What more can you say?

From the November 16, 2019 edition of The Writer’s Almanac:

  • There are 25 Native American languages that are spoken in Oklahoma, which is more than any other state in America.

English, meanwhile, can be challenging to deploy efficiently.

Anytime you start a sentence with There are, you’ve probably already wasted two words.

And anytime you find that are embedded in a sentence, you’ve probably wasted another word, maybe two.

Then look for which is.

There and that and which are technically English-language words, but they are largely comprised of shredded cardboard. They are filler. Avoid them.

  • 25 Native American languages are spoken in Oklahoma, more than any other state.

Nuff said. In English, anyway.

Thou shalt not

Maybe this is what comes from growing up in Sunday school and learning all those “Thou shalt nots” and “Fear nots”…

But when I see “Love not,” I automatically assume that whatever follows is what I’m not supposed to love.

In this case, “Not Your Average Joe’s” is the name of the restaurant (and a very fine restaurant it is, if you ask me).

But their sign-up handout headline is a problem for me.

I guess it’s not your average restaurant name.

Quotation marks around “Not Your Average Joe’s” might help, eh?

I’d like to deposit $3,000,000 to your account

Honestly, please: If you’re going to scam me, at least use proper English.

Dear doug, (No, sorry, in English we capitalize people’s names)

Your email address might be temporarily closed due to the non recent (you need a hyphen between non and recent) upgrade of your account and failure to upgrade your email will lead to permanent closure of your email. (Sorry, this isn’t how we refer to email programs, but whatever.)

Please kindly  UPGRADE HERE your records (I think you mean upgrade your records here, because the person you’re trying to scam speaks American English)

Once the information provided matches what is on our record, your (oops, you’ve got a phantom hard return there, after your and before email)

email will work normal. (normally — adverb)

Sincerely, Godaddy (oh yeah, you should probably configure correctly the name of the company you’re posing as: it’s GoDaddy, with a capital D in the middle there) Service Team. (Eh, here in America, we don’t put a period at the end of the sign-off)

I could help these people. I could become a language consultant to online scammers. I bet I could make a reasonable living at it. Sheesh.

I cannot tell a…

  • “…Trump’s anticipation of the release of stolen Democratic emails in 2016 by WikiLeaks.”

For a second there, I thought WikiLeaks wrote the stolen Democratic emails.

Which would be a pretty weird new storyline, wouldn’t it.

(Honestly, there are so many prepositional phrases in this sentence — (1) on Friday, (2) of lying (3) to Congress (4) in a case, (5) on President Donald Trump’s anticipation, (6) of the release, (7) of stolen Democratic emails, (8) in 2016, (9) by WikiLeaks … I almost suspect that some CNN writer is getting a per-prepositional-phrase commission. Would that be legal?)

  • “…Trump’s anticipation of the release of Democratic emails stolen in 2016 by WikiLeaks.”

There. All better now.

One of my only complaints

Is it just me?

Or is this just wrong?

Dictionary.com tells me that only means “without others or anything further; alone; solely; exclusively.”

So how can you be one of the only?

  • I think he took one of the few jobs he could find; he was one of the few honest employees.

Maybe I’m one of the only people who doesn’t have a government job?

Dakota double entendre … Touché!

From faithful ComplicatedEnglish.com follower Lauren O., a report about the South Dakota publicity campaign which either accidentally or tongue-in-cheekily suggests … uh … well, you decide for yourself:

(Lauren O.’s sister-in-law is from South Dakota, so Lauren’s family is having quite the laugh about this one.)

OK, so, if you follow the link and watch the governor’s video, you get it. Good cause. Lots of buzz. Mission accomplished.

You’re fired

  • I am trying to ensure as many current employees stay on.

Watch your as.

After as many, you need an as possible to go with it, somewhere there.

I know it can be a long journey, from the beginning of a sentence all the way to the end — easy to lose track of where you’ve been, what you’ve said, where you’re going, what-all you need to pack….

  • I am trying to ensure as many current employees as possible stay on.

This isn’t an editorial business you’re talking about, is it? Because it might be better to cut your losses.

Show me the money

  • His entire contract is essentially a $17 million deal that has the potential to raise up to $24 million. 

I’m confused. Is this a contract that somehow pays the guy $17 million but then could raise as much as $24 million from other sources? Is this a fundraising thing?

Sure, if you have the potential to raise $24 million, then yeah, I’d be inclined to pay you $17 million. If I had $17 million to spend. Which I don’t.

Of course, if you’ve simply misused the term “raise up,” and what you really meant was that the contract has the potential to increase the guy’s pay to $24 million, then heck no. All bets are off.

Detour ahead

You know how some articles are broken up with subheads? It’s not very often that writers write the subheads as they’re crafting the text. Typically, subheads are added later — and maybe not even by the writer. Sometimes it’s an editor who adds the subheads.

In any case, the subheads need to make sense in the flow of the text. Because that’s how the reader is going to consume them.

So don’t stick a subhead into the middle of a thought. For example:

…Less than $30,000 was reportedly used for MBTA tickets over that same time period.

Employers have to strongly incentivize
transit over driving to change habits

However, the report suggests the private sector could be doing more, too. Experts in transportation and psychology said that commuters need to be given strong incentives to change their habits….

When you get to “However,” it seems the subsequent paragraph is contradicting the subhead. Then, by the end of the sentence, you realize, no: The subhead has jerked you around. Your brain has to pull the steering wheel to get back onto the road.

If a sentence starts with However, But, On the contrary, or any change-of-direction indicator, you probably shouldn’t put a subhead before it. Relocate the subhead after the change-of-direction indicator:

…Less than $30,000 was reportedly used for MBTA tickets over that same time period.

However, the report suggests the private sector could be doing more, too.

Employers have to strongly incentivize
transit over driving to change habits

Experts in transportation and psychology said that commuters need to be given strong incentives to change their habits….

Do not jerk your readers around. Do not force their brains to grab the wheel. In such a moment, a driver is apt to curse, and worse.

Time’s up, Joe

Save your breath. Keep extra words tucked away for use later. After means when it’s over, so you don’t need is over. Saying after it’s over is sort of like saying when it’s over is over.

In Biden’s case, who knows? Perhaps when it’s over actually IS over. We’ll see.

Not eggsactly

From a missionary’s biography:

  • When the family returned home, Tina decided she preferred life in the West. Laying in bed one night as a teenager, she vowed never to return to a life overseas.

One hopes she was actually lying in bed, and not doing what chickens do when they’re laying.

Or — ahem — anything else that might be inappropriate for a teenager.

Gimme a hand here, will ya?

  • “Trump had initially been resistant to the suggestion that he hire additional attorneys, believing he was well positioned to combat Democrats as they advanced their impeachment probe without outside help.”

Some would say the Democrats actually had plenty of outside help. Like from Trump himself, for example.

But we don’t get into politics here.

Click here for spellcheck. Or don’t

  • “…or it’s just not completly setup yet.”

I don’t think I’ll be going with this website company, but I haven’t ruled it out completely — even though they don’t seem to know how to spell completely.

Nor do they seem to understand that setup is a noun.

But otherwise, I’m sure they’re a fine company.

Just, you know … if you use them to build your website … check their spelling before you go live.


For a website where (I think) everything is spelled right, take a look at NewThing.net, my humanitarian charity. Click on BLOG and then follow our adventures in the former USSR!

And Bingo is whose name-O?

Sorry to deepen your crisis of self-doubt, buddy, but it’s eight-year-old, not eight year old. You need the hyphens if you use it as a noun.

Don’t give up on yourself, my friend. There is hope for you. Hyphens can be learned.

Pronouns, maybe not. But hyphens, probably.

Practice makes, uh…

  • “The men who wrote and ratified the Constitution had left women, sex, marriage out of it. ‘Remember the ladies,’ Abigail Adams had warned her husband in 1776…. That the framers of the Constitution had not resolved the question of slavery had led to a civil war…. Women had often written themselves into the Constitution by way of analogy.”

I revere history writer Jill Lepore, but she loves the past perfect tense and nobody has the nerve to stop her.

The past perfect routinely gums up her otherwise crisp writing.

I humbly suggest that in this paragraph, you can change most or all of the past perfect to simple past tense and the reader will glide through the text more easily:

  • “The men who wrote and ratified the Constitution left women, sex, marriage out of it. ‘Remember the ladies,’ Abigail Adams warned her husband in 1776…. That the framers of the Constitution didn’t resolve the question of slavery led to a civil war…. Women often wrote themselves into the Constitution by way of analogy.”

Simple, straightforward, not perfect.

Why do they call it perfect, anyway? It’s the one and only thing that makes Jill im.

In a paragraph far, far away…

  • “When I graduated from college, like most folks, I was trying to figure out what the hell to do with my life.”

I wasn’t aware that the number of college graduates had surged so dramatically. Just a few years ago, the figure was under 7%.

Carrie Fisher’s daughter, who wrote this piece about her mother for Time, must have access to more recent information.

Or maybe it’s just that a rogue comma escaped the Death Star and tried to hide out there in her prose, between like most folks and I was trying.

Send in Skywalker and some starfighters to get that rogue comma out of there, and billions of non-graduates will breathe a sigh of relief to know that they’re still a huge majority in the universe.

Makes me sic

A car plows into the front of a house. John Muldoon, newspaperman extraordinaire, is on the scene. He files his report, complete with verbatim testimony:

Since cohesive means unified, we can assume the guy wasn’t broken into pieces by the crash.

Thank goodness there was a witness on the scene to report the details accurately. If only he could have spoken proper English. You know what I mean: coherent English.

OK, yes, sorry, I know: That was insensitive of me. A man has been taken to the hospital. I should show some respect.

[bowing my head]

(To his credit, John Muldoon inserted a [sic] after cohesive in his report. When you’re sic, you go to the hospital, right?)

Walmart Miracle!

  • “…noting that Walmart still brings in more revenue than it does.”

Well, Walmart does bring in a lot of revenue, but I’m not quite sure how it can possibly bring in “more revenue than it does.”

I may bring in more revenue than I deserve, but that’s different. (Because I’m not Walmart.)

Dear friend, kindly take notice. It would have been so easy for the writer to specify:

“…noting that Walmart still brings in more revenue than Amazon does.”

But in our buy-it-online culture today, you can get a cheap pronoun delivered to your keyboard in a third as many strokes.

Which is how our language dies.

[Hanging head, mourning.]

And to be safe, let’s schedule you for a semi-colonoscopy

From the delightful Lauren O. in northeastern Ohio, who seems to while away the hours, as she stands in traffic on her daily work commute, by reading everything on the vehicles ahead of her:

  • Brick Block & Chimney Repair’s


Am I really gonna trust you with my chimney if you can’t fix your own punctuation?

Pull that punctuation into port

As recently as November 5th, we addressed this issue. Yet here is some poster designer, whose work is on display in the Community House in Hamilton, Mass., who not only defies me, but does so in 428-point Bodoni bold.

You are either renowned architect Guy Lowell OR you are Guy Lowell, renowned architect.

You are either President Donald Trump OR you are Donald Trump, ex-president.

(You only get to use those commas if you’re towing the title behind you, like a stranded boat — I guess because in that case you need the commas to serve as hooks.)

R.I.P., death and taxes

A New Yorker article about Amazon includes this statement:

So Amazon does or doesn’t avoid taxes?

So many negative concepts in this one sentence — unlike, doesn’t, avoiding — even the New Yorker‘s traditional scattering of commas like birdseed doesn’t seem to sort out the meaning for us.

Just guessing here: Yeah, Amazon avoids taxes.

But maybe not by transfering profits to foreign countries.

Just a bunch of other ways.

Just guessing here.

This lawsuit free of charge

If called to testify in court, please do not confess that you saw this image here. Thank you.

I think it may be illegal for me to show you the delightful Seth Fleishman cartoon in the 10/21 issue of The New Yorker, so I’ll just describe it to you.

A guy is sitting at a table in a restaurant. The bread in the basket is speaking to him:

“You are so smart.”
“You look amazing.”
“You inspire me.”

And the caption under the cartoon says…


I love it. The cartoonist used complimentary correctly!

(Did you mean free? Or flattering? Both complimentary.
Forming part of a related pair? That’s complementary.)

(How would the cartoon have to be drawn differently if the caption read COMPLEMENTARY BREAD? Hmm….)

Push your luck with a new bank

I heard about a group called the Chainsmokers, and their supposedly cool song entitled “Push My Luck,” and I looked them up on YouTube, and in the middle of the “read the lyrics” video, I got this ad from Avidia Bank, which proclaims:

  • We have an unlimted amount of checking and savings accounts.

Would you trust a bank that can’t spell?

If they miss the letter i in unlimited, might they miss the numeral 1 in your $1,794.68 deposit?

And even if you would trust a bank that can’t spell unlimited, would you trust a bank that uses amount where it’s supposed to be number?

Maybe this is just somebody posing as “Avidia Bank” and playing a little joke on the Complicated English guy.

Oh, no, wait. I looked them up. They seem to be real. Sheesh.

Anyway, I’m sticking with Institution for Savings. They’re awesome.


For issues of real-life significance, check out Doug’s humanitarian work in the former USSR. Thanks!

No more football. Please.

  • The All-Pro has yet to officially make a decision about his NFL future, which would only put greater emphasis on the Patriots to go out and get a reliable pass catching option if they lose him as well. 


Not the same thing.

  • You can put emphasis on a need … like the need to get a new wide receiver.
  • You can put pressure on the team … to get a new wide receiver.

And, come to think of it, you can put guilt on a sportswriter … for not knowing the difference.

(But then, to tell you the truth, this early 2019 pre-season item is so stale, the Patriots have already blown this moment. So, what can I say? Go, 49ers?)

  • (OK, honestly, I swear every day I won’t use any more football examples. But sportswriters just offer up so much delicious material! SORRY!)

When it does that thing, it pours

Can we settle this once and for all, please?

  • Rein is what you put on a horse, so you’re reining someone in.
  • Reign is what a king does, so he’s the reigning monarch.
  • Rain is that wet stuff that falls from the sky, so it’s raining cats and dogs.
  • And yes, Claude Rains was awesome in Casablanca.

And only God can make a tree

  • “Similarities were made by the press between the career and personalities of Callas and Dunaway as both were seen as perfectionists whose run-ins with directors had them castigated as prima donnas.”

Yes, here in America, we believe in the power of the press.

But even the press can’t create similarities between great stars.

The similarities were noted by the press, perhaps, or suggested by the press, maybe even fabricated by the press, but not made by the press.

(Please understand: The press can indeed make certain things. Like a mess, for example. Or a mistake. Like here.)

Fun With I and E

It’s a headline on the WPBeginner.com site:

  • Recieve Email Notifications for Comments

In the old days, we learned this as kids: “I before E, except after C…”

I guess they’re not teaching this anymore?

WPBeginner, by the way, stands for WordPress Beginner. So maybe they’re only hiring Spelling Beginners?

See Dick spell.
Spell, Dick, spell.
Spell well, Dick.
Spell, spell, spell.
Good, Dick.

The governor creeps me out a little

This is from Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s statement to CNN:

He makes a frequently observed error which does not confuse the meaning but simply leaves the reader with that creepy what’s wrong here? feeling.

In English, our brains are trained to ask certain questions as we’re reading along:

  • Actions have (what?)
  • and actions continue to (what?)

We want to see that actions have included and that actions continue to include.

But Gov. Inslee has given us only one verb (include) of the two we need (have included and continue to include).

What the honorable governor intended to say was:

  • Actions have included and continue to include habitat protection, etc.

This, clearly, is why his otherwise honorable presidential campaign went nowhere. It was the verbs that did him in.

May he have and continue to succeed. No, wait, that’s wrong….

Everyone is sick

The next time you receive an invitation to a party with a thoughtful request like this…

  • If anyone has any allergies or dietary restrictions, let us know here! We’ll be sure to have options for all. 

I suggest you respond like this:

  • Thank you so much for asking. Yes, anyone does. According to the World Health Organization, approximately 235 million have allergies. Here in the United States, there are only 114 people left who don’t claim some sort of dietary restriction. I’m especially grateful for your offer of “options for all”: I require goat brain reduction on celery sticks. Please trim the leaves because they give me a faux-gluten headache thanks to my recently diagnosed Osborne’s Prazniosciosis syndrome. (Fortunately they caught it in time.) Thank you again! Looking forward to the party!

Phil did not pay me for this, I promise

  • Ipswich resident, Phil Thompson, portrays Judge William Stoughton….

This local newspaper has commas to burn.

If the designation comes before the name, there’s no need for commas:

  • Ipswich resident Phil Thompson portrays…

If the designation comes after the name, use the commas:

  • Phil Thompson, Ipswich resident, portrays…

Of course, once you set off a descriptor, it’s tempting to make the most of it:

  • Phil Thompson, the brilliant stage actor and longtime Ipswich resident enormously beloved by grateful North Shore audiences, portrays…

Commas have their advantages, see? Just don’t waste them.

Congratulations, boys!

I like The Skimm — in fact, I subscribe — but I’m disappointed when they don’t observe the basics of English language usage:

  • What do schools have to say? They’re worried about less resources and opportunities for their athletes, and how this could negatively affect female athletes.

We’ve been over this before, so it’s clear that The Skimm isn’t following this blog and taking notes scrupulously.

  • Less is for things you can’t count.
  • Fewer is for things you can count.
  • 12 resources, 14 opportunities — fewer.
  • 1,124 resources, 7,927,433 opportunities — male athletes.

Right! Many didn’t take part in the drills! It woulda killed ’em!

  • Despite not taking part in individual drills at the combine, many saw Murray’s draft stock improve….

I have to chuckle.

How many NFL scouts took part in drills at the combine?

Uh, none.

Some took part in drills at the bar. That’s about as close as they came.

If you start a sentence and find yourself coming to a comma, make sure that what comes after the comma is properly connected to what came before the comma.

Okay, play ball.

May I suggest a Monterotondo Malvasia Sasso Grosso 1947?

This makes my friend (Lauren O., in northeastern Ohio) crazy, and me too.

  • FRUIT: $1.00 or complementary w/lunch sandwich

Let’s just sort this out here and now, once and for all:

  • complimentary — free, gratis (or even admiring! — you receive a complimentary note from a fan)
  • complementary — balancing, making whole, interdependent. (If you’re enjoying an Italian meal, red wine is complementary. In fact, it’s complementary even if you’re not enjoying the meal. Because red wine is more or less… eh, never mind.)

(Yes, you may now send an admiring note from a fan.)

Just what do you mean?

A local online headline (thank you, Stoney):

”Ipswich schools just one of 25 national Green Ribbon winners“

Stoney’s insightful observation:

  • “I would think that being one of just 25 would be more prestigious.”

Word order is important.

  • ”Ipswich schools one of just 25 national Green Ribbon winners“


Where you put your just changes its meaning.

  • “I just kissed her.” As opposed to what? Or do you mean just now?
  • “I kissed just her.” As opposed to whom? Who else is accusing you?

(The word just is so deadly in English, it deserves a blog of its own.)


Just for Halloween — an unsettling item from Ohio-based Friend-of-Complicated-English Amy B.:

Amy B.’s rewrite:

  • “Body of missing Medina fisherman found in Lake Erie”

Amy B.’s advice: “Make it sound less strange (or eerie).”

Good advice for writers, even when you’re not writing about a dead body.

P.S.: Erie, eerie. I get it.

Enough already

Write less. Live longer.

Here’s a two-word phrase you never need to write again — which could extend your life by several months, depending on how often you use this dreadful filler:

  • Interestingly enough…

This phrase sends a signal that what follows only barely made the cut before being considered too boring for words.

Unplug Interestingly enough and plug in something else. Perhaps:

  • Incredibly,
  • Remarkably,
  • Curiously,

or, in a pinch:

  • Interestingly,

But never, ever add the energy-draining qualifier enough.

Adding enough after an adverb is like subtracting — but just so you get back almost all the way to zero.

Revised agreement-pact-partnership thingy abandoned by editor

From Time magazine’s 10/7/19 story on Canada’s Mr. Trudeau:

  • He’s proud that his government has reached important trade deals, including the revised NAFTA agreement known as USMCA, a pact with the European Union, and the updated Trans-Pacific Partnership abandoned by Trump as soon as he took office.

Is this a list of three things (USMCA, pact, and Partnership)?

Or is USMCA a pact with the European Union?

No way to be sure, unless you happen to know that NAFTA has nothing to do with the E.U.

Sure, you know that. But the editor shouldn’t have assumed you know that. Because what if you didn’t?

(In honor of Teddy Roosevelt‘s birthday today, we’ll ignore the “Trans-Pacific Partnership abandoned by Trump” detail.)

Without Reasonable Justification or Bust

From coverage of the ongoing mess in jolly old England:

  • The suspension was unlawful, the 11 justices said, because it frustrated “the ability of Parliament to carry out its constitutional functions without reasonable justification.”

See, this is the problem.

If you can’t carry out your functions without justification, why bother carrying them out at all?

Who did it? Fess up

This from Susan B. Glasser’s New Yorker  story on the Secretary of State:


  • This gets at a central challenge of Pompeo’s tenure: turning Trump’s tweets and “instincts” into a coherent foreign policy, as his policy-planning chief often put it.

Those darn possessive pronouns.

I don’t know whose “his” is.

Whose policy-planning chief are we talking about? Pompeo’s? Trump’s? I’m lost.

I’ve tried scanning back to the beginning of the paragraph, and then reading on to the end of the paragraph, but I still can’t figure it out.

This gets at a central challenge of our complicated English language: turning possessive pronouns into coherent communication.

When it comes to pronouns, go isolationist: Avoid, avoid, avoid.



Lucky strike

Will Brinson of CBSSports.com writes:


  • 100 sacks over three seasons beget a 2015 shoulder injury….

Growing up in Sunday school the way I did, you learned your “begats”:

  • “And Enoch lived sixty and five years, and begat Methuselah…” (Genesis 5:21).

Here’s how this old-fashioned verb works:

  • You beget  today. (You bring something into existence.)
  • You begat or begot  yesterday.
  • (And you’ve begotten  in the past participle.)

So those sacks begot  an injury for Luck, and report on it begat  a post from me, all of which has begotten  this Lucky little teaching moment. Sort of like Sunday school, but with shoulder pads.


This just in: Punctuation Spill in Ipswich


  • “High Street main break show’s system’s age”

Let’s be clear: The writer of a newspaper article does not write the headline. Headlines are dropped in by an editor, further up the food chain.

So clearly, some editor happened to have a Dixie cup full of apostrophes, probably as a mid-morning snack, and they accidentally spilled all over page A4, and they tried to clean them all up, but they missed one.


“Of cabbages and kings”

Image-1 16.jpg

  • A walrus attacked and sunk a Russian Navy landing boat…

The walrus sank the boat. (Recruit that pinniped, Marines!) Sunk is the participle.

  • I sink, I sank, I have sunk.
  • I drink, I drank, I have drunk.
  • I shrink, I shrank, I have shrunk.

These are the only words I can think of that work this way. It’s not:

  • It’s not: I think, I thank, I have thunk.
  • It’s not: I clink, I clank, I have clunk.
  • And it’s certainly not: I fink on you, I fank on you, I have funk on you.

Also avoid:

  • I kink the hose, I kank the hose, I have kunk the hose.
  • I link the clues, I lank the clues, I have lunk the clues.

And if you want to delight that attractive person at the bar, absolutely stay clear of I wink at you, I wank at you, I have wunk at you. They will never, ever go home with you. Trust me on this, you’re sunk.


I think you’re going to love our new 67

R.J. Wright reports for CBSSports.com:

Image-1 11.jpg

  • “For those unaware, the Westgate puts out a 12-day number every Tuesday….”

For those of us who are  aware, the Westgate puts out a totally different number. Often, something in a lovely prime. Occasionally an attractive fraction.



Where does it hurt?


  • “…US spends twice as much on health care than any other country”

OK, so yeah, maybe Bernie was wrong. But CNN’s headline writer made a boo-boo too. Another case of misusing “than.”

It’s twice as much as … or twice more than. (Actually, twice more than might not mean the same thing mathematically. I’ll leave that up to the GAO to figure out.)

Think of as  and than  as a Republican and a Democrat. They don’t work together. At least not in the same comparative statement.

If things change in Congress and this analogy becomes obsolete, I’ll revise this post.

And eat my hat.

(And need medical attention. Really, really expensive medical attention.)

Dress codes save lives

Image-1 10.jpg

“…players were prohibited to wear hard objects during games.”

  • Required to — or prohibited from.
  • Never required from — nor prohibited to.

Hey, don’t wear even a cheap Timex when you’re playing football. And no chain mail, please. Avoid steel-toed shoes. Buttons can hurt somebody. Get that Bluetooth out of your ear. And breastplates are out.

Safety first.

Abe, honestly

Image-1 14.jpg

  • “He’s striking a similar pose to Abraham Lincoln….”

The phrase is similar to. Whenever possible, keep a phrase together:

  • “He’s striking a pose similar to Abraham Lincoln….”

This smooths out the sentence.

To be even more precise and, I think, elegant:

  • “He’s striking a pose similar to Abraham Lincoln’s….”

Next we can debate whether he was really striking  the pose (consciously going for the photo op) or merely adopting  the pose, or perhaps just caught in a pose.

And then we talk about the politics of the moment. And then we can have a huge fight.

Or, we can just remember to preserve the phrase similar to, and leave it at that. Yeah, probably a better idea.

Take that silly thing off right now

Jeff Kerr of CBSSports.com writes, of an NFL player’s helmet visor:

Image-1 copy 2.jpg

“Beckham’s appeared to not fall in compliance with the league rules. Clearly Beckham feels different about the rule.”

I’m not sure about “falling in compliance with” a rule. I thought you could “be in compliance with” a rule, or “comply with” a rule, or “fall within” the rules, but is this phrasing English? All the individual words are English, yes. But the combination is something I’ve never seen.

And then there’s Beckham feeling “different” about the rule. Some days I wake up feeling different, but that’s generally because of what I ate the night before. I think Jeff means Beckham feels “differently” about the rule — because feels  is a verb, and he wants to modify it, which means he needs an adverb, and the adverb would be differently.

All of this is moot, of course, if, unbeknownst to me, the NFL has started to allow writers to wear lightly tinted adverbs, without the requisite ly  at the end.

In which case, ignore everything I just said.


The Thats down in Thatville

  • “The former resident … contacted a current resident that lives adjacent from the submerged object.”

Nothing is adjacent from anything. You can be adjacent to it. No other adjacencies allowed.

Also: I vote for every human to be a “who.”

A human is not “that.”

“That” is for objects, and situations, and a grade-schooler’s cussing. (“That is unacceptable, young lady!”)

Stand up for your right to be a Who.

Stats says Dolphins loses

From Hannah Fry’s fascinating story in the 9/19/19 issue of The New Yorker:


  • “Statistics, for all its limitations, has a profound role to play in the social realm.”

Hannah and/or her copy editors at the magazine have decided to treat statistics as a singular noun.

I don’t know. It would be different, I think, if there were no such thing as a single statistic. But you can indeed deal with a single statistic. So it seems to me we should say statistics have a role.

The Brits do sort of the opposite thing when they talk football.

  • Arsenal have won the league!

In the U.S., we don’t say Miami have won the game! (Well, there’s another reason we never say this, but let’s not descend into the quagmire of partisanship.)

I guess if you’re talking about statistics as a realm, a body of work, a concept, then it makes sense to treat it as a singular.

But I confesses, such a concept bother me.


One are the loneliest number

  • One in four kids are malnourished.

This is a sad fact in our world today.

It’s infinitely less important, but also somewhat interesting, that more than 160 websites (according to Google) use these exact words to describe the tragedy.

“One in four” is a big number: hundreds of millions of kids.

But in our complicated language, “one” is the noun in this sentence, and it’s singular.

So it should be: One in four kids is malnourished.

Actually, this error is so common, I believe the rules will change in our lifetime, and a number expressed in this way — a plural expressed as a singular — will come to be officially accepted.

At which point, one in four English-language bloggers are out of work.

Roughing the writer, 15 yards

Image-1 9.jpg

  • “…due to the amount of penalties being thrown…”

Flag on the play!

We’ve run afoul of that old “countable items” vs. “glop” rule.

  • We use amount  in conjunction with glop — or, to be precise, singular mass nouns. Like wrongdoing. You turn off the game due to the amount of wrongdoing by the officials.
  • We use number to talk about countable items — like penalties, and errors, and stupid misguided over-zealous holding calls.

Either way, we turn off the game.



What’s so hard?

Facebook offers me this advice:

  • Complete your About section so people can find your page easier.

I offer Facebook this advice:

We’re communicating in English here. Verbs are modified by adverbs. People can find your page more easily.

If you really mean they might find my page easier, you have to tell me the rest of the story: Easier than what?

(I can only imagine. If I complete my About section, people will find my page easier than calculus. Okay, that’s probably a good goal.)

Friends don’t let friends drive plural

  • “…and there’s even Central Perk replica cafes in Beijing and Shanghai.”

I know it’s exciting to think about sipping coffee with Jenifer Aniston, but let’s keep our heads and use proper English.

  • There are even Central Perk replica cafes in Beijing and Shanghai.

“There’s cafes” — a contraction of “There is cafes” — is the kind of phrasing that Jenifer would dump you for, I feel certain.

As if you ever had a chance with her. Sheesh.

(Be sure to see comments and replies to yesterday’s post to catch up on the big error I made.)

How much to Tijuana?

Immigration enforcers doing their thing, politicians cheering them on, reported by CNN.com:

  • Authorities haled the sweep at food processing plants in six cities as a record-setting operation.

These authorities probably actually hailed the sweep. Cheered for it, approved it enthusiastically.

There are four kinds of hale in our English-speaking world:

  • You can hale a cab — which is to yell at the driver.
  • You can be hale and hearty — healthy and robust.
  • You can live in a Hawaiian hale, a simple thatched-roof dwelling — although you pronounce it HAH-lee.
  • Or you can be Nathan Hale (1755–76) — and be hanged by the redcoats for spying.

Only one of these four is a verb. So if you hale the sweep at food processing plants, it’s like asking the sweep for a ride to Times Square. Not gonna happen. Unless, possibly, you’re Caucasian and documented.

You want gruel with that?

  • “…a game that was played in front of less than 9,000 fans.”

In English, we distinguish between countable things and, uh, glop.

Well, glop isn’t the official term. Technically, it’s singular mass nouns.

For example:

  • The game is attended by fewer than 9,000 fans.
  • But you have less than 9,000 gallons of beer at the game.

Depending on your tastes, yeah, glop.

Opposites a-tracked

Jared Dubin writes, at CBSSports.com:

  • I know that I’m on the opposite end of it than my colleague….

You don’t know any such thing, Jared. You must be hallucinating. I’m not picking on you because you’re a lifelong Dallas Cowboys fan. I’m just picking on you because nobody can be opposite than anybody or anything.

  • You can be something other than, or rather than.
  • Something can be easier said than done — like keeping all those tricky conjunctions straight.
  • Something can be more good than bad — like Jared Dubin’s sportswriting.

Jared, here’s your consolation prize: You can be on the opposite end from your colleague.

By the way, Jared, I totally agree with you about paying Ezekiel Elliott. Big mistake. The very opposite than what they oughta do. (Joke — get it?)

Kittens become cats

From an NFL statement:

  • “Both NFL Media and the AP do not ordinarily name the alleged victims….”

Let’s not talk about football. Let’s talk about kittens.

Say there are two kittens. How many will you take home?

With two kittens, you have three choices:

Both. Either. Or neither.

  • If you answer “Both” OR you answer “Either,” you’re answering in the positive. In other words, you’ll go home with at least one kitten.
  • If you answer “Neither,” you’re answering in the negative. You’ll go home without any kittens. Which is to say, you’ll be happy in the morning.

In English, we use positive descriptors with positive verbs, and negatives with negatives.

So you can say Both ordinarily name victims or Neither ordinarily names victims. But you can’t say Both do not ordinarily name victims.

What’s really sad about this is that the NFL needs to say ordinarily when talking about naming victims.

Quoth the Raven, “Uniquermore!”

  • “The Ravens were maybe the most unique team in football a season ago once they made the switch from Joe Flacco to Lamar Jackson under center.”

So began Sean Wagner-McGough’s CBS Sports story on quarterback Robert Griffin III.

His claim can’t be true — because nothing can be “the most unique.”

Unique is exclusive. One of a kind. If it’s unique, it’s the only. You can’t be the most unique, you can’t be more unique, you can’t be uniquer, nor can you be the uniquest.

If you’re comparing, try special, uncommon, or rare.

As for the even more important question — about how good those Ravens might be: We’ll see. Baltimore is 2-1 on the season, hosting the 1-2 Browns today.

Go Cleveland!

Tom Brady needs your financial support

Here’s a headline for the Grand Opening of the new Pro Shop at North Station, sent by the clever photographic artist Stoney:

  • Executives & players will join fans and get 20% off your purchase

Stoney astutely inquires:

Why are they getting 20% off of my purchase?

I guess because executives and players are always exploiting us poor fans, eh?

Now serving pollo asado in a parallel universe

This from a Mexican restaurant’s website:

  • There’s currently a location in Ipswich MA and Beverly MA…

Unless you’re doing that multi-dimensional thing, it’s not possible to have one location in two locations simultaneously.

Maybe you mean:
There are currently two locations: in Ipswich MA and Beverly MA.
There’s currently a location in Ipswich MA, and another in Beverly MA.

Or, if you really are doing that multi-dimensional thing, awesome!

Welcome to Speedwriting 101

Far be it from me to criticize Garrison Keillor, but a recent Writer’s Almanac entry featured this statement about Stephen King:

  • His latest novel out this month is The Institute….

King is known as a prodigious writer, forcing himself to write at least 2,000 words of fiction a day, whether he feels like it or not. And good for him: he’s one of the top-earning writers in the world.

But nobody, not even Stephen King, produces more than one novel in a single month.

Keillor is suffering here from a comma shortage.

  • His latest novel, out this month, is The Institute….

As I do not have Stephen King’s discipline, I’m not writing 2,000 words of fiction a day. So you’ll have to keep waiting for my next novel. (While you’re waiting, you may read the previous one, here.)

I have, however, collected a plethora of commas, which I’ll be happy to share with anyone who needs them.


(It’s my birthday. Don’t buy me anything. Instead, as a gift to me, go to NewThing.net and check out my humanitarian work. Thank you!)

Back to the future, past perfect, in a pronounmobile

I keep puzzling over this “Talk of the Town” piece from The New Yorker.

  • It starts out describing “the first time Grant met Barbra Streisand.”
  • Then it says “He recently recalled the encounter, which took place at a house party … in 1991.” So we’ve gone back in time.
  • “She was wearing a black lace dress and a floppy hat.” OK, so we’re at the party in ’91.
  • “He had arrived in a ‘cheap rental car.'” So now the past perfect tense is telling us about something that happened even earlier.
  • “In order to reach Streisand…” uh … brings us back to the party?
  • Soon we’re jerked back to the present: “Grant — who is now 61 … doesn’t drink.”
  • Then, I’m sorry to say, a new paragraph begins: “It was a frigid morning….”

All the zigzagging through time and space has exhausted me, and arriving at the damnable pronoun It just makes me want to sit down and cry. Where and when are we now? At the party in 1991? Or at the moment Grant is describing the encounter for us?

By the time we learn we’re in the back seat of an S.U.V. zooming through Flatbush, it seems we’re back in the present. Even Marty McFly would be nauseous.

I vote for writers to tell stories in chronological order whenever possible. If you have to flash back to keep things interesting, flash back carefully.

Or distribute Dramamine.

As a freak, I avoid you

I call it a “misconnect.”

I don’t think that’s the technical term for it.

But the concept is: You set the reader up to think you’re talking about one thing, and then you talk about something entirely different.

  • As a valued friend of the Mission, I am writing to ask for your prayers and financial support.

“As” tells you that you’re going to get an equivalent, after the comma.

So when you get to “I,” you think back to “As.”

That word, after all — “As” — was the warning signal, like a light that flashes as you approach the train tracks, telling you that the identity of the person who’s being described is the person who’s about to be more fully described.

But in this case, the writer (“I am writing to ask”) isn’t the “valued friend” previewed at the beginning of the sentence.


  • As you are a valued friend of the Mission, I am writing to ask….
  • As a valued friend of the Mission, you are someone I feel comfortable asking….

As you are a valued friend of EnglishIsAComplicatedLanguage.com, I feel comfortable whining to you this way.

(P.S. Totally unrelated: Check out my charity in the former USSR; we’re doing good work and we need your help.)

It’s an effect, but…

Sometimes, you read something, and you can only shake your head. Or your booty.

The headline says:

Tom Brady refuses to tolerate sweaty butts, has established tradition of shoving towels down his center’s pants

  • By Pete Blackburn
  • Sep 12, 2019 at 3:26 pm ET • 2 min read

The article begins:

  • It’s not an issue that’s exclusive to Brady of course, as other QBs have also discussed how it can effect the way they play. Just last month, Kirk Cousins talked at length about the very damp caboose of his new rookie center.

So I’m just here to remind us all … I mean those of us who speak and write American English, or who pretend to … that effect is usually a noun, and affect is usually a verb, and if you need to use either word, it’s wise to check out Grammarly.com first.

Because no, sweaty butts don’t effect the way quarterbacks play.

Whether they actually affect the way a quarterback plays is another question entirely.

(My apologies to Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees, Sam Darnold, Cam Newton, Eli Manning, and any other QBs who can’t play this week. I’m not suggesting, in any way, that sweaty butts had anything to do with the fact that you’re sidelined this week. Except, possibly, Eli, because I’m a Pats fan.)

Chill, Dad! Bounce flashing is so dope now

I thought my friend Stoney, the brilliant photographic artist, might be making it up.

But no.

The headline of the online Shutter magazine article actually reads:

  • How to Effectively Bounce Flash at an Event with Vanessa Joy

Stoney shrewdly asks:

  • Would these techniques work if Vanessa weren’t there?

I can’t help but be reminded of Paul Simon’s Graceland lyric:

  • There’s a girl in New York City, who calls herself the Human Trampoline….

(When Oprah asked Simon if there really is such a girl, he said no. But how could he really know? He clearly hadn’t interviewed all the girls in New York City.)

And don’t get me started on the implications of “bounce flashing.”

Allies: your attention, please

  • “…officials disagreed … but sought to manage him rather than confront him, as Mattis did, while enlisting other allies, such as the Israelis and members of Congress, to lobby Trump for a reversal.”

Wait. Who enlisted other allies? Officials? Him? Mattis?

The commas before and after “as Mattis did” … what do they tell us?

They tell us the writer was on a roll, and just kept adding phrases, assuming we were rolling too. But a reader isn’t on the writer’s roll. The reader is absorbing all this detail cold. We need each phrase to inform the previous phrase.

“As.” “While.” I officially disagree with the order to use these slippery words.

Russia buys Treasury Dept.

Is IT just me, or is IT a problem-pronoun?

  • “Rusal was tailor-made to join forces on the project. But it was under sanctions” — Rusal was under sanctions? Or the project was under sanctions? —
  • “imposed by the U.S. Treasury Department. Its billionaire owner, Oleg Deripaska, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s” — whose billionaire owner? Rusal? The project? The Treasury Department?
  • “was being investigated by special counsel Robert Mueller for his potential involvement…” — whose potential involvement? Oleg’s? Putin’s? Mueller’s? Nah, Mueller wasn’t investigating himself. But that’s just about all we can be sure of, thanks to the IT factor.

“Rusal’s billionaire owner” would be clearer.

And actually leaving IT out“being investigated by Mueller for potential involvement” instead of “his potential involvement” — would be clearer too.

IT‘s a heartache.

Throw your hat into the, uh, grass

  • “A dozen mustard-colored bunkhouses ringed a patchy sloping lawn.”

Yes, The New Yorker got it right, in Nick Paumgarten’s article about measles.

The bunkhouses ringed the lawn.

NOT: The bunkhouses rang the lawn.

NOT: The bunkhouses rung the lawn.

  • When you use ring as a verb, to mean making a ring around something, the past tense is indeed ringed.
  • When you use ring to mean making the sound of a bell, the past tense is rang. (They rang the bell.)
  • Rung is rong. It’s never the past tense. It only gets to be the participle. (“They have rung the bell.” “They had rung the bell.” “They were exhausted, having rung the bell throughout this entire post.”)

Psst! Something can’t be passed on! Pass it on!

From Evan Osnos’ New Yorker piece about “China’s dilemma”:

“Bloodshed in Hong Kong would shatter the prospects, however slim, of healing the rift with Taiwan, which Xi has declared ‘can’t be passed on for generations.'”

It seems harmless, but which is a witch of a word.

What can’t be passed on?

  • Bloodshed?
  • Prospects?
  • Healing?
  • Rift?
  • Or Taiwan?

I honestly don’t know. I’ll take your vote in the Comments box.

We don’t spell it “socker”

  • “I don’t usually rush to judgement….”

American football, American spelling.

European football, European spelling.

It’s judgment here in America, John. It’s judgement over there.

(And you’re right about those lowly Dolphins. No playoffs for the Fins this year. How the Finns will do, I can’t say.)

What did that dream mean?

Warren: Where Trump is right now is a nightmare

Where Trump is right? He’s actually right? When? You mean now?


Where Trump is? You mean right now?

If it’s Elizabeth Warren talking, it must be a nightmare either way.

But from CNN.com’s headline, we can’t tell exactly what the nightmare is about.

[Note to self: 3 terms to take special care with — (1) right, (2) now, (3) right now.]

If you point out your church’s error, do you go to hell?

In a recent historical commentary — inviting churchgoers to an event at Appleton Farm — the long-dead Daniel Appleton was lauded for funding my church’s original construction in 1869.

All well and good. But the commentary went on to say this:

Although living in New York City, Appleton Farms was the family summer home and Ipswich benefited from Daniel’s civic-minded spirit.

Which is to say, Appleton Farms managed to be living in the Big Apple and serving as the summer home, all at the same time.


The problem is they keep putting those tiny flashlights in their mouths

Friend Amy B. from Ohio found this lovely headline:

“Woman Abandoned in Dumpster as a Baby Searches for the People Who Rescued Her”

“I’m not sure what shocks me more,” Amy says: “a woman being left in a dumpster, or a baby who is part of a search effort.”

Commas are everything.

Well, maybe not everything, but they can sometimes keep full-grown women out of dumpsters — and spare babies from search-party duty.

Mug shot and nearly killed

  • “Leader of militia that has held migrants attacked in jail”

So there were these migrants, see? And they went to jail. And they got attacked while they were in there. And there was this militia, see? And they were holding these migrants, see? And this is a picture of the militia’s leader.

Thank you for clearing that up.

I hope after the migrants get well, they get out.

Last kid picked

NFL columnist Don Banks writes:

“It had been since 1974 since no cornerbacks were taken in the opening 25 picks of a draft.”

If you use the same word twice in one sentence, you might want to replace or eliminate one of them.

Some possible alternatives:

  • The simple but somewhat awkward approach: “It had been since 1974 that no cornerbacks were taken in the opening 25 picks of a draft.”
  • Maybe smoother: “Not since 1974 had we seen a draft with no cornerbacks among the opening 25 picks.”
  • Simplest, smoothest, most straightforward statement of truth: “This year’s cornerbacks were a lame lot. Geez, nobody wanted any of ’em.”

Mosquitoes make me all frisky

Brooke Jarvis writes in The New Yorker:

“As the recent arrivals cleared land for their own purposes, they also created fresh habitats for mosquitoes, allowing their populations to skyrocket.”

The recent arrivals — those darn colonists — somehow overran the New World by creating fresh mosquito habitats. I thought it was sex that made babies, but apparently I was wrong.

(Note to self: Be careful of the possessive pronoun their, which doesn’t always clearly tell the reader who they are.)

Don’t make me come in there and separate you two

The sharp-eyed freelance editor Sarah C. Jones got this email from Loft, and it made her crazy. Not for the 60% off.

  • Getaway is a noun. You enjoy a getaway, not a get away.
  • Get away is a verb, with an adverb. Two separate words. It’s never time to getaway. It’s always time to get away.

Well, maybe it’s not always time to. But whenever you do it, it’s two words.

Otherwise, Sarah goes nuts.

Happy birthday, dear Mmm-mmmm…

From Connie Bruck’s big piece on Alan Dershowitz in The New Yorker:

“In September, 1996, Epstein invited Dershowitz to meet Wexner, who was throwing a party for his fifty-ninth birthday.”

I’m not sure whom to buy a present for. Epstein? Dershowitz? Or Wexner?

Eh, it doesn’t matter. The party happened 23 years ago, and I wasn’t invited.

(Note to self: Possessive pronouns like his can be confusing.)

“In September, 1996, Epstein invited Dershowitz to meet Wexner, who was throwing a party for his own fifty-ninth birthday.” (I think.)

Buts turn heads

My man Tyler Sullivan writes:

The former linebacker retired from the team back in 2016, but did keep a prominent presence around town as he was working an NFL analyst on NBC Sports Boston, but now is heading back to 1 Patriot Place, this time as a coach. 

Think of a sentence as a journey. When you write but, you’re asking your reader to make a U-turn, or at least turn a corner. It’s whiplash waiting to happen. One thing is true but something about it isn’t true.

But is a disturbance in the force. Don’t make your reader change direction more than once in a sentence. They’ll get dizzy.

In fact, for the most pleasing effect, if you must change direction two sentences in a row, switch from but to however or something. Maybe like this:

The former linebacker retired from the team back in 2016, but did keep a prominent presence around town as he was working an NFL analyst on NBC Sports Boston. Now, however, he is heading back to 1 Patriot Place, this time as a coach.

Fewer buts, fewer U-turns, smoother ride, lower physical therapy bills.

When your face drops, that’s a sad day

The headline from Hamilton, Massachusetts, says:

“Hamilton faces drop in allowed water usage”

I hate to think of Hamilton faces dropping.

The rest of the headline, I don’t understand at all.

Or maybe I’m reading it wrong.

Oh. Yeah. I’m reading it wrong.

This headline is about the town of Hamilton, not the faces of the people of Hamilton.

English is a complicated language.

I’m not sure this is my color, coach

Jordan Dajani writes, on the CBS Sports app:

“…Rodgers went rouge during McCarthy’s time in Green Bay….”

Rouge is French for red. It’s pronounced roozh. It’s the red stuff you put on your face to make your cheeks look better. I don’t think Aaron Rodgers needs to go rouge. His cheeks look fine to me without any special treatment. (My wife loves his eyes, too.)

On the other hand, you can “go rogue.” Rhymes with vogue. Urban Dictionary says this means “To cease to follow orders; to act on one’s own, usually against expectation or instruction. To pursue one’s own interests.”

If Coach McCarthy said, “Aaron, stop wearing that rouge to practice,” and Rodgers kept showing up with red cheeks, that would be going rogue.

English is complicated, and French is even more complicated, so spell things correctement, s’il vous plait.

Yeah, I voted for a bobblehead once

I have an awesome friend who knows and sympathizes with my fixation on U.S. presidential history. He visited the Gerald Ford Museum in Grand Rapids and thoughtfully sent me a Richard Nixon bobblehead doll. BEAUTIFUL addition to my already disturbing collection of presidential figurines (including lots of presidential Pez dispensers).

But I was alarmed to see the claim on the Nixon box:

  • The Royal Bobbles ‘Presidents’ series celebrates the American presidents who have most significantly impacted the history of our great nation. It is largely through their vision, wisdom and determination that our country has achieved its role as the leading free nation in the world.”

I’m sorry, but I just can’t believe that a bunch of bobblehead dolls made our country what it is today.

Or — wait — maybe…

“Their” is a possessive pronoun. Dangerous part of speech. Apparently the presidential bobblehead box designers don’t subscribe to this blog, so they didn’t get the memo about avoiding vague possessive pronouns.

And now, as a result, bobblehead dolls are running the show.

Your tests came back, and I have bad news

  • “…punish doctors who provide abortions with lengthy prison sentences.”

Not to make light of a sensitive subject, but an abortion is serious enough, without the doctor adding a prison sentence.

I think we need a verbiage transplant:

  • “…and impose lengthy prison sentences on doctors who provide abortions.”

The guilty party here, verbiologically speaking, is “with.” Nasty, imprecise little word. Check your first draft, and … well, I leave it up to you to do the right thing.

Who’s on first?

From a Time story about Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh:

  • “…Kavanaugh sided with Alito 91% of the time in his first term.”

Whose first time? Kavanaugh’s? Or Alito’s?

Those rotten little possessive pronouns — his, her, their, its — will get you sued one of these days.

Don’t be afraid to say someone’s name a second time in a sentence — like this: “Kavanaugh sided with Alito 91% of the time in Alito’s first term.” (Actually, this isn’t possible. Kavanaugh wasn’t on the court during Alito’s first term. But what if you didn’t have encyclopedic knowledge of Supreme Court history when you came across this sentence in Time magazine? You would have to rely on the writing for your information! Just imagine.)

(Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I rest my case.)

Who was unnecessary?

“Bjerknes was a Norwegian physicist who was born in 1862,” Hannah Fry writes in The New Yorker.

I would delete “who was” to make the sentence as simple and straightforward as possible. “Who was” doesn’t make anything clearer; these words don’t add any panache, or even any connotation.

As you’re writing, set your alarm to go off every time you use “who” or “that.” It’s often a sign you’ve gummed up your writing unnecessarily.

Also avoid using unnecessarily when you don’t need to.

Be sure to overdo it, OK?

  • One thing that Rams head coach Sean McVay made headlines for this offseason in regards to that game is over-preparing a bit too much.

I always try to over-prepare just enough.

And use exactly the correct number of too many words.

(P.S. “Made” is past tense; “is” is present tense. Gotta line up those two players, coach.)

Two parentheses, overly easy

Thanks to Hannah Fry’s article in The New Yorker about weather forecasting, I humbly suggest that we all smooth out our use of parentheses.

  • “As Blum’s detailed (sometimes overly so) chapters on satellites make clear…”

The break for the parenthetical phrase is choppy, awkward, a bit hard to follow.

What about this: “As Blum’s (sometimes overly) detailed chapters on satellites make clear…”

This keeps all the adverbs and adjectives lined up in a more natural order.

Or maybe you have a better (and possibly overly so) revision in mind?

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 Oxford-Royale.com, 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.

Grammar.com 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 GrammarBook.com): 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 NewThing.net. 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.)