Clear answers to your pressing questions about English usage.
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A selection of questions received recently:
I have a punctuation question. In the following sentence should I use a semicolon or a comma to separate the last phrase? PAR provides point-of-sale hardware and software, mobility solutions for food safety and task management; and services to restaurants and retail. Leslie D., New Hartford, NY
Answer: Use a comma. If items in a series are separated by a comma, maintain the parallelism and do not shift to a semicolon at any point. It’s a matter of sentence structure and consistency. Note: If any item in a series of phrases has one or more internal commas, use a semicolon to separate all of the phrases.
This is an odd question, but there is $500.00 riding on the outcome. Some friends on an internet forum got into an argument over the correct usage of “then” versus “than.” A bet was proposed, the exact wording of it was: “I have a better bet for you. How about I find, let’s say 25 posts, where those two words are used incorrectly?”
Well, 25 posts were found where either “then” or “than” was misused. The loser refuses to pay off the bet now because he maintains that grammatically the wording of the bet means 25 examples of each word needed to be found used incorrectly, not collectively. Who is correct?
David G., Newark, NJ
Answer: The bettor should pay up (although it’s an extravagant sum for this type of wager). If you found 25 posts where someone has “used those two words incorrectly,” that means 25 instances in which either “then” or “than” is misused. In any sentence with an error, the two words are indeed applied incorrectly: One should have written “than,” and one should not have written “then.” The bet’s intention is obvious, and the bettor is obligated to pay up.
That being said, more precise wording would have helped, reflecting the challenge assumed by the bettors: “I have a better bet for you. How about I find, let’s say 25 posts, in which the writer has used either ‘than’ or ‘than’ incorrectly?”
What is the proper way to say this sentence? “For every 20,000 bottle, one lucky person will win a trip to Las Vegas”
Do I say twenty-thousand, twenty-thousandth, 20,000th?
If there are any numerical rules I should remember, that would be great as well.
Bekka U., Culver City, CA
Answer: Write “20,000th bottle,” but realize that the sentence is confusing. Do you mean that the purchaser of the 20,000th bottle is the winner of the trip at which time the contest starts up again? Or do you mean that after 20,000 bottles are sold, a winner’s name is drawn from contest entries?
There are many rules about using numerals or words, and not all authorities agree. Generally, for numbers over ten or one hundred (depending on your source), use numerals unless you have a large round number. (About ten thousand attended the event.) If a sentence starts with a number, spell it out as a word no matter what the amount.
Which is correct “a set of his and hers wedding rings” or “a set of his and her wedding rings”? I see his and hers used more often, but it sounds a bit odd to say.
Leslie D, New Hartford, NY
Answer: Although both sound awkward, the correct version is “a set of his and her wedding rings.” Today it might seem more sensitive to refer to “a pair of wedding bands.”
Are these sentences correct? Mary Beth J., Pittsburgh, PA
- How would that affect the stream?
- What affect would that have on fracturing?
- Would this unnamed tributary be affected?
- Do you believe the effects of subsidence are there?
- Were the effects subsidence and fracturing?
Answer: In your examples, it helps to think of these sound-alikes as verb (“affect,” meaning to influence or move emotionally) and noun (“effect,” meaning result, consequence).
- How would that affect the stream? Correct. “Affect” could be replaced with the verb influence.
- What affect would that have on fracturing? Incorrect. You need the noun form, “effect,” meaning result or consequence.
- Would this unnamed tributary be affected? Correct. “Affected” could be replaced with the verb influenced.
- Do you believe the effects of subsidence are there? Correct. “Effects” could be replaced with the nouns results or consequences.
- Were the effects subsidence and fracturing? Correct. “Effects” could be replaced with the nouns results or consequences.
By the way, each of the words has another meaning as well. “Effect” can be a verb meaning to bring about. “Affect” can be used as a noun, a psychology term meaning related to feeling or emotion.
Is it a good practice to use two adverb clauses in one sentence, as shown in the following example? “When I saw her, she was eating lunch while talking with a friend.”
The two clauses “When … ” and “while …” each indicate the time of an action. As a rule, should we attach only one adverb-clause to the main clause? Attaching two adverb clauses seems to make the whole sentence awkward. Tim D. Potomac, MD
Answer: Although awkward, there is no rule about the number of adverb clauses (explaining where, when or why). The cited sentence is correct; but since both clause refer to time (“when” and “while”), one almost has to read twice to get the meaning. Much smoother, in this case, to write: “When I saw her, she was eating lunch and talking with a friend.”
Which is most appropriate in ending a letter: “Thank you” or “Sincerely”?
Kristine Z, Florence, MA
Answer: As the complimentary closing of a business letter, always prefer “Sincerely.” “Thank you” can be used as the last “sentence” of a letter — appropriate when you actually have something for which to thank the reader, it cannot replace the complimentary closing.