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Tips Archive

Tip 1: Either/or or Neither/nor

What do you do when you have ‘either/or’ or ‘neither/nor’ in your sentence?

When subjects in a sentence are joined by ‘either/or’ or ‘neither/nor,’ choose the subject that is closest to the verb and make it agree!

Example 1: Either the manager or the engineers (is, are) going to be fired.
“Engineers,” which is closest to the verb, determines which verb to choose.
Answer: Either the manager or the engineers are going to be fired.

Example 2: Neither the engineers nor the manager (is, are) going to be fired.
“Manager,” which is closest to the verb, determines which verb to choose.
Answer: Neither the engineers nor the manager is going to be fired.

Note: Let’s hope that no one is going to be fired.

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Tip 2: Who or Whom

How do you know when to use who or whom?

‘Who’ replaces the subject of a clause or sentence.
‘Whom’ replaces the object in a sentence.

How do I decide?

Replace ‘who’ with he, she, or they.
Replace ‘whom’ with him, her, or them.


Can you tell me (who, whom) turned in their outlines?
Answer: They turned in their outlines. The answer is ‘who.’

Do you know for (who, whom) these flowers were sent?
Answer: The flowers were sent for them. The answer is ‘whom.’

For (Who or Whom) are you voting?
Answer: You are voting for them. The answer, then, is ‘whom.’

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Tip 3: A or An

What do you do when you must choose between using ‘a’ or ‘an’ when it precedes a letter or word?

Use ‘a’ before a consonant sound (b, c, d, f, g, etc.).
Use ‘an’ before a vowel sound (a, e, i, o, u).

The key is to look at the sound the word makes.

Example: Bill said he wanted to become (a, an) FBI agent when he grew up.
Answer: Bill said he wanted to become an FBI agent when he grew up.

The letter F is a consonant, but it sounds like it is preceded with a vowel when it is pronounced.
An ‘ef’ – B – I agent?

Yes. It’s the initial sound of the word that we are looking for!

Now, isn’t that easy?

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Tip 4: Fractions in Sentences

How do you choose the correct word in a sentence that has a fraction as its subject?

Fractions such as one-half and one-third may be singular or plural, depending on the word to which the fraction refers.

How do I decide?

When the subject is a fraction, amount of money, measurement, weight, volume, or interval of time, use a singular verb when referring to a single unit (one half of the cake is gone) and a plural verb when referring to the number of separate units (one half of the team members are absent).


Half of the mail (has, have) been opened.
Answer: Half of the mail has been opened.

Half of the letters (has, have) been opened.
Answer: Half of the letters have been opened.

Two-thirds of his hair (is, are) gone.
Answer: Two-thirds of his hair is gone.

Note: this rule is an exception to subject-verb agreement rules: normally, we do not make a word inside a prepositional phrase agree with the verb!

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Tip 5: Active vs. Passive Voice

When should you use active voice or passive voice in your writing?

Always use the active voice unless the passive voice is more appropriate (for the purpose of tact and diplomacy).

Here are some examples of sentences written in passive voice that have been rewritten in active voice:

Passive: Sections A and B should be checked for errors.
Active: Check sections A and B for errors.

Passive: Hurrying to complete the work, the cables were connected improperly.
Active: Hurrying to complete the work, the technician connected the cables improperly.

Passive: It was reported by the testing facility that the new model is defective.
Active: The testing facility reported that the new model is defective.

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Tip 6: Commonly Misused Words – Part One

All ready or already?
‘All ready’ means all are ready.
‘Already’ refers to time.

A lot, allot, or alot?
A lot’ means much.
‘Allot’ means to allocate, assign, or ration.
‘Alot’ is not a standard word: don’t use it!

Arc, or ark?
‘Arc’ means arch, crescent, half moon.
‘Ark’ means a vessel or a refuge.

Ascent or assent?
‘Ascent’ is a noun that means upward movement.
‘Assent’ can be a noun or a verb and means enthusiastic agreement or to agree.

All right or alright?
‘All right’ means that collectively, everything is okay or in good condition.
‘Alright’ is not a standard word: don’t use it!

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Tip 7: Email Etiquette

What are common email courtesies you can follow?

Writing your email:

  • NEVER type in all capitals: it’s the same thing as screaming!
  • One- or two-word emails are seldom necessary. Responses such as “Thanks” or “Bye” are polite in conversation, but they are not necessary in emails.
  • Always edit forwarded messages. Make sure that it is appropriate for the person to whom you are sending the message and doesn’t get the original sender in trouble! Also, cut out any information that isn’t necessary to the message.

Addressing your email:

  • Do not attach read or delivery receipts to all of your emails.
  • Be careful before you send your email to ‘reply all.’
  • If you are sending an email for information only, put that person’s name in the ‘Cc’ field.

Use Bcc thoughtfully:

  • In rare cases when you do not wish the other recipients to know to whom you have copied the message. Be very careful about this.
  • When you are forwarding a message to more than one person but don’t want to expose the names and email addresses of everyone to whom you are sending the message.

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Tip 8: Sexually-biased Pronouns

How often do you use ‘his’? ‘her’? ‘his/her’? ‘he or she’?

According to the Handbook of Technical Writing (eighth edition), bias “can creep into your writing by the unthinking use of male or female pronouns where a reference could apply equally to a man or a woman” (Alred 50).

Don’t say . . .
“Every engineer will receive his paycheck after lunch.”
Instead, say . . .
“All engineers will receive their paychecks after lunch.”

Don’t say . . .
“Everyone must email her report by September 2nd.”
Instead, say . . .
“Everyone must email a report by September 2nd.”

Consider your audience, and ensure that no one is left out in your writing!

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Tip 9: Lists in Writing

What are some guidelines for using lists in your writing?

Tips from Gerald J. Alred’s Handbook of Technical Writing, eighth edition include:

  •  Use only comparable items and use parallel structure.
  • List only words, phrases, or short sentences of the same general length.
  • Provide context by introducing each list, typically with a complete sentence followed by a colon.
  • Verify coherence by providing for adequate transition before and after a list.
  • Use bullets, as opposed to numbers, when rank or sequence is not important.
  • Do not overuse lists or include too many items, as in pages or presentation slides that contain only lists.

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Tip 10: Commonly Misused Words – Part Two

What words and expressions are you misusing?

Aggravate: means “to add to” an already troublesome matter or condition.

Irritate: means “to annoy.” E.g., Jeff, please do not aggravate the situation by irritating Tom—again.

And/Or: is a shortcut that damages a sentence and can lead to confusion or ambiguity. Avoid using it. Please.

Anticipate: should be replaced with the word “expect” in the sense of simple expectation. ‘Anticipate’ can sound pretentious.

As to whether: can be shorted to just the word “whether.”

Fortuitous: means “limited to what happens by chance.” Do not use it to mean fortunate or lucky.

Fixin’ to: is the Texas way of saying that you are “about to do something.” Neither Strunk nor White mentioned it


From Chapter IV of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style, fourth edition

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Tip 11: Writing in Positive Form

From Strunk & White’s Elements of Style: “Make definite assertions. Avoid tame, colorless, hesitating, noncommittal language. Use the word not as a means of denial or in antithesis, never as a means of evasion.”


Instead of this . . .

Say this . . .

He was not very often on time.

He usually came late.

She did not think that alphabetizing the emails was a sensible way to use her time.

She thought that alphabetizing the emails
was a waste of time.

Not all of the barrels had been inspected.

Some of the barrels had not been inspected.

Not coming to work on time is a bad habit.

Coming to work late is a bad habit.






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Tip 12: Which or That

‘That’ is a restrictive pronoun, which means that it introduces information that is necessary to the meaning of the sentence and therefore does not need to be set off by commas.

‘Which’ is a nonrestrictive pronoun, which means that it introduces additional information to the sentence and therefore the phrase that it introduces is set off by commas.




Gives essential information; no commas

Gives added information; requires commas

The toaster is broken.

The toaster that is broken is on the counter.-‘that is broken’ identifies the toaster that I am talking about, as opposed to the new toaster or the antique toaster. . .

The toaster, which is on the counter, is broken.-‘which is on the counter’ is not required information. The point of this sentence is that the toaster is broken.

The computer doesn’t work any more.

The computer that my boss gave me doesn’t work any more.-‘that my boss gave me’ identifies the computer that I am talking about, as opposed to my personal computer or my sister’s computer. . .

The computer, which my boss gave me, doesn’t work any more.-‘which my boss gave me’ is not required information. The point of this sentence is that the computer doesn’t work any more.

The clock is ticking.

The box that I left on your desk is ticking.-‘that I left on your desk’ identifies the box that I am talking about, as opposed to the box that is sitting in the trunk of my car or the box in the janitor’s closet . . .

The box, which I have never seen before, is ticking.-‘which I have never seen before’ is not required information. Who cares if I have never seen it before? It is ticking!

The bottom line: use ‘that’ and no commas with a phrase that is essential to the meaning of your sentence. Use ‘which’ for phrases that are not essential to the meaning of your sentence, but don’t forget to place a comma before ‘which’ and after the last word in the phrase.

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Tip 13: Units of Measure

How do you align different expressions of measurements?

Use the slash (/) in place of ‘per’ between two abbreviated units of measurement.

  • 40 psi/ft
  • 15 cm/s
  • 40 lbm/ft

Use the degree sign (°) with angles, temperatures [except metric K (Kelvin)], and compass coordinates.

  • 20° slope
  • 65°
  • 2°W

Abbreviate units of measurement in the text only when used with numerical values (unless the abbreviation replaces a very long phrase, such as ‘several scf/D’ for ‘several standard cubic feet per day’). 25 ft

  • 50 x 103 ft3/D
  • 10 dm3
  • 3 cm3

Use the same abbreviation for both singular and plural forms of measurements.

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Tip 14: Biannual/Semiannual & Biweekly/Semiweekly

When to use ‘biannual/semiannual’ and ‘biweekly/semiweekly’

‘Biannual’ and ‘semiannual’ both mean twice a year.
‘Biennial’ means every two years.
Biweekly meetings occur every two weeks.
‘Semiweekly’ meetings occur twice a week. Since most people can’t keep them straight, just say “every other week” or “twice weekly.”

A note from our Editor

Question: “As ‘bimonthly’ means twice a month, is there a short term for ‘every two months’?”
Answer: According to the Handbook of Technical Writing (ninth edition), bi- / semi- When used with periods of time, bi- means “two” or “every two,” as in bimonthly, which means “once in two months.”

When used with periods of time, semi- means “half of” or “occurring twice within a period of time.” Semimonthly means “twice a month.” Both bi- and semi- normally are joined with the following element without a space or hyphen.

So-bimonthly = every two months, and semimonthly means twice a month.

I think the best way to keep this straight is NOT to use the term, but rather to state the occurrence specifically.

I also went to the ‘Ask Oxford’ website at and found the following:
Does bimonthly mean ‘twice a month’ or ‘every two months’?

I’m afraid it means both! But in the publishing industry, it is used fairly consistently to mean ‘every two months.’ The same ambiguity affects biweekly and biyearly. If you want to be absolutely clear, use a phrase such as ‘twice a week’ or ‘every two years.’

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Tip 15: Commonly Confused Words

They’re = they are
They’re finished with the work.

Their = belonging to them
Their work is finished.

There = a place
We left our fishing gear there.

You’re = you are
You’re my favorite hero.

Your = belonging to you
Your red cape is distracting me.

Who’s = who is
Who’s going to take me home?

Whose = belonging to whom
Whose alligator purse is that?

And the MOST commonly misused word is:

It’s = it is
It’s almost time to leave.
If you think it’s ready, quit stirring it.

Its = belonging to it
Its coat was matted and dirty.
Did Max’s science fair project win its category?

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Tip 16: Microsoft Word Shortcuts

What key strokes can speed up your work in Word?
Alt + 0150 = short dash (en dash)
Alt + 0151 = long dash (em dash)
Ctrl + Shift + End = highlight entire document
Ctrl + A = select all
Ctrl + B = bold
Ctrl + C = copy
Ctrl + insert = copy
Ctrl + I = italics
Ctrl + shift = paste
Ctrl + V = paste
Ctrl + X = cut
Ctrl + Y = undoes the undo!
Ctrl + Z = undoes Microsoft’s auto corrections; undoes what you have just done
Ctrl + End = navigate to the end of the document
Ctrl + Home = navigate to the beginning of the document

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Tip 17: Spelling Hacks

Do you have trouble with spelling?

Is it ‘lose’ or ‘loose’?
Remember this: “The goose got loose.” Both have two ‘o’s!

Is it ‘stationary’ or ‘stationery’?
Remember this: “Stay stationary.” Both have ‘a’s!
Remember this: “Envelopes are called stationery.” Both have ‘e’s!

Is it ‘affect’ or ‘effect’?
Remember this: “‘a’ comes before ‘e’ in the alphabet.” An ‘affect’ is the cause of a change, therefore coming first. An ‘effect’ is the result of a change, therefore coming after.

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Tip 18: Are you liable for libel?

Oh, don’t we just love the English language?

There are so many words that can be confusing. Here are some more to add to your list from Gerald J. Alred’s Handbook of Technical Writing:

‘Liable’ means “legally subject to” or “responsible for.”

‘Libel’ refers to “anything circulated in writing or pictures that injures someone’s good reputation.”

When someone’s reputation is injured in speech, the term is ‘slander.’
Sometimes we use the word ‘liable’ when we really mean ‘likely.’ ‘Likely’ means that there is a possibility.

(Choose liable, libel, likely or slander. Use each choice once.)

1. If you hit someone’s car, you are _____ for the damages.
2. You can’t say that about me! That’s _____!
3. I am _____to hit you if you say that again!
4. Our company sued the newspaper for _____.

Answers: 1. liable, 2. Slander, 3. likely, 4. libel

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Tip 19: Jim Bob’s Grammar Mistakes

How many grammar mistakes can you find in Jim Bob’s letter to Santa?

Dear Santa: Its that time of year again so Im sending you my list of things I want for christmas. It won’t take a FBI investigation for you to no that I haven’t been perfect but I have been awful good for a guy that lives with four woman. So heres my list

1. I need a new dear rifle. And some anumition.
2. Ear plug or other soundblocking equipment would be a good idea (see my second sentence above).
3. The bedliner in my pickup truck is busted. Do you carry bediners.
4. I all ready have plenty ties. You can skip that item this year
5. Half my tools is missing because I tend to lend them out alot.
6. Whosever borrowed my wheelbarrow left it in they’re driveway and it got took.
7. For my dog I need some dead foul trainers a sent injecter kit and a silent whistle
8. I could use some flannel bedsheets for my wife and myself
9. A book which don’t have two many words in it so I can finish it by next christmas.

Well thats it Mr Claus. I no your busy so I’ll sign of for now. I think this list is doable.

Sincerly, Jim Bob
(You’re biggest fan)

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Tip 20: Dates and Times

What conventions do you use to express dates and times?

If the day of the month is not given, do not use a comma to separate the month and the year: The process began in April 2008.

Write time with lowercase letters and periods. Provide the digits for minutes only when necessary: 10 a.m.; 3:37 p.m.

Use ‘noon’ and ‘midnight’ rather than ‘12 noon’ or ‘12 midnight.’

In programs and other materials produced for meetings held outside the U.S., use 24-hour time: 0800 hours or 1537 hours.

Spelled-out time is not followed by a.m. or p.m. (seven o’clock in the evening).

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Tip 21: Finding Passive Voice

Do you have trouble catching passive voice in your writing?

Word can help!
Passive sentences aren’t incorrect: most of the time they just aren’t the best way to phrase your thoughts. Sometimes passive voice is awkward and can obscure meanings, while other times it’s just vague or wordy.

Try this in Microsoft Office Word:

1. Click on the ‘File’ tab.
2. Click on ‘Options’ at the bottom of the left-hand menu.
3. Click on the ‘Proofing’ tab.
4. Next to ‘Writing Style,’ click on ‘Settings.’
5. Scroll Down the page until you get to the ‘Clarity’ section.
6. Select the box for ‘Passive Voice.’
7. Click ‘Ok’ and close out.

Now when you have a sentence written in passive voice, you will be alerted by seeing a squiggly line underneath a passive voice verb phase!

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Tip 22: Correct Punctuation for Quotations

How do I punctuate direct quotations correctly?
Does the end punctuation go INSIDE the quotation marks, or does it go OUTSIDE the quotation marks?
Commas and periods always go inside the closing quotation marks.
  • The operator said, “We do not have a procedure for making sandwiches.”
  • “We do not,” said the operator, “have a procedure for making sandwiches.”
  •  The operator said, “We do not have a procedure for making sandwiches,” but I think he was kidding.
Semicolons always go OUTSIDE the closing quotation marks.
  •  The operator said, “We do not have a procedure for making sandwiches”; I think he was kidding.
  •  The operator said, “We do not have a procedure for making sandwiches.” I think he was kidding.

All other punctuation follows the logic of the context: If the punctuation is part of the material that is being quoted, it goes inside the quotation marks.

If the punctuation is not part of the material being quoted, it goes outside the quotations marks.
  • Did the operator say, “We do not have a procedure for making sandwiches”? (The quoted part is not a question, so the question mark goes outside of the quotation marks.)
  • Did the auditor ask, “Do you have a procedure for making sandwiches?” (The quote is a question, and the sentence itself is a question; the question marks goes inside.)

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Tip 23: I or Me

A simple way to know which pronoun is correct is to transpose the pronouns or the clause:
Don’t let anything come between you and__.
Don’t let anything come between me and you.
Note: ‘me’ is the object of the preposition ‘between.’ While it may be impolite to refer to me first, at least it’s not incorrect grammatically!
Don’t let two pronouns confuse the case – eliminate one of them and then say it:
Please let him know this came from you and __.
Please let him know this came from me.
Note: You would never say: ‘It came from I.’
Consider this famous gaffe form Jim Morrison and The Doors:
“Let the stars fall from the sky, for you and __.”
“Let the stars fall from the sky for me.”
Note: A word is not correct simply because it rhymes with another!
Thanks for the tip, BJ Lowe!

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Tip 24: Must, Shall, and Will

Must, Shall, and Will Use ‘must’ instead of ‘shall.’
Must denotes obligation (You must attend!) or indicates a necessity to act (You must behave).
Shall imposes an obligation to act, but it may be confused with the prediction of a future action. Shall is commonly used today in questions requesting an opinion or a preference (Shall we go?), expressing determination (I shall return!), or in formal regulations that express a requirement (Applications shall provide a proof of certification).
Will predicts future action rather than a prediction. (Will we go?)
Should infers obligation, but not absolute necessity. (Should we go?)
May indicates discretion to act. (You may go.)
May not indicates a prohibition. (You may not eat that.)
Notes:To impose a legal obligation, use must.
In most contexts, will is preferred over shall.To predict future action, use will.
DON’T SAY: The Governor shall approve it.
SAY: The Governor must approve it. [obligation]
OR: The Governor will approve it. [future action]

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Tip 25: Highlighting Acronyms

NOTE: You would use this feature if you had a lengthy document and wanted to capture all of the acronyms that are mentioned in the document so that you can create an appendix, a glossary, or an acronyms table. You might also use it to make sure that you identified all acronyms the first time they were mentioned in the document, as this is the standard for technical writing.
This is a quick and easy way to find all the acronyms in an MS Word document. Remember that this command searches for consecutive capital letters, so it cannot distinguish between ‘SCBA’ and ‘DO NOT.’
For Word 2003:
1. Open the ‘Find’ window (Ctrl + F).
2. Check the box labeled ‘Use Wildcards.’
3. Type <[A-Z]{2,}> into the’Find what’ field (no spaces).
4. Click ‘Highlight all items found in:’ and choose ‘Main Document.’
5. Click ‘Find All.’
6. Voila! All of your acronyms will be highlighted.
For Word 2007:
Follow Steps 1-3 above (for Word 2003)
4. Click ‘Reading Highlight,’ and then ‘Highlight All.’
5. You should be able to see all of your acronyms highlighted.

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Tip 26: Apostrophes

Use an apostrophe to show possession with a noun. For singular nouns or plural nouns that do not end in ‘s,’ just add an apostrophe and an ‘s.’
The boy’s bike . . .
The adolescent’s tricycle . . .
The children’s toys . . .
The turtle’s shell . . .
If you want to show possession with a plural noun than ends in an ‘s,’ add an apostrophe after the ‘s.’
 The boys’ bikes . . .
The adolescents’ tricycles . . .
The turtles’ shells . . .
Use an apostrophe to mark the omission of letters or numbers in a contraction or a date.
cannot = can’t (the apostrophe shows that the ‘n’ and ‘o’ have been left out)
I am = I’m
the class of 2010 = the class of ’10
An apostrophe can be used to form the plurals of letters, words, or lowercase abbreviations if confusion might result from using ‘s’ alone.
When I was alphabetizing names, I had no q’s or z’s.
Please distinguish your I’s from the number 1.
Did you get any c.o.d.’s today?
In general, add only ‘s’ in roman (regular) type when referring to words as words or capital letters.
You used six ‘ands’ in the first sentence.
My son got two As and four Bs on his report card.
Do NOT use an apostrophe for plurals of abbreviations with all capital letters (DVDs, CDs,) or a final capital letter (ten Ph.D.s) or for plurals of numbers (9s, the late 1960s).
Do NOT use an apostrophe to show possession with pronouns:
That box is hers.
The turtle is his.
The cat licked its paw.

Thanks to Bonnie Crowder, of, we have an additional tip for using apostrophes.
Do NOT put an apostrophe alone on a singular noun ending in S.
For example, “My dress’s seam has a rip” is correct.

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Tip 27: Foot or Feet? Inch or Inches?

Craig Lamison of KBR has asked an interesting question: Why do we say, “The boat is 100 feet long,” but alternatively say, “It was a 100-foot boat”?

First, according to Alred’s Handbook of Technical Writing, When we write about measurements, we should always express the units of measurement as numerals.

If the measurement is one or less, use the sigular form of the unit.
(His scar was only 0.5 inch long; I still refuse to walk even 1 foot toward him).

If the measurement is more than one, use the plural form of the unit.
(Her new tattoo is 1.5 inches across her cheek; please stay 3 feet away.)

If the measurement is describing something (functioning as an adjective), add a hyphen and the singular form of the unit (a 1-inch bandage, a 30-foot yacht).

So how we write it depends on how we are using it. That’s my story, and I am stickin’ to it.

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Tip 28: One or Two Spaces After a Period

How many times should we tap the space bar after a sentence-ending period? The Chicago Manual of Style says only once, though some writers may have learned to use two spaces.
The two-space rule was a product of mechanical typewriters, which gave each letter the same amount of space. Letters, words, and sentences flowed uniformly on a page, so two spaces were introduced after periods to break things up for the reader. Now, typing is done in digital word processors that give appropriate spacing to letters (“m” is wider than “i”), so spacing is more natural. One space is all readers need, and the two-space rule has been largely retired.
If you want to make sure no double spaces accidently sneaked into your document, you can
1. Press Ctrl + H.
2. Hit the space bar twice in the “Find what” field.
3. Hit the space bar once in the “Replace with” field.
4. Click “Replace All.”
5. Marvel as Word brings your document out of the typewriter era!

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Tip 29: Taking up Less Space

Sometimes, it’s not what you say, but how many pages you take to say it. In the event that you have a page limit and don’t wish to change your wording, there are a few ways to further ‘scrunch’ your lines without sacrificing readability.
  • Reduce the font size of blank lines between paragraphs.
  • Replace superscripts where you can (they push lines apart).
  • Use a font with proportional spacing, if allowed.
  • Find + Replace all instances of double spaces with single spaces.
  • If you have tables, try to widen them to reduce their vertical length.
  • Make the page margins smaller, if allowed.
Now, if you’re willing to sacrifice a little readability, here are some more extreme methods. Don’t use these without trying the tips above first!

Highlight your text and click Format → Font. Clear out the ‘Size’ field and enter a slightly smaller number. You can use decimals to fine tune your font size.

Highlight your text and click Format → Font → Character spacing. In the ‘Spacing’ drop-down menu, click ‘Condensed’ and adjust the space between letters using the arrows on the right. Anything greater than 0.3 pt is too tight.

Highlight your text and click Format → Paragraph. In the ‘Line spacing’ drop-down menu, click ‘Exactly’ and, in the ‘At’ box, enter a number no less than one full point below the original font size. Remember, you can use decimals.

When scrunching, never forget about readability or uniformity. Don’t scrunch any more than necessary, and whatever you do, do it throughout the document.

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Tip 30: Custom Shortcut Key

Creating a Custom Shortcut Key
Most symbols or commands have shortcut keys assigned to them. For example, Ctrl + C copies selected text, while Ctrl + V pastes it. But you can set your own shortcut for any command using whatever keys you like.

For Word 2003:
1. Under ‘Tools,’ click ‘Customize.’
2. Click the ‘Commands’ tab, and then click the ‘Keyboard’ button at the bottom.
3. In the ‘Categories’ list, find the category that holds your command. Then, select the command from the ‘Commands’ list.
4. In the ‘Press new shortcut key’ field, press the keys that you wish to use as a shortcut. Click ‘Assign’ and then ‘Close.’
If you want to assign a shortcut to a symbol, only Steps 1-3 are different.
5. Under ‘Insert,’ click ‘Symbol.’
6. Find your symbol on the list in the ‘Symbols’ tab and click once to select it.
7. Click ‘Shortcut Key.’
8. Repeat step 4 as listed above.
For Word 2007:
1. Click the Office button.
2. Click the ‘Word Options’ button.
3. Click ‘Customize’ on the left-hand side of the window.
4. At the bottom of the window, click the ‘Customize’ button beside ‘Keyboard shortcuts’
5. In the new window, choose which command will get the shortcut by finding its category in the left menu (‘Categories’) and then selecting the command in the right menu (‘Commands’). If you want to apply a shortcut to a symbol or even a font style, scroll down to the bottom of the ‘Categories’ menu.
6. In the ‘Press new shortcut key’ field, press the keys that you wish to use as a shortcut. Click ‘Assign’ and then ‘Close.’

Remember, these shortcuts will only work on your computer. If you are working on someone else’s computer or through a remote server, you’ll have to reset your shortcuts.

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Tip 31: Calculating Numerical Expressions in Word

You can quickly calculate values based on numbers in a selection in a Word document. For instance, you could highlight text such as 14*7+7 and quickly calculate that the answer is 105.

To add a button for calculating numbers, to the Quick Access Toolbar,
follow these steps if you are using Word 2007:

1. Click the ‘Office’ button and then click ‘Word Options.’ Word displays the Word Options dialog box.
2. At the left of the dialog box, choose ‘Customize.’
3. Using the ‘Choose Commands From’ drop-down list, choose ‘Commands Not in the Ribbon.’
4. Locate and select the ‘Calculate’ command in the list of commands.
5. Click the ‘Add’ button. The command moves to the right side of the dialog box.
Click ‘OK.’

If you are using an older version of Word, follow these steps instead:

1. Choose Customize from the ‘Tools’ menu. Word displays the ‘Customize’ dialog box.
2. Select the ‘Commands’ tab.
3. In the list of ‘Categories,’ choose ‘Tools.’
4. In the list of ‘Commands,’ select ‘Tools Calculate.’
5. Drag the ‘Tools Calculate’ command from the dialog box, dropping it in any toolbar you desire.
6. Click on ‘Close’ to dismiss the ‘Customize’ dialog box.

To use the tool, simply highlight the expression you want to calculate, and then click on the tool. Word shows the calculated value in the status bar, and it places the value in the Clipboard. You can now paste the value anywhere you desire.Thank you to Allen Wyatt for this Word tip.

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Tip 32: Assure, Insure, Ensure

The verbs ‘assure,’ ‘insure,’ and ‘ensure’ share a similar meaning-“to make certain or secure.” They aren’t completely interchangeable, though. Learning their differences will ensure your company’s assurance in your ability to insure documents against mistakes.
Assure-to build confidence or remove stress.
He assured her that everything was fine.
Insure-to protect against financial loss or to take protective steps beforehand.
People in Tornado Alley should insure their homes against wind damage.
Ensure-to guarantee.
Having a membership card will ensure your entry into the theater.
‘Ensure’ is not a synonym for ‘check’ and can sound weak compared to other verbs. If you’re considering using ‘ensure,’ see if any of the following underlined words fit better first.
Verify that the papers are properly filed.
It’s his job to confirm that all safety standards have been met.
Whoever leaves last, make sure that the lights are turned off.

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Tip 33: Nonstandard English

The word or phrase

Why it’s nonstandard

Say this instead


The prefix Ir- and suffix -less both mean ‘without,’ making ‘irregardless’ a one-word double negative.


Impact (as a verb)

Shortening ‘has an impact on’ to ‘impact’ is a sign of laziness. Some nouns just aren’t ready to be verbs.



Chopping the -ion suffix off a noun doesn’t always make it a verb. ‘Converse’ says the same thing in fewer letters.


 In route

The intended phrase comes from the French ‘en route,’ meaning ‘on the way.’

En route

Could of, would of, should of

In speech, few people can hear the difference between ‘could have’ and ‘could of.’ In writing, ‘could of’ is noticeably wrong.

Could have, would have, should have

More/most importantly

‘Importantly’ is an adverb, as is ‘more importantly.’ When a word modifies an entire independent clause, rather than just the verb, it acts as an adjective. So when people use ‘more importantly’ to begin a sentence, they’re using an adverb to do an adjective’s job. Use the adjective form instead.

More/most important

Try and

‘Try’ is almost always a transitive verb, meaning you have to try ‘something,’ whether it be a noun, gerund, or infinitive verb. ‘And’ is a coordinating conjunction; it doesn’t work.

Try to

One of the only

This phrase is used when talking about one member of a small group. ‘Only’ means ‘excluding all others,’ while ‘few’ means ‘a small group.’ Which sounds more appropriate?

One of the few

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Tip 34: British vs American English

When you are writing or editing for a British company, it’s important to remember that some spelling rules change when you cross the Atlantic. To be safe, however, ask before you edit spellings, as some companies use a mixture of both!

Dropped silent -e·
Included silent -e·

These are just a few of the more common examples. When you need to know whether a word is British English or simply misspelled, try going to Just type your word into the search bar at the top, and if it appears in the results, you’re dealing with the Queen’s English.

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Tip 35: Splitting Infinitives

Your high school English teacher probably taught you that splitting an infinitive is an earth-shattering offense. Let’s straighten this out right now. Sometimes it is okay!
“And what is an infinitive?” you (might) ask.
An infinitive is the bare form of a verb with the preposition ‘to’ in front of it (e.g., to eat, to dare, to talk, to intervene, to go). Infinitives are not restricted by person or number.
“What does ‘split’ mean?” the weary would-be grammarian ponders. A split infinitive occurs when an adverb is placed between the sign of the infinitive (to) and the verb itself.
Example: His goal was to boldly go where man had not gone before. Do you see that word ‘boldly’ sticking in between to and go? That means you have a split infinitive (i.e., you split the infinitive by placing an adverb in the middle)!
Sometimes, however, if ambiguity is at stake, you may have to split the infinitive so that you can communicate more clearly.
Example: I agreed immediately to make pancakes for the children. (I agreed right away to make the pancakes.) Example: I agreed to immediately make pancakes for the children. (I agreed to make the pancakes right away.)
Bottom line: Clarity is foremost. If you can avoid splitting an infinitive, by all means, do so. But if avoiding a split infinitive results in ambiguity, then you have a free pass to split away!

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Tip 36: Pronoun Reference Errors

If you are traveling down the often bumpy road of becoming a Grammar Geek (or Goddess), you may be frustrated by the following sentence:

The attendee left their briefcase in the auditorium.

Unless you are talking about one attendee leaving a briefcase that belongs to more than one person, this sentence is grammatically incorrect.

Let’s assume that we are talking about one attendee. So, then, you should say:

The attendee left his briefcase in the auditorium.

Using the term ‘their’ implies more than one attendee, so ‘his’ is the correct pronoun choice.

But wait!

Now you’ve gone and done another bad thing. You have assumed that the attendee was a man! Women have briefcases too, you know!

So now, to be politically correct (unless it was an all-male meeting), you must write:

The attendee left his or her briefcase in the auditorium.
(This sentence is grammatically correct.)

If you don’t like the sound of ‘his or her,’ re-structure your sentence. How about:

One of the attendees left a briefcase in the auditorium.
An attendee left a briefcase in the auditorium.

Remember: Even if you don’t care to be a Grammar Geek or Goddess, you still need to use the correct pronoun reference. The GGs of the world thank you.

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Tip 37: Changing Capital Letters

To quickly change the capital letters in a word,
1. Highlight the word.
2. Hold down the ‘Shift’ key and then press the ‘F3’ key.
3. Continue pressing down the ‘F3’ key until your word is in the format that you want: lower case, initial capital, or all capitals.

Now you try it!

Copy and paste the following sentences into MS Word and follow steps 1 – 3 above.
Meet SEMS and PHMSA documentation requirements WITHOUT THE TIME COMMITMENTS! Ask me how!

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Tip 38: Hyphens: When Do I Use Them Between Words?

When in doubt-leave it out? If you think you might need one, maybe you do-or don’t? Most people have difficulty with that persnickety hyphen. Here is some guidance that may help you:
1. Don’t hyphenate between an adverb and an adjective.
Great! What’s the difference?
Adjectives modify (describe) nouns and pronouns; adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs.

What does that mean to me?
If you are thinking about hyphenating two words and the first one modifies the second, DON’T DO IT!
The nearly identical twins were causing a ruckus. (‘Nearly’ tells how identical.)
The partly cloudy skies suggested rain. (‘Partly’ tells how cloudy.)

2. Do hyphenate between adjectives that work together as one idea to modify a noun-but the adjectives must come before the noun!
He built a two-story barn. (It isn’t a two barn, and it isn’t a story barn-it’s a two-story barn!)
His barn has two stories. (The adjectives come after the noun, so don’t hyphenate.)

3. Do hyphenate phrases that act as one idea (and come before the noun).
This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
But not: This kind of opportunity only comes once in a lifetime.

4. To be continued: Dashes vs. Hyphens . . .

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Tip 39: Hyphens and Dashes

Hyphens, ‘en’ dashes, and ’em’ dashes are three distinct punctuation marks that all tie to the same key on most keyboards. This makes it easy to misuse the useful marks, so it’s helpful to know how each one is used.

Hyphens (-) are the shortest of the dashes. Use them:
Between words in compound adjectives-words that work together to describe one noun.
Example: It’s a dog-eat-dog world.
Between numbers that are not inclusive, such as phone or document numbers.
Example: 743-555-8152
Between prefixes and proper nouns.
Example: Pre-Galilean scientists thought the world was flat.
To separate prefixes from words that might look awkward.
Example: co-opt; pre-evaluation
To type a hyphen: Hit the ‘minus’ key, which is typically to the right of the ‘0′ key.

‘En’ dashes (­­-) are longer than hyphens but not as long as ‘em’ dashes. Use them:
Between numbers that are inclusive, such as ranges.
Example: She worked at the company from 2000-2002.
Between words when a transition is implied, just like you would use ‘to.’
Example: The pilot flew the New York-London route.
To combine an already-hyphenated compound adjective into a bigger compound expression.
Example: High-risk-high-reward investments . . .
To type an ‘en’ dash:
With ‘Num Lock’ on, press ‘Ctrl’ and hit the ‘minus’ key on the numeric keypad.
Alternately, press ‘Alt’ and enter 0150 on the keypad.

‘Em’ dashes (-) are the longest dashes. An ‘em’ is a unit of measurement in typography, so an ‘em’ dash is one ‘m’ long. Use ‘em’ dashes:
Between a noun or series of nouns and its pronoun.
Example: Passion, integrity, and ingenuity-these qualities are . . .
Between a noun and a phrase that explains the noun
Example: Without the necessary tools-nails, a hammer, and duct tape- the students couldn’t decorate their dorms.
To insert a related thought into a sentence
Example: Even though I’ve been late twice this week-this time it wasn’t my fault- I can assure you it won’t happen again.

To type an ‘em’ dash:
Hit the ‘minus’ key twice, type the next word, and then hit the space bar, or
With the number lock on, press Ctrl, Alt, and 0151 on the numeric keypad.

Here is what one of our Timely Tip recipients had to say:

“I am not a grammar wizard by any stretch of the imagination. I started out average, then went to engineering school to get any grammar and communication skills beaten out of me.”
– P. Wallace, ConocoPhillips

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Tip 40: Abbreviation, Acronym, or Initialism?

Any shortened form a word is an abbreviation. Acronyms and initialisms are abbreviations, but not all abbreviations are acronyms or initialisms.

An acronym is a special kind of abbreviation that uses (usually) the first letter of each word that it represents to form an all-letters-capitalized abbreviation (e.g., North Atlantic Treaty Organization is NATO). A true acronym can be pronounced as a word, such as OPEC, NATO, and HAZOP.

An initialism is just like an acronym, BUT it CANNOT be pronounced as a word. Instead, you have to say the individual letters (e.g., FBI, CIA, PTA) when you pronounce it.

Still, even though technically there is a difference between acronyms and initialisms, we treat them the same and we normally just call them all acronyms.

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Tip 41: ‘Try to’ versus ‘Try and’

Dave Johnson of Southern Union Gas has a pet peeve that bugs us, too. And don’t assume that just because you’ve seen the misuse of this phrase in print, that it’s okay to be WRONG!

Here’s the dilemma-which is correct?

I will try and make a lot of money this year.
I will try to make a lot of money this year.

The ONLY correct way to write this statement is: I will try to make a lot of money this year.

If you say, “I will try and make a lot of money this year,” you are saying that you are going to do two things: (1) try and (2) make (a lot of money this year). Think of the word ‘and’ as a combiner of the two verbs, ‘try’ and ‘make.’

Here’s a suggestion for how to reason this out:

Use the word ‘attempt’ in place of the word ‘try.’

Would you say, “I will attempt and make a lot of money this year”?
No, you would say, “I will attempt to make a lot of money this year.”

Recap for the grammatically challenged:

Use try to and not try and when you are writing about attempting to do something.
And that’s how it is. Thanks, Dave. I feel better now.

(According to Alred’s Handbook of Technical Writing, “The phrase ‘try and’ is colloquial for ‘try to’. For technical writing, use try to.”)

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Tip 42: e.g. and i.e.

The abbreviation ‘e.g.’ comes from the Latin exempli gratia, which means ‘for example.’
The abbreviation ‘i.e.’ comes from the Latin id est, which means ‘that is.’

Great. So what does that mean?

Use ‘e.g.’ to precede items that are examples of the term that precedes it but not necessarily an exhaustive list.

Example: Green vegetables (e.g., broccoli and asparagus) are good for you.
Explanation: Broccoli and asparagus are examples of green vegetables, but there are other green vegetables, such as Brussels sprouts and green beans.

Use ‘i.e.’ to precede an item or items that rename the term that precedes it.

Example: The mother convinced the toddler to eat his little trees (i.e., broccoli).
Explanation: The mother told the child he was eating little trees, a ‘toddler’ term for broccoli, which allegedly makes them more palatable for children.

Always follow ‘i.e.’ or ‘e.g.’ with a comma.

Never use ‘etc.’ with either ‘i.e.’ or ‘e.g.’

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Tip 43: I, Me, or Myself?

When is it okay to use ‘myself,’ and when must I use ‘me’ or ‘I’?

All three words are pronouns. That means that they take the place of nouns. So if my name is Elvira and I say, “Please give it to me,” I mean, “Please give it to Elvira.”

‘Me’ and ‘I’ are personal pronouns. ‘Myself’ is a reflexive pronoun. Think of it this way: Look into a mirror, and you might say, “I can see myself in that mirror.” The pronoun ‘myself’ reflects the ‘I’ who is looking into the mirror. It sounds odd to say, “I see me in the mirror.”

A reflexive pronoun will never be the subject (the doer of the action) in a sentence. It will always function as an object, or a receiver of action.

Example #1:
Billy Bob and myself gave our dog Killer a bath. — incorrect
Let’s say that Billy Bob decided not to help.
Would you say, “Myself gave our dog Killer a bath”? Nope.
You would say, “I gave our dog Killer a bath.”
The correct way to say this sentence is “Billy Bob and I gave our dog Killer a bath.”

Example #2:
Aunt Clarice gave Billy Bob and myself a big hunk of chocolate cake. –incorrect
Send Billy Bob next door for milk and try again.
Would you say, “Aunt Clarice gave myself a big hunk of chocolate cake?” Nope.
You would say, “Aunt Clarice gave me a big hunk of chocolate cake.”
The correct way to say this sentence is “Aunt Clarice gave Billy Bob and me a big hunk of cake.”
So when we use ‘myself,’ it (the reflexive pronoun) will receive action-but not always.
Here are two instances when you can use ‘myself’:

Instance #1:
When you are both the subject and an object in the sentence:
I bought myself a new car.
I’m going to treat myself to an eggnog latte.

Instance #2:
To add emphasis (note that if you take it out, the sentence does not lose its meaning):
I washed all of the dishes myself.
I myself was witness to the horrendous deed.

The other reflexive pronouns, by the way, are herself, himself, itself, themselves, and ourselves. NEVER USE THE WORD THEIRSELVES! It is non-standard and will likely give your local grammar goddess (or god) a coronary.

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Tip 44: How do you choose the correct verb for the following sentence?

The technician and/or the coordinator (meet, meets) with the manager . . .

First, you have to determine if the subject is singular or plural.
“Technician and coordinator” implies that the subject is plural, but “technician or coordinator” implies that it is either one or the other, so the subject would be singular.
(Remember that when you have two subjects joined by ‘or’ or ‘nor,’ you must choose the subject that is nearer to the verb and make that subject agree with the verb.)

So which is it?

The technician and the coordinator meet with the manager . . .
The technician or the coordinator meets with the manager . . .?
Are you still with me?

And/or is a shortcut that can lead to ambiguity or confusion. So-
Avoid using and/or in your writing. Grammar experts agree on this.

If you insist on using ‘and/or,’ I would consider that the ‘or’ is closer to the verb, so I would punctuate the sentence this way: The technician and/or the coordinator meets with the manager.

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Tip 45: Compose and Comprise

‘Compose’ and ‘comprise’ are two verbs that are easy to mix up if the writer isn’t aware of their differences.

‘Compose’ means ‘to form by putting together,’ while ‘comprise’ means ‘to include, contain, or consist of.’ In both cases, we are dealing with parts and a whole. Hint: when using ‘comprise,’ the whole always comes before the parts in the sentence.

The United States comprises 50 states.
Fifty states compose the United States.

NOTE: Most grammarians insist that ‘is comprised of’ is an incorrect phrase.

Although you will find some sources that will allow its usage, the Handbook of Technical Writing, the Chicago Manual of Style, and the Associated Press Style Guide (among others) insist that the use of ‘comprised of’ is incorrect.

The following was taken directly from the Chicago Manual of Style:

comprise; compose. Use these with care. To comprise is “to be made up of, to include” {the whole comprises the parts}. To compose is “to make up, to form the substance of something” {the parts compose the whole}. The phrase comprised of, though increasingly common, is poor usage. Instead, use composed of or consisting of.
Incorrect usage is stealthily slithering its way into the English language. (Don’t get me started!)
So please–learn the correct usage and stay strong!

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Tip 46: Affect versus Effect

How do I know when to use ‘affect’ versus when to use ‘effect’?

Affect is a verb. It means to influence. Think of ‘affect’ as an ‘action.’ Both ‘affect’ and ‘action’ begin with the letter ‘a.’

Your response to this question will affect my opinion of you.
His screaming didn’t affect her at all.
The drop in gasoline prices affected their business.

Effect is most often used as a noun. It is the result of an influence.
Your response to the question had a positive effect on me.
The effect of his screaming was simply that she left the room.
The effect of the rising gasoline prices was that we canceled our road trip.

Effect can also be used as a verb to mean ‘make’ or ‘produce.’
The rising gasoline prices will probably effect changes to our plan for a European road trip.

Note: Avoid the use of effect as a verb when you can replace it with a less formal word.

The rising gasoline prices will probably affect our plans for a European road trip.

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Tip 47: Ellipsis

An ellipsis is a series of three dots with spaces between them that are inserted into a quotation to show that words have been omitted from the original quotation. (Ellipses is plural for ellipsis.)

Rules include:
1. When you place an ellipsis in the middle of a quotation to show that words have been omitted, use three points with spaces before and after the ellipses.

In her book about Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Lynne Truss writes, “As we shall shortly see, the comma has so many jobs as a ‘separator’ . . . that it tears about on the hillside of language, endlessly organizing words into sensible groups and making them stay put.”

2. When placing an ellipsis at the end of a quotation to indicate that you have omitted material, use four points-a three-point ellipsis and a period. The ellipsis should follow a blank space.

Lynne Truss also notes that “The final rule for the comma is one you won’t find in any books
by grammarians . . . .”

3. Do not place an ellipsis at the beginning of a quotation to indicate the omission of material.

4. Never leave a point in an ellipsis floating at the beginning or end of a line of text. (However, you may have a period at the end of a fully quoted sentence at the end of a line of text and begin the ellipsis on the next line.)

Brought to you by our very own Grammar Goddess and Sr. Editor, Rhonda Cavender.

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Tip 48: How to give Feedback on Someone Else’s Writing

If co-workers ask you to give them feedback on their writing, it can either be a pleasant experience or create tension in the workplace. Here are suggestions for successfully communicating helpful input while maintaining a community of respect.

Reviewers should:

• Be specific.
Instead of “This document is confusing,” say, “In section 5, the specific management roles and responsibilities are not clearly defined.”

• Be tactful.
Instead of “This is horribly written,” say, “This document states the requirement, but it doesn’t specify how to accomplish the requirement.”

• Focus on the author’s areas of concerns.
Comment first on clarity, content, and organization before commenting on lower-level issues, such as punctuation.

• Ask questions to provoke further thought.
Does this requirement also apply to ____ situation? Have you considered including a section about _____?

• Offer solutions to any issues that you might raise.
This sentence seems out of place. Consider putting it at the beginning of the section.

• When appropriate, acknowledge strengths as well as weaknesses (e.g., in the body of an e-mail, when giving face-to-face feedback).

• State your suggestion, but respect the author’s position and ownership of the text.

The next Timely Tip will address how to receive feedback from a reviewer.

Submitted by Lacey Wulf

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Tip 49: How to Receive Someone Else’s Feedback on Your Writing

Last time we talked about how to review another person’s writing. Now let’s look at how we should receive feedback from a reviewer.

Authors should:

  • Consider advice fully and carefully before deciding whether to accept it.
  • Explain tactfully why you chose to reject certain suggestions. For example, you might say, “This document follows requirements from _______company policy document, so we are going to have to preserve the content as is.
  • Realize that the reviewer is trying to help make the document better. Don’t get defensive.
  • If you need more clarity on suggestions, ask questions such as, “Why do you think we should add a section for ____?”
  • Thank the reviewer for his or her feedback.
    We encourage respectful discussion of reasoning behind suggestions and decisions. This kind of discussion often results in compromise that satisfies both parties and further clarifies writing for the end users and readers.

Good luck!

Submitted by Lacey Wulf

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Tip 50:Did you know . . .

  • All of-Except with pronouns, ‘of’ is unnecessary (e.g., ‘all the shoes,’ but ‘all of them’).
  • As to whether-whether or not-Whether is usually sufficient.
  • Commence or initiate-Use ‘begin’ or ‘start’ instead.
  • Currently, presently-Currently means it is happening now-Presently means it will happen soon.
  • Data takes a plural verb. Datum is singular and takes a singular verb.
  • Due to the fact that-Use ‘because’ instead.
  • Etc.-Means ‘and so forth’ and should be used at the end of a list that makes clear exactly what kinds of other things are implied. It is not correct when it is used at the end of a list introduced by ‘such as,’ ‘for example,’ or ‘e.g.’
  • ‘Irregardless’ is incorrect. Use ‘regardless’ instead.
  • A knot is 1 nautical mile (6,076.1 ft. or 1852 m) per hour. The expression ‘knots per hour’ is redundant.
  • Majority/Minority-Use only when referring to numbers of things, not to size.
  • Only-‘Only’ goes next to the word it modifies. The same rule applies to primarily, largely, principally, mainly, partly, and completely.
  • Since-Implies the passage of time; use ‘because’ when meaning ‘the reason for.’
  • Subsequent to-Use ‘after.’
  • Under way is two words.
  • Unique means without equal. There can be no degrees of uniqueness. Thus almost unique, totally unique, partially unique, etc., are incorrect.
  • Via-Means by way of in a geographical sense, not by means of.

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Tip 51: Any more versus Anymore: Which is correct?

Here’s the deal. There are basically three schools of thought regarding the use of any more and anymore:

  1. Anymore is a misspelling of any more. Don’t do it.
  2. Anymore and any more are just two ways of spelling the same thing. Don’t worry about it. Just be consistent in your writing.
  3. Anymore and any more have distinct differences in meaning and should be used accordingly:
    a. Anymore means any longer or nowadays. Let’s not do this anymore.
    b. Any more means something additional or further. I don’t want any more wine or cheese.

I do find it irritating that when I use any more as two words, MS Word tends to underline it with a blue squiggly line and prompts me to spell it as one word. Remember that software, as wonderful as it is, isn’t always correct about grammar. (Yes, really!)

Just in case you are wondering, the Grammar Goddess doesn’t like anymore as one word. She always writes it as two words and ignores the meddling of MS Word.

Thanks, Susan Clark, for the suggestion to use this topic in our Timely Tips. I learned a lot!

Tip created by Rhonda Cavender, Grammar Goddess (Sr. Editor for Shea Writing & Training Solutions)

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Tip 52: Flammable and Continual


Did you know that both flammable and inflammable mean ‘capable of being set on fire’?

Nonflammable means ‘not capable of being set on fire.’

Always use the word flammable to mean ‘capable of being set on fire’ to avoid misunderstanding!


Continual implies ‘happening over and over again.’

His continual tardiness finally got him fired.

Continuous implies ‘occurring without interruption.’

Sometimes parenting a newborn seems to be a continuous flurry of activity that ultimately ends in a nap—for both mother and child.

Brought to you by our very own Grammar Goddess, Rhonda Cavender (Senior Editor for Shea Writing & Training Solutions).

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Tip 53: Opening Two Excel® Files at the Same Time

If you have been told that it is not possible to open two Excel files at the same time so that you can view them on dual monitors, we have some great news for you. It can be done!

Follow these steps to open two different Excel files on separate (dual) monitors (from one computer):

1. Verify that you have an Excel icon on your task bar*.
2. Open the first Excel file that you want to view.
3. Holding down the SHIFT key, LEFT-click on the Excel icon.
4. When the Excel window opens, go to the FILE tab and open the second file that you want to view.

*You can also do this if you have an Excel shortcut on your desktop. The only difference is that you will hold down the SHIFT key and RIGHT-click on the Excel shortcut.

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Tip 54: All or All of?

Is it correct to say, “All of the cars had been stolen”? Or should I write, “All the cars had been stolen”?

According to The Chicago Manual of Style, we should delete the ‘of’ whenever possible. (All the cars had been stolen.)

There are exceptions, however. (It seems that there are always exceptions when it comes to the English language!)

Use ‘all of’ when it precedes:

  • A nonpossessive pronoun (all of us)
  • A possessive noun (all of Texas A&M’s players).

So . . . All my exes live in Texas. (There is no need for ‘of.’) Please give all of them my condolences. All of George Strait’s exes live in Texas.

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Tip 55: Further or Farther

‘Further’ and ‘farther’ are often (and sometimes incorrectly) used interchangeably.

Use ‘further’ when writing about additions or progress. Hint: ‘further’ is also a verb, meaning ‘to develop or help grow.’

Any further comments must be submitted in writing.
To further your career, get a college education.
Use ‘farther’ when writing about physical distance. Hint: ‘farther’ is the comparative form of ‘far.’ If ‘far’ doesn’t make sense in the sentence, use ‘further.’
How much farther do we have to go before we arrive?
The boat drifted farther out to sea.
In practice, there are still plenty of instances where ‘further’ and ‘farther’ are interchangeable, but physical distance is always ‘farther.’ Otherwise, ‘further’ is usually safe to use.

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Tip 56: Whether or If?

Use ‘whether’ when there is an alternative involved . . .

  • I can’t decide whether I should leave or stay.
  • Can you tell me whether you intend to pay me? (The alternative is not to pay me.)
  • Use a moisture analyser to visually indicate whether the dehydrator is functioning within its designed range.
In most cases, do not use ‘or not’ with ‘whether.’ It is redundant.
  • Please tell me whether or not you are staying for lunch.
  • Whether or not the printer is working will determine how much work we get done.
Use ‘if’ to express a condition.
  • If you aren’t going, I’ll just stay home.
  • If thrust moves to the negative, slowly close the ball valve.
  • Fuel gas pressure will eventually be lost if total gas flow is isolated through the JT valve.

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Tip 57: How do I punctuate ‘therefore’?

When you use a conjunctive adverb (therefore, however, nevertheless, consequently, for example, on the other hand, moreover, besides, accordingly, thus) to join two independent clauses (complete sentences), precede the adverb with a semicolon and follow it with a comma.

In English, please?

When you combine two complete sentences with any of the words listed in the parentheses above, put a semicolon before the word and a comma after it.I lost my ticket; however, I still attended the play.

Sam disrespected his mother; consequently, he will be driving a tractor to school this fall.

Note that the underlined items in the sentence above are complete sentences; therefore, when you combine the sentences with a conjunctive adverb (don’t worry about what it’s called), use a semicolon before and a comma after.

Some conjunctive adverbs can be used for transition, as an introductory word, or for conversational purposes. If the conjunctive adverb does NOT function by combining complete sentences, set it off with commas.

You, however, are definitely not the person I thought you were.

Billy Bob wrecked my new car. Billy Bob, therefore, is not invited to borrow my speed boat.

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Tip 58: Inserting Tabs in a Table

Yes, Virginia, You CAN Put Tabs in a Table!

You may already know this, but it’s new to me. I have found that if I try to ‘Tab’ within a table, Word just takes me to the next cell in the table. If I am at the end of the table, pressing ‘Tab’ adds a new row.

But you CAN insert tabs within a table, and it’s very easy!

  1. Make sure that the ruler at the top of the page is visible. (If it isn’t, choose View>Ruler from the menu.)
  2. Put your cursor inside the cell that you want to put the tab into.
  3. Using the left button of your mouse, click on the ruler where you want your tab to be. You should see an ‘L’ on the ruler.
  4. Press CTRL + Tab.
  5. Voila!

You will have to repeat these steps if you want the tab in other rows of your column OR highlight the entire column and insert your tab into the ruler.

These steps work in all versions of Word.

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Tip 59: Correct Usage of ‘Once’

A few years ago I was chastened by a client who informed me that the word ‘once’ means ‘one time,’ and it should not be used to mean anything other than that. He was so adamant about it that I didn’t bother to look it up.

I have heard this admonition more than once (in fact, several times), so I added it to my repertoire of grammar rules (laws for us grammar goddesses).

The dictionary tells me that this innocent little word can be used as an adverb to mean:

  • On one occasion only – Just once I would like to see the end of the movie.
  • At some time in the past – I had once been able to touch my toes without bending
    my knees.

However, ‘once’ can also be used as a conjunction to mean ‘as soon as’ or ‘when.’

Example: Once the vehicle is fueled, the driver is ready to go.

Yep. That’s right. It is not incorrect (double negative here, so watch out) to use ‘once’ as a conjunction.

I hate to be wrong, don’t you?

Keep in mind, however, that because we are thinking beings, we can still have preferences. My preference is to use ‘once’ to mean ‘one time,’ but I will not admonish anyone for using it as a conjunction.

There. I feel better now.

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Tip 60: Principle, Principal

It’s amazing how many people use these two words incorrectly.

Principal is the name that you give the person who is in charge of an elementary or secondary school. He—or she—is the ‘main one.’ That’s what principal means. So whether you are talking about the administrator in a school or you are trying to point out that something receives the highest consideration, principal is the word you want.

A principle is an essential belief or a guiding rule.

Let’s say the principal’s name is Mr. Jones, and his main concern is the morals of his students. Now communicate that idea using principal and principle. You will use one of the words twice.

The principal’s principal concern was the moral principles of the students.

Let’s agree NOT to use both words in the same sentence, okay? You get the idea . . .

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Tip 61: Hyphens with the prefix ‘re’

Regardless of how good you are at grammar, hyphens can be a pain.

Here is the rule for using the prefix ‘re’ with or without a hyphen:

Use a hyphen with ‘re’ if it meets both of these conditions:

1. ‘Re’ means again.

2. Omitting the hyphen from the word would cause the reader to confuse it with     another word and   give the sentence a different meaning.

RIGHT: After the flood, we had to re-lay the tile in the kitchen.

(You had to do it again.)

WRONG: After the flood, we had to relay the tile in the kitchen.

(Was it a race?)

RIGHT: The quarterback reinjured his throwing arm.

WRONG: The quarterback re-injured his throwing arm.

(The hyphen is unnecessary here.)

RIGHT: I guess I’ll have to re-cover that stained couch cushion.

(This means you have to put a new cover on that cushion.)

WRONG: I guess I’ll have to recover that stained couch cushion.

(If you want it back, this is correct; otherwise, you need that hyphen!)

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Tip 62: Bad vs. Badly and Good vs. Well

What do you usually say when you aren’t feeling well? Do you say, “I feel bad”?

If you write, “I feel badly,” you are in essence saying that your sense of feel is not working correctly. If you write, “I feel bad,” you may be saying that you are sick.

So you say “I feel bad”—not “I feel badly.” Wouldn’t you write, “I feel good” instead of “I feel well?” or even “I feel goodly?” Okay, so that’s a bit too much, yes?

I feel bad because I played the game so badly that my team lost.

This sentence is grammatically correct.

You could just circumvent the whole thing and say, “I am not feeling well.” When we write ‘well’ in this case, it means ‘not sick’ or ‘in good health.’

  • So do I say I feel good? Yep.
  • Or do I say I feel well? Not unless your fingers are ultra-sensitive to your sense of touch.

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Tip 63: Pronoun Agreement

Pronouns must match the words to which they refer—also known as their antecedents. This is what we call ‘pronoun agreement.’

The antecedent is the noun or group of words to which the pronoun is referring The pronoun and its antecedent must agree in number, gender, and person.

Examples for ‘number’:

  1. Neither Brad nor Bill can find (their, his) keys.

The antecedents (Brad, Bill) are joined by ‘nor,’ which means that because you have two singular antecedents joined by ‘nor,’ you must choose a singular pronoun—his.

  1. Tom and John have found (their, his) keys.

The antecedents (Tom, John) are joined by ‘and,’ which means that because you have added two singular antecedents together, you have a plural, so the pronoun must be plural—their.

Pronoun agreement for ‘gender’ means that you must be consistent in the use of the gender of the pronoun (neuter, masculine, or feminine).

Pronoun agreement for ‘person’ means that if you are speaking of a singular item, use a singular pronoun. Singular pronouns are I, me, my, he, him, his, she, her, hers, it, and its. Plural pronouns are you, we, us, they, them, our, their.

Correct: Each company had its own rules. Our company had our own rules.

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Tip 64: Despite or In Spite of

Unlike many of our Timely Tips, this tip isn’t to tell you how these words are different and how to use them correctly. Instead, I am here to tell you that these words mean the same thing.

Surprised? So was I! I’ve always assumed that there were occasions, grammatically speaking or otherwise, when you needed to use one of these terms over the other—but it’s just not true.

‘Despite’ and ‘in spite of’ mean the same thing:

I had difficulty speaking that language, in spite of all my years of study.

I had difficulty speaking that language, despite all my years of study.

It’s up to you to decide—will you use one word or three?

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Tip 65: Quotation Marks: American or British?

When it comes to quotation marks, the rules for British usage are, for the most part, the opposite of the rules for American usage, as shown in the table below:


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Tip 66: Email or E-mail, Which Do I Choose?

One of our readers asked us how to write the term we use for electronic mail: hyphen or no hyphen?

The short answer is this: Either is correct. Just choose one and be consistent.

It seems that the original spelling was e-mail, but the spelling has evolved into the shorter form that does not use the hyphen.

Although a Google search seems to show that far more people use ‘email’ than ‘e‑mail,’ there is definitely a division among companies, publications, and style guides.

Those who spell the word without the hyphen (email) include the Society of Professional Engineers (SPE), NACE, the U.S. Government Printing Office, the Associated Press Style Book, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and companies such as BP, ConocoPhillips, and Shell.

Those who hyphenate the word (e-mail) include The Chicago Manual of Style, The Gregg Reference Manual, The Handbook of Technical Writing, The Modern Language Association, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the MIT Guide to Science and Engineering, and the Washington Post.

Some companies, organizations, and publication guides don’t seem to address how to write the term at all.

Whichever form you choose, you will be in good company. Just be consistent!

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Tip 67: Fewer or Less?

How do I know when to use ‘fewer’ and when to use ‘less’?

The express lane at the grocery store is not grammatically correct if the sign near the cash register reads “15 items or less.” Uh oh.

How can that be?

Use ‘fewer’ when you are referring to things that can be counted.

Correct: I have fewer shoes than Imelda Marcos.

Shoes are countable items—even if it might take you a while in the case of Imelda Marcos, the former first lady of the Philippines, who is known for her enormous shoe collection.

Correct: You may use this line if you have 15 or fewer items to buy.

Use ‘less’ if the item to which you are referring is not countable.

Correct: I have less patience than the average grandmother.

Correct: A pumpkin pie requires less sugar than a pecan pie requires.

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Tip 68: Compare to versus Compare with

Just in case you were wondering, ‘compare to’ and ‘compare with’ are not always interchangeable. The basic differences between the two are:

  • Use ‘to’ when you are stressing the similarities between two items that are being compared. These statements are normally subjective, in that your reader may or may not agree with the comparison you are making.
    Example: The engineer compared her cooking to burnt rubber.
    Example: Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
  • Use ‘with’ when you are looking at both similarities and differences of the two items that are being compared. With these statements, you are not making a judgment, and your conclusion(s) can be verified.
    Example: The chemist compared the properties of water with the properties of oil.
    Example: The detective compared the soles of the man’s shoes with the mold they had made from the footprints in the mud.

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Tip 69: Indepth or In depth?

When you are talking about discussing something in great detail, do you want ‘indepth’ or ‘in depth’?

The word you want is ‘in depth.’ Just like the term ‘a lot,’ in depth is often mistaken to be one word—but don’t make that mistake!

If you want to use the term ‘in depth’ as an adjective describing a noun, hyphenate it.

  • I would like to study that topic in depth (two words).
  • We have begun an in-depth (hyphenated) study of the rock formations.

‘Indepth’ as one word is a non-standard spelling, so don’t use it.

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Tip 70: ESL: Using Adjectives in Writing

If you are a native speaker of English, you probably take a lot of things for granted—such as the order in which you write adjectives that describe nouns. English as a Second Language (ESL) writers, however, may have trouble with it.

Native English speakers/writers have lots of experience hearing the flow and rhythm of the language, so word order often just comes ‘naturally’ to us. ESL speakers/writers, however, have to learn what comes ‘natural.’

First, just to refresh your memory, adjectives are words that describe (modify) nouns. Nouns are the names of persons, places, things, or ideas.

If you use more than one adjective to describe a noun, they usually follow this order in a sentence:

  1. Article (a, an, or the)
  2. Judgment (good, bad, pretty, ugly)
  3. Size (big, little, tiny, gargantuan)
  4. Shape (round, flat, oval)
  5. Age (old, new, geriatric)
  6. Color (red, blue, white)
  7. Nationality (American, Danish, Spanish)
  8. Material (wooden, plastic, steel, aluminum)

Let’s write a sentence about buying a piece of furniture. The adjectives that describe it are Danish, white, antique, and pretty.

Ina bought a Danish, white, antique, pretty dresser for her daughter’s room.

To most native speakers, this sentence is awkward. If I order the adjectives according to the list above, it reads more clearly.

Ina bought a pretty, antique, white, Danish dresser for her daughter’s room.

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Tip 71: Toward or Towards?

Which word is correct: toward or towards?

Here’s the scoop: toward and towards can be used interchangeably. Technically, they mean the same thing, and it is correct to use either of them.

The reason that we may prefer one over the other is simple: it depends on whether you are from the US, Great Britain, Canada, or Australia or whether you studied English through one of their educational systems.

Toward is generally preferred by folks from the US and Canada.

Towards is generally preferred by folks from Great Britain and Australia.


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Tip 72: Preventive or Preventative?

What is the difference between preventive and preventative? Is one preferred over the other?

According to Paul Brians’ Common Errors in English Usage, the two words are interchangeable, although some people prefer ‘preventive’ because it is shorter.

Bill Bryson, author of Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words: A Writer’s Guide to Getting it Right, agrees. “Preventative is not incorrect,” he says, “but preventive is shorter.”

Charles Harrington Elster, in his What in the Word? Wordplay, Word Lore, and Answers to Your Peskiest Questions About Language, has a bit more to say about it: “Preventative never was useful, it being no more than an antique misreading of preventive. Because the imposter is centuries old, some dictionaries give it as a variant; no writer need give it a thought.”

So what’s the bottom line?

At least according to these three writers, it isn’t incorrect to use preventative, but the preferred word to use is preventive


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Tip 73: Ampersand &

We see it often in letters, emails, texts, tweets, memos, and notes. This mark is appealing because it helps save character space and looks casual, but how does it fit in formal writing?

The Associated Press Stylebook advises using the ampersand when it is part of a company’s formal name or composition title: Barnes & Noble, Procter & Gamble, Ben & Jerry’s. Otherwise, the ampersand should not replace the word and. The Chicago Manual of Style concurs with the AP on that point, but also allows that “either and or & may be used in a publisher’s name,”: Harper and Row or Harper & Row.

Here are a few other acceptable uses:
• Inside graphics or document tables
• In some accepted abbreviations such as AT&T, R&D, P&ID
• In common shorthand expressions such as rock & roll
• In addresses, for example, Mr. & Mrs. Johnson, Dr. Smith & Mrs. Brown

If you find yourself hesitant, just remember to use the ampersand sparingly and, in case of doubt, check your stylebook.

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Tip 74: Left-justified versus Full-justified Margins

Most technical documents are formatted so that they are either left-justified (with the left margin aligned and the right margin ‘ragged’) or full-justified (when both margins are aligned). Although full-justified margins may appear to look more professional, they also require unequal spacing between the words so that the margins can match up. This sometimes gives the text a ‘Swiss cheese’ effect.

Regardless of how the text looks, which format is better for the reader?

Numerous studies have shown that readers read faster and comprehend better when the text is spaced consistently. Why? Because the reader’s eye can scan the lines more accurately when the spacing between words is consistent. This is especially true when the text includes numbers, symbols, formulas, and other non-word elements of text.

Ten to fifteen percent of the US population has dyslexia, which is somewhere around 40 million American adults. These people find it more difficult to read text that is full-justified.

In technical communication, one of our primary goals is to make the text readily understandable to the reader. That’s why the writers and editors at Shea always recommend to our clients that they use left justified margins.

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Tip 75: Only

Choose your placement of the word ‘only’ very carefully; its placement can change the meaning of your sentence.

The word ‘only’ should be placed immediately before the word or phrase it modifies.


Only Meg said that she was hungry.
Meaning: Meg alone said that she was hungry.

Meg only said that she was hungry.
Meaning: Meg said that she was hungry, but she really wasn’t.

Meg said only that she was hungry.
Meaning: Meg said that she was hungry; she did not say anything else.

Meg said that she was only hungry.
Meaning: Meg said that she was nothing except hungry [i.e., she did not say that she was tired].

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Tip 76: Writing in Active Voice

Do I ALWAYS have to write in active voice?

No, you don’t! Although writing in active voice is generally preferable, sometimes passive voice is the better choice, or maybe even the only choice.

When you write in active voice, the subject of the sentence accomplishes the action:

The technician checked the equipment for leaks.
The subject (technician) performs the action (checked the equipment for leaks).

But what if you don’t know who performed the action? Or what if the action itself is more important than who did it?

The equipment had been checked for leaks.
The most important thing is that the equipment was checked for leaks. And besides, I may not know exactly who did it.

So here’s the deal: Write in active voice when possible. It is more direct and normally uses fewer words to make a point, so active voice is generally the better choice.

However, when you don’t know who accomplished the action, or when what happened is more important than who did it, passive voice is the way to go.

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