Watch your Place!

This kind of mistake is mainly a result of carelessness, I think. Some words refer to points in space, not general areas. These include “center,” and “base.” Here are two examples of doing it wrong. They both treat these points as vague areas that you hang around the edges of.

Usenet’s creation was based around the idea that computers were becoming sophisticated enough that they could be used to hold conversations, and there was plenty of conversation going on.

Beverly Hills, 90210 originally centered around Brenda (Shannen Dougherty) and Brandon Walsh (Priestley), middle-class high-school-age twins from Minnesota who relocate to ritzy Beverly Hills with their parents.

Your base is a single place—you’re based on something. (Don’t say “based out of,” either.) Same for “center.” You should be centered on something.

These examples of muddy thinking are not a good thing when you explain something. You need to be precise. Maybe you can get away with it when you do a grocery list. That food is around here somewhere…

PS—After I finished this post, I ran into a good example of “based out of,” which I repeat, you shouldn’t write. Use
based in” or “based at.”

The Metric Geometry and Gerrymandering Group, based out of Tufts University is leading the charge to build a consensus on how math can make better districtings.

It’s a graphic article, but it’s worthwhile. Find the article here.

Compound Objects

I suppose this Beetle Bailey comic is a repeat of the second-oldest joke in the book, descending as it does from sixth grade English (Hi, Mrs. Clemens!). Lots of folks get confused when they have two objects of a single preposition, and the mistake is so common that it’s worth repeating the joke as a reminder. The trick, by the way, is to think the phrase without mentioning the other guy; then it’s easy to get the correct word.

The other second-oldest joke, I suppose, is the one about the restaurant manager who goes someplace else to eat.

What? You want to know the world’s oldest joke? Well, just between you and (ahem) me, it’s somewhat scatological, so I won’t repeat it here, but they found it on a cuneiform tablet that dates to about 4000 years ago. Google “oldest joke.” Reuters has a short article about it.

Fluff!

The time has come to write about fluff again—I ran into a comic on the subject. We curmudgeons also call fluff redundancy, wordiness, and unnecessary verbiage. Probably some saltier terms, too. Fluff is the antithesis of conciseness, the first of my gold rules for good writing.

I’ve featured this gal in Jump Start before. Several times, actually; that one was just a sample.

So when you write, look over what you wrote. (You always proofread, don’t you?) Do you see any words that you could delete without changing the meaning? Delete ’em! Your readers will thank you.

Per!

I mentioned this solecism (at least) once before, but I found a comic for it, so here’s a repeat.

The rule is that “per” means “according to,” and that’s all you need to say. Don’t use “as per”!!! Ever. Unless you’re telling someone not to use it.

Paul Trap does a good job of making Dad try to be formal, but managing only to be pretentious. Considering that’s he’s talking to an infant, the pretentiousness is even more out of place.

Remember, you want to write so your reader thinks about the subject, not about the writing.

Like or Such As?

The difference between “like” and “such as” is subtle, and they are often used interchangeably in informal English. But if you are writing technical material, such as a résumé of a set of complicated instructions, it pays to use the correct expression.

“Like” means “similar to, but not exact.”

“Such as” means “here’s an actual example.”

If you want to give your readers a general idea from which they can derive a pattern, use “like.” For example, you could write “…vehicular transportation like a dune buggy. Something that can handle rough terrain.”

But if you need to refer to something specific, use “such as.” So you might write  “…you need a real truck, such as a Chevy S-10.” (An S-10 is a real truck, right?)

Don’t say “I write explanations like step-by-step instructions.” Do you write instructions or don’t you? If you do, use “such as.” With a comma after the “as.”

No comic for this one. Harrumpf.

Bad Apostrophe, Good Apostrophe

I was going to post this Mallard Fillmore comic just because the comic funny and about grammar, but it reminded me of a rule: Don’t use apostrophes for plurals.

But there are two exceptions that you might get away with: plurals of numerals and plurals of abbreviations. You don’t need to write plurals of numerals very often, but when you do, it’s okay, but not necessary, to use an apostrophe, and the tendency these days is to use the apostrophe less and less.

So, for example, referring to a decade,  write “the 1960s.” If you really want to, you can write 1960’s and you’ll get away with it. Buying house numbers? The neighbor of the Beast bought two 6s and an 8. Or is it two 6’s and an 8?

Moving on to abbreviations; the rule is do what is easier to understand. Walking into the vacant space, she said, “Wow! This office has enough room for three AAAs.” Or three old-fashioned AAA’s.

Usually I leave off the apostrophe, and no one has fired me for it yet.

 

Counting or Measuring?

We use “few” for counting, which is a number, and “less” for measuring, which refers to amounts. But you have room for ambiguity sometimes—referring to time, for instance, and distances. Depending on what you’re saying, either way can work.

Here, is Mr. Tinkerson counting the number of sheets or measuring the amount of paper?

Either way makes sense. Same thing when you’re referring to time. Yes, we count the hours, but it took less than three hours to give blood Saturday. Since time is continuous, you can measure it as well as count the units. Same thing for distance.

So be careful, and think about whether you’re measuring or counting.

An Opinion Piece

Two of my rules about good writing are to be clear and correct, the latter partly meaning to follow the rules of grammar and spelling. We call these rules the mechanics. I even proofread my emails and seldom abbreviate even my grocery lists (ahem, whenever I write one).

I even have a sixth rule, to write for your readership, and here I must depart a bit from correctness. There’s a place for variation in writing style. On the one extreme, we have passages like the Olive Leaf Petition I mentioned two posts ago, addressed to King George III, and on the other extreme, well, I’ll let this 9 to 5 comic speak for itself, and for me:

Sigh, I hate to say it, but he has a point.

Maybe He Should Read More

Sometimes we get idiomatic expressions wrong, especially if you don’t read much. These types of mistakes are mainly mondegreens, language that’s misheard, but plenty clear when you read it. I already wrote about this; here’s the link. And here’s today’s example of egregious English, from a strip named Daddy’s Home:

PS—Since I mentioned mondegreens, here’s a completely unrelated comic with a mondegreen that’s new to me. Look at the name of the cheese store. Argyle Sweater. (Check the comments, too.)

 

We Don’t Do Tech Writing Like This Any More

Here’s a sentence from some correspondence from the 1700’s:

Your Majesty’s Ministers, persevering in their measures, and proceeding to open hostilities for enforcing them, have compelled us to arm in our own defence, and have engaged us in a controversy so peculiarly abhorrent to the affections of your still faithful Colonists, that when we consider whom we must oppose in this contest, and if it continues, what may be the consequences, our own particular misfortunes are accounted by us only as parts of our distress.

It’s from a document called “The Olive Branch Petition,” addressed to King George III (but delivered to the Earl of Dartmouth) not long before the revolutionary war, written by Richard Penn and Arthur Lee, representing the Continental Congress. The king wouldn’t even read it, but not because of the complexity of the sentence, I suspect.

Here’s an exercise for you: Rewrite that sentence in today’s English. You can make more than one sentence out of it, and I recommend you do.