5 Ways Viral Writers Catch Your Clicks

This morning, I was listening to The Allusionist podcast while working out at the gym. This is a great new podcast from the UK that covers all kinds of quirks in the English language. I listened to Episode 3 this morning (“Going Viral”), and I learned a new word!

li·to·tes noun \ˈlī-tə-ˌtēz, ˈli-, lī-ˈtō-ˌtēz\

: understatement in which an affirmative is expressed by the negative of the contrary (as in not a bad singer or not unhappy)

(definition from Merriam-Webster)

Litotes is pronounced LY-toh-teez (although, in American English, it sounds more like LY-duh-teez). It’s not pronounced LY-totes (darn Greek). The word reminds me of its opposite, hyperbole, another Greek word. My husband used to tease me by pronouncing it “hyper-bowl,” but it’s pronounced like litotes: hy-PER-boh-lee.

I’ve long been a fan of the word hyperbole, both for its sound and its meaning. Hyperbole is exaggeration to make a statement, prove a point, or provide humor. An example might be, “My legs feel like they weigh a million pounds!” After a long hike, your legs might be exhausted, but they don’t literally weigh “a million pounds.”

I also love Grammar Girl’s podcast, and she covered hyperbole a few weeks ago. In her podcast, Mignon Fogarty (A.K.A. Grammar Girl) talked with a psychologist named Ellen Hendriksen, who said this:

…whether we use a round or sharp number depends on our goals. If precision is our biggest communication goal, we’re more likely to use a sharp number. But if our goal is to convey emotion and emphasis, we’re more likely to use round numbers.

So, when we’re using hyperbole, we usually use phrases like “a million dollars,” or “a thousand points ahead,” or “a bajillion chores to do” (which isn’t even a number, but nevertheless effective as hyperbole). If someone said, “I still have 38 dishes to wash,” you wouldn’t understand the statement as hyperbole. You would be inclined to take it literally. However, the sentence, “I still have a hundred dishes to wash,” conveys hyperbole just fine.

I point this out because spotting hyperbole is easy if you’re looking for it. When it comes to viral marketing trends on the internet, you should be looking for it.

You’ve seen the articles floating around:

17 Reasons Why the Beatles Were the Best Band in the History of the Universe
(subtitle: RIP John and George)

This Girl was Walking Back to Her Dorm, and You Won’t Believe What Happened
(subtitle: Don’t let this happen to you!)

One Reason Why We Hate All Should Spinach
(subtitle: It’s not what you think!)

11 Hidden Gems You Never Noticed in Friday Night Lights
(subtitle: Clear Eyes. Full Hearts. Can’t lose!)

These are examples of viral marketing articles. I found all of the screenshots posted below within an hour of each other on Buzzfeed and on my Facebook news feed. If you’re new to the internet (welcome!), these are also known as “click-bait.” These titles are crafted with the sole purpose of getting you to click on the link, which will get the linked website traffic and advertising revenue.

The attached articles can be of varying degrees of quality. It’s really hit or miss. Some can make you laugh, while others are just pictures pasted together with poorly-written captions. Ultimately, the content of the articles isn’t really that important. The link could lead to a page with an error message, but it wouldn’t matter much if there was an ad slapped underneath it.

Sometimes, they’ll even hide it in a “slideshow” of pictures with captions. That way, you have to click through a whole slideshow before you get to the information that interests you. Clever, right? Now, instead of one click from you, that site just got 25.

Here are a few tricks commonly used by writers of viral content:

1. Hyperbole

We discussed this above, but hyperbole is used by viral writers all the time. (See what I did there?) It’s a great way to get a reader excited about something. It’s also used to attract skeptical readers. Look at the examples below.

One type of reader will be excited by words like “brilliant” and phrases like “change everything” and “one of the most brilliant auditions ever”. Another type will think, “Oh, yeah? I bet these Harry Potter thoughts from Tumblr won’t actually change anything.” Both readers are likely to click.

2. Understatement and Litotes

Understatement, including litotes, is becoming more and more common as readers shy away from hyperbolic titles. These titles aim to attract readers by making them indignant.

One example I’ve seen recently concerns the vaccination debate. An article is floating around titled “Why My Child Isn’t Vaccinated” with the subtitle, “It’s not what you think!” In the article, the opening paragraph explains that this person’s child isn’t vaccinated because he is too young, but that once he gets old enough, he will definitely be vaccinated. This article attracts two clickers: “Vaxers” who are indignant that a child is not vaccinated and “Anti-Vaxers” who want their opinions reassured. This article could also be an example of click-bait (see number 5 below).

Look at these examples:

The Texas article is also an example of click bait, but I put it under this category because it’s so understated. The whole article lists amazing things about Texas, but uses them as reasons not to move there. In this case, sarcasm is used as understatement. This article, like the vaccination article, attracts two readers: people who love Texas and are mad that it’s being insulted and people who don’t like Texas and want affirmation. Same thing with the Korean article. Americans want to know why they don’t like our snacks. Why would they hate pudding snack packs? Click to find out.

Words like “probably” and “not impressed” are clues that the author is going for understatement or litotes. The phrase “not okay” is common litotes in titles, like, “Justin Bieber is Spitting on His Fans, and That’s Not Okay.” Understatement is funny (of course it’s not okay that Justin Bieber is spitting on his fans), and that makes readers click.

3. Extravagant Language

Boring titles don’t get clicks. Look at this example:

What if this title was simply, “29 Things Children Have Said to Their Parents”? Not very interesting. The author added the word “creepy” and the phrase “make your skin crawl” to make the link more appealing. The title also features an odd number (see number 4). Just by looking at the picture, I can tell that the article doesn’t have much to it. The author simply read an AskReddit thread and took screenshots instead of producing any real content. Doesn’t matter. Got clicks.

4. Numbers

I use this tactic, too, so I’m not innocent of this. You just need to be aware that content writers use numbered lists to attract you. Look at these two examples:

The first one uses hyperbole, but both use numbers. Would you be as likely to read articles titled, “Faces Every Person Who Works with the Public Will Recognize,” or, “No-Bake Desserts that Want to Be Your Valentine”? Probably not. The numbers make the article more exciting.

“Wow, they came up with 31 reasons why ice cream is my spirit animal? I can only think of 12!”

The Allusionist podcast also mentioned that most writers prefer odd numbers over even numbers because they get more clicks. Why? No idea. People just visually prefer odd numbers (like 27 or 23, above).

5. Bait

This tactic counts on your curiosity. You won’t believe what happens next!

This one is hilarious. The link leads to an ad-ridden webpage with a slideshow that takes you through one slide after another, zooming in closer and closer on the mattress.

“Can you see it?”

“You don’t see it yet?”

Finally, it shows you where they photoshopped a man’s face under the bedframe, insinuating that the woman (who looks more like a college student in a dorm room) was cheating on her husband before he got home. “What the… REALLY?”

“Something Awesome Happened.” Click to find out!

Look at this one. This little tidbit of information will apparently “rock your world.” The author wouldn’t put the “one thing you never noticed” in the title or subtitle. That wouldn’t get as many clicks. They’re going to hide it to make you curious.

Be an aware reader. Know the tricks. It’s okay to click if you want to (personally, I have trouble resisting links with “Harry Potter” or “puppies” in the title), but make your click a conscious one. Don’t be a click zombie.

You can download The Allusionist podcast HERE and the Grammar Girl podcast HERE.

Announcement: Coupons and Packages Now Available!

Hello, everyone! I know I have been absent from the blog for a while. I have been hard at work building up my business and finding better ways to serve my customers. The past few months have been fun and challenging for me, and I have learned so much in the process.

Today is June 1, my “Relaunch Day”! I am pleased to announce that I now have coupons and packages available to better suit your needs. In the future, I will be adding more specials, including wedding proofreading packages, college student discounts, and special deals for my Facebook fans. Please stay tuned and spread the word!

Here are the specials I am introducing today:

I love meeting new people! I am offering 500 words of free editing work to any new customers. I’m confident once you try me out, you’ll be back for more. These 500 words can be applied to anything– letters, blog posts, articles, you name it! You can also apply the 500 words to a longer document, but you will be responsible for paying the difference. Let’s work together!

This is for all those recent graduates out there (college or high school). Trying to break your way into the job market? The first step is to have a great resume and cover letter. Let me help you build your resume, polish it up, or proofread it. I can also edit your cover letter and give you helpful suggestions. Your resume says so much about you as a young professional– Make it good! Good for the Class of 2013 or the Class of 2014.

I’m so happy to announce a new Blogger’s Special for all my blogging friends! Having a blog editor is a great investment for your blog. First, it will keep all of your posts looking sharp and professional. Second, it will keep you accountable to a posting schedule to help you reach your monthly posting goals! Contact me for more details.

Keep checking my new pages for Special Coupons and Package Deals. I will update those pages frequently with new opportunities!

Thank you for your support. I look forward to meeting and working with new people in the months to come.

5 Reasons Why You Need an Editor

This blog post was originally featured as a guest post on the blog for Heritage Press Publications on April 2, 2014.

When working on a novel, thesis, or even a blog post, it might be tempting to cut out the middle man and skip straight to the publishing process. However, trying to edit your own work—or getting a friend to casually do it for you—can seriously cost you in the long run. Even the smallest mistake can harm your credibility. The wrong word choice can result in offensive ambiguity. Remember, once something is published, it is permanent, even if it’s only online. What you write is a reflection of your intelligence and dedication. An editor can help you make that reflection as flattering as possible.

Here are five reasons why every writer needs an editor: 

1. It’s important to show your work to a handful of trusted people who won’t judge you before showing it to millions who will.

Don’t believe me? Check out the comment sections on popular blogs or, if you’re writing a book, the review sections on Amazon.com. There will always be harsh critics out there, but there’s no reason to show them your first draft. If you are formally and professionally publishing something, your name will be affected by how your work is received. It is always worth the time and effort to get a set of professional eyes to scour your work for mistakes and points to improve. Part of an editor’s job is to protect your reputation and credibility.

2. We know what you’re trying to say, and we’ll help you say it.

Do you have a close friend who always finishes your sentences? For me, it’s my husband. If I’m stumbling over my words or repeating myself trying to convey an idea, he’ll jump in for me and give me the right words. Editors can do that for you. We can tell if you’re struggling to express a thought or dancing around a difficult subject. We’re here for you, and we will help you iron out all those wrinkles so your true emotions can shine through.

3. Microsoft Word doesn’t catch all mistakes.

If you are trusting the magical squiggly lines to catch everything, you will be sorely disappointed. While I know Microsoft Word and other word processing programs have developed great spelling and grammar checking software, it’s not nearly as effective as a human brain going over your work. According to a recent article published in The Telegraph, the world’s largest supercomputer still takes forty minutes to accomplish what the human brain can do in one second.

Although word processors are getting more accurate, they can never replace an editor. Take a look at the following screenshot.

Although Word caught a few mistakes in this draft, it did not prompt the author to correct:

  • Malapropism (interchanging similar-sounding words like “from” and “form”). These are easy typos to make and are difficult to catch. One slip of the finger on the keyboard can quickly turn “quite” into “quiet.”
  • Verb Mix-Ups (lie vs. lay).
  • Homophone Mix-Ups (their vs. they’re).
  • Sudden Verb Tense Changes.
  • Formatting Issues.
  • Missing Commas.

All of these mistakes would have been caught by a good editor.

4. Editors provide motivation to be your best and finish what you’ve started.

When you’re paying someone to edit your work and they’re depending on your next installment to help pay the bills, they will find a way to get you motivated! Having someone working for you and keeping you accountable to your schedule is invaluable.

5. Criticism makes you better.

It’s good for you, as a writer and as a human being. Gracefully accepting constructive criticism is a useful skill in any area of life. We can all improve ourselves in some way, and working with an editor is a great way to improve the way you write. A good editor will also teach you how to make fewer mistakes in the future. Working with an editor will give you the confidence to find your own voice and effectively communicate your ideas to others.

In the News: Professor Pullum’s Five Points

An article written by Tom Chivers for The Telegraph, a London-based newspaper, has recently gone viral—partially, no doubt, because of Mr. Chivers’ eye-catching title: “Are ‘grammar Nazis’ ruining the English language?” His subtitle reads, “Split infinitives make them shudder and they’d never end a sentence with a preposition. But linguist Geoffrey Pullum has a message for all grammar pedants: you’re wrong.”

The article has been quoted and shared on several language websites I follow and has been linked on the linguistics and grammar subreddits on Reddit.com. The responses to the article have been quite predictable: readers are all ready to take up their metaphorical swords and shields and go to war, whether they stand for grammar by the book or an ever-evolving language.

As you read in my first post on this blog, I would much rather camp out in the middle or, better yet, not be on the battlefield at all, drawing up peace terms in an undisclosed neutral location. Although Mr. Chivers makes a clear case against “grammar Nazis” in his title, I think his interview with Professor Pullum reveals a less combative point of view I can stand behind.

Professor Geoffrey Pullum is one of the most famous linguists in the world. He co-authored The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language in 2002, a new English grammar book for the twenty-first century. He also regularly contributes to Language Log, a very popular linguistics blog. He’s currently the Professor of General Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh. Basically, he knows his stuff.

Professor Pullum vehemently argues for descriptive grammar. He makes several key points I would like to discuss.

Point One: Standard English is necessary for all speakers of the language to communicate effectively.

“’It’s entirely to the benefit of all of us that newspapers’ editorials are written in Standard English, and that we can all speak it in situations such as business and air traffic control, and understand each other.’”

My Thoughts:

Agreed. Standard English is important to preserve because it gives us all common ground. Mr. Chivers adds that Standard English is vital to success in the business world, and children should learn it as a key to a better life. While that may be important, the bigger issue here lies in the idea of a standard language. Different dialects of English develop everywhere, from urban Detroit to the Caribbean to Scotland to Australia to India—they aren’t all the same. If we don’t teach Standard English to children (as opposed to their regional dialect), we are limiting them to their own geographical location and diminishing their potential for successful interaction with other parts of the world. If English truly is a lingua franca (which, of course, is up for debate), a strong grasp of how it works and how to use it to effectively communicate ideas is absolutely necessary.

Point Two: Grammatical rules come down to personal preference, and you shouldn’t try to impose your preferences on others.

“I ask him if he has any personal dislikes, which aren’t ‘wrong’ but which annoy him. ‘I have bugbears. But I like to think I have a healthy attitude towards them: they’re my bugbears, so I regulate my own usage, not yours. For example, I’ve always disliked the term “people of colour”. I refused to use it even when I was a graduate dean working on affirmative action in the Eighties in California.’ The key, he says, is to realise that your preferences—using ‘fewer’ instead of ‘less’ when referring to plural objects, for instance—are just preferences, and claiming that they’re ‘wrong’ is false.”

My Thoughts:

This sounds nice in theory, but it seems pretty impractical to me. Everyone who uses the English language imposes preferences on others simply by using it. If I say “fewer cookies” rather than “less cookies,” I’m making it quite obvious what I prefer. It’s hard for me not to condemn “less cookies” as wrong, because—well, according to everything I know about grammar, it’s wrong. The structure of English, in this case, already makes perfect sense and there isn’t a good reason to change it, in my opinion. When speaking casually with friends, this isn’t something I would bring up, because I agree with Professor Pullum that it’s rude. However, if a friend handed me a formal letter for her boss to edit, I would most certainly circle this mistake—If someone asks me to edit something, they want my preferences, and my preferences tend to follow the book quite closely.

Point Three: English is not the best language on the planet.

“English is the most important language on the planet, he says – not because it’s better but because, by historical accident, it happens to have spread around the globe. ‘It’s not that English has won out because of its virtue,’ he says. ‘In some ways, English is highly unsuited to its role; it has 200 irregular verbs, where Swahili, for example, has none. It would have been wonderful to have Swahili as a global language, but it didn’t happen.’”

My Thoughts:

Agreed! English is incredibly difficult for a non-native speaker to learn, and different cultural nuances make it even more difficult. I would never call English the best language, or even the most beautiful. However, English has been used (and will continue to be used) to produce some of the most historically significant documents ever written, some of the most beautiful poetry ever written, and some of the most influential literature ever written. I agree with Professor Pullum: English may not be the most ideal global language, but it has become the most important. That’s why learning about how it works and how it affects us is so important to me.

Point Four: All dialects of English are just as valid and significant as any other.

“‘Other, non-standard English dialects aren’t bad or inferior. Saying that African American vernacular English is Standard English with ignorant mistakes is as stupid as thinking that Dutch is just standard Berlin German with ignorant mistakes.’”

My Thoughts:

I’m a little torn on this one, but that goes back to my philosophy about the different functions of language. Speaking is geared towards an immediate effect, and different dialects are perfectly acceptable in that case. Many people have much less control over how they speak versus how they write. So, I agree with Professor Pullum on half of his point: non-standard dialects aren’t bad, but if they carry over into how a person formally writes, I see a problem arise. I’m in no place to condemn any dialect (I live in the American South, after all), but I still hold strong to the idea that all speakers of English can write clearly and effectively on paper.

Point Five: There is a middle ground between strictly following the rules and throwing the rules out the window.

“Whenever linguists point out that the rules of language can’t be what the ‘grammar Nazis’ think they are, people claim that they’re saying anything goes. Not at all, says Pullum. ‘We grammarians who study the English language are not all bow-tie-wearing martinets, but we’re also not flaming liberals who think everything should be allowed. There’s a sensible middle ground where you decide what the rules of Standard English are, on the basis of close study of the way that native speakers use the language.’”

My Thoughts:

I mostly agree. I like to think I stand in the middle and try to look at language objectively. However, I don’t think I’m in any position to make my own rules. So, if I get confused, I’m much more likely to consult a grammar book than carve my own path and decide for myself what to do.

I like the way Professor Pullum thinks. He casts a different light on the world of grammar, which is usually shadowed by knuckle-slappers and tsk-tsk-ers. However, I’m not quite ready to follow him into the void. Without the grammar rules I know and love, I would be out of a job.

You can learn more about Professor Pullum on his website.

Lying is Wrong, Unless It’s Right: Cleaning Up the “Lie vs. Lay” Mess

That’s my dog, Sadie, lying asleep on our guest bed. Or is she laying on the bed?

I was editing a story the other day for my friend Hanne over at Heritage Press Publications for the new National Association of Christian Women Entrepreneurs (NACWE) book, Rock Bottom is a Beautiful Place. There I was, chugging along tracking changes in bright colors on the Word document, when I ran into a puzzle. One of the writers included a sentence similar to the following sentence in her story:

“I began feeling dizzy and couldn’t get back up when I lay down.”

It just didn’t sound right. It didn’t feel right. Shouldn’t it be “layed down,” or “laid down,” or even “lied down”? Surely “lay down” can’t be the past tense of “lie down,” right? My editor senses were tingling.

I turned to one of my favorite quick reference books, The Grouchy Grammarian: A How-Not-To Guide to the 47 Most Common Mistakes in English Made by Journalists, Broadcasters, and Others Who Should Know Better by Thomas Parrish. There it was in chapter 25: Lie vs. Lay. Mr. Parrish wasted no time proving me completely and utterly wrong. I guess I’m one of the ones who should know better.

It made me uncomfortable that this “common mistake” had floated under my radar for so long. How many occurrences had I missed while editing over the years? The grammar checker in Microsoft Word is usually pretty good about picking up on it, but it doesn’t always catch it.

For example, the following sentences are deemed acceptable by Microsoft Word:

“The artist proudly gestures to her sketches laying on the table.”

“The kindergartner lays on the floor during naptime.”

“Each soldier lied down his weapon during the peace negotiations.”

Guess what? All of those sentences are wrong! The only mistake Word seems upset about is this one:

“I layed down between the cold sheets, praying for a restful night’s sleep.”

It only notices this mistake because “layed” is not a word.

Confused? This is something most children learn in elementary school and promptly forget a year later. It’s a mistake high school English teachers and college professors drill into students’ heads. When students graduate and aren’t students anymore, it’s easier to pretend there isn’t a difference between lie and lay and use them interchangeably. However, if you want to be a successful writer, don’t mix these up, even when it doesn’t feel right. It only feels “wrong” because people have been making the mistake for so long and so often.

Let’s start at the beginning: to lie and to lay are two completely different verbs.

Lie comes from the Old English word licgan, which means “to be situated, to remain; to be at rest, lie down.”

Lie is an action. It is something you do. It’s an intransitive verb, which means it stands alone as an action and doesn’t need a complementizer.

Here is the conjugation for to lie:


During our game of hide-and-go seek last night, I lay silently under the bed and no one found me.

I need to lie down because I’m feeling dizzy.

She had lain awake for thirty minutes before her alarm went off.

They are lying in the grass by the playground.

The phone lies motionless on the table.

Lay comes from the Old English word lecgan, which means “to place on the ground (or other surface).” Notice how similar the words licgan and lecgan are. It seems like our confusion dates back centuries.

Lay is an action unto something else. It’s a transitive verb, which means it always requires a direct object. You always lay something. Think of the verb to want. That’s a transitive verb because you can’t simply want; you have to want something.

Here’s the conjugation for to lay:


When the exam was over, I laid down my pencil and breathed a sigh of relief.

She will lay her keys on the kitchen counter for you to find later.

Although Marcie and Joan had laid their backpacks by the back door after school, they were gone when they returned.

Please don’t walk through the kitchen; we are laying new tile and the grout is still wet.

You were laying a note on her pillow when she suddenly woke up.

Here’s an example of using both lie and lay in the same sentence:

As Paul was lying on the couch, Carrie laid his lunch on the table beside him.

As you can tell, our main problem comes with the present tense of to lay (lay) and the past tense of to lie (lay). They’re spelled the same and pronounced the same. How are we supposed to know the difference? No wonder we get confused. No wonder people change the past tense of lie (recline) to match the past tense of lie (fib). To keep them straight, it really comes down to memory.

Lie, lay, will lie, have lain.

Lay, laid, will lay, have laid.

It’s confusing, but that’s the English language for you.

As Bill Nye the Science Guy says…

Why should you care about such a trivial difference? That part is up to you. The more you care about how you write, the more professional and intelligent you will sound on paper. Little mistakes like these are obvious and add up quickly.

I’ve always believed that writing should be as polished as possible for three reasons:

  1. Writing is permanent. Once something is sent through an email or letter, posted online, or handed over to someone else, there’s no erasing it. It’s out there. With the exception, perhaps, of recordings, writing is much more permanent that speech. It can be read over and over, critiqued again and again. There’s a reason why, centuries later, we remember what Shakespeare wrote but little of what he said. In fact, we only remember famous quotes of his because someone else took the time to write them down.
  2. Writing is a representation of your mind. Do you want to make a strong impression on others? Write intelligently. Well-crafted writing demands respect.
  3. Writing presents the rare opportunity to edit yourself. When speaking, you can’t go back and say, “What I meant was…” or “This sentence would probably sound better if I said it like this…” Well, I suppose you could, but it would be very socially awkward. When writing, you can always go back and improve what you’ve said before anyone gets a chance to read it. Why not seize that opportunity?

I Don’t Think That Means What You Think It Means: Seven Phrases You’re Probably Misusing

One of my favorite movies of all time turned 25 last year. The Princess Bride has dozens of quotable moments, but one of my favorites is the character Vizzini and his catchphrase, “Inconceivable!”

When I’m reading or editing, every now and then I’ll run across a phrase and Inigo Montoya’s voice will pop into my head:

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

These are the most commonly misused phrases I’ve noticed. Until recently, some of them confused me, too. Get ready to feel smarter!

1. “For All Intensive Purposes”

This phrase does not make sense once you understand the definition of the word “intensive.”

in·ten·sive /inˈtensiv/ adj. concentrated on a single area or subject or into a short time; very thorough or vigorous. “She undertook an intensive Arabic course.”
synonyms: thorough, , in-depth, rigorous, exhaustive; vigorous, strenuous; concentrated, condensed, accelerated; detailed, minute, close, meticulous, methodical, careful. “An intensive search of the area”

“For all intensive purposes” is not a very useful phrase and would only apply to very specific circumstances.

Correction: “For All Intents and Purposes”

This makes much more sense. Here, you are using a prepositional phrase to set up a statement: “For all intents and purposes, electric cars are not yet practical.”

Why does for all intents and purposes for some people become for all intensive purposes? Because of a glitch in the way our brains work that causes us to hear a different set of words from the ones that were uttered. For example, my daughter Judith recently said, “I want to go to Jack in the Box.” My wife and I, who were only half listening, responded in turn with, “You want to get a Japanese boss?” and “Who wants dental floss?” When you consider how quickly my daughter’s words got garbled in her parents’ ears, it’s a miracle that for all intents and purposes hasn’t degenerated into fallen tents of porpoises.

—Charles Harrington Elster

2. “On Accident”

This is a simple case of a preposition being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I assume this mix-up developed because of the phrase “on purpose.” To keep a sentence’s structure parallel, we might say, “I deleted the essay on accident, not on purpose.” However, the preposition “on” doesn’t belong here.

Correction: “By Accident”

“I picked the wrong color by accident.”

This might sound strange to you, but “by” is the proper preposition to pair with “accident.” Linguist Leslie Barratt makes a good point:

…why on accident arose is…unclear. Obviously, on purpose may have played a role in supplying an analogical form (I didn’t break the window on purpose; I broke it on accident). But by accident and on purpose have existed for hundreds of years without one causing the other to change prepositions, and we don’t hear by purpose, so why did the change happen when it did and why did the change have the direction it did rather than the other way round (in other words, to by accident & by purpose)?

Many descriptive grammarians would argue that “on” has colloquially replaced “by.” While that may be true, it’s best to stick with “by” in formal writing.

3. “Wreck Havoc”

The word “havoc” means “widespread destruction.” If you are a superhero fighting a hurricane, you can use the phrase “wrecking havoc.” If you own a car named “Havoc” and crash it into a tree, you can say you “wrecked Havoc.” Otherwise, you’re using this phrase incorrectly and you need to stop.

Correction: “Wreak Havoc”

I think this mistake would be much less common if more people pronounced the word “wreak” correctly. “Wreak” does not rhyme with “wreck;” it rhymes with “reek.” When you wreak havoc on something, you cause widespread destruction. When you read the phrase “wreak havoc,” pronounce it correctly in your head. That will help you separate “wreck” and “wreak,” and you won’t mix them up anymore.

4. “Hunger Pains”

This is a strange one. Technically, “hunger pains” is a correct phrase, but it doesn’t mean what most people think it means. If you are experiencing physical pain because you are hungry (not discomfort; actual pain), you have hunger pains.

Correction: “Hunger Pangs”

You are most likely searching for this phrase instead. Hunger pangs are stabs of emotional or physical discomfort due to hunger. This is a much more appropriate phrase to use when you’re on a diet and can’t go back for seconds of that cheesy lasagna.

These phrases are commonly confused because “pains” and “pangs” sound very similar, especially when spoken quickly. Slow down and enunciate to make sure you’re communicating the right idea. Pay attention when you’re writing so you don’t use the wrong one.

5. “Hone In On”

hone /hōn/ verb :sharpen with a whetstone.
synonyms: sharpen, whet, strop, grind, file; polish, refine, improve, enhance, fine-tune

The word “hone” is often used figuratively to express a skill. “She honed her photography techniques during the seminar.” However, “hone” should never be used as “hone in on.” It doesn’t make sense to “sharpen in on” something.

Correction: “Home In On”

When you say you’re “homing in on” something, it means you’re approaching it. This phrase expresses the sentiment of the gibberish phrase “hone in on.”

The scientists are homing in on a solution for the energy crisis.

The twins are homing in on graduation.

Of course, “home” and “hone” sound so similar that people might not notice the mistake when you’re speaking. However, it’s quite an obvious mistake when writing and should be avoided.

6. “Nauseous”

Once you understand this mistake, it will make you laugh every time. To begin, you must understand the primary definition of nauseous.

nau·seous \ˈnȯ-shəs, ˈnȯ-zē-əs\ adj. :causing nausea or disgust: nauseating.
synonyms: disgusting, repellent, offensive

It’s almost impossible to invent a situation in which one would properly use I’m nauseous. (How often does anyone cause others to vomit?) In that unlikely case, however, say something like, I’m apparently being nauseous and making you ill; I’d better leave.

—Theodore Cheney

So, if John told you, “You look nauseous,” you might get upset with John for saying looking at you makes him want to vomit.

Of course, John would then be very confused, and for good reason. This is such a common mistake that most dictionaries include “affected with nausea” as a secondary definition. Some linguists say both definitions arose independently and are both correct. To avoid confusion, though, use two different terms.

Correction: “Nauseated”

This definition makes it clear how you are feeling and how you feel about those around you. When writing, always use “nauseated” to describe the feeling of being sick to one’s stomach.

7. “_______faced lie”

This isn’t actually a mistake, but people interchange these phrases so often that it’s useful to know the individual meanings of each. Each phrase conveys a slightly different meaning.

Barefaced Lie: William Shakespeare coined this phrase in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “The meaning of barefaced was clearly ‘without whiskers,’ which led to senses of ‘unconcealed, open,’” writes William Safire. “In time, this innocent lack of disguise took on the color of shamelessness.” So, a barefaced lie is a lie told without shame or remorse.

Baldfaced Lie: The phrase “baldfaced” dates back to the 1600s and originally referred to animals (for example, the bald eagle). Originally, “bald” meant white, not hairless. A “whitefaced” lie implies a blank, unguarded face.

Boldfaced Lie: Shakespeare coined this phrase, too, but its meaning has changed over the years. Boldfaced originally meant confident, but “that soon turned into ‘impudent,’ as confidence so often does” (Safire). A boldfaced lie is a confident lie. This phase is also used by typographers to describe bold font.

The spelling and grammar checker on your word processor probably won’t catch these mistakes, so pay close attention when writing to make sure you’re saying what you actually mean to say.


Barratt, Leslie. “What Speakers Don’t Notice: Language Changes Can Sneak In.” Innovation and Continuity in Language and Communication of Different Language Cultures, ed. Rudolf Muhr (Peter Lang, 2006).

Cheney, Theodore A. Rees. Getting the Words Right: 39 Ways to Improve Your Writing, Second Ed. Writer’s Digest Books: Cincinnati, 2005.

Elster, Charles Harrington. The Accidents of Style: Good Advice on How Not to Write Badly. St. Martin’s Press: New York, 2010.

Fiske, Robert Hartwell. Robert Hartwell Fiske’s Dictionary of Unendurable English: A Compendium of Mistakes in Grammar, Usage, and Spelling with Commentary on Lexicographers and Linguists. Simon & Shuster: New York, 2011.

Safire, William. The Right Word in the Right Place at the Right Time: Wit and Wisdom from the Popular “On Language” Column in the New York Times Magazine. Simon & Schuster: New York, 2004.

That’s Just Not Right

Of all the words in the English language currently in use (over 175,000, according to the Oxford English Dictionary), “that” is one of the most abused. It’s a word we barely notice—a placeholder for better words, an unnecessary pause. When speaking, this isn’t very noticeable. In fact, “that” is a useful tool for clarification in verbal communication:

John: I can’t believe you said that.
Kate: I don’t think that you understand.

With the right voice inflection, “that” helps convey emotion and cuts corners by summing up implied information. Writers, on the other hand, often abuse “that,” making their work weaker and more ineffective. When editing, I always edit out “that” whenever I can, and you should, too.


All writers should be familiar with grammar mechanics. If language is a tool, you need to know how the tool works to use it to its full potential. “That” is an interesting word because it functions as five different parts of speech.

1. As a Complementizer or Subordinating Conjunction

In this case, “that” can be used to introduce a nominal clause, which substitutes for a noun or noun phrase.

Sarah demanded that her guests wipe their feet before entering her apartment.

This is closely related to its use as a subordinating conjunction, which makes one clause dependent on another clause. In this case, think of “that” as a connector.

I told her that she needed to brush her hair.

In both cases, “that” connects two independent clauses (both phrases on either side of “that” can stand alone as full sentences).

2. To Introduce a Restrictive Relative Clause (a clause identifying the referent of the noun it modifies; isn’t set off by commas)

In this case, “that” usually acts as a relative pronoun, which, coincidentally, introduces a relative clause (just like a restrictive relative clause, but isn’t restricted to the referent) or restrictive relative clause. For example, read the following sentence:

A woman who serves food in a restaurant is a waitress.

In this sentence, who is the relative pronoun and who serves food in a restaurant is the restrictive relative clause.

The word “that” works just like the word “who” when used as a relative pronoun:

The dress that she bought for the gala was too big.

In this sentence, that she bought for the gala is the restrictive relative clause. If you take it out, the sentence still makes sense: The dress was too big.

3. As a Demonstrative Pronoun

Demonstrative pronouns take the place of nouns (people, places, things, or concepts) as the subject of a sentence, but, unlike regular pronouns, they are more specific. They include the following words: this, these, that, and those.

That is funny.

That was mean, Mary.

That was too long.

To test if “that” is being used as a demonstrative pronoun, try replacing the phrase “that is” with “those are.” “Those” is the plural form of “that” as a demonstrative pronoun.

That is delicious. Those are delicious.

4. As a Demonstrative Adjective

Demonstrative adjectives are different from demonstrative pronouns because they indicate specific people, places, or things. They still include this, these, that, and those, but they are used in a different way. Let’s take a look at those sentences again:

That joke is funny.

That letter was mean, Mary.

That flight was too long.

Demonstrative adjectives have to have an accompanying noun to modify. They can’t stand alone like demonstrative pronouns. Again, the plural of “that” is “those.” You can use the same test from before.

That pie is delicious. Those pies are delicious.

5. As an Adverb (a word that modifies a verb)

Usually, when “that” is used as an adverb it conveys a contradiction to an established idea.

Imagine a college student has a big test coming up and all of his friends have told him it is impossible to pass. If, when he takes it, he finds it easier than expected, he might tell his friends, “The exam wasn’t that hard.

Or, a girl whose vacation isn’t meeting her expectations might say, “The Bahamas aren’t that great.”

In this case, “that” acts as an adverb modifying the verb “to be.”

In the first two parts of speech, “that” is usually pronounced weakly, as ðət. It doesn’t receive the emphasis of the sentence. In the other three parts of speech, it is pronounced strongly, as ðæt. The phonetics show the different functions of the word. As a general rule, if “that” is pronounced weakly in a sentence, you can leave it out. If it’s pronounced strongly, it needs to stay.

After understanding how “that” functions as a word in the English language, you can begin to understand how it is commonly misused.

Three Ways “That” is Abused by Writers:

1. It is used unnecessarily.

This is the most common problem with “that.” I see it every day when editing. When you use “that” as a complementizer, subordinating conjunction, or as a relative pronoun, more often than not you can leave it out altogether and still have a well-constructed sentence.

“The complementizer that plays no role within its clause, nor does it contribute any information.” (Klammer, Schulz, and Volpe: Analyzing English Grammar, Sixth Ed.)

When you’re able to remove “that,” do it! It will usually improve the sentence dramatically.

I know that there is work to be done.
I know there is work to be done.

The tower that Connor built out of Legos was impressive.
The tower Connor built out of Legos was impressive.
[Note: You can further improve this sentence by removing passive voice: Connor built an impressive tower out of Legos.]

The difference between a sofa and a loveseat is that a sofa seats three people and a loveseat only seats two.
The difference between a sofa and a loveseat is a sofa seats three people and a loveseat only seats two.

He won’t come back with the same attitude that He left with.
He won’t come back with the same attitude He left with.
[Note: This sentence doesn’t use proper grammar, but it’s a trend I see growing in writing. Don’t end a sentence with a preposition. This sentence should read, “He won’t come back with the same attitude with which he left.” If I were editing that sentence, I would shorten it to, “He won’t come back with the same attitude.” That helps avoid the formal sentence structure that seems awkward in a world of casual language.]

Above all, avoid “double thats” at all costs.

Some would say that that’s crazy.
Some would say that’s crazy.

I know that that’s the way to do it.
I know that’s the way to do it.

I don’t care that that’s your worst fear; you need to face it.
I don’t care if that’s your worst fear; you need to face it.

2. It isn’t used when necessary.

This is much rarer, but it’s still a problem. Leaving out “that” when you need it can make your writing extremely confusing. Even when “that” isn’t technically vital to the structure of a sentence, you need to use your best judgment to know if it should be included or not. Try reading the sentence out loud or having a friend read it for you.

For example, “that” could be edited out of this sentence:

The promise made to Cynthia was that she would get a new bike.
The promise made to Cynthia was she would get a new bike.

However, when “that” is removed it makes the sentence difficult to read. Is “was” referring to the promise or Cynthia? It’s best to leave “that” for clarification.

Try this sentence: Sarah demanded that her guests wipe their feet before entering her apartment.

I’ve diagrammed this for you to illustrate the optional “that.”

In this particular case, an argument could be made for keeping “that.” The phrase “demanded her guests” could be misunderstood because “demanded” has more than one meaning:

  1. The king demanded that his subjects bow before him.
  2. The warrior demanded an audience with the king.

When a word has multiple meanings, “that” can clear up harmful ambiguity. The last thing you want is for your readers to be confused; at that point, you aren’t a successful writer.

When in doubt, leave it out: Does the sentence still make sense? Does it still effectively get your point across?

3. It is used incorrectly.

This is a very common mistake, and it drives me crazy. Look at the following chart, adapted from one provided by the Online Writing Lab of Purdue University:

“That” is only used to refer to places, things, and ideas. When referring to people or a person, always use “who,” even if the person isn’t named specifically.

Incorrect: Don’t be like the procrastinator that says, “I’ll do it later.”
Correct: Don’t be like the procrastinator who says, “I’ll do it later.”

Incorrect: People that misuse “that” drive me insane.
Correct: People who misuse “that” drive me insane.

Incorrect: She’s the one that got away.
Correct: She’s the one who got away.

Don’t be confused and use who for everything. The only reason I can think of to use “who” for a thing would be to refer to a personified object or animal character in a story:

The fox, who never lost a race, was annoyed that the hare reached the mountaintop first.

When we speak, overusing “that” feels more natural because we can use word inflection not available when writing. On the other hand, if you stop to listen to yourself talk, you might find you use “that” less often than you think. Which of the following feels more natural for you to speak out loud?

“I think that we should go to the post office first.”
“I think we should go to the post office first.”

Likewise, on paper, the second choice is much easier to read. It takes less effort to get to the point of the sentence. In this case, “that” is a hindrance.

“That” is just not right in most cases, and should be edited out when possible.

The Letters We’ve Lost

How did you learn your alphabet? Everyone has to learn. It’s usually the first step towards learning how to read and write. Like many, my introduction began with Sesame Street and picture books, but the strongest memory I have of learning the alphabet was in Mrs. Phillip’s kindergarten class in 1995. Around her room, she had a group of inflatable alphabet characters similar to these:

Each week, we would focus on a new character, learning all of the sounds and words associated with the letter. Of course, we also sang the Alphabet Song relentlessly until everyone understood that “elemeno” was not, in fact, a single letter.

Our modern English alphabet is based on the original Roman alphabet and uses Latin characters. Which one of these text samples is the easiest for you to read?

  1. 우리는이 가운데 생명과 자유와 행복의 추구가 있는지, 그들이 어떤 양도 할 수없는 권리를 가진 그들의 창조자에 의해 부여되는 것으로, 모든 인간은 평등하게 태어났다는 것을 자명 한 진리를 개최합니다.
  2. Dicimus esse illa, patet quod omnes homines pares creantur, a suo Creatore praediti quibusdam Iuribus inseparabilibus, inter quae vitae, libertatis et Beata persequenda.
  3. Θεωρούμε αυτές τις αλήθειες να είναι αυτονόητο, ότι όλοι οι άνθρωποι δημιουργούνται ίσοι, ότι είναι προικισμένοι από τον Δημιουργό τους με συγκεκριμένα απαραβίαστα Δικαιώματα, μεταξύ αυτών είναι ζωή, η ελευθερία και η επιδίωξη της ευτυχίας.
  4. Мы считаем эти истины самоочевидны, что все люди созданы равными, что они наделены их Творцом определенными неотчуждаемыми правами, к числу которых относятся жизнь, свобода и стремление к счастью.
  5. हम इन के बीच जीवन, स्वाधीनता और खुशी का पीछा कर रहे हैं कि, वे कुछ अहस्तांतरणीय अधिकार के साथ अपने निर्माता द्वारा संपन्न हो कि, सभी पुरुषों के समान बनाया जाता है, स्वयं स्पष्ट होना करने के लिए इन सत्य पकड़.

Unless you’re fluent in Korean, Russian, Greek, or Hindi, you probably picked number 2 (Latin). You can probably attempt to sound out the Latin, but can’t even begin to try to pronounce the others. That’s because the modern English alphabet uses Latin characters. The other languages don’t. Around 100 languages today use the Roman alphabet, including French, Spanish, Dutch, and many African languages.

[World Distribution of the Latin Alphabet]

There’s no denying the huge impact the Roman Empire had on the lands it conquered. One of the biggest effects of Roman expansion was on language. Most of the places that use the Roman alphabet today were conquered by the Romans at some point (or conquered by those conquered by the Romans).

During the 1st century, the Roman alphabet contained 23 letters (they didn’t use J, U, or W). As the English language developed, those other three letters were added to make the 26 letters we use today. However, other letters were also added, and subsequently abandoned, along the way.

When Johannes Gutenberg introduced movable type printing to Europe in 1439, he began a revolution in the world of language. Suddenly, ideas could be exchanged through print in a way they never could before. Instead of waiting months for a monk to meticulously copy a manuscript letter by letter, printing blocks could be made and hundreds of copies could be produced at once.

Before the introduction of printing, the alphabet was not the concrete concept we know today. There wasn’t an established way of spelling words, and different regions developed symbols (letters) to suit their individual needs. With the printing press came the beginning of the streamlining process of language. As more and more people became literate and more literature was printed, consistency became more essential to communication.

I’d like to focus on six lost letters of the English alphabet. These letters have since been replaced by other letters, or the sounds they represent have been phased out.


(short “a” sound like cat, past, and happy)

Languages like Norwegian and Icelandic still use this letter, but English stopped using it when Old English fell out of favor for Middle English. The digraph (pair of letters representing a single sound) æ was called “ash” when it replaced an ancient rune that resembled an ash tree. Ultimately, the letter was abandoned when printing began to streamline the alphabet and eliminate unnecessary letters. Æ was separated into AE, and the language moved on. However, you can still find ash used stylistically in names like Encyclopædia Britannica and ÆON.


(voiceless “th” sound like thing and thank)

This letter, along with thorn (see below), represented the “th” sound. Eth was meant to distinguish the voiceless dental fricative from the voiced dental fricative. It was represented by a “D” with a stroke through it.

Do this exercise so you can see the distinction. Say the word “thing” very slowly out loud (you won’t be able to tell the difference if you try to do this in your head). Pay attention to the way your tongue presses against the back of your teeth. It probably barely touches your teeth to produce the sound. Now, say the word “this” very slowly out loud. Notice a difference? Your tongue should press more firmly against your teeth, and your throat should constrict slightly as your vocal folds work to produce the sound.

It’s an extremely subtle difference, but in Old English the sounds were much more distinct. As the language evolved, eth fell out of use and was replaced by thorn (below). Several Scandinavian languages still use eth.


(voiced “th” sound like this and that)

Thorn, named after the original rune it’s derived from, had the same purpose as eth but represented a slightly different sound. Eventually, thorn was used to represent both voiced and voiceless dental fricatives as eth fell out of use. However, as the alphabet was streamlined, thorn also fell out of use and both sounds were represented by the letters “th.”


(“w” sound like wait, wind, and watch)

Wynn has a funny story. In early Old English texts, the letters “uu” were used to represent the “w” sound. Then, scholars and scribes streamlined this by borrowing the rune wynn  to make writing easier. Wynn was used in its common form (Ƿƿ) until the 1300s, when it was abandoned for uu again, which soon developed into the new letter “double-u,” or “w.”


(velar nasal sound in sing, marking, and stinging)

Eng was meant to help condense the modern alphabet, but it failed. A scribe named Alexander Gill the Elder invented the eng in 1619 to represent the “-ing” sound in one character. It uses a hook like a lowercase j to distinguish itself from a normal n. While it was a good idea in theory, the timing was all wrong. Modern English was almost in full swing, and there wasn’t room for new characters in a streamlined alphabet. The character didn’t catch on, but it was adopted into the phonetic alphabet by Benjamin Franklin in 1779.


(There is no modern English equivalent to this sound, but the closest example is the o-umlaut sound in the German word schön, meaning “beautiful.” You can find a pronunciation guide HERE.)

Ethel is named after the Anglo-Saxon rune ēðel, meaning “estate.” Like I mentioned above, the sound it represents doesn’t exist in English anymore because it’s been rounded out over the centuries. In most words, ethel has been replaced with either an e or an o. A good example is the word “federal,” once spelled “fœderal.” However, you can still find ethel in several modern English words: subpœna, amœba, and onomatopœia. In these words, though, the letters are usually separated into “oe,” so the character itself has mostly fallen out of use.

Modern English has 40 sounds (phonemes), all represented by the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). You’ll recognize some of the lost letters that have survived as members of the IPA:

Losing these letters has been a process spanning many centuries; this isn’t something that happens overnight. However, you can still find them in old manuscripts. The most famous example is the original manuscript of Beowulf, an epic poem written in the late 10th century or early 11th century. There is only one surviving copy of the poem, held in the British Library in London. When I studied there in 2010, I visited the British Library and spent as much time as I could staring at the manuscript. Of course, I couldn’t read a word because it’s written in Old English and uses obsolete characters. Here’s the first page:

If you zoom in, you will start to recognize some of the characters I’ve shown you:

Now that you’re able to recognize some of the characters, you can start trying to read Old English. Of course, learning to read Old English fluently can take scholars decades, but you can at least start with the first word of Beowulf in the manuscript above: ǷÆT.

You know that wynn (Ƿ) makes the “w” sound. You know that ash (Æ) makes the short “a” sound. Obviously, you know what sound a “T” makes. Put them together and that sounds like “wat.” Modern American English uses the ə (uh) phoneme instead of æ (short a), but it’s still the same word: WHAT.

English isn’t the only language to go through such a drastic change as losing letters. Much more recently (within the past two decades), Spanish has begun phasing out three “letters.” The letters are actually digraphs that are no longer accepted as part of the alphabet by the Royal Academia Española (RAE): che (ch), elle (ll), and erre (rr). I noticed this change firsthand during my years in school. In elementary school, we learned the Spanish alphabet as represented in the first chart, and even sang a song to go with it. By the time I got to high school, the textbooks had changed to match the second chart, and the alphabet I had learned was no longer correct.

Many linguists and grammarians use the loss of these letters as support for descriptive grammar. They believe that the lost letters prove that English is always changing and evolving to suit the needs of its speakers. Who knows what English will look like in 500 years? For now, though, I’ll stick to Sesame Street.

Suggested Reading:

Algeo, John. The Origins and Development of the English Language, Sixth Edition. Boston: Cengage, 2009.

The Comma, Our Old Friend

Almost every complicated sentence in the English language uses a comma, yet this tiny punctuation mark is often misused or neglected. Many find the task of perfecting the use of commas daunting because there are so many rules to memorize and follow. Although there are certain rules that should remain strict to maintain the fundamental structure of English, the comma can be versatile and should be allowed to change with time to reflect the current need of speakers of English.

Punctuation keeps English from becoming incomprehensible. While new words are added to the English language every day, punctuation marks have basically remained static for hundreds of years. In her book, Eats, Shoots, & Leaves: A Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, Lynne Truss describes punctuation marks as “the traffic signals of language: they tell us to slow down, notice this, take a detour, stop.” Ultimately, punctuation gives a writer the tools of a speaker, like the ability to pause dramatically for the audience, raising volume for an exclamation, or inflect correctly for a question. If punctuation marks are just as important as words for expressing ideas, then each one deserves to be thoroughly studied. In this sense, punctuation marks are some of the most important “words” in the English language.

The word “comma” in Greek means, “a piece cut off.” The comma has caused writers trouble for centuries. Where a speaker can ramble on without a care, a writer must pause to consider the structure of a sentence: Just because I want a pause here, does a comma belong here? Will I look stupid if my sentence has no commas at all? Why do some commas have dots above them? (If you are seriously pondering that last question, I will discuss the wonders of the semicolon at some point in the future.)

Unfortunately, the comma can be confusing to use and, with the introduction of the Internet, relentlessly misused. Many writers are tempted to use them whenever a reader pauses to take a breath. Some writers argue that the original use of the comma was to indicate a pause, so we should be able to use it that way now. There is significant debate in the linguistic world over several issues about the comma, but most of the controversy is trivial (Let’s be honest; aren’t most debates in the grammar world trivial? That’s what makes them so fun). The primary (and most important) rules for comma usage remain untouched.

One debate in particular rises with the use of the serial comma (or Oxford comma), which refers to the comma placed in a list directly before the ending conjunction. For example, in the following sentence, the serial comma is placed before “and”: “Today, I went to class, went to work, and saw a movie.” Many writers frown at the use of the serial comma, including grammarian Steven T. Byington. “The purpose of the comma after [the first item] is to take the place of the omitted conjunction,” he says. “Consequently it is illogical to use it also after [the second item], where the conjunction is expressed.” Others applaud it for its assistance in eliminating ambiguity.

Personally, I love the Oxford comma and never leave home without it. I suppose there is a peaceful middle ground: sometimes a sentence is improved with an Oxford comma, and sometimes it just muddles it up. You decide.

This helpful infographic from Daily Infographic discusses the Oxford comma debate in a visual way:

Another common comma debate is related to the comma splice, the use of a comma to connect two independent clauses. In English, comma splices are generally regarded as grammatical errors and require editing. Microsoft Word will cram a green squiggly line all up in there. However, in her article, “A Few Good Words for the Comma Splice,” Irene Teoh Brosnahan, a proponent of descriptive grammar, defends the use of comma splices, claiming that there is a large gap between grammar handbooks and informal written English, and that the gap can be closed to bring together both styles peacefully.  She believes that the comma splice has been ignored as a legitimate use of the comma, and that comma splices are sometimes necessary to successfully convey ideas. “Even its names are tainted,” she writes. “Comma splice, comma fault, comma blunder, comma mistake.”

Of course, the comma splice is rejected even more often than the serial comma. Comma splices catch the eye because writers have been taught to find them and fix them. However, the flat rule against comma splices fails to see that, stylistically, there are instances when a comma splice is necessary to effectively communicate the meaning of the sentence. Brosnahan lists several practical uses of the comma splice, including parallel syntactical structure, lack of ambiguity, and an effect of emphasis.

Brosnahan provides several examples of unacceptable comma splices. One is, “Seymour is a polite young man, as far as I know, he never even swears.”  Because the syntax is not parallel, there is ambiguity present, and the effect is not for emphasis, the sentence is grammatically unacceptable.  This sentence is acceptable because the syntax is parallel: “Some will gain, others will lose.” “School bores them, preaching bores them, even television bores them” shows that more than one clause can be connected with a comma splice and still be acceptable.

Brosnahan ends her paper cleverly with an obvious yet effective comma splice: “Handbook writers should admit it, teachers should teach it, students should learn it.”  However, Lynne Truss professes a more realistic view: “So many highly respected writers adopt the splice comma that a rather unfair rule emerges on this one: only do it if you’re famous… Done knowingly by an established writer, the comma splice is effective, poetic, dashing. Done equally knowingly by people who are not published writers, it can look presumptuous.  Done ignorantly by ignorant people, it is awful.” Did you notice the comma splice she used (“effective, poetic, dashing”)? No? Then her use of the splice was successful. Although it is true that comma splices can be used emphatically and can be supported with grammar rules, they should be used consciously and sparingly to avoid scorn from readers.

Considering these issues with modern comma usage, writers are again faced with a choice between descriptive and prescriptive grammar. The constant exchange of information through technology means that our language is constantly evolving, bringing in new words, phrases, and, in the case of commas, structural rules. A language must adapt to changing times to embrace new generations that want to use it.  As users of English, it is important for us to understand that grammar rules are only in effect as long as the majority of the population accepts them. Language evolves so slowly that it is rarely noticeable when a change is introduced.

However, like I mentioned before, some rules are strict and should be strict. Let’s look at a sentence I copied and pasted from an article online about top shows on Netflix. The article has since been edited, but I must have read it during an early draft. Here’s a sentence about the TV show “Wilfred” starring Elijah Wood:

“Elijah Wood stars as the terribly depressed, Ryan. To make matters worse, Ryan see’s his neighbor’s dog Wilfred, as a man in a dog suit, while everyone just sees a dog. Ryan is left to watch his Wilfred, in this raunchy and irreverent comedy on Netflix.”

Ouch. Let’s ignore the misplaced apostrophe for now and focus on the commas. This writer doesn’t have a strong grasp of how the comma is formally used. Instead, he or she places a comma at every natural pause. Here’s how it should be edited:

“Elijah Wood stars as the terribly depressed, Ryan. To make matters worse, Ryan sees his neighbor’s dog Wilfred, as a man in a dog suit,. Everyone else just sees a dog. Ryan is left to watch his Wilfred, in this raunchy and irreverent comedy on Netflix.” [Note: I don’t know what the writer meant to say with the underlined portion.]

Just for reference, here is how the website edited the sentence:

“Elijah Wood stars as a depressed character named Ryan. To make matters worse, Ryan sees his neighbor’s dog Wilfred as a man in a dog suit. Everyone else just sees a dog.”

A case can be made for many grammatical “errors.”  The comma is a punctuation mark that is currently undergoing a good deal of change in the English language, evolving into a more flexible and versatile mark. Prescriptive grammarians are panicking, descriptive grammarians are nodding. However, the comma has outlasted many lost archaic marks and will continue to exist as a staple in English grammar.

If you are interested in learning more about the comma, try some of these sources:

  • Brosnahan, Irene Teoh.  “A Few Good Words for the Comma Splice.”  College English 38.2 (1976): 184-188.
  • Byington, Steven T.  “Certain Fashions in Commas and Apostrophes.”  American Speech 20.1 (1945): 22-27.
  • Cannon, Garland H.  “Punctuation and Sentence Rhythm.”  College Composition and Communication 8.1 (1957): 16-22.
  • Singleton, Ralph H.  “How to Teach Punctuation.”  College English 6.2 (1944): 111-115.
  • Truss, Lynne.  Eats, Shoots, & Leaves: A Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.  London: Gotham Books, 2003.

Peculiar Punctuation: The Interrobang

Ah, the exclamation point: the joy of English punctuation. No other punctuation mark has the power to affect the volume in which we read a sentence. The exclamation point conveys intensity that a simple period can’t achieve.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsby (among other excellent works), wasn’t a big fan of exclamation points.

“Cut out all those exclamation points,” he said. “An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.”

Scott sits, silently judging you and your “!”

Now more than ever, the exclamation point is forcibly paired up with its good friend, the question mark. I’m sure you’ve seen it all over Facebook and in emails from your relatives:

“Are you kidding me?!”


“Can you believe we’re going to Paris next summer?!”

Sometimes, people get carried away:

“OMG, THAT’S SOOOO AWESOME!!!!!!!! Can I come too?!?!?!?!”

Whew. Okay, let’s take a step back. Believe it or not, it isn’t grammatically correct to use more than one form of punctuation to end a sentence. You have three choices: a full stop (period), a question mark, and an exclamation point:

What are we supposed to do now. [incorrect]
What are we supposed to do now? [correct]
What are we supposed to do now! [incorrect]

What if you had a fourth option? Some believe the combination of a question mark and an exclamation point should be acceptable and accessible:

What are we supposed to do now‽ [correct or incorrect?]

My college Creative Writing Professor called the pairing of a question mark and exclamation point “atrocious.” He said you either need one or the other, but not both. A good writer can convey panic and surprise simultaneously without tacking on an extra punctuation mark.

Let’s allow Fitzgerald to convey his point. In his novel The Beautiful and Damned (1922), Richard Caramel meets a woman named Muriel Kane, and he eloquently describes her:

Her fingernails were too long and ornate, polished to a pink and unnatural fever. Her clothes were too tight, too stylish, too vivid, her eyes too roguish, her smile too coy. She was almost pitifully overemphasized from head to foot.

I love the language Fitzgerald uses to describe Muriel, and this is a common style for him. He never would have said, “She was almost pitifully overemphasized from head to foot!” That would’ve detracted from the subtlety of his words. In the same book, Fitzgerald demonstrates why pairing a question mark and exclamation point is ineffective through a scene between the two main characters, Anthony and Gloria:

They rejoiced happily, gay again with reborn irresponsibility. Then he told her of his opportunity to go abroad, and that he was almost ashamed to reject it.

“What do you think? Just tell me frankly.”

“Why, Anthony!” Her eyes were startled. “Do you want to go? Without me?”

His face fell—yet he knew, with his wife’s question, that is was too late. Her arms, sweet and strangling, were around him…

Fitzgerald knew better than to punctuate Gloria’s cries like this: “Do you want to go?! Without me?!” The reader knows her voice is raised in concern and she is panicked; we don’t need the exclamation point to understand that.

However, many writers don’t agree with Fitzgerald and have developed a loving relationship with both the question mark and the exclamation point.

In 1962, an advertising agent named Martin K. Speckter conceptualized a new punctuation mark: the interrobang, a fusion of a question mark (or interrogative mark) and an exclamation point (known in the printing world as a “bang“). He believed his ads would look more polished if he could use a single mark to convey the meaning of two. He introduced the concept in an article in TYPEtalks Magazine, and it caught on well enough to be included in several typewriter models and dictionaries. However, by the end of the decade, the fad fizzled out.

Nowadays, you won’t find the interrobang on any keyboard. However, it’s starting to gain new momentum in an age when the question mark and exclamation point are paired up more often than ever. Now, let’s work on those sentences from before:

“Are you kidding me‽”


“Can you believe we’re going to Paris next summer‽”

Nevertheless, the interrobang is slightly impractical as it is. It takes a complicated keyboard shortcut to type (ALT+8253) and, unless you learn the mark at the same time you learn to write, it’s difficult to incorporate into a well-established handwriting set. For me, my question marks are too curvy to accommodate a straight exclamation point, making writing an interrobang awkward and uncomfortable.

While the mark remains a clever idea, it still isn’t considered standard punctuation and won’t be accepted in an academic environment. In casual conversation, though, feel free to impress your friends with your knowledge of this quirky mark.