Tag Archives: linguistics

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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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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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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The Two Sides of Autocorrect


Some people love it, others detest it. I find it convenient, but always, always, always proofread before I send a message.

The New York Times recently ran an article about the perils of Autocorrect, highlighting a message an 83-year-old woman sent to her great-granddaughter. She signed it “Great Grandma.” Unfortunately, Autocorrect thought it knew better and changed her signature to “Great Grandmaster Flash,” a hip hop pioneer not within Great Grandma’s ken.

We’ve all had our embarrassments with Autocorrect. Years ago I wrote to a friend named Patricia, who ever since has been known to me as Patella.“Prosciutto” on a menu became “prostitute.” The investment firm Goldman Sachs became “Goddamn Sachs.” Naomi Campbell congratulated “Malaria” (Malala) on winning the Nobel Peace Prize, and Barrack Obama has been known as “Osama.”

It’s obvious to me that Autocorrect has advanced, if that is the correct word, to be sufficiently familiar with my vocabulary and tone that it substitutes words and phrases I use fairly often. It’s a little creepy.

Autocorrect is a feature you can disable if you want to avoid it. We all make enough mistakes without having our computers add to them. I’m not giving up Autocorrect (yet), but I urge you to proofread absolutely everything before you hit Send. Do it one word at a time and slowly. If you proofread at your normal reading speed, as I have mentioned numerous times, you will read what you think you wrote, not what you (or Autocorrect) actually wrote.


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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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And Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of 2014 Is…

VAPING. I don’t know what it’s like where you live, but here in Los Angeles, vaping rooms have become as ubiquitous as nail salons and sushi restaurants. In case vaping hasn’t reached your neighborhood yet, it refers to inhaling and exhaling electronic cigarettes. They still contain nicotine but apparently are not addictive like traditional cigarettes. Many people are using them to help wean themselves off the latter. One advantage is that if you vape (it is so hard for me to write that verb (I vape, you vape, she vapes—ICK), at least your hair and clothes won’t stink.


Whether vaping is safe has not been determined entirely. Just sayin’.

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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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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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Another Email Suggestion


Recently, I gave you some tips about writing emails and asked for your suggestions as well. Here is a valid one from Mark W. Consider this when you are addressing others:

Since email is so quick and easy vs. a well-written letter on Crane stationary w/ a Mont Blanc fountain pen, people tend to be very casual and, more often then not, never address the person they are writing to using Mr., Mrs. Ms., Dr. and so forth. I often see Dear John, Hey Jane, Hi You, Hey Becky. Fortunately, it is less common when you do not know the person you may be writing to, for instance on a job application.

In other words, I think when it is appropriate, email correspondence can be enhanced with some formality. Ultimately, demonstrating respect still has merit in a world of instant messaging. Social media doesn’t need to be absent of essential decorum. 

It’s also a good idea to sign your name after your message and include your contact information.

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What is a Run-On Sentence?


Often when people write me a very long sentence, they apologize for having created a run-on. In fact, a run-on sentence can be very short: This is a run-on sentence I don’t think it’s grammatical. Here’s another: This is a run-on sentence, I don’t think it’s grammatical.

A sentence is a run-on if it meets one of two conditions:

1. It is two or more complete sentences (which means each one has a subject, a verb and complete meaning) joined together with no punctuation between them (example #1 above).


2. It is those same sentences joined by only a comma (example #2 above).

What you need is either end punctuation between the sentences or else a conjunction after the comma: This is a run-on sentence, and I don’t think it’s grammatical. (Incidentally, it is grammatical.)

In theory, you could have an endless number of complete sentences strung together if they were punctuated correctly, and they would not constitute a run-on. It’s not the length of the sentences, it’s the punctuation that makes them either right or wrong.

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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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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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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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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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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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The History of Typography


Do you ever stop to think about all the fonts you encounter every day? They didn’t just appear; they are part of a long evolutionary line of typography going back hundreds of years. This short, clever video gives  you a quick overview of where many of the most common modern fonts came from.


(I really wish I could figure out to do a hyperlink on WordPress. If you can tell me, don’t hesitate. For now, you’ll have to copy and paste. Sorry.)


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More Than You Think


A plethora/spate of rubber duckies.

 We frequently use two words to indicate a large amount or number: “plethora” and “spate.” However, “plethora” doesn’t mean only a lot, it means an overabundance of whatever you have: gray hairs, gophers in your garden, zucchini that won’t stop increasing and multiplying. Similarly, “spate” doesn’t indicate a few or even many: it means a flood of whatever you have: endless summer houseguests, offers on your underpriced house, February blizzards in Vermont.

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An Apostrophe Dilemma Solved


What do you write when two or more people possess the same thing? Do you use an apostrophe for each of their names or just one apostrophe?

“John and Serena’s car is a bright red.” By using the apostrophe only in Serena’s name, you are signaling that John and Serena both own that car. Use a possessive apostrophe only in the owner’s name closest to the item.

If each one of them owns a separate car, use possessive apostrophes for both owners: “John’s and Serena’s cars have adjacent parking spots in the office garage.”



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How Different? From? Than? To?


“Different from” is most commonly used and is the only word you can use when the phrase precedes a noun or pronoun: “My house is different from others on our block.” “Girls are different from boys.”

Before a clause, however, “different than” is called for: “Technology is far different today than it was a mere five years ago.”

“Different to” is primarily British and is rarely seen or heard on these shores.


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Choose One

Since “however” and “but” both indicate a shift in the direction of your writing, don’t use them together, as in this example: But Jane, however, decided to move to Houston. Choose one: But Jane decided to move to Houston or However, Jane decided to move to Houston.

Similarly, I often hear people say, “And plus.” Again, choose one, since they both are words adding information.

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More Journalism Clichés

UnknownThese were compiled by Carlos Lozada, of the Washington Post. Clichés are new and interesting when we first hear them, but by the fifth time we are yawning. Here are just a few more of the 135 he listed. Avoid these like the plague (joke):

What happens in [somewhere] stays in [somewhere]



Closely watched

Hastily convened

Much ballyhooed

Shrouded in secrecy

Since time immemorial

Tipping point

Inflection point

Point of no return


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A Pulitzer Prize-Winning Misplaced Modifier


First of all, I have to tell you that I loved Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, all 700-plus pages of it, so much that I know I will read it again. It was that enthralling: an exciting, educational, sad, funny, well-written, captivating book. Second of all, I have to tell you (in case you somehow missed this) that I am a grammar nerd of the first order. So when I came across a second misplaced modifier in this wonderful book, well, how could I let it pass without comment? I always wonder where the editors are who miss these bloopers.

Here is the cast of characters in this example: Popper is a tiny dog belonging to the protagonist, Theo. Boris is Theo’s closest friend, someone he met in middle school. The narrator is Theo:

“Popper—damp, but otherwise looking none the worse for his adventure—stiffened his legs rather formally as Boris set him down on the floor and then paddled over to me, holding his head up so that I might scratch him under the chin.”

Obviously, Popper was the one hoping for a chin scratch, but the way the sentence is constructed, Boris did two things: he put the dog on the floor and then paddled over to Theo to get his chin scratched. How to fix this? The sentence is fine up to the setting-on-the-floor part. It could be rewritten this way: “…stiffened his legs rather formally as he was set down on the floor and then paddled over to me….” You can probably think of other ways to avoid this misplaced modifier.

The rule about modifiers is that you have to ask yourself who did the action and then put that person’s (or in this case, dog’s) name or pronoun immediately following the modifier. I do love them, though. The results are often inadvertently very entertaining.

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Journalism Clichés


Carlos Lozada at the Washington Post listed clichés frequently seen in the media, clichés he would like to abolish. Here is a portion of the phrases he finds annoying and ready for destruction. Do you agree?

Christmas came early for [someone]

Chock full (“full” is just fine by itself)

Last-ditch effort (unless ditch-digging is involved)

Midwife (as a verb, unless involving childbirth)

Cue the [something]

Call it [something]

Pity the poor [something]

It’s the [something], stupid

Imagine (as the first word in your lede)

Time will tell if [something]

Palpable sense of relief (unless you can truly touch it)

Sigh of relief

Plenty of blame to go around

Rorschach test (unless it is a real one)

Turned a blind eye

I’m voting with Lozada.

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Do You Move In to or Move Into?

Here’s a question a reader posed. It is worth some thought:

A person is moving from one apartment to another. Would you say she is moving into the new apartment or moving in to it?

I vote for the first option. She is moving all her belongings inside the new digs; therefore, she is moving into it.

If you say she is moving in to that apartment, you are thinking of the verb as “moving in.” But that “in” is extraneous. She’s moving. You could save space and trees (OK, a tiny tree) by simply stating she is moving to her new apartment.

Feel free to disagree.


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What Kind of Word Nerd Are You?


I found this quiz posted at http://www.ragan.com, written by Laura Hale Brockway . You probably can guess my score (and I’m damned proud of it!).

What kind of word nerd are you?

Step 1. Answer the following yes/no questions. (Be honest. This is a judgment-free zone.)

1. Do you subscribe to one or more style guides (or have one or more style guides on your desk)?

2. Do you catch typos all around you, even when you’re not looking for them?

3. Do you find yourself correcting the grammar in the books you read to your kids? (“Junie B. Jones” is the worst.)

4. Can you quote from “Eats, Shoots and Leaves?”  [Note from Judi: Yes, but I also wrote to the editor because the book contains about 10 major errors, most not attributable to the author’s English upbringing.]

5. Have you had more than one heated argument about the use of the serial (Oxford) comma?

6. Does seeing 1990’s or 30’s drive you to drink?

7. Do you feel an immediate sense of camaraderie with anyone who uses “comprise” correctly?

8. Can you spell “minuscule,” “inadvertent,” “supersede,” and “ophthalmologist” correctly? (Could you have done so before I just showed them to you?)

9. Is the hyphen your least favorite punctuation mark?

10. Do you use the word “decimate” correctly?

11. Do you giggle when you end a sentence with a preposition and know why it’s acceptable to do so?

12. Do people refuse to play Words with Friends or Scrabble with you?

Step 2. Count the questions to which you answered “yes.”

Word Nerd Elite—You answered “yes” to 10 to 12 questions.

You are in the upper echelon of word nerdiness. Very likely you are the primary person in your department or company whom others ask when they have a grammar or punctuation question. You may have even played dueling style guides with a co-worker. Finding typos on signs or in movie credits might feel like a victory for you. Welcome to the club. We meet for drinks every month on penultimate Wednesdays.

Word Nerd Moderate—You answered “yes” to 5 to 9 questions.

You exhibit a few of the telltale signs of word nerdiness. You probably know and use one style guide very well. Though you know the arguments for and against its use, you’re lukewarm on the serial comma. You have a pretty easy time keeping your composure when playing Scrabble.

Word Nerd Lite (or should that be light?)—You answered “yes” to 0 to 4 questions.

Other than one or two minor eccentricities, you’re not really a word nerd at all. You leave it to others to find typos and argue about word usage. Perhaps you’ve read “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” and you remember the joke about the panda. You haven’t quite memorized your style guide, but you have a few key sections highlighted.

Good job!



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More Verb Variants


She dived or she dove?

I recently wrote about “snuck” as a variant for “sneaked.” It’s no longer considered substandard, so you don’t have to sneak around if you’ve snuck it into your writing.

A few more verbs I’ve thought about since I wrote that post: “weave,” “dive” and “get.”

Which form do you prefer for the past tense of “weave”: “weaved” or “wove”? How about the past tense of “dive”? “Dived” or “dove”? Any of those words are acceptable.

The past participle of “get” gives you a choice as well. (The past participle may be a scary-sounding phrase, but all it means is the verb form that includes “has,” “have” or “had.”) Now I will get back to “get”:

Do you say, “I have got my flu shot” or “I have gotten my flu shot”? For some unknown reason, I am a “gotten” person, but either is correct. Both come from Middle English. The only time you will definitely need “got” instead of “gotten” is to show ownership:

“I have got three dollars in my wallet.” You wouldn’t use “gotten” in that sentence.


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P.S. for Sneak vs. Snuck

A reader commented that she thought “snuck” was the past tense of “sneak.”

It can be, in a casual sense: Robert snuck into his bedroom to make sure his favorite magazine was well hidden under the mattress.

But in a more formal context, you would write and say, Robert sneaked into the boardroom to retrieve the laptop he had forgotten after the meeting.

Present tense: sneak (snuck is not used in the present tense)

Past tense of either verb: sneaked or snuck

Past participle: has, have or had snuck or has, have or had sneaked.



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I Don’t Get It


From the initial idea to the finished ad in the newspaper, did not one person see the error and correct it? This happens so frequently, I have to wonder if editors exist any longer.

This ad is aimed at “graDuation” celebrations, but “congratulations” is not related. These two words are derived from entirely different Latin verbs. True, many people do pronounce “congratulations” as if the T were a D. But it’s not. Was the word never underlined, indicating a problem with it? Did not one person notice the error?

I may have to drown my sorrow and frustration in a two-pound lobster.



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Reblogging and Forwarding

I have been writing these tips for a couple of decades, initially for my corporate clients. They still receive them, but I also post them on Facebook, LinkedIn and StumbleUpon. I have never charged for them and never will; I just send them out into the ethers, hoping someone will find them helpful.

If you want to reblog them or forward them to an individual, to a faculty or to a corporation for distribution, feel free. You don’t need to ask me. (Now if you want to publish them in book form under your name, that’s a different story.)

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Sensual vs. Sensuous


What did Estée Lauder intend when she named this perfume?


I’m addressing these two words in response to a reader request. Here goes:

SENSUAL refers to the fulfillment of the senses, most particularly in a sexual sense:

For example, most readers of Fifty Shades of Gray (of which I am not one) found it a gratifying sensual experience that enhanced their own sex lives.

Traditionally, SENSUOUS is defined as appealing to the senses rather than to the intellect. It can refer to any of the senses. “Elena found that swimming naked was a particularly sensuous experience.” In that sentence, it would appear that Elena was responding to her sense of touch.

However (and you knew that was coming, didn’t you?), both these words are now most commonly used to refer to sexual gratification.

Languages change.

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That vs. Which


I’ve used this before but it’s been a while, and I’ve added a short quiz at the end.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Use a comma and “which” to set off non-essential information. You’ll also need a comma at the end of the non-essential information if it comes in the middle of the sentence.

Now let’s look at “that”:

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

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

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

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

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

Here is a short quiz for you to see if you understand the difference:

1. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House (which/that) is in Chicago is one of his masterpieces and is open to the public.

2. The calendar (which/that) has an enormous butterfly on the front is my favorite.

3. Cadillacs had the biggest fins (which/that) was the style in the 1960s.


(Answers: (1) which (and you need a comma not only before which but also after Chicago) (2) that (3) which

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Sympathy or Empathy?


It’s probably not necessary to define “sympathy,” the feeling of commiseration for the problems of another. (But I just did.)

“Empathy” is not just a fancy synonym for “sympathy.” It contains the idea that the empathic person holds a very deep understanding of the problem or feelings of another, often with the idea that the listener has experienced that same troubling situation as the speaker or writer.

If you are divorced and your friend is telling you about his painful split from his partner, you can certainly be empathic. You have gone through a very similar situation. If you have not been divorced, you are sympathetic. There is nothing wrong with that; but empathy denotes a much closer understanding of the problem.

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Because or Since?


People wonder if BECAUSE and SINCE can be used interchangeably; in most cases they can be.

BECAUSE indicates a reaction: “Because we had neglected to have our tires checked for two years, we found they were out of alignment.”

SINCE indicates either reaction or time: In the above sentence, you can substitute “since” for “because” without changing the meaning. That sentence shows cause: your tires were out of alignment as a result of not checking them for a very long time.

SINCE also indicates time: The cartoon above gives a good example of the fact that “since” can sometimes lead to an ambiguous statement. That’s something to watch out for.

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Five Expressions You Might Want to Lose


Looking through a copy of Real Simple while getting my hair cut, I came across these suggestions from five people highly concerned with language. See how many you hear and use:

1. “It is what it is.” John McWhorter, a linguistic professor at Columbia University and the author of several books on language (my favorite being Word on the Street), says this sentence is a cruel response. If someone has revealed a difficult situation and you reply, “It is what it is,” you are offering no empathy, no suggestions, nothing but a dismissal. You are saying nothing is to be done. That may be the case, but empathy is what the speaker is looking for.

2. “To your point” is the suggestion of Nancy Gibbs, editor of Time magazine. She asserts that people use this wording not to agree with what has been said but in fact to make a contradictory point. If you’re going to disagree, say so: “I see your point, but I cannot agree with it.”

3. “Don’t take this personally” comes from Peggy Newfield, a specialist in business etiquette. No matter what follows that admonition, the receiver is going to take it personally. What you say may be very hurtful. Think before you give advice and choose your words carefully.

4.Whenever you ask, “When are you going to…?” you are pointing out something you feel the other person hasn’t yet done but should do. “When are you going to have a baby?” “When are you going to find someone to settle down with?” “When are you going to buy a house?” Questions like these make the recipient defensive. The answers to these questions are really none of your business. So says Emily Yoffee, who writes the “Dear Prudence” advice column.

5. “No problem.” This is a major peeve of mine and of Liv Tyler, the actor, who has written a book with her mother, called Modern Manners. You have just said “Thank you,” and you get “No problem” for a reply. Saying thanks is not a problem. What happened to “You’re welcome” or “My pleasure?”




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Less vs. Fewer


As my last post discussed “amount” vs. “number,” a closely related topic are the two words in the subject line: “less” and “fewer.”

Just as “amount” is used for objects you can’t count, such as traffic, milk, luggage and equipment, “less” is the adjective you need for those uncountable nouns:

You carry less luggage than you used to when you fly. You need less kitchen equipment than your brother does. We definitely do not experience less traffic than we did five years ago.

“Fewer” is used for countable nouns, such as suitcases, roasting pans, glasses of milk, and automobiles:

If you want fewer cars on the road, move to Montana. Children today drink fewer glasses of milk than I did when I was younger. I could manage with fewer pots and pans than I currently own. I have fewer pieces of luggage than I did 10 years ago.

(Notice that in the last sentence, the subject is “pieces,” not “luggage.”)

My last post contained fewer words than this one.

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Alternately vs. Alternatively


These two words look almost alike but the meanings are quite different.

ALTERNATELY means to occur in turns, repeatedly: “Jessie and Samantha alternately cleaned their cat’s litter box. Jessie did it in the morning and Samantha’s turns were at night.”

ALTERNATIVELY offers another option: “Jessie, you can clean the litter box every morning or, alternatively, you can do it morning and night for a week and then Samantha will clean it the next week.”

Be sure to proofread everything you write; your spellchecker will not highlight an incorrect word if it is spelled correctly. You are smarter than your software.


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Syntax and Lexicon


No, not SIN TAX; that’s an entirely different matter. I’m sure you hear the word “syntax” used (perhaps not as frequently as the homonym), but you might not be certain of its meaning.

SYNTAX means the way words are put together to form grammatical, comprehensible sentences. People who garble their meanings are said to speak and write using deficient syntax. Think of Sarah Palin and George W. Bush—they aren’t guilty all the time but often enough to be notorious for their use of the English language. The derivation of “syntax” is from Greek to Latin to French.

LEXICON refers to the vocabulary used by a person, by a language or by a branch of study, e.g., the lexicon of the Basque people of Catalonia. The derivation of “lexicon” is from Greek to Latin.

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Epidemics and More


That is the symbol for “epidemic.” If you want to be strict about the use of this word, it applies only to humans. “Epidemic” means “in or among people.” If animals suffer an outbreak of disease, the accurate word is “epizootic.” If a disease has gone on for a while, it is no longer an epidemic but becomes “endemic.” “Epidemic” refers only to the outbreak phase of a disease. When the disease is found throughout a country or the world, it is then labeled a “pandemic.” (“Pan” is Greek for “all” and “demos” is “people.”)

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What Can Happen to Your Knickers


I recently bought The Dictionary of Contemporary Slang, by Tony Thorne. It’s fun to read although many entries would get an R rating. Browsing through it, I came across “get one’s knickers in a twist,” a British locution from the late 1950s and originally of purely sexual meaning. In America it is used to illustrate a state of agitation, over-excitement, of being flustered and generally rattled.

“Knickers” itself is British usage for underwear (the lower garments only) and is a shortened form of “knickerbockers,” a centuries-old Dutch word meaning baggy, knee-length undergarments. Women’s underpants are also called knickers, particularly in Britain. (Don’t say you don’t learn anything from my blog.)

In addition to getting your knickers in a twist, you might also find your knickers or panties in a wad or a knot. If that happens, take some deep breaths—or a stiff drink.




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imagesPerhaps you’ve never heard the word “uptalk”? Even if you haven’t, I know you’ve heard it every day? You might be wondering why I’m ending these sentences with question marks? I’ve just written three declarative sentences that should end with a period. But the question mark tells the voice to rise at the end, making each sentence sound like a question. The result is uptalk.

That is what linguists have named the common tendency of people to end their sentences with a rising inflection. It is associated with “Valley Girl” cadences, seems to be more common among females, and may serve several purposes.

It may show genuine uncertainty: “You asked me where Joseph put his report, but I’m not sure?”

It may indicate lack of confidence: “I really would prefer not to head that committee?”

It may soften correcting another person: “Sheila has been with this company for five years, not three?”

When a man uptalks in public to correct a woman, he may think he is being chivalrous, telling her she is wrong but being careful about not embarrassing her: “I know you meant well when mentoring Alex, but it would have been better to listen to him first before challenging him?”

As much as I find it annoying, I think uptalk is here to stay.


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Names Derived From Occupations


(His name probably isn’t Mr. Fisher.)

Did you know that chandlers are candlemakers and coopers make and repair barrels? Here is a partial list of occupation-related last names from a Wikipedia list. These days, many are being used as first names as well.

If you go to the list at the website below and click on any name, it will tell you the occupation associated with it. The list includes many German, Italian, Spanish and French names as well as a lot from other ethnicities.  Being a word geek, I love things like this—and I hope you’ll enjoy it too.










































































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Slander or Libel?


It’s common for people to use these two words interchangeably, but an important distinction exists. You know both of them involve making false statements about another. But slander is spoken defamation and libel is written. It’s easy to remember which is which because SLANDER starts with S, as does SPEECH.

Don’t confuse “libel” with “liable”: the latter means either “likely to do something” (She is liable to become the next head of the committee) or “legally responsible”: (He is liable for all charges on his credit card”).


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Shades of Gray. Or Is It Grey?


Faithful correspondent Jeff wrote me about words that have confused him in the past. One of them was the distinction between “gray” and “grey.” If you are American, chances are overwhelming that you spell that color with an A. But did you know that the rest of the English-speaking world spells it with an E? If you decide you like the E-variant better for the color, go ahead and use it; you won’t be wrong. Just be consistent in any one document.

Oddly enough, even though in the United States we spell “gray” with an A, as we do with “graybeard,” “gray-haired,” “gray matter,” “gray wolf” and “gray market,” we spell “greyhound” with an E. That’s a word you can’t spell with an A. Go figure.

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Will or Would?

“The new mall would be phased in over a period of months and will require several parking adjustments, depending on the number of users.”

That sentence uses both “will” and “would.” Aside from being grammatically confusing, it refers to two different situations:

“Will” says something is going to happen. The parking adjustments WILL be made. “Would” is provisional; the mall MAY be built—but it may not. This sentence requires that both parts use either WILL or WOULD.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

imagesOdd words, these, both used for discarded goods.

FLOTSAM refers to wreckage or cargo from ships that is found afloat or washed up by the ocean. It is also used for people and things considered worthless: “Before putting their house on the market, the owners cleared it of all magazines, newspapers and other flotsam. The root is in the Anglo-Norman French from the verb “to float.”

JETSAM isn’t normally used for people but rather for unwanted cargo that has been thrown overboard and then has washed ashore.  It derives from the 16th century English word “jettison.”

Interestingly, when Googling for an image, I discovered a rock band exists called Flotsam and Jetsam. I wonder if they were tossed off a ship.


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Imminent or Eminent?

These two words look similar and may even sound alike depending on where in the US you live; however, their meanings are quite different:

IMMINENT means about to happen: To date, seismologists cannot tell us when an earthquake is imminent.

EMINENT, when used about a person, means great fame or importance within a particular field: Yo Yo Ma is perhaps the eminent cellist of our time. Some may argue that other cellists are better. PREEMINENT is used when there is no doubt about a person’s manner of standing out (either in a positive or negative way): Vladimir Putin is the preeminent politician in Russia today.

When EMINENT is used about an object, it describes a particular positive quality: When introduced many decades ago, seat belts immediately became the eminent safety feature in vehicles until that time.


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