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Posts tagged "grammar"
Last week, I tackled a controversial topic—the comma.

There are definite rules for its use, but many writers use commas subjectively, leading to disagreement (and acrimony) whenever writers or editors discuss this modest punctuation mark.

This week, I’m tackling another punctuation mark—the apostrophe. The rules for the apostrophe are much more definite, but they are frequently misapplied. So misunderstanding often ensues when it comes to the apostrophe.

Here are some rules for its use.

1. An apostrophe is used to show the possessive case of proper nouns.

• Allison Jones’ article (one person named Jones)
• The Joneses’ article
(two or more people named Jones)

2. If a singular or plural word does not end in s, add ’s to form the possessive.

• a child’s wants
• the men’s concerns
• the people’s choice
• everyone’s answer

3. If a proper noun or name ends in a silent s, z, or x, add an ’s

• Theroux’s “The Mosquito Coast”

4. Do not use ’s with possessive pronouns: his, hers, ours, its, yours, theirs, whose.

• The article was hers.
• I have not seen its equal.

5. Use ’s only after the last word of a compound term.

• my father-in-law’s book
• an editor in chief’s decision
• someone else’s problem

6. When showing joint possession with an organization’s or business firm’s name, use the possessive only in the last word.

• the Food and Drug Administration’s policy
• Hammond and Horn’s study

7. Do not use an apostrophe to indicate the plural of a name, an all-capital abbreviation, or of numerals.

• Veterans Affairs
• musicians union
• ECGs
• WBCs
• a woman in her 40s
• during the late 1990s
(1990’s—no, no, no, a thousand times no.)

8. Use ’s to indicate the plural of letters, signs, or symbols when s alone would be confusing.

• Please spell out all the &’s.
• She got eight A’s and two B’s on her last report card.

9. When units of time or money are used as possessive adjectives, add ’s.

• a day’s wait
• a dollar’s worth
• six months’ gestation
• two weeks’ notice
(The movie title was not punctuated correctly.)

RELATED: 7 movie titles that need to be proofread

10. When a word ends in an apostrophe, no period or comma should be placed between the word and the apostrophe.

• The last book on the shelf was the Smiths’.

PR Daily readers, care to share any egregious apostrophe errors you’ve seen lately?

Laura Hale Brockway is medical writer and editor and author of the blog Impertinent Remarks.

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The modern meme, especially in online communication, is, ”write like you talk.” Oh, brother. 

There is a distinction between a conversational tone and sloppy writing. It’s comparable to “business casual” versus “for heaven’s sake, put some pants on!”

When talkin’ to a bud, ya gonna be droppin’ your g’s offa words, but do you really want that sort of thing in your writing, which represents to the world your competence, your expertise, your perceived intelligence? 

Sloppiness reflects badly on you and on your brand, so avoid these common slovenly habits: 


This is not pinkeye, but it does make me see red. “It’s OK to start a sentence with a conjunction.” Yes, occasionally this is fine, but it’s become an epidemic. Listen to a 6-year-old tell a story sometime—every sentence starts with, “Aaaaand …” Is that how you want your writing to read/sound? 

Limit the times you use “and/but/or” to begin a sentence. It’s invariably best to nix the conjunction if you start your sentence with an independent clause: “In the case of Boffo soap flakes, the packaging …” You’re already guiding your reader to your next point, so putting “And” at the beginning just dilutes your writing.

Incomplete sentences

Here’s another instance in which a device intended to break up the textual rhythm for specific effect has become the rhythm—and thus has lost its oomph. Have a thought; convey it. You make your point more effectively if you don’t present it piecemeal. Like this. (See? Now, that’s how it’s used properly.)

Random acts of punctuation

If you don’t know how to use the more exotic punctuation marks—semicolons, em dashes, ellipses—then stick with periods and commas, and please learn how to use the latter. Here’s a primer. Also, lose the exclamation point, unless you’re quoting someone yelling, “Fire!” or something of comparable urgency or intensity, and never use more than one at a time. I mean it!!!! (See how silly that looks?)

Hyphens and apostrophes seem to perplex many “conversational” writers, among others. Again, if you want to get your point across, don’t undermine it with wayward hyphens and apostrophes. Hyphens generally do not belong in verb forms: “It’s time to check in,” not, “It’s time to check-in.” 

Apostrophes are unnecessary in forming plurals. (Not: Apostrophe’s are unnecessary in forming plural’s.) They are used in forming possessives (Cary’s grants, Jack’s lemons, etc.), except in the case of possessive pronouns (yours, its, ours, hers).

When in doubt, leave hyphens and apostrophes out. 

Faulty grammar and syntax

A common flaw lies in subject/verb agreement—notably when a compound (plural) subject is assigned a singular verb: Good grooming and hygiene is essential for a job interview. There are two subjects, so are is the proper verb to use. When a single entity is represented by two nouns joined by “and,” it does take a singular verb: Research and development is an important part of our business. 

A related problem is assigning a plural pronoun—they, for example—when the antecedent is a singular, nonliving entity, specifically a company. “Globbco has rolled out their updated version of the KXJ-3000.” Nope. Globbco has rolled out its updated version—and not a moment too soon, I say. 

“Whomever” has cropped up in the strangest of places, and it’s usually used incorrectly because people think it sounds more elegant. There’s nothing elegant about not knowing what the hell you’re talking about. More often than not, “whoever” is the right choice, so again, when in doubt, leave the “m” out. Here’s a quick video guide to “who” versus “whom.”

Misspellings and made-up words

When I see “definately” or “supposably” in text (Microsoft Word right now is underscoring both “words” with a big “Huh?”), I wonder what the writer was thinking, or whether he/she was thinking at all. It does, though, give me fodder for my snarky Twitter feed—and for articles like this one.

Do any other sloppy writing habits drive you nuts? Please offer them as comments.

Rob Reinalda is the executive editor at Ragan Communications. Follow him on Twitter @word_czaror email him hereThis story first appeared on PR Daily in October 2011. 

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Every weekday, PR Daily associate editor Alan Pearcy highlights the day’s most compelling stories and amusing marginalia on the Web in this, #TheDailySpin. 

Auto correct has its downfalls. It can turn “I’m leaving now” to “I’m leaving you.” Or confuse someone’s “bad case of the Mondays” with his “bad case of the manboobs.” But a new study blames autocorrect, and its sibling spellcheck, on something far worse: Our decreased literacy. It seems these time-saving technologies are making us dumber. The Atlantic Wire explains—and disagrees wit this idea. 

[Read: The 20 most ‘well-read’ U.S. cities

Don’t worry: Neither spelling skills nor the ability to read are needed to enjoy the next item on the agenda—all you’ll need are your eyes. A copywriter and art director team at AlmapBBDO offer youthis awesome story of love, life, and bingo. 


You also don’t need to read to score a free pizza. You do, however, need to speak Spanish, at least at Pizza Patron. The Dallas-based carryout chain has raised eyebrows over a planned promotion to give away thousands of free pies on the evening of June 5, but only to customers who order inEspañol

Speaking of pizza, it seems the food’s remaining days as a certified vegetable might be numbered if the new “SLICE Act” passes in Congress. 

And speaking of free stuff, some jobs just come with better perks. From complimentary beer and catered lunches to picking up the office’s coffee shop tab, OPEN Forum divulges some of the best company incentives around. 

I wonder what incentive persuaded Oprah—the queen of free giveaways talk—to team up with The Huffington Post for a new section. And you get more readers, and you get more readers, and youget more readers … 

Not so sure Brad Go teamed up with IKEA on this one, but that didn’t stop the sing/songwriter from penning a little ditty about everyone’s favorite Swedish furnishings store. (via AgencySpy


Pretty creative, Brad. But now we’re about to venture into a realm of the truly innovative. I know, I know—I probably shouldn’t use that word. But honestly, this sh** is cray. A band of engineers at MITcreated a non-stick coating material that could completely revolutionize that iconic Heinz bottle, not to mention the condiment industry as a whole. 

Before LiquiGlide: 


After LiquiGlide: 


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It’s bad enough that some communicators overuse buzzwords in news releases and memos. Even worse is the sad truth that often those words aren’t even used correctly.

Any writer should pause and ask, “Am I saying what I think I am?” before using these 10 words.

Quality. A lot of times you’ll see this word floating in a sentence, all on its own. “Our products are quality,” or, “These are quality services.” Looking the word up in the dictionary does yield definitions that show the word “quality” by itself can mean excellence, but more often the word refers to a scale from good to poor. Something can be “low quality” just as easily as it can be “high quality.” Add in that modifier—”excellent quality, highest quality”—so people know for sure what you’re trying to say.

Unique. This word has the opposite problem. Writers often try to modify it, calling things “very unique,” or “rather unique.” But the word unique already means what’s being described is like no other thing in the world. There aren’t any degrees of that. Either it’s unique or it isn’t. If you feel a need to modify the word with a “somewhat,” there’s a pretty good chance what you’re describing isn’t really unique.

Innovation. Much like “unique,” people trying to write compelling copy sometimes don’t think “innovation” says enough on its own, so they modify it with adjectives such as “new” and “groundbreaking.” But if something is innovative, it is, by definition, new and breaks some kind of figurative ground. Old innovations are history.

Official. It’s common to see news releases touting the “official launch” of a product or office emails about the “official kickoff” of some companywide initiative. It makes it sound like what’s going on is a big deal. But seeing the word raises some questions: Was there an unofficial launch? What makes this one official? Will someone need to contact a notary?

Exclusive. If you’re sending out a news release about something, there’s no way you’re giving anyone an “exclusive first look” at anything. News releases go out to numerous news organizations. If you were really granting an exclusive, the information you’re giving out should only be going to one. But what if you refer to a product, event or service as “exclusive?” If that’s what it is, that’s fine. If you aren’t going out of your way to exclude people from buying it, it isn’t exclusive.

Breaking. If news is “breaking,” it’s happening right this second. If you have time to write a news release about it, it isn’t breaking. It broke.

Never/ever. Phrases such as”never before seen” and “for the first time ever” are tricky. Whether your organization is doing something it’s never done before is something you can probably verify, but who can say whether the public reaction to something will be the biggest ever or the world will “never be the same” after some product is released? Phrases like that reek of hyperbole. And, yes, it’s your job to sell the media or your employees on your message, but they also want the truth.

Revolutionary. It takes more than something being new or a little bit different for it to be considered revolutionary. It has to be radicallydifferent, to the point where people completely rethink whatever came before. People talk about it, want to learn about it, change the way they do things based on it. In other words, if something’s revolutionary, it doesn’t need a news release.

Literally. If you don’t work for an amusement park or a fair, nothing you write about will be “a literal roller coaster ride.” Likewise, if you don’t work for NASA or perhaps an airline, nothing you do goes “literally into the stratosphere.” You mean “figuratively.” That’s the opposite of “literally.”

Social. In recent years, the term “social” has come more and more to mean “pertaining to social media,” especially in business. But that’s awfully confusing when the actual word “social” continues to mean “friendly,” or, more broadly, “pertaining to society.” Social Security doesn’t have anything to do with Facebook. Calling your organization “social” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s big on Twitter. All it means is that it deals with people. If you’re talking about social media, use the whole phrase.

This story originally ran on PR Daily in August 2011. 

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We enjoy whacking hornets’ nests by advising writers which words and phrases they should avoid, stirring vital debate and global recriminations.

This time we asked which words we ought to use more often.

Seeking to raise our level of discourse, we queried communicators, writers, and talkaholics on commuter trains about which locutions should gain circulation.

“In the words of Wittgenstein: ‘The limits of my language are the limits of my world,’” writer Steve Dempsey offers. “So a better vocabulary and subtler synonyms mean a more interesting outlook.”

He would know. A digital strategist with Slattery Communications in Dublin, he authors the blogUncommon Parlance, which highlights words such as fastuous and slubberdegullion. This serves as “an antidote to the piss-poor persiflage like leveragepassionsolutions, etc. that seem to be coming out of people’s mouths with increased regularity.”

Sic ’em!

Tom Braman—Web team lead for King County, Wash.—laments the inexplicable rarity ofhippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia, wiki-defined as the fear of long words. But his real choice is the regionalism “sic ’em,” as in “He doesn’t know sic ’em.” (He includes a link to an old William Safire column that explains it as “He doesn’t know anything.”)

“Can we bring it back, at least in my Northwest corner of the world?” he says.

Shirley Skeel, media relations manager at the University of Puget Sound, is troubled by the absence of notion (“one of those nice little words that is slipping out of use”) and hoi polloi (“such rhythm to it!”).

MediaMind Communications and PR Manager Samson Adepoju argues for “defenestration of bad ideas. Bespoke campaigns. Penultimate…although it could make a sentence volubleRoborant. More equanimity can help to create indelible memories.”

Are we all getting too bellicose and bilious these days? Not Orly Telisman of Orly Telisman Public Relations, apparently. She calls for an increased use of compromise (“politics make it sound like a bad word”) and play (“we ‘go out’ or ‘have plans’; why don’t we play anymore?”).

before you

Commonplace words carry power, too. Dr. Robyn Odegaard, a communications and conflict resolution expert, says using you creates defensiveness. “I regularly help people understand the power of using ‘I …’ statements, particularly during a tough conversations or disagreements,” she says.

Others call you an underused tool. Deborah Grayson Riegel, president of Elevated Training and visiting professor of executive communications at Peking University, says speakers and writers should “amp up their use of the word … to focus on audience interests, not their own,” she says.

Tom Trushargues this point in a forthcoming book, “The ‘You’ Effect: How to Transform Ego-Based Marketing Into Captivating Messages That Create Customers.” He suggests that communicators use the word to “create content that reads more like a conversation and less like a 
corporate essay.”

Shel Horowitz, author and ethical/green marketing expert, would like to see greater use of because, which “forces you to explore your reasons,” and easily, which “creates a bridge between where the reader is where you want him or her to be.”

PR Daily contributor Denise C. Baron, who has written about cringing when she hears no problem,would like to hear more of “Nice work!” and “Good to have you on board!”

When feeling stories…

Another PR Daily contributor, Daphne Gray-Grant, calls for an increased use of storieswhen, andfeelings. Corporate writers are often reluctant to push interview subjects to relate stories or describe their feelings, she says.

“One great way to elicit both of these things is to ask the question when—as in ‘when did you know this product was going to succeed?’” she writes.

Leave it to the C-suite to scoff at buzzwords and demand concrete results. Jon Gelberg, chief content officer of Blue Fountain Media, wants to hear more about metricsresults, and return on investment, “because all of these relate to advice that is actionable.”

In her conflict resolution workshops, Janet Pfeiffer of Pfeiffer Power Seminars urges people to use the words sorryappreciatehelp (“how can I help you?”), and matter (“your opinion really matters to me”).

‘Words that suck people in’

Allison Way of Think Big Partners keeps handy a list of “words that suck people in,” such as miracle,harmonybargainhow, and love.

Some others, who responded to an appeal we issued via Help a Reporter Out:

  • Author Marlene Caroselliis “troubled by the virtual exclusion of reify from our everyday language. A simple word, it holds such power and such hope.”
  • Jacob Young, online reputation specialist, offers the phrases, “When would be a good time to call?” and, “Is there something I can do to help you out in any way?”
  • Maureen Anderson, host of The Career Clinic, asks, “Is there a sweeter phrase in all the world than this one? ‘Please, tell me more.’”
  • Writer A. Leonard Lucas says, “People have thrown around love so much that it has become meaningless. But adore still has a fresh sense of romanticism.”
  • Henry L. Herz, who recently wrote a children’s fantasy book Nimpentoad along with his two sons, wishes people would say, ‘Would you kindly do xxx?’ rather than, ‘I need you to do xxx.’”

Will our, ahem, outsized influence in communications make this article a disaster for beloved words and phrases?

Bob Westal warns that “making up a list of good words is just setting up a bunch of perfectly innocent words to become tomorrow’s annoying banned words.”

Slubberdegullions everywhere, we’re sorry.

@Russell Working

Chances are, if you made it through college and are now employed as a professional communicator of some sort, grammatical errors drive you insane.

Especially these:

• Your vs. You’re
• Its vs. It’s
• Their/There/They’re

With social media now an all-encompassing part of our lives, we are forced to see which of our friends are total idiots by their misuse of the above.

For those friends (and other grammatically challenged individuals in your life) Copyblogger has this handy infographic:

Mignon Fogarty, whom many of you may know as Grammar Girl, combed through The New York Times and The New Yorker for words even she didn’t know the meaning of, such as verisimilitude and gossamer, and put them all in a new book. Fogarty explains how to use two of these words (so you can sound smarter). 


Do you have more than one style guide on your desk? 

Are you the one person in your company others call when they have a grammar question? 

That book you read before you go to bed at night—how many typos have you found in it? 

If you answered yes to the first two questions and more than 10 to the second question, you might be a word nerd. Never fear; no one here will make fun of you. Ragan and PR Daily readers are a group of like-minded people who—though they have different interests and opinions—share an appreciation for the power and subtlety of words. 

Still not quite sure if your love of the English language translates into word-nerdiness? Well, you know you’re a word nerd if:

  • You catch yourself correcting the grammar in the stories you read to your kids. “Cookie Monster says, ‘I want cookies.’”
  • You subscribe to more than one word-a-day e-newsletter.
  • You’ve watched an episode of Writing the OED in its entirety.
  • You can quote from “Eats, Shoots and Leaves.”
  • No one wants to play Words with Friends with you. (Cowards!)
  • You’ve had more than one heated argument about the use of the serial comma.
  • You know when to use “and” and when to use “as well as” in a series.
  • Seeing 1990’s or 30’s drives you to drink.
  • You know why you should use “an” with words like “historic” and “MRI.”
  • You’ve played dueling style guides with a co-worker.
  • You know the difference between “defuse” and “diffuse.”
  • Hyphens are your least favorite punctuation mark.
  • You can spell “minuscule,” “inadvertent,” “supersede,” and “ophthalmologist.”
  • You can use the word “decimate” correctly in a sentence.
  • You feel an immediate sense of camaraderie with anyone who uses “comprise” correctly.

Readers, any more to add to the list?

Laura Hale Brockway writes about writing and edits about editing at Impertinent Remarks.

Living-language lovers and venerable verbal virtuosi quarrel over these quaint quibbles. Which side are you on?

There are two types of grammar: descriptive, which describes what is customary, and prescriptive grammar, which prescribes what should be.

A tension between the two systems is inevitable—and healthy; it keeps us thinking about what we’re saying and writing.

Allowing mob rule at the expense of some governing of composition is madness, but a diction dictatorship is dangerous, too. As with any prescription, an overdose is contraindicated. Here are some hard pills to swallow for language mavens who require a strict adherence to rigid syntactical patterns at the expense of, well, language:

1. Never split an infinitive.

It isn’t wise to always ignore this fallacious rule against dividing the elements of the verb phrase “to (verb)” with an adverb, but to blindly follow it is to prohibit pleasing turns of phrase—one of the best known of which is from the introductory voice-over from the “Star Trek” television series: “to boldly go where no one has gone before.” (The original series, produced before the more recent sensitivity to gender bias, put it “no man.”)

2. Never end a sentence with a preposition.

This rule is ridiculous, to start with. If you believe it, please tell me what planet you are from. What are you striving for? Give it up. Am I getting my point across?

The stricture against closing sentences with words that describe position stems from an 18th-century fetish for the supposed perfection of classical Latin, which allowed no split infinitives—for the excellent reason that Latin infinitives consist of single words. English, however, being a distant relative of that language, should be allowed to form its own customs.

3. Never begin a sentence with a conjunction.

And why not? For an honorable tradition of doing just that exists. But some people persist in prohibiting this technique. Yet we defy them. Or we simply ignore them or laugh at them, neither of which they appreciate. Nor do they understand our attitude, though we try to convince them, and will continue to do so. So there.

The words beginning each of these sentences are conjunctions, easily recalled with the mnemonic FANBOYS. Every one is perfectly acceptable at the head of a sentence. As is obvious from the previous paragraph, however, a little goes a long way.

4. Distinguish between while and though.

Petty prescriptivists would have you reserve while for temporal usage only: “While I agree, I resist,” they say, should be revised to “Though I agree, I resist.”

I freely admit that I often change while to though, and while I understand—I’m sorry, I can’t stop myself—and though I understand that it may seem pedantic, I think though reads better.

5. Distinguish between since and because.

I concur that indiscriminate replacement of since with because may seem persnickety, but since—ahem—because I find the latter word more pleasing, I will reserve the right to prefer it.

6. Use data only in the plural sense.

Where did they get this data? The alternative is to use datum in the singular sense, which makes you sound like a propellerhead. (Look it up, kids.) People who say “datum” get data, but they don’t get dates.

7. Use none only in the singular sense.

None of these rules, followed strictly, allow for a vernacular ease with language.

Did that sentence hurt? Did the waves stop crashing to shore? Did Earth stop spinning?

If you wish to replace none with “not one” or “no one” (“Not one person admitted guilt”; “No one saw that coming”), by all means, do so, but fear not none in a plural sense.

The original article, 7 Grammatical Errors That Aren’t, ran on DailyWritingTips.com. This article has previously appeared on Ragan.com.