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Writing Tips: 271- 280

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Tip # 271: Ever wonder where some of our English sayings come from?  Here are a few sent to me by Toby Archer Ehren: 

Here are some facts about the 1500s: 

Most people got married in June because they took their yearly bath in May and still smelled pretty good by June 20. However, they were starting to smell so brides carried a bouquet of flowers to hide the body odor. Hence the custom today of carrying a bouquet when getting married.

Baths consisted of a big tub filled with hot water. The man of the house had the privilege of the nice clean water, then all the other sons and men, then the women and finally the children - last of all the babies. By then the water was so dirty you could actually lose someone in it. Hence the saying, "Don't throw the baby out with the bath water."

Houses had thatched roofs-thick straw-piled high, with no wood underneath. It was the only place for animals to get warm, so all the dogs, cats and other small animals (mice, bugs) lived in the roof. When it rained, it became slippery and sometimes the animals would slip and fall off the roof. Hence the saying "It's raining cats and dogs."

In those old days, they cooked in the kitchen with a big kettle that always hung over the fire. Every day they lit the fire and added things to the pot. Sometimes they could obtain pork, which made them feel quite special. When visitors came over, they would hang up their bacon to show off. It was a sign of wealth that a man "could bring home the bacon". They would cut off a little to share with guests and would all sit around and "chew the fat."

Bread was divided according to status. Workers got the burnt bottom of the loaf, the family got the middle, and guests got the top, or "upper crust."

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Correct the sentence below and explain what's wrong with it:

Once we were able to finally administer the venom, the police officer's condition began to quickly stabilize.

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Last week's question:  Please answer the following question by Gayle Carney:  

MS Word and I have an ongoing argument about the use of the word "staff". Word insists that it only represents the singular form, (One of our staff is going to the conference), whereas I find it is commonly used to represent plural (All of our staff are going to the conference). When I use staff in to represent more than one person, Word flags it in the grammar check every time. Would you please explain the proper use of this word? *****

Kent Butler explains: Staff has a variety of definitions. In your example of "One of our staff...", it refers to a group of people; one group, thus singular. In "All of our staff...", the reference is still to one group, one thing -- singular, not plural. ******

Linda Kleinschmidt explains: "Staff' is a collective noun. The structure of the noun is viewed as singular in most cases because the word refers to a whole entity. Like the word "jury", "staff" generally refers to a group of people. When you use "staff", you should also use a singular verb. Why? Because the noun is seen as a group performing a collective singular action. So the correct phrasing would be:

The staff is meeting for lunch.

When you want to refer to a member of such a group, use a prepositional phrase as in the following construction:

A member of our group often asks important questions.

Using the explanatory phrase allows you to be more precise in terms of whether you are referring to the group as a whole or one person in it. Also, "member" becomes the subject of the sentence, so the singular verb is perfectly correct.

You may get a grammar flag because you are using a plural verb with the collective noun.

It is technically correct to say "The staff are" but the construction sounds stilted to many. Instead, add the prepositional phrase once again to refer to the members in the group as in:

The members of the staff are interested in the project. In this case the subject of the sentence becomes "members" and not "staff" and takes a plural verb. The subject/verb agreement no longer is an issue.

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"Never confuse activity with results." (Leo Gerstner, CEO, IBM)




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Tip #272: Before giving a presentation or a speech, prepare for tough questions by considering every possible concern. Take a piece of paper and draw a vertical line down the middle. Place negative issues on the left side; list positive issues on the right side. Then try to link each negative on the left to something positive on the right. (Adapted from Leadership Strategies newsletter.)

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This week's exercise:

Carolyn Morstad asks: Can you share with me the difference between idioms, clichés, and jargon?

Examples would also be great as part of your explanation.

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Last week's exercise: Correct the sentence below and explain what's wrong with it:

Once we were able to finally administer the venom, the police officer's condition began to quickly stabilize. ******

Answer: Once we were finally able to administer the venom, the police officer's condition began to stabilize. (split infinitives)

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"Linda S. Kleinschmidt" wrote:

Once we were able to finally administer the venom, the police officer's condition began to quickly stabilize.

A Correct Sentence: Once we were finally able to administer the venom, the police officer's condition began to stabilize quickly.

The problem in the first sentence is called a split infinitive. An infinitive is the first principal part of a verb and one of the 4-5 forms used to create all the tenses of that verb to show different times. An infinitive is formed by using the preposition "to" + the verb word, as in "to stabiliize."

Grammatically, it is wrong to place any modifer between the "to" and the verb. In this case, the adverbs "finally" and "quickly' are placed in the middle of the infinitive, creating what is known in English analysis as a "split infinitive." These adverbs are more correctly placed after or sometimes even before the infinitive, but more closely to the action word, as in the corrected sentence.

A split infinitive is an old grammatical error that English teachers and stylists have carped about for years. Today, you commonly see the mistake in lots of published material and business communications. It has become more accepted because the error doesn't have the stigma it once did. However, in good writing, it is still better to avoid the much-maligned split infinitive construction, whenever possible. Doing so will make your writing read more smoothly.

******** Gloria Spielman wrote:

Dear Gloria: I just received my first issue of weekly Business Writing Tips. I would like to point out that the 'facts about the 1500s' is part of a popular email urban legend that has been doing the rounds on the internet for about 4 years. To the best of my knowledge there is no truth to these 'facts about the 1500s'. I refer you to the following link about this particular legend. http://www.snopes.com/language/phrases/1500.htm ********

Another reader wrote: Some words of wisdom: The phrase origins in your latest newsletter (271) are "folk etymologies" - they are stories passed around much like urban myths that have little or no bearing on the actual phrase origins. "Raining cats and dogs" for instance has several other possible origins including:

1. Sailors often associated cats with wind and dogs were associated with Odin (who brought storms/rain) so that "raining cats and dogs" means rain with wind.

2. Because of bad drainage, dog and cat carcasses would be picked up by runoff and be seen floating down the street.

3. The noise of the wind and thunder could be likened to fighting cats and dogs.

The point here is that phrase origins are difficult to identify precisely because people tend to hear an explanation and then pass it along as truth without ever questioning where the explanation came from.

For people who are interested in more than cocktail banter, there is a wealth of etymological information available on the web and in books. Check out http://www.wordorigins.org/. *******

Judi Levy writes: Gloria and Dan, That's Lou Gerstner NOT Leo. and he is past CEO ----- and that is his quote.

**************************************** "Courage is contagious. When a brave person takes a stand, the spines of others are stiffened." (Billy Graham)





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Tip # 273: Select the correct tone of your correspondence by changing the "person." For example, if you want to sound authoritative, use the first person; if you want to sound familiar to your reader, use the second person; If you want to sound objective, use the third person.

Authoritative: We are implementing this new change in policy.

Familiar: You have asked us about this new policy change.

Objective: Management has decided to implement a new change in policy.

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Correct any errors in grammar and usage.

"Everyone of the sales representatives have made less calls in the past six months then they did in the previous six-month period."

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Last week's exercise:

Carolyn Morstad asks: Can you share with me the difference between idioms, clichés, and jargon? Examples would also be great as part of your explanation.

Here are the differences:

Idioms: A phrase or expression that has a meaning different from what the words suggest in their usual meaning. For example: "To catch one's eye" (meaning to get one's attention).

Clichés: An expression or idea that has become stale from too much use. For example: "as old as the hills."

Jargon: The special words and phrases used by people in the same kind of work. For example: Engineers talk about "front-end analysis."

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Regarding Tip #271: The sentence was correctly disputed by several medically astute readers such as Suzanne Cole, Jack Williams, Nancy Anne Ropke. The sentence: Once we were finally able to administer the venom, the police officer's condition began to stabilize. (split infinitives) Although grammatically correct, medically the sentence should have used the word "antitoxin" or "antidote" rather than "venom."

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Here is some interesting information from Virgie Ewing:

Actually, splitting the infinitive is not, technically, incorrect, and never was. It is based on a misunderstanding of grammar rules and, possibly, a desire to ape Latin and Greek, where the infinitive cannot be split, because it is one word. A sample of opinions and explanations can be found in the following.

The American Heritage Book of English Usage (1996), http://www.bartleby.com/64/C001/059.html --one of my favorites, because it is so amusing.

Dr. Jack Lynch's (Rutgers) online grammar guide, http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/Writing/index.html.

Mark Israel has a very lucid account at http://alt-usage-english.org/excerpts/fxspliti.html.

The Columbia Guide to Standard English (1993) offers a more conservative approach.

You might also like the explanation in Charles Darling's online guide to grammar and writing, to which I have referred in past communications: http://www.ccc.commnet.edu

Another one you may find interesting: http://www.wsu.edu/~brians/errors/nonerrors.html#split.

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"The outline, or plotline, is the architecture of writing; the words and sentences are the interior decoration." (Ernest Hemingway)



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Tip #274: Use the expression "each other" to refer to two persons or things and "one another" for more than two. For example:

James and Sally respected each other's talents.

The ten winners congratulated one another. Choose the correct word:

1. Please (take, bring) the research information with you when you next come to the office. 2. Please (take, bring) the enclosed folder to Lee when you go to see him. 3. You may (take, bring) my manual with you if you (take, bring) it back by Friday.

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Last week's exercise: Correct any errors in grammar and usage.

"Everyone of the sales representatives have made less calls in the past six months then they did in the previous six-month period." Suggested answer:

"Each sales representative has made less calls in the past six months than they did in the previous six-month period."

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"The closest to perfection a person ever comes is when he/she fills out a job application form." (Stanley J. Randall)





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Tip # 276: Whenever the verb comes before the subject, make sure they agree. For example: Attached is a piece of matching fabric. Attached are two pieces of the matching fabric.

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Please answer Winneth Hussey's question:

I am confused about "much" and "many". Please clarify.

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Last week's exercise: Please correct the following:

1. The event took place (fewer, less) than six years ago. 2. (Less, fewer) accidents were reported last year. 3. (Less, fewer) effort was put forth by the organizers this year.

Corrected answers:

1. The event took place (less) than six years ago. 2. (Fewer) accidents were reported last year. 3. (Less) effort was put forth by the organizers this year.

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"When an idea is wanting, a word can always be found to take its place." (Johann w. von Goethe (1749-1832)





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Tip # 277: Usage requires that certain words should be followed by certain prepositions. Here are a few needed preposition combinations: Account for Account to Agree to Agree with Angry at Angry with Consists of Interested in Speak to Speak with

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Please omit the unnecessary prepositions from the following sentences: 1. She could not help from laughing. 2. We need to focus in on ways to increase sales. 3. Where did my book go to? 4. His room is opposite to hers.

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Last week's question: Please answer Winneth Hussey's question: I am confused about "much" and "many". Please clarify. *****

Suggested answer: The words EACH, EVERY, EITHER, NEITHER, ONE, ANOTHER, and MUCH are always singular. The word MANY is plural. The phrases MANY A or MANY AN followed by two or more subjects joined by AND are singular. For example: Many a liberal and conservative has opposed the recommendation.

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Here is some interesting information. According to Stan Stanley:

"They" and "Their" can be singular. Here is a part of what he stated: "Here's a heap of references re the use of they as a singular. (You did not goof about using "they".) Here's where I found them: http://www.crossmyt.com/hc/linghebr/austheir.html#X1ai

In particular, follow-up the examples from the OED (Oxford English Dictionary): http://www.crossmyt.com/hc/linghebr/sgtheirl.html#they

The singular "they"/"their"/"them"/"themselves" construction:

These files contain a list of over 75 occurrences of the words "they"/"their"/"them"/"themselves" referring to a singular antecedent with indefinite or generic meaning in Jane Austen's writings (mainly in her six novels), as well as further examples of singular "their" etc. from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and elsewhere. While your high-school English teacher may have told you not to use this construction, it actually dates back to at least the 14th century, and was used by the following authors (among others) in addition to Jane Austen: Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, the King James Bible, The Spectator, Jonathan Swift, Daniel Defoe, Frances Sheridan, Oliver Goldsmith, Henry Fielding, Maria Edgeworth, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, William Makepeace Thackeray, Sir Walter Scott, George Eliot [Mary Anne Evans], Charles Dickens, Mrs. Gaskell, Anthony Trollope, John Ruskin, Robert Louis Stevenson, Walt Whitman, George Bernard Shaw, Lewis Carroll, Oscar Wilde, Rudyard Kipling, H. G. Wells, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton, W. H. Auden, Lord Dunsany, George Orwell, and C. S. Lewis.

Singular "their" etc., was an accepted part of the English language before the 18th-century grammarians started making arbitrary judgements as to what is "good English" and "bad English", based on a kind of pseudo-"logic" deduced from the Latin language, that has nothing whatever to do with English. (See the 1975 journal article by Anne Bodine in the bibliography.) And even after the old-line grammarians put it under their ban, this anathematized singular "their" construction never stopped being used by English-speakers, both orally and by serious literary writers. So it's time for anyone who still thinks that singular "their" is so-called "bad grammar" to get rid of their prejudices and pedantry!"

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Here is more interesting information from Suzanne Cole: Like 'less' and 'fewer,' 'much' and 'many' refer to quantity (or degree) versus number. The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary (http://www.m-w.com)provides excellent definitions and examples:

Main Entry: much 1: great in quantity, amount, extent, or degree <there is much truth in what you say> <taken too much time> 2: obsolete: many in number 3: more than is expected or acceptable: more than enough <eighty bedrooms, a bit much for a family of seven -- Peter Dragadze>

Main Entry: many 1: consisting of or amounting to a large but indefinite number <worked for many years> 2: being one of a large but indefinite number <many a man> <many another student>

In a similar vein, the answer to last week's quiz, question number one, was given as "The event took place (less) than six years ago."

I disagree. The comparison is specifically numeric (six), therefore the answer should be "fewer than six years ago."

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"I shut my eyes in order to see." (Paul Gauguin, artist)




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Tip # 278: Fragments are sentences without a subject and a verb. Watch for these words to help avoid fragments: but, such, like, if, because, who, what, when, where, why, and how.

For example: Wrong: Because it was too difficult to reach the supervisor.

Right: He decided to wait until Monday because it was too difficult to reach the supervisor.

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Please answer this question by Jaime Glottmann: The most popular word of the day (In reference to the apparent manipulation of the information on Iraq by Messrs. Bush and Blair) is "spin". What is the exact, modern meaning of the word in that sense?

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Last week's exercise (#277): Please omit the unnecessary prepositions from the following sentences:

1. She could not help from laughing. 2. We need to focus in on ways to increase sales. 3. Where did my book go to? 4. His room is opposite to hers. *******

Suggested answers:

1. She could not help laughing. 2. We need to focus on ways to increase sales. 3. Where did my book go? 4. His room is opposite hers.

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"Minds are like parachutes-they function only when open." (Thomas Dewar)





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Tip # 279: Clarity is achieved when words are chosen carefully, not only from the point of diction, but from the point of correctness.

Please choose the correct word:

1. The (principle, principal) idea is to choose those (principles, principals) we can live with. 2. The (plaintiff, plaintive) was very (plaintiff, plaintive) about her lawsuit. 3. An (imminent, eminent) artist witnessed an (eminent, imminent) storm approaching. 4. Mary (flouted, flaunted) her award and diamond watch after her retirement dinner.

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Last week's question: Please answer this question by Jaime Glottmann:

The most popular word of the day (In reference to the apparent manipulation of the information on Iraq by Messrs. Bush and Blair) is "spin". What is the exact, modern meaning of the word in that sense? ******

Katsoul85 comments: In popular vernacular spin means a person's 'fix' on things, or a person's take on a situation, or a person's way of presenting an idea, or taking the information and applying one's personal insight into the situation. ******

Kent Butler comments: "Spin" is what readers of the NY Times, Washington Post, LA Times, et al get. It is twisting the truth to put it in the best possible light (or worst, depending...) according to one's objectives. ******

Steve Sorensen comments: In answer to Jamie Glottmann's question on the definition of "spin," I doubt anyone can find a definitive definition. If we could, it may be suspect because, like beauty, it's in the eye of the beholder. The question refers to "apparent manipulation of the information on Iraq" by Blair and Bush. Surely, any politico (Democrat, Republican, foreign or domestic) will want to frame information to support his or her policies and objectives. It's akin to "point-of-view." It's turning an issue around to see it or explain it from one's preferred frame of reference. That may be as good a definition as any. ******

Dan Woodland comments: "Spin" is referring to the individual's own way of twisting the words to suite his/her needs."

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"If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion." (Dalai Lama)





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Tip #280: In many common expressions that refer to time and measurements and in phrases implying personification, the possessive form has become accepted.

For example: A dollar's worth The company's assets The computer's memory New Year's resolutions This morning's news In today's world

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Please place insert the correct apostrophe in the following sentences:

1. This years product is better than last years. 2. We have been invited to the Smiths party. 3. The earths atmosphere is cloudy, 4. The wild animal was kept at arms length.

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Last week's exercise: Please choose the correct word: 1. The (principle, principal) idea is to choose those (principles, principals)we live with.

2. The (plaintiff, plaintive) was very (plaintiff, plaintive) about her lawsuit.

3. An (imminent, eminent) artist witnessed an (eminent, imminent) storm approaching.

4. Mary (flouted, flaunted) her award ad diamond watch after her retirement dinner.

Answers: 1. The (principal) idea is to choose those (principles) we live with.

2. The (plaintiff) was very ( plaintive) about her lawsuit.

3. An (eminent) artist witnessed an (imminent) storm approaching.

4. Mary (flaunted) her award ad diamond watch after her retirement dinner.

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"The pen is the tongue of the mind." (Cervantes)





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