Don’t Switch Person!

I don’t happen to know the technical term for it, but when you refer to something in, say, the third person, don’t switch to using, say, the first person when you refer to it.

Perhaps best explained with an example:

Here’s the sentence:

China has changed that market dramatically, and their decision has forced the rest of the world to become more self-reliant and responsible in our waste management.

  • China—third person; their—third person. They refer to the same entity, so okay.
  • rest of the world—third person; our—first person!
  • They refer to the same entity, so not good

The sentence could have used “us” instead of “rest of the world” and it would have been okay. The sentence could also have used “their” instead of “our” and that would have been okay, too, but I prefer using first person because the sentence already used the third person for China, so using the first person when you refer to someone else is a little smoother.

So what do you call it? Person agreement? Personal coordination? How about clear instead of confusing?

Good Example of a Great Truth

I mentioned this a while back, but ran into another example, so I thought I’d share.

The difference between the truth and a great truth is that the opposite of a great truth is also true!

The example is in the first two panels, which have nothing to do with the rest of the comic.

PS—I found another example. I think. I found it in A Word A Day for April 8, 2019. The URL is

 “What is bred in the bone will not come out of the flesh,” implying something deep-rooted cannot be removed. Also recorded in the form “What is bred in the bone will come out in the flesh,” meaning deeply ingrained traits will ultimately reveal themselves.

Vague Numbers

When I was a kid, I learned that “pair” and “couple” meant two of something, and “few” meant three of something.

Over the years, I’ve seen that except for “pair,” those definitions aren’t quite true. I just ran into this example for the meaning of “couple” to be rather flexible:

Maybe you can think of some examples of vague fews.

But when you’re writing expositorily, always use “two” and “three,” of course.

Linguistic Flexibility

This comic about adding a prefix to the verb “blow” reminded me that we have a tendency to wonder about the form of a word when we add a prefix to it or change the context. Does it change, or does it stay the same?

I’ve heard people use “mouses” when referring to computer mice. And when making backups, I’ve heard both “backed-up” and “backupped.”

Maybe you can think of an example or two. Put it in the comments.

How Not to Caption a Picture

—By referring to something that’s not in the picture. The art director at KSTP channel 5 in Minnesota taught me this when I was a kid (Hi, Chan!)

If you have a caption that says “Boy makes a big jump,” show a picture of a boy jumping. If you have a caption “Boy misses a big jump,” you still show a picture of a boy jumping! Whatever is in the picture should be what’s in the caption, regardless of what you say about what’s in the picture.

And it should be the first thing in the caption. The subject.

So here’s an example of a supposed professional getting the caption egregiously wrong. Here’s the picture:

Here’s the caption:

Suspect indicted in Sussex woman’s death, dismemberment

Does she look like a murderer to you? You don’t find out until you read the article that the suspect is a man in this thirties. This is a picture of the victim!

Why would the newspaper get it backwards and not show the bad guy? I suspect it has something to do with getting more people to look. Marketing. And you know what I say about marketing communications folks, right?

All marcom people are insane.

NB—The next day they got it right. Picture of a man, and the caption is “Suspect in woman’s murder, dismemberment was arrested for DUI in Virginia”

What? No Plural?

This post isn’t a writing lesson, exactly; more of a linguistic commentary.

Some words don’t have plurals, or they look like plurals but aren’t, or they look singular but can still be plural. I suspect this makes English a bit tricky for English as a second language folks.

  • Look like plurals but aren’t: physics, measles, shingles (adult measles), loggerheads, trousers, scissors, forensics (see the comic)
  • Look like plurals whether singular or plural: species, premises
  • Look like singular whether singular or plural: fish, deer, moose
  • Don’t have plurals: information, cosmos
  • Always plural: krill, plankton
  • Can go both ways: Pair of trousers, pair of scissors, fishes

The trick, of course, is to use the correct singular or plural verb.

I pulled these off the top of my head. Can you add any? Send a comment.

A Non-lesson Post

This is why I promise never to correct someone’s English unless they ask…

And I have posts about both of those mistakes, too. Use the search box in the upper right if you’re curious.

Figures of Speech in Expository Writing

When you write to explain something, your goal is to be clear, not necessarily beautiful or picturesque. Some figures of speech are so common we don’t think of them as such; see the use of “window” in the sentence below. But how about the word “born”?

Because the cesium-rich particles were born early in the meltdown, they offer scientists an important window into the exact sequence of events in the disaster.

Being born is normally a biological term. Might be a little better to have said “…particles were created,” eh? Or how about getting rid of the passive while we’re at it, and say that the particles formed early in the meltdown?

Not as distracting now, is it?

Rule of thumb: The more technical you are, the less poetic you should be.

Here’s a photo of the event:

The Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power plant after a massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami on March 14, 2011 in Futaba, Japan. Credit: Getty Images

Another Comma Function

Commas separate things. Dates from years, cities from states, and so on. Another thing they separate is direct address, as shown below:

The more astute among you might suggest that the maybe guy was using an appositive, explaining what was to be eaten. Good point, but that’s a bigger break than a comma can handle, so in that case, he should have used an M-dash:

Would you like the all-you-can-eat—shrimp!

The hyphens and the cook are both correct, by the way.

Well and Good

This is a sixth grade lesson, so you probably know it, so consider this post to be a review, or something to show your fifth grade friends.

“Well” goes with verbs, things you do. We call it an adverb. It tells how you do something. My wife cooks well.

“Good” goes with nouns. We call it an adjective. It tells what something is like. My wife is a good cook.

So the robot, of all people, gets it wrong. Next-to-last panel. He’s telling how it worked out, so he should have used “well.”

One exception to this rule: “Well” is an adjective when you’re talking about health. You should say “I don’t feel well when I eat too much.”