Archive for the ‘Words commentary’ Category

The Cacophany of Collective Nouns

Sunday, October 9th, 2011

Why do we have so much trouble with collective nouns? Staff, faculty, herd, group, team, senate, congress, cast, crew, jury, choir, committee, majority, minority … the list goes on.

Collective nouns signal a group of people or things that may act as individuals or one entity. And there’s the rub.

When we want the context to say that this group acts as a single unit, then we use a singular verb in the sentence. (“The committee is in session.”) When we want to say that the individual members of the group do something, we use a plural verb. (“The faculty are presenting at the October oncology symposium.”) Sounds simple, right?

The faculty is/are receiving raises this year.
(Could go either way, depending on the context.)

The crew is/are in charge of maintaining the sails.
(Doesn’t sound right unless you use “is.”)

The team run/runs through six defensive drills during every practice.
(That one is a no-brainer.)

So why does this get murky?

Most of the pizza is/are gone.
(“Are” would sound good in the pizza sentence if we said “Most of the pizzas”—because we’d definitely be talking about more than one pizza. But, “Most of the pizza is gone” is fine grammatically because it considers the pizza order as a whole.)

One-third of all Americans is/are overweight.
“Are” sounds good here because “Americans” comes right before the verb. But “Americans” is the object of a prepositional phrase—not the subject of the sentence. So, is “one-third” singular or plural?) Here’s where common sense must prevail. You can be grammatically correct and still leave readers scratching their heads.

Here’s an example and a “test” you can do to help you determine the right wording and subject-verb agreement:
The fourth of the 10 examples is wrong.        
vs.      
A fourth of the 10 examples are wrong.

The first sentence specifies that only example #4 is wrong, so that takes a singular verb.
The second sentence means 40% of the examples are wrong.
Note the difference in the articles used in the two sentences (“the” vs. “a”). That can be a signal to tell you whether to use a singular or plural verb.

If it sounds awkward no matter what the grammarians say, then rewrite the sentence.

Some of this confusion stems from the use of the word “one.” “One” can be a noun or an indefinite pronoun—that is, a pronoun that doesn’t refer to a specific person, place or thing. “One” is always singular (makes sense), but when we see it hitched to something like “one-third,” we need to think about what type of verb to use with it.

For the record, other indefinite pronouns give us fits because they function collectively, too. “Everyone” and “everybody” take singular verbs. (“Everybody is at the game.”)

You can alleviate some of this problem by living  in a country other than the U.S. The British use the plural more frequently than we do here in the states. They say, “Parliament are in session,” while we say, “The senate is in session.”

So, bottom line: look at the context of the sentence. Is the group acting as a whole, or are its members acting individually? If it’s not that straightforward, run the “test” I suggested. And, above all else, make your writing readable!

What’s Up with Adjectives?

Wednesday, August 10th, 2011

You can identify many adjectives by their endings:

-able achievable, capable
-al functional, logical
-ful beautiful, careful
-ic cubic, rustic
-ical anatomical, classical
-less breathless, groundless
-ous courageous, disastrous

But when do you use -ic versus -ical? Does it make a difference?

Short answer: sometimes.

English loves to trim words to their lowest common denominator. Not surprisingly, -ical increasingly is being lopped in favor of -ic. So you have a numeric advantage (not a numerical advantage). Your grandmother has a rheumatologic disorder (not a rheumatological disorder).

But, in other cases, both forms need to exist because they mean different things. “Biological” is anything that has to do with biology. However, a “biologic” or a “biologic drug” specifies a diagnostic or therapeutic entity made from a living organism or its products. Examples are vaccines, monoclonal antibodies and interleukins.

Ditto for needing to differentiate the terms “historic” and “historical.” A historic era is an influential one in history. “Historical” pertains to events in history, such as in a historical novel, a historical review of pain management treatments, and so on.

Classic cars and classic black dresses embody versatility. But classical music pertains to a certain period in time.

“Economic” relates to that field of study (e.g., economic forecasting). “Economical” depicts money-saving strategies.

The Amazon’s rainy season is a periodic occurrence—it happens at regular intervals. But “periodical” is relegated to the realm of publishing.

Some adjectives don’t have this problem at all. You can understand basic but not basical English; you can be dramatic but not dramatical. We are patriotic but not patriotical.

Finally, just to stir the pot, is the head-scratcher of “anatomical” versus “anatomic.” In med-speak, “anatomical” is still preferred—simply because it’s preferred.

So, bottom line: know your target audience, and look up the words if you’re not sure. You’ll avoid ending up with “ic” all over your face.

The Top Reason to Proofread

Monday, July 25th, 2011

Some of my previous posts talked about why you should proof your work. There are many good reasons to do so, but the #1 reason is to avoid potential embarrassment and misunderstandings from errors, including those that spellcheck can’t catch. I’ve also talked about how to proofread.

Today an e-mail crossed my desk that underscored this #1 reason. I just had to share it with you:
“To help you out, we have put together a series of four videos that are choke full of usable content that can be deployed immediately.”

Really. I hadn’t thought about eating the videos, but you’re right—I’d probably choke trying.

Of course, the writer meant to say “chock.” But didn’t.

This isn’t an e-mail from a tiny startup company. It’s from a massive, well-respected, nationally known marketing stronghold of a company that’s sold over 20 million books touting their techniques.

 You’d think they’d hire proofreaders.

Maybe they did.

But they got sucker-punched by their copy. They knew what it was supposed to say, so they glossed right over it. They hit “send”—and, boom! Millions of people on their distribution list guffawed the gaff immediately. To avoid such embarrassing moments, read my post, Proofreading Power Punches. It only takes one misstep like this to submarine your credibility.

 Here’s another one:
“Your cooling skills are outstanding.”

If I were in the HVAC business and had just fixed your air conditioner, that might be true. But you’re eating my muffins.

That second sentence was from a dear friend, and obviously I knew what she meant. But you have to laugh at it. Literally hundreds of words in the English languages are only one letter different from each other, and a minor slip—even though the goof is a real word—can generate some really interesting reading. Here are just a few examples:

A coping machine (A good alternative to our department’s Xerox?)
Cath and carry (Not something I’d want to do if I had one)
Cornmeal transplant (No thanks)
Chef of surgery (I hope he can do more than toss salads)
A pier review (Are seagulls on the committee?)
Half-lift of 4 hours (Not good, especially if that’s an antidepressant)
Port tenderloin (Was the pig overfed?)

Your mind can go blank or black; you might titter about a dose, but you really need to titer it; and gravy is never gray in my book.

Bottom line: Avoid such bungles! Proofread your work!

Wise word choice in writing

Tuesday, November 9th, 2010

You’ve seen it—some well-intended ad or company name that inadvertently sends the wrong message. You either scratch your head or writhe when you read it.

Examples: What do “Drain Surgeons” really work on? And who wants to hire a company called “Off-Duty Chimney Sweep”?

When shopping for clothes, most women are already sensitive enough about their figure and dress size without allusions to their farm-animal proportions at the Dress Barn.

The same applies to product descriptions and so much more. Just think about all the things that a “price reduced” sign in front of a for-sale house could mean.

Let’s compare the words “cheap” and “inexpensive” for a minute. Which would you rather buy and give as a gift: a cheap tea set or an inexpensive tea set? Probably the latter—because of what those words connote.

“Cheap” has many negative connotations: tawdry, shoddy manufacturing, questionable quality. On the other hand, “inexpensive” more likely conjures positive connotations, such as “good value for the money you spend.”

I cringe when I see “cheapest rates” (as in hotels) versus “best rates” or “best values.”

On the other hand, a word like “premier” can mean “outstanding,” “top-notch,” “first-choice,” “expert”—or “too expensive.”

Words can have positive or negative meanings to readers—despite what you intend for your words to convey.

An extra moment of thinking like a reader or a customer can make all the difference in how you present yourself or your company, products or services.

It’s all about people’s perceptions of what your words mean. Dictionaries define meaning and standard usage, otherwise known as the word’s denotation. What people think a word means or signifies is the word’s connotation. Huge difference.

How do you get your intended meaning across?

  • Know your target audience.
  • Remember that their past experiences, backgrounds and more affect their connotations of your words.
  • Steer readers to the right connotation by choosing your words wisely.

Words have power; make them work for you!

12 Pet Peeves of Writing

Friday, July 9th, 2010

Sometimes we write the way we talk: sloppily. Other times we write the wrong thing out of habit or because other people do the same. Here are a dozen of my pet writing peeves; I hope sharing them with you will help your writing. 

1. Using “under” when you mean “less than” or “fewer than”
WRONG     under 20 players                  
WRITE       fewer than 20 players          
WRONG     under age 20
WRITE       age ___; less than 20 years old 

2. Using “over” when you mean “more than,” “greater than,” “higher than” or “wider than”
WRONG     over 600 participants                         
WRITE       more than 600 participants
WRONG     over 5,500 feet
WRITE       higher than 5,500 feet 

3. Using “below” when you mean “older than” or “before”
WRONG:    cars made below 1999
WRITE:      cars made before 1999; cars more than __ years old 

4. Using “increased” or “greater” when you mean “longer,” “farther” or “higher”
All of them can mean “more,” but the latter three are measurable.
WRONG      greater lumen output              
WRITE        higher lumen output
WRONG      greater stopping distances
WRITE        longer stopping distances 

5. Using “assure” or “insure” when you mean “ensure”
“Ensure” = “to make certain something happens”
“Insure” = “to protect from loss—specifically, what you do to your car and house
“Assure” = “to encourage, make safe”
WRONG       This construction assures a longer battery life.
WRITE         This construction ensures a longer battery life. 

6. Using “try and” instead of “try to”
You don’t create a compound verb—just bad grammar—when you say “try and ___.”
WRONG      We will try and make your deadline.
WRITE        We will try to make your deadline.

7. Confusing compose, comprise and constitute 
Compose” = create or put together. The parts compose a whole.
“Comprise” = contain include all; embrace. The whole comprises the parts.
Because 1) the two terms are misused SO frequently, 2) additional rules apply regarding preposition usage with them), and 3) sometimes the construction sounds awkward, a good substitute for both is “constitute,” which means “to form” or “to make up” (like the elements of an idea).
WRITE         The all-star team comprises 51 players.
WRITE         Fifty-one players compose the all-star team.

8. Using “could of” when you mean “could have” 

9. Using unnecessarily long phrases when a single word will do
WRONG      due to the fact that
WRITE        because 

10. Using the same word or a form of the same word in the same sentence
WRONG      The planning for a replacement facility was included as part of the regional plan …
WRITE         Planning … was part of the regional strategy … 

11. Randomly capitalizing important-sounding words that aren’t proper nouns
WRONG      the Chairman of the Board (no cap unless you say which company’s board)
WRITE         the chairman of the board

12. Misspelling ITS. It’s misspelled more than any other word in the English language. Why? Because it’s an indefinite pronoun, and its rules about possession differ from that of nouns and definite pronouns. Indefinite pronouns (including “it”) never use apostrophes to show possession.

WRONG Its the best. WRONG it’s due date
WRITE It’s the best. WRITE its due date
Contraction: short for “it is” Shows possession (NO apostrophe)

Show your best side when you write—your readers notice these little details!

Words Morph

Sunday, January 24th, 2010

Remember when trash was just smelly stuff and a dashboard was part of your car?

Words morph. We give them new utility and grant them new meaning. Sometimes unintentionally.

Watching the sun set, my [then-two-year-old] son said, “It’s darking.” I think that’s a perfectly good verb.

Calvin (of Calvin and Hobbs fame) would disagree. In explaining to Hobbs the varied uses of the word “access,” Calvin noted, “Verbing weirds language.”

Still, it happens all the time: texting, googling, gifting. (Since when did “Ebaying” become a verb? I missed that memo.)

We repurpose words all the time. “We speak car.” “Unputdownable.” “That’s a whole box of interesting.” And, because of the context, we understand it—even if it never makes the cut as a new dictionary word.

Words can morph by coming together. Widespread use or karma creates blended and merged words. “Guesstimate” is a blended term. Lewis Carroll immortalized “slithy” (slimy + lithe) in the Jabberwocky poem. Mergers make hyphenated or compound words (on-site, jobsite, candlepower). Such phenomena singlehandedly create a market for online dictionaries—to capture recent morphs in real time.

Sometimes, words inexplicably stay behind the curve in morphing. Why do dictionaries list ”backup” and “lineup” but keep “warm-up” hyphenated? Only the reclusive word adoption committee knows.

Today it’s not enough to have Merriam and Webster on your desk or on screen. Although Merriam-Webster Unabridged online is one of my constant companions, I also frequently refer to 40 industry-specific glossaries I’ve bookmarked. 

Change is a constant with words. Can we keep up?