Clear answers to your pressing questions about English usage.
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A selection of questions received recently:
Should the phrase tax free have a hyphen between the two words?
Doug M., Springfield, MA
Answer: Yes. Compound words formed with free as the second part are always hyphenated both before and after a noun: tax-free benefits OR The benefits are tax-free.
Is this correct punctuation? “What caused the United States’ entry into World War II?”
I know it isn’t United State’s.
I don’t think it is United States’
Joy S., El Paso, TX
Answer: The correct possessive for United States (a noun ending in ‘s’) requires adding a single apostrophe:
the United States’ entry into World War II, the United States’ role in world affairs.
I was wondering if you could help me with the punctuation in the following sentence. I am not quite sure what is the correct way to separate these items:
While performing the duties of this job, the employee is regularly required to: stand; walk; sit; use hands to finger, handle, or feel; reach with hands and arms; climb or balance; stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl; and talk and hear.
Sandra R., Millard City, UT
Answer: Consider several issues of punctuation and content. First, be sure a colon that introduces a list comes after a noun or a phrase like “as follows” or “the following.” Second, examine the contents of the list. Perhaps all those items are required – but, really, do you need to include stand walk, sit, talk and hear? If you could eliminate those, your reader would focus on duties specific to the job. Third, in a list incorporated in a sentence, you are correct to use semicolons between items if any single item already has internal commas, such as stoop, kneel, crouch or crawl. If you have space, it’s best list the items vertically, achieving greater clarity.
While performing the duties of this job, the employee is regularly required to do the following:
• Use hands to finger, handle, or feel
• Reach with hands and arms; climb or balance
• Stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl
Alternatively, you can adhere to original content:
While performing the duties of this job, the employee is regularly required to do the following: stand; walk; sit; use hands to finger, handle, or feel; reach with hands and arms; climb or balance; stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl; and talk and hear.
Hi Susan, Which is correct? “complimentary service” OR “complementary service”
Tom M., Spur, TX
Answer: The correct word is “complimentary,” which means (a) expressing praise or admiration or (b) given to someone free of charge as a courtesy or favor (which applies to your example). “Complementary” means going well together despite differences or mutually supplying each other’s lack. Think of it as an extension of the word “complete.”
When using “neither” and “nor,” do you use the plural or singular form of the subject? Neither soil nor groundwater were/ was impacted by the spill. I feel like the plural sounds better, but before I correct a colleague, want to make sure I’m right! Thanks
Jeffrey A., Westfield, MA
Answer: Here is the straightforward rule: When a compound subject is joined by “either- or” or “neither-nor,” the verb agrees with the part of the subject closer to it. Correct: Neither soil nor groundwater was impacted by the spill.
Is there a better way to write this sentence? It sounds awkward.
I wanted to let you know that the credit card I used to book your reservation is only to “hold” your reservation. When you check in¸ the front desk will ask you for your credit card for payment.
Leslie D., New Hartford, NY
Answer: You are right that the message sounds awkward. The point is clear, but someone may have to read twice to get it. It is wordy as well: I wanted to let you know that, the front desk will ask.
How about reversing the order of information?
When you check in, you’ll be asked to present your credit card for payment since the credit card used in booking served only to hold, not pay for, the reservation.
The second version is clearer and more efficient, reducing the word count by about 20%.
In the following sentence, would I use is or are? Supply Chain people is/are one of our critical needs.
Ballarie W, Chicago, IL
Answer: Use “are” because of the plural subject (people). It’s correct – but awkward because you have a plural subject and a singular predicate (one): Supply Chain people are of our critical needs.
When confronted with awkwardness, you can almost always improve by revising as in the following examples:
We have a critical need for Supply Chain people.
One of our most critical needs is for Supply Chain people.
What is the proper way to make a word ending in “z” possessive (singular)? For example, the name…Heinz? For example, the name…Heinz? Heinz’s coat or Heinz’ coat?
Megan M., Fort Worth, TX
If a professor has the last name of Cortes and he writes, Professor Cortes’ office hours are…is this the correct use of possessive for a name noun or can the punctuation be both before and after the “s”?
Lynn S., Fort Collins, CO
Answer: In both case, logic rules. Punctuate to match how you would read the phrase orally, and you will come up with Heinz’s ketchup or Cortes’s office hours. Be consistent and you will eliminate questions on this matter – despite the fact that some prefer to omit the apostrophe s.
Example from The Wall Street Journal: Mr. Rogers’s Neighborhood:
We are trying to create a form letter. Is it correct to use a colon after “to”?
You do not qualify for assistance due to:
Or should we do something like this.
You do not qualify for the following reason(s):
Jo D., Springfield, MO
Answer: Prefer the second version: The colon, when used to introduce a list, is correctly used after a noun or after a phrase that includes “the following” or “as follows.” Strictly speaking, the colon should not follow a word that causes the phrase to be incomplete: is, are, to, for etc.
I am a former English major and this construction, which I see more and more often, bothers me. Example: “Campbell’s soup is delicious, nutritious, and it may help you lose weight.”
The first two items in the clause use the verb ‘”is,” and are parallel. But the third item switches to a new verb, while posing as the third item in the series. It seems to me the correct construction would be: “…is delicious and nutritious, and it may help you lose weight.”
Not sure what rule this breaks, or if there is a name for this infraction, if indeed it is incorrect. Thanks for any insight.
Tom A., Houma, LA
Answer: You identified the problem correctly: a lack of parallelism. If you start with two adjectives (delicious, nutritious), you are obligated either to separate the ideas as you have correctly done (delicious and nutritious, and it may help you lose weight) OR find a way to continue parallelism as best you can and retain meaning (even if the result may seem awkward). For example: “Campbell’s soup is delicious, nutritious, and low in calories.” “Campbell’s soup is delicious, nutritious, and helpful for weight control.” Or a writer could choose to shift emphasis: “Delicious and nutritious, Campbell’s soup may also help you lose weight.”
In this sentence, do you need to add a comma before the word “which”?
“He presents his subjects as mundane objects devoid of apparent meaning which is postmodern in its nihilistic attitude towards art and originality.”
I’ve been trying to figure this comma problem using a book called “The Grammar Bible” but have not been successful.
Stephanie W., Las Vegas, NV
Answer: Well, the answer is partly “yes.” You do need a comma before a clause beginning with the word “which” as the clause is considered to add information not essential to the meaning of the sentence. But to be used correctly, the word “which” must have a noun antecedent – a word to which it refers.
You could remedy this way: “His approach is to present his subjects as mundane objects devoid of apparent meaning, which is postmodern in its nihilistic attitude towards art and originality.” While still a bit clumsy, the sentence has a clear antecedent in the word approach, the antecedent amplified by your additional explanation, “which is postmodern in its nihilistic attitude towards art and originality.”
Is this okay, or is there a better way to word it?
“The conference will end at 5pm on Thursday, June 13th. To ensure that you are able to stay until the conference concludes, please book your departure flight leaving after 7pm.”
Leslie D. New Hartford, NY
Answer: You have done a good job of being clear and kind. A slight revision for conciseness (23 words vs. 30): The conference concludes at 5pm on Thursday, June 13th. Please book a flight leaving after 7pm so you can stay until the end.
The sentence is this: “If a nonconforming off-premise junkyard, sign or outside storage area is discontinued for at least 90 days, the use shall not be continued, repaired or reconstructed.” My question is whether “off-premise” modifies “outdoor storage area”, which would mean that the outdoor storage would have to be located off the premises (or property).
C. Steven M., Esquire Allentown, PA
Answer: To avoid a possible misinterpretation, change the order: “If a nonconforming sign, outside storage area, or off-premise junkyard is discontinued for at least 90 days, the use shall not be continued, repaired or reconstructed.”
What is recommended in business writing: ensure or insure?
Where might one find information clarifying this word choice issue?
Nathaniel R, Sacramento, CA
Answer: Both “ensure” and “insure” have the same meaning to make sure or guarantee; but since “insure” has the additional meaning to safeguard against loss or damage, my advice is to use “ensure” in all cases except when you are referring to matters of insurance.
Can you please let me know if this sentence is grammatically correct?
The Partner Pavilion is scheduled from 6:00 PM to 7:30 PM; however, we encourage partners to stay for the night’s festivities.
Leslie D., New Hartford, NY
Answer: Yes, the sentence is punctuated correctly. Considering that this is a gracious and encouraging invitation, it would be nice to avoid the negative tone of “however.” I suggest something like the following: The Partner Pavilion is scheduled from 6:00 PM to 7:30 PM; festivities will follow, and we encourage partners to stay for the evening.
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.