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.