October 2016

Word Smarts
(Ouch! Did I use that word the wrong way again?)

All of the following words are synonyms for aggressive or combative. Can you find the one that doesn’t fit that definition? (Find the answer at the bottom of this newsletter.)


(Yes, I've been reading too much news lately.)

Whether to Use a Comma Before “and”
—a question of style

Sheila brought apples, bread, cheese and chocolate to the picnic.
Sheila brought apples, bread, cheese, and chocolate to the picnic.

Which of these sentences is correct? Do you need a comma before “and”? The short answer is that either way is fine, just choose one and stick with it throughout your document or website. If you want to know more, read on.


When you have a list of items, clauses or sentences that connect with “and,” you can use the serial comma — or not. It depends on your writing style. Of course, good grammar and clear punctuation do matter in your professional writing, but there is a difference between rules and style. Writing style isn’t exactly like fashion, where certain looks are trendy and others are “so yesterday.” It’s more like using tasteful accessories that pull your look together. A thrown-together outfit might be stunning at a late-night club, but when it comes to your professional image in writing, you should decide on a style and stick to it.

Writers and editors refer to one or more well-established style guides, such as the Associated Press Stylebook, The Chicago Manual of Style, or the Oxford University Style Manual. And, when it comes to the serial comma, the style guides don’t all agree.

Most style guides recommend using the serial comma. The purpose of the serial comma (also known as the Oxford comma) is to avoid confusion, or improve clarity. And if you develop the habit of always using a comma, it keeps punctuation decisions simple.

The AP Stylebook, however, gives the writer more discretion about when to use the comma before “and” in a series. AP suggests that a short list like the first example above does not need a comma. But it advises in favor of the serial comma if the items in the series are complex or contain “and” or another conjunction.

Consider this example:

Sheila brought one each to the picnic: an apple, blueberry and peach and coconut pie.

Was it a blueberry and peach pie or a peach and coconut pie? Inserting a comma adds clarity.

Sheila brought one each to the picnic: an apple, blueberry and peach, and coconut pie.

So there you have the long answer to whether you need a comma before the final “and” in a series. It’s probably best to follow the trend and use it consistently. Doing so will keep your writing clear and show good style.

Word Smarts Answer
Find out what it means: http://unabridged.merriam-webster.com/unabridged/bombastic

September 2016

Grammar To Go
Takeout tips for better writing

Should you use which or that?

Although we often see which and that used interchangeably in writing, the choice really shouldn’t be random. Mixing up these two relative pronouns is a common mistake. We tend to use which when we should use that.

In most cases that is preferable. That introduces essential (restrictive) clauses. The details of the clause are necessary to the meaning of the sentence.

Jay has been looking for a good book that explains grammar in simple terms.

He hasn’t been searching for just any good book; he wants a specific type of book. The that clause is essential to the sentence. Notice there are no commas around that clauses.

As you edit your writing, look for the word which. It should introduce extra details that could be left out of the sentence, while still retaining your meaning.

Jay has been searching for a good book, which explains why he’s been gone for hours.

The extra information isn’t essential to knowing what Jay’s doing. Note that which clauses are always set off by commas.

This isn’t the whole story on using which and that. But stick to the above and you’ll be good to go.

Word Smarts
(Ouch! Did I use that word the wrong way again?)

Two Steps Farther to Get Further

Did you know there’s a subtle difference between the words farther and further, beyond the spelling? Both compare distance, but farther is best used for physical distances.

Beth jumped farther than Jim.

In American English, further is used for abstract lengths, ones you can’t necessarily measure.

Nothing can be further from the truth.

(The same preferred usage goes for farthest and furthest.)

While British English uses farther the same way we do, further is allowed much broader meaning. Knowing the distinction is not critical; however, using the right word will up the professionalism of your writing.






June 2016

Word Smarts
(Ouch! Did I use that word the wrong way again?)

Solstice vs. Equinox

We just passed the summer solstice, which made me wonder what the difference between solstice and equinox is exactly. Do you know which is which?
A. The start of spring and fall when the sun is the least distance from the equator and day and night are nearly equal in length.

B. The start of winter and summer when the sun is the greatest distance from the equator and the length of day and night are most extreme.
(Find the answer at the end of this newsletter.)
The biannual solstice and equinox mark the beginning of the seasons. When you’re writing about the spring or autumnal equinox and the summer or winter solstice, use lowercase—we don’t capitalize seasons. But if you refer to the June solstice, for example, start with a capital letter because months (and days of the week) are always uppercase.

Writing Tips

Try this proven strategy for developing writing—freewriting

Looking for ideas for your next blog? Want to develop your thoughts on a topic for an article you’re writing? Maybe you need additional rationale to strengthen a job proposal. Here’s a technique you can use to get your creative juices flowing—freewriting.
How it works is simple. Write down a general topic, an idea or an opinion on the top of a page, and then write about it for a set amount of time (5 to 15 minutes). There are a few rules. You must write continuously for the whole time, and you absolutely do not get to read what you’ve written until the allotted time is over.
Don’t worry about form—that is, grammar, punctuation, spelling. In fact, don’t worry whether your writing even makes sense. The goal isn’t to create well-written prose, but to get your thinking flowing and generate ideas for a first draft. Keep in mind that this writing is just for you; no one else need ever see it.
There is no right or wrong. Straying off topic is typical. Let your mind wander as it will, as long as you keep writing. If you don’t know what to say, write, “I don’t know what to say.” Just keep writing anyway. Keep your pen moving (or your keyboard clicking)— “This is stupid. I don’t know anything about this topic. Who knew 10 minutes could be so damn long!”
When time is up, you must stop. Now you get to read over what you’ve written. As you read, you may want to group ideas that relate to each other to use for the first draft of your writing project. Or you may highlight a line from your writing to serve as the focus for another freewrite. Maybe you’ll notice a particular phrase that you will want to incorporate into your writing later.
Once you’ve tried freewriting a few times, you’ll discover that writing gets easier! It may be a new and welcome experience to write free of self-judgment, just writing to see what comes up. Even if you feel there isn’t a single idea worth holding on to, keep your freewriting anyway. You never know— when you reread it tomorrow or next month, you may recognize something you hadn’t seen at first.
Freewriting is used by professional writers, by students in college classrooms, by all types of people—anyone who wants to explore her ideas openly. Freewriting helps writers move forward, shoving aside blocks and self-criticism, and it really can make the writing process easier.

Word Smarts Answer

A. equinox

B. solstice

May 2016

Word Smarts
(Ouch! Did I use that word the wrong way again?)

A reader wrote in wondering what I thought about a particular choice of words she’s been hearing lately as the outgoing message on answering machines. You call a business and are asked to leave a message: “Leave a message and we’ll call you back at our earliest convenience.”
Ouch! I’m sure these businesses don’t mean to sound rude. In fact, they are likely just mouthing back words they hear all the time. But context makes all the difference. What you say, and to whom, matters.
Just today I called the hospitality coordinator at an event facility with whom I do business. She said on her message that she’d call me back when it was convenient. I hung up feeling like a second-rate client.
Of course, it’s an altogether different thing when the person requesting something of another says, “Call me back at your earliest convenience.” This polite message conveys consideration of the other’s valuable time.
It may seem like a small faux pas, but for a businessperson, impressions matter. I suggest a more tactful message: “I’ll call you back as soon as I can.” This let's the caller know their business is important and leaves her feeling well taken care of.
Words convey meaning, but they also tell a lot about the person using them. In business, it’s worth checking your word choice to be sure you’re communicating the professional image you intend. Whether it’s your outgoing message, web copy or marketing materials, editing your words pays off.
Thanks to Linda Phillips Blue of Clarity Web Studio for bringing up this interesting point.


Grammar To Go
Takeout tips for better writing

Restrictive vs. Nonrestrictive Phrases
Take a look at these two sentences.  One has commas around the name; the other doesn’t. Which one is correct?

My niece, Kristen, lives in Hawaii.
My niece Kristen lives in Hawaii.

Either could be correct.

Comma usage depends on whether the descriptive word or phrase is important to the meaning of the sentence.

Do you have any relatives in Hawaii? 
My niece, Kristen, lives there.

Here the word or phrase is nonrestrictive (or nonessential). My niece’s name is extra info that is not necessary to understand my reply to the question. Use commas.

Which of your relatives lives in Hawaii?
My niece Kristen lives there.

Now the name identifies which niece I’m referring to. The extra info is restrictive (or essential). Don’t enclose it inside commas.

Regardless of the length of the phrase, apply this rule of comma usage and you'll be good to go.


April 2016

Word Smarts
(Ouch! Did I use that word the wrong way again?)

Recently I read online that “administrate” wasn’t a legitimate verb. Nonsense!
Administer and administrate both mean to manage or direct.”*
(administrative (adj), administratively(adv))

Yes, administer has another meaning: “to dispense,” as when we administer medication. But when it comes to keeping an organization humming, administrate is totally acceptable.

*According to Webster’s New World College Dictionary, the go-to reference for the Associated Press

Grammar To Go
Takeout tips for better writing

A reader wrote me wondering whether grammar rules had changed during the last few years. “I come across sentences like this all the time, especially in online writing,” she said. “Is this acceptable?”

Our AVA (American Viticultural Area) designation varies from Sonoma Coast to Russian River Valley, it is not hard to understand why the grapes grown in this region produce such distinctive wines.

Although language is always evolving, so far the rules about how to combine clauses into sentences are holding steady. This writing error is a “comma splice”—which is what you get when you use a comma to separate independent clauses.

Here’s a quick review.

An independent clause consists of a SUBJECT + VERB + COMPLETE IDEA. An independent clause can stand alone as a sentence.

Mary writes like a scholar. She talks like a truck driver.

Each of theses sentences has a subject, Mary and she, and a verb, writes and talks, plus each conveys as whole thought.

Incorrectly joining two sentences with a comma often stems from the writer assuming the reader knows the relationship between the separate thoughts.

Mary writes like a scholar, she talks like a truck driver.

But a comma is not enough to express a relationship between ideas in English writing, especially your professional business writing. You must do more.

1.     Keep the comma and also add a coordinating conjunction (FANBOYS: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so) to directly express the connection.

Mary writes like a scholar, but she talks like a truck driver.

2.     Use a semicolon instead of the comma to imply an obvious connection.

Mary writes like a scholar; she talks like a truck driver.

How would you repair the comma splice in the original sentence? A semicolon would work well, but adding a coordinating conjunction is most common.

Our AVA (American Viticultural Area) designation varies from Sonoma Coast to Russian River Valley, so it is not hard to understand why the grapes grown in this region produce such distinctive wines.

Heads up if someone has ever called you out on this. Usually people either have internal independent clause radar or they don’t. In other words, it’s often the same people who make this mistake. If you’re one of them you’ll need to be extra vigilant in your proofreading.

Thanks to Jennifer Halleck of Halleck Vineyards for raising this question.

March 2016

Word Smarts
(Ouch! Did I use that word the wrong way again?)

These words are interchangeable in a few circumstances, but why complicate things? I suggest you follow these usage tips to keep it simple.

Ensure: Use ensure when you mean to make sure or certain.

Insure: Save insure for when you take out a policy.

Assure: This is for when you want to dispel doubt.

If you want to improve your vocabulary, consider subscribing to Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Day. Every day you’ll get a word in your inbox—and it’s free!


Grammar To Go
Takeout tips for better writing

Last month I wrote here about the correct way to pluralize proper names. Continuing on that theme, let’s look at pluralizing acronyms and numbers. When you want to indicate more than one, the same simple rule applies: Add an –s.

Take a look at these common examples.

1990s; 20s, 30s, 40s
No ifs, ands or buts
Dos and don’ts

However, it’s not uncommon to see an apostrophe butting in when pluralizing individual letters of the alphabet. In most cases, an apostrophe just creates confusion. Go-to grammarian Bryan Garner recommends avoiding the apostrophe for plurals if at all possible.

But not all style books agree on this point when it comes to writing the plural form of individual letters. Do you write “The teacher gave five As or five A’s”? I like the clean look of no apostrophe. However, this can cause confusion. Do you “dot your is or dot your i’s or dot your I’s? I know, how picky can we get! (Editors can get pretty darn picky.) The AP Stylebook recommends uses an apostrophe for pluralizing individual letters; otherwise, it’s apostrophe-free all the way for plurals.

Whatever style you choose, the key is to be consistent. Pick one style and stick with it inside a document or across your website.

After reading last month's Grammar To Go, a reader asked how to pluralize a name
ending in –z.

Names that end in –z, –x or –ch follow the same rules as those for names which end in –s: Add an –es. The Schultzes, the Foxes and the Finches live on Main Street.

To show possession, add an apostrophe with or without an –s. (Either way is accepted practice, but always be faithful to whichever way you choose).
The Schultz’s dog chased the Fox’ cat.

When the name is plural, use only an apostrophe (without the –s): The Schultzes’ dog is friendly.

Thanks for the good question! When the name is plural, omit the –s: The Schultzes’ dog is friendly.

February 2016

Word smarts
(Ouch! Did I use that word the wrong way again?)

I’ve caught myself writing the word continuous when what I really meant was continual. It’s a common goof. The words mean ALMOST the same thing—but not exactly.

Continual= recurring frequently or intermittently

Continuous = occurring without interruption; unceasing

Maybe the misuse comes from exaggerating a situation. “Mom’s continuous complaining is getting on my nerves.” Unless Mom truly gripes relentlessly, then the better word choice would be continual.

Which word would you use in the sentences below, with continually or continuously.

The couple has been quarreling ___________________ for years.

Commuter trains are _______________________ breaking down.

The distinction between the two words is fine but worth keeping in mind as you write. 

Grammar To Go
Takeout tips for better writing

We all know how the general rule for making a noun plural: add an –s (or –es). This rule applies to proper names, as well. There are four Ashleys in my son’s class. The Joneses are remodeling their home. Although you often see an apostrophe plus an -s to form the plural of someone’s name, that is never correct.

When used with proper names apostrophes show possession. Suzy’s portrait is almost complete. The Smith’s dog is lost.

The style rules get murky, however, when it comes to proper names that end in –s. Do you add an apostrophe and –s or just an apostrophe? Is it Gus’s problem or Gus problem? Style guides don’t agree. The Chicago Manual of Style recommends an –s after the apostrophe, whereas The AP Stylebook follows the apostrophe-only approach.

What to do? As always, consistency is key. Choose your style and stick with it within a document, website and all your business writing.


If you’ve had enough already with the plurals and the possessives, read no further. But for those with a lingering question of how to form the possessive of a plural proper name (Joneses, e.g.), here you go: Use only the apostrophe. The Joneses’ garden is a gopher’s paradise. 

Writing Tips

The writing process—
a relationship with self-doubt

If you doubt your ability as a writer, curse your lack of skill or stress out when it’s time to write, you’re in good company. Self-doubt is part of the writing process that everyone suffers through when it’s time to write a blog, article, letter or even an important email. Don’t worry that means something is wrong with you. In fact, that snarky voice is important to being a strong writer.

Writing is a creative act. You’re making something out of nothing. You’re inventing something that didn’t exist before. Even the driest professional report is creative expression. Like giving birth, it can be painful in the moment but bring great satisfaction once you’re done.

As with all creative moments, nothing kills the muse faster than criticism. As you start exploring topics to write about, mull over ideas, imagine possibilities—at the start of the writing process—lock your critic in the other room. This is when you must let yourself go without judgment.

Most of us get bogged down in our writing in the beginning. We have trouble getting our ideas off the ground because of that pesky critic within. Before we even get a chance to consider what we want to say, she starts in with “What a dumb idea! Nobody wants to hear that! You don’t know what you’re talking about!”

It’s time to make friends with your inner vixen. Develop a good relationship with her. Know that self-doubt can support you and help improve your writing … but never at the beginning! If you trust this part of you has a valuable place later in the writing process, it’ll be easier to quiet it down at the start.

Once you’ve explored your ideas and written your rough draft (without your buttinsky in your ear), invite in your discerning self. This observer’s voice helps you take another perspective. It allows you to hear what you’re saying with your readers in mind. Have you made yourself clear in a way that others will understand? Are there parts of your writing that muddle your message? Developing the ability to step outside yourself is essential to effective writing.

The farther along you are in the process with a particular piece of writing, the more you need self-doubt. When it comes to polishing up your work—perfecting word choice, grammar and style—your inner critic is your friend. (See my Proofreading Tips HERE).

It’s a good idea to practice self-doubt before you press “publish.” Just don’t let it bog you down at the start of your writing process. Embrace your inner critic. Make friends with it, and use it to support your writing.

November 2015

Word Smarts
(Ouch! Did I use that word the wrong way again?)

Hyphens can give writers trouble.
Which of the following are written incorrectly?

decision maker

Find answers at the bottom of this newsletter.

Grammar To Go
Takeout tips for better writing

A few months ago I wrote here about how commas and periods ALWAYS go inside quotation marks. (“It’s a rule you can count on,” I explained.)

What about question marks?

If the quote itself is a question, then put the question mark inside the quotes.

He asked, “Are you coming with me or not?”

If the sentence that contains the quote is a question, then put the mark at the end:

Do you agree the best policy is always “Mind over matter”?

And if both the quote and the sentence containing it are questions:

Was it wrong of me to ask, “Are you coming or not”?

One question mark is enough.

This isn’t the whole story about how to use quotation marks, but if you know how the period, comma and question mark stand with them you’ll be set for most punctuating moments.

Writing Tips

Keeping It Straight
—parallelism in lists

When it comes to writing for business, lists are common. You see them on websites, flyers and other promotional materials. Lists clearly and succinctly organize content in small, easily accessible thought bites.
Bulleted lists present their own stylistic issues, punctuation especially. As is most often the case, the soundest rule is to be consistent. If you begin one list item with a capital letter and end the line with a period, then do so for each item on the list. Consistency won’t draw unwanted attention to the form so readers can stay focused on the content. 

Even with consistent form though, a very common attention grabber—one you do NOT want to use—is listing items that are not parallel in form. Parallelism in lists means that similar grammatical parts go together. Keep verbs with verbs and nouns with nouns, and so on. Doing so creates symmetry that is naturally appealing to readers.
In Garner’s Modern American Usage, the author explains, “Parallelism—the matching of sentence parts for logical balance—helps satisfy every reader’s innate craving for order and rhythm.”
Take a look at these examples.

Being a successful businesswoman requires you show up, work hard and stay focused. 
(Similar sentence elements create symmetry.)
Being a successful businesswoman requires showing up, work hard and the determination to stay focused.
(These unlike sentence elements are jarring and clunky.)
Now you give it a go. Consider how you could improve the parallelism in this list:

Business success involves

  • setting your goals
  • mission statements
  • planning
  • know your target audience
  • implementation
  • measuring success

(See below for one way to rewrite this list for improved parallelism.)
When it comes to prose, writers don’t always use parallel construction. The resulting lack of symmetry can be powerful and effective. For your business writing, however, parallel structure is always good style.

Writing Tips—Better parallelism Answer

Business success involves

  • setting your goals
  • drafting your mission statement
  • planning your strategy
  • knowing your target audience
  • implementing your plan
  • measuring your success

Word Smarts Answers
Here is what you'll find in Merriam-Webster. Take a minute to memorize these correct forms. It will save your having to look them up later.

  • ongoing
  • longtime
  • e-book
  • overachiever
  • coworker or co-worker*
  • nonprofit
  • long-term
  • well-being
  • decision maker
  • email or e-mail*

*Correctly written with or without the hyphen.




October 2015

Word Smarts
(Ouch! Did I use that word the wrong way again?)

Is it imminent or eminent?

These sound-alike adjectives often cause problems for writers.

Imminent = impending
He is in imminent danger.

Eminent = distinguished
He is an eminent linguist.

Emanate also sounds similar, but it is a verb that means spreading out.
Her demeanor emanated warmth and kindness.

(Thanks to Deborah Myers of Health at Your Fingertips for this topic http://www.healthatyourfingertips.com)

Grammar To Go
Takeout tips for better writing

Enough already!!!

Remember the story of the boy who cried wolf? Likewise, overusing exclamation points is making a fuss when there isn’t one. If you plop down exclamation points willy-nilly, how can your reader know what is really worth getting excited about?

Even worse, the single exclamation mark has become diluted by overuse, so now we see multiple exclamation points, as if more were better. Stop!

Use words to incite enthusiasm. Don’t abuse punctuation. I admit that I too am guilty of frequently taking the lazy path and writing, “That’s great!” Instead of saying what I mean, I leave it to the reader to guess what “great” means. 

Consider this remark: “Your presentation was great!!” Obviously, it was really good because I used double exclamation marks. (snark) However, it would be more meaningful to the reader if I took a moment to explain just what I liked; for example, “You were so animated and lively” or “You spoke with great confidence and authority.”

Exclamation points have their place, but … please!!! ... don’t assume a “!” articulates meaning.

Writing Tips

Spring Forward, Fall Back
—seasonal tips

The autumn light in Sonoma County inspires the artist in us all. But when we write of the season’s grandeur, keep it small. We ALWAYS capitalize the days of the week and the months of the year. The seasons, though, are NEVER capitalized—well almost never.

When you write about the seasons—fall, winter, spring and summer—follow the normal rules of capitalization for headings, titles and names. That’s why you’ll see uppercased seasons in phrases like “Winter Olympics” and “Spring Break.” Otherwise, resist the urge to make it big.

And here’s a bonus tip. Many say that in the spring, we’re moving into daylight savings time, but not so. It’s officially, daylight saving time. There is no “s” on saving, regardless of what you hear and see in writing.

For two more days, we’ll be on PDT (Pacific Daylight Time). Sunday morning at 2:00am, we fall back to PST (Pacific Standard Time). Yippee! We get to sleep in.

September 2015

Word Smarts
(Ouch! Did I use that word the wrong way again?)

Match these words and definitions.

chutzpah                upstanding person
kibitz                      crazy
mensch                   nerve, courage
meshugga               snack
nosh                        chat

Find answers at the bottom of this newsletter.

Grammar To Go
Takeout tips for better writing

Chutzpah, kibitz, nosh—you likely have come across these Yiddish words in your reading. The rule is to italicize foreign words in our writing. However, these common Yiddish words are usually found blended into copy without any special treatment. That’s because they aren’t foreign any longer. You will find each of the words in Word Smarts above in Merriam-Webster. Once a word makes it into the dictionary, it’s no longer considered foreign.

However, you won’t go wrong using italics if you think your audience will be unfamiliar with the word. Go ahead and give it italics. If you use the word more than once in a given document, you only need to italicize it the first time it appears.

Truly foreign words—ones not in the dictionary—need to be both italicized and defined.
Example: When it comes to correct punctuation, veni, vidi, vici (ie., I came, I saw, I conquered). 


Writing Tips
It’s Latin  to Me
—i.e., e.g., et al., etc.

Although English is rich with Latin words, usually we don’t come across Latin in everyday reading and we certainly don’t use it in our writing. However, there are a few Latin abbreviations that we use—and misuse—perhaps too often.
Contrary to what you often see, it's better style to save these Latin abbreviations for notes, parenthetical remarks, lists, and so on. Use whole English words in the main body of a document (as I did with "and so on" instead of "etc."  in the previous sentence).

— don't use i.e. and e.g. interchangeably
I.e. is short for the Latin id est, which means “that is” or “namely.” E.g. means “for example” and is the abbreviation of exempli gratia.
Which one should you use? Test by reading your sentence with “that is” or “for example” in place of the abbreviation. Then substitute with the abbreviation that makes sense.

Consider the following two sentences that mean very different things. 
1. The farmer grows a variety of vegetables (e.g., carrots, kale and okra).
2. The farmer grows a variety of vegetables (i.e., carrots, kale and okra).
In the first sentence we understand that the farmer grows all sorts of veggies and some examples of what she grows are listed. In the second sentence we understand that carrots, kale and okra are the only veggies she grows. 
—use et al. for people and etc. for things
Et al. means “and others” and is short for Latin et alii. Etc. is short for et cetera and means “and so on." 
—don't use “and” with etc. or et al.
Both these abbreviations include the word "and" in their Latin meaning so using "and" is redundant.
Ex: … carrots, kale, okra and etc. (wrong)
—don’t use etc. after “for example” or “e.g.”
When you write “for example” it’s clear the list includes some examples and not the entire group.
Ex: …  vegetables, for example, carrots, kale, okra, etc. (wrong)
— always use periods with these abbreviations
Use periods as shown in the many uses throughout this article, regardless of where the abbreviation falls in a sentence. (Note that one period at the end of a sentence is always enough.)
Ex: Carrots, kale, okra, etc. are some of the veggies she grows.
— use commas as you would if you had used words instead of abbreviations
In American English you usually see a comma after i.e. and e.g. before the list or explanation that follows it. 
Ex: … i.e., X, Y and Z. 
Ex: … e.g., X, Y and Z.
— don’t italicize these abbreviations
They are common to the English language.

Word Smarts answers

chutzpah                nerve, courage
kibitz                        chat
mensch                     upstanding person
meshugga                 crazy
nosh                         snack

August 2015

Word Smarts
(Ouch! Did I use that word the wrong way again?)

The past tense of irregular verbs* can cause writers trouble.
*Verbs whose past tense is not formed by just adding“–ed.”

                                      Regular                       Irregular
simple past tense           He jumped.               He sang.
present perfect tense     He has jumped.         He has sung.
past perfect tense          He had jumped.         He had sung.

Choose the correct past tense verb form.

  1. He’d swum/swam the lake before we got there.
  2. The population shrank/shrunk considerably.
  3. She was shook/shaken up by the accident.
  4. You already drunk/drank all the wine!
  5. Mary said she’s rang/rung the doorbell twice.
  6. Which one have you chose/chosen?

See answers at the bottom of this newsletter.

Grammar To Go
Takeout tips for better writing

What’s the correct way to write this?

The man who sat next to me was named James.
The man who sat next to me is named James.

Garner’s Modern American Usage advises us to use the present tense because of what Garner calls an “ongoing truth.” (The man is still named James.)

On the other hand, Grammar Girl, says it’s fine to use the past tense because we naturally assume that he’s still called James. Context and implication fill in the facts.

This makes sense to me. However, we could get into trouble with a sentence like this:

Yesterday you mentioned Clara ate too much.

Does this mean that it was a single occurrence or does she always eat too much—an ongoing truth?

The bottom line needs to be clarity. If we understand from context, without any doubt, we could get away with the past tense. But if we applied Garner’s ongoing truth rule, we would avoid murky communication, as in the case of Clara’s eating habits. 

Writing Tips
Be the Boss of Your Writing!
—making verbs work

Verbs give direction to a sentence. They carry meaning, intention and action. Make verbs work for you! Here are some tips for improving your writing.

Don’t overuse to be
This is the most common and useful verb in English, but it is overworked. When editing your writing, look for ways to recast sentences with stronger verbs.

There is support for the homeless through county programs.
County programs support the homeless.

I was responsible for managing eight employees.
I managed eight employees.

Choose when you use passive voice
Passive voice describes sentences where the doer of the verb is not the subject of the sentence. This type of construction comes in very handy when you don’t want to focus on the doer of the action. For example, “Your keys got lost—whoops!” Sometimes we may not want to say who did it.

Your writing will have more impact if you use active voice instead.

The chairman was appointed by the board.
The board appointed the chairman.

The child was accused by the teacher.
The teacher accused the child.

Choose descriptive verbs
Careful word choice improves writing, and this is especially true when it comes to verbs. To make your writing more vibrant, use verbs that paint a clearer picture.

You can say Sandra went across the street. It’s perfectly fine. But if instead you say Sandra dashed across the street, we’d have a clearer image in our minds. Maybe Sandra skipped, zigzagged or limped— this extra information can be packed into the verb you choose.

Can’t think of another word to use? Refer to your thesaurus to find synonyms. There’s one in your dictionary on your computer!

Word Smarts—answers

  1. He’d swum the lake before we got there.
  2. The population shrank considerably.
  3. She was shaken up by the accident.
  4. You already drank all the wine!
  5. Mary said she’s rung the doorbell twice.
  6. Which one have you chosen?

Garner, Bryan A. Garner’s Modern American Usage. Oxford University Press, 2009
A go-to resource on grammar and style with plenty of examples

Grammar Girl www.quickanddirtytips.com
Practical advice on contemporary American English grammar

July 2015

Word Smarts
(Ouch! Did I use that word the wrong way again?)



This cool word is now part of my passive lexicon — I know what the word means but don’t actively use it. Only recently I learned its true definition. I thought it meant some sort of major conundrum. Not so.

The word comes from Hindi and it means an unstoppable force.

V.L. Editing is an editorial juggernaut that is changing the way America writes. (Okay, I exaggerate. But you get the point.)

Grammar To Go
Takeout tips for better writing

Don’t Get Hung Up on Hanged

We all know that the past tense of to hang is hung.

I hung the picture on the wall.
Joe hung his coat on the hook.

But when we mean to hang as a way to off someone, then the past tense is hanged.

The vigilantes hanged the three outlaws.

So when you want to say someone was killed by hanging, use the past form hanged, despite what you see in print and hear in the movies!

Writing Tips

What’s Your Style?
—about stylebooks

When you’re writing, you may find yourself wondering about the right way to say something. What’s the rule? There are rules of proper usage—we refer to these grammar rules to guide our decisions about sentence construction.

Grammar rules govern issues like pronoun usage: I want cookies vs. Me want cookie. They direct our use of word forms: They are already to go vs. They are all ready to go. Grammar rules guide our use of verb tense, combining clauses, run-on sentences, subject/verb agreement, and so much more. There are enough rules to keep us studying for years.

However, when it comes to “correct” English, there is a lot more gray area than you may realize. That’s where style guides come in. Style guides are revered references for editors and writers. You may assume these guides talk about the manner of your writing—terse, flowery, or serious, for example. Instead, a style guide prescribes ways to handle things such as punctuation, capitalization, spelling and other details of writing. Some well-respected style guides are The Associated Press Stylebook and The Chicago Manual of Style.

Interestingly, these resources often don’t agree on the “right” way to write. For instance, The Chicago Manual suggests to spell out numbers below 100, as in an eleven-year anniversary. The AP Style Book, on the other hand, directs us to use digits for numbers over nine: an 11-year anniversary.

So what to do? Choose a style and stick with it, at least within a given piece of writing. Consistency is the key. If you choose to write the name of your business program in capital letters and without an article (no the), as in Basics of Managerial Accounting, then do so all the time. Don’t start referring to it later as The Basics of Accounting, or anything else for that matter. Apply this consistency principle to everything from blog posts and business emails to your website and all your branding.

Being consistent shows you’re in charge of your writing, and it doesn’t draw unwanted attention. If you write a regular blog or newsletter, it may be a good idea to pick up a copy of The AP Stylebook or The Chicago Manual of Style. You can sometimes find them at used bookstores. Or you can subscribe to their online services:  http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/home.html

A stylebook is a good resource for writers, like a dictionary or thesaurus. Whatever your style, stick with it so your writing is clean and instills confidence in the reader that you know what you’re doing. 

June 2015

Word Smarts
(Ouch! Did I use that word the wrong way again?)

Match the name of the collector with her hobby.

philatelist                               coins
bibliophile                              matchbooks
numismatist                           postcards
phillumenist                           stamps
deltiologist                             books

See the correct answers at the bottom of this newsletter.

Grammar To Go
Takeout tips for better writing

I feel bad you sing so badly

If the title of this tip sounds wrong to you, read on!

A super common mistake comes from something we all succumb to from time to time: hypercorrection. In other words, we generalize grammar rules and apply them to sentences where they don’t belong. To say, I feel badly is one common example of a mistake due to hypercorrection.

We know the rule is to use an adverb to describe a verb, as in I type slowly or you talk quickly. However, things change when it comes to verbs of the senses (sight, touch, hearing, taste, etc.). To say I feel badly means something more like I have a clumsy sense of touch than I am sorry. Take a look at these examples:

She looks bad.

Peter’s cough sounds bad.

My son thinks fennel tastes bad.


I feel happy (not happily).

I feel stupid (not stupidly).

I feel clever (not cleverly).

So, remember to always stick with I feel bad and you’ll be good to go!

Writing Tips

For the Love of Language
—Just Look It up!

When a new word comes across your radar screen, you’ll probably look it up. While proofreading your writing, you may check the spelling of a word or two. That reliable resource—the dictionary—comes to your service time and again.

Have you ever noticed that this solid-as-a-rock reference does, in fact, change? Dictionaries grow and evolve. New words and phrases are added, while existing entries are updated to their current definitions. Just last month, Merriam-Webster added more than 1,700 new entries.

Dictionaries represent our dynamic language. They aren’t rulebooks so much as they are a collective understanding of how language is used. They are descriptive, not prescriptive.

So what gets included? Dictionary editors track language over time. They pay attention to the language that is used often, words that are frequent in writing—journals, newspapers, books, magazines, online articles—and when the usage becomes common, we get a new entry in the dictionary.

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary is unabridged, which means it’s roomier and inclusive—more lexicon at our fingertips.


Here are some of their newest entries:

click fraud—clicking an online ad over and over to drive up the ad fees

emoji—those cute little e-characters to show how we feel

crema—the best part of your espresso

lambrusco—sparkling red wine

jeggings—jeans meet leggings

WTF—can you believe it!

Word Smarts answers:

philatelist                   stamps
bibliophile                  books
numismatist               coins
phillumenist               matchbooks
deltiologist                postcards




May 2015

Word Smarts
(Ouch! Did I use that word the wrong way again?)

Which of the following uses of the verb to hone is incorrect?

  • I want to hone my business skills.

  • Jane honed in on the best solution.

  • Peter honed his knife before carving the turkey.

Although we often hear hone in used when we mean to move toward, the appropriate verb is to home in.

Jane homed in on a solution.

Grammar To Go
Takeout tips for better writing

Whether to Use If

You wouldn’t  make the mistake of using whether for if in the following sentences:

If he already shopped, then I won’t have to.
I’ll turn back if I’ve gone too far.

However, mistakes are common the other way around.

Bob wants to know if you already shopped for dinner. Incorrect

Bob wants to know whether you already shopped for dinner. Correct.
When it’s a question of one option or another, use whether not if.

  • Please tell me whether I’ve gone too far.

  • I couldn’t tell whether she was angry or sad.

  • It’s a question of whether he’s guilty.

Writing Tips

You Never Get It Right the First Time
—the importance of rewriting

Have you ever read a piece of writing—whether it’s a newsletter, brochure or magazine article—and wished you could write like that? Good writing makes us think, touches our emotions, convinces us to buy, or somehow moves us. 
It’s easy to believe good writers have something we don’t. They can sit down and knock out a riveting blog over morning coffee, right? Wrong. It doesn’t happen that way. But, strong writers do know something new writers may not know: the first draft always stinks. 


The secret to good writing is accepting from the get-go that rewriting is essential to the process. By rewriting, I don’t mean just reworking a sentence, rewording a phrase or correcting grammar. You need to be willing to make BIG changes.

You may need to move ideas around and change the organization completely. You will likely have to get rid of some text, as well as add new ideas.
But how do you know what to rewrite? Read your work as though you were someone else, someone who didn’t know what you know or think like you think. If you aren’t sure whether something makes sense, it probably needs a rewrite.
As you rewrite, be sure all your thoughts are clearly focused on your topic. If you don’t stay on topic, don’t expect your readers to. Changes in content, organization, focus, connection from one idea to the next—that’s what makes the difference between a first and final draft.
Writing takes time. After you draft your work, set it aside to get some perspective. After a day, or at least a few hours, read it, rewrite it, and repeat. Once you have all that in place, you can edit at the sentence level to make your writing flow nicely and sound good to your readers.
Thinking that writing should be easier just makes it harder. The false belief that if we were good writers we’d get it right the first time gets in our way. Once you accept that writing takes time and know that a second or third draft is par for the course, writing really does get easier.
There are some people who are better writers than others. It’s a fact we have to live with. But they aren’t good writers because they get it right the first time. Good writers know that rewriting is integral to the writing process. 


April 2015

Word Smarts
(Ouch! Did I use that word the wrong way again?)

One of the words below has a different meaning from the rest and would not make sense in the following sentence. Which word doesn't fit?

The building was designed in keeping with its _______________setting.

a. pastoral
b. bucolic
c. noisome
d. sylvan

(Find the correct answer at the bottom of this newsletter!)

Grammar To Go
Takeout tips for better writing

Lay vs. Lie 

In present tense, we lay something (a direct object in grammar-speak) somewhere.
He lays the book on the table.
Lay your head down on the pillow.

If there’s no object, use lie.
I lie down.
The quail 
lies hidden under the bush.

The past tense of lay is laid.
He laid the book on the table.
 laid her head down on the pillow.

Here’s where it gets tricky.

The past tense of lie is lay.
I lay down for a nap yesterday.
The quail 
lay hidden under the bush when the cat walked by.

Present                Past
lay                       laid
lie                        lay

This isn’t the whole story on lay vs. lie. But if you remember to say “I lay down yesterday” instead of the incorrect “I laid down yesterday,” you’ll be doing better than most.
(Notice that
 layed is never the correct spelling for any form of the verb.)

 Writing Tips

Five Proofreading Tips
—the final step of writing

Proofreading comes after editing, once all revisions have been made. It is the final—and essential—step of writing. It’s not really reading so much as it is careful analysis. Proofreading addresses sentence-level accuracy, such as grammar, spelling and typos, plus style consistency and formatting.
Grammar and spell-check functions can point out possible mistakes, but don’t rely on them for the final say of whether your writing is as professional as you want it to be. Here are some tips to help you take this important step into your own hands.



Always proofread a hard copy. 
Mistakes pop out more on paper and it’s easier to catch formatting goofs, such as spacing, font size, bolding and indentation.

Read your copy aloud. 
Does it sound correct? You’re more likely to hear mistakes than see them, especially grammatical ones.

Use your pointing finger.
Just like when you were learning to read, follow your finger across the page. Read exactly what you see above your finger, not what you expect it to say.
Practice self-doubt. 
Question what you’ve written. Is it written as one word or two? Does it need a hyphen? Is it spelled correctly? Take the time to check the dictionary. Chances are you’ll find you wrote it right—most of the time—but you want to eliminate doubt.
Ask for help. 
Get someone you trust to proofread for you. They will read what you wrote, not what you meant to write.
No matter how interesting or well laid out your ideas, if your work has distracting typos, misspelled words and obvious grammatical mistakes, it won’t get you the results you want. The professional quality of your final product depends on careful proofreading.

Word Smarts Correct Answer: C

noisome=disgusting, harmful


March 2015

Word Smarts
(Ouch! Did I use that word the wrong way again?)

 Choose the best definition of the following word:

 Nonplus (verb) — nonplussed (adjective)

The fiancé was nonplussed by his sweetheart’s dismissal of his marriage proposal.

A.   To render senseless or useless

B.    To perplex or confuse

C.    To cause one to feel less than, inferior

D.   To be calm and expressionless

 (Find the correct answer at the bottom of this newsletter!)

Grammar To Go
—takeout tips for better writing

Capitalize Is and Are in Titles and Headings

When you decide to capitalize certain words beyond just the first word in a title or heading, here’s a tip you can rely on.

The first letter of ALL verbs is ALWAYS in caps, no matter how short the word is. That includes Is and Are.

And, here’s a bonus tip: The same rule goes for all pronouns, such as him and her and it and you.

This isn’t the whole rulebook of capitalization, but applying this takeout tip will greatly improve your presentation.

Whatever style you choose, stick with it throughout a given piece of writing. The key to good style is consistency!

 Example Headings

How to Punctuate Is a Question of Style
We Know It Is Wrong but Do It Anyway
Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff
You Are My One and Only

Writing Tips

Save the First for Last
—Writing Introductions

If you need to write something but can’t seem to get started, then don’t start at the beginning.

Consider a painting. Do you think the artist began painting in the top left of the canvas and moved methodically back and forth to the bottom right corner? Of course not.

I suggest you consider starting in the center. Write down the heart of your ideas—the important things—first.

Of course, written communication is linear. We read the beginning, move through the body of a piece and then on to the conclusion. It’s how we process information.

However, what we have to say and how we’re going to say it is often not clear until we’ve written our first draft. We write, revise, reconsider and write some more. We clarify our ideas, our thinking, as we write.  

So it makes sense to write your introduction after you’ve written the rest.

I’m not saying the introduction isn’t important. A good intro will grab your reader’s attention and hold it long enough that she’ll read on. It’ll hook your audience and set the stage for your main point. This applies whether you’re writing a letter announcing a rate increase or an article for a professional journal.

There’s no right way to write. If the muse appears, follow her! But, if you’re feeling stuck, uncomfortable or frustrated, try starting in the middle. Save the first for last.