Many Ways to Break

How does one break? Which preposition follows the verb break depends, in American English idiom, on which type of literal or figurative breaking is occurring. To break away is to escape, to suddenly separate from a group, as in a race, to stop doing something (also referred to as taking a break), or to end … Read more

It’s All “Fine”

The two diverse meanings of fine—as a noun or a verb referring to payment of a penalty and as an adjective denoting quality—stem from a common root. Fine and its various derivations come from Latin finis, meaning “border,” “limit,” or “end”; from the early days of the printing press until into the modern era, this … Read more

Neologisms Come and Go

New words are being developed all the time, and there’s nothing we can do to stop this continuous expansion of our vocabulary—other than stop speaking, writing, and thinking, that is. After all, every word was new once. However, the lexicographical graveyard is crowded both with words that never caught on and with others that were … Read more

Should There Be a Hyphen?

Hyphenation rules can seem complicated, leading to confusion for the writer. In the following sentences, determine whether a hyphen is called for in each example, and then read the discussion for an explanatory answer. 1. He was still far back in third place in most polls. “Third place” is a simple noun phrase that requires … Read more

3 Sentences That Cause Confusion

In each of the following sentences, a word or phrase is an obstacle to comprehension. The discussion and revision that follows each example suggests a path to clarity. 1. Technology companies have a very different mind-set to traditional financial institutions. Comparisons structured as one is in this sentence should employ from rather than to, and … Read more

What Is a Doctor?

Exactly what does doctor mean, and who can call himself or herself a doctor, and who can’t? A discussion of the term and its origins and parameters follows. Doctor derives from the Latin verb docere, meaning “teach”; it is also the origin of docent, originally an adjective but now almost invariably used as a noun … Read more

Words for Bodies of Lawmakers

This post discusses an assortment of words employed in English to refer to a group of people responsible for representing the general populace and passing laws, or to pertain to the room in which they meet to do so, or both. Assembly, from Anglo-French by way of the Latin term assimulare (“together”), is used in … Read more

Assure—I Mean, Ensure—Good Writing

Once upon a time, professional and amateur writers alike could count on books and publications to help guide them in writing clearly, coherently, and concisely. They knew that when they opened a book, a magazine, or a newspaper, they could generally be assured that they would find carefully crafted prose that adhered to principles of … Read more

5 Sentences with Misplaced Modifiers

In each of the following sentences, ambiguity or confusion results from faulty placement of a modifying phrase. Discussion and a revision of each sentence illustrates a solution to the problem. 1. The organization provides youth and adults with disabilities job training and employment services. Does disabilities apply to the youth and adults, or does it … Read more

5 Points About Parallel Structure

The following five sentences present various problems with sentence organization. Each is followed by a discussion of the sentence and a revision that addresses the problem. 1. The policy is effective, proportionate, and meets the standards. Effective has the verb is, and standards is supported by meets, but proportionate has no dance partner. It needs … Read more

3 Strategies for Combining Sentences

One approach to making prose more concise is to stitch together two related sentences by revising one so that it serves as a subordinate clause to the other rather than an independent statement. Here are three ways to accomplish this goal. 1. Firms are increasingly susceptible to noncompliance, as demonstrated by the stream of regulatory … Read more

Writing Quiz #2: Job and Office Titles

Correct any capitalization errors in the following sentences. 1. Faith Hope is Executive Director at the Charity Foundation. 2. John Doe is the Roberta Roe Professor of Anthropology at Oxford. 3. Former Vice President Al Gore is an author and an environmental activist. 4. The evening’s highlight was a talk by Economist Adam Smith. 5. … Read more