Q. What is the best strategy for dealing with sentences which do not sound quite right?
A. It is usually much better to rewrite an awkward or confusing sentence completely, rather than to try to patch it.
Often it is desirable to split a long or convoluted sentence into two or more shorter ones.
Jargon or acronyms which the intended audience might not understand are best avoided. At the very least, such items should be explained when first used and/or they should be included in a glossary.
See also Gobbledegook.
Q. A stockbroker recently wrote:
"The key assumption underpinning our forecast EPS growth, is the successful move into the US."
Is the use of the comma in this way correct?
A. No! A surprising and astonishingly common error is the placing of a comma between a subject and the following verb. The commas in such sentences utterly destroy the natural flow of the message and should therefore be omitted. It
is difficult to understand what logic causes so many writers to commit this sin.
A simple sentence may help. Would anybody really want to say the following:
"My wife, is pretty."
Q. Is it all right to say "have got"?
A. Usually not. The simple verb "have" in the sense of "possess" should never be rendered as "have got".
This combination of words would be appropriate only in contexts in which "have received" or "have acquired" or "have obtained" could be substituted - in other words, where the present perfect tense of the verb "to get" i
s really intended.
Q. On a related matter, is it in order to say "have gotten" in Australia?
A. No. The modern American phrase "have gotten" is even uglier and thus more objectionable than the English "have got".
Thus: "I have gotten something."
could be rendered as:
"I have obtained something."
Actually, of course, "gotten" is archaic rather than very modern. The "-en" suffix for the past participles of strong verbs still survives in common words such as written, given and driven, in the biblical "ye have lien among the pots" (Psalms 68:13), in expressions such as "we are beholden to him", in a few adjectives such as begotten, cloven and stricken, in forgotten, and in relation to the verb "to get" itself in phrases such as "ill-gotten gains".
"HAVE GOT TO"
Q. Is there anything wrong with the following sentence?
"I have got to do this today."
A. Indeed there is. The verb "have to" meaning "must" should never be rendered as "have got to". Either of the following should be used instead:
"I have to do this today."
"I must do this today."
INCORRECT PLACEMENT OF BRACKETS ADJACENT TO FULL STOPS
Q. Should a closing bracket precede or follow a full stop?
A. Whether a closing bracket should precede or follow a full stop always depends on the context. To illustrate:
"This is misleading (see page 17.)"
"This is misleading (see page 17)."
because here the words in brackets are part of the main sentence.
"This is misleading. (The term is explained on page 17)."
"This is misleading. (The term is explained on page 17.)"
because here the words in brackets form a completely separate sentence.
INCORRECT PLACEMENT OF QUOTATION MARKS ADJACENT TO FULL STOPS
Q. Should a closing quotation mark precede or follow a full stop?
A. As in the above question, whether a closing quotation mark should precede or follow a full stop always depends on the context.
Contrast the following:
She said, "My husband works hard."
Here the full stop comes first, because the quoted words form a complete sentence by themselves.
The plural of "man" is "men".
Here the full stop comes last, to show the end of the sentence. The reverse order would be quite illogical, as the plural word required is "men" and not "men." in this context.
WRONG CASE AFTER PREPOSITIONS AND VERBS
Q. One hears sentences such as the following all the time:
"This is a worry for your mother and I."
Why are they considered wrong?
A. The sentence should read:
"This is a worry for your mother and me."
The preposition "for" needs to be followed by the accusative case "me", not the nominative case "I". The fact that "for" and "me" are here separated by another object "your mother" makes no difference, a point frequently misunderstood. The following expansion may assist understanding:
"This is a worry for your mother and for me."
In the same way the Prime Ministers's famous "Who can you trust?" should, of course, have been "Whom can you trust?"
Verbs also take the accusative case. Thus:
"Please join Joan and I for refreshments."
"Please join Joan and me for refreshments."
WRONG CASE WITH GERUND
Q. Which of the following sentences is correct?
"I approved of him coming to see me."
"I approved of his coming to see me."
A. The latter. The approval refers not to the person him but rather to the event his coming.
THE SPELLING OF A COMMON INTERNET TERM
Q. Is it better to write email or e-mail? Both forms seem to be about equally popular.
A. This is largely a matter of taste. However, the form e-mail is recommended over the alternative forms email, E-mail and Email. This advice has regard to:
- the origins of the term as representing electronic mail
- the traditional way of expressing e-mail addresses in lower case
- the use of "e-" as a living prefix in words such as e-commerce, e-book and e-publishing
- the desire to avoid confusion with the French word for enamel, which is email
- the desire to avoid confusion with the name of the Australian whitegoods company, Email Limited (formerly Electricity Meter and Allied Industries Limited)
- the fact that, unlike the case with words such as U- turn and J-curve, the shape of the capital letter would have no relevance.
However, once a particular spelling is decided upon it should be used consistently.
The word e-mail is both an adjective and a noun. The noun is used both for the system (for example, "e-mail is a marvellous invention") and as popular shorthand for "e-mail message". As in many other instances, the noun can also be used as a verb (for example, "to e-mail something").
Q. Can an exchange of e-mail messages have unexpected consequences? Furthermore, does style matter?
A. Indeed. The informal style acceptable in e-mail messages enables them to be created with much less effort than formal letters. However, this can also be a legal trap. For example, an exchange of e-mails could constitute a binding contract; a carelessly worded comment could become the basis of a libel action; and so on.
In regard to style issues, some correspondents overdo the informality and do not even use a spelling checker. At the very least this would enable them to fix typographical errors.
Furthermore, e-mails are more easily read if they contain a series of short paragraphs, separated by blank lines, rather than just a single jumbo paragraph.
"WHO" OR "WHOM"?
Q. Why is the following sentence considered wrong?
"I met a man whom I knew was an agent."
Is not "whom" the object of "knew"?
A. No, the correct word in constructions such as these is "who". The sentence should be:
"I met a man who I knew was an agent."
Here "who" is the subject of "was". This becomes obvious if the parenthesis in the middle is disregarded:
"I met a man who ... was an agent."
"I met a man whom I knew to be an agent."
would be in order. Here "whom" is the object of the verb "knew". The sentence is now equivalent to
"I met a man and I knew him to be an agent."
Many persons are so scared of using "who" when "whom" is required that they finish up using "whom" when "who" is required, as in the following very typical further example:
"She completed a sentence for the murder of her husband whom she said had subjected her to years of violence."
THE PERSON OF "WHO"
Q. Which of the following is correct:
"It is I who is leaving."
"It is I who am leaving."
A. The relative pronoun "who" would often be followed by the third person of the relevant verb, as in:
"It is my brother who is leaving."
Here the antecedent of "who" is "my brother" and the sentence means in part:
"My brother is leaving."
But in the case of the sentence in the above question the antecedent of "who" is "I", a first person pronoun, and the sentence means in part:
"I am leaving."
Thus here "who" is also first person and the correct form is thus:
"It is I who am leaving."
If that sounds odd, consider the plural:
"It is we who are leaving."
See also the Johnson quote at the top of this page.
"WHOEVER" OR "WHOMEVER"?
Q. Is the following sentence correct?
"I can go with whomever is free."
A. No. This should be:
"I can go with whoever is free."
Here "whoever" is the subject of the verb "is", not the object of the preposition "with". The sentence is short for:
"I can go with him whoever is free."
However, the following would be correct (but not because of the preposition "with"):
"I can go with whomever you suggest."
Here the "whomever" is the object of the verb "suggest".
Q. Can "whose" be used with inanimate objects?
A. The relative pronoun "whose" should preferably be used only with personal antecedents. In other cases "of which" should be used instead. Thus:
"The brands whose prices are going up will be announced each week."
should be recast as:
"The brands the prices of which are going up will be announced each week."
Nouns such as "company" and "party", despite such concepts representing people indirectly, are also regarded as inanimate for this purpose and therefore require the use of "of which" rather than "whose". Thus:
"The company of which I am head is now listed on the stock exchange."
On the other hand, "whose" can be used with household pets, where these are treated as virtual members of the family.
It should be noted that the possessive case of "who" is "whose", without an apostrophe; the word "who's" stands for "who is" or "who has".
Q. What is the possessive case of "who else"?
A. This expression is regarded as a single pronoun. The possessive case is "who else's", as in:
"Who else's views were sought?"
"AS" (RELATIVE PRONOUN)
Q. Is the following sentence correct?
"This is the same letter that I had."
A. No. After the demonstrative adjectives "same" and "such" and a few other words the correct relative pronoun is "as" and not "who", "which" or "that". Thus the sentence should read:
"This is the same letter as I had."
Other examples of "as" as a relative pronoun are:
"Such people as turned up greatly enjoyed the show."
"She is as worthy a scientist as ever received this award."
Q. Should marketing brochures be written in the first person?
A. Not necessarily. Many different styles can be used when designing such a brochure, according to taste - for example, the various topics could be given headings as follows:
(1) Straight Narrative:
Benefits of shopping at XYZ
(2) Questions and Answers in the first Person:
What will I experience when I shop at XYZ?
When can I go shopping at XYZ?
Will I get any discounts at XYZ?
Can I get further information about XYZ on the Internet?
(3) Questions and Answers in the second Person:
What do you get when you shop at XYZ?
When can you go shopping at XYZ?
Do you get discounts at XYZ?
Can you get information about XYZ on the Internet?
(4) Questions and Answers in the third Person:
What does one experience when shopping at XYZ?
When can one go shopping at XYZ?
Does one get discounts at XYZ?
Can one get information about XYZ on the Internet?
(5) Impersonal Questions and Answers:
What are the benefits of shopping at XYZ?
When is XYZ open?
What discounts are available?
What is XYZ's web address?
However, once a particular style has been chosen it needs to be used consistently.
Q. Should instruction manuals be written in the active voice?
A. Not necessarily. Once again, many different styles can be used, according to taste.
To illustrate, any of the following would be amongst those that can be regarded as acceptable:
Update the page by clicking "Refresh".
You should update the page by clicking "Refresh".
Users need to update the page by clicking "Refresh".
The page should be updated by clicking "Refresh".
Updating can be achieved by clicking "Refresh".
Remember that ...
You should remember that ...
It should be remembered that ...
Q. Can the verb "to skyrocket" legitimately be used figuratively?
A. Yes, it is in order to say that prices or values have skyrocketed, meaning that they have increased rapidly.
This verb is one of a number that in their figurative applications can be combined with only a narrow range of nouns as their subjects.
Other examples include the following:
only a telephone or some similar piece of equipment can "run hot"
only alleged facts can be "taken at face value"
only an unpleasant incident can "come back to haunt a person"
only a joke or a funny story can "fall flat"
only an argument can be "shot to ribbons"
only information can be "brought out into the open".
These comments are based on material in Renton's Metaphors.
Q. A recent circular from an estate agent said:
"Each of these properties will be sure to compliment your investment portfolio."
Did that make sense?
A. Not really. A property is unlikely to say nice things about an investment portfolio or anything else. The agent no doubt meant that any of the properties concerned would fit in well with the reader's existing investment portfolio
; the word that should have been used was "complement".
A spelling checker cannot pick up errors of this type.
TWO WORDS OR ONE?
Q. Should "worth while" be written as two words or one?
A. The word "while" is clearly a noun in sentences such as:
"This is worth my while."
It is also a noun in the shorter version:
"This is worth while."
Thus "worth while" in such constructions always needs to be rendered as two words.
On the other hand, "worthwhile" as an attributive adjective needs to be rendered as a single word - for example:
"This was a worthwhile exercise."
Q. A recent brochure included the following sentence:
"This approach only works for skilled users."
Is this placement of the word "only" in order?
A. No. Subject to the comments below, the adverb "only" should always be used "immediately before" the word it is intended to modify. In some cases a failure to do this can result in an ambiguity - consider, for example, the different meanings in the following five sentences:
"Only I wanted to eat fish." (No one else wanted to eat fish.)
"I only wanted to eat fish." (I wished to eat fish, but did not actually do so.)
"I wanted only to eat fish." (I wanted to eat, rather than just look at or smell, fish; or, alternatively, if the adverb "only" is regarded as modifying the entire following phrase: I did not want to do anything other than to eat fish.)
"I wanted to eat only fish." (I wanted to eat fish, as distinct from meat or other food.)
But there is no harm in using "only" after the word or phrase being modified where this does not lead to an ambiguity - for example, "for your eyes only".
However, while the sentence:
"I will work for food only."
"I will work for food without requiring anything in addition to food."
"I will work for American dollars only."
"I will work for American dollars, but not for any alternative."
"IF" AND "WHETHER"
Q. When should one use "whether" rather than "if"?
A. The two conjunctions "if" and "whether" are not interchangeable. Contrast the following sentences:
"Please advise whether you want a hard copy."
"Please advise if you want a hard copy."
The first sentence sensibly requires a reply which says either that a hard copy is desired or that it is not. The second sentence requires a reply only where a hard copy is actually desired.
The word "if" should be used only to introduces a condition, without alternatives. The word "whether" is used to indicate doubt as to which of two possible alternative scenarios is the correct one.
"Let me know if the applicant is a boy or a girl."
needs to be rendered as:
"Let me know whether the applicant is a boy or a girl."
"WHETHER" OR "WHETHER OR NOT"
Q. Is not "or not" following "whether" superfluous?
A. It can be, although it is often used just for emphasis or euphony.
Technically, the words "or not" following "whether" imply "regardless of the outcome", as in:
"I will call on him whether or not he sends a letter of apology."
"TYPE OF" AND SIMILAR TERMS
Q. Which of the following four sentences is correct?
"This type of plant is very popular these days."
"These types of plant are very popular these days."
"This type of plants is very popular these days."
"These types of plants are very popular these days."
A. All four are grammatical and thus acceptable. However, the first two seem more logical for the singular and the plural of "type" respectively.
Such a usage would also ensure consistency with that employed with nouns that do not take a plural - for example:
"Any type of litigation is expensive."
"Many types of skilled labour are scarce."
Similar remarks apply to the following expressions:
On a related aspect:
"I do not like those kind of things."
needs to be rendered as
"I do not like that kind of thing."
or alternatively as
"I do not like those kinds of things."
The singular noun "kind" here needs to be qualified by the singular form of the demonstrative adjective.
"BCE" AND "CE"
Q. What do the abbreviations "BCE" and "CE" in relation to dates mean?
A. It has been customary, when referring to historical events, to specify that a year or a century is either BC ("before Christ", meaning before a very approximate date of Christ's birth) or AD (anno domini, Latin for "in the year of the Lord").
This nomenclature is well established, despite being unpopular with many non-Christians. However, most people in countries such as Australia are not particularly conscious of the religious connotations in these abbreviations. On the other hand, some persons are concerned that these labels could give offence to the adherents of some non-Christian faiths.
They have therefore started to use CE (for "common era") and BCE (for "before the common era"). These new abbreviations may be more politically correct, but they also seem to involve change for the sake of change.
Some problems are:
The use of one symbol (CE), which is two characters long, and another (BCE), which is three characters long, is rather untidy.
The letter "C" can easily be mistaken for "Christian".
The two new symbols are not as distinct from each other as AD and BC are from each other.
The departure from the conventional BC/AD symbols is offensive to some fundamental Christians.
Some dictionaries do not even include the phrase "common era".
It seems undesirable to use two different sets of notation for the same concept concurrently.
The International Organization for Standardization has laid down a standard, ISO 8601, which prescribes a new way for setting out dates. This is YYYY-MM-DD (for example, 2005-07-31), with the greatest unit being to the left, as in the case of ordinary numbers. However, BCE and CE are not recognised by ISO 8601.
Furthermore, the new notation fails to correct the major flaw of the present BC/AD system, namely, the absence of a year zero. This could be overcome by using CE with negative numbers in the same way as temperatures can involve negative numbers for degrees - see column (4) below:
Column (1) is the traditional system.
Column (2) is a more consistent approach.
Column (3) is the system favoured by historians, secularists and others.
Column (4) is a more logical approach.
(1) (2) (3) (4)
AD 3 3 AD 3 CE 3 CE
AD 2 2 AD 2 CE 2 CE
AD 1 1 AD 1 CE 1 CE
1 BC 1 BC 1 BCE 0 CE
2 BC 2 BC 2 BCE -1 CE
3 BC 3 BC 3 BCE -2 CE
Q. Is the following sentence correct or should the verb be in the plural?
"A record number of members was present at the meeting."
A. The sentence is correct. The relevant principle is as follows:
The expression "the number of" with the definite article "the" always takes a singular verb in the usual way because here "number" is being used in its literal sense. Thus:
"The number of bodies found has increased." (The number has increased.)
"The number of people coming is large." (That number is large.)
On the other hand, the expression "a number of" with the indefinite article "a" often takes a plural verb because the phrase is a synonym for "many" or "some".
In the same way "a large number of" can be a synonym for "very many" and "a small number of" can be a synonym for "few". Thus:
"A number of bodies were found." (Some bodies were found.)
"There are a number of applications waiting to be processed." (There are many applications waiting to be processed.)
"A large number of people are coming." (Very many people are coming.)
"A small number of people are already here." (Few people are already here.)
However, with more general adjectives as in this question a singular verb is called for - for example:
"There has been a growing number of inquiries." (There has been a growing total of inquiries.)
"An unusually high number of members is here." (An unusually high head count of members is here.)
"An equal number of men and women is ideal." (The equal representation of men and women is ideal.)
Similarly, "A record number of members was here" is correct. It may help to consider the following:
"Many members had come from afar. As a result, a record number was here."
Q. Should hyphens be used in short Latin phrases such as "bona fide", "de facto", "ex parte" and "pro rata"?
A. No. See also Common Latin Phrases.
"IN ARREAR" VERSUS "IN ARREARS"
Q. What is the difference between "in arrear" and "in arrears"?
A. These two expressions should not be confused.
The phrase "in arrears" with the "s" refers to a debt, in particular to an overdue or outstanding amount - for example, "this tenant's rent is badly in arrears".
However, the phrase "in arrear" without the "s" is used in a different context. It is used in contrast to the phrase "in advance" when dealing with periodical payments - for example, "interest shall be payable quarterly in arrear", in other words, at the end rather than at the beginning of each quarter.
"LIKE" VERSUS "SUCH AS"
Q. Is the following sentence correct?
"Deductions from certain items like interest may be made."
A. No. The sentence should read:
"Deductions from certain items such as interest may be made."
The preposition "like" implies similarity or resemblance or comparison, as in "he looks like me". It should not be used as a synonym for "such as" (or "for example").
"B" AND "b"
Q. What are the correct abbreviations for the computer terms "bit" and "byte"?
A. These terms are not interchangeable.
A bit, abbreviated "b", is a Binary DigIT, either a 0 or a 1.
A byte, abbreviated "B", is a set of eight bits that represent a single character.
Five kilobytes (5120 bytes) would be written as 5KB (or sometimes just as 5K or even injudiciously as 5k). It is conventional to use k (lower case) for 1000 and K (capital) for 1024 (2 to the power 10).
In contrast to the style used for metric units (discussed below) there is usually no space between the number and the symbol.
Q. When should metric units be capitalised?
A. In the case of terms written out in full, only at the beginning of sentences.
However, the rules for metric symbols are different:
Basic units derived from the names of persons should always be capitalised - for example, V for volt, W for watt, Hz for hertz, Pa for pascal.
Other basic units should always be written in lower case - for example, m for metre, g for gram. The only exception is the litre, which can optionally be rendered as L to stop confusion between l and 1.
Metric prefixes up to and including that meaning 1000 (kilo-) must be written in lower case - for example, mg for milligram (0.001 gram), kg for kilogram (1000 grams).
Metric prefixes representing higher multiples must be written in capitals - for example, MHz for megahertz (1,000,000 hertz), GHz for gigahertz (1,000,000,000 hertz).
Some other aspects should be mentioned:
Full stops are never used with metric symbols (other than at the end of sentences).
The same symbols are used for both singular and plural. Except in the case of degrees, a space is required between a number and a symbol - for example, 450 mm.
Only one prefix should be used at a time - for example, a nanosecond rather than a millimicrosecond.
The unit of absolute temperature is the kelvin (K), not the degree kelvin.
"MORTGAGOR" AND "MORTGAGEE"
Q. When discussing changes in interest rates the media often refer to house purchasers as "mortgagees". Is that correct?
A. No. The lender under a mortgage is the "mortgagee" and the borrower is the "mortgagor", not the other way round.
This confusion arises because the precise nature of the activity being referred to is misunderstood. The transaction being described by the technical term "to mortgage something" is the giving of the security by the debtor rather than the advancement of the money by the creditor.
Q. Should cardinals of the Catholic Church be referred to using a style such as "Cardinal John Smith"?
A. No. The correct style is "John Cardinal Smith".
The style for peers and peeresses is slightly different, using a comma after the given name - for example: "Alfred, Lord Tennyson", "Ada, Countess of Lovelace".
Q. In order to be politically correct how should the term "midwife" be rendered these days, especially when the person attending the birth is a male?
A. The enthusiasm to find gender-neutral synonyms should always have regard to linguistic considerations. To remove the female-sounding suffix in "midwife" would be a nonsense. The word is cognate with the German "mit Weib", meaning "with woman", in reference to the sex of the mother giving birth, not the sex of the person in attendance on her.
Q. It has been suggested that there is no such thing as a "PIN number", yet that term is encountered all the time. What is going on?
A. "PIN" stands for "personal identification number". Thus a "PIN number" would be a "personal identification number number", an obvious nonsense.
Other common tautologies of this type include "CPI index", "BAS statement" and "ATM machine".
Q. How should dates be written?
A. The best style for writing a date in words is "11 October 2003", without a comma and without the suffix used for ordinal numbers, as in "11th October, 2003".
Dates written in figures can be rendered as day/month/year - for example, "31/09/05", preferably with a leading zero for numbers less than 10.
The American convention of month/day/year - for example, "09/31/05" - does not place the three elements in either ascending or descending order of size and is therefore quite illogical. If there is any possibility that a reader might assume that the absurd American convention is being used for figures then the problem should be avoided by expressing the month in words.
However, the most logical order for dates would be year-month- day, which would fit in with the left-to-right large-to-small order for digits in ordinary numbers and which would facilitate sorting.
The International Organization for Standardization has laid down a standard, ISO 8601, which prescribes the preferred way for setting out dates. This is YYYY-MM-DD - for example, 2005-03-04. This
format is unambiguous and can be regarded as a metric date format suitable for use universally.
The calendar year is expressed using four digits, thus avoiding another possible ambiguity familiar to readers of millennium bug stories: does 00 mean 1900 or 2000?
The separator is standardised as a hyphen rather than as either a slash or a full stop - this change in itself serving as a subtle reminder that a modern date format is being used. Of course, the two hyphens can be omitted in contexts where saving space is more important than readability.
The use of the ISO 8601 format is strongly recommended.
Q. What does a "500 per cent increase" really mean?
A. It means a six-fold increase - for example, by 5000 from 1000 to 6000.
On a related aspect, a common source of error is illustrated by the following:
If the rate of inflation falls from, say, 5 per cent to 4 per cent then the reduction is "one percentage point", not "one per cent". (It actually represents a 20 per cent reduction, but this fact is probably not very helpful.)
Q. What is the plural of "criteria"?
A. This question highlights a frequent misunderstanding. The word "criteria" is actually the plural of the word "criterion".
English uses the Greek form of plural for a number of common nouns. Thus:
a criterion, several criteria a phenomenon, two phenomena
Perhaps the confusion comes about because some Latin plurals end in "-a" - for example:
one erratum, two errata
Q. Many people use "disinterested" when they mean "not interested". Should they?
A. No. The word "disinterested" means "impartial or unbiased or without any vested interest". It does not mean "uninterested or lacking in enthusiasm".
SINGLE OR DOUBLE QUOTATION MARKS
Q. Is it better to use single or double quotation marks (inverted commas)?
A. This is purely a matter of taste - neither format is "right" or "wrong". Many publishers choose one or the other as their house style.
However, on no account should the two formats ever be mixed within the same publication - other than for quotes within quotes, when single go within double and vice versa:
He said, "I meant `no'." He said, `I meant "no".'
Q. Is "alright" a proper word?
A. No, the correct expression is "all right".
The word should not be confused with the form used for "already".
"FOR EXAMPLE" AND "THAT IS"
Q. When should one use "e.g." rather than "i.e." and how should these terms be punctuated?
A. Both terms are Latin. They should not be confused with each other.
The first one stands for exempli gratia and means "for example". The second one stands for id est and means "that is".
Both abbreviations require two full stops and the terms should normally be followed by a comma, as in "e.g., fish" or "i.e., cash".
The full English phrases are preferable in formal writing.
"SEX" AND "GENDER"
Q. Some forms used by companies or government agencies ask persons to state their gender. Is this correct?
A. No. The word "gender" is a grammatical term. It refers to masculine, feminine and neuter nouns, pronouns and adjectives - for example:
he, she, it
his, her, its.
The word should not be used as a synonym or a euphemism for "sex" when discussing male or female persons or animals.
Q. A leading newspaper likes to show share prices which end in a half-cent by using a vulgar fraction - for example, $2.30½. Why does it do that?
A. Probably because the newspaper's writers are stupid or ignorant. Such a notation is:
not mathematically correct
confusing to readers
at variance with the practice of the Australian Stock Exchange
inconsistent with the newspaper's own style for fractions of a cent other than one-half.
The correct expression here would be $2.305.
Non-integral decimal numbers should always be expressed in figures - for example, "The average family has 2.6 children."
If a quantity is less than unity then a nought should be used before the decimal point - for example, "0.9 litres".
ASSORTED USES OF THE GENITIVE CASE
Q. Is it in order to speak of "the moon's gravitational pull on the earth"? The moon does not actually own this feature.
A. Yes, this is perfectly correct English. While it is true that the prime use of the genitive case is to denote ownership or possession the concept is far wider than just legal ownership or physical possession. It also includes man
y figurative usages, as, for example, in the following sentence:
He noted John's approval of Mary's plan regarding Bob's neighbour and the dog's fierceness.
In fact, the genitive case is used in a great many miscellaneous constructions unconnected with its prime use. These include:
Authorship - for example: Mozart's works, Einstein's theory.
Purpose - for example: children's clothes (in the sense of clothes intended to be worn by children), a visitors' book (in the sense of a book intended to be signed by visitors), a teachers' college (a college used for training teachers).
Distance - for example: a stone's throw away, a day's journey even by car.
Time - for example: a day's journey to get there, three weeks' annual leave, one year's experience.
Physical attributes - for example: the moon's gravity, the earth's axis, the stone's colour.
Travel - for example: Cook's circumnavigation of the island, the moon's orbit.
Emotion - for example: the boy's fear of the dark, the doctor's love for mankind.
Subjective relationship - for example, the King's abdication (an act done by the King).
Objective relationship - for example: the King's assassination (an act done to the King).
For the sake of consistency an apostrophe should be used for nouns in all the above cases and in any other similar constructions. The view held by some people that an apostrophe is needed for children's clothes and one week's leave but not for visitors' book and two weeks' leave seems to suffer from a distinct lack of logic.
Of course, a misplaced apostrophe, as in the Smithville Miner's Canteen, is even worse.
Q. People say "similar to". What preposition should "different" take?
A. The word "different" should be followed by "from" rather than by either "to" or "than".
Q. Which of the following is correct?
"The teacher didn't use to come."
"The teacher didn't used to come."
A. Neither. The verb "used to" exists only in the past tense. Its negative and interrogative forms do not take the auxiliary verb "do". The sentence should read:
"The teacher used not to come."
Similarly, the following are wrong:
"Didn't you use to be a chief executive?"
"Didn't you used to be a chief executive?"
The question with "used to" needs to be:
"Used you not to be a chief executive?"
However, rewording it would not hurt - for example:
"Were you not once a chief executive?"
"REASON" AND "BECAUSE"
Q. Should "reason" and "because" be used in the same sentence?
A. Generally speaking, no. To illustrate, consider the following sentences:
"The reason why he came is because he was lonely."
"The reason he came is because he was lonely."
These should both be rendered as one of the following:
"The reason he came is that he was lonely."
"He came because he was lonely."
But, of course, in other contexts the one sentence can contain both "reason" and "because":
"He lost his reason because he was lonely."
Q. Should "reason why" be avoided?
A. Preferably. For example, the "why" in the following sentence adds nothing to the meaning:
"The reason why he came is that he was lonely."
"REASON" AND "DUE TO"
Q. Should "reason" and "due to" be used in the same sentence?
A. No. To illustrate, consider the following sentence:
"The reason for the smaller numbers is due to the recession."
This should be rendered as one of the following:
"The reason for the smaller numbers is the recession."
"The smaller numbers are due to the recession."
"DUE TO" VERSUS "OWING TO"
Q. What is the difference between "due to" and "owing to"?
A. The adjective "due to" should be distinguished from the preposition "owing to". It implies "resulting from".
Consider the sentence:
"Prices are up due to higher wages."
This should be rendered as one of the following:
"Prices are up owing to higher wages."
"Prices are up because of higher wages."
"The higher prices are due to higher wages."
MISUSE OF "BECAUSE"
Q. Is the following sentence in order?
"It must be a bad year for farmers because so many are leaving the country."
A. No. The words after the conjunction "because" do not give the reason for the bad year which is being experienced by farmers. The sentence needs to be reworded on the following lines:
"It must be a bad year for farmers, as evidenced by the fact that so many are leaving the country."
It should be noted that in some cases the conjunction "as" can be used as an alternative to "because":
"As it has not rained for many months, the farmers are in deep trouble."
Q. What are the plural and possessive forms of "brother-in-law" and similar words?
A. The first word takes the plural "s". The last word takes the possessive "s". Thus:
"My brothers-in-law are coming."
"My brother-in-law's case was heavy."
Technically, the plural possessive form is:
"My brothers-in-law's cases were heavy."
However, this sounds awkward. It would be better rendered as:
"The cases belonging to my brothers-in-law were heavy."
The main component (the noun) of a compound word normally takes the plural form, even where this precedes an adjective or adjectival phrase. Other examples include the following:
TO "BEG THE QUESTION"
Q. The phrase "beg the question" is frequently heard. What does it really mean?
A. It means to commit the logical fallacy of assuming the truth of the very matter in dispute.
The phrase does not mean "to raise the question". Neither does it mean to "to avoid the question".
TWO DIFFERENT MEANINGS
Q. Which of the following is grammatically correct?
"You loved him as much as me."
"You loved him as much as I."
A. both sentences are grammatically correct, but the two sentences have very different meanings.
"You loved him as much as me."
"You loved him as much as you loved me."
"You loved him as much as I."
"You loved him as much as I loved him."
Q. Can an index contain a word that does not actually appear in the text being indexed?
A. Certainly, if it is likely to help a reader who is searching the index (myths to the contrary notwithstanding).
As a matter of principle, the keywords to be used for the indexing of any subject should include also synonyms and/or related terms of the word actually appearing in the text, so that a user with a particular perspective will be able to locate the desired material. Usually the author and indexer will be in a much better position than the reader to identify suitable keywords.
Furthermore, where an author has dealt with a topic using different keywords in different places the index should contain all the relevant references under each of the keywords concerned.
Q. What are the principles that should be applied when preparing the index of a book?
A. See http://nickrenton.com/939.htm.
For many non-fiction works a good index is virtually essential.
MULTIPLE CONSECUTIVE QUESTION MARKS
Q. How should the following question be punctuated?
"Did the Prime Minister really pose the question, `When will the Opposition stop asking, "Where is the money?"?'?"
A. Because of the visual pollution at the end of this sentence the question should not be written as above. It should instead become:
"Did the Prime Minister really pose the question, `When will the Opposition stop asking, "Where is the money?"'"
The question mark in the most embedded of the three questions takes precedence and the other two question marks are suppressed.
The point of concern here may be at its most obvious when three consecutive question marks are involved, but the principle applies equally for full stops and for exclamation marks, and when only two rather than three stops are involved.
Q. Which of the following common words should be capitalised when not used at the start of a sentence?
act of God
catholic (when meaning "universal")
from a to z
A. None of them.
And naturally the same principle also applies to similar words.
Q. How should carbon copies of printed letters be headed? An example would be the carbon copy of a letter where the original is to go to the Prime Minister and carbon copies are to go to other politicians such as the Leader of the Opposition and others.
A. The usual place for the cc information is underneath the signature.
Thus one would do a letter to the Prime Minister in the usual way and then type "cc Leader of the Opposition" or whatever at the foot, either with or (more frequently) without that person's full address. An exact photocopy of this letter would then go to the Leader of the Opposition.
The effect of this to put the primary recipient on notice that the correspondence is going to other persons as well and to indicate to those other persons that they are being kept in the loop.
However, in the case of some political submissions it may be more effective to send each recipient an individually addressed communication instead. This is easily done on a word processor.
The term "cc" is still used, despite the fact that carbon paper is, of course, no longer employed.
With e-mail things are even easier - the cc header is used.
Q. In what circumstances should "myself" not be used?
A. Normally the pronoun "myself" is not an appropriate synonym for "I" or "me", even if its use in this fashion is inspired by modesty.
"It was a present for John and myself."
should be rendered as:
"It was a present for John and me."
"Both myself and the board felt that the time had come."
should be rendered as:
"Both the board and I felt that the time had come."
The word "myself" has two legitimate uses:
as an emphasising pronoun - for example, "I myself saw it."
as a reflexive pronoun - for example, "I shaved myself."
In the latter situation the expression "I shaved me" would not be idiomatic and "myself" has to be used.
Q. Is anything wrong with the following sentence?
"It should not be assumed that if he wins in court that he will get damages."
A. Yes. The "that" should not be duplicated. The sentence should read:
"It should not be assumed that if he wins in court he will get damages."
"PRINCIPAL" AND "PRINCIPLE"
Q. When should one use "principal" and when "principle"?
A. As an adjective, "principal" means chief; as a noun, either a chief person (headmaster, proprietor of a business, partner in a firm, star performer, person who appoints an agent, and so on) or the capital sum in a loan transaction.
In contrast, "principle" means a fundamental idea or doctrine.
Q. Is there a difference between "oral" and "verbal"?
A. Yes, indeed there is: "verbal" means "concerned with words". Technically these words can be either written or spoken.
Thus the expression "a verbal agreement" is really ambiguous and is best avoided. The best term for spoken as distinct from written words is "oral". An alternative legal term is "parol".
SINGULAR OR PLURAL WITH NUMBERS
Q. Is it correct to say:
"The vehicle went down a 15 foot embankment"?
Or should this be:
"The vehicle went down a 15 feet embankment"?
A. Neither. The correct phrase in constructions of this type would be "a 15-foot embankment", using a singular noun preceded by a hyphen.
SPACES BETWEEN NUMBERS AND WORDS OR SYMBOLS
Q. Should there be a space between a number and a following or preceding word or symbol?
A. It depends.
Expressions such as the following do not take a full stop and there should be no space between the figures and the following character:
4c (four cents)
4° (four degrees in temperatures or angle measurements)
4% (four per cent)
4KB (four kilobytes)
2235h (2235 hours)
In contrast, expressions such as the following do require a space between the figures and the following character:
14 per cent
14 percentage points
14 kg (14 kilograms)
The arbitrary but conventional distinction between computer terms - such as 5MB (no space) - and weights and measures - such as 5 lb (a space) - should be noted.
Nor should there be a space between the figures and the preceding character in expressions such as the following:
$A4 (four Australian dollars)
AUD4 (four Australian dollars)
4 (minus four)
~4 (approximately four)
Q. One issue of concern that I have is that of typing dates. Which of the following is correct: "3 January 2007" or "03 January 2007"?
A. Both styles are equally correct.
The former, being shorter, would usually be used when only a single date is involved.
The latter is more suitable when a series of dates is involved, as then there is consistency between days 01 to 09 and days 10 to 31.
This principle also applies when the months are shown in numbers.
Q. What is the correct usage of that in sentences such as the following?
"He states that he was told that too much ..."
"He states he was told that too much ..."
"He states that he was told too much ..."
A. I take it that you mean sentences such as the following:
"He states that he was told that too much money had been lost."
"He states he was told that too much money had been lost."
"He states that he was told too much money had been lost."
"He states he was told too much money had been lost."
All four are grammatically correct. The use of that in such constructions is optional, although its inclusion can help meaning, especially when writing for non-native speakers.
Of course, too many uses of that in the same sentence can jar and probably the third version would be the best choice.
SINGULAR OR PLURAL?
Q. We are announcing that a new company will shortly begin using our system. I feel that this should be written as:
"ABC has announced that they are ..."
But a colleague thinks that it should be:
"ABC have announced that they are ..."
A. Actually, both are wrong. You have a choice:
"ABC has announced that it is ..."
"ABC executives have announced that the company is ..." (or similar)
"The management of ABC has announced that the company is ..." (or similar)
Q. What is wrong with the following sentence?
"Everyone knew each other."
A. In such contexts the two pronouns everyone and each clash. The sentence needs rewording - for example, to one of the following:
"They all knew each other."
"All the people knew each other."
"Each person knew every other person."
MISSING PORTION OF VERB
Q. Is the following sentence in order?
"The company has no plans to, and will not be, changing the date of this event."
A. No. "plans to" needs to be followed by the rest of the infinitive.
The sentence should be altered to read:
"The company has no plans to change, and will not be changing, the date of this event."
or alternatively to:
"The company has no plans to change the date of this event and will not be changing it."
Q. Why is the following considered wrong?
"There are hardly no apples left."
A. In English the temptation to use no or not to reinforce the negative connotations implicit in the word hardly must be resisted, although interestingly enough the corresponding French expression ne ... guère approaches the matter the other way round.
The sentence should be altered to read:
"There are hardly any apples left."
or possibly to:
"There are virtually no apples left."
Q. How should a letter signed on behalf a boss be signed?
A. Letters can be signed by a subordinate on behalf of a superior in one of two ways:
(a) using Latin
J M Smith
J M Smith, Sales Manager
- the first "J M Smith" is an obviously fake manuscript signature of the superior
- "pp" stands for per procurationem, Latin for "through the agency of"
- "BKJ" are the manuscript initials of the person who physically signed the letter, whether or not that person also composed it
- the second "J M Smith" and the title are typed.
(b) using English
J M Smith, Sales Manager
- the first "Bruce Jones" is the genuine manuscript signature of the subordinate
- the second "Bruce Jones" and the remaining lines are typed.
Signatures that take the form "Clerk pp Boss" are back-to-front and thus clearly wrong.
Copyright © N E Renton 2006
Many points similar to those outlined above are discussed in Compendium of Good Writing by N E Renton (John Wiley & Sons Australia, Ltd, 2004), a book which also deals with a number of other issues relating to writing, including editing and indexing.