Sentences?

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© Judi Birnberg                     Here’s a collage I made when I was 16.

There is a million different reasons why you should finish your assignments as soon as possible.

Here is/Here’s the recipes for the cookbook your are compiling for our children’s school fundraiser.

I see and hear sentences like these frequently. They contain an agreement problem. The subjects of the sentences are reasons and recipes, respectively. Both are plurals. But the introductory parts, There is and Here is, are both singular. You’re going to need There are and Here are. You can also use There’s or Here’s if the subject is singular.

Incidentally, when sentences start with There is, There are, Here is, Here are, the subject is always going to be the first noun following those introductory clauses. The subjects are never There or Here. Therefore, if you use this construction, find the subject by looking at the first noun after it and use There is or There are and Here is or Here are accordingly. Easy, right?

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Trite Expressions

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TRITE—Overused, worn out, lacking in originality

Just about anything can be trite: art, music, dance, food (think kale salads). But this blog is concerned with language, so that’s what we’ll focus on today. Read through these trite expressions and then vow to avoid them whenever possible. It will always be possible; just think of straightforward alternatives. You can do it.

  • No sooner said than done
  • By hook or by crook
  • Busy as a bee
  • A bolt from the blue
  • Few and far between
  • In this day and age
  • Words fail me
  • By leaps and bounds
  • Better late than never
  • A good time was had by all
  • Breathed a sigh of relief
  • From the ridiculous to the sublime
  • It’s a small world
  • Life and limb
  • Sticks out like a sore thumb
  • To all intents and purposes
  • In the final analysis

In the final analysis, I hope you can see why it’s better to avoid these expressions.

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Parallelism

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When train tracks or skis are parallel, one of them doesn’t veer off. They stay the same distance apart. When writing, you want your prose to be parallel as well. When it isn’t, your readers will be jarred by the parts that veer off on their own. Here’s an example:

The most frequent causes of snowmobile accidents are mechanical failure, the driver is careless, and the weather conditions might be dangerous.

It’s easy to rewrite this sentence in parallel form, seeing that all the pieces are of the same grammatical form:

The most frequent causes of snowmobile accidents are mechanical failure, careless drivers, and dangerous weather conditions.

Here’s one more:

Roger is overworked and not paid adequately.

This is very easily fixed:

Roger is overworked and underpaid.

When you proofread what you’ve written, check to see that lists are in parallel form. If something grates on your ear, you’ll know how to fix it.

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What’s a Run-On Sentence?

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It’s been my experience that when people see a very long sentence they immediately decide it’s a run-0n. In fact, you can have one sentence comprising thousands of words (even though no one would possibly want this), and it would not be a run-on, as long as it was structured correctly.

A run-on is a complete sentence, no matter how long or short, that is joined to another complete sentence by two different means:

  1. Jim is tall his brother is shorter. Here you have two complete sentences that have nothing to join them. This is the classic run-on.
  2. Jim is tall, his brother is shorter. Here the two sentences are joined by a comma, making what is known as a comma splice, another form of a run-on.

It’s easy to fix run-ons.

  1. You can put a period between the two sentences: Jim is tall. His brother is shorter. With very short sentences like these, using a period may seem a bit simplistic, but it’s not wrong.
  2. You can also use a semicolon between the two sentences, assuming they are closely related in subject matter: Jim is tall; his brother is shorter.
  3. You can add a connecting word: Jim is tall although his brother is shorter.

We most often write run-ons when we’re in a hurry. If we don’t take time to proofread (audibly—quietly so you can hear your own voice—and slowly), chances are we won’t catch them. But our readers may, and it’s best not to let that happen. It may not be fair, but we are often judged by our writing.

 

 

 

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Choose the Correct Pronouns

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Here’s a sentence like one I used to use in my corporate writing seminars. See if you think the given pronouns are correct:

She and I approve of Martin traveling with them and we.

Did you find any problems? It’s easy to evaluate if you take it one at a time, pronoun by pronoun.

She approves…. So far, so good, right?

I approve…. OK by me. You too?

I approve of Martin traveling with them…. Also fine.

I approve of Martin traveling with we. Ouch.

You can hear that you need us for the final pronoun. (Us is the object of the preposition with. Prepositions are always followed by nouns or object pronouns.) Other than that one change, the rest of the sentence was grammatically correct. So even when a sentence seems overly complicated, if you take it one little piece at a time, you should be able to sort it out and make sure it’s right.

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The Order of Adjectives

unknownMark Forsyth wrote a book called The Elements of Eloquence, which includes this unspoken and largely unwritten rule we all follow but were never taught:

“Adjectives in English absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac. It’s an odd thing that every English speaker uses that list, but almost none of us could write it out.”

Try moving just one of those adjectives to a different spot and you’ll see and hear how weird the sentence sounds. I find it fascinating that we all pick up the intricacies of our native languages before we even start school, without being taught the grammar. I call it linguistic osmosis.

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Unprecedented

Tweeting about the Chinese retrieval of an American drone, Donald Trump recently tweeted:

“China steals United States Navy research drone in international waters – rips it out of water and takes it to China in unpresidented act.”

Did you notice the typo? Trump said it was an “unpresidented” act. I don’t believe such a word exists, but obviously he has things presidential on his mind. I would tender the observation that many things he has done and said are unprecedented. I only wish there were a way to unpresident him. Just my opinion.

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What to Call Half the Population

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ICK!

Are they females or women? In most cases, female is the adjective and woman is the noun. Referring to women lawyers is unnecessary; we don’t refer to men lawyers. In vocations that were until quite recently male, it may be necessary to write, for example,  female soldiers.

If you want to use female as a noun, reserve it for the following situations: for animals; when you don’t know if the person in question is a girl or a woman; and when describing a gathering that includes both girls and women.

It’s common for women to describe their close female friends as their girlfriends. It would be a very good idea for males to avoid calling women girls. And it grates on my ear when I hear women refer to their female friends as gals. Ick. But that’s just me.

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Redundancies: Don’t Say It Again, Sam

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VIN=Vehicle Identification Number, so just use VIN, not VIN number.
Same idea with PIN.
ATM machine? ATM says it all.
HIV virus? The V tells us it’s a virus.
No need to say something is blue in color, square in shape, absolutely complete, a total disaster or a true fact.
Unless it’s by John Phillip Sousa, no need to say the month of March.
Nine a.m. in the morning? Choose a.m. or morning, not both.

This is my final conclusion.

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Pre- or Pro- scribe?

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Here are two more frequently confused and misused words:

PRESCRIBE means to recommend: I hope my doctor will prescribe something to cure my bronchitis.

PROSCRIBE means to forbid: When you go to the rally, you will have to remain on the lawn and will not be able to enter the proscribed area in front of it.

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Dept. of “Hmmm”

 

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You may be aware that a few nights ago Donald Trump and Mitt Romney dined together at Jean Georges, a three-star Michelin restaurant in Trump Tower in New York City. It could have been an awkward situation, since during the presidential campaign Romney called Trump a fraud and a liar, in addition to other damning epithets.

However, according to the New York Times, “Despite their rocky past, Trump and Romney didn’t show any animosity whatsoever between each other, as servers dressed in neckties and vests carried out their duties.”

I don’t know about you, but I cannot unsee those servers wearing only neckties and vests. Did Jean Georges allow his waiters to forgo pants? That sentence certainly implies the waiters’ outfits were on the scanty side. Imagine the conversation between a thrice-married womanizer and a long-married Mormon—if you can. I can’t.

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Immigrate or Emigrate?

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You often hear and see these two words used interchangeably, but there is a subtle difference in their meanings. It depends on whether you are leaving or arriving.

IMMIGRATE is the word to use when referring to people entering a new country: Canada has experienced great interest from people wanting to immigrate to that country from the United States.

EMIGRATE is used to refer to people leaving a country to take up residence elsewhere: Many people are considering emigrating from the United States to Canada .

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Different From or Different Than?

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We’ve all wondered about the distinction. (What? You haven’t? Well, just in case….)

DIFFERENT FROM is used when comparing one thing to another: My favorite program is different from yours.

DIFFERENT THAN is used when what follows is a clause with a verb in it: My favorite program is different than what you thought it would be.

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Is it Raining Continually or Continuously?

This is a repost from over two-and-a-half years ago—when we had a little rain in Southern California. We are now entering our sixth year of drought (but remember, climate change is, ahem, a hoax). A reader asked me to cover these two words, which I had done in February 2014. Don’t forget to use the search box on my blog to see if I’ve already written about the topic you’re wondering about.

 

Finally, finally, we have had measurable rain in Southern California. Until this storm began last night, we had just a little over an inch of rain this entire season, which began last July. Normal rainfall for this period is 11 inches. We who live here want and need more—a lot more. But do we want it to rain continuously or continually?

It’s easy to get these two words confused. CONTINUOUSLY means without interruption, whereas CONTINUALLY means continuing but sporadically, intermittently. The former would be a problem, as the hillsides are so dry that a deep soaking all at once would lead to the landslides you read about here. On-and-off rain, continual rain, would allow the water to sink in without causing erosion. A way to remember the difference between these two words might be to notice that CONTINUOUS has an S, and that, unfortunately, stands for slides. Think continual rain for us here in this parched land.

Yes, the climate is changing rapidly, a cause of concern for all.

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Peek, Peak, Pique

Peaks in the Mist © Judi Birnberg

Peaks in the Mist
© Judi Birnberg

These three words all sound alike but are often misused.

PEEK means to sneak a glance, usually furtively. Adam peeked in the attic where the Christmas presents were stored.

PEAK is the apex of something: the top of a mountain, a gable on a house, the points on egg whites when they are whipped hard.

PIQUE as a noun is a feeling of annoyance, especially if one’s pride or honor is insulted.

PIQUE as a verb means to stimulate interest: A review of Ian McEwan’s latest book, Nutshell, piqued my interest in reading it. It is an achingly clever novel narrated by a full-term fetus (unnamed, but obviously a modern-day Hamlet, whose mother is Trudy, father is John, and doltish uncle and Trudy’s lover is Claude).

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What Kind of Graduate Are You?

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Latin lesson coming up:

If you are a female graduate, you are an alumna. Plural female graduates are alumnae.

If you’re a male graduate, you are an alumnus. Plural male graduates are alumni. Plural graduates of males and females are also alumni. Sexist, I know.

I must admit it bothers me when I see license plate frames reading UC BERKELEY ALUMNI. Why not make plates with the female and male words for graduates? I am not a plural male graduate from Cal. I am, however, a member of the Cal Alumni Association, a large mixed group, men and women. Go, Bears!

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Beside or Besides?

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When you’re angry or frustrated, are you beside yourself or besides yourself? Here’s the difference:

BESIDES means in addition to.
Besides me, only three people showed up at the meeting.

BESIDE means next to, alongside.
At the meeting, I sat beside a woman I had never met before.

However, the expression beside myself (with frustration, for example) strikes me as odd. Obviously, it’s idiomatic; you can’t physically get next to yourself, no matter how hard you try. But if you are sufficiently frustrated, you might feel as if you have been torn into two people. I’m just guessing here.

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Three Words Often Confused

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                      Daniel on slice #2

These words look quite similar but they serve different purposes:

RESPECTABLY means being worthy of respect or admiration. Misty Copeland, a prima ballerina, performed far more than respectably in “Swan Lake.”

RESPECTFULLY means showing respect or admiration for another. After eating two slices of cake, Daniel respectfully declined a third.

RESPECTIVELY refers to a series of items taken in the order listed. Pat and Corey, a teacher and scientist respectively, first met in college.

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Incredible or Incredulous?

 

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Steve’s looking incredulous.

These two words are often confused.

INCREDIBLE means difficult to believe:
Jumping from a plane at 25,000 feet without using supplementary oxygen and landing alive seems like an incredible feat; yet a man did this not too long ago.

INCREDULOUS means unable or unwilling to believe something:
If I had not seen the video myself, I would have been incredulous if someone had told me a person had jumped from a plane at 25,000 feet and lived.

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Gotta Love Those Misplaced Modifiers

© Judi Birnberg 2016 Pots are Better Than Shoes

© Judi Birnberg 2016
Pots are Better Than Shoes

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?

Hungry?

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Clever Thoughts for Clever People

This is from my friend Janet. I love it when my readers suggest topics or send me goodies like this one. The English language is so malleable!

1. ARBITRATOR: A cook that leaves Arby’s to work at McDonald’s

2. BERNADETTE: The act of torching a mortgage 
3. BURGLARIZE: What a crook sees with
  

4. AVOIDABLE: What a bullfighter tries to  do

 

5. COUNTERFEITER: Worker who assembles kitchen cabinets

6. LEFT BANK: What the bank robber did when his bag was full of money
  
7. HEROES: What a man in a boat does

8. PARASITES: What you see from the Eiffel Tower 

9. PARADOX: Two physicians

10. PHARMACIST: A helper on a farm 

11. RELIEF: What trees do in the spring

12. RUBBERNECK: What you do to relax your wife

13. SELFISH: What the owners of a seafood store do

14. SUDAFED: Brought litigation against a government official

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The Lie vs. Lay Dilemma

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I’m guessing that within ten years the distinctions between these two words will have disappeared. But until September 2026, you might consider sticking to the following rules.

LIE (we’re not going to deal with the situation in which the truth is ignored) means to lie down, to rest or recline. Every day after lunch, I lie down. I don’t lay down. I lay something down.

LAY means to put or place: Every day when I lie down, I lay my head on my pillow.

That covers the present tense of both verbs. It gets a little sticky when you go into past tenses:

LIE in the past tense is (wait for it) LAY. Yesterday after lunch, I lay down. OMG, in the present tense you lie down, but in the past tense you lay down! Remember, I don’t make these rules up; I just teach them.

It gets even worse: in the past perfect tense, when has, had or have is part of your verb, you need LAIN. (I bet you’ve never written that word in your life—but it’s not too late to start.) Every day after lunch, I always have lain down.

As for the past tenses of LAY, here is what you want: Yesterday I laid my head on my pillow. I always have laid my head on my pillow.

If your head is aching, perhaps you’d like to lay your head on your pillow.

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Simplifying Legalese

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Here is the writing on a T-shirt I bought for my husband, a lawyer. It’s labeled “The Layman’s Glossary of Legal Terms”:

ACQUIT: To wimp out
APPELLATE: Hamster food
ARRAIGN: Stormy weather
ATTORNEY: Major sporting event
BAR ASSOCIATION: Drinking buddies
BONA FIDE: Dog treat
CRIMINAL LAWYER: Redundant
COURT OF APPEALS: Justice for bananas
CRIME OF PASSION: Sloppy kisses
DEBTOR: Less alive
DECEIT: A place to sit down
DISCOVERY: Cable TV channel
EXTRADITION: More math homework
GRACE PERIOD: Just before the meal
HUNG JURY: Overreaction to verdict
IN TOTO: Where Dorothy places trust
INNOCENCE: Fragrant when burned
LEGAL BRIEFS: Always boxers
LEGAL SECRETARY: Old enough to party
LIEN: Not overweight
MIRANDA RULE: Wear fruit on head
ORDER IN THE COURT: A call for takeout
PRO BONO: Cher before the divorce
ROE V. WADE: Tough choice at river
SUPREME COURT: Where Diana Ross plays tennis
TRIAL DATE: More fun than dinner and a movie

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Did Dickens Consider This?

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September 16, 2016 · 3:26 PM

Who’s Joe?

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I’ve been wondering how the word joe came to be used in a slang sense for coffee. I consulted Evan Morris’ book The Word Detective to see what his theories are.

In fact, no one seems to know for certain. It may be that joe is somehow associated with the island of Java, since java is another synonym for coffee. In the 19th century, the Indonesian island of Java was a major source of the world’s coffee.

Joe is often used to refer to the average man, the common man (his female equivalent is Jill), and has been especially associated with the military (we all know GI Joe,  slang for the common soldier long before he hit the toy store shelves). Because coffee is said to fuel the military, an association between common soldiers and their drink of choice is fixed.

Maybe.

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The Many Sounds of OUGH

How does anyone ever learn to spell in English? How many sounds of OUGH are there? The following was written on a mug I saw:

Yes, English can be weird. It can be understood through tough thorough thought, though.

And don’t forget plough, slough (pronounced sloo) and hiccough.

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Whatever Happened to These Words?

© Judi Birnberg

“Two Ruly Birds”         ©Judi Birnberg

Many words once in common use are rarely seen today, but prefixes and suffixes have kept the root alive:

COUTH meant known, familiar. So UNCOUTH is bad-mannered, strange.

RUTH meant to rue, to feel compassion for. If you’re RUTHLESS, that compassion is gone.

HAP meant lucky. Now HAPLESS means unlucky or incompetent.

KEMPT meant combed, tidy. UNKEMPT implies a person is sloppy or messy.

FECK meant effective, strong, so FECKLESS is weak or ineffective.

GRUNTLE meant to complain . DISGRUNTLE, however, isn’t an opposite; it’s an intensifier.

WIELDY meant agile. (You saw all those wieldy athletes at the Olympics, right?) UNWIELDY is clumsy, awkward.

RULY meant well behaved, obeying the rules. UNRULY behavior is rarely tolerated.

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Really? Literally?

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I admit it: I’m addicted to “The Antiques Roadshow,” both the British and the American versions. The other night, an American appraiser was so excited to be seeing an item that he, with uncontrolled excitement, practically shouted,“When I saw you come in with this, I literally was blown across the room!”

I can’t even remember what the item was because I was so fascinated by the image of him taking one look at the piece and then flying across the room, arms a-flappin, a look of amazement on his face. Did he actually fly across the room? Obviously not. Maybe he virtually flew. Or maybe he just got really excited and felt his heart pound. However he reacted, one thing is certain: he was not literally blown across the room. That would have meant it had really happened.

Incidentally, if you watch the show, you likely have noticed that almost every American who receives an good appraisal responds with, “Wow!” For years the Brits have been far more reserved, politely smiling and nodding or saying something along the lines of “Lovely.” Very understated. But recently I have noticed that Wow! has now made it to the British Isles although it is uttered, as you might expect, with great poise and restraint.

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