All welcome, especially victims

  • More than 603 people lost their lives, including 1,641 injured, and 600,000 affected

I feel badly for the dead, the injured, the affected, and the writer.

How many, exactly, is “more than 603”? Is this 604? When expressing numbers, you have two good choices: either give us the exact number, or use a generalizer (more than, less than, nearly, almost) in conjunction with a base number that makes sense (like 600, or 650, or even 625).

If you’re not committing to the exact number because you’re not sure — for example, maybe more people will have died after this statement is released — then specify that in some way: At least 603 people lost their lives — or At this writing, 603 have lost their lives.

Unrelated item: Be careful about “including.” Use “plus” instead, in a case like this. The way it’s currently written, this sentence says the 603+ people who died included 1,641 who were injured, and 600,000 who were affected — a physical impossibility.

Unless, of course, the 603+ people lost their lives in the process of including the injured and affected — which suggests that being inclusive can be dangerous. But then you wouldn’t need that comma. A classic case of “You can’t win for losing.”

I’ll take a small comma, with a little annoyance

The sign says:


“Hi, I’d like a dozen bagels for $7.99, please.”

“Sorry, but that’s Sunday only.”

“Oh, okay. Then may I have some punctuation, please?”

“Sorry, we don’t have any.”

(Same scene, different site: “It was originally released on DVD only in Europe.” Not in theatres? Or not in America?)

Mine support doth overflow

  • Joe Biden’s statement: “They have mine and Jill’s full and complete support….”

Technically, I think he wanted “Jill’s and my.” Or, if he insists on being rude and putting himself first: “my and Jill’s.”

Here’s the test: They have Jill’s support. They have my support. So: They have Jill’s and my support.

(It could also be “Jill’s support and mine,” or “my support and Jill’s,” although this might feel like whoever gets named first was right there from the beginning, and whoever gets named second just came along with their support later — and why get into a scrap with your spouse?)

As for “full and complete” support: I’m not sure how “full” support differs from “complete” support.

I guess you could squint at the definitions and make the case for using both; but I think and feel this presentation and use of wording and usage is a common and typical specimen and example of politician-speak.

I spy superfluous verbiage

From a CNN post on YouTube:

  • Morsy, 67, had been on trial for an espionage case when he suffered a heart attack.

A case isn’t a crime.

You’re put on trial for espionage. The accusation, the charge, the trial — all of this constitutes the case.

Morsy was on trial in an espionage case when he died.

A writer goes on trial for using extra words to try to impress us — or out of simple thoughtlessness. That is the crime.

Sentence pending.

But I loved her on Cavett

From Faye Dunaway’s Wikipedia page:

  • “Bette Davis described Dunaway as the worst person she had ever worked with in an interview with Johnny Carson.”

Not much of a put-down, if you ask me. How many people could she have possibly worked with in interviews with Johnny?

(Don’t get the reference to Cavett? Gosh, I’m old.)

So are they to blame?

  • “Woman dies after paramedics called to Kennedy Compound in Hyannisport”

(Thanks to the insightful artist Stoney, who brought me this — not the woman herself, you understand; he just brought me the headline, but … whatever.)

(The woman died, and then the paramedics were called.)

(Because you might infer from the headline that the woman somehow died as a result of the paramedics being called, see?)

(The paramedics do wonderful work, please understand.)

(Stoney wasn’t suggesting they don’t.)

(He loves paramedics.)

(It’s just that the headline was written in such a way that … oh, never mind.)

No offense to the victim

At age 43, she tragically drowned, for reasons still disputed to this day.

  • The reasons are disputed to this day.
  • The reasons are still disputed.

Since still means to this day, you don’t need to say still disputed to this day.

Save your breath. Live longer.*

*This medical advice does not apply if somebody drowns you.

Not that other. The other other

Give them permission to talk with another adult other than you.

“Another” means “an other,” so when you’ve already specified that you’re talking some “other,” you don’t need to say “other” “another” time.

Give them permission to talk with an adult other than you.


Give them permission to talk with another adult.

By which I mean — no offense, but: Not you.

Steven needs help. So does Steven. And Steven. Steven, too

Support the Stevens!

Actually, you can support The Stevens if “The Stevens” is a single thing, like a museum or an orchestra. “The Clark.” “The Philharmonic.”

But in this case, we’re talking about the Stevens family. You can support the Stevens family, or you can support the Stevenses, but in English, you can’t support the Stevens.

My friends the Evanses have this same problem. As do the Jameses, the Edwardses, the Gosses….

(Wait. If you had a bunch of guys named Steven, you could support all of them. Then you would be supporting the Stevens.)

Somebody, not sure who, is dead in the trunk of a car

If you can’t read the caption under the photo … well, you’ll probably live longer.

Anyone trying to ferret out its meaning will likely expend a significant portion of their life’s energy, and unprofitably.

Police said Saturday that investigators were working to find those responsible for this caption.

(Thank you to my professional colleague V.A.C. for this contribution!)

Is they, or does they?

But not every case gets that kind of attention, other observers point out. A few revisited cases, they say, isn’t yet a sign of lasting progress…. “One or two high-profile cases,” Kaplan says, “does not make a sea change.”

A case is a thing. Cases is how we talk about more than one of those things. So “a few cases” are something. You can’t say “a few cases” is something. Can you? Maybe I’m wrong.

Kaplan (whoever Kaplan is) proceeds to go the same way. “One or two cases does…” If you invent a new category — “one or two cases” — then that category is one single thing, I guess.

But it/they read/reads awkward/awkwardly to I/me.

Noah. No uh. NOAA. I’m so confused.

“And a NOAA report last year estimated that….”

In English, we have to use “an” instead of “a” if the next word starts with a vowel sound.

But if the next word is an abbreviation, it’s tricky.

  • The abbreviation “NOAA” is pronounced en oh ay ay.

The editor in this example (or the algorithm that edits this publication, or the bot that makes these decisions) clearly assumed that readers seeing “NOAA” would say to themselves, in their heads, as they read this piece, “And a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report last year estimated….”

I don’t think so. I didn’t even know what the NOAA was. I thought it was my neighbor calling her kid home for dinner: “Noaaaaaaah!”

I think we should write the way people think as they’re reading — and what you hear in your head, as you read this sentence, is “en oh ay ay.”

Which means we need “an” in front of it, not “a.”

(Now I’m bracing myself for negative comments from employees of the En Oh Ay Ay.)

Follow the Ghirardelli

  • However, total giving did not follow suite.

English is complicated in so many ways.

  • A “suite” (pronounced sweet) is a number of things forming a series or set, or a connected series of rooms to be used together, or a series of musical thingie-dingies, or a set of furniture for a single room, or a bunch of software programs sold as a unit so you pay for stuff you’ll never use.
  • To “follow suit” (pronounced sute) refers to card-playing. (Or at least I think it does. I grew up in a strictly non-card-playing environment.)

But in English, you never follow suite. Not only because suite is always pronounced sweet. Also because follow suite has no actual meaning.

(I take it back. You could let your nose guide you to a chocolate shop. Then, yes, you could say you decided to follow sweet. But you would still spell it differently. And you would probably say sweets. If you simply follow sweets, this post probably doesn’t apply to you.)

What more can be said, madame?

FOB (Friend Of Blog) Peter M. humbly offers this brilliant item, from, a site of which I am a new fan.

And I am grateful, Peter.

Sorry — did you miss the link? Here it is: WHY IS ENGLISH SO HARD TO LEARN?

Please forward it, recommend it, friend it, whatever you do these days to encourage your friends to read something.


Another, bartender

From the review of a theatrical production:

  • One major character death down, a shocking amount left to go.

No. Sorry. Deaths are things, and things have numbers, not amounts. can tell you all about this:

  • Number is used with nouns that can be individually counted, like stars. 
  • Amount is used for nouns that cannot be individually counted, like starlight.”

The most important use of this rule is, of course, in a bar.

We will have a number of martinis, because they can be individually counted.

We’ll have a certain amount of gin, because it cannot be individually counted.

Although it is very much like starlight.

If you don’t lose count.

Son, you’ve shamed the family

Heck, if they really felt like they had to take a running back, they could’ve went with Christian McCaffrey.

By Sean Wagner-McGough, June 13, 2019 at 9:01 am ET


I have no words.

I have a feeling it won’t help to send my beloved sportswriter Sean Wagner-McGough to the LearningEnglish site for the basics of “modal verbs” in English.

Although it’s very tempting, because the site is actually sort of romantic, in places.

Modal verbs, as it describes them, “are useful for expressing your present feelings about a past decision (or other action).”

(I’m thinking about a few of my own past decisions, or other actions….)

Could have, would have, and should have are sometimes called ‘modals of lost opportunities,’” the site goes on to say.

Sean, you had an opportunity to say they could’ve gone with McCaffrey, but no. You had to say could’ve went.

S. M. H.

I confess, I’m feeling, at this moment, like the father of a teenager.

Welcome back to the Dept. of Redundancy Dept. again

Do you call it a “hot water heater”?

Or is this just a Midwest thing, like where I grew up?

We also said we’d be there “a tad bit” late.

A water heater doesn’t heat hot water. It takes normal water and makes it hot.

You’re only a tad late. Or a bit late. If you’re a tad bit late, you’re like twice as late. Which gets to be pretty tardy, actually. And potentially annoying.

Why do we add extra words? We’re just wasting breath. Doesn’t this mean you die a few breaths early?


(P.S. You might enjoy this Time magazine article on Internetspeak. I haven’t read the book in question, but this review is good.)

All-about wrongly-hyphenated Tom-Brady

It’s only a hyphen. But just because it’s tiny doesn’t mean you should abuse it.

The CBS Sports writing team? Those guys must hate the lowly hyphen:

  • The league’s coaches were on-hand to get their first glimpse of XFL football.

For the hyphen, this is servitude on the order of Paul Newman’s torture in Cool Hand Luke. The only time you connect on to hand with a hyphen is in the rare case of the two words together forming an adjective — as in He’s ignoring his on-hand resources in favor of far-flung so-called specialists.

  • They’re bringing aboard what is viewed to be one of the top-two players at the position in this year’s class.

We’re talking about two guys, the top two players at the position. If you talk about top-two players, with the hyphen, you’ve created a category of players: all the top-two players. Not much of a category, when you think about it.

(P.S. Don’t refer to a human being as a what. They’re bringing aboard someone who is viewed to be….)

  • Other highly-regarded prospects won’t be taken by a team until Friday night’s second round at the earliest.

Many folks are desperate to hyphenate an adverb-adjective combination like this. But the adverb doesn’t need help to be understood. This is one of the adverb’s jobs: to modify the adjective. Simplest rule to follow (thanks to Adverbs ending in ly almost never need a hyphen.

  • Brady will enter next season at 42-years-old and is well on his way to reaching his self-made mile marker of playing until he’s 45.

If you’re talking about a 42-year-old, you need the hyphens to make the whole 3-word combination into a single noun. Or if you’re talking about a 42-year-old quarterback, you need the hyphens to make the whole 3-word combination into a single adjective. But if you’re just saying he’s 42 years old, well, then, this is just the usual way of using these words, no hyphens required.

(To recap, especially for the benefit of New England fans: Tom Brady is the highly regarded top-two 42-year-old on hand — so we’re keeping him.)

(To recap for New England’s numerous anti-fans: This is a time-sucking, utterly out-of-line jerk-faced post.)

So many dollars, so few words

“Now, we’re getting a more succinct look at the deal that will solidify Edelman with the Patriots possibly for his entire NFL career.”

So the sportswriter claims.

But it’s a lie.

What we’re getting is a less succinct look, because what we got originally was a succinct look. A brief, to-the-point look.

What we’re getting now is not more succinct, but more distinct. A more satisfying look, a more complete look. It’s clearer, it’s multi-faceted, it’s detailed. It’s expansive. It’s vast. It’s over-arching, all-encompassing, beyond imagining.

Words matter. Use the right words. Otherwise, you run the risk of being misunderstood … looking like a fool … your reputation besmirched because you’ve wound up on some blog.

Speaking of besmirched reputations … Go, Pats!


(P.S. In my other life, I’m trying to help hearing-impaired kids in the former USSR. Please check out my project at Thanks!)


I am a fan of the comma. It’s under-appreciated and under-utilized.

Except when it’s over-valued and worked to death.

3 ways NOT to use the beloved comma:

1. Agatha Christie’s, The Stranger (Belmont, MA)

The author’s work, and the name of the work — no need to keep them from each other. It’s Agatha Christie’s The Stranger, pure and simple.

2. Parsons didn’t identify any problems but suggested the town, “regulate time, place, and manner….”

Dick said, “Look!” It’s customary to use a comma to separate a direct quotation from the “he said” type of phrase. You DON’T need a comma before every darn quotation mark. In fact, even when it’s a direct quotation, you don’t need a comma if the quotation works as part of the overall sentence, and you’re not setting up a formal “he said” type of presentation. For example: Dick says that “this exquisite woman Jane is the epitome of womanhood,” and I couldn’t agree more.

3. He spent $40,000 to restore the classic car which, he had for a dozen years….

You sometimes need a comma before which, but almost never after. The technical rule is complicated. Just trust me on this one.

Save your commas. Keep them in a little box on your desktop, and only bring them out when you must. Maybe Christmas, and Agatha Christie’s birthday.

Kraft stock rises miraculously

“At the time, prosperity ministry and the promise of riches from heaven was popular.”

Ministry is one noun, promise is another noun, so we have a pretty clear plural going here.

A plural requires were rather than was.

Of course, if a noun combination is regarded as all one thing — mac and cheese, for example — then you can treat it as singular and use was. You would never say the mac and cheese were yummy. The mac and cheese was yummy.

But if you regard “prosperity ministry and the promise of riches from heaven” as all one thing, well … you’re wrong. On multiple levels.

It’s the little things


Yeah, probably.

But your writing will be cleaner, stronger, more warmly received if you align your numbers.

  • He finished with 104 tackles, four sacks, a forced fumble, interception, and four passes defended.

If your series includes numbers of items, you need a number to appear with each item.

  • He finished with 104 tackles, four sacks, a forced fumble, an interception, and four passes defended.

There now. Don’t you feel better?

I’m gonna tell on you

“Kosnoff would like to push the Boy Scouts to list the names of the men his clients have accused in a public database.”

Why his clients are doing their accusing in a public database, instead of on Facebook, I’ll never know.

Who reads public databases these days?

If you happen to be one of those people, and you come across a list of men accused by Kosnoff clients, you’ll know Kosnoff got his way.

(The real problem here — other than the Boy Scouts’ problem — is that there are nine words between the verb, “list,” and the phrase modifying it, “in a public database.” When you finally get to the database, you look back at the most recent verb, and it’s “have accused.” So who could castigate you for not knowing which sinner to blame, and when, and where? Start with the writer. And the editor.)

The myth of perfect

  • The thing about Giddens that had stood out more conspicuously, she said, was that she had been “way beyond her years developmentally….”

The past is past. You don’t need to make it perfect.

But this writer felt the need.

The thing about Giddens that stood out was that she was beyond her years. Totally clear.

The past perfect tense — “had stood,” “had been” — often just gums up the writing unnecessarily. I think it’s sometimes a crutch employed by writers trying to sound a bit more sophisticated. (And once you start using it, it feels like you’ve got to keep on using it for the rest of the paragraph. It’s a curse.)

Every time you write has, or had, or having — any of those evil permutations of the evil have — go back and see if you can do without them.

The past tense was good enough when you were a little tyke, and it’s probably good enough today.

  • “On a Tuesday in kindergarten, I had pooped my pants. Now, I cried to go home.”
  • “On a Tuesday in kindergarten, I pooped my pants. Now, I cried to go home.”

See? The storytelling isn’t really all that much more sophisticated in the past perfect.

Mother, I’d rather program it myself

“Get this brand-new research on commonly used apps by children and teens.”

These apps, developed by children and teens … are they really any good?

Oh, wait. I was confused. You mean brand-new research on apps commonly used by children and teens!

Keeping the modifying phrase adjacent to the verb it modifies is a very grown-up thing to do.

Where, oh where did my splenectomy go?

“It required invasive, painful surgeries that took hours and weeks to recover.”

Aw, please. Don’t go back and dredge up an old surgery. Let it go.

Surgeries take a long time to recover from.

Better to write “It required invasive, painful surgeries that took hours and weeks to recover from” — or, to be entirely proper: “It required invasive, painful surgeries from which it took hours and weeks to recover.”

If you’re going to lose a surgery, try to lose it beforehand. (Disclaimer: This is not official medical advice.)

That’s hilarious — if a bit wordy

“He makes me laugh quite a bit, which is one of the reasons why I like working with him.”

You can tell me the reason — or you can tell me why.

But you never need to tell me the reason why.

Eliminating one word or the other may, over the course of your lifetime, save you a cumulative 14 or 15 seconds. Perhaps you could spend it laughing.

Doctor, my adverb is shrinking

“I think it will be alright.”

Maybe not. But do you want to be correct — or popular?

As points out: “The form alright is a one-word spelling of the phrase all rightAlright is commonly used in written dialogue and informal writing, but all right is the only acceptable form in edited writing. Basically, it is not all right to use alright in standard English.”

(The entry continues: “The popular song ‘The Kids Are Alright’ by The Who is evidence of popular acceptance of the informal alright. However, the creators of the 2010 film The Kids Are All Right couldn’t bring themselves to use the informal variant even if the title was a clear nod to The Who.”)

How did we get from all right to alright? Eh, our language has been contracting for centuries. All ready morphed into already. All together shrank to altogether.

Personally, I think it’s alwrong. But after another long, hard day of battling the deterioration of the English language, I’m alwrung out.

Perfect? You’ve been had

Just one more rant about have, has, and had.

Here’s another perfect example of a thicket of hads making mush of a paragraph:

  • The GOP, founded in 1854 as the party of reform, had been the party of abolition and the party of women’s rights. By 1896, it had become the party of big business. It had remained the party most supportive of women’s rights. The Equal Rights Amendment had been on the GOP platform since 1940. In 1968, in the first wave of the backlash against the women’s movement, the ERA had been left off the party’s platform.

The GOP had been the party of abolition, OK. Then, we could go to simple past tense: By 1896, it was the party of big business. It remained supportive. The ERA was on the platform from 1940. Then in ’68 it was taken off. All smooth, straightforward storytelling.

Ironically, had takes the past tense and turns it into something called the past perfect. It’s not perfect. It’s much of a muchness. Use it when you absolutely must. Then stop.

Haven’t had enough of have

I’m not done ranting about have, had, and has.

Look at this passage from Jill Lepore’s brilliant history of the U.S.

“In December, he’d answered reporters.” So at this moment, we know she’s taking us back in time. From this point on, she can use the ordinary past tense. But she waffles, from sentence to sentence. “He said” (past tense). “Muhammad had ordered” (there it is again). “He delivered” (past tense). “That vantage had brought him” (there it is again).

In each of these instances, had is unnecessary. And her editors let her get away with it. It’s almost as if we think more hads make us more sophisticated or something.

They don’t. They make our writing gummy.

To have, or have not? I vote for have not.

Heed the warnings about he’d

If you grew up speaking English, you have no idea how complicated it is for people who didn’t.

I have it. I had it. I did have it. I was having it. I have had it. I had had it, but then I got over it. On and on it goes.

But it isn’t just complicated for non-English speakers. We complicate our own writing by wading into this swamp.

Avoid the swamp. Avoid, if at all possible, anything that involves the verb have.

One sad example: see above. The author is telling a story, then wants to jump back in time. So she starts a new paragraph by saying, “He’d wanted to be a writer.” From this moment, we know that we’ve gone back in time — so from this moment, the author can switch to simple past tense: He wrote his first book … He reckoned with race as a boy … He made himself a stand-in, etc.

By sticking with he’d, time and time again, the author makes the writing sticky, forcing the reader to do more brainwork than necessary.

Search your first draft for the devil have and all its demon forms: had, has, ’s, ’d. If you can’t kill them all, trying letting the first one live and killing all the rest.

On beyond barefoot

“Eller was looking for food when they saw her, and was barefoot with no socks, he said.”

I guess it’s possible to be barefoot with socks, if you’re carrying the socks.

Anyway, it all turned out fine. They found her. Got her some food. And, I assume, some socks. Whether or not she put them on, I don’t know.

If you have to ask how much it costs

  • “The Brady’s are not starved for cash by any means.”
  • “I cannot take credit for it’s origin.”

I think I’ve finally found where all those missing apostrophes have gone. They’re being forced into servitude where they don’t belong.

  • To make the plural of a proper noun, just add s, no apostrophe needed: The Bradys. (If you write Brady’s, you mean Brady is — or you’re referring to something he possesses … say, Brady’s millions.)
  • To make a possessive of the pronoun it, just add s, no apostrophe needed: its origin. (If you write it’s, you mean it is or it has.)

Think of the apostrophe as a very expensive little piece of jewelry. You can’t afford it. The Bradys can afford it, but you can’t.

A phrase that is superfluous

“It’s her photo ‘Migrant Mother, Nipoma, California, 1936’ that is her most famous.”

I humbly offer this tip for improving your writing: Get some sort of that trap — and kill your thats.

Look through your first draft for the word that, and if you find it, I lay 10-to-1 odds you can do without it.

Furthermore, if you find the phrase that is, you’ve almost certainly got a case of that fat.

Much simpler to say: “Her photo ‘Migrant Mother, Nipoma, California, 1936’ is her most famous.”

If every writer in history had eschewed that is from the beginning, the world would have way more ink left today.

Conform to that funky music, white boy

“We will want something that jives with the sponsor’s understanding.”

Groovy idea … but I think you mean jibes.

  • To jive is to engage in a lively style of dance performed to swing music or rock and roll.
  • To jibe is to conform or agree.

Frankly, I like the idea of something that dances, with a generous sponsor standing by, and totally getting it. I think it will be fun for the sponsor, and fun for whatever’s doing the dancing. Don’t you?

This job will take forever

“He’s worked with us for ions, so I’m trusting he can do it!”

Interesting way to pay a guy. He’s working for mere atoms! As long as they have a net electric charge due to the loss or gain of one or more electrons, he’ll apparently take them instead of cash. Must be an alien. Alert NASA.

Oh, wait! You meant EONS! Indefinite, very long periods of time, often used in exaggerated form for humorous or rhetorical effect.

Now I get it.

Cancel NASA.

Kiss I, Kate

I just saw Kiss Me Kate, the old Cole Porter musical, and I was gratified to see Bianca grappling with our complicated English language.

“There is nothing between him and I,” she says — and then immediately senses it’s wrong. “I mean he and me,” she adds.

Which is also wrong.

How to choose between I and me?

My mommy taught me to subdivide the pair and try each option separately:

  • “There is nothing between him.”
  • “There is nothing between me.”

You wouldn’t say “There is nothing between I.” And you wouldn’t say “There is nothing between he.”

Each of the pronouns has to be correct by itself in order to be correct in combination. So it’s “him and me.”

(By the way, I’m pretty sure Bianca was lying.)

Coffee, tea, or a swift uppercut?

The erudite artist-photographer Stoney Stone came across a 1934 United Air Lines ad and sent it as a little gift for us today:

“Ten passengers occupy comfortable reclining chairs in the cabin which is in charge of a stewardess.” 

Maybe back in 1934, the term charge had different nuances. Or maybe it was a typo?

Today, in charge of means being the boss of, while in the charge of means being bossed by.

I’ve known passengers who acted as if they were in charge of a stewardess, but it has rarely ended well. You realize flight attendants get martial arts training these days, right?

This tiramisu is too ripe

“Lose yourself in the canals of Venice and appreciate all the islands and places that are perhaps less famous to San Marco at the Rialto bridge.”

Comparisons are tricky, especially if English isn’t your first language (I think this guy is Italian).

  • Less than, more than — or compared to.
  • But never less to or more to.
  • And certainly never compared than.

Some of these phrases, if you type them into Google Translate, Siri starts speaking Italian involuntarily.

Life in Hyphen Land

“The tunnels branched out some 200 feet and two-stories beneath the basement of the house.”

There is a terrible shortage of hyphens in the world, so please don’t use one unnecessarily.

Adjectives are flimsy; nouns are stout. A two-story house needs a hyphen, to hold the pieces of the adjective together. Two stories don’t need a hyphen, because stories is a big strong noun.

If you find a spare hyphen lying around, by all means, save it for your next two-word adjective.

Home, home on the ranging

“He has helped them through some difficult situations ranging from Aaron Hernandez, the Deflategate saga and four Super Bowls.”

If you range from somewhere — at least in English — you have to range to somewhere.

So this list of difficult situations needs to go from Hernandez and Deflategate to the Super Bowl.

I can’t imagine what group this quotation refers to, can you?

(Only 38 days till the NFL season!)

Daily Dunkin’

I have a problem every day.

I have an everyday problem.

It’s a problem involving people who don’t distinguish between everyday and every day.

Everyday is an adjective, meaning it describes a noun,” observes the inimitable copy editor Sarah C. Jones. “As in, My everyday routine includes eating doughnuts.” 

She continues: “Every day is not the same thing, grammatically speaking. As in, I am getting fatter every day thanks to my everyday doughnut-eating routine.”

Thank you for this helpful observation, Sarah. (Oh, by the way, you have a little sugar on your chin.)

Now? When? Then? No, now

Now. Here and now. The present tense. That’s where you’re living at this moment.

In the C. Wright Mills comment discussed here (from the brilliant These Truths by the brilliant Jill Lepore), “When Americans talk about ‘public opinion'” is in the present tense.

But then we switch, mysteriously, to the past tense: “they meant.”

What happened? The explanatory little phrase “C. Wright Mills argued” seems to have thrown the editor off — jerked him or her from the present-tense track to the past-tense track.

Two choices here:

  • When American talk, they meanOR:
  • When Americans talked, they meant

But you can’t have it both ways. Except in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. (Which is brilliant, but definitely not a work by the brilliant Jill Lepore.)

It’s delightful, it’s delicious, it’s de-lobster

If you want to get into Anything Goes as an actor, singer, or dancer, read the script carefully before you audition.

If they want to douse you in lobsters and champagne at the beginning of Act II, just go with it.

Cole Porter was perverse this way, I guess.

I’m sure it’ll be worth it when the show’s a hit.

How old was John Bolton in ’61?

I love commas, but commas don’t solve every problem.

Is this a photo of Bolton at a 1961 event? You tell me. And tell me why, or why not.

To the writer of this caption, it was obvious, I think, that the invasion happened in 1961. But because of The New Yorker‘s fixation on using commas in every possible position, they have separated “the Bay of Pigs” from “in 1961.” If they had quietly omitted the comma, we would have clearly understood the meaning of “the Bay of Pigs in 1961.” The Bay of Pigs, after all, happened in 1961. This photo didn’t happen in 1961. But the comma might lead us to believe this is a 1961 photo. (The “Make Cuba Great Again” hat is a clue. But you shouldn’t need to search for clues in the photo in order to understand the caption.)

I revere The New Yorker. I read it religiously. I have subscribed for decades. But the comma fixation thing has to go. It’s not healthy. Too many commas will clog your editorial digestive tract.

How do you say “Hi!” in Hungarian?


I can’t tell who’s on the outs:


Or the Hungarian?

And the photo features Putin. What’s up with this?

I’m so confused.

Start a sentence with a prepositional phrase, and it will modify the first noun that appears after the comma. No power shift in Washington can change this. Learn to live with it. Jefferson did it. Both Roosevelts did it. Even Nixon did it. You can do it too.

Newborns: menthol only

“A stranger offered her baby clothes and a cigarette.”

Did the stranger offer baby clothes to a mommy?

Or did the stranger offer clothes for Mommy’s baby?

English is such a complicated language. “Offered her” has two different meanings, “baby clothes” can be interpreted two different ways, and we haven’t even gotten to the cigarette.

This could have been a scene out of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

Attack of the Mueller People!

I’m usually against using the word “that” — it’s often nothing more than a bit of shredded cardboard, completely worthless and utterly expendable.

Here, I think it’s necessary — because Mueller has people.

So by the end of the first line, I might think this is about Flynn saying something to the Mueller people.

In fact, I can still labor under this misimpression well into the second line: It seems Flynn said something to the Mueller people who are connected to the Trump administration or Congress.

Uh, no. When I finally get to the third line, and the verb “attempted,” my train goes off the tracks.

A simple “that” would have spared me the wreck: “Michael Flynn told Mueller that people connected to Trump admin or Congress attempted to influence him.”

It could have been worse, of course: “Flynn people told Mueller people connected to Trump people or Congresspeople…”

Who’s in charge here?

The regulator and the turbulence are not the same thing.

The culprit is the diabolical little “As.” It makes the sentence into an equation, with the comma serving as something like an “equals” sign.

The noun before the comma must equal the noun that comes immediately after the comma.

This sentence says that the turbulence was the regulator. Which gives short shrift to the actual regulator.

Once again, Hamilton fails to get his due. Except for the hit Broadway musical, of course. That was pretty cool.

Vaccinate yourself

“One of the only.” It’s a plague on modern English.

What we mean to say is “one of the few.”

The “only” people who play on this record are the people who play on this record. There’s no point in using the word “only” to describe these people. They’re already the only ones.

But if we want to make the point that there are just a few folks playing on the record, then it makes sense to describe Turrisi as “one of the few.”

(How did this “one of the only” plague get started? It was probably the same guy who coined the term “most unique.” Gah!)

Time magazine gets burned

Something is similar to something else. It’s not similar as something else.

It’s also smoother to keep “similar” and “to” together in your sentence — like this:

“It relies on criteria similar to the FDA’s.”

Oh yeah. It’s FDA’s, not FDA, because we’re comparing this criteria to their criteria — we’re not comparing this criteria to the FDA itself.

Alice Park is a fine writer. I think she was just in a hurry to get to the beach that day.

Make mine a double

  • In his final years, Alexander Hamilton “spent as much time as possible drinking in the tranquility” of his northern Manhattan estate.

Yes, Hamilton was something of a drinker. But I think this is supposed to be about tranquility, not Tanqueray.

We English speakers love to attach a preposition to a verb to make sort of a new verb. So there’s drinking something, and then there’s drinking something in.

When I’m talking to you about someone drinking in the tranquility, you can hear my meaning in my tone of voice: I say “drinking in” with a certain emphasis on “in” which tells you I’m not talking about drinking.

But when I’m writing, you can’t hear my tone of voice. So I have to be careful about those two-word verbs.

  • Hamilton loved the tranquility of his estate, and spent as much time as possible drinking it in. With or without a gin and tonic.

Separating the two-word verb with an object (in this case, it) helps to keep things straight. And sober.

An old mouse and a young mouse walk into a lab…

They’re not mice studies, they’re mouse studies, and I’ll show you why.

If they were studies conducted with dogs, you wouldn’t call them dogs studies. You would call them dog studies. We conduct a fruit fly study, not a fruit flies study.

In English, we use the singular form of the animal as the adjective when we’re talking about the study or studies we’re subjecting them to. Likewise, we have a mouse problem, not a mice problem.

(By the way, if you have a mouse problem, I’m sorry about the scientists trying to make them live longer. What could these Einsteins be thinking?)

Brother, can you spare a fact?

“This gives weight to the fact that helping my relatives helps preserve my genes.”

Helping your relatives may or may not help preserve your genes. If you read this whole New Yorker piece, you see that the writer isn’t expressing this concept as fact. It’s a theory, perhaps, but not something we know for sure.

We often use fact when what we really mean is notion or idea. (And that’s a fact.)

As to the theory itself, my interest in preserving my genes is tempered by the question of exactly how much money my relative is asking for.

Upon, among, whatever, let’s grill

Thank you, friend Carol G., for this find from the North Shore of Massachusetts.

“Among” is a preposition which can mean in, into, or through the midst of; in association or connection with; surrounded by; with a share for each of; in the number, class, or group of; of or out of; by all or with the whole of; by most or with many of; or by the joint or reciprocal action of.

None of which work with connecting grilling season to us.

Grilling season is definitely upon us, friends. Not among. Upon.

Go thou and grill heartily. (And take several of these folks’ delicious sausages on the way. I’m sure they don’t really intend you to limit yourself to just one.)

Does this wig make me look fat?

From Ron Chernow’s brilliant biography Alexander Hamilton (which inspired the hit Broadway musical):

“Washington, in a black velvet suit, danced and cut a dashing figure with the ladies, while Steuben flashed with medals, and French officers glistened with gold braid and lace. In this anomalous setting, the women courted these revolutionaries in powdered hair and high heels.”

Oh, those FABULOUS revolutionaries!

(I thought the French officers were most appealing in the pumps, didn’t you, darling? Merci beaucoup!)

Less Nazis?

My normally articulate 17-year-old is an award-winning soon-to-be senior in high school, but last evening before dinner she said something wrong.

I corrected her — gently, diplomatically, lovingly, of course — but then her mother muttered, “Grammar Nazi.”

Now I’m going to tell you what my daughter said, and how I corrected her, and YOU tell ME if I’m a GRAMMAR NAZI!

She: “You’re eating less calories.”

Me: “Actually, I’m eating fewer calories.”

  • Less refers to a substance. Less water. Less air. Less obfuscation.
  • Fewer refers to a number of individual items. Fewer calories. Fewer children. Fewer problems.

Am I a Nazi? I think not. But if you beg to differ, please … feel free to comment.

A lesson in verbs for my loyal subjects

  • “She would waive to them as she passed each day.”

The tragedy here is that usually people fail by using the complicated, obscure word but spelling it as if it were the uncomplicated, obvious word which sounds the same.

But no.

Here’s someone who apparently grasps, longingly, for sophistication (I’m theorizing here), so they use the fanciest available spelling for the ordinary verb.

  • For the record: waive means to refrain from claiming or insisting on, to give up. I waive my right to humiliate you about your writing.
  • To wave is to do what the Queen does. Although with exceedingly little wrist action.

Adverb: R.I.P.

My dear mother was a grammar Nazi, while I was growing up.

It’s possible that she still is, at the age of 86, but I’m not aware of it, because after all these decades, I take great care to use proper grammar in her presence.

So when I read something like this, I cringe:

“Snow is melting on the mountain quicker and exposing an increasing number of dead bodies.”

Yes, perhaps if I were normal, I would cringe at the idea of the dead bodies. But to tell you the truth, what I cringe at is the idea of the dead adverb.

My mother’s mantra was/is (I’ll express it phonetically for you first, then explain it):

“LEE! It’s an adverb! It tells how!

If I, in my youth, had said, “Snow is melting quicker,” she would respond with the mantra — requiring me to add ly (“LEE!”) to the adjective I had misused.

Snow is melting more quickly, not quicker … because melt a verb, and a word that modifies a verb must be an adverb.

And yes, Mother, an adverb almost always ends in LY.

Love you.

What do Donald Trump, Paul Simon, and Chris Cillizza have in common? Not rational

“In fact, Trump appears to already be laying the rational for an election challenge — or at least the lack of a concession — if he loses next November.”

I’ll be honest. I want CNN to catch an error like this, and fix it, and quickly.

Rational is an adjective. It’s pronounced RASH-uh-null. It involves reason or sound judgment. You can talk about a rational way of approaching a problem. (Like Paul Simon retiring from touring, for example, to spend more time with his actual family, instead of with us.)

Rationale, on the other hand, is a noun. It’s from the French, so it’s pronounced rash-un-AL, rhymes with You can call me Al. It’s sort of a statement of principles; it’s a reasoning device. You can use a rationale to convince Paul Simon to start touring again.

(I am clearly not above using this blog to pursue my personal objectives. It’s emotional, I know — not entirely rational. But give me a compelling rationale to convince me otherwise.)


P.S. Personal message to Chris Cillizza, CNN Editor-at-large: Chris … Shweethawt … This one first appeared on May 6, 2019. It was still there on Memorial Day weekend. I know there’s very little incentive for a major news organization to go back and fix errors in their archives, but this one embarrasses me.

Not necessarily

“Now, the need to have Ellington on the roster seemingly grew less necessary.”

A need is something that’s necessary. Being necessary is part of the definition of a need.

Save your breath. Use fewer words. Live longer.

  • “Now, the need to have Ellington on the roster seemingly decreased.”
  • OR: “Now, having Ellington on the roster seemingly grew less necessary.”

I do hope Ellington finds work with another team. The NFL is harsh, baby. It’s as bad as a blog that constantly critiques sportswriters.

This is really, really important; I really, really mean it

“This bi-monthly resource has become increasingly more important.”

No. It has become “increasingly important,” or it has become “more important,” but nothing in the entire English language is important enough to become increasingly more important. (Even this blog, life-changing though it may be for you, will never become “increasingly more” important.)

“Increasingly more” is right up there with “equally as.”

“You are equally as egocentric as Doug.”

Nobody is so egocentric as to be both “equally egocentric” to and “as egocentric” as Doug. There is only so much obnoxiousness available in the world.

Poor Lawrence

“Lawrence, as one of our long-time sponsors, I was hoping I could bring you a humble request.”

Who’s the sponsor? Lawrence? Or the writer? If Lawrence is actually a long-time sponsor, he’s not getting proper credit for his generosity.

I think this sentence was intended to say:

  • “Lawrence, because you are one of our long-time sponsors, I was hoping I could bring you a humble request.”


  • “Lawrence, as one of our long-time sponsors, you might be open to this humble request.”

The culprit here is the damnable little word as. Once you unleash it as a preposition — meaning, more or less, “in the role of” — as starts connecting things, whether you want them connected or not.

In this case, because as has been deployed, one of our long-time sponsors is equated to whatever comes immediately after the comma — in this case, I.

This kind of “misconnect” is common, but you can avoid such a potentially embarrassing error — by going on HIGH ALERT the moment you write as. If you can substitute “In the role of” for “as” and the sentence still says what you want it to say, you’re OK. If it doesn’t say what you intended, it’s time to kiss your as good-bye.

Let us be brief, and concise, and keep it short

Cut to the chase.

The best writing goes straight there, to the meaning.

Skip extra words if you can.

“It could have lengthened out the legal fight.”

Perhaps the writer was being paid by the word. In which case, he or she would get one extra word’s worth of pay for “out.”

But it would have been perfectly fine for the writer to write:

“It could have lengthened the legal fight.”

I’ll just stop here. I won’t CONTINUE ON.

E Pluribwe Unum

This is something that impacts we as sons and daughters who have never done any of that bad stuff.

I am one of those sons, I assure you. I’ve never done any of that bad stuff.

I have been an object, however, in many, many sentences. Yet whenever I’ve been an object in a sentence, I’ve never been part of a we.

Because when you’re an object in a sentence, you’re us.

We (subject) are us (object)!

This is something that impacts us as sons and daughters, because when you’re the object in the sentence, you get to be US, not WE!

  • (If you wonder whether to use “we” or “us,” take a look at whether you need a subject or an object. If you don’t understand the difference between a subject and an object, I suggest you consult the World Wide Interwebs, where I learned this simple trick: “The subject is the person or thing doing something, and the object is having something done to it.”) We is always doing something to us. Us is never doing something to we.

Confuse, confused, confusing

“You can say, ‘a circle is rectangular in shape,’ and all you’ve done is confused us!”

Serious question:

  • Should it be all you’ve done is confused us?
  • Or should it be all you’ve done is confuse us?

I don’t know what rule governs this situation. But my upbringing (thank you to my mother, Leona Anne, of Ashland, Ohio) suggests a rule something like this:

After a phrase like all you’ve done is — you switch to the present tense: confuse us!

But why? I don’t know. Maybe the phrase all you’ve done is actually stands in, as a substitute, for an implied longer phrase: all you’ve done is, you’ve… In which case, you need a past-tense verb: you’ve confused us!

Somebody help me out here. Use the comment box and enlighten all of us, please.

For $15, I’ll throw in her cousin

“It’s the sacrifice I’m willing to pay.”

Well, buddy, you’re in luck — because you don’t pay a sacrifice.

You can pay a price, or you can make a sacrifice, but you can’t pay a sacrifice.

Actually, come to think of it, if you’re about to toss a virgin into a volcano, and you give her $10 for her trouble, I guess you’re actually paying a sacrifice. But that’s totally different.

How this effects you

“This policy was already in affect when my account was smaller.”

Not true, actually. I don’t mean to be rude, but the fact is, no policy was ever “in affect” because “in affect” is not real English.

English is largely about NOUNS and VERBS. Let’s take a moment to look at…


To affect something is to influence it. The weather affects your route.

To effect something is to cause something to come into being. The weather effects a change in your route.


An effect is a result or an impact. The effect of the bad weather is my bad attitude.

  • (Affect — pronounced AFF-ekt, by the way — is hardly ever used as a noun, but it typically refers to an observed emotion. I could see by his affect that he hated the weather. In everyday writing, affect will almost never be used as a noun; it’s often a psychiatric term.)

So the enduring question is, if I need a verb, which verb do I use?

It will almost always be affect, because this is how we speak in everyday English. This affects that.

But once in a while, we need to talk about effecting a change (because you bring about a change) or effecting a settlement (if you’re not just influencing the settlement; you’re actually bringing it about) or effecting a repair (if you’re not just advising your friend how to fix the sink, you’re doing the work yourself).

(This has been a long and painful blog post, I know. The effect on you may be observed for hours in your affect. Forgive me. English is a complicated language.)

Done with you

“I am not going to do anymore,” you wrote.

Well, I’m sorry you’ve come to the end of your rope.

But now that you’re writing me about your decision to make a significant change in your life, I’m afraid I have no choice but to point out a wee error.

  • Anymore — a single word — can be used to mean still. (Bartender to wife on phone: “He isn’t here anymore.”)
    • (Obviously, you didn’t intend to say I am not going to do still.)
  • Or, anymore can be used to mean nowadays. (Scientist to climate change denier: “Sorry, that species isn’t here anymore.”)
    • (You also didn’t intend to say I am not going to do nowadays.)
  • Or, anymore can be used to mean from now on. (Scientist to climate change denier: “Sorry, that species isn’t going to be here anymore.”)
    • (You certainly didn’t intend to say I am not going to do from now on.)

If you’re not going to do any more, you have to break anymore into two words: ANY describes it, and MORE is what it is.

I could give you a technical explanation of the nouns, verbs, adverbs, etc., but it would give you a headache, and me too, and let me assure you, it wouldn’t be worth it.

I tried it once, with somebody else, and I’m not going to do it ANY MORE.

Ready, aim…

“Farm organizations gave tens of thousands of dollars to fire sufferers.”

#1, why did it cost so much to fire them?

#2, by what authority did the farmers fire them?

And #3, if they were already suffering, wasn’t it cruel to fire them?

Or, if these were folks who suffered in a fire, how could the sentence be written to guarantee that the meaning isn’t misunderstood?

Especially when a word can be both a noun and a verb, beware.

(Sometimes, it’s not ideal to coin a phrase; better to simply spell it out: victims of the fires, in this case.)

Like many words with multiple meanings, fire can burn ya.

I’ll have the lox in a loafer, please

“He also took me out to dinner, and this morning made breakfast for me in his slippers.”

Well, he was in his slippers; my breakfast wasn’t in them.

Nor was I in his slippers. Let’s keep this blog respectable.

(“Last night I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas I don’t know.” Don’t you miss Groucho?)

Racism comes to the kitchen

I adore Hannah Goldfield, the New Yorker‘s food critic. So I feel badly calling out anything she writes.

But … here we go.

“A pile of chicken-satay skewers, draped in peanut sauce and dusted with kaffir-lime powder—a term, it should be noted, that has fallen out of fashion recently, given that it’s also a racist slur used to refer to black people in South Africa; makrut, the lime’s name in Thai, is now the preferred term—was, one evening, straightforward and satisfying, featuring well-salted, juicy nubs of slightly charred thigh meat.”

I really want to eat what she’s talking about — but I’m not sure about the racism thing.

She says “it’s also a racist slur” — but what IT is IT?

Pronouns are diabolically slippery.

In this case, it could be kaffir-lime powder, or peanut sauce, or skewers, or chicken-satay, or — is it possible? — pile.

She goes on to say that “the lime’s name in Thai” is now the “preferred term,” so now I’m inclined to move away from thinking the pile of chicken thingies is the offensive thingie — but I’m still not sure if makrut is the preferred term for the fruit or the powder.

Better to use more words, in smaller segments:

“A pile of chicken-satay skewers, draped in peanut sauce and dusted with kaffir-lime powder, was, one evening, straightforward and satisfying, featuring well-salted, juicy nubs of slightly charred thigh meat. It should be noted that that the term kaffir has fallen out of fashion recently, given that it’s also a racist slur used to refer to black people in South Africa; makrut, the lime’s name in Thai, is now the preferred term.”

Hannah, forgive me. I still love you.

Calling all lazy comma-omitters

“The Boerne 0.5K is a bite-sized race for under-achievers, procrastinators and the outright lazy.”

Okay, which is this?

Is it a bite-sized race for a list of 3?

  • under-achievers
  • procrastinators
  • and the outright lazy?

Or is it a bite-sized race for under-achievers, who are comprised of procrastinators and the outright lazy?

That missing comma — the “Oxford comma” — leaves us pondering.

When you have a series of 3 nouns, leaving out the Oxford comma suggests that the first item in the series is the category, and the other 2 items in the series are the components of the category.

What this determines for us, then, is this: Those who omit the Oxford comma are outright lazy under-achievers.

Repent, sinner

“When I went to the alter, I was looking around and I was just thinking, ‘This is the time that I want to be with you, God.'”

It would be small of God to say, “Sorry, but you misspelled alter, so go to hell.” God wouldn’t do such a thing.

But I might.

Let’s set straight the age-old question of alter vs. altar.

  • The altar is the religious thing. You go there, you kneel at it. It’s a noun.
  • To alter is an everyday thing. You change something. You alter it. It’s a verb.

If you use the wrong one, it’s a sin.

This will go on your permanent record

Maybe I’m just hyper-sensitive these days about “student records” because my final kid is ramping up to run the college application gauntlet … but it seems to me that this headline invites confusion.

To me, “student records” is a thing.

So a headline that begins with this phrase inclines me to think we’re talking about “student records.”

It’s tricky when you use a word that has two meanings — like “records” — which in fact has not only two meanings but two pronunciations. “WRECK-erds” and “re-CORDS.”

If, in this case, had decided to abandon the old-fashioned newspaper-style headline-writing protocol of stating everything in the present tense, they might have rendered this headline in a form more easily and more quickly understood by the common classes, like me — say, perhaps, something like:

A student recorded months of his teacher’s remarks

Note the simple, straightforward use of the past tense, which is when the thing actually happened.

(Using the damnable adjective alleged is a whole ’nuther issue. Let’s take it up later.)

I’ll stop thrashing you in a year and a half

How long can you beat up on a guy?

“He went back to prison for assaulting a police officer for 18 months.”

Honestly, I would send that sucker to prison for 18 months too.

The fact that he was going back to prison tells me that he was in that “increased risk” category.

Geez, I hope the police officer is gonna be okay….

Take a while and think awhile

Oh, for a letter space.

“I didn’t want to tell him I’d turned it in if you were going to hold it awhile.”

This is perfectly correct.

But how often do we find this same word, awhile, busted into two words, a while? is a fine resource for sorting this out.

  • A while is a noun, meaning “a short time.”
  • Awhile is an adverb, meaning “for a short time.”

When I’m about to write one or the other, and can’t remember which to use, I think of it this way:

  • “Awhile” (one word) means “for a while” (three words).
  • If “for a while” wouldn’t make sense in the sentence I’m writing, then I must need “a while” (two words).

I often have to stop awhile and think for a while about whether to use awhile or a while.


Let’s Segway to the New World!

I’m all for language as a living, constantly evolving organism.

This is how languages are, like it or not. So you may as well enjoy it.

But sometimes, someone who doesn’t know better gets ahead of the game.

“That would be a good Segway into how he wasn’t prepared for how hot it was.”

Now, maybe this was autocorrect.

Or maybe it wasn’t.

But the conventional term would be segue.

We segue from this scene to that.

It’s often deployed in theatrical or musical directions: segue, from the Italian, for “follows.”

Not “Segway,” the “personal transporter” originally unveiled on Good Morning America in 2001, which has failed to transform our vehicular culture as originally envisioned, but which I nonetheless still want one of.

Bad English, I know. But I still want one. And my wife won’t buy me one.

If this blog could only be monetized, somehow!

Until some respected source, like Webster’s, anoints the new spelling, use the old spelling.

(Not sure about what’s “old” and what’s “new”? No worries. Segue on over to the Comments window and contact me.)

Headlines that make you go “Hmmm…”

A disturbing news item. On top of which, the layering of past-tense verbs forces you to figure out the chronology.

Executed (a past-tense verb functioning here as an adjective) is one of those words that just feels pretty final, doesn’t it? So everything that comes after Executed, it seems, must have happened after the executions. In English, we tend to assume that each word builds on the previous word. So by the time we get to claimed, these poor Saudis have already been Executed.

Once we get to the end of the entire statement, we can piece it all together correctly: The Saudis apparently claimed, at some time prior to being executed, that they had been tortured, and just now we’re getting word of the claims.

But the writer hasn’t helped us get there. I won’t say it’s been torture; that would be in poor taste. But it sure did make some of us go “Hmmm….”

A multiplicity of personages

Sad story. And, sad to say, fake news.

Because there is no such thing as a multiple person.

Multiple is often misused this way. You want Many people or Numerous people or Multitudes of people. But multiple means “involving several things.” Each of the things you call multiple is a single thing. This is why you use the adjective multiple — to specify several of the single thing you’re talking about.

In fact, if this isn’t already confusing enough, it is possible to talk about a people — singular — like the American people — but you would have to say Multiple peoples — the Yanks, the Brits, and the French, for example — not Multiple people.

(If there were multiple people — I mean, if a person could be multiple — would they be clones? Or zombies? Or [other]? Attack of the Multiple People — in theatres June 7!)

Man eating punctuation

“The solution, then, was to devise a public-relations strategy to cast the Church ‘as a sensitive, caring entity.'”

Public relations isn’t normally hyphenated. But here it is. And it’s right.

Think of a hyphen as glue. It’s sticky. It keeps two things together. When you want to keep two words together that normally appear separately, a hyphen is what you need.

In this sentence, you need public and relations to hang together as a single adjective, modifying strategy.

If you don’t hyphenate public-relations, the meaning could easily be misconstrued: the sentence might be about a relations strategy that was public, as opposed to private.

Same deal with man-eating shark (ironically the opposite of man eating shark) and the classic dirty movie theatre (which needs cleaned up, but not because of the porn).

And let’s not talk about the father-to-be stabbed in the back, which already happened — as opposed to the father to be stabbed in the back, which is still being planned.

(Hyphens are connectors. Now dashes — dashes are dividers. Hyphens are little, dashes are big. When you want to make a big break between words, phrases, or ideas — well, look here — I’ve just interrupted myself — a dash is the perfect interrupter. Don’t ever use a hyphen as an interrupter-it isn’t appropriate-it connects things you wanted to divide-and makes you look like you don’t understand the difference between little and big. Size matters.)

This is not a hoax

This was a sad story, I think. But I’m not quite sure, because the headline is so confusing.

After much head-scratching, I believe it’s intended not as a sentence but as a title — like “The Silver Lining” — but with a lot of explanatory words added, which turn the title into a kind of thicket.

Is the lining missing the boy’s dad? Is the lining that’s missing the boy’s dad doing the hoping? Is there a word missing? Is this a crash of typos?

  • It can be complicated to use a word that might be a verb or an adjective — like missing.
  • It can be complicated to use a word that might be a verb or a noun — like hopes. (Or, for that matter, lining — although when lining comes right after silver, most of us will probably read silver lining as a noun.)
  • But it can really be complicated to use a number of multi-use words in the same sentence.
  • And even more complicated in a setting where you don’t know if what you’re reading is going to turn out to be a sentence or not. This headline came from, and they go both ways, presenting both sentence-format headlines and title-format headlines, in the same daily string of headlines.

So — stop me if I’m wrong — I think this headline is about a silver lining that a missing boy’s dad is hoping will come after a hoax.

If I’m wrong, please correct me.

If I’m right … Whew!

Similar, but no cigar

“The league will follow a similar structure as the original XFL did in 2001.”

Oh my. Where to begin?

  1. In the context of the article from which I plucked this gem, it’s clear the author did not simply leave out a crucial comma. He did not intend to say, “The league will follow a similar structure, as the original XFL did in 2001.” He did, in fact, intend to say that the league will follow a structure similar to the one followed by the XFL in 2001. But he said it a bit clumsily, didn’t he?
  2. To “follow a similar structure as” is bad English. Why? Because two things can be similar, or they can be similar to each other, but nothing can ever be similar as something else.
  3. Even if the author had written, “The league will follow a similar structure to the original XFL,” I would gripe — because the phrase “similar to” should stick together whenever possible. You get a smoother flow from “The league will follow a structure similar to the original,” etc.
  4. “Did.” By the time we get to “did” in this sentence, we’ve already hit so many potholes, I’m crabby.

Kindly rewrite and get back to me.

Cheap shot

“The cost wasn’t cheap.”

It feels a little odd, doesn’t it?


I think it’s because in English, we want something to be said only once — and this says something twice, sort of.

Cheap means low-cost. So this is like saying The cost wasn’t low-cost.

Cost can be high or low, or minimal, or exorbitant, or any number of other indicators of extent — but we already know it’s a cost, so it’s awkward to restate it.


  • The acquisition wasn’t cheap.


  • The cost wasn’t small.


  • The blogger wasn’t reasonable.

But NOT The cost wasn’t cheap.

What’s not to like?

Here comes the regular morning email from Daily Skimm, and the subject line reads:

I like chardonnay, get better over time

Pretty soon I get a message from the superb book editor Sarah Christine Jones (whose work I highly recommend), a fellow Daily Skimm subscriber; Sarah emails:

GAH! This subject line needs another comma!

True, dear Sarah.

Like is one of those words that goes both ways: it’s a verb (I like chardonnay!) but it can also be a humble conjunction (I’m like chardonnay; I’m pretty much what chardonnay is).

Since like can be read as a verb, you have to make sure your reader doesn’t accidentally think it’s one. It’s awkward to insert a big sign that says NOT A VERB. Use commas. They’re more delicate.

In general, if you stick a describing phrase (like chardonnay) after your subject (I) but before your predicate (get better), it’s often a good idea to set the phrase off with a pair of commas. Not just one comma. Don’t be stingy. Or Sarah Christine Jones will be all in your face by noon.

I exit, then all bets are off

She’s an activist for her cause (which is an uphill climb), and she’s being encouraged to give it up. Here’s what she writes:

“I don’t want the tide to turn after I leave — so I’m not going anywhere.”

Her remark might be misconstrued. I think she would still want the tide to turn after she left.

Would she resent the tide turning if it didn’t happen before her departure?

Actually, she would be happy for the tide to turn anytime — regardless of whether she left or not. Right?

So she hasn’t said what she means.

“If the tide is going to turn, I want to be here for it!” This is what she really means. “So I’m not going anywhere!” (I’ve added the exclamation points. No charge.)


(This is silly! To explore a somewhat more important part of what I do with the rest of my life, visit my humanitarian charity New Thing.)

Maybbe I’m splittting hhairrsss?

Phonetic is a strange word in our language, because it’s not phonetic. If it were phonetic, it would be spelled something like FONETIK.

Sometimes, we switch from literal English to phonetic English. Like when we want to replicate our spoken speech, which tends to be lazier than our written language. Example:

People of a certain age (my age) will immediately recognize the lyrics to the song “Dancin’ in the Moonlight,” by the brilliant Sherman Kelly: “Everybody’s dancin’ in the moonlight / Everybody here is out of sight”

But if you ask the Shazam app to show you the lyrics, it gives you this: “Everybody here is outta sight”

No worries. It communicates. We know what’s meant. But “out of” should not be translated phonetically as “outta.” The correct phoneticization of “out of” is “outa.”

Why? Because the double T is unnecessary. When translating from proper English to phonetic English, it’s appropriate to change only the letters that aren’t phonetic. So “out of” should morph to “out a,” and then mush together as “outa.”

It would only be right to turn “out of” into “outta” if you were starting with “out tof.” Which we aren’t. So there.

My secret: tacky

You’re coarse, of course. It’s just the way you are.

Coarse is an adjective that means rough, indelicate, unrefined. That’s you, of course, right?

Course is a noun — a route, or a sequence, an option, an action, a passage. Or a class in school. Not necessarily coarse, however. Probably seldom, in fact.

They sound the same, coarse and course. They’re just not spelled the same.

So when you’re writing, you have to know the difference.

How to remember the difference? I hesitate to reveal my personal secret trick: Coarse is two-thirds arse.

See? It’s coarse. Which is why I hesitated to reveal it.

Paternity and pronouns

“Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, says she and Trump had an affair in 2006, after he married first lady Melania Trump and she gave birth to their son, Barron.”

Okay, we all know who gave birth to whom, but it’s not great writing.

Why not? Because of the pronouns.

A pronoun is a cheap substitute. You have to watch it (that’s a pronoun; sorry) like a hawk.

First, she refers to Stephanie. So our low-bandwidth English-language brain has assigned to she the identity of Stephanie.

But then, before we even get out of this sentence, there’s another she — so we’re required to switch the identity of this pronoun. Assuming I’ve interpreted the sentence correctly. The fact that I’m not entirely sure is the fault of the pronouns.

This sentence is further complicated by other pronouns: he refers to Trump, their refers to, uh, Trump and Melania, right? I think so.

But in a sentence this long, with so many pieces, connected by whose and after and and … well, it’s hard to manage the meanings. By the time we get to the period at the end of the sentence, it’s possible that a chihuahua got a medical degree in Griffith, Indiana.

Better to write short sentences, and avoid pronouns:

“Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, says she and Trump had an affair in 2006, after he married first lady Melania Trump and Daniels gave birth to their son, Barron.”

Wait, did I get it wrong?

* * *

(P.S. It just occurs to me, you may be interested in even less significant amusements from Doug Brendel. Please visit and click on “Follow” for occasional humorous observations about life in small-town New England.)

The threat of global hyphening

“There’s just a different standard in New England that’s been set by two-decades of generational play.”

Your attention, please: There’s a global shortage of hyphens, so we do not want to use them unnecessarily.

Especially when writing about time periods, follow these simple guidelines:

The adjective form is hyphenated: A two-decade tradition.

The noun form is not hyphenated: Two decades of play.

Think of the brain — I mean the brain of someone who speaks and reads English — limping along, from word to word, urgently needing to be spoon-fed. (Well, that’s a bad metaphor, but whatever.) When you come upon a “time-period word” like two, you expect the next word to be the noun you’re talking about: decades. And in this sentence, you get what you need: set by two decades of generational play.

But let’s say you’re talking about a two-decade tradition. When you get to the word two, the next word isn’t the noun you’re talking about. The next word is decade, but the noun you’re talking about is tradition. The words two and decade are working together, to describe the noun tradition. To make this easy for the narrow-bandwidth brain of the English-speaking reader, you have to glue the descriptor words together: a two-decade tradition. This is a valid use of our ever-diminishing supply of hyphens.

Thus: A two-year-old is two years old.

NOT: A two year old is two-years-old.

(You may have a better way of explaining this rule of English usage, and if so, I hope you will enlighten us all, via the Comment window. Until then, I’m going off to nurse my headache.)

Grad School Hiring: Apply at Once!

It’s a PowerPoint slide, part of a student recruitment pitch.

It seems to say these students were either employed in grad school or enrolled in grad school within 6 months of graduation.

But that’s not what’s intended.

We need a couple commas: “95% of students were employed, or enrolled in graduate school, within 6 months of graduation.”

(I’m uneasy about within, too — because it can mean either before or after. Or can it mean both? Some were hired or enrolled 6 months before graduation? Maybe. We can’t tell for sure. I want to know for sure. Good writing lets you know for sure.)

Commas are underrated. I think you should be able to get an English major with a minor in Commas.

I volunteer to teach the Commas classes.

They isn’t

“I would be happy to talk further about my writing and editing skills and how it translates into copywriting.”

Unfortunately, you’re fired.

The word it refers to my writing and editing skills.

I would say the phrase writing and editing skills is a plural.

So actually, if we want to talk further, we want to talk about how they translate into copywriting. Not it. They.

You might stretch and insist that the phrase my writing and editing skills is singular — a single thing, like macaroni and cheese — but I would disagree.

So yeah, you’re fired.

Just ahead of confusion

“President reverses his earlier statements that he would own the shutdown if border wall funding was not included just ahead of a Senate debate on his plan”

Wow. I am really confused by this very long headline — starting with just ahead of.

  • The President either reverses his earlier statements just ahead of a Senate debate…
  • Or he would own the shutdown just ahead of a Senate debate…
  • Or he wants the funding included just ahead of a Senate debate…

The longer a sentence, the more chances to confuse.

Write short sentences. When you can’t write a short sentence, write a sentence with its pieces clearly delineated by punctuation.

Let’s say what the writer really meant was:Just ahead of a Senate debate on the President’s plan, he reverses his earlier statements — indicating he would own the shutdown if border wall funding was not included

The comma and the dash help us digest the meaning as we go.

As for digesting the politics, I’m not even going there. This is old news anyway. And possibly fake.

Papa, we hardly knew ye

“At the age of six, his father died.”

Complicated, isn’t it?

Six is really young to be a father.

In English (and that’s what we’re dealing with here, after all), a modifying phrase will be understood to modify whatever it’s adjacent to, fore or aft.

So this sentence could have also been written as follows:

“His father, at the age of six, died.”

Or: “His father died, at the age of six.”

Both of which are equally ridiculous.

Beware the sneaky little preposition at. You think it’s communicating, when it’s actually just confusing. You can usually do better. Try an adverb, for example, like when — with a verb, maybe. Even a crummy inactive verb, like is or was:

When he was six, his father died.”

It’s a sad little story anyway, no matter how you write it. I feel sorry for this kid. Left to a struggling single mom, probably no more than five years old….

Tough luck

“Dolphins head coach Adam Gase confirmed on Friday that the quarterback will be out for Week 12 when Miami comes up to Foxboro to face the Patriots due to a concussion.”

You’ve heard the rumors about the NFL getting all sissified? Well, they’re apparently toughening up.

This report seems to suggest that if any player suffers a concussion, the entire team is punished by having to go play New England in the Patriots’ home stadium.

And in this tragic case, it appears the Dolphins will have to do it without their quarterback.

(Who knows why the QB can’t make the trip. Chicken, probably.)

  • Correction: “Dolphins head coach Adam Gase confirmed Friday that the quarterback will be out, due to a concussion, for Week 12, when Miami comes up to Foxboro to face the Patriots.” Whew! That was scary for a while.

Kelly, please: Just go, already

“Kelly is said to be heading for the exits again.”


Is someone saying it again (those darn rumor-mongers!), or is Kelly exiting again (that darn quitter!)?

Gotta be careful putting again at the very end of a sentence. It can glom on to just about any verb.


  • The rumor-monger version: Kelly is again said to be heading for the exits.
  • The quitter version: Kelly is said to be once again heading for the exits.

It just occurs to me that both could be true:

  • The both-are-true version: Kelly is again said to be heading once more for the exits. It’s icky, but it’s accurate. Better to rewrite entirely: Kelly has quit before, and we’re hearing once more, as we have repeatedly, that it might happen again.

In any case, the situation seems unstable. At the very least, let’s write a stable sentence about it.

Headline-whittling 101

This is a tragic story, no question. Setting aside the content, however, I humbly observe that the headline needs to be somewhat carved up.

Whenever you use the word who, there’s a chance you’ve inadvertently spent more words than you need to say what you want to say. (It’s a pronoun, so it’s automatically suspect.) In this example, who restates inmate. The phrase who was just gets you from inmate to stabbed without giving you any additional information.

In this case, also switches headline styles — including the article An to go with inmate and a to go with prison yard, but then omitting the article a when they get to lawsuit. Gotta stick with one approach or the other.

A more direct version of the headline might be: Lawsuit says correctional officers left stabbed inmate to die in prison yard.

12 words, instead of 18.

Think how much more you could get done in a day if all the headlines only took you two-thirds as long to read.

The adverbs are blowin’ in the wind

“Anyway the wind blows.”

Sorry, never correct.

  • Anyway (one word) is an adverb meaning no matter what the situation is. It’s often a shrug-of-the-shoulders term, where you’re dismissing whatever’s just been said. Terrible day. Got picked on in some maniac’s blog. Anyway, what’s for dinner?
  • Any way (two words) is the combination of any, which means one, some, or several, when the quantity, type, or quality is not important — and way, indicating a road, a direction, a style, a custom, a manner (you get the idea). This is often more of a sweeping-gesture term. How shall we get to the restaurant? Any way you say! But let’s get going — I’m starving!

Another reason “Anyway the wind blows” is never correct is: If you start a sentence with Anyway, you need to follow Anyway with a comma: Anyway, the wind blows. I think the comma is there to remind you to shrug your shoulders.

Vote for anyone else!

“Netanyahu fought the election in the face of looming indictments.”

Actually, Netanyahu was running for re-election as Israel’s Prime Minister, and very much wanted to win. So he didn’t fight it at all.

The word election is often misused these days — as if it were synonymous with campaign. They’re not the same. The campaign leads up to the election.

But even switching to “Netanyahu fought the campaign” wouldn’t be ideal, because of the way fought can be construed as opposed. Maybe better to say he “waged his election campaign.”

Imprecisely written news coverage doesn’t seem to have doomed him, however. He won the election. At this writing, the indictments are still looming. But since looming can mean either threatening or impending, we don’t know from this statement whether they’re a sure thing or not.

Between the fighting, the electing, and the looming, this sentence lands a puzzlement score of 30%: three words out of ten need repair or replacement.

Doomed domicile

That historic house on Linebrook Road — will it be moved or demolished?

The answer is yes.

Oh, that’s not what you meant? You wanted me to choose one? Sorry, I misunderstood — because the conjunction or is so lame.

Anytime you use this little item — the word or — double-check its surroundings. It’s possible that some readers will think you’re offering a choice you didn’t intend to offer.

When we speak, the listener hears our tone of voice, which signals which or we mean: a choice between two items, or a listing of two viable possibilities.

Even adding a comma — will it be moved, or demolished? — doesn’t solve the problem. Some readers may still “hear” the question differently than you intended.

How to guarantee that the reader chooses between the two? I don’t know. Help me.

I’m for leaving the house there. But nobody’s asking my opinion.

P.S. It’s Shakespeare’s birthday. He’s the guy who wrote To be, or not to be: that is the question. In other words, choose one — you can’t have it both ways.See? Even Shakespeare was nervous about leaving an or question hanging out there.

Saw this one coming, eh?

So we made it through the Easter season, and I only recoiled in horror once. It was in church, with members of the congregation reading aloud from the Scriptures — the bad guys mistreating Jesus in Luke 22:64:

And when they had blindfolded him, they struck him on the face, and asked him, saying, Prophesy, who is it that smote thee?

But I heard some of our beloved amateur actors say Prophecy instead of Prophesy.

  • A prophecy (final syllable pronounced see) is a prediction. And a noun.
  • To prophesy (final syllable pronounced sigh) is to predict, reveal, or announce, as with divine authority. And it’s a verb.

When you prophesy, you offer a prophecy. Sigh, see. You cannot prophecy (see) — and you can’t offer a prophesy (sigh).

And there is no such word as prophesize.



Whacked out, wrung dry, can’t forget

“She was as whacked out as a towel would be when it was wrung dry by Tommy’s situation.”

I will not poke fun at the person who spoke these words (a public figure), or make any snide references to the situation which gave rise to this comment (a serious medical issue).

Let’s just stick with the language issues here.

I’ll begin by saying: Aaaaaugh!!

Now, a few clear-eyed observations as to what this statement might teach us:

  1. Be careful of your metaphors. Whacked out as a towel, whether wrung out or not, is not exactly an example of an elegantly expressed word-picture. But let’s ignore this detail for the moment.
  2. The phrase when it was wrung dry needs to be in the present tense, not the past: She was as whacked out as a towel would be when it is wrung dry. Better yet (because the appearance of the word it is often a signal that a sentence has been constructed flabbily): She was as whacked out as a towel would be when wrung dry. Even better (because the appearance of the word would is often a signal that … oh, never mind; let’s just say it’s a red flag): She was as whacked out as a towel wrung dry. (Whenever you write it or would, look for a cleaner, sharper way to say what you mean.)
  3. The final phrase, by Tommy’s situation, is floating out there. We don’t know what it modifies. I don’t think the towel was wrung dry by Tommy’s situation, was it? I think the intended meaning is She was as whacked out by Tommy’s situation as a towel wrung dry. Which makes the meaning clearer — but it still doesn’t salvage that awful wrung-dry towel metaphor, does it?

In the speaker’s defense, this comment was spoken, not written. It probably made perfect sense in the moment, in the context of the conversation.

In my own defense, I just couldn’t leave it alone. Because somebody quoted this person in print. And now, I’ll never be able to un-see it.

I may need a hot towel. Or something stronger.

Maybe you’re worth it, maybe not

Indulge me. Please. This will only take 35, possibly 40 seconds of your time. A full minute if you’re a slow reader like me.

My beloved New England Patriots will be paying Stephen Gostkowski $8.5 million over the next two years just to kick the ball. No hitting, no absorbing Hulk-like impacts. Just run up to the ball and kick it, and we’ll give you $8.5 million over the next two years. Awesome. And he’s earned it. He’s one of the best kickers the NFL has ever seen.

My equally beloved favorite sportswriter Tyler Sullivan reported on the Gostkowski deal back on the 10th of April. But there was a typo. At least I hope it was a typo. I can’t imagine this not being a typo:

That equates to $4.25 on an average annual value, which is a slight dip in what the veteran was being paid perviously. 

I don’t want to believe that Gostkowski was being paid perviously. Pervious means “open to argument, or change.” Maybe you’re more acquainted with the term impervious: “He was impervious to any criticism.”

I can’t imagine the Patriots paying their star kicker perviously, can you? I mean, who even uses the term perviously these days?

Nah. Must’ve been a typo.

You can see my sorrow on my face(book)

“She expressed her anger at how the incident was handled on Facebook.”

Did she express it on Facebook? Or did she get riled about a Facebook debacle, and tell a friend face-to-face? (Facebook, or face-look? For what it’s worth: In real life I prefer, when possible, face-look.)

I’m trying to figure out how many different ways this could have been written:

  • On Facebook, she expressed her anger at how the incident was handled.
  • She expressed, on Facebook, her anger at how the incident was handled.
  • She expressed her anger at how the incident on Facebook was handled.
  • She expressed her anger at how the incident was, on Facebook, handled. (This sounds like something from the Revolutionary War era, except for the reference to Facebook.)

Perhaps the only thing left to say is, I’m sorry you had an incident, and I’m sorry about how it was handled, and I’m sorry about Facebook being involved, unless it wasn’t.

I’m just sorry, all right?

Shoot, I dunno

“All that screenshotted direct message proves is that Smith-Schuster did, in fact, look up to Brown and did, in fact, treat him with respect.”

I am all for coining new words. Our language is a living organism, and we contribute to its health and growth by tossing new terms into the gene pool and seeing if they make it.

So I’m not criticizing the use of screenshotted here.

Yes, it’s a brand-new term. At least I’ve never seen it anywhere else. Ask the Internet gods and they mostly just shrug.

But if we’re going to let screenshotted into our everyday ordinary day-to-day lives, should it be governed by the everyday ordinary day-to-day rules of other adjectives?

I’m grasping here….

Screenshot is a (relatively newly coined) noun. So when you “take” a screenshot, and you talk about it later, do you say you screenshot? And if you screenshot something, and you refer to an image that you screenshot, would you say the image you screenshot was screenshot? Or screenshotted? Or (heaven forbid) screenshooted?

Somebody help me, please.

And here’s an extra 10% for your off-ramp

“To run a football league, you need moving trucks, chartered planes, hotels, stadiums, contractors, catering — massive infrastructure that needs to be paid.”

I hate to be picky, but infrastructure needs to be paid for, not paid.

You don’t write a check to the infrastructure. You write a check for the infrastructure.

If you’re paying infrastructure, I’ve got a bridge here I’d like you to hire.

Can you hear me here?

“This isn’t much of a story, but hear you go.”


I’m turning up my hearing aids, but it’s not helping — because I can’t hear you here.

Hear is what you do with your ears. Here where you are (all the time).

So it probably goes without saying, but:

  • A hearing is a meeting where people talk, and other people listen — with their ears.
  • There is no such thing as a hereing (maybe you’re thinking of herring, but that’s a fish, with no visible ears),
  • nor a hering (unless you mean Ewald Hering, the German physiologist; but he studied eyes, not ears).

Also, kindly note: When someone on Facebook says something you agree with, do NOT reply “Here, here!” You’re not calling other readers to visit your location; this is not verbal GPS. The correct response is “Hear, hear!” You’re telling people to listen to what’s being said.

  • By the way, in the British Parliament, where this interjection was apparently born, it was originally “Hear him, hear him!” — and no (says, it didn’t change because they started electing female MPs: It was because men are lazy. They just got tired of all those syllables, apparently, and let the phrase degenerate into “Hear, hear!”
    • (It’s possible that, left to their own masculine sloth, they would have eventually dropped one of the hears also, grunting nothing more than a single Hear! when they agreed with something. But history intervened. For the past several decades, women have also been elected to Parliament. It seems likely that the guys are now much more eager to appear vigorous.)

Sweet crustacean dreams

“Have you ever eaten foie gras on a bed of lobster eggs?”

No. Nor seated at the dining room table, either.

(Have the butler leave the foie gras on the nightstand, and I’ll get to it after my nap.)

A simple preposition like on can create so many problems.

A preposition has the simple task of connecting to a noun. In this case, on connects to bed.

The problem here is, you can’t tell which word on is connecting from:

  • you?
  • eaten?
  • foie gras?

Can you fix it?

And can you help me up off this bed of lobster eggs?

You’re so pos’ses’sive

“Cancer is just a rogue cell doing it’s own thing.”

True, except for that invasive little apostrophe.

One of the most confusing aspects of the English language is its (see that? its, not it’s) no-apostrophe possessives.

If something belongs to Simon & Garfunkel, it’s Simon & Garfunkel’s, not Simon & Garfunkels — but if it belongs to them, it’s theirs, not their’s. Possessive, but no apostrophe.

That boy is hers, not yours — right? You don’t write “her’s, not your’s.”

No apostrophe for whose, either. Nor for ours. Certainly not for his. (That would be silly: “We welcome Hi’s Majesty the King”? Uh, no.)

And the only time you use the apostrophe in it’s is when you mean to say it is or it has. (“It’s been a hard day’s night….”)

Why this aberration in our dear English language? Here’s my theory: It happens with pronouns — and PRONOUNS ARE LAME.

Convince me otherwise.

One way or another, McCain gets slammed

I warned you to beware of pronouns, didn’t I!

“Graham fires back about working with Trump while he slams McCain”

Who’s he here?

  • Does the headline mean Graham has no problem working with Trump while Trump is slamming McCain?
  • Or does it mean Graham manages to fire back while also slamming McCain himself?

Of course, the ambiguity makes you want to click and find out, doesn’t it? Those crafty headline-writers at CNN….

Here, have an impact, my treat

“You can have an impact on young lives.”

Yes, but you can make a greater impact on your readers if you use a strong verb like make instead of a weak verb — especially one of the lamest in the English language.

  • Have and all its forms constitute an evil family of words whose primary function in life is to infect and weaken your writing (and often confuse your readers; more on this some other day).

Especially when you’re commenting on an “impact” — something inherently powerful — it’s outrageous to drain its energy by speaking of it passively. To say you can “have an impact” is to turn the force of the idea around, to make it essentially backwards. Now, instead of delivering a blow, someone is keeping it — owning it — “having” it. You don’t keep an impact. You release it, so it lands somewhere else.

Much stronger, and more sensible to boot, to make an impact.

I urge you to make the following commitment (note that I did not urge you to have the following commitment; it would be technically correct, perhaps, but what a lame way to put it):

From this day forward, whenever you write have or any of its forms, catch yourself — scream in terror — delete the offending word — and replace it with something stronger.

It won’t be hard, because have is almost always the weakest choice you could have made.

Have. Glecch.

You light’n up my life

Watch Joe Thuney solve a Rubik’s Cube with lightening speed.”

Lightning is different from lightening.

Lightning is that crackly stuff that shoots down from the sky.

Lightening is what you do to something that’s darker than you want it to be. Say, your attitude. “Doug is finally lightening up a bit.”

Nah, he isn’t.

Drew Brees demoted?

“He returned to the Saints to backup Drew Brees.”

Not to nitpick, but backup can be a noun (he was stuck being a backup) or an adjective (he was stuck being the backup quarterback) but never a verb.

He returned to back up Drew Brees.

If you see the phrase backup Drew Brees, the world has come to an end, because it means that Drew Brees has become a backup, and that’s just not reality.

I mean, I’m a Patriots fan, but come on. Brees as a backup?

(P.S. You can get your back up, but that’s totally different. You can also back up your hard drive — and you should — but the copy you make is a backup.)

(P.P.S. It’s never, ever hyphenated. There is no back-up in English.)

Of thee I cringe

That famous anonymous op-ed piece that ran last September? The one reportedly penned by someone inside the Trump Administration, and published by the New York Times?

The second-to-last sentence in the editorial reads like this:

“There is a quiet resistance within the administration of people choosing to put country first.”

Forgive me; I’m not exactly clear. “Of” is one of the most inexact, most slippery, most dangerous words in the English language.

This writer surely couldn’t really be describing Trumpworld as an “administration of people choosing to put country first.”

But the alternative would be somewhat odd, too — describing a “resistance of people.” Like the administration is resisting the people who choose to put country first. This doesn’t seem to line up with the thesis of the op-ed piece either.

Maybe the writer means to say: “There is a quiet resistance, within the administration, made up of people choosing to put country first.”

Or: “There is, within the administration, a quiet resistance led by [or conducted by] people choosing to put country first.”

But we can’t be sure — or at best, we may find ourselves having to stop and think about it — because of is such a lame word.

Whenever you write the word of, stop yourself, go back, squint at it, and see if you can’t find a more fully functional, more reliably meaningful word or phrase with which to replace it.

The guy who invented the word of was having a difficult day; he was only halfway through his shift when he got a text from his teenage daughter that she forgot to put her Honors English homework in her backpack, and she was going to flunk if he didn’t bring it to the school right away, and he was like, Okay, whatever, and he just left his vague, only-partially-thought-through invention on the workbench, and somebody came along and packaged it up and shipped it, and now we’re stuck with an inferior product.

Walter Cronkite, Jr.

“Lauren knew she wanted to be a newscaster in the 4th grade.”

She had other ideas for 5th grade, I guess.

Actually, I think Lauren knew in the 4th grade that she wanted to be a newscaster.

English wants each word or phrase to modify the most recent prior word or phrase — at least as much as is feasible.

So it’s dangerous to delay a phrase like “in the 4th grade” all the way to the end of the sentence.

Put “in the 4th grade” immediately after the word it refers to — in this case, “knew.”

All bets are off, however, if Lauren actually had an idea to broadcast a news show from Mrs. Helfin’s room at Franklin Elementary. Which might be awesome.

Preposition Opposition Mission

“You can share the story of God’s love to more than 400 villages.”

No, dang it, you can’t.

If you’re writing in English, you can never “share” anything “to” anybody.

But you have some other lovely options:

  • Share with
  • Provide for
  • Give to

(I know, I know: Prepositions are complicated. Sorry. I didn’t invent this language. I just monitor it.)

Good work if you can get it

“My friend saw a landscaper run over a hen. She was so traumatized, she had to take off work for a week.”

Which begs the question: Where was the hen employed?

(Beware pronouns! A pronoun substitutes for a noun. But for which noun? In English, the pronoun often “feels” like it should refer to the most recently aforementioned noun. In this case, “she” may seem to refer to “hen.” If so, that is a chicken with a darn good job.)

Is this table all right for you, or do you prefer a booth?

I have a daughter who works as a host (in the old days, we would have said hostess) at a restaurant.

She seats people.

But when she comes home at the end of her workday, she tells me she sat people. “I sat a party of four.”

Actually, no. She seated a party of four.

I sit today; I sat yesterday. I seat someone today; I seated someone yesterday.

There’s a difference between sitting and seating. Sitting is what the customer does. Seating is what the host does.

And annoying the daughter by pointing out the difference is what the dad does.

Locate the bomb, PLEASE

“Truman got word of the bombing on board a cruiser.”

The moment you use the word of, you’re at risk.

Everything after of, for the entire balance of the sentence,can be interpreted as one thing, or not.

Of is one of many flimsy words in the English language, words which don’t carry their weight, words which create more problems than they’re worth.

Others: have, it, and that.

More to come regarding these devils.

Who’s whosing whom?

“There were children right on the streets of my hometown who’s cries finally reached my ears.”

I sympathize. With the children, and with the writer who blew the who’s.

It seems right, doesn’t it, to use who’s when you’re talking about something that belongs to the who? If something belongs to Doug, it’s Doug’s. We learned in grade school about the “apostrophe S.”

But in fact, when it comes to who, it’s backwards from how it seems it ought to be. Because English is a complicated language.

The rules about who’s and whose are simple. Memorize them. Memorizing them is the only way to survive, because they’re counter-intuitive.

Rule #1. Whose is the possessive. Always.

If you’re talking about something that belongs to someone — those pitiful little cries belong to those pitiful little children — it’s always whose. Never who’s.

Rule #2. Who’s is a contraction, and only a contraction.

Who’s means either who is or who has:

  • Who’s that knockin’ at my door? (Who is that knocking at my door?)
  • Who’s been messin’ with my baby? (Who has been messing with my baby?)

(There is one other possible point of confusion, which I hesitate to mention, but I will: Dr. Seuss wrote about “the Whos down in Whoville.” This is totally different. Not possessive, not a contraction. Not spelled whose and not spelled who’s. But also not something you have to worry about — unless you’re talking about the Whos down in Whoville. Which, I assume, you usually aren’t.)

Juicy, juicier, juiciest

“He was then taken to a massage room, undressed and lay on a massage bed.”

Let’s set aside for a moment the juicy question of “Who is this?”, and instead look at the even juicier question of “Why does this sentence feel a little awkward?”

The answer is found in the fascinating issue of parallel structure.

For a technical explanation, you can look at this post on

In plain terms, however: Each of the elements in a series (this, that, and the other) needs to be set up the same way.

If the first item in the series is that he “was taken,” then each subsequent item in the series needs to be a “was” type of phrase too:

“He was then taken to a massage room, [was] undressed, and [was] lain on a massage bed.”

You don’t have to include “was” all three times, because it’s understood.

But I think what the writer really meant was: “He was then taken to a massage room, where he undressed and lay on a massage bed.”

It might have been less awkward to say: “He then went to a massage room, undressed, and lay on a massage bed.” (The active voice is often better than the passive.)

What happened next is anybody’s guess. (Active or passive. Ahem.)

Victims indicted: a travesty

The headline reads:

“Kentucky man accused of killing two black victims indicted on federal hate crime charges.”

Probably the victims were not indicted, either before or after they were murdered.

News headlines are tricky. It’s traditional for the editors to leave words out. Why? I don’t know. Maybe by omitting “a” and “the” and “has been” and the like, they save a little space, which enables them to make the headline a bit bigger? I’m speculating here.

Certainly it would be less dramatic for this headline to read: “A Kentucky man, accused of killing two black victims, has been indicted on federal hate crime charges.”

But at least this way, those two black people, already victims, wouldn’t also suffer the indignity of an indictment.

(Alternative headline suggestion: “Accused of killing two black victims, Kentucky man indicted on federal hate crime charges.”)

Mysterious diagonal black lines appear, disappear, confusing millions

Hannah Goldfield, food editor for The New Yorker, is a lovely writer. She hardly ever makes this kind of mistake — and the editors at the magazine hardly ever let this kind of mistake slip through:

“Made with a naturally leavened high-gluten dough, they’re super thin and super flat, though still chewy, pale in color, and, most important, cooked on a hot grill instead of in an oven and branded with diagonal black lines.”

Is this an April Fool’s trick? I’m not sure whether to expect those diagonal black lines or not.

This type of food is either cooked on a hot grill and branded with diagonal black lines, or it’s cooked on a hot grill period — with everything else coming under the “instead of” umbrella.

How to straighten out the dilemma of the diagonals?

A simple comma might help: “…cooked on a hot grill instead of in an oven, and branded with diagonal black lines” — meaning yes, the black lines will be there.

Or maybe a dash: “…cooked on a hot grill — instead of in an oven and branded with diagonal black lines” — in which case, you won’t find the black lines.

Perhaps you’ll review Hannah’s article, recognize the dish she’s describing, and advise via the Comment window. Thank you in advance.

Shortest show in history

“All the episodes are 12 minutes long”?

No, each of the episodes is 12 minutes long.

If all the episodes were 12 minutes long, the entire series would take 12 minutes total.

(If you had 12 episodes, each would only be 1 minute long. What a teeny show!)

Whenever you write the word all, take a second look and see if you wouldn’t be better served by replacing it with each. If the stuff that comes after all the whateverdescribes just one of the group you’re discussing, you probably want the singular form each, not the plural form all.

It’s not a rule, just a suggestion. However, I’ll feel I’ve contributed positively to your life if I’ve managed to make you paranoid about using the word all.

The Rain in Reign stays mainly…

From my beloved Tyler Sullivan on my beloved CBS Sports app:

“The reining Super Bowl champs could simply draft a QB….”

Well, no.

There’s rein, and then there’s reign.

You reign over a kingdom, you rein in a horse.

A king who cries, “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” is pleading to exchange his reign for some reins.

Then there’s rain. And the late actor Claude Raines. But let’s not go there. Rein and reign are hard enough to remember.

As my dear Tyler Sullivan proves.

Who? When? Huh?

“He is a Democrat looking to unseat Republican Barbara Comstock, a supporter of President Donald Trump, who was first elected in 2014.”

Problematic English and problematic history. Trump was elected in 2016. This writer must mean something different — along the lines of:

“He is a Democrat looking to unseat Republican Barbara Comstock, a supporter of President Donald Trump. Comstock was first elected in 2014.” (Two shorter sentences often prove to be clearer than one longer sentence.)

Or maybe:

“He is a Democrat looking to unseat Republican Barbara Comstock, elected in 2014, a supporter of President Donald Trump.” (A bit awkward, but passable.)

Or possibly:

“He is a Democrat looking to unseat Republican Barbara Comstock, a Trump supporter first elected in 2014.” (Not quite as respectful in referring to the President, but let’s not get into the issue of respectfulness and the current President.)

English is dangerous. Beware “who” in the middle of a sentence. You know “who” you mean, but does your reader? When you find you’ve planted a “who” in the middle of a sentence, look over its shoulder to see which “who” your “who” might seem to reference.

You can’t make me

You can give a gift, or send one.

You can make a contribution, or a donation.

But when a non-profit organization asks you to “make a gift,” they’re making a mistake.

My daughter made me a gift last week — a lovely mug, painted Van Gogh-style, with swirly colors.

That’s making a gift.

Which isn’t what the non-prof is asking you to do. They don’t want you to make something. They want something you’ve already made: your money.

Perhaps non-profs sank into the habit of talking about “making a gift” in an attempt to warm up their “ask” language — perhaps they wanted to get away from cold, corporate terms like donation and contribution. But when they switched their noun, they needed to switch the verb too.

Non-profit organizations are awesome. I’ve made my living, my entire adult life, writing fundraising appeals for non-profit organizations. Most of them do great work, for great causes.

So make them some donations. Make them some great big fat contributions. But don’t make them gifts. Unless they specifically need hand-crafted items. In which case, I’m really interested in why they’re asking you to “make a gift.” (What kind of project would this be? I’m thinking a “Knitting for Knowledge” college scholarship campaign. Or maybe “Homemade Hooch for the Homeless”? Nah, probably illegal. Also not helpful.)