Wednesday, November 20, 2013

7 grammar rules you really should pay attention to

By Ben Yagoda

I recently wrote an article for about bogus grammar "rules" that aren't worth your time. However, there are still plenty of legitimate rules that you should be aware of. Not following them doesn't make you a bad person or even (necessarily) a bad writer. I'm sure that all of them were broken at one point or another by Henry James, Henry Adams, or some other major author named Henry. Moreover, grammar is one of the least pressing problems when it comes to the poor state of writing today. In my new book, How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them, things like wordiness, poor word choice, awkwardness, and bad spelling — which have nothing to do with grammar — take up the bulk of my attention.

Nevertheless, anyone who wants to write in a public setting has to be aware of grammar. (And I'm concerned with writing here; talking is a whole different ballgame.) If you make these errors, you're likely to be judged harshly by an editor you want to publish your work; an executive who, you hope, will be impressed enough by your cover letter to hire you; or a reader you want to be persuaded by your argument. In each case, there's a pretty easy workaround, so better safe than sorry.

1. The subjunctive
This one is pretty simple. When you're writing about a non-true situation — usually following the word if or the verb wish — the verb to be is rendered as were.
* If I was were a rich man.
* I wish I was were an Oscar Mayer wiener.
* If Hillary Clinton was were president, things would be a whole lot different.
If you are using if for other purposes (hypothetical situations, questions), you don't use the subjunctive.
* The reporter asked him if he were was happy.
* If an intruder were was here last night, he would have left footprints, so let's look at the ground outside.

2. Bad parallelism
This issue comes up most often in lists, for example: My friend made salsa, guacamole, and brought chips. If you start out by having made cover the first two items, it has to cover subsequent ones as well. To fix, you usually have to do just a little rewriting. Thus, My friend made salsa and guacamole and brought chips to go with them.

3. Verb problems
There are a few persistent troublemakers you should be aware of.
* I'm tired, so I need to go lay lie down.
* The fish laid lay on the counter, fileted and ready to broil.
* Honey, I shrunk shrank the kids.
* In a fit of pique, he sunk sank the toy boat.
* He seen saw it coming.
(The last three are examples of verbs where people sometimes switch the past and participle forms. Thus, it would be correct to write: I have shrunk the kids; He had sunk the boat; and He had seen it coming.)

4. Pronoun problemsLet's take a look at three little words. Not "I love you," but me, myself and I. Grammatically, they can be called object, reflexive, and subject. As long as they're by themselves, object and subject don't give anyone problems. That is, no one who's an adult native English speaker would say Me walked to the bus stop or He gave the book to I. For some reason, though, things can get tricky when a pronoun is paired with a noun. We all know people who say things like Me and Fred had lunch together yesterday, instead of Fred and I... Heck, most of us have said it ourselves; for some reason, it comes trippingly off the tongue. We also (most of us) know not to use it in a piece of writing meant to be published. Word to the wise: Don't use it in a job interview, either.

There's a similar attraction to using the subject instead of object. Even Bill Clinton did this back in 1992 when he asked voters to give Al Gore and I [instead of me] a chance to bring America back. Or you might say, Thanks for inviting my wife and I, or between you and I… Some linguists and grammarians have mounted vigorous and interesting defenses of this usage. However, it's still generally considered wrong and should be avoided.

A word that's recently become quite popular is myself — maybe because it seems like a compromise between I and me. But sentences like Myself and my friends went to the mall or They gave special awards to Bill and myself don't wash. Change the first to My friends and I… and the second to Bill and me.
5. The 'dangling' conversation
In a class, I once assigned students to "review" a consumer product. One student chose a bra sold by Victoria's Secret. She wrote:
Sitting in a class or dancing at the bar, the bra performed well…. Though slightly pricey, your breasts will thank you.

The two sentences are both guilty of dangling modifiers because (excuse me if I'm stating the obvious), the bra did not sit in a class or dance at the bar, and "your breasts" are not slightly pricey.
Danglers are inexplicably attractive, and even good writers commit this error a lot... in their first drafts. Here's a strategy for smoking these bad boys out in revision. First, recognize sentences that have this structure: MODIFIER-COMMA-SUBJECT-VERB. Then change the order to: SUBJECT-COMMA-MODIFIER-COMMA-VERB. If the result makes sense, you're good to go. If not, you have a dangler. So in the first sentence above, the rejiggered sentence would be:
The bra, sitting in a class or dancing at a bar, performed well.

Nuh-uh. The solution here, as it often is, is just to add a couple of words: Whether you're sitting in a class or dancing at the bar, the bra performs well.
6. The semicolon
I sometimes say that when you feel like using a semicolon, lay lie down till the urge goes away. But if you just can't resist, remember that there are really only two proper uses for this piece of punctuation. One is to separate two complete clauses (a construction with a subject and verb that could stand on its own as a sentence). I knocked on the door; no one answered. The second is to separate list items that themselves contain punctuation. Thus, The band played Boise, Idaho; Schenectady, New York; and Columbus, Ohio.

Do not use a semicolon in place of a colon, for example, There is only one piece of punctuation that gives Yagoda nightmares; the semicolon.
7. WordsAs I noted in my previous article, the meaning of words inevitably and perennially change. And you can get in trouble when you use a meaning that has not yet been widely accepted. Sometimes it's fairly easy to figure out where a word stands in this process. It's become more common to use nonplussed to mean not bothered, or unfazed, but that is more or less the opposite of the traditional meaning, and it's still too early to use it that way when you're writing for publication. (As is spelling unfazed as unphased.) On the other hand, no one thinks anymore that astonish means "turn to stone," and it would be ridiculous to object to anyone who does so. But there are a lot of words and expressions in the middle. Here's one man's list of a few meanings that aren't quite ready for prime time:
* Don't use begs the question. Instead use raises the question.
* Don't use phenomena or criteria as singular. Instead use phenomenon or criterion.
* Don't use cliché as an adjective. Instead use clichéd.
* Don't use comprised of. Instead use composed of/made up of.
* Don't use less for count nouns such people or miles. Instead use fewer.
* Don't use penultimate (unless you mean second to last). Instead use ultimate.
* Don't use lead as past tense of to lead. Instead use led.

I hesitate to state what should be obvious, but sometimes the obvious must be stated. So here goes: Do not use it's, you're or who's when you mean its, your or whose. Or vice versa!

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

15 common words that are (probably) made up

By Mark Nichol

No authoritarian authority exists that determines whether a given word is valid or bogus. In any language, there's a complex and imperfect vetting procedure; at least in English, most serious writers agree on the correct or preferred form of a word that is one of two or more variants or on whether a word is acceptable at all.
Here's a list of words that have been under scrutiny in this approval process:

1. Administrate: A back-formation of administration and an unnecessary extension of administer

2. Commentate: A back-formation of commentator and an unnecessary extension of comment

3. Dimunition: Erroneous; the correct form is diminution (think of diminutive)

4. Exploitive: A younger, acceptable variant of exploitative

5. Firstly: As with secondly and thirdly, erroneous when enumerating points; use first and so on

6. Heighth: Rarely appears in print, but a frequent error in spoken discourse (Why isn't height modeled on the form of depth, length, and width? Because it doesn't shift in spelling and pronunciation from its associated term, tall, like the others, which are derived from deep, long, and wide, do. Neither do we say or write weighth.)

7. Irregardless: An unnecessary extension of regardless on the analogy of irrespective but ignoring that regardless, though it is not an antonym of regard, already has an antonymic affix

8. Miniscule: A common variant of minuscule, but widely considered erroneous

9. Orientate: A back-formation of orientation and an unnecessary extension of orient

10. Participator: Erroneous; the correct form is participant

11. Preventative: A common and acceptable variant of preventive

12. Societal: A variant of social with a distinct connotation (for example, "social occasion," but "societal trends")

13. Supposably: An erroneous variant of supposedly

14. 'Til: Also rendered til and till, an clipped form of until that is correct but informal English; use the full word except in colloquial usage

15. Undoubtably: An erroneous variant of undoubtedly

A version of this article first appeared on

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Use the "10-40 Rule" to Improve Your Presentations

By Carmine Gallo

The first 10 slides of your presentation should contain no more than 40 words, says communications coach Carmine Gallo. Cutting the excess will help you stand out.

What could you do today to increase the potential that your next presentation will hit a home run with your prospects and existing customers? Answer: Cut the bloat. A recent New York Times article mentioned a website calling for people to live on no more than 100 personal items. I'd like to start a similar push in business communications, but instead of giving up personal items, I'd like you to consider giving up words on PowerPoint slides. Simplicity will give you an edge.

In the past several months I've heard from numerous executives who have used the advice in this column to dramatically simplify their presentations and win new customers in a ferociously competitive environment. These individuals are top executives or sales professionals at a wide range of companies, including one of the world's largest energy companies, a Fortune 500 medical device manufacturer, a giant pharmaceutical company, and a large, publicly traded technology company. If they can reduce their brands' complicated messages to a few words and images in a PowerPoint deck, so can you. Consider these pointers.

The 10-40 Rule. The first 10 slides in your PowerPoint presentation should contain no more than 40 words. I arrived at this method after learning that the average single slide contains 40 words. However, the most persuasive presentations I've ever seen—including many from Apple (AAPL) Chief Executive Officer Steve Jobs—contain 40 or fewer words on the first 10 slides.

I recently met with a group of sales professionals for a large social-networking site who have used the 10-40 Rule to completely transform their sales presentations. The difference is astonishing. Their original deck contained 400 words in the first 10 slides. The new deck has fewer than 40. The result—customers love it. Their customers are advertising buyers who see up to 10 pitches or more per day. Customers have thanked these sales professionals for simplifying the information and, more important, for giving them a simple message to discuss with senior decision-makers.

Why it works. The human brain interprets every letter as a picture. By filling your slides with words, you are literally choking the brain on images that render it virtually incapable of making sense out of your slide. The most persuasive presentations strike a visual-verbal balance between words and pictures.

How to do it. Here's the trick. You cannot follow the 10-40 Rule by opening your PowerPoint slide as your first step. PowerPoint immediately offers a template prompting you for words. Start with pen and paper instead (or whiteboard and marker). Sketch, brainstorm, and think outside the slides. How can you make the message visually interesting? Remember, the content is the narrative; the slides complement the narrative.

For example, I just prepared a presentation that I plan deliver to an annual conference of business group leaders in Los Angeles. The topic is inspirational leadership and communications. My first 10 slides contain a total of 37 words (and that includes my title slide, "The 7 Secrets of Inspiring Leaders"). Here is the breakdown:

1. Title slide (6 words)

2. Quote (17 words)

3. Video clip

4. Image and text (3 words)

5. Image

6. One sentence (3 words)

7. Photograph and text (1 word)

8. Image

9. Video clip

10. Photograph and text (7 words)

Millions of PowerPoint presentations are delivered every day. In most cases, the presentations are intended to transform minds—to engage, persuade, and ultimately motivate an audience to act. But those same audiences see the same type of presentations one after another—presentations cluttered with words, charts, and bullet points. Simple presentations are more memorable and will leave a far deeper and longer-lasting impression on your prospects. Follow the 10-40 Rule for presentation success.

Carmine Gallo is a communication skills coach for the world's most admired brands. He is also a popular speaker and the author of several books, including The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs: How to Be Insanely Great in Front of Any Audience.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Humor: Calvin and Hobbes on writing

Three Grammar Rules You Can Break

by Michelle Pierce

Grammar rules exist so that we don’t sound like complete idiots when we write. Most of them have a good reason for being around; after all, clarity in communication is a good thing. A virtue, even.

However, that’s not to say that all grammar rules are written in stone. In fact, some of them seem to be the work of rabid grammarians, who gleefully enforce confusing syntax and awkward construction in the name of “proper English.”

To heck with that, I say. Here are three grammar rules that were made to be broken.

1. Ending a sentence with a preposition
I have no idea where this rule came from. What I do know is that many people, in an effort to keep from ticking off the Grammar Police, start twisting their sentences around so as not to end them with prepositions.

Unfortunately, more often than not, the new syntax is terribly awkward and painful to read. Take the first sentence of this section, for example. “From where this rule came” sounds like something Yoda would say, not me. A big part of blogging is showing your personality through words. How can you do that when you’re twisting your phrases to suit some archaic rule?

In the interest of clarity and readability, it’s quite all right to end a sentence with a preposition.

2. Beginning a sentence with “and” or “but”
Somebody, somewhere, once decided that you shouldn’t begin sentences with conjunctions. Maybe it was an overzealous teacher who thought her students were doing it too much. My guess is that it was frustrated mothers who got sick and tired of hearing their children start every single sentence with “But Mo-om!”

The rule even got screen time in the movie Finding Forrester, when Sean Connery and Rob Brown have an entire conversation about it (and deliberately start their sentences with the offending words in order to make their points).

Regardless of how it began, you don’t have to stick with it. It’s perfectly all right to start your sentences with “and” or “but.” It’s a great way to grab attention and emphasize a point. But, as in all things, take it in moderation.

3. Splitting infinitives
How often have you heard that you’re not allowed to let another word come between “to” and its verb? Some people hold that construction with the same reverence as is typically given to marriage: that which the writer hath wrought together, let no man tear asunder.

Except that it’s really not that big of a deal. Come on: “to go boldly where no man has gone before” just doesn’t have the same ring to it as “to boldly go.” If it sounds better to split the infinitive, then take an axe to it!

Don’t cling to the ancient rules just because your high school English teacher told you to. Be a rebel and break free of these nonsensical shackles!

Five Grammar Mistakes that Make You Sound Like A Chimp

by Johnny Truant

Writing can be really no-win. It’s not fair, but it’s true.

If you obsess over every grammatical and structural point, you can come across as stiff. But if you’re lax and make a bunch of simple errors, you’ll come across as stupid.

You make one mistake and a lot of people will let it go. Two and you’re making them suspicious. Keep that up, with your intelligence taking hits at each turn, and your reader will decide that you’re actually a chimpanzee — and not one of the smart ones, either.

Copyblogger has covered grammar nicely here and here and here. But I, as a newcomer to these parts, have a few more peeves to add to the pot. Ignore them at your peril, Bubbles.*

1. Improper use of “myself”
This is one that people make because they think that complicating the language needlessly will make them sound smart.

(It’s the same principle as a barely literate inner-city tenant telling me haughtily that her brother is “presently incarcerated in a corrections facility.”)

Unfortunately, misuse of “myself” isn’t just needlessly complicated. It’s also wrong.

Here’s a typical incorrect use:

“The committee will consist of Bob, Mr. Parsons, and myself.”

In this circumstance, “me” is the right choice. In general, “myself” is a word you shouldn’t find much use for, so if you’re using it a lot, you’re probably using it wrong. “Myself” should only be used reflexively, to refer back to the subject.

For example:

“I did the job myself.”

2. Subject/predicate disagreement
This is extremely common, and I can almost forgive it because the correct structure is cumbersome. Here’s an example of a disagreement:

“Clearly, this person didn’t know what they were doing.”

The problem is “this person” (singular) being used together with the pronoun “they” (plural). “These people didn’t know what they were doing” is correct, and so is “This person didn’t know what he or she was doing.” In each of those cases, the number (singular or plural) in the subject agrees with the number in the predicate.

Number disagreements are irritating to solve, because if you have a bunch of them and are writing about a hypothetical or unknown person, your copy ends up being overrun with awkward “he or she’s.”

A good compromise is to pick a gender and run with it. The standard used to be to assume any unknown person was a man (e.g. “This person didn’t know what he was doing”), but it’s more common today to use “she” as the universal pronoun. Alternatively, you can alternate “she” and “he” in different instances throughout your copy.

(If you’re confused on this, try substituting a person’s name in the subject. This tends to make things more obvious. Using the initial example, you’d come up with, “Clearly, Bob didn’t know what they were doing.” Assuming you know that “they” is supposed to refer to Bob and not to another group, this becomes obviously wrong.)

3. “An historic”
I always get argument on this one, but I’m going to put my foot down anyway. Not only is putting “an” in front of a word with an audible H grammatically incorrect, it’s also uncommonly annoying.

Chalk this one up to trying to sound intelligent, like the “myself” rule above. Somehow, users feel that the use of “an” in this clunky way makes them sound distinguished, kind of like adding ye olde in front of tanning parlor, or saying indubitably with an English accent.

If you’re bristling at this one, ask yourself if you’d say, “an horse” or “an house.” What would people think if you went into the store and said, “I’ll have an half gallon of milk, please”?

You can and should use “an” if the H is silent and the word starts with a phonetic vowel, like “an hour.” Otherwise, go with “a” as the article.

4. Was vs. were
Everyone makes this mistake, so don’t beat yourself up if you do. But you should also fix it.

Here’s the incorrect use:

“If I was rich, I’d buy lots and lots of pants.”

However, the correct choice here would be were, not was.

Were here would be correctly used in the subjunctive mood — a case in which what you’re saying is hypothetical. If you’ve used “if,” that’s a pretty good indicator that were is appropriate:

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

(You’re not me, so it’s subjunctive)


“If I were at work right now, I’d be eating a waffle.”

Remember, you use “were” because you’re actually not at work right now. But if you were writing about an actual past event, you’d use “was” (e.g. “When I was at work”).

5. Incorrect use of “literally”
Please don’t do this with a straight face. Not only will you look uneducated, you’ll also look absolutely hilarious.

Example: Kristen Stewart from the Twilight movies recently told a reporter, “I get to do something that literally if I didn’t get to do it, I would implode.”

Now, think about that for a second. If Kristen couldn’t act, she would actually collapse in upon herself like a black hole. I’d like to see that.

I collect “literally” mentions. Britney Spears has been “literally on a roller coaster to hell.” Crowds have “literally turned the city upside down.” And in a particularly grisly turn of events, a mall Santa reported that needy, sad children “literally tear his heart out.”

Whenever you use “literally,” stop and think about whether or not what you’re saying is actually true, in those exact words. If it’s not, use “practically,” “essentially,” or (ideally) “metaphorically” instead.

If there’s one thing you don’t want to be, it’s accidentally hilarious. Seriously, trust me on this one.