Bloody Well Write

August 31, 2009

Gray vs. grey

What color is it?

Well, what are we talking about?

An elephant. An oyster. A moody sky. A town in Maine. A city in Georgia. A brewing company. “What’s-her-name’s Anatomy.” One of the lonelier colors in the big box with the cool sharpener.

That’s right — it’s gray. Or is it grey?

Gray can be gorgeous — no matter how you spell it.

Gray can be gorgeous — no matter how you spell it.

The answer depends on your location. If you’re stateside, the color is gray unless it is a person’s or company’s preferred spelling or if you’ve checked Merriam-Webster’s dictionary for first-mentioned spellings.

There are, as always, a few wild hairs:

• Greyhound (a dog, a cocktail)
• Earl Grey (a tea)
• Grey friar (a Franciscan friar)

If you’ve hopped the pond, however, the colour is grey. While you’re in UK English-speaking countries, feel free to use grey as often as you wish, as it is the preferred British spelling.

If you’re writing with the AP Stylebook in mind, however, it doesn’t matter where you are; gray is the way to go. And you know how I feel about the AP Stylebook, don’t you?

Happy trails!



August 25, 2009

-ward vs. -wards: toward or towards?

Here’s a dodgy problem.

Which one is correct: Toward or towards? Backward or backwards? Forward or forwards?

OK, so it’s not that dodgy. It’s pretty simple, really. Let’s focus on toward vs. towards and realize that the answer will be valid for all -ward words.

According to the Merriam-Webster Online dictionary, as well as a host of other dictionaries and Web sites, both versions are technically correct. But one is — how shall I say it? — more technically correct than the other.

Toward, backward, forward, leftward and any other directionally influenced -ward words are used primarily in the United States. Words that add an “s” at the end are primarily British. One guy even did a Google test to see if this is true and found out that, lo and behold, it stands up to a Google search.

For me, the real test is looking it up in the AP Stylebook — the bible of journalists, ad agencies and many writers — and the answer is clear: Toward is the correct term and towards is unacceptable. End of story.

There you have it — unless you want to sound British for some bloody reason, you cheeky bugger.

Happy trails!


July 14, 2009

Regardless vs. irregardless

Filed under: grammar — bloodywellwrite @ 10:56 am
Tags: , ,

There’s no such word.

Isn’t that what you hear when one person uses irregardless and another person corrects the first person, saying that the correct word is regardless? Funny thing, though: According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, there is such a word, albeit a not-well-regarded one. Here’s what the online mother of all dictionaries has to say:

Irregardless originated in dialectal American speech in the early 20th century. Its fairly widespread use in speech called it to the attention of usage commentators as early as 1927. The most frequently repeated remark about it is that “there is no such word.” There is such a word, however. It is still used primarily in speech, although it can be found from time to time in edited prose. Its reputation has not risen over the years, and it is still a long way from general acceptance. Use regardless instead.

Aha! Since Merriam-Webster states that it is, indeed, a real word, doesn’t that give you license to use it?

It's not too cool for fashion, either.

It's not too cool for fashion, either

Nope. That last line — “Use regardless instead” — stands firm. Although plenty of folks say irregardless, that doesn’t make it correct. The theory of its origin is that irregardless is a fusion of irrespective and regardless. It probably started because someone was trying to sound smart in front of some friends and it just caught on, like a bad trend. Just a guess.

Regardless (ahem) of how it started, it would be very cool of you to use regardless instead. You’ll sound smarter if you do.

Happy trails!


June 8, 2009

Eager vs. anxious

Filed under: grammar,Uncategorized — bloodywellwrite @ 3:46 pm
Tags: , , ,

You hear it all the time: “I’m anxious to go out this weekend!”

Whaaat? Why? Are you worried about having a good time? Are you nervous to see your friends? To eat great food and do something extraordinarily exciting for once? What’s to worry about?

The problem is the choice of words. Usually, folks use anxious when they mean eager. Maybe eager sounds too, well, eager. No one wants to seem needy, and eager implies that you really, really need something. So anxious rules the day. But really, everyone needs stuff. That’s just how life goes, so let’s embrace our needs and go out and fulfill them (without stepping on any toes, of course).

Here’s the difference between being eager and being anxious (according to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary):

Eager — marked by enthusiastic or impatient desire or interest (eager fans)

Anxious — characterized by extreme uneasiness of mind or brooding fear about some contingency : worried (anxious parents)

In addition, a few other adjectives are similar to both eager and anxious but are slightly different in meaning:

Avid — adds to eager the implication of insatiability or greed (avid for new technology)

Keen — implies intensity of interest and quick responsiveness in action (keen on the latest fashions)

Athirst — emphasizes yearning but not necessarily readiness for action (athirst for adventure)

That’s the trouble with using a thesaurus to write your term paper, advertisement or contract: All the synonyms mean basically the same thing but not exactly the same thing. You can probably get away with it, but it’s a real drag when some smarty-patootie calls you on it in front of your peeps. And isn’t it more satisfying to just say what you really mean?

Yes. Yes, it is.

Happy trails!


April 14, 2009

The this-is-how-to-use-a-hyphen-correctly entry

A hyphen is that short, little bugger that joins two or more words to form an adjective and, at the very same time, makes middle schoolers’ heads spin. Really, it is nothing more than a clarifier, making the very complicated English language a little less complicated for the reader. At least, that’s its intent. The writer, though, may have something else to say about it. Ahem.

Since the hyphen is trying to simplify our lives, let’s give it a chance by trying to understand where it’s coming from. (Yes, yes, “from where it is coming” is the oh-so-proper way to write but, really, who talks that way anymore? Ending in a preposition is completely acceptable for all but the highest of highbrows. Onward and upward.)

The hyphen is used to form various compound words. If in doubt about adding a hyphen to two words, look for ambiguity that may lurk: Bob will speak to small businessmen sounds as if the businessmen are either vertically challenged or small-boned; the sentence probably should read like this: Bob will speak to small-business men. If adding a hyphen would clear up a misunderstanding, the hyphen probably belongs between the two words.

The problem with this second sentence is that women are presumably not going to be in or allowed at this meeting, which raises other ethical and moral questions. If you are 100 percent sure that no women will be in the audience, leave it as is; but if women will be present, you can change it to Bob will speak to small-business men and women or Bob will speak to small-business owners. Problem solved.

Many combinations that are hyphenated before a noun are not hyphenated when they occur after a noun: He works full time. A full-time employee gets an assigned parking space.

You can also use a hyphen to avoid duplicated vowels and triple consonants: anti-intellectual, shell-like. These are tricky, though, because the AP Stylebook does not always follow Merriam-Webster’s recommended spelling.

For example, AP uses a hyphen in pre-emptive, but Merriam-Webster does not: preemptive. What’s a writer to do? I’d say to use your best judgment. My best judgment says to follow AP, except that AP is sometimes the last style guide to make a change, which leads me to ultimately recommend following Merriam-Webster’s spelling. As an added incentive, the AP Stylebook states,  “… follow Webster’s New World, hyphenating if not listed there.”  I use Merriam-Webster Online; preemptive is there, so that’s what I use.

Hyphens also help to break up a word that must be carried over to the next line due to space restrictions, such as in the short columns of a magazine article. But if you don’t have to use them, don’t, for the simple fact that they tend to clunk up the readability of the piece.

How often should you use hyphens? As often as necessary to make the copy clear and interesting. All those hyphenated words acting as adjectives can spice up your writing, that’s true. But just as too many spices can gunk up the flavor of homemade soup, so can too many hyphenated words make your copy tank. You want your writing to be interesting and engaging, not a just a display of how cleverly you can write.

That being said, I’m a fan of hyphens. Not an over-the-top, need-to-be-medicated kind of fan, but a fan nonetheless. I like to choose clarification over ambiguity. I dig creative, unexpected writing. And the inner designer in me likes the visual aspect of the joined words — sort of breaks up the flow of letters on the page (like my other good friend, the em dash — love the em dash, maybe a little too much.)

It’s time to address one of my grammar pet peeves: hyphen usage with -ly words. There are very few instances when a word ending in -ly actually needs a hyphen. Examples:

• A word ending in -ly (such as family) in which the ending -ly is not a suffix added on to make the root word an adverb or adjective: A family-friendly restaurant is correct. (Family is a root word that happens to end in -ly, so it is OK to have a hyphen follow it.)
•  The case of multiple hyphenated words, no matter if there is an -ly word included or not: Sid penned a not-so-creatively-written poem.

Other uses for the hyphen include numerals, such as to separate figures:
• Odds: The odds were 5-3.
• Ratios: The ratio was 10-to-1. It was a 10-1 ratio.
• Scores: KU won 88-64.
• Vote tabulations: The House voted 230-205.

Another rule to consider is suspensive hyphenation. It connects two words or numbers to a noun without losing the reader: He expected to have a 10- to 15-year career in pro wrestling.

Finally, there is e-mail. Yes, with a hyphen. That one, unless the stars realign and the earth swallows up logic and spits it back out as the New Word, probably ain’t gonna change. You see, e-mail stands for electronic mail. That e is a placeholder for a full word. As Bill Walsh of The Washington Post so eloquently put it in his book “Lapsing Into a Comma” (Page 16, if you’re curious):

“No initial-based term in the history of the English language has ever evolved to form a solid word — a few are split and the rest are hyphenated. Look at A-frame, B-movie, …H-bomb, I-beam, … X-ray, Y-chromosome, Z particle and scores of other such compounds.”

Take that, email.

Happy trails!


April 3, 2009

The affect effect

Filed under: grammar — bloodywellwrite @ 3:50 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

I am lucky. I’m surrounded by really smart people. At work, at home, in my personal life — it’s really fantastic. And yet those two words manage to cause serious confusion. Which is correct, affect or effect? Heck, should I use affect or effect? I sometimes have to think about it; it’s not something that necessarily comes naturally to me. So what gives?

Both words are grammatical over-achievers, acting as verbs and nouns. That complicates things. But really, they boil down pretty well. Here’s the lowdown on their meanings:

Affect (noun) = something to avoid in layman’s terms. If you’re a psychologist who understands the following description, by all means, go to town using affect in the noun form (this is directly from Merriam-Webster): the conscious subjective aspect of an emotion considered apart from bodily changes. Also: a set of observable manifestations of a subjectively experienced emotion: The patient showed incredibly unusual affects.

Affect (verb) = to influence: The tasty pasta meal she just ate will positively affect her performance in the half-marathon tomorrow.

Effect (noun) = the result: The effect was spectacular. Also: an impression. He screamed just for effect. Also: a symptom: The effects of the sleeping pills hadn’t worn off by lunch. Also: having legal validity: The seat belt law is still in effect.

Effect (verb) = to cause: He will effect several changes throughout the company.

If you don’t want to memorize definitions, here’s an easy way to remember:

Affect is the action word (the verb). You’re doing something, affecting something. I am cooking chili, affecting the outcome by stirring in cilantro.

Effect is the result of what happens after the thing that you did. The effect of serving the chili for dinner was that my kids had full tummies and slept like babies that night — and that’s a terrific effect!

I hope that the effect of this blog entry is to affect your grammar usage in a most positive way.

Happy trails!


March 27, 2009

Flier? Flyer?

Filed under: AP Stylebook,grammar — bloodywellwrite @ 6:15 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

Those annoying papers that get stuck under your windshield wiper. The free-spirited pilot who likes to go sky sailing on weekends. The wildly painted bus that rumbles down the road. They all are called fliers. Or flyers. Or Flyers.

Well, which is it?

Trusty AP Stylebook guidelines to the rescue! (Please keep in mind that what’s below does not jibe with Merriam-Webster’s definitions; why, I do not know, but I follow AP, so there you go.)

Flier = one who flies (as in an aviator) or a handbill (such as what you find on your windshield when you leave the grocery store)

Flyer = a proper name for certain trains or buses (e.g., American Flyer trains, Washington Flyer bus).

That’s it. Simple. And simple is good.

Happy trails!


December 23, 2008

False ranges or How to dumb down your varietal writing with everything from goo-goo goggles to veggie hammocks

Here’s the deal: All kinds of writers, from journalists to comic-strip creators, from advertising writers to unauthorized biographers, use ranges to imply vast coverage of whatever they are writing about. And the vast majority use ranges incorrectly. I just did.

Take, for example, the second half of this blog’s headline. What is the true range? From goo-goo goggles to veggie hammocks — what does that mean? How are they possibly related? They both might be made out of plastic. OK, fine. They both could be purple. Or made in 1969. But where does that leave the range?

Look at this entry’s first paragraph. What is the true range between each grouping of writers? There’s a disconnect occurring. No true range, no obvious connection, no-good writing.

If you look the word “range” up in the dictionary (Webster’s New World College Dictionary is AP’s dictionary of choice, but you Web-savvy folks can check out Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary), you’ll get several definitions. The two that fit this topic are as follows:

1) A series of things in a line (implying some sort of relation)
2) A sequence, series or scale between limits (again, implying a relation)

Look “range” up on (a fantastic Web site that pulls definitions from nearly a bazillion dictionary sites), and you’ll see the quick definitions on the right side of your screen, including this one: a variety of different things or activities (“He answered a range of questions”).

So what’s the message here? It’s this: Writers tend to use this false range as a prop. Writing that a five-and-dime carries everything (everything!) from Andalusian apples to Zippo lighters is just not gonna work. Do they sell time-shares in Connecticut? Sand from Perth? Yellow polka-dot bikinis? Eyebrow dye? Not a single noun can be excluded. “Everything” means everything. That’s one hell of a range. Hell, that’s one hell of a store.

Writing that a plane can travel from Anchorage to Zimbabwe is fine; that’s a true range. There are geographic points to be plotted. There’s an alphabetical range, as well, although it’s a little more of a stretch.

If you really want to include a range in your writing, try using some version of “a variety”: The five-and-dime sold a variety of products, including blow-up Nietzsche dolls and Roseanne Roseannadanna wigs. The cookbook included recipes as varied as green-bean pudding and hambone tartare.

For more rantings on false ranges, check out, the Web site of one of my all-time favorite editing ranters, Bill Walsh. He’s the copy chief (national desk) at The Washington Post, has written two books (“opinionated guides for editors and writers,” per his Web site) and is as entertaining a grammar enthusiast as I have come across. He also has a blog. Ba-da-bing — there’s my Bill Walsh plug. He rocks.

I hope that you had fun with this read and especially that you’ll come back for another go at the word game. Keep me company. Send your feedback. Pass on ideas for future entries. Then take a load off and have some ice cream. There’s always time for ice cream.

Happy holidays and — as always — happy trails!


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