Tag Archives: Writing tips

Grammar Hammer: ICYMI, Catfishing and Brick Have New Definitions

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Oxford Dictionary

The Oxford Dictionary just unveiled the newest additions to their dictionary, and I have to admit that I was caught quite off guard by some of the entries. Apart from some buzz-wordy jargon that I could see in professional writing (pharmacovigilance), most of these words are ones I would only expect to see in more casual styles of writing or slang phrases like “hot diggity” and “spit take,” but I did learn a few interesting new things:

Catfishing- a concept recently made famous by MTV, means “to lure (someone) into a relationship by adopting a fictional online persona.”

Brick- what I originally only thought of as a rectangular block made of clay used to build things is now also a reference to early-model cell phones that were large and heavy or to mobile devices that no longer work and just sits there (like a brick).

I also finally learned the meanings of acronyms typically used in text messaging or social media such as:

SMH – shaking my head

ICYMI – in case you missed it

YOLO – you only live once

What are your thoughts on the recent additions to the Oxford English Dictionary? See Oxford’s list here (http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2014/08/oxford-dictionaries-update-august-2014).

Have a grammar rule you’d like me to explore? Drop me a line at catherine.spicer@prnewswire.com.

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

Grammar Hammer: All Day “Every Day” or “Everyday”?

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everyday vs every day

A suggestion from a loyal reader inspired this week’s Grammar Hammer. Is everyday one word or two words (every day)?

Both variations refer to an activity that occurs on a daily basis. As usual, the best way to determine which version to use depends on the context. If I am discussing the routine activities that comprise my life, I would call those “everyday activities,” because in this instance, “everyday” is used as an adjective to describe those activities.

Examples:

  • I found the best shoes! They are perfect for everyday wear.
  • When it comes to hosting the big holiday meal, I don’t use the everyday dishes, instead I use our finest china.
  • “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” is not a word that you hear in everyday speech.

Remember: when using “everyday,” think of commonplace or ordinary things

If I’m telling you something that I do each day, I would say, “I have to fix my cup of coffee every day before I even think about tackling email.” I’m using “every” as an adjective in this instance to describe the noun “day.”

Examples:

  • One thing that makes my house smell fresh and clean is to scoop the cat’s litter box every day.
  • Every day, I try to walk 10,000 steps.
  • I have an uncontrollable urge to nap every day at 2:41 p.m.

Remember: if your variation of everyday/every day can be replaced with “each day?” you need the adjective + noun formula of “every” and “day.”

Have a grammar rule you’d like me to explore? Drop me a line at catherine.spicer@prnewswire.com.

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

Grammar Hammer: Elicit vs. Illicit

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Elicit v IllicitElicit and illicit might sound similar, but technically they are not homophones and their meanings are vastly different.  The words are occasionally confused due to their similar pronunciation and spelling , which is why they are the focus of today’s Grammar Hammer.

“Elicit” is a verb that means “to obtain.” It can also mean “to draw out, to extract, or to evoke.” For example, “The community advocate elicited hundreds of signatures to prevent the destruction of neighborhood landmarks.”

“Illicit” is an adjective that means “disapproved for moral reasons.” For example, “The IT department scanned all computers for illicit activity.”

To help you remember – use “illicit” if you are describing something that is typically against the rules. Use “elicit” when you are (or aren’t) receiving something (a response, etc.).

Have a grammar rule you’d like me to explore? Drop me a line at catherine.spicer@prnewswire.com.

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

Grammar Hammer: Justice is Served for Common “Word Crimes”

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I would be remiss if I didn’t spotlight Weird Al Yankovic’s latest hit, “Word Crimes” as the star of this week’s Grammar Hammer. Off his newest album, “Mandatory Fun,” the viral sensation tackles the most egregious grammar errors of all time and proves once and for all that you can be a stunningly creative songwriter and still employ the rules of grammar to get your point across.

To my delight, I counted ten grammar topics mentioned in “Word Crimes” that I have also covered via Grammar Hammer:

  • Verb tense
  • Nouns and prepositions
  • Less vs. Fewer
  • I could care less
  • Oxford comma
  • Homophones
  • Who/Whom
  • Quotation Marks
  • Good vs. Well
  • Literally vs. Figuratively

I also gained a few more great suggestions for future posts, which shows that we have a lot of work left to do when it comes to fighting bad grammar. At PR Newswire, the Customer Content Services Team thoroughly reads each press release that crosses our wire and catches around 4,000 errors per month. It’s slightly embarrassing (but more delightful) to think about how often I engage in conversations about grammar with my team.

Tweet your favorite #wordcrimes to me @cathyspicer or drop me a line at catherine.spicer@prnewswire.com.

You might also want to check out Grammarly’s exclusive interview with Yankovic about the song and the challenges of proper grammar in songwriting.

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

13 Tips for Writing and Pitching Op-Ed Stories

New York Times writer, Jennifer Finney Boylan

Op-ed pieces are unique in their structure, length, voice in comparison to other non-fiction writing. Knowing how to merge your opinion with factual information is an important part of writing op-ed pieces and attracting readers to your story, is a skill that takes time and practice to finesse.  Jennifer Finney Boylan, author, speaker, and writer for New York Times Opinion joined our last #ConnectChat discussion, where she not only shared how she writes op-ed pieces and turn them into compelling stories, but also about how to pitch them to major publications. Here are 13 tips from Boylan all op-ed writers should remember:

Write a clear headline, but don’t expect it to make the final cut.
Writers almost never choose their own headlines. In fact, the editor won’t even consult you about the headline most of the time. This is an ancient writer/editor practice. Headlines are chosen based on space as much as anything else, and positioning. My recent piece in the NYT, “Home is Where the Horses Are” was originally titled “Why the Long Face.” Still, you need to have a headline on your piece when you submit it. That helps the editor know what you’re up to, especially if your piece is a “gimmick” piece.

Hook the reader in right away with an anecdote, humorous ones work best. Then try to “show” how the story connects to an issue in the news, or of note. Wrap up it up by circling back to the joke in a new way.

The ideal length for op-eds is 800 words; original pieces 1,200 words.The NYT prefers 800 words for a standard op-ed column, like the regulars: Brooks, Collins, Bruni, etc. If I’m pitching an original piece, I go as long as 1,200 words with a note to the editor saying, “This is long; I can cut.” Having a relationship with the editor is an advantage because I know she will read my work. Sunday columns are a bit longer as well because there is more space in the Sunday Review.

Tell a story that also advocates a “position” backed up by fact and research. Op-ed pieces differ from other nonfiction in that it really is about opinion -you can’t just tell the story and leave it at that. For example, acclaimed New York Times economist Paul Krugman discusses economic facts, but he makes those stats into a compelling, moving story. The story generally comes first, along with your own charming voice, then the research.

Be aware that your opinions become public, and will become associated with you. For instance, I’m the national co-chair of the board of directors of GLAAD, and I have to be careful. People will think that my opinions are GLAAD’s opinions if I write about LGBT issues. As a writer, I don’t draw lines — I want to write about everything! As a public figure, I have to be careful not to damage the brand of the organization. Bottom line is, I try to be very careful, and don’t write when I’ll jeopardize the organization.

Be true to your personal writing style. Each writer has his or her own style, of course. It might be cliché, but your best bet is to be yourself. People can tell if you’re faking it. I bet you could read a “typical” column by one of the Times’ dozen or so regulars and know within a graph who wrote it.

Target your pitch to the most relevant publications that will connect with that story. If your story has a strong connection to a place, go to the paper in that town. You can also build a portfolio of clips starting small and going more national. My first published column was for the Middletown Press, in Connecticut about graduating from that town’s Wesleyan University. If it’s your first story, it’s good way to establish your credentials.

Pitch stories tied to seasonal events a month ahead of time.
Timing is everything in pitching as is a hook. Editors aren’t interested in your random genius. So know that, the Monday before Father’s Day, editors will be flooded with pieces about daddies. So if you’re going to write a Father’s Day piece, write it in May and send it in early.

Prioritize breaking news stories. Finding a good hook is an art, but sometimes you have to wait for the news cycle to give you your lede as well. For example, I had a piece ready to go for the Times this spring when I heard the news about the new SAT on the radio. I sent a note to my editor saying, “Hold the other piece, I’m writing an SAT thing,” and sent it in next morning, which was published the day after. If I’d waited two days later, the editor would have been swamped in SAT pieces.

Take advantage of Summer writing opportunities. Regular NYT columnists take vacations in the summer, so they’re always looking for people to fill. That’s how I became a regular after the “postcard” series — I became a designated summer filler — columnist “substitute teacher.” For up and comers and freelancers, this is an ideal opportunity.

Format your email pitch appropriately. In addition to attaching your piece as an email to the editor, paste it in as text as well. That way the editor doesn’t have to open your word document to read the piece; It’s right there and your lede is already grabbing their attention. Also, seriously: use 18 point type in the email paste. Make it big. Editors are not in their 20s. Have pity. Also, even though this is very particular, use a serif font, palatino or, say, times. Never use sans-serif font.

Be considerate to your editor and continue to build upon your relationship. Be respectful. Don’t be too annoying. If they encourage you, keep conversing. Be pleasant on email, but brief; keep in mind that editors are usually overworked. If they say no, accept that no means no. But if they pass on your story in a nice way, send them something else, although not right away.

Don’t give up hope – opportunities arise when you least expect them. How I went from a one-shot column to a regular political “postcard” series in the New York Times is a good story. I’d had a really great lunch with the editor in NY. Later, I saw the Times building and thought it would be a good idea to stop in and say hello. Next thing I know, he and others were sitting around a table asking me, “What do you got?” Suddenly I realized they thought I was there to pitch.

Thinking quickly, I pitched a half-baked idea about two general stores in my hometown– one Republican, one Democratic. They sent me on my way, and I didn’t hear anything back. Three months later, I receive a call from the editor saying, “That thing about the general stores? Write it. Need it by tomorrow.” In my case, another columnist’s work wasn’t any good, so they needed a filler and remembered my story.  I scrambled and wrote it in a day and that’s how I landed the gig.  The moral of the story is: you never know when the publication of your dreams will need you, so don’t lose heart.

polina opelbaumAuthor  Polina Opelbaum is the editor of ProfNet, a service that helps journalists connect with expert sources. To read more from Polina, check out her blog on ProfNet Connect.

 

Grammar Hammer: Whiling Away the Hours

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While away the hours

While means to “pass the time, especially in some leisurely or pleasant manner”

I often see “wile away the hours” used interchangeably with “while away the hours,” so which is correct?

Technically, they both are, but there are some subtle differences one should consider.

“To while away the hours” means to “pass time idly” or to “pass time, especially in some leisurely or pleasant manner.” For example, “I spent hours whiling away on the beach last Sunday.”

“Wile” is generally used as a noun, meaning “trickery” or “cunning” (who could forget Wile E. Coyote?); “a disarming or seductive manner;” or “a trick intended to deceive.” It can also be used as a verb to mean “influence by wile.” In that context, wiling away the hours on a lazy Sunday afternoon could take on an entirely new meaning.

Therefore, “while away the hours” is the preferred expression. “Wile” exists as a means of poetic license to convey a particular mood or theme. For context, “Wile E. Coyote wiles away his time trying to catch that pesky Road Runner.”

Have a grammar rule you’d like me to explore? Drop me a line at catherine.spicer@prnewswire.com.

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

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 catherine.spicer@prnewswire.com.

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