Best references for correct English on the Web Monday, Nov 17 2008 

Here are our choices for the most comprehensive guides available on good grammar in the English language. All of these are online, available with the click of a mouse and, in some cases, a few dollars.

elementsofstyleElements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr. A classic collection of English language tools, including rules of usage, words and expressions commonly misused, and common misspellings. Free online.

Bartleby’s English Usage Collection. Quick access to some of the web’s best online resources for writers, including the Columbia Encyclopedia, American Heritage Dictionary, Roget’s Thesaurus, American Heritage Book of English Usage, Bartlett’s Famous Quotations, and many others. Free online.

Guide to Grammar and Style by  Jack Lynch. Revised in January of this year. Free online.

apstylebookThe Associated Press Stylebook. “The journalist’s ‘Bible.’ ” An excellent guide to grammar and style followed by writers for the Associated Press and others who strive to write well. Both printed and online versions involve a fee.

strunkChicago Manual of Style. This book is indispensable to the editors at Griffith Publishing. The new online version includes Q&A, sample letters and forms, and the ability to use the manual to develop your own style sheet. Free trial online version.

More later! Share your favorite guides to using the English language correctly and with style. Send email to Griffith Publishing at hodi@mindspring.com.

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Who–or whom? Sunday, Nov 16 2008 

In our rush to produce error-free English text, we sometimes end up making big mistakes that we truly believe are more upscale and correct.

For example…

I wanted to know who she was dating.

Should be: I wanted to know whom she was dating.

Or we often see a sentence like this:

Either Mark or Jill is the one whom will be chosen for the trip.

Should be: Either Mark or Jill is the one who will be chosen for the trip.

“Who” is the subject

“Who wants this?”
“Who told you?”
“I asked her to tell me who wanted out.”
“We were shocked when we learned who had dated whom as teenagers.”

“Whom” is the object

“To whom does this purse belong?” (or “Who is the owner of this purse?”)
“For whom does the bell toll?”
“The one on whom the curse falls will turn scarlet.”

“Who” and “whoever” follow the same rules

“Whoever wants to take the third floor, please raise your hand.”

“Whom”and “whomever” follow the same rules

“I will give the thousand dollars to whomever I choose.”

Another quick way to check your use is to ask, Would the word “he” work better than “him” in this case? If it would, then use “who” or, if you want to include everyone, “whoever.” If “him works” better, use “whom” or “whomever.”

Look for the words “who” and “whom” in your reading. Once in a while you’ll find a mistake. In spoken English  errors using “who” or “whom” are more common, with “who” taking first prize for being used incorrectly.

Capital letters—Oh, no! Sunday, Nov 9 2008 

istock_000005198109xsmallWe can’t squeeze a comprehensive treatise on capitalization into one short blog, but we can put in a few words in favor of a lower case mindset.

I’ve found that many physicians are fussy about capital letters. So are many academics and business managers. They want ALL titles beginning with a capital letter, as in Joe Smith, Personnel Director; or Joe Smith, M.D., Chief Medical Officer.

This is fine IF you’re printing a list, writing PR copy for an organization, or printing a name on a book cover. In news or information for the general public, not so good. “Put ’em down” is the rule. For example:

Joe Smith has been the president of ABC Corporation for the past ten years.

If you leave the first “the” out of the above sentence, the rule changes.

Joe Smith has been President of ABC Corporation for the past ten years.

Why? Because “president” is a word describing a function; “President” is a title that goes with the company name. Tricky, sometimes. Worth it to try for lower case if you can justify it.

Proper names are always capitalized. No problem there.

But what about “dad,” “mom,” or “girlfriend?” The rule is that if you’re using a term as a name, put a capital letter at the start of each word. If you’re writing about a person, put it down. For example…

My mom was the most important person in my life.
“Hey, Mom!” I shouted as I ran in the front door.

Capital letters are helpful when they signal a proper name. Too many capital letters in a paragraph give the reader a headache. Why? Because it’s harder to read capitalized words than those in lower case. Aim for a “down style” in your writing, and it will be easier to read.

The first letter of the first word of a sentence is always capitalized. Not a problem for 99.5% of English writers.

By the way, when you’re telling someone what to write, it’s a good idea to say things like “upper case” when you want a capital letter, and “lower case” when you don’t.

And as I’ve said, when you can, “put it down.”

Brought to you at no cost or obligation by Griffith Publishing

Commas can clarify or confuse Tuesday, Nov 4 2008 

Meet the comma

Meet the comma

Probably no other mark of punctuation is used—or misused—more than the comma.

Add to that a slight variance between British and American punctuation, and we have even more confusion.

Once upon a time about 50 to 150 years ago, writing in English was much heavier than it is today. Long sentences were considered a mark of careful writing. Henry David Thoreau, for example, who championed the cause of simplicity was most eloquent when he framed his thoughts in delicious, long sentences. For example…

“On either hand, and beyond, was a wholly uninhabited wilderness, stretching to Canada. Neither horse nor cow, nor vehicle of any kind, had ever passed over this ground; the cattle, and the few bulky articles which the loggers use, being got up in the winter on the ice, and down again before it breaks up.”—Ktaadn, Part II.

Eight commas and 54 words in two sentences. Not one misplaced, not one incorrectly used. Excellent writing. But times are changing. In today’s mad rush we like our sentences even shorter than this example—and more directly to the point.

Still, we occasionally need a short pause or a break, and for that we have the comma.

The general rule about commas is to use them when you need to separate words, phrases, or other constructions from each other.

Lists…

Always in a sentence with a list of three or more items, you need to separate the items with commas.

Example: My favorite vegetables are spinach, carrots, and potatoes.

The comma before “and” in the list above is sometimes called a “serial comma.” It is not used as rigorously in American writing as it is in British writing.

Following introductory words or phrases

Example: For the last time, stop interrupting me or I’m going to scream.

You don’t need to place a comma after every phrase that begins a sentence. For example..

On the way home I noticed dark clouds forming on the western horizon.
On the way home, I noticed dark clouds forming on the western horizon.

If the tone of the writing is eager, fast-paced, or moving readily into the future, the comma that slows us down isn’t needed. If the writer wants everyone to slow down just a bit at that point, a comma will do the job.

In general, the rule is…

Commas are usually not needed after an uncomplicated, introductory prepositional phrase:

Beneath the surface I saw my gold watch…
After lunch we drove to the gym.
In my pocket I found a dollar bill.

The rule is, “When in doubt, leave it out.” If you don’t have to slow things down, don’t!

Transitional words such as “however” or “therefore” that are abundant in writing of the early twentieth century usually, but not always, need to be set apart by commas. Examples:

No oxygen was present. Therefore, the chemical reaction did not occur.

I went over the key points five times with Steve. However, he didn’t pay any attention and
missed all of the questions on the final exam.

Sometimes “however” has the function of describing an adverb, and that means no comma is needed. For example…

However hard he tried, Thomas could not uncouple the trailer from the car.

In short structures, “therefore” doesn’t need the slowdown of one or more commas. Example…

I am therefore going to forget this ever happened.

Commas are subject to personal judgment as much as to rules of grammar. Take this short quiz:

A quick cure for colon (:) problems Monday, Oct 20 2008 

The colon in your body may be doing fine, but what about the mark of punctuation in your writing? Do you ever scratch your head and say to yourself, “A colon or not?”

Here’s a quick cure for that problem. Try substituting the word “namely” for the colon. Read the whole sentence, and if it makes sense, you need a colon.

Example: Three things I love about you: your looks, your brains, and your bank account.

Does the word “namely” work where the colon is? Then use it there and you’ll be right.

Brought to you courtesy of Griffith Publishing.

Choosing the right word Sunday, Oct 19 2008 

Have you ever picked up a publication and marveled at the skills of its writers? My favorite magazine for good writing is The Atlantic. I’ve been a subscriber for over 40 years. Here’s a snippet that I think illustrates what I mean:

Imagine a long, terrible dental procedure. You are rigid in the chair, hands clenched, soaked with sweat—and then the dentist leans over and says, “We’re done now. You can go home. But if you want, I’d be happy to top you off with a few minutes of mild pain.”

There is a good argument for saying “Yes. Please do.”

The writer, Paul Bloom, who happens to be a psychology professor at Yale University as well as a world-class writer, doesn’t dig into his vast vocabulary and pull out words that will impress the reader. He paints a picture with simple words. The picture is vivid and puts “you” in its center. The transition to the rest of the piece is so compelling, you may already have hit the link to see what he’s going to say next.

That is good writing.

Never let yourself choose words that show off your vocabulary. This is especially hard for physicians, attorneys other professionals who are trying to emerge from their specialty into the world of regular people.

“Simplify, simplify, simplify,” Henry David Thoreau tells us. Great advice that has been quoted endlessly.

Why didn’t he follow his own advice instead of repeating the word? Because he wanted you to get it, that’s why. Used sparingly, repeating a word can add emphasis.

Simplify your writing. Let your words be clear and easy to understand. Toss heavy words like “however” and “moreover” into the word shredder. Avoid long, convoluted words as well as shorter, bulky ones. Streamline your writing. Cut it back.

If you’d like me to show you what I mean, send me (hodi@mindspring.com) a snippet of no more than 300 words of your writing that you think may be too bulky, and I’ll edit it for you. No cost or obligation, just to show you what an editor can do to simply your vocabulary, an important step to good writing.

Online consulting free and with no obligation, offered by Griffith Publishing.

Don’t write yourself into a corner with cumbersome words.

Hyphens matter Sunday, Oct 5 2008 

Someone asks: Is “eight-year-old” hyphenated?

JG says: Yes, eight-year-old is hyphenated. Here’s why.

The words have to be linked closely together. The hyphen does that. Get rid of one link, and the phrase falls apart. For example–

eight year-old  turns “year-old” into a phrase, which it is not.
eight-year old  turns “old” into a noun, which it is not
eight year old   is just three words, not a phrase

eight-year-old is a phrase of three closely related words with “eight” modifying “year” and “eight” and “year” together modifying “old” and turning it into a noun.

So we hyphenate as follows:

an old woman eighty-five years old
a seventy-three-year-old man
A 60-mph speed limit
A five-time first-place winner

The one-hundred-year-old gentleman
or…The hundred-year-old gentleman

A 24-hour sale  (the noun that is being modified does not need a hyphen)

A 9-to-5 job

Have fun!

Joyce Griffith, MBA  Griffith Publishing

How about the colon? What’s it for? Friday, Sep 26 2008 

Now: the colon             Next: the semi-colon

The more ponderous the publication, the more likely you are to see colons and their half-cousins, semi-colons, in the text. When I review a manuscript, I put up a yellow flag when I see the first colon because this little mark of punctuation is misused so often.

The announcer.

The quickest track to correct colon use is understanding what it is for. A colon is like a railroad crossing that is flashing red. It says “Stop!” and then it lets you go on, just as the crossing sign does once the train has rumbled past.

The colon says, “Look at what’s coming!”

Now you know all about colons. All you need is some examples, and it will become perfectly clear to you.

There are three reasons the correct use of the colon is important: (1) it can make you look more learned than you are; (2) it can help make your writing clearer and stronger; (3) your writing will look more proper, more scholarly.

Note: In the above example there was a complete sentence for each number before and after the colon. A nice touch.

(In a page 1 story in the Sept 23 2008 Wall Street Journal):
“But differences remain on two big items: possible limits on executive compensation at firms taking advantage of the bailout; and changes to bankruptcy law that would let judges adjust the terms of mortgages.”

(Same edition of the Wall Street Journal, “Health Journal,” by Melinda Beck)
“But those cancers are relatively rare. What’s far more common are prostate cancers: 230,000 are diagnosed each year in the U.S., and they’re a ready source of revenue for the new centers.”

Mistakes with colons

The most common mistake I see is placing a colon right after a verb. “If your company is considering bankruptcy, you should: (followed by a list)”

The second most common colon mistake I see is using a colon when you need a semi-colon instead, but let’s talk about that mark of punctuation another day.

Learning about colons naturally

The best way to learn how to use colons is to read information-loaded text and pause whenever you see a colon to note how it was used. Be sure you choose writing of a high quality. My personal favorites are The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Atlantic, and most best-selling non-fiction books. Shy away from technical manuals.

This information was provided to you at no cost or obligation by Griffith Publishing, consultants and producers of books and newsletters for authors and organizations.
208 454-9553.

The horrendous hyphen Saturday, Sep 20 2008 

Have you ever wondered why some words are hyphenated and others aren’t? What is the logic behind the following?

  • lifeguard (one word)
  • sports car (two words)
  • post-season (hyphenated word)

I’ve learned the hard way that there is no good reason.

One rule is that if two or more words modify the same noun and don’t need a comma, they should be hyphenated.

  • soft-center candy
  • ice-cold water
  • jam-and-jelly sandwich

This is probably the best rule and will get you through most decisions with flying colors.

Some hyphens are part of the name to show a link:

  • Texas-Houston Department of Orthopedic Surgery
  • obstetrics-gynecology

Some are broken hyphens:

  • four- or eight- week rotations
  • six-  and seven-year-olds
  • eight-year-old boy

Some are hyphenated even when no noun follows:

  • face-to-face
  • one-on-one
  • tag-alongs

Most hyphenated words will eventually merge into one word with use unless the letters would make it hard to pronounce or read the combination.

So what’s the rule? Read well-edited publications, such as The Atlantic, the Wall Street Journal, or the National Geographic. Notice when hyphens are used and store that use away somewhere. The more you read, the more you’ll see differences in the way hyphens are used. When you’re not sure, lean on the usage of the finest current magazines in the English language.

Or, just for fun, go to the Owl Online Writing Lab. Once you’ve studied what they have to say about hyphens, look around at other topics. It’s a good site, all in all. It should be, coming from Purdue…

What’s different about writing online? Sunday, Feb 10 2008 

Anything you write for print can be posted online. Well just about anything.

Getting people to read what you write online, that’s a different story.

Yes, I know. I’ve heard it all. Books on screen are going to replace the forest-destroying paper books we read now. It’s more convenient to load up a book on the computer than to plant your nose between two covers of a printed book.

Or is it?

Here’s a web post that’s been around since 2003 and reflects the outrage many reading experts and writers feel when faced with words on screen. The author of these pages is especially concerned about the problems of pdf files. He mentions the following:

  1. Lack of coordination in text and page size
  2. Slower download
  3. Internal searches, slow or impossible

HTML files are created for the Web and in most cases are faster to open and easier to follow than pdf files.

Whether pdf or html, online publications are harder to read than the same publications in print. We will address this issue in different ways in these blogs. Jump in with your comments or questions any time.

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