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January, 2008

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Grammar, Punctuation And Usage
Writing Questions And Prescriptive Answers
By  N E Renton

English is such a multi-faceted language that proper use can turn up reader heat.
"Awkward Sentences"

Q. What is the best strategy for dealing with sentences which do not sound quite right?
A. It is usually much better to rewrite an awkward or confusing sentence completely, rather than to try to patch it. Often it is desirable to split a long or convoluted sentence into two or more shorter ones.

Jargon or acronyms which the intended audience might not understand are best avoided. At the very least, such items should be explained when first used and/or they should be included in a glossary.

"Stray Commas"

Q. A stockbroker recently wrote:
"The key assumption underpinning our forecast EPS growth, is the successful move into the US." Is the use of the comma in this way correct?
A. No! A surprising and astonishingly common error is the placing of a comma between a subject and the following verb. The commas in such sentences utterly destroy the natural flow of the message and should therefore be omitted. It is difficult to understand what logic causes so many writers to commit this sin.

A simple sentence may help. Would anybody really want to say the following: "My wife, is pretty."

"Have Got"

Q. Is it all right to say "have got"?
A. Usually not. The simple verb "have" in the sense of "possess" should never be rendered as "have got".
This combination of words would be appropriate only in contexts in which "have received" or "have acquired" or "have obtained" could be substituted - in other words, where the present perfect tense of the verb "to get" is really intended.

"Have Gotten"

Q. On a related matter, is it in order to say "have gotten" in Australia?
A. No. The modern American phrase "have gotten" is even uglier and thus more objectionable than the English "have got".
Thus: "I have gotten something."
could be rendered as:
"I have obtained something."

Actually, of course, "gotten" is archaic rather than very modern. The "-en" suffix for the past participles of strong verbs still survives in the biblical "ye have lien among the pots" (Psalms 68:13), in expressions such as "we are beholden to him", in a few adjectives such as begotten, cloven and stricken, in forgotten, and in relation to the verb "to get" itself in phrases such as "ill-gotten gains".

"Have Got To"

Q. Is there anything wrong with the following sentence?
"I have got to do this today."
A. Indeed there is. The verb "have to" meaning "must" should never be rendered as "have got to". Either of the following should be used instead:
"I have to do this today."
"I must do this today."

"Incorrect Placement Of Brackets Adjacent To Full Stops"

Q. Should a closing bracket precede or follow a full stop?
A. Whether a closing bracket should precede or follow a full stop always depends on the context. To illustrate:
"This is misleading (see page 17.)"
should be
"This is misleading (see page 17)."
because here the words in brackets are part of the main sentence.

"This is misleading. (The term is explained on page 17)."
should be
"This is misleading. (The term is explained on page 17.)"
because here the words in brackets form a completely separate sentence.

"Incorrect Placement Of Quotation Marks Adjacent To Full Stops"

Q. Should a closing quotation mark precede or follow a full stop?
A. As in the above question, whether a closing quotation mark should precede or follow a full stop always depends on the context.
Contrast the following:
She said, "My husband works hard."
Here the full stop comes first, because the quoted words form a complete sentence by themselves.
The plural of "man" is "men".
Here the full stop comes last, to show the end of the sentence.
The reverse order would be quite illogical, as the plural word required is "men" and not "men." in this context.

"Wrong Case After Prepositions And Verbs"

Q. One hears sentences such as the following all the time:
"This is a worry for your mother and I."
Why are they considered wrong?
A. The sentence should read:
"This is a worry for your mother and me."

The preposition "for" needs to be followed by the accusative case "me", not the nominative case "I". The fact that "for" and "me" are here separated by another object "your mother" makes no difference, a point frequently misunderstood. The following expansion may assist understanding:

"This is a worry for your mother and for me."
In the same way the Prime Ministers's famous "Who can you trust?" should, of course, have been "Whom can you trust?"

Verbs also take the accusative case. Thus:
"Please join Joan and I for refreshments."
should be:
"Please join Joan and me for refreshments."

"Wrong Case With Gerund"

Q. Which of the following sentences is correct?
"I approved of him coming to see me."
"I approved of his coming to see me."
A. The latter. The approval refers not to the person him but rather to the event his coming.

"The Spelling Of A Common Internet Term"

Q. Is it better to write email or e-mail? Both forms seem to be about equally popular.
A. This is largely a matter of taste. However, the form e-mail is recommended over the alternative forms email, E-mail and Email. This advice has regard to:

  • the origins of the term as representing electronic mail
  • the traditional way of expressing e-mail addresses in lower case
  • the use of "e-" as a living prefix in words such as e-commerce, e-book and e-publishing
  • the desire to avoid confusion with the French word for enamel, which is email
  • the desire to avoid confusion with the name of the Australian whitegoods company, Email Limited (formerly Electricity Meter and Allied Industries Limited)
  • the fact that, unlike the case with words such as U- turn and J-curve, the shape of the capital letter would have no relevance.

However, once a particular spelling is decided upon it should be used consistently.

The word e-mail is both an adjective and a noun. The noun is used both for the system (for example, "e-mail is a marvellous invention") and as popular shorthand for "e-mail message". As in many other instances, the noun can also be used as a verb (for example, "to e-mail something").

"Who" Or "Whom"?

Q. Why is the following sentence considered wrong?
"I met a man whom I knew was an agent."
Is not "whom" the object of "knew"?
A. No, the correct word in constructions such as these is "who". The sentence should be:
"I met a man who I knew was an agent."

Here "who" is the subject of "was". This becomes obvious if the parenthesis in the middle is disregarded:
"I met a man who ... was an agent."

"I met a man whom I knew to be an agent."
would be in order. Here "whom" is the object of the verb "knew".
The sentence is now equivalent to
"I met a man and I knew him to be an agent."

"Two Words Or One?"

Q. Should "worth while" be written as two words or one?
A. The word "while" is clearly a noun in sentences such as:
"This is worth my while."
It is also a noun in the shorter version:
"This is worth while."
Thus "worth while" in such constructions always needs to be rendered as two words.

On the other hand, "worthwhile" as an attributive adjective needs to be rendered as a single word - for example:
"This was a worthwhile exercise."


Q. A recent brochure included the following sentence:
"This approach only works for skilled users."
Is this placement of the word "only" in order?
A. No. Subject to the comments below, the adverb "only" should always be used "immediately before" the word it is intended to modify. In some cases a failure to do this can result in an ambiguity - consider, for example, the different meanings in the following five sentences:

  • "Only I wanted to eat fish." (No one else wanted to eat fish.)
  • "I only wanted to eat fish." (I wished to eat fish, but did not actually do so.)
  • "I wanted only to eat fish." (I wanted to eat, rather than just look at or smell, fish; or, alternatively, if the adverb "only" is regarded as modifying the entire following phrase: I did not want to do anything other than to eat fish.)
  • "I wanted to eat only fish." (I wanted to eat fish, as distinct from meat or other food.)

But there is no harm in using "only" after the word or phrase being modified where this does not lead to an ambiguity - for example, "for your eyes only".

However, while the sentence:
"I will work for food only."
"I will work for food without requiring anything in addition to food."
the sentence:
"I will work for American dollars only."
"I will work for American dollars, but not for any alternative."

"If" And "Whether"

Q. When should one use "whether" rather than "if"?
A. The two conjunctions "if" and "whether" are not interchangeable. Contrast the following sentences:
"Please advise whether you want a hard copy."
"Please advise if you want a hard copy."
The first sentence sensibly requires a reply which says either that a hard copy is desired or that it is not. The second sentence requires a reply only where a hard copy is actually desired.

The word "if" should be used only to introduces a condition, without alternatives. The word "whether" is used to indicate doubt as to which of two possible alternative scenarios is the correct one.

"Let me know if the applicant is a boy or a girl."
needs to be rendered as:
"Let me know whether the applicant is a boy or a girl."

"Whether" Or "Whether Or Not"

Q. Is not "or not" following "whether" superfluous?
A. It can be, although it is often used just for emphasis or euphony.
Technically, the words "or not" following "whether" imply "regardless of the outcome", as in:
"I will call on him whether or not he sends a letter of apology."

"Type Of" And Similar Terms

Q. Which of the following four sentences is correct?
"This type of plant is very popular these days."
"These types of plant are very popular these days."
"This type of plants is very popular these days."
"These types of plants are very popular these days."
A. All four are grammatical and thus acceptable. However, the first two seem more logical for the singular and the plural of "type" respectively.

Such a usage would also ensure consistency with that employed with nouns that do not take a plural - for example:
"Any type of litigation is expensive."
"Many types of skilled labour are scarce."
Similar remarks apply to the following expressions:

  • sort of
  • kind of
  • class of
  • category of

On a related aspect:
"I do not like those kind of things."
needs to be rendered as
"I do not like that kind of thing."
or alternatively as
"I do not like those kinds of things."

The singular noun "kind" here needs to be qualified by the singular form of the demonstrative adjective.

"Bce" And "Ce"

Q. What do the abbreviations "BCE" and "CE" in relation to dates mean?
A. It has been customary, when referring to historical events, to specify that a year or a century is either BC ("before Christ", meaning before a very approximate date of Christ's birth) or AD (anno domini, Latin for "in the year of the Lord").

This nomenclature is well established, despite being unpopular with many non-Christians. However, most people in countries such as Australia are not particularly conscious of the religious connotations in these abbreviations. On the other hand, some persons are concerned that these labels could give offence to the adherents of some non-Christian faiths.

They have therefore started to use CE (for "common era") and BCE (for "before the common era"). These new abbreviations may be more politically correct, but they also seem to involve change for the sake of change. Some problems are:

  • The use of one symbol (CE), which is two characters long, and another (BCE), which is three characters long, is rather untidy.
  • The letter "C" can easily be mistaken for "Christian".
  • The two new symbols are not as distinct from each other as AD and BC are from each other.
  • The departure from the conventional BC/AD symbols is offensive to some fundamental Christians.
  • Some dictionaries do not even include the phrase "common era".
  • It seems undesirable to use two different sets of notation for the same concept concurrently.

The International Organization for Standardization has laid down a standard, ISO 8601, which prescribes a new way for setting out dates. This is YYYY-MM-DD (for example, 2005-07-31), with the greatest unit being to the left, as in the case of ordinary numbers. However, BCE and CE are not recognised by ISO 8601.

Furthermore, the new notation fails to correct the major flaw of the present BC/AD system, namely, the absence of a year zero. This could be overcome by using CE with negative numbers in the same way as temperatures can involve negative numbers for degrees - see column (4) below:

Column (1) is the traditional system.
Column (2) is a more consistent approach.
Column (3) is the system favoured by historians, secularists and others.
Column (4) is a more logical approach.

AD 3 3 AD 3 CE 3 CE
AD 2 2 AD 2 CE 2 CE
AD 1 1 AD 1 CE 1 CE
1 BC 1 BC 1 BCE 0 CE
2 BC 2 BC 2 BCE -1 CE
3 BC 3 BC 3 BCE -2 CE

"Number Of"

Q. Is the following sentence correct or should the verb be in the plural?
"A record number of members was present at the meeting."
A. Yes. The relevant principle is as follows:
The expression "the number of" with the definite article "the" always takes a singular verb in the usual way because here "number" is being used in its literal sense. Thus:
"The number of bodies found has increased." (The number has increased.)
"The number of people coming is large." (That number is large.)

On the other hand, the expression "a number of" with the indefinite article "a" often takes a plural verb because the phrase is a synonym for "many" or "some".

In the same way "a large number of" can be a synonym for "very many" and "a small number of" can be a synonym for "few". Thus:
"A number of bodies were found." (Some bodies were found.)
"There are a number of applications waiting to be processed." (There are many applications waiting to be processed.)
"A large number of people are coming." (Very many people are coming.)
"A small number of people are already here." (Few people are already here.)

However, with more general adjectives as in this question a singular verb is called for - for example:
"There has been a growing number of inquiries." (There has been a growing total of inquiries.)
"An unusually high number of members is here." (An unusually high head count of members is here.)
"An equal number of men and women is ideal." (An equal preponderance of men and women is ideal.)


Q. Should hyphens be used in short Latin phrases such as "bona fide", "de facto", "ex parte" and "pro rata"?
A. No. See also Common Latin Phrases.

"In Arrear" Versus "In Arrears"

Q. What is the difference between "in arrear" and "in arrears"?
A. These two expressions should not be confused.
The phrase "in arrears" with the "s" refers to a debt, in particular to an overdue or outstanding amount - for example, "this tenant's rent is badly in arrears".

However, the phrase "in arrear" without the "s" is used in a different context. It is used in contrast to the phrase "in advance" when dealing with periodical payments - for example, "interest shall be payable quarterly in arrear", in other words, at the end rather than at the beginning of each quarter.

"Like" Versus "Such As"

Q. Is the following sentence correct?
"Deductions from certain items like interest may be made."
A. No. The sentence should read:
"Deductions from certain items such as interest may be made."
The preposition "like" implies similarity or resemblance or comparison, as in "he looks like me". It should not be used as a synonym for "such as" (or "for example").

"B" And "b"

Q. What are the correct abbreviations for the computer terms "bit" and "byte"?
A. These terms are not interchangeable.
A bit, abbreviated "b", is a Binary DigIT, either a 0 or a 1.
A byte, abbreviated "B", is a set of eight bits that represent a single character.
Five kilobytes (5120 bytes) would be written as 5KB (or sometimes just as 5K or even injudiciously as 5k). It is conventional to use k (lower case) for 1000 and K (capital) for 1024 (2 to the power 10).
In contrast to the style used for metric units (discussed below) there is usually no space between the number and the symbol.

"Metric Units"

Q. When should metric units be capitalised?
A. In the case of terms written out in full, only at the beginning of sentences.

However, the rules for metric symbols are different:
Basic units derived from the names of persons should always be capitalised - for example, V for volt, W for watt, Hz for hertz, Pa for pascal.
Other basic units should always be written in lower case - for example, m for metre, g for gram. The only exception is the litre, which can optionally be rendered as L to stop confusion between l and 1.
Metric prefixes up to and including that meaning 1000 (kilo-) must be written in lower case - for example, mg for milligram (0.001 gram), kg for kilogram (1000 grams).
Metric prefixes representing higher multiples must be written in capitals - for example, MHz for megahertz (1,000,000 hertz), GHz for gigahertz (1,000,000,000 hertz).

Some other aspects should be mentioned:

  • Full stops are never used with metric symbols (other than at the end of sentences).
  • The same symbols are used for both singular and plural.
  • Except in the case of degrees, a space is required between a number and a symbol - for example, 450 mm.
  • Only one prefix should be used at a time - for example, a nanosecond rather than a millimicrosecond.
  • The unit of absolute temperature is the kelvin (K), not the degree kelvin.

"Mortgagor" And "Mortgagee"

Q. When discussing changes in interest rates the media often refer to house purchasers as "mortgagees". Is that correct?
A. No. The lender under a mortgage is the "mortgagee" and the borrower is the "mortgagor", not the other way round.
This confusion arises because the precise nature of the activity being referred to is misunderstood. The transaction being described by the technical term "to mortgage something" is the giving of the security by the debtor rather than the advancement of the money by the creditor.


Q. Should cardinals of the Catholic Church be referred to using a style such as "Cardinal John Smith"?
A. No. The correct style is "John Cardinal Smith".
The style for peers and peeresses is slightly different, using a comma after the given name - for example: "Alfred, Lord Tennyson", "Ada, Countess of Lovelace".


Q. In order to be politically correct how should the term "midwife" be rendered these days, especially when the person attending the birth is a male?
A. The enthusiasm to find gender-neutral synonyms should always have regard to linguistic considerations. To remove the female-sounding suffix in "midwife" would be a nonsense. The word is cognate with the German "mit Weib", meaning "with woman", in reference to the sex of the mother giving birth, not the sex of the person in attendance on her.

"PIN Number"

Q. It has been suggested that there is no such thing as a "PIN number", yet that term is encountered all the time. What is going on?
A. "PIN" stands for "personal identification number". Thus a "PIN number" would be a "personal identification number number", an obvious nonsense.
Other common tautologies of this type include "CPI index", "BAS statement" and "ATM machine".


Q. How should dates be written?
A. The best style for writing a date in words is "11 October 2003", without a comma and without the suffix used for ordinal numbers, as in "11th October, 2003".
Dates written in figures can be rendered as day/month/year - for example, "31/09/05", preferably with a leading zero for numbers less than 10.

The American convention of month/day/year - for example, "09/31/05" - does not place the three elements in either ascending or descending order of size and is therefore quite illogical. If there is any possibility that a reader might assume that the absurd American convention is being used for figures then the problem should be avoided by expressing the month in words.

However, the most logical order for dates would be year-month-day, which would fit in with the left-to-right large-to-small order for digits in ordinary numbers and which would facilitate sorting.

The International Organization for Standardization has laid down a standard, ISO 8601, which prescribes the preferred way for setting out dates. This is YYYY-MM-DD - for example, 2005-03-04. This format is unambiguous and can be regarded as a metric date format suitable for use universally.

The calendar year is expressed using four digits, thus avoiding another possible ambiguity familiar to readers of millennium bug stories: does 00 mean 1900 or 2000?

The separator is standardised as a hyphen rather than as either a slash or a full stop - this change in itself serving as a subtle reminder that a modern date format is being used. Of course, the two hyphens can be omitted in contexts where saving space is more important than readability.

The use of the ISO 8601 format is strongly recommended.


Q. What does a "500 per cent increase" really mean?
A. It means a six-fold increase - for example, by 5000 from 1000 to 6000.

On a related aspect, a common source of error is illustrated by the following:
If the rate of inflation falls from, say, 5 per cent to 4 per cent then the reduction is "one percentage point", not "one per cent". (It actually represents a 20 per cent reduction, but this fact is probably not very helpful.)


Q. What is the plural of "criteria"?
A. This question highlights a frequent misunderstanding. The word "criteria" is actually the plural of the word "criterion".
English uses the Greek form of plural for a number of common nouns. Thus:
a criterion, several criteria a phenomenon, two phenomena

Perhaps the confusion comes about because some Latin plurals end in "-a" - for example:
one erratum, two errata


Q. Many people use "disinterested" when they mean "not interested". Should they?
A. No. The word "disinterested" means "impartial or unbiased or without any vested interest". It does not mean "uninterested or lacking in enthusiasm".

"Single Or Double Quotation Marks"

Q. Is it better to use single or double quotation marks (inverted commas)?
A. This is purely a matter of taste - neither format is "right" or "wrong". Many publishers choose one or the other as their house style.

However, on no account should the two formats ever be mixed within the same publication - other than for quotes within quotes, when single go within double and vice versa:
He said, "I meant `no'." He said, `I meant "no".'

"All Right"

Q. Is "alright" a proper word?
A. No, the correct expression is "all right".
The word should not be confused with the form used for "already".

"For Example" And "That Is"

Q. When should one use "e.g." rather than "i.e." and how should these terms be punctuated?
A. Both terms are Latin. They should not be confused with each other.
The first one stands for exempli gratia and means "for example".
The second one stands for id est and means "that is".
Both abbreviations require two full stops and the terms should normally be followed by a comma, as in "e.g., fish" or "i.e., cash".
The full English phrases are preferable in formal writing.

"Sex" And "Gender"

Q. Some forms used by companies or government agencies ask persons to state their gender. Is this correct?
A. No. The word "gender" is a grammatical term. It refers to masculine, feminine and neuter nouns, pronouns and adjectives - for example:
testator, testatrix
he, she, it
his, her, its.
The word should not be used as a synonym or a euphemism for "sex" when discussing male or female persons or animals.

"Signing Letters"

Q. How should a letter signed on behalf a boss be signed?
A. Letters can be signed by a subordinate on behalf of a superior in one of two ways:

    (a) using Latin
  • J M Smith
  • pp BKJ
  • J M Smith, Sales Manager
  • the first "J M Smith" is an obviously fake manuscript signature of the superior
  • "pp" stands for per procurationem, Latin for "through the agency of"
  • "BKJ" are the manuscript initials of the person who physically signed the letter, whether or not that person also composed it
  • the second "J M Smith" and the title are typed.

    (b) using English
  • Bruce Jones
  • Bruce Jones
  • for
  • J M Smith, Sales Manager
  • the first "Bruce Jones" is the genuine manuscript signature of the subordinate
  • the second "Bruce Jones" and the remaining lines are typed.
  • Signatures that take the form "Clerk pp Boss" are back-to-front and thus clearly wrong.
  • the first "Bruce Jones" is the genuine manuscript signature of the subordinate
  • the second "Bruce Jones" and the remaining lines are typed.

Signatures that take the form "Clerk pp Boss" are back-to-front and thus clearly wrong.IN Icon

N E (Nick) Renton is an Australian consulting actuary, commercial arbitrator and company director. He is the author of 57 books, published by 11 different publishers in Australia and the United States. He has written over 500 articles in newspapers and financial journals in the last ten years. He was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 2004. His web site can be found at: See his 36 grammar tips:

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IN This Issue
The Write Group
Answering Submissions Calls
Part III: Have Ideas, Will Travel
Part II: Have Ideas, Will Travel
Part I: Have Ideas, Will Travel
Part II: Early Elementary Picture Books
Part I: Early Elementary Picture Books
Part II: Are These Mistakes Costing You Money?
Part I: Are These Mistakes Costing You Money?
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Writer’s Block
The path to inspiration starts
Upon the trails we’ve known;
Each writer’s block is not a rock,
But just a stepping stone.

Poetry Is Not
Penned to the page
Waiting for us to admire.
It is only a lonely thought
Caught by tears on fire.

Silent Echoes
A quiet rhyme upon a page
Is what a poet gives;
Some gentle words whispered in trust
To see if memory lives.

Bard From Deadlines
What makes a poem finally work
Is not the time it takes;
It’s how the poet used the muse
To prophet from mistakes.

Be Mused
The art and craft of poetry
Are not so far apart;
The craft comes from the cunning,
The rest comes from the heart.

Fine Vintage
Don’t plant your poem on the page
As though you’re hanging drapes;
It’s shape and flow should come and grow
Like wild summer grapes.

Getting It Write
Writers write what they know best,
Their passions, fears, and dreams;
Writers rarely write about
What other call their “themes.”

Double Vision
A writer’s life is paradox,
It’s more than what it seems;
We write of our reality,
The one inside our dreams.

The echo of a promise,
The thunder of a sigh,
The music of a memory,
A child asking why.

Letter Perfect
Twenty six symbols arranged on a page
Can send a soul to heaven or torment it with rage,
Can free a fragile world or hold it in its net--
The power and the magic of the mighty alphabet.

The Write of Passage
The jump from writing just for fun
To getting paid for it
Begins when you first realize
You know you’ll never quit.

It is not the magic of his wings
That sets us free from our bond.
It is the muse within ourselves
That lets our words lift us beyond.

Photo Poet
Consider your mind the darkroom,
Consider your life the lens,
Consider your eye the camera
On whose focus the poem depends.

Rising Moon
A poem is a rising moon
Shining on the sea,
An afterglow of all we know,
Of all we hope to be.

Star Light
Writing a poem,
Reaching a star,
In making good art
We find who we are.

Spider Web
A poem is a spider web
Spun with words of wonder,
Woven lace held in place
By whispers made of thunder.

The final draft upon the screen,
At last my poem’s through;
A verse of only four short lines--
I rewrote twenty-two!

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