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Prose Parade
Grammar and writing basics

May 20, 2009

Refer/Refer Back

Well, I was going to start by writing that refer back is redundant, but my no-longer favorite dictionary begs to differ. Here is what it says:

It is sometimes believed that the phrase refer back is redundant, since the prefix re- means “back,” but the objection is misplaced. In fact, an expression can refer either to something that has already been mentioned or to something that is yet to be mentioned, and the distinction between refer back and refer ahead may thus be required for clarification.

Are they kidding? Refer ahead?!!! Where do I begin?!

First, let me explain what redundant means. It means superflous or unnecessarily repetitive. So, refer back says the same thing twice. Next, a prefix is the little thingie at the beginning of a word or a word root that clarifies or even changes the meaning. For example, prefix means added to the front. And, yup, that’s what it does.

OK, so if re- means back, how, in heaven’s name, can something refer to the future or something that hasn’t happened?

I say to American Heritage, nuts to you. Stop turning yourself into a pretzel trying to get the word to do something it isn’t meant to do.

Be forewarned. Whenever I see refer back in someone’s writing, you can bet I’ll be the one deleting the word back.


May 17, 2009


Alternate and alternative do not mean the same. Alternate as an adjective means something used in place of another among other definitions. As a noun it means a substitute. Alternative as a noun means a choice between two or more things.

When writing you must choose the right word, or you can confuse the reader. For instance, “Plan B is our alternate” (meaning substitute). Very nice. “Plan A and Plan B are our alternatives” (meaning our choices). See? In the first sentence “alternative” is a no-no, and in the second “alternate” is most definitively verboten. Although Plan a and Plan B could be alternates if they’re substitutes for Plan Y and Plan Z.

Now if you mind is twisted into a pretzel, my work is done.

May 15, 2009


I know proactive is an acceptable word, but I hate it. it sounds made up and too much like public relations or advertising lingo.

It means to act in advance of any expected problem. I think active does the same job quite nicely.

Remember from your high school science classes? Things are active or reactive, two perfectly good words to describe everything that needs to be described in that capacity.

Active can work for proactive. For instance, “We were proactive about the nuclear war.” That means you did something in advance of the nuclear holocaust. “We were active about the nuclear war.” Same, same. Everyone is still taking action.

Most people I know in the publlishing industry know of my constant rant about this word. But, boy, did it feel good ranting about it here.

Yuck, pooey, a pox on proactive.

May 13, 2009


“I’d of thought of that sooner or later.” Huh? I know people say this all the time, but I’ve seen it in print too, and it’s just wrong. The sentence should read: “I’d have thought of that sooner or later.”

Soemtimes when I’ve seen it in print, it’s in a quote from a fictional character, and that just helps to reveal who the character is. However, I’ve seen it with no quotes around it; it’s what the writer meant, and the copy editor didn’t catch, and, oh boy!

Once again, I think our lazy tongues are the culprits. We’re actually saying (get ready for this) “I’d’ve.” Then, the “ve” part slides around inside our mouths until it comes out “of.”

Then, when we get to writing it, we write what we say or what we think we say. And there it is in big, black type–of. Yikes!

Please don’t write “of” instead of “have.” OK?

May 11, 2009


Yes, they’re two different words with two meanings and two different functions. Affect is a verb most of the time, and effect is a noun most of the time.

Affect means to have an influence on something or to change something. It also means to feel something. For example, “Getting older affects the driving response time.” Also, “That music affected me so much.”

Effect means a result or an impression. For example, “Getting older has no effect on driving response time.” Or, “That music has a real effect on me.”

I won’t confuse you, but sometimes effect is a verb, and sometimes affect is a noun, both with different meanings. Always remember, English is treacherous.

May 7, 2009

Writing Tip

OK, you’ve finished what seems like the endless process of writing your manuscript, whatever it’s for. Now, you’re supposed to edit it, but you never, ever want to read this thing again. Well, I’ll cut you some slack because it’s not such a great idea to edit something you’ve written directly after you’ve written it. However, there is one little thing you can do that doesn’t require rereading those pages that are crawling with dots. You can eliminate the passive voice.

The passive voice is explained in detail in the Syntax and Style pages. You can do this change without knowing what the passive voice is. Just know it’s not good writing, and it has to change.

Make a global search for this word: been. Wherever you find it, rewrite the sentence so that the verb doesn’t contain “been.” You’ll probably have to find the subject of the sentence in the body somewhere, usually after the verb and hidden in a prepositonal phase such as “by the teacher.” The subject, then, is “the teacher,” and the verb can now be active because someone is doing something.

For example:

The rotten kid has been punished by the teacher.

The teacher punished the rotten kid.

After you’ve done this easy step, pat yourself on the back and set the manuscript aside for a day or so. Then, you can read it for all the other stuff you need to do to make it easier to read and grammatically correct.

You can do the same with “be” and “being.” Remember in the search box to add a space before and after “be”; otherwise, you’ll get every word that starts with “be,” and that’s frustrating.

May 5, 2009


I noticed on my host’s site that someone wanted info on the word “anymore.” My guess is he or she wanted to know when to use it as one word and when to use two words.

As one word it means either from now on or any longer. For example, “Please don’t pick your nose anymore.” Or, “They don’t make movies like Casablanca anymore.”

The meaning changes somewhat as two words. This gets a little tricky. “Any” when used with “more” is an adverb, not an adjective, which is what we expect. It describes more and means to what extent. “More” means additional. So, the sentence, “Does anyone want any more chili?” needs two words because “any” and “more” together describe the chili, and the question asks whether anyone wants additional chili. OK?

Let me confuse you. Let’s take the same sentence and move things around. “Does anyone want chili anymore?” Oh, look, we moved it, and now it asks whether anyone wants chili from now on or any longer–one word.

Mighty tricky language, English. Treacherous, even.

May 3, 2009


The use of snuck instead of sneaked as the past tense of sneak has insidiously crept into our written and spoken vocabuary over the years, and I for one am appalled. According to my American Heritage dictionary, snuck was a regional formation of sneaked and was considered nonstandard. Then, it sneaked into other regions and is now used by even the most educated people who should know better but don’t.

The good old Usage Panel frowns on the word. So do I. One of the reasons I dislike it is because the trend of English to to keep verbs regular (past tense ending in -ed), and snuck clearly is irregular, so it’s going in the wrong direction from other verbs.

I will relent this far. If you want to say snuck in conversation, go ahead, but do not, do not, do not use it in professional meetings or in writing. Impress them all to no end by saying sneaked.

Although I don’t think I have to say that if you’re confessing to an infraction or crime, it doesn’t matter which form you use. You’re toast.

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.


March 31, 2009

True Facts or Real Facts

I heard this one on TV. Who am I kidding. I’ve heard this screamer plenty. It was only last night that the blog entry came to mind. My question is what are false facts? My answer is there aren’t any.

Facts are true and real by definition. My beloved American Heritage dictionary has a usage note. It says that adjectives can modify facts for emphasis. Phooey. It goes on to say, “The true facts of the case implies something different from the facts of the case, which can refer to all the particulars surrounding the case, not just to what actually happened to bring the case about.” Double phooey. What an incredibly weak rationalization.

Just the facts, ma’am.

March 30, 2009

Me and I

Pronouns are sticky for so many people. After all, they’re the only words we have that have case endings. In fact, they change form completely. Let’s deal with the one that gets murdered the most frequently: when to use I and when to use me.

OK, I is used as the subject of a sentence or a clause. For example, “I pledge allegiance.” Or, “Wherever I go, you follow.”

Me is used as a direct object and object of a preposition, For example, “He threw me in the air.” Or, “Give it to me.”

OK, those were easy and understandable. However, when there is more than one object, especially when used with a preposition, there’s a tangle. To most of you this sounds right, “Let’s keep this between you and I ” Wrong! See the preposition “between”? That means the proper word is me. Between you and me!!

One way to check whether you’re using the right form is to remove the other object and see whether it sounds right. Between I sounds a little funky, doesn’t it. Even if you wrote or said, between I and you, it still sounds wrong.  Actually, just out of habit you wouldn’t say between I and you. You’d say between me and you, and that’s sort of all right except English convention says to put yourself last in any similar construction.

Now in the future, when you’re editing your own work, which you do religiously, I know, you’ll stop when you see an I or me and make sure it’s the right word. Remember, grammar check only gives you a choice and a feeble definition. You must know for yourself which word is the right one.

That’s all a girl can ask for.

March 27, 2009

Then and Than

Then and than are not the same word, and spell checker WILL NOT catch the error. Even some grammar checkers don’t, or if they do, they tell you to choose and give a slipshod definition. Spell and grammar checkers are not the end of the editing process. Ever.

Then means at a certain time. For example, between then and now.

Than means a comparison. For example, I’d rather be me than you.

Just watch your fingers when you type, and when you edit the manuscript or project or whatever (you do that, don’t you?), keep an eye out for this very common problem.

We’ll be dealing with different than and different from at another time.

March 25, 2009

Writing Tip

After you’ve written a report or term paper or whatever, do a global search for the word that. Read the sentence. Does the sentence read just as well without “that’? Then, take it out. Remember what Strunk and White say, “Omit needless words.”

BTW, if you want to write and you don’t have The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, go get it. It’s the handiest and quickest little book on grammar and writing ever.

March 23, 2009

Where have all the copyeditors gone?

This was in the New York Daily News. Oh lord, give me strength.


Look closely at the caption. “Where Liam Neeson and her were married.” HER! HER! HER! For crying out loud, this is a newspaper, not the best one ever, but still a newspaper. So, why is some illiterate writing a caption that has the wrong pronoun as the subject of the clause? And then as if that weren’t enough, they were married 15-year earlier? How about 15 years earlier. Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy!

Where, for heaven’s sake, was the copyeditor? Oh, I know, newspapers don’t have them anymore because there’s spell checker. There are courses on grammar for journalists, so why don’t they take them?

Hey, colleges and universities out there, make grammar a required course for J majors or even for Mass Comm majors. Please. In the name of all that’s holy, please.

Thanks (or maybe not) to friend Laurie for this smack in the face. Oh, OK, it’s pretty funny too. Something the few remaining good copyeditors in the world can have a groan over.

March 22, 2009

Terror and Terrorism

I know I’m being persnickety. (That’s what makes me a good copy editor.) I know the media want a good sound bite, and saying “The War on Terrorism” will have them tripping over their tongues in no time. I also know that saying “The War on Terror” isn’t completely wrong. However (you knew this was coming), the better word is terrorism. Let’s turn to my trusty and precise American Heritage dictionary. The third definition of terror is “the ability to instill intense fear.” The fourth definition is “violence committed or threatened to intimidate or coerce, as for military or political purposes.” Either of those definitions apply. Yet, here I am snivelling. So, why? Aha! Look at the definition of terrorism: “The unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence to intimidate or coerce societies or governments, often for ideological or political reasons.” Well, that’s better and more to the point.

Eventually, I know either expression will lose all meaning just as The War of Drugs has. That one went well, didn’t it.

March 20, 2009

Real and Really

People mix these two words up all the time. How often have I heard, “You look real nice.” Phooey. Real is an adjective. Really is an adverb. They have different jobs. Remember (or if you never knew, learn now), adjectives describe nouns; adverbs describe verbs, other adverbs and adjectives. So, in the example real, the adjective, is wrong because it can’t descibe an adjective (nice); really is right because it can describe an adjective. The sentence then is, “You look really nice.” Thank you; I think so too. I think I also look very nice, but that’s for another day.

March 17, 2009

See Saw Seen

I was talking to my friend Mike last night, and he said the screamer that sends him through the roof is “I seen.” He’s got that right. This formation is ubiquitous. I guess it happens because see is an irregular verb. The parts of see are: see saw seen. So, if you use it in a sentence, it’s: I see I saw I have seen.

“I seen” is just plain wrong, so cut it out.

BTW, my friend has his own blog on LA history and ghosts of LA. If you’d like to see it, go to www.mimlay.com. It’s really quite impressive.