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Prose Parade
Grammar and writing basics

April 30, 2009

Had Better/Had Best

There is an idiom (not idiot, Steve) in English: had better, which means must. I know nearly every English-speaking person doesn’t know this idiom even exists. Yet…

The construction is used in such sentences as, “I had better get home before my mother kills me.” I know; most people say and write, “I better get home, etc.” That’s just plain wrong no matter how many people say or write it that way.

My sterling American Heritage dictionary says it’s a subjunctive formation (see the Style and Syntax page under Mood) and dates to Middle English.

Whatever it is and wherever it comes from, I think the reason it has slipped from our language is because we would usually write or say it as a contraction: I’d better. Well, we do have lazy tongues sometimes, and the -d gets dropped enough times until no one knows it was ever supposed to be there. Not even the younger generation of copyeditors, who are supposed to know.

BTW, this applies to all nouns before the construction. You’d better. He’d better. She’d better. They’d better. Michael had better. You get the picture.

April 27, 2009


I don’t know why this word is a tongue twister, but clearly it is. It is pronounced nu-klee-ar, not nu-cu-lar. Nu-cu-lar is not, not, not an acceptable alternative. Former President Jimmy Carter served on a nuclear submarine, for crying out loud, and still couldn’t get the word right. Neither could George W. Bush, but he committed murder on the entire English language.

My beloved dictionary, the American Heritage College, has a usage note that may explain the pervasive and irritating problem. It says that the correct pronunciation is not as familiar to our tongues as is the incorrect. It cites examples such as particular and spectacular to justify (OK, explain; justify may be too strong a word) the slaughter of a perfectly good word.

BTW, the nu can be pronounced as noo or knee-oo, so be free with that part.

My final word: If you can’t pronounce it, you can’t write, pass or defeat legislation on it. So, no nuclear dumps, no nuclear powerplants, no nuclear bombs until you can pronounce the word. So, there.

April 24, 2009


While I really hate exercise, I hate excersize even more. What is up with that spelling?

Here’s a sentence I read in a document recently: “We will have designated walking/excersize areas for the rescue dogs at both sides of the park.” There it is as plain as day or the nose on your face or as plain can be. You know what really gripes me about misspelling exercise? Spell checker would catch it! Here I am always harping about not trusting spell checker, and this time…

I think the problem stems from the way some people pronounce it: Ex-sir-size. That’s why they think there’s a “c” in it. You got me on the “z.”

Anyway, this person clearly didn’t care enough to take those few minutes to spell check the document. Jeez. Take a little pride in what you write for pete’s sake.

BTW, there were a bunch more typos and misspellings in the document, but my brain froze on this one. I’ll take pity on the writer and not mention the other stuff.

See, I can be generous occasionally (another word that gets slaughtered).

April 22, 2009

I just wanted to read my newspaper.

Here I was, reading my LA Times (what remains of it), and smack–right in the face (or eye) a misplaced modifier. Here’s the sentence: “Intriguingly, both orbit the same star, a dwarf 20 light-years from Earth called Gliese 581, European researchers said Tuesday.” So, what does “intriguingly” modify?

Intriguingly is an adverb. It modifies verbs, other adverbs and adjectives. I repeat, what does “intriguingly” modify? Orbit? The planets intriguingly orbit? Nah. Called? The star is intriguingly called? Well, Gliese 581 is different, but un-huh. Is there any other adverb, adjective or verb it maybe, sorta, kinda can modify. Nope. So, what to do?

Kill that offending adverb, and the sentence is just fine. It gives the information, which is what newspapers are supposed to do. Or, the writer could have written, “It’s intriguing that two such similar planets orbit the same star.” (What’s so intriguing about these two planets orbiting the same star is another question altogether.)

I’m withholding the writer’s name to protect his reputation as a competent writer on what used to be a world-class newspaper.

April 20, 2009

Writing Tip

When writing an essay or article, write the introduction and conclusion last. How can you know what to say at the beginning and at the end until you write the middle? The body of the piece tells you everything you need for the introduction and conclusion. When you’ve done this, you will have met the old requirement: Tell them what you’re going to tell them; tell them; tell them what you told them. Easy peasy.

April 18, 2009

Between Who???

My nephew facebooked (from the verb to facebook; don’t you just love it when someone verbizes a noun?) me this morning and asked the age-old question: Is it between he and I or between him and me? The short answer is him and me.

He, him, I and me are pronouns and differ from what we’re used to in English because they have cases just as the Romance (French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Latin) languages do. On top of that they’re irregular. Also, they’re left over from an older form of English. No wonder it’s confusing.

In the example the pronouns are objects of the preposition between and so are in the objective case, i.e., him and me. The nominative case (for nouns that are the subject of the sentence, for instance) is I and he. So, I never want to hear any of you say, “Me and him were going to the movies.” Or, you’ll hear me say like Mandy Patinkin in The Princess Bride, “Prepare to die.” And, I’ll roll the “r” just as long and as broadly as he did.

As a quick check when you’re writing the sentence or even speaking slowly enough to catch yourself, take out the other person. So, would you say, “between I”? No, you would not; you’d think it was funky, and it is. Would you say, “Me is going to the movies”? You would not. Then, don’t.

For more in-depth information see The Parts of Speech page.

April 16, 2009


Hang is a tricky verb because it has two past tenses, hung and hanged, that mean two entirely different things.

The first past tense, hung, means to suspend something with no support from underneath. For example, “the stockings were hung by the chimney with care.” Or, “the door hung on its hinges.”

The second, much less used word is hanged. This means that someone was executed. No, it’s not hung. Yes, I know it sounds wrong, and yet it’s right. Go figure. For example, “they hanged the prisoner at dawn.” Yes, I know it sounds wrong, but still… That’s because no one, except persnickety people like me, ever says it right. On top of that we don’t execute people that way any more so we don’t need to say it, which is a good thing, but I won’t go into the grisly details about why hanging is cruel and unusual punishment.

April 14, 2009

Alter or Altar

Ok, here’s another one that spell check won’t catch, and grammar check, if there is one in the software you’re using, will give you lame definitions and tell you to choose. On words like these, called homonyms, you just have to learn them, commit them to memory or carry a cheat sheet of common homonyms.

Alter means to change, as in “I altered the batting lineup.” Alter with an -e.

Altar with an -a means an elevated place or structure such as a table used for religious ceremonies such as “standing at the altar of love.” (Motown music stands the test of time.)

April 12, 2009


I’ve heard so many people misuse this word, it just baffles me. Well, actually no, it doesn’t. I think a lot of people use it to sound educated. Well, it doesn’t sound educated if you misuse the word. You sound pretentious.

So, in the interest of my sanity, here goes. First, the pronunciation. According to my beloved American Heritage dictionary, the first acceptable pronunciation is verb-e-age. The second is verb-age. I hate the second; there’s a letter there that just begs to be pronounced.

Anyway, the word means 1. too many words; wordy and 2. “the manner in which something is expressed: software verbiage.” Too often, I’ve heard it used to describe anything written. The best way to describe anything written is words, composition, essay, article, any number of things but not verbiage. I worked with one writer who used the word constantly, and I wanted to smack him. Don’t make me want to smack you.

April 10, 2009


Unique means one of a kind, so it can’t be modified. Things are not more unique, very unique, quite unique or anything else unique. Unique is unique, period. The usage note in my dictionary says that since the advertising world uses the word to mean extraordinary, then maybe sometimes it’s all right to modify it. Then, it says beware some readers (and copyeditors) will come down on you like an Acme anvil (beep, beep) if you try to modify it. If you mean one of a kind, use unique. If you mean something else such as extraordinary, then say that. Sheesh.

April 8, 2009

Could/Couldn’t Care Less

If someone says he or she could care less, then I have to ask, “How much less can you care?” If someone says he or she couldn’t care less, I know he or she means he or she doesn’t care. There is a difference.

I think the difficulty arises because of the funky construction. First, there’s the n’t meaning not, and then there’s less, which means not as much, a built-in negative. So, the phrase has essentially two negatives, which muddies the waters of clarity. (You didn’t know there were waters of clarity, did you?) Although it’s a dandy little catch phrase, it gets messed up too much, so I vote for saying, “I don’t care.” That way there’s no confusion, and I don’t blow my top inwardly.

April 6, 2009

Plurals and Numerals

The basic rule for plurals is to add an -s or -es. An apostrophe (‘) is sometimes used to make plurals in very particular circumstances such as ABC’s. However, apostrophes are never used to make years or other numerals plural. The basic rule applies. So, if you’re referring to a certain decade, just add -s. For example, 1960s, no, no, not ever, 1960’s unless it’s a possessive, 1960’s culture. If today’s sponsor is the number 2, then more than one 2 is 2s.

In general, the apostrophe is overused to make plurals. Stop it.

April 3, 2009

all right or alright

Let me make it simple (not simplistic). Alright is never right except when mentioning The Kids Are Alright, a long-ago album from The Who. I’d show the album cover except it’s a copyright infringement.

My American Heritage dictionary, which I prefer above all others, has a usage note at all right. Here goes:

All right, usually pronounced as if it were a single word, probably should have followed [since when is it imperative? It does what it will do.] the orthographic [the study of spelling] development as already and altogether. But [starting a sentence with but! I love this dictionary, and it’s killing me.] despite its use by a number of reputable [do the Stones count as reputable?] authors, the spelling alright has never been accepted as a standard variant [means it’s OK to spell it that way].

And another thing! Sometimes already and altogether are spelled all ready and all together because they mean different things. Already means at a certain point in time. All ready means everyone is prepared. For example, Are we all ready? Altogether has three meanings: 1. entirely; 2. everything included; 3. with everything considered. All together means a group acting in unison. For example, if we’re all together, we can go.

So there!

Well, I suppose if you’re saying alrighty, it’s OK to spell it as one word with one l. Do you really want to say alrighty?

April 2, 2009

An Itty Bitty S


I found a menu stuck in my fence and instead of just throwing it into the recycle bin, I looked at it to see if there was something to entertain us. Ta-Da.

For dessert we can have chocolate mouse cake. I’m wondering if the mouse is Ratatouille.

Oh, wait, you mean it’s supposed to be mousse; two esses (like the way I spell the letter?)? Where’s the fun in that?

April 1, 2009

Simple and Simplistic

I know people use these two words interchangeably. Stop it! They mean two very different things.

Simple means not complicated or easy. The noun for simple is simplicity.

Simplistic means overly simple while ignoring the complications or complexities. The noun for simplistic is simplism.

See? They sound so much alike, but you can change the meaning of what you’re saying or writing so easily.

When I was surfing the TV once, I saw an informercial that was selling some fast cooking contraption, and the woman continually said using it was simplistic. To me that means it’s hard to use, but she wants us to ignore that part.

She was going for the big dollar word so she’d sound professional. Well, that’s my guess anyway, but instead of keeping it simple, she sounded ignorant. (I know that’s harsh, a not uncommon trait in me.)

Some good advice for novice writers is to keep it simple. Say what you have to say clearly, concisely and cogently.