Tag Archives: punctuation

How to Write Good

Sent to me by my friend Marilyn, another language maven. Enjoy.

50 Rules for Writing Good

One of the more popular items that circulate through the network of folk faxology is a perverse set of rules along the lines of Thimk, We Never Make Mistakes and (this one runs off the page) PlanAhe…. These injunctions call attention to the very mistakes they seek to enjoin. English teachers, students, scientists and (scientific) writers have been circulating a list of self-contradictory rules of usage for more than a century, and have been collecting and creating them for almost half of one. Whatever you think of these slightly cracked nuggets of rhetorical wisdom, just remember that all generalizations are bad.

  1. Each pronoun should agree with their antecedent.
  2. Between you and I, case is important.
  3. A writer must be sure to avoid using sexist pronouns in his writing.
  4. Verbs has to agree with their subjects.
  5. Don’t be a person whom people realize confuses who and whom.
  6. Never use no double negatives.
  7. Never use a preposition to end a sentence with. That is something up with which your readers will not put.
  8. When writing, participles must not be dangled.
  9. Be careful to never, under any circumstances, split infinitives.
  10. Hopefully, you won’t float your adverbs.
  11. A writer must not shift your point of view.
  12. Lay down and die before using a transitive verb without an object.
  13. Join clauses good, like a conjunction should.
  14. The passive voice should be avoided.
  15. About sentence fragments.
  16. Don’t verb nouns.
  17. In letters themes reports and ads use commas to separate items in a series.
  18. Don’t use commas, that aren’t necessary.
  19. “Don’t overuse ‘quotation marks.’ “
  20. Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are (if the truth be told) superfluous.
  21. Contractions won’t, don’t and can’t help your writing voice.
  22. Don’t write run-on sentences they are hard to read.
  23. Don’t forget to use end punctuation
  24. Its important to use apostrophe’s in the right places.
  25. Don’t abbrev.
  26. Don’t overuse exclamation marks!!!
  27. Resist Unnecessary Capitalization.
  28. Avoid mispellings.
  29. Check to see if you any words out.
  30. One word sentences? Eliminate.
  31. Avoid annoying, affected, and awkward alliterations, always.
  32. Never, ever use repetitive redundancies.
  33. The bottom line is to bag trendy locutions that sound flaky.
  34. By observing the distinctions between adjectives and adverbs, you will treat your readers real good.
  35. Parallel structure will help you in writing more effective sentences and to express yourself more gracefully.
  36. In my own personal opinion at this point of time, I think that authors, when they are writing, should not get into the habit of making use of too many unnecessary words that they don’t really need.
  37. Foreign words and phrases are the reader’s bete noire and are not apropos.
  38. Who needs rhetorical questions?
  39. Always go in search for the correct idiom.
  40. Do not cast statements in the negative form.

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Punctuation—It Matters

 

© Judi Birnberg

 

 

 

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

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

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

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Commas With Names

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To my consternation, I have noticed that many people and advertising companies, perhaps the majority, omit a comma when a person’s or team’s name is in the sentence. I’ll add an X where commas belong in the sentences below. Pay particular attention to sentences that directly address a person.

Good for youX Henry!

NoX Sam, you are wrong about who started the argument.

GoX Dodgers!

HiX Darrell.

Good morningX everyone.

SurpriseX Marlena!

In the last example, if you use the comma you are springing a surprise on Marlena. Without the comma, you are ordering someone to surprise Marlena as opposed to surprising someone else.

 

 

 

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Adverbs as Time Wasters

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

Clearly

Actually

Basically

Virtually

Personally

Simply

Arguably

Absolutely

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

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

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A Quick Punctuation Quiz

Which choice is correct? Check your answers at the end of the quiz.

  1. (a) Smith referred to her as, “that useless cow.”  (b) Smith referred to her as “that useless cow.”
  2. Eyewitnesses fled the scene in (a) a brown, 2002 Ford  (b) a brown 2002 Ford.
  3. (a) Dr. Allen told her to: do whatever it takes to get the consent signed. (b) Dr. Allen told her to do whatever it takes to get the consent signed.
  4. Exxon is a (a) publicly traded company (b) publicly-traded company.
  5. The defendants seek to (a) run out the clock (b) run-out the clock.

 

Answers: 1. (b)  2. (b)  3. (b)  4. (a)  5. (a)

How did you do?

This quiz is modified from Bryan Garner’s Law Prose lessons. He is a consultant who leads continuing legal education seminars. The answers are correct whether you are a lawyer or a third grader.

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Some Random Comma Rules

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

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

Thanks for everythingX Laura.

GoX Bears!

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

Some commas are needed for clarity:

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

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

You finished the report yesterdayX didn’t you?

 

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Quotation Marks, Part 6

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

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

Here are a couple of examples:

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

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

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Quotation Marks, Part 4: Quotes Within Quotes

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

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

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

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

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

You may quote me.

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Quotation Marks, Part 3

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

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

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Quotation Marks, Part 2

Bugposter

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

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

 

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Not Exactly Synonyms

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All words have explicit dictionary meanings—denotations—as well as associated meanings—connotations. Often these connotations are cultural. For example, a color, such as white, may connote purity in one culture and yet be the color of death in another.

It’s important to be certain what connotations words carry. Words you may see as synonyms may have either positive or negative connotations, depending on the context and the culture. For example, the word odor may be seen as positive, negative, or neutral. But if you’re looking for synonyms, check this list and see if some of them might not work for you. When in doubt, look up words in the dictionary to see if a word might have a connotation you weren’t aware of and don’t want. When writing a poem to your love and seeking to focus on how wonderful that person smells, it might be better to stick away from stench and reek.

Odor
Smell
Scent
Tang
Pungency
Whiff
Musk
Stench
Stink
Must
Reek
Aroma
Bouquet
Perfume
Essence
Sachet
Redolence
Spice

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Who Said That?

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Are you aware that almost every day you see one or more signs using quotation marks improperly?

“In business since 1979”

“Apple pie like your mom used to make”

“Call us for affordable repairs!”

“Free” delivery

No one ever said these things. They were made up to call attention to what the advertisers want you to remember.

Legitimate uses of quotation marks are when you are quoting the actual words someone else either said or wrote, or when you use a word knowing that your readers are aware you are being facetious or sarcastic.

For instance, if you write that your Aunt Edna is on a “strict” diet and then you go on to write that she eats strictly high-calorie foods, your readers understand your sarcasm. But in the last sign listed above, putting quotation marks around “free” seems to indicate that the delivery is, in fact, not free. It’s as if the company is poking you in the ribs and saying, “Ha! Not really.”

If you want to call attention to certain words, instead of quotation marks, you can use italics or boldface type. But please do this very sparingly.

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When to Omit Apostrophes

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© Judi Birnberg

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

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

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

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

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Commas Used With Direct Address

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

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

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The OED 2015 Word of the Year

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

Some facts for you:

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

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

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

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

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

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A Common Use of Hyphens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Commas Between Adjectives—or Not?

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

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

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

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2. Ella wore bright yellow, suede flat shoes.

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

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Punctuating a Bullet-Point List That is All One Sentence

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

Isaac is looking for the ideal car that has

• great fuel economy;

• room for five passengers;

• sporty styling;

• safe handling;

• a comfortable ride.

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

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Three Times to Use the Colon

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, it’s that simple.

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More punctuation questions (and answers)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Four Comma Rules

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Where are you going for your vacation Carlos?

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

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

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

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

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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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End Punctuation for “Wonder” and “Guess”

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

I wonder what time Mike will be arriving?

Guess who I met at the basketball game?

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

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

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

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

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The Semicolon

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After writing about colons last week, I had a few requests for an explanation of semicolons; so here goes.

The semicolon has three uses:

1. It can take the place of a period when it appears between two closely related and complete sentences:

I wish I could go to the club with you; I’m just too tired.

2. When you use these transitional words in a sentence, put a semicolon in front of them and a comma after them:

; however,

; for example,

; thus,

; consequently,

; nevertheless,

; moreover,

; therefore,

; furthermore,

; besides,

; in fact,

I wish I could go to the club with you; however, I’m too tired. (Do not put commas on both sides of the transitional words; if you do that, you’ll be writing a run-on sentence.)

3. When you have a long, complicated sentence, use semicolons between the items to make the sentence easier to read:

If you’re going camping you’ll need wood for the fire; an axe to chop the wood; matches to light it; food for at least two meals; pots and pans to cook it in; and utensils to cook and eat with.

Do you see how semicolons bring order to that sentence? If you used commas in their place, the eye would be flooded with commas and it would be much harder to keep each item straight.

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The Colon

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This is not going to be an anatomy lesson. Rather, it is a simple explanation of a somewhat misunderstood piece of punctuation.

Think of the colon as a blare of a trumpet: TA DAH! It tells the reader something is coming that is closely related to what came before the colon. It almost always follows a complete sentence.

1.  It can be used to introduce a list:

Before the meeting I had to organize the following: the meeting location, a list of participants and the agenda.

 2. It often introduces a quotation:

The actor’s speech was not encouraging: “I will take any part I am offered, even if it requires me dressing up as a lemur.”

 3. It can introduce an example:

Bad luck followed them twice: when they bought their home and when they sold it.

That’s all there is to the colon. Let me know if you have any questions.

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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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What Punctuation Can Tell Us

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A recent article in the New York Times interested me. It discussed ways people are using punctuation in emails, tweets and texts to convey emotion and messages not expressed in words. Let me know if you agree with the author’s conclusions.

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/01/style/when-your-punctuation-says-it-all.html?smprod=nytcore-ipad&smid=nytcore-ipad-share

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Frequently Confused Words

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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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Before You Click “Send”

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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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What Do You Call @?

Unknown This mark originally appeared as far back as the 16th century. If you are an American, chances are you call it the “at sign.” But around the world it has other more descriptive names: In the Netherlands, it’s known as “the monkey’s tail.” Russians call it “the little dog” (I’m still pondering that one ) and Italians refer to it as “the small snail.” Israelis see it as a strudel; both are rolled up, but the @ doesn’t taste nearly as good. It does have fewer calories, though. Go to Bosnia and you’ll find it’s a “Crazy A.” I’m wondering how long it will be until the word “at” disappears and we see this sign take its place. Th@ is not something I’m looking forward to.

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Punctuation Can Be Strange (Yet Fun)

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Do you know what this mark is technically called? It’s a pilcrow, which is Latin for “paragraph.” You’ve probably seen pilcrows the left margins of some text you have written at one time or another. It’s the mark proofreaders use to indicate that a new paragraph should be started.

Now you know.

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What is a Run-On Sentence?

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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).

OR

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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Question Marks

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You know to put a question mark at the end of a direct question: “Where have you been?” However, I often see them where they do not belong, such as at the end of sentences containing the words “wonder” and guess.” (If you put those words in the search box on this blog, you’ll find a post I wrote addressing that problem.)

Another place they don’t belong is in indirect questions such as the following: “Terrence would like to know when Algernon will be in England?” This is a statement of fact. Terrence himself must have asked, “When will Algernon be in England?” But you are merely stating what Terrence is wondering about. Thank you for holding  your question mark.

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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!

http://www.lifebuzz.com/massive-mistakes/

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Is This Really So Difficult?

I hope you are familiar with the donation sites that ask you to click every day to support various causes (breast cancer, autism, hunger, literacy, veterans, and several others). I have been clicking for years. You can click on all of them in under a minute and can even select having a reminder sent to you daily. The causes are supported by various businesses; you are not required to pay anything—just a click a day.

I have to admit, my heart sank when I got to the diabetes site today. This was the welcoming message:

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Does no one proofread? Does no one understand that most words ending in S are merely plurals, not possessives? Are these rhetorical questions?

Despite my curmudgeonly reaction to the errant apostrophe, I still do encourage you to support these causes daily; it will take only one minute of your time.

 

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Wondering and Guessing

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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.

Understand?

(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

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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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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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An Apostrophe Dilemma Solved

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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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What Kind of Word Nerd Are You?

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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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That vs. Which

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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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Only on Tuesday’s

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A rather blurry shot through a window, inviting one and all to come hear some jazz—but only on Tuesday’s. Why that apostrophe, you might ask? (I hope you ask.)

Because “Tuesdays” ends in S, and some people have a compulsion to throw an apostrophe into every word ending with an S, even when the word isn’t possessive.

It’s just an ordinary plural, people. Curb your apostrophe mania, I beg of you.

 

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Another Way Commas Are Essential for Meaning

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Another way a comma can clarify your meaning is the following:

Sometimes commas are used to set off non-essential information. By non-essential, I mean that if the words set off by commas were removed, your readers would still fully understand what you mean.

Here are two examples:

1. Let’s eat, Grandma.  If you remove that comma, you are telling your readers that you are a cannibal. But it really isn’t necessary to add “Grandma” because you are obviously speaking directly to her. You are simply saying to her, “Let’s eat.”

2. My ex-husband, Igor, lives in a dungeon. By setting Igor’s name off in commas, you are telling your readers that your ex lives in a dungeon, but it isn’t essential they know his name is Igor. You can remove his name and your readers will still understand your meaning completely. However, if you remove those commas around his name (and leave his name in), you are implying that you have at least one other ex-husband whose name is not Igor and probably does not live in a dungeon.

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Sometimes a Comma Is Essential for Meaning

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I am currently reading Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, for which she won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Literature. I am into only a few chapters of this 700+ page book and enjoying it greatly. However, one sentence stopped me short. In a description of a living room, Tartt includes the following items:

“…silk-shaded lamps burning low, big dark paintings of naval battles and drapes drawn against the sun.”

Without a comma after “battles,” it sounds as if some of the painting were of those drapes. Usually, when items are in a series of three or more, that last comma (known as the Oxford or serial comma) can be omitted. I prefer not to use it: my motto is, “When in doubt, leave it out.” But at times it is needed for clarity. Logic may tell you some of the paintings were not of drapes, but this is an instance where a comma was called for.

Here’s a link to a short video about the Oxford comma:  http://www.wimp.com/oxfordcomma/

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The Power of Punctuation

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Here is a sign, seemingly forbidding access, you found at a lake. But you knew you could swim or sail at this lake if you added one exclamation point, one question mark and one period to the sign (with the Sharpie pen you just happened to have with you).

PRIVATE

NO SWIMMING

ALLOWED

I know you can figure this out. Happy sailing!

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Uptalk

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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About Lettuce

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Let’s see: Iceberg, romaine, arugula, Boston, frisee.

Sorry, I meant about “Let us.” If you make that into a contraction, it becomes “Let’s.” Without the apostrophe, it means “allows”: “The computer lets you correct typing errors easily.”

Let’s hear it for the computer. Sometimes even autocorrect gets it right. But you still have to proofread; don’t trust it.

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March 21, 2014 · 5:00 PM

The Day for How Many Presidents?

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Every year on this date, I think perhaps I won’t be annoyed the next year with missing or errant apostrophes in the name of the holiday, that people will catch on to the correct punctuation. But how can they when they see rampant errors in advertising? (I do wonder whether the holiday exists primarily for Macy’s to have a sale on towels and bedding.)

Today I have seen PRESIDENTS DAY, PRESIDENT’S DAY and PRESIDENTS’ DAY. Which is it? This is simple. Obviously, the name is a possessive. Just decide how many presidents the day belongs to. If it were on Lincoln’s or Washington’s birthday, it would be PRESIDENT’S. But since the day is in memory of both Lincoln and Washington, the apostrophe goes after the final S: PRESIDENTS’.

When deciding where a possessive apostrophe needs to go, ask yourself whom the item belongs to. Think of the apostrophe as an arrow pointing to the owner word. Then add APOSTROPHE S. If the new word you’ve formed ends in  two or three esses (weird word), just drop the final S. It’s not wrong to leave it, but the trend is toward eliminating it:

Three dogs’s tails——-> three dogs’ tails

My boss’s memos——–> my boss’ memos (pronounced “bosses,” which happens to be the plural of boss)

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Esq. and Other Suffixes

A big shot of yore and his shield-bearing esquire

A big shot of yore and his shield-bearing esquire

The word “esquire” originally referred to a young man without a title such as duke or earl, whose job it was to hold a knight’s shield. Eventually, the term was applied to any young man, whether of so-called noble birth or not. Now it is associated entirely with lawyers and is supposed to give the caché equivalent to MD for medical doctors and Ph.D. for academics.

I can assume these professional appendages are meant only to impress. Why do we refer to so few people by their professions, e.g., “Dr. Smith” and “Judge Romero”? No one is called Dogcatcher Johnson or Middle Manager Chen. I also assume the magazine Esquire appeals to people other than attorneys.

I’m in favor of getting rid of all these suffixes. Thus says the wife of an Esq., who never, ever has used that pompous attachment.

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Wordplay

OK, maybe not THAT funny.

OK, maybe not THAT funny.

For all you lexiphiles, here are some very clever sentences to enjoy. I only wish I could give attribution to whoever collected them.

You can tune a piano, but you can’t tuna fish.
To write with a broken pencil is pointless.
When fish are in schools they sometimes take debate.
A thief who stole a calendar got twelve months.
When the smog lifts in Los Angeles, UCLA.
The batteries were given out free of charge. 
A dentist and a manicurist married. They fought tooth and nail.
A will is a dead giveaway.
With her marriage, she got a new name and a dress.
A boiled egg is hard to beat.
When you’ve seen one shopping center, you’ve seen a mall.
Police were called to a daycare center where a three year old was 
resisting a rest.
Did you hear about the fellow whose whole left side was cut off? He’s all right now.
A bicycle can’t stand alone; it’s two tired.
When a clock is hungry it goes back four seconds.
The guy who fell onto an upholstery machine is now fully recovered.
He had a photographic memory that was never developed.
Those who get too big for their britches will be exposed in the end.
When she saw her first strands of grey hair, she thought she’d dye.
Acupuncture – a jab well done.

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