A User's Guide
A much-revised and expanded version of this on-line guide, with hundreds of added examples.
See Latinate versus Germanic Diction.
See First Person.
Semicolons probably produce more confusion and misery than all the other punctuation marks combined. But they're really not very difficult to master.
The semicolon has only two common uses. The first is to separate the items in a list, often after a colon, especially when the listed items contain commas: “The following books will be covered on the midterm: the Odyssey, through book 12; Ovid's Metamorphoses, except for the passages on last week's quiz; and the selections from Chaucer.” The semicolon makes it clear that there are three items, whereas using commas to separate them could produce confusion.
The other legitimate use of a semicolon is to separate two independent clauses in one sentence: “Shakespeare's comedies seem natural; his tragedies seem forced.” Here's how to tell whether this one is appropriate: if you can use a period and begin a new sentence, you can use a semicolon. In other words, this kind of semicolon can always be replaced by a period and a capital letter. In the example, “Shakespeare's comedies seem natural. His tragedies seem forced” is correct, so a semicolon can be used. (If you used a comma here — “Shakespeare's comedies seem natural, his tragedies seem forced” — you'd be committing the sin of comma splice.)
It's risky to use semicolons anywhere else. There's no need for them after, for instance, “Dear Sir” in a letter (where a comma or a colon is preferred). Don't use them before a relative pronoun (“She sold more than 400 CDs; which was better than she hoped”) — it should be a comma, since the bit after the semicolon can't stand on its own. [Entry revised 10 December 2006.]
A sentence should contain one idea, though that can be a complex or compound idea. The most obscure sentences in academic writing are sentences filled to bursting. If your writing lacks clarity, check to see if a long, bad sentence might make two short, good ones.
This isn't to say that all sentences should be short. Long sentences add variety, and some ideas are too complicated to fit into seven words. But don't turn your simple ideas into monstrous sentences, devouring line after line without mercy. One idea, one sentence.
A sentence fragment is a group of words passing itself off as a sentence without having a subject and a verb. Like this. To be avoided.
Some fragments — obviously intentional. A habit picked up from advertising. Not for formal writing.
Others are inadvertent, and these require extra care. Pay particular attention to dependent clauses beginning with relative pronouns like which or who: they need a proper subject, not a relative pronoun. [Revised 14 Sept. 2004.]
The movement away from potentially sexist language has been a mixed blessing. It has replaced the obviously exclusionary workman's compensation with worker's compensation, but it has also replaced waiter or waitress with abominations such as waitperson or, heaven help us, waitron (I feel ill).
Most of the time, a little sensitivity will get the job done. But perhaps the most confusing issue is the use of the third-person indefinite pronoun, as in “Each student is responsible for revising his/her/their/one's papers.” Which pronoun is correct? This is a delicate question, and there's no one solution.
Each student is singular — the is instead of are proves it — so the colloquial their (a plural) doesn't agree with the verb, and is frowned on by traditionalists. It's common enough in speech — “A friend of mine called me.” “What did they say?” — but, although many writers have used it (see examples from Jane Austen), it often sets off alarm bells among the fussier readers of formal writing today.
There is an indefinite third-person pronoun, one, which was once more common than it is now. It helped out in certain situations, but to modern American ears “One should do this” sounds too much like British royalty. It has therefore fallen out of general informal use. There's a place for it in college writing, but its usage can be tricky, and I haven't the time to get into the details here. If you're not confident, I suggest you avoid one.
Some people now advocate a new set of gender-neutral personal pronouns: favorite sets are sie, hir, and hirs; zie, zir, and zirs; and ey, em, eir, and eirs. I confess I find such neologisms merely irritating. Besides, readers who haven't yet acquired the secret decoder ring will have no idea what zirs means.
. . . Leaving his and her, or some combination of the two. “Each student is responsible for revising his papers” is the traditional usage, and assumes the masculine pronoun stands for everyone, but to some readers it suggests male chauvinism. “Each student is responsible for revising her papers” is another possibility, though it can sound patronizing (matronizing?) and seem to beat the reader over the head. “Each student is responsible for revising his or her papers” or “his/her papers” are both grammatical and nonsexist, but can become clumsy after fifteen or twenty appearances. (And see Slashes.)
There are several ways out. I usually opt for his or her, and do what I can to keep the extra words from being intrusive. Some prefer to mix the occasional his or her together with his's and her's separately; this cuts down on suggestions of sexism without making your writing clumsy. Another is to use his sometimes, her at other times, although this doesn't feel natural to most writers (yet). Finally, you can avoid the problem altogether and make your subject plural whenever possible: “All students are responsible for revising their papers.” (There's nothing wrong with recasting a sentence to dodge a problem.)
Ol' Doc Jack's advice: avoid their with singular subjects in formal writing, and shy away from his/her (see Slashes). His or her is probably the best solution, although you should work to avoid very clumsy sentences.
See Each and Every for singular nouns that require attention, and see a short piece by Carolyn Jacobson on Gender-Neutral Language. There's also a Web page devoted to Gender-Neutral Pronoun Frequently Asked Questions (GNP FAQ).
An old distinction, more common in British than in American English, still comes up from time to time. To wit: will is usually the simple future indicative: “This will happen,” “You will be surprised.” Shall is related to the subjunctive, and means “Let it be so,” which you might see in legal or business writing: “The employee shall produce all required documentation,” “A committee shall be appointed,” and so forth. (They're not just predicting that the employee's going to do it or the committee is going to form; they're declaring that they must, or at least should, happen.) But this rule works only for the second person (you) and the third person (he, she, it, they). The first person — I and we — reverses the rule, so “I shall do it” means I'm going to get around to it, while “I will do it” shows a mustering of resolve (let it be so).
A favorite example to clarify the two: “I shall drown, no one will save me!” is a cry of despair, simply predicting imminent death — both are simple futures. “I will drown, no one shall save me!” is a suicide vow, a declaration that no one had better try to stop me.
I know, it's confusing, but it's nothing to worry about. Just don't throw shall around unless you know what you're doing. [Revised 3 November 2000.]
And now bow your heads for a reading from the Book of Judges:
And the Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites: and it was so, that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over; that the men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Ephraimite? If he said, Nay; Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan. (Judges 12:5-6)
The original shibboleth was an arbitrary word that Jephthah used to spot his enemies: the Ephraimites had trouble with the sh sound, and when asked to pronounce a word with sh in it, they revealed they were enemy spies. I suspect few readers of this guide are Ephraimites eager to avoid Gileadite detection, but the story has some modern relevance. The shibboleth provides a handy way to think about language in general.
In its modern sense, a shibboleth is some mannerism, usually linguistic, that reveals your origins — and usually without your being aware of it. Some, like the original shibboleth, are matters of pronunciation. It's easy to spot many of the broad differences between American and English accents, but countless little variations are caught only by the most careful listeners. Most Americans, for instance, tend to pronounce the word been as if it were bin, whereas the English (and other Brits and many Canadians) tend to say bean. Americans tend to vocalize the letter t between vowels, pronoucing latter as if it were ladder; in Britspeak the two are clearly different. When Americans try to do English accents (and vice versa), they often miss these little details.
Shibboleths can distinguish not only nationalities but regions. In a Hitchcock movie (I'm dashed if I can remember which) a plot point depends on the pronunciation of the word insurance: emphasizing the first syllable rather than the second is characteristic of the American South. The so-called “pin-pen vowel” can identify someone from southern Ohio, central Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, or Texas. I grew up in southern New Jersey, and can spot fellow south Jerseyans by their pronunciation of water, which sounds to the rest of the world like wooder.
Other shibboleths are matters of diction. Standard English doesn't distinguish singular you from plural you, but many regional dialects do. Y'all is an obvious give-away of someone from the South and youse is common in the New York area; less well known are y'uns or yinz in Pittsburgh and yiz around Philadelphia. The name you use for a long sandwich with various kinds of lunchmeats — hoagie, hero, sub, grinder, poorboy — will similarly reveal where you grew up. (By the way, I'm grossly oversimplifying here; linguists like William Labov have done extensive work on many of these topics.)
Shibboleths reveal your background, but that doesn't have to mean location: linguistic habits can also give away your level of education, your profession, your age, your class, and so on. For instance, I'm the sort of hyper-educated dweeb who actually uses whom in conversation, and I'd stand no better chance than an Ephraimite if I tried to fit in at a working-class bar. Frequent use of like as a verbal tic says you're probably young-ish. Whether you say pro-life or anti-abortion probably gives away your political position.
Most of these shibboleths evolved by accident, but some are specifically designed to exclude outsiders. It's impossible for me to say gangsta rap without sounding like a dork: that's one of the reasons the phrase exists, to mark people like me as outsiders. Quickly changing slang is another way of distinguishing the sheep from the goats. By the time I've heard some hip new word or phrase, it's almost certainly obsolete among those who started using it — phat, for instance, is probably on its way to joining groovy and the bee's knees.
The moral of all this? Most traces of regional pronunciation disappear in writing, of course, but plenty of other kinds of shibboleths shine through. A cautious writer will be conscious of the things most people miss, and use them to his or her advantage. The more attention you pay to others' language and your own, the more sensitive you'll be to these little markers that reveal things about you. The more sensitive you are, the more you'll know about how they affect your audience.
Ask yourself: do I want to be perceived as the sort of person who says ain't or insofar as? — are readers more or less likely to pay attention to me if I refer to the proletariat? — do I want people to think I'm from a certain region, of a certain class, of one political persuasion or the other? Once you begin tuning in to the things language reveals, you'll find countless little ways to make your writing more effective. [Entry added 14 Sept. 2004.]
Apart from necessary omissions and interpolations, your quotations should always be exact, and any departures from the original should be clearly indicated with ellipses or brackets.
Sometimes, though, you may have to quote something that looks downright wrong. In these cases, it's traditional to signal to your readers that the oddities are really in the original, and not your mistake. The signal is “[sic]”: square brackets for an interpolation, and the Latin word sic, “thus, this way.” (Since it's a foreign word, it's always in italics; since it's a whole word and not an abbreviation, it gets no period.) It amounts to saying, “It really is this way, so don't blame me.”
George Eliot was a woman: if someone you quote gets it wrong, as in “George Eliot's late fiction shows major advances over his earlier works,” you might signal it thus: “George Eliot's late fiction shows major advances over his [sic] earlier works.” Old spellings were often variable: if your source spells the name Shakspear, you might point out with a [sic] that it really appears that way in the original.
Don't use sic to show off with gotchas. Too many writers sic sics on the authors they quote just to show they spotted a trivial error. If your audience is unlikely to be confused, don't draw attention to minor booboos. [Entry added 3 November 2000.]
In general American usage, all quoted material goes in “double quotation marks”; if you need a quotation inside a quotation, use ‘single quotation marks’ (also called “inverted commas”) inside: “This for quotations, ‘this’ for quotations inside quotations.”
There are a few fields — philosophy and linguistics among them — where ‘single quotation marks’ are used for special technical purposes. Unless you're working in one of those fields, though, quotations inside quotations are the only place for single quotation marks — don't use them to highlight individual words or to draw attention to figurative expressions, slang, or nonstandard usage. If you're not quoting, don't use quotation marks. [Entry added 3 Jan. 2005; revised 5 July 2005.]
File this one under “things I wish I'd made up.” The phrase skunked term comes from Bryan A. Garner's Dictionary of Modern American Usage (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1998). Garner describes it this way:
When a word undergoes a marked change from one use to another . . . it's likely to be the subject of dispute. Some people (Group 1) insist on the traditional use; others (Group 2) embrace the new use. . . . Any use of [the word] is likely to distract some readers. The new use seems illiterate to Group 1; the old use seems odd to Group 2. The word has become “skunked.”
The example he uses is hopefully (in the sense of “I hope,” as in “Hopefully it won't rain”). There are plenty of arguments for it and just as many arguments against it, but if you use it, someone's going to balk, and you're likely to have trouble with your audience. Garner adds this advice: “To the writer or speaker for whom credibility is important, it's a good idea to avoid distracting any readers or listeners.” Lemme get an amen from the choir. [Entry added 12 Jan. 2005.]
Slashes are far too common, and almost always betray a lazy thinker: by yoking two words together with a slash, the writer tells us the words are related, but he or she doesn't know how. Replace the slash with and or or. In a phrase such as “Gulliver encounters people much bigger/smaller than he is,” write “Gulliver encounters people much bigger or smaller than he is.” Instead of his/her, write his or her. Find the right conjunction. See And/Or.
By the way: this / is a slash; this \ is a backslash. Don't confuse them. [Revised 3 Jan. 2005.]
The traditional past-tense form of sneak is sneaked, not snuck. In formal writing, it's probably best to stick with the traditional form, however widespread snuck has become in speech.
Here's what The American Heritage Book of English Usage has to say:
The past tense snuck is an American invention. It first appeared in the 19th century as a nonstandard regional variant of sneaked. But widespread use of snuck has become more common with every generation. It is now used by educated speakers in all regions. Formal written English is more conservative than other varieties, of course, and here snuck still meets with much resistance. Many writers and editors have a lingering unease about the form, particularly if they recall its nonstandard origins. In fact, in 1990 a review of our citations, exhibiting almost 10,000 instances of sneaked and snuck, indicated that sneaked was preferred by a factor of seven to two. And 67 percent of the Usage Panel disapproved of snuck in our 1988 survey. Nevertheless, an examination of recent sources shows that snuck is sneaking up on sneaked. Snuck is almost 20 percent more common in newspaper articles published in 1995 than it was in 1985.
Make of that what you will. See also Dive, Dived, Dove. [Entry added 12 Jan. 2005.]
Avoid using so as an intensifier, as in “It's so hot,” unless there's a that clause (though the word that needn't actually appear in less formal writing): “It's so hot that the asphalt is melting,” “It's so hot I'm thinking of moving to Siberia.” So on its own, where very would be more appropriate, is a low-grade no-no. [Entry revised 14 Sept. 2004.]
Often the word “to” alone will do the trick.
A favorite cliché of advertisers. Everything they want to sell you — every product, every service, every meaningless warm-and-fuzzy feeling of brand identification — is a solution. Bleah. And of course it's often paired up with one of my least favorite adjectives, quality, to produce the almost perfectly vapid collocation “quality solutions.” It's hard to imagine how you could pack more nonsense into a mere six syllables.
A few years ago I published an article where I bitched about that phrase; at the time, a Google search turned up 12,948 examples on the Web. Today, about five years later, the figure stands at more than 698,000 — a 5,400% increase. I can only assume my rant didn't have its desired effect. As Gulliver writes to his cousin Sympson:
Instead of seeing a full Stop put to all Abuses and Corruptions, at least in this little Island, as I had Reason to expect: Behold, after above six Months Warning, I cannot learn that my Book hath produced one single Effect according to mine Intentions. . . . It must be owned that seven Months were a sufficient Time to correct every Vice and Folly to which Yahoos are subject, if their Natures had been capable of the least Disposition to Virtue or Wisdom.
Maybe in another six or seven months the world will see things my way. [Late update, 11 June 2006: the number has risen to 1.4 million.] [Entry added 12 Jan. 2005.]
The spelling checkers built into most word processors leave a lot to be desired, but they're not all bad. Whereas grammar checkers tend to give at least as much bad advice as good, spelling checkers are usually right when they tell you a word is misspelled (only names and rare words are likely to be stopped incorrectly). You should probably turn off the “autocorrect” feature in your word processor, since it tends to make a mess, but otherwise there's little to worry about with things like that.
The big problem, though, isn't false positives, but false negatives — when the spelling checker tells you something is right when it isn't. If you type to instead of too, the spelling checker will let it slip right through, since both are legitimate words. (If you don't know Jerry Zar's delicious “Owed to the Spelling Checker,” check it out now.) Typos are merely venial sins, but if you have any question about the meaning or usage of a word, use a real dictionary, not a spelling checker.
So there's nothing wrong with using a spelling checker to spot slips of the fingers. Just remember that a computerized spelling checker doesn't absolve you from the need to proofread everything carefully. See also Grammar Checkers and Microsoft Word. [Revised 14 Sept. 2004.]
An infinitive is the form of a verb that comes after to, as in to support or to write; it's the uninflected form of the verb. A split infinitive — a favorite bugbear of the traditionalists — occurs when another word comes between the to and the verb. Some people prefer to keep the to next to the verb at all times, and though grammar experts are divided over this rule, it's probably better to avoid split infinitives whenever possible. Instead of “Matt seems to always do it that way,” try “Matt always seems to do it that way.”
Adverbs often insinuate themselves between the to and the verb, as in “To boldly go where no man has gone before,” or “To always keep a watch on your bag.”
Don't let split infinitives become an obsession; there are times when split infinitives are clearer or more graceful than their ostensibly more grammatical cousins. See Prescriptive versus Descriptive Grammars and Rules.
When most people talk about “correct English,” they're really talking about one kind of English. English comes in countless varieties, and none of them is any more “right” or “proper” than another, at least in the abstract. But one variety has been singled out as the “preferred” form of the language, and that's the one you're taught in school.
That “preferred” form, what linguists call “Standard English” (abbreviated SE), is the form associated with educated users of the language. Actually, there's not even a single Standard English, since different countries and different regions have their own standards, and linguists have a dickens of a time even coming up with a good definition of the term. But it's what's expected in college writing, in business writing, and in most newspapers and magazines.
Why is this one variety of English expected in all these places? That's a bigger question than I can answer, and it's the subject of many books. The emergence of SE took centuries, and it's bound up with the history of class structures, educational systems, regional and national prejudices, even race relations — it's a huge question. Let the sociolinguists worry about why it's expected; it's enough for you to know is that it is expected, and that if you want to get ahead in these fields, you have to master it.
SE isn't the same as formal English — it's possible to be informal, even slangy, in SE. (Most of this guide is in a casual variety of Standard English.) But most of the rules you've been taught emerge from descriptions of SE: don't use like as a conjunction, avoid double negatives, distinguish fewer from less, and use whom as the objective form of who. All of these are shibboleths that reveal whether you have the “right” sort of background. Since success in college, in business, and in many other fields depends on your convincing people you have that background, it's in your interest to learn SE.
Note that, by some definitions, SE is predominantly a written language — and, to be fair, virtually no one speaks “correct” Standard English all the time. Scripted speech on television news programs may come close, and people who speak with great care can sometimes approximate the standard. But spontaneous and informal speech rarely lives up to the expectations of Standard English. Even people who pride themselves on speaking properly are shocked when they see a transcript of their own casual conversation; when they see their own words written down, they think they look like mouth-breathing morons incapable of stringing two words together. But spoken and written English are very different things, and in informal speech we make plenty of allowances for things we wouldn't excuse in writing.
This is one of the main reasons why good writers are always good readers: people don't hear SE spoken around them, and so the only way to learn it is by reading a lot of SE. You can't become proficient in the language unless you're immersed in it.
For the record, I've written an entire book — The Lexicographer's Dilemma — tracing the origins of our notions of “proper English.” That book owes its origins to this guide, and they form a complementary pair.
See also Formal Writing, Prescriptive versus Descriptive Grammars, and Rules. [Entry added 6 April 2007.]
The verb states is being used more and more often as a synonym for says or writes — “‘The problem,’ Thomson states, ‘is in the raw materials’” — and that's fine. But states is not an exact synony for either of the other words. Use it only when what you quote is a statement — that is, a declarative clause. It doesn't work with questions, with imperatives (that is, commands), or with parts of a sentence; it has to be a full clause that states something is happening. [Entry added 9 May 2007.]
Style means all kinds of things. At its grandest, it means everything about your way of presenting yourself in words, including grace, clarity, and a thousand undefinable qualities that separate good writing from bad. At its narrowest, it includes mechanics and matters of house style. [Entry added 14 July 2000]
Anyone who's studied a foreign language will be glad that English has almost entirely lost the subjunctives it once had. And because English has so few inflections, it's often hard to spot many subjunctives. Grammarians have a hard time defining subjunctive; don't worry if you don't follow.
Unlike the indicative mood, which indicates that something is true, the subjunctive expresses a wish, a command, or a condition contrary to fact. Archaic English is full of subjunctives, as in “Would that it were” and “Thou shalt not.”
The English subjunctive still shows up in a few places, of which the condition contrary to fact is most common:
Some also classify shall as a subjunctive (see Shall versus Will). [Revised 12 Jan. 2005.]
Substantive is the technical term for a word or group of words acting as a noun. Since modern grammar is more concerned with the way words function in a sentence than with part-of-speech designations in a dictionary, it's a little different from the conventional understanding of noun, but it's very close. Virtually all nouns are substantives; so are pronouns like he, she, it, and they. It can also include adjectives if they're used “absolutely” — the homeless, for instance, or the wicked. [Entry added 14 Sept. 2004.]
Don't let your word processor force superscripts — that is, small letters above the baseline of the text — where they don't belong. Microsoft Word introduced a feature that automatically converts the letters in ordinal numbers (the st in 1st, the nd in 2nd, the rd in 3rd, and so on) in to superscripts: not 1st but 1st; not 2nd but 2nd; not 3rd but 3rd. Turn it off. Use superscript numbers for footnote and endnote references; reproduce any superscripts that appear in material you're quoting — otherwise you can comfortably do without the feature altogether. [Entry added 12 Jan. 2005.]