Tag Archives: writing style guides

Grammar grab bag

Throughout the week, bits of sloppy speaking have caught my ear. I thought maybe we’d have a little Friday review to set ourselves straight. We all could use a refresher now and then, right?

The examples that got my attention this week have to do mostly with words or phrases that many believe are interchangeable.

“Imply” versus “infer” – To imply something is to mean something or put a suggestion into a message. To infer is derive a suggestion from a message, often by reasoning or interpretation. A simple way to remember: The speaker implies; the listener infers.

“Due to” versus “because of” – “Due to” means “caused by.” For example, “The snow was due to a cold front moving eastward.” It is not interchangeable with “because of,” which means “by reason of.” For example, “Schools were cancelled because of snow.” It’s not “cancelled due to snow.” Use of “due to” as an introductory clause, such as “Due to circumstances beyond our control,” or “Due to inclement weather,” is also incorrect. The difference is subtle but distinct.

“More than” versus “over” – “More than” refers to a countable number of something. For example, “There are more than 30 children in the class.” McDonald’s should claim “More than 100 billion hamburgers sold” not “Over 100 billion.” “Over” pertains to spatial amounts or volumes. For example, “Over a gallon of water was in the jug.”

“United States” versus “U.S.”  “United States” should always be spelled out or pronounced, except when used as an adjective. When used as a noun, it is always “the United States,” not “the U.S.” The abbreviation is used only when preceding a noun, such as “U.S. residents,” U.S. Secretary of State,” or “U.S. exports.”  “I live in the U.S.” is incorrect. And when we are writing within the United States, periods are used. This differs from how it is done outside our borders, where United States is abbreviated US.

If you’d like to share your own tricks for remembering the rules, or if your stylebook differs, or if you have ideas for future grab bags, the door is always open. 

Otherwise, class dismissed. Thanks for being here.

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A[n] honorary language convention

A few days ago, a reader asked me to address the subject of indefinite articles preceding words beginning with the letter “h.”

I reviewed my understanding of the rules pertaining to the subject and set it aside pending consultation of a few sources. At the same time, I suspected this might be one of those rules that vary by region and knew I’d have to take that into account as I addressed it.

The timing is apt, as we already have a rousing international debate going, following my comments yesterday about whether periods and commas go inside or outside quotation marks, another issue lacking global agreement.

I was tickled to hear from readers yesterday, who wrote in from such exotic places as Belo Horizonte, Brisbane, Canberra, Jakarta, Lima, Manila, Ontario, Oxford, Vancouver and Tucson on the matter of inside-versus-outside-the-quotes issue, even if they didn’t agree with me. Especially if they didn’t agree with me.

So let’s look at indefinite articles and see if we can keep this global dialogue going.

The question before us: Which indefinite article, “a” or “an,” precedes a word beginning with “h?”

The consensus I glean from U.S. and international sources is that “a” is used before words beginning with “h” unless the “h” is silent, in which case “an” is used.

Many have noticed, as have I, that “an” has come to precede words in which the “h” is pronounced; for example, historic, as “an historic event.”

I’d be inclined to give a little latitude where regional pronunciations vary with regard to the “h.” In the United States, we’d likely say, “an herb,” though Martha Stewart and select others opt for the European pronunciation and, therefore, would use a different indefinite article: “a herb.”

I’d welcome comments by my fellow wordies from around the globe. Better yet, wouldn’t it be fun to convene a global summit on language differences? Unlike the World Trade Organization or the World Health Organization or the International Standards Organization, which strive for international standardization, the goal of the GSLD could be  to understand and celebrate regional approaches to language.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not for linguistic anarchy. While there are more than one authoritative style guide, I prefer to choose one and stick to it. Moreover, where style guides agree, I advocate for consistent adherence, at least within U.S. borders. But if we Yankees prefer to keep our punctuation tucked neatly within our quotation marks, and use “an” preceding an “h,” and you English speakers abroad adhere to your own national standards, then I applaud you. I’d also like to sit across a table from you and continue the conversation, maybe sink our teeth in to the Oxford comma, because we obviously share a passion for words.

Does Geneva have room for one more international organization? Is there an honorific (or a honorific?) who’s willing to serve as chair?

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