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Moving on to the “writing” pile, I dove in and waded through castoff dictionaries, outdated writing guides and faded copies of The Chicago Manual of Style.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…)
I’ve been swimming in alphabet soup lately. Not the kind with noodles and chicken, though. I’m talking about editing copy that is redolent with initialisms, causing me anxiety. These darned things always give me pause and it seems I’m not alone, judging by other writers’ comments online.
Be not afraid. I’m going to give you the ingredients you need to whip up a batch of initialism-laden copy – and do it correctly. Your readers and your company won’t have any idea you weren’t an expert already.
Initialisms are formed from the first letters of a phrase or name, but they can’t be pronounced as words. Examples include CEO, IRS, DVD and URL. So far, so good, right? I get in a clutch when I have to think about the different uses. Do they cause you to sweat, too? Read on to learn how they work.
Punctuate initialisms according to their usage:
- s for plural
- ‘s for singular possessive
- s’ for plural possessive
- She borrowed 15 DVDs from the library.
- Great CEOs are worth every penny.
- Boaters, campers, hikers and motorists use GPSs to find their way.
Singular possessive examples:
- A recordable DVD’s compatibility with different players may vary.
- A CEO’s leadership is crucial to a company’s long-term success.
- A GPS’s ability to help boaters, campers, hikers and motorists cannot be underestimated.
Plural possessive examples:
- DVDs’ surfaces are easily scratched.
- The CEOs’ limousines are waiting outside.
- GPSs’ margins of error differ from unit to unit.
Initially, I gave examples with URL, but when I got to the plural possessive, I got a brain cramp and caved. Can you form a sentence using the plural possessive of URL? Good luck – and let me know in the comments section.
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.
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.
Fellow word nerds may understand my fascination with the English language. The rest of you probably think I’m one sentence shy of needing some serious help. Who else but brainiacs and the truly twisted delve into the dictionary for fun? I don’t enjoy crossword puzzles, but I’ll challenge you to a game of Scrabble® any day.
Do other writers keep mental lists of words that they hope to incorporate into their copy? Hey, I’ll share mine if you’ll share yours! Some words just sound cool, but they are nearly impossible to work into an everyday story. Others are old-fashioned and have fallen out of use. Here are some on my list:
Bacchanal – One of my all-time favorites, but I’ve never been able to use it, mostly because I don’t write about festivals where drunken revelry is the highlight. That’s what the word references – drunken revelry. I suppose if I were writing about this past weekend’s Lollapalooza, I could get the right context. Of course, I’d rather undergo three root canals and a colonoscopy than attend that event.
Besotted – I associate this word with a bygone era. If you’re besotted, you’re infatuated. I was recently infatuated with someone until he turned out to be a liar and a chump. Chump — now there’s a great word, too. My Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary says that chump is a “blend of chunk and lump.” Come to think of it, that’s a pretty accurate description.
Catawampus – My late grandmother used this word when I was a kid and I’ve liked it ever since. It means something is askew, as in, “That picture on the wall is hanging sideways.” According to Dictionary.com, the word originates from 1840 and is the “sort of jocular pseudo-classical formation popular in the slang of those times.” I’m not sure I know what that means, but it sounds impressive.
Wracked – Unless you’re writing about someone who is lying awake at night because of doubt, pain or guilt, this one is a bit tough to work into a story. As an aside, it’s easy to confuse this word with “rack, which means framework. The Associated Press Stylebook entry for “wrack,” “rack,” “wracked” and “racked” is confusing enough to make my head spin. I love a challenge, so maybe this will be a topic for a future Style Guru.
This is just a quick list of some of my favorite words. I’ll reveal more in a future post. (I know you’re going to count the days!) Let me know what words make the grade for you and why. In the meantime, read more about the value of a dictionary and why you should keep one for a reference tool.
Who doesn’t relish a challenge, especially when it comes to dependent clauses, parallelism and collective nouns? OK, so that’s a stretch, but go with it. Find the errors in the sentences below and I’ll send you a fabulous prize. Not really, but what have you got to lose?
- Neither an e-mail or a phone call to the family were returned immediately.
“Neither” is a correlative conjunction, which means it always pairs with “nor.” I also threw in an agreement trick. “Were” is incorrect – it should be “was.” Corrected, the sentence is, “Neither an e-mail nor a phone call to the family was returned.”
- Marketers say they will devote 41 percent of their 2010 budgets to TV advertising, compared to 51 percent two years ago.
“Compared to” and “compared with” are not interchangeable. Use “compared to” when comparing two or more items that are similar. For example, “She compared her work for the disabled sailors’ organization to her efforts to connect service dogs with wheelchair-bound adults.” Use “compared with” when juxtaposing two or more items to illustrate similarities or differences. The example I provided above should have used, “compared with.”
- The car moved backwards into oncoming traffic and the impact was really loud.
Although you might think about changing “impact” since incorrect use of the word is a big peeve for me, I threw that in to trip you up. “Backwards” should be “backward.”
- The way it looks now, he will not be traveling to see his sister since he doesn’t have any money.
I threw this one in as an example of bloat. There’s no reason to write, “he will not be traveling to.” Instead, write, “The way it looks now, he will not visit his sister because he doesn’t have any money.” Succinct is usually better.
- The general consensus is that we should close the store next year.
“General consensus” is redundant.
- If bloggers could figure out a way to monetize their writing, they would be better able to make a living.
Words that end in “ize” are jargon. Please eliminate “monetize,” “monetization” and the like from your copy. Instead, use “revenue,” “make money” or “profit from.”
How did you do? Even if you missed some of these, don’t give up on grammar, style and punctuation. By investing a little time and effort into learning and breaking bad habits, you’ll get better. I’m sorry I don’t have a giveaway, but your reward will be better business communications – and that can only help your company.
Since newspapers seemingly can’t afford to hire more copyeditors, the ones who are still at the helm are probably overtaxed. I don’t have to hunt for errors anymore – they pop right off the page. I finally finished reading a stack of issues of The Wall Street Journal that had been piling up while I was on vacation and found several mistakes:
“The Trouble With Teacher Tenure” – Saturday detention for this headline writer. The trouble is he or she forgot there’s more than one teacher in this country. It should be, “The Trouble With Teachers’ Tenure.”
“Planning for the Unthinkable” – The text in the headline is fine, but the individual who laid out the page put “Planning” and “for” on the first line and “the Unthinkable” on the second deck. So much for not ending headlines with prepositions. Rewrite the headline or move “for” to the second line. (This was in a dreaded “special section,” which in reporters’ parlance, means copy the newsroom has to churn out to fill ad space. Translation: No one read it.)
“He argues that this was even more intrusive ‘because it was done without the knowledge of customer.’” The genius that didn’t catch this mistake must be the same one who believes that only one teacher is working. The error is included in a story about privacy concerns associated with smart phones. Smart-phone makers obviously have more than one customer. (By the way, Associated Press style is smart phones, two words. This is relevant for the next example.)
In a single issue, the newspaper referenced “smart-phones” and “smartphones.” The paper’s style is “smartphones,” one word.
“Brown Rice Linked to Lower Diabetes Risk.” The issue here is that the paper ended the first deck of the headline with the preposition, “to.”
That’s enough picking on The Wall Street Journal for now. I need to spread the wealth.
Imagine my despair when I realized I’m down to the grammar dredges in my ideas folder. Those would be my least favorites, such as “who” vs. “whom” and “that” vs. “which.” I guess I can’t avoid these forever, so I’ll start with “who” vs. “whom.”
Who/whom is one of the more difficult English grammar distinctions to remember. Even in college, I always thought of it as royal pain, especially in Professor Pamela Yagle’s introductory grammar and style classes. Seriously, who (or is it whom?) says, “Whom did you vote for?” or “You asked whom to the dance?” Throw a sentence like that out at your next office party and you’ll be eating lunch alone until you retire. You might as well grow Vulcan ears and a tail.
I’ll spare you all the technical grammatical explanations that go along with subjective and objective personal pronouns and skip right to the best part – the shortcut. And you get it for free! Back in the day, I usually had to rely on the “he/him” trick to figure out the correct word. I’ll admit I still have to use it at times, but at least I’m human, which is more than you can say for the Office Social Outcast above.
Check to see which pronoun can replace the questionable word: If it can be replaced with “he,” use “who.” If “him” fits better, use “whom.” It’s not infallible, but it will work a lot of the time.
Here are some examples:
Who/whom went on vacation last week?
He went on vacation. That means “who” is correct.
The adviser who/whom the president said had leaked the information was asked to resign.
The president said he had leaked the information, therefore, “who” is correct.
Who/whom did the grand jury indict?
The grand jury indicted him, therefore, “whom” is correct.
Justin, who/whom we all love to hear sing, will not be at the concert next week.
We love to hear him sing, so “whom” is correct.
I need to explain another trick – “they/them.” Some people would charge you big bucks for this knowledge, but I believe in sharing. To figure out which word to use in the following sentences, replace “who” with “they” and “whom” with “them.”
Research has shown that children who/whom have been overprotected often become adults for who/whom life is difficult beyond the family circle.
They have been overprotected, therefore, the correct word is “who” in the first part of the sentence and life is difficult for them beyond the family circle, so the correct word is “whom” in the last part of the sentence.
If you’d like a more detailed explanation of sentence construction using “who” and “whom,” check out When Words Collide: A Media Writer’s Guide to Grammar and Style. You can pick one up for about $20 and it’s loaded with other excellent information that will help you in all forms of writing.