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A-Z Tips to Recharge Your Writing

Z – Zoo and Zoology

I’ve reserved the last letter of the alphabet for one of my favorite books – There is no Zoo in Zoology, subtitled and other beastly mispronunciations. It’s 170 pages of words mispronounced by even the most articulate speakers. Why the title? The first syllable of zoology, when pronounced correctly, rhymes with “oh” so be sure you say zoh, not zoo! A couple of others: Pronounce affluent and comparable with an accent on the first syllable (not the second):  AF fluent and  COM parable. You’ll find lots of other interesting tidbits in this 1988 book by Charles Harrington Elster.


Y for Year (a bit more on punctuation)


There are numerous rules about punctuating dates – day, month, day and year – depending upon how the dates are written. Some rules complicate matters, but one is simple: Do not insert a comma between the month and the year. So if your organization has a monthly newsletter, it should be dated like this: November 2015. That’s right – no comma.

Once you add the day (November 8, 2015), it is, of course, another story!

X for PresentationXpert  Newsletter

For all of you who want to upgrade the visual quality of your live or online presentations, I recommend subscribing to the PresentationXpert newsletter. It’s an immensely useful resource, consistently true to the tagline: Cutting edge presentation techniques and technologies. Edited by Dave Zielinski, this free publication features excellent, timely and wide-ranging articles. A couple of recent topics:  “Presenting technical data? Here’s how to do it in viewer-friendly ways” by John Schawbish and “How to look sleek with smoother PowerPoint transitions” by Elizabeth Stodolski.

W ...on the use of Which vs That

The relative pronouns “which” and “that” are not interchangeable even though writers often seem to ignore the difference between them. The word “which” is used to introduce a group of words adding  nonessential information.  With or without those words, readers are able to comprehend the meaning of the sentence. So we insert commas around a “which” clause to indicate its status as nonessential.

Example: The Girl on the Train, which I read in the space of two days, remains high on any list of best sellers. The point of the sentence is the book’s position as a best seller. The fact that it’s a quick read is simply extra information.

“That” is used to introduce a group of words adding essential information.  If omitted, the sentence  doesn’t make sense. “The points that were made about required medical tests shifted the entire debate.” If you leave out the relative clause about required medical tests, you fail to convey meaning.

It’s a bit disappointing to acknowledge that the important distinction between “which” and “that” isn’t universally observed or even understood.  As a result, many writers – especially the British – use “which” and “that” interchangeably.




V for harnessing the strength of Verbs

In any sentence, an action verb is likely to be the strongest word. Take advantage of a verb’s simplicity and power to draw the reader in. Condense wordy phrases by turning a noun into a verb.  You’ll be more concise and boost the clarity of your message. And it’s easy enough to do.

For example:

Instead of


conduct a review


draw a conclusion


exhibit a tendency


extend an invitation to


give consideration to


give encouragement to


make an adjustment


give encouragement to


make a determination


reach a resolution


undertake a study of


Whether you write for business, academic or social purposes, be aware that well-chosen verbs help make your messages vivid, concrete, and readily understood.

U for U-Turn


Hyphenations can become a punctuation nightmare. The rules are abundant, sometimes conflicting and ambiguous, but here’s a consistent rule: With an initial capital letter, use a hyphen:  A-Team, C-section, D-Day, T-shirt, U-turn, X-ray. It doesn’t matter whether the second word is routinely capitalized or not; you still need a hyphen.  Lower case initial letters are different, so you are likely to see eBay or gmail.


T for Tone

The written word may have no sound, but there’s plenty of “tone” – or attitude.  Every time you send message, especially in business, it’s worth pausing to ask, “How am I coming across? Will my words be received as professional or neutral, not negative or nasty?”  The answer often lies in how you frame a point. If you have written: “We can’t send a refund check until you provide the requested information,” could you consider revising as: “We will send a refund check after you send us the requested information”? In other words, tell readers what you, or they, can do, not what you, or they, can’t do.

Once you start thinking this way – even you who are more inclined to adopt a pessimistic view – you’ll find infinite ways to reposition the message for a positive business outcome.

S for Seen in Print

How often I cringe upon spotting an error on a published item! There’s the birthday card that states, “An uncommonly large amount of birthday wishes are heading your way!” The author of the message should know the word needed is “number,” used for items that can be counted, not “amount,” used for items that can’t be counted.  Take the Wealth Adviser whose ad in the Wall Street Journal reads, “Make Time to Aim Higher and Reach Farther.”  It’s not the word “farther” that’s needed, which is used to measure geographic distance – but, rather, “further,” which is used for everything else, such as “how to go further in your career.” Today’s last example is the glossy brochure I received after a recent bone density test, warning,  “There maybe additional out of pocket expenses.”  Perhaps, upon my suggestion, the medical facility will some day separate maybe (perhaps) into two words (may be, as in may possibly be) and hyphenate correctly: “There may be additional out-of-pocket expenses.”

In the world of written communication, precision is everything – and the path to correct English usage starts with eliminating everyday misuse of the language.    Please send your examples to share on the   Grammar Hotline  www.sbkine.com.

R for Getting Rid of Redundancy

Once you accept the principle that, at least in business writing, “less is more,” you’ll  see everywhere the  ways writers could – and should – be more efficient.  With conciseness in mind, note opportunities to cut words that repeat or add nothing. Consider everyday phrases. “Continue on” (Don’t we simply continue?), “join together “(Don’t we just join?), “advance planning” (Isn’t “planning” required in advance?)

Take a look at words that need to be excised from the following 15 phrases – and send us your additional suggestions:
advance warning
at 12:00 midnight
basic fundamentals
blue in color
end result
free gift
general consensus of opinion
in close proximity
null and void
oral talk
past experience
round in shape
regular routine
surrounded on all sides
unexpected surprise

Q for for question mark -?

Sentences out of the ordinary can test the punctuation skills of even the most confident writers. For example, I’ve recently been asked about correctly punctuating a sentence that sounds like a question but isn’t one.
Would you be sure to make meeting arrangements for ten attendees? OR
Would you be sure to make meeting arrangements for ten attendees.

Since this is no more than a command in disguise, use a period.
Of course, such a “request” would be better worded this way:
Please make meeting arrangements for ten attendees.

Another instance requiring a period is when the question is actually embedded in a statement.
The manager wondered whether the schedule change would wreak havoc.
Before reversing instructions, we should always ask why.

Of course, when the sentence is truly a question, end it with a question mark.
Will this schedule change cause any problems?
Why should we reverse the instructions given last week?

Puzzled about choosing the right punctuation in other sticky situations? For a prompt response, send your questions to my Grammar Hotline.



P for Punctuation Correction


I long to offer a correction to the Rockland County sheriff named on this sign. He’s  Louis Falco III – no comma ever. When one’s formal name has a Roman numeral suffix such as III or IV,  never insert  a comma – and no longer insert one when Sr. or Jr. follows the name. That’s a fairly recent punctuation change, supported by The Chicago Manual of Style and other references.  Granted, traditionalists and some folks bearing those names with Jr. and Sr. maintain the older form of punctuation.


O for Off of

The oft used phrase “off of” needs no “of.”  Something falls off a shelf. You get off a bus.  He may be “off his rocker.”  Attaching “of” is a redundancy and an error.


N for Needless negatives:  To strengthen your writing, resist the urge to use negative words unless you feel you must – words like no, not, never, won’t and can’t. Negative words imply a mindset or attitude. Let’s say someone makes a request and you reply: “We can’t provide the information to your spouse until you provide approval in writing.”  Prefer the alternative: “We will be pleased  to provide information to your spouse as soon as we receive your approval in writing.”  The perspective becomes positive. (Of course, if the answer happens to be an absolute “no,” you’re obligated to convey  your response clearly.)


Take another example when you use the negative to convey a positive. “I can’t thank you enough…”

If you are that effusive, consider positively worded options:  “A huge thank you for…” or “Thank you immensely….”  (OK, it’s not the end of the world to allow yourself an occasional “can’t thank you enough….”)

Third is the case of the double negative – correct, subtle, but harder to comprehend: “I am not unmindful of the need to choose my words carefully…” or “We are not unhappy with the outcome.” Why not say this instead? “I am aware of the need to choose my words carefully” or “We are satisfied with the outcome.” Now, it is true that on occasion you really do want to convey the subtle message between “I am happy” and “I am not unhappy….” In that case, the double negative serves a particular need.

The choice of expression is yours. As you deliver messages tinged with negative words, recognize the power and clarity of the positive alternatives.

M is for Memento

At a wedding I recently attended, a gift to each guest was intended to be, in the words of the bride and groom, a “momento” of the occasion. I cringed. Of course, the newlyweds meant well. No doubt, they wanted to capture a special moment. But the word they needed was “memento” – related to the “memory” intended to preserve. There’s no such word as momento.  Use memento in every case.

L is for the verb "lie" as in "to rest"

K is for kind of
Kind, when used in the sense of sort of and type of, is a handy phrase and suggests a general scope. “This is the kind of effort to promote.”  “I like this kind of restaurant.”



To use kind of correctly, follow these tips:

  1. Don’t use with an article (a, an) as in: “Which kind of a vacation does your family prefer?”   Correct:  “Which kind of vacation does your family prefer?”
  2. Use this to designate the singular form and these to designate the plural as in:

“I like this kind of restaurant.”  “I like these kinds of restaurants.”

Incorrect: “I like these kind of restaurants.”

Don’t use kind of when you really mean something like rather or somewhat.    Avoid: “I am kind of happy.”  “He is kind of demanding.”  The phrase, followed by a descriptive word, is too informal unless you are speaking casually. Better:  “I am rather happy.”   “He is somewhat demanding.”


J Jargon – and jargon, I’ve decided, gets a bad rap. Numerous articles on business writing warn readers to avoid it at all costs. Their view is that jargon sounds pompous.  The words obfuscate meaning or are actually devoid of meaning and waste readers’ time.  But, in fact, you can use jargon perfectly well to achieve the opposite – to sound knowledgeable, clarify meaning, and use readers’ time efficiently.

To be precise, jargon, according to Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, is “the technical terminology or characteristic idiom of a special activity or group.” It comprises the vocabulary understood by any profession, trade, academic field, craft, and so on that is not generally understood by those outside the group. So lawyers might use words such as indemnity, appellant or guardian ad litem; educators – high-stakes testing , multiple intelligences or block scheduling; quilters– applique, batting or stash. Whether the group includes engineers, doctors, computer programmers, academics, equestrians, insurance salesmen, truckers or any of a hundred others, jargon provide those who belong with an efficient, shorthand method of communication.

The problem is that Merriam-Webster lists three definitions for jargon, and only the second one is discussed above. The first defines jargon as “confused, unintelligible language; strange, barbarous language or dialect; the hybrid used for communication between people of different speech.” This definition poses no issues as it doesn’t impact most writing.

But jargon is defined third as “obscure and often pretentious language marked by circumlocution and long words” – and the broad scope of this definition accounts for jargon’s bad name. All words applied to business, politics, economics, and other fields that spin, exaggerate, alter perceived truth, or say nothing are, in this sense, jargon and, by their nature, offensive. Thus, we turn thumbs down to an employer’s reference to a layoff as a “dehiring” or “right-sizing” effort.  An item on Jargon Madness edited by Brett Nelson on www.Forbes.com minces no words in panning jargon as well as those who use it: “The next time you feel the need to reach out, touch base, shift a paradigm, leverage a best practice or join a tiger team, by all means do it. Just don’t say you’re doing it. Because--and please believe us--all that meaningless business jargon makes you sound like a complete moron.”

So, bearing in mind that many words categorized as jargon fill distinct purposes for specialized groups, you now understand why any self-respecting editor or writing coach advises writers to avoid it.  Buzzwords and euphemisms are all too likely to produce inane results.

If you, like most of us, may nevertheless need to write with some jargon, follow these helpful tips:

  1. Use when you know your target audience understands the vocabulary. If readership is broader, embed a definition upon first use of necessary jargo0n.
  2. Don’t use it to impress or to inflate, obfuscate, or “spin” meaning.
  3. Prefer a simple, concrete word or phrase if it says the same thing.


I Inverted Pyramid – a method you can count on to organize your thoughts


This organizing structure, the inverted pyramid, comes straight from journalism. It’s an invaluable tool for organizing your thoughts.

Start at the top of the triangle, using its widest band for the core sentence or “bottom line.” That sentence answers the question, “What’s the news?” and becomes the framework for the rest of your message.

Descend to the next level to convey the message’s substance – the answers to the five W’s:  Who? What? When? Where?  Why?

Move to relevant, helpful details and then to “What else?”  details,  adding “color.”

Finally, close your message.  Be brief.  Be specific.  Sum up, confirm, point to next steps, or simply express good will, such as “Thank you.”

While the inverted pyramid provides an efficient model and ensures a well-organized thought process, critics point out that it is rigid and can, during the drafting stage, lead to writing that sounds flat, stuffy and boring.

So how do you make the most of the inverted pyramid? First, harness its simplicity and power to organize your thoughts. Then, in drafting the message, decide for yourself.  Follow the inverted pyramid exactly as is -- or tap an inner talent to give the writing your own twist.


H Hyphens – a few helpful tips about how and when to use the versatile hyphen.

  1. There are numerous  guidelines  – but  just as many exceptions. For example, hyphenate two words when used as a single adjective before a noun: part-time employee. BUT don’t hyphenate the same combination when it  comes after the noun: The employee works part time. And DON’T hyphenate a 2-word pair if the first word ends in –ly: nicely balanced sculpture.
  2. The guidelines have changed over time. For example, common prefixes used to be hyphenated: non-profit, pre-school, anti-war. Today we write as one word: nonprofit, preschool, antiwar. BUT If the second word is capitalized, use a hyphen: pre-Columbian    AND  hyphenate all combinations beginning with the prefixes ex- ,self-, and half-regardless of whether they appear before or after the word modified: What a self-absorbed person. He seems to be self-absorbed.
  3. Some guidelines are still evolving: e-mail to email, on-line to online, web-site to website.  Decide which way you will write the word, and be consistent throughout the document
  4. If you find you need a hyphen to avoid confusion or awkwardness, then, by all means, insert one. Consider your meaning:  recover or re-cover, resign or re-sign.  Avoid an awkward look: co-worker, not coworker, bell-like shape, not belllike shape.
  5. Last , note the length of a hyphen. It’s  a short horizontal line with no space before or after. A hyphen is not an en dash – or an em dash—.

Click on the Grammar Hotline icon - you can expect a quick response to all your punctuation questions.

G Gerunds (pronounced jer-undz): What are they and why care about how to use them?

Gerunds are verb forms ending in the letters –ing that are used in sentences as nouns, not verbs. So “I am sending the form,” where sending is a verb, is different from “Sending  the form is required,” where the sending is a noun and the subject of the sentence  -- and also different from “We require sending  the form,” where sending is a noun and the direct object of the verb require.

Too much grammar?  In a nutshell, here’s the rule you need to know: If you use a word before the gerund, it must be in a possessive form.  To be correct, write:   “Your sending the form is important” (not “you”)—OR: We would appreciate Ellen’s sending the form”  (not “Ellen”).

With every tip, you can gain on your grammar know-how, elevating the accuracy and elegance of your writing. For a quick, personal and free answer to all your grammar questions, visit my Grammar Hotline at www.sbkline.com

F Figure this In expressing figures, how do you decide whether to use numerals or numbers spelled out?  Plenty of guidelines tell us  when (and when not) to use numerals in everyday writing  -- but, frankly, even an esteemed publication like The Chicago Manual of Style suggests that sometimes you just have to use common sense.  In the following common situations, use numbers for:


  • Exact numbers above ten   35 club members  (Some sources advise a stricter standard of exact numbers above one hundred.)
  • Amounts of money     $29.45; $46; 9 cents
  • Percentages,  ratios, dimensions 6 percent; 10 to 1 shot;   15 feet; size 9; 4 acres
  • Time with a.m. or p.m.      4 p.m. or 4:00 p.m. (but for time with o’clock, use words: at four o’clock)
  • Street names above ten     14 West 24th St. (but for street names ten and below use words: 14 West Tenth St.)
  • House or building numbers         47 Genesee St.   (optional with house address  1 or One)
  • Plurals of numbers        16s (no apostrophes needed)
  • Numbers in millions or higher that        256 million need more than two words when spelled out

A note of caution:

  • Spell any number that starts a sentence: Twelve hundred students were present at the rally. Nineteen fifty-seven saw the launch of Sputnik and the start of the Space Age.
  • Spell numbers from one to ten; however, if a sentence contains a series of numbers under and over ten, use numbers: The team won 34 games in 2012, 25 in 2013, and only 16 in 2014.

As you write, other questions are likely to crop up. Please feel free to pose them on my Grammar Hotline for an immediate personal response – www.sbkline.com

E Eyeing the E-words.  Precision makes a difference in all your communication, starting with the correct use of words  and expressions.  Among the many misused, five of the worst are corrected below -- all starting with the letter e.

  • each other – one another.  Use each other when referring to two people: The co-presidents supported each other effectively.   Use   one another when referring to more than two: Graduates applauded one another’s accomplishments.
  • e.g. - i.e. E.g. means exempli gratia or for example. Use the abbreviation to indicate you are simply offering examples: “Please buy some salad vegetables at the supermarket; e.g., lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber.   I.e. means id est or that is: “Limit your grocery list to food categories that contribute to health; i.e., fruits, vegetables, grains and fish.”  While it’s helpful to know the meanings of Latin phrases, it is wiser to choose the English alternatives.
  • effect – affect. Effect is a noun meaning result or consequence: What is the effect of the weather or your sinuses?  It can also be a verb meaning to bring about.  The company effected changes in its hiring process. The problem is that effect is often confused with affect – a verb meaning to influence (The weather affected my sinuses); moreover, affect has other meanings related to psychology.
  • ensure – insure. These words have the same meaning,  to make safe or certain, and are actually interchangeable .  But since insure has the additional meaning of guaranteeing against loss, you are better off choosing ensure in all other cases. “Airlines do their best to ensure the safety of your baggage.”
  • etc. This is the abbreviation of the Latin words et cetera meaning and other things:  “She likes bright colors like red, pink, orange, etc.”  Handy though it can be, the abbreviation etc. is best avoided because it allows readers to “fill in the blanks” with their own interpretation. As a communicator, you are wiser to give your readers specifics than imply they can finish the sentence or  thought process with their own words.   Note that if you do use it, the abbreviation is spelled etc. –not ect.

For immediate and easy-to-understand answers to all your questions about word choice and grammar, contact The Grammar Hotline at www.sbkline.com

D Ditch the deadwood. Word choice matters. You want your messages to carry weight – to be direct, crisp and meaty. Don’t weight them down with words that just don’t count. Here are three steps to eliminate  the “deadwood” from your writing.

  • Reduce the number of sentences beginning with It and There. Though common and handy, these empty words convey nothing and delay the subject of your sentence. So instead of saying “It is the opinion of management that …,” Write, “Management believes….” Instead of, “There are many industry leaders who are expected to attend,” write, “Many industry leaders are expected to attend.”
  • Cut the pronouns “which” and “that’ whenever you can with no loss of meaning. “Please remove the papers that are on the desk” can be written, “Please remove the papers on the desk. “Book club members decided to focus on mysteries, which are my favorite form of literature” can be written, “Book club members chose to focus on mysteries, my favorite form of literature.”
  • Stop  overusing “qualifiers” to convey meaning – immeasurable words  like so, quite, very, rather, almost, somewhat, basically, extremely. If a situation is “inconvenient,” the word says it all. Forget about calling it very or rather or somewhat inconvenient.  If you have a “very big” problem, find a better adjective. Why not call the problem “enormous”?   And be sure you know your absolutes. If a wastebasket has nothing in it, don’t refer to it as being “quite empty.” Nothing more is needed: The wastebasket  is “empty” -- just plain empty.  In your writing, rely on apt vocabulary, not fuzzy qualifiers, to make your point.

Effective Business Writing is essential for anyone who can influence a sale or relationship in your organization. To make your communications a positive experience, contact Susan for some ideas.

C Close email messages informally. While business letters still use the convention of formal complimentary closings such as “Sincerely,”  “Sincerely yours,” or “Yours very truly,” email messages call for simpler closings. Try “Regards,” “Thank you,” or “Thanks.” (Don’t strip all sincerity by abbreviating to “Thx.”)  In your closing sentences, avoid the clichés of business letters such as “If you have any further questions, please contact me,” or “Thank you for your attention to this matter.”  Instead, end with a thought that fits your message – “I’ll have the documents ready for tomorrow’s meeting.”  If your email has a signature file, you can close with initials, a first name, or a nickname.  Most people are not comfortable omitting a closing, but email messages do not actually require one. As for messages going to recipients in other countries, realize that they may be accustomed to and expect from your email the more traditional language of business letters.

If consistent, best practices with email is a goal for your organization, contact Susan about her 2-hour E-Mail Basics for Business.

B Bullet-proof your writing. Use this handy punctuation to focus attention – but don’t abuse it.

  • Be sure your bulleted list reflects what is important because it will draw readers’ attention.
  • Give items proportionate weight, approximately similar length, and the same grammatical form (for example, all phrases, all starting with –ing verbs, all sentences).
  • Capitalize first words.
  • Provide end punctuation only when items are complete sentences, directives, or questions.
  • Don’t overuse bullets, thereby lessening impact.

Which list is better constructed?



To improve communication, do the following:

  • Scheduling  a conference call each week
  • Monthly meetings
  • Timeliness
  • We need to produce a report every quarter

To improve communication, do the following:

  • Schedule weekly conference calls.
  • Hold monthly meetings.
  • Produce a quarterly report.

Answer: B is better. The items are similar in weight, length, and grammatical form.

Get practical advice from Sue on how she can help you and your team, and click here to check out some of the courses she has available.

A Avoid ambiguity. Put words in the right place to make sure every reader understands every sentence in the same way. Say you have the sentence: “The employee whose foot was broken recently filed a claim.” The position of the word “recently” is the problem.   Was the foot broken recently? In that case, write: “The employee whose foot was recently broken filed a claim.” Or was the claim filed recently?  In that case, write: “The employee whose foot was broken filed a claim recently.”  Be precise about word placement in sentences – especially words ending in –ly and other adverbs like only, just and almost.

Get practical advice about clear, unambiguous writing. Ask Sue to email her brochure on the topic of ambiguity.


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