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AIS Writing Tips

AIS Writing Tips

May 2014

Parting Advice

I'm not sure how quickly news has spread, but since I'm leaving AIS (or have already left AIS, depending on when you read this), this will be my last official writing tip.

The main reason I've written a tip every single month since September 2008 (nearly 70 tips!) is that I've received so much positive feedback from staff, including suggestions for topics. Thank you for all of the feedback. It's good to know that you've read and enjoyed the tips. I've certainly enjoyed writing them. 

One for the Road: Parting Advice

I might as well put the tip to good use. Here is a little parting advice. (Speaking of parting, it's not too late for parting gifts for your favorite technical communications specialist. I'm probably in the Computer Building as you read this--it's not that far away.)

That's it. I'm out of tips!

April 2014

Random Abbreviations

Random capitalization is something that I've talked about before (Random Capitalization), but a new trend seems to be starting: random abbreviations.

I know that it's not easy to type on smart phones and tablet devices, and I understand that once short-hand typing begins in one area, it will spread to more formal communication. Please note that understanding is not the same as accepting.

We have to remember that the key to good communication is writing something that the reader can understand, not writing something that's convenient for the writer. I know--that's crazy talk in today's world, but the crack staff at Writing Tips never hesitates to take on the most controversial topics of our time.

What's PBC?

As an example of random capitalization, I'm a fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates (something that I rarely stated in public from 1993 through 2012), and it took me an embarrassingly long time to decipher that the acronym PBC on a Pirate blog meant Pittsburgh Baseball Club. Every commenter and author seemed to know what everyone was talking about, but when PBC came up, I simply knew that it was some vague reference to the team. That's because I would visit the site once or twice per week; I wasn't part of that community of fans, so I as a reader was left out.

Leaving people out? That's the antithesis of good communication.

Acceptable Abbreviations

Some abbreviations are pretty standard and can be used freely, such as:

Non-Standard Abbreviations

It's when you start making up your own that you start to lose your audience.

A few non-standard (meaning randomly generated) abbreviations would include:

Using Initials

Another classic in today's world is to use a person's initials instead of name in an email or text, such as PY told me that there are leftover wings in the break room.

There are two problems with this. First, while PY might be in your circle of friends and the first person you think of, that might not be the case for the person reading. It's not the reader's job to think about who you might know and attach the person to the thought. It's your job to quickly and accurately convey the message to the audience.

Second, your reader might have a larger circle of friends and know multiple people with the same initials. Just within our little team, would PY be Paul Yeager (as you all might have assumed since you know the writing tips' author) or Pete Yezukevich?

One-Line Summary

Again, the main point is to think about what's best for your reader, not what's easiest for you.

March 2014

Grammar Bargain Hunting: Two Words for the Price of One!

Bargains are not always easy to find, so I have four bargains for you at the grammar store today: Two words for the price of one!

Alot/A Lot

The meaning of lot in this usage is a great deal of something or a large number of something. You can, of course, have a large number or amount of something, so you can have a lot of something. You could never have alot of anything, though, since alot is simply not a word. 

Of course, you would never use this very informal term, a lot, in any type of professional communication (am I right?).

Note: Be careful to not confuse the non-word alot with the perfectly legitimate word allot

Awhile/A While

Awhile is a perfectly acceptable and practical word; however, there is a subtle difference between awhile and a while (two words).

Awhile means for a period of time. A correct example would be Stay awhile (for a short period of time) 

The word while (no a at the beginning) means a period of time--notice the lack of the word for in front of it--and that makes a big difference in usage. Using the two-word version to express the sentiment above, it would be to say Stay for a while (Stay for a period of time.)

In the latter case, you might want to add a word to describe the period of time; otherwise, the invitation is for an open-ended period of time. Something like Stay for a little while or Stay for a good, long while would be more descriptive and grammatically correct.

Everyone/Every One

This is another example of when both the single and two-word versions are acceptable, but there is a usage difference.

Use everyone whenever the synonym everybody can also be used, such as Did everyone notice that the doughnuts disappeared after Pete came back from lunch?

Use every one (two words) whenever you mean every single one, such as Has every one of you had his doughnut?

Note: it's the same idea for anyone versus any one. For more, see the Every One and Any One post on Everything Language and Grammar.

Everyday/ Every Day

Everyday is an adjective that describes something that's routine or ordinary, such as Running late for work seems like an everyday occurrence around here. 

Every day is an adverb that answers the question when, such as I have been running late for work every day this week.

February 2014

Has Your Curiosity Been Peaked--or Piqued?

If the writing tips had only one goal, it would be this: Give the audience what it wants!

On Everything Language and Grammar (the blog I share with Sherry Coven), the second most popular post is on whether it's peaked or piqued when someone is talking about curiosity (Has Your Curiosity Been Peaked--or Piqued), so that's what I'll write about today.

The simple answer is: Piqued. Pique means, in this usage, to stimulate interest, which is what you're trying to maximize when talking about interest being piqued. As Sherry mentions in her post, the confusion is understandable since peak means the top of something (or the pinnacle), but the correct usage is piqued.

In case I piqued your interest about why  I'm not writing about the most popular topic, it's because I already have. The proper use of him and I (Is It Him and I or Him and Me) is the all-time most popular page on the blog, and I talked about that in a March 2012 writing tip. 

If you have any topics that you'd like me to write about, then drop me an email.

January 2014

Pop Versus Soda Versus Coke Debate, and Many More

One of the conversations that invariably takes place in central Pennsylvania (as I've seen countless times in my three decades here) is the soda-versus-pop debate, along with the creek-versus-crick and the sub-versus-hoagie debates...and so on and so on.

Well, those types of regional differences occur in many areas across the United States; it's not just a Pittsburgh/Philly thing.

Along those lines, Joshua Katz, from the University of North Carolina, pulled together 122 maps that show these regional differences (based on the data from the Harvard Dialect Survey of Vaux and Golder).

I know that this might mean I need a better hobby, but I spent a couple of hours one evening looking at all of the maps. I had trouble navigating the site, and the easiest thing to do seems to be to put the following link into a browser and then change the number in the url to get a new map: Change the number to 2 to see the second map, and it will work until you reach

Here are a few sample maps that might be particularly applicable to this region:

carbonated beverage map
(carbonated beverage map)

coupon linguistic map
(coupon map)

creek linguistic map
(creek map)

quarter linguistic map
(quarter map)

December 2013

Commonly Misused Words

Oh, it's that most special time of the year. Not only have red and green become our national colors, but we think that those extra calories won't count and that the extra credit card debt is no big deal. 

We also think that we'll solve all of our problems with a couple of well-planned resolutions, and that's where I can help.

Resolve to start using these 10 common words correctly (since you're probably misusing them):

To find out how to correctly use those words, please see the informative and interesting Hello Giggles blog post. 

November 2013

I'm looking at you: Common Punctuation Errors

The Huffington Post recently published an article on 6 Common Punctuation Mistakes That Drive Us Crazy.

It was published in honor of National Punctuation Day, which came and went last month without so much as one person sending me a card. First you missed National Weatherman's Day and my five-year anniversary (where I practically begged for cake), and now this. I don't know how I carry on...

The commentary below is mine--read the article for more detailed information.

apostrophe mistakes

October 2013

Smartest Person in the Room

The "smartest person in the room" is a phrase that's reaching cliche proportions because of its rampant use (including in the media), but it's often not used correctly.

Put simply, the smartest person in the room should be the person who knows an idea better than anyone else and can explain it in terms that the rest of the people in the room can understand. He/she might be five steps ahead of everyone else in terms of what needs to happen next, but he/she can explain it succinctly and clearly.

That is smart--brilliant even.

The smartest person in the room is not the person who explains a complex idea using words and concepts that are difficult to understand. Even if the person is five steps ahead, it doesn't matter since those steps are not explained in a way that the rest of the audience can understand.

That is not smart, at least if the goal is effective communication. It might be smart if the goal is to be perceived as smart since that seems to work!

I've often heard people talk about writers in the same way. "The author is brilliant. I can't understand anything he's saying, but it's obvious he was a lot smarter than I am." I prefer something I can understand.

September 2013

Because Quiz!


Please identify which of the following statements is correct. (Note: There might be more than one correct answer.)

Feel free to send me email after taking the quiz or just play along at your desk. The correct answer will be given below.

  1. I've now written 61 tips due to this being my 61st month at AIS.
  2. Due to this being my 61st month at AIS, I've now written 61 tips.
  3. I've now written 61 tips because this is my 61st month at AIS.
  4. All of the above.
  5. None of the above.

Hint 1: Not Interchangeable

The following is a hint: Due to and because are not interchangeable and cannot simply be substituted for one another on a whim. Each has a distinct meaning and usage.

Hint 2: Cake

Cake begins with the letter of the correct answer.

Speaking of cake, I've been here for 61 months, people. Where is the cake to celebrate this monumental achievement?!?!?! Deliveries are accepted in room 4, and I'm not particular about the kind (although I don't really like fruit in my desserts).

Correct Answer: C

Following the hints above, it's clear that "due to" would not be correct in the A and B examples above. Neither I've now written 61 tips caused by (attributable to) this being my 61st month at AIS or Attributable to (Caused by) this being my 61st month at AIS, I've now written 61 tips makes sense.

Similarly, it's clear that C is correct since I've now written 61 tips due to the fact that (for the reason that) this is my 61st month at AIS makes sense. (Note: Because this is my 61st month at AIS, I've now written 61 tips is also correct.

August 2013

Special Encore Performance

When I was young, the television season had a well-defined summer re-run season. Viewers were not as numerous during the summer, and shows were expensive to them again! This was before programming consisted of filming strange people doing strange things or following around a has-been celebrity. 

The re-run is the inspiration for this month's writing tip: It's that perfect opportunity to review some tips from the past. Maybe you missed a month (not likely, I know), or perhaps you need a reminder of tips gone by. Either way, here are some special writing tip encore performances.

July 2013

Nearly a Century of Slang

With the arrival of the summer doldrums, we need to keep our food and language discussions on the light side, especially since the fireworks are still ringing in my ears.

With that in mind, rather than telling you something you already know--never use slang in any type of professional communication--I thought I'd take a look back at some of slang of the past nearly 100 years (53 Slang Terms by Decade). I was surprised at how many are still in use today (but not in any professional communication...right?).










June 2013

Language Clichés and Pet Peeves

There are so many clichés and overused phrases in the English language that someone should write a book on the topic--oh wait, I already did (Literally, the Best Language Book Ever).

The potential problems with using clichés and overused phrases when writing and speaking are many, such as the overuse leading to ineffectiveness, the risk of sounding trendy rather than intelligent, and the potentially inappropriate nature of the phrase (such as talking about killing birds with stones in a business meeting).

That's why I thought I'd highlight a few such annoying words/phrases in this month's tip, from a Huffington Post blog earlier this year. The editorial comments are mine, not the author's (Michael Cohen). It's also not a complete list. Feel free to follow the link above if you want to see his complete list.

May 2013

Speaking Tip: More Mispronounced Words

I know that mispronunciations are technically not about writing, so we'll call this month a Speaking Tip.

A Primer article, 10 Words You Mispronounce That Make People Think You're an Idiot, lists some of the most commonly mispronounced words, some of which I've recently heard and will list here. For the rest, follow the link above.

April 2013

Viewer Mail (Circa 1984): Confusing Word Pairs

The late-night shows are in the news again, so as a shout-out to the longest tenured late-night comedian, David Letterman, I thought this month's tip would replicate Letterman's old Viewer Mail.

It's pretty much the same, except Dave's Viewer Mail was real letters from Late Night viewers, and this writing tip is made of fictional letters based on real suggestions from AIS staff.

In other words, this is what Writing Tips might have looked like (if it had existed) in 1984.


Dear Writing Tips,

I've always been a big fan of AIS Writing Tips, but I recently heard Teri Garr say "Let me orientate myself."

Perhaps you should never have Teri on Writing Tips again since she made two egregious errors in one sentence.

Frist, having been in State College many times, I know that the set of Writing Tips is pointed in a westward direction. Since the word orient means to turn to the east, does this mean that Teri turned her back on the audience? Second, isn't orientate just a grammatically incorrect version of orient?


Bewildered in the (Shields) Basement.


Dear Bewildered,

We've always said two things: There will always be a place on our set for Teri, and we'll never leave NBC.

You are correct that orient was originally defined as "to turn toward the east," but it's been used in a more general "getting your bearings" sort of way since the middle 1800s.

As far as your other concern, whether it should be orient or orientate, that's a sticky one. Most standard grammarians (like me!) prefer orient (oriented) to orientate (orientated). "Orientated" just sounds like one of those new made up words that we toss around all the time (like snackables), but according to the big, shiny New Oxford Dictionary that's sitting on my desk, orientate (orientated) has been in use since the mid-1800s as well. That's longer than Hal Gurnee's been around!

I'm going to keep using orient/oriented rather than orientate/orientated, but it looks as if both are technically correct.


Writing Tips crew


Dear Writing Tips,

The Writing Tips blog has gone downhill since Merril Markoe left, but I'm a devoted fan nonetheless. Can you send an autographed picture of Larry Bud Melman so that it can be incased in my growing memorabilia collection?


Jerry Mud Welman

P.S. Long live the man under the stairs.

Dear Jerry Mud,

Enclosed is your requested Larry Bud Melman autographed picture. Please ignore the white powder--it's nothing nefarious--just leftover from when we dunked Dave while he was wearing a suit of Alka Seltzer. The powder is everywhere!

Please note that there is no word "incase/incased." The word you were looking for was "encase/encased." In case is always two words, as in "Just in case your letter gets lost in the mail, please don't send us another one." Encase means to place in an enclosure.


Writing Tips crew

P.S. We'll give Chris Elliott your regards.

March 2013

Tommy Tactless in AIS

Before coming to AIS, I worked with Tommy Tactless (names have been changed to protect the guilty), who bragged to everyone about his "honesty" because he believed that his honest displays of anger and frustration were examples of honest, direct communication. While technically being honest, he was anything but tactful--and his communication style was anything but appreciated.

If you find yourself saying things such as "People don't like me because I'm honest" or "People don't like me when I tell the truth" or you excuse a hurtful comment by saying "I was just being honest," then you are probably not a tactful person--and your communication style more likely generates anger and bitterness than anything positive.

Tommy Tactless at AIS

Maybe AIS is no different from anywhere else, but based on my experience, some of us in AIS have a difficult time being tactful when communicating via email.

We're all overwhelmed with work at times, and very few of us have the time to type formal, perfectly crafted emails, but we have a responsibility to ourselves, our managers, and each other to communicate with respect and consideration at all times. It's part of what's required of working with other people--and what's necessary to develop relationships of trust and respect rather than distrust and separation.

General Statement to Remember

Tactless Versus Tactful: Example

If someone like Tommy Tactless were giving feedback on a new Web site that he didn't like, he might say something like: "I don't like your new Web site. I can't find anything."  (Note: This is not a literal example--just a sample!)

That response is certainly honest, but it only serves the purpose of registering a complaint. Nothing constructive can be taken from the email, and no positive actions can be taken.

If Tommy wanted to be more helpful, then he could have done any number of things: add a positive comment about the site (if there were anything he liked--we don't want Tommy to lie!), include some statement that recognizes the amount of work that went into the site, or be more specific about his particular problem and make a suggestion that might help improve the site.

Tommy could have said:

The problem is that sometimes people like Tommy aren't interested in being tactful or helpful. They merely want to vent their own frustrations. That might feel good in the moment, but it does nothing to create a positive working environment.

I've included a few more specific ways to be tactful in this month's W&CS article in the March newsletter.

Note: I have had some reader requests related to confused word pairs. I'll get to those soon!

February 2013

Confusing Word Pairs (with Apologies to Don McLean)

Commonly Confused Songs, I Mean, Words

February made me shiver
With every writing tip I'd deliver
Misused words on every doorstep
I couldn't take one more mis-step.

I can't remember if I cried
When I heard lay instead of lie
But something touched me deep inside
The day the language died.


These are confusing--but in more ways than one.

Historically, farther has typically been used as a reference to physical distance ("The bus station is farther away than the train station" or "She went farther than he did on their last run"), while further has been used for non-physical references ("That can't be further from the truth" or "He lied in order to further his agenda.").

Over the years, though, common usage of one word for the other has resulted in both being generally accepted for physical or non-physical references, but you will never be wrong if you use farther for physical distance and further for non-physical that's my recommendation.

Stick with the classics.

Everyday/every day

I believe I wrote about this before, but I keep seeing this mistake. (It couldn't possibly be that not everyone reads these invaluable tips, could it?)

Everyday (one word) is an adjective, which means it answers the question "what kind of." It's like another famous song (which I won't ruin like American Pie), I Am Everyday People. What kind of a person am I? Well, I'm an everyday, ordinary kind of person, and I know how to use adjectives.

Every day (two words) answers the question when (acting like an adverb), and it means every single day.

That's actually a good test for which to use: If you can put the word "single" in between every day, then it should be two words. Examples include: "I work on this database every day" and "Every day, my mother asks me if I have my umbrella before I walk out the door." 

Note: Using the adjective form (everyday) is not common, so roughly 99% of the time that people use the word everyday, they should be using every day.

For more on every day versus everyday, see Does This Happen Everyday or Every Day?

Taking Requests

I take requests--for future writing tips, not songs--so let me (Paul Yeager) know if there's a topic that you'd like to have covered. This tip came from a reader suggestion.

January 2013

That Is so 2012

If language were to parallel clothing styles, then you would never want to get caught saying last year's words this year.

With that in mind, let's look at a couple of "2012 Words of the Year" so that we can avoid the verbal embarrassment equivalent to ugg boots. (What? Those aren't out of style yet? Well, they should be.)

Bluster's word of the year (bluster) means to roar and be tumultuous (as wind) or to be loud, noisy, or swaggering.

I'm guessing that this word will have a longer shelf life than their choice of last year, Tergiversate, whatever that means. They had considered austerity and occupy in 2011, and I bet they wish they had picked one of those instead.


GIF, according to Oxfrd English Dictionary, is the word of the year for 2012. GIF, of course, refers to a file format for images, and it's been around for 25 years.image of word of year, GIF Somehow, GIF is said to have celebrated a lexical milestone in 2012, gaining usage as a verb. I'm not sure how you could possibly use a file format for images as a verb: "I GIFfed you some pictures?" Yikes.

To anyone writing articles for the AIS newsletter this year: Please do not use that sentence!

(Note: Out of spite, I saved the GIF image in this article as a .jpg.)


Across the pond, the Brits are fond of the term omnishambles, Oxford Dictionaries UK Word of 2012. I'm guessing it's said a lot in pubs over a warm beer.

An omnishamble is a situation that has been comprehensively mismanaged and is characterized by a string of blunders and miscalculations. The term was coined by satirical television writers, which is a frightening source for a word of the year.


Before we start running around calling every project that isn't going well an omnishamble or we start GIFfing people images, I want to remind you that dictionaries are a collection of commonly used terms, not necessarily a collection of technically correct terms (What Does the Word Dictionary Mean?). In other words, dictionaries reflect what people are saying, not necessarily traditional language and grammar rules.

With the advent of the Internet and social media, usage of a non-word spreads much more rapidly than it used to, so having these "words" end up in dictionaries occurs very quickly as well, sometimes to the point that the word of the year one year is never heard from again. (See Tergiversate.)

Note: Neologism is the term that means the creation of a new word.

Image is from Oxford University Press.

December 2012

Precision Matters

Precision matters when communicating, and to prove it, I will do something I thought I'd never do in a writing tip: make a reference to an annoying television commercial series.

Genie Bottle (as a cake)

Genie, DirectTV's new DVR, has the capability of allowing five shows to be recorded at once, which is convenient if you have a large family or are hopelessly addicted to television. (Oh my God! How will I ever be able to watch all five of my favorite 8 p.m. Wednesday shows?)

However, a short-cut description of the DVR, which is the closing line in every one of their annoying ads (with an annoying family and an annoying blue error screen that interferes with their daily lives), leads to a lack of clarity: "Record five shows at once."

If you take DirectTV at their word, then you can't record two shows at once; you have to record five at once. You can't even record one show by itself; you have to record five shows at once.

Would it be that hard to say either "Record up to five shows at once" or "Record as many as five shows at once" instead?

I know that's not what they mean, from common sense and the more detailed explanation in the ad, but that's not what they say. And when we get into the habit of taking short-cuts, important information is sometimes lost.

That's this year's final thought from Writing Tip Central: Precision matters.

Wait, I have a new closing thought: If I had access to a genie, recording five television programs at once would not be high on my wish list.
(Image from Cake Central.)

November 2012

For the Birds

In celebration of not having to work on Black Friday this year, the typical writing tip will be replaced by one that's truly for the birds.

In other words, with an attitude of gratitude, I've decided to carve up a cornuopia of the most amaizing puns for you to feast upon. Leaf the humor to me, but I promise that it won't be fowl.

Turn on your favorite music, something like Plymouth Rock, heavy on the drumsticks (Corn you hear it now?), and do the turkey trot while I ax you a couple of questions: 

With a few leftover puns, I think I'll squash this before it becomes a tradition. I understand that the (tur)key to gobble humor is (de)cider(ing) when to stop. Don't fall over yourselves to baste me with compliments. It was my plantation. Yam glad that's over.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

P.S. Is it stuffing in here, or is it just me?

(The questions were from a yahoo group site)


October 2012

More Commonly Confused Words

It's been a while since the writing tips have included anything on commonly confused words, so here are a few:

This one gets my vote for being the most annoying during this election season:

People within organizations tend to get these two mixed up:

With this one, people might be playing fast and loose with spelling rules (when confused):

Who can blame anyone for being confused with this pair:

September 2012

Newsflash: Texting Causes Poor Grammar Skills

Penn State researchers have determined that pre-teen texting is having a negative effect on their language and grammar skills.

The sarcastic side of me wants to say, "Give me some research money to study whether a diet exclusively made of bon-bons, ho-hos, and  ding-dongs will result in weight gain," since my suggestion seems as painfully obvious as this research, but the more scientific side of me understands that this is how the scientific process works. Even if you have a theory that seems obvious, the research needs to prove the theory and quantify the results in some way.

The Research

The research, which was highlighted in a recent Live story (No LOL matter: Tween texting may lead to poor grammar skills), notes that young people who frequently use language adaptation, which is a fancy way of saying homophones, shortcuts, initials, random capitalization, and inaccurate punctuation when they text, performed poorly on grammar tests.

graduation scene using text talkThe research also indicates that their behavior is greatly influenced by how adults, particularly parents, interact with them. That's right: If parents regularly send children poorly composed text messages, the kids are going to think that's proper.

Difference Between Adults and Children

The difference, of course, is that an adult, who has (in theory) been exposed to proper grammar and communication all of his life, is going to have the ability to switch between proper grammar and texting language when the situation warrants (such as when applying for a job or writing an important paper). The children of today are not receiving enough reinforcement of proper language and grammar skills to develop the ability to switch back and forth. They simply develop poor grammar skills.

Some people don't care whether that happens, using the philosophy of "as long as we're understood, it's fine." That won't fly for these children until everyone they communicate with has equally poor grammar and language skills. They're going to be negatively judged by their inability to put a couple of cohesive sentences together.

Don't Let This Happen to You

The advice of this writing tip--since it's geared toward adults--is three-fold:

(Note: Image was taken from the Live article, which credits Shutterstock.)

August 2012

Plain Language Is Not Boring Language

I've said it before (Under-Inflated Language Is Best), and I'll say it again: The best way to write and speak is through simple, direct language.

Complicated Writing

If you find yourself searching for a complex word (or words) to replace an everyday word (or describe a simple concept), then chances are that you're detracting from your writing, not improving it. (Examples include using "utilize" instead of "use," "facilitate" instead of "lead," and "collaborate" instead of "work together.")

According to (which strives to improve communication from the Federal government to the public): "Good writing is effortless reading that makes you want to read more. It is clear and concise, uses short sentences and simple words. It keeps to the facts and is easy to read and to understand. It is so clear that the reader can take in the writer's exact message in one reading."

Simple, Direct Writing is MORE Interesting!

Simple, direct writing is not boring at all; in fact, it's much more interesting. The descriptive words chosen by the writer are much more effective because they're not mixed in with trendy or complicated ways of saying simple things. Direct writing actually bursts with life when compared to writing weighed down with superfluous words and extra syllables that trlp readers and interfere with comprehension.

Try it--you'll like it. And so will your local, neighborhood editor.

July 2012

Common Autosuggest/Autocorrect Errors

At the risk of stating something that my modern and sophisticated audience already knows: Most mobile devices have some form of autosuggest/autocorrect feature that will automatically suggest/correct a word once a few letters have been entered, and that can cause problems.

These features can be of great help when typing on a keyboard the size of a postage stamp (since it does some of the work for you), but our little automated friend sets the stage for errors when an incorrect word has been suggested and isn't noticed.

There are a plethora of sites on the vast Internet that feature humorous examples of "autocorrect errors," but these sites are most definitely NSFWT (not suitable for writing tips).

Let's look at a few common autocorrect errors that are SFWT (suitable for writing tips). I'll give one example of the error, but there are typically multiple variations of each.

Note: I'm giving the phone credit for these errors, but the actual words are getting more confused as we depend more on phones and less on brains.

This is the tip of the icing--I mean iceberg--of what can happen with autocorrect, and I might give additional examples in a future writing tip. Feel free to contact me with any SFWT examples that might be good for future tips.

June 2012

Missed Pronunciations: Commonly Mispronounced Words

phonetics tableWhenever we hear a word pronounced differently from the way we normally say it, we sometimes doubt ourselves. Well, doubt yourself no more, at least when it comes to these often mispronounced words. (Note: Some of the mispronunciations arise from misspellings.)

Some of us are bad about this one:

Remember the "c" is for cold:

 The "x" doesn't mark the spot:

The higher you go, the better:

This one's a real gem:

We're not sure which way to turn on this one:

This is enough to make me shiver:

(Phonetics table image from English After the Big Bang)

May 2012

Run On Sentences!

I was afraid this was going to happen: We're having a run on run-on sentences.

You see them everywhere. You see them in social media text, which is not surprising since you see every grammar error imaginable in social media text (and not because of shortcuts to limit characters to 140). You see them in books, reports, and even newspapers and Internet headlines.

In fact, I'll use a couple of headlines to illustrate run-on sentences below, but first, we should review what a run-on sentence is.

Run-On Sentence

The most common example of a run-on sentence is a comma splice, which is when two completely independent clauses are connected with a simple comma.

The key word term in the sentence above is independent clauses. An independent clause is a clause that can stand on its own as a complete sentence--you know, a complete thought with a subject and predicate. Since it can stand on its own, it needs to be separated by something, for lack of a better term, stronger than just a comma. The clauses can be separated by a period. They can be separated by a comma and a coordinating conjunction. They can be separated by a semi-colon. In certain cases, they can be separated by a colon.

They cannot, however, be separated by a mere comma.

Run-on sentence

Correctly punctuated

Headline Examples from Prominent Sources

Right or wrong, we expect better grammar from prominent news and entertainment sites, but we don't always get it. Here are a couple of incorrect examples (meaning run-on sentences):

Not all hope (for proper punctuation) is lost, though--here is a properly punctuated independent clause:

April 2012

Confusion Between "You and Me" and "You and I"

Confusion between when to use "you and me" or "you and I" is not as easy to explain as last month's tip on "him and I" and "her and I" always being incorrect, but, fortunately, we at AIS Writing Tips are never ones to steer away from the difficult, controversial topics of our time. So, let's get to work on these common usage errors.

Confusing Case of "You"

In last month's tip, we mentioned that a key to determining correct usage of pronouns when paired is knowing which are nominative and which are objective since only like kinds can be paired; however, the pronoun "you" can be used as either nominative or objective, so that simple piece of information will not help to determine correct usage in this case.

As a result, we need to look at the way the sentence is structured in order to determine correct usage. And, honestly, isn't this for the best? It's not like we're all going to memorize lists of pronouns, but we are going to think about what we say and write, correct? (Hint: The right answer is yes!)

Doing Action or Receiving Effect of an Action

The answer lies quite simply in the action of the sentence.

Double Check by Separating Pronouns

If still uncertain about which to use, then separate the two pronouns to make sure you've picked the right one since we seldom get confused when only using one.

For instance, in the last example above, it should be clear that "you and me" would be correct since you would never say "Despite the time constraints, the responsibility of providing doughnuts has fallen to I."

March 2012

"Him and I" and "Her and I" Are Always Wrong!

Few grammar mistakes are as common as those related to choosing the correct personal pronouns (him, her, me, I, she, he, etc.) when two are paired. I can't explain everything there is about personal pronouns (or all of the possible errors) in one writing tip, but I can tell you this much: pairing "him and I" or "her and I" is never correct!

Why The Pairings Are Mistakes

We're talking about two different types of personal pronouns: nominative and objective, and only like kinds (for example, two nominative or two objective) can be grouped. Since "him" and "her" are objective pronouns, they can never be paired with the nominative pronoun "I." Therefore, any time that you utter or write the phrase "him and I" or "her and I," you are making a grammar error.

"Me" is an objective pronoun; therefore, "him and me" and "her and me" are both fine. Also, "he" and "she" are nominative pronouns, so "he and I" and "she and I" are perfectly acceptable duos.

More on Pronouns

For more information on the difference between nominative and objective pronouns, please see Fun with Pronouns.

Separation Is Key to Correct Usage

We usually only make mistakes related to pronoun usage when two pronouns are paired; individually, we typically use the correct one. That's why the best way to determine correct pronoun usage when paired is to look at each pronoun individually.

For instance, in the sentence Her and I went to the basketball game last night, we would quickly see the error if we looked at the pronouns separately. While saying I went to the basketball game last night sounds perfectly fine (and it is), we would never say Her went to the basketball game last night. We would instead say She went to the basketball game last night.

Therefore, She and I went to the basketball game last night is correct, and Her and I went to the basketball game is incorrect.

More Later

I'll include other common pronoun errors in a future tip, but I'll give you a hint now: Please stop saying between her (him) and myself! I know you do.

February 2012

Repetitive and Redundant Word Combinations

Repetitive language is so ingrained in our daily conversations that someone could devote an entire chapter in a book to the topic. (Oh, wait--I already did!)

Actually, such repetitive and redundant language is so ingrained in our vernacular that we often use repetitive and redundant language (wait--did I repeat myself?) without even knowing it. It's often a case of using the same phrases we've used or heard before rather than slowing down long enough to think about whether what we're saying or writing is, in fact, redundant.

With that in mind, here are a few examples of common redundancies geared toward the work place:

Dozens more are available on this Web site (200 Common Redundancies), and I might highlight additional redundancies in a redundant post soon.

January 2012

Because Commas Are Not Always Needed

One of the most commonly made punctuation errors is automatically putting a comma before the word because when it's being used to connect two clauses, but since my motto is "Change the world with one writing tip at a time," it doesn't have to be that way in 2012.

Let's correct this egregious error now!

When because is used as the first word in a clause being connected to another clause, it (because) is considered a subordinating conjunction. The subordinate clause (the clause that begins with because) depends on the independent clause (the main part of the sentence) to form a complete thought. This dependence means that the clauses cannot be separated by a comma.

Three examples (correctly punctuated):

The because clause (for example, because it's 50 degrees with no snow) does not make a complete thought without the dependent clause (I'm canceling my ski trip), so omit the comma.

If the same subordinate clauses were to precede the dependent clause, however, they would be followed by a comma. That's another grammar rule: introductory subordinate clauses require commas!

In other words, these examples are also correct:

Helpful reminder: Comma placement is determined by grammar rules, not by random opinions about what might make something easier for a person to take a breath--the line of thought often cited as a reason to include random commas.

For more information, please see the blog Comma with Because.

December 2011

Confusing Word Pair: Lead and Led

Confusing words pairs are so common that even the Oxford Dictionary Web site has created a table for commonly confused word pairs.

While you might see some of the entries as future tips in this critically acclaimed blog in 2012, one confusing pair did not make the list: lead and led.

How very careless of them! Perhaps we should revoke their dictionary license. 

To be fair, the confusion is different from many confused word pairs. It's not the definitions of the words that cause confusion as much as it is the pronunciation of the past tense of the verb form matching the noun form of the word.

I know--even the explanation is confusing, so let's look at it one step at a time. 

Lead--The Metal

One of the common definitions of the word lead is a dense metallic chemical element, one that has historically been used in pipes and paint (although we hope not to come across it in that form) or in vests to protect from excess radiation associated with x-rays. We all pretty much know that definition and spell the word properly, and it is pronounced with short e and rhymes with head.

Lead--To Go Before

Lead, with a long e (rhyming with heed), can be used as either a noun or verb, with the verb meaning (among other things) "to go before" and the noun meaning (among other things) "the first or foremost position." 

The past tense of the verb is led, and led is pronounced the same as the aforementioned metal (also rhyming with head).

Understandable Confusion

With the word referring to the metal (lead) and the past tense of the verb meaning to go before (led) sounding the same but being spelled differently, it's easy for the two to be confused.

Here are some correct usage examples:

November 2011

ITS Confusion

sign with a typo
(Image from English Fail blog)

ITS are the three letters that make up the acronym for the department in which I work, and they also combine to form one of the most confused word pairs in English: its and it's.

When the two are confused, as they are in the sign above, it's (ha!) most likely because of sloppiness on the part of the writer as opposed to not knowing which to use when; however, a quick review is worth its (ok, that one is forced) weight in grammar gold.

It's: With the Apostrophe

With the apostrophe, it's is a contraction meaning it is, just as he's is a contraction for he is. An example would be It's time to read the writing tips. The apostrophe is an indication of a missing letter.

Its: Without the Apostrophe

Without the apostrophe, its is the possessive form of it, such as The bee couldn't find its nest after taking a trip across town stuck to my windshield wiper.

Understandable Confusion

Usually, an apostrophe is used to show possession, such as Bill's coat is in the closet, so it's  understandable that it seems odd to omit the apostrophe in order to show possession, as is this case with its. For more information, check out It's a Problem.

October 2011

Missedspelled: Common Misspellings

With as many as 228,132 words and derivatives in the English language (according to the Oxford Dictionaries Web site), we all have at least a few words that we struggle to spell correctly.

Here are a few commonly misspelled words, with common mistakes in parentheses:

If you want to test your knowledge (speaking of commonly misspelled words), then feel free to take a test on Of course, how difficult will it be for you now that I've given you the answers to seven of the 27 questions?

I'm sure that you could have used help like that before taking your 6th-grade English class, huh?

September 2011

Very Useless, Very Ineffective Word

We should all strive to be precise and accurate in our communication, which means that we should avoid ineffective, unspecific words when we speak and write.

The most obvious example is the word very. Let's look at sample sentences.


August 2011

Headline Capitalization Guidelines

Based on what I've seen in newspapers, on Web sites, and on television, headline capitalization guidelines are not particularly well understood. That's understandable since there are different opinions from different sources, and many organizations use their own standards based merely on personal preference.  

Since we at Penn State use the Chicago Manual of Style as a basis for our own Visual and Editorial Standards, we can get some headline guidance from them (Chicago Manual of Style):

  1. Capitalize the first and last words in titles and subtitles (but see rule 7), and capitalize all other major words (nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and some conjunctionsbut see rule 4).
  2. Lowercase the articles the, a, and an.
  3. Lowercase prepositions, regardless of length, except when they are used adverbially or adjectivally (up in Look Up, down in Turn Down, on in The On Button, to in Come To, etc.) or when they compose part of a Latin expression used adjectivally or adverbially (De Facto, In Vitro, etc.)
  4. Lowercase the conjunctions and, but, for, or, and nor.
  5. Lowercase to not only as a preposition (rule 3) but also as part of an infinitive (to Run, to Hide, etc.), and lowercase as in any grammatical function.
  6. Lowercase the part of a proper name that would be lowercased in text, such as de or von.
  7. Lowercase the second part of a species name, such as fulvescens in Acipenser fulvescens, even if it is the last word in a title or subtitle.

The rules, themselves, are fairly straightforward, but it can be confusing to determine whether to capitalize a word when it can be used in two different ways (for example, adverb or adjective). The Writer's Block post Capitalization in Titles might help with that.

July 2011

Confusing Word Triplets: Assure, Ensure, and Insure

Confusing a pair of words is not uncommon (Confusing Word Pairs and Confusing Word Pair: Affect and Effect), but the similar pronunciation of assure, ensure, and insure represents a rare opportunity to confuse word triplets.

Have no fear, however; a quick review of the definitions will straighten us all out.


Assure means "to tell someone something positively or confidently." Similarly, to be assured means "to be made certain or positive."


It means "to make sure that something shall occur or be the case." The difference between ensure and assure is subtle, but the two are not synonyms and cannot be used interchangeably! 


Insure means to "arrange for compensation in the event of damage to (or loss of) property or injury to (or the death of) someone in exchange for regular advance payments to a company or government agency." The New Oxford American Dictionary should probably add "and the deductible is usually too high."

June 2011

I Said "Can't We All Agree?" More Subject-Verb Agreement

Since I know that none of you will ever say "There's" with a plural subject (because of last month's tip), we'll move on to additional examples of subject-verb agreement this month. The examples came from the Easy Writer Web site.

Remember, the concept is simple. If you use a singular subject, then use a singular form of the verb; if you use a plural subject, then use a plural form of the verb. What might make it a little trickier is when the subject is not clear.  

If you want some practice, then take a quiz on the Easy Writer site.

May 2011

Can't We All Agree: Subject-Verb Agreement?

Agreement between the subject and verb in a sentence is one of the most basic English language requirements, but it's also a source of many common grammar errors, so let's look at the most common today.

There is/there are errors
The single most common subject-verb agreement error is using the singular verb "is" with a plural subject when a sentence begins with the word "there." (Note: This is also true when the contraction "there's" is used instead.)

I know what you're thinking right now (I'm a part-time writer and a part-time psychic): I would never make that mistake; it sounds ridiculous.

If that's the case, then congratulations; however, listen closely to conversations, and you will hear this mistake being made by everyone from television personalities to highly educated professors to sixth-grade students.

There is should never be paired with a plural subject! (For more, see Sherry Coven's post (Subject-Verb Agreement with There Is/There Are) at Everything Language and Grammar).

I will look at some less specific (but also common) subject-verb agreement errors next month. Mark it on your calendars!

April 2011

Confusing Word Pair: Affect and Effect

Affect/effect is one of the most commonly confused word pairs, but knowing the difference between them is as simple as knowing the difference between a verb and a noun, at least in 99.98% of the time that they're used. (I didn't want to use the trite 99.99%).

Affect: The A is for Action

Affect is a verb meaning to influence, to change, or to act on. It can also mean to move the feelings of.

Correct usage examples include:

Effect: The E is for Inaction (OK--I have to work on that one)

Effect is a noun meaning an influence, result, or consequence.

Correct usage examples include:

Nearly every instance of common usage falls into one of those two categories.

Exceptions: The other .02% the time

Affect can be a noun when used in the realm of psychology, meaning an observed emotional state:

Effect can be a verb in rare instances, meaning to bring about:

More Information

For more information, please see Sherry Coven's post at Everything Language and Grammar.

March 2011

That Which Confuses Us

"That" and "which" cannot simply be used interchangeably when connecting clauses within a sentence. Well, I guess they can be, but if they are, then grammar errors are being made!!

Knowing the correct one to use is as simple as knowing the difference between an essential and non-essential clause or, in other words, knowing the difference between what's necessary for a sentence to be complete and what's optional.

That: Use with Essential Clauses

Use "that" to connect clauses that are essential to the meaning of the sentence, meaning something required for the sentence to make sense.

What kind of writing tips are not useful? The kind that don't include samples; therefore, the clause "don't include sample sentences" is an essential clause, and we use "that" instead of "which" to connect it to the rest of the sentence. Since it's essential, we don't separate the clause from the rest of the sentence by commas.

Which: Use with Non-Essential Clauses

Use "which" to connect clauses that are not essential to the meaning of the sentence, meaning that the sentence would be complete without the clause. These optional clauses are separated from the rest of the sentence by commas.

What kinds of writing tips are not useful? All of them! While I'm aghast at such a statement, if not one of the writing tips is useful, then the clause "includes those with sample sentences" would not be essential to the meaning of the sentence. In that case, we would use "which" and separate the clause using commas.

More Correct Examples

More Incorrect Examples

February 2011

A Quiz of Sorts...

In order to facilitate a dialogue relating to the vital importance of communicating when collaborating with our fellow team members and peers, I've decided to write a short tip that includes the nine topics/errors highlighted in the most recent months of the writing tips. In fact, I've already listed two.

If you would like to treat this as an informal quiz, send me email identifying the nine errors (or as many as you can find). Note: To see previous tips, use the pulldown menu at the top of this page.

I wish I was able to provide a prize to the winner, however, due to budget constraints, that ship has sailed. 

Wow! I already made my alotted nine errors, so until next month...

Extra Credit

I've written several of these error-laden posts (monthly reviews) on my personal blog, Everything Language and Grammar.


January 2011

Don't Be An Idiomatic

An idiomatic expression is a common phrase in one language that cannot be understood by the literal words being used, such as "baker's dozen," "let the cat out of the bag," or "a little bird told me." They are only understood by those who are already familiar with the non-literal (and usually sub-standard) expression.

Such idiomatic expressions should be avoided in all types of formal writing--for two reasons:

How many of these common (A through Z) idiomatic expressions do you use?:

Thanks to for help with the a-to-z list.

December 2010

Under-Inflated Language Is Best

There is a tendency among professionals to use an excess of superfluous verbiage in attempt to facilitate effective collaboration and dialogue among peers, supervisors, and valued customers when performing professional tasks and dealing with potential issues and concerns on a daily basis. The overarching goal is to manufacture an accurate image of their advanced intellectual capabilities; however, this stilted and inflated approach is counterproductive and surprisingly inefficient.

Translation: We use too many words and too many big words to try and prove how smart we are, and it doesn't work.

Say What You Mean, Simply and Directly

The best approach to effective communication is direct and simple language. Say what you mean, and say it in a way that will be understood. There is no need to use (and most likely search for) words outside of your normal vocabulary, latch on to the latest catch-word, or fill the text with more words than necessary.

Allow your natural direct, simple vocabulary prove how smart you are.

That doesn't mean that we should never use big words--many of us do so quite naturally. As long as it's natural, though, it will sound like you, not like you're trying to sound like someone else or trying too hard.

Trying Too Hard

Too many words and too many 35-cent words (25 cents before inflation) makes it sounds as if you're trying too hard. It's analogous to when a person gives too many excuses when turning down an invitation. Which of the following sounds more genuine?

The second person might be 100% truthful and sincere, but it sounds as if he's trying too hard to find excuses.

It's the same when communication is too long and complicated. It sounds forced and insincere, not direct and honest.

November 2010

However a Mistake Is Made

Punctuation errors with the word however are common, but one of the most common is easy to correct.

However is often used as a conjunction, which is a word that connects words, phrases, and clauses. The clauses connected by a conjunction are often independent clauses, which are clauses that can stand on their own as separate sentences if necessary. When two such independent clauses are connected by the word however, the clauses need to be separated as follows in order to prevent a run-on sentence:

Correct Examples

Notice that the word (however) is preceded by a semicolon and followed by a comma in each instance. This is the appropriate way to prevent the two independent clauses to combine to form the dreaded run-on sentence.

Incorrect Examples; Run-On Sentences

Two-sentence Examples

In many such instances, writers instead choose to write the two independent clauses as separate sentences, with second sentence starting with the conjunction however (followed by a comma).

The usage of the word however to begin a sentence (followed by a comma) is generally considered acceptable. In fact, my editors (yes, I have to deal with those pesky people, too!) often separate independent clauses that way in order to prevent sentences from being too long. I don't recommend it, though. Using a conjunction at the beginning of a sentence defeats the purpose of a connector since it's no longer connecting anything.

October 2010

I Wish I Was Wrong, But I'm Not: Using the Subjunctive Mood

I wish I was wrong is said so often that I wish I were wrong when I say it correctly--using were, not was--because then there would be no need to correct this most common grammar error.

The error has to do with the subjunctive mood, which is used when expressing a condition that is doubtful or not factual, such as when expressing a wish or regret. The subjunctive mood of the verb "to be" in the past tense is "were," not "was."

In other words, when you wish things were different than they are, use "were" and not "was."

Don't say this:

Say this instead:

The subjunctive mood applies to more than just the error discussed here, but this is the most common of all subjunctive errors. For more information on the subjunctive, please see and (the blog I share with Sherry Coven).


September 2010

If It's Not One Writing Tip, Then It's Another: If/Then Construction

Conditional Sentence

A conditional sentence is one that deals with two clauses, one of which is only true if (there's that word again) a condition (or conditions) is met. Technically, the two clauses should be separated by a ", then."

The only way I'll be able to buy groceries tonight is on the condition that I make it to the bank first; in other words, buying groceries tonight is conditional.

Common Usage

It's common for us to take a grammatical shortcut and omit the word "then" in daily communication.

All I can say is: Don't strive to be common!

The argument for the shortcut is that we understand what the person is saying (or writing), so it doesn't matter. That may be true if the the sentence is as simple as the example above, but when the sentence is more complex, skipping the "then" is likely to confuse the listener (or reader).

Complex Conditional Sentences Can Be Confusing

When a conditional sentence includes more than one clause, it might not be apparent to the reader when the conditions stop and the part of the sentence the depends on the conditions begins.

If the word "then" were missing, it might not be clear.

Without the "then," the sentence might appear to be a list of items, rather than a standard conditional sentence where one action is dependent upon something else.

The reader might be able to figure it out by re-reading the sentence, but if it were written correctly, then he wouldn't have to.

August 2010

Tech Terms

Let's take a look at the proper spelling of some tech terms, according to the Technology page of the Penn State Editorial Style Manual.

Tech Terms (common examples of incorrect usage in parenthesis):

One of the purposes of the manual is to ensure that all Penn State publications, including Web content, is consistent; therefore, when writing for Penn State, the manual guidelines should be followed.

July 2010

Web Terms

We use plenty of Web terms at AIS (Administrative Information Services) and Penn State, so I thought I'd briefly list the proper spelling and capitalization of some commonly confused terms, using the Technology page of the Penn State Editorial Style Manual as a source.

Correct Web Terms

(Note: Common incorrect usage in parenthesis)

Not Universal Agreement

Many sources do not agree with Penn State about how to refer to these Web terms, including the recently released Yahoo Guide for Web Content, which was referred to in this recent article (Email...Not "E-mail": Yahoo Creates Style Guide for Web Content). As the title suggests, the Yahoo Guide prefers email to e-mail, and it also recommends website, not Web site.

Penn State Content--Penn State Rules

Not agreeing with the style guide of a particular organization can often be frustrating to a writer who has other preferences, but the guides are created to ensure consistency from publication to publication within an organization. In other words: Their house, their rules.

When writing for Penn State, follow the guidelines established by University Publications (Editorial Style Manual), including those listed above. If you have any questions, check with your friendly, neighborhood writer/editor.

More Tech Terms Soon

I'll have more examples of how to properly spell and capitalize tech terms at Penn State in a future tip--perhaps even next month!

June 2010


Facilitate and facilitator are two of the most popular workplace words, but they're often not used correctly.



Language Evolution

The meanings of words change over years. I understand that, but when a word with an established definition is used incorrectly, that's not necessarily language evolution in progress. It might be a word being used incorrectly, leading to unnecessary confusion.

May 2010

"Due to" or "Because Of"

It's become fashionable to use the terms "due to" and "because of" interchangeably, but their meanings are as different as "caused by" and "on account of."

Well, actually, those are their most common meanings, at least historically speaking; widespread misuse has caused a blurring of the definitions for many of us.

If you want to be certain that you're correct, then due to should be used when caused by could also be used, and because of should be used when on account of would be more appropriate.

Correct examples:

We would never use the inverse (I hope!):

April 2010

Write Like a News Reporter

Direct, succinct communication is the key to getting the desired result, so when writing, think like a news reporter: Start with the main point and then follow with the details (but not too many). In journalism, this is called the inverted pyramid, but it works for most non-fiction communication.

The following image is courtesy of the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan Public Schools Web site.

inverted pyramid

A newspaper reporter approaches a story in a way that makes the story most likely to be read, starting with a strong headline and a lede that gives the main point of the story. The reporter then follows with details, starting with the most important and finishing with the least important, to complete the story.

Imagine if your professional and personal communication worked that well. Life would be different. 

The point of an e-mail from your colleague would be obvious by the time you got to the second paragraph. The first couple of paragraphs of the report would give a clear indication of what's to follow in the 40-page report. Even a discussion with your spouse would be clear from the first couple of sentences.

This doesn't mean that you won't need--or won't receive--necessary details. It just ensures that, before the details begin, you'll already know what the main point is going to be. This will allow for a more succinct, informed, and straightforward discussion.

A recent yahoo news article (Experts: One-third of breast cancer is avoidable) is a good example of an article done with the inverted pyramid.

The headline makes the main point clear--one-third of breast cancer cases are avoidable. The lede gives the point of the story, such women who eat less and exercise more are less likely to develop breast cancer. The details of the research are included toward the bottom on the article. Those who are interested will read them; those who only want to know the key points don't have to sort through the details to find what they want.

There are other techniques to make your communication more direct and effective, but the inverted pyramid is a great place to start. If you're interested in seeing examples of how the inverted pyramid might apply to work communication, then let me know. I'll include it in a future tip.

March 2010

Penn State Capitalization, Part I

Even though we all now know when to (and when not to) capitalize job titles (see last month's tip), I thought I'd move on to capitalization topics more directly related to the University--or should it be university--since these examples apply to so much of what we write every day.

Penn State's Editorial Style Manual (from University Publications) is the source for all of the information in this post. It's a great resource for anyone doing writing for Penn State.

February 2010

Capital Crime Wave

Capitalization can be confusing, especially when a certain word/phrase is capitalized in some instances but not in others. One of the best examples of this seeming contradiction is something that we often have to write--job titles.

When to Capitalize Job Titles

 When it's a job title and comes before a person's name, it should be capitalized.

When NOT to Capitalize Job Titles

When the job title is being used after a person's name, it should not be capitalized.

When it's a job description, not an official title, it should not be capitalized.

Vanity Capitalization

Many companies will capitalize all job titles in all instances. Sometimes, it's because the rules are not understood; other times, it's an instance of believing that the use of capital letters will make the titles seem more forceful and, therefore, more important. This is often called vanity capitalization or, I suppose, Vanity Capitalization by offenders.


For more information on capitalizing job titles, please refer to When Should You Capitalize Words? on the Grammar Girl Web site.

For more information related to general capitalization rules as they relate to Penn State, refer to the Penn State Editorial Style Manual.

January 2010

Grammar Perfection--Using Had

It's the start of a brand new year, so let's all commit to using perfect grammar in 2010. If that goal is too lofty, we can at least commit to using the past perfect tense properly, right?

Oh, don't be like that. This is not a highly technical, boring tip related to dry, eye-glazing grammar rules. Would I do that to you? We'll simply focus on how to correct a common error related to the tiny word had.

Past Perfect Tense

The past perfect tense is used when two events happened in the past, and one of those events occurred before the other. To form the past perfect tense, add the word had before the verb indicating the first of the two actions.

Proper use of the past perfect tense:

Needed to Avoid Confusion

In the first example above, it would be confusing to say I realized I forgot my laptop when I arrived at the conference (without the had) since both the forgetting of the laptop and the arriving at the conference would have had to occur at the same time to use the same tenses for both. If you forgot the computer when you arrived at the conference, then the computer is in the car or at the hotel, not at home, so it shouldn't be much of a problem.

So, to summarize, in a sentence when two events occurred in the past, with one occurring prior to the other, simply use the word had before the verb indicating the first of the two actions. See how easy grammar perfection can be?

Other Sources

For more on the topic, see Using Had: the Past Perfect Tense by Sherry Coven on or, for a more complex explanation, Past Perfect on the

December 2009

i. Before e., Except After e.g.

The two most confused Latin abbreviations used in English today are e.g. and i.e., and since we seem determined to continue using these stilted Latin abbreviations in common language (that's called an editorial comment), we may as well use them properly.

The difference between the two is the difference between for example and that is:

It's this simple:  e.g. should be used when you mean for example, and i.e. should be used when you mean that is. A page gives a more in-depth explanation for those who are interested.

Examples of Correct Usage

Examples of Correct Alternatives

Recommended Usage

If you decide to continue using e.g. and i.e., my recommendations are as follows:

Requests Accepted

This Writing Tip was based on a suggestion from our esteemed LAN Team Lead (Thanks Kev), and if you have any suggestions, let me know.

November 2009

80% of What You Write for the Web is Wasted, Unless...

When writing content for a Web site, it's vital to remember that Web readers are believed to read approximately 20% to 30% of the content on the page (How Little Do Users Read?), meaning that, if not written properly, much of a writer's effort is wasted.

Scanners, not Readers

While we all dream of hours passing while reading a great book under the cooling shade of a large Oak tree or when lying on a fluffy sofa with a distant thunderstorm rumbling, we never romanticize reading Web content. It's not to be savored--it's to be looked through quickly and efficiently. We're trained to use our computers to get things done, not to leisurely stroll through content. It's an active process, not a passive one.

Besides, reading on a computer screen strains our eyes more than reading a book; even if we wanted to read page after page after page, our eyes may not allow us.

That's why Web readers scan copy rather than read word for word.

Scan-able Content

An effective Web writer understands the limitations of the medium and adjusts to them as best he can, making the content more scan-able (at the risk of inventing a new word). There are many techniques to make content easier to scan, and I'll just focus on one today--headlines.

Multiple Headlines

One of the easiest, most effective ways to make content better for the Web audience is to break the content into smaller sections with separate headlines (sub-headings)--as I have cleverly done in this post. This is effective for a couple of reasons:

More Later

I will give additional tips about Writing for the Web in future months.

Which Are You More Likely to Read?

In the interest of comparison and contrast, I wanted to show you what the above tip would look like without the helpful headlines.

When writing content for a Web site, it's vital to remember that Web readers are believed to read approximately 20% to 30% of the content on the page (How Little Do Users Read?), meaning that, if not written properly, much of a writer's effort is wasted.
    While we all dream of hours passing while reading a great book under the cooling shade of a large Oak tree or when lying on a fluffy sofa with a distant thunderstorm rumbling, we never romanticize reading Web content. It's not to be savored--it's to be looked through quickly and efficiently. We're trained to use our computers to get things done, not to leisurely stroll through content. It's an active process, not a passive one.
     Besides, reading on a computer screen strains our eyes more than reading a book; even if we wanted to read page after page after page, our eyes may not allow us. That's why Web readers scan copy rather than read word for word.
     An effective Web writer understands the limitations of the medium and adjusts to them as best he can, making the content more scan-able (at the risk of inventing a new word). There are many techniques to make content easier to scan, and I'll just focus on one today--headlines.
     One of the best, most effective ways to make content easier for Web readers is to break content into smaller sections with separate headlines (sub-headings)--as I have cleverly done in this post. This is effective for a couple of reasons. Before reading even one word, the reader understands that the content will be simple to digest; it's inviting rather than intimidating. Once he begins to read, a quick look at the headlines will give the reader an idea of which sections will interest him, giving him the opportunity to only read the parts applicable to him rather than reading the entire text.
     I will give additional tips about Writing for the Web in future months.

October 2009

The Reason Why is Because It's Redundant

Redundancy is so engrained in language that we often don't notice it. That's how terms, such as absolutely essential, join together, consensus of opinion, and blazing inferno, become part of our daily communication--we've stopped thinking about the obvious repetition and merely say what we've heard before. Three common words often redundantly repeated over and over again (how's that for redundant!) are reason, why, and because.

Reason Is the Why

The reason that you do something is why you do it. Since they're the same, do not combine the two in a sentence when writing or speaking.



Reason is Because

Since because means for the reason that, it should become clear very quickly that the phrase the reason is because is redundant--unless you don't consider the phrase the reason is for the reason that to be repetitious. Some dictionaries also list due to the fact that as a definition of reason. The redundancy might not be as obvious, but it still sounds repetitious (or at least indirect and convoluted) to say the reason is due to the fact that.



The Triple Play

The triple play in baseball (getting all three outs of an inning on one play) is rare, only occurring once or twice per season in all of the major leagues, but the triple play in language redundancy is more common than a losing season by the Pittsburgh Pirates (17 consecutive----and counting!). It happens all too frequently when reason, why, and because are combined into a redundant nightmare of the reason why is because.



For more on these common redundancies, read Sherry Coven's posts on (which I co-write), (The Reason is Already the Why and Reason is Because).

September 2009

Punctuation and Bulleted Lists

Bulleted lists are a popular and effective way to organize information, especially on the Web since Web readers browse instead of reading in a traditional sense, but it's difficult to know how to do them properly.

Penn State's Editorial Style Manual makes frequent references to The Chicago Manual of Style--an excellent resource--so the information in this Writing Tip is based on the Chicago Manual of Style's Vertical Lists, Bullets Web page. 

That Web page should answer all of your questions, but let me hit a few of the more important points here:

August 2009

Second Draft--Don't Write Home Without It

"There are no good writers, only good re-writers" is a line I've heard before, and while many of us may not care about being known as good writers, we should care about being known as a good whatever it is we do. And in order for us to be perceived as being good at what we do, we must never use a first draft for any professional purpose.

The type of writing that is included in professional use is more than just the obvious, such published material (newsletter articles, journal articles); it also includes proposals (formal and informal), reports, e-mails to supervisors, e-mails to subordinates, and correspondence with vendors or partners. Every piece of written material (including electronically-written material) represents you and the job you do.

First drafts are full of incomplete thoughts, redundancy, poor sentence structure, and grammar errors; they also lack flow and polish. All of these things reflect poorly on the writer, giving the impression that the author is not an expert on the topic he's writing, which is most likely the focus of his job.

A second draft will give the author the opportunity to complete thoughts, remove redundancy, improve sentence structure, and correct some of the grammar errors. A third revision, preferably by an outside source (such as an editor) may be needed to polish the writing, improve the flow, and add further insight into potential logic and redundancy problems. Handing a first draft to an editor will lead to an improved second draft, not a polished final copy. If you hand a second draft to an editor, you have your best chance of having a polished, crisp final product.

Tips for Writing a Second Draft

I understand that we're all busy and won't have time to do all of those things for all professional writing; however, this must be done for any type of printed material, and at least some version of working on a second draft (such as shortening text) should be done for all types of professional writing.

Think of it this way--you're doing it for yourself, not the other person--since it's your reputation that's at stake.

July 2009

We Might Possibly Be Too Uncertain...I Think

I was a weather forecaster for over 20 years, so believe me, I know about uncertainty. (Insert your favorite joke about the weather man here.) There are times, however, when weather forecasters make things worse for their already poor reputations, such as when they use too many words of uncertainty in a forecast. That's the way it works for all of us when communicating--too much uncertainty (or uncertainty where it doesn't belong) makes for ineffective communication.

Let's use weather forecasts as examples of uncertainty, with the words of uncertainty italicized.

All three examples convey the same general forecast, but the second sounds more uncertain than the first. And the third gives the impression that the meteorologist has absolutely no idea what he's doing. (Insert your second favorite joke about the weather man here.)


The grammatical problem with using multiple words of uncertainty is redundancy.

The redundancy in the first example is obvious--eliminate the word possibly, and the sentence is fine.

In the second, the redundant uncertainty is less obvious, but both the words chance and could are expressing doubt when only one is needed. Either replace the word could with will to correct the problem (There is a chance that I will attend the conference), or re-write the sentence to some variation of I might be able to attend the conference.

Perception is Reality

Another significant problem with using too much uncertainty (or uncertainty when it shouldn't be used) is, as in the weather example above, the risk of sounding unknowledgeable, uncertain, or unassertive--none of which is good for anyone in any situation.

Simple changes will make the examples above seem more knowledgeable, confident, and assertive--without removing doubt when appropriate

If perception is reality, as we've all said at some point, then we can alter our reality by choosing words that work for us, not against us.


June 2009

Don't Touch that Pen------Yet

Many of us think of writing as a one-step process, using the pen or, more likely, the word processor to create written material; however, writing is a multiple-step process. As former president, George H. W. Bush might say, “it’s hard work.”

The first step should take place before one word lands on the page. This process is sometimes called prewriting, but I don’t like to use that term since it’s 1) not a commonly accepted word and 2) it’s misleading since it’s something that should be considered part of the writing process, not something that happens prior to the writing process.

This early stage of writing does not need to be long or complicated, and according to Technical Writing: Process and Product (by Gearson and Gearson), it is composed of five components:

Examine Your Purpose

This is simply your motivation for writing, and it’s either an external motivation (someone asked you to write something) or internal (you initiated the need to write something).

Determine Your Goals

You might be writing with the intention of achieving any number of goals, and the examples given by Gearson and Gearson, which can overlap, are:

Consider Your Audience

I believe that this is one of the most important aspects to writing effectively—knowing who’s going to read it. Should it be written in a technical fashion for fellow experts (a journal, for example) or for novices (a newsletter, for example)?  Is it for peers, superiors, or subordinates?

Gather Your Data

This is a determination of how you will gather the information needed to write your content, and it can come from other people, conducting research, internal discussion, or any number of other places. You might not need to have all of the data on hand at this stage, but you need to know where the information is going to come from so that the writing process is not slow or incomplete.

Determine How Content Will Be Provided

This may have already been determined for you based on the specifics of the request, but before you write, you’ll need to know whether you’re going to write an e-mail, Web article, print article, brochure, or presentation. These obviously require different styles of writing, such as a Web article should be short with multiple sub-headings unlike a printed article that can be more text heavy since Web readers tend to scan articles more than read.

Other Writing Steps

While this initial process of writing is important to the writing process, steps after the initial writing have been done are just as important—and are often skipped. These steps include creating a second draft and a final draft—even if you have an editor to look at the content before publication. This will be the topic of a future writing tip.

May 2009


Word usage (written and oral) is a choice, and the words that we select are as important to making an impression on others as the clothes we wear—and we certainly know that we’re perceived differently when wearing a tuxedo than a t-shirt with a tie printed on it. If you're unsure, wear the latter to the next formal occasion you attend.

Neologisms are either new words or existing words with new meanings, but the new words or new meanings are not always accepted by everyone. Even when they are accepted, they’re typically not universally accepted for years (or even decades). As a result, a new definition is not always understood and might be a language error.

I’m going to highlight three words with shifting meanings today, all of which are popular in business communication.


The word issue has many meanings, including topic (we have many issues on the agenda), a point of decision (the issue is whether we should have pizza or salad for dinner), a going, coming, passing, or flowing (such as issue meaning a stream flowing out), or copies of a work (third issue of a book). There are many others; however, using the word issue to mean problem is a relatively new usage, and it’s incorrect.

Many businesses forbid workers from saying problem to a client; however, after a few years of non-stop usage, believe me, clients and customers have figured out that problem and issue mean the same thing. A customer might accept it freely, especially if he does the same thing; or, he might become annoyed that you’re too passive to admit to there being a problem. In some instances, he might not understand what you're saying, thinking that you're talking about a topic, not a problem. 


Many times, the shifting meanings of words is done so that a new, more intelligent-sounding word can be used instead of an old standard. That’s not the case for blowback, which is a much more awkward way to talk about consequences than, well, consequences. Blowback, by the way, has a couple of meanings; the closest to consequences is, according to, the effect caused by recirculation into the source country of disinformation previously planted abroad by that country’s intelligence service in an effort to mislead the government of another country.

Yikes—I don’t know what that means, but that’s not what I want to send in an e-mail to a client or say to a co-worker when I mean consequences.


Pushback is another word that is less articulate than the word it’s replacing, resistance, but that has not stopped its rapid ascension to a business super-word. The other issue—I mean, problem--is that it doesn’t mean resistance. Pushback either means, according to The American Heritage Dictionary, a mechanism that affords movement of another object backward or the forced movement of troops back from the line.

Read More

Sherry Coven and I were recently asked by to write an article on neologisms, so if you’re interested, please read Why Language Changes.

April 2009

Spaces--No BOGO; Dashes--Squish 'em Together

One thing that I will not do in my critically acclaimed (hey--my wife thinks they're great) writing tips section is shy away from the controversial topics facing us today. With that in mind, I'm going to challenge two widely held beliefs related to spacing--that we should use two spaces after a period and that we should leave spaces on both sides of a dash.

I know. It's bold, but a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do. 

Spaces--No BOGO
BOGO stands for Buy One, Get One Free, and its use, unfortunately, is not relegated to the grocery store. Many of us still insist on placing two spaces after a "hard stop' in our writing, such as a period, question mark, or exclamation point.

The two-space-after-a-hard-stop guideline started as a way to make typing on a typewriter (remember those?) more legible since the amount of space taken by all keys on a typewriter is uniform. For instance, an "i" takes up as much space as 'w.' As a result, an extra space was added after a hard stop, believing that it would make the print easier to read since breaks would be more identifiable.

Well, it's 2009, and one of the few places you can still find a typewriter is in the landfill.

Many online software content management systems will automatically delete any extra spaces inserted into a text file, including those after a hard stop. Publications (books, newspapers (destined to go the way of the typewriter, perhaps?), magazines, and brochures) are nearly universally printed with one space after a hard stop. Many word processing software packages automatically justify text (which adds and subtracts space between letters throughout the entire line to make the right margin consistent), or at least include that option. An extra space in this format looks especially awkward. Finally, many Web style guides recommend one space.

In other words, unless you are exclusively using the typewriter, there is no justification for the double space, other than personal preference. Penn State Publications recommends using a double space after a hard stop for typewriter-written text only. Everything else, including typewritten text that will be printed or converted into something that will be printed, should have a single space.

I know that this is going to be a hard habit to break for the double spacers out there, and I sympathize. In fact, it's difficult for me to remove extra spaces from a large Web site full of double spaces, and I'm not quite obsessive enough to make removing double spaces my mission for the next two or three months.

The point is that it's best for the writer to avoid double spaces as best as he can, and it's best for an editor to delete them as best he can.

Dashes--Squish 'em Together
According to Penn State Publications, there should be no space before or after a dash. In other words, it should be dashes--squish 'em together rather than dashes -- spread 'em apart.

I think of it this way:  The space between two words is still there; however, rather than being filled with air to indicate that the two are not related, it's filled with a dash to indicated what follows (and precedes) is connected.

Special Colon Note:  If you noticed that I put two spaces after the colon above (and in this note), it's not in the same category as the hard breaks mentioned in Spaces--No BOGO. After a colon, there should be one space when the following thought is an incomplete thought (such as a list in non-sentence form) but two spaces when it's a complete thought (such as a sentence). Hey, I don't make the rules up. I just enforce them.

March 2009

Confusing Word Pairs

Confused word pares--I mean pairs--is a common mistake in English, and it's not surprising. When two identical (or nearly so) words mean different things, there is going to be confusion.

Anytime (or is it any time?) I find myself confused, which is not an every day (or is it everyday?) occurrence, I know that it will be alright (or is it all right?) as long as I spend awhile (or a while?) doing research. 

While there are many such confusing word pairs, let's take a look at the four that I managed to squeeze into my convoluted example sentence above.

Anytime/Any time

This example is not the best example of confused word pairs; it's probably a better example of a slang term that's become more popular, at least that's how I look at it. Anytime is often considered slang and does not appear in many dictionaries.

Some people believe that there is a difference between anytime and any time, with anytime being an adverb meaning at any time whatsoever, while any time should be used when referring to a specific time. In other words, Stop by anytime would be considered correct using that philosophy since it's a general invitation. Also correct would be Schedule the meeting any time between one and three because specific times are referenced. A Purdue University Web site makes this argument.

Personally, I think that any time is always correct and anytime is always slang and is best avoided.

Every day/Every Day

This pair is not as controversial (I know what you're thinking--controversial grammar? Please. Remind me to someday tell you about how angry some people get if you don't agree with their grammar assessment!).

Everyday is an adjective, describing a noun and answering the question what kind of. Lunch with Tom is an everyday occurrence. The noun is occurrence, and everyday (the adjective) answers the question what kind of occurrence.

Every day (two words) is an adverb, and it answers the question when. In the example, I have lunch with Tom every day, every day is an adverb because it answers the question when do I have lunch with Tom.

There is a trick to knowing which to use. If you can put the word single between every and day, then you need to use every day (two words), not everyday (one word). For more information, refer to, which is, as you may recall, the blog that my wife and I share.

Alright/All right

This is another slang versus non-slang argument, and if you haven't noticed by now, I will always rule in favor of the non-slang term. Alright is a nonstandard version of all right. In other words, it's in the same category as one of the most famous nonstandard words in English, ain't, so unless you send e-mails to your boss and co-workers with the word ain't, don't send it with the word alright.

Awhile/A while

The difference between awhile and a while is subtle, but subtlety in communication is important--and if you've read the last three examples, I assume that you agree.

Awhile means for a period of time and a while means a period of time. If you hadn't noticed, the only difference is the lonely, little word for.

In other words, both I'm going to be gone awhile and I'm going to be gone for a while are correct, and both I'm going to be gone for awhile and I'm going to be gone a while are incorrect.

Once again, I refer you to if you're interested in more on this subtle topic.

February 2009

AIAB--Acronyms, Initialisms, Abbreviations, and Backronyms

AA: As you look at this on your POS or PC, I'm sure that you'll notice that the use of acronyms in AIS is LARS, constantly increasing, and it's no surprise. In fact, it's understandable. With so much HID, acronyms are needed to MICS (I made that one up!); however, as far as ECM is concerned, unless you KYA (mine), acronyms can confuse more than clarify. My advice: SOYA when writing for an EA (mine again!!).

Reading an article filled with acronyms and initialisms can be confusing and frustrating, often resulting in a writer not getting his point across--as I imagine happened above. Before I translate the first paragraph, though, let's talk about the different types of shortened terminology.

Acronym is the most popular type of shortened term used here at AIS. An acronym is a "word" created from the initial letters of the words in a phrase or title. ISIS is a good example. It's short for Integrated Student Information System, and the shortened version, ISIS, is something that can be treated and spoken like a word.

An initialism is slightly different. It also uses the initial letters of the words of a phrase or title, but the initials do not create something that is treated as a word. AIS would technically be an initialism, not an acronym, since we pronounce the letters individually, A-I-S, not collectively, such as saying "ayz" or "ace," as it might be pronounced. In other words, an initialism is not treated like a word.

An abbreviation is merely a shortened version of a single word, such as Pa. being short for Pennsylvania.

A backronym is typically an acronym that wasn't originally considered, typically done in a mocking way or for other non-official purposes. For instance, urban legend claims that "KISS," when referring to the band, means "Knights In Satan's Service."

Backronyms don't apply to the AIS Web site, and I'll talk about abbreviations another to some guidance for the use of acronyms and initialisms in writing. Before that, though, let's translate that first paragraph. 


Author's Addition (AA): As you look at this on your personal operating system (POS) or personal computer (PC), I'm sure that you'll notice that the use of acronyms is like a rolling stone (LARS), constantly increasing, and it's no surprise. In fact, it's understandable. With so much highly interconnected data (HID), acronyms are needed to make internal communication simpler (MICS); however, as far as electronic content management (ECM) (the Web site, for instance), is concerned, unless you know your audience (KYA), acronyms can confuse more than clarify. My advice:  Spell out your acronyms (SOYA) when writing for an external audience (EA).

While using acronyms within a closed circle of people who all know the meanings of the acronyms, there is no need to spell out acronyms. For instance, I wouldn't send Diane Weller, my supervisor, an e-mail saying that I need to talk to her about the Integrated Student Information System when we both know what ISIS means. It would be wasted words, and, more important, it would make it appear as if I'm an outsider, not part of the AIS team.

Having said that, whenever there is any question about whether the audience completely understands all of the acronyms, the first reference needs to be completely spelled out to avoid confusion. This might apply to people within the department who don't work with that particular service, and it always applies to anyone not affiliated with AIS or perhaps ITS. It's common courtesy.

Generally, this is done by spelling out the full name, with the acronym in parentheses, for the first reference; then, any future references should just be the acronym. For instance, Integrated Student System Service (ISIS) would be the first reference, and ISIS would simply be used for the rest of the text. The first reference can be done in reverse, though. ISIS (Integrated Student Systems Service) can be the first reference, with ISIS being the reference for the rest of the text

The AIS Web site is available to anyone who has an Internet connection, from State College to Saratoga Springs, from Bellefonte to Bolivia, and from Shields Building to the U.N. Building. While the external audience is limited to some degree by the nature of the work done here, we want everyone who comes to the site to have the opportunity to understand the content. That's why you should SOYA (Spell Out Your Acronym) with the first reference on every page. I understand that there might be times when that seems unnecessary, such as a fourth-level page for programming resources since it's virtually impossible for a user to have gotten that far into the site without learning the appropriate acronyms, but even there, it's best to SOYA.

I hope that helps (IHTH).

January 2009

Enough With the Commas Already...

I know. I know. This is my fifth AIS Writing Tips entry, and it's the third about the comma. While some of you may be saying "enough with the commas already," bear with me--this is important.

How many times have you, as a reader, had to re-read a sentence in order to get the meaning? Sure, you could take responsibility for not paying attention, but you could also blame the writer, and who wants to take responsibility if he can blame someone else?! Seriously, though, a missing or misplaced comma is one way to cause confusion for readers, and a missing comma at the end of an introductory phrase causes the most confusion when I'm reading. It's probably the case for everyone else, too.

Introductory phrases come in many forms--they can be an adverbial phrase, a prepositional phrase, and can sometimes be a single word (which is not a phrase at all)--but rather than getting bogged down in the grammatical details, if we understand the purpose of an introductory phrase, then the reason for using a comma after one will become clear.

An introductory phrase is something that sets the stage for the main part of the sentence, or it modifies the main part of the sentence. In other words, it depends on what follows to complete its meaning. Look at it this way:  The comma marks the end of that introductory phrase, setting the stage for the main part of the sentence (the part that can stand on its own) to begin. If we skip the comma, then the reader might not know when this introductory part of the sentence (which cannot stand on its own) ends and the main part begins, leading to understandable confusion.

Let's look at an example sentence. To me, it makes sense to always put a comma after an introductory phrase. The introductory phrase, to me, is a prepositional phrase that modifies the main part of the sentence, it makes sense to always put a comma before an introductory phrase. Since the sentence has the comma after me, the end of the prepositional phrase is obvious. Without the comma, not only might the reader believe that the entire sentence is a prepositional phrase, but, technically, the reader would be correct--the entire sentence would appear to be a prepositional phrase patiently awaiting an independent clause to modify. This type of simple comma omission has caused me to re-read about approximately a million sentences in order to determine where the introductory phrase ended so that I could understand the meaning. This, by the way, is time that I could have put to use writing more writing tips!

Here are some correct examples of introductory phrases followed by commas:

Since we're not going to leave until this afternoon, I have time to go to the bank.
This morning, I'm going to the bank.
Meanwhile, my friend can go to the grocery store.

Without the comma, I'm going to assume that everything is connected. For instance, if the writer were to omit the comma, I would read Since we're not going to leave until this afternoon I have time to go to the bank as one connected thought, and I'm going to expect that it will be followed by the rest of the thought, such as we won't be shopping on 5th Avenue until this evening. When the reader realizes nothing else is following the extended introductory clause, he may need to go back and re-read the sentence in order to understand the meaning, mentally placing the comma where it belongs. The same confusion would occur with the other examples---and the possibility of confusion exists with every omitted comma.

Many people follow the all-too-common guidance of if it's a short introductory phrase at the start of sentence, then it doesn't need a comma. To me, that makes as much sense as saying If it's a long red light, then you don't have to stop for the entire time. Wait for a reasonable amount of time, and then floor it."  If a comma is needed before an introductory phrase, then a comma is needed before all introductory phrases. It makes no sense to put an arbitrary qualifier on the statement, such as before a long introductory phrase but not a short one. Who would be in charge of deciding what constitutes a long or short introductory phrase? Would we need to convene an emergency meeting of the Introductory Phrase Board (IPB since we use so many acronyms around here) any time a dispute arises?

Use a comma after all introductory phrases.

Note: Don't be fooled by what appears to be an introductory phrase that serves the purpose of being the subject of the sentence. This does not require a comma, and it's not an introductory phrase. In the example Finishing the report was the last thing he needed to do on Friday, the phrase finishing the report acts as the subject of the sentence--effectively serving as a noun clause. It's what needs to be done. This should not be separated from the remainder of the sentence just as Bob in Bob is going to the bank should not be separated by a comma. That's not an exception to the rule; it's a case where something that looks like an introductory phrases is actually something else.

December 2008

Nouns Have Enough to Do Already!

Anyone who has spent any time talking to me about language, grammar, and writing has undoubtedly heard me go on a rant about nouns being incorrectly used as verbs (It's even a chapter in my language book), so I thought I'd make it easier by talking to everyone about it at one time--in this month's AIS Writing Tips!

We all know what nouns are--people, places, and things. We also all know what verbs are--words of action. There is a trend (a very annoying one, if you ask me) of using perfectly acceptable nouns as perfectly unacceptable verbs. This is typically done, in my opinion, as a way to try to make the speaker sound more intelligent since certain common verbs, such as is, are, talk, and going, are dry, boring words, so turning the noun in the sentence into the verb makes the sentence seem much more dynamic and interesting. The problem is that the new non-words are often clunky, trendy, and incorrect, which is a bigger problem than something that's not believed to be dynamic enough.

Many words serve the dual purpose of being a noun and a verb, such as house, underline, export, and escort. Presumably, some of these were once exclusively nouns that have successfully made the transition into verbs and are now accepted as both nouns and verbs, and that process is probably part of the reason for so freely changing nouns into verbs. It's also why the topic of nouns being used as verbs represents a grey area in language, but many nouns are simply not acceptable for use as verbs. Let me give a few examples:

Message means many things, all of which are nouns. It can be a communication containing information (a thing) or an official communication, such as the president's message (a thing). It can also be the point or morale of a story, such as The message of the movie is that life is full of hope (a thing). Message is not a way in which to communicate, such as We have to be careful about how we message this.

A dialogue is a conversation between two or more people (a thing), such as I had a dialogue with my boss. It is not the process of communicating with two or more people, such as I dialogued with my boss. Stick with talk, discuss, or converse.

Impact can be used as a verb, but as a verb, it means to hit with force, such as The meteor impacted the earth. It should not be used as a verb to mean affect, as in The economy impacted my budget. The correct usage in this instance would be The economy had an impact on my budget or The economy has affected my budget.

Note: The examples I gave may appear as verbs in some dictionaries, but it's important to note that dictionaries are a reflection of current usage, not necessarily of correct usage. In other words, commonly made mistakes often appear in dictionaries (ain't is one such example), especially online dictionaries. They should be flagged as substandard; however, they may not be. 

The choice to use nouns that have been turned into verbs as a part of the recent trend is yours, but for many of those who are listening to what you say (and making judgments about who you are based on what they hear), the use of a verb as a noun sounds as awkward as saying Please lamp the room or Please glass me some water rather than the correct Please turn on the lamp or Please get me a glass of water.

November 2008

Firstly and Most Importantly, It's Wrong

Topic one: Firstly, secondly...thirdly
Using the words firstly, secondly, thirdly, and so on to enumerate a list of items is incorrect despite its widespread acceptance and its presence in some dictionaries.

First, second, third, fourth (and so on) are called ordinal numbers, which means that they indicate the order of position of something. That's precisely what you're doing when you're listing things, such as:

First, I'm going to the store. Second, I'm going to the bank. Third, I'm going to the post office.

Not only is adding an -ly unnecessary, but it's incorrect. Adding an -ly in this way typically turns a word into an adverb, describing how something is done. Using the above example, you're not going to the store in a firstly manner and then going to the bank in a secondly manner. You're going to the store and then the bank in that order.

My favorite grammar expert (my wife) has written a post on this topic (Ordinal Numbers: First, not Firstly).

Topic Two: Most (More) Importantly
When using important in a way that describes something of significance or consequence, use more important and most important instead of the incorrect more importantly and most importantly. In an effort to promote nepotism, I will once again refer you to a post by my favorite grammar expert (Most Important, Not Most Importantly).

Importantly means in an important way just as quickly means in a quick way. Reserve importantly for those few instances when you want to describe something being done in an important manner. Those instances are so rare that I can't even think of a good example. Perhaps The hospital aid moved importantly with the box that contained the heart for a transplant is one example, but even with that example, importantly is an awkward word choice.

Descriptivism Versus Prescriptivism
Oh, I know what some of you are thinking right now--because I'm a full-time writer AND part-time psychic. Some of you are saying, He might technically be correct, but isn't he being a bit picky? I mean, geez, everyone knows what I mean when I say  firstly or most importantly, and many people don't even consider these to be mistakes. Those of you who think in that way are generally described as descriptivists in the world of grammar. This group of people generally uses the philosophy of If they understand me, then it doesn't matter how I say it. Language is always changing and evolving, and it makes sense to go along with the ride. If people want to invent a new word, start using an old word in a new way, change punctuation rules, then they should--and if it catches on, we should all accept it. If you feel that way and want to continue to use the erroneous firstly and most importantly, then you will be met with little rejection. In fact, many descriptivists will applaud you.

On the other hand, if you believe that grammar rules exist for a reason and should be followed, then you are a prescriptivist. Changes in language--new words, old words being used in new ways, punctuation rules changes, etc.--should be based on logic and need, not out of convenience or the acceptance of a commonly used error. While language will evolve, it should not do so indiscriminately. If you feel this way, then you will want to remove firstly and most importantly from your vocabulary. Prescriptivists will support you.

I consider myself to be a language independent, not falling neatly into either category, but I tend to be much more of a presciptivist than descriptivist because it makes sense to have language rules. They're needed to facilitate accurate communication and promote consistency in language.

October 2008

Commafusion--Part II

I've said it before, and I'll say it again:  Commafusion (confusion about comma placement) is common. In fact, I'm not sure that trying to explain proper comma placement as my first AIS Writing Tips series was the smartest decision I've ever made (since it's a complex topic), but I'm ready for the challenge. Are you? Drum roll, please. Let's talk commas with subordinating conjunctions.

I know. I know. Most people immediately recall the days of junior high school English class when anyone mentions terms such as subordinating conjunctions and coordinating conjunctions, but before you toss a spitwad over your cubicle wall, let me briefly define the terms. Then, we'll move on.

A coordinating conjunction is a word that connects two similar words, phrases, or clauses. I went the store and the bank. The bank and store are similar--not because they both take your money but because they're both nouns. The word and connects them and is, therefore, a coordinating conjunction. Rules on commas for coordinating conjunctions can be found in Commafusion, Part I.

A subordinating conjunction connects a subordinate clause with the rest of a sentence. That doesn't help unless you know what a subordinate clause is, of course, and that's simply a clause that depends on the rest of the sentence in order to have meaning. An example of a subordinating clause is before you leave today since the phrase has no meaning without additional information. If your boss said to you before you leave today, you'd need to know more. Should I pick up my check before I leave? Should I pick up my pink slip before I leave? Should I have the report on his or her desk before I leave?

There are many subordinating conjunctions, and some have other uses (just to further confuse everyone). I'm not giving a quiz, so you don't have to memorize them, but has an extensive list. A few examples include include even, although, now that (yes, it can be more than one word).

When the clause that lacks meaning (subordinate clause) is attached to the clause that explains its meaning, it becomes a complete sentence. If the subordinate clause follows the main clause, then there is NEVER a comma. If the subordinate clause is used as an introductory clause (first part of sentence), then it is ALWAYS followed by a comma.

Correct examples when subordinate clause (italicized) follows the main clause (no comma):

Turn off the lights before you leave today.
Multi-media specialist Tom will attend the game even if it rains.
She puts on a hat when the sun shines.

When the subordinate clause (italicized) is used as an introductory clause, it is always followed by a comma:

Before you leave today, turn off the lights.
Even if it rains, multi-media specialist Tom will attend the game.
When the sun shines,
she puts on a hat.

Now, that wasn't so bad, was it?

September 2008

Commafusion--Part I

I know that there is a lot of confusion about where to place commas; I like to call it commafusion.

Some people say to "put a comma where the reader needs a break," but that doesn't make much sense. Comma placement is dictated by well-defined grammar rules, not by when a reader might need to take a breath. First of all, we need the consistency in order for text to be easy to read. Second, readers are going to breathe when they need to, not when the writer might think they should--at least I hope they do!! I'd hate to be responsible for someone passing out just because I decided not to throw a couple of commas into a sentence.

I'm only going to talk about the comma as it relates to two clauses in one sentence today--I can't explain all comma rules in one post.

When dealing with multiple phrases that are connected by a coordinating conjunction (and, but, nor, for, or, yet, so), my advice is simple: Think in terms of dependence and independence.

Phrases that can stand on their own as complete sentences are called independent clauses, and independent clauses need to be separated by a comma and a conjunction. A good example would be the sentence that I just wrote since it is composed of  two independent clauses. Both Phrases that can stand on their own as complete sentences are called independent clauses and Independent clauses need to be separated by a comma and a conjunction are clauses that can stand alone; therefore, they're separated by a comma and connected by a coordinating conjunction (and).

If one of the phrases is a dependent clause, meaning that it cannot stand alone (meaning, not a complete sentence), then the clauses are not separated by a comma even if the writer uses a conjunction. For example:  I'm writing about commas but not semi-colons. In that example, one of the clauses is independent (I'm writing about commas) since it can stand alone. The other part of the sentence (not semi-colons) is clearly not a complete thought, with or without the addition of the conjunction, but. As a result, those two phrases--one independent clause and one dependent clause--are not connected with a comma.

Examples of sentences with two independent clauses separated by a comma:

I'm going to the store, and I'm going to the bank.
Learning proper comma placement is worthwhile, but it doesn't make for a great hobby.
These writing tips are fantastic, and I hope Paul publishes another one in conjunction with the October AIS Newsletter

Examples of sentences with one independent clause and one dependent clause (not separated by a comma):

I'm going to the store and the bank.
Learning proper comma placement is worthwhile but not a great hobby.
These writing tips are fantastic and will be published in conjunction with the AIS Newsletter (starting in October).


June 2008

Accept vs. Except

Two words that are commonly confused in writing are the words "accept" and "except".  Words like this that sound almost exactly alike but have different meanings are known as homophones.  This, combined with their similar spelling, leads to frequent incorrect usage by writers.

Here are the general meanings of these words, along with some examples of proper usage.

Accept is a verb that means "to receive, admit, regard as true, say yes."

I'm sorry, I can't accept this present.

Carla was accepted to Penn State University.

Newton's Theory of Gravity is generally accepted by modern scientists.

I asked her to marry me, and she accepted!

Except is a preposition that means "excluding."

I knew everyone at the party except the woman in the red dress.

He bought a gift for everyone except me.

I'd like everything on my hamburger except pickles and mayonnaise.


April 2008

Off to the (Principal's/Principle's) Office You Go!

"Principle" vs. "Principal" - these words are often confused; here is how they are different, and how they can be used correctly.

The word principle is always a noun, while principal can be either a noun or an adjective.

Two common definitions for principal are:

Principal (noun): the most important person in an organization.

e.g. "As the school principal, Mr. Miller was both feared and respected by all the students."

Principal (adjective): the first in importance, rank, value, etc.

e.g. "The Mona Lisa is the principal painting in the Louvre Museum."
e.g. "Wet roads and excessive speeds were the principal reasons for the car crash."

Principle, however, can only be used as a noun.
Principle (noun): a standard, rule, or moral guideline.

e.g. "Michael refused to take money for mowing their lawn as a matter of principle."
e.g. "Morals and principles are what separate man from the rest of the animal kingdom; and on some occasions, from each other."

February 2008

Writing from the Perspective of the First, Second, or Third Person

Writers have generally divided references to people into three categories (first, second, and third person), telling the reader whether the subject is speaking, is spoken to, or is spoken about.

First Person perspective is generally used to give a more personal, casual, and sometimes informal feel, such as in an online blog, an editorial, or an autobiography.

Second Person is told from the "you" viewpoint and is most often associated with literary works. It would be rare to find an entire novel written in this point of view, but it can be very effective in small doses, such as in a prologue or in italicized scenes interspersed throughout a first or third person text.

Third Person is widely used in the writing of technical and scientific authors to give a more detached, official, authoritative tone. It is also widely used by fiction writers, giving them the ability to show their readers different perspectives as they move through the story. Some people have been taught to always use third person in their writing, and never use first person at all. The idea behind this is that the author should draw the reader's attention to the subject they are discussing instead of themselves. While this is certainly valid, the author shouldn't go too far out of his way to remove himself from the material. Sometimes using the first person is the easiest and best solution.

While it is possible to switch back and forth between categories in your writing, it can potentially confuse the reader if not done carefully. A good policy is to pick one and stay with it throughout an idea or paragraph (if not the entire piece of work). For example:

People enjoy themselves immensely at PSU women's volleyball games. You don't have to be an expert in volleyball to get caught up in the crowd's enthusiasm.

Here the author switches from a third-person, plural reference, "People," to second-person "you." A better choice would be something like this:

People enjoy themselves immensely at PSU women's volleyball games. It isn't necessary to be an expert in volleyball to get caught up in the crowd's enthusiasm.


December 2007

How to Make 'Administrative Information Services' Plural!

This small but nagging issue has been popping up from time to time for many people - including myself! The rules of grammar are usually pretty clear when it comes to making singular and plural words possessive. But what if you're not sure if the word is singular or plural? Take the case of Administrative Information Services, for example. While the services the organization provides are certainly plural, the unit (and the phrase that makes up its title) is a singular entity. So how do you write out the possessive form correctly? And what about the acronym AIS? Do the same rules apply?

I did a great deal of research on this, and was unable to come up with a consistent satisfactory answer from outside sources. Therefore, I asked for help from Penn State University Publications, who were kind enough to give me this helpful response:

"My editor and proofreader both agree that this one is tricky to sort out from the style manuals. This is what we recommend:

The possessive for the unit name should be Administrative Information Services' but the possessive for the acronym should be: AIS's. Whenever possible, you should reword to avoid the possessive of either the unit name or acronym. For example, instead of saying 'Administrative Information Services' policies', reword it to say 'the policies of Administrative Information Services'; instead of saying 'AIS's policies', reword it to say 'the policies of AIS'."

Hopefully this tip will help you all as much as it will for me in the weeks and months to come!

October 2007

Using Parentheses in Your Writing

Parentheses (along with commas, dashes, semi-colons, and so on) are a useful tool to break up long sentences which might otherwise overwhelm your reader. Parentheses are especially appropriate when you would like to give the impression of an aside (a brief statement addressing the reader personally); they can also be used to provide additional information or a brief explanation of an unfamiliar term.

e.g. "The attack on Pearl Harbor (as you may recall from your school days) was what spurred the U.S. to enter World War II."
e.g. "The beautiful and mysterious Loch (lake) Ness is an essential stop on any visit to northern Scotland."

Parentheses have other functions as well; for more information on parentheses and other punctuation, go to:

August 2007

Assure vs. Ensure vs. Insure

While there is some debate over how picky one needs to be when using these close cousins, I believe that using each one with deliberation can make your writing much more clear.

Basically, the words assure, ensure and insure all mean the same thing: to guarantee or to promise that something is true or that something will happen. But there are slight differences between them:

Assure means to say or write the guarantee:

"He assured me that the product would be delivered tomorrow."

Ensure means to do something to make sure or guarantee that something happens:

"A firewall helps to ensure that hackers don't attack your PC.

Insure means to guarantee something with insurance or other financial instruments:

"In most countries you need to insure your car against accidents."


July 2007

Capitalization in Titles

This is an topic that many writers struggle with (myself included), so I went on a hunt to find some hard and fast guidelines of what words may be deemed worthy of capitalization in titles. Below is what I found:

Most writers are familiar with these general rules. But some have difficulty identifying the various parts of speech, while others have internalized incorrect "rules" taught in elementary school. These individuals are therefore prone to making mistakes when capitalizing or lowercasing words in titles. The most common mistakes are presented below.

Two-Letter Words
Some writers lowercase all two-letter words, probably by extrapolation from the short prepositions "of", "to", "up", and so on, and the word "to" in infinitives. But if a two-letter word is acting as a noun, pronoun, adjective, or adverb, it must be capitalized. For example:

Go Tell it on the Mountain
(wrong; "it" is a pronoun and should be capitalized)

When is a Spade a Spade?
(wrong; "is" is a verb and should be capitalized)

Multipurpose Words
Some writers lowercase words that can function as prepositions when those words are currently functioning in other capacities. For example:

The Man in the Moon Owns a Yellow Balloon
(correct; "in" is functioning as a preposition and should be lowercased)

Bringing in the Sheaves
(wrong; "in" is functioning as an adverb and should be capitalized)

Phrasal Verbs
Some writers find it hard to decide how to capitalize a title containing a phrasal verb. Phrasal verbs are verbs whose meaning is completed by a word called a particle. For example, the verb "to give" has a different meaning than the phrasal verb "to give up".

Like other multipurpose words, words functioning as particles must be distinguished from the same words functioning as prepositions. Particles are always capitalized because they form part of the verb. For example:

My Travels up Nova Scotia's South Shore
(correct; "up" is functioning as a preposition and should be lowercased)

Setting up Your Computer
(wrong; "up" is functioning as a particle and should be capitalized)

Source: NIVA, Inc.

June 2007

Latin Abbreviations

Latin abbreviations are sprinkled throughout texts we read everyday. However, the general consensus in modern formal writing is to avoid using them whenever possible. As the English language has excellent equivalents for nearly all of the common Latin phrases, these abbreviations should only be used when extreme brevity is necessary, such as in footnotes and bibliographies. In the examples below, English equivalents have been substituted for the Latin abbreviations e.g. and etc.

Many communication tools can be used to promote the launch of a new store; for example, flyers, press releases, radio announcements, and so on.

Central Africa was explored by Livingstone, Stanley and Brazza, among others.

Below is a list of some common Latin Abbreviations:

Abbreviation Latin English
cf. confer compare
e.g. exempli gratia for example
et al. et alii and others
etc. et cetera and so forth, and so on
i.e. id est that is
N.B. nota bene note well
P.S. post scriptum postscript

Be careful not to confuse "e.g." with "i.e."!

Punctuating these abbreviations properly requires that a comma be placed after the period in the abbreviation if it is not at the end of a sentence.

Several British universities were founded in the Victorian era; e.g., the University of Manchester was established in 1851.

May 2007

Affect vs. Effect

Affect and effect are two words that are commonly confused.

Affect is usually a verb meaning "to influence".

The drug did not affect the disease.

Effect is usually a noun meaning "result".

The drug has many adverse side effects.

Effect can also be used as a verb meaning "to bring about".

The present government effected many positive changes.

Sources: and

April 2007

How to Avoid Apostrophe Catastrophe

The apostrophe is used:

Apostrophes are NOT used for possessive pronouns or for noun plurals, including acronyms.

Forming possessives of nouns
To see if you need to make a possessive, turn the phrase around and make it an "of the..." phrase. For example:

the boy's hat = the hat of the boy
three days' journey = journey of three days

If the noun after "of" is a building, an object, or a piece of furniture, then no apostrophe is needed!

room of the hotel = hotel room
door of the car = car door
leg of the table = table leg

Once you've determined whether you need to make a possessive, follow these rules to create one.

- add 's to the singular form of the word (even if it ends in -s):

the owner's car
James's hat

- add 's to the plural forms that do not end in -s:

the children's game
the geese's honking

- add ' to the end of plural nouns that end in -s:

houses' roofs
three friends' letters

- add 's to the last noun to show joint possession of an object:

Todd and Anne's apartment.

Showing Omission of Letters

Apostrophes are used in contractions. A contraction is a word (or set of numbers) in which one or more letters (or numbers) have been omitted. The apostrophe shows this omission. Contractions are common in speaking and in informal writing. To use an apostrophe to create a contraction, place an apostrophe where the omitted letter(s) would go. Here are some examples:

  • don't = do not
  • I'm = I am
  • he'll = he will
  • who's = who is
  • shouldn't = should not
  • didn't = did not
  • could've = could have (NOT "could of"!)


March 2007

Making Lists - Consistency is the Name of the Game

Numbered, Vertical ("Display"), and Bulleted Lists

Writing and reference manuals offer several valid methods for creating lists. You can choose whichever method you prefer, as long as you are consistent within your document. You may choose to make run-in lists (built into the flow of your text) or vertical lists (indented and stacked up). When making a run-in list such as the one below, use parentheses around the numbers (no periods after the number, though).

I have three items to discuss: (1) the first item; (2) the second item; and (3) the third item.

Use semicolons to separate the items, whether they're expressed as fragments or full sentences.

For a vertical list (sometimes called a display list), you may choose to capitalize the items or not, and you may choose to put a comma after each item or not. (If you use commas, put a period after the last item.)

We will now review the following three principles:

  1. fairness in recruiting
  2. academic eligibility
  3. scholarly integrity

Your choice to capitalize or not may depend on how elaborate your lists are and how many of them you have in your text. If a vertical list contains complete sentences or lengthy and complex items, you may prefer to end each element in the list with a semicolon, except for the last element, which you will end with a period.

Most coaches conform to three basic principles in recruiting:

  1. Look for players first who can fill those positions you will need the subsequent year;
  2. Look for players who are "court smart" as opposed to being merely athletic;
  3. Look for players who are academically eligible and who have an academic purpose in going to college.

Although the elements in the list above begin with capital letters, that is not absolutely necessary. Notice that there is no "and" at the end of the next-to-last element (although some reference manuals allow for or recommend its use). Although we have used numbers for this list, bullets would work equally well if numbering seems inappropriate or irrelevant. The list below is based on a format suggested by the New York Public Library's Writer's Guide to Style and Usage:

Most coaches conform to three basic principles in recruiting:

  • Look for players first who can fill those positions you will need the subsequent year
  • Look for players who are "court-smart" as opposed to being merely athletic
  • Look for players who are academically eligible and who have an academic purpose in going to college

Note that this format does not include a period even at the end of the last element. Most writers, however, want to use some kind of punctuation in their listed items. When the introductory statement is a complete sentence, you can end it with either a period or a colon. Use a colon if the sentence is clearly anticipatory of the list, especially if it contains phrasing such as the following or as follows. A colon is also appropriate if the list that follows will be numbered or will establish a priority order. If the introductory statement is not a complete statement, however, neither a period nor a colon would be appropriate since that would interrupt the grammatical structure of the statement; use either no punctuation or try the dash technique noted above.

For more information regarding proper usage of lists in your writing, go to

February 2007

How to Use a Semicolon for More than Just a Winking Emoticon ;-)

The Semicolon

The semicolon indicates a longer pause than a comma and a shorter pause than a period. It can be used between two closely-related clauses that could potentially be separate sentences. The semicolon should also be used between clauses when one or both contains a comma.

Example of closely-related clauses:

Sam broke the pitcher in a fit of anger; he knew he would never make lemonade again.

Example of clauses containing commas:

This summer I swam in the pool, so I could develop my coordination; I rode my bike, which built up my leg strength; and I watched cartoons every Saturday morning.

January 2007

Stop, Hey, What's That Sound, Everybody Put Your Pencils Down...

If it's before a vowel, use "an"; if it's before a consonant, use "a", right? Right! Er...well, sometimes. Read on to get a grasp on these slippery little articles, and why a word's sound is often more important than its appearance.

The Right Time to Use "An" or "A" in Your Writing

A and an signal that the noun modified is indefinite, referring to any member of a group. These indefinite articles are used with singular nouns when the noun is general; the corresponding indefinite quantity word some is used for plural general nouns. The rule is:

a + singular noun beginning with a consonant: a boy

an + singular noun beginning with a vowel: an elephant

a + singular noun beginning with a consonant sound: a user (sounds like 'yoo-zer,' i.e. begins with a consonant 'y' sound, so 'a' is used)

some + plural noun: some girls

If the noun is modified by an adjective, the choice between a and an depends on the initial sound of the adjective that immediately follows the article:

a broken egg

an unusual problem

a European country (sounds like 'yer-o-pi-an,' i.e. begins with consonant 'y' sound)

Note also that in English, the indefinite articles are used to indicate membership in a profession, nation, or religion.

I am a teacher.

Brian is an Irishman.

Seiko is a practicing Buddhist.

For more fun with definite and indefinite articles, read the full article provided by the Purdue University Online Writing Lab at: