4 Types of Reference Books You Didn’t Know You Need

OK, it’s time to conduct an inventory of your reference library to ensure that you have a comprehensive collection at hand. Dictionary? Check. Thesaurus? Mm-hmm. Compendium of famous quotations? Right. Visual dictionary? (Silence.) You’re telling me you don’t have a visual dictionary? Before you get too self-conscious, I’ll let you off the hook: You don’t … Read more

Reeking and Wreaking

Here is a very small sampling taken from the web of the misuse of the verb reek: We had an extremely wet May and June this year in New York City which reeked havoc on many tomato gardens. SISTERS reeked havoc at Momma’s Christmas Dinner today Although this helped in some patients, it reeked havoc … Read more

How to Treat Geological and Astronomical Terms

Determining whether to refer to geological and astronomical terms with initial uppercase or lowercase letters can be a challenge, because various publications and publishers differ on capitalization style. The following guidelines, however, appear to predominate: Names of geological time spans are capitalized, but the terms for the magnitude of duration (eons, eras, periods, epochs, and … Read more

5 Types of Eponyms

Humans so frequently find proper names — the names of specific people, places, or things — to be so useful for describing generic objects or concepts or qualities that they co-opt the proper names, sometimes capitalized, and sometimes lowercased. Here are just some of the innumerable examples in English: 1. Product Eponyms Ubiquitous, market-defining product … Read more

10 Comma Cases in Which More Is More

The movement toward open punctuation — the omission of commas in cases in which they are deemed optional — has its merits, but writers and editors should take care to retain commas — or even insert additional ones — to clarify meaning: 1. “He points to the benefits and wonders how schools can justify not … Read more

Of Muscles, Mussels, and Mice

The use of the word mouse to mean “computer device” began in 1965, but the appearance and movement of mice have influenced language for a long time. The Latin word for “mouse” is mus. The Romans got the word from Greek mys. The word mussel,( “a bivalve mollusk”) derives from the Latin diminutive musculus (“little … Read more

5 Mixed-Up Malapropisms

It’s almost impossible to speak or write English without dodging a misnomer or a malapropism at least once in your lifetime. A misnomer (the word is derived from the Latin for “incorrect name”) is forgivable — usually, it’s merely a matter of retaining an obsolete description, as in “pencil lead” for the graphite used in … Read more

Use Manuscript Markers for Your First Draft

In response to my recent post about parentheses, a commenter mentioned that he uses parentheses as markers for passages to return to later for reworking copy or for inserting missing text. Then he does a pass using Microsoft Word’s Find function to locate the parentheses and fill in the blanks. That’s a good writing strategy: … Read more

5 Fixes for Pop-Culture Pile-Ups

Alluding to science and technology, real and imagined, in lay publications or in references to popular culture is fraught with peril. You don’t know humiliation until you’ve been flamed by a science or tech geek or a sci-fi fanboy who castigates you for a misunderstanding about the way the universe works, or for perpetuating a … Read more

20 Tips for Freelance Writers

Whether you’re moonlighting as a writer or it’s your sole source of income, you must take it seriously in all aspects, from workplace organization to work habits to professional development to marketing to client relations. Here’s some advice about succeeding as a professional writer: 1. Establish a professional work environment. Even if you don’t have … Read more

Shifting Meaning of “Censor”

The English word censor is used both as a noun and as a verb. In ancient Rome, a censor was one of two magistrates in charge of the census, “the enrollment of the names and property assessments of all Roman citizens.” Both census and censor derive from Latin censere, “to appraise, value, judge.” In addition … Read more

How to Get into a Subjunctive Mood

The subjunctive mood is a verb form that expresses any one of a variety of sentiments that are in some sense not necessary true: a potential action or a possibility, a judgment or an opinion, or an emotion or a wish. Here are some examples of statements in the subjunctive mood: “If that were the … Read more