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 (



Parameters and paradigms

Greek (“beside”)

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

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!


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.”
“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:


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.
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:


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.
The agreement’s terms clearly allow such transfers.

The wine’s flavor will be affected by its age.
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.
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.


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)


The correct use of bring and brought

I have noted before that songwriters sometimes choose words they like the sound of, even if their usage is not grammatically correct. (Fans usually forgive them!) Neil Diamond’s 1972 song “Play Me” is another example in this category:

“Song she sang to me,
Song she brang to me”

(You can see from the next two lines why the songwriter wanted to maintain the rhyme here:)

“Words that rang in me
Rhyme that sprang from me”

Why is brang objectionable? The past tense of the verb to bring (“I’ll bring the wine when I come for dinner next week.”) is brought:

Thinking of him brought a smile to my face.

She brought me the perfect gift.

Perhaps the confusion arises, in part, because ring, rang, and rung are the correct forms of the verb to ring.

“Ring the bell and I’ll come out.”

I rang the bell, but no one answered.

I regretted it immediately. I had rung that bell one time too many.

People don’t always use proper English when they converse, and written dialogue mirrors the way people talk. Poets and songwriters can be forgiven for fudging a bit when attempting to find the right word that rhymes or fits the cadence of their work. Writers are free to express themselves in whatever ways they choose; incorrect usage, when effective, won’t prevent a song (or poem or novel) from becoming popular. Consider:

“Ain’t No Sunshine” (Bill Withers)

“Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” (The Police, lyrics by Sting) (“Everything she do just turns me on”)

Of course, some forced rhymes come off sounding ridiculous (to my ear):

“When you cheated girl, my heart bleeded* girl” (“What Goes Around… Comes Around,” Justin Timberlake)

(I don’t think I’d have appreciated the song as a tween, either.)

Tip: Brang and brung are not standard English words; do not use them in formal writing or as a substitute for bring. If you use them at all (e.g., if they reflect the dialect of the region your character is from), use them for the past and past participle forms of to bring.

“He brang it to my house.” (“He brought it to my house.”)

“I weren’t brung up that way.” (I wasn’t brought up that way.”)

“I brung ya yer lunch.” (“I brought you your lunch.”)

“I’da brung ye some bread if I’d know’d ye wuz out.” (“I would have brought you some bread if I’d known you were out.”)

*And in case you’re wondering, the past tense of bleed is bled: She bled all over the table.

bring or take?

The verbs bring and take are used in a variety of ways, as the following examples show:

“Take it back!”

“I’ll bring this right back.”

“I’ll bring it up at the next meeting.”

“Take it up with the manager.”

“I forgot to take my meds.”

“I forgot to bring my swimsuit.”

“Would you please bring me my sweater?”

“I plan to take a vacation soon.”

Summer weather brings mosquitoes.

“I’ll take a chance and ask her out.”

“Can I bring a friend?”

“Take this package down the hall to Mr. Burke.”

“Did you bring the gift?”

“I’m going to take out a loan so I can expand my business.”

“Take a tip from Will: don’t borrow or lend money!”

The victim chose not to bring charges against her assailant.

“I’ll take your word for it.”

We take stock, take advantage, and take action. We bring a lawsuit, bring up the rear, and bring news.

You wouldn’t say:

Take the water to a boil. (Bring the water to a boil.)


“Bring Myrtle, for example; she’s never the center of attention, but she doesn’t complain.” (“Take Myrtle, for example . . .”)

(Not in the U.S., anyway!)

Both verbs can describe an act of coming or going to (or causing something or someone to come or go to) a place. The choice depends upon the perspective of the speaker or the focus of the action.

“Take this note to your teacher [when you go to school tomorrow].”

“Let’s take a bottle of wine to the picnic [when we go there].”

“Will you be bringing your own computer [when you come] to the class?”

In general, bring suggests that the person or thing comes to the place where the speaker is located (or goes along with the speaker or subject); take suggests that the person or thing goes somewhere else, away from where the speaker (or subject) is located. (Take something there; bring something here.) However, regional differences in usage apply, and both of the following sentences are correct:

“I think I will bring a fruit salad [with me] to the potluck.”

“I plan to take a fruit salad [when I go] to the potluck.”

Similar considerations arise with come and go. Note that we speak of going to a location, but a person (or thing) comes with us when we go somewhere.

“Can I come with you when you go to see Susan?” [you are going and I want to come along]

“Can I go with you to the concert?” [we’ll both go, together]

“I’ll be going to the prom with Sally.” [I’m taking Sally]

“Sam is coming with me to the party.” [I’m bringing Sam]

Let’s look again at the earlier example about a note for the teacher.

Take this note to your teacher [when you go to school tomorrow].”

“I’ll bring this note to your teacher [the note will come with me] when I take you to school tomorrow.”

More examples of bring and take:

Bring our boys home from the front!

“Don’t forget to take the dog for a walk.”

“I’ll bring the photos with me when I come to see you next week.”

“Please take the trash out to the dumpster.”

“Bring it here, boy!”

“Take the fight outside, please!”

“Bring me a sandwich from the deli.”

“I have to take my mother to the airport.”

“You can bring me the check when you have a moment.”

“Please take away these empty glasses.”

“Take an umbrella [when you go out]; the forecast calls for rain.”

“I think I’ll bring an umbrella [with me when I go out].”

“Carlos will bring [with him] signed copies of his new book.”

“Be sure and take the flyers with you [when you go]!”

The distinction can be subtle.

“Take this with you for good luck.” (You are going somewhere, and you will carry an object with you.)

“Bring this with you when you come to the store.” (I’d like you to carry the object with you; I’ll be at the store when you arrive.)

“Sheila always brings her son to rehearsals.” (I’m at the rehearsals too.)

“Sheila takes her son everywhere.” (I don’t accompany them everywhere they go.)

“I’m bringing your grandchildren for a visit.” (We’re all coming to where you are.)

“I’m taking the boys to a game.” (We’re going without you.)

“You should bring Lydia some flowers; she’d like that.” (If you are not going in person, you would send flowers.)

“Take some flowers for Lydia.” (I have assembled a bouquet from my garden and am giving it to you to carry away.)

“I’ll take some flowers for Lydia,” Lyle says as he cuts the stems. (He will carry the flowers away from my house.)

“I’ll bring these to the hospital,” Lyle says. (He will carry the flowers with him.)

“Jake always takes work home.” (Jake and I share an office.)

“Jake always brings work home.” (Jake is my husband.)

“Stephanie will take her daughter to Mexico next year.” (We’re all in the U.S.)

“Stephanie will bring her daughter to Mexico next year.” (I’m in Mexico.)

If the location of the speaker (or the direction of movement) is unknown or irrelevant, use whichever verb fits your purpose—or rewrite the sentence:

“Stephanie and her daughter will travel to Mexico next year.”



Does a title need to be in italics when mentioned in dialogue?

Most style manuals will tell you to italicize the title of a book or a motion picture in text or notes—but what about dialogue? Should a title also be italicized when a character mentions it?



“We’re going to see the latest Star Wars flick. Would you like to come?”

* * *

“You remind me of that character Meg Ryan played in When Harry Met Sally,” Steve said.

“You mean Sally?”

Steve nodded.

“You think I fake orgasms?”

“No, I think you’re high maintenance!”

* * *

“Let’s go get something to eat.”

“Can’t. I’m on a roll.”

“You’ve been working on that every weekend for the past two months. What are you writing, War and Peace?”

“No, The Great Catsby.”


naked prose

Writers are frequently admonished to avoid the use of clichés. (Some writers, such as Ernest Hemingway, eschew flowery descriptions and favor simple, unadorned prose.)

Non-native speakers may be confused by phrases such as “The ball’s in your court” or “It’s raining cats and dogs,” idiomatic expressions that are understood figuratively.

Some of these phrases once had a literal meaning. “Pull out all the stops,” for example, pertains to the pipe organ, which produces a louder sound when all the stops (knobs) are pulled out.

Phrases that become well known over time can be used to quickly create an effect:

“For this event, we need to pull out all the stops,” the CEO told his advisors.

A careful writer, however, will avoid overused phrases such as “Take my advice with a grain of salt.”

As phrases get passed on orally, distortions and variations frequently occur. Both butt naked and buck naked have been used to describe a person who is naked; both will likely continue to be used as slang, which is, by definition, “nonstandard.”

Most people wear clothes outside of their own households, so the sight of someone unclothed is likely to elicit remarks.

Here’s an interesting explanation for the phrase “naked as a jaybird.” (Why, one might ask, would a bird be considered “naked”?)

Stark (complete, total, absolute; bare) naked and plumb naked are other common choices. (One meaning of plumb is “absolutely”.)

If you are writing fiction, you are free to invent your own colorful phrases that fit the character or setting. For nonfiction, a descriptive adverb such as completely (or totally) naked works fine.

And if you are a minimalist writer, as Hemingway was, “naked” pretty well (un)covers it!

A few examples of the past tense of regular and irregular verbs

In English, the simple past tense of regular verbs usually ends in –ed. Sometimes, –ed is added to the present tense form:

You play the piano very well.

I played basketball in high school.

(Or, if the verb ends in e, then only a –d is required to form the past tense: I like to dance./She danced until dawn.)

Other times, a change in spelling is required:

“Please control yourself!”

“Laura controlled the business until her death.”

“Can you identify the assailant?”

“John identified the problem.”

The rules are different for irregular verbs; in some cases, a –d or a –t is added to the simple present (root or base) form:

“If I can hear it, it’s too loud.”

“I heard the news on the radio.”

“I mean what I say.”

“I meant to send this last week.”

“Just deal the cards!”

“Let me tell you how I dealt with that problem.”

This “t-form” sometimes requires a change in spelling, such as dropping a vowel: feel (felt), creep (crept), keep (kept).

For some verbs, the past tense can be formed with either –t or –ed:

“Don’t leap for joy until the official announcement is made.”

He leaped at the opportunity.

She leapt across the stage.

Burn Jim’s papers, as he requested.”

Sue burned the pan.

“My hand got burnt in the fire.”*

Similarly, the past tense of dream can be formed with –ed or with –t:

“I never dreamed he would take my advice!”

Larry dreamt about the war for years.

“I dreamed about you last night.”

Brian dreamt up a scheme that just might work.

The preferred form of a word sometimes changes over time and varies by region. As a writer, you may prefer the –t form in some contexts and the –ed form in others. Be consistent in your usage throughout the same piece!


* In the U.S., burnt is more commonly used as an adjective:

The priest chanted over the burnt offering.

“I don’t like burnt toast.”


“due to” or “because of”?

Is the wording of this sign correct?

The phrase due to functions as an adjective, whereas because of functions as an adverb.

Recall that adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs and answer questions such as when, where, how, to what extent, and why.


Steve walked slowly down the street. “Slowly” tells us how Steve (subject) walked (verb); “down the street” is a prepositional phrase that tells us where he walked. “Steve walked” can stand on its own, but the extra words provide additional information about Steve’s action.

Adjectives modify (or describe) nouns and pronouns, so if we want more information about Steve, rather than about his walking, we look to adjectives.


Steve was ecstatic. (“Ecstatic” is an adjective.)

In the USDA notice above, the phrase that modifies closed (an adjective) is there to explain why the facility is closed; therefore, an adverbial phrase (because of) is needed.


The closure was due to bad weather. (The adjectival phrase due to bad weather modifies the noun closure. I could choose other adjectives to describe the closure: The closure was brief. Or: The closure was unexpected. Brief and unexpected are adjectives.)


The school is closed because of bad weather. (“The school is closed” would be a complete sentence, but the additional information explains why the school is closed. because of is part of an adverbial phrase that modifies an adjective (closed). The sentence could be rewritten as: Because of bad weather, the school is closed.)

Breaking a sentence into its basic components can sometimes help you see the functions of different parts more clearly:

This facility is closed due to funding. X

Here, facility (noun) is the subject, is is the verb, and closed is an adjective modifying facility. The rest of the sentence explains “why” the facility is closed; thus, an adverbial phrase (because of) is needed.

The sign should read:

This U.S. Department of Agriculture facility is currently closed because of the lapse in federal government funding.


The closure is due to Congressional inaction. (The phrase due to Congressional inaction is modifying the subject (closure), so it functions as an adjective.)

The following sentence could stand on its own:

The park is closed.

We can add additional information to it:

The park is closed because of inadequate funding. (Because of explains why the park is closed (i.e., it modifies the adjective closed).)

The closure is due to inadequate funding. (Compare: “The closure is temporary.” temporary is an adjective.)

In casual conversation, we are more likely to say because of (unless we are speaking of arrivals and departures: Scott is due to arrive in one hour.)

I left because of his insults.

I was late for work because of the storm.

In written communications, due to can seem more formal.

I was late for work due to unforeseen circumstances. X

The purpose of the phrase “due to unforeseen circumstances” is to explain why I was late; thus, because of is the correct choice.

If formality is appropriate, correct usage is essential!

Takeaway: Don’t worry if you can’t remember when to use due to and when to use because of. If you know that the two often get confused in people’s minds (perhaps in yours, too), then when you are writing or editing one of these phrases, you can take a moment to refresh your memory before finalizing your message or document.

By reading things that are well written (and following blogs such as this one!) you are expanding your knowledge base and improving your ability to spot problems. If you find a problem, you have an opportunity to fix it!