Style Quiz #2: Large Numbers

All but one of the following sentences demonstrate incorrect style for large numbers according to The Chicago Manual of Style; revise the style of the number as necessary: 1. This city of 3,000,000 has come a long way since its humble beginnings. 2. The database amounts to about fifty million documents and about 150 billion … Read more

The “Only” Place

In spoken English, even the most careful speaker may casually misplace the modifier only in a sentence, as in “The meeting will only be held if the ordinance passes.” The intended meaning here is that whether the ordinance passes determines whether the meeting is to be held. Literally, however, the sentence indicates that the holding … Read more

3 Types of Scare Quotes

Framing a word or phrase in scare quotes, or quotation marks used for emphasis, can be an effective tool for signaling editorial distance—that is, subtly and succinctly clarifying that the word or phrase is not of the writer’s choosing or that it is euphemistic or otherwise specious or spurious. However, too often, scare quotes are … Read more

5 Cases of Erroneous Usage

Writers who have misheard words and expressions or remember them imperfectly are prone to misrepresenting them in their prose. The following sentences include examples of such errors, followed by discussion and revision. 1. Trustees—jail inmates selected for jobs like food preparation and garbage collection—were sneaking drugs in on food trays. A trustee is a person … Read more

Slangy, Trendy Words Are Still Words

YOLO, but biatch, lose the moobs. What do these three words have in common? They are all enshrined in the English-speaking world’s long-reigning record of the language’s vocabulary. That’s right: The Oxford English Dictionary now includes YOLO, biatch, and moobs—and many people are not exactly squeeing about that. They think those words are at best … Read more

The Prefix Co-

If you’re the betting type, and you wager on whether a given word beginning with a prefix is attached directly to the root word or linked with a hyphen, bet against the hyphen: The trend—in American English, at least—is to close prefixed words and compound words. However, you won’t always win, because there are exceptions, … Read more

3 Problems with Suspensive Hyphenation

The grammatical convention known as suspensive hyphenation is employed when two or more adjacent and parallel phrasal adjectives, phrases that in tandem modify a noun that follows them, have a common element in the same position. Elision of one of the repeated words because it is clearly implicit is a common strategy, but misuse of … Read more

Punctuation Quiz #4: Phrasal Adjectives

All but one of the following sentences are incorrect; insert or omit a hyphen in the others as necessary: 1. He’s a sharp dressed young man. 2. As usual, the event was well-attended. 3. I sympathize with his long-suffering wife. 4. She was touched by the open-hearted gesture. 5. The injury turned out to have … Read more

3 Cases of Unnecessary Punctuation

In each of the sentences below, superfluous punctuation interrupts the flow of the sentence. Discussion and revision of each example indicates the correct treatment of the statements. 1. Smith said she regrets using the term, low-lifes, to characterize Jones’s supporters. Setting low-lifes off from the sentence implies that it is the only term in existence … Read more

5 Awkward Sentences

Innumerable missteps in constructing sentences are possible. Here are five random statements with assorted obstacles to comprehension, each accompanied by discussion and a revision. 1. The past month has seen two major developments. Avoid bestowing the gift of sight on inanimate objects or on concepts such as duration of time: “Two major developments have occurred … Read more

Hyphens Are Chains Linking Phrasal Adjectives

Writers frequently neglect to connect two words that together constitute a single grammatical unit modifying a noun that follows them. This error of omission is even more likely when the phrasal adjective consists of more than two words. The following sentences demonstrate such errors, and a discussion and a revision follow each example. 1. Leaders … Read more

Atheists, Agnostics, and Apostates

What’s the difference between an atheist and an agnostic? As with most words, the answer lies in the etymological origins of the words. Atheist stems, through atheism, from the French word athéisme, which pertains to a lack of belief in God, or in any deity. (Here, the antonymic a- is linked to theism, which means … Read more