May 03

Writing Tip 169: “Centered Around” vs. “Centered On”

“Centered Around” vs. “Centered On”

It’s all about finding your center. (Or something like that.)

Where is the center? In the middle, right? So how can the center be around something? Aren’t these two concepts  a bit of an oxymoron when placed next to each other? You’re either at the center or you’re around. Will everyone please stop saying and writing “centered around” now?

If you really feel the word “around” calling to you, try out “revolve around” instead. Maybe it will make you feel better.

“Centered on” is the proper phrase here. (At least in American English. Oddly, in other parts of the world “centre on” and “centre around” have become largely interchangeablethough “centre on” is still regarded as the proper form of the phrase. But note the spelling change of “centre” in these cases. Unless you’re spelling it like the Brits, stick to “center on.”)

It’s rare the Americans are the stricter grammarians, isn’t it?

Apr 26

Writing Tip 168: “Instill” vs. “Install”

"Instill" vs. "Install" - androidIf your grandmother installed certain values in you, I have to ask… are you an android of some sort? Was your kindness downloaded? Was your generosity transferred via a floppy disk? Do you see the difference a single letter can make?

  • To instill means to establish something in one’s mind over time. You instill feelings, ideas, or attitudes.
  • To install means to put in position (physically or digitally) ready for use. You install programs, equipment, or machinery.

Catching an “instill” vs. “install” typo always makes me want to ask probing questions. But I won’t. I’ll hold back. At least, I’ll try really, really hard to.

Beep. Beep. Boop. Happy writing.

Apr 20

Writing Tip 167: Straight vs. Curly Quotation Marks

Straight vs curly quotation marks

If you are blessed with curly, you want straight; if you’re blessed with straight, you want curly. Oh, wait, you think I’m talking about hair? Nope. Let’s talk quotation marks, folks.

Someone recently asked, “Grammar mistress, what’s the difference between straight vs. curly quotation marks?” A couple things about this question make me happy. First, I’m kind of digging “grammar mistress,” and second, these are the subtleties that no one ever seems to talk about. So let’s talk about it.

This explanation goes back to typewriters much like the single vs. double space formatting change. With limited keys available, typewriters only used straight quotation marks ( ) no matter whether any given mark was used at the start or end of a quote. This differs from the curly quotation marks ( “ ” ) that you most commonly see surrounding quotations in printed materials and typed on computer keyboards today.

Curly quotation marks are more legible on the page and clearer in purpose. Many people recommend using them at all times (since typewriters are no longer an issue), and I largely agree. Read the rest of this entry »

Apr 12

Interview on Mind the Dog Writing Blog

Mind the Dog Writing Blog“I first met author, editor, and blogger Kris Spisak at the 2015 James River Writers Annual Conference in downtown Richmond, Virginia, when I attended her Friday Master Class, “Nuts and Bolts: Editing your Work like a Pro.” She was an energetic, dynamic, and knowledgeable presenter, and I found the information she conveyed so helpful that the following day, instead of eating alone, I overcame the introverted tendency so stereotypical of writers and attended her Lunch and Learn, ‘Ask an Editor,’ an informal, conversational lunch meeting during which writers could ask Ms. Spisak questions about the writing, revising, and publishing process (or sundry other topics)…”

Read the full interview at Amanda Sue Creasey’s “Mind the Dog Writing Blog, and thanks so much, Amanda, for asking me to participate!



Apr 05

Writing Tip 166: “Dragged” vs. “Drug”

“Dragged” vs. “Drug” - Writing Tip

This poor guy. Was he dragged or drug? (Or drugged?)

If drag racing happened yesterday, would it be drug racing? No, that’s not right, though there’s definitely a bad pun of a book idea somewhere in there.

Using “drug” (as a verb as well as in other forms) can cause some issues. Sure, it’s commonly used in the South and Midwest, but unless you’re writing a regional piece or giving a character a distinctive speech pattern, stick with the standard form of “dragged.” By using the correct word, readers—regardless of their geographical location—will stay with you. The last thing you want your readers to do is pause and debate your word choice, right?

Mar 29

Writing Tip 165: “Shoe-in” vs. “Shoo-in”

“Shoe-in” vs. “Shoo-in”

Shoo, shoe. Stop photobombing the picture! (A shoo-in for a photography award? Probably not.)

Are we talking about wedging a foot into a doorway or about shooing something in a certain direction? Do you know?

When this expression is spelled wrong, it’s almost justifiable. To “get a foot in the door” is a common idiom, and this one could be related… But it’s not.

“Shoo-in” is the correct form, first appearing in the early twentieth century in regards to horse-racing. A horse was a “shoo-in” if it was a “sure thing.”

If you remember the old song “Shoo, fly. Don’t bother me,” you can understand this use of “shoo.” You want to shoo a fly away from your picnic. However, you could also shoo it toward something. Shoo it toward the finish line perhaps? This may not be a common case with flies, but with horses, politicians, and so much more, being a “shoo-in” is a familiar turn of phrase.

Maybe you don’t write “shoo-in” often, but when you do, make sure you leave your feet out of it.

Mar 22

Writing Tip 164: “Fowl swoop” vs. “Foul Swoop” vs. “Fell Swoop”

"Fowl swoop" vs. "Foul swoop" vs. "Fell swoop" - owl

You know who’s tired of this confusion? This guy. (If there was ever a bird to know his Shakespeare, this is the one.)

Perhaps with birds of prey, you might have a “fowl swoop.” Perhaps with gangly young basketball players, you might have a “foul swoop.” But when you’re looking for what to call a sudden, swift action, “fell swoop” is the correct form. How many of you are writing this one right?

You can blame Shakespeare for the confusion. His use of “fell swoop” utilizes an old form of “fell,” which means “savage” or “ruthless” (as in “felony”), but the exact line in Macbeth where he uses it does also mention chickens. Fell. Fowl. Writer foul?

What do you think?


Mar 15

Writing Tip 163: Asterisks & Footnote Symbols

asteriskAsterisk is one of those words that you just can’t say ten times fast. Try it. I’ll wait…

How’d it go? Turn any heads? Get any “bless you”s?

There are risks to the asterisk*and not only in saying it correctly with any amount of speed. Asterisks muffle curses, and they are often followed by daggers. And if that doesn’t sound like the start of a really bad grammarian murder mystery, I don’t know what is.

When to use an asterisk

  • When replacing letters in words (such as curse words) or names you don’t want to spell out (e.g., “wow, what a grammar b**** that Kris is” or “From your secret crush, K***”)
  • When pointing a reader to further information, as in a footnote.
  • When showing the passage of time in the case of a section break in a story.
  • I’m sure there’s a good kissing emoticon out there with an asterisk, right?

Read the rest of this entry »

Mar 08

Writing Tip 162: “Night” vs. “Nite” (vs. “Knight”)

"Night" vs. "Nite"Is “nite” ever right? Can you get away with it in Scrabble? Is this another example of text-speak and late-night fast food chains infringing on our ability to spell?

Your answers: In extremely casual cases, you can get away with “nite,” but note, I’m saying “extremely casual.” Personally, I’d recommend avoiding it at all costs (this spelling makes some people—like yours truly—cringe), but if you’re texting a friend, I suppose this spelling is okay.

However, “nite,” like “lite,” is not an acceptable Scrabble word.

Contrary to first instincts to blame our messy texting and social media posting culture, “nite” has been around for well over 100 years, at least as early as the 1870s. But even with this history, it has never been accepted as a standard form.

And please for the love of words, never say anything about a “nite in shining armor.” That’s just crazy talk. You know better than that.

Mar 01

Writing Tip 161: Writing Time (“A.M.”/”P.M.” vs. “a.m.”/”p.m.” vs. “am”/”pm”)

Is your alarm clock set for 6am, 6AM, 6 A.M., or 6 a.m? (Don’t mind me; I’m just hitting the snooze button while you ponder that one.)

AM vs. a.m vs. A.M. - Writing Time

Meanwhile, what’s up with this clock? Is it the white rabbit’s? There’s a story here…

The answer here brings out the Latin dictionaries. This is an abbreviation, after all, just like “i.e.” or “e.g.” When it comes to time, “a.m.” stands for ante meridiem or “before noon,” and “p.m.” stands for post meridiem or “after noon.” So for those of you paying attention, you’ve figured out the answer.

The above time is correctly written as “6 a.m.” Notice the space between the number and the abbreviation? That’s a part of the correct answer too.

In an era of quick emails, writing the time as “10am” or “4pm” has been gaining popularity, but there are a lot of sticklers out there about this one. Give the numbers some space. Give the abbreviations the periods. Keep it in lower case, folks.

Read the rest of this entry »

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