Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Consistence of a Bullet

When making a bulleted or numbered list, many writers lose sight of consistency in their attempts to organize. If you create such a list, take care to use the same composition for each item. When you use a word, phrase, or sentence fragment for the first, keep that format throughout the list. If the first item contains a complete sentence, then include a sentence for each point in the list.

It may help to use punctuation at the end of each item in the list, as well. A semi-colon or comma links the items into a long sentence that readers can easily understand. Just remember to check for matching punctuation at the end of each point and for the conjunction on the second-to-last item. The rules of punctuation and grammar still apply, after all, no matter how complex the sentence.

Your readers will have an easier time following your points if each takes the same form. Help make your meaning clear the first time through by removing stumbling blocks, such as inconsistent formatting, from the path.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Pet Peeve of the Day: Don't Try to Drive Me

I hereby define the single most common, and irritating, question addressed by “wannabe” gurus the blogosphere over: “How do you drive traffic to your web site?” My hackles have been raised well and proper by this blatant disregard for the humanity of people.

I can't argue that many people exhibit a herd mentality, especially in emotionally fraught times. Clicking through blogs for ideas on marketing yourself and making some pin money shouldn't be one of those times. Why do people insist on using the phrase “drive traffic”?

Personally, I check my mental “ignore” box for any source at which I read that phrase. It reveals the attitude of the writer toward their audience—that they are writing not for intelligent people attempting to improve their skills but for sheep to be herded through and fleeced.

I favor the idea of attracting readers, of drawing people to my blog through the content itself. Should I decide to trick or somehow force others to visit this page (something implied in the phrase) I wouldn't be able to enjoy any of my ill-gotten gains. Doing so goes against what I consider to be the whole point of blogging.

For those of you who blog about your passion, who enjoy the enterprise(s) and thrill to find that others have crossed your path (and perhaps joined you on your journey), keep doing what you're doing. I love to read posts and articles by people excited by sharing what they enjoy, either their success or their struggles. The connections created make the web more than the sum of its parts. My virtual hat is off to all of you.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

A Short Guide to Hyphen Use

Hyphens add an extra spice to general, punctuation-related confusion. Their rules allow exceptions on almost every side, rather than giving hard-and-fast guidance to hapless writers.

While there are exceptions to most of the rules that govern hyphens, you should know the general guidelines. You use them to compound words that have not been accepted as a single word. Thus, mother-in-law, head-to-head, mom-and-pop, and often-requested require hyphens. Except that the last example is hyphenated only when used as an adjective.

Here we come to the crux of the matter. You hyphenate a noun that contains a prepositional phrase, but not if the phrase modifies the noun. “Director of marketing” would not be hyphenated, as “of marketing” explains what the subject directs.

In contrast, a work-at-home dad needs his hyphens. “Work-at-home” modifies “dad” and acts as a single word in this example. You may have difficulty walking that fine line, at first. A little practice will help you decipher whether your phrase acts as a word.

A noun that functions in two or more roles also requires a hyphen between them. A writer-actor-director serves three functions (well or not) in the staging of a play and thus has earned his or her hyphens.

You use a hyphen when attaching a prefix to a proper noun. Anti-American sentiment, post-Reagan era, and quasi-French cuisine all must be hyphenated. Words that begin with ex-, all-, or self- also demand a hyphen. “The all-access pass that her ex-boyfriend left allowed her to act self-assured backstage.”

You also add a hyphen between some words comprised of a single letter and an actual word, such as T-shirt and X-ray. You don't, however, hyphenate I beam or T square. I could find no reason, other than conventional use, for the hyphenation difference between T-shirt and T square.

One more type of word requires hyphens: the compound number. When you write out two-digit numbers or the last two integers of a longer number, you add a hyphen between the words. Thus, I am writing this on the twenty-third day of February.

If you have some examples or other ways in which to use hyphens, please share them. If you have a terrific mnemonic device for remembering or figuring out how and where to use them, for the love of all that is holy, please post them below. Thank you!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Why Write Your Introduction Last?

Your introduction comprises the most important part of your writing, no matter the length. Without a good “hook”, readers won’t stick around long enough to see what else you have to say.

While writing the introduction first can help you to organize your thoughts, the first draft rarely introduces what your piece turns out to include.

Improve your writing by returning to the opening lines after you’ve created the body text. You must persuade readers that you have written something interesting or useful (or both) to share with them.

Your introduction should tell your readers what questions you’ll answer in the article. You need to let them know what to expect in order to convince them to read the whole piece. If you write the introduction last, you can accurately explain what you’ve discussed.

Avoid clich├ęs and strict definitions. These tell your reader that you’re too lazy to introduce the topic in your own words. If you feel that your subject is obscure enough to require definition, save the specifics for the second paragraph. The introduction should make them want to read it.

Don’t just tell readers what you’re going to tell them. Give them a focused example, ask an intriguing question, offer an attention-grabbing scenario. Find a way to attract the reader to the story that you have to tell, whether fiction or non-fiction. It’s difficult to do that before you write the piece.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Site Versus Cite Versus Sight

You've undoubtedly run across the same sorts of errors with these words that I have seen. I suspect that the commonality of the phrase “web site” has added to the confusion. Let's explore their meanings.

You cite something as a source for your argument or explanation. You do so to acknowledge the original author and to show readers or listeners that you have support for your position. Folks who write on the Internet commonly cite the sites at which they did their research.

You can be cited without writing a word, too. You may receive a citation, having been cited for something poorly behaved like a traffic violation or for something positive such as bravery under fire.

The word site refers to a place, whether concrete like the site of an invasion or abstract like a web site. I would hope that people rarely confuse this with the word sight, although I fear that it happens regularly.

You see a sight, you have a sense of sight, you visit a site. The word sight relates almost exclusively to the ability to see or envision something, whether you are writing about taking in the sights or sighting in your new rifle.

“What a sight the site of the battle presented!” If I had been quoting the work of another, I would now cite my source, probably by linking the author's name to the web site from which I copied it. Unfortunately for the purposes of this post, I created that sentence from whole cloth.

I hope that this issue is a sight more clear to you. Other sites skimp on these explanations, or fail to cite their sources. I thought this mess up all by my lonesome.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Fazed by Phases

I ran a search for particularly heinous examples of the phrase, “it doesn't phase me.” I discovered that, out of 903 results, ninety-five percent of the references were from song lyrics. I can't assume that people who transcribe lyrics need dictionaries, or that musicians should be better-versed in the vagaries of vocabulary, but this takes me a step in that direction.

For those of you who don't understand the problem with being “phased” by something, I'll explain. You see, calling something a phase indicates that the subject is passing through a temporary state of being. You can go through a phase, say, of loving the music of a boy band. By its very nature, such a phase will pass, much like the boy band itself.

These misguided musical enthusiasts should have used the word “faze”. Fazed means flustered or otherwise discombobulated. If you claim that something does not faze you, you are saying that it did not rattle or discomfit you.

It wouldn't faze me a bit if you commented that you were unaware that such a word exists. It's been ignored and misused in many media for a century or longer. Do your part and use faze and phase correctly henceforward. Rescue this verb from its prison of abuse. Language lovers will thank you.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Malapropisms for Fun

I have a co-worker who has cornered the office market on malapropisms. The other day, he said something snide and followed it with, “I’m being fictitious, of course.” I was laughing too hard to get up from the floor and correct him.

He often attempts to end arguments by declaring a point “mute”. I no longer correct this error because several years’ worth of attempts has proven the effort futile (not feudal, of course). As the result of a similar slip of the tongue, we ask if you would like lemming in your tea or a glass of lemming-ade.

Such “creative” uses of language are fondly known as malapropisms. You probably harbor a favorite example or two of your own (and I welcome you to share them, here). Rather than write a tedious definition and history of the term, I’ll refer you to Dr. Bill Long and his excellent pages with examples.

You can easily find lists of malapropisms from various historical figures and from Mrs. Malaprop herself, both with and without attribution. If you’re looking for some fun with words, browse through a few of them. Enjoy!

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Vocabulary-Building Tools

If you are looking for a way to expand your vocabulary by learning prefixes, Study Guides and Strategies has a word building toy for you. You are given a prefix and its meaning. Then you can pick up scattered endings and the definitions of the words appear as you bring the parts together.

I hope that the site offers more than the four examples that I saw. If not, it was simply a reminder of how prefixes work and a few minutes of fun for my son, dragging parts around on the screen to make big words. It included a link to Sheppard Software, however, where you will find five focused vocabulary exercises.

Those “games” draw random questions from pools of hundreds. Each purports to address a particular type of words, including a set each for medical and computer terminology. The site also provides a Word of the Day.

If you can't get enough words of the day, head over to and check out their word of the day. They offer to send you the word of the day via e-mail, as well.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Sources for Free Writing Prompts

What do you want to write about today? If your writing muscles have atrophied (or become paralyzed), find a writing prompt and give them a workout before you get down to the business of real writing. You may find that a rough start leads to a promising first draft.

When you need a nudge, try some of these sites. You'll find hundreds of prompts, both plain text and with photos.

CanTeach provides a lengthy list of starter questions. They range from the relatively generic (What is a good neighbor?) to the specific (Explain how to play your favorite game.) They are geared toward students but many selections cover fairly mature topics.

Find a year's worth of writing prompts at A quick browse through the list reveals some imaginative and concrete starting points.

Once Written updates their site with free prompts each week. Their first prompt for this week (My grandfather invented spam.) gave me a snicker and has been tucked away for lean writing days. You can also pay them to get one a day in your e-mail.

For writing topics of a poetic slant, head over to Language Is a Virus. You'll find articles, visual prompts, and the Random Line Generator for your entertainment and inspiration.

Get out in the wide on-line world and look. Any site that interests you can serve as a source of inspiration. Keep a text file open or a voice recorder handy when you surf, to remind you of those topics if you can't stop and write immediately.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Quickie Post: More Grammar in the News

I haven’t posted a “Grammar in the News” list in weeks. Imagine my delight at immediately finding a recent piece from Minnesota Public Radio about collective nouns and team names that meshed so well with my recent post about collective nouns in general.

Then I discovered Grammar Girl’s post on gender-neutral slang pronouns. While I cannot believe that “yo” will replace “him or her” as the ambiguous singular pronoun of choice, the article covers some interesting ground.

Jeremy G. Burton has an article in today’s Scranton, Pennsylvania Times-Tribune about non-traditional grammar and writing instruction.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Fore Versus For Versus Four

While toying with the idea of a post explaining the differences among for, fore, and four, I discovered a plot by grammar fans everywhere to march forth. That distracted me by offering several grammar-related sites I'd yet to visit. Then I had to research how to insert the picture in this post, as I must each time I include a graphic. Has that “Add a Picture” button always been there?

Learning the meanings of fore and four eliminates any confusion about when to use them. If neither of the words fits your sentence, use for. One perhaps would not have thought these words confusing, but I have seen them mixed in various ways on the discussion boards that I frequent.

Four is a number. You write “four” when you wish to indicate that something less than five but more than three. You cannot use this word correctly and mean anything not relating to the number four.

Fore! warns fellow golfers that a small, hard missile may be approaching their heads at speed. It also indicates that a thing occurred before or existed near or toward the front of another thing (abstract though either of those things may be). “New ideas have come to the fore in the field of physics.” “I headed fore, intending to ask the pilot to avoid turbulence better in the future.”

For prepositions, use "for". If you need a definition to complete your understanding, please ask Merriam-Webster. They've outlined ten definitions, with examples. I could invent more entertaining sentences, but you need to understand the uses more than to laugh. If, however, I find a way to fit all ten in one intelligible paragraph, I'll come back and post it here.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Step Three: Pronoun Wrap-Up

I know that you are all eagerly awaiting a lengthy discourse on the other types of pronouns. I have, however, made my point about learning the difference between subjective and objective pronouns. I would only appear indulgent to you if I continued the diatribe.

I will, however, offer some links to information on the other types of pronouns. The Internet Grammar of English offers a lengthy list of other types of pronouns for your perusal. The Tongue Untied has a solid pronoun section covering six types, as well. They have included an informative segment on relative pronouns and understanding which works where.

Visit The Writing Centre at the University of Ottawa, if you've not run across their site in your travels. They have a nice, long section on pronouns. They also offer a more interesting page on tricky pronoun questions Explore their HyperGrammar section, while you're there.

As ever, please drop me a note if you have questions or need help with a specific usage problem. I'm happy to give or find an answer for you.