By Kathleen Watson (used with permission)
News headlines draw us into a story. Report titles summarize what our readers can expect. Email subject lines should do both. That’s why these are the three worst places to make a grammar error.
Here are three headlines that don’t pass a grammar test and how they could be better:
- Bill Nye Only Needs 10 Seconds To Explain The Toughest Science Theories
The problem: misplaced modifier
Modifiers are words that add meaning or clarification. The emphasis of this headline is the minimal amount of time Science Guy Bill Nye needs to explain complex science theories.
Modifiers should be placed close to—preferably next to—the words they modify.
Bill Nye Needs Only 10 Seconds To Explain The Toughest Science Theories
- France’s Political Parties Are Banding Together To Stop Le Pen
The problem: redundancy
Not all sources agree but I consider banding together redundant.
My test for redundancy: Would the opposite descriptor—in this case banding apart instead of banding together—make sense? Do people ever band apart?
Of course not. So there’s no need to clarify that people—or political parties—band together.
As a verb, band is described this way: to unite in a troop; to come together in a group because of a common purpose or belief
Synonyms are to connect, to join, to unite, to merge.
France’s Political Parties Unite To Stop Le Pen
- Stabbing At Flint Airport Deemed Potential Act Of Terrorism By FBI
The problem: This wording could be interpreted as the FBI having committed a potential act of terrorism.
FBI Deems Flint Airport Stabbing Potential Act of Terrorism
FBI Deems Stabbing At Flint Airport Potential Act of Terrorism
News cycles rapidly, and writers are under pressure to publish stories in minimal time. Yet when I read these headlines, it took me just seconds to recognize better ways to compose them without a grammar error.
Whether you’re reporting the news, writing a title for a report, or crafting an email subject line, allow time to review what you’ve written. You’ll be more likely to catch these kinds of oversights that avoid detection when you write in haste.
If you see silly or questionable headlines, please note them here or send them to mailto:email@example.com
Kathleen calls herself the Ruthless Editor. She has created Grammar for People Who Hate Rules to help people write and speak with authority and confidence. Kathleen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s note: This article struck a chord (not cord) with me and fans of Word Trippers. It offers numerous examples of written language misuses on television—networks that should know better! Be sure to leave your comments and examples below. (For a resource to find the right words fast, go to www.wordtrippers.com)
Reprinted from e-newsletter for Grammarbook.com
TV networks’ graphics departments have long been out of control with their intrusive cluelessness.
After 9/11, many cable channels initiated a constant “crawl” of news at the bottom of the screen. The spellbinding stream of words, slow and endless, is perversely distracting.
But if you run a news channel, shouldn’t credibility be a front-burner concern? Shaky language skills for all to see raise serious questions about your standards and practices. Are you stupid, or do you just think we are? Who put manic ignoramuses in charge of your graphics department?
The examples that follow all happened in recent months:
- An ABC affiliate, thinking mischievous has four syllables, spelled it “mischievious.” Another ABC graphic said, “Wake Forrest,” then proved it was no fluke with “Angeles National Forrest.”
- An NBC affiliate came up with “To good to be true.” We’re still taught about to, too, and two, aren’t we? Maybe it was Bring Your First-Grader to Work Day.
- Fox fell into a common trap with “wrecking havoc”—the proper phrase is wreaking havoc. And Fox embarrassed itself with “embarassed.” In “alledged embassy bomber,” it earned an F by adding a second d to alleged. A superfluous ‘i’ in “How has the president faired?” meant fare thee well, credibility.
- CNN joined the party with “theif” and “Iranian peoples’ belief.” Put that apostrophe where it belongs, would you? And CNN might have won the knucklehead sweepstakes with this bizarre bulletin: “Houses OKs climate change.” Where do you begin with that one? It’s an inspired fusion of horrid grammar and utter meaninglessness.
Why do TV networks, some of them scrutinized around the world, undermine themselves with sloppy grammar, spelling, and punctuation?
Please share your comments and examples of language misuses on TV.
by Barbara McNichol
As a life-long editor who’s had a professional editing service for 23+ years, I frequently trip over embarrassing writing mistakes—e.g., “except” instead of “accept” or “complement” instead of “compliment” and hundreds more. Clearly, English is a tricky language!
The question I’ve asked for eons is “How can I help people avoid embarrassment and quickly find the correct word?” So I coined the Word Trippers model as a way to quickly distinguish between tricky words. Here’s an example:
Affirm, confirm – “Affirm” means to declare positively or firmly, to assert as true or factual, while “confirm” means to verify, make firmer, strengthen, support or establish validity. “Working on the campaign helped confirm my intention to go into politics,” he affirmed in his announcement speech.
I couldn’t stop! After creating an extensive resource featuring 390+ common Word Trippers, I sent out Word Tripper of the Week for 3+ years, and I featured Word Trippers in my WordShops.
Then it dawned on me. I could combine Word Tripper of the Week with proven writing techniques through an innovative subscription resource: Word Trippers Tips. It’s designed for:
- Business professionals
- VAs and admin assistants
- English language learners
- Authors, bloggers, speakers
- High school and college students
- Grant writers, court reporters, journalists
Word Trippers Tips assists people who value accuracy in communication.
- Saves you time looking up definitions
- Establishes your credibility as a communicator
- Helps avoid writing mistakes that lead to confusion
- Assists in understanding the nuances of our language
- Boosts your confidence by knowing the correct words
All these benefits are yours! Bring Word Trippers Tips and its multiple bonuses into your world.
Word Trippers Tips saves me a lot of research time because it gives me a quick reference instead of going to Google. I save every Word Tripper of the Week so when my boss or co-workers disagree on how to use a word, Word Trippers becomes the referee. All of us live on email. If someone sends me one that’s sloppily written, it’s like saying, “I don’t have time for you.” I want to be sure I write clearly and accurately. Word Trippers Tips is perfect for me! – Susan Powell, Team Lead, Ratner Companies
Word Tripper Tips—a 52-week subscription resource for only $99
by Chris Stern (reprinted from SSA newsletter)
Mark Twain was considered one of the greatest American writers of his time. He was often asked about the craft of writing and gave quite a bit of advice about putting words on paper. Here are a few of my favorites.
- Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please. Interestingly, this was quoted by Rudyard Kipling in From Sea to Sea (1899) with the attribution to Mark Twain.
- You need not expect to get your book right the first time. Go to work and revamp or rewrite it. God only exhibits his thunder and lightning at intervals, and so they always command attention. These are God’s adjectives. You thunder and lightning too much; the reader ceases to get under the bed, by and by. This was in a letter to his son Orion Clemens in March 1878.
- Use good grammar. Not exactly a bold insight, but one that he wrote regarding “Fennimore Cooper’s Literary Offences” in 1895. He wrote “18 Rules of Writing” in this article, the advice on good grammar was #14 . Here are a few more from this source:
- A tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.
- The episodes of a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help develop it.
- The personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others.
- The personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there.
- Eschew surplusage. (aka Whack Wordiness)
- The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction.
By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is that you really want to say.
- Don’t say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream. (Barbara’s favorite)
Which of these are your favorites, either from a “funny” or a “serious” point of view?
by Barbara McNichol
Emails can have problems—especially when old subject lines, too many topics, and lack of clarity get in the mix. It can add up to email overwhelm.
Be conscious of failing to make the most of your email correspondence. You want to avoid going back and forth a dozen times before achieving the communication’s purpose.
Well, a dozen times might be exaggerating, but no matter what, you can streamline the process by building in extra thoughtfulness. Consider something as simple as scheduling a meeting. Messages could go back and forth annoyingly before you nail a mutually agreeable day/time/place.
Why not craft your initial email with an “if then” option? You’d simply write, “I’m available Tuesday, Thursday, or Friday in the afternoon after 3 p.m. If any of these don’t work for you, then give me three options when you’re available.”
The “if then” technique has just narrowed down the possibilities. Recipients know to suggest a different three options if these don’t work. You’re all likely to come up with the best solution in only two emails each. That saves time and avoids email overwhelm.
Your Challenge: Compose your emails more efficiently by using this “if then” option.
What other actions help you avoid email overwhelm?
by Kathleen Watson
Either at home or early in your school days, did you learn about a difference between can vs. may?
Can you (do you have the ability to) have your book report done by noon?
May I (do I have your permission to) read your book report to the class?
According to merriam-webster.com, can still is the verb of choice for ability, but both can and may are acceptable to express permission.
But at oxforddictionaries.com, there still is a widespread view that using can to ask for permission is wrong and that it should be used related only to ability or capability:
Can you speak fluent French?
The wrestler can pin any opponent he chooses.
Other sources claim there’s only a minor difference between the two verbs: One sounds more polite than the other.
Can we come over and swim in your pool?
May we come over and swim in your pool?
If I can, I’ll ask you a few questions about your job.
If I may, I’ll ask you a few questions about your job.
Moving on to may and might
Now that we have can and may settled — sort of — what is the difference between may and might?
I’ve struggled with this for years, and I’ve conducted multiple Google searches, never feeling satisfied that I fully understood or agreed with what I found.
Some sources say that may and might normally can be interchanged without a significant difference in meaning. Although both convey that there is a chance something is true or there is a possibility of something happening, some sources claim that might implies less certainty:
I wouldn’t talk to Jess right now. He may still be angry about his team’s loss.
Ella is so talented, I think she may win the competition.
Although it might rain later, let’s take a chance and make a tee time.
If I can get my project done, I might go to a movie tonight.
I fail to see enough of a difference in the nuance of may or might to have concerns about which to use.
May versus might in academic, technical writing
I have found that may, rather than might, is used almost exclusively in the academic writing I’ve edited. However, the near-universal use of may raises potential for misinterpretation.
This research may be used for teaching purposes.
Is the author, despite holding the copyright for the material, giving broad permission for its use in a classroom?
Or is the author implying there’s a possibility the research could be relevant to include in developing curriculum?
One may use the entire set of data for projecting results.
Again, does this imply permission to use the data for determining results?
Or does it imply that using all of the data will yield appropriate projections of results?
Two editors, one in technical and one in academic writing, avoid may:
“In editing technical writing,” says the first, “I never allow ‘may,’ because it is too ambiguous:
“Other programs may be started during installation.”
Does this mean the installer can initiate other programs that are part of the installation process? Or does it mean the installer can begin to watch “Game of Thrones” as the installation runs?
The academic editor says, “I habitually edit “may” to “might” for possibility and “can” for ability.
The choice is yours
Reflecting on the websites I’ve visited and the explanations and examples I’ve found, I still am not convinced there is enough difference between may and might to worry about in most usage.
However, as a professional writer and editor, I will continue to watch for potential misunderstanding with may: There could be a significant difference in meaning when it is not clear whether it implies permission or simply possibility.
I trust you can figure out which to use, but you might still have questions. If that’s the case, you may contact me.
Kathy Watson has a love/hate relationship with grammar; she loves words and the punctuation that helps them make sense, yet she hates those pesky rules. A self-proclaimed ruthless editor, she prefers standard usage guidelines of The Associated Press Stylebook. Her easy-to-use Grammar for People Who Hate Rules helps people write and speak with authority and confidence.
by Abby Marks Beale
Summer reading lists have always raised a whine and a loud groan from my kids. “Why do I have to read THAT?! It’s not what I want to read!” It’s always a challenge to read something that is not of your choosing. But there is some value in actually doing the reading. And believe it or not, the books listed have been vetted carefully.
From prestigious prep schools like Deerfield Academy, to UC Berkeley, public school districts and mega bank JP Morgan Chase, educators, influencers, and employers have rolled out their summer reading lists for students and lifetime learners. Most likely your school district, college, and possibly an employer have recommended or required summer reading for your household.
Why the Push for Summer Reading?
Darin Oduyoye, Chief Communications Officer for J.P. Morgan Asset & Wealth Management says, “Business executives, entrepreneurs, philanthropists and all clients in between will discover creative and inspiring stories from our list. While summer is a time to relax, it is also a time to recharge and revitalize our thinking. Great books are the perfect fuel.”
Inc. magazine cited several studies that found reading both fiction and non-fiction stimulates our brain in ways that help us:
- Empathize and hone our social skills so we can better understand and interact with others,
- Assess and adapt to our environment, by helping us understand and reflect on change,
- Boost creativity by making us more comfortable with ambiguity, which research found helps us think in exploratory, out-of-the-box ways.
There is something to be said for thinking out of the box. We need more of that to solve our problems and live more positively.
If you don’t have your own reading list, check out these interesting ones:
What books would you add to these summer reading lists?
Abby Marks Beale is the founder of Rev It Up Reading. If you’re daunted by all you have to read, there’s still time to upgrade your reading skills. Do check out her complimentary One Day Pass and learn new strategies to get up to speed with what you read.
by Barbara McNichol
For many authors, the hardest part about writing and publishing a book is knowing how to do it correctly. My colleague, author, and writer’s coach Teresa Funke has launched a tool that anyone who’s self-publishing a book will find full of essential information.
The Self-Publishing Blueprint was created by Teresa and her partners at Writing Blueprints.
Teresa’s all-in-one resource helps you cut through the confusion of self-publishing and save you from making costly mistakes.
This 9-unit online tool walks you through every aspect of producing, publishing, and promoting your book. It features detailed videos, checklists, and worksheets to help you choose the self-publishing path that’s perfect for your project.
Have a Self-publishing Expert at Your Fingertips
Here’s the best part: Once you buy this online tool, you own it, and can use it again and again as you produce new books. It’s like having an expert at your fingertips.
Please go here for an explanatory video and full details.
by Barbara McNichol
Business authors have great expertise to share with the world. Their most recent book often represents their seminal work.
That’s true for Robin Speculand’s Excellence in Execution. As part of Robin’s authorship team for more than 10 years, I’ve witnessed how he has brilliantly brought together myriad elements he’s developed to teach leaders how to implement strategies. Based on years of research and training, this new book delivers the H.O.W. (How Organizations Win) of strategy execution.
In nonfiction books especially, the value of clear, consistent writing comes through. With a little help from his editor, Robin has reinforced this in his current and previous award-winning books, his website, and throughout his Implementation Hub portal.
Across these platforms, two effective techniques can be adopted by all writers:
- Relying on bulleted lists to complement points made in prose
- Making sure all bulleted phrases follow a clear, consistent style
What’s a clear, consistent style? This bulleted list provides the answer:
- Use bullets often. People skim more than they read word for word.
- Keep the number of words to a minimum (i.e., take out unneeded adverbs and adjectives).
- List the shortest line first and the longest last whenever possible so the bulleted list looks attractive on the page.
- Start each bulleted phrase with the same part of speech (e.g., all nouns, all gerunds, all verbs, and so on, but never a mixture).
That last point is key. Consistently use the same part of speech to prevent the reader’s brain from flying in a variety of directions. In the following two lists from my WordShop, you’ll see how using the same part of speech makes the second one easier to follow than the first.
This first list—points for formatting a manuscript—has a mixed bag of bullet points:
- Single (not double) space between sentences
- Change any straight quotes to curly quotes
- Ending period goes inside a quotation mark (U.S. style)
- Subheads if appropriate
- Bullet points indented 5 spaces
This second list uses the same part of speech to start each bullet:
- Use a single (not double) space between sentences
- Change any straight quotes to curly quotes
- Put ending period inside a quotation mark (U.S. style)
- Add subheads if appropriate
- Indent bullet points 5 spaces
Challenge: Look at your own bulleted lists. If you haven’t started each point with a same part of speech, change them. When you do, your writing will gain clarity and consistency.