Tag Archives: business writing

Commas Between Adjectives—or Not?

When you write a sentence with more than one adjective modifying a noun, it’s sometimes tricky to determine if you need to separate those adjectives with commas. Here are a couple of sentences to consider:

1. Charlotte wants to meet an honest, reliable, considerate man.

Do all those adjectives refer to the noun “man” in the same way? (Yes.) Could you use “and” to connect them? Charlotte wants to meet an honest and reliable and considerate man. You wouldn’t write that, but it makes sense. And you can move those adjectives around with no change in meaning: Charlotte wants to meet a considerate, reliable, honest man.

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2. Ella wore bright yellow, suede flat shoes.

What happens if you stick an “and” between those adjectives? Ella wore bright and yellow and suede and flat shoes. Weird, right? In this case, you can’t move the adjectives around without a change in meaning (or a very odd wardrobe choice): Ella wore suede, and bright and yellow and flat shoes. “Suede” is the adjective that most closely defines the flats. “Bright” modifies the shade of yellow.

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Punctuation With Quotation Marks

This is how we punctuate in the United States. Other countries may do it differently.

1. Periods always go inside quotation marks:
Many women dislike being referred to as “you guys.”

2. Commas always go inside quotation marks:
“That’s not my book,” Angelo said.

3. Question marks can go inside or outside the quotation marks, depending on whether (a) the question mark refers to only the quoted material or (b) to the entire sentence:
(a) Pope Francis asked, “Who am I to judge?”
(b) Does he correctly pronounce the word “February”?

4. Like the question mark, the exclamation point can go inside or outside quotation marks, depending on whether (a) the exclamation point refers (a) only to the quoted word(s) or (b) to the entire sentence:
(a) Whenever his sister startles him, Charlie shrieks, “Stop it!”
(b) It really annoys me that he can’t pronounce “February”!

5. A colon always comes after a closing quotation mark:
She labeled the entrance exam “extremely difficult”: only 22% passed it.

6. Semicolons also come outside quotation marks:
She said the test would have to be revised to make it “somewhat difficult”; otherwise, too few people would be accepted.

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Yikes! More Typos!

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Don’t worry: one of these days I’ll run out. But for now, some more from Drummond Moir’s Just My Typo.

• The way she swung her hips, it was clear she was a wonton woman.
• Oh, don’t be so mellow dramatic.
• The pond was stocked with plump, lazy crap.
• She cuddled up behind him, her arms circling his waste.
• It was like having a bitch you couldn’t scratch.
• The city had been obliterated by an unclear missile.
• If you see him, do give him my retards.

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Punctuating a Bullet-Point List That is All One Sentence

Sometimes you will write a list that contains items that are part of a single sentence, for instance:

Isaac is looking for the ideal car that has

• great fuel economy;

• room for five passengers;

• sporty styling;

• safe handling;

• a comfortable ride.

— Notice that all the items except the last are followed by a semicolon.
— The final item takes a period.
— Don’t put a colon after the last word of the introductory part of the sentence.
— You do not need the word “and” between the last and the penultimate item.
— In addition, don’t capitalize each item, because they are all continuations of the first part of the sentence about Isaac.

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How to Punctuate Bullet-Point Lists

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UnknownA bullet-point list may contain either all sentences or all fragments. Either way is acceptable in business writing, but do not mix sentences and fragments in the same list.

If your list contains all fragments, do not put a period after each item:

You’ll need to buy a variety of food for the office party:

• pizza
• salad
• garlic bread
• soda
• water
• cake
• coffee
• paper goods

If your list contains sentences, do use end punctuation:

Many teachers complain about the following problems:

• Children come to school hungry and tired.
• Parents either do not or cannot help with homework.
• Money is scarce for all but the minimum supplies.
• Overtime hours for teachers are not compensated.

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A Few More Unfortunate Typos

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What would I do without Drummond Moir’s book, Just My Typo? Here are a few more goodies.

From The Parting, by Millicent Hemming:
I am certain of one thing. Whatever may come between us—and wherever he may be on earth—Arthur will always remember that I love ham.

From an anonymous short story:
He was disfigured. As long as I can remember, he has had a car on his face.

From The Price of Love, by Rosemary Jeans:
Ted could not raise the cash necessary to purchase a house, and eventually in desperation he had to burrow.

From Life in Barnsthorpe, by Patricia Cox:
Later that same evening after a vain search all around the village, Mary found the dog dead in the garden. She curried the body indoors.

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Three Times to Use the Colon

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Today I’ll tackle when to use colons. (Semicolons and colons are not interchangeable. They serve entirely different functions.)

I recently gave you the three semicolon rules. Colons are completely different. The colon is like the blare of a trumpet, alerting you to what’s coming. It comes after a complete sentence and introduces one of three things:

An example: We needed only one thing: a large piece of wood.

A list: Before we went camping we stocked up on the following:  bread, chocolate, marshmallows and beer.

A quotation: The doctor’s words were encouraging: “You do not need to lose weight and can stop exercising and eat as much pasta as you want.”

Yes, it’s that simple.

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Out of Order?

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One of the most common phrases I see and hear is “in order to”:

• In order to vote, you have to be registered by a stated date.
• We will take a poll in order to see who the two most popular candidates are.
• We will book our trip next Tuesday in order to get the best airfare.

In all those sentences, the words “in order” are extraneous; they add no information. They are saying the equivalent of “so that,” but that idea is implied by the word “to” alone. When words don’t do any work, chop them out.

You probably should proofread several times: once for obvious typos and grammatical errors, again for punctuation problems, and one more time to make certain your writing is as clear and concise as possible. If you proofread out loud (barely audibly is fine) and very slowly, you will catch many errors you won’t find when you read silently and at your usual speed. Unless we slow down and speak out, we all tend to see what we think we wrote, not what we actually wrote.

People used to think proofreading backwards was helpful; I do not recommend this technique. It will pick up typos, but since you are not understanding the meaning of your writing, you will miss just about everything else.

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Up, Up and Away!

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Are you aware that most “up” phrases clutter (up) your writing? Do you really need to type (up) your report, start (up) the copier, hunt (up) paper clips, fold (up) the newspaper or free (up) your staff?

TIP: When you proofread, look for superfluous words that do no work.

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More punctuation questions (and answers)

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This is my 500th post since I started my blog exactly three years ago. I wondered back then how long I could find good topics, but the Goddess of Language seems to be presenting me with endless subjects. The Goddess, along with your suggestions, has been generous. Please keep them coming!

A very smart, loyal reader wrote to me wanting to know about the following situations. He wants to know when to use

Commas
Semicolons vs. periods
Semicolons vs. colons
Semicolons vs. parentheses
Semicolons vs. dashes
Commas vs. semicolons

Obviously, this is too much for one post. Let me take a few small pieces of it and get to the rest in the following weeks.

Commas. A week ago I gave you four comma rules. Stick with those and you will be prepared for just about any situation you will encounter.

Semicolons vs. periods and vs. commas. You know to put a period at the end of a declarative sentence.

(1) Use a semicolon at the end of a complete sentence that is closely related to the sentence that follows it: That dishwasher is much too expensive; besides, the one we have still works well. You could use a period between those two sentences. But a semicolon works as well and does link the two ideas more closely than a period would.

(2) Use a semicolon at the end of a complete sentence and before introductory words such as However, Therefore, Furthermore, and Besides. See the previous example sentence about the dishwasher. Those introductory words will be followed by commas.

(3) If you have a complicated list, use semicolons between the items instead of commas: The diplomat was sent to Lima, Peru; Rome, Italy; Osaka, Japan; and Rio de Janiero, Brazil. You can see how confusing that list would be if you used commas instead of semicolons between each country and city.

That’s enough for today. We’ll go over the rest next week.

Questions? As always, feel free to contact me. I’m happy to try to help.

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Life and Death

Some interesting goofs found in Drummond Moir’s book Just My Typo:

The man blew out his brains after bidding his wife goodbye with a shotgun. (Connecticut newspaper)

Passengers must stay with their luggage at all times or they will be taken away and destroyed. (Sign at Paddington Station, London)

George had charge of the entertainment during the past year. His birth-provoking antics were always the life of the party and he will be greatly missed. (Willard Times, Ohio)

Police in Hawick yesterday called off a search for a 20-year-old man who is believed to have frowned. (The Scotsman)

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Four Comma Rules

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Some grammar and punctuation books may list 50 comma rules. Here are the four comma rules that will serve you in just about any situation.

1. A comma separates items in a series of three or more:

I went to the store and bought anchovies, feta cheese(,) and cereal.

2. A comma separates independent clauses (complete sentences) when they are joined by a conjunction such as and, but, or, nor, for or yet:

I wanted to go to the party, but I wasn’t invited.

3. A comma is used after an introductory dependent clause such as a prepositional phrase:

During our meeting yesterday, John left the room to meet with a client.

4. A comma sets off any non-essential information:

Our annual retreat, held every January, will be in Aspen this year.

EXERCISE:
Insert commas where necessary. Which comma rule applies?

1. Her internship is ending so she’s starting grad school in August.

2. Running through the hall he tripped over a plant stand.

3. The new boss in a departure from tradition gave all employees his home phone number.

4. She is active in the Charity Mentoring and Birthday Committees.

5. Bill Gates one of the world’s richest people is very charitable.

6. I would organize the meeting but I am too busy to take on another obligation.

7. Where are you going for your vacation Carlos?

8. Brian is taking the Bar Exam next week but he hasn’t had a job offer yet.

9. California’s Bar Exam perhaps the most difficult in the nation has a pass rate of only 30%.

10. His evaluations which are among the best in his department still did not result in a promotion or a raise.

Copyright  2007 Judith R. Birnberg/Write It Right All rights reserved.

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A Few More Typos to Get You to the Weekend

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From Just My Typo, compiled by Drummond Moir:

It is proposed to use this donation to purchase new wenches for our park as the present old ones are in a very dilapidated state.
(From the Carrolton Ohio Chronicle)

The Chicago investors put the land up for sale for $22 million in 2008, but got no takers. The Trust for Public Land made a deal with the group to buy it for close to $12, if it could come up with the money by this April.
(New York Times)

All work cheaply and nearly done.
(Perthshire Advertiser)

Save regularly in your bank. You’ll never reget it.

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Flounder vs. Founder

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Given the endless political campaign and how often I hear and see these two words misused, I thought it was time to reprise them. Here for your consideration are founder and flounder. Both are used here as verbs.

FOUNDER means to sink. For instance, if a candidate starts out with seemingly enormous support and then makes a mistake, that support may evaporate. He or she may go from 83% popularity to 27% popularity. You would say the candidate’s campaign founders.

FLOUNDER means to act confused and struggle mentally. Think of a flounder flopping around on the deck of a boat, flopping from side to side. That behavior suggests a candidate floundering, not answering questions clearly and contradicting previous positions.

OK, let the endless presidential campaign continue. Only one year to go.

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Looking for a Date?

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According to the Wall Street Journal, a Match.com survey showed that people on dating sites give primary importance to a person’s hygiene. Guess what’s second. Grammar!

Grammar and spelling errors in profiles are a huge turnoff for 88% of women and 75% of men.

So if you’re looking for your soulmate online, wash your hair and proofread what you write. If you’re insecure about your writing skills, ask a friend to look over what you write. Hey, maybe that could be a whole new career for me!

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More on Job Titles

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Is this you?

Before I went to Italy, I wrote a blog post on new job titles. After I returned, I found an article in the New York Times by Sam Slaughter, called “Your Job Title is … What?”

Because of the preponderance of startups, people today are inventing their own titles. No more East Coast Regional Managers. Vice Presidents of Customer Relations? Gone! Now business cards are introducing Wizards, Gurus, Ninjas, Story Strategists, Futurists and Brand Ambassadors. You can be a Thought Leader at a morning meeting and morph into a Customer Happiness Manager in the afternoon.

Slaughter also has met Influencers and Trend Strategists, Story Architects and Culture Hackers, not to mention a person who admits she was greatly influenced by Dr. Seuss when she was young and decided her job description was (wait for it) Thing 2.

Loyal Correspondent (my title for him) Jeff W. sent me the following titles he’s come across:

Director of First Impressions (receptionist)

Creator of Opportunities (business development)

Chief Amazement Officer (founder)

Director of Listening (social media monitoring)

Chief Troublemaker (CEO) and generally, any title with Catalyst, to describe someone who unblocks corporate inertia.

Jeff has also seen Dragonslayer, Gatekeeper, Sorceress, Jedi, Ranger, Rebel, Zen Master, Time Lord, Princess, Queen and, yes, Webslinger (Spiderman?). My personal favorite, however, is the Eternal Harbinger of Spring.

Don’t tell me you are still a Vice President of Customer Relations!

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Joint Ownership

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This post isn’t about who owns that crummy bar downtown. It’s about using apostrophes when more than one person owns something (although, we could be talking about that crummy bar). Look at the following sentences:

1. John and Bill’s crummy bar downtown is doing well, despite its location.

Why does only Bill get an apostrophe showing ownership? When two or more people own the same thing, only the last person mentioned gets an apostrophe. That’s the rule.

2. John’s and Bill’s wives are very good friends.

Presumably, John and Bill each has his own wife; they don’t share connubial bliss. Therefore, each man gets his own apostrophe (along with his own wife).

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New Job Titles

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According to an article in the Business section of the Los Angeles Times (9/24/15), it’s becoming somewhat trendy for people in the corporate world to invent their own titles. At Google, employees can give themselves any title they like. Who wants to be a regional general manager or a vice president when you can be the Jolly Good Fellow, the person in charge of Google’s meditation and mindfulness program (and remember, I’m just reporting this, not making it up). Google also has a Chief Extraterrestrial Observer: obviously, that’s the guy who founded the Google Earth Engine.

But it’s not just Google or even Silicon Valley. A designer now calls himself the Head of Touchy-Feely Graphics in an effort to avoid using the words “user experience.”

Need a Certified Thanatologist (and how does one become certified in that field)? Contact Gail Rubin, who helps people deal with all aspects of death. Her business card identifies her as “The Doyenne of Death.” Of course.

A hardware engineer named Mike Savini decided that since he specialized in solving computer glitches, he should be called a Bug Specialist. I have to wonder how many requests he gets to deal with ant or rat infestations.

Troika, a marketing company in Los Angeles, has hired Maya Imberman as Head of the Happiness Committee. Eva Scofield, who works for Graze, is a Snack Huntress for her company.

This seems to be a trend because, in part, these titles are good icebreakers and are thought to make employees more engaged with their work. I happen to see them as adding to the already pervasive jargon in the corporate world. What do you think?

I’ve been called a Grammar Guru as well as a Grammar Nazi. Somehow, I never felt the urge to put one of those on a business card. Right about now, I’m guessing many of you are thinking about what your actual titles should be. Feel free to send me the printable ones.

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More Commonly Misused Phrases

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These lists certainly have been popular. I’ve heard from many of you, and you even offered additional suggestions, for which I am very grateful. Here is another crop of malaprops, a word made famous by Richard Sheridan in his play The Rivals (1775), which contains a character named Mrs. Malaprop.

1. Flush out Nope. You mean to flesh out an argument, put some meat on the bones. If you flush it out, you know where it goes.

2. Unlease a hornet’s nest You want to cancel your lease on that hornet’s nest? I understand. But more likely you want to unleash it, to set those hornets free to sting someone else.

3. Electrical votes This is shocking. Better to use electoral votes. Imagine, we’ll be counting electoral votes in only 14 months! And yet the campaign is in full swing. Just shoot me.

4. Upset the apple tart I have personally done this, and it takes all the joy out of dessert. If you upset an apple cart, you are eliminating order and causing chaos.

5. Alcoholics Unanimous Alcoholics Anonymous protects the participants’ privacy.

6. A vast suppository of information  Yes, that has been written. Repository is so much more pleasant, not to mention accurate.

7. Lavatories of innovation  Probably written by the same person who wrote #6. Go with laboratories.

8. You could have knocked me over with a fender Pretty easy to do. To indicate extreme surprise, use a feather.

9. Tow the line I have never tried to tug a line of anything. If you toe the line, you come right up to the edge and follow rules.

10. Very close veins That they may be, and I am sorry for you. But the correct term is varicose, meaning swollen and twisted.

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Grammarphobia Blog and Woe Is I

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You may be familiar with the wonderful blog Grammarphobia (blog@grammarphobia.com). It is written by the author of the extremely, very, enormously wonderful book Woe Is I, Patricia T. O’Conner. Can you tell how much I love this book?

The subtitle is “The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English.” Not only is the book written in plain English, it is written in clever, entertaining English. O’Connor frequently makes allusions to popular culture, for instance when giving this correct pronunciation:

“Nuclear. Pronounce it NOO-klee-ur (not NOO-kyoo-lur). ‘My business is nuclear energy,’ said Homer.”

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Ten More Commonly Misused Phrases

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Here are some more phrases that sound almost right—but aren’t. Check to see if any belong to you:

  1. For all intensive purposes   It’s for all intents and purposes.
  1. One in the same should be one and the same.
  1. Make due  Nope. You need to make do. Make what you have do what you need.
  1. By in large is by and large.
  1. Do diligence is not something done. You want due diligence.
  1. Peak one’s interest  This has nothing to do with height. It has to do with pique, sharpening your interest.
  1. Shoe in? This has nothing to do with footwear. It’s shoo in, the way you would shoo your cat inside at night.
  1. Extract revenge. Nothing is being removed. You are going to exact revenge.
  1. Doggy-dog world.  You’re describing a highly competitive situation, which is a dog-eat-dog world.

 

  1. Supposably   No such word. You want supposedly.

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Ten Commonly Misused Phrases

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Do you say or write any of these? Many smart people do, but their use can lead to embarrassment. Check out the correct form of each.

1. DEEP-SEEDED This should be “deep-seated,” meaning something that is established, e.g., a deep-seated anxiety.

2. FIRST COME, FIRST SERVE It needs to be “served.” If you arrive first, you will be served first. Otherwise, it looks as if you will have to serve everyone who comes after you.

3. I COULD CARE LESS If this is true, you care to some extent. If you “couldn’t” care less, you are saying you don’t care at all.

4. PROSTRATE CANCER “Prostrate” means lying face down. The prostate is a gland males have near the bladder.

5. SNEAK PEAK It’s a sneak “peek,” a secret, quick look. “Peak” means the summit or apex.

6. HONE IN “Hone” means to sharpen. You can hone your writing skills or your carving knives. But you need to “home” in on areas that need improvement; think of heading for home plate.

7. WET YOUR APPETITE “Wet” means to dampen. You need “whet” here, which means to sharpen. Smelling baking brownies probably doesn’t dampen your appetite but instead makes you drool in anticipation of that first bite.

8. EMIGRATED TO “Emigrate” is used with the preposition “from.” You emigrate from one country to another. “Immigrate” means to go somewhere and is used with the preposition “to.” Hordes of people are emigrating from Syria; they are immigrating to Western Europe.

9. BAITED BREATH I get the most revolting picture of someone who has just eaten a worm. That’s bait. The expression you want is “bated” breath. “Bated,” a word practically obsolete these days, is related to “abate,” which means to cease or reduce. If you are in hiding with bated breath, you are trying not to breathe because of danger or pressure.

10. PIECE OF MIND When you yell at someone in anger, you may be giving that person a piece of your mind. But for serenity, you want “peace” of mind.

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More Typos From Abroad

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Or since I’m writing this, perhaps the subject line should be More Typos From a Broad. Either way, here is some midweek entertainment—along with a reminder to proofread everything you write.

Please leave your values at the front desk. (Sign in a Paris elevator)

Before entering this mosque: Please remove your shoes. Please remove your socks. Please remove your hat. Thank you for your co-ordination. (Sign in Istanbul mosque)

Guests are requested to be as quiet a possible in their rooms after 11 pm so as not to disturb the quest in the other room. (Swedish hotel)

When You Are Engulfed in Flames (Name of a hilarious David Sedaris book, title based on a sign he saw in an elevator, educating guests what to do in case of fire)

Come Fartably Numb (Song title on pirated Pink Floyd CD, Hong Kong)

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A Powerful Word

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I saw this idea on Facebook today; it reminded me of an exercise I used to do with my corporate writing groups.

Place the word ONLY anywhere in the following sentence and see how it changes the meaning:

SHE TOLD HIM THAT SHE LOVED HIM.

Only she told him that she loved him. (No one else did.)
She only told him that she loved him. (But she didn’t show him she did.)
She told only him that she loved him. (She didn’t tell that to anyone else.)
She told him only that she loved him. (She didn’t tell him anything else.)
She told him that only she loved him. (No one else loves him.)
She told him that she only loved him. (But she didn’t like or admire him.)
She told him that she loved only him. (She loves no one else.)
She told him that she loved him only. (Again, she loves no one else.)

ONLY is a modifier. That means it gives information about another part of the sentence. Modifiers may be one word or a group of words. They should be placed right next to the word you want to give more information about. If you put modifiers in the wrong place, you are creating, yes, misplaced modifiers. At times that will lead to embarrassing or awkward situations:

Be certain to buy enough yarn to finish your mittens before you start.
Wearing red noses and floppy hats, we laughed at the clown.
For sale: Mixing bowl set for chef with round bottom for efficient beating.

I know you don’t want people to laugh at your writing, so check for misplaced modifiers as part of your proofreading.

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Negatives Without Positives

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In English, we have many negative words that have no paired positives. Here are a few of those non-existent positives for you to ponder:

Are you ept, gruntled and couth? Are you ever shevelled, hibited or sipid? I bet you are never plussed, gainly or ert. But perhaps you may feel sipid, sidious or beknownst. My wish for you is that you are always jected, petuous and consolate, and that you will also be cognito and communicado. I think I have given you enough false positives now that this list needs to become cessant.

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Real Estate Typos

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But where are the fangs?

In the market for a new home? Read the ads carefully or you might end up with a house that includes the following (from a real estate company in Virgina, as quoted in Drummond Moir’s Just My Typo):

Fresh pain throughout
Heated poo in back yard
Custom inferior paint
Large walking closet
Ceiling fangs in all bedrooms
Huge dick in back for entertaining
Beautiful bitch cabinets

I’ve also seen houses for sale that included “shudders.” Probably on those homes with ceiling fangs.

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Email Reminders

1. Avoid bold, CAPS and italics to give emphasis; they can be distracting. Let your words carry your meaning.

2. Use BCC: when sending to a group; you don’t want to expose others’ email addresses to strangers. By using BCC: you also avoid the likelihood that one of the recipients will click Reply All rather than responding only to you. We all get far too much email as it is.

3. Begin your email with a greeting and end with a closing and your name. Otherwise, your email may be perceived as being rude and clipped.

4. Don’t send a large attachment without first checking with the recipient to see when the best time to send it would be.

5. Avoid assuming your readers know the details of what you are writing about. If they knew, you’d have no need to write.

6. Use your spell- and grammar-check programs, and then proofread to make sure you didn’t leave words out. Spellcheck programs will accept everything you write that is a word, so if you wrote “and” when you meant “any,” only you can fix that.

7. Before writing because you think you haven’t received an expected response, check your Spam folder.

8. Make your Subject line clear and appropriate. Change it when the email discussion shifts.

9. Remember to thank people for any help you receive. Use “please” when making a request.

10. Writing in all caps is shouting. Writing in all lowercase is annoying.

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Nouns That Add No Meaning

images Avoid Jargon! Common in the tech industries but definitely found throughout the corporate world, creating nouns from other parts of speech is rampant. The result is jargon. Some refer to this process as “nominalization,” but I resist using that term because it and many other —ization words are unnecessary, often pretentious and silly: incentivization, calendarization, colorization, idolization, utilization, underutilization, overutilization—you get the point.

Speaking of points, “data points” and “price points” abound these days. The word “point” adds no information. “Data” and “price” say it all.

An ad for Daedalus Books in the July 27th New Yorker states: “STILL THE BEST BROWSE IN BARGAIN BOOKS.” I’m going on a browse. Did you find any good books on your browse?

On so-called reality TV makeover shows, you are treated to “the big reveal.” Newscasters make rain into a “rainfall event,” or “shower activity.” And don’t forget an “emergency situation.” Airlines refer to “the boarding process.” Companies speak of “deliverables” and “inputs.”

Noun strings abound: “a hospital employee relations improvement protocol” (a plan to improve hospital employee relations). NASA continues to work on the “International Space Station astronaut living quarters module development project”: (improving the living quarters of ISS astronauts).

A final example before you and I both go crazy: “Underground Mine Worker Safety Protection Procedures”: (Procedures for protecting mine workers). When you write, proofread more than once: check for obvious grammar and punctuation errors, but also proofread specifically for wordiness. If a word adds no meaning, cut it out. Your readers will be grateful.

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Subject-Verb Agreement Quiz

Here are five sentences from the book I used in all my business writing seminars, The Bare Essentials, by Norton, Green and Barale.
Before you take the quiz, remember that the only word that adds and makes a subject plural is AND. Decide if the sentences are correct as written or if a problem exists with subject-verb agreement. Explanations follow the sentences.

1. A handful of companies dominate the American cereal industry.
2. Have either of the teams won a series yet?
3. Experience in programming, together with a willingness to work hard and an ability to get along with others, are required.
4. Absolutely everyone, my girlfriend and my mother included, not to mention my closest friends, have advised me not to pursue a musical career.
5. It is not necessarily true that statements made about one identical twin applies with equal validity to the other.

All those sentences are incorrect. Here are the explanations:

1. The subject is “handful,” so the verb has to be “dominates.” “Of companies” is a prepositional phrase; the subject of a sentence is never found in a prepositional phrase</em>, even though most of them contain a noun (and sometime a pronoun) at the end that may look like a subject. But they never are.

2. “Either of the teams” refers to one team or the other but not both. “Of the teams” is a prepositional phrase. The singular subject is the pronoun “either.” The verb must be “Has.”

3. The subject is “Experience,” so the verb must be “is required.” After “Experience,” the sentence is packed with prepositional phrases and none of the nouns in them can be part of the subject.

4. The subject is “everyone.” That is always singular, so the verb has to be “has advised.”

5. The subject is “statements,” a plural, so the verb must be “apply.”

How did you do? Write me if you have questions.

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My All-Time Favorite Typo

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This goes back a long way, but it is a typo I saw with my own eyes in the San Francisco Chronicle (often called the SF Comical because of its frequent typos) in the early 1970s. It was soon reprinted in The New Yorker for readers’ enjoyment.

Here is the back story: In those days, the Chronicle published not only engagement and marriage announcements but also divorce announcements of so-called prominent residents. Also at that time of the Vietnam War, many troop trains were leaving from Oakland, CA. That may seem like a non-sequitur, but stay tuned.

A prominent San Francisco “socialite” at that time, whose parties and adventures were closely monitored by the newspaper, was named Dolly McMasters Johnson. This is what the Chronicle wrote when the Johnsons announced they were divorcing: “Mr. (Iforgethisfirstname) Johnson is suing his wife, Dolly McMasters Johnson, for divorce on grounds of frigidity. [Insert a troop train.]”

I recall the article went on to give personal facts of interest to readers about the unhappy couple, but after that lead, what could be more fascinating?

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Translating Corporate-Speak (aka Jargon)

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Recently, Marilyn Katzman wrote an article in the New York Times about the difficulties she encountered when re-entering the workforce after having been “reorganized,” (you know, “let go”) from her previous position. Flooded with corporate jargon, she finally kept a list of the jargon words and their conversational equivalents. Asked if she was ready for her “bilateral” (I would have thought it referred to a mammogram), she ultimately deduced it meant attending a face-to-face meeting with her boss. Then she wondered if you can still say “boss.”

When asked if she had “bandwidth,” Katzman figured out that all it meant was time to work on a project. Well, of course. She soon realized that “strategy” and “strategic” were extremely useful, adding weight and gravitas to anything to which they were attached. “Strategic planning” was a biggie—but doesn’t all planning involve strategy? She also understood that she was thought to be more intelligent when she threw “transparency” into conversations and emails. Katzman learned that “decks” had nothing to do with levels in a parking garage but rather referred to PowerPoint presentations. You knew that, right? At meetings she would write down examples of this new-to-her corporate jargon: “deliverables” showed up with great frequency, as did “ramping up” and “drilling down.”

Before too long, a colleague informed her of an actual game, “B.S. Bingo,” consisting of cards ruled off into squares. Each square contained one of these supposedly important words, and at meetings people would X off a square when they heard the word in it. When a whole row was marked off, the attendee got to jump up and yell, “B.S!” When I taught in the corporate world, this game hadn’t be produced yet (why didn’t I think of it!), but I would tell my groups about another version of this game I had heard of: except my people were encouraged, when they completed a row, to yell, “Bullshit!” I’m still wondering if anyone ever did it.

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Clarification of a Capitalization Rule

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Sharp-eyed reader DC emailed me, pointing out an assumption I made in Rule #11 of my last post: I assumed you would know that I was referring only to prepositions found in titles. I knew what I meant and assumed you would all be mindreaders. This rule applies only to prepositions in titles—anywhere else (except for the first word of a sentence), they are all lowercase.

I apologize for the confusion I may have caused. I broke my own rule: never assume anything.

As always, feel free to write me with questions, corrections and suggestions. I’m eager to hear from you.

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Capitalization Rules

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(Add a question mark and I agree completely.)

Sometimes I get the feeling that many writers think they were, perhaps, Benjamin Franklin or Abigail Adams in an earlier life. Those people lived during the time when words could be capitalized at will. In fact, rules now do exist for when to use them. Here’s a quick refresher:

1. The personal pronoun I, no matter where it occurs in a sentence: My friend and I just ate lunch. I’m no longer hungry because I’ve had a big meal.

2. The first word of a sentence.

3. Names of specific people: Madonna, Captain Kangaroo

4. Names of specific places: Acapulco, the Caspian Sea

5. Names of specific things: the Statue of Liberty, Kennedy High School

6. Days of the week, months of the year, but not the seasons: Tuesday, August, spring

7. Titles of books, movies, TV programs, courses: The Goldfinch, Midnight in Paris, Curb Your Enthusiasm, History 101

8. People’s titles only when the person is named immediately before or after the title: Secretary of State John Kerry (but John Kerry is the secretary of state); Pope Francis I (but Francis I is the pope)

9. Names of specific companies, organizations and departments: Occidental Petroleum, Kiwanis, the Human Resources Department

10. Geographical locations but not geographical directions: the Far East, Southern California, the Midwest (but I drove south on the San Diego Freeway for 50 miles)

11. Prepositions when they are four or more letters long: From, With, Among, in, out, Between

Be very sparing in using capitalization for emphasis. Let your words show the emphasis. As with any form of calling attention to your message (e.g., bold, italics, underlining), when you emphasize everything you end up emphasizing nothing.

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More From “Just My Typo”

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This wonderful little book was compiled by Drummond Moir. Here is today’s offering:

ONE MAN WAS ADMITTED TO HOSPITAL SUFFERING FROM BUNS (Bristol Gazette)

GERMANS ARE SO SMALL THAT THERE MAY BE AS MANY AS ONE BILLION, SEVEN-HUNDRED MILLION OF THEM IN A DROP OF WATER
(Mobile Press)

With its highly evolved social structure of tens of thousands of worker bees commanded by Queen Elizabeth, the honey bee genome could also improve the search for genes linked to social behavior….Queen Elizabeth has 10 times the lifespan of workers and lays up to 2,000 eggs a day. (Reuters)

During Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, the Washington Post was credited with the “most famous newspaper typo” in DC history. The Post intended to report that President Wilson had been “entertaining” his future wife, Mrs. Galt, but instead wrote that he had been “entering” her.

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End Punctuation for “Wonder” and “Guess”

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More often that not, I see sentences like the following:

I wonder what time Mike will be arriving?

Guess who I met at the basketball game?

“Wonder” and “Guess” sentences are almost always punctuated (incorrectly) as if they were questions. In fact, they are declarative sentences.

In the first sentence, you are not sure what time Mike will arrive. You have a question in your mind: Will he be here at three o’clock? Four o’clock? You just don’t know. But your sentence is not a question. You are merely stating the fact that you’re unsure when to expect Mike.

In the second sentence, you are asking someone to guess whom you met at the game. That person doesn’t know. But you know and, in fact, you are ordering the other person to do something: to guess who the mystery person is. The sentence is a command, not a question.

I suggest that when you write a “wonder” or “guess” sentence, check specifically to make sure you’ve used the correct end punctuation.

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Clichés in the News (and Maybe in Your Own Writing)

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Patrick La Forge of the New York Times has written about clichés frequently found in spoken or written news reports. I’ve seen many of these sneak into business writing. Try to avoid them; find a fresh way to make your point.

Plans are often “afoot.” Sounds silly, doesn’t it?

If something is “on the brink,” it’s likely “teetering.”

Often, war veterans are “grizzled.”

Gambles? They are “high stake.”

Forays or incursions are all too often “ill fated.”

When you don’t want to publicize something, you are “tightlipped.”

Are you wasting time? You are likely “frittering away” the hours.

And finally, car chases are invariably “high speed,” (except for the one back in the mid-1990s when OJ Simpson made his leisurely way down the San Diego Freeway in Los Angeles; now that was news).

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Simple or Simplistic?

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Too often I hear people use “simplistic” when they really mean “simple.” These two words are not synonyms; “simplistic” is not a fancy way of saying “simple.”

“Simple” means easy to understand, not overly complicated.(You knew that.)

“Simplistic” means overly simple, making a complicated situation seem easier than it actually is: “Alleviating the drought would be easy if people would just turn off the water when they brush their teeth.”

Simple, right? Einstein was saying, “Make it simple but not simplistic.”

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More Similar but Different Words

imagesDo any of these confuse you? I hope this list will help.

DEMURE—shy, reserved, modest: The young woman’s dress and demure behavior led one to think she might be a Quaker or Amish. (pronounced duhMYOOR)

DEMUR—the action of showing reluctance or doubts, hesitating or objecting: Francine thought she might accept her boss’ offer, but something about his attitude caused her to demur. (pronounced duhMUR)

PORE (v.)—to read or study carefully, to be absorbed in an activity: Benjamin, an avid golfer, pored over every golf magazine and article he could find.

POUR—what you do with a liquid and/or your feelings: Stephen poured a full glass of Burgundy and then poured out his feelings to his girlfriend.

PEAK—the pointed summit of a mountain; the point of highest activity; the pointed part of a shape, such as the peaks in beaten egg whites: In the baking competition at the top of Pike’s Peak, Sandra found herself in a peak of frenzy while beating 10 egg whites into stiff peaks for her famous French macarons.

PEEK—to look quickly or sneakily: Sandra’s competitors sneaked peeks at her while she whipped those egg whites.

PIQUE—to stimulate curiosity or interest: Sandra’s baking expertise piqued intense interest in all her competitors.

AISLE—a passageway between rows of seats or between shelves in supermarkets or other stores; what the wedding party walks down: A store the size of Costco contains dozens of aisles for food and dry goods. (Has anyone gotten married in an aisle at Costco? Probably.)

ISLE—an island. Robinson Crusoe lived on an isle; England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland are called the British Isles.

Remember, all these are words; your spellchecker won’t know if you’ve used the wrong one by accident. It’s up to you to proofread carefully.

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Yet More Typos

All from Just My Typo, compiled by Drummond Moir.

From the Christian Science Monitor:
ONE CAN ARGUE THAT THE PRESIDENT IS USING THE SEPTEMBER 11 ATTACKS TO BOOST HIS PUBIC PROFILE.

From the Huffington Post:
OLDER ADULTS: You’re sick. If you feel cold, put on a sweater, crap yourself in a blanket or turn up the heat, recommend the physicians.

From the Mobile Press:
GERMANS ARE SO SMALL THAT THERE MAY BE AS MANY AS ONE BILLION, SEVEN HUNDRED MILLION OF THEM IN A DROP OF WATER.

On ABC’s World News Tonight:
On April 22, 2003 a closed caption informed viewers that Alan Greenspan, Federal Reserve Chairman, was “in the hospital for an enlarged prostitute.” Later that night viewers were advised that Mr. Greenspan was having prostate problems.

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Six Frequently Misused Words

See If you’ve been using any of these words incorrectly: 1. Peruse Incorrect: to skim over reading material Correct: to review carefully 2. Compelled Incorrect: to feel as if you need to do something Correct: to be forced to do something 3. Bemused Incorrect: amused Correct: confused 4. Travesty Incorrect: a tragedy or unfortunate event Correct: a parody or mockery 5. Ironic Incorrect: a funny coincidence Correct: not what you’d expect 6. Penultimate Incorrect: the last Correct: next to last

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Typos in Ads

I was recently sent this link to a typo in a prominent ad. How is it that no one in the product’s company or in the advertising agency caught this mistake before the ad appeared? Again I remind you: proofread everything you write. http://www.businessinsider.com/blackberry-grammar-fail-variety-one-won-2015-4

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More Typos From Around the World

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To lighten your day (all from Just My Typo, complied by Drummond Moir):

Complimentary glass of wine or bear (drinks menu, Nepal)
This crud is from the finest milk (cheese menu, France)
Roguefart (cheese menu from French restaurant in Hong Kong)
Specialist in women and other diseases (doctor’s office, Italy)
To call a broad from France, first dial 00 (Paris guidebook)
Look out! Our new baby is in our car! (Baby on Board sticker, Hong Kong)
French widow in every bedroom (hotel ad)

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The —Ize Have It

I got an email today from Williams-Sonoma advertising a new attachment for the Kitchen Aid mixer. It was described as a “Handy multitasker that peels, cores, slices and spiralizes in seconds.” I must confess, I am not a spiralizer. I have made spirals, created spirals, but can’t remember the last time I spiralized anything.

To my eye and ear, many —ize verbs are unnecessary. Can’t we create incentives rather than incentivize? Prioritize? Set priorities. Have you ever bought a utilized car?

However, many verbs ending in —ize are so common that I can’t argue with their use: hospitalize, hypnotize, lionize, legalize, minimize, maximize, idealize, and personalize—among many others.

Stepping off my soapbox, I wonder if you can think of any time utilize conveys any meaning that use doesn’t. I’m looking forward to hearing from you.

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More Similar, Often Confused Words

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HONE
means to sharpen. You hone your skills or hone a blade.
HOME as a verb means to aim or move toward a target: The satellite camera homed in on the desert encampment.

IMPLY means to hint at something without specifically stating it:
Felicia’s looks implied that she did not admire my new haircut.
INFER means to deduce, to figure out. I inferred from Felicia’s looks that she didn’t like my new haircut.

FARTHER refers to a greater distance or time: By moving farther from the city, they hoped their money would go farther.
FURTHER is used to express additional efforts beyond those already accomplished: All corporations should set as a goal further increasing customer satisfaction.

FOUNDER as a verb means to fail or degrade: Harry’s efforts to buy a new business foundered because of his credit history.
FLOUNDER is also a verb and means to struggle helplessly, either physically or mentally. Picture a flounder (the fish) flopping around on deck: Elena stammered and floundered when she was given an assignment in which she had no interest.

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Renown or Renowned?

As I do every morning, I scanned the obituaries in the Los Angeles Times (just to make sure my name wasn’t listed) and came across a posting for a doctor who was described as “respected and renown….”

I see this error often enough that I thought I should mention that “renown” is a noun: “This man’s renown was recognized among others in his profession.”

“Renowned” is an adjective: “This man was respected and renowned in his field of medicine.”

Thanks for reading.

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Quotations From William Zinsser on Writing

I wrote about the death of William Zinsser last week and would now like to include a few quotations from his wonderful book, On Writing Well.

“Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.”

“Clear thinking becomes clear writing. One can’t exist without the other.”

“Few people realize how badly they write…. The point is that you have to strip down your writing before you can build it back up.”

“Simplify, simplify.”

Zinsser worked for a newspaper, wrote for prominent magazines, taught in the English Department at Yale, and authored many books. As a writer and teacher, he made an indelible mark. I hope he was happy about that fact; he deserved to be. Do I recommend this book? Is the pope…?

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Look-Alikes and Sound-Alikes, Part 3

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I am so grateful to you wonderful people who keep sending me suggestions for this topic. Here goes Part 3:

FOUL vs. FOWL: Can you believe a reader caught someone writing about “fowl language”? Those roosters can be so crude!

ELUDE means to get away from, to avoid: It’s hopeless to try to elude a police officer behind you flashing the lights.

ALLUDE means to refer to something without specifically stating it:
Jacob alluded to the fact that his wife hates action movies, although she still goes with him to see the latest smash-em-up.

CONSCIENCE is your sense of right and wrong.

CONSCIOUS means you are awake and alert, able to think.

HEAR is what you do with your ears. It is also used in the phrase, “Hear! Hear!” (I often see this written as “Here! Here!” and I want to yell, “Where? Where?”)

HERE refers to location.

LATER refers to a time after one previously mentioned or understood. It contains the word “late.”

LATTER refers to the second of two or the last of a group mentioned: Larry has been divorced twice, but is on good terms with the latter of his two wives.

PERSONAL means private: Your personal information should not be disseminated on the Internet.

PERSONNEL refers to a group of people who work for an organization: Our personnel are very compatible and freely help each other. It also is used for the office that keeps records for an organization, i.e., the Personnel Office.

Realize that none of these words will trigger a highlight from your spellchecker. It still is up to you to proofread everything, slowly and quietly out loud, to make sure you have typed the word you want. As I frequently mention, if you proofread silently at your normal speed, chances are you will read what you think you wrote, not what you actually wrote.

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Are You a Grammar Nerd?

The website Grammarly has a list of 10 signs you might be a grammar nerd. My thanks to Brian B., always on the lookout for something up my linguistic alley.

1. You use standard spelling, capitalization, and punctuation when you text.

2. You have appointed yourself as “honorary proofreader” of your friends’ social media posts.

3. You know how and when to use “affect” and “effect.”

4. You feel compelled to correct poorly written public signs. It isn’t vandalism if you’re correcting it, right?

5. The thought of posting a writing error online mortifies you.

6. You have an opinion about the Oxford comma.

7. You follow Grammarly on Facebook and Twitter.

8. You’re a regular contributor to the #grammar hashtag in social media.

9. The sound of a double negative makes you cringe.

10. You mentally edit all the books and magazines you read.

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Yet More Look-Alikes and Sound-Alikes

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If you are sick of these lists of similar words, I apologize. But I have gotten so many emails telling me these words are useful and asking for more, more, more. Maybe a few of these will be helpful to you:

COMPLEMENTARY: completing or enhancing another person or object. The new painting was complementary with Mario’s existing décor.
COMPLIMENTARY: without cost; free. Buy a book and get a complimentary bookmark.

FOR: I’m certain you know how to use this word.
FORE: This can mean “in the front part”: the horse’s fore and rear legs. It’s also what you shout before you hit the golf ball: “Fore!”
Sometimes “fore” is added to the beginnings of words: forefathers (coming before); foreshorten, forebrain, forecourt (in front)

COARSE: rough, unrefined. The man’s speech was coarse, but his hands were smooth and clean.
COURSE: Use this for everything else: an academic class, a course of medicine, a path, and, of course, of course.

STATIONARY: set in place. Museums use a special wax to ensure all their statues and sculpture will remain stationary in case of an earthquake or other disruption.
STATIONERY: paper, usually for writing letters (remember letters?)

MORAL: having to do with understanding of right and wrong. The accent is on the first syllable. In theory, all politicians should have high moral standards.
MORALE: concerning the mental condition of a group or person. The accent is on the second syllable. Politicians’ behavior leads to low morale in the electorate, resulting in poor voter turnout.

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More Look-Alikes and Sound-Alikes

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Last week I posted a list of similar words with different meanings. Many of you let me know you wanted more, so here goes:

FORTH means onward or forward: Brianna set forth from her apartment, not knowing what to expect from the blind date at Starbucks.
FOURTH has within it the number four, containing its meaning.

DESSERT. Yummy. Hard to resist. Mmmm. Strawberry shortcake.
DESERT as a noun means a sandy, dry area. As a verb, with the accent on the second syllable, it means to abandon or leave behind. Do not desert your best friend in her hour of need.

COMPLEMENT completes something: A glass of beer is not the perfect complement to a piece of strawberry shortcake. Her sweater complements her green eyes.
COMPLIMENT means praise: Why is it difficult for so many people to accept a compliment?

A LOT is a piece of land you can build on. It also means “many” or “much.” There is no such word as “a lot.”
ALLOT means to parcel out or distribute. I told my children I would allot them two pieces of Halloween candy each day.

MINER is a person working in a mine.
MINOR means lesser or not particularly important: It’s hard to believe Van Gogh was once considered a minor artist. If you are a minor (less than legal age), you cannot buy alcohol in your state.

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