“If he or she makes more than $250,000 annually, then his or her refund is reduced by $2,100.”
You’ve no doubt read a sentence like this and wished our linguistic forefathers had used a little more linguistic foresight before creating such a cumbersome way to describe this well-compensated, gender-neutral person who’s now out a few thousand dollars.
Of course, that’s because they do. Along with the rest of the publishing world, these four newspapers all adhere to slightly different language guidelines that spell out whether the appropriate usage is “champing at the bit” or “chomping at the bit”; “healthcare” or “health care”; or “ballgown or “ball gown.”
This linguistic minutia may seem insignificant in isolation. But taken together with thousands of other language rules assembled into thick “style manuals,” these volumes not only make a publication’s copy consistent, but they convey and protect its distinctive voice, values and brand identity. (more…)
Many people would breeze through that sentence without a second glance. As grammar guardians, though, my fellow editors and I read it and wince.
Improper capitalization is one of the most common grammar mistakes we see at The Simons Group. For some reason, people love to hit the caps lock when it comes to certain words and phrases (although we almost never see the opposite problem, where writers lowercase words that should be capitalized).
In general, the only words you need to capitalize in a sentence are the first word and proper nouns, or nouns that denote a specific person, place or thing (Alexandra, France, Ford Motor Co.). Yet some argue that capitalization underscores a term’s importance, while others claim certain words and phrases just “look right” when they’re capitalized. The truth is, though, that willy-nilly capitalization makes your writing confusing — and writers who pepper their prose with uppercase words run the risk of sounding like a lost chapter from “The Canterbury Tales.”
Below are some of the most frequent marketing-related capitalization mix-ups. Master these, and you’ll be well on your way to keeping your caps where they belong. (more…)
My library’s recent book fair was the hottest ticket in town. Book nerds within a 25-mile radius lined up outside before the doors opened to get first crack at the thousands of used paperbacks and hardbacks inside.
Schlepping wagons, suitcases and cardboard boxes, they ran – not walked – hoping for hidden treasures at cheap prices. Seeing the size of the literature section gave me hope for finding “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Of Mice and Men,” but surprisingly, I came up empty.
Moving on to the “writing” pile, I dove in and waded through castoff dictionaries, outdated writing guides and faded copies of The Chicago Manual of Style. My only competition was a bearded, backpack-toting hipster who seemed to have little interest in anything published after 1980.
Buried at the bottom was “Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation” by Lynne Truss. I vaguely remember reading this when it was published in 2003. At $2, it seemed like a bargain, so I snatched it up. Truss, a former sports columnist for the London Times, bemoans the sorry state of punctuation. (more…)
A writer sent me a draft of a magazine article he wrote recently so that he could get my feedback about the content. It was well-written and engaging, but it’s a good thing he sent it to me. He overlooked the punctuation and grammatical errors. (more…)
Homonyms are by far the most agreeable of the commonly known grammatical -nyms. Antonyms can never see eye-to-eye; synonyms are unoriginal; homonyms are a different breed. Despite their audible similarity, however, homonyms can give you the slip. They are the shifty con men of the verbal universe – just when you think you’ve figured them out, they elude you once more.
Merriam-Webster defines a homonym as, “One of two or more words spelled and pronounced alike but different in meaning.” Whether you’re composing an email or crafting an article for a trade magazine, clean copy counts, and falling victim to the phonetically fickle homonym in your professional writing is an embarrassing way to undermine your abilities. (more…)
In homage to The Oatmeal’s charming illustration of the perils of 10 commonly misspelled and misused words, I present five of my very (least) favorite grammar missteps.
Enjoy some more words and phrases you or someone you know is using incorrectly, whether it’s in everyday conversation or in marketing materials and other business communications.
Let’s dive right in.
1. Champing at the bit.
While the phrase itself isn’t that sophisticated, knowing the right way to say it can elevate your grammatical street cred.
Margo: Theodore! They finally started stocking Beaujolais Nouveau at that lovely little bistro down the way!
Theodore: Thank heavens, Margo, I’ve been chomping at the bit to get another taste of that delicious wine!
Theodore’s heart was in the right place, but his words weren’t.
A truly fancy tongue turner would have said “champing at the bit.” Champing implies impatience, which is at the heart of the sentiment behind this phrase.
2. Comprise versus compose
Here’s another example of striking out on a home-run pitch. Comprise is one of those elusive words that rarely finds the right moment to pop out from underground.
How many times have you seen or heard “comprise” used this way?
The guest list is comprised of dignitaries and noblemen.
The AP Stylebook says that comprise means, “To contain, to include all or embrace.” It also notes that “comprise” is best used in the active voice, followed by a direct object. If you want to use “comprise” in this situation, say:
The guest list comprises dignitaries and noblemen.
3. For all intents and purposes
This phrase has been misused orally for so long that society has just decided to accept its mutation. Resist.
Wrong: For all intensive purposes, that cat has replaced Kathy’s oldest daughter.
Right: For all intents and purposes, that cat is spoiled rotten.
4. Allusion and illusion
Although both words carry with them an air of the mysterious, they aren’t interchangeable.
An allusion is a reference, when something is mentioned. An illusion is deceitful – it tricks the senses by producing a false impression.
The 5-inch heels gave the illusion that Gwen was as tall as Jim.
Dave alluded to the fact that he was out of money.
Just because it makes your mind race doesn’t mean you can mispronounce its name. There’s no “x” in there, people.
If you didn’t know these already, don’t sweat it – you’re not alone. That’s why we’re here.
Accept, except – These are often misused and confused. Accept means to receive or agree to. Should I accept the gift even though I know it’s really expensive? Except means to exclude. Everyone was invited to the party except Bob.
Aid, aide – Aid is assistance. Aid can also be a verb. Pakistan desperately needs aid to recover from massive flooding. Aide is only a noun and it’s a person who serves as an assistant. As a teachers’ aide, Lori helps students learn to read.
Allude, elude – Allude is an indirect reference to something. The CEO alluded to his company’s acquisition plans. Elude means to escape or avoid detection. The robber eluded police for several days.
Capital, capitol – These are a little tougher. Capital is the city where a seat of government is located. Cheyenne is the capital of Wyoming. Capital also refers to money. The struggling business needs a large infusion of capital to survive. Capitol is the building in which the U.S. Congress or state legislatures meet. Capitalize U.S. Capitol and the Capitol when referring to the building in Washington, D.C., and when writing about state capitols. The meeting was held on Capitol Hill in the west wing of the Capitol. The Virginia Capitol is in Richmond.
Complement, compliment – My personal favorites because so many people confuse them. Complement is a noun and a verb that indicates completeness or the process of supplementing something. Her new shoes complement her dress. Compliment denotes praise. I complimented her on her new dress and shoes.
Conscience, conscious – Conscience is a noun for the sense of moral goodness. She could not, in good conscience, keep the wallet that she found in the park. Conscious is an adjective that means being aware. I am conscious of the fact that he lied to me.
Ensure, insure – Use ensure to mean guarantee. We will pack everything ourselves to ensure that nothing breaks when we move. Use insure for references to insurance. The policy insures his life.
Hangar, hanger – I use these so rarely, I always have to look them up when I do. A hangar is a building. The airplane hangar is just to the left of the terminal. A hanger is used for clothes. I need to trade my wire hangers for wooden ones.
Medal, meddle, metal, mettle – Double your trouble! A medal, often made of metal, is a prize for winning something or doing something brave. She won a silver medal in the marathon. Meddle is to interfere in something that is none of your business. Her nosy neighbor liked to meddle in her private life. Metal is a shiny substance that conducts electricity and heat. The artist makes hanging garden decorations from refurbished metal. Mettle is strength of spirit or temperament. She showed a lot of mettle in finishing the race.
Premier, premiere – As a noun, a premier is a prime minister or a leader of a country. Jean Charest is Premier of Quebec. As an adjective, premiere means first in rank or position. President Obama holds the premiere place in U.S. government. Premiere is also a noun and means a first performance. The premiere of The Lion King will be next Monday.
Reign, rein – Reign is the period a ruler is on the throne. The king began his reign in 1952. A leather strap for controlling a horse is a rein. I asked Susan to rein in her horse. She took the reins and headed back to the barn.
Sight, site – Sight is the act of seeing. It also relates to something that is seen. My mom and I went sightseeing in Ireland last year. We set our sights on traveling across the entire country, but we ran out of time. Site is about a place. The developer selected the ideal site for the new shopping center.
Stationary, stationery – Stationary means to stand still. The soldier remained stationary in his position. Writing paper is stationery. Now that so many homes and businesses have computers, few people take the time to write letters by hand on stationery.
I could go on because there are many other confusing word combinations, but I’m more interested in any that you get stuck on. Send them my way.
Explaining the difference between “that” and “which” has been in my idea file for a while. Don’t feel bad if you don’t know the answer – it’s a common conundrum. Now that I’ve had requests to cover this topic, your wait is over!
I’m all about instant gratification, but first you must grasp essential and nonessential clauses, often referred to as restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses.
You cannot eliminate an essential clause from a sentence without changing the meaning of that sentence. In other words, an essential clause helps define the meaning of a sentence. “That” introduces an essential clause. Some examples follow:
I remember the day that we met in Paris.
This sentence wouldn’t make any sense if I wrote, “I remember the day which we met in Paris.”
That is a decision you must live with.
You’d definitely get some strange looks if you said, “Which is a decision you must live with.”
The senator said that he might run again and that, if he did, Mary Rosenthal would be his campaign manager.
Same principle as the previous examples.
You can delete a nonessential clause from a sentence without changing the basic meaning of that sentence. Think of a nonessential clause as a way to elaborate. “Which” introduces a nonessential clause:
The soccer team’s trophy, which was displayed in the main hallway, is missing.
If you delete the nonessential clause, “which was displayed in the main hallway,” the rest sentence stands on its own. You know that the trophy is missing and, thanks to the nonessential clause, you know where it’s missing from.
He downloaded numerous software updates to his computer, which is the most expensive model he could get.
Taking out, “which is the most expensive model he could get,” doesn’t change the meaning of the rest of the sentence. The nonessential clause just tells you that the guy had a lot of money and could afford a pricey computer.
The company’s new product line includes advanced sorters, which feature adjustable controls and multifunctional monitoring stations, will be unveiled next week.
The important information here is that the company will reveal a new product line next week. If you can’t wait to learn more, the nonessential clause, “which feature adjustable controls and multifunctional monitoring stations,” shares some of the juicy details.
Tip: Essential clauses, phrases or words do not need to be set off from the rest of a sentence, so they don’t need commas. In contrast, commas separate nonessential clauses.
Are you up to speed on “that” vs. “which” now? If you still have questions, check out this excellent Grammar Girl post from Mignon Fogarty.