Compound Modifiers: The Rush to Hyphenate

The object of the hyphen in the compound modifier should normally be clarification. Adjectives in a compound modifier sometimes precede two nouns. In the phrase small-jet engine, the hyphen tells us the engine isn’t small for a jet, but the jet itself is probably one of those bijou executive models. Adjectives can also describe other … Read more

Compound Modifiers: Man-Eating Shark or Man Eating Shark?

The conventional reason for hyphenating words that temporarily work together as a single adjective is to avoid ambiguity. Generations of young writers and editors have been advised by sadder but wiser colleagues that they should swim well clear of a man-eating shark. On the other hand, a man eating shark is likely to have a … Read more

How Do I Become a Better Speller?

A college freshman asked me how to spell “valiant” and when I did, he wondered why it was not “-ent”. He asked how I knew that and I had no idea how to respond! All along, I’ve been a terrific speller, even winning some spelling bees in my younger years. But after some thoughtful consideration … Read more

Pesky Colons and Semicolons

These two forms of punctuation are often used incorrectly for one another. Colons can be used to direct a reader to examples or significant words: His main flaw is his downfall: egotism. Also, they direct a reader to a list of things: A lot of vegetables are the same color: lettuce, peppers, snow peas, and … Read more

Avoiding Stereotypes in Writing

It is easy to fall into the trap of using language that can be construed as racist or sexist. Here are a few tips to stay away from this type of writing. Avoid sexist language. When you know your audience varies, stay away from words that are gender specific. Use “their” instead of “his” or … Read more

Accept the Effect

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These words give writers trouble since the two can be both a noun and a verb, although affect is typically verb and effect, noun. Normally, you will use affect to denote influence. For example:

If I play music will it affect your studying?

Affect used as a noun means “emotion.”

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Eliminating Superfluous Phrases

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In classes I have taught, students lean towards using phrases that they think make them “sound smarter” but end up making their work wordy and clunky. By streamlining your sentences and cutting out a few phrases, you can communicate your point much more effectively.

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