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Thrash the Slash

There have always been words that people use to show they’re cool—words like cool, which gained wide acceptance in the 1940s, unseating swell, keen, and spiffy.

And there have always been trendy phrases. In the 1970s, no one who was cool said in conclusion or in the last analysis. It was all about the bottom line—a phrase still in use, although it has been eclipsed by at the end of the day.

But now, perhaps for the first time, a punctuation mark is all the rage. It’s the forward slash, also known as the virgule, solidus, slant, separatrix, and whack. It is the only mark with more names than legitimate uses.

To most of us who care about the written word, the omnipresent slash is about as welcome as a fox/piranha in the henhouse/bathtub.

It appears we have computer technology to thank for this symbol’s unlikely emergence. The slash has become indispensable for URLs and any number of online activities. But that hardly makes it compatible with proficient writing.

The slash has always been a handy tool for taking notes and writing rough outlines. Substituting w/o for without, y/o for years old, and b/c for because can save valuable time and space.

However, most slashes can—and should—be removed from a final draft. Writers who keep a construction like any man/woman in their finished work instead of replacing it with any man or woman are telling their readers, “I don’t have enough time or respect for you to write all this small stuff out.”

Our offices are teeming with an eclectic range of grammar primers, reference books, and style guides. Although many of these volumes have entire sections on punctuation marks, only a handful even acknowledge the ignoble slash. The consensus is that a slash has two principal uses:

• To separate numbers in dates (9/11/2001) and fractions (½).

• To denote the original line breaks in quoted poetry (“Celery, raw / Develops the jaw”).

Here are some recent examples of slash-mania:

They can indeed be responsible and successful statesmen/stateswomen. (Would it kill you to write “statesmen and stateswomen”?)

Using the pass/fail option backfired on her. (How about “pass-fail”?)

An amateur might find him/herself in trouble. (Amateurs might find themselves in trouble.)

I don’t open letters/mail that aren’t/isn’t addressed to me. (I don’t open letters or other mail that isn’t addressed to me.)

Try this experiment: say “I don’t open letters/mail that aren’t/isn’t addressed to me” out loud to someone. Doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, does it?


Pop Quiz

This might be the easiest pop quiz yet. Suggested fixes are below.

1. When/if Mary ever shows up, we can serve dinner.
2. Each child had a permission slip from a parent/guardian.
3. This car gets thirty miles/gallon.
4. The actor/director/producer Troy Biffley was happy to sign autographs.


Pop Quiz Answers

1. When and if Mary ever shows up, we can serve dinner.
2. Each child had a permission slip from a parent or guardian.
3. This car gets thirty miles per gallon.
4. The actor-director-producer Troy Biffley was happy to sign autographs.

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Posted on Wednesday, October 22, 2014, at 4:16 pm

All About etc.

The abbreviation etc. is from the Latin et cetera, which means “and other things.” It appears at the end of a list when there is no point in giving more examples. Writers use it to say, “And so on” or “I could go on” or “You get the idea.”

In American English, etc. ends in a period, even midsentence. It is traditionally enclosed in commas when it doesn’t end a sentence, but nowadays the comma that follows etc. is disappearing. The 1979 edition of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Styleinsists that etc. be followed by a comma: Letters, packages, etc., should go here. But Bryan A. Garner’s 1998 edition of A Dictionary of Modern American Usageadvises against a following comma, saying it is “more logical” to omit it: Carrots, potatoes, broccoli, etc. have the advantage of being vegetables. Garner’s point is that if we replaced etc. with something like and celerywe would not follow celery with a comma.

All authorities agree that etc. is out of place in formal writing. The Chicago Manual of Style says that etc. “should be avoided, though it is usually acceptable in lists and tables, in notes, and within parentheses.” John B. Bremner’s Words on Words says, “Use it informally, if you really must.” Theodore M. Bernstein’s The Careful Writer says the term “has no place in writing that has any literary pretensions.”

Do not use etc. with a “list” that gives only one example; there should be at least two items listed. And never use etc. at the end of a series that begins with for example, e.g., including, such as, and the like, because these terms make etc. redundant: they already imply that the writer could offer other examples.

Every so often you’ll see and etc. But et means “and,” so and etc. would mean “and and so on.” Also to be avoided is etc., etc., because why do that, why do that?

Since cetera means “other things,” etc. should not be used when listing persons. For that, we have et al. (note the period), from the Latin et alii, meaning “and other people”: The Romantic poets Keats, Wordsworth, Shelley, et al., strove to capture man’s mystic relationship with nature.

All the rules for etc. apply to et al., including its unsuitability for serious writing.


Pop Quiz

Fix what needs fixing. Answers are below.

1. The collection includes precious gemstones such as diamonds, rubies, emeralds, etc.

2. All our favorite characters, Jimmy, Slick Sam, Annie from Miami, etc., were at the party.

3. People love to watch the award shows (the Academy Awards, etc.) and try to guess who will win.

4. Many regard fine literature—novels, essays, poetry, etc—as essential to a useful life.


Pop Quiz Answers

1. The collection includes precious gemstones such as diamonds, rubies, and emeralds. OR The collection includes precious gemstones: diamonds, rubies, emeralds, etc. (Never use etc. at the end of a list introduced by such as)

2. All our favorite characters, Jimmy, Slick Sam, Annie from Miami, et al., were at the party. (Do not use etc. to refer to humans)

3. People love to watch the award shows (the Academy Awards, the Grammies, etc.) and try to guess who will win. (Do not use etc. after only one example)

4. Many regard fine literature—novels, essays, poetry, etc.—as essential to a useful life. (In American English, do not use etc. without a period)

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Posted on Wednesday, October 15, 2014, at 1:53 pm

Wails from My Inbox

My fellow word nerds often send me cheerfully exasperated emails. I’d like to share a few of them with you …

• My recent aggravation is the mispronunciation of the word “divisive” by many people I respect. They prefer to say “divissive,” with a short rather than a long i. These otherwise articulate people are grating on my sensitive nerves. 

This pronunciation has become epidemic in the last decade. Numerous office holders and just about all the political pundits of the airwaves seem to have simultaneously anointed “di-viss-ive”—and I wonder why. I have a glut of dictionaries around the house; some are very recent, some go back seventy years. Only my notoriously permissive 1999 Webster’s New World acknowledges this renegade alternative pronunciation. All the others allow but one option: “di-vice-ive.” I guess I can understand how “di-viss-ive” could happen: by extrapolating from divisioninstead of divide. Still, it’s always jolting to see yet another tsunami of ignorance wipe out a long-established usage in a heartbeat.

• What really gets me is the forgotten use of “an.” As in “I went to the zoo and saw a elephant” instead of “an elephant.” Have you noticed? 

I hear and see this all the time now. Just recently my local paper reported on “a entertaining and informative work.” Maybe an innocent typo, but the way things are going, who knows? My guess is we have the sports world to thank for this, with an assist from hip-hop culture.

It’s often employed for emphasis. You’ll hear an athlete-turned-analyst such as the peerless Charles Barkley say something like, “They have a actual point guard.” When you say two short vowels in succession like that, without the in an to smooth things out, you tend to pause after the first a, and that break emphasizes “actual point guard,” and makes it stand out in the sentence. This can be effective, but it’s still an illiteracy. And this annoying little habit is not confined to ex-athletes and DJs. I hear it more and more from a lot of old pros who seem to find it fresh, or “street,” and are doing it deliberately.

• When people writing or speaking cannot think of a graceful way to connect one part of a sentence to another, they insert “in terms of.” I call it the Universal Joint of English. 

The more one thinks about in terms of, the less sense it makes. Still, this is true of a lot of idioms. In terms of is OK when used sparingly. But try listening to a radio or TV broadcaster for ten minutes without hearing at least one in terms of. Too many people overuse it; some say it twice in one sentence. The least they could do is break up the monotony withwhen it comes to or in regard to—sometimes as foror simply about works just fine, too.

Once you start noticing these verbal tics and crutches, they rankle like a roomful of sneezing in-laws. I recall one commentator who started every other sentence with “The, uh”: “What’s your favorite Shakespeare play?” “The, uh … Hamlet.”

I got to where I could predict his next The, uh with ninety percent accuracy. I would just wait, teeth grinding, for that inevitable The, uh and not hear anything else he said.

Tom Stern

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Posted on Thursday, October 2, 2014, at 7:21 am

A House Is Not a Hone

When a spurious phrase gets too prevalent, we language watchdogs start barking. Today we’ll discuss two errant expressions that make us growl and howl.

We start with hone in, an all-too-common faux idiom. Since we first alerted you to this solecism sixteen months ago, it has only gained momentum. Here are some recent online examples: “Psychologists hone in on what not to wear.” “Cities hone in on the promise of big data.” “Researchers hone in on autism-causing genes.”

The correct term is home in. To home in, like zero in, is to focus on, get something firmly in your sights, get to the heart of the matter. The home in home in refers not to a residence, but to a goal or target. The word is also used this way in sentences like We’re home free and He drove his point home. In the game of baseball you achieve your goal by reaching home plate.

In the late twentieth century, hone in gained a foothold. In this era of multitasking, it isn’t hard to see why. The letters m and n look and sound similar when one is distracted. Not only that, hone in almost makes sense. To hone is to sharpen a blade. By extension, it means to improve, refine, or perfect: Constant practice helped him hone his writing skills.

So, some argue, why couldn’t hone in mean “to sharpen (narrow) one’s focus”? That rationale seems like a stretch. Home in has been in circulation for decades;hone in is an inferior imitation.

Our second culprit is a hard road to hoe, which a lot of people say when they mean a hard row to hoe (i.e., a difficult task). Like hone in, the phrase a hard road to hoe almost seems acceptable, but it falls apart upon closer inspection.

The metaphorical row in hard row to hoe is a more or less straight line of growing plants. A farmer uses his hoe to cultivate the soil and keep it weed-free so the plants may thrive. A road handles a lot of foot traffic and takes a beating from bicycles and motorized vehicles. No one but a lunatic would want to hoe a road.

Amazingly, hone in and hard road to hoe have their supporters. But those who defend these aberrations on the basis of “close enough” are doing a disservice not only to the language but to themselves. They should aim higher.


Pop Quiz

The sentences below are “almost” acceptable. Can you fix them? Answers are below.

1. Most athletes deport themselves like gentlemen.
2. Verus and his army brought back a terrible petulance, which spread through the whole empire.
3. His capacity for hard liquor is incredulous.
4. She’s really tough; she acts as if she’s Judge Judy and executioner.


Pop Quiz Answers

1. Most athletes comport themselves like gentlemen.
2. Verus and his army brought back with them a terrible pestilence, which spread through the whole empire.
3. His capacity for hard liquor is incredible.
4. She’s really tough; she acts as if she’s judge, jury, and executioner.

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Posted on Tuesday, September 23, 2014, at 4:20 pm

Essential and Nonessential Elements, Part III

See what you can infer from this sentence: When my three siblings and I entered the dark house, my brother, Marky, got scared. A careful reader would know instantly that the author had one brother and two sisters.

Why? Because of the commas surrounding Marky, which tell us that the brother’s name is nonessential. The commas enable the writer to say my only brother, whose name is Marky in three words.

Suppose the writer had entered the house with three brothers. In that case, my brother got scared would not tell us enough. With more than one brother involved, the sentence would have to say my brother Marky got scared—no commas. The absence of commas makes the brother’s name an essentialelement, and it is essential because without Marky we wouldn’t know which brother the writer meant.

Along the same lines: Mark Twain published his beloved book, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” in 1876. The commas must go; the book’s title is essential. It is undeniable that Twain wrote more than one beloved book. Without commas the sentence would say what it means: that Twain wrote many beloved books, and Tom Sawyer is one of them. If the book’s title were nonessential, then Mark Twain published his beloved book in 1876 would not be such an inadequate sentence.

Here’s a comma gaffe many inexperienced writers make: The film features the world-famous actor, Robert De Niro. Delete the comma fencing off Robert De Niro. It mistakenly tells the reader that the actor’s name is nonessential—but the sentence makes little sense without De Niro’s name in it.

The terms wife and husband always require commas in sentences like this: My wife, Marie, enjoyed meeting your husband, Lucas. This is because we can have only one spouse at a time, so their first names are nonessential, supplementary information.

Note: The following sentence is an exception to the wife-husband rule above: Cuthbert Simms and wife Marie sailed to the Bahamas last weekend. No comma is called for because in that sentence wife is not a noun, but rather an adjective modifying Marie.

The rule for grandmother and grandfather is the opposite of the wife-husband rule. This sentence is correct without commas: My grandmother Bess thinks your grandfather Horace is a twit. Everyone has two biological grandmothers and two biological grandfathers, so the names Bess and Horace are essential information.

Punctuation proficiency is crucial to serious writing. Don’t take the humble little comma for granted.


Pop Quiz

Correct the following as needed.

1. Bertram’s wife Deluxa was late to the ball.
2. My only sister Julia left with husband Mike on their annual vacation.
3. Hedley’s cousin Jaden did not meet my grandfather, Otis, until this morning.
4. An actor, named Robert De Niro, showed great potential in his early film, The Wedding Party.


Pop Quiz Answers

1. Bertram’s wife, Deluxa, was late to the ball. (commas added; Deluxa is nonessential)
2. My only sister, Julia, left with husband Mike on their annual vacation. (commas added because Julia is nonessential; no comma after husbandbecause it is an adjective modifying Mike)
3. Hedley’s cousin Jaden did not meet my grandfather Otis until this morning. (no commas because Jaden and Otis are essential information)
4. An actor named Robert De Niro showed great potential in his early film The Wedding Party. (no commas because the actor’s name and the title of one of his early films are essential information)

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Posted on Tuesday, September 2, 2014, at 10:41 am