A User's Guide
A much-revised and expanded version of this on-line guide, with hundreds of added examples.
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).
Most of the confusion with a or an arises from 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. Not so: the sound, not the letter, is what matters. Because you pronounce it “em ar eye,” it's “an MRI.”
One tricky case comes up from time to time: is it “a historic occasion” or “an historic occasion”? Some speakers favor the latter — more British than American speakers, but you'll find them in both places — using an on longish words (three or more syllables) beginning with h, where the first syllable isn't accented. They'd say, for instance, “a hístory textbook” (accent on the first syllable) but “an históric event.” (Likewise “a hábit” but “an habítual offender,” “a hýpothetical question” but “an hypóthesis.”) Still, most guides prefer a before any h that's sounded: “a historic occasion,” “a hysterical joke,” “a habitual offender” — but “an honor” and “an hour” because those h's aren't sounded. [Entry revised 21 April 2006; revised again 10 December 2006.]
Many kinds of writing, especially in business and law, use a lot of lists, and it's common to introduce those lists with the following and to refer back to them by the above. There's nothing wrong with that, but note that 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. [Entry revised 10 December 2006.]
There's nothing wrong with absent as an adjective (“He was absent three days last week”; “Everyone recognized her comment as an insult directed at her absent coworker”). And though it's not very common these days, absent can also be a verb meaning “to keep someone away,” as in Hamlet's “Absent thee from felicity awhile.”
But absent as a preposition meaning “without” or “in the absence of” is jargon from the worlds of business and law: “Absent further information, we'll proceed as planned.” Ick. It's been around for a while, but do we really need another two-syllable way of saying without? [Entry added 12 Jan. 2005.]
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. And it's not just in interviews. When I asked a waiter, “May I have some more water?,” the answer was “Absolutely,” as if the question admitted various degrees of assent. Now, there's nothing wrong with the word itself, and when you really mean that something is true without qualification, go nuts. Still, how 'bout some variety? certainly, yep, aye, just so, damn straight, sho' 'nuff, sans doute, you bet your bippy — almost anything else would be an improvement. [Entry added 14 Sept. 2004; revised 21 April 2006.]
Some countries have official organizations to issue rules on linguistic matters: the Académie Française in France and the Accademia della Crusca in Italy are the most famous. Neologisms are among their biggest concerns: they're charged with keeping their languages “pure,” and that often takes the form of keeping non-native vocabulary out of their dictionaries. Their largest job for the last hundred years or so has been resisting the incursion of English words into their languages.
They're mostly fighting losing battles. The Académie fought long and hard against le weekend, preferring the native French fin de semaine. But most Frenchies simply ignore the official ruling, and use the familiar English word. Other common French words include le showbiz and les bluejeans. The Accademia della Crusca has been a little more tolerant on the whole: the most recent supplement to the official Italian dictionary, for instance, includes “Millennium bug,” derived “Dall'inglese millennium ‘millennio’ e bug ‘insetto.’” Most of the academies, though, try to minimize the incursion of “foreign” words into their languages.
But here's something worth noting: no English-speaking nation has an official academy. The upshot? There's no “official” standard of what's right or wrong in the English language. (And bear in mind that English, though it's by far the most common language in America, isn't the “official” language of the USA, just a de facto standard.)
That doesn't stop plenty of people from issuing decrees; I'm not above it myself, though I hope people take seriously my repeated claims that I'm not trying to issue rules but suggestions. In fact we're all making suggestions, whether we recognize that fact or not. The suggestions can be wise or foolish, the suggesters likewise — but no one is more “authorized” than anyone else to make them.
People regularly write to me asking about some widespread usage, wondering whether “the rules have changed” since they were in school. I confess I don't understand what the question means. English doesn't really have “rules” in the sense of “decrees handed down by an official body.” Though the English language changes, as all languages do, there's no committee to vote on what's right or wrong.
Does that mean “anything goes”? Of course not. Some things are (almost) universally recognized as inferior; more to the point, some shibboleths will make you look stupid before some audiences. And of course personal taste is always a consideration. But there's no official rule-book, and that means there's no agreement on many questions. Is it “right” to say “We want to grow the economy”? Is disconnect a noun? Can you use ironic to refer to things that are merely coincidental? I hate 'em all, but — until the revolution comes, and I become Tyrant — I get only one vote. (Mind you, when that glorious day dawns, things are gonna change: anyone who uses the word lifestyle will be sent to the copper mines, and those who say irregardless will be summarily shot. Meanwhile, though, I just get to grind my teeth quietly.)
See Audience, Prescriptive versus Descriptive Grammars, and Rules. [Entry added 21 December 2004; entry revised 10 December 2006.]
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.” (The full name for the curious: “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism.”)
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. See also Periods. [Entry added 14 Sept. 2004.]
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.
See Passive Voice.
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.” (Most adjectives can also go in the predicate position after the verb: “This one is big; “That student is devoted.”)
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 not verbs but 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 easiest way to spot adverbs is to look for the telltale -ly suffix. Be careful, though; not all adverbs end in -ly, and not all -ly words are adverbs. Soon, twice, and never, for instance, are adverbs (they tell when or how often); friendly, ugly, and northerly are adjectives (they modify nouns).
Some stylistic advice: go easy on the adjectives and adverbs. It would be foolish to cut them out altogether, but many people overuse them. Too many adjectives and adverbs tend to make your writing sound stilted or faux-poetic, and they rarely add much precision. The nouns and verbs are the words that should be doing the hard work, with adjectives and adverbs playing only a supporting role. 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.” [Revised 10 December 2006.]
“Please advise” — on its own, without, say, “Please advise me about the new rules” — is a verbal tic common among memo-writers. I find it ugly and inelegant, but I promise not to make too great a fuss as long as it's confined to business writing. [Entry added 12 January 2005; revised 10 January 2006.]
An easily confused pair. 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, which means “having the right effect,” or “getting the job done” — an effective medicine, for instance. (It can also mean “in effect,” as in “the new policy is effective immediately.”)
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.” There's also the noun affect, usually used in psychology, meaning “an emotion” or “feeling.” [Entry revised 10 July 2005, and then re-revised 16 July 2005, and then re-re-revised 10 December 2006.]
Affix is a technical term to describe bits stuck to (affixed to) root words. In English, we use mostly prefixes (fore-, un-, pre-, anti-) and suffixes (-less, -ish, -ness, -ful). Some languages have infixes, where parts are added to the middle of a root word, but they're very rare in English outside of language games. [Entry added 10 December 2006.]
The word aggravate traditionally means “to make worse.” You can, for instance, aggravate a problem, situation, or condition: “The new medicine only aggravated my indigestion.” (It comes from Latin, and originally means “make heavier”: the -grav- in the middle is from the same root as gravity.) The more controversial question is whether you can aggravate a person. It's common to use the word in colloquial speech as a synonym for irritate, exasperate, or annoy: “The salesman's attitude really aggravated me,” for instance. It's probably wise, though, to tread carefully in more formal settings, where some people find it inappropriate. [Entry added 21 Dec. 2004.]
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 messy. 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.)
See also Each, Every, Data, and Media.
The paradigmatic example of “incorrect” usage. It provides a good opportunity to talk about what “incorrect” means.
A venerable bit of schoolyard wisdom advises us that “Ain't ain't in the dictionary, so ain't ain't a word.” There's only one problem with this pithy apothegm: it ain't true. Any dictionary worth its salt should contain ain't — though it will probably also include some usage note pointing out that it's “nonstandard,” “slang,” “colloquial,” or “informal.”
Is ain't “a word”? Of course it is. The question is whether it's a good word, which always means an appropriate word. So how do you decide whether it's appropriate?
Ain't — like an earlier form, an't — is a contraction of are not, and is often used for am not or is not. It's been around since the eighteenth century (the OED records the first example of an't in 1706, and of ain't in 1778). That's the period that saw the birth of several of our common contractions, including don't, won't, and can't. So ain't has a long pedigree, it's a perfectly logical and consistent construction, and it's widespread.
Does that mean it's an appropriate word? — Well, yes and no. Yes in the sense that you can use anything if it's effective in context; no in the sense that, since the nineteenth century, many people have campaigned against it as vulgar and illiterate, and many continue to believe that. You have to bear that in mind when you write and speak, and adjust your language to your audience.
In many formal contexts, ain't will mark you as poorly educated: it's unwise, for instance, to use it in a job application. On the other hand, there are times when ain't gives exactly the sort of colloquial tone you're looking for. There's all the difference in the world between “You ain't seen nothin' yet” and “You've not yet seen anything.”
The moral of this story: usages aren't “correct” or “incorrect” in any abstract sense; there's no logical way to puzzle out whether something is legitimate or not. You can't simply look in “the dictionary” to figure out whether something is a word. Every word carries its history with it. As always, it's entirely a matter of writing for your audience — but if you've spent any time reading this guide, you know that already. [Entry added 12 July 2005; revised 10 December 2006.]
“All of the ——” can usually be rewritten as “All the ——,” “All ——,” or “Every ——.”
Nope: a lot, two words. (That's a lot meaning much, many, often, and so on. There's another word, the verb allot, which means “to distribute or apportion”; but the adjectival or adverbial phrase a lot is always two words.) [Entry added 21 December 2004.]
Two words — all right — is preferred. [Entry added 21 December 2004.]
Avoid beginning sentences with also. There's nothing illegal about it, but it tends to be inelegant. The suggestion is that your writing is just a list, and this next item is merely an afterthought. Much better is to find a logical transition from one sentence to the next. [Entry revised 1 December 2006.]
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.)
The simple rule will rarely fail you: use between for two things, among for more than two.
The word amount refers only to mass nouns, not to count nouns: it's an amount of stuff but a number of things. In other words, it's wrong to refer to “the amount of students in the class” or “the amount of songs on my iPod”: you mean “the number of students in the class” or “the number of songs on my iPod.”
See Count versus Mass Nouns and Fewer versus Less. [Entry added 21 December 2006.]
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]
For traditionalists, to anticipate something is to get ready for it, or to do something in advance; this isn't 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. William Blake certainly didn't expect Modernist poetry, but in some ways he anticipated it by doing similar things a century earlier.
The use of anticipate for expect is now so widespread that it's pointless to rail against it. Still, expect has the advantage of being shorter and more to the point. Don't give in to the business writer's love affair with the longer word. [Entry revised 10 December 2006.]
I prefer to avoid using anxious when I mean eager. Anxious is related to the word anxiety; it traditionally means “worried, uneasy.” It's often used, though, where eager or keen would be more appropriate. You can be anxious about an upcoming exam, but you probably shouldn't tell friends you're anxious to see them this weekend. It's not that it's wrong, but it runs the risk of confusion. [Entry added 12 Jan. 2005; revised 2 Oct. 2005.]
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.
Note that, with the exception of the little-used one, the possessives of pronouns never get apostrophes: theirs, not their's; hers, not her's; its, not it's. See It's versus Its.
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 single quotation marks to set off words or phrases (unless you need a quotation within a quotation).
Using an apostrophe to refer to a decade — the 1960's versus the 1960s — is another matter of house style; again, journalists tend to use the apostrophe, and most other publishers don't. I prefer to omit it: 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, with a tiny correction on 21 Oct. 2004; revised again 12 Jan. 2005.]
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.
Consider the sentence “I spent the year in my favorite city, Detroit.” It puts two phrases — “my favorite city” and “Detroit” — in apposition; the second phrase explains the first. Or “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.” They're sometimes omitted when a proper name follows some sort of relation: “My brother Bill works in electronics,” for instance. In most such cases you can safely go either way, though many writers prefer to use the commas when they're describing a unique relationship: “My husband Phil came from Pittsburgh,” for example, may suggest to some readers that the writer has multiple husbands, and this is just clearing up which one, whereas “My husband, Phil, came from Pittsburgh” leaves no doubt.
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; revised 10 December 2006.]
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 village or 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.
In formal writing, avoid using like as a conjunction. In other words, something can be like something else (there it's a preposition), but avoid “It tastes good like a cigarette should” — it should be “as a cigarette should.” Quickie test: there should be no verb in the phrase right after like. Even in phrases such as “It looks like it's going to rain” or “It sounds like the motor's broken,” as if is usually more appropriate than like — again, at least in formal writing. [Entry revised 12 April 2001; moved 10 December 2006.]
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]
Plain old whether often does all you need to do. See Wasted Words.
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.]
Aspect is a property of verbs that's a little tricky to describe. Here's how the American Heritage Dictionary defines it:
A category of the verb denoting primarily the relation of the action to the passage of time, especially in reference to completion, duration, or repetition.
Okay — what does that mean? Whereas tense describes whether an action happened in the past, present, or future, aspect indicates whether it happened once, happens all the time without stopping, happens intermittently, or is happening now. Some languages (especially Slavic ones) indicate aspect in their verb forms; in English, we do most of it with auxiliary verbs or adverbs. Consider the differences between these:
And so on. Linguists tend to use the word perfect to describe a completed action and imperfect to describe one that is (or was) incomplete; they also use progressive or continuous to indicate whether an action is ongoing. Some also have a category for whether action is habitual. And different languages handle these things differently. English doesn't have many different verb forms for these things, but we can indicate all sorts of differences with our auxiliary verbs; when that's not clear enough, an adverb can resolve ambiguities.
Think that's a mess? — just wait until time-travel is perfected, and then you'll have to worry about having been about to have already been going to class. [Entry added 21 Dec. 2004.]
Consider using yet. See Wasted Words.
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.
See Diction, Formal Writing, Prescriptive versus Descriptive Grammars, Rules, and Taste.