A User's Guide
A much-revised and expanded version of this on-line guide, with hundreds of added examples.
The verb to task (meaning “to impose a task on”) has been around a long time: the Oxford English Dictionary records the first example in 1530. But geez, it's ugly, innit? Garner dismisses it as a “vogue word” in A Dictionary of Modern American Usage; I object because it's a thoughtless cliché in business writing. [Entry added 12 Jan. 2005.]
As in “There's no accounting for” (de gustibus non est disputandum). Few people want to hear it — we all crave authoritative answers — but taste is part of any discussion of language. The rules go only so far; after that, all you've got to guide you are preferences.
Me, personally, myself, I'd sooner go to my grave than use disconnect as a noun (“There's a big disconnect between what he says and what he does”): I feel so dirty when I have to say it. The word lifestyle makes my teeth itch, and I'd rather gnaw my own leg off than say something like “any way, shape, or form.” (Ditto phrases like “Me, personally, myself.”)
But they're not right or wrong, and certainly not the sort of thing that a grammar guide can settle definitively: there's no authoritative answer. I find them ugly as sin, but your mileage may vary. They're a matter of taste.
I, of course, am convinced I have impeccable taste; and like most people who set up linguistic soapboxes, I sometimes offer opinions on such questions. I like to think I'm rarely perverse or pedantic, and I flatter myself that I have a better ear for style than many. But take my opinions for what they're worth: they're one guy's judgment on what sounds good. And on many issues, that's all you get.
See Academies, Audience, Bugbears, Grammar, House Style, Prescriptive versus Descriptive Grammars, and Style. [Entry added 16 March 2001.]
Tense is a property of verbs to indicate when an action happened, happens, or will happen. The usual tenses are past, present, and future. With regular verbs, the past tense is usually formed with “-ed” (walked); the present tense is the “uninflected” form of the verb (walk); and the future tense is usually formed with shall or will. (Some argue that, because we don't have a separate inflection for the future — we form it with an auxiliary verb — English doesn't really have a future tense. Seems a niggling distinction to me, but what do I know?)
Note that tense is sometimes folded together with aspect and treated as a single category. By this standard, “simple present” (I go) and “continuous present” (I am going) are different tenses, as are “simple past” or “preterite” (I went), “past continous” or “imperfect” (I was going), and “past perfect” or “pluperfect” (I had gone). Others prefer to use tense to refer only to time of the action, and treat aspect as a separate category. [Entry added 21 Dec. 2004.]
Than, as used in comparatives, has traditionally been considered a conjunction; as such, if you're comparing subjects, the pronouns after than should take the “subjective case.” In other words, “He's taller than I,” not “He's taller than me”; “She's smarter than he,” not “She's smarter than him.” If, on the other hand, you're comparing direct or indirect objects, the pronouns should be objective: “I've never worked with a more difficult client than him.”
There are some advantages to this traditional state of affairs. If you observe this distinction, you can be more precise in some comparisons. Consider these two sentences:
The problem, though, is that in all but the most formal contexts, “than I” sounds stuffy, even unidiomatic. Most people, in most contexts, treat than as a preposition, and put all following pronouns in the objective case, whether the things being compared are subjects or objects. “He's taller than me” sounds more natural to most native English speakers.
This isn't a recent development: people have been treating than as a preposition for centuries. Consider the following from big-name English and American writers:
So what should you do? I don't have a good answer, other than the most general advice possible: try to size up your audience, and figure out whether they're likely to be happier with the traditional or the familiar usage. [Entry added 3 Jan. 2005.]
Than is a conjunction or preposition used in unequal comparisons; then is (usually) an adverb indicating time or consequence. Be careful not to confuse them: something is bigger than something else; something happens then. [Entry added 3 Jan. 2005.]
According to the more quibbling self-styled grammar experts, that is restrictive, while which is not.
Many grammarians insist on a distinction without any historical justification. Many of the best writers in the language couldn't tell you the difference between them, while many of the worst think they know. If the subtle difference between the two confuses you, use whatever sounds right. Other matters are more worthy of your attention.
For the curious, however, the relative pronoun that is restrictive, which means it tells you a necessary piece of information about its antecedent: for example, “The word processor that is used most often is WordPerfect.” Here the that phrase answers an important question: which of the many word processors are we talking about? And the answer is the one that is used most often.
Which is non-restrictive: it does not limit the word it refers to. An example is “Penn's ID center, which is called CUPID, has been successful so far.” Here that is unnecessary: the which does not tell us which of Penn's many ID centers we're considering; it simply provides an extra piece of information about the plan we're already discussing. “Penn's ID Center” tells us all we really need to know to identify it.
It boils down to this: if you can tell which thing is being discussed without the which or that clause, use which; if you can't, use that.
There are two rules of thumb you can keep in mind. First, if the phrase needs a comma, you probably mean which. Since “Penn's ID center” calls for a comma, we would not say “Penn's ID Center, that is called CUPID.”
Another way to keep them straight is to imagine by the way following every which: “Penn's ID center, which (by the way) is called CUPID. . . .” The which adds a useful, but not grammatically necessary, piece of information. On the other hand, we wouldn't say “The word processor which (by the way) is used most often is WordPerfect,” because the word processor on its own isn't enough information — which word processor?
A paradoxical mnemonic: use that to tell which, and which to tell that.
Both are real words and will probably get through your spelling checker, but they mean different things. Therefore with a final e is by far the more common word; it means “for that reason” or “consequently.” Therefor without the final e is archaic in most contexts, and today you're likely to see it only in legal documents. It means “for that” (just as thereto means “to that” and therefrom means “from that”). Unless you're in a law office, you almost certainly want therefore. [Entry added 15 Nov. 2006.]
(I'm removing this entry from the writing guide, since I've substantially expanded on these comments: see the Thesis entry in my guide, “Getting an A on an English Paper.”) [Entry removed 10 December 2006.]
See First Person.
Ick. Thus is already an adverb; it doesn't need a -ly.
The titles of books and other long works (plays, long poems, operas, &c.) are either italicized or underscored; likewise titles of serials (magazines, newspapers, television series). The titles of shorter works (essays, short poems, &c.) appear in quotation marks. For borderline cases, the test is whether it could be published as a book on its own: even if you're reading King Lear in a larger anthology, it's long enough that it could be a book, so it gets italics. Don't fret the occasional necessary judgment call.
(Note that newspapers sometimes use quotation marks for all titles, whether of short or long works. This is because, in the days of lead type, many newspapers didn't have an italic typeface, and it remains the norm even in the age of digital fonts. Other publications, though, use italics or underscore for titles of long works.)
In most house styles, all the major words in an English title are capitalized — “major” meaning the first word, the last word, and everything in between except articles, conjunctions, and prepositions: A Tale of Two Cities (preposition of gets no cap), “I Have a Dream” (article a gets no cap). If there's a subtitle, the same rules apply to the subtitle, even if it begins with an article, conjunction, or preposition: Authors and Owners: The Invention of Copyright (conjunction and and preposition of get no caps, but article the is the first word of the subtitle). There are other styles; some publications capitalize only the first word and proper names, and there are different rules for other languages. But it's usually safe to capitalize everything but the articles, conjunctions, and prepositions.
Many guides call for omitting initial articles in titles if the titles follow a possessive: “In his Tale of a Tub, Swift satirizes zealots” (the title is A Tale of a Tub, but “his A” sounds clumsy); “In Ann Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho” (the title is The Mysteries of Udolpho, but the the can go). Another possibility — and sometimes a better one — is to leave out the possessive (“his,” “her”) when it's unnecessary. When readers see “as Fitzgerald writes in his Great Gatsby,” there's little chance they'll be confused into thinking Fitzgerald wrote it in someone else's Great Gatsby — you can leave out the “his” and use the The. [Revised 13 Sept. 2003; revised again 12 Dec. 2004; revised again 9 May 2007.]
See Wasted Words.
They're interchangeable. Toward is a little more common in America, and towards a little more common in Britain; but both forms are perfectly acceptable in either place. [Entry added 24 April 2006.]
Why must everything unpleasant or unfortunate be billed as a tragedy?
I'm an English professor; I prefer to limit the word to works of literature, especially dramatic literature, that involve a protagonist (the “tragic hero”) suffering a downfall because of some character flaw.
But hey, not everyone wants to be an English professor (tant pis pour vous). I won't make too big a fuss if others choose to apply the word to real-life situations rather than the works of Sophocles and Shakespeare. If you want to call the deaths of Anne Frank and José Martí tragic, knock yourself out.
I do get cranky, though, when people apply it to trivial disappointments. Even many natural disasters — forest fires, say — don't seem to me really tragic. They suck; they're disasters, calamities, even cataclysms or catastrophes; they're deplorable, lamentable, pitiful, woeful, ineffable — but the word tragic has been used so often it's now either cant or a cliché. Let's give it a rest, huh? [Entry added 20 Jan. 2005.]
Transition is a perfectly respectable noun; it's been in the language since before Shakespeare was born. It's increasingly being used, though, as a verb — “We'll be transitioning to the new system over the next few months” — and that's kinda ugly. It's still fairly recent (the OED can trace it back only to 1975), and still sounds jargony to most ears. My advice is to avoid it whenever you can. [Entry added 12 July 2005.]
Writing should flow. Each sentence should follow on the one before it, and each paragraph should pick up where the previous one left off. Try to make the connections between your sentences and paragraphs logical and explicit. The paragraph's topic sentence is a good place for this, and mastery of transitional words and phrases like therefore, however, on the other hand, and so forth is a must. See Paragraphs.
Not as difficult as some people think. A transitive verb takes a direct object: it shows action upon someone or something. Intransitive verbs take no direct object; they need only a subject to make a sentence.
Some transitive verbs: Hit (you hit something or someone; you don't just hit); climb (you don't just climb; you climb something); and bring (bring what?). Intransitive verbs: sleep (you don't sleep something; you just sleep); and fall (while you can fall down the stairs, you don't fall the stairs).
There are a few things worth noticing. First, just because something grammatically needs a direct object doesn't mean we actually use it. If someone said, I swung the bat and hit, we don't have to ask what he hit; the direct object ball is understood.
Second, many intransitives might look like transitives, as in She walked three hours. Here three hours is not really a direct object; it doesn't say what she walked, but how long (it's actually an adverbial phrase).
Third, many verbs can be both transitive and intransitive: while a word like ran is usually intransitive, it can also be transitive in “He ran the program for two years.” Children can play catch, or they can just play. Even sleep, given above as an intransitive, could become transitive if we said He slept the sleep of the righteous.
The only real danger is when you start changing verbs willy-nilly: “We have to think quality” (giving the intransitive think a direct object; you probably mean “think about quality,” if you mean anything at all); “I hope you enjoy” (instead of enjoy it).
“Try and” is common enough in speech, but it's out of place in formal prose. Use “try to.” [New entry, 3 November 2000.]