A User's Guide
A much-revised and expanded version of this on-line guide, with hundreds of added examples.
Always one word, even in formal contexts where you don't see many other contractions. [Entry added 12 Jan. 2005.]
The can't help but construction (with other forms of the verb, like cannot and could not) is a little illogical: it comes from two other constructions, can't help —ing (meaning “I can't keep myself from —ing”) and can't but (meaning “I can't do anything except”). So can't help but should mean “I can't keep myself from doing anything except,” which is a kind of double negative. Still, can't help but has been around for a long time (the OED traces it to 1894), and it's probably not going away, so it's not worth grousing about. I avoid it myself, preferring “can't help —ing,” but there are better things to worry about. [Entry added 12 July 2005.]
The phrase is capable of ——ing can usually be better rendered as is able to ——, or even turned into an active verb with can ——. See Wasted Words.
It's customary to capitalize:
It's sometimes difficult to figure out what counts as a proper noun: it's customary to capitalize Renaissance and Romantic when they refer to historical periods, but not when they mean any old rebirth or something related to romance. (Even more confusing, Middle Ages is usually capitalized, but medieval isn't, even though they refer to the same thing, and one is just a Latin translation of the other. Go figure.)
It's common to capitalize President when referring to one President of the United States, but you'd refer to all the presidents (no cap) of the U.S., and the presidents of corporations don't warrant caps unless you're using president as a title. Go figure.
In some house styles, the first word of an independent clause after a colon gets a cap: “It leads us to one conclusion: Not enough rock bands use horn sections.” I don't much like it, but de stilis domorum non est disputandum — there's no arguing about house styles.
By the way, DON'T USE ALL CAPITALS FOR EMPHASIS — it makes your writing look amateurish, and it's more difficult to read. (Mixed upper- and lowercase is easier to read, since the eye recognizes the overall shape of the words, with their ascenders and descenders. ALL CAPS simply appear as blocks, and readers have to slow down to figure them out.)
See Emphasis, House Styles, and Titles. [Entry revised 14 Sept. 2004]
English has comparatively few cases — for which you should get down on your knees and thank the good Lord above.
Cases are alterations in the forms of nouns and other substantives, sometimes along with their modifiers, that show the grammatical function they play in a sentence. In other words, in some languages nouns assume different forms depending on whether they're the subject of a clause, the direct object, the indirect object, or relationships like ownership, place, motion, and so on.
In ancient Greek and modern German, nouns and pronouns can take four cases: nominative, genitive, dative, and accusative. In Latin, you have those four, plus ablative. Finnish has boatloads of cases: nominative, genitive, accusative, partitive, inessive, elative, illative, adessive, ablative, allative, essive, translative, instructive, and abessive (I'm probably missing a few). As you get further from the Indo-European languages, you get ever more exotic cases: the Kalaallisut language of Greenland, for instance, has ten cases, absolutive, ergative, equative, instrumental, locative, allative, ablative, perlative, nominative, and accusative.
When English was more heavily inflected in the Old English period, there was a considerable set of cases. Today, though, nouns take only two cases, one for the possessive (usually with apostrophe s), and one for everything else. Our pronouns are still inflected differently for the subjective and the objective cases (subjective being a term some people use for the nominative case).
It's clearest in some examples. Take the noun friend. Whether it's a subject, a direct object, or an indirect object, it stays the same; it changes only to show possession: “My friend lives nearby” (subject); “I called my friend” (direct object); “She gave my friend a call” (indirect object); “I forgot my friend's address” (possessive).
Pronouns, on the other hand, take different forms: “He lives nearby” (subject); “I called him” (direct object); “She gave him a call” (indirect object); “I forgot his address” (possessive). Here the personal pronoun he has one form when it's a subject, another when it's an object (whether direct or indirect), and yet another when it's possessive.
Native speakers almost never have any trouble with this: only rarely do they use the subjective case when the objective is called for, as in “He gave it to you and I” — where I should be me, since it's the object of the verb gave. See the entry for Agreement. [Entry added 12 July 2005.]
Use central whenever possible. See Personalized.
The rule for hyphenating compounds like twentieth century: if the phrase is used as a noun, no hyphen; if it's used as an adjective, hyphenate it. So: “It was one of the greatest disasters of the twentieth century,” but “It was one of the greatest twentieth-century disasters.” (Since twenty-first is already hyphenated, you refer to twenty-first-century disasters.) That's the general rule for compound phrases: hyphenate them when they're used as adjectives. “The new plan will help the middle class,” but “The new plan helps middle-class workers.” [Entry added 14 Sept. 2004.]
An abbreviation of the Latin word confer, which means “compare.” It's often used in footnotes and other citations — something like “Cf. p. 227” or “Cf. Tom Sawyer, chap. 2” — to say “Compare the passage I've just discussed with another one.” It's not exactly the same as “see also,” but it's similar. [Entry added 9 May 2007.]
The importance of accurate citation cannot be overstated: a paper without proper citations is open to charges of plagiary. It's not simply a matter of having the minimum of five footnotes in your research paper to keep the teacher happy, and it's not simply a matter of avoiding honor-code trouble. Careful citation shows your reader that you've done your homework, and allows him or her to check up on you. It amounts to laying your intellectual cards on the table.
Cite your source for every direct quotation and every borrowed idea. Two standards are common in English papers: that of the MLA Style Guide and that of The Chicago Manual of Style. Either will do. The MLA style calls for a list of “Works Cited” at the end of a paper in standard bibliographical form, alphabetical by author:
Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver's Travels. Edited by Herbert Davis. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1965.
Citations in the text of the paper would then include the author's name (with a year or abbreviated title if more than one work is cited) and page number; for instance:
“. . . the most pernicious race of odious little vermin” (Swift 120).
The Chicago style gives a full citation in a footnote (or endnote) on the first quotation in this form:
Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels, ed. Herbert Davis (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1965), p. 120.
Subsequent citations in the text include the page number in parentheses, with an author's name only when necessary:
“Girl threading an invisible Needle with invisible Silk” (p. 92).
Either style is acceptable, but be consistent. For full details see the MLA Style Guide or the Chicago Manual of Style. (Other disciplines, mind you, have their own style guides; psychologists use APA style, and scientists have their own as well. You'll do well to learn the most common standard for your major.)
All citations should appear under the name of the main author, but should include the names of editors, translators, and so on (writers of introductions aren't necessary). Include the city, publisher, and year of publication. For works of prose, give a page number or a range of pages; for works of poetry, give a line number or range of lines.
Along with grace, one of the paramount writer's virtues. Your job is to make yourself clear to your reader. Let nothing get in the way. Many of the entries in this guide — especially Audience, Precision, Obfuscation, and Vocabulary — address clarity.
My English professor instincts kick in — my Spidey-Sense starts tingling — whenever I see these words. Too often they're used when something is unclear and doubtful, but the author simply doesn't know how to make the point convincingly. Clumsy writers want to make an argument but don't know how to bridge some conceptual gap. Instead of painstakingly working out the logic, they simply state their conclusion with an obviously (when it's not at all obvious).
There's nothing inherently wrong with the words, but be sure you use them honestly. [Entry added 12 Jan. 2005.]
“Avoid clichés” is such common advice that it's almost a cliché itself, but no worse for that. It's stated especially clearly by Pinney:
[Clichés] offer prefabricated phrasing that may be used without effort on your part. They are thus used at the expense of both individuality and precision, since you can't say just what you mean in the mechanical response of a cliché.
George Orwell's advice is overstated for effect, but it's still good to bear it in mind: “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.” If you're depending on a stock phrase, you're letting someone else do half your thinking for you.
A comprehensive catalogue of clichés is beyond me, but here's a list of the more egregious ones that get under my skin:
They're not clever, they're not funny, they're not memorable, they're not convincing. They're prefab strips of language, hastily tacked together, and they do you no good.
If you must resort to clichés, though, be especially careful not to muddle them. Remember, for example, that the more widely accepted phrase is “I couldn't care less,” not could: the idea is that “It would be impossible to care about this subject any less than I already do.” And a U.S. Senator, trying to reassure his constituents that the budget talks were going well in spite of the apparent chaos, told reporters, “It's always darkest before the storm,” rather than “before the dawn” — he thereby unintentionally suggested that things are going to get worse, not better. Pay attention to every word.
Don't, by the way, confuse these mangled clichés with mixed metaphors — though a mixed metaphor might result from a botched cliché, they're not the same thing.
Neither should you confuse clichés in general with idioms, the natural way to say something. The desire to avoid clichés shouldn't make your language oddball. Learning to tell the difference between the two is an important skill, and one you can develop only over time. [Revised 14 Sept. 2004.]
Climactic with the extra c comes from the word climax, and refers to a high point. Climatic without the extra c comes from the word climate, and refers to the weather. Don't confuse them. [Entry added 9 May 2007.]
A colon marks a pause for explanation, expansion, enumeration, or elaboration. Use a colon to introduce a list: thing one, thing two, and thing three. Use it to pause and explain: this sentence makes the point. Use it to give an example: this, for instance.
There are other uses: the entry on Citation includes some tips on colons in bibliographies. Americans use it after the salutation in a formal letter: “Dear Sir:” (the British use a comma, which we Americans restrict to less formal letters). It also introduces a block quotation or a list of bullet points.
See also Semicolon (don't confuse them!) and the end of Capitalization. [Entry added 3 November 2000.]
A complete guide to comma usage is beyond the scope of a guide like this, but I can offer a few tips. Some amateur writers, for instance, seem to think sprinkling commas every few words is a good rule, but it makes for difficult reading. A few places commas should be avoided:
Finally, the thorniest comma-related question, whether or not to include the serial comma (also known as the Oxford comma or Harvard comma from its inclusion in their house style guides). In most house styles, the comma is preferred before the last item in a list: “the first, second, and third chapters.” Leaving it out — “the first, second and third chapters” — is a habit picked up from journalism. While it saves a teensy bit of space and effort, omitting the final comma runs the risk of suggesting the last two items (in the example above, the second and third chapters) are some sort of special pair. A famous (and perhaps apocryphal?) dedication makes the danger clear: “To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”
Oh, yeah — go and read the entry on Semicolons for good measure.
A comma splice is probably the most widespread variety of run-on sentence: it's where two independent clauses are stuck together with just a comma. You usually need some better way to attach them to one another: use a period or a semicolon in place of the comma; use a coordinating conjunction like and or or; or use a subordinating conjunction like because or although. [Entry added 10 December 2006.]
The comparative is the form of an adjective or adverb that implies a greater degree than the “positive” (base) form of the word: not good (positive) but better (comparative); not hot (positive) but hotter (comparative); not arbitrary (positive) but more arbitrary (comparative). (The next step up is the superlative: not good or better but best; not hot or hotter but hottest; not arbitrary or more arbitrary but most arbitrary.)
As the examples suggest, there are three basic ways to form comparatives. A few are irregular: good, better, best; bad, worse, worst. These simply have to be memorized, although virtually all native speakers learn them in early childhood. (Young children might say gooder and goodest, but they pick up on the irregular forms quickly.)
Most adjectives form their comparatives with -er (sometimes doubling the final consonant, sometimes turning a final y into i): slower, bigger, happier. The superlative of these adjectives is formed with -est: slowest, biggest, happiest.
But a large class doesn't take -er; it's formed with more: not arbitrarier but more arbitrary; not exhausteder but more exhausted. (The superlatives of these adjectives is formed with most: most arbitrary, most exhausted.)
Alas, there's no good rule to tell you which class an adjective belongs to. A rough guideline is that long adjectives take more rather than -er: you'd never say condescendinger or unaccountabler. But what exactly constitutes a “long” adjective isn't clear. A good dictionary will give you the comparative and superlative form of most adjectives; if ever you're in doubt, look it up. [Entry added 14 Sept. 2004.]
Comprise traditionally means comprehend or contain, not constitute. In other words, a zoo comprises animals — it's not comprised of them (though it is composed of them). Avoid the phrase is comprised of.
Use specific, concrete words instead of vague, general ones wherever possible: instead of “apparent significant financial gains,” use “a lot of money” or “large profits.” Instead of “Job suffers a series of unfavorable experiences,” use “Job's family is killed and his possessions are destroyed.” Be precise.
I have entries throughout this guide on words that are often confused. For ease of reference, though, I've collected most of them here. (To make matters simple, I've usually alphabetized them under the first word in the pair.)
You'll find the details under each entry. [Entry added 10 December 2006.]
Conjunctions — the word comes from conjoin, “put together” — are little words that connect various elements in a sentence. They come in two flavors. You're probably familiar with the coordinating conjunctions: the most common are and, but, or, and nor. Coordinating conjunctions connect two things of the same kind: two nouns (“cats and dogs”), two verbs (“kicks or screams”), two adjectives (“short and sweet”), two adverbs (“quickly but carefully”), or even two independent clauses (“Dylan writes better songs, but Britney Spears sells more records”).
Another kind of conjunction, the subordinating conjunction, is a little trickier. It joins entire clauses, but one is principal, the other subordinate (“subordinate” means something like “secondary” or “under the control of”). A subordinating conjunction joins an independent clause to a dependent one, and it's the conjunction that makes the dependent clause dependent. An example will make it clearer. Take two independent clauses: “I went to the doctor” and “I feel rotten.” We can glue them together with a coordinating conjunction: “I went to the doctor and I feel rotten.” This is clear enough, though it doesn't really suggest the connection between the two; and just serves the same function as a period between two sentences. A subordinating conjunction, though, shows their relation: “I went to the doctor because I feel rotten” (the subordinating conjunction because shows a causal connection); “Because I went to the doctor, I feel rotten” (another causal connection, but it's the other way around now); “Although I went to the doctor, I feel rotten”; “I went to the doctor, even though I feel rotten”; and so on. A complete list of subordinating conjunctions is very long, but includes after, although, as if, because, before (but before can also be an adverb or a preposition), if, notwithstanding, since, so (in the sense of “with the result that”), that (as in “I'm surprised that you're here”), until, whenever, whereas, and why (as in “I wonder why he did that”).
In formal writing, avoid using like as a conjunction — you mean as or as if. Like is fine as a preposition (“My love is like a red, red rose,” “He works like a madman”), but don't use it before a clause (“She's trying like [should be as if] there's no tomorrow”). [Entry revised 26 January 2001; revised again 10 December 2006.]
Almost always useless. “The section is considered as essential” or “The section is considered to be essential” just add extra syllables to “The section is considered essential.” Even better, ask yourself whether the word considered does anything in the sentence — does it matter who is considering? “The section is essential” is best of all.
Continual means “happening over and over again”; continuous means “happening constantly without stopping.” If you're continually on the Internet, it means you keep going on; if you're continuously on the Internet, it means you haven't gone off at all.
Contractions (such as it's, they're, aren't, don't) aren't wrong, but they're less formal than the expanded forms (it is, they are, are not, do not). Whether you use them, then, depends on context — which is to say, on audience. My own inclination is to be less rather than more formal in most college-level writing, but you'll have to judge that for yourself.
Note, though, that cannot is always one word. [Revised 9 May 2007.]
English nouns can be divided into two categories: count nouns take a plural; mass nouns don't.
Mass nouns are words like water, air, knowledge, music, traffic, software, and so on: you can't count them; you just consider them as a mass of stuff. (What are “two airs”? How can you count “musics”?) Count nouns, on the other hand, are words like song, book, hockey puck, mother in law, and so on: it makes sense to speak of one or several.
Some nouns can go either way. Hair, for instance, is a mass noun in “He has very little hair left,” but it's a count noun in “He has only four hairs left on his head” — the difference is whether we're concerned with individual strands. Ditto fire: it can be stuff (“Fire kills thousands of people every year”) or it can be things (“The department extinguished six major fires last month alone”) — the difference is whether we're concerned with individual outbreaks of fire. “I like opera” means “I like the whole genre,” so opera there is a mass noun; “I like Puccini's operas” means “I like specific examples of the genre,” so it's a count noun. Even something like water — almost always a mass noun — can be considered a count noun if you're comparing different brands of bottled water, or if a waitress is asked to take “five waters” to table 27. (In these cases, a count noun is usually hiding: “kinds of water,” “glasses of water,” and so on.)
Sometimes it's not obvious whether something is a count or a mass noun. Furniture, for instance, seems to refer to discrete things, but it's still a mass noun; you can have “many pieces of furniture,” but it makes no sense to talk about “many furnitures.” Money is even trickier: yes, you can count money, but we still refer to an “amount of money,” not a “number of moneys,” so money is a mass noun. (By the way, it doesn't matter whether the plural is regular or irregular: it's one deer, two deer, but deer is still a count name, since you can have more than one of them; it doesn't matter that there's no s.)
Most of this is easy for native speakers of English, but you have to avoid a few traps. “A lot” works with both mass nouns and count nouns: “a lot of people” (count noun), “a lot of pain” (mass noun). Ditto “more”: you can talk about “more trees” (count noun) or “more energy” (mass noun). But other ways of expressing extent are different with the two kinds of nouns. For instance, you describe a number of things (count nouns) but an amount of stuff (mass nouns): it's “the number of people” but “the amount of pain.” And while you can talk about “more trees” (count noun) or “more energy” (mass noun), the opposite is “fewer trees” (count nouns take fewer) but “less energy” (mass nouns take less). You have the same split with many and much: it's “many trees” (count noun) but “much energy” (mass noun).
See the entries for Amount and for Fewer versus Less. [Entry added 21 December 2006.]
What's wrong with now? Or even leaving it out altogether and letting a present-tense verb do the trick? It is currently not available is the same as It is not available or It is not yet available.
See also Presently.