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.
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!
Trying to ease back into Style Guru mode on the heels of vacation is a fruitless endeavor. My mind is focused on mountains, vineyards and sunsets – not dangling modifiers, misplaced clauses and subject-verb agreement.
Between winery tours in Virginia, one of my friends, who teaches reading in elementary school, told me that schools no longer teach kids how to diagram sentences. What? Are you kidding me? We’re both 40-something and this skill was ingrained in us. The Schoolhouse Rock series reinforced what we’d learned (“Conjunction Junction” was always one of my favorites) in a way that just about all of my classmates could absorb.
The kids at my friend’s school learn about articles, prepositions, conjunctions and such, but they don’t have to identify the subject, noun, verb, adjective and other basic parts of a sentence. That’s what diagramming is all about, and it’s not rocket science. Did someone decide it’s too difficult?
Occasionally, I run across tests that children in the 1800s had to pass to move on to the next grade and they’re exceptionally more difficult than anything I had to take. Maybe not teaching how to diagram a sentence goes along with the general dumbing down of America.