Tag Archives: English grammar

More Typos From Abroad


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


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:


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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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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Some Midweek Typos for You


Drummond Moir’s Just My Typo keeps me laughing. Here are a few more, these from students.

The bowels are A, E, I, O, U, and sometimes W and Y.
In spring the lambs can be seen gambling in the fields.
Unaware means the clothes we put on first.
The first scene I would like to analize occurs in Heart of Darkness.
Writing at the same time as Shakespeare was Miguel Cervantes. He wrote Donkey Hote.
A ruminating animal is one that chews its cubs.

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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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Capitalization Rules


(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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Simple or Simplistic?


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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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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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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Yet More Look-Alikes and Sound-Alikes


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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Look-Alikes and Sound-Alikes


Here are some pairs of words that either sound alike or look very similar. Their meanings, however, are quite different. Remember, your spellchecker will see them all as words and doesn’t know the context in which you are using them, so it’s going to be up to you to proofread carefully to make sure you wrote the word you really wanted.

LOSE means to misplace or be defeated. It rhymes with choose.
LOOSE means not tight and rhymes with goose.

ADVICE is always a noun and rhymes with dice.
ADVISE is always a verb and rhymes with prize.

ACCEPT is always a verb and means to take.
EXCEPT is a preposition and means excluding.

CHOOSE means to select and rhymes with booze and whose.
CHOSE is the past tense of choose and rhymes with doze.

AFFECT is a verb and means to influence. (It is occasionally seen as a noun with the emphasis on the first syllable, primarily used in psychology to mean the way people present themselves: The patient showed no emotion and had a flat affect. But chances are great that you will be using affect as a verb, with the stress on the second syllable.)

EFFECT is a noun meaning result. Many people today are using impact instead of effect, but that’s being overused, in my opinion.
(Effect can be used as a verb, meaning to bring about, as in effecting change. But it’s more likely you will be using it as a noun.)

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Does “Proper English” Matter?

I am asking you this question seriously. An article appeared in the Wall Street Journal this past week raising the question about whether “proper English” matters. It was written by Oliver Kamm, an editor and columnist for the Times of London. Here is the link to his article:
http://on.wsj.com/1CcHQ3V .

Kamm acknowledges errors in grammar, spelling and punctuation but states that if “everyone” is doing it, it’s OK. He says, “…that is what the language is.” To a certain extent, I agree. All languages change because of common usage. In Shakespeare’s day, the word “girl” could refer to a young child, either female or male. That meaning no longer applies, strictly because of common usage. And look at the evolution of the word “gay” in the last 50 years.

But Kamm has no problem with “between you and I.” I do. He would call my attitude snobbish and say I am a pedant. Yet isn’t he being pedantic when stating his views on language?

Some rules of English language are holdovers from Latin syntax. That is why ending sentences with prepositions is still considered a no-no by many. I have no problem with saying or writing, “Who was the person I saw you with?” The alternative is to say, “With whom was that person I saw you?” I doubt many will go for that stuffy option. Splitting infinitives is another so-called error, yet the world’s most famous split infinitive, “to boldly go,” poses no problem. If it sounds all right and makes sense, I am fine with splitting infinitives (the “to —” form of verbs).

We all use different forms of English for different occasions. A formal letter of complaint, a quick email to a friend, a letter to your ancient great-aunt—all will contain a different style of English. If your work involves a field that uses particular lingo, by all means use it among your colleagues. But don’t let that language spill out into the wider world; most people outside your area won’t understand what you mean. And clear communication is the purpose of language, isn’t it? Also realize that spoken English is rarely held to the same standards as is written English. Sometimes the result can be painful to the ears, but casual speech usually seems normal and often even entertaining.

Here’s a big question: Do people judge us by the way we use English? I fear they do. It might not be fair, and it is only one way we are judged daily: by our speech and writing, by our clothing, by our hair and makeup, by the car we drive, by our taste in music and movies—the list is endless. Not fair, but endless.

I have two graduate degrees in English. One class required a very complicated and difficult study of transformational grammar (don’t ask), but it did give me the knowledge and confidence to devote over 20 years to teaching business writing seminars in the corporate world. If “proper” English doesn’t matter, why was I ever hired?

I think the dumbing down of language standards fits in with today’s grade inflation and trophies for everyone on the sports team. In the 1970s, an “anything goes” educational model arose to make students feel good at all costs. A young cousin of mine learned to read in school by using phonetic books; she also learned to write by using phonetic spelling. At some point in later elementary school she had to dich fonetik speling and lurn the mor convenshunl wun. Perhaps some of you were taught the same way.

Daily we are faced with language distortion in politics and advertising. (I urge you to read George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language.” You can find it online. Well worth your time.)

Since the purpose of language is communication, being precise is of great importance. The rules we learn throughout our lives, particularly in classes, ensure the greatest clarity; we encounter fewer opportunities for misunderstanding.

My questions to you are the following: Is it racist or classist to expect people to write using the standards of “proper” English? If people don’t use standard English, will they be considered less intelligent? Will use of substandard English hold people back?

I would love to get your feedback. I will be here all this week. I am disappearing for the following two weeks for vacation. Whenever you write, I will have your emails when I get back (yes, I’m unplugging) and will answer you.

Thanks for reading. And thanks to AW for alerting me to the article that gave rise to this letter.


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So This is At the Top of My Pet Peeve List


I blogged about this topic once before, but it has become ubiquitous and is grating on my last synapse. If you don’t know what I’m referring to, look again at the subject line or listen to any interview on NPR: Why are people starting sentences with “So” when the word adds no meaning?

I’m not referring to the use of “so” as a conjunction, as in, “Elrod dyed his hair Raggedy Andy red so he would stand out in a crowd.” I don’t mean “so” used as a synonym for “therefore” or “as a result”: “Aaron overate all day; so naturally he wasn’t hungry at dinner time.”

I mean the use of “so” as a worthless filler, most frequently used at the beginning of an answer to a question:

Q. “How many people do you think will want to buy the new Apple iWatch?”
A. “So it’s hard to predict because many people have given up wearing watches and just use their tablets and phones to see what time it is.”

So I think “Well” as an introduction (that again carries no meaning and may at best buy thinking time before answering) has been supplanted by “So.” So notice today how many times you hear people say and write “So” at the beginning of sentences. So don’t be like me and snarkily say “So” back at them every time you hear or see it. So there.

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Frequently Confused Words


To my eyes, the words its and it’s cause the greatest confusion. I know I have written about this before, but in case you need a quick refresher, here goes:

Its is a possessive pronoun: The dog wagged its tail. The tail belongs to the dog. No possessive pronoun ever has an apostrophe: hers, his, our, theirs—see? No apostrophes. Its is a possessive pronoun; therefore, no apostrophe, ever.

It’s is a contraction. It means either it is or it has:

It’s expected to rain later today. (Substitute it is.)
It’s been a long time since Southern California had a good rain. (Substitute it has.)

When you are thinking about using it’s, the one with the apostrophe, see if you can substitute it is or it has. If you can’t, you want the possessive form, its.

Two other words that cause serious problems are who’s and whose. This distinction is just as easy:

Who’s is a contraction, meaning who is or who has:

Who’s going to run for committee treasurer? (Substitute who is.)
“Who’s been sleeping in my bed,” growled Daddy Bear. (He means who has.)

Whose is a pronoun showing ownership: Whose pen is this? If you can’t substitute who is or who has, you want the possessive form, whose.


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Do You Know These Words?


These are male ecdysiasts.

I was moseying around the Internet this afternoon and came across lists of very unusual English words. Many I am familiar with, and I bet you are too: Klutz, hootenanny, malarkey, ornery, doozy, brouhaha, filibuster and skedaddle. But how about these?

Troglodyte—someone who lives in a cave (implying cluelessness because so removed from the world)
Borborygm—the sound of your stomach gurgling
Gastromancy—telling fortunes from the rumbling of stomachs
Formication—Wrong! It means the feeling that ants are crawling on you
Fard—Wrong again. It’s face paint or makeup
Furphy—a portable water container
Hemidemisemiquaver—in music, a 1/64 note
Bumbershoot—an umbrella
Oocephalus—an egghead, which is what you will be called if you use many of these words. But they are fun to know.

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Pronouns and Antecedents


Fear not: an antecedent is nothing more than a word (or words) that come before a pronoun. The pronoun refers to that word, the antecedent.

You know what you mean, but your reader doesn’t. Problems arise when we use pronouns, but the antecedent either is unclear or missing. Here are some examples:

1. Robert smiled fondly at his brother and said he had saved his life. (Who saved whose life?)

2. Annie told Robin she was confused. (Who’s confused?)

3. Aaron is a good cook, which he practices daily. (What does he practice daily? The missing antecedent is “cooking.”)

4. Rosalie threw her iPhone on the tile floor and cracked it. (She cracked the tile or her phone?)

When you use a pronoun, picture drawing an arrow from that pronoun to the word it refers to. If your arrow goes nowhere, rewrite your sentence to clarify the antecedent.

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Was or Were?


In “Fiddler on the Roof,” Tevya sings, “If I were a rich man….” Why “were” and not “was”? We use “were” when the situation is not true, is contrary to fact. Tevya is poor. He wishes he were a rich man, but he knows he isn’t.

You’ve heard the expression, “If I were king….” But you’re not king, so again you use what is known as the subjunctive voice, using “were” instead of “was”:

“If I were taller, I would date taller women.” (He’s short.)
“If it weren’t snowing, we could go to the movies this afternoon.” (Not another blizzard!)

However, sometimes you want to use “was” instead of “were”; this is when the situation is not untrue:

“If I was talking too loudly, I’m sorry.” (You were blasting us out of the room.)
“If Andrea was at the rehearsal, I must have missed her.” (She was there; you were busy.)

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My Favorite Kind of Grammatical Mistake

How can you not love misplaced modifiers? Often, they are kneewhackingly funny. I’m currently reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs and came across this sentence last night:

[Don] Valentine arrived at the Jobses’ garage in a Mercedes wearing a blue suit, button-down shirt, and rep tie.”

I’ve never bought a Mercedes, so I’m not familiar with the options. Perhaps you can buy an entire outfit for your new car. A blue suit would look spiffy against a metallic gray Mercedes body. I’m left wondering what kind of shoes the car had on.

A modifier is nothing more than a word or a group of words that gives information about another part of the sentence. Here’s the rule with modifiers: Put it next to the word or word it’s giving information about. In this case, we intuitively know that Don Valentine was wearing the clothes described. All Isaacson needed to do was begin the sentence, “Don Valentine, wearing a blue suit, button-down shirt, and rep tie, arrived at the Jobses’ garage in a Mercedes.”

Steve Jobs is a fascinating description of an extremely complex person. All it would have taken to avoid this error was proofreading and careful editing. I often wonder if editors no longer exist at publishing houses.


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Before You Click “Send”


Most of us have had the horrible experience of discovering one nanosecond after clicking “Send” that we have sent that email to the wrong person. Here is a checklist to help you avoid that and other problems:

1. To make your email sound more human, include a greeting and closing. These can be casual or more formal, depending on the situation.

2. Make sure all names are spelled correctly. You don’t like to see your name mangled; neither does anyone else.

3. Don’t forget to add “please” and “thank you.” These are positive words people like to see.

4. Always use spellcheck, and then always proofread out loud (quietly and slowly) to pick up mistakes spellcheck doesn’t recognize (e.g., “ant” when you meant “any”).

5. Don’t overpunctuate!!!! You want to come across as a professional.

6. Avoid using “Reply All.” We all get too many emails, and “Reply All” clutters up mailboxes with issues that often don’t pertain to the recipient. Be selective in sending responses.

7. If the subject is emotionally charged, after you write your reply do not send it immediately. Do something else. Later, reread your answer and make certain it is responsive to the email you received. If you are satisfied that your answer is appropriate, go ahead and send it. If you’re not sure, either wait awhile longer or else rewrite your response.

8. The last step before sending is to check the TO: field to be certain your email is going only to those you want to see it.

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My dear friend RB sent me these puns. Normally, I find puns corny, but these struck me as particularly clever. See what you think:

I tried to catch some fog. I mist.
When chemists die, they barium.
Jokes about German sausage are the wurst.
A soldier who survived mustard gas and pepper spray is now a seasoned veteran.
I know a guy who’s addicted to brake fluid. He says he can stop any time.
How does Moses make his tea? Hebrews it.
I stayed up all night to see where the sun went. Then it dawned on me.
This girl said she recognized me from the vegetarian club, but I never met herbivore.
I am reading a book about anti-gravity. I can’t put it down.
I did a theatrical performance about puns. It was a play on words.
They told me I had Type A blood, but it was a Type O.
A dyslexic man walks into a bra.
PMS jokes aren’t funny. Period.
Why were the Indians here first? They had reservations.
I’m going on a class trip to the Coca-Cola factory. I hope there’s no pop quiz.
The Energizer Bunny was arrested, charged with battery.
I didn’t like my beard at first. Then it grew on me.
How do you make holy water? Boil the hell out of it.
What do you call a dinosaur with an extensive vocabulary? A thesaurus.
When you get a bladder infection, urine trouble.
What does a clock do when it’s hungry? It goes back four seconds.
I wondered why the baseball was getting bigger. Then it hit me.
Broken pencils are pointless.

You may now groan.

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When Sounds Disappear

This is from the article in The Guardian on spelling changes. As a lover of languages, I find this information fascinating and hope you do, too.


“English spelling can be a pain, but it’s also a repository of information about the history of pronunciation. Are we being lazy when we say the name of the third day of the working week? Our ancestors might have thought so. Given that it was once “Woden’s day” (named after the Norse god), the “d” isn’t just for decoration, and was pronounced up until relatively recently. Who now says the “t” in Christmas? It must have been there at one point, as the messiah wasn’t actually called Chris. These are examples of syncope.”

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Linguistic Metamorphoses


This is a numpire.

The British paper The Guardian recently ran an article about how English has changed and continues to change because of mistakes in pronunciation. You may not have to wait too long before ex-presso and ex cetera become standard (although I will fight to the finish to prevent this).

Did you know that apron, umpire and adder at one time all began with an N? The blacksmith wore a napron, the referee of a game (Quiddich, perhaps?) was a numpire, and a dangerous snake was a nadder.

I’ll have a lot more tidbits from this fascinating article in the coming days. If you’re interested, grab an ESpresso and stay tuned.

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Me, Me, Me, Me, Me!


So many people think “I” is a classier pronoun than “me.” It isn’t. Both are equally weighted in the World of Pronouns. If you have used a preposition, you need to follow it with an object pronoun, which is what “me” is.

You wouldn’t say or write, “Janie sent an email to I,” would you? See that “to”? It’s a preposition, and therefore needs to be followed by an object pronoun: She sent the email to ME.

“Between” is also a preposition. I cringe when I see or hear “Between you and I.” Again, it’s ME. Here’s a list of some other common prepositions: for, from, above, under, below, beneath, underneath, near, next to, along, about, down, up, across….You see they indicate location or direction.

Here are other object pronouns: Her, him, us, them. Whenever you use a preposition, you’ll need one of these pronouns. Don’t say or write, “Between Bob and he.” It’s “Between Bob and him.”

If you use “I” or another subject pronoun, such as she, he, we, they, people are going to shudder. You don’t want that to happen. Use your object pronouns proudly.

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Are Your Modifiers Misplaced?

First off, a modifier is nothing more than a word or group of words that gives more information about another part of your sentence, so don’t get anxious about this topic before we begin.

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

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

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

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

Fix the modifiers in the following sentences:

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

Any questions? Let me know.

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A Very Common Redundancy


“Where’s the shoe department at?”
“Did she tell you where the meeting is at?”
“How can I find where my evaluation is at?”

When you use “where” in a sentence, you are referring to location. Therefore, sticking an “at” into the sentence is redundant. All you need is:

“Where is the shoe department?”
“Did she tell you where the meeting is?”
“Where can I find my evaluation?”

I’m wishing for just one day when I hear the “at” tag fewer than 10 times. Is that asking too much?

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Common Sense Rules for Emails


You have received enough emails in your time to make you aware of certain behaviors that annoy or even anger you. Here are a few reminders to keep your recipients happy:

1. DON’T WRITE IT ALL CAPS. They are hard to read and your readers will think you are shouting.

2. all lower case isn’t any better. it looks immature and is likewise annoying to read. I hope you enjoy e.e. cummings’  poetry, but please don’t emulate his style; it belongs to him.

3. Don’t leave the subject line blank. If you need to write only a few words, you can put the entire message in the subject line and, in parentheses afterward, add (end) or (EOM). For example, Meeting tomorrow at 10:00 (end).

4. If you’re sending the same email to several people, you’ll probably want to use Bcc: in the address line for each person. Otherwise, you are revealing everyone’s email address to everyone else on the list, and it might not be your place to do that. Use your discretion.

5. If you receive information from another person, do not copy all or part of that when you write to others—unless you have received permission from the original writer to do so.

6. Don’t use a background color or colored fonts in your emails. They make it harder to read, and if you are responding, those colors may go into your email. It’s annoying all around.

7. If you write an angry email, do not send it. At least don’t send it immediately. Sleep on it. You may decide not to send it at all, or you may want to tone it down. Don’t demean yourself.

If you have other suggestions, I’d love to see them. We can all learn from each other. Thanks!

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Only “And” Adds



“And” is the conjunction we use to add information. However, sometimes we use other phrases, such as “along with,” “in addition to,” “as well as,” “with,” “including” and “together with.” These seem to add information but, in fact, don’t.

Why do you care? Whether you use “and” or one of the other phrases determines whether the sentence is singular or plural. Look at the following two sentences:

1. Clark Kent, Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane work at the Daily Planet.

2. Clark Kent, together with Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane, works at the Daily Planet.

That “and’ in the first sentence makes the subject plural; it includes all three people Therefore, the verb also has to be plural. In the second sentence, “together with” does not make Jimmy and Lois part of the subject. Only Clark is the subject; therefore, you need the singular verb works.

Remember, I don’t make up the rules; I just teach them.

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Just a Reminder


I recently spent time with a person who qualified “unique”: things were “very unique” or “rather unique” and even “extremely unique.”

Did I say something? No. Did I want to? Did I ever. “Unique” means one of a kind. Nothing else like it (whatever “it” is) exists. Therefore, it can’t be qualified. Either something is unique or it isn’t. Qualifying “unique” is  rather like being a little bit pregnant.

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Are You Tense?

For people learning English, our plethora of verb tenses if confusing and often overwhelming. From native speakers, the most common error I see and hear is with the verb “go.” Yep, simple, everyday “go.”

You know the past tense is “went”: I went, you went, he went, she went, we went, they went. But when you are in a situation in which you want to describe an action you have or had done before, you need the verb “gone,” as in “I had gone to see that movie but wanted to see it again.” What I hear so frequently is “I had/have went.” Shudder!

“Has” and “have” comprise the past participle form of verbs. If you use any version of those, including “will have” or “could have,” you will need to use “gone.”

Here is a short video from “The Big Bang Theory,” sent to me by VMD. Remember, it’s a joke; these tenses don’t really exist. But I think you’ll enjoy the creativity of the so-called grammarians you’ll see:




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A Quick Pronoun Quiz

Which sentence is grammatically correct?

1. My boyfriend likes soccer more than me.

2. My boyfriend likes soccer more than I.

Hmmm. You’re thinking about this one. Scroll down and see if you are correct.






Both sentences are correct. The first one is really saying that my boyfriend likes soccer more than he likes me. The second sentence says he likes soccer more than I do.

If you’re not sure about which pronoun to use, think about what the sentence is actually saying and add the missing but understood words.

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What’s the Correct Verb?

imagesHere are a few sentences asking you to decide which verb is correct:

1. Each of the Congress members in the border districts (is, are) being polled on the immigration proposal.

2. A list of the employees of the Internal Audit Department requesting flexible vacation days (is, are) posted in Sheridan’s office.

3. Every member of the committee reviewing the bylaws (needs, need) to send in recommendations by next Friday.

Finished? The correct answer in each sentence is the first choice. Verbs have to agree with their subjects—singular with singular, plural with plural.

In the first sentence, the subject is “Each.” The next two pieces of the sentence before the verb are prepositional phrases, and the subject of a sentence is never found in a prepositional phrase. “Members” and “districts” are objects of their preceding prepositions but neither can be the subject.

The subject in the second sentence is “list,” for the same reason, as is “member” in the third sentence.

If you are not sure what your subject is, temporarily cross out the prepositional phrases. You’ll then be down to the skeleton of your sentence and the verb will become apparent.

How did you do?


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Into or In to?

The distinction between these two is not difficult, yet people often confuse them.

INTO is a preposition and indicates movement either within something else or toward it:

“I drove into downtown Chicago although I had never been there before and was unsure where I was going.”

“Harry tried to put his new iPhone6 into his pocket but found it wouldn’t fit.”


IN TO comprises the adverb “in” and is followed by “to,” which is another preposition.

“I listened in to see if I was interested in their discussion of ‘Homeland.’ ”

Here’s an easy way to distinguish these two constructions:

INTO almost always answers the question “Where?”

IN TO indicates “in order to.”

Let’s try this out: Harry put his new iPhone6 where? Into his pocket (or at least he tried).

Why did I listen in? In order to see if I would be interested in their conversation.

Got it? Good!






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Presently or Currently?



The first meaning or spelling you find in the dictionary is the preferred one. The first definition of “presently” is “soon, in the near future.”

“Currently” means “now, at the present time.”

Many people use “presently” interchangeably with “currently,” because, most likely, they are thinking of “at the present time.”

I prefer to make the distinction between these two words. As always, though, common usage will be the deciding factor.

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Do You Care Enough? Too Much?


I love it when people send me examples of bad writing. (It makes my job so much easier.) Here is the latest from V.M., who relishes these goofs as much as I do. She received a brochure last week from “Beyond Caring Home Care Services.”

You know what the owners were trying to convey. They wanted us to know that not only do they care, but they go beyond caring to do many other helpful things. The problem is that according to the common meaning of “beyond caring,” you no longer care. You used to care but now you are past that; you are beyond caring.

It’s possible the brochure was written by someone whose first language wass not English and who was not familiar with this particular expression. If a document was important, I always used to encourage my ESL students to run their writing by someone whose facility with English they could trust, to make sure they were not making inadvertent mistakes.

P.S. Winnie the Pooh should have used a period or a semicolon between those two sentences, not a comma. But I love him, and he admits he is a bear of very little brain.

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Massive Mistakes

Welcome to fall. Seasons are not capitalized except when you specifically refer in a document to, for example, a report of Fall 2014 or the Fall Retreat.

This week I have a treat for you, sent to me by B.B., who took my corporate class a very long time ago. I love it when former participants stay in touch with me, especially when they think of me when finding a goodie like the following. Take it as a warning. PROOFREAD EVERYTHING!


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Virtual or Actual?


In the same way “literal” and “figurative” are often used incorrectly, people also confuse the meanings of these two words:

VIRTUAL means in effect or almost: “I’m so hungry, I could eat a virtual horse.”

A virtual horse is one that doesn’t exist. It isn’t actual. It might be a horse in a painting or some other image of a horse, but it isn’t alive (or even dead). It doesn’t exist.

You are certainly familiar with the term “virtual reality.” That means something that seems to be real in every way but is, in fact, an illusion.

On the other hand, if you’re hungry enough to eat an actual horse you’re more likely to satisfy your appetite in France than in many other countries. (But being vegan or vegetarian is also an option you might consider.)

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Home or Hone?


Here are two frequently confused  words.

To HOME (in), a verb, means to head for home, like a passenger pigeon, or to focus on something:

“Elliot cut short the chatter at the meeting and homed in on the topic everyone had come to discuss.”

To HONE means to sharpen, either literally or figuratively:

“Karen honed her skills as a designer by finding a mentor in the fashion industry.”

“Robin honed her favorite whittling knife before entering the wood-carving competition.”

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Singular or Plural?


The following words often cause problems with subject-verb agreement: EVERYBODY, EVERYONE, EVERYTHING. However, if you look at the end of each word, you’ll see that each one is singular. Therefore, you’ll need a singular verb to go with one of these words if it is your subject. The same rule applies for the ANY— words and the NO— words. (“No one” is always spelled as two words.)

Everyone in the meetings is coming with a laptop.

Anything you’ve heard about his children is likely to be true.

Nobody at the hotel has heard about the robbery on the second floor.

The rule has always been that the pronoun associated with these words needs to be singular as well: “Everyone attending the meeting needs to bring (his, her, his or her) laptop.” All of those choices are either awkward or exclusionary. For that reason, we most often hear “Everyone needs to bring their laptop.” It’s only a matter of time until that becomes standard English. However, an easy fix is to skip that pronoun entirely and just have the people bring “a laptop. Problem solved.


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Cut It Out


Here are some commonly used (not utilized!) words you can eliminate in almost every case:

Event: A sales event is a sale.

Facilities: Manufacturing facilities are plants or factories.

Conditions: Stormy weather conditions are storms.

Activity: Rainfall activity is rain.

Basis: Working on a volunteer basis is volunteering.

Operation: A cleanup operation is cleaning up.

You can see these words add no meaning, carry no weight. After you finish writing, go to your Find function and put in these clichéd words. Read each sentence where you find them and see if you can’t eliminate the deadwood. In almost every case you’ll be able to cut it out.

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They’re, Their, There

UnknownWait! Please don’t stop reading. I have a couple of good tips for you to help you remember which form is which.

1. They’re=They are. If you can’t substitute “they are,” you want a different form of this homophone.

They’re arriving an hour early to make sure to get good seats at the concert.

2. Their=Possession. It indicates ownership. The word “heir” is contained within this word, so you can remember that an heir will inherit possessions.

The campers retrieved their food bags from the pine tree and cooked their dinner, hoping not to be threatened by bears.

3. There=Location. It is similar in spelling to “where” and “here,” words that also indicate location.

I love visiting New York, but I haven’t lived there for a very long time.

Be sure to proofread your writing to make sure you have the correct form.

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Non Sequiturs


Here’s a bit of Latin accepted in everyday English without translation. For the record, a non sequitur means “it does not follow.”

It shouldn’t have to be stated that one thought in your writing should logically follow the preceding idea (but I just stated that). However, we often are struck by words that raise our eyebrows and elicit a “Huh?”

Here’s an example from the New York Times:

“Slim, of medium height and with sharp features, Mr. Smith’s technical skills are combined with strong leadership qualities.”

Surely you are asking yourself what Smith’s technical skills and leadership qualities have to do with his physical description. This is a glaring example of a non sequitur and, as a bonus feature, it is also a misplaced, or dangling, modifier: a grammatical twofer. As the sentences are written, Smith’s technical skills and leadership qualities are slim, of medium height and possess sharp features. Huh?

When you begin a sentence with a description such as the one above, what follows immediately has to be the person or object that possesses those traits. Then your modifier will be undangled.

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To D or not to D?


A friend sent me this snippet that raised her eyebrows: “There was little advanced warning 79 years ago….”

Advanced warning? Was the warning ahead in development, or did it come in advance of something?

It’s common to see errors in which people use —ed for a suffix or else leave it off, as in “ice tea.” Is the tea made of ice or is it iced?

If you’re debating whether to use the —ed form or to leave that d off, ask yourself some logical questions. The answers should be obvious to you and help you decide which form you want.


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Recur and Recurrence

Pay attention and you’ll frequently see and hear people use “reoccur” and “reoccurrence” to describe something that has happened before. Logically, they are correct: an act has occurred and then has happened again, so you would think it had re[again]occurred. But, in fact, the grammatically correct forms are “recur” and “recurrence.”

If you are guilty of this offense, please avoid engaging in further recurrences. Your readers and listeners will thank you.



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Alright or All right?


This is an easy one: so far, “alright” is not considered an acceptable form of this construction. “Alright is all wrong” might help you to remember. However, given the prevalence of the one-word spelling in advertising and popular culture, I predict it is only a matter of time before “all right” will be “all wrong.” Meanwhile, I’m hanging in there with the purists.

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I needed to use the word “sanction” the other day and thought about how it has two opposite meanings (a contronym): A sanction means approving of something (asking a boss to sanction your project) or sanctioning by boycotting (as in sanctioning certain companies that take positions you do not agree with).

The word “cleave” is similarly a contronym, meaning to stick to something (The toddler cleaved to her mother’s arm) and also to split or sever (Pioneers needed to cleave logs to keep their cabins warm).

Here are some more contronyms on a list from this source: http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2012/06/contronyms/

dustto remove dust. to cover with dust.

hystericalfrightened and out of control. funny.

nervyshowing nerve or courage. excitable and volatile.

mootdebatable. not worth debating. (Pronounced as spelled, not as MUTE)

fastmoving quickly. solid and unable to move.

seedto sow seeds. to remove seeds.

weatherto withstand a storm. to wear away.

screento show, e.g., a film. to hide something.

boundfastened to a spot. heading for somewhere.

apologyan expression of regret for something. a defense or justification of something.

striketo hit. to miss (in baseball).

I love being a word nerd.

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Wondering and Guessing


Take a look at the following sentences:

1.  I wonder how long this meeting is going to take?

2. Guess how many jellybeans are in this jar?

Just this morning I saw errors such as the ones in those sentences in both the LA Times and the New York Times.

Did you just reread those sentences and decide neither one contained an error? I’m guessing most people would think that. But look what those sentences are doing:

The “wonder” sentence shows that the writer has a question about how long that dreaded meeting will take. But, in fact, that sentence merely states a fact, the fact that the writer does not know the length of the meeting. It is a simple declarative sentence.

The “guess” sentence is a command: “I am telling you to guess how many jellybeans are in the jar.” The people being addressed have a question in their minds, but the speaker/writer of that sentence is issuing an order, not a question.

When you need to write “wonder” or “guess,” do not automatically throw in a question mark. Only if those words are contained in an actual question (Do you wonder how Igor ever was hired as the chief lab manager? Can you guess how many jellybeans are in this jar?) should you use a question mark.


(That can be an abbreviated question, “Do you understand?” or a command, “You must understand.”  It’s the first; you knew that.)

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Proofreading Tips


It’s a good idea to proofread your writing. It’s more than a good idea; it’s imperative. We appear careless or unintelligent because of sloppy writing. Here are a few tips to help you make your writing as good as it can be:

1. Proofread out loud and slowly. I can’t emphasize this point strongly enough. If you proofread silently and quickly, you will read what you think you wrote, not what you actually wrote. You don’t need to proofread in a stentorian voice, just loudly enough so you can hear yourself over whatever noise is going on around you.  You may need to leave the room to be able to read your writing so you can hear it.

2. Proofread for specific things. If you know you have a problem with verb tenses or parallelism, proofread one time only for that. Then do it again to look for other problems.

3. If you’ve revised your writing as you type, proofread to see if by changing your prose you have left out words or kept words in that shouldn’t be there. We commonly forget to check for errors caused by rewriting.

4. Proofread one time specifically to check your punctuation. Again, do this slowly.

5. Pay attention to spell check and grammar check alerts. Occasionally, they are incorrect, but for the most part you will need to fix something.


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About About

For some reason, about is rarely seen in business writing.  Is it thought to be too common, too ordinary?  I have no idea why it is shunned, but I’m encouraging you to rediscover its charms.

Here are the words you love to use in about’s place:


With regard to  (not with regards to; regards are what you give to


With respect to, In respect to


As to

Apropos of

In reference to

These all tend to sound extremely formal.  Most of your business writing should be in a conversational voice, the way you would talk to someone sitting across your desk from you.  Don’t be afraid to sound human.  Your writing will be clear, and people will enjoy reading what you write.


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Compound Adjectives as Modifiers

You’ll need to use a hyphen when a two-or three-word (or more) adjective combination comes before a noun:

A three-week vacation

A family-owned business

An out-of-the-blue surprise

If you fail to use a hyphen in some sentences, you might end up writing, “Forty odd people attended the meeting.” It may be that all 40 were weirdos, but when you add a hyphen you show that approximately 40 attendees were there (although some of them may have been nuts). You’re just not certain of the actual body count in attendance.

However, if an adverb combination comes before a noun, do not use a hyphen:

A hastily gathered petition

The lazily flowing river

Remember, not all adverbs end in -ly. The daily newspaper shows an example of an adjective that ends in -ly.

Family and homily are two -ly words that are nouns.




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Can or May?

UnknownChances are we all had teachers embed in our crania that CAN should be used for something you are able to do and MAY is for what is permissible.

Many seemingly inviolate rules of English are giving way to expediency. If you ask someone if you can get her something from the coffee shop, everyone understands what you mean. Of course you are able to get her the coffee. May you? Are you allowed to? Is it permitted?

These are silly distinctions, in my opinion. If your meaning is not open to interpretation—whether you use can or may—be my guest and use whichever word is natural for you. No one will deride you for continuing to make the distinction, but neither should they tsk tsk at you for ignoring the old rule.

We have to recognize that the English language changes. All languages change over time. If you are not comfortable with prevailing usage, stick with what you are comfortable using. Sometimes there is no clear “right” or “wrong.”

Feel free to disagree.


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