Parentheses and other brackets Thursday, Nov 11 2010 

I’ve seen writing that had one-third of the words buried between parentheses. And I’ve seen writing with no parentheses at all. Which did I like better? The one without the parentheses. These little punctuation marks slow down the reader and puts the text where they are buried on hold until the story appears on the right side of the material enclosed.

Still, parentheses have a legitimate purpose and should be used when needed. They often supply fascinating or useful information. Go to Writing Simplified for an excellent review of the main uses of parentheses. But before you go, here are a few of the mistakes we often find when we see parentheses in writing submitted to us:

1. Leave off the ending mark. Like punctuation marks and brackets, parentheses have a beginning and an ending mark. This is the beginning punctuation mark: ( and this is the ending punctuation mark: ). Be sure used both marks with each parenthetical text.

2. Making parenthetical material its own paragraph. If it’s worth a paragraph, make it into a paragraph that is part of the whole text.

3. Placing the parentheses and text in the wrong place. The opening parenthesis mark needs to come immediately after the most closely related text. “I screamed  (Who  wouldn’t have?) when I heard the scratching on my window.”

4. Too many parentheses. Unless you’re running a list and need parentheses for each number or reference in your list, try to limit your parentheses to rare remarks that are truly needed but not part of the text. “The ending (of course) was one we all anticipated (from the first paragraph), and we prepared to disqualify (and delete from the competition) such a predictable story.”

5. Not giving the acronym immediately after the first reference. “The FDA was hot on the case.” Should be “The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was hot on the case.” Once you give the acronym, keep on using it for the rest of the text.

Used correctly, parentheses help set off bits of text that add credibility or interest.  Have fun with the parentheses in your life!

provided by Griffith Publishing

“Foreign” words in English Friday, Jul 2 2010 

The English language has a complex history of about two thousand years and has absorbed vocabulary and grammar from dozens of other languages. So it should be no surprise that the way words are used, spelled, and pronounced in English are worlds away from the way they were spoken and used in their original language.

So what do we mean by a “foreign” word in English? We mean a word that has not yet been assimilated into the English language. No time for an exhaustive treatise on the assimilation of words into English, but please take a few minutes to browse here for a fascinating treatise on how “Gallicisms,” or words borrowed from the French language found a home in English.

But how do we deal with foreign words, that is words that may be on their way to becoming English words but aren’t there yet?

General rule

The general rule  is that we italicize the word or words and move on with the topic.

Example: The comment was just an hors d’oeuvre on the political menu.

The secondary rule is to italicize unless you’re sure it is a bona fide English word, like “bona fide.”

The third rule is not to pour a lot of foreign words or expressions into your writing unless there is an overwhelming reason to do so. 

I guess the best rule to remember is…

When in doubt…tip it! (italicize it!)

Submitted by Joyce Griffith, MBA
Native-born American, writer, and editor



Numbers to start a sentence Tuesday, Mar 9 2010 

Does this look good to you?

I was tired. 4 times I’d run around the neighborhood. 10 o’clock, and I had to quit.

How about this?

Several times I emailed the CMO. 6 days later I finally got an answer.

These are bad examples of sentences that start with a number, that is a numerical character, rather than a word. The problem? You can’t capitalize a number, so how does the reader know for sure that you were starting a new sentence? In the second example, maybe the writer meant O.6 as a number. You can’t tell.

So 98 percent of the time we say, “Please do not begin a sentence with a numerical character or any other symbol. Always start a sentence with a word.”

This may mean rearranging elements in the sentence, from…

443 bushels was the limits.   to…

The limit was 443 bushels.

Or it may be fairly easy to put the leading number in a word form such as…

70 days we floated in the ocean.  to

Seventy  days we floated in the ocean.

In general, numbers that can be readily reduced to words should be written as words. The rule at the business where you’re working may be “words only” for whole numbers up to  10, or up to 100,  or even more. Follow the rule.

Of course if you’re writing mathematical expressions or  including a lot of numerical lists, comparisons, and formulas in your writing, you’ll want a policy that says “numbers only.” These points are for writers of general, not scientific, material. If it’s a mixed list, usually numbers work best. Unless, of course, there is only one numerical symbol in a list of three or more. In that case, use words for the whole list.

Any tough puzzles about  words or numbers? Just send  us email or post your question below.

Brought to you  by Griffith Publishing

Note: We use American English and British English only in our comments about writing and language





About Apostrophes Tuesday, Feb 23 2010 

The apostrophe (‘) is a little mark, but what a heap of confusion it brings to those of us who write in English.  If only it were always used for the same reason, things wouldn’t be so hard to comprehend.

But the apostrophe is used for several reasons, for example—

To show possession (Jason’s hat)
To indicate deleted letters in a word (can’t)
To make numbers or symbols plural (100’s)

Easy enough, right?

Biggest problem with apostrophes: Pronouns and apostrophes don’t get along very well together.         

Combine “he” and “is,” and you need an apostrophe because you’re leaving out an “i.’

he’s = he  is

Make “he” posessive, and you don’t need an apostrophe because…Well, because we never use apostrophes with possessive pronouns. We don’t need to because they usually have their own special spelling, such as—

their = belonging to them

Pronouns are sometimes spelled the same whether they’re possessive or not.

her = belonging to ‘her’ or just  ‘her.’

Did she leave her purse in the car?
Have you seen her?

In short, apostrophes are easy to understand except when pronouns are involved. Possessive forms of personal pronouns (its, his, hers, yours, your, mine, my, ours, theirs) don’t need an apostrophe, ever.  If you see one of these words with an apostrophe  it’s because they’re no longer possessive pronouns.

For example: ‘it’s’ doesn’t mean ‘belonging to it’
The apostrophe stands for something left out: it is = it’s

It’s time the dog learned to obey its master.

The best way to learn about apostrophes is to sit down in a comfortable chair with an interesting book edited and published by a reputable publishing house. Every time you see an apostrophe, stop reading and ask yourself, “Why is that little mark there?” Keep doing that, and before long you’ll be an expert on apostrophes.

By the way, there’s another meaning of the word “apostrophe.” It can mean a piece of poetry dedicated to something grand and wonderful.

So why don’t you study all about the punctuation mark we call an apostrophe, and then write a poem and call it, “An Apostrophe to the Apostrophe?” In your poem extol all the virtues of apostrophes, and you may soon be known as their spokesperson.

Brought to you compliments of Griffith Publishing

How long should a sentence be? Wednesday, Feb 17 2010 

Sentences convey facts, excitement, action, and reveries. But how long should a good sentence be?  You can find strict instructions never to write a sentence with more than 25 words. Is that a valid benchmark?

I just picked up a copy of the Feb  1 edition of The New Yorker, a splendid magazine loaded with superior writing in every category. Here’s a sentence by Ben McGrath, “reporter at large.”

My escort was an exceptionally genial sixty-seven-year-old man named Don Seely, an electrical engineer who said that he was between jobs and using the unwanted free time to volunteer his services to the Northern Kentucky Tea Party, the rally’s host organization, as a Webmaster.”

A fine sentence, wouldn’t you say? Between 40 and  50 words…

A few pages away:

“In October of 2008, he found a better place in the neighborhood.” (from a column by  Lauren Collins.)

An equally fine sentence, with 12 words.

How long should a sentence be? As long as it needs to be but no longer.

If you’re writing chit-chat, many sentence will be one to five words long. If you’re discussing a serious topic, sentences may be fine at 50 or even 75 words.

The problem with long sentences is that they need to be crafted to make sense. If they aren’t, the length gets in the way of the meaning. It’s possible but harder to write meandering sentences with 25 or fewer words.

In short, the 25-word rule isn’t bad as long as you don’t follow it. Don’t count words and stick religiously to the 25-word limit. A long row of sentences all 25 words long can be as dull as a collection of short sentences can be, unless you’re writing for 8-year-olds.

So here’s the rule: your sentences should usually be about from 20 to 30 words long.  If your style is breezy, 15 words would be good. Sentences with 50 or more words should be avoided if possible. Throw in a shorter sentence now and then that refocuses, summarizes, surprises. In dialog, keep all sentences on the short side.

Try not to begin with “there…” But that’s another topic! Have fun and let me know if you have any questions about sentences or writing.

Compliments of Griffith Publishing

Speech tags and atributions Friday, Jan 15 2010 

“Is it wrong to use the word ‘said” so the reader knows who has just spoken?”

“Should we try to make our speech tags creative to add interest to our writing?”

“What are some problems writers bump into with speech tags?”

Good questions. The biggest problem I’ve seen with speech tags is the almost universal desire to make them interesting. Here’s what can happen…

Impossible tags. “I want to go with you,” she hoped. [The word ‘hope’ is used as a speech tag, but it isn’t. You can’t hope something with your speech.]

A tag plus an “ly”word. “I want to go with you,” she murmered softly. [An adverb to modify the verb used as a speech tag often shows redundancy (you can’t murmer something without speaking softly.)]

A tag out of context. Imagine two people talking about something. Without warning the author writes, “No, no!” shouted Henry. In general, sudden changes in feeling should be substantiated by hints in what the characters are doing and not rely on a speech tag to change the scene.

Too many different tags in a conversation. Sometimes students work so hard at being creative they end up weighing down the conversation with too many tags like “said,” “whispered,” “mumbled,” or even “breathed.”

Too many tags. If you have two people talking to each other, don’t burden your story by saying “he said,” “she said,” back and forth through the story. The dialog should settle who’s talking. If speech tags are needed in a dialog, put them in the first words spoken by each character, and then use other ways if needed to make it clear who is speaking.

“Said” is a good word. It’s an inconspicuous word, “said” is, so if you feel you must tell the reader who is speaking, you can use “said” without weighting down your conversation.

Group conversation. If you have three or more people speaking in a conversation, it’s much harder to avoid confusion without speech tags. So you’re stuck with them–unless you can identify the speaker on some other way such as describing an action by the person before the words are spoken. (John scratched his chin with his ball point pen. “I should think we need to…”)

Read a bit of Hemingway and notice how he dodges speech tags. Pick up a cheap novel and notice that dialog usually has more tags. Read books by your favorite authors and pay special attention to how they use speech tags. If there are too many, too often, look for a better author!

Joyce Griffith

Brought to you compliments of Griffith Publishing

2010: Twenty-ten or two thousand ten? Friday, Jul 31 2009 

Spoken English adapts to people’s choices much faster than written English because people bend the spoken language to make it easier to speak.

My vote for pronouncing the next years of the century are as follows:

  • 2010 = twenty ten
  • 2052 = twenty fifty-two
  • 2099 = twenty ninety-nine

The only years when there was a deviation from the above “rule” were from 2000 and 2009 when you ended up saying something you didn’t mean if you left out the “thousand.” For example…

  • 2000 = Twenty zero? No. Twenty O O? Both are awkward. Two thousand is accurate and easy to pronounce.
  • 2001 = Twenty one? No. Twenty and one? Both would be 21. Twenty O one? Accurate, but it never caught on. Two thousand one? That’s the one that made it into the vernacular.
  • 2005 = Twenty aught five? My grandpa always told me he graduated from college in “nineteen aught four.” But “aught” never made it past the early 1900’s, and today we use “O” or “zero” when the old-timers would have used “aught.”

So we accepted “two thousand three,” “two thousand four,” and so on up to the current time when we are dealing with 2010.

Just because it’s my vote, doesn’t mean it’s the rule. People will pronounce the years until the next century however they choose, and the majority will decide the form we use.

Language is a perfect democracy.

–brought to you by Griffith Publishing,
assisting authors in publishing their books since 1988.

“different from,” “different than” Friday, Jul 24 2009 


I wish I had a dollar for every time I come across business communication with the phrase “different than” in it. The expression is so common I’ve actually seen people correct “different from” to “different than.” It’s wrong, folks, just plain wrong.

Careful writers and speakers will notice this error and remember you as a user of nonstandard English. Here’s my feeble explanation of why “different than” is a sign of bad English and how to catch on to that difference so you won’t be seen in bad light just because you used the wrong word.

When you start at Point A and go to Point B, you go “from” A to B. That’s how I learned the difference.

We say, “I’d rather live in Idaho than Oregon,” or “I like cherries better than apples,” but wouldn’t dream of using “from” in those expressions.

The word “different” needs to be followed by “from” when the writer or speaker is making a comparison that is explained after announcing that there is a comparison. “That’s different,” we may say in casual conversation. To support the sentence, we need to add something such as “That’s different from anything I’ve seen before…”

That may or may not help. This might. Say “different from” ten times a day, and then make up a sentence that uses the word “different from” to point to the fact that there is a difference between two people or objects.

Examples of “different than” (all wrong) that I’ve seen lately…

  • “But freedom of speech and that invitation to constructively criticize a public servant is a lot different than the allowance to lie, to continually falsely accuse a public servant when they have proven over and over again that they have not done what the accuser is saying they did.”–Sarah Palin, quoted in Think Progress.”
  • Three Reasons Why This Defense Cycle Is Different than Previous Cycles. Online investor consultant.
  • Absenteeism of Asthmatic Children Is No Different Than That of Their Non Asthmatic Peers. Medical News Today.

And contemporary examples of “different from” used correctly in headlines:

  • Swine flu (is) different from ordinary flu in a number of ways. Medical News.
  • Program management: Different from project management. IBM.
  • How’s discovery different from search? alt search engines

–Compliments of Griffith Publishing, experts in editing and writing for ordinary folks

Tuesday, Jul 21 2009 

I didn’t think it would happen, but it has. In advertising and information text that is supposed to generate respect for the content, I see the following error over and over and over:

I really like you house.

Hmm. Maybe the writer was talking to his dwelling place and just got his punctuation wrong: “I really like you, house.”

Or maybe the writer just didn’t take the time to look at what was written.

It’s obvious that most people don’t read what they write.

I just found a lot of information that looked helpful on a site called Now you would think, wouldn’t you, that anyone with such a fine domain name must really know his stuff?

Take a look at this sentence:

Use you blog to sell and promote all of the your publishing items.

And just as I was wrapping this up, someone decided to be nice and send me a compliment: Just dropping by. Btw, you website have great content!

Your choice of words says so much about you. My advice: Use you brain before you post you blog.

Just a thought from Griffith Publishing

Quote marks Tuesday, Jan 20 2009 


The little marks we know as single quotes (‘) and double quotes (“) get us in trouble all the time.

The double quote looks like the above illustration when it introduces spoken words or text imported from another writer or source. It’s the reverse when it closes the sme words.

When it comes to quote marks, the opposite of “straight” is “curly.” The quote marks shown above are known as “curly quotes” because they aren’t straight lines like they are in some type families.

When you’re writing dialog, each time a speaker in the conversation says something, those words are “enclosed” in double quotes. That means, a quote facing the text at the beginning and another at the end, turned to face the text from that perspective. We call the second quote a “close quote” or an “end quote” because it comes as the end of that segment of spoken speech. When we put the opening and ending quote marks on a piece of text, we call that “enclosing the text in quote marks.”

You start a new the paragraph when another speaker says something.

If the person who is speaking quotes someone else, those words are enclosed by single quotes.

If the person being quoted in single quotes uses speech from someone else, those words are closed by double quotes.

If you quote from a published source, the material you quote should be in quotes or indented to set it apart from other text. If the quoted text breaks into a new paragraph, there is no closing quote at the end of the previous paragraph.

One more thing…Quote marks go after punctuation marks that may end the words quoted.

Got it?

Here’s a sample that should help you understand the main quote mark rules regarding conversations.

“You don’t understand,” Marcia said, her lips trembling.

“You’re right. I don’t understand, either,” her husband Bill said, “and I’m understanding you less the more you go on.”

“My professor told me you were wrong about the start of the War of 1812, and he said, ‘Nobody should look at that piece of history like that.’ ”

The best way to learn how to write dialog and punctuate it properly is to read it. Cheap novels are an inexpensive way to find thousands of examples, and usually they are handled correctly. Literary articles are just as effective, although the more academic the piece is, the fewer quotations are likely. Newspapers are prepared so quickly that mistakes creep in on a regular basis. Use them to see how good you are at finding quote mark errors in everyday writing.

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