Aug 20

Wednesday Writing Tip #85: Avoid the Blackout Comma

The Blackout Comma

Are your commas making you look drunk?

I’ll admit it: I’m an Oxford comma groupie. But there’s a methodology to my comma zealotry. There’s a difference between correctly comma-ing and looking like you’re drunk. (And yes, “comma-ing” is a word. I just made it up, but I’m claiming artistic license.)

In my book (i.e., my opinion, not my actual book), there is butt dialing, drunk texting, and what I dub “the blackout comma.” Why are they there? What is the logic? It’s a mystery that only the writer once knew. And they may not remember now.

Comma reminders:

  • Do not use commas with lists of two.
  • Do not use commas between subject and predicate
  • Do not use commas around “essential people
  • Do not use commas between adjectives of size and/or color

Sure, we all slip and have one comma too many on occasion. It happens to the best of us. I just feel like I’ve seen a lot of intoxication lately. Maybe it’s just the season for beers at backyard barbecues and tropical drinks at the beach. Consider me your punctuation sponsor. It’s all about moderation, people.

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Aug 13

Wednesday Writing Tip #84: “Into” vs. “In to”

"Do not go gentle into that good night." - Dylan ThomasDylan Thomas told us, “Do not go gentle into that good night.” But something as simple as a space would confuse the meaning of a famous line, wouldn’t it? Are you one of the many who muddle “into” and “in to”?

“Do not go gentle in to that good night” just doesn’t make sense, as if you’re “going gentle” for the reason of doing something vague and badly worded to the night. And you know what else doesn’t make sense? Your recent Facebook post when you meant to use “in to” instead of “into.” I kid. But I don’t.

A simple reminder, if you’re unsure whether you need to use “into” or “in to,” ask yourself the question, “where?” If your sentence answers that question, you need “into” – the preposition. Otherwise, maybe you just happen to be using these two words (“in” and “to”) next to each other. Maybe it’s a short version of “in order to,” or maybe it’s not. But if it answers “where,” it should probably be just one word.

Where should you not go gentle? Into that good night.

Where should dirty laundry go? Into the hamper.

If the “where” question doesn’t make sense with your sentence, you probably don’t need the preposition.

Rage, rage against the dying of the proper grammar. In my own little way, I try.

Jul 16

Summer Break – Fun with Grammar

I’m taking a few weeks off from writing tips, but I won’t leave you grammar hungry. Can I tell you all how much I have enjoyed how many times you all have tagged me, DMed me, and shared this video with me? Yes, you’re all right. I totally love it too.

Jul 09

Wednesday Writing Tip #83: Where to Use Semicolons (a.k.a. “This Semi-colon Kind of Life”)


I want something else
To get me through this
Semicolon kinda life
Baby, Baby…

I’m thinking my version works—a “Schoolhouse Rocks” for ‘90s kids or the ‘90s nostalgic. I figure we need something new. No one seems to know how to use semicolons. They’re the misused and abused punctuation mark, thrown down without much thought. But they should have some dignity.

Semicolons should only be used in three situations:

  1. Separating complete sentences. Always make sure that you have complete sentences on both sides of the semicolon here. You can combine two or more complete sentences in this way; there’s no real limit. (e.g., Third Eye Blind was a ‘90s standard; I never realized that song talked about doing meth; you’re looking up the lyrics now, aren’t you?)
  2. Separating items in a complicated list. The definition of a complicated list is any list that has commas within it. (e.g., Some of the biggest Third Eye Blind songs that come to mind include Semi-charmed Kind of Life, released in 1997; Jumper, released in 1997; and How’s It Going To Be, also released in 1997.)
  3. Winky faces ;)

Please stop using them where dashes or simply commas make more sense.

Doo doo doo, doo doo-doo doo…

Darn it, now that song’s in my head. Anyone else?


Jul 02

Wednesday Writing Tip #82: Who vs. Whom

Who vs Whom

Kurt Vonnegut once warned against using semi-colons saying, “All they do is show you’ve been to college”; I’d argue the proper use of “whom” has the same raised-nose effect.

Lots of people treat the word “whom” like that crazy wife in the attic, knowing her secrets but not uttering her name. Are you one of them? Or have the differences between “who” and “whom” never really been explained to you?

First things first, how on earth have I gotten all the way to Writing Tip #82 before tackling the proper use of “whom”? Avoidance? Neglect? A master plan for grammatical suspense? No matter the reason, it’s definitely overdue.

Are you one of the few who know when to use the proper pronoun? Did you know “who” and “whom” are considered pronouns?

Understanding the usage of “who” and “whom” is easiest if you understand the difference between subjects and objects in a sentence. If your eyes just started to glaze over, I’ll make it even simpler. Think about where you would use “he” versus “him” in answering a question. “Whom” ends in “m”; “him” ends in “m.” Use it as a reminder.

Q. Who was at the door?                            A. He was at the door.

Q. Whom did you go with?                          A. I went with him.

Q. Who let the dogs out?                            A. He let the dogs out.

Q. Whom do you believe?                           A. I believe him.

It’s not really as complicated as many seem to think.

Don’t be a victim of grammatical snobbery (or evasion). Command your “who” and “whom” with pride.

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Jun 25

Wednesday Writing Tip #81: Peak vs. Pique vs. Peek

Pique vs. Peak vs. PeekHere’s one that might peak your interest. Or is it pique your interest? This is one people often feel really confident about—that is, until they realize they’ve always been wrong. If your interest is rising, “peak” makes sense, doesn’t it? Maybe. But it’s not the correct usage in this case. A “peak” is a high of some sort, real or metaphorical; however “to pique” is the correct usage for this specific phrasing. It’s from a French word meaning “to prick” or in this case “to excite.” If your curiosity is piqued, you’re interested. If your curiosity is peaked, I wonder if it’s really all downhill from there—the passing of some sort of obsession. And I can’t wrap up this post without a little shout out to the final alternate spelling of “peek,” as in to look when you’re not supposed to. “Peeking your interest” definitely doesn’t make sense. Please don’t write it. Got it?

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Jun 18

Wednesday Writing Tip #80: “Amount of” vs. “Number of”

Amount of - Number ofThere are lots of words we use every day that have subtleties that most people never learned. The usage differences between “an amount of” and “a number of” fall into this category. Much like farther/further or less/fewer, the correct use comes down to measurability—specifically count-ability in this case.

Here’s today’s lesson:

“Amount of” should be used when referring to uncountable things.

“Number of” should be used when referring to things you can actually count.

For example:

There’s a great amount of wisdom that readers can glean from blogs these days. A great number of my favorites teach me new things every day.

I should add in the an extra note about “a quantity of,” which follows “number” in that it only refers to countable things. There are more differences there, but we’ll save it for another day. Quality over quantity, right?


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Jun 11

Wednesday Writing Tip #79: Misspelling “Misspell”

Misspelling Misspell“Misspelt” is not a misspelled word, but I’ve seen a few other versions of this word that are somewhat lacking in… well… spelling.

Is it strange to have a favorite misspelling? Sure, when I graded papers in my teaching days, I giggled at confusions between defiantly and definitely, feet and featyay and yeah, bare and bear, and even emulate and immolate; however, my all-time favorite has to be when a writer misspells the word “misspell.” It’s just so beautifully ignorant and ironic all tied up with a pretty little grammarian bow.

Some want to throw in a hyphen (mis-spell); some avoid the double ‘s’ (mispell); I’ve even seen it with an extra ‘p’ surely for pizzazz (missppell). But you’ve surely never misspelled “misspell,” have you?

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Jun 04

Wednesday Writing Tip #78: Insure vs. Ensure

Female Hurricanes - Insure vs EnsureReading this week’s news—Hurricanes With Female Names Kill More People, Study Finds—made me think a lot of things, but one of my thoughts was about insurance. How insured am I in case of a hurricane? How could I ensure the safety of my loved ones? Do you see where I’m going with this one? “Insure” and “ensure” cause nearly as much upset as this article. Almost.

Remember that “insure” deals exclusively with the offering of insurance. To “ensure” means to make sure, to make safe, or to guarantee. It’s a simple clarification really, but one that somehow still befuddles.

So what are you thinking about hurricane season? Is subconscious sexism going to cause some damage? Insure your properties, and ensure your outdoor tables and chairs won’t blow away. Assure your mothers, wives, and sisters that they can be equally as intimidating as any man while you’re at it. Where drinking Ensure falls into the equation is a whole other story.

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May 28

Wednesday Writing Tip #77: Writing about Decades (Apostrophes?)

Writing Tip #77: Writing about decadesThe apostrophe. It’s the super size me of punctuation marks. Who would want just a plain word when you could add an apostrophe with that, right? Let’s talk about our over-punctuating, America. We’re getting grammatically obese, and it doesn’t make any sense.

Sure, we’ve talked about unnecessary punctuation with “its, ” “you’re,” plural names, and probably more I can’t think of. Today, let’s focus on referencing decades.

The 1980s is the span of years from 1980 – 1989. It you want to abbreviate it, call it the ’80s. There is no possessive apostrophe “s.” The 1980′s is just weird and nonsensical. The 80′s is just confused. Please stop writing that.

I am a child of the 1980s. The 1990s were my coming-of-age years. Maybe the super-size-me culture started before my time, but it’s the 2010s now. Let’s decline the extra punctuation. Tasty as it may be, it’s just not good for you.

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