Grammar And Style Guide - A
- A or An.
- Use an in place of a when it precedes a vowel sound, not just a vowel. That means it's "an honor" (the h is silent), but "a UFO" (because it's pronounced yoo eff oh). This confuses people most often with acronyms and other abbreviations: some people think it's wrong to use "an" in front of an abbreviation (like "MRI") because "an" can only go before vowels. Poppycock: the sound is what matters. It's "an MRI," assuming you pronounce it "em ar eye."
- The Above, The Following.
- Lists are common in some sorts of writing, introduced by the following and referred to by the above. But you can often make a sentence clearer and punchier with simple pronouns: instead of the above topics, try these topics — the context makes your subject clear.
- One of the most overused clichés of our age: the pleasant little monosyllable yes seems to be disappearing in favor of the tetrasyllabic absolutely. Listen to any interview on radio or television: almost every yes, yeah, or uh-huh is fed through the speaker's pomposity amplifier, and comes out as absolutely on the other side. Now, there's nothing wrong with the word itself; — still, how 'bout some variety? certainly, yep, damn straight, you bet your bippy — almost anything else would be an improvement. [Entry added 14 Sept. 2004.]
- Among the less pleasant by-products of the late, unlamented twentieth century — up there with nuclear waste, thalidomide, and the legislative agenda of Newt Gingrich — is the acronym. What began as a harmless attempt to shorten long program names has turned into a mania for reducing every committee, gizmo, or plan to a would-be clever acronym. Resist the urge to create them by the dozen, especially when they don't do any useful work. It's disheartening to think about how many hours it took congressional staffers to find a clumsy phrase that would produce the acronym "USA PATRIOT Act."
By the by, some purists insist the word acronym should apply only to pronounceable combinations of letters: by this standard NASA and SCUBA are acronyms, but MRI and NFL aren't (some use the word "initialism" for these latter abbreviations). If you care to make the distinction, feel free, but the battle is probably lost, and most people will have no idea what you're talking about.
Note that acronyms are almost unheard of before the twentieth century. If ever an etymology suggests an older word comes from the initials of some phrase — posh from "port out, starboard home," for instance, or "for unlawful carnal knowledge" — the story is more than likely bogus.
For tips on using a or an with acronyms, see A or An. [Entry added 14 Sept. 2004.]
- Action Verbs.
- Action verbs, as the name reveals, express actions; contrast them with verbs of being. Think of the difference between "I study" (action verb, even if it's not the most exciting action) and "I am a student" (verb of being). It's often wise to cut down on verbs of being, replacing them (whenever possible) with action verbs; that'll make your writing punchier.
Whatever you do, though, don't confuse action verbs with the active voice, which is the opposite of the passive voice. Sentences with verbs of being (such as am, is, are, were) aren't necessarily passive sentences, even if they're often weak ones.
See also E-Prime.
- Active Voice.
- See Passive Voice.
- Adjectives and Adverbs.
- An adjective is a word that modifies a noun or a pronoun: it answers which one, how many, or what kind. Some examples: "the big one"; "seven books"; "a devoted student."
Adverbs, on the other hand, usually modify verbs, and answer in what manner, to what degree, when, how, how many times, and so forth. Some examples: "He ran quickly"; "I'll do it soon"; "We went twice."
Sometimes adverbs modify adjectives or other adverbs: "She finished very quickly" (very modifies the adverb quickly, which in turn modifies the verb finished); "The work was clearly inadequate" (clearly modifies the adjective inadequate, which in turn modifies work).
The best rule for spotting adverbs is to look for -ly. Be careful, however; not all adverbs end in -ly, and not all -ly words are adverbs: soon, twice, and never are adverbs; friendly, ugly, and northerly are adjectives.
Go easy on the adjectives and adverbs. While modifiers are necessary in any sort of writing, make sure your nouns and verbs are clear and are doing most of the work. As Strunk and White put it, "The adjective hasn't been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place."
- Affect versus Effect.
- Affect with an a is usually a verb; effect with an e is (usually) a noun. When you affect something, you have an effect on it. The usual adjective is effective.
If the usuals leave you curious, here's the rest of the story: affective as an adjective means "relating to or arousing an emotional reaction"; effect as a verb means "to bring about" or "to accomplish," as in "to effect a change."
- One of the fundamental rules of grammar is that the parts of a sentence should agree with each other. It's easier to demonstrate than to define agreement.
Agreement is usually instinctive in native English speakers. In "I has a minute," the verb has doesn't agree with the subject I. We would say "I have." In "John got their briefcase," assuming John got his own briefcase, their should be his. It's obvious.
Only rarely does it get tricky. A plural noun right in front of the singular verb can throw you off. Consider "Any one of the articles are available": the verb are shouldn't agree with articles, but with the subject, one: the sentence should read, "Any one of the articles is available."
A preposition or a verb that governs two pronouns can also cause problems. In "He wanted you and I for the team," the word I should be me: he wanted you and he wanted me, so he wanted you and me. (Hypercorrection is always a danger in cases like this. Pay special attention to phrases like you and I, you and she, and so forth.)
- All of.
- "All of the ——" can usually be rewritten as "All the ——," "All ——," or "Every ——."
- Avoid beginning sentences with also. There's nothing wrong with it, but it tends to make your writing inelegant.
- Alternate, Alternative.
- Alternate (as an adjective) traditionally means going back and forth between two things, as in alternate Mondays (i.e., every other Monday). Alternative means other. Traditionalists prefer an alternative to an alternate plan. (Real traditionalists insist that alternative can be used only in cases where there are two options.)
- Among versus Between.
- The simple rule will rarely fail you: use between for two things, among for more than two.
- And at the Beginning.
- See But at the Beginning.
- And/or is sometimes necessary in legal documents, but just clutters other writing. One word or the other will almost always do just as well. See Slashes.
- A technical term in grammar for the word or phrase to which a relative pronoun refers. In a sentence like "She couldn't stand opera, which always sounded like shrieking," the relative pronoun which stands in for the word opera, so opera is the antecedent. In a sentence like "He couldn't say the word titillate without giggling, which always got him in trouble," the word which refers back not to any individual word, but to the whole preceding clause ("He couldn't say the word titillate without giggling") — the whole thing is the antecedent.
By the way, it's pronounced ant-uh-SEE-dent. [Entry added 11 July 1999]
- To anticipate something is to get ready for it or to do something in advance; this is not the same as expect. If you expect changes, you think they'll be coming soon; if you anticipate changes, you're preparing to deal with them. Blake certainly didn't expect Modernist poetry, but in some ways he anticipated it by doing similar things a century earlier. Anticipate is often improperly used (in a love affair with the longer word) where expect is better.
- Any Way, Shape, or Form.
- Blech. Not only a cliché, and therefore bad enough in its own right, but an uncommonly dumb cliché. It's usually inappropriate and much wordier than necessary. Will someone please tell me what's wrong with "in any way"? [Entry added 3 November 2000.]
- The most common way to form a possessive in English is with apostrophe and s: "a hard day's night." After a plural noun ending in s, put just an apostrophe: "two hours' work" (i.e., "the work of two hours"). If a plural doesn't end in s — children, men, people — plain old apostrophe-s: "children's," "men's," "people's." It's never "mens'" or "childrens'."
There's also the opposite case: when a singular noun ends in s. That's a little trickier. Most style guides prefer s's: James's house. Plain old s-apostrophe (as in James' house) is common in journalism, but most other publishers prefer James's. It's a matter of house style.
Apostrophes are sometimes used to make acronyms or other abbreviations plural (another matter of a local house style). My preference: don't use apostrophes to make abbreviations plural — not "They took their SAT's," but "They took their SATs." The only exception is when having no apostrophe might be confusing: "Two As" is ambiguous (it might be read as the word as); make it "Two A's." Never use apostrophes as quotation marks to set off words or phrases (unless you need a quotation within a quotation).
To refer to a decade, don't use an apostrophe before the s. Refer to the 1960s or the '60s (the apostrophe indicates that "19" has been omitted), not the 1960's or (worse) the '60's.
See also Microsoft Word for tips on distinguishing apostrophes from single quotation marks. [Entry revised 14 Sept. 2004.]
- Two phrases are in apposition when they're logically equivalent and in the same grammatical relation to the rest of the sentence: it's a way of explaining a word or phrase, or giving additional information about it. It's easier to see in examples than in definitions. "I spent the year in my favorite city, Detroit," puts two phrases — "my favorite city" and "Detroit" — in apposition; the second phrase explains the first. "I just finished a novel by D. H. Lawrence, the least talented novelist in English" — the phrase "the least talented novelist in English" is in apposition to "D. H. Lawrence," and gives the writer's opinion of Lawrence. (It happens to be correct, by the way — you heard it here first.)
Apposition usually requires commas around the appositional phrase: "The winter of '24, the coldest on record, was followed by a warm summer."
Oh, yeah — don't confuse apposition with opposition. They come from the same Latin root (pono 'put'), but have nothing else to do with one another. [Entry added 11 July 1999]
- English has two sorts of articles: the definite article (the), and indefinite articles (a and an). They function more or less as adjectives. The usage of definite and indefinite articles is one of the hardest things for speakers of other languages to master, because it's often entirely arbitrary — why are you in town but in the city? And British and American usage sometimes differs; wounded Brits end up in hospital, while Yanks are in the hospital. Alas, I don't have any easy rules that are even a little helpful — all I can suggest is that non-native speakers pay close attention to the actual usage of articles. Sorry.
- Assure, Ensure, Insure.
- While ensure and insure aren't quite so clear cut, assure is very different from both. You assure a person that things will go right by making him confident. Never use assure in the sense of "Assure that the wording is correct"; you can only assure somebody that it's correct.
Ensure and insure are sometimes used interchangeably, but it may be better to keep them separate. Insuring is the business of an insurance company, i.e., setting aside resources in case of a loss. Ensure means make sure, as in "Ensure that this is done by Monday."
Brits, by the way — and for all I know, other Commonwealthers — sometimes use assurance where we Yanks use insurance (it's life assurance, but auto insurance, in the UK). But it's not for me to pass laws with Transatlantic jurisdictions. [Entry revised 6 September 1999]
- As to Whether.
- Plain old whether often does the trick. See Wasted Words.
- As versus Like.
- See Like versus As.
- As Far As.
- You need a verb: "As far as such-and-such goes," "As far as such-and-such is concerned." Plain old "As far as such-and-such," widespread though it may be, should be frowned upon. [Entry added 8 April 2001.]
- As Yet.
- Consider using yet. See Wasted Words.
- At This Point, At the Present Time, At This Point in Time.
- Never, never, never, never, never. See Currently and Wasted Words.
- The key to all good writing is understanding your audience. Every time you use language, you engage in a rhetorical activity, and your attention should always be on the effect it will have on your audience.
Think of grammar and style as analogous to, say, table manners. Grammatical "rules" have no absolute, independent existence; there is no Grammar Corps to track you down for using "whose" when "of which" is more proper, just as Miss Manners employs no shock troops to massacre people who eat their salads with fish forks. You can argue, of course, that the other fork works just as well (or even better), but both the fork and the usage are entirely arbitrary and conventional. Your job as a writer is to have certain effects on your readers, readers who are continuously judging you, consciously or unconsciously. If you want to have the greatest effect, you'll adjust your style to suit the audience, however arbitrary its expectations.
A better analogue might be clothing. A college English paper calls for the rough equivalent of the jacket and tie (ladies, you're on your own here). However useless or ridiculous the tie may be, however outdated its practical value as a garment, certain social situations demand it, and if you go into a job interview wearing a T-shirt and jeans, you only hurt yourself by arguing that the necktie has no sartorial validity. Your job is to figure out what your audience expects. Likewise, if your audience wants you to avoid ending your sentences with prepositions, no amount of argument over historical validity will help.
But just as you shouldn't go under-dressed to a job interview, you shouldn't over-dress either. A white tie and tails will make you look ridiculous at a barbecue, and a pedantic insistence on grammatical bugbears will only lessen your audience's respect for you. There are occasions when ain't is more suitable than is not, and the careful writer will take the time to discover which is the more appropriate.