Action! Subject-Verb Agreement, Part One



Since movies have been around since the late 19th century, we often forget just how revolutionary they were. It must have been astounding to witness the first successes at capturing not just still pictures, but action. I’ve always found it interesting that the term for movies with sound—“talkies”—never permanently caught on. It’s the action that everyone craves, and, indeed, our brains are incredibly adept at recognizing it

When it comes to language, our love of action is encapsulated in the verb, which is the heart of a sentence. In English, only one type of word can make a grammatically complete one-word sentence: the verb, in imperative (command) sentences such as



The subject, or actor, in sentences like these is an unspoken but understood you.

It’s this focus on action that gives verbs their power. Besides giving it a name, verbs also fix action in time in the past, present, or future, and also tell us how many actors are involved—one or more. Of course, the how many  (“number,” in grammatical terms) has to match between the verb and its subject or subjects.

Let’s take a few installments to dive deeper into verbs, starting with this last point: making sure verbs agree in number—singular or plural—with the subject. Sometimes problems come up when it’s difficult to determine what the true subject of the sentence is: 

Hollywood’s output of memorable, well-crafted movies has declined in recent years.

Do the subject and verb agree in number here? It might be a little difficult to tell at first, but the answer is yes. At first glance the words …movies has… might seem odd, until you go back to find the true subject of the sentence. The phrase of memorable, well-crafted movies describes output, which is actually the subject. If you remove that phrase, you’re left with

Hollywood’s output has declined in recent years.

Now the subject-verb agreement is much more visible: the singular subject output with the singular verb has declined. So removing any modifiers which might obscure the true subject is a good way to check.  

If you’d like to review in more depth how to find the true subject of a sentence, check out this previous post


Compound subjects

What if you have more than one subject in a sentence? It’s simple when you have and linking them: the subject automatically becomes plural and thus takes a plural verb:

Casablanca and A Clockwork Orange are two of my favorite movies.

But what about the words or and nor, which are not inclusive like and? Here we have three possibilities:

If both subjects are singular, use a singular verb: An actor or a director is allowed to use the studio canteen.

If both subjects are plural, use a plural verb: But neither tourists nor the cleaning staff are permitted. 

If you have a combination of a singular and a plural subject, the verb should agree with whichever subject is closest to it: Neither the director nor the actors were happy about the project’s cancellation. (The plural word actors is closer to the verb, so it must also be plural.) This also works when the subjects are paired with not only…but also: Not only trailers but also a public service announcement was shown before the movie started. (The singular word announcement is closer to the verb, so it must also be singular.)


Subjects that can be either singular or plural

Don’t worry, this isn’t as confusing as it might sound. We’re talking about words like couple, total, majority, and number. Sometimes they mean the group as a whole, in which case they are singular and take a singular verb. Here’s a hint: if the word is preceded by the, it’s most likely singular:

The number of movie scripts that never make it to production is astonishing. (Note that this sentence is also a good exercise in determining the real subject—the number. The other words between it and the verb is merely describe number.)

However, if you have a before the word, and especially if it’s followed by of, it’s probably plural and will take a plural verb:

A majority of moviegoers believe that ticket prices are too high.

Another group of words that can be either singular or plural is all, any, and none. Here’s a trick that’s very helpful with these three: think about what is implied. If the sense is all of it, any of it, or none of it—since it is singular, you need a singular verb:

All the movie’s budget was spent before filming was finished. (The sense is all of it, i.e., the budget, so the verb is singular.)

But if the implication is all of them, any of them, none of themsince them is plural, you need a plural verb:

None of the critics are pleased with the new film. (The sense is none of them, i.e., the critics, so the verb is plural.)


I think this is enough for this time around to get us started. But I’ll be back in the next installment with more words that can be either singular or plural, depending on the context, and how to figure that out. In the meantime, practice with the ones we’ve covered here, and look for examples “in the wild” in your reading. Were they all used correctly? Please feel free to share any interesting examples you find below!

Commonly Confused Words: And the Rest

Even if you didn’t grow up in the 1960s, chances are you’ve watched the iconic TV show Gilligan’s Island, at least in reruns. And hard-core fans remember well the controversy surrounding the original lyrics of the show’s theme song, which omitted the names of two of the characters, referring to them merely as “the rest.”

Today we come to “the rest” in our overview of commonly confused words. Like the Professor and Mary Ann, these pairs sometimes get overlooked and might not seem to have much in common. But hopefully in the end they will turn out to be as memorable as the characters created by Russell Johnson and Dawn Wells!

accept/except – This is a pair similar to others we’ve seen before: they are best distinguished by keeping in mind their respective functions. Accept is a verb, meaning “to receive” or “to agree to.” Except can be a verb, meaning “to exclude” or “to leave out,” but it’s used much more often as a preposition meaning “other than.”


Since I was a kid when I watched Gilligan’s Island, I found it easy to accept its wacky reality—except the fact that many of the characters seemed to have a lot of clothes along for just a three-hour tour.


 bring/take – You would think the distinction between these two words would be pretty clear: when you bring something, it’s coming here; when you take it, it’s going away to somewhere else. Yet there are times when the choice isn’t so clear.


The Howells are giving one of their elegant parties. Gilligan looks around his hut at an abundance of coconuts and wonders if he should bring any along. He is considering the coconuts’ possible destination at the party. But just at that moment, the Skipper walks into the hut and tells Gilligan, “You don’t have to take anything; the Howells have plenty of food.” The Skipper is talking about (actually, discouraging) the coconuts’ removal away to another destination. (By the way, I adapted this explanation from another grammar book that I highly recommend, Woe Is I—check it out!)


e.g./i.e. – Although these Latin abbreviations can give your writing an air of authority, don’t blow it by mixing them up. E.g. stands for exempli gratia, which means “for example,” and should be used in exactly the same way as the English phrase: to provide an example. I.e. stands for id est, which means “that is”—you’re providing clarification. Note also in the examples below that they both need a comma before and after them. If you have trouble keeping these two straight, it might be better to use the English phrases instead.


Although Gilligan’s Island was supposedly deserted and isolated, the castaways had many visitors throughout the series, e.g., a big game hunter, a movie producer, and Russian cosmonauts. (E.g. introduces a list of examples.)   

But none of these visitors were able to help the castaways realize their most cherished dream, i.e., getting off the island. (I.e. precedes a clarification.)

if/whether – This pair is best explained by looking at whether first: it’s used in situations when there’s a choice between alternatives. But in situations where you’re talking about a whether-or-not choice, then you can use if. However, in the whether-or-not situation, you can also use whether—and usually drop the “or not.”


Ginger couldn’t decide whether to wear the pink or the gold dress. (Choice between two alternatives.)

And she didn’t know if the evening would be cool—would she need a jacket? (A whether-or-not situation. As explained above, you could also say And she didn’t know whether [or not] the evening would be cool—would she need a jacket?)


imply/infer – These two commonly confused words refer to the two opposite ends of the process of suggestion: to imply something means to make a suggestion or drop a hint, while to infer means to take it in and draw a conclusion. And that leads us to a good mnemonic for this pair: think of the in in infer connecting to taking a suggestion or hint in.  


In one episode, Mary Ann overheard the others having a conversation implying that she was in some kind of danger. (The others hinted at something in their conversation.)

Mary Ann inferred that some mushrooms she had eaten were poisonous and that she was going to die. (Mary Ann took in the hint and made a conclusion. Fortunately, she turned out to be wrong—the others were talking about her boyfriend back home dumping her!)


than/then – Although similar in sound, this is another pair with distinctly different meanings and usages. Than is used for comparison or contrast, while then shows that one thing follows or results from another.


The Professor was more intelligent than all the others on the island. (comparison)

He designed gadgets that the castaways needed, then everyone would pitch in to help build them. (result) 

So our tour of commonly confused words comes to an end. Since this was a much shorter trip than that of the ill-fated SS Minnow, we’ve managed to investigate only a few of them; there are many more out there. The main takeaway is to always check, check, and doublecheck, especially when you’re writing an important or formal piece (e.g., a resume, as opposed to a text to a friend), to make sure that you have the correct word or that you’re using it correctly. If there’s a pair of confusing words you’ve been wondering about that we didn’t discuss here, please feel free to share below!

And a big shout-out to IMDb for much of the Gilligan’s Island lore that I mined for today’s installment!

Commonly Confused Words: Close but Not Quite

Many years ago, when I started my first job after college, I noticed that a lot of people who had been with the company for a while called me Susan—but my name is Stephanie. I couldn’t figure out what was going on until one day, some months later, when I met a lady in another office who had been there for a while and who had the same last name as me. And her first name was—you guessed it—Susan. Since we had the same last name, and both our first names started with S, it was completely understandable why people would mix us up.

The commonly confused words we’ll look at today are a lot like that. You may remember that last time we considered homophones—that is, words that sound alike, even though they have different spellings and meanings. So now let’s widen our scope a little more and examine pairs or groups of words that are close in sound and sometimes meaning as well. You could think of these as close—but not quite. 

adverse/averse – This is a pair that is very close indeed…but not the same. Adverse, meaning “hostile,” “unfavorable,” or “harmful,” describes an objective quality that anyone can observe. Averse, however, refers to a person’s subjective feeling of dislike or distaste.


Some prescription drugs unfortunately have adverse side effects, such as weight gain or nausea. (Everyone can observe these undesirable side effects.)

As a result, many people grow averse to the idea of using them. (Now we’re describing an emotional reaction.)


affect/effect – Oh my goodness, does this pair give me headaches! And I know I’m not alone. I wish I had a nickel for every time I’ve looked these two up. But here’s a good starting point for sorting them out: affect is usually a verb—“to produce an influence upon or alteration in”—while effect is usually a noun—”a change that results when something is done or happens.”


Everyone knows that your mood can dramatically affect your performance at work. (Affect is a verb.)

Mark’s cheerful attitude always has a good effect on his co-workers. (Effect is a noun.)  


assure/ensure/insure – It’s easy to understand why this group causes confusion, because they all basically mean “to make a thing or person certain.” The easiest one to distinguish is assure, because it implies a 100% guarantee. Ensure often carries a connotation of a guarantee as well, although not quite as strong as assure. Of all the words in the group, insure has the least feeling of guarantee; instead, it usually implies that some sort of preparation or precaution must be taken beforehand. So that’s why we insure a car or a house: we have to make the preparation of giving a little money to a company who will (hopefully) pay off if we end up in a situation where we need a lot of money. To keep things simple, I’ve always gone along with the advice you’ll find in some style guides: to use insure only in financial contexts and ensure more generally (this is what I’ve done in the examples below). You can’t go wrong that way.


The movers assured us that our heirloom china closet would not be damaged in the move. (They gave us their guarantee.)

But just to be on the safe side, we ensured that it was well packed. (We checked how they packed it to make ourselves feel better.)

And we insured it for its replacement value. (We called our insurance company and added a rider to our homeowner’s policy.)

collaborate/corroborate – Finally, a pair that’s easier to distinguish because they have very different meanings. But they still sound enough alike to cause confusion. Collaborate means “to work together,” “to cooperate,” while corroborate means “to support with evidence,” “to make more certain.”


Scientists often collaborate on important studies.

The results of those studies sometimes corroborate the preliminary results of earlier studies.


elicit/illicit – These two also sound similar but have very different meanings. And wait, there’s more—elicit is a verb: “to call out” or “to bring forth.” But illicit is an adjective: “unlawful, illegal.”


Engaging in illicit (illegal) activites such as drug trafficking will elicit (bring forth) a response from the authorities.  


farther/further – There’s an interesting backstory to this pair. You might be familiar with the common rule of thumb that farther is used in contexts expressing distance, while further expresses addition. So far so good—but according to Merriam-Webster Online, previously they were almost synonymous. The distinction we now tend to make between the two is a relatively recent development in English usage.


The rest stop is ten miles farther down the road. (distance)

You don’t have to convince me any further to stop there—I need coffee! (addition)  


stanch/staunch – This pair is much like elicit/illicit that we discussed above: they are quite similar in sound, yet very different in meaning. And like elicit, stanch is a verb: “to check or stop a flow;” “to check or stop the course.” But staunch, like illicit, is an adjective: “steadfast, faithful, loyal.”   


Someone please help me stanch the bleeding from this cut!

Oh, thank you for helping me—you are indeed a staunch friend!

I hope I haven’t worn you out too much, because our last pair for the day, flaunt/flout, is somewhat controversial. Wait, what—controversy in grammar? Yes, believe it or not. Here’s the traditional distinction between the two: flaunt means “to show off,” but flout means “to treat with contempt.” So you could say something like The woman flaunted (showed off) her beautiful body by wearing revealing clothes, and flouted (treated with contempt) the rules of propriety by having numerous affairs.

However, flaunt has also been used in the same way as flout—”to treat with contempt”—so much since at least the 1940s that some authorities now concede that this usage is not necessarily wrong. And chances are good that if you do a fair amount of reading, you’ve come across this yourself, most likely in a phrase such as to flaunt the rules (whereas traditionally it should be flout). But most style guides still recommend preserving the distinction, especially in more formal writing.

In my research of this dispute, I came across a great mnemonic for this one on the Grammar Girl website (which I highly recommend): to remember that flout is the one that involves ignoring rules, connect the out in flout to outlaw or being outside society.  

By now you know the drill: besides these pairs of easily confused words, there are many more out there. So if you’re ever in doubt whether you’re using the correct one, look it up. You might find, as with flaunt and flout, that in some cases there are differences of opinion on acceptable usage. When you encounter controversy, it helps to consult more than one source. You also have to keep in mind that some dictionaries merely document how language is used: their inclusion of a particular word or definition doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s good usage. Your goal should always be clear, concise writing that leaves no possibility that you’ll be misunderstood.

So enough philosophizing! Are there any other close-but-not-quite pairs that often trip you up? Have you ever seen any of these used incorrectly in published writing? (Once you start looking, you’ll find them!) Please feel free to share them below!

Commonly Confused Words: Homophones

Anyone know if this instrument is for real? I have my doubts! Image by Schwoaze from Pixabay

Finally, I’m back! My apologies for the long hiatus—I was busy with several family matters. But everything is fine and now returning to normal, so it’s time to pick up where we left off way back in March (I can’t believe it’s been that long!)

Feel free to have a look back at our last installment to refresh your memory: we started a series on pairs or groups of words that are often confused because they sound the same, even though they’re spelled differently. The technical name for these is homophones. (I have to admit, as someone with a music background, that word has always made me chuckle—it makes me think of saxophone and xylophone and Sousaphone and so on. And by the way, I have no idea if the instrument in the photograph above is for real or not; it looks pretty fanciful, doesn’t it?)

Anyway, the homophones we focused on last time were relatively easy to recognize and sort out because one in each group has an apostrophe: it’s/its, who’s/whose, you’re/your, and they’re/their/there. So this time let’s broaden our scope a bit and look at a few more without apostrophes that are frequently used and frequently confused.


awhile/a while – This one is particularly tricky—you can find plenty of mistakes with these two even in published writing. And I must confess that I have to look it up every time! Awhile is an adverb—a word that modifies a verb (action word) and expresses when the action is done. But a while is a noun phrase meaning “a period of time,” and—here’s the best way to keep these straight—is usually used after a preposition—especially for—or before the words ago or back.


                I’m going to sit and read awhile(no preposition or ago or back)

                This is so relaxing that I’m going to read for a while longer.  (after the preposition for)

                I finished the other book a while back.  (before back)


compliment/complement – A compliment is an expression of praise or flattery, while a complement is something that completes or perfects something else. They are also verbs: compliment means “to praise or flatter,” while complement means “to complete or to make better or perfect.” Here’s a mnemonic (memory device) that helps me keep these two straight: for compliment, think of the i in praise, while for complement, think of the e’s in complete.


                The reviewer complimented the author on her effective use of imagery.

                Her latest novel complements her series of books about life in old Florida.


 discreet/discrete – Unlike our previous two pairs, which are often confused because the meanings of the words are similar, discreet and discrete have very different meanings: discreet means “prudent, unnoticeable, or modest,” while discrete means “separate, distinct, unconnected.”


                A good editor must be discreet about discussing any details of an unpublished manuscript. 

                Many editors break down the editing process into discrete stages, first correcting major mistakes such as factual errors and inconsistencies, and only later fixing grammar and punctuation.    


peak/peek/pique – The two words of this triplet that are most often confused are peak and peek. A peak is “an uppermost point or tip,” while a peek is “a quick, sneaky glance.” You can keep these two straight by thinking of peek—with two e’s—as something you do with your eyes—which also has two e’s. Pique as a noun means “resentment,” but is most often confused with the other two in its verb form in the phrase to pique one’s interest—in other words, to arouse it.


                I just read a fascinating book about an expedition to the peak of Mount Everest.

                If you have a quick peek at the book’s table of contents, I’d bet it will pique your curiosity.


principle/principal – Here’s another pair of words that are often confused even in published writing. A good place to start is to remember that principle, which means “a rule or law,” can only be a noun (a thing). Principal, on the other hand, can be a noun meaning either “an authority”–most often encountered as the school principal–or the main chunk of money you have to pay off when you take out a loan. As an adjective (descriptive word), principal means “most important.”


                An important principle in journalistic writing is to summarize the whole story in the first sentence or two.

                The high school principal approved the creation of a school newspaper and appointed a popular English teacher as the principal advisor for the project.  

rein/reign – In its most basic meaning, a rein is the leather strap you use to steer a horse while you’re riding it, but it can also figuratively mean “restraint.” Reign, however, means “authority,” such as that held by a king or monarch, or the time that such a ruler holds power. I don’t have a very good mnemonic for this one, but the -gn- in reign might make you think of the -ng in king.


                Incompetent rulers often kept a tight rein on their subjects.

                People were usually freer and happier during the reign of wise and benevolent kings.


sight/site – The word sight has many meanings, but all of them are connected with seeing: “something that is seen;” “the power or process of seeing;” “perception by the eye,” and so on. But site has nothing whatsoever to do with seeing—it means only “a place” or “location.”


                While walking through the city, I caught sight of the new bookstore construction site


strait/straight – As with sight/site, this is another pair with distinct meanings. A strait is a narrow channel between two large bodies of water. Its only figurative use is in the phrase dire straits (a situation of distress). But straight, which literally means “free from curves, bends, or irregularities,” has many figurative usages, most of them having a connotation of correctness or directness, such as keeping everything straight and a straight answer.


                After passing through the Strait of Gibraltar, the ship sailed straight across the Mediterranean Sea to the Greek islands. 


There are many, many, MANY more homophones—I just picked a few that I’ve seen more frequently than others. If you can’t get enough homophones, there are lots of lists on the Internet–check out this one, this one, or even this one. The main takeaways are to remember that homophones out there (maybe it’s because of our crazy spelling in English?) and to always doublecheck with a dictionary that you’re using the right one—even if you have to every time!

Which homophone pairs constantly trip you up? Or do you have any good tricks or memory devices for keeping everything strait straight? 😉 Please share them below!

More Basics: Commonly Confused Words–Apostrophes vs. Possessive Pronouns

Image by Jill Rose from Pixabay

In previous posts I believe I’ve mentioned that my husband and I love to play tennis. Most weeks we get to play at least three times, sometimes more. And since we’re always looking to improve our games (especially me—I’m pretty bad), we often go to a clinic for adults on Monday evenings. This week the coach decided to shift gears a little bit and work on the nitty-gritty basics of our forehands and backhands. I have to admit, it was a bit tedious, and for me frustrating at times, yet you have to pay attention to all those details in order to ultimately play better.

It’s much the same way with grammar and writing: it’s a lot of fun to spin a fanciful, creative yarn about whatever interests you, but unless you also understand and check over the grammar underpinning your writing, your reader could get confused or lost, and you will never grow and improve as a writer. You’ll probably get tired of hearing me say this, but whenever you have even the tiniest bit of doubt whether you are using a word correctly, look it up. Even if you have to every time! 

Last time we covered one of those basics of good writing: words and phrases that can easily be cut or changed. Today let’s start on a series about another common stumbling block: pairs or groups of words that are often confused. There are lots of reasons why writers often mix them up, but as we’ll see, in many cases it’s because the words in question sound similar or even the same. And once again we’ll categorize these examples in order to make them easier to remember.


The first category of commonly confused words is easy to spot because one word in each pair or group contains an apostrophe: it’s/its, who’s/whose, you’re/your, and they’re/their/there. The key to untangling these is to remember the function of the apostrophe: it means that there’s something missing. In other words: 

it’s = it is

who’s = who is

you’re = you are

they’re = they are

The other member of these pairs, without the apostrophe, are possessive pronouns—they show to whom or what something belongs:

its – belonging to it

whose – belonging to who

your – belonging to you

their – belonging to them

So here is a simple test you can use to make sure you have the right word. If you have the word with the apostrophe, substitute the full expression. If the sentence makes sense—hooray, it’s correct! But if not, check if the sense is that of belonging to: 

It’s a great day for tennis. (Substitute the full expression) It is a great day for tennis.  This makes sense, so it’s correct. But…

Please check my racquet—I think it’s grip needs to be replaced.  (Substitute the full expression)  *Please check my racquet—I think it is grip needs to be replaced. Oops, that doesn’t make sense. (That’s what the asterisk at the beginning of the sentence means.) So here we need the possessive form without the apostrophe its—and yes, the sentence is talking about something that belongs to it—so it should be Please check my racquet—I think its grip needs to be replaced.

This works the same way for who’s/whose and you’re/your:

This is my friend who’s on my team. = This is my friend who is on my team.

Does anyone know whose bag this is? – the speaker is asking who the bag belongs to, so no apostrophe. (It wouldn’t make sense to say *Does anyone know who is bag this is?)

You’re the best player on our team! = You are the best player on our team!

Your coach must be so proud of you. – the coach belongs to you. (It wouldn’t make sense to say *You are coach must be so proud of you.)


Things get a little trickier with they’re/their/there since there are three words involved, but let’s start with the two that work the same way as the others, they’re/their:

They’re great doubles players. = They are great doubles players.

Their record this season is five wins, one loss. – the record belongs to them. (It wouldn’t make sense to say *They are record this season is five wins, one loss.)

So far so good—but what about there? There has nothing whatsoever to do with they or them—it means only a place. You could substitute the words in that place for there to make sure your sentence is correct:

Court number 5 is there, past the locker rooms. = Court number 5 is in that place, past the locker rooms.

I hope this has helped clear up any confusion you might have had with these pairs and groups of words. Do you have any other tricks to help you check that you’re using the correct word? Please share them below!

I’ll be back next time to start delving into pairs or groups of words that sound the same but are spelled differently and have different meanings.

Back to Basics

Image by Katie Phillips from Pixabay

When I looked back over my last few posts, I realized that we’ve been working on some complicated topics: writing a strong start to a sentence, organizing ideas in a sentence or group of sentences, and using the passive voice. I think it’s time to take a little break and get back to basics, with some quick and easy ways to trim down your writing and make it more effective.  

Lists of common words and phrases to cut are all over the Internet, but instead of just listing them, I think it’s more useful to categorize them according to the kinds of changes that improve them. So let’s start with some easy ones. The first two categories include words or phrases which you can almost always remove from your writing without altering the meaning:  

Fillers that add nothing: accordingly; actually; as necessary; all things being equal; for all intents and purposes; for the most part; in fact; in terms of; of course.  

Words that are often redundant: absolutely; completely; entirely; possibly. At first you might take issue with calling these words “redundant,” but think about it: do you really need to say completely full? Or entirely certain? The words full and certain already contain the idea of completeness.

Cutting words from just those two categories will save you a lot right off the bat. But let’s go on to the next step: phrases that can be trimmed down. Sometimes you can simply cut some words:

Instead of…

Change to…

at the rate of


connected together


end result


for a period of


if at all possible

if possible

in an area where


in an effort to


it is often the case that


with the aid of



But more often you have to reword a bit:

Instead of…

Change to…

at the same time as


due to the fact that 


if that were the case

if so

in a timely manner

on time, promptly

in close proximity to

close to, near

in the near future


in the absence of


it is essential

must, need to

it is important to note that


of considerable magnitude


Especially in more formal writing we often tend to use relatively weak verbs with adjectives or abstract nouns when a strong verb would be much more effective—such as:  

Instead of…

Change to…

bring to a conclusion

conclude, end

exhibit a tendency


(to be) in possession of


involves the use of

uses, employs

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

Now it’s your turn to take a shot at this! Here are some phrases to be trimmed down or reworded—see what you can come up with:

Instead of…

Change to…

for this reason


in regard/reference to


in the course of


it can be seen that


is capable of


is responsible for


had a discussion/conversation about


make a decision


So be on the lookout for these phrases and others like them in your writing. We all have our own pet phrases that we overuse—I struggled for the longest time with getting rid of actually. If you know or suspect that you’re too fond of a particular word or phrase, a good practice is to run a “find”—you might be surprised how often the offender comes up! And here’s another tip: I noticed when looking at an extensive list put together by another editor that many of these overly wordy phrases start with in… or it is…

Oh, and the answers to the quiz? My suggestions are below. If you come up with others, I’d love to hear about them in the comments!

Don't peek below this line until you're ready to see the answers!

Suggested answers to the quiz:

Instead of…

Change to…

for this reason


in regard/reference to

about, concerning, on

in the course of

during, while

it can be seen that


is capable of


is responsible for


had a discussion/conversation about


make a decision



Get Aggressive with Passive

Image by Simon Gatdula from Pixabay

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you probably remember that several months ago I did a short series on grammar myths: topics such as ending sentences with prepositions, split infinitives, and starting sentences with conjunctions. One subject I didn’t cover, however, was use of the passive voice.

Chances are that at some point in high school or college you took an English class in which the instructor repeatedly advised never using the passive voice because it’s “weak.” Generally, it is better to use active voice, but there are plenty of situations where passive can be extremely useful and effective. And one of them is when you’re constructing sentences according to the principles we looked at last time 

  • Simple information, then complex; 
  • Familiar information, then new; and 
  • Topic, then comment (or examples). 

Although these principles sound simple enough, sometimes it can be challenging to use them. In English we’re rather restricted when it comes to our options for word order: most of the time, sentences have to follow the basic pattern subject—verb—object (the recipient of the action):

A dog (subject) bit (verb) my husband (object).

But what if we have a complex subject and simple verb and object? Or, how can you structure an ongoing flow of familiar then new information in an story? Sometimes the best solution is none other than the passive voice—despite all the advice you may have heard to avoid it at all costs.

First, a quick review: passive voice basically turns the usual sentence order on its head. The object comes first, followed by a verb which usually includes a form of to be, and then the actor (subject) in a phrase starting with by (although sometimes the actor is not even mentioned). It’s the difference between

A dog bit my husband. (active)    


 My husband was bitten by a dog. (passive)  

Let’s examine the first possibility mentioned above, a complex subject and simple verb and object. In active voice we’d have something like:

A tiny long-haired Chihuahua who seemed like he would never do anyone harm (subject) bit (verb) my husband (object).

There are a couple of potential stumbling blocks here. The reader has to spend a while processing the long phrase describing the Chihuahua, making the verb and object seem almost an afterthought. It’s also somewhat jarring to see the last word of the subject phrase harm bump up against the verb bit: harm can’t bite (at least not literally). And we want to follow the simple, then complex principle. So if we put this sentence into the passive:

My husband (object) was bitten (verb) by a tiny long-haired Chihuahua who seemed like he would never do anyone harm (subject).

Notice how this flows much more smoothly, and we have the simple information first, more complex later. And a bonus is that this version better highlights the irony of a seemingly harmless dog being vicious–the end of the sentence is a powerful position.

Now let’s turn to sequencing a flow of events. Remember that we want to keep familiar information first, then introduce new. This time we’ll start with the well-written version first—the passive voice verbs are underlined:

For weeks, many people in the neighborhood had noticed a young Labrador puppy wandering around. It soon came to light that the puppy had been abandoned by its owners, who claimed they had no time to look after it. The owners subsequently were charged with animal cruelty and were compelled to do community service at an animal shelter.

Notice how using the passive voice keeps the events flowing smoothly, with good transitions: first we meet the puppy, then its owners, and finally we find out what happened to them.

Here’s how it would look if you wrote the above with all the verbs in active voice (again, underlined):

For weeks, many people in the neighborhood had noticed a young Labrador puppy wandering around. It soon came to light that the owners, who claimed they had no time to look after the puppy, had abandoned it. The police arrested the owners for animal cruelty and the local court compelled them to do community service at an animal shelter.

In this version your attention is constantly being shifted: we meet the puppy, then the owners, but then it’s back to the puppy again. Then we drag in the police and the court, which isn’t at all necessary to the story. We want the focus to remain on the deadbeat owners and what happened to them. So this is another bonus of using the passive voice, since it doesn’t have to include the actor.  

If you’d like to read in more depth about further uses of the passive voice, as well as other grammatical devices that can come in handy for rearranging sentences, I suggest you get yourself a copy of a fantastic book called The Sense of Style by Stephen Pinker. You long-time readers are probably getting tired of my promoting it, but it is worth every penny if you’re serious about improving your writing. I’d always considered myself a good writer, but I have learned—and continue to learn—so much from it. (I’m not an Amazon affiliate and do not receive anything for this endorsement.)

If you have any questions, or if you find any good or bad examples of using passive voice in these ways, please share them below! 

(No dogs were harmed in the making of this blog post.)

Resolve To Get Organized

Image by Ag Ku from Pixabay

We’re now well into the later part of January, but hopefully everything is still going well with your New Year’s resolutions. If you haven’t yet made one, you’re in good company—neither have I. But here’s a possibility: getting better organized. No, I’m not going to send the camera crew from Hoarders around to make you clean up your house—but how about better organization in your writing?

Last time we considered how to get sentences off to a good start. So let’s press onwards and look at some principles that will help you better organize multiple elements within a sentence or across several sentences.

How does this sentence scan?

Riding out to Cape Canaveral to see space launches, watching hummingbirds, and tennis are some of my favorite pastimes at our new home in Florida.

Something’s not quite right here—or at least not very good. But what is it? Look at the subjects—there are three of them: Riding out to Cape Canaveral to see space launches, watching hummingbirds, and tennis. And the most complicated one is mentioned first: Riding out to Cape Canaveral to see space launches. Since it’s a phrase, it takes the reader’s brain a little while to process, and when it turns out that it’s part of a still longer phrase, the result can be confusion or at least subconscious annoyance at having to work so hard to read an apparently simple sentence. (Another problem is that the three subjects are not fully parallel, which we covered in this post. But let’s leave that aside for the moment.) 

If, on the other hand, we start out with the simplest of the series and progressively get more complicated, look how much easier it makes the reading:

Tennis, watching hummingbirds, and riding out to Cape Canaveral to see space launches are some of my favorite pastimes at our new home in Florida.

Here the subjects get more complex as they go—the first is just one word; the second, a two-word phrase, and the longest phrase of all the subjects comes last. So here’s the first principle: simple, then more complex. If you need a good example to help you remember this principle, just think of those famous words from the Declaration of Independence: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Let’s look at another principle that’s useful when considering how sentences flow from one into another. Check out this example:

The vet believed that my cat Fiona had labyrinthitis. Fiona had been having trouble with her balance, so that made sense since the condition affects the inner ear.

Again, this example is not out-and-out wrong, but it doesn’t flow well. At the end of the first sentence we have a medical term, labyrinthitis. Most people probably will not understand it, so it could be a bit of a stumbling block. The reader has to keep going until the very end of the second sentence to find out that labyrinthitis affects the inner ear.

A better way is to start with words that are familiar to the reader and then introduce the unfamiliar medical term:

The vet believed that my cat Fiona had an inner ear disorder called labyrinthitis. Fiona had been having trouble with her balance, so that made sense.

Notice that this version is also “tighter”—that is, shorter—than the previous. And by leading up to the medical term by explaining it first, it’s more likely that the reader will be able to absorb it, instead of just skipping over it since it’s unfamiliar. So you can think of this principle as familiar, then new.

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

Lastly, here’s a close relative of familiar, then new:

Spanish is relatively easy at first for English speakers, but its more advanced grammar can be difficult. Russian has a lot of inflectional endings to memorize. And of course Arabic has a completely different way of writing. It’s difficult to say which language is the hardest to learn because there are many factors to take into consideration.

How could this passage be improved? Look at how the first three sentences seem to be examples of a particular topic—but the topic itself doesn’t show up until the very end. Putting the topic first and then the examples makes for much smoother sailing:

It’s difficult to say which language is the hardest to learn because there are many factors to take into consideration. Spanish is relatively easy at first for English speakers, but its more advanced grammar can be difficult. Russian has a lot of endings to have to memorize. And of course Arabic has a completely different way of writing.

You could call this topic, then comment or topic, then examples.

So be on the lookout for examples, both good and bad, of         

            Simple, then complex

            Familiar, then new

            Topic, then comment (or examples)

out “in the wild,” and please share them below! I’ll be back next time with some grammatical devices that can help with putting these principles into practice. (Yes, grammar CAN be useful! 😊 )

Off to a Good Start

Image by M Harris from Pixabay

Happy New Year!

I’m sure we all have high hopes for 2021 and for a fresh new beginning now that we’ve finally escaped the clutches of 2020. So it seems only fitting to think about how we can also get our writing off to a good start.

Let’s look back on what I posted just a little over a year ago  on this same subject. It’s important to get right down to business at the start of a sentence, especially when you need to get your message across quickly and clearly. Watch out for empty hedge words that add no meaning but only bulk to your writing, such as: almost; apparently; comparatively; fairly; in part; it could be argued that…; it seems that…; I/we/most people think that…; I would argue that…; nearly; partially; predominantly; presumably; rather; relatively; seemingly; so to speak; some say that…; somewhat; sort of; to a certain degree; to some extent.

To see this principle in action, consider the following sentence:

It seems that a COVID-19 vaccine has just become available.

The phrase It seems that adds absolutely nothing to this sentence—we all know that the vaccine is now being given in many places. (To my great relief, my elderly mother in a nursing home in Pennsylvania got her first shot just before New Year’s.) It’s much more effective to simply say: 

A COVID-19 vaccine has just become available.

If there is a reason that you need to qualify what you’re saying, be specific about that reason:

Although a COVID-19 vaccine has generally become available, it has not yet reached some areas of the country.

You also have to be careful when you have a sentence that includes a dependent clause. A dependent clause is one that, even though it has a subject and a verb, can’t stand on its own as a sentence. For example:

*When I finish editing the book

*If there’s nothing that needs to be changed

These clauses clearly can’t stand on their own—they need another clause to round out the story. (The asterisk at the start means that they’re ungrammatical sentences.) Starting off a sentence with a dependent clause, especially if it is long, can leave the reader in suspense, such as in this sentence:

Because in all her short five years of life she had never seen even a picture of one, little Maggie was amazed at the size of the elephant at the zoo. 

As you start reading this sentence, don’t you get the feeling that you’re being kept in the dark? Who’s the five-year-old-girl? A picture of what? You have to hold all of this in your memory as you work your way through the sentence until you finally get to the main clause with its clear reference to the subject, little Maggie.

The solution is simple—just flip the order of the clauses:

Little Maggie was amazed at the size of the elephant at the zoo because in all her short five years of life she had never seen even a picture of one.

Much better, isn’t it? We know right away exactly what’s going on.

For one more example, let’s round out one of the dependent clauses mentioned above:

If there’s nothing that needs to be changed, the book will be published early this year.  

Again, leading off with the dependent “if” clause could puzzle the reader for a short while—what kind of changes, and to what? The mystery isn’t solved until the second part of the sentence, when it becomes clear that we’re talking about a book. So it’s better to put it the other way around:

The book will be published early this year if there’s nothing that needs to be changed.

And if you’ve been paying attention to detail (good for you!) and wonder why the first versions of these two sentences needed commas, but the flipped versions didn’t, check out this post. 

The main takeaway here is to start your sentences off with a clear picture of what’s going on. Of course you can switch things up every once in a while to keep from sounding monotonous, but in general, you don’t want to leave your reader wondering what you’re talking about.

Please feel free to share any good (or bad!) examples of these principles that you find “in the wild” below!

Christmas Wishes

Certainly, no one needs reminding that this holiday season is going to be quite a departure from the norm. If you ordinarily enjoy large gatherings of family or friends but will be unable to this year, my heart goes out to you. Our celebrations in recent years have usually been pretty quiet, but I have fond childhood memories of big Christmas dinners with a house full of relatives.

But fortunately, here in the virtual world I can still send my holiday wishes for you, as well as some ideas for presents you can give yourself or the writer in your life!

I wish for you to be curious about English and the way it works. It’s a fascinating language that has some unusual features—but if you’re a native speaker, I would bet that you’re so accustomed to them that you’ve never given them any thought. For example:

Why do we use the word do so often in questions and negative sentences, although it really doesn’t have any meaning? (And there’s proof—I just used it twice in that sentence: in Why do we use and really doesn’t.)

Why does English use what’s called the progressive tense so much? This is the verb tense made of a form of the verb to be plus a main verb ending in -ing: I am going; you were reading; they will be coming. You can find the answers to both these questions in a fascinating book with a very interesting name: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue.

Why do we sometimes say I see a man, but in other contexts I see the man? This one is covered in a book I’ve recommended here several times: The Sense of Style. (By the way, I am not an Amazon affiliate and do not receive anything for any of these endorsements.)


I wish for you to stop thinking of grammar as iron-clad laws that cramp your style because they must always be obeyed to the letter. It’s actually a set of guidelines that can help you produce your best writing ever. Despite the fact that we are often casual with grammar rules these days in settings such as social media, grammatically correct writing is still important. Employers usually do not have a favorable opinion of resumes with grammatical mistakes, and a study in the UK proved that consumers are less likely to patronize a business whose website contains grammar and spelling errors.

A good basic grammar that lays out the rules in a very accessible and enjoyable way is—believe it or not—The Idiot’s Guide to Grammar and Style. After covering all the basic rules well, it goes on to the next steps of putting good sentences together and developing a writing style.  

If you have a decent grasp of the basics, a great book to take you to the next level is The Sense of Style (the same one mentioned above). As with all the books listed here, this is not a dry, stuffy grammar—it’s engaging and even laugh-out-loud funny at times. This is the book for you if you’ve ever found yourself in this situation: you read a sentence and recognize quickly that it’s not written well, but you can’t figure out exactly what’s wrong with it.  


I wish for you to read, read, and READ—it’s one of the best ways to become a better writer. And when you read, try at least occasionally to read analytically: why did the writer choose those particular words, or why did he or she construct a sentence a particular way. One device we’ve examined briefly in this blog is placing a word at the end of a sentence for maximum impact. But even if you get drawn into the story or the subject matter and find yourself reading just for enjoyment, don’t worry—you’ll still subconsciously absorb what’s going on in the writing.

And most of all, I wish for you to have a holiday season that’s as enjoyable as possible under COVID-19 circumstances. I hope that you will be able to spend quality time with family and friends, virtually or live. I wish you peace, health, and happiness—and let’s all hope that the new year brings better days.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from Tight Prose!

Image by Simon Steinberger from Pixabay