Category Archives: clear writing

Oh, sure

Assure. Ensure. Insure. Do you use these similar-sounding verbs correctly?

Many people don’t. For example, I phoned a large, well-regarded organization and heard this announcement: “In order to assure excellent customer service, your call may be monitored.” Assure was the wrong word; the greeting should have used ensure. People sometimes use insure incorrectly, too.

To insure means to protect against financial loss. People insure their cars, homes, and art collections. In the 1940s, Betty Grable’s movie studio insured the star’s “million dollar legs” with Lloyd’s of London.beatles help silhouette

To ensure means to make certain or to confirm. We say, “to ensure success.” When ensure is followed by a clause, adding that after the verb usually makes things clearer: “to ensure that we will succeed.”

To assure means to promise. Assure is a transitive verb, so it requires an object—and a personal object, at that. We assure a person: “I can assure you.” (You is the object of assure.) The journalist Nelly Bly said, “The more I endeavored to assure them of my sanity, the more they doubted it.” (In this example, them is the object of assure.) If you write assure and notice that it has no object, change it: use ensure instead.

  • If you refer to financial protection, use insure. “Insure your home against fire and flood.”
  • If you promise and have an object, use assure. “He assured me.”
  • In all other cases, use ensure. “Phone to ensure that school will be open.”

The Beatles sang “I’m not so self-assured.” Maybe these guidelines will, ahem, “Help!”

(Decades ago, insure had another definition, interchangeable with ensure. That usage is archaic. Writers should limit insure to matters of financial protection. And pay no attention to old British “life assurance” company names. Is it any wonder people get confused?)


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You live only once

bmw adThe acronym YOLO (you only live once) was in the running for 2012 Word of the Year according to the people at Oxford American Dictionary. Several things about that idea gave me heartburn, especially the fact that YOLO involves a misplaced adverb.

Writers frequently place only in a less-than-ideal position in sentences. In my editing, I relocate only several times each week, to remove ambiguity. Only is routinely misplaced in conversation, and that’s not such a big deal. But when it’s time to put words in writing, thoughtful communicators should be more careful.

BMW has adopted the slogan, “We only make one thing.” But BMW does not only make one thing. The maker of the ultimate driving machine also designs that thing, markets that thing, and finances that thing. The slogan should be “We make only one thing.”

A misplaced only can cause confusion for readers.

If I wrote, “I am only editing two reports,” would you know what I meant? Maybe I meant that I’m not drafting the reports or printing the reports; I’m only editing them. How would you be sure of my meaning?

I should write, “I am editing only two reports.” A better placement of only, close to the word being modified, removes the ambiguity: I’m not editing three or four reports; only two reports.

The so-called word YOLO might lose some of its zing if the adverb were better placed and it became YLOO. But writers ought to try to place only in the position that best helps readers understand which word or phrase is being modified.

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Is that all there is is?

is isToday I was named in Language Log, in a contribution by Ben Zimmer, distinguished language columnist for The Boston Globe (now for the Wall Street Journal).

When I watched today’s White House press conference, I noticed that the president repeatedly used a faulty phrase. I took to Twitter and shared my observation with fellow language lovers and word nerds. Ben Zimmer wrote his column about it.

The phrase in question is “is is.” People mindlessly say it, as in, “The trouble is, is that the Nats aren’t pitching well.” (The correct expression would be, “The trouble is that the Nats aren’t pitching well.”) As smart as the president is, he seems to have latched onto this construction after hearing other people use it, and he unthinkingly put it into his vocabulary. The habit makes him seem less smart than he is.

He made a similar lapse in the same press conference when he said “as best as they can.” “As best as” is an idiom. It is not standard English. As best they can, or as well as they can, would have been correct.

My concern was not political in nature, of course. Any prominent, respected communicator being broadcast or streamed would have prompted my tweet by saying “is is” repeatedly.

When defective words and phrases creep into our language because people hear and repeat things without pausing to question them, our language becomes a little less lovable.

Read Zimmer’s analysis:

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Not that again

The February post on this blog discussed when to use that and when to use which.

That can be troublesome in another way, too: by its absence.

Many writers have developed the habit of leaving out the word that. Omitting that can cause confusion. If a reader must go back and reread a sentence because an omitted that made the sentence unclear, communication is ineffective.

I recently read a sentence that began, “We anticipate the report . . .”

How did your brain process that phrase? My brain thought the next words would probably tell me when we anticipate the report. I was ready for something like, “We anticipate the report by Friday.” The phrasing had set my expectations.

But in fact, the second half of the sentence was, “will contain your recommendations.” Wait, what? I stumbled, then read it again:

We anticipate the report will contain your recommendations.

Readers should not have to read a sentence once, pause to recover from mental whiplash, and read the sentence a second time. Readers should not have to work so hard.

The writer created a miscue by omitting that:

(Improved) We anticipate that the report will contain your recommendations.

With that included, the reader can easily understand the sentence and move on.

Another example:

Hatfield County claimed the property was worth $1 million.

Did you start out thinking that Hatfield County claimed the property? The omission of that can cause confusion for a moment.

(Improved) Hatfield County claimed that the property was worth $1 million.

Here’s one more example:

She demonstrated the system
saves time.

Where would a that help the reader?

The Associated Press Stylebook says, “When in doubt, include that. Omission can hurt. Inclusion never does.”

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Hyphen nation

Everyone knows that hyphens are used at the end of a line of type to indicate that a word continues on the next line.

Beyond that use of hyphens, some people run into confusion.

Some get downright grumpy when it comes to using hyphens in phrasal adjectives.

The journalist Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves, a humorous book about punctuation, explains that the hyphen joins words to aid understanding. Her chapter on hyphens defends the honor of sober pickled-herring merchants who have never touched a drop.

Without a hyphen, the phrase “long term plan” might leave a reader wondering whether there is something called a term plan, and he’s reading about a long one. With a hyphen, the phrase “long-term plan” lets the reader be sure he is reading about a plan for the long term.

The rule is this: If two consecutive words work together as an adjective to modify a noun that follows them, those two words should be hyphenated.

The rule is not just for two words; it is the same when any number of words work together as a modifier before a noun:

an easy-to-reach shelf

the head-over-heels-in-love couple

No hyphen is necessary if the noun does not follow the modifying words:

the up-to-date report

the report is up to date

An exception to the hyphen rule applies when the first word in the compound adjective ends in –ly. In that case, the meaning is clear without a hyphen. For example:

an openly hostile environment

a clearly attainable goal

Hyphens have other uses, too. We’ll save those for another day.


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That vs. which

Some writers struggle to choose between that and which. And some writers don’t struggle at all; they choose which because they think it sounds more correct or more formal. The writers in the second group are often wrong.

The wonderful writing teacher William Zinsser puts it simply: “Always use that unless it makes your meaning ambiguous.” In most situations, Zinsser says, that is what you would naturally say and therefore what you should write.

Readers who want a grammar rule for this guidance can have one. It’s a matter of restrictive clauses and nonrestrictive clauses.

That introduces restrictive clauses:

The leftover vegetables that are in the refrigerator would make a good stew.

“That are in the refrigerator” is a restrictive clause; it clarifies the specific vegetables being referred to. The writer is not referring to the vegetables that are in the root cellar; she is referring to the vegetables that are in the refrigerator.

Which is for nonrestrictive clauses:

The leftover vegetables, which are in the refrigerator, would make a good stew.

“Which are in the refrigerator” is nonrestrictive. The sentence would be clear without this clause; the clause simply provides additional information. It’s as if the writer were saying, “The leftover vegetables would make a good stew. Incidentally, they are in the refrigerator.”

This discussion of “that” versus “which,” like everything else in this blog, assumes U.S. English. Users of British English should pay no attention.

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Change the subject: three ways

Every complete sentence contains two parts: the subject and the predicate. The subject is what the sentence is about. It’s the doer. The predicate consists of the verb and all of its modifiers and other words that receive the action. A simple example is “Donna sang.” “Donna” is the subject.

Many writers lose sight of a sentence’s subject. Here are three ways.

1. Dangling modifiers

We often hear commercial advertisements saying things like this: “As a mother, my family’s nutrition is important.” What is the subject of that sentence?

“My family’s nutrition.”

What is the predicate?

“Is important.”

So what is “As a mother” modifying?

The writer of that script intended the speaker (“I”) to be the subject. But the sentence doesn’t work because it has a dangling participle. The intended subject isn’t even in the sentence. The sentence must be recast so the subject is the noun that the writer intended to modify. Here’s one correct way the ad could have been written:

“As a mother, I believe my family’s nutrition is important.”

Now, the subject is “I” and the verb is “believe.” (The subject is being modified by “As a mother,” as the writer intended.)

Here’s another example:

(Faulty) As a pediatrician, parents often ask what brand I recommend.

(Improved) I’m a pediatrician. Parents often ask what brand I recommend.

2. Say what

“What” and “whatever” can be sentence subjects. For example:

“Whatever you choose will be fine.”

But sometimes, clauses beginning with “what” make a cumbersome subject. For example:

“What I have already forgotten about sailing in the bay could fill a small book.”

The subject of that sentence consists of the entire clause ending in “bay.” It’s unwieldy. A writer with good awareness of the subject might instead write:

“I could fill a small book with my forgotten knowledge about sailing in the bay.”

Now, the subject is “I.”

3. Laziness

In casual conversation, people often use sentences with the subject it. An example is, “It is a sunny day.” That’s not grammatically wrong, and it’s fine for talking with friends. But careful writers should try harder. After all, what exactly is “it”?  It, used this way, is referred to as an expletive pronoun or a dummy pronoun. In writing, the subject usually can be identified, and the sentence can be made clearer and stronger as a result. “The sky is clear today.” Or, “Sunshine is abundant today.”

Here’s another example:

(Faulty) It is easy to start a walking program. (The subject is the vague “it.”)

(Improved) Starting a walking program is easy. (The subject is the gerund “starting a walking program.”)

(Even better) Walking programs are easy to start. (The subject is “walking programs.”)

Here’s an example of a similarly weak construction using “there”:

(Faulty) There is another finding in the study that casts doubt on the results. (The subject is the nebulous “there,” whatever that is. The verb is “is”—a being verb.)

(Improved) Another finding in the study casts doubt on the results. (Now the subject is “another finding.” The verb is “casts doubt”—an action verb, so it’s stronger.)

After reading three or four sentences that begin with “It is” and “There are,” the reader may begin to think a report or proposal seems weak, vague, or lazy. The writer should change the subject.

Writers of strong, clear sentences place modifiers correctly, avoid unnecessarily bulky subjects, and identify subjects.

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