Friday, August 22, 2014

Helps for Better Writing (Part 11 of 11)

Can you explain clauses or phrases that begin with that?

We call them noun clauses, which is a group of words that function as a noun in a sentence or phrase. The clause contains a subject and a verb, but it's not a complete statement. (Or as the grammarians like to say, it's a subordinate clause.) Therefore, it has to be connected to an independent clause (main clause). The noun clause usually appears after the main verb of the sentence.

The most common noun clauses begin with that. Others are how, what, whatever, when, where, which, who, whoever, and why

Here are examples of noun clauses using that.

1. I thought that the test was simple. The noun clause is the object of the verb thought. Ask yourself, Thought what?

2. He proved that he was strong. (The noun clause answers the question, "Proved what?")

3. Sometimes we omit that, but it's implied: He heard (that) she might visit.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Helps for Better Writing (Part 10 of 11)

Giving Reasons. (I’ve received several questions on this topic.)

What’s the difference between because, on account of, owing to the fact that, as, on account of, due to, and since? There are a lot of words here and the answer is: Not much difference. Of course no serious writer ever uses because the reason is or the reason why. Both are redundant.

Purists can (and do) distinguish, but most of us see it as a matter of personal taste. I've noticed that writers who want to sound scholarly tend to use due to most of the time. I suppose it sounds more intellectual. I associate it with the writers of the past two centuries.

The rule is that due to modifies nouns and follows state-of-being verbs (am, is, were). In reality, due to has become a generally accepted synonym for because.

Since refers to time, according to the purists, but most people either ignore that or aren't aware. Today, since and because can be synonyms. The same is true for using as when you mean because.

In short, English offers many ways to express reasons and the distinction has long been lost, except to people who love to cite rules.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Helps for Better Writing (Part 9 of 11)

Let's look at easily confused words. (These have also come from blog readers.)

One of the most common is lose and loose. I don't know why this is a problem, because the meanings are obvious; I suppose it's the spelling. Here's a mnemonic device a friend suggested: He's as loose as a goose. By saying it aloud, he says he gets the sound and spelling correct.

Another help is to pronounce the word aloud. If it has an audible Z sound, then you write lose. If you use the hissing S sound, it's loose.

Orientate and orient. British writers seem to prefer orientate; in the US, we use orient. That's the only difference I see. On several websites, some have argued that orientate isn't a proper word (and they're wrong).

My opinion is that people who want to sound better educated than they are tend to use more ostentatious words such as orientate.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Helps for Better Writing (Part 8 of 11)

What's the difference between that and who?

The standard answer says we use who when we refer to a person; we use that when we refer to things. But again, it's a rule broken as often as it's followed.

Many people include animals or any living creature in the who category, which traditionalists dislike. They insist on using who only for animals with names. That seems arbitrary to me.

It's helpful to remember the rule (especially if you have too many that expressions in your prose.) My assumption is that most readers don't know or care about the difference.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Helps for Better Writing (Part 7 of 11)

That and which: What's the difference?

I know the rule even though I'm not consistent in following it—and apparently most writers aren't either. The objection I hear from nongrammarians is, "I get tired of reading that all the time." My answer: So revise the sentence.

Here's the rule. That introduces an essential clause. We should play with the ball that Jack gave us. (That is, don't use just any ball, but a specific one, the one from Jack.) We sometimes call that a restrictive element because it refers to a part of the sentence we can't delete and keep the intended meaning.

Which adds information. We played with the ball, which was in the box. It's not pointing to a specific box. We set off nonessential clauses by commas, which means we could eliminate the statement. (Did you catch the use of which in the previous sentence?)

Here's a simple way to remember: If we throw out which, we don't harm or change the meaning of the sentence. I like gala apples, which I buy at Krogers. I've given you an additional detail beyond my fondness for the fruit. And I show that it's not essential by adding the comma.

By contrast, I could have written the following sentence. I like gala apples that I buy at Krogers. It means I don't like gala apples if I buy them at Publix.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Helps for Better Writing (Part 6 of 11)

6. When do I use like, and when is as correct?

This battle has probably been lost, but here's the rule anyway. As far as I can tell, like came with the hipsters in the 1950s. They used the word to introduce their feelings or perceptions. When I learned I had won the contest, I was like, overwhelmed. When I saw the man with the gun, I was like, running for cover.

But here's the rule of grammar: Like doesn't introduce a clause (with a subject and verb), because it is a preposition. Instead, use as or as if. The plan succeeded as we hoped; however, other plans like it have failed. Did you notice as introduced the subject (we) and the verb (hoped)?

Friday, August 1, 2014

Helps for Better Writing (Part 5 of 11)

5. I hear a lot of people using amongst instead of among. What's the difference?

There is no difference, and we hear either word in speech. I suspect those who use amongst are trying too hard to speak properly. Or they're trying to sound British, among whom the use is common.

The use of amongst hasn't aged as badly as whilst, but they both come out of the same period. For consistency, if the speakers (or writers) use amongst, I would expect them to use whilst. Strange, but I don't hear the second word.

Along the same line is the use of as to, which I read and hear often these days. As one grammarian told me, "As to is a stuffy substitute for about." The prosecutor asked him about his action (not as to his actions).