Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Return of the Subjunctive -- a poem

This poem was featured recently on Garrison Keillor's Writers' Almanac:

The Return of the Subjunctive

Oh, the Subjunctive,
May it make its bold return!
May it ride back proud
In liveried coach,
May its two fine horses snort
And paw the ground,
And, escorted by its staunch
Attendants If and Whether,
May it descend in velvet cloak
And black-gloved hand
The lacquered steps of hope
And happenstance.
May it fix upon us its deep
Uncertain gaze!
I shall be there to greet it
Though my company
Be small and moody.
I shall beg it stay
And may its presence give
Some respite from the steely glare
Of Indicative, a mantle to shield us
From Passive's clammy chill.
May it light again the land
Between the world that was
And is, and that which still might be,
And may we tread again desire's
Leaf-dappled path
Of possibility.
"The Return of the Subjunctive" by Tamara Madison, from Wild Domestic. © Pearl Editions, 2011. (buy now)

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

It's time to tax big-time moneymaking athlete-exploiting college sports

In a well-wrought story in Chicago Life magazine, Allen R. Sanderson makes an excellent case for imposing a sin tax on the revenues that intercollegiate football and basketball generate for everyone but the players.

"This money," writes Sanderson, "could be set aside to provide funding for the ex-players to return to earn a degree, enter a graduate program, and/or start a small business."

Sanderson puts forth a novel idea for addressing the exploitive system by which everyone in big-time college sports makes big money except the athletes.

The peculiar system presided over by the NCAA was laid out very well by Jesse Fox Mayshark in Exploiting U.: The Issue of Paying College Players Grows Along With Coaches' Rising Salaries, a story later cited as the best sports story in East Tennessee in 2010.

While players are obliged to invest the time appropriate to a full-time job, they are forbidden by NCAA rules even to hold part-time jobs, as other college students do.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Use adverbs instead of incorrect adjectives, even if it makes you sound like a smarty pants!

We are accustomed to athletes use manly sounding adjectives where more prissy-sounding adverbs should be. "I take this serious! Real serious!" whined Arizona Cardinals quarterback Derek Anderson after a wag questioned his commitment. "I put my heart and soul into this every single week!"

In certain parts of the nation, a person using an adverb in a quote like the one above might be seen as a snob or, worse, of harboring any number of seditious beliefs --from evolution and global warming to banning guns in bars.

This is probably why the development coordinator of Ijams Nature Center, an educational enterprise, was quoted in a recent Knoxville News Sentinel story as saying, "Absorbing that [budget] cut meant we were going to have to do things different. We did not elect to lay off staff, so we reshuffled the deck, changed things around."

Our language is slowly losing the distinction between adjectives and adverbs, but for now we should follow the rule:

Harbrace Rule 4a: Use adverbs to modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs

NOT Leela played her part perfect.
USE Leela played her part perfectly. [The adverb perfectly modifies the verb played.]

NOT The plane departs at a reasonable early hour.
USE The plane departs at a reasonably early hour. [The adverb reasonably modifies the verb early.]

Most dictionaries still label the following as informal usage: sure for surely, real for really, and good for the adverb well.

INFORMAL The Broncos played real good during the first quarter.
FORMAL The Broncos played very well during the first quarter.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

4 ways to improve quotes in press releases

These tips come from no-nonsense Texan Laura Hale Brockway's excellent blog,, and from Ragan's PR Daily:

Trash those lazy verbs.

A common problem with press release quotes is that they’re full of lazy corporate verbs such as synergize, utilize, leverage, or facilitate.
“We are leveraging cutting-edge technology to meet our customer’s needs.”
What does that even mean? Instead, describe your customer’s needs and how your product solves it: “Suppliers often do not have real-time access to customers. This app enables them to send secure, instant messages to anyone in the supply chain.”

Keep it conversational.

Another problem with press release quotes—particularly those from the CEO or another executive—is that your audience knows these quotes are made up.
When was the last time you actually heard someone say, “This new app will foster a new synergistic environment where suppliers and customers can leverage the new social media environment to communicate”?
Conversational quotes are more believable.

Can you paraphrase?

PR professionals are often given quotes from clients, and that may be all you have to work with.
How can you improve the quotes if you can’t go back to the client and ask for something else?
Can you paraphrase what’s been sent? Can you break up the quote? Do you have to use the quote at the beginning of the press release?
For example, take this quote:
“I plan to continue this legacy of providing innovative products and services to our customers. With over 30 competing companies for our customers to choose from, we have some challenges ahead. I am confident that we can meet those challenges successfully. And the first step is the release of our new app," says XYZ President and CEO John Johnson.
And turn it into this:
President and CEO John Johnson believes the release of the new app will provide customers with the communications tools they need, setting XYZ Company apart from more than 30 competitors.

Step up your interviewing skills.

Want better quotes? Ask better questions.

If you are interviewing the person you’ll be quoting, consider these interviewing techniques from Ken Metzler’s book Creative Interviewing: The Writer's Guide to Gathering Information:
• Ask for anecdotes. Is there a real-world example you can use to enliven your quotes?
• Ask for metaphors. How does the product or service compare to something familiar to your readers?
• Listen for crossroads and epiphanies. What led to the creation of the product or service? What were the stumbling blocks along the way? When did they realize it would work?
• Ask follow-up questions. If the interview is over and you don’t have what you need for a good quote, ask more questions.

Make your quotes worth quoting. Keep the language conversational and free of jargon. Paraphrase when possible. Ask probing questions.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Behold the colon -- in punctuation, not anatomy

Harbrace 17d (p. 235 in the 17th edition) The colon

A colon calls attention to what follows. It also separates numbers in parts of scriptural references and titles from subtitles.

(1) A colon directs attention to an explanation, a summary, or a quotation.

When a colon appears between two independent clauses, it signals that the second clause will explain or expand on the first.

No one expected the game to end as it did: after seven extra innings, the favored team collapsed.

A colon is also used after an independent clause to introduce a direct quotation.

Marcel Proust explained the importance of mindfulness: "The true journey of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having fresh eyes."

Although an independent clause should always precede the colon, a phrase may sometimes follow it.

I was finally confronted with what I had dreaded for months: the due date for the final balloon payment on my car loan.

(2) A colon may signal a list that follows.
Writer frequently use colons to introduce lists

Three students received internships: Asa, Vanna, and Jack.

Avoid placing a colon between a verb and its complement (1c) or after the words including or such as.

The winners were Asa, Vanna, and Jack.
Many vegetarians do not eat dairy products such as butter and cheese.

(3) A colon separates a title and a subtitle.

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.

(4) Colons are used in reference numbers.
Colons are often used between numbers in scriptural references.
John 3:16

(5) Colons have specialized uses in business correspondence.
A colon follows the salutation of a business letter and any notations.

Dear Mr. Horner: Dear Maxine: Enc:
To: From: Subject: Date:

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Common English phrases found in the King James Bible

The list below comes from a very nice NPR story celebrating the 400th birthday of the King James Bible.

Though it cannot be said that all of these phrases originated in the Bible, notes NPR, it is likely that the King James Bible was the first time that many of them appeared in English.

Savvy reader Katherine Armour noted that NPR's report ignored the contribution of William Tyndale, whose translation accounts for 84% of the New Testament and 75.8% of the Old Testament books in the King James. (For his trouble, of course, Tyndale was executed. Sic semper literatus.)

A drop in the bucket (Isaiah 40:15)

A house divided against itself cannot stand (Matthew 12:25)

A man after his own heart (Samuel 13:14 or Acts 13:22)

A wolf in sheep's clothing (Matthew 7:15)

An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth (Exodus 21:24; Leviticus 24:20; Deuteronomy 19:21; Matthew 5:38)

Apple of your eye (Deuteronomy 32:10, Zechariah 2:8)

At their wits' end (Psalms 107:27)

Baptism of fire (Matthew 3:11)

Bite the dust (adapted from Psalms 72)

Broken heart (Psalms 34:18)

By the skin of your teeth (Job 19:20)

By the sweat of your brow (Genesis 3:19)

Can a leopard change its spots? (Jeremiah 13:23)

Cast the first stone (John 8:7)

Chariots of Fire (2 Kings 6:17)

Cross to bear (Luke 14:27)

Don't cast your pearls before swine (Matthew 7:6)

Eat drink and be merry (Ecclesiastes 8:15)

Fall by the wayside (Matthew 13:4)

Fall from grace (Galatians 5:4)

Fat of the land (Genesis 45:18)

Feet of clay (Daniel 2:31-33)

Fight the good fight (1 Timothy 6:12)

Fire and brimstone (Genesis 19:24-26)

Flesh and blood (Matthew 16:17)

Fly in the ointment (adapted from Ecclesiastes 10:1)

Forbidden fruit (Genesis 2:9)

From strength to strength (Psalms 84:7)

Give up the ghost (Mark 15:37)

Heart's desire (Psalms 21:2)

He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword (Matthew 26:52)

Holier than thou (Isaiah 65:5)

How the mighty are fallen (Samuel 1:19)

In the twinkling of an eye (1 Corinthians 15:52)

It's better to give than receive (Acts 20:35)

Labour of love (Hebrews 6:10)

Lamb to the slaughter (Isaiah 53:7)

Land of Nod (Genesis 4:16)

Law unto themselves (Romans 2:14)

Letter of the law (2 Corinthians 3:6)

Living off the fat of the land (Genesis 45:18)

Love of money is the root of all evil (Timothy 6:10)

Manna from heaven (Exodus 16:15)

Many are called but few are chosen (Matthew 22:14)

My cup runneth over (Psalms 23:5)

No rest for the wicked (adapted from Isaiah 57:20)

Nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

O ye of little faith (Luke 12:28)

Out of the mouths of babes (Psalms 8:2, Matthew 21:16)

Peace offering (Leviticus 3:6)

Pride goes before a fall (Proverbs 16:18)

Put words in her mouth (2 Samuel 14:3)

Put your house in order (2 Kings 20:1)

Reap what you sow (adapted from Galatians 6:7)

See eye to eye (Isaiah 52:8)

Set your teeth on edge (Jeremiah 31:30)

Sign of the times (Matthew 16:3)

Sour grapes (Jeremiah 31:30)

Sweat of your brow (Genesis 3:19)

Tender mercies (Psalms 25:6)

The blind leading the blind (Matthew 15:14)

The ends of the earth (Zechariah 9:10)

The root of the matter (Job 19:28)

The powers that be (Romans 13:1)

The salt of the earth (Matthew 5:13)

The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak (Matthew 26:41)

The Straight and narrow (Matthew 7:13/14)

There's nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

Two edged sword (Proverbs 5:4)V

oice crying in the wilderness (John 1:23)

Wages of sin (Romans 6:23)

Wash your hands of the matter (Matthew 27:24)

White as snow (Daniel 7:9)

Woe is me (Job 10:15)

Writing is on the wall (Daniel 5: 5/6)

Note: Most of these phrases are direct quotations. Others have slight word order changes that make the modern phrase quicker and catchier.

Friday, August 12, 2011

That pesky college application essay - the Times and its readers weigh in

Last week, The New York Times ran an interesting story about students using summer experiences to beef up their "personal statement" college application essays. This week, readers weighed in with their thoughts on the matter. Both are linked below.

N.Y. / REGION August 06, 2011 For a Standout College Essay, Applicants Fill Their Summers By JENNY ANDERSON Students preparing to apply to college are increasingly tailoring their summer plans with the goal of creating a better personal statement.

OPINION August 12, 2011 Letters: How to Make That College Essay Special Readers respond to a recent article about students pursuing activities over the summer than will help them write a strong essay for college applications.

One handy tip for writing application essays is to start the process in the summer months, when there might be time to look over the various topics on the applications, brainstorm ideas on an unrushed morning, and start a draft or two that can be revised upon a few days reflection (and many times thereafter).

Once the school year starts and those application deadlines start looming, it's much tougher to be clearthinking, fresh and original.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Apostrophe -- its use and abuse

Garner's Usage Tip of the Day

The Apostrophe ['].

This punctuation mark does three things:

First, it often indicates the possessive case {Wright's treatise}.

Second, it frequently marks the omission of one or more elements and the contracting of the remaining elements into a word (or figure) -- e.g.: "never" into "ne'er"; "will not" into "won't"; "1997" into "'97."

Third, it is sometimes used to mark the plural of an acronym, number, or letter -- e.g.: "CPA's" (now more usually "CPAs"), "1990's" (now more usually "1990s"), and "p's and q's" (still with apostrophes because of the single letters).

Two contradictory trends -- both bad -- are at work with apostrophes.

First, careless writers want to form plurals with wayward apostrophes -- e.g.: "The bishop's [read 'bishops'] of the United Methodist Church have issued an urgent appeal for funds to assist the victims of flooding in the Midwest." Monte Marshall, "Special Offering for Flood Relief," United Methodist Rep., 3 Sept. 1993.

The same problem occurs in third-person-singular verbs: In the early 1990s, a sign at an Austin service station read, "Joe say's: It's time to winterize your car." And a distressing number of signs on mailboxes and entryways are printed, e.g., "The Smith's" [read "The Smiths"].

The second unfortunate trend is to drop necessary apostrophes: there is a tendency to write "the hotels many shops" or "Martins Pub." The only possible cure is increased literacy.

Finally, U.S. place names drop possessive and associative apostrophes by government policy. So, what was once Harper's Ferry, West Virginia, became Harpers Ferry.

In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt charged the U.S. Board on Geographic Names with standardizing place names. One resulting policy is that each name become a "fixed label" so that, under this questionable rationale, "[t]he need to imply possession or association no longer exists."

Contracting apostrophes {Lake O' the Pines} and surname apostrophes {O'Bannon Mill} remain.

Monday, July 18, 2011

How to get perfect sixes on the SAT essay

The SAT essay is scored by two readers, each of whom grades on a scale from 1 to 6. So you're aiming for two sixes -- boxcars in dice-throwing terminology.

In the story below, Tamar Lewin of The New York Times shows that you don't need to be perfect, or even have perfect spelling, to get a 6. To read the story and see several sample essays, click here.

One kid got a 6 even though he quoted from the musical Cats, which might earn an automatic 1 from some graders. Another did such a good job discussing Elie Wiesel's Night that the graders forgave his misspelling of "hindrance."

West High School English teacher Shannon Jackson, who grades AP essays, says that, indeed, graders are supposed to think of the esays as drafts, because of course that's what they are. So you truly can get a perfect 6 without being perfect.

Scoring The Essay Question
Perfect’s New Profile, Warts and All
Published: September 3, 2006

WHEN it comes to the SAT, perfect is now a whole lot harder. But take heart if you favor cursive over printing, the third person over the first, and more over less. You may have an edge.
More than 1,000 students got a perfect 1600 last year, when the college-admissions test consisted of the time-honored two 800-point sections, verbal and math.

But now that the test has been revamped and expanded to nearly four hours, with a new writing section that includes an essay, the average scores have dropped by seven points — and only 238 students received the new perfect score of 2400.

Technically, even perfect isn’t necessarily perfect. Students can get the top score even if they miss a few questions.

“We actually don’t know how many got a perfect perfect,” said Caren Scoropanos, a spokeswoman for the College Board.

What the College Board does know is that the top scorers comprised 131 boys and 107 girls, or just 0.017 percent of the almost 1.5 million college-bound seniors who took the test.
It seems to be the writing test that has made the number of perfects plummet. While the math and reading sections each had more than 8,000 top scores, only 4,102 students were rated perfect on the writing test, the only part of the exam where girls outscored boys.

Most of the writing test — and three-quarters of the writing score — consists of multiple-choice questions on grammar and usage. But most of the anxiety among high school students centers on the 25-minute essay, graded on a scale of one to six by at least two readers, who spend about three minutes on each essay. Their two scores are added. And, the College Board said, the reason so few students won top marks on the writing section is that so few — less than one percent — got sixes from both readers, for that perfect 12.

The SAT Scoring Guide says an essay gets a six if it “effectively and insightfully develops a point of view on the issue,” “demonstrates outstanding critical thinking,” “is well organized and clearly focused,” and “exhibits skillful use of language.” Grading is holistic, with no points off for spelling errors or small linguistic flaws.

Last week, when the board released 20 top-scoring essays, all on the topic of whether memories are a help or a hindrance, it was impossible not to notice that many were — what’s the right word? — awkward:

“Memory is often the deciding factor between humans and animals,” one started.
“It is a commonly cited and often clich├ęd adage that people learn from their mistakes,” wrote another.

“We reason only with information, that is, reason is the mortar that arranges & connects pieces of information into the palace of understanding,” said a third.

Ed Hardin, who helped develop the writing test for the College Board, has an explanation: “Someone has to get a six,” he said. “Student writing, over all, is not very strong, which is the reason we added the writing test to the SAT. We hope they’ll get better.

After analyzing the results, the board had these insights for the next crop of SAT-takers:

  • Eighty-four percent of the essays took up more than one page, and longer essays were more likely to get a high score than shorter ones. (Two pages is the limit.)

  • Most essays were printed, but those written in cursive got slightly higher scores.

  • About half the essays were written in the first person, but those that did not use the first person got slightly higher scores.
“You can certainly write a first-person essay and get a six, but it’s also true that a lot of very low-performing students write first person,” Mr. Hardin said. “What we tried to show, in releasing these top-scoring essays, is that lots of different things can work. You can select any style, any approach that you think suits your strengths as a writer.”

And on the essay, at least, it’s possible to get a six without coming anywhere near perfect.

WHAT PRACTICE MADE? Misspellings are no “hinderance” to a perfect score on the SAT essay. Scorers looked for “clear and consistent mastery” in areas like critical thinking. They found it, apparently, in these essays, whose opening words are shown. Students were asked, “Do memories hinder or help people in their effort to learn from the past and succeed in the present?”

Friday, July 15, 2011

How to structure the SAT essay

As mentioned in the post below, the essay section of the SAT presents an opportunity to excel for those who are prepared.

Below are tips from St. Albans School math teacher Linda DeBord. In her SAT-prep program, students compose two to five essays under test conditions, which Mrs. DeBord then assesses and scores.

"Learning to outline and write an essay under pressure was invaluable," said one student. "The corrected essays were also helpful, as we learned from our mistakes."

Of course a student should briefly outline the essay before writing. "In the brief 25 minutes, the up-front planning is critical," says Mrs. DeBord, "but the students need to keep a careful eye on the time.

"I suggest that in the opening paragraph, after they state their thesis, they should mention two examples they will use. The examples should be clear in their relationship in supporting the thesis.

"The conclusion should restate, in an interesting way (if possible), the thesis and then re-tie in the examples."

So, the structure of the essay goes pretty much --

  1. State thesis

  2. Preview two supporting examples

  3. Elaborate thesis

  4. Flesh out examples

  5. Conclusion
    a) restate thesis (interesting way)
    b) re-tie in the examples

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Outlining in a hurry on the SAT essay

This is the first of several Grammar Tips of the Day about the SAT essay.

One key to success is knowing how to sketch out a brief outline.

This skill, always important on essay tests, is especially highlighted by the essay section of the SAT: In just 25 minutes, kids have to plan their time, think through their arguments and put them on paper. Many test-takers interviewed on TV said they didn't finish in the allotted time.

Harbrace Section 33e: Choose an appropriate method or combination of methods for arranging ideas offers some good tips on listing ideas, outlining and writing essays.

The trick with the new SAT is in doing all this swiftly and effectively. (And, of course, as in all things, penmanship counts!)

In those opening moments, the essayist must consider the topic and map out a course of action---making a list of ideas to touch on and a conclusion to be heading toward.

This is the time to take a deep breath, look at this list, amend as appropriate, and plan those minutes. If there are five minutes to go and you're halfway through your outline (this happens) you must make the remaining points quickly and get to that conclusion.

Of course, the best keys to success are a) knowing what you want to say, b) practicing saying them in alloted periods of time, and c) feigning confidence, so the kids all around you panic. :-)

Monday, July 11, 2011

"Self-depreciating" and other common malapropisms

From today's West Side Shopper-News, page C-2:

"[Former UT and NFL linebacker Mike] Stratton spoke with self-depreciating humor . . . "

Many people confuse the term "self-deprecating" with the malapropism "self-depreciating," which might more properly apply to a piece of self-aware farm machinery.

Malapropisms, or malaprops (both are correct) are the misapplications of words, usually humorous, specifically, the use of words sounding somewhat like the ones intended but ludicrously wrong in their contexts. The words come from a character, Mrs. Malaprop, in a 1775 R.B. Sheridan comedy.

We all hope that magazine articles are filled with interesting "antidotes" (should be "anecdotes").

A recent story in the Knoxville News Sentinel referred to a coach at an Southeastern Conference meeting making the only "descending" (should be "dissenting") vote against merging basketball divisions.

We often hear TV announcers refer to "lacksadaisical" play on defense. The word "lackadaisical" comes from "lackaday," an alteration and shortening of the archaic interjection "alack the day!" used to express regret.

Of course we all get "flustrated" with the officiating -- something between flustered and frustrated -- but in the end it's always a "mute" point. (It should be "moot" [deprived of practical relevance; no longer at issue], not "mute" [unable to speak].)

Lackaday! It all makes us yearn for the days of the St. Louis Cardinal pitcher and radio announcer Dizzy Dean, who once described a base runner, having "slud" into a base, as standing there "cool and confidential." [Linguistics professors like to point out that "slud" was the correct form of the past tense just a few hundred years ago.]

Yogi-isms are apparently-nonsensical-but-often-sagacious malapropisms created by longtime Yankee catcher and manager Yogi Berra, who once received an honorarium check for a speech made out to "Bearer" and asked of his host, "You've known me all these years and still don't know how to spell my name?"

Thursday, July 7, 2011

How to write the perfect college application essay

Here is good advice from the Boston College admissions office website:

First of all, let us debunk the myth. There is no such thing as a perfect essay. There, we've said it.

Now you can clear your mind of the anxiety that typically accompanies students as you sit down to write.

Instead, you can focus on using the essay as a tool to let the Committee on Admission learn more about you as an individual.

Many of us feel that in the fall of your senior year, the college essay is the only portion of your application remaining on which you can still have a significant influence.

Granted, you will need to continue working hard in your classes, but you have already met people who will speak highly of you in a recommendation, you have already been involved in various extra-curricular activities, and you have likely completed your standardized examinations. The one remaining portion is the college essay.

We realize how hectic your senior year is, but take advantage of this opportunity.

The best essays that we read are ones that tell us not only about a specific event, mentor, excursion, or accomplishment, but also tell us how the writer has been affected by their experiences. For example, a typical essay might inform the reader of a trip to France that the student took the previous summer. It might focus on the challenges faced in getting to their destination, the French culture, or even the people that the student met.

The better essay, however, takes it to the next level. It makes the experience personal. The student might choose to explain what surprised, frustrated, or inspired them about the trip. The student might choose to focus on how they now view the world a little bit differently after this newfound international perspective.

Another common example is students' essays on a person who influenced their lives. Frequently, we read essays about applicants' grandparents, for example. Many essays simply focus on the attributes that a grandmother has that make her special to the applicant. They may focus on the challenges that a grandmother has overcome or the successes she has enjoyed. They leave the reader knowing that the student loves his grandmother, but not knowing anything more about the student.

The better essay, however, might also focus on the way the writer has attempted to emulate these admired qualities. The student might choose to share how learning of his grandmother's life experiences has helped him better understand the world. This allows us to learn more about the student and what makes the student special.

As you can see, in both of these examples, the first essay simply tells us of an experience, but the second essay shows us more about the individual. We walk away from it knowing a bit more about the qualities the applicant possesses and how he or she might fit into our campus community.

We hope that you will not view the college essay as a roadblock between you and your college choice, but as a unique opportunity to be in the driver's seat in the college process. Let your qualities, characteristics, and personality shine through.

Best wishes as you begin your journey,

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Email Tip: Use Your Subject Line Effectively

When sending an email, the subject line is one of the most important parts of your message – yet the one many people spend the least time on.

With so many emails in everyone’s Inbox, many messages are unopened long after they’ve been received – or never opened in some cases.

The ideal subject line provides two things:
1) Enough information to make a recipient want to open the email,
2) Key information in case the message becomes buried under a dozen other emails.

Yet the subject line should be relatively short.

Here are some tips on crafting effective subject lines:

  • If possible, summarize the content of an email. For example, a subject line such as “What time is good for our staff meeting?” tells the recipient more than just one that reads “Meeting.”

  • When replying, avoid “Re: Re:-itis” by changing your subject line to reflect your answer. For example, “1 pm is better for me” is more helpful to recipients than “Re: Meeting” or “Re: Re: Meeting.”

  • If you’re announcing an event, try to include the date, time and place in the subject line. This helps everyone refer to the key points later. Note: Use hyphens instead of back slashes in numerical dates. For example, “Staff meeting Thurs. 6-24, 1 pm, WT7 Rm 325” is more helpful and informative than just “Staff Meeting.”

Friday, July 1, 2011

Invigorate your prose: find hidden verbs

From A Plain English Handbook, put out by the Securities and Exchange Commission to encourage Wall Street denizens to make their stock and bond offerings halfway intelligible to the public:

Find Hidden Verbs
Does a sentence use any form of the verbs "to be," "to have," or another weak verb, with a noun that could be turned into a strong verb? In the sentences below, the strong verb lies hidden in a nominalization, a noun derived from a verb that usually ends in -tion. As you change nouns to verbs, your writing becomes more vigorous and less abstract.

before after
We made an application... We applied...
We made an determination... We determined...
We will make an distribution... We will distribute...

We will provide appropriate information to shareholders concerning ....

We will inform shareholders about ...

We will have no stock ownership of the company.

We will own no company stock..

There is the possibility of prior Board approval of these investments.

The Board might approve these investments in advance.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Affect and effect -- the peskiest homonyms

From: Ruge Rules:

Homonyms are words similar or identical in sound but different in spelling and meaning.

Affect and effect are the two most frequently confused homonyms. Each can be used in several different senses, but if you learn only the meanings below, you will obviate (prevent by anticipatory action) 95 percent of the trouble most people have with these two words.

affect v.

  • To cause a change to take place in, to influence (to produce an effect upon):
    Smoking affects the health. The mayor's reform will affect the life of every citizen.

  • To touch or move emotionally: The play so affected me that I cried.

  • To pretend, to imitate: I affect an aire of supercilious disdain. ("Affected" in "He is an affected ass" is the past participle of the verb affect as used in sense 3.)

Note: The word "affect" is never a noun, except in one sense, used by psychologists, who refer to "affective states" and "affect" -- with regard to a person's face and the feeling or range of feelings expressed therein. As in: "The patient had an unusual affect that probably traced back to an unhappy childhood."

The word "effect" is a noun or a verb

effect v.

  • To bring into being, to bring about, to cause to happen, to accomplish: I effected an honorable solution to a tough problem.

effect n.

  • A result or consequence (anything produced by an agent or cause): What effect will the mayor's reforms have upon the citizens?

    The effect of the win was improved morale

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

More mnemonic spelling aids

John T. Bird of Birmingham, Ala., is an old friend best known for writing Twin Killing: The Bill Mazeroski Story and successfully campaigning to get the longtime Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Last year Bird put his energy behind mnemonic devices for spelling, as he published Fuchsia Shock: 151 Common But Difficult Words You Will Never Misspell Again!
With illustrations by Stefanie Slaughter, Fuchsia Shock coaches us to associate exhilarating with hilarious. "Example: laughing in the theater at the hilarious movie was an exhilarating experience."
In the attached entry, Bird advises us to associate potato with NATO. Similarly, he advises us to think of currency to remember that second "r" in occurrence.
To order a copy, click here to email John Bird.

Try these mnemonic devices --

  • There is a rat in separate.

  • I have an independent dentist. (We also have an independent superintendent, who comes from Boston.)

  • The principal is my pal. "Principal" can also refer to a matter or thing of primary importance, or the capital sum placed at interest, due as a debt, or used as a fund, as in the principal of a loan.

  • A principle is a comprehensive and fundamental law, doctrine or assumption. As in, you are always true to your principles.

  • For the dance, your attendance is requested, just as it will be for you descendants.

  • A vast area was devastated.

  • Finally, something definite.

  • Like the letters you'll write on it, stationery has an "e" in it. (As opposed to stationary, or unmoving, objects.)

  • We're all all grateful for congratulations.

  • The U.S. Capitol building has a dome on it -- as do the "o"s in both words. Confusingly, Washington., D.C., is the capital of the United States. Why? The former word comes from the Capitoleum , the temple of Jupiter at Rome that sat atop the Capitoline hill. The latter comes from the Latin capitalis, meaning chief, or principal, (derived from the Latin word caput, meaning "head"). All you have to remember is the building has a domed "o." All other meanings are with an "a."

  • FedEx executive Shane O'Connor writes, "I remember one class in which [Ferdinand E.] Ruge was teaching us a way to remember how to correctly spell “exhilarate,” since it is often misspelled “exhilerate.” He stood in front of the class in his gray pinstriped three-piece suit and swung his pocket watch fob around as he sang, "La la la la la la la. Exhi-LA-rate exhi-LA-rate."

How can you learn for sure to spell tough words, like occurrence, or accommodate? Or parallel?

One good start is to pay a visit to Harbrace Chapter 18: Spelling and Hyphenation. The first seven pages are invaluable for anyone.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Neither leisure foreigner seized the weird heights

Today's Knoxville News Sentinel reports that a Knox County Commission auditor sent emails to a county commissioner that included the sentence, "And your family are weirdos that go to a wierd (sic) church!" (Click here to read the whole story.)

The auditor, apparently unsure of the spelling of "weird," went ahead and spelled it both ways, figuring to be correct on one of them.

He would have done well to recall the mnemonic device that helps us remember the major exceptions to the "I before e" rule--i.e., the unforgettable sentence "Neither leisure foreigner seized the weird heights."

A mnemonic device is one that assists the memory, from the Greek mnemon--mindful. Mnemosyne (right) was the Greek goddess of memory and the mother, by Zeus, of the Muses.

Of course the "I before e" rule is, "I before e, except after c, or when sounded as 'a,' as in neighbor or weigh." ]

More mnemonic devices for spelling tomorrow.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Lay versus lie

Today's Garner's Usage Tip of the Day takes up a longstanding quandary: the distinction between lay and lie.

Very simply, "lie" (= to recline, be situated) is intransitive -- it can't take a direct object {he lies on his bed}.

But "lay" (= to put down, arrange) is always transitive -- it needs a direct object {please lay the book on my desk}.

The verbs are inflected "lay-laid-laid-laying" and "lie-lay-lain-lying."

Because "lie" is intransitive, it has only an active voice {lie down for a while}. And because "lay" is transitive, it may be either active {he laid the blanket over her} or passive {the blanket was laid over her}.

To use "lay" without a direct object, in the sense of "lie," is nonstandard {I want to lay down} {he was laying in the sun}. But this error is very common in speech -- from the illiterate to the highly educated [to Bob Dylan -- "Lay, lady lay. Lay across my big brass bed."].

In fact, some commentators believe that people make this mistake more often than any other in the English language. Others claim that it's no longer a mistake -- or even that it never was. But make no mistake: using these verbs correctly is a mark of refinement.

The most unusual of these inflected forms, of course, is "lain," but most writers have little difficulty getting it right -- e.g.: "Katrina Kuratli said she and her husband, Dan, had just lain down in their bedroom when the bomb went off around 10:45 p.m." Mack Reed, "Pipe Bomb Rips Car, Jolts Simi Neighborhood," L.A. Times, 30 Apr. 1994, at B9.

Click here to email Bryan Garner.

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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

How the 'Harbrace Handbook of English' Changed the Way Americans Learn About Writing

Click here to read the MetroPulse story by Brooks Clark and Cari Wade Gervin paying homage to Dr. John C. Hodges (right) of the University of Tennessee.

It was 70 years ago that Hodges wrote the Harbrace College Handbook, which today reigns as the best-selling textbook of all time.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Bryan Garner takes on four cases of grammatical illogic; hilarity ensues

Today Bryan Garner's Usage Tip of the Day takes on four common cases of grammatical illogic, providing amusing examples.

Illogic (3).

Part A: Danglers and Misplaced Modifiers. Every dangler or misplaced modifier perverts logic to some degree, sometimes humorously -- e.g.: "I saw the Statue of Liberty flying into Newark." To avoid these disruptions of thought, remember that a participle should relate to a noun that's capable of performing the participle's action.

Part B: The Disjointed Appositive. Phrases intended to be in apposition shouldn't be separated -- e.g.: "A respected English legal authority on the common law, the view of William Blackstone permeated much of the early thinking on freedom of expression." John Murray, The Media Law Dictionary 11 (1978). (Blackstone himself, not Blackstone's view, is the respected authority.)

Part C: Mistaken Subject of a Prepositional Phrase. This problem crops up usually when a word or phrase intervenes between the noun and the prepositional phrase referring to that noun. Often, as here, the noun ("school bus") functions as an adjective: "Wallin was the school bus driver in which [read 'Wallin was driving the school bus in which'] Hillman and Ellington and Kleven were passengers."

Part D. Poor Exposition of Sequence. Don't ask your readers to assume what is not logically possible by your very assumptions -- e.g.: "The twin-engine turbo prop Merlin Fairchild 300 carrying driver Alan Kulwicki and three other men suddenly dropped off the radar screen and crashed shortly before landing." Karen Allen & Erik Brady, "Motor Sports," USA Today, 5 Apr. 1993, at C9. (Because the plane "landed" when it crashed, the logic of the temporal sequence is flawed.)

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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Semicolon with 25-cent connecting words

Harbrace rule 14a: Use a semicolon to connect independent clauses not linked by a coordinating conjuction (and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet).

Another fairly handy semicolon construction is the following:

Use a semi-colon before such 25-cent connecting words as "hence," "however," "moreover," "nevertheless," and "therefore" if they connect two complete thoughts and if they are the first word in the second.

Right: Duke is a good dog; however, he has a serious problem with his Milk Bone habit.

A comma follows these words if they cause a pause in the reading. You have to play it by ear. "Therefore," for example, often doesn't need a comma after it.
As in --
I think; therefore I am. (Cogito; ergo sum.)

Note: make sure to use commas around these words when they are used "parenthetically" in the middle of a sentence.

As in -- My fear for Duke, however, is that his Milk Bone addiction will affect his ability to love and work.

Monday, June 6, 2011

End of an era -- no more hyphen in "email"

The Associated Press Stylebook, which rules like a god over its journalistic subjects, announced in March that the abbreviated term for “electronic mail” is losing its hyphen. So we are now supposed to write "email" instead of "e-mail."
This is a bigger deal than the change last year from "Web site" to "website."
This signals the end of an era, as one blogger put it, as we put aside a relic of a simpler time when Internet technology needed to be explained very carefully.
Snail mail is still to be written as two words. Is it time for a change there, too?

Friday, June 3, 2011

That pesky subjunctive

A subhed in this week's Metro Pulse: "After five years locked up, Scott West has a lot to say -- about prison, downtown Knoxville, and people who wish he was [sic.] a little more repentant."

What the heck do we do with the subjunctive mood?

In the 1946 edition of Harbrace, University of Tennessee Professor John C. Hodges wrote, "Only a few distinctive forms of the subjunctive remain," noting the top two --

  • Required Subjunctive -- chiefly in 'that' clauses of motions, resolutions, recommendations, order or demands." [e.g., "I demand that he see a physician."]

  • Preferred or Optional Subjunctive -- especially in contrary-to-fact conditions and in expressions of doubts, wishes, or regrets. [e.g., "If the apple were ripe, it would be delicious."]

Hodges also made the distinction between formal and colloquial expression, giving four examples of colloquialisms we hear all the time, such as the one in the example above, "I wish that he was here."

More recent Harbraces state Rule 7d(2) as follows: The mood of a verb expresses the writer's attitude toward the factuality of what he or she is saying. The indicative mood makes statements--a definite attitude; the imperative mood issues commands or requests--an insistent attitude; and the subjunctive mood expresses situations that are hypothetical or conditional--a tentative attitude.

Indicative Dannice calls me every day.

Imperative Call me every day, Dannice

Subjunctive It is important that Dannice call me every day.

Examples of mis-subjunctification:

Atop our Sunday's "Week in Review" section of The New York Times stood the jarring headline: "If Bill Clinton Was President." It was corrected in later editions and on the Times website to read, "If Bill Clinton Were President."

Here's a similar case from the Knoxville News Sentinel a couple of years ago: "A photo from Tuesday's game showed [Pat Summitt] with her hand on [Shannon] Bobbitt's shoulder, delivering instructions as if she was whispering a secret in Bobbitt's left ear.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

David Hunter's op-ed on grammar mistakes we see all too regularly

In his Knoxville News Sentinel column entitled (sic.) You're grammatical errors can cost you, former cop David Hunter notes a few mistakes we (unfortunately) see all the time.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The challenge of putting "only" where it belongs

Nothing tests the precision of our writing like the placement of modifiers like "only" and "just."

Note how the meaning in the following sentences changes according to the position of only.

She said that she loved only him. [She loved no one else.]
She said that she only loved him. [Even love has its limitations.]
She said that only she loved him. [No one else loved him.]
She said only that she loved him. [She said nothing else.]
Only she said that she loved him. [No one else said it.]
She only said that she loved him. [She didn't mean it.]

This is covered in Harbrace Chapter 25, entitled Coherence: Misplaced Parts, Dangling Modifiers, which starts with the straightforward advice, "Keep related parts of a sentence together. Avoid dangling modifiers."

Rule 25a: To make your meaning clear to readers, place modifiers near the words they modify.

Section 25(1) reads, "In formal English, place modifiers such as almost, only, just, even, hardly, nearly and merely immediately before the words they modify."

The placement of "only" and "just" can change the meaning of a sentence in any number of ways.

Here are several examples of misplaced "only"s:

From the Knoxville News Sentinel: "A Parade All-America, [tailback Gerald] Riggs only managed 256 yards before [coach Trooper] Taylor's arrival."
The point is that 256 yards were not that many, so the "only" should go next to 256. As the sentence reads now, it implies that Riggs only "managed" 256 yards--that is, he didn't do something else with them.

In another News Sentinel story, the point guard for the Christian Academy of Knoxville hoops team commented on a 6'5" youngster who had recently arrived at his school: "They said he was only playing baseball." [This could mean that he was doing the sport more for fun than for long-term ambition.]
The point guard meant to say, "They said he was playing only baseball,"-- that is, not playing basketball, as a 6'5" youngster should.

Before the college football bowl season a few years ago, the News Sentinel explained that UT fans had been asked to send in ticket requests for two bowl games, so the ticketing process would be further along when bowl selections were announced. In the story, an otherwise carefully worded sentence reads, "Fans are only obligated to purchase tickets for the bowl in which Tennessee plays."
With the word "only" placed as it is, the meaning of the sentence is that fans are only obligated to purchase tickets, they are not required or bound in some stricter way. To achieve the meaning intended, it should read, "Fans are obligated to purchase tickets only for the bowl in which Tennessee plays."

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Harmon Killebrew's beautiful handwriting

Harmon Killebrew, who hit 573 home runs for the Washington Senators, Minnesota Twins and Kansas City Royals, died of cancer yesterday at age 74.

As Thomas Boswell writes in today's Washington Post, Killebrew was always known for his gracious demeanor, his great strength and his self-discipline on and off the field.

As the autograph above attests, he also had beautiful handwriting. Killebrew wrote this note at the request of Sports Illustrated baseball writer Steve Wulf, who knew of my affection for the old Senators, who moved to Texas to become the Rangers in 1970, one step removed from Killebrew's old, old Senators, who moved to Minnesota to become the Twins in 1961.

Killebrew was born and grew up in Payette, Idaho. He said he got his great strength from hustling 10-gallon milk cans in his summers as a young man. Presumably there was a grammar school teacher in Payette who taught him his elegant hand.

In a fond obituary in today's Minneapolis StarTribune, La Velle E. Neale III writes that "former Twins outfielder Torii Hunter remembered Killebrew as a mentor, both on and off the field. He said Killebrew looked at his autograph several years ago and deemed it to be illegible. 'I had a doctor's signature,' said Hunter, now with the Los Angeles Angels. 'I had a 'T' and an 'I' and a dot-dot. He said, "What the hell is this?" Killebrew told Hunter that if kids found that baseball, they would start throwing it around the park because they couldn't read the signature.' "

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Commas after introductory words containing a verb form

From Ruge Rules

The Rule: Place a comma after any purely introductory group of words containing a verb form.

As in: Instead of forgetting about the incident, he sought out the culprits.

Or: After working the problem, he sat down.

Or (with an understood, or elliptical, "I am"): Once in bed, I go right to sleep.

BUT: be careful about words at the start of a sentence with a verb among them that are actually the subject of the sentence.

As in: To expect every student to do his or her reasonable best is not to expect too much. (No comma.)

This is in the Harbrace College Handbook, under 12b (1).

Rule 12b(2) pertains to Introductory phrases before independent clauses.
It says, "Omit the comma after introductory prepositional phrases when no misreading would result:

As in: In a crisis we chose Lincoln and FDR. In between we choose what's-his-name.

Compare: Because of this, beauty differs radically from truth and goodness in one very important aspect.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Back to grammar fundamentals, says Kim Brooks of

Death to high school English

by Kim Brooks of

My college students don't understand commas, far less how to write an essay. Is it time to rethink how we teach?

Friday, January 14, 2011

Libel against grammarians in today's Times

"As Mr. Loughner has tried to explain it in Web postings, English grammar is not merely usage that enjoys common acceptance. Rather, it is nothing less than a government conspiracy to control people’s minds. Perhaps more bizarre, even potentially troubling, is that he is not the only one out there clinging to this belief. Some grammarians say they hear it more often than you may think."
-- Clyde Haberman in today's Times.

N.Y. / REGION January 14, 2011
NYC: Subjects and Verbs as Evil Plot
Even before the Tucson shootings, Jared L. Loughner acted weirdly and darkly in many ways. Nonetheless, for bizarreness, his rants about grammar stand out.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

"While" -- a comma makes it mean "whereas"

From today's News Sentinel:
Power forward Alex Tyus led the way for the Gators with 18 points, while shooting guard Kenny Boynton scored 17, including five in overtime.

From Ruge Rules:

The Rule: "While" can be used to mean "during the time that," and it can be used to mean "whereas."
In the former case, while is not preceded by a comma.
In the latter case, while must be preceded by a comma.

So: I can't study while my little brother is beating on his drum.
And: The Blue Ridge mountains are beautiful, while the Rockies are grand.

Purists and copyeditors tend to frown on the use of "while" to mean "whereas," because the meaning depends upon the comma and points of punctuation have a perverse way of not being where they should be.
If you choose to use "while" to mean "whereas," it's important to be assiduous in your punctuation.

Minimize prepositional phrases

Today we pass along Garner's Usage Tip of the Day:

The Preposition Quotient.

In lean writing, it's a good idea to minimize prepositional phrases. In flabby prose, a ratio of one preposition for every four words is common; in better, leaner writing, the quotient is more like one preposition for every 10-15 words.

Five editorial methods can tighten sentences marred with too many prepositions.
  1. The prepositional phrase can be deleted as surplusage; for example, it's often possible in a given context to change a phrase such as "senior vice president of the corporation" to "senior vice president" -- if the corporate context is already clear.

  2. Uncovering buried verbs often eliminates as many as two prepositions each time; thus, "is in violation of" becomes "violates."

  3. It's sometimes possible to replace a prepositional phrase with an adverb; so "she criticized the manuscript with intelligence" becomes "she criticized the manuscript intelligently."

  4. Many prepositional phrases resolve themselves into possessives; thus, "for the convenience of the reader" becomes "for the reader's convenience."

  5. And finally, a change from passive voice to active often entails removing a preposition; so "the ball was hit by Jane" becomes "Jane hit the ball."

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