Beware the Lowly Comma … It’s National Punctuation Day!

Posted by Editormum on Wednesday, 24 September 2008 in Bloopers |

The Grammar Guru has always maintained that punctuation is important. This company has found out too late that a simple comma voids their iron-clad contract before the original end date, and may end up costing them more than $2 million.

That said, today is the day to celebrate punctuation. At least, punctuation used properly.



The Spelling Nazis Are at It Again!

Posted by Editormum on Tuesday, 19 August 2008 in Word and Phrase Origins |

Very amused by a recent exchange on the Forbes.com website, commenting on an article about multi-level marketing. One guy corrected another’s spelling, and lo, and behold, the wars were on! The argument was over which of two spellings was correct: bush league or Busch League. I did a little online research, and I share my surprising findings here, for the edification of my fellow blogging buddies.

Bush league and Busch League are both correct spellings! However, they have two very different uses.

“Bush-league” originated in the early 1900s as a term for minor league baseball teams not affiliated with a major league team, possibly because their ball fields were often ringed by shrubs and bushes.

The “Busch League,” more properly known as the Busch Series, is a NASCAR division for modified late-model short-track racers. The racing term dates back to 1982, though the series itself originated under a different name in the 1950s.

Of course, the usage in the article is correct: the author did mean “bush-league.” And the commenter who accused the author of ignorance was mistaken.

The moral of the story is that you should be very careful when correcting someone’s spelling or usage on a public forum, because an expert might show up and prove you wrong!

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Go Thou and Do Likewise!

Posted by Editormum on Tuesday, 19 August 2008 in Uncategorized |

Ten Typographical Mistakes Everyone Makes is a great article!

And the comments section is hilarious! I can almost tell you how old each of the commenters is, simply from the comments that they make.

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Sloppy, Impossible Writing

Posted by Editormum on Friday, 11 April 2008 in Grammar Problems, Puzzlers |

I’m reading the online news this morning, and one of the stories presents me with the following two sentences … sentences which are so badly written that I wonder how the writer made it out of journalism school! Can you pinpoint the problems and fix them?

Problem Sentence 1:

A widow is suing Petsmart Inc, saying that her husband died after a liver transplant that was contaminated by a sick hamster sold by the largest U.S. specialty pet retailer to the organ donor.

Problem Sentence 2:

In papers filed in the state court, Nancy Magee charged that a Petsmart in Warwick, Rhode Island in March 2005 sold a hamster infected with lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus, or LCMV, to a woman not named in the suit.


The primary problem with these two sentences is that the writer is trying to cram far too much information into one sentence. To compound the error, the information is not arranged logically so that modifiers can be eaily linked to the words they are modifying.

In sentence one, the main problem is a misplaced prepositional phrase. As written, the sentence implies that PetSmart is the largest seller of pets to a particular organ donor. Which may be true, but which is not the point of the sentence. The point of the sentence is that PetSmart sold a hamster to an organ donor.

There are several ways to fix sentence one. First would be to delete the modifier “largest U.S. specialty pet retailer” entirely. Most people already know that fact about PetSmart, and it doesn’t really add to the story. In fact, it almost sounds like a shameless plug for the brand. If it’s really important to keep that modifier, then rearrange the sentence so that the modifier doesn’t interrupt the flow of the sentence:

A widow is suing Petsmart Inc, saying that her husband died after a liver transplant that was contaminated by a sick hamster sold to the organ donor by the largest U.S. specialty pet retailer.

This version is better, but it’s still not very good because people who are not reading the story carefully will get the wrong impression, as I did, that the husband bought the hamster. He didn’t. The person from whom the husband got his liver is the person who bought the hamster. So to make the sentence even clearer, perhaps we should break it up a bit:

A widow is suing Petsmart Inc, saying that her husband died after he received a transplanted liver that was contaminated. The liver donor had purchased a sick hamster from PetSmart, the largest U.S. specialty pet retailer, and her liver had become infected.

Sentence two is actually a much bigger mess. It seems that information is just crammed into this sentence willy-nilly. And it’s missing a couple of crucial commas. Let’s start with the commas. According to The AP Stylebook, The Chicago Manual of Style, Strunk and White, and every other reference I’ve checked, when you include a city and state designation in a sentence, the state must be set off by commas. “Surrounded” by them. So we need a comma after “Rhode Island.” Furthermore, when a date comes in the middle of a sentence, if it’s not crucial to the point of the sentence, it, too, should be set off with commas. So we need another comma after “March 2005.”

This helps a little, but not much. Because that “March 2005” is just sort of tacked into that sentence. It’s not really crucial to the point; it just gives some time perspective. But it’s placed in the sentence so that it seems important. And, because it’s not set off by commas, it almost leads the reader to a first impression that this PetSmart was only in Warwick, Rhode Island, during March 2005. Which is, of course, absurd. So let’s move that date stamp around a bit.

In papers filed in the state court, Nancy Magee charged that, in March 2005, a Petsmart in Warwick, Rhode Island, sold a hamster infected with lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus, or LCMV, to a woman not named in the suit.

Now, two small problems remain. It would be easier on the reader to put the abbreviation for the medical condition in parentheses rather than setting it off by commas. And it would be clearer to include “who was” between “woman” and “not named.” What’s there isn’t wrong; it’s just not the easiest setup for good reading comprehension. See how these two little changes make your reading flow better:

In papers filed in the state court, Nancy Magee charged that, in March 2005, a Petsmart in Warwick, Rhode Island, sold a hamster infected with lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus (LCMV) to a woman who was not named in the suit.

All of this may seem profoundly nitpicky. But in writing, as in nearly everything else, the devil is in the details. Misplaced modifiers, missing commas, and missing conjunctions (especially “that”) can make your writing difficult to read and understand. And they can leave you open to misunderstandings. If you aren’t communicating your ideas clearly, you’re not doing much good with your writing.

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Stop It, Stop It, STOP IT !

Posted by Editormum on Tuesday, 4 March 2008 in Grammar Problems |

The Grammar Guru cannot take it anymore! “Low and behold,” “roads to hoe,” “lines to tow,” “here, here!” and “he has more then me.” WHAT is this world coming to that even simple, everyday expressions cannot be accurately spelled?

The phrase, dear friends, is Lo, and behold! As is “lo, the angel appeared unto Mary.” Think of it as short for “hello” if it helps you to remember. It’s an ancient, almost archaic word. In fact, Lo would be archaic except for its retention in phrases like “Lo, and behold.” And yes, there should ALWAYS be a comma after Lo. If you’re going to spell it right, you might as well punctuate it right, too.

One cannot hoe a road. It’s impossible, folks. The hoe is far too small to adequately meet the purpose, and the asphalt (or even packed dirt) would ruin the edge of your tool. If one has a daunting, time-consuming task on hand, one has a tough ROW to hoe. This expression comes from (surprise!) farming. One hoes a plot of land into rows of carefully turned dirt so that one can plant crops. If there are lots of weeds and rocks, or stumps and roots, it’s a tough row to hoe.

Likewise, one does not “tow the line;” one “toes the line.” This idiom refers to runners at the beginning of a race. They line up on the start line with their toes on or slightly behind the line. It may also refer to sailors standing in formation. In any case, it literally means to line one’s toes up with a given mark. Figuratively, it means to follow the rules with scrupulous care.

Where on EARTH did people get the idea that the exclamation of approval often shouted at political rallies is “here, here!”? It’s NOT. It’s “hear, hear!”

Hear means to use your ears or your hearing aid to listen to something that is being said. If you agree with someone’s statement emphatically, you say, “Hear, hear!” Here means in this exact place. So you can say, “I can’t hear you because there is a crazed iguana screeching in here.” The only time you may say “Here, here” is when you are trying to get someone to put something in a specific place and they are being obtuse.

And then there’s the question of when to use “than” and when to use “then.” Really, I have never understood the confusion between the two, as they bear no resemblance to one another, not even in pronunciation.

Then, which is correctly pronounced /thehn/, not /thin/ or /thn/, is a word marking the passage of time. It can indicate past time, as in We knew how to handle unruly children then. Or it can indicate future time, as in You’re getting married soon; maybe then you will understand. Then can also indicate a conditional outcome: If you don’t stop that, then the dog will bite you.

Than, which is correctly pronounced /tha’n/, not /thn/,  is a comparative word and is always used thus: Mike is taller than Sam, but Sam gets better grades than Mike.

Remember that than is always comparative, and ask yourself “Am I comparing two things or am I talking about a point in time?” If you use this memory tool, then you will not misuse these two words.

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Do You Want to Copywrite or Copyright? There IS a Difference!

Posted by Editormum on Friday, 28 December 2007 in Usage and Diction |

The Grammar Guru keeps coming across this unbelievable error in her excursions through both online and print media. She doesn’t really understand why there is confusion between these two terms, but she thought that she ought, perhaps, to try to clear it up anyway.

Copyright. This is the registration that confirms that an author’s work is his or her own, original, creative piece, and that only the author (or other copyright holder) is permitted to make copies of the work — i.e., the author has the right to copy the piece. The copyright holder must grant reprint permission to anyone else who wishes to copy and/or distribute the work.

The copyright notice (which comprises the copyright symbol, the year of creation/registration, and the author or copyright holder’s name) informs other people that the work is protected by copyright law.

Copyright can serve as a noun, verb, or adjective.

Noun: She holds the copyright to this poem.

Verb: Will you copyright this play?

Adjective: Is this a copyrighted article?

Copywrite. To copy-write is to compose articles for a publication, especially for a newspaper. It is properly two words, although hyphenation is becoming more common, and, in another decade or so, it will probably be a fully compound word.

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These Words Are NOT Interchangeable!

Posted by Editormum on Thursday, 22 November 2007 in Usage and Diction |

The Grammar Guru has become painfully aware of a more and more common mistake in word usage. She has seen this on blogs, on news sites, and in various other written venues. And the mistake is creeping into people’s speech. So The Grammar Guru tells everyone, right now, to stop it! The words adieu and ado are different, and must NOT be used in place of one another!

Adieu (/ah DYOO/ or /ah DOO/) is a French word meaning “good-bye.” The actual literal translation is “(I commend you) to God,” like the archaic English farewell, “Go with God.”

Ado (/uh Doo/) is an English word meaning “fuss, bother, excitement, or confusion.” It usually implies a great deal of talking.

So if someone says “without further adieu,” they are saying “without further good-bye.” What they really mean is “without further ado” — “without further talk and bother.”

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To End-Stop or Not: A PowerPoint Dilemma

Posted by Editormum on Monday, 13 August 2007 in Reader Questions |

Dear Grammar Guru: When doing a PowerPoint presentation, are periods required at the end of sentences and/or bullet points when they are complete sentences?

Generally, if you have a slide that contains text in a block, like a quote or a sentence, you should use normal punctuation.

For bullet points, you don’t need periods, because bullet points should not be complete sentences. The “6×6 rule” states that bullet point lists in slide presentations should be no more than 6 words per bullet, and no more than 6 bullets per page.

Consider these two lists, both of which might be on a slide entitled “How Poverty Hurts Children”:

  • Children are dying for lack of medical care.
  • Children are malnourished and susceptible to illness.
  • Children are not being adequately educated.
  • Children are sold into slavery or forced to work to help support their families.
  • Children are abused or left to die because parents cannot feed them.


  • Poor health
  • No medical care
  • No education
  • Slavery and forced labor
  • Abuse and neglect
  • Death

You can see how the second list, with just the bare-bones, basic message, makes a far more powerful impact on the audience.

So, to answer your question briefly, use periods only for quotes or blocks of text. Keep bullet points very short and don’t use periods.

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Spelling Rant

Posted by Editormum on Monday, 5 March 2007 in Uncategorized |

The Grammar Guru spent fourteen hours this weekend tramping through various home improvement stores looking at cabinets, linoleum, floor tile, ceiling fans, countertops, lavatories (bathroom sinks, for you non-architectural types), and other stuff for her remodeling projects. And her feet are killing her. Those hard, concrete floors as not conducive to comfortable shopping experience. But when one shops at a warehouse-type place with forklifts everywhere, that’s what one must learn to tolerate.

So the Grammar Guru is standing at the checkout line at the Orange Box Warehouse Store, when her eye settles on a large sign covered with several paragraphs of verbiage. The Grammar Guru has never met a sign that she would not read, so she read this one, even though it was clearly intended for the store employees. It was instructions on how to check a shopping basket for “shrink items” (i.e., stuff a person is trying to steal) when a shopper sets off the alarms at the exit doors.

It was a good sign, well-written and easy to understand. Until one’s eyes reached the penultimate bullet point. It stated that saw blades and other “simular” objects could be hidden in rolled insulation. The Grammar Guru nearly fainted.

SIMULAR?! Please! The Grammar Guru is in despair. Even if the sign company received the order from the Orange Box with such an egregious mistake, they could have called the store manager and asked if they could correct the misspelling. But no, there it was, in 150-point type, for all the world to see. The failure of the modern educational system is hanging out in public, flapping in the breeze. If our teachers cannot even impart the correct spelling of a simple word like “SIMILAR,” then society is doomed. How can our modern educational system be expected to turn out productive and useful citizens if it cannot even teach simple spelling?

The Grammar Guru is going to lie down with a cold cloth on her forehead, to see if she can recover.

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Puzzling Redundancies

Posted by Editormum on Thursday, 30 November 2006 in Usage and Diction |

You see them all the time. Phrases in which the main idea is repeated more than once. (Yes, I did that on purpose.)

Take, for example, the phrase I saw today in an article about ugly team uniforms. The author mentioned the “arm sleeves.” Why? When you are talking about clothing, sleeves are the arms. There are no leg sleeves, head sleeves, or butt sleeves. Sleeves are for arms. So there’s no point in saying “arm sleeves.” It’s an unnecessary repetition.

Or (and I hear this one all the time) consider a reference to “baby puppies” or “baby kittens.” A puppy is a baby dog. A kitten is a baby cat. To say “baby kittens” or “baby puppies” is redundant.

And then there’s the pet peeve of grammarians everywhere: the “A.M. in the morning” and “P.M. in the evening” gaffe. Since “A.M.” stands for ante meridiem, which is Latin for “before the middle of the day”, and “P.M.” stands for post meridiem, which is Latin for “after the middle of the day,” it’s redundant to add the phrase “in the morning/evening” after either time designation. Choose one. Say, “We’ll meet at 6 P.M.” or “We’ll meet at 6 in the evening.”

Watch your writing for this problem, called redundancy or tautology. Correcting it will tighten your style and make you look like a careful writer.

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