Author Archives: catherinespicer

Grammar Hammer: Because

It’s the exchange that has befuddled small children forever:

Offspring: “Why?”

Parent: “Because.”

Sound familiar?  I heard that a lot as a kid, and you probably did, too. But what about this one?

“I’m moving to Hawaii because winter.”

Did the conjunction “because” just become a preposition? When did that happen? I know I may miss things from time to time, like whatever new TV series everyone else is watching but me, but I think I’d remember if a word I have always used as a subordinating conjunction now takes on new life as a preposition. Not a compound preposition (“because of…”), but an outright preposition.

Is this just a fad? Will this eventually morph into what is considered acceptable vernacular (like saying someone graduated college, a topic I addressed last spring)? Or is this just meme-induced slang?

This is apparently a THING now. The “prepositional-because.” Linguists have named it the “because NOUN”. Neal Whitman, in a post for Grammar Girl, found an example from 2008 and described it as “putting hand waving into words.”

I’ve been pouring over articles this week, reading about my beloved home state of West Virginia cleaning up after a major chemical spill that hit the water supply of some 300,000 residents in nine counties. The overall population of the state of West Virginia in 2012 was 1.855 million, and this chemical spill affected 16% of the entire state’s population. For some perspective, the population of New York City in 2012 was 8.337 million – if something pollutes 16% of their water supply, we’re talking about 1.33 million people. Sixteen percent of a population without access to clean, potable water is a big deal, because human rights.

If you know me personally, you’ll be able infer my tone, my sense of humor (although chemical spills are never funny), and the implied “there’s-more-to-the-story-but-you-already-know-it”. If you don’t, the reasons behind the “because” are left solely to your interpretation.

Is this just the next step in the devolution of language? My sister recently rented the movie “Cloud Atlas.” She said she had to turn on the subtitles during the most futuristic part of the movie because the characters spoke in such abbreviated language. If you’ve seen the movie or read the book, you know what she’s talking about. I haven’t yet, so I’ll just take her word for it.

Internet memes aside, whether or not this continues as a trend, a fad, or a passing fancy remains to be seen. I’ve said before I’m a purist at heart and tend to cling to old-school rules when it comes to grammar. Maybe this will find its way into more than just the vernacular. Until then, I will keep my subordinating conjunctions and compound prepositions to myself because…

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: Passive Aggressive Voice (Not Behavior!)

This week we’re looking at the difference between the active and passive voices, and how to use (or avoid) their use.

Active voice: the subject of the sentence performs the action described in the verb.

Example: “I shoveled the driveway.”

The subject does the action to the object. I shoveled the driveway. The benefit to using active voice?  It makes your writing more concise and keeps the meaning of the sentence clear.

Passive voice: the subject is acted upon.

Example: “The driveway was shoveled.”

I intentionally left off the “by me” part of this to illustrate one way of determining passive voice.  If you can add “by so-and-so” to the end, the sentence is written in passive voice.

Passive voice is often used in scientific writing. It allows the writer to present information without having to attribute it to a particular agent. For non-scientific writing, passive voice is useful when the agent doing the action is obvious or unimportant, or if the writer wants to avoid mentioning the agent until the end of the sentence, if at all.

Identifying passive voice: if the object of the sentence is in the subject position = passive.

Three quick tips for avoiding passive voice mistakes:

  1. Don’t start a sentence in active voice and change it to passive voice (or vice versa).
  2. Avoid dangling modifiers.
  3. Trust your judgment. Your computer-programmed grammar checker may not have all the answers, you know.

And because English is confusing, remember that passive voice will always include some form of “to be” – am, is, was, were, are, been – but the presence of that verb doesn’t always mean passive voice.

If you really want to reduce your use of the passive voice, try the Paramedic Method.

Write your sentence and pick it apart!

  1. Circle the prepositions (of, in, about, for, onto, into)
  2. Draw a box around the “is” verb forms
  3. Ask, “Where’s the action?”
  4. Change the “action” into a simple verb
  5. Move the doer into the subject (Who’s kicking whom)
  6. Eliminate any unnecessary slow wind-ups
  7. Eliminate any redundancies.

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

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

The Top 10 Grammar Conundrums of 2013

Over the course of last year, our beloved Grammar Hammer tackled a host of topics, ranging from verb tenses to punctuation,  and everything in between.

The most popular Grammar Hammer posts for the year focused on basics, for the most part, and here are the ten that garnered the most readers.

I thank you for your interest in Grammar Hammer and welcome your suggestions for topics I should revisit or add to my list for 2014!

Connect with me on ProfNetConnect ( for a complete archive of my previous Grammar Hammer posts.

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: Hypothetically Speaking…

Image via Screened

It’s not often that we get into science when we start talking about writing. So, this week, we’ll delve into a little geek-speak and look at the differences between hypothetical things and theoretical things.

Hypothetical refers to things that are “assumed by hypothesis; of, pertaining to, or characterized by hypothesis; given to making hypotheses.” The fourth definition involves the principles of logic of either a highly conjectural/not well supported by available evidence proposition or a conditional proposition.

Theoretical refers to something that is “of, or pertaining to, or consisting in theory.” Theories are a coherent group of tested general propositions, commonly regarded as correct.

Here’s the kicker – theory/hypothesis; hypothetical/theoretical – the dictionary lists them as SYNONYMS. Sigh, ok, so what’s a well-meaning word nerd to do? Common usage has these two words being fairly interchangeable when considering something “speculative.”

“Hypothetically, if I run 10 miles a day, I’ll lose weight.”

“Theoretically, if I run 10 miles a day, I’ll lose weight.”

If I run 10 miles a day, I’ll lose weight – is that a theory (tested general proposition, commonly regarded as correct) or a hypothesis (a proposition set forth as an explanation for the occurrence of some specified group of phenomena)? Remember that a theory started out as a hypothesis, and through proven experiments, became a fully-tested theory. A hypothesis starts out as an educated guess on what we think will happen. Proving ourselves right or wrong will take that hypothesis to a theory.

My #1 writing tip is to always consider your audience. If I’m writing for a scientific journal, I’m going to make darn sure that I’ve got my hypotheses and theories in separate corners and dragging them out in appropriate context, lest I be raked over the coals by someone with multiple advanced degrees and published works on a particular theory.  In less formal writing, I don’t know that anyone else would really know the difference.

Quick recap:

  • Educated guess? Hypothesis.
  • Proven and generally accepted as true? Theory.

This topic came up as we were trying to troubleshoot a technical issue, so it is really interesting to look at this in that context. When asked if the fix we were trying to put in would work, should we have said, “Theoretically, yes.” or “Hypothetically, yes.”?

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 will probably never run 10 miles a day, ever.

Grammar Hammer: Into the Great Wide Open

You know what’s been tripping me up as of late? When to use “in” versus “into.” I don’t know why this is suddenly so complicated to me, but that’s the beauty of having a weekly deadline where I can write about such things; it gives me an excuse to settle the spectacular arguments I have with myself on how something should be written.

In order to try and simplify the differences here, I’m going to break things down by function.

Easy: “In” refers to position.

Example: “My keys are always in my pocket.”

“Into” refers to movement that is happening.

Example: “I shoved the pile of dirty laundry into the closet before my mother arrived.”

Not as easy: “In” can be an adverb, preposition, noun, or adjective. “To” can be a preposition, an adverb, or part of an infinitive, so let’s consider function.

Motion or Direction

Example: “She walked into the store, swinging her purse wildly.” (Into is the preposition, showing which direction she was walking.)

Example: “My kitten, Pip, crashed into the bookcase during last night’s 3 a.m. racing spell.” (Into references movement)

I think this last part is where I get tripped up the most – when “in” or “to” are part of the verb. If I say, “We dove [in to/into] the pool as soon as we reached the hotel,” which should it be? Here’s the one thing I can remember – if the word “to” is being used as an infinitive, it should be kept separate from “in.” For example, “She came in to hear the beautiful music that was being played.”

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: To Complement Your Compliment

Nutella pie. (Good luck thinking about anything else for the rest of the day.)

Occasionally, I see a “compliment/complement” typo in a news release that crosses my desk. It doesn’t happen that often, so when I do see it, I always pause for a moment to review. I think it’s because this is a homophone, where the words sound the same regardless of spelling. It’s only one little letter, right? That one little letter changes its meaning, so it’s important to learn which is which.


“Bill makes the best pies! His Nutella pie is my favorite.” I’ve just given Bill a compliment – a kind or flattering remark.


Bourbon whipped cream is the perfect complement to Bill’s Nutella pie. Complement, with an “e,” refers to bringing something to perfection or a number or quantity of something required to make a group complete. In this example, Nutella pie and bourbon whipped cream is a set (a perfectly matched one, in my opinion).  To put it another way, “We needed a full complement of friends to finish Bill’s fantastic Nutella pie.” A complement to your compliment.

Quick tip

Easiest way I’ve found to remember compliment vs. complement – it’s all about me.  I like to give compliments. Adding emphasis to the “i” in compliment helps me remember that I’m saying something nice.

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.

Photo credit: Bill Hart-Davidson. Recipe for nutella pie found here.

Grammar Hammer: The Things You Miss on Vacation

Our belated nod to National Punctuation Day.

I recently returned from a two-week vacation to Wyoming, visiting family and some of the greatest national parks (yes, this was pre-shutdown). The downside to coming back from vacation is that I always seem to miss the best stuff while I’m out.

I missed National Punctuation Day (NPD). National Punctuation Day® takes place every year on September 24 and this year marks the 10th anniversary. The National Punctuation Day web site offers lots of ideas on how to celebrate National Punctuation Day. You can enter an essay contest to commemorate NPD. In no more than 250 words, talk about how NPD has affected the way you think about punctuation (or not). You could cook the official meat loaf of National Punctuation Day®, a punctuation meat loaf. Or, you could pick up a copy of the local paper and circle all of the punctuation errors you find with a red pen (um, I sort of do this with everything I read, don’t you?). I’ve tackled a few topics on punctuation for Grammar Hammer (ellipsis, commas, semi-colons), but I’m sure there are more topics to conquer.

I missed Talk Like a Pirate Day. Held annually on September 19, this is your chance to ditch the vernacular and instead communicate in all ways pirate. Why? Why not? Really, sometimes the best point to something is that there is no point. For years, I’ve had the discussion with my team on whether or not we can answer the phone, “Thank you for calling P Arrrrrrrrrrrr Newswire…” but yet, every year, we chicken out and stick with the more professional option. Talk Like a Pirate Day started in 1995 (which is the same year I started at P Arrrrrrrrrrr Newswire, actually) when John Baur and Mark Summers started speaking in pirate slang during a racquetball game. Columnist Dave Barry took up the charge and helped propel Talk Like a Pirate Day into the stratosphere with this column. Now, there are books, games, pickup lines, and even knitting patterns you can purchase.

With my vacation over, I’m getting back into the routine of weekly grammar topics. Maybe I need to hook into Grammarly’s NaNoWriMo for a chance to pen 800 words of an epic, crowd-sourced novel.

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.

(Correction to photo credit: In the post “To Pique Your Interest”, the photo of the Tetons was taken by my uncle, Ralph Haberfeld. The photo was used with his permission.)

Grammar Hammer: I Just Can’t Go Any Further (or Farther).

I forget why I decided that this would be my topic for the week. I probably had an email I was writing and trying to figure out which word to use when I experienced a brain drain so severe I rewrote the sentence to avoid using either word. Here’s the good news – further and farther essentially mean the same thing (at a greater distance), but there are some specific guidelines to follow for correct grammatical usage.

Here’s an easy way to remember which to use when referring to that greater distance:

  • Physical distance = farther

Example #1 – “I rode my bike 25 miles today, which is farther than I’ve ever gone before.”

  • Metaphorical or figurative distance = further

Example – “She was the first woman in her family to graduate college, taking her education further than anyone else had.”

What if it’s not 100% related to physical or figurative distance? Let’s say that my book club’s latest choice is to read War and Peace. The following month, at least half of us haven’t finished the book by the time we meet to discuss. Since we still want to talk about the book, we want to know where everyone has ended up, so we ask each person for an update. How would we ask that question?

“How much further do you have to go?” meaning the figurative distance in the story? Or would you say, “How much farther do you have to go?” meaning the physical number of pages left to read?

Thankfully, resources like the Oxford English Dictionary and Fowler’s Modern American Usage give us some leeway in using further/farther interchangeably, particularly if the distinction isn’t clear (number of pages versus where you ended up in the storyline).  If you are still unsure on which word to use, you can’t go wrong with using further, according to Grammarist. I think that wraps things up pretty nicely, so I don’t see a need to go any further.

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 Fall Reading List

The kids are back in school. Fall schedules have started to fill with football games, soccer games, and band practice. Those household projects you’d planned to do all summer are now more pressing as the leaves start to fall and the weather cooperates less and less. I start looking for those rare moments when I can grab my book, a cup of coffee, and park myself in a chair to read for a few minutes.

I’m all about reading lists right now, compiling my list of books to keep me company on planes, trains, and automobiles as my family and I tour Yellowstone and the countryside of Wyoming later in September. I’m taking suggestions for must-reads on my trip.

I’ve also been asked for my favorite grammar reads, so in the spirit of my fall reading list, I’m sharing my favorite books for my fellow grammarians and word nerds.

  • “Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation” by Lynne Truss – “It’s tough being a stickler for punctuation these days,” Truss writes. YES. Yes, it is.
  • “Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing” by Mignon Fogarty – Grammar Girl was one of the first resources I sought out when I was asked to take over the Grammar Hammer feature for PR Newswire. Her tips have been invaluable. Follow her on Twitter @GrammarGirl.
  • “Yes, I Could Care Less,” “The Elephants of Style,” and “Lapsing Into a Comma” three books by Bill Walsh – I bought Walsh’s first book (“Lapsing Into a Comma”) right after it was published in 2000. I’ve always enjoyed his books and appreciate his dedication to the craft. In case you missed it, there was a fun Q&A with Walsh on the Washington Post this week. Follow him on Twitter @TheSlot.

There are also a few staple resources I would recommend:

  • AP Stylebook and Manual – I don’t get this question as often as I used to, but periodically clients would ask me what style they should use in their press releases. We always recommended AP style and it’s usually the first place I look if I’m trying to figure out the proper way of listing something.
  • Chicago Manual of Style – One of my career regrets was not taking advantage of a class that was just a few blocks from where I worked in Chicago that taught the Chicago Manual of Style. The most recent edition also offers key tips in electronic publishing.
  • “The Elements of Style” by William Strunk and E.B. White – Concise and powerful, this book is a staple for any writer.

What books make the cut for your shelf?

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: To Pique Your Interest

This gorgeous picture was taken by the Grammar Hammer herself.

The Teton Range in Wyoming has 12 peaks that are over 12,000 feet in elevation. The highest peak is the Grand Teton, which has a staggering height of 13,770 feet. The reason I’m bringing this up is that I’ll be spending a couple of weeks visiting family who live in Wyoming, near Grand Teton National Park.

This is a part of the country I’ve not visited before, so naturally, my curiosity is piqued. What sort of animals will we see? How cold will it get being that high above sea level? I decided to take a peek at the website for the Grand Teton National Park and got lots of details on the geology of the mountain range, when the land was officially declared a national park and some key things to see when I visit.

I’ve had several requests to explore the differences between pique, peak, and peek. All three words sound the same, but each word has a distinct meaning.

The two words that are probably most easily confused are peek and peak. Here’s how I keep them straight:

  • Peek – in order to take a peek at something, you need to SEE with your eyes, so SEE and PEEK both have a double-E.
  • Peak – this word takes a couple of different forms. Using “peak” as a noun means “a high point.” Example: I expect to see the peaks of the Teton Mountain Range from the airplane as I’m flying into Jackson. Think of it this way, the peak of a mountain has a peak like the top of the letter “A.” You can also use “peak” as a verb, which means “to reach a high point.” For example: My interest in mountain climbing peaked when I was about 10.

And if all of this has piqued your interest, you’re referring to “pique” which is a French word for “to stimulate.”

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.