5 things every writer should remember

On the heels of 5 things every editor should remember, here are a few things for writers to keep in mind. These tips are intended for writers of news and professional communication, so if you are writing creatively, feel free to ignore Nos. 2-5. 1. People will judge your content on the quality of your…

In defense of plain English

Last year I revisited the classic BBC show “Yes, Minister,” which is about a hapless British cabinet minister trying to get things done and the Civil Service employees who seek to thwart him. Much of the show’s humor lies in the dense, rambling speeches of Sir Humphrey, the minister’s permanent secretary, who can turn a…

Contronyms: Literally having opposite meanings

Vociferous hue and cry arose recently over the inclusion of the figurative meaning of “literally” (that is, using it to mean “figuratively” instead of “actually”) in the dictionary. The history of the word’s usage and the purpose of a dictionary have been well discussed, so here I want to talk about the phenomenon of a…

Don’t sweat it: Since and because

I’ve already said not to sweat “due to” and “because of,” and here’s another pair that includes “because” that you don’t need to sweat. “Since” has been used with a causal meaning for centuries, and there’s no reason to prohibit that sense of “since,” even though some people insist we should (and discussions about it…

Comings and goings, bringings and takings

Speaking of bring / brought / brought, people often get confused about when to use “bring” and when to use “take.” Some people use the two words interchangeably, but they aren’t interchangeable, or they aren’t if you are trying to communicate clearly. “Bring” vs. “take” is easier to understand if it’s compared with “come” and…

Why does English … ? Just because

As a child, I hated the answer “Because” when I asked the question “Why?” It’s a non-answer answer that imparts no information and implies that the matter is closed. As an adult, I teach editing and writing, and work individually with students who need help in both. They have lots of questions — good questions…

Who gets to decide how language is used?

Recently during a discussion about standard English, usage manuals and stylebooks, I was asked, “Who gets to decide?” My answer was, “We all do.” As users of the language, we are the ones who ultimately determine the direction of our language: the fate of words old and new, changes in meanings, and addition or subtraction…

Welcome to Madam Grammar!

I’ve started this blog to have a place to put stuff too big for Twitter and too opinionated, tangential or snarky for my official work website. You can read the “About” page to see more about me. My goal for this blog is to have a place to share thoughts and tips about grammar, language,…

The world’s a smorgasbord for English

Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on Aug. 30, 2011. “English doesn’t borrow from other languages. English follows other languages down dark alleys, knocks them over and goes through their pockets for loose grammar.” The origin of this quote is uncertain, but its accuracy is not in doubt: As languages go, English takes what it needs…

Portmanteaus: Word mashups

Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on Jan. 19, 2011. This cake is choctacular! “A Lick and a Promise” is a mockumentary about stamp collecting. We’re doing a webinar on knot-tying. These three sentences contain what linguists call “portmanteau words” or “portmanteaus,” which are basically word mashups: Take two existing words that you want to combine…