Category Archives: Writing Tips

brand new or bran new?

Long before brand referred to a company’s manufactured product, a brand was a mark seared with a branding iron (often into the flesh of a living being). Bran is the outer layer (husk) of cereal grain and the products made from it.

Both brand-new and bran-new (meaning “conspicuously new and unused” or “recently introduced”) have been in use for centuries. According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, brand-new has been used as an adjective since about 1570. (The dictionary hyphenates both spellings, with bran-new considered a variant of brand-new.)

Some of us remember the song “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” (James Brown was awarded a Grammy for Best Rhythm & Blues Recording of 1965). A Brand New Me was an album by Dusty Springfield that featured a song titled (or entitled, if you prefer) “Brand New Me”; it was released in 1970, the same year The Partridge Family released an album with a “Brand New Me” song. Other artists who have recorded songs and albums with “brand new me” in the title include John Michael Montgomery (2000) and Alicia Keys (2012).

By 1791, when the play Wild Oats by John O’Keeffe* was first performed, use of bran new was, well, not new.

bran new example from 1791

Here it is again, in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum**:

bran-new in Baum

Though the first use of bran-new may have been a mistake, both spellings are now considered acceptable.

Even so, I think I’ll stick to brand-new.

* Available online through Project Gutenberg (www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/39060)

** http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/55
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Parameters and paradigms

parameter
para:
Greek (“beside”)
metron
(“measure”)

As a mathematical term, parameter has been in use since the 17th century (geometry). It continues to be used in fields such as statistics, computer programming, and even linguistics. (Encylopedia Brittanica: “Parameters . . . are options that allow for variation in linguistic structure”)

In the 20th century, people started using parameter to mean “a measurable factor which helps to define a particular system.” (Online Etymology Dictionary)

The New Parameters

We must operate within the parameters that have been laid out in the manual.

In its new incarnation, parameters is usually used in the plural (i.e., a “set” of conditions or limitations), rather than in reference to a ceiling, upper limit, or single boundary. (Thus, criterion would be a better choice in a sentence such as: “Customer satisfaction is a useful parameter for evaluating the project’s success.”)

Parameters is often used in reference to matters that are subject to variables and limitations imposed within a range (e.g., financial and policy guidelines).

“The squabbling added to the swirl of public confusion over the parameters of the FBI inquiry and who is setting them.” (Washington Post, September 30, 2018)

This particular FBI “inquiry” needs to be completed by a certain date, but the course of the investigation may change depending upon the facts that are uncovered and where investigators are led in the process. The scope of the investigation is also subject to change in the allotted time period.

A budget is a planning tool. Income and expenses can be estimated, but actual income may be different from what was anticipated, and expenses can be greater or less than expected. In most cases, resources are not unlimited, and adjustments may need to be made as time passes to “balance the budget.”

If fixed boundaries are indicated, parameters is probably not the best choice. A country has borders; a city has limits. (Ever see a sign at the edge of town that says, “City Parameters”?)

While on probation, Maximillian must stay within the confines of the town.

Likewise, a “glass ceiling” is not a parameter; it’s a barrier and a limitation.

“It is not possible within the parameters of one chapter to provide a comprehensive review of this subject.”

Sure, a chapter has a beginning and an end, but a chapter is not a parameter; neither is a book. (Breaking a whole into parts does not a “parameter” make.) Also, the addition of “within the parameters” is superfluous. “A comprehensive review of this subject cannot be provided in one chapter” is enough. Don’t waste words, and don’t use the “almost right” words.

“The commission must act within the parameters of the statute.”

What does that mean? Is the commission “constrained by” requirements set forth in the statute (so it cannot approve a measure it would like to approve)? Is the commission reminding its members that actions must be taken “in accordance with” applicable laws?

Parameter has become a trendy substitute for anything that has a boundary. (cf. perimeter) Be aware, however, that this usage is not universally accepted, and if you are writing for a publication designed for professionals in a particular field (or speaking to them at a conference), you will want to ensure that your use of parameter is accurate.

My advice: If you don’t have a clear understanding of how parameter applies in your situation, don’t use it because you think it sounds important!

Shifting Paradigms

paradigm
from Late Latin paradigma “pattern, example,”; from Greek paradeigma “pattern, model; precedent, example” (Online Etymology Dictionary)

The same advice goes for paradigm, another word that is very popular and, arguably, overused (especially in reference to a paradigm shift).

In use since the 15th century, paradigm* originally meant a pattern or archetype. With the rise of the scientific method came a new meaning: “a philosophical and theoretical framework of a scientific school or discipline within which theories, laws, and generalizations and the experiments performed in support of them are formulated.” In recent decades, paradigm has come to mean “a philosophical or theoretical framework of any kind.” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

In the context of scientific inquiry, paradigm does not refer to a single theory; it is the model or framework that gives rise to theories and hypotheses (which are then tested and confirmed or refuted).

Paradigm is a great word—when it is the right word. Often, however, other words would suit the purpose as well or better.

Since the shooting, my whole paradigm has changed.

Since the shooting, my worldview has changed.
[worldview: “a comprehensive conception or apprehension of the world especially from a specific standpoint”]

Since the shooting, my philosophy has changed.
[philosophy: “the most basic beliefs, concepts, and attitudes of an individual or group”]

Is a legal “doctrine” to now be considered a “paradigm”—or is including “paradigm” in a title good marketing?

click image for full article

With such a confusing title (“paradigm on interplay”??), a reader might hope that the assertion of a “new paradigm” would be explained in the article.

The word paradigm is not mentioned once.

(I suspect it’s not in the court’s opinion, either.)

* Paradigm is also a term the field of linguistics.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Commas, apostrophes, and possessive plurals

Notice the placement of the comma (after parents) in the following example:

Incorrect placement of comma and apostrophe

The correct punctuation is:

at her parents’,

However, sometimes the best solution is to rewrite the sentence (especially if you are uncertain about the correct rule).

After spending three months at her parents’ summer house, Jennifer was eager to return to the city.

Similarly, instead of writing:

Jennifer’s mother’s car was a pink Cadillac, and she loved driving it down Main Street.

consider rewriting the sentence without two consecutive possessive nouns (Jennifer’s mother’s) and the personal pronoun (she):

Jennifer’s mother drove a pink Cadillac, and Jennifer often borrowed it (with or without her mother’s permission) to cruise Main Street.

Don’t let incorrect punctuation muddy your writing. With a little effort, your brilliance can shine through!
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Contractions

In English, contractions are often used in informal speech and writing. (Minimize your use of contractions in formal documents, especially when clarity of terms is essential, such as in a contract or other legal document.)

Whether you are sending an email or text to a friend or associate or writing dialogue for an article or story, the use of slang, jargon, acronyms, abbreviations—and contractions—suggests a casualness that may or may not be appropriate, depending upon the impression you wish to make (e.g., “we’re colleagues and speak the same language”) and the context (e.g., you are quoting a source who said, “He’s a ne’er-do-well.”)

When forming a contraction, an apostrophe is often used in place of missing letters. Common contractions include:

I’m (I am)
you’re (you are)
he’ll (he will or he shall)
she’s (she is or she has)
we’d (we would or we had)
let’s (let us)
can’t (cannot)
shouldn’t (should not)
won’t (will not)
who’d (who had, who would)

It’s up to You

Compare: “Here is the report you asked for.”
with
“Here’s the report you wanted.”

The difference is slight, but the first sentence sounds more formal and “professional,” whereas the second is more casual. Neither is incorrect, but each will convey a different tone and sentiment.

(Note that if you are sending an email with an attachment, you might write “Here’s my bill” to a regular customer—but you would never say “Attached’s my bill” or “Attach’d is my bill.” Not all words are suitable for shortening!)

In dialogue, however, anything goes. Many people misuse language, so if you are creating a character who is from a particular region or country (or planet!), craft dialogue that reflects the character’s age, education, and situation. (A person who is stressed and rushed will speak and behave differently from a college professor delivering a lecture.)

“I ain’t goin’ and you cain’t make me.” [I am not going, and you cannot force me to go.]

“Who’da thought she’d go for him?” [Who would have thought she would be interested in him?]

As with the contractions noted earlier in this post, an apostrophe is used to indicate that letters are missing.

“Supposin’ I was ta ask you to the dance. What d’ya reckon your answer’d be?”

As slang and colloquial words and expressions catch on, alternative spellings become common:

“Well whaddya know! It worked.” [Well, what do you know? It worked!]

“Whatcha doin’?” [What are you doing?]

In all writing, avoid contractions if they are ambiguous and can be misread. As noted above, some contractions, such as I’d, can have more than one meaning (I would, I had). Don’t create extra work for your reader; if the meaning is not readily apparent, use the complete words.

I have previously written about the misuse of of when have is meant in contractions such as would’ve (I would have). Double contractions are especially messy and are best avoided. (I’d’ve for I would have)
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Shoulda known better

Expressions creep into our vocabulary that we come to accept as “normal,” but what is considered “normal” speech in a professional setting is not the same as what is “normal” for a kid hanging out in the schoolyard. In your writing and your speech, take a moment to think about the words you are using. Are you actually saying what you believe you are saying?

“I could care less.”

The usual point people are trying to make when they misuse this expression is that they don’t care. (The correct wording, “I couldn’t care less,” means you care so little that “less than zero” is not caring at all: if you don’t care (at all), then you can’t care “less.”) But if you could care “less,” then what you are actually saying is that you do care; there’s room for you to care “less.”

In some situations, saying “I don’t care” outright would be even ruder than the flip “I couldn’t care less.” Soften your tone as appropriate with a reply such as “I don’t have a preference” if asked for your input, or “Whatever you decide to do is fine with me” when informed of someone’s plans.

Of and have

Don’t use the preposition of as an auxiliary verb in place of have:

“I could of sworn I paid that bill!” X

“I could have sworn I paid that bill!”

“I must of left my hat at the theater.” X

“I must have left my hat at the theater.”

“I should of known he’d turn out to be a loser.” X

“I should have known he’d turn out to be a loser.”

“I might of gone if I’d known she would be there.” X

“I might have gone if I’d known she would be there.”

What about dialogue?

The dialogue you write for a character in a work of fiction must sound natural, but what constitutes “natural” will depend on the character’s age, level of education, personality, and experience, as well as the setting. A writer must carefully tailor the speech of each character, thereby adding a distinctive style to dialogue (or narrative). Grammatical correctness is not the primary consideration; however, a balance must be struck between readability and originality.*

In the case of have/of, consider using the letter a (short for have) instead of the word of when writing dialogue for a character who is hanging out in the schoolyard:

“I woulda finished school but my father kicked me outta** the house when I was fifteen. I had to work to eat.”

“I’da been dead meat if you hadn’t come along when you did.”

Contractions also add informality:

“She’d have told you if you’d asked.” (Instead of “She would have told you if you had asked.”)

“You could’ve called.” (Instead of “You could have called.”)

* There are, of course, exceptions—like Finnegans Wake, or Mammy’s dialect in Gone with the Wind. (Have you read either?)

** Outta can also be spelled “outa” (which would make more sense, as “out” has only one t, but is rarely used). An apostrophe can also be used to shorten of:

It’s out o’ this world!
He’s out o’ luck.

And if you are curious about the Irish surnames that begin with O’ you might enjoy this article.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

exes and x’s

When referring to letters of the alphabet as letters (e.g., the i in italics), an apostrophe is often used to form the plural:

Impeccable is spelled with two c‘s.”

For capital letters, an apostrophe is not always needed:

“Jay has been learning his ABCs.”

Thus, the following sentence can be written with or without apostrophes:

For my final grades, I received three As and two Bs.

For my final grades, I received three A’s and two B’s.

Neither style is “incorrect,” but be consistent! (Don’t write: For my final grades, I received three A’s and two Bs.)

Check with the style guide your employer or publisher uses, or, if you are writing about people or organizations—or teams—follow their preference:

The Oakland Coliseum is home to the Oakland A’s. (not the Oakland As.)

As with letters, an apostrophe may or may not be needed when forming the plural of numerals; the choice, again, depends on which style guide is followed. (The style used for newspapers and magazines may differ from book publishing, for example.)

I counted six 1s and five 2s.

I counted six 1’s and five 2’s.

Just as numbers can be written as numerals (1, 2, 3) or spelled out as words (one, two, three), the names of letters are sometimes spelled out:

The ex should be printed in red. (The x should be printed in red.)

The Brits prefer zed to zee.

(Oh, however, would refer to zero: “We beat them, six–oh.”)

The plural of o is o’s or os.

Recording artist and album title

In general, apostrophes are not used when forming the plural of words or acronyms:

I counted six ones and five twos.

The store sells used CDs and DVDs.

The boos drowned out the cheers.

My exes are all remarried now.

I was surrounded by oohs and aahs as I set up my tripod to photograph the fireworks.

Entrepreneurs (and record companies) don’t always get the punctuation right when choosing the names of their businesses (and albums). Compare:

with:

The second, Oohs and Aahs, is correct—no apostrophe required.

But what if Ooh and Aah are the names of the owners?

Then the correct punctuation would be:

“I’ll meet you at Ooh and Aah’s.”

(See my previous post about compound possession.)

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

“John’s and Mary’s” or “John and Mary’s”?

Before I discuss the possessive form (or case), let’s review a few grammatical terms and rules.

A compound subject has two or more subjects:

Susan, Terri, and Samantha share a flat.
Carrots
and beets are root vegetables.

Similarly, a compound object has two or more objects:

I will call the director and the assistant director tomorrow.
I ate nuts and berries for breakfast.

Compound nouns (lampshade, footstool, housewife, cupboard, real estate) are formed by combining two or more words. (Usually at least one of the words is a noun.)

Some compounds are open (there is a space between the words: ice cream, school bus, life jacket, middle class, hot dog). Others are hyphenated (six-pack, two-year-old, well-being, mother-in-law). Closed compounds (football, birthday, bedroom, notebook) omit the space or hyphen. The spelling can remain in flux for a long time as a language evolves, with disagreement about which version is all right (alright?). Also, as conventions sometimes differ by region, profession, and country (e.g., the spelling of color/colour in the US/UK), you may see northwest as well as north west, and northwestern as well as north-western.

A plural noun is formed in different ways; the simplest is by adding an s:

books
germs
concepts

Exceptions abound, and other rules may apply if the noun ends in ch, f, fe, o, s, sh, ss, x, y, z, us, is, or on (e.g., witches, thieves, wives, gases, dishes, misses, oxen, parties, quizzes, viruses, crises, criteria).

For words ending in o, -es is often added to form the plural (heroes and potatoes) but not always (pianos) and, often, either form is acceptable (stilettos, stilettoes). Then there are the words that stay the same whether they are singular or plural (sheep, series) and the irregular nouns (foot/feet; woman/women). (A complete discussion of this topic is beyond the scope of this post.)

Don’t confuse the plural with the possessive!

The witches hatched a plan. (plural)
The witch’s brew was delightful. (possessive)
The witches’ plan backfired. (plural and possessive)

Use the possessive form to indicate ownership or possession:

My tooth aches.
Harry’s job is difficult.
Linda’s husband is out of town.
His boss’s schedule is insane.
Your daughter’s performance was impressive.

For most singular nouns, the possessive is formed by adding apostrophe s (‘s). The same is usually true for nouns referring to groups of people (states, countries, organizations, and associations):

New York’s housing crisis is worse than Boston’s.
Georgia’s governor declared a state of emergency.
England’s currency is the same as Scotland’s.
The school’s future is in doubt.
The company’s profile can be found on the website.
The firm’s clients include celebrities and politicians.

Buildings and objects are not considered “owners” in the same way that people and pets are. Compare:

The dog’s leg is broken.

I’ll meet you in the hotel lobby. (not “the hotel’s lobby”)

The view from the restaurant is spectacular. (rather than “The restaurant’s view is spectacular”)

As with the last example, above, a sentence is sometimes best rewritten to avoid using an apostrophe s:

The exterior of the building is being restored. (instead of “The building’s exterior is being restored”)

No definitive rule governs inanimate objects, however, and some constructions using apostrophe s are common and acceptable.

The car’s features include heated seats and a navigation system.
but not
Don’t slam the car’s door! (car door)

Thus, you are likely to encounter both:

The terms of the agreement clearly prohibit such transfers.
and
The agreement’s terms clearly allow such transfers.

The wine’s flavor will be affected by its age.
and
The color of the wine remained unchanged.

For plural nouns, only an apostrophe is added when the noun ends in s:

the secretaries’ strike
the workers’ plan
the musicians’ concert

When the plural noun does not end in s, as in people or children, add an apostrophe and an s:

people’s court (not peoples’ or peoples’s)
children’s playground (not childrens’ or childrens’s)

For hyphenated compound nouns, an apostrophe and an s are usually added at the end of the word :

Tomorrow is my son-in-law’s birthday.
but
Today is my two-year-old son’s birthday.

If you need to indicate possession for a plural compound noun (e.g., daughters-in-law or attorneys general), you will usually be better off with “The group of daughters-in-law was created to provide support for women with difficult in-laws” instead of “The daughters-in-law’s group was created to provide support . . . “

Similarly, instead of:

The annual attorneys general’s conference has been scheduled.

write:

The annual conference of attorneys general has been scheduled.

(Note that a conference of generals would be a “generals’ conference,” but the plural form of attorney general is attorneys general. A group started by your daughter-in-law would be your “daughter-in-law’s group.”)

Forming the possessive with a compound subject or compound object

Question: If Tim and Joe are brothers and you are going to visit them, do you say, “I’m going to Tim’s and Joe’s house” or “I’m going to Tim and Joe’s house” or “I’m going to Tim’s and Joe’s houses”?

Answer: If Tim and Joe live in the same house, only one apostrophe s is needed. (Tim and Joe’s house)

If Tim and Joe live separately and you are going to two houses, the possessive form would be applied to each of them. (Tim’s and Joe’s houses)

Try substituting their for “Tim and Joe”: “I’m going to their house” (if they live together) or “I’m going to their (two) houses” (if they live separately). In common parlance, people often say things like, “I’m going over to Tim’s and then I might stop by Joe’s place.”

In the sentence “Trish walked to Tim’s store and Joe’s house,” Trish is the subject, walked is the verb, to is a preposition, and the compound object is Tim’s store and Joe’s house. The apostrophe rule is the same for compound subjects. (Trish’s hair and Tina’s makeup looked great.)

John and Mary’s religion is really strange. (John and Mary share the same religion)

John’s and Mary’s beliefs are very different from mine. (John’s beliefs and Mary’s beliefs are not the same; their beliefs differ from my beliefs)