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Moving on to the “writing” pile, I dove in and waded through castoff dictionaries, outdated writing guides and faded copies of The Chicago Manual of Style.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…)
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.
When you curl up with a good book, chances are that it’s conversation-heavy. Who doesn’t love coffee and good conversation, after all? Trying to wade through a story that’s all narrative is so boring, it’s like watching your computer defrag.
I tried to read a Jack Kerouac book once that was worse because not only did no one talk, but Kerouac used little punctuation. It was 300-some pages of the world’s longest run-on sentence. He may have thought he was being unconventional and edgy, but the book was a train wreck. My favorite used-book store didn’t even want it for free.
Conversation adds pep to otherwise banal copy. Features and profiles, such as those you might write about your company’s employees, or success stories that highlight how your products and services solved your customers’ problems, are excellent places to experiment with conversation.
Have some fun with it, too. You don’t have to stick to the traditional he said, she said. Try mixing it up with quotations within quotations or full paragraphs of quoted material. Variety shows off your versatility and helps engage readers.
Quote mark basics
Direct quotes: These are the simplest form of quotations: “Make sure you complete your assignments by Friday,” the teacher said. Robert told his wife, Suzanne, “If you go to the grocery store after work, please don’t forget the eggs.”
Quotes within quotes look like this: “When Bob Marley sang, ‘Man is a universe within himself,’ I think he was right,” Dave said. When an individual is quoting someone else, use single quotes around that content, as in my example. Here’s another one: “Did she ask, ‘What’s going on?’” The quoted material needs single quotes, ‘What’s going on?’ and then a double quote to complete the thought.
Running quotations: Are you getting a visual of quotations growing legs and chasing you in your nightmares? It’s OK – you’re not alone. This term refers to a full paragraph of quoted material that is followed by a paragraph that continues the quotation. Do not put quotation marks after the first paragraph. Do put quote marks before the second paragraph. Here’s how this works:
“Despite the anemic economy, our company will continue with its long-range marketing plans that we developed last year,” CEO Donald Weiss said. “Our social media initiatives, in particular, are on target and surpass what our competitors are doing. We also plan to build on the momentum we’re gaining from our recent website redesign. (No quote marks here, but use a quote to kick off the next paragraph.)
“Furthermore, our management team is investigating a possible overseas expansion that would include our partners in China, France and Germany,” Weiss added. “This untapped potential could open many new doors for us in terms of market penetration and industry competitiveness.” (The CEO is finally done talking, so you need a quote mark to complete his Very Important Points.)
Unfamiliar terms or irony: Put quote marks around these so they will stand out for readers. She tried to explain what she meant by “knowns” and “unknowns.” Now for irony: The “debate” turned into a free-for-all.
Dialogue or conversation: No matter how many people are speaking and no matter how brief their thoughts are, place them in separate paragraphs, with quote marks at the beginning and end of each person’s comments:
“Will you go with me to Glade Creek?”
“No, I’ll pass.”
“Would you like to go to Lewisburg instead?”
“Let’s go now.”
Avoid fragmented quotations: Don’t use quote marks for a few ordinary words. This sentence is incorrect: The tea party candidate said he would “go home to Florida” if he lost the election. Here’s the correct usage: The tea party candidate said he would go home to Florida if he lost the election. (No quotes.)
Quoted material in headlines: Put single quote marks around any words that you pull from a story. Say you wrote a headline for a story about former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich and the copy contained this quote: “I will be glad to testify during my retrial. In fact, the truth will come out when I do.”
The headline would be, Blagojevich: ‘The truth will come out’ at retrial.
That covers most of what you need to know about quotes. If you need help with any copy that falls outside my examples, I’ll be happy to help you sort it all out.
Ali recently asked me why people send us copy that has two spaces after periods and other punctuation. I was tempted to tell her that it could be one of four reasons: A) Outside writers need more breathing room than we do, B) They’re airheads, C) They were trying to extend their page counts or D) All of the above.
We’ll have to go back in history to the days of typewriters to reveal the answer. Remember typewriters? Yeah, those big mechanical things with keys that struck letters on paper. Not quite as ancient as stone tablets, but many of you may not be old enough to have used one. I learned how in high school, and the teacher drilled into us that we should always, ALWAYS put two spaces at the end of every sentence. Being the drones we were, no one ever asked why.
Here’s why: Typewriters used monospaced fonts. That means every character took the same amount of space. A “k” used the same amount of space as an “m,” for example. Because every letter was the same width, adding two spaces made it easier for readers to see where one sentence ended and the next began.
Thankfully, typewriters are now relegated to the dank, cobweb-ridden shelves of thrift shops and everyone uses computers. Most fonts on computers are proportionally spaced, so the characters are different widths. Adding extra spaces doesn’t improve readability; it only annoys those of us who have to go through the copy and delete them.
As a reminder, we follow AP Style, as do most journalists, publishers, marketers and other professionals. The AP rule is one space after a period at the end of a sentence.
The next time you’re tempted to space out, break the habit. I know you can do it!