Tag Archives: copy editing

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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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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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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What in the World is a Mondegreen?

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Have you ever discovered lyrics that were not what you originally thought you heard? You misinterpret a phrase that sounds very similar to the real deal, but your interpretation gives it a new meaning, one that may raise eyebrows. That, dear readers, is a Mondegreen.

The name was coined in 1954 by author Sylvia Wright, who misheard the lyrics of an old Scottish ballad; she thought these were the words:

Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray,
And Lady Mondegreen.

In fact, the last line is And laid him on the green.

Here are some other Mondegreens:

the girl with colitis goes by (the girl with kaleidoscope eyes, from “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”)

There’s a bathroom on the right (There’s a bad moon on the rise, from “Bad Moon Rising”)

Surely, good Mrs. Murphy shall follow me all the days of my life. A more common reading of the 23rd Psalm includes the line, Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.

When I was very young, a popular singer named Patti Page recorded a song called “Cross Over the Bridge.” It contains the line, Leave your fickle past behind you, and true romance will find you…. I was just discovering love songs on the radio and had no idea what “fickle” meant. To my ears, Patti Page was singing, Leave your pickle pats behind you….

I still wonder what pickle pats had to do with true romance. And what are pickle pats, anyway? Send me your own Mondegreens. I bet you all have at least one.

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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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Words to Persuade With

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(To those of you moaning about my ending a sentence with a preposition, I ask if you’d rather read Words With Which to Persuade. It truly is fine to stick a preposition at the end of your sentence if it sounds more natural.)

To persuade your audience, here is a list of words that will entice your readers to your side: youyes, free, guarantee, easy, save, new, safety, benefits, discovery, health, now, sale, proven, money, results, love.

Please be sure when you use these words that you are not blowing smoke. If you are offering benefits, guarantees, or health, mean what you say. If you cannot back up your promises, you will lose all credibility.

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How Does This Issue Impact You?

So many issues to contemplate and solve. Issue after issue. Issues are issuing forth from radio, television and every segment of media all day and all night. We are bombarded with issues.

We are constantly being asked how these issues impact us. So many impacts. Impacts here, impacts there, impacts, impacts everywhere.

What I want to know is what happened to problems affecting people. I’m guessing impact has replaced affect, at least in writing, because so many people are unsure whether to use affect or effect.

Either of those can be used instead of impact:

  1. How does this problem affect you? (Affect is a verb.)
  2. What will be the effect of this problem? (Effect is a noun.)

It’s true that affect can be a noun: The patient had a flat affect (no facial expression).

Effect can also be a verb: Every new president hopes to effect changes (meaning bring about). 

However, you can see how rarely each of those words is used in those ways. Try memorizing the overwhelmingly more common uses of affect and effect (see sentences 1 and 2 above) and take them out for a spin every now and then. Don’t get stuck in the Issue and Impact Rut.

 

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About Capitalization

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Food Fight   ©Judi Birnberg

If you’d like a list of rules governing when to capitalize a letter, use the search box and put in Capitalization Rules. I posted the list a little over a year ago.

I just want to add that although a word may have special significance for you, your response won’t be universal: Exercise will fill you with Joy and Energy. When you finish your 75 pushups, you may be elated and buzzing with verve. Nevertheless, joy and energy are nothing more than ordinary, common nouns. They aren’t official names of anything (proper nouns) and should not be capitalized.

As I wrote in my previous post about capital letters,

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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How Best to Edit

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                                                           A Jumble of Words © Judi Birnberg

If you edit as you write, stopping frequently to go over what you’ve just put down, you stop your creative flow and get lost in the words, debating with yourself whether one version of a sentence is better than others. In that process, you tend to forget where you were headed. When I say “you,” I mean “me” and everyone else.

You will end up with a better document if you follow this rule: Down and Up. Write it down and then fix it up. Get your ideas out and, ideally, let the document sit if you have the time.

It’s helpful to get distance from your writing. I realize that with today’s pressures you can’t always do that. But at least give yourself perhaps five minutes to do something else and then come back to what you wrote to take another look at it and fix it up.

Can you do that? Let me know.

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Do You Pronounce the T in Often?

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I was recently asked why we sometimes pronounce the T in often but not in listen. I wasn’t sure, so I consulted the grammar guru who writes the invaluable blog  Grammarphobia, Pat O’Conner. She wrote the equally invaluable (and funny) book Woe Is I. You can subscribe to Grammarphobia and get her frequent posts on English language oddities. I highly recommend it.

This is blog post of hers that addressed the meandering T:

<<Q: I just discovered your site and I plan to return often. Oh, that reminds me – it makes me crazy to hear people pronounce the “t” in “often.”

A: The word “often” can be pronounced with a silent “t” (the more common pronunciation) or with an audible “t.” Both are correct, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.). Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) says the version with the audible “t” occurs in educated speech but is considered unacceptable by some.

American Heritage has an interesting usage note after its entry for “often.” During the 15th century, it seems, English speakers stopped pronouncing some sounds within consonant clusters, making the language easier to articulate. Examples include the “d” in “handsome” and “handkerchief,” the “p” in “consumption” and “raspberry,” and the “t” in “chestnut” and “often.”

With the rise of public education and people’s awareness of spelling in the 19th century, according to the dictionary, sounds that had become silent were sometimes restored. This is what happened with the “t” in “often.”

You might be interested in knowing that “often” was originally just “oft,” and “oft” was commonly used as a prefix in word combinations that are archaic and unrecognizable today. Even a word like ‘oftentimes,” which appears in modern dictionaries, seems dated and has musty, quaint overtones. It’s also a term that drives people crazy because of its apparent redundancy. But in fact, the words “oftentime,” “oftentimes,” and “oftime” date back to the early 1400s, and “ofttimes” was first recorded in the 1300s, so they have a venerable history.>>

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Common Language

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Linguists recently announced that “Huh?” or a similar word seems to be a universal way of confirming that another speaker is understood. They studied 10 languages on five continents, including Dutch, Icelandic, Mandarin Chinese, the West African Siwu and the Australian aboriginal Murrinh-Patha. These languages have very different grammatical structures, but all contain a syllable people use to make sure they are understanding what is being said. The variants sound like “huh?,” hah?,” “eh?” and other closely related sounds, and all end with a questioning intonation. I’m wondering if the questioning tone is like the American “Really?” meaning, “I get it.”

Others had proposed that “mama” and “dada” might be universal sounds, but “huh” is much more widely distributed. This came as a surprise to me.

For what it’s worth, when I taught college ESL classes, my students showed me how widespread our word “chocolate” is. The accent may be slightly different but you would instantly recognize the word as “chocolate.” So no matter where you are in the world, you will always be able to get your fix without someone saying, “Huh?” to you.

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Proofreading Prevents Embarrassment

© Judi Birnberg

A Frigate Bird (please spell it correctly) © Judi Birnberg

The following groanworthy errors are from Just My Typo, compiled by Drummond Moir. It’s all too easy to write a word you know well, a word that is close to the one you meant. We’ve all done this. Careful proofreading will prevent a red face.

As I’ve often nagged you, if you proofread silently at your normal pace you will read what you think you wrote, not what you actually wrote. You need to slow down and read out loud. Quietly is fine. The authors of the following sentences obviously neglected to do so:

Doctors now treat their patients with ultra-violent rays.
A polygon is a man who has many wives.
In biology today we digested a frog.
In the Middle Ages, people lived in rough huts with mating on the floor.

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A Misplaced Modifier

 

 

Unknown In yesterday’s Los Angeles Times, a little squib (are squibs ever large?) announced that Eddie Redmayne and his wife had had their first child. The next sentence was,”The actor confirmed in January they were expecting their first child at the Golden Globes.”

This, my friends, is a misplaced modifier. They were not expecting this baby at the Golden Globes, as the text states. They were attending the Golden Globes when Redmayne made the announcement. When you use a modifier, put it immediately next to the words it refers to. To fix this sentence all you have to do is write, “The actor confirmed at the Golden Globes in January they were expecting their first child.” Done!

Often, when the modifier is in the wrong place, you may inadvertently cause people to laugh at you: The man chased his neighbor’s dog in orange pajamas and carrying a broom.”

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Have a Seat

 

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I remember many years ago first hearing chair used as a verb and thinking it was odd. But with all language, usage makes the strange familiar. In the olden days, the person heading the committee was a chairman, no matter that person’s sex. Now chairman is used to indicate a male, chair is used for either sex, and chairwoman is frowned upon. Dianne Feinstein is the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, even when she stands up.

Theodore Bernstein, author of The Careful Writer and Dos, Don’ts and Maybes of English Usage, thought chair (v.) was a fad and spoofed its use by inventing some parallel words: He imagined people elevatoring themselves to their penthouses, getting dinner-jacketed and going theatering. Fortunately, none of those atrocities caught on, but today you can sit on a chair or guide a committee.

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More Spring Cleaning

© Judi Birnberg Time to Clean

© Judi Birnberg
Time to Clean

Last week I suggested you do some spring cleaning and rid your writing of redundant jargon and clichés. I heard from several of you who added additional suggestions, such as 7 a.m. Monday morning and the month of March. (I used to tell my classes, if it wasn’t by John Phillip Sousa it had to be the month.)

Jeff Wright, a very smart man I was lucky enough to have in one of my seminars, sent me a list he has compiled of his, ahem, favorites. With thanks to Jeff, I present the following:

Completely unique
Ask a question
Emergency situation
Cameo appearance
Filled to capacity
Tough dilemma
Close proximity
Shower activity
Storm system
False pretense
Added bonus
Very critical
Kneel down
Tuna fish
Heat up

I can also add these:

Any qualifier with unique (very, most, really, truly)
True fact
Surrounded on all sides
Exactly identical
New innovation
Disappear from view
Repeat again
Final conclusion
Purple in color
Completely free
Circled around

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Be Precise

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© Judi Birnberg    A Confusing Web of Thoughts

When you write, aim for precision. Vague writing can leave your readers confused or bored—or both:

John’s father said he couldn’t go to the concert Saturday night.

Who can’t go, John or his father?

Instead of writing  The long vacation was scheduled for a warm location, try They booked a two-week vacation in Tahiti.

Before you write, think carefully about your message. Then write it succinctly and specifically. Anticipate what questions your reader might have and then answer those questions in your message. Your goal is to avoid follow-up messages: Who can’t go to the Saturday night concert? Where are they going for their vacation? How long will they be away? 

 

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Last Signs From Japan

I can’t say I’ve saved the best for last, but these are the only two remaining funny signs I haven’t yet posted. So say “Sayonara” to people’s attempts to master English—with perhaps not quite possessing a full understanding of that language. Whatever they have done, it’s better than any attempt at Japanese on my part would have been.

I think the backwards R is a nice touch:

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And here is a bit of trilingualism: native Japanese speakers creating a sign using both French and English. A for effort:

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An Important Distinction

 

images.png    While driving yesterday, I saw a truck on the infamous 405 freeway. The company installs audio and visual components and proudly displayed its name in various places on the truck:

SIMPLISTIC SOLUTIONS

I was in no danger of driving off the freeway since my maximum speed at that point ranged from 5-10 mph. But I did swallow my gum.

Being the crank that I am, I sent the company an e-mail today:

To Simplistic Solutions:

I saw one of your trucks on the 405 yesterday and almost croaked. It appears you do not realize that “simplistic” and “simple” are not synonyms.  You know what “simple” means; “simplistic” means overly simple, too simple—it is most definitely a NEGATIVE.  I am certain that is not the idea you want potential customers to have about your company.

Cheers anyway—

Judi Birnberg

 

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Three More Japanese Signs

Sadly, this hotel looked neither grand nor fine.IMG_1839.jpg

This was the name of the restaurant in our hotel in Hiroshima. I kept waiting for the plates and bowls to get into formation and march snappily out the door.IMG_2043.jpg

Here was a breakfast choice in Dish Parade. Both objects look very similar, although the one on the right might be the flitter. I think it’s the common Asian mistake of substituting an L sound for an R. But neither looks like any pizza or fritter I’ve ever seen. Not a clue.IMG_2224.jpg

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A Quick Return to Japan

Here are two more Japanese signs I saw that made me ponder:

The only thing that goes through my head when I see this is a song. “Imagine you and me, so happy together….” Do you have any idea what the business might be? A dating site?

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This is one of my favorites. When you see this store, you must think ONLY about a suit. NOTHING more. What if I dare to think about a necktie? Or a pair of shoes?

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When to Omit Apostrophes

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© Judi Birnberg

I have written previously about the error of putting apostrophes into words that end in S but are not possessive: My cat’s chase each other through the house at high speed’s. Cats and speeds are merely plurals and do not take apostrophes since no ownership is shown.

Here are three other instances when an apostrophe is not needed:

1. When referring to decades: the 1990s
2. When referring to temperatures: highs in the mid-70s
3. When using abbreviations that are plural: 12 CPAs, two BMWs

Every time you want to use an apostrophe, take a good look and see if it really is in a possessive word or in a contraction. If not, delete it.

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Japan Still Calling

These signs and labels still make me giggle. They were all written by well-meaning people trying to master English, a notoriously complicated language. Our spelling alone is enough to make even native-speakers weep. See an earlier post of mine, How to Spell “Fish”

I presume “flit” was meant to be “filet.” As for the sauce, you and I are both guessing.

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These quotation marks are to reassure you that someone once said those words. I absolutely believe that, don’t you? The ST is likely missing an initial E. Since 1933, people have been enjoying precious coffee moments. I went to Japan thinking that I would find tea everywhere. It’s available but not obvious; however, coffee shops are ubiquitous.

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That serving spoon is to be used to take just one cornflake. But you can go back as many times as you’d like.

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A Few More Signs From Japan

Her Majesty, the reigning chicken, is in Nara, Japan. Notice that all the signs are in English. I am still wondering where the King of Chickens is.

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How I loved finding this product. Since it’s a coffee lightener, maybe the advertising company came up with the name by combining cream and powder. Just a guess.

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I never tried this offering at a hotel breakfast buffet. But given the wonderful cleanliness of Japan’s cities and towns, of course their sauces would also be tidy.

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A Common Agreement Problem

© Judi Birnberg

© Judi Birnberg

How often have you seen or heard the following construction?

There’s three reasons to buy your tickets early.

Omit the contraction and you will see you are saying There is three reasons to buy your tickets early. There is three?

To restore agreement to your sentence, you need to write There are three reasons…. Making that into a contraction, however, is awkward: There’re three reasons…. Ick.

Starting sentences with There is or There are (or Here is or Here are) is a weak construction. Better to write Buy your tickets early for three reasons—and then list them.

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Hungry?

This appears to be some kind of fruit juice—named PRETZ? Maybe you’re supposed to eat pretzels with it. This box was about $10; they had to squeeze a lot of pretzes to fill it up.

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Instead of pretzels, you might prefer a little pried seaweed. Fried? Or pried from a rock in the ocean?IMG_2094.jpg

 

You can ask the chef. He’s live!IMG_1858.jpg

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Still Lost in Translation

Some signs I found on my recent trip to Japan. 

“Luggages” is a common mistake speakers of languages other than English make. It’s logical, if ungrammatical, especially if you have more than one suitcase. But remember, “peaple” need their seats. As for the last line, I’m wondering if it was directed at the Koch Brothers.IMG_2237.jpg

Will do!IMG_2239.jpg

 

 

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A Few Signs in Japan

As a former teacher of ESL, believe me when I tell you I am aware of how difficult it is to learn English, especially when your native language uses characters and you have no cognates to cling to. Here are a few signs I saw in Japan that made me smile. I give their authors A for effort.

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Nix the Cooperation

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Thank you for your cooperation.

 

This is a very common closing to a business letter (and it’s also a cliché).

Here is the typical situation: You have asked your readers to do something you know they don’t want to do. They have neither the time nor interest, but you need their help. You give them the order, but to sweeten the deal you then add, Thank you for your cooperation.

Can you see how insincere that sounds? They are going to cooperate only because they have to (or else).

Generally, in business writing you want to get to the point and get out as quickly as possible. However, this situation calls for more words so your readers will understand you know you are imposing on them.

Try something like this:

Jackie, I know you are exceedingly busy this week, and I greatly appreciate your taking the time to help me out with this project. Thanks so much for lending a hand; I’ll do the same for you whenever you need my help.

Five words or a whole paragraph? If you write the paragraph, your co-workers will likely have more respect for you. That’s important.

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Biannual and Biennial

Aren’t these two words confusing? Bi— means two, but which one refers to twice a year and which one means every two years? Here’s the scoop:

BIANNUAL means something that happens twice in one year: We change our clocks biannually.

BIENNIAL means an act that occurs once in every two years: United States congress members are up for re-election biennially.

I think these definitions are ones you just have to memorize. If you can think of a helpful trick, let me know.

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Past vs. Passed

 

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These two words are commonly mistaken for each other or thought to be able to be used interchangably.

PAST refers to a previous time:
History refers to past events.
• I knew Robert in years past, but would not have recognized him today.
• Past behavior is often predictive of future behavior.

PASSED is the past tense of the verb TO PASS and has several meanings:
• It can mean to have skipped your turn: Erica passed her turn at bridge.
• Another meaning, in sports, is to have moved an object from one player to another: The hockey player passed the puck to his teammate.
• It also represents the movement of going by another person: Jessica passed (by) her ex-boyfriend in the hall but pretended not to see him.

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Sensual vs. Sensuous

SENSUAL always connotes sexual lust and attraction. Reserving the honeymoon suite included a sensual couple’s massage.

The renowned 17th century English essayist and poet John Milton (Paradise Lost) coined the word SENSUOUS to distinguish it from “sensual.” It refers to being aware of bodily sensations: e.g., sensuous smells, tastes, tactile feelings. Swimming slowly in tropical waters is a sensuous experience.

The things you can learn from an English teacher!

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Tropical Waters © Judi Birnberg

Tropical Waters © Judi Birnberg

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Romantic Typos

 

© Judi Birnberg

From Drummond Moir’s book Just My Typo:

Arthur was seriously burned Saturday afternoon when he came in contact with a high-voltage wife.  (Albuquerque newspaper)

Here the bridal couple stood, facing the floral setting, and exchanged cows. (Modesto, CA paper)

Mr. and Mrs. Garth Robinson request the honor of your presents at the marriage of their daughter Holly to Mr. James Stockman.  (Wedding invitation)

Socrates died from a overdose of wedlock. (Child’s homework)

The bride was accompanied to the altar by tight bridesmaids. (19th century court journal)

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A Few Pet Peeves, Linguistic Variety

Yea! You wrote "espresso! © Judi Birnberg

Yea! You wrote “espresso”!
© Judi Birnberg

Here’s a quick and simple one for you, suggested by a reader. I share her pet peeve: The “word” anyways does not exist. Just use anyway.

I would be so pleased if people looked at etcetera and pronounced it correctly. There is no EK in the word. It begins with ET, which is Latin for and.

Your favorite coffee drink is an espresso, not an expresso.

Thank you for your cooperation.

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Fillers

Speakers of all languages pepper their listeners with fillers, those sounds and words that take up little space and allow the speakers to figure out where they’re going. Here are some language-specific fillers:

Britain— spelled er (but pronounced uh)
France—euh
Israel (Hebrew speakers)—ehhh
Holland—uh and um
Germanyah and ahm
Serbia and Croatia—ovay
Turkey—mmmm
Sweden—eh, ah, aaah, m, mm, hmm, ooh, a and oh (very creative, no?)
Norway—e, eh, m, hm

Sometimes fillers are more than just a sound; they are complete words:

English speakerswell, you know, I mean, so
Turkey—shey, shey shey, which means thing
Mandarin Chinese—neige, meaning that
Cantonese speakers in Hong Kong—tsik hai, which means equal
Wichita Indian—kaakiri, meaning something

It seems that um is ubiquitous, found in every language.
My information comes from, um, the book titled Um, written by, um, Michael Erard.

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Have You Checked Your Sexist Dictionary Lately?

Recently, the New York Times ran an article about the role of dictionaries: should the definitions be descriptive (conforming to the way in which words are currently used) or proscriptive (in essence, showing how words should be used, according to current standards)?

The esteemed Oxford Dictionaries, including the New Oxford American Dictionary that comes with every Apple device in North America, was outed as being surprisingly sexist in many of its definitions. Here are a few examples:

shrill |SHril|
noun [ in sing. ]
a shrill sound or cry: the rising shrill of women’s voices.

Why were “women’s voices” used as an example? Does nothing else make high-pitched and piercing sounds? Bird calls? Machinery? Brakes? Avoid stereotypes.

rabid |ˈrabəd, ˈrā-|
adjective
1 having or proceeding from an extreme or fanatical support of or belief in something: a rabid feminist.

In fact, more sports fans than feminists have been defined as rabid, according to linguistic studies. Have I cautioned you to avoid stereotypes?

psyche 1 |ˈsīkē|
noun
the human soul, mind, or spirit: I will never really fathom the female psyche.

Do you see the smoke coming out of my ears? Observe: more smoke coming:

hysterical
adjective
1 Janet became hysterical: overwrought, overemotional, out of control, frenzied, frantic, wild, feverish, crazed;

It’s always Janet, poor, crazy, unhinged Janet. Have you watched a political debate recently? Did you notice any males who could easily fit this description?

bossy 1 |ˈbôsē, ˈbäs-|
adjective (bossier, bossiest) informal
fond of giving people orders; domineering: she was headlong, bossy, scared of nobody, and full of vinegar.

Note the use of the feminine pronoun.

bossy
adjective informal
we’re hiding from his bossy sister: domineering, pushy, overbearing, imperious, officious, high-handed, authoritarian, dictatorial, controlling; informal high and mighty. ANTONYMS submissive.

The brother couldn’t possibly be bossy; but that sister! She is tyrannical.

And finally:

nag 1 |nag|
verb (nags, nagging, nagged) [ with obj. ]
annoy or irritate (a person) with persistent fault-finding or continuous urging: she constantly nags her daughter about getting married | [ with infinitive ] : she nagged him to do the housework

People, this is 2016. Who is editing the dictionary? And why am I haranguing you with this subject? I urge you to be diligent about checking your writing for inadvertent, stereotypical sexism.

If you wouldn’t mention that you saw a man lawyer last week, there is no reason to point out that you happened to see a woman lawyer (and NOT a “lady” lawyer—gentility is irrelevant). Both males and females graduate from law school and pass the bar. The same advice holds for all professions that used to be almost exclusively male but have not been for a very long time: medicine, dentistry, veterinary medicine, fire fighters, police officers, soldiers, etc. And the reverse holds true: men today commonly are nurses, secretaries and flight attendants.

If you wouldn’t mention your male co-worker’s hair color or his clothes, don’t point out your female co-worker by her red hair—or her blue sweater.

Check your pronouns to make sure they’re inclusive. One easy trick to help you avoid the awkward “his or her” or “he or she” is to make your subject plural and use a plural pronoun to refer to that subject, such as “they” or “their,” for example.

Dentists today do much more than fill their patients’ cavities

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Spoonerisms

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I recently bought a book titled Um. It deals with verbal blunders people make, particularly in their speech. According to the author, Michael Erard, we commit a verbal blunder about once in every 10 words. Who knew?

No doubt you’ve heard of Spoonerisms, named (in 1885) for the Reverend William Archibald Spooner, of Oxford University. This man had an alarming propensity for mixing up the initial sounds of words. Until I read this book, I always thought that was the extent of a Spoonerism, but in addition the blooper has to result in a phrase that is inappropriate for the situation.

For example, Spooner was toasting Queen Victoria at a dinner and told the guests, “Give three cheers for our queer old dean!” He also admonished a student: “You have hissed all my mystery lectures. In fact, you have tasted two whole worms, and you must leave Oxford this afternoon by the next town drain.”

Spooner was aware of his tendency to tangle his words. He referred to his “transpositions of thought,” and at the conclusion of a talk he gave to alumni, he said, “And now I suppose I’d better sit down, or I might be saying—er—one of those things.”

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If you were to write the following poem and run it through your spellchecking software, not one word would be highlighted. Every word is legitimate—no spelling errors. Yet you would end up looking either stupid, sloppy, or both. Even if no words are marked by your spellchecker, don’t assume everything is OK. It’s so easy to type “and” when you meant to write “any” or “the” when you meant “them,” these,” or any other common “th” word.

My best advice, which you’ve probably heard from me a zillion times before, is to read what you’ve written out loud (quietly is fine) and slowwwwly: one. word. at. a. time. If you read silently at your usual speed, you’ll end up writing what you think you wrote, not what you actually wrote.

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Commas Used With Direct Address

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Direct address is when you use a person’s name or another word to indicate that person (lady, man, dude, jerk, Mom, Dad, pal, dear, darling, etc.). That direct address should be set off with commas:

Hello, Robert.
Sweetheart, I miss you so much.
I’m telling you, Dad, you need to stop working so hard.
Welcome, friend.
Cut it out, idiot!
Yes, Virgina, there is a Santa Claus.

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Which President Is It?

I go through this every year in mid-February: looking through the ads for refrigerators, mattresses and windows, I see three different ways to show why Washington and Lincoln were born to sell these items. Which one is correct?

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That’s a shadow,. This banner has no apostrophe.

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Here we have both presidents trying to sell you appliances.

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And here is only one president—but is it Washington or Lincoln selling you windows?

Obviously, the correct punctuation is seen in the second example. The rule for using apostrophes is very simple: take the owner word and add ‘S. If the owner word happens to end in an S, just add an apostrophe (boss=boss’).

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Two Common Mispronunciations

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MISCHIEVOUS is pronounced MIS CHIV ISS, not MIS CHEEVE E US.

GRIEVOUS is often misspelled and pronounced GREEVE E US. It’s GREEVE ISS.

Incidentally, looking at the subject line of this post reminds me that some people say and write PRONOUNCIATION and MISPRONOUNCIATION. True, the verb is PRONOUNCE, but for the noun forms, the O before the U is dropped.

Remember, I just teach the rules. I think they’re as crazy as you do.

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The OED 2015 Word of the Year

You may be wondering what took the OED so long; to me it seems as if emojis have been around for a very long time. In fact, emojis have supplanted emoticons, those emotions portrayed by punctuation marks, such as ;- ). (That may not come through the way I typed it; apparently, Unicode seeing those punctuation marks strung together automatically translates them into emojis.)

Some facts for you:

Over 80% of smartphone users in Britain use emojis; of those under 25, almost 100% use them. I’m guessing the numbers are similar in America.

Something called the Unicode Consortium processes applications for new emojis. You, too, can enter a request on the Unicode website by writing a detailed proposal. It may take two years for the committee to decide if your emoji is going to fly. Surprisingly (to me), they receive only about 100 proposals a year, so maybe you’ve got a shot.

Linguists seem to agree that emojis are not going away any time soon. In face-to-face conversation, about 70% of communication comes from non-verbal cues such as facial expression, body language, gestures, and intonation. Your spoken words count for approximately only 30%.

Without these non-verbal cues, our words can easily be misinterpreted online. That is where emojis can reinforce your meaning. Bloomberg has found that 8 trillion (!) text messages are sent each year, so that’s a big opportunity for misunderstanding.

But as with everything you write, you need to evaluate whether using emojis is appropriate. Sending a text or email to a business superior? Writing a letter of complaint? It might be a good idea to keep those emojis locked up. Make sure your written words are doing the work you want them to do. Every word counts. Read what you’ve written out loud. Have you been clear? Polite? Forceful? Respectful? Good. Now hold the smiley face. You’ll get plenty of other chances to use it.

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American Dialect Society’s 2015 Word of the Year

The American Dialect Society chose as its 2015 Word of the Year—THEY.

Are you wondering what is behind their choice? This linguistic society has chosen “they” to be a singular, gender-neutral pronoun, as in “They and Mary went to the movies.” It is used when a person does not identify as either male or female or when the gender of a person is unknown.

Schools today are dealing with a somewhat new situation. College application forms used to ask students to identify as either male or female. However, “gender fluidity,” in which some people do not identify solely as one gender or the other but may move between them, has prompted colleges to offer far more choices. Traditionally all-female Smith College has now admitted transgender students. The word “cisgender” has been used to mean chromosomally male or chromosomally female. My spellcheck software just underlined that word as I typed it, but it won’t be long before it is recognized as a “real” word.

Surely, 2015 raised people’s awareness of gender variety, including Bruce, now Caitlyn, Jenner’s transformation, and the wonderful (in my opinion) series on Amazon, “Transparent.” Facebook now offers 50 different choices for gender identity. Fifty.

Obviously, this new awareness has reached the corporate world as well. I imagine human resource departments are scrambling to accommodate the panoply of forms that human beings inhabit.

©Judi Birnberg

©Judi Birnberg

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A Few More Thoughts About Hyphens

The topic of hyphens can be confusing because different styles prevail for business, news, scientific and academic writing. If your employer uses a stylebook, follow that. Otherwise, the rules I gave last week should see you through. The rules are not always hard and fast. Here are a few more situations you might encounter:

1. If omitting the hyphen could cause confusion, be sure to use it: a small-business owner (without that hyphen, the reader might think the owner is on the short side).

2. When you have a proper noun (such as a person’s name) of two or more words being used as a compound adjective, hyphenate it: a Louis CK-like situation.

3. When two or more hyphenated words modify the same noun, one hyphen can do for both: a publicly-owned and –operated corporation; a Tony- and Grammy-award-winning performance.

I hope all of you, particularly my readers on the East Coast, are safe and warm. Be careful, please.

© Judi Birnberg "There Must Be a Hyphen in There Someplace"

© Judi Birnberg
“There Must Be a Hyphen in There Someplace”

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Adopt or Adapt?

These two words are frequently confused, but the distinction is easy:

ADOPT means to take as one’s own. You adopt a child or take something as it is. You’ve probably also heard the phrase “early adopter”; that’s a person who uses new technology as soon as it is released. That may be you.

ADAPT means to change something to suit your needs. You adapt yourself to living in Boston after having moved there from Australia.

© Judi Birnberg

© Judi Birnberg

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A Common Use of Hyphens

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Without hyphens, what would you make of the following sentences?

1. I saw a man-eating shark.
2. At the conference were 40-odd men and women.
3. Ancient history tells us about gift-bearing Greeks.
4. The college had to limit all-night discussions in the dorms.

Without those hyphens, you would have seen a male person eating a shark. You could very well see a man eating a serving of shark, but eating a shark gives you an entirely different picture.

You may have already attended a conference or two with 40 weird people, but the sentence above tells you there were approximately 40 people there. We do not know if they were all odd.

Gift-bearing Greeks is quite different than a gift bearing Greeks. That would be the Trojan horse.

Finally, the college is not limiting every discussion that takes place in the dorms at night, only discussions that last all night.

When you have one or more words that modify the noun that follows them, use a hyphen between those words that serve as adjectives if without the hyphens the meaning could be misconstrued. However, when the adjectives follow the noun, do not use hyphens. Therefore, you’d have celebrities who are hard to please or hard-to-please celebrities. Your choice.

Again, I don’t make up these rules; I just teach them.

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Book Recommendation: Bird by Bird

If you’re not familiar with the author Anne Lamott, I am here to tell you that I love her writing. She is serious and hilarious simultaneously, not an easy trick to pull off. Of all her books, I love Bird by Bird the most. The subtitle is Some Instructions on Writing and Life.

This is the best book on writing I know. If you’ve ever considered writing for publication or enjoy writing for your own pleasure, this is the book for you. Lamott knows all the obstacles and excuses you are carrying around in your head, and she dispenses with them in her own inimitable manner. At the same time, the book is philosophical—but not in a ponderous, off-putting way. Again, you will laugh.

If you’re curious about the title, when Lamott was a child her younger brother had a book report on birds due the next day and was agonizing about getting it written. Their father, who was himself a writer, patted his son on the head and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” Not a bad approach for a book report or for any other task before you that seems formidable. Bird by bird.

© Judi Birnberg

© Judi Birnberg

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A Few Friday Smiles

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From Drummond Moir’s book Just My Typo, some unfortunate errors on CVs:

1. I have a graduate degree in unclear physics.

2. I am a rabid typist.

3. I worked for six years as an uninformed security guard.

4. As part of the city’s maintenance crew, I repaired bad roads and defective brides.

5. I have had sex jobs so far.

Enjoy the weekend!

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How Do You Feel: Bad or Badly?

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It depends. If your fingertips are worn to nubs, chances are you feel badly. You have a bad sense of touch.

But if you have a monster headache and a fever of 102˚, you feel bad. Really bad.

Just as people think I is a classier pronoun than me (it isn’t), they often think badly is more elegant than bad. (It isn’t.)

Let’s talk about body odor for a minute. I think it will make this distinction more clear. Would you rather smell bad or smell badly?

If you go camping for two weeks during the hot summer and are never able to find a shower or even a stream to bathe in, chances are when you get home, you will smell really bad. In fact, you may reek.

But let’s say you have a terrible cold and cannot breathe through your nose. Someone blindfolds you and asks you to smell two things: a rose and an ancient, dirty sneaker. You inhale deeply and try to identify each item. In fact, you can’t smell anything. The rose and the sneaker transmit no scent to your nose. You smell badly. Very badly.

If smelling badly defines your sense of smell, feeling badly describes your sense of touch. If you need a bath, you smell bad, and if you experience sadness or illness, you feel bad.

Questions? Let me know.

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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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