Tag Archives: Writing tips

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 catherine.spicer@prnewswire.com.

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 catherine.spicer@prnewswire.com.

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 catherine.spicer@prnewswire.com.

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 catherine.spicer@prnewswire.com.

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

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 catherine.spicer@prnewswire.com.

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 Dictionary.com 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 Slate.com 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 catherine.spicer@prnewswire.com.

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 catherine.spicer@prnewswire.com

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 catherine.spicer@prnewswire.com.

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

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: 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 catherine.spicer@prnewswire.com.

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