Author Archives: catherinespicer

Grammar Hammer: Why So Tense?

“While I was walking through the park, this giant spider appears out of nowhere and scared the living daylights out of me!” What’s wrong with that sentence? Absolutely nothing, if you’re as terrified of spiders as I am*, but at least a few things if you’re a stickler for verb tense.

Verb tense is a slippery slope when we mix in informal writing, casual speech and the art of storytelling. Here are a few things to keep in mind when it comes to keeping the tension to a minimum on verb tense.

Verb tense reflects a sense of time. And timing, as they say, is everything. Here’s a quick rundown on your basic verb tenses:

  • Present tense – things are happening now.

Simple present tense – I walk. He walks. They walk.

Simple present progressive – I am walking. He is walking. They are walking.

  • Past tense – been there, done that.

Simple past tense (completed action or condition) – I walked. He walked. They walked.

Present perfect (completed or continuing action or condition) – I have been walking for an hour. My feet have been hurting.

Past perfect (action completed  before another) – I had walked at least two miles before you joined me for the last two.

Past progressive (continuous completed action) – I had three good walks last week.

Present perfect progressive (action going into present) – I have been walking every day this week.

Past perfect progressive (continuing action interrupted by another) – I had been walking through the park when it started to rain.

  • Future tense – things that will happen.

Simple future – I will walk tomorrow morning.

Future perfect (future action done before another) – By the time this post is out, I will have walked two miles.

Future progressive (continuing future action) – I will be walking every day on my vacation.

Future perfect progressive (continuing future action done before another) – When we get to the airport, I will have met my walking goal of 10 miles per week.

How we apply this in our writing, as always, depends on context. There are two overall guidelines I would recommend you follow.

  1. Don’t change the tense of the verb unless the timing of an action demands that you do.
  2. Keep verb tense consistent in sentences, paragraphs, and essays.

*Note to the spider lovers out there – I respect spiders immensely for the job they do as long as they follow one cardinal rule:  do not come into my house. If a spider enters my house, it has crossed MY web and, therefore, must be destroyed. Unless, of course, it moves at all, then I will scream and throw my shoe at it. Check out a beautiful (albeit terrifying in any other setting than a garden) Orb Weaver I saw on a recent visit to a friend’s farm.

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 occasional arachnophobe.

Grammar Hammer: When Did Literally Stop Being Literal?

Have you ever been so angry that you were literally foaming at the mouth? What if I asked you to tell me about the last time you were trying to figure out a pile of medical bills? Or the last time you tried to have a conversation with customer service at one of your utility providers? Was there foam coming out of your mouth?

When did literally stop meaning just that – literally? CNN posted a story this week about Google, Merriam-Webster and Cambridge dictionaries adding a secondary definition to “literally,” with being a lone holdout in not changing the definition, and even going so far as to add an editor’s note on the modern usage of this word for dramatic effect.

Literally means “exactly, in a strict sense, or to the letter.”  The second definition uses “literally” as an effect “used to acknowledge that something is not literally true but is used for emphasis or to express a strong feeling.” If we’re sticking with the true definition of “literally,” then I think it’s safe to say that it is literally one of the most overused words in the English language.

Figuratively means “in a metaphorical sense.” In my customer service example, I was figuratively foaming at the mouth trying to contact the cable company. But no one says that, do they? We have a lot of historical precedence for the use of “literally” that stretches as far back as the 1800s.  There’s a great piece on this subject on that takes us through history and how authors such as Jane Austen and Mark Twain used “literally” to add emphasis.

Now, I’ll be honest, I don’t come across this word that often in the news releases that hit my desk every day. But in other writing, literally has become a literal sticking point for many. If I think about what my late grandfather, The Colonel (who taught English at a military school), would advise, he’d probably say, “Granddaughter, your writing should be clear and succinct, and not silly-sounding.” Great advice, Grandpa.

I will have to give kudos to CM Punk for his Grammar Slam on literally vs. figuratively. I know some of my staunch grammarians share in his zeal (and take note, some of the language is NSFW).

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

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

Grammar Hammer: That Which Does Not Kill Us Makes Us Stronger

Nietzsche’s famous quote serves as the lead-in for this week’s topic – when to use that vs. which.

Both “that” and “which” are used with types of clauses. Determining the type of clause will help you know when to use “that” or “which.”

There are two types of clauses to look at here – restrictive and non-restrictive. A restrictive clause gives essential information about the preceding noun and will change the meaning of a sentence if it is removed. A non-restrictive clause gives non-essential information (also referred to as an appositive, or an interruption or side note in a sentence).

To keep this simple – use “that” when you are introducing a restrictive clause.

Example: “The coat that I wear to work every day has become completely threadbare.”

Use “which” with a non-restrictive clause.

Example: “The coat that I wear to work every day has become completely threadbare, which means I need to buy a new coat.”

Punctuation Note:  Which is usually preceded by a comma since it is introducing a non-restrictive clause.


“That” = necessary to the meaning of the sentence

“Which” = expendable – nice detail, but not critical to the meaning

Think you’ve got it down? Take the fun little online quiz I found!

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: Pleading the Case

I am based in Cleveland, Ohio, and it’s been a bleak week when it comes to news in Cleveland. The Plain Dealer (in publication since 1842) eliminated around 50 jobs. On my route to work each morning this week, I’ve seen news trucks from every major network, spanning about a city block, with satellites raised, tents and lights up, and cameras pointed at the justice center. There has been almost nonstop coverage of the Ariel Castro case as he was sentenced on Thursday to life in prison without the possibility of parole plus an additional 1,000 years for the kidnapping and subsequent 10-year hell he subjected three young women to.

As the Ariel Castro case came to a head, a plea deal was struck. Castro was indicted on 977 counts of crime including kidnapping, rape, and aggravated murder. On July 26, 2013, he struck a deal. He pleaded guilty (or is it “he pled guilty?”) and was sentenced on August 1, 2013.

The AP Style Guide doesn’t mince words on pleaded vs. pled. It says, “Don’t use the colloquial past tense form, pled.” OK, got it.

To place a slightly finer point on the subject, the Dictionary of Modern Legal usage recommends “pleaded” as the best past tense and past participle form of “plead” (remember “plea” is a noun, “plead” is a verb).

Finally, Grammarist offers the following:

Pleaded is the standard past tense and past participle of the verb plea. Pled has always been considered incorrect by people who make such judgments, but it is so common that we have to accept it as an alternative form. And pled is not just an Americanism, as some have claimed. It appears just as often (about one pled for every twenty pleadeds) in current British and Canadian news publications. Australians are the exception; they still seem to shun pled almost completely.

I feel like this is one of those words like “judgment.” I’ve never spelled it “judgement,” but that is also now just as widely used as “judgment.” I will stick to what I know and remember my audience when choosing which word to use, offering no judgment of others.

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: Lay Your Hands On Me

I’m sticking with my power song theme this week even after being accused of giving several co-workers an earworm with last week’s post (sorry, folks). Bon Jovi provides the soundtrack to this week’s post as I try to decipher the proper use of lay and lie (or I could go totally retro and use this song by The Thompson Twins, released 4 years prior to Bon Jovi’s song with the same title).

I think we can get the easy part out of the way first. If you tell an untruth, you’re telling a lie. If you told an untruth, you lied. If you’re really tired at the end of the day, you will lie down on the sofa. If I’m going to take this pile of magazines and put it somewhere, I’m going to lay them down on the table.

Quick tip: Lay = things; Lie = people

You will use lay if the action is being done to an object. “I lay my clothes out for work tomorrow morning so I don’t have to rush around as much.” Lay means “to put or set something down.”

Lie means “to be, to stay, or to assume rest in a horizontal position.” In most cases, the subject will be the one doing the lying. “I love to snag my favorite magazine and lie on the couch for an hour to read.”

Simple, right? Well, yes, as long as we’re dealing in the present tense.

The past tense of lie is lay. Here we go, back into the grammatical mine field. If it makes you feel any better, every resource I consulted on this subject offered some form of a chart to try to help you keep these different words straight and no one had an easy answer on how to remember it. I found this one helpful.

My best advice to you is to think first about who’s doing the action. If the subject is the one doing the action, use lie (and the subsequent past tense lay or past participle lain). If the object is the thing being set down, use lay (and the past tense and past participle laid).

Clear as mud, right?

Get your digital playlist and blame popular music for corrupting an already complicated grammatical quandary. Eric Clapton gave us “Lay Down Sally” (wrong – technically, it should be “Lie Down Sally,” but I’m not about to argue with Eric Clapton). Snow Patrol’s song Chasing Cars could be a grammatical quiz.  Is this right or is this wrong?

If I lay here

If I just lay here

Would you lie with me and just forget the world

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

Grammar Hammer: Anyway You Want It*

Confession: I’m a big music nerd. My iPod is a schizophrenic mess of music and I would strongly caution against hitting “shuffle.” You will hear a rad flute solo followed by the Beastie Boys and then probably a power ballad by Journey. Anyway, for this week’s post, I thought I would look at the three adverbs of anyway, anyways, and anyhow.

Anyway: Something being done in any way or manner. Now, you may wonder when to use “anyway” (as one word) or “any way” (as two words). Consider your audience and whether or not the word “anyway” can be replaced with “in any case.” Formal writing may be better served by “in any case.”

Example: My trip to Paris next spring is going to be expensive, but I’m going anyway.

To use “any way” as two words, replace “any way” with “by any means” or “in any manner.”

Example: It’s been ten years since I’ve been to Paris and I’m going any way I can.

Anyways: In my opinion, this isn’t really a word. I hear this in conversation and it usually sets my teeth on edge. I just smile anyway and try to listen to what the person is saying instead of harping on the fact that they just said “anyways.” I know, language evolves and I should just relax. But, it’s a slippery slope. Interchanging anyway and anyways is a gateway drug to the disintegration of your/you’re, they’re/their/there and others. Just my two cents and I will now get off my soapbox.

Anyhow: Interchangeable with “anyway” as a conjunctive adverb. As a simple adverb, “anyhow” refers to something being done in a careless manner. Again, I advise you consider your audience to determine which word is best suited to what you’re trying to express.

* Yes, I realize the correct lyric is “Any way you want it…” but I claim artistic license to suit my own selfish need for a headline.

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: That Is, For Example

eg ie

I took a lot of English classes in high school and college, along with French classes, Italian classes, and German classes. I even took some Spanish classes a few years ago. One class I’ve never taken, though, is Latin class. So, for this week’s post, I’m exploring the differences between those little abbreviations that we use to make a point, e.g. when to use i.e. vs. e.g., both abbreviations for Latin words.

First, the basics – i.e. is the abbreviation for the Latin “id est” which roughly translates to “that is.” E.g. is the abbreviation for the Latin “exempli gratia,” which means “for example.”

Second, when to use i.e. – i.e. should be used as a clarification. Example: “I’ve been getting my favorite greens in my CSA this summer, i.e., kale, rainbow chard, and bok choy.” In this example, I’m giving you the three types of my favorite greens that have been showing up in my CSA – that is, in other words, in essence – kale, rainbow chard, and bok choy.

Third, when to use e.g. – e.g. should be used to introduce an example. “I’ve been getting some of my favorite greens in my CSA this summer, e.g., kale, rainbow chard, and bok choy.” The key difference here? I’m giving you examples, not a finite list. I also happen to like spinach, red leaf lettuce, and napa cabbage.

The nitty-gritty of the punctuation

These are abbreviations, so periods should always be included (and not listed as “ie” or “eg”). Do you use a comma after i.e. or e.g.? I always have and a quick rundown of various style guides supports my long-standing habit (thanks to Grammar Girl for the quick and easy reference):

  • Chicago Manual of Style: A comma is usually used after i.e. and e.g.
  • Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation: Commas are preferable/optional after the abbreviations.
  • The Columbia Guide to Standard American English: [Editors] require a comma after the second period [in these abbreviations].
  • The Guide to Grammar and Writing: The comma [following i.e. and e.g.] makes good sense.
  • Lynch Guide to Grammar: Both abbreviations should be followed by a comma.
  • Fowler’s Modern English Usage: Commas do not usually follow i.e. (No comment on e.g.)

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: A Look Back

I had the startling realization that it is already mid-way through 2013. I started writing for Grammar Hammer in mid-November, 2012 and as the daughter of a newspaper publisher and the granddaughter of an English teacher, I take great care in the posts I write and hope my late father and late grandfather would be proud of my carrying on the tradition of writers in our family. I have over six months’ worth of posts to consult when I start to compose the next post (may I be struck by lightning if I should repeat myself without having something materially different to say on the topic). Two key things I’ve learned since taking on this assignment:
  • Grammar matters. Each week I get a few emails in response to my posts, always thanking me for carrying on the grammatical torch (hey, we word nerds need to stick together).
  • Grammar stumps me at least once a week. I’ve got a running list of books I consult when it comes to writing these posts and making sure I’m correct on my grammar rules. The good news? I learn something every single week.

By far, the two most popular requests I get involve “affect/effect,” which I covered back in November (link to article here) and “me/myself/I,” which I covered back in January (link to article here). Otherwise, the suggestions I get from readers are for words that trip you up when you’re writing — when to use who/whom, who’s/whose, them/they/those, etc.

The most interesting posts I’ve written didn’t really have to do with subject verb agreement or whether ending a sentence with a preposition would land me some time in the grammatical slammer. I had a lot of fun researching the genesis of “begging the question,” grammar rules in poetry, and whether or not someone could or couldn’t care less.
I also have a nice supply of other suggestions that will keep me writing for the foreseeable future, but I’m sure there are more out there. What needs to be brought under my grammatical microscope?
A complete archive to my posts can be found here - and keep the suggestions coming!
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: Them’s the Breaks

Is this a typical Saturday morning in your house? “I can’t find my sunglasses.” Your significant other begins rifling through what I like to call “the bottomless pit” – that place where stuff ends up in a pile during the course of the week. This pile might contain car keys, the week’s mail, a crumpled up grocery list, a post-it note with something really important on it, and probably a cough drop or a few loose tic-tacs. “Wait,” your significant other says, “are these them?” Or should it be, “Are these they?”  What about, “Are these those?”

When to use “them”

“Them” is always used as a pronoun.

Example: Some friends of mine are planning a vacation to Italy. I want to go with them. “Them” is a simple pronoun acting as the object of the preposition “with.”

Example: I met with contractors last week about some potential home repairs. I told them that it would be at least a month before I’m ready to move forward. “Them” is a simple pronoun used as the object of the verb “told.”

When to use “they”

“They” is used as a pronoun.

Example: I heard the most amazing vocal group on the radio last week. I don’t think anyone can sing as well as they. Using “they” in this instance is grammatically correct as a subjective pronoun. If I were to extend that sentence, I would say, “I don’t think anyone can sing as well as they (the amazing vocal group) can sing.”

A good rule of thumb:  Only the subject form of the pronoun should be used with modals (can, should, will, do, did, etc.).

*Grammatical Minefield!* Don’t fall prey to the temptation to use “they” with a singular pronoun in an effort to maintain gender neutrality. Fill in the blanks: “When a person gets _____ driver’s license, ____ should carry it at all times.” Grammatically speaking, using “they” (or “their”) in this instance is incorrect. “They” is a plural pronoun trying to reference a singular noun. Either make the nouns plural or use a singular pronoun.

When to use “those”

“Those” can act as a pronoun and an adjective.

Example: Where did you get those shoes? “Those” is used an adjective to describe which shoes I’m referring to.

Example: Those are amazing shoes! “Those” is used as a simple pronoun, acting as the subject of the sentence.

(Bonus points if you know the origin of the phrase “Them’s the breaks.”)

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: The Tenets of Tenants

I always go back and reread what I’ve written several times. I may even read it out loud to make sure it sounds right. A news release that crossed my desk recently had me reading the same sentence a few times. The release was about an organization talking about its principles, but the word used was “tenant,” as in, “One of the key tenants of Organization X…”

I stopped. Read it again. Tenants. Wait, that’s wrong.  That should be “tenet,” right?


Here’s what’s interesting – there’s actually a pretty good reason why we confuse both of these words.  “Tenant” and “tenet” come from the Latin word “tenere,” which means “to hold.”  Other words that come from this Latin root are “tenacious” and “tenure.”

A “tenet” is an opinion, principle, dogma or doctrine, especially one held as true by members of a profession, group, or movement.  Going back to the Latin root – having a tenet is “to hold a belief.”

Example: A core tenet of PR Newswire is to positively impact our customer’s reputation, brand and revenue by enabling content to reach and engage target audiences.

A “tenant” is a person or group that rents and occupies land, a house, an office, and the like, from another for a period of time. A tenant “holds a lease.”

Example: PR Newswire is a tenant in the Penton Media Building in Cleveland, Ohio.

Tenants should have tenets, though. A tenet for a tenant should be to leave the space in the same condition or better than when you moved in. Ask anyone who has ever served on a homeowner’s association board or a condo board, and I’m sure they’ll tell you they have some tenets that pertain to how people live in their neighborhoods.

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 for PR Newswire.