Monday, December 31, 2007

Connecting Independent Clauses: Commas Versus Semicolons

Conjunctions are those useful little words that link together parts of your sentence. They tell your readers the relationship between two things, be they clauses or single words.

Some conjunctions require the use of a comma. I have already written about the Oxford comma, that oft-maligned comma at the end of a list, but there are other guidelines for using commas and conjunctions together.

Independent clauses (those that could stand on their own as a sentence) require either a coodinating conjunction or an independent marker word to join them to another independent clause. The former are the FANBOYS—for, and, nor, but, or, ye, and so—and the latter are words like moreover, further or furthermore, and however.

Independent marker conjunctions are used at the beginning of an independent clause, hence the name. You use them to “mark” the clause as stand-alone and to indicate the relationship to the other clause(s) in the sentence. “I could have danced all night; however, my feet were killing me.” You join two such clauses with a semi-colon.

Coordinating conjunctions demand only a comma. “I would have danced all night, but my toes were pinched after half an hour.”

When writing for the web, shorter sentences work better. Unless your independent clauses are so closely related or so short that separating them weakens your piece, split them up. If you can't, or would prefer not, to do so, make sure you use the correct punctuation for your conjunction.

Sometime in the next week I'll address conjunctions and dependent clauses. I know, you're all atwitter, but good things come to those who wait. Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Farther versus Further

Farther and further are closely related and, for most of their linguistic lives, have been interchangeable. And yet, they remained two distinct words. One supposes that it was for a reason.

Over time, the meanings have diverged slightly. Further means the same sorts of things that it always did—moreover, more so, in addition, deeper (as “in debt” or “in trouble”), as well, to advance (your education, my theory), and similar measures of degree or quantity.

Further can be used to indicate distance, though it is more often used to mean deeper, as above, or in some other way to indicate not a physical distance but a more abstract or hypothetical space. Thus, you couldn't be further from the truth, even if you're sitting on it.

Farther has come to indicate a physical distance. You can be farther down the road, farther from the heart of things, and farther up a tree. Think of farther as the comparative for far (farthest being, of course, the superlative). You can't do that with further, no matter what your feelings on animal rights.

Shockingly enough, I've wandered from my point again. Let's redirect this runaway train.

Use farther when you are talking about actual, physical distance. Use further to indicate an increase in less measurable characteristics. Use furthermore to replace in addition or moreover, if you like to use words of more than ten letters. That was as far as I meant to go, and no further.

This constitutes my 198th post on this blog. I'm considering doing something exciting for my 200th, like posting a picture or even a YouTube video, but the thought of all of that color and movement makes me nervous. If you've any suggestions for something you'd like to see here, please let me know.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Language Fun: Snowclones and Blogs

Once again, my blogging time was taking up today by reading other blogs. Once I start reading good posts, I can't seem to stop myself. Here are some of the folks who stopped me from writing my own darn post.

The Grammarphobia Blog comes up with great topics on a regular basis and the whole things is strung out on one page. I have spent ages here, scrolling farther and farther back into time. I find some of this site too in-your-face promotional but the blog offers wordy fun.

Then Dan over at Notes form the copy editor won my attention by using the term snowclones, a word I had difficulty making clear and had not seen anywhere else.

Of course, since I switched to Haloscan, you can't see the comments on that post, but you readers were unclear on the concept. I, of course, clarified brilliantly. I see now that I must take the time to transfer my comments by hand.

Our Bold Hero, Dan, lead me to do a search on snowclones, through which I discovered the Snowclone Database. The posts are a bit dry, but the topic fascinates me enough that I read them for 20 minutes before remember that I was supposed to be doing research and not enjoying myself.

You can find, there, the ubiquitous snowclone “Im in ur X, Ying ur Z”, which started the whole conversation. That reminds me that I have yet to make the lolcat of my dreams. He's going to say, “Im in ur blog, gerunding ur verbs.” Imagine my surprise to see the “verbing your nouns” variant already in the database. I may have to revisit the drawing board.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

A Capital Way to Make Sense

Let's address another group of confusing terms. There are three sets of words I'd like to cover today: do versus make, imply versus infer, and capital versus capitol. While you likely know the meanings of these words, at times you need to stop and consider what you've written to insure that you've employed the right word for the job. These reminders will help.

“Do” and “make” comprise two sides of one coin. Doing is just that—performing an action. Making means creating or building something. That something does not have to be tangible. You can make a telephone call or a date, after all. You do homework, do lunch, and do the hustle. You don't do pottery or money, you make them. You do good to make a difference.

Imply and infer make a coin of a different color. When you imply something, you state it indirectly and leave your audience to infer it. You can create the noun “implication” from imply. In case you missed it, the writer or speaker implies things that the audience infers from the unstated or partially explained hints.

Capital and capitol present a more complicated case. The words have more than one meaning and each has one that comes mighty close to the other. “They built the capitol building in Lincoln, the capital city of Nebraska.”

It turns out, however, that only buildings use the “-ol” ending. Things like money (the capital needed to start a business), upper case letters, and the synonym for very good (Capital idea, old sport!) all require the “-al” ending. Don't let these two tricksters confuse you. Unless you're writing about a government building, stick with capital.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Back to Basics: Interjections!

Interjections present a challenge for those enamored of grammar. They stand alone, rogue fragments that leap out from sentences to express an overflow of feeling. Woo hoo! Great Scott! In your face!

While these “sentences” don't follow the basic rules of grammar (and may not even be words), they nonetheless comply. By their nature, interjections defy requirements for subjects and verbs. You use them to convey strong emotion to your readers.

Be cautious in using them, however. "What?!" you say. "I love those little bursts of feeling!" When used excessively, though, interjections make you sound overwrought, positively hysterical. Reserve them for emphasis and you won't be beating your readers over the head with the emotions of your hero.

Certainly, having the knife slip when cutting oneself free from ones bonds merits a hearty, “Damn!” or at least an, “Ow!” But cute catch phrases like, “Holy fishcakes, Batman!” are best reserved for cheesy television shows and poorly-written novels. You can do better than that.

Saving interjections for emergencies gives them much more impact. You subject may be an excitable person, but if you show that in your writing then their rare verbal explosions will convey the direness of the situation more clearly.

If you find yourself liberally sprinkling your writing with exclamation points, look for wild interjections that make your character appear certifiable. Knock those out and tell your reader what's happening, instead. It will make the story more powerful and the hero more believable. Unless you're writing about Homer Simpson, that is.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Take Advice with a Grain of Salt

I rarely post links to the big blog dogs, mostly because they're doing just fine without my help and there are so many great small blogs out there that deserve the attention. But every so often one of them jumps out from behind a virtual bush and demands some attention.

Copyblogger attacked me thus, recently, with a post about how writing is like a dog. Okay, it was actually called, “3 Writing Lessons I Learned in Dog Obedience School”. We'll ignore the fact that Mr. Morrow should have spelled out three, because that's not what this post is about.

I wanted to say that, if these tips work for your life, they are excellent. If you have the flexibility and time to set and stick to a writing schedule in your daily life, it's a fantastic way to discipline yourself and your muse.

I also wanted to remind people that it may be impossible to follow this advice at certain points in your life. Right now, I work full-time and have a husband, two small children, four animals, and a blog. Those things use my “spare” time and oblige the time that isn't spare. I rather like it that way, even if I can't set a writing schedule and whip my muse into shape.

I write when I can, and I find enjoyment in every moment of it. I write in my head when I'm trying to get to sleep or in the shower. I play with words. My muse jumps through hoops and sits up and begs whenever I have a few minutes to put her through her paces.

But my muse has never wet the carpet in my head or chewed up my mental couch. The same cannot be said for my two dogs, who early trained me to follow their schedule for letting them out to do their business. Jonathan Morrow came up with an effective metaphor and some good advice. Just don't take it too much to heart if you can't follow all of it to the letter. Not everyone can dedicate eight or more hours a day to reading and writing. But we can all dream about it.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Less Versus Fewer; Much Versus Many

Less, fewer, much, and many vaguely relate to each other in that the mistake people make in using them lies in not knowing how to count.

Actually, people who make errors with these words don't realize that you can only have fewer of how many items you had if you can count them. It may be a theoretical count, like the census that tells you “how many” people live in your city and if there are fewer residents than the decade before, but you could count them all of you really felt the need.

Less and how much are reserved for things that you cannot count. You may be able to count parts of the whole, as with money, but what people mean when they ask how much money you make is that they are nosy how much money you made of the total in an undefined set.

It could be the percent of the gross profits of your corporation or of the gross national product. I doubt they know what they mean any more than you. That's why you can't count how much money you make.

You also can't count things like juice and pie. You can ask how many glasses of juice my group would care to drink, or how many slices of pie we'll eat. I may need to ask you how much juice is left and if you have less pie than you did when I made the reservation this morning.

I find it unlikely that you would pour out the juice into individual glasses to tell me an exact number, how "many" juice you have. If you put me on hold to do so, I would cancel the reservation anyway because I'm not drinking juice that's been sitting in a glass on your counter for four hours.

I seem to have wandered a bit far afield, here. What I meant to say here was simply that many and fewer work with countable nouns only. Much and less are used with everything else. I have less focus than usual today. I blame that on how many cups of coffee I've left in the pot. You can't have too much caffeine, after all.

Friday, December 21, 2007

A Few Grammar Resources

I want to share some lesser-known resources today. Sometimes you want to get more than one take on a question and get tired of reading Grammar Girl's post on a subject rehashed a hundred times. Try these sites for something completely different.

Oxford Dictionaries offers a good interface if you're looking for a specific grammar or spelling tip. There's also a long list of commonly confused words with a brief explanation of the differences.

You can also find some quick and useful tips in the Grammar Slammer. They style themselves a help file for grammar questions including a handy search screen.

Accu-Assist offers a treasure trove of tips in their archive. Many of them relate to commonly confused or misspelled words but you can find a fair amount on punctuation and questions of style.

For a more bizarre concatenation, check out English Guide. This site concentrates on more technical questions regarding tenses and part of speech. It also has a forum, sparsely visited though it may be.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Ultra-Quickie: Grammar Isn't Rocket Science

Sure, both have nigh-innumerable combinations and permutations of the respective building blocks. Both have immense flexibility within a given set of rules and requirements that constant scrutiny evolves and refines. But one uses metals, ceramics, and highly explosive rocket fuel. The other uses ink and paper. One launches us beyond this workaday world to offer a different perspective on humanity and its place in the universe. The other does that physically, using spacecraft.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Back to Basics: Prepositions

We use prepositions to tell our readers the relationship between nouns and pronouns. Imagine that you write:

On Tuesday, I put the gifts under the bed next to my slippers.
With a few simple words you have given your reader a clear picture of when you performed an action (on Tuesday) and where you acted (under the bed) in relation to another object (next to your slippers).

Using a preposition requires an object. How can you explain the connection between two things if you don’t specify which two things are related? Prepositional phrases act as signposts for your readers, showing them how the parts connect and interact (or don’t, as the case may be).

Like other parts of speech, various prepositions illustrate specific relations. You can fall against, into, or with something and each of those communicates a different experience. Some are number-specific, as between requiring two objects, no more and no fewer, and among requiring at least three. Thus, you can be between a rock and a hard place among your peers but not vice versa. Learn little words, like prepositions, as well as the more impressive ones when you expand your vocabulary.

Under certain circumstances, especially in casual conversation, you and your audience assume the prepositions or objects rather than expressing them. Had I begun that sentence with “The other day,” you would assume that I was acting “on” that day. We understand that preposition to apply even though I did not explicitly state it. Indeed, some formations are assumed so often that you would sound foolish or foppish including them.

Finally, we have the big debate about ending your sentence with a preposition. I already had my lengthy rant on that subject, Part One: What Do You End a Sentence With? and Part Two: With What Do You End a Sentence? Even if you feel that using that ending preposition is acceptable through common use, it creates one more reason for your reader to miss your point by focusing on your individual words.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Suffixes: -Er Versus -Or

In my travels today, I came across a blog neighbor (just down the Interstate from me) who has much to say on grammar and language. I suspect we will clash on some topics, but I found some nice, chewy food for thought.

Dan's recent post on the word impostor made some excellent points about taking the commonality of non-standard uses (or culturally accepted uses, like flavour versus flavor) into account when mocking the “spellingly” challenged.

He also makes the point that no one has come up with a rule for remembering which words use the-or ending. Many people have attempted to write one, but the choice is based in preference and word etymology rather than something quantifiable. I prefer the -or ending and use that as a placeholder for words that I need to look up before making them public.

I can't say that I'm surprised that the -er ending has proved more popular, however. It's how children are taught to make a word for someone who performs an action: a person who advises is an adviser. (Except that he or she is not. The word is advisor.) A person who shops is called a shopper and one who hops is termed a hopper. Why wouldn't one who imposts be an imposter?

Ah, you see the problem now, don't you? Not all words ending in -er or -or have had a suffix appended, at least not to an immediately recognizable root. Can you find the poser in impostor?

Topics like these keep a blog like this going. Do you have any tips for remembering which suffix converts a verb into the noun for a person who performs that action?

Saturday, December 15, 2007

More Atrocious Ads and Articles

Reviewing examples of what not to do helps us spot similar flaws in our own writing. I find examples of egregious or entertaining errors regularly. I read a wide variety of books, magazines, and web sites, both fiction and non-fiction, and am often surprised by the sorts of mistakes that get published.

The following examples are from national magazines, on technical, one a niche topic, and one exceedingly popular. I've included my objections and corrections but welcome input as well. If you have a different (perhaps better) suggestion, let me know.

Example 1
“Government often creates civil liberties concerns any time it proposes combining [these techniques].”
This writer needed to make up her mind whether the government often horrifies its citizens or does so any time they act. Any time includes often, so you can leave out one or the other. “When the government combines these techniques it raises civil liberties concerns.”

Example 2
“Create a shimmering flow of bubbles to oxygenate and circulate any aquarium.”
I'd rather my aquarium stayed on the stand, thank you. Do you suppose the writer meant that the water in my aquarium would be oxygenated and circulated? That sounds much more appealing.

Example 3
“Some people may guard themselves against receiving anything at all: This insulates them from....”
After I recovered my jaw from my lap, I decided that this had been a typo. No one would intentionally follow a colon with a capital letter, would they? Please, lie to me and say, “No.”

Thursday, December 13, 2007

When Clever Kills

The Copywriting Maven has another great landing page makeover posted. While much of her advice focuses on design and selling, she also had this to say about being clever:

“Writing clever [sic] is all about drawing attention to the writer. Writing for clarity, on the other hand, is all about respecting your reader. Clever in small doses in an excerpt or pull-quote can add a nice zestiness to ad copy, but your reader can’t and won’t digest a whole meal of it.”
Many writers (including me, alas) lose sight of these points while attempting to engage their readers. That fine line between being clever and getting cute divides decent writers from skilled craftspeople.

Happily, you can move from one side of the line to the other through learning and practice. Write things that you would like to read, get feedback from others, and set your pieces aside when you can to edit after a perspective break. Often something that cracks you up when you write it sounds silly or excessive after a cooling-off period.

Remember that, unless you blog about yourself, your writing should draw your reader's attention to your subject instead of you. Inject some personality, by all means, but don't do so much of that that you detract from the points you are making.

Your reader might want to go out for coffee or a drink with you after reading a cleverly written piece, but if that's not what you (or your client) are after then you've failed in writing that piece. Remember that the next time that you are tempted to quip.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Beware the Wily Thesaurus

Mr. Stoneman recently posted about how too much thesaurus can be bad for your writing. He makes a valid point, and one which I'd not thought to specify.

I've often advocated thesaurus usage on this blog. I believe that they nudge your brain into recalling or learning just the right word for what you are trying to express.

I have neglected 'til now, however, to point out that new words should always be cross-referenced in a dictionary before you use them. While you may love the sound of a word listed as a synonym in the thesaurus, it may not mean quite what you think.

As an example, I looked up the verb “advocate” from two paragraphs ago in a thesaurus, specifically at I found recommend, urge, and advise. Those three words work well for my original sentence. Vindicate also appeared as a synonym, and starts the meaning slide.

If I click on vindicate on the site, I find synonyms like absolve, confute, exculpate, and rationalize. These are terrific words, but none of them convey the idea that I like thesauri and believe that they can help you write more clearly. In fact, they give the opposite impression—that the tool has a negative impact for which it needs to be excused or forgiven.

Learn new words, certainly. A strong vocabulary gives you tools to build cleaner and more precise sentences. But remember that approximate meanings won't suffice. Just because the word looks like a screwdriver doesn't mean it won't strip out the meaning of your writing.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Number Agreement: A Reminder

Disagreement can be a good thing. It can foster discussion and lead to open dialogue. But between parts of speech, disagreement creates confusion and destroys clarity.

Nouns and their pals, verbs, must agree for a sentence to work. The verb must acknowledge how many of the subject are performing its action. Sure, you'd think the noun could bend from time to time, giving in to the verb to keep things on an even footing, but you'd be mistaken.

When writing, the subject of a sentence holds all of the power. Everything else revolves around it. Your subject should be performing any action, affecting objects, and basking in description. If the subject declares itself to be plural, the verb and the rest of the sentence have to play along.

Only in cases where the noun is of indeterminate number are other parts of speech allowed to choose. When writing about sheep and moose, for instance, only context allows your reader to know whether one or a flock watched you pass.

Unless you're a shepherd in the wilds of Canada, you likely don't write about such things often. Even when you do, you already know how many of your subject exist. Make certain that the rest of your sentence tells your readers as clearly as your recollection or imagination of the scene tells you.

When editing, you may change your mind about how many moose (or nouns) are involved in a sentence. That's why you edit. But remember that changing the number in a sentence involves the whole thing, not just revising your noun.

After you've edited, read your whole piece from start to finish. If you can, print it out and read it from the page. The change in perspective may allow you to see errors that had been hiding in the screen's familiarity. Read your work aloud, as well. Flow problems point to language troubles, which often highlight errors.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

A Change in Circumstances

After some significant upheaval this week, it shakes out that I will no longer have Internet access every day. I'll still post on weekends and, when I can get away during the day, I'll pop in somewhere that I can get on and post on weekdays. I can't promise daily posts but I'll keep going. Thanks for sticking with me. You never know how long it will be before things change again!

It's been so long since I posted that I barely remember how. We watched The Shawshank Redemption last night and I was reminded of how many people speak of Stephen King as a hack because he doesn't use many big words and does use a generous sprinkling of coarse language and topics.

I hope that a good many of them saw that movie and then read the short story on which it was based. Perhaps it will open their minds to the idea that you have to put those words together just right to build something that effective out of nothing at all. Stephen King may never win the Nobel Prize for literature but that doesn't make him a bad writer. It makes him accessible.

I meant that to sound more like encouragement and less like a defense of Mr. King. He's certainly come up with a stinker or two of his own, as have all of us. But judging a writer by superficial circumstances can lead to miss some great writing.

Read everything. Read in styles and on topics that you don't think you'll enjoy. Pay attention to what works and what doesn't in books, short stories, and articles. Read on-line about any topic that strikes your fancy. If you avoid reading snobbery, you open up a world of writing possibilities. You will uncover new words, and new ways of putting them together.

Gee, can you tell I've found more time to read this week? Maybe being off-line isn't all bad.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Converting to HaloScan

I've been contemplating moving over to HaloScan for comments and trackbacks for a while. I've been hesitant to do it because I lose all of the wonderful (and useful) comments that folks have made here to date. I discovered, however, that Blogger has made another change which makes removing the nofollow tag insufficient to follow commenters.

I decided to bite the bullet and make the jump today. If you can take the time to read and comment on my blog, I can certainly offer a backlink. One Step Forward may only have a PR of 3 but I'm certainly willing to share what little "juice" I've got.

If you cannot find one of your previous comments, know that I still remember it (and can see that it exists, even if I can't re-read it). I am considering putting some of the older ones into the posts on which they were made. That will take some template flipping, so if you wander by during the next few weeks and this blog is acting strange, please be patient.

I feel so lazy, not posting any grammar-related topics this weekend, but it's a bit of a break after finishing NaBloPoMo. I'll get back to my regularly scheduled topics tomorrow.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Ensure Versus Assure Versus Insure

These three words lie so close together in the aural, and oral, worlds that using them on the page can confuse even the most practiced writer. Today we’ll look at the differences between the three words so that we can remember which applies in which situations.

Let’s dispose of the easiest first. Insure means only one thing: to cause an insurance policy to be in effect for something. You can insure your car, your house, even your health. It only sounds like ensure.

People most often employ ensure as a more formal version of “make sure”. You ensure or verify that something possesses a certain quality, like that your marbles fit in the category of lost: “One more change to this project will ensure that I lose my marbles.”

In contrast, you assure another person. I suppose your could assure any object, be it animal, vegetable, or mineral, but you’d be wasting your breath. You can assure me that there will be no further changes, and I will be reassured. (That’s because you already told me that you were finished with the changes before the last change.)

When you assure someone (such as, say, your dog) of something, you are essentially giving your word that you are telling the truth. Try assuring your dog that you’ve fed him and see how impressed he looks when he finds food in his dish.

Now, when you write, “He assured me that he had ensured that the insured were invited,” you can rest assured that you have used the words correctly. Your writing style, on the other hand…

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Quickie Post: Grammar Fun

As I spent my writing time today exploring new musical territory (the Internet contains a million worthy distractions), I will leave you only a few fun offerings today. I’ll be back tomorrow with my official 30th NaBloPoMo post, and then I’ll be resting for a day. Unless something interesting comes to mind, that is. You can’t rule out a fascinating new grammar site or news flash.

The Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce
The Word Police Academy at The Atlantic
The Grammar of Doom and other word games at
A Sarcastic List of Grammar Rules

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Back to Basics: Adverbs

Today we tackle the modifier of modifiers: adverbs. These handy little words and phrases allow writers to answer implied questions, to specify. We can modify our adjectives, verbs, even other adverbs with them. Our character can lose a paltry two pounds on her new diet and readers will know just how she feels about it from that powerful adverb.

In many instances, you create an adverb by adding –ly to the end of an adjective, e.g. “happily married couple”. In the first example, we answer the question, “What kind of pounds?” and in the second we discover “What sort of married?” You could, instead, refer to a recently married couple, letting your readers know (approximately) when the couple tied the knot.

We use many adverbs as intensifiers. We add them to tell someone that our subject not only has blue eyes but that they are piercing. Our readers understand the severity of the situation when we write that, “The opposing forces were completely overwhelmed.”

You can’t rely on the –ly to alert you to an adverb’s presence. You should consider what the word does in your sentence. Some adverbs help you create a crystal-clear mental picture for your readers. Others merely dress your verbal window and take up space without contributing to your meaning.

Remember that clauses and phrases can act as adverbs. You could write, “Lucy likes to fish,” and use an infinitive phrase to tell your readers what she likes. “Once we’ve danced the night away, we’ll go out to breakfast,” uses both an adverbial clause at the beginning (telling you when) and an adverbial prepositional phrase at the end (telling your where).

Adverbs also emphasize words. If you write, “I really hate that song,” you stress to your reader how much you hate it. The adverb draws attention to the word it modifies. You don’t want to lean on this crutch in every sentence. As with adjectives, you should only use adverbs when you can’t create the intended effect by changing the word being modified to a more specific one. It can help you guide your readers, however, when used sparingly.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Versus: Some Commonly Confused Words

Some common word confusions require too brief an explanation to stand alone as a blog topic. Rather than think up outrageous examples and filler to make up a
longer post, I’ll address a few of them at a time here.

Continuous Versus Continual

Something continuous happens or exists without a break. Continual occurrences, however, happen repeatedly at intervals and usually refer to time rather than an object. You can therefore have continuous fences along a busy block and continual interruptions from unrestrained pets when you are painting them.

Desert Versus Dessert

Remember, the after-meal treat earns an extra “s” because it’s sweet. (I warned you that these were short.)

Flaunt Versus Flout

Flaunting your assets makes you a show-off or a braggart. Flouting the rules makes you a scofflaw or a brat. You cannot flaunt the rules, unless you’ve a written copy of which you are, for some reason, exceedingly proud.

Stationary Versus Stationery

While stationery must be stationary, unless someone moves it, the opposite makes no sense. An object may be stationary in that it is not moving. An object may be stationery only if you use it to write. Thus your paper and envelopes are termed stationery, whether you have them in your bag or your desk.

Let me know if there are other terms with which you struggle in your writing.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Another Vocabulary Toy

For those of you in constant search for just the right word, I offer the Grandiloquent Dictionary. The site offers an Adobe Acrobat file of 2,700 rare or obscure words with an alphabetical index on-site if you’d rather just browse.

I ended up here because of the word defenestrate, which always reminds me of a cross between disembowel and castrate. You can defenestrate someone. The word means “to throw something out of a window” so it could be as violent as it sounds. Then again, I often defenestrate my cooled coffee onto the shrubs below.

While meandering there, I discovered the word vauntie. While it may not have been created as a cross between vain and auntie, that’s what came to mind. The word actually means “proud or in high spirits”. I’ve been trying to work it into conversation all day, but mostly people have been such guttersnipes today that I don’t want to waste it.

I found one last word to share today: lethologica. As any writer can understand, this word describes the inability to recall the precise word for something. I’m relieved to know the diagnosis, but disappointed that they offer no treatment. I am afflicted with lethologica on a regular basis.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Quotation Marks and Dialog

“Look, “ I said to myself. “Lord Matt has left me not one but two topics for exploration in response to yesterday's post. He is truly a gentleman and a scholar.

I hope other will follow his example. I shall thank him properly by addressing quotation marks and dialog posthaste!” And so I am. (I bet you didn't know that I could talk in hyperlinks.)

Quotation marks and dialog offer punctuation challenges because people don't speak like they write. They interrupt each other—and themselves—and they often commit grammatical errors. The basic rule is thus: start and end your speech with a double quotation mark, including the finishing punctuation inside the final mark. Use commas when inserting the “said” designation.

That sounds simple enough, but there is more to writing dialog. You don't want to begin or end every sentence with “Bob said” and “Fred replied”. Your dialog will be stilted if you create a beginning phrase for your character every time he or she speaks, so that the comma falls neatly into an opening for you. Long sentences without speech attribution may confuse your reader if they can't figure out which character is talking.

As with many writing style problems, variety will improve your piece. You can find opportunities to skip specifying the speaker altogether, when the story makes it clear without your help. Begin some sentences with a speech tag and find places to insert the tag mid-sentence in others. Put the tag at the end of short sentences, either in the middle of a speech or when the character only has something short to say.

If you find your character giving a speech, the quote may extend over two or ten paragraphs. When you start a new paragraph without ending a quote, leave the closing quotation mark off the last sentence of the paragraph. Begin the next paragraph with a quotation mark. Continue this method until your source or character has has their say, then close the quotation.

You can emphasize a particular part of the quote by placing the speech tag just after it. Should your character wish to declaim, “I know that the answer to your problem lies just over that hill,” and should you wish to emphasize how strongly he believes that he knows it, you could writing it as follows. “I know,” said Jack, “that the answer to your problem lies just over that hill.” Adding the pause cues your reader that Jack emphasized the separated portion.

Should your quotation trail off, an ellipsis suffices to finish the sentence before closing the quotes. If your rude characters interrupt each other or if the speaker has though better of saying something aloud, use a dash to indicate that the speech has been truncated. I've lost sight of the original question by now, so if I missed the mark here please let me know.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Project Status and a Plea for Help

Well, it's a plea for input, at any rate. I've spent my blogging time, yet again, sorting and tagging posts here to add to my best.grammar.ever page. It's shaping up into a helpful place for me to find what I've written and areas on which I want to expand.

I am looking for feedback, however. I'm creeping my way up to 200 posts here, which makes for a very long page. I've inserted a bit of variation in the fonts and formats used for different sections. Now I need to hear from you—what do you like, what doesn't look good or work together, what color would you add or change, what topics are missing?

I'd like to sketch out an aim for this blog through the winter. Suggestions for grammar subjects you would like clarified or writing style topics you haven't seen will help. Responses to anything that's caught your fancy, opened your eyes, or confused you further will give me direction.

I still have plenty to say about grammar and writing, so don't worry that the well is running dry. I would, however, like to know that you, kind and faithful readers, are getting what you came to find. Help me help you. [End cheesy infomercial style]

Friday, November 23, 2007

Writing Numbers: When to Spell It Out

When you need to specify a number in your writing, you need to decide whether to write the number out or to use numerals. Standard rules help you make that decision. Find them here.

If you use a number smaller than 100, you should write it out unless it is part of a date, time, or phone number. This rule does not apply to “o'clock” times, which should be spelled out. Thus you would write, “His plane lands at 4:23,” and, “The kids go to bed at eight o'clock.”

If you are writing about a decade or century instead of a specific date, your preference can rule. Remember, however, that you should use the apostrophe for such abbreviations as '80s and '50s at the beginning of the number to indicate that you've left off the 19.

If you can write the number with one or two words (two thousand, for example), then do so.

If the number begins a sentence, spell it out. If the number turns out to be four thousand seven hundred and twelve, re-write the sentence to use the numerals instead, 4,712.

Decimals and percentages require numbers. You should not use the percent sign, however, unless you are writing a technical paper. Spell out percent for other pieces. Common fractions should be spelled out—e.g. one-fourth, three-fifths, a third—but fractions like 13/52nds should be converted to decimals instead.

Use numerals for sentences containing a series of numbers, rather than deciding whether to use numerals or words on a case-by-case basis. Unless, that is, you are writing two numbers to modify a single noun. If you write “15 4-foot boards” readers will wonder where you find boards 154 feet long rather than what in the world you are building with fifteen 4-foot boards.

Gee, I can't understand why anyone finds these rules confusing or difficult to remember. If I've missed a rule or you still have a question about number usage, please let me know and I'll clarify or find the answer.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Back to Basics: Adjectives

You use an adjective to describe or modify a noun or pronoun. They help you write specific descriptions and sentences. You can have too much of a good thing, however. Which of the following sentences would you rather read?

A tall, thin woman with red hair walked quickly into the room.

A lanky red-head strode into the room.

You need adjectives to draw a mental picture for your reader, but be careful that they don't become a crutch. Remember the old writing adage: show, don't tell. When you find yourself using three adjectives to describe a single thing, try to find words that do the job of two or more of the ones you've used.

Now that you've been warned of the seductive dangers of adjectives, let's take a look at some ways they are used. As above, many are directly linked to their subject. In fact, when getting creative about describing nouns, you need to pay attention to where your adjectives land. You may accidentally modify the wrong thing by trying to get your adjectives farther from your nouns.

For a thorough explanation of adjectives, adjectival clauses, and participles—those are verbs dressed in adjective clothing—take a gander through Capital Community College page about adjectives. I chose their page because they expose the seamy underbelly of Thomas Wolfe, teeming with descriptors rather than strong prose.

The page also has a list of adjectives that cannot be used in degrees. I can sound more intelligent than my brother, but the vote on that is either unanimous or it isn't. You can't have be more unanimous than unanimous.

I think that's enough on adjectives on this Thanksgiving Thursday. I'll return tomorrow, perhaps with more modifiers. Only time will tell.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Language Games and Word Play

I was preparing a post on Spoonerisms and malapropisms for today, but discovered that it wasn’t scintillating enough to interest even me. I took that as a hint that I should reserve the topic for a day when I could do it justice.

Instead, I’ll alert you to the Lake Superior State University list of banished words for 2007. While I agree with a few of these, particularly the first three, the 2006 list would serve you better as a list of words used to death. If your favorite buzzword pet peeve doesn’t appear, submit it for consideration. They are working on the 2008 list already.

If you’d rather play with your words, troop over to RinkWorks and their Brain Food page. You’ll find logic puzzles, jokes, and lateral thinking puzzles. While the last may not necessarily improve your writing directly, they will help you think around plot corners and perhaps give your block-stricken writing a jump-start.

If that still doesn’t satisfy your word game yearnings, go to Adrian Hoad-Reddick’s word game menu. If that doesn’t occupy you for at least an hour before you remember that you were on your way to the store, then you must need that milk badly.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Quickie Post: Recommendations as Resources

Sure, I could compile a great list of blogs about writing. I could tell you all why I like them all. But why would I do that, when a great list has been compiled at Writing White Papers.

There, you will find their request for nominations for the Top 10 Blogs for Writers. The 138 responses to the post offer a great list of writing blogs.

I have two of them on my blogroll, have linked to at least two of the others, but a number of these sites are new to me. Rest assured that I'll be investigating them and sharing my findings with the rest of you. Those of you who would like to do your own research (or are just looking for more great blogs), click over to the contest and peruse the nominations.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Today's Post, Wherein I Behave Cruelly to Others

I spend time on a few fora and usually hold my virtual tongue when I see the English language blatantly abused. That does not mean, however, that I do not make snarky comments to myself. Today, I feel like sharing.

The following examples came from boards on sites for publishing writers. The portions in quotation marks came from actual posts. No writers were harmed in the creation of this post, though I may have sprained a muscle while rolling my eyes.

“using fowl language” I hate articles about chickens and geese, myself. They put me in a foul mood.

“Wether its them helping” or whether it’s a simple typographical error, the problem remains an apostrophe.

“Trust me these situations never turn out good.” Trust me; the word well would have improved this sentence even without the semicolon.

“The incipient whimps that represent [this site]” are less insipid and wimpy than someone who can’t be bothered to spell their own insult correctly.

“Cudos to anyone that knows” how to spell kudos. Bonus points for those that who where that word originated.

“I know that’s not alot but I don’t work produce every day.” I never work produce. They’ve stationed me in the meat department, where I produce a lot.

“If your healthy your not likely to even get the flu…” Beyond my objection to the sentiment expressed, the split infinitive and the pair of “your” errors make my head hurt. I think I’m coming down with something.

Thus, you see that writers make errors and that I am too snippy (snotty? snooty?) to respond on these boards.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Grammar Pet Peeves around the Web

As proof that I'm not the only person around with grammar pet peeves, I offer these sites for your elucidation and entertainment. If you don't see your pet, or if you just want to vent about it, leave me a comment. I'm certain to commiserate with you.

Literally, A Web Log which only addresses correct usage and abuse of the word “literally”.

Richard Lederer had a show on National Public Radio about his grammar pet peeves. I'm sorry I missed those, but you can listen to them here, even if you can't call in and commiserate.

Dina at blogfeeder offers a place to post your pet peeves. A lovely, irate pile has accumulated there.

J at Thinking About... has not only her top 13 pet peeves but another post linking to another NPR show about grammar. It appears that she no longer updates this blog.

Peter Ridge at Turbulent Sky has only three pet peeves, but the're biggies. I haven't even posted about less versus fewer. I'll have to remedy that oversight soon.

Shockingly enough, the Grammar Police have their own post with a lengthy comment section where readers share their grammar pet peeves.

Finally, ZDNet offers a list of 10 flagrant grammar mistakes that make you look stupid. That's their phrasing, by the way.

Enjoy these rants and responses. I, too, have a pet peeve of the day. Using a qualifier such as more or most with the word unique makes my teeth clench and my fingers itch for a red pen.

Unique means it is the most unusual, rare, exotic, unmatched, unrivaled of its kind. One-of-a-kind works as a synonym for unique. You can't be “more unique” or the “most unique”. Either your subject is unique or it is not. The next time you use unique in your writing, consider whether you meant it or not. If you wrote that something was the “most unique” thing you'd ever seen, chances are that you didn't mean it at all. Try original or extraordinary, instead.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Back to Basics: Pronouns

Pronouns seem pretty straightforward. You take a noun, you replace it with a word that stands for the object, and you move on. Who wants to write, “Bob started to tidy Bob's apartment. Bob took Bob's shoes to Bob's room and put the shoes in Bob's closet”? He can take his shoes and stick them at that point, for all your readers would care.

Like anything in English, different forms of various pronouns are used in different grammatical situations. Sure, I could set out an enormous list of every form I can recall and explain the use of each. But I'm not going to do that.

Instead, click over to the Internet of English Grammar and their handy pronoun page. Trust me, you'd prefer to read it there, well organized. It's one of their five pages about nouns.

But pronouns have hidden depth under their simple exterior. Wait: if you read that last link you already know that they are pretty complicated. If they were so easy to use, would I have bothered with a whole post dedicated to the things? Pretend I didn't write that.

For those of you who missed it the first time around or haven't been re-reading it every week to admire my fascinating research, I'll post links to my earlier series on using singular pronouns when you don't know (or wish to conceal) the gender of your noun. That will save all of us from my rehashing the whole thing here.

Defining the Problem
Using Plural Pronouns
The Finale

Friday, November 16, 2007

Ultra-Quickie: Five Writing Sites to Explore

For you entertainment and enlightenment, I have carefully selected five sites that delve into the fascinating and obscure world of words. Enjoy!

The Nose of the Sphinx and Other Mysteries


The 11 Rules of Writing (with a discussion forum)

The Archive of Endangered, Special, or Fun Words (with which I am besotted)

Secrets of Writing with Style (on

Thursday, November 15, 2007

What Doesn't Cliche You Can Only Make You Stronger

Dan Santow posted a useful list of clichés and ways to avoid them. I was so entertained by those that I went off and discovered Cliché Web.

For those of you who don’t know what constitutes a cliché, check the definition at the Southhill Education Centre’s fiction terminology page. Read some of the other terms, while you’re there. Some of the more obtuse definitions are difficult to follow, but others are explained clearly, even eloquently, and may help you in your writing.

Reading through lists of clichés helps you recognize over-used phrases in your own writing. Sure, you can laugh at the bizarre terms that people use, but you can also tune your own mental editor to hear clichés in your own work and that of others.

Why do you care about using clichés when you write? Because they rob your piece of originality. You are parroting concepts that your readers have seen a thousand times instead of creating a unique mental picture.

Edit these worn phrases out of your writing and replace them with fresh comparisons and imagery. People view cliché use as laziness on your part or as a lack of creativity. You want people to have neither of those are perceptions of your writing, regardless of whether you are creating a work of fiction or writing an article about a well-known topic.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Pet Peeve of the Day: Interviewed

I’m afraid I ran out of posting time, today. In the interests of living up to my commitment for NaBloPoMo, I wanted to post something. I was working on a review of the web site Television without Pity, of which I had never heard, and there I found my pet peeve of the day.

In the extensive and pointlessly detailed recaps (another abbreviation that most people do not recognize as such, since recapitulation sounds like a surrender rather than a re-hash) one of the reviewers (in at least two separate reviews) repeatedly uses the word “interview” as a synonym for “said”. Interview is a perfectly normal verb. It works just fine to write, “Bob interviewed Janet.” You can also use the word as a noun, as, “During the interview, Janet lied to Bob.”

Never before have I seen a sentence like, “Janet interviewed that she hated Bob.” I am entertained by a tish of celebrity dish like any person, but all of the dirt in Delaware cannot make up for a horrid construct like this. I have abandoned my attempt at an impartial review to post this brief rant.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Quickie Post: I Told You Grammar Was Important

I’ve written more than once about why good writing requires correct grammar and language, both from my own perspective and pointing to the reasons of others. I still love to sit in the choir and listen to the preaching from time to time. Today, I found another opportunity to do just that.

I wandered by Daily Writing Tips and Michael Moser’s post asking whether there is room for error in writing. He answers his own question with a resounding, “No,” and gives clear, specific reasons for doing so.

Mr. Moser also found historic examples of why clarity in language has led to some untimely (or timely, depending on your point of view) demises. Language can’t get much more critical than when your words determining your life span.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Back to Basics: Verbs

Unlike nouns, which are relatively easy to define, verbs complicate grammar by taking dozens of different forms, depending on how many nouns are being discussed, when the action took (or will take) place, and who is narrating. Check out Interlink's ESL site and their page on verbs for a thorough exploration.

For our purposes, let's assume that you've refreshed your memory with that page or already have a firm grasp on tenses and number agreement. You have another set of forms to worry about, beyond simple present, past, and future.

The more ornate forms have better names, too, like future perfect and (my favorite) pluperfect. These instruments shape garbled events into a clear time line by indicating just when an action occurs and whether it continues.

Most of these forms include a helping verb that tells your reader which period of time you mean. Between the two words, you form a verb with both tense—present, past, future—and aspect. The aspect shows readers an approximate time and duration. That's a lot of weight for “had” to carry!

For a really thorough review of tenses, aspect, and other verb complications, visit the University of Ottawa's page on using verbs.

You may notice that the word pluperfect appears nowhere on that page. If not, I noticed for you. In fact, many of the verb pages I visited neglected this word. You need to understand it, however, even if you don't remember the name. You use the pluperfect not just to indicate when an event occurred but that something happened before something else. Try the Ultralingua explanation of pluperfect for examples and a more specific definition.

I've heard the word pluperfect used as an adjective, usually in place of the phrase “the epitome of” or “the ultimate”. Calling your situation a “pluperfect hell” doesn't make sense. It's a great word, and fun to say, but it already has a meaning.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The New Yorker Moved a Preposition

Here I sat, ready to write an article about why cursing creates poor writing, when I ran across another topic entirely. That will teach me to do some research! (No, really, it reinforces my belief that research can open up a topic in whole new directions and perhaps improve your focus.)

I don't want to post the whole breadcrumb trail that led me to it, but suffice it to say that a comment on Language Hat lead me to their post about Geoff Pullum's Language Log post about ending a sentence with a preposition.

The first thing that struck me was the fraught (even over-wrought) nature of the Language Hat page, especially in the comments. Sheesh, people, we're talking about grammar, not war crimes. If I weren't passionate about it I wouldn't blog about it, but neither would I censure people for having an opinion with which I disagree.

Then I read Mr. Pullum's post and realized that he had used a self-referential joke as the starting point for his post and it was the joke to which folks were having such a strong reaction. Apparently, if you run a search with no results at the New Yorker, it returns a page that says, “I'm sorry I couldn't find that for which you were looking.” Mr. Pullum started a chain reaction of overreaction with his response.

When first I read this sentence, I couldn't imagine what about it could possibly offend so many people. Apparently, it's too correct. I would have thought the quibble would have been with the first two words (sentence? clause? omitted “that”?) and looked forward to the magazine being taken to task for such an odd grammatical construct. But I found that the comments were about the New Yorker having changed “that you were looking for” to “that for which you were looking”.

I'm glad they did. It shows people that those prepositions can be moved easily. It also fits with their image. As a branding move, this sentence strikes just the right note. It sounds more elegant than, “That search returned no results.” It shows more style than, “We couldn't find any pages containing that term.” And, perhaps best of all, it irritates people into posting about it, which draws traffic to the New Yorker page attempting to see it for themselves. That's one smooth move.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

A Strong Vocabulary Equals Safer Insults

Let us consider the ways that you can insult and confuse people at the same time. Having a strong vocabulary means that you have more than one word at your disposal for just such moments as those when you wish to really put someone down properly. Try some of these alternatives:

Call your brother-in-law a bromidic addle-pate instead of boring dolt. He might be flattered, or he might have (very well) hidden depths.

Describe that flaky co-worker as abstracted, pedomorphic, and peurile rather than stupid, childish, and thoughtless. It's less likely to get you in trouble.

Your parents might prefer obdurate and peremptory over opinionated and imperious. Then again, they might consider you sportive or nascent.

Discuss your unfortunate cousin using the word “maladroit” instead of “socially backward”. Your aunt and uncle will thank you.

Achieve the proper level of sophisticated disdain by telling the host that you are leaving the party because it has become jejune. It may take them all night to figure out that you were bored to tears.

Explain to your ex-whatever that things didn't work out because you couldn't be with an insipid laggard. Your current partner would probably rather hear that the ex was a shallow, lazy twit.

Respond to your boss's suggestion with, “What a risible idea.” He or she may never know that you find it utterly ridiculous. It's best to avoid the word fatuous as this could be more accurately construed as fat-headed. That would never do. You might also exclaim that his short-sighted plans are completely myopic, although not if he or she wears glasses. You don't want to be gauche.

Do you see how much fun you can have with a thesaurus and a dictionary? Find a new insult today!

Friday, November 9, 2007

Quickie Post: Grammar Fun

Today, I’m giving you a list of entertaining grammar posts on other blogs. Don’t think this is laziness, dear readers. I am working up a lovely post about offering creative insults trough a stronger vocabulary. I just didn’t want to make you wait until I was done with it.

Shakadoo had a post today about excessive punctuation use.

Sleepydrake posted a great rant about the misuse of homonyms at (Remind me later to explain why the word homophone would have been better than homonym for this post. I'll probably forget, but this isn't really the time.)

Dawn Goldberg posts about discovering a new word at Write Well Me.

And Richard Nordquist of posted the perfect lead-in to my pro-vocabulary post with this explanation of bdelygmia.

Enjoy, and come back tomorrow for some examples of curious ways to insult your inferiors.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Back to Basics: Nouns

As I lay in bed last night, I realized that I haven’t specifically addressed basic grammar concepts. I mention fundamental concepts often when I’m talking about the passive voice and distinguishing between commonly misused words but I haven’t defined any basic terms.

Thus I am starting a series on grammar basics. I’ll cover parts of speech and punctuation. I will post two or three parts each week until I run out of ideas or I feel like I’ve covered the requirements for following the more complicated issues.

With that in mind, today I am focusing on nouns. They (or their stand-ins, pronouns) are one of the two necessary ingredients in any sentence, whether implied or stated. As far as I know, in English you can’t write a grammatically correct sentence any shorter than, “Go!” The implied “you” acts as the subject.

In essence, nouns are people, places, or things. Abstract concepts count as things, which confused me as a child. Thus “child” can be a noun, as can “freedom”. Grammar is confusing because many words act as other parts of speech, depending on their context.

You use nouns as subjects or the objects of phrases or actions. You also use nouns as appositives, words set off in commas that give more information about another word. Let’s consider the sentence, “Bob, our coach, left the field.”

We find three nouns in this sentence: Bob, coach, and field. Bob is the subject of the sentence, coach is an appositive explaining who or what Bob is, and the field is the object of the verb explaining what location Bob left.

You capitalize a proper noun to indicate that it is the name of a particular thing. You can talk about mayors of towns in general, but Mayor Smith runs Blankville. You may write on famous towers, such as the Tower of London. Capitalizing the name indicates that you mean a specific one, rather than just any ol’ tower.

You can also use nouns to show possession. In “Bob’s coach, Fred, left the field,” Bob has moved from being the coach to possessing the coach (in a general, member-of-the-team way rather than some sort of kinky way like you people are thinking. Shame on you.)

If I’ve missed a basic noun concept, please leave me a comment to remind me of it. If what I’ve written is not clear, please let me know. I would hate to blather on without explaining a thing. Thanks.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

There Versus Their Versus They're

Three words that confuse many writers deserve a bit of attention. There, their, and they’re trip up many a writer. As with other homophones, it doesn’t matter which you use when you speak. That allows people to be lazy about knowing the difference if they don’t write much.

When you write “there”, think, “Where?” If you are writing about a location you should be able to answer that question. That means that you are using the correct form of the word.

If you use “their”, ask yourself, “Whose?” The word “their” indicates possession, which means that you should know who owns the object. If you aren’t writing about something that more than one person owns, don’t use “their”.

“They’re” is a contraction of “they are” (ah, a form of abbreviation that I didn’t specify in my last post). If you’ve used it in a sentence, try writing it out instead of using the contraction. If “they are” doesn’t fit in the sentence, you are using the wrong form.

These tricks will help you eliminate errors in using these words. As with many proofreading tasks, a moment’s thought will show you an error. Take your time re-reading your work and you’ll eliminate most of your mistakes easily.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The Types of Abbreviations

In considering yesterday's post, I decided I was being a tease. I mentioned that you can create different types of abbreviations but I didn't specify what they were much less offer examples. I will rectify that oversight today.

You can abbreviate more than one word into an acronym using the first letter of each word and pronouncing the letters as a word. AIDS and NATO demonstrate this type of abbreviation, although you do not have to write not all acronyms in capital letters. Laser and scuba both stand for terms that people rarely use in their full forms, nor are they generally capitalized.

If the resulting acronym either sounds like another word or is unpronounceable, you can simply say the letters. Governments and military people tend toward these, such as USA, the UN, the EU, and the KGB.

At times, the word you use is an abbreviation of a longer word. When you’ve dropped the first portion of a word, e.g. bus or phone, you’ve used an apheresis. People use the shortened form of these so often that people don’t realize that there is more to the word, like omnibus.

This term could be a source of confusion, as the only difference between this and apheresis lies in the syllable being dropped. When you say, “I danced with Mike ‘cause he’s nicer than Ted,” that first apostrophe indicates that you’ve used an aphesis. You have dropped the unstressed vowel at the beginning of the word “because”. Most of these occur in casual speech and not intentionally in a written piece, outside of dialogue.

When you drop the end of a word, you create a clipped form, like “fridge” for “Frigidaire” instead of refrigerator.

Portmanteau or Blend
When you combine two words to make a new one, you’re creating a portmanteau.

I’m running out of steam (and room) to post examples of these. I haven’t even addressed creating abbreviations by leaving out some letters, or by substituting other letters. I didn’t find a term for that practice, because that’s what abbreviating is.

The next time you’re cooking, see how much of your recipe is written in abbreviations. Imagine having to write out “tablespoon”, “ounce”, and “Fahrenheit” every time you needed them and you’ll have a new appreciation for the abbreviation.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Portmanteau or Truncation: What to Call That Abbreviation

I mentioned last week sometime that I was going to research what to call abbreviations like NaNoWriMo and NaBloPoMo. In my digging, I came across a few options and a distinction I’d not seen before.

Should you ever need to know, separate terms exist for words like SCUBA and LASER (which have become scuba and laser, words that some people don’t ever realize mean more) and CIA. The former example, pronounced as a word, retains its title of acronym, just as I thought. I discovered, however, that abbreviations like many government agencies and television stations are termed initialisms, because you pronounce the individual initials rather than trying to make them into a word.

That didn’t answer my question, but I thought you be interested. As NaNoWriMo fits neither of these definitions, two alternatives remained to me: either abbreviation or truncation. Truncation sounds so abrupt, however, so I was rooting for abbreviation. Then I was silly enough to look for a list of the types of abbreviations.

Ai! I hadn’t thought of the many different ways in which people abbreviate words. I did find a term I had forgotten, however, and one that seems to fit. Abbreviations composed of more than one word enjoy the lovely name of portmanteau. Sure, you could call them a blend of clipped forms, but why waste so many words when a single, French one will do?

Sunday, November 4, 2007

A New Project: Best.Grammar.Ever

Instead of writing posts for my blog and brainstorming topics for the coming weeks, as I ought to do to keep up with my commitment for NaBloPoMo, I've been working on something new. I am slowly accumulating Squidoo lenses as a hobby and a way to promote my articles. I have had a mixed experience, with one lens actually making money and sending hundreds of referrals to my articles every month but the rest either languishing or getting a trickle of clicks.

Now Squidoo has joined up with and tempted me to try somthing new. I started something called I find the layout much less "cute" than regular Squidoo lenses and the web address more memorable.

I am filling the site with posts from this blog, arranged by topic. So far I've written about and linked to my posts on -tion words and on the passive voice. I was surprised to find that I've written about the passive voice eight separate times. I intend to do sections on punctuation, improving your vocabulary, and why you need grammar in the first place.

If you have any questions about grammar or suggestions for topics, I'd love to see them. Not only can you learn but you can help shape the best grammar site ever. If you do have a question, I'll link to you in the post so that you get full credit. Thanks, and keep reading!

Saturday, November 3, 2007

More Words = Less Confusion: Increase Your Vocabulary to Communicate Clearly

You can compose the most complex, grammatically correct sentence known to man and it won't mean that you're a good writer. You must be able to create technically correct sentences, paragraphs, and pieces, but no one is going to want to read them, much less pay you for them, if you readers can't tell what you're trying to say.

Expand your vocabulary so that, instead of noting “big changes coming” you can explain the “fundamental reforms on the horizon” or the fact that “new programs and benefits will become available next week”. There is a big difference between the latter two, and the first version doesn't give readers a hint as to which direction the news will take them. Should they be concerned or excited?

Learn new words so that you can specify. If there are seventeen adjectives with a similar meaning, each of those has a slightly different definition. Using just the one that conveys your meaning allows you to tell your readers precisely what you have in mind.

You can't just throw words at a topic, rearrange them grammatically, and call it an article. With a large arsenal of words at your disposal you can shoot an exact description or explanation into your sentence. The right words can have an explosive impact on your readers. Isn't that why you write in the first place?

Do a web search for "expand your vocabulary" and start stockpiling word weapons. Click "vocabulary" in my tag cloud to the left for some other ways to fill your brain. You never know when you'll be called upon to defend yourself.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Quickie Post: Be Nice to Your Words

Since Friday has again arrived, I thought we could all use some fun word play. Check out Ann Ewan’s pages about word histories and misuses. She has put up several pages of word origins and examples of word abuse.

Carnegie Mellon University has a page of over-used word pet peeves. They list phrases that have been used until they scream for mercy, then offer stronger—or at least less-worn—replacement suggestions. That list and a Thesaurus will help you avoid the worst abuses.

Calvin College in Michigan has a long page of mixed metaphors sure to entertain you. The ever-witty, or at least curmudgeonly, Jack Lynch points out (on his “M” page) that mixed metaphors can be far less obvious, and offers a set of writing clichés of his own.

These all remind me of a co-worker who, despite my best efforts, continually uses the phrase “mute point”. I pointed out a few times that this would mean a point unable to make noise but yesterday he used the phrase incorrectly on three occasions in one meeting. There’s only so much you can do.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Part Two: With What Do You End a Sentence?

Verbs that include a preposition, phrasal verbs, pose another problem. Check the bottom third of Get It Write On-line’s page on prepositions at the end of sentences for a good set of examples. I suggest that you either include such verbs earlier in the sentence or use a different verb altogether. “Explode” replaces “blow up” and formalizes the sentence at the same time. While using that verb at the end of sentence does not constitute a grammatical error, it will raise a flag to grammar sticklers and distract them from your point.

Many of these verbs require an object. If you are checking out, either you need to check out something or you need to check out of something, or both. Include the object after the verb and you eliminate the problem of the dangling preposition. Instead of Churchill’s things “up with which he will not put” you could “not put up with such things” because you “put up” “with” something.

Phrasal verb prepositions don’t belong at the end of a sentence because your reader needs more information. Put the object closer to the related preposition to improve the clarity of your sentence, as well as to remove the distraction of ending that sentence with the dreaded preposition.

I am not suggesting that dangling a lone preposition in front of a period makes you a poor writer. I have done it and I’ll do it again. But I do want to point out that, regardless of popular opinion, doing so creates one more distraction for your readers. Unless you do so for emphasis, avoid ending a sentence with a preposition.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

What Do You End a Sentence With?

You can find a hundred opinions on the Internet (and in books and magazine articles) about ending a sentence with a preposition. In the case of casual writing, no one cares if you end your sentence with “with” or “for”. For more formal circumstances, however, doing so should be avoided whenever possible.

Note that ending a sentence with a preposition doesn’t necessarily make you wrong. People simply perceive doing so as being grammatical error. Leaving a sentence with such an ending disrupts the flow of your writing to someone who has been taught that you should never do so. Even though your piece will be correct, your reader will think otherwise. My grammar checker marked the title of this post for ending with a preposition, in fact.

Should you find yourself with a preposition at the end of your sentence, try re-writing it. Move the preposition so a spot before its object first and re-read the sentence aloud. If it sounds stilted or snooty to you, try writing the sentence in a way that doesn’t require a preposition at all.

You can often reword questions to eliminate the preposition problem. When you ask where something is at, you can simply drop the “at”. “Where” asks for a location and the “at” becomes redundant in this circumstance. Instead of asking “what for” you simply ask “why”. Thus, instead of asking, “What do you need to go to the store for?” you can ask, “Why do you need to go to the store?” Then again, you could simply ask, “What do you need at the store?”

I’ll pick this topic up tomorrow with more examples, including verbs that include prepositions. That will by my first post for NaBloPoMo, and if I can swing it, I’ll be posting every day for November. That’s assuming that my ISP can keep their servers up for the whole month. Check back often!

Monday, October 29, 2007

Passive Voice Re-Write

Karon Thackston has an “expert” article called, “Stop the Slaughter of Innocent Copy” at The article itself offers good advice and an entertaining read.

One section, however, caught my eye as a perfect example of how to employ the passive voice to miss the goal of writing tight, focused copy. It reads as follows:

“One primary goal is to write copy so that the keyphrases are virtually
undetectable when read by someone with no knowledge of SEO. One vital step in
making this happen is to carefully research and select your keyphrases.”
The phrases “[o]ne primary goal is” and “[o]ne vital step … is” grabbed my attention. I immediately reconstructed the paragraph in my head to read:

“Write copy so that a reader with no SEO knowledge glides right over the
keyphrases without noticing them. To make this happen, carefully research and
select your keyphrases.”
As re-written, I’ve eliminated 10 words (and could cut more but may not keep the original flavor of the paragraph) and increased the reading ease from 45 to 50. The tone also matches the article better, addressing the reader directly rather than talking about SEO abstractly.

These sentences may not have caught my eye had they not been placed next to the key points box for the article, the first of which read:

“One common mistake many site owners and newbie copywriters make is to replace
every single instance of a generic key term with one of their chosen
You can re-write that sentence five different ways to get rid of the passive voice. Leave me one in the comments. I’ll post one of my own in a few days.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Pet Peeve of the Day: Companies That Can't Spell

If I had to name the one thing that makes me crazy on a daily basis, I’d choose dealing with a company that can’t spell its own name. I have to pay Xcel Energy for gas every month but at least I dumped phone service from Qwest. Everywhere I look, I find companies that have misspelled words in an attempt to be cute or creative.

Why would I buy decking material from a company that can’t spell “deck” correctly? Why couldn’t Flickr include that “e” and where did Digg get that extra “g”? Demonstrating your inability to spell a word correctly (or refusal to do so) does not inspire confidence in your competence to deliver a service.

Unfortunately, you can trace a long tradition of “kreativ” spelling to pre-web days. Sensis brags that they’ve been around for over a century. I still wouldn’t trust them to provide accurate information, since they can’t even spell census.

I hereby offer my advice to people searching for a company name: spell it right or make up a word entirely. If you’d rather have something that no one can spell correctly, use your name. Don’t irritate potential customers by purposely misspelling a word that they could otherwise use to find you. You’ll lose customers to companies who trust their spell check more than their trend-o-meter.

Apparently, belonging to the NaBloPoMo group of Cranky Bloggers has rubbed off on me. I don’t count things like NaBloPoMo as misspellings as they are somewhere between abbreviations and acronyms. I will research whether a word for such constructions exists and let you know. I’ve not heard of one but there probably is a proper term.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Quickie Post: Grammar and News

More grammar from others, today, as I find myself out of time for posting. Read all about it!

The SE Missourian published this piece about text speak in formal school papers. I have concerns about this topic myself, as my children approach the age where they will learn grammar in school. I would hate to be one of those proverbial shoemakers whose children have none.

I was prepared to continue in this vein when I ran across Grammar Moses and decided that his advice and acerbic wit would hold your attention (as it did mine) longer than a series of isolated articles. He focuses on writing news but his advice applies to many fields, including writing for the Internet. I will delve into this site further and post anything particularly interesting that I come across. In the meantime, explore for yourself!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

I Versus Me; Us Versus We

People often confuse personal pronoun forms when writing sentences more complicated than, “I see you.” Without knowing what function they perform, you can’t know which case fits. See this table of cases for a list of which pronouns act as subjects and which are objects.

Now that you have that firmly in mind (or have a pretty good idea without looking), let’s take on some sentences with more complicated subjects and objects. Remembering that “me” and “us” are used as objects, you could write the following.

Julie and I are meeting the others at the mall.
Will you pick up Shelly and me by four o’clock?

We bloggers create demand for each other.
Traffic comes to us bloggers from other blogs.

To remember which pronoun fits your sentence, write it without the extraneous explanation. Would you write, “Pick up I”? Certainly, you would not, because you only use “I” and “we” as subjects. “I” am not the object of someone else’s action!

When using “we” and “us” with a noun—usually a group or category of people although this can get more complex when adjectives and other modifiers are thrown into the mix—decide which case fits by narrowing the sentence down to the subject and the verb. If your pronoun is neither of these then use “us”.

I see writers (and hear speakers) that use “I” as an object when they are trying to sound formal. While “me” does sound more informal and often takes the place of “I” in casual conversation (whether it raises my eyebrows or not), “I” is not simply a fancy version of “me”. Thus substituting the subjective case for the objective in sentences like, “Reports made to the Board of Directors and I…” gives the impression that you don’t know what the heck you’re talking about. That’s rather the opposite of your intention, isn’t it?

It behooves you to get your pronouns right, whether you are addressing a shareholders’ meeting or blogging about your newest affiliate program. If you want people to take you seriously, you have to take language seriously.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Langauge Log at UPenn

For those Dave Barry fans among us, check out the Language Log archive of Mr. Language Person columns. While you’re there, dig around. You’ll find fun and fascinating posts, whether you agree with the conclusions or not (plus a series critiquing Dan Brown's writing in exact and hysterical ways).

I mention the fact that you may disagree with some of the posts because I found this one on “The Coming Death of Whom”. I disagree that whom lies on its deathbed because people use it when they want to sound extra-smart. Of course, using it incorrectly makes you sound like a twit, which explains my recent post on the matter.

Since I spent most of my blogging time digging through the archives, I’ll share just one more post, this one a counterpoint to my earlier posts on brevity. Those of you with delicate sensibilities be warned—it starts with an expletive. Trust me, you’ll enjoy the post enough to forgive the nasty word.

Blogging in brief seems pretty easy to me, but many bloggers take on wide topics in a single post and thus find themselves with a couple thousand words on their hands. I prefer bite-sized posts spread across several days, to keep me and my erstwhile readers from getting bored as much as to keep them (and me) coming back.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Quickie Post: Word Toy to Fight World Hunger

I learned another new word today, one that may be destined to become a favorite: pluvial. It means rainy or related to rain. It reminds me of “sploosh”, which isn’t a word but is a good bit of onomatopoeia, and thus perfectly fits its meaning.

Where did I find this word? At Free Rice, where they donate “ten grains of rice” for every word you get right. That makes this not only a great way to build your vocabulary but a fun and easy way to donate to a worthy cause.

While 10 grains of rice amounts to very little by itself, thousands of people donating a few hundred grains a week makes a big difference. Visit their FAQs page for an explanation of where the rice comes from and who distributes it. The site states that it is a sister site of

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Did I Lay That on the Couch?

If there exists one set of words that forces me to stop and think when writing (and again when editing), it's lay and lie. I avoid them with put, place, set, leave, lounge, drape, or any other word I can find. I decided today that I will no longer choose the chicken's way but that I will learn the difference for once and all.

The problem comes not from the difference between the words themselves. “Lay” means to put something somewhere while “lie” means to recline or “lie down”. You can also lie to someone, but that layer of confusion we don't need so I'll leave it out.

It turns out that you can tell the difference between the words by considering whether the verb needs an object. If you use the word “lay” you have to include what is being laid in order to complete the sentence. Laying requires the subject to act on something while lying reflects that the subject acts, if only by changing position. Normally this requires a prepositional phrase to indicate the location but the subject that lays on something acts on himself or herself.

Why do the two words get confused? The past tens of lie is lay. Unless you write in the present tense, telling your readers that your protagonist was lying on a couch or bed means writing that they lay there. “Bob lay on the couch listlessly.” This sounds much like “Bob lay his jacket on the couch listlessly.” Note, however, that the second sentences shows Bob acting on an object, his jacket, rather than himself.

You must know the difference so that you can keep your tense consistent when writing. If you use one version of lay then the other version will not be identical. Thus, “Bob lay on the couch and laid his mail aside.”

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Don't Neglect Commas in Lists

I goty into another lovely set of langauge and writing discussions in the Writers' Workshop at Helium today. The topic that got me going was comma use in lists.

While I added my two cents to the thread, I don't like to expound at great length during a discussion. I hate to come off sounding like a know-it-all both because it opens me up to nit-pickery and because really hammering a topic from a soapbox tends to shut off further conversation.

All of which means that I am going to give my opinion on the subject now.

Traditionally, commas are used to separate items in a list and a conjunction is used before the last to indicate that it is, well, the last. Thus, I write, “Shelly put containers of orange, apple, and cranberry juice in her cart.”

Contrast that with, “Shelly put containers of orange, apple and cranberry juice in her cart.” Does this mean that she put more than one container of the same juice blend in her cart, two different kinds (orange and cranberry-apple), or that she chose three kinds of juice? That little comma makes a difference.

People commonly ignore the last comma in a list on the grounds that they don't need it unless the items in the list are complex. I disagree on two grounds. First, why have a rule that only applies sometimes. Either the rule holds true or it doesn't. Second, why waste time determining how complex your list has to be before it requires a comma? Simply use one every time and you will have a comma when you need one.

I admit to being a traditionalist on matters of grammar, but in this case the traditional method makes more sense. Comma overuse has created an atmosphere where writers abolish them at every opportunity. I agree with the impulse but, in this case, I think the poor little comma should be allowed to remain.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Fun Search Terms for This Blog

I reviewed my recent statistics this morning and discovered that this blog gets Google juice on some good topics. My posts on –tion words are my biggest draw, as people search every day, in a dozen different ways, for more information on them.

The terms on the list that I best liked seeing were “be sarcastic when defining sarcasm” and “how to make a sentence sarcastic”, plus three other mentions of sarcasm. I’m so proud. [sniff] Actually, I rank high for sarcasm because of my recent post on punctuation intended to indicate sarcasm and intentional ambiguity. Then again, I’m a bit of a…sarcastic individual.

I felt the need to run “example sentence using the word feckless” for myself. I came up second in the search results for this one, from actually using the word in my most-visited post on -tion words. Apparently feckless doesn’t get much use these days.

Folks have also found me through my posts on FANBOYS. I must admit to a certain amusement when using that term. It works beautifully as a memnotic device for remembering the basic conjunctions but also makes it sound like I’m writing about boy bands when I use it in headlines.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Quickie Post: Prefixes and Suffixes

Today I want to share some resources for vocabulary building. As I recently mentioned, knowing what the parts of a word mean (the root as well as the prefix and suffix) helps you build or understand more words. To that end, please look through this list and learn something new today.

Clear English from Paul and Bernice Noll offers a great list of suffixes.

Then there’s and their extensive list of Greek and Latin word parts.

Try Learn4Good’s list of suffix definitions separated by part of speech or’s list divided by type.

A good vocabulary contributes to good writing. While the Thesaurus helps you find the right word, knowing how to modify those words means that you can find a root and build just the word you want for any sentence.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Quickie Post: Good Grammar Advice

I feel so bad about posting that horrible writing advice the other day that I am posting a few resources for good grammar advice in an attempt to relieve my conscience. Please explore and enjoy.

Tina Blue has been posting grammar articles for years.

Get It Write Online has also been giving good grammar advice over the long haul.

Judy Vorfeld likewise has an extensive archive of grammar tips and advice.

Monday, October 15, 2007

For Whom the Sentence Works

For those of us who profess grammar stickler-ness, the word whom makes our ears perk up like shaking a box of dog treats near a Chihuahua. Either the speaker or writer uses the word correctly or we are prepared to take offense at their refusal to get it right.

I know someone who prides himself on his grammar and vocabulary (no, not me, thank you very much). We collaborate on projects a few times each year and, outside of the occasional typographical error, I have never had to correct his writing. Yesterday, I did.

As you may have guess from the first paragraph, he had a “whom” problem. The source of his confusion was the phrase “of whom” that, on the surface, is perfectly correct. After all, whom is made to be the object and doubly that of a preposition.

Unfortunately, my esteemed colleague forgot to consider the context of his sentence. What he meant was, “of those people who we are to serve.” He left out “those people” as assumable, but then was left with “of whom we are to serve” which he compounded by changing it to “of whom”.

Were I forced to write this sentence, I would write, “of those we are to serve”. If a gun were held to my head so that I would retain the “who/whom” portion, I would stick with “who”. While the word follows a preposition, it is not the object of that preposition. It is a pronoun referring to “those people,” who have been chucked unceremoniously from the sentence.

I fear that I’ve muddied the swamp more than settled the waters, but perhaps this specific example will remind to look at more than just the adjacent words in your sentences when proofreading for grammar. And remember those words that you allow your reader to assume. They play a role in your sentence structure, whether they are written or not.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Bad Writing Advice with a Silver Lining

In my search for clarity and conciseness (concision?) in my writing, I fight with my deep-seated urge to build bloated sentences for the sheer joy of their complexity. Imagine my horror at finding a web site that urges people who write for academia to be as complex as possible and tells them how. There are exercises on taking relatively active, if obscure, sentences and making them passive! [shudder]

If you can look past all of that truly bad advice for writers, you will find a useful list of prefixes and suffixes 'way down the page. These are useful for building words that describe exactly what you want. If you find a great root word in the Thesaurus and want to use it properly, it helps to know what these “add-ons” mean.

Stop when you get to the section on nominalization, however. Here they proceed to advise using -tion words instead of the verbs with which you started. Unless you intend to write something in which nothing happens, use verbs instead. Here's some better writing advice.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Use, Don't Abuse, Capital Letters

I've been having fun today writing blog reviews at In looking through blog listings, I find a number of things I would not have run across in my obsession with grammar and writing.

One of those things drives me 'round the bend, however. People abuse capital letters or neglect them entirely, not just on the few blogs I've looked at there but across the Internet and out into “real” life. Let us review a few basics for using capital letters.

  • Use capital letters at the beginning of a sentence and for proper names like Bob or Omaha, Nebraska in a sentence. Capitalize the letter “I” when you are writing about yourself.
  • Capitalize each words in your headlines and titles, except for prepositions and articles. “Terror on the High Seas” is correct while “Fear Strikes The hearts Of Sailors” is not. Always capitalize the first and last words of your title, however, like “Out of Danger Now?”
  • Use bold and italic fonts for emphasis, rather than ALL CAPS. Your writing will look more polished and less hysterical, unless you highlight every other word. If you do, capitalization may not be your biggest writing problem. (Note: Avoid using underlined word for emphasis on-line as it usually indicates a hyperlink and folks will expect to be able to click on underlined words.)
These three tips should get you on the right track to using capital letter with grace and style. Now get out there and write.