Author Archives: catherinespicer

Grammar Hammer: Then vs. Than

the Grammar HammerThen Vs. ThanI have a tendency to over think certain grammar rules. Then vs. than is one of those grammar rules that I think I’ve nailed down, but always end up double checking after over thinking it for ten minutes. To save you time and confusion, here are a few ways to remember the correct usage:

“Then” is used to describe an element of time and is used mostly as an adverb.

  • Subsequently or afterwards. Example:  “We worked in the yard for a few hours and then went to the movies.”
  • As a consequence or in that case. Example: “If you don’t clean your room, then you can’t go to the movies.”
  • At that time or that time. Example: “We can first take care of mulching the flower beds then we can go to the movies.”

Then is always used in the construction “if … then.” For example, “If he had just listened to me in the first place, then he wouldn’t have tried using that cheap paint on the walls.”

“Than” conveys a comparison and is often used with comparative words and phrases like more, less, and fewer.

Example #1: “He paid more money for his shoes than she did for hers.”

Example #2: “The sunsets in Hawaii are better than sunsets anywhere else in the world.”

Quick tip:

Than = A = Comparison

Then = E = Time

As with any rule, there are exceptions. For example, “I usually need to go to sleep no later than 10 p.m.” I offer this quick tip with its requisite grain of salt.

For other great resources on this grammar rule, I direct you to CM Punk’s Grammar Slam on then vs. than, or my other favorite grammar poster from The Oatmeal, “Ten Words You Need to Stop Misspelling.”

Have a grammar rule you’d like me to explore? Drop me a line at

Author Catherine Spicer is a manager of customer content services at PR Newswire.

Grammar Hammer: Punctuation Saves Lives, Part II

Punctuation infographic


Part-one of our “Punctuation Saves Lives” series covered the heavy hitters of periods, commas, question marks, exclamation points, colons, semicolons, dashes, and hyphens. Wrapping part-two are brackets, parentheses, braces, ellipses, quotation marks, and apostrophes.

Groups – brackets, parentheses, braces

Use parentheses ( ) to contain additional thoughts or qualifying remarks (I consider these to be my “verbal asides”).

Brackets [ ] are most often seen in technical notations or explanations.


“Dogs are better then [sic] cats,” said Shannon.   

Eva took [her colleague] Caitlin out to lunch.

Braces { } are used to contain two or more lines of text to show they are part of a unit. You don’t often see braces in writing, but you will see it used in computer programming.

And finally, ones that aren’t related to each other at all – ellipses, quotation marks, apostrophes

Ellipses ( … ) are used to indicate an omission of unnecessary words (for more on this topic, see my previous post “And the Winner Is…”).

Quotation marks ( “ “ ) are used in pairs and mark the beginning and end of a quotation. They can also be used to indicate a “dubious” status of a word. A single quotation mark pair ( ‘ ‘ ) is to be used for quotes within a quote.

Apostrophes ( ‘ ) indicate possession (“That toy is Pip’s favorite.”) or the omission of some letters from a word (“Austin Powers is also known as the int’l man of mystery”).

Almost all of the source material I read in preparation for this series consistently state that there are fourteen different punctuation marks. Where does that leave the simple underscore (_) or the various directions of the slash ( / or \ )? Are they relegated to web code and email addresses? What are your thoughts?

Have a grammar rule you’d like me to explore? Drop me a line at

Author Catherine Spicer is a manager of customer content services at PR Newswire.

Grammar Hammer: Punctuation Saves Lives, Part I

Punctuation Saves LivesIn English grammar, there are fourteen different punctuation marks that I think of as the “primary” punctuation marks – the period, comma, question mark, exclamation point, colon, semicolon, dash, hyphen, parentheses, brackets, braces, ellipses, quotation marks, and apostrophes. These are the marks that help us with sentence structure, help us clarify meaning and distinguish between different sets of ideas.

Putting all of these into smaller groups, we can look at them like this:

The Full Stop – the period, the question mark, the exclamation mark

All three of these punctuation marks indicate the end of the sentence. Periods end declarative sentences. Do I really need to explain when to use a question mark? Exclamation points should be self-explanatory!

The Pause – comma, the semi-colon, the colon

The comma was rated as the punctuation mark you were most grateful for according to Grammarly back in 2012. I covered a few common mistakes people make with commas in this post “A Comment About Commas” and later in this post “Comma Drama.”

My favorite examples:

  • Let’s eat Grandma!
  • Cathy finds inspiration in cooking her family and her cats.

The semicolon continues to be the punctuation mark that befuddles people the most. To put it simply, semicolons separate independent clauses that are related to each other, but could stand on their own if you wanted them to.

You use colons before a list or an explanation. Look forward to a more in depth explanation on colons in a future post.

Connections and breaks – dashes and hyphens

Dashes come in two forms: the endash (-) and the emdash (–). Endashes are used to connect numbers or connect elements of a compound adjective (Abraham Lincoln was president of the United States from 1861-1865). An emdash (so-called because the size of the dash is about the size of the letter M) can be used to separate clauses, introduce a phrase for added emphasis, or what I’m most guilty of – indicate a break in thought or sentence structure.

Hyphens create compound words, particularly modifiers (“She was a well-known cook.”). Hyphens are also used in prefixes (“I wonder if they had any kind of pre-nuptial agreement?”).

Next week, we’ll conclude with a quick overview of brackets, parentheses, braces, ellipses, quotation marks, and apostrophes.

Have a grammar rule you’d like me to explore? Drop me a line at

Author Catherine Spicer is a manager of customer content services at PR Newswire and has never been inspired to cook her family or her cats.

Grammar Hammer: It’s the Principle of the Thing

the Grammar Hammer“The principal is your PAL!” With apologies to Ferris Bueller, that’s how I learned the difference between “principle” and “principal.” Here again, we have two words that sound the same but have two completely different meanings.

“Principle” refers to a fundamental law, doctrine, or tenet. It can only be used as a noun.

“Principal” actually has a lot of heft as a word. It can be an adjective (meaning “main, or highest rank in importance”); an adverb (meaning “for the most part” – example: “Norman was principally a life studies model.”); or a noun (meaning “the head of a school,” “the non-interest portion of a loan,” along with a bunch of other meanings, which you can see for yourself here).

From a business perspective, the difference between principle and principal gets most confused when talking about someone who is most important in a business or organization. For example, “Jane Doe is the principle/principal designer for XYZ Designs, Inc.” Which is the correct word? I see this mistake pretty often. The correct answer is “principal.”

The old “the principal is your pal” trick does work in helping you determine which word to use. Talking about a person? Principal. Talking about a belief? Principle. If you’re standing on the principal, you’ll probably be arrested. If you’re standing up for something that is a deeply-held, long-standing belief, you are someone who holds strong to your principles.

Just remember, “It is easier to fight for one’s principles than to live up to them.” – Alfred Adler

Have a grammar rule you’d like me to explore? Drop me a line at

Author Catherine Spicer is a manager of customer content services at PR Newswire.

Grammar Hammer: Stationery or Stationary?

the Grammar Hammer



It is funny to me how one little letter can change the meaning of a word. “Stationary” and “stationery” have completely different meanings and uses, but I think these words are often used incorrectly.

Stationary (with an “a”) is an adjective that means not moving or incapable of being moved.

Stationery (with an “e”) is a noun that refers to writing paper and envelopes. Of course, these days, I think it’s safe to include those e-mail stationeries that you use in your work life.

Quick test:

  • “Choose your writing instrument and card or stationary carefully.”
    Answer: Something on which to write? Wrong, it should be stationery.
  • “…has a small, lightweight design and may be used as a stationary unit.”
    Answer: Something that isn’t going to move? Right. It’s stationary.
  • “Users have the ability to select from a wide range of products – co-branded open house flyers, rate sheets, corporate flyers, advertisements, tri-fold brochures, email signatures, business cards, stationery, and much more.”
    Answer: Right.

An easy way to remember the two is to think about this:

  • Stationery (with an “e”) is the stuff you write on. Write (ends with an “e”) = writing on stationery.
  • Stationary (with an “a”) is something  that’s standing still. Stand (with an “a”) = stationary (with an “a”).

By the way, if you haven’t seen this, Grammarly has a fun thing going on Mondays. Search Twitter for #MontoyaMonday. “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” It’s a fun way to kill a few minutes if you need a break.

Have a grammar rule you’d like me to explore? Drop me a line at

Author Catherine Spicer is a manager of customer content services at PR Newswire and has a lovely collection of stationery.

Grammar Hammer: A Flair for Flare?

the Grammar Hammer



Flair/Flare  is one of my favorite homophones. Even though these words sound the same, their meanings are very different and these words are not interchangeable.

Flair – a natural talent or aptitude; distinctive elegance or style

Example: She had a real flair for soufflé.

Example: He wore that hat with a lot of flair.

Flare – a fire or a blazing light (noun); to burn with an unsteady flame, or a sudden or brief burst of light, or to start up or burst out in a sudden, fierce activity (verb)

Example: My father always concluded his lectures by flaring his nostrils.

Example: The forest fire flared up with the increased winds.

Quick tip:

Flair – with an i – describes something that an individual is good at. Individual = i; flair = i.

Flare – with an e – describes a flame (either literal or figurative). Flame = e; flare = e.

If you have a flair for flares, you can plan the next July 4th fireworks celebration. If you have a flare for flairs? Well, I picture a flame-wielding actor. Not sure I’d want to see that.

Have a grammar rule you’d like me to explore? Drop me a line at

Author Catherine Spicer is a manager of customer content services at PR Newswire, and (hopefully) has a flair for words.

Grammar Hammer: Champing at the Bit

the Grammar Hammer
chompingIf your friend is being impatient, is he “chomping at the bit” or “champing at the bit?” The phrase originates in reference to a horse and the bit that goes in his mouth that’s attached to the reins.

I will admit to being guilty of saying someone is “chomping at the bit.” Now, in my defense, there are some good reasons why I’ve been mistakenly saying “chomping” instead of “champing.”

First, chomping and champing have very similar meanings.

Chomp – to chew (food) noisily

Champ – to bite upon or grind, especially impatiently; to make vigorous chewing or biting movements with the jaws and teeth

Second, “chomping at the bit” is the Americanization of the English idiom “champing at the bit” and there are references to this change as early as 1920 in the United States.

I certainly don’t want to offend my friends who raise, care for, and train horses, nor do I wish to offend the grammatical purists who carry on the battle of preserving these idioms and phrases. It’s been an interesting history lesson on the etymology of these phrases and I’m champing at the bit to learn more.

Have a grammar rule you’d like me to explore? Drop me a line at

Author Catherine Spicer is a manager of customer content services at PR Newswire.