Could You Care Less? | Hopefully, We'll Start by Using Adverbs | Do You Feel Bad or Badly? | However and Other Adverbial Conjunctions | Numerals and Letters, Words and Numbers | First Come. . . . | Forms of Address | Sic? [Sic] Sic! | Adverbs and Verbs | Though and Although | Toward and Towards | Well and Good | Conjunctions | Nouns as Adjectives | Standards and Tumbleweeds | Comprised or Composed? | Anyway or Anyways? | Collective Nouns? | Free Reign or Rein? | Grammar and Manners | Log in or into?

Could You Care Less?

Question: Which is proper???

I could care less . . . or
I couldn't care less . . .

Answer: If you could care less, then you must care at least a bit.

Question: Which is proper???

That kind of . . .
That kind of a . . .

Answer: Say "that kind of"—the "a" is unnecessary.

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Hopefully, We'll Start by Using Adverbs

Question: Incidentally, is it now considered grammatically correct to begin sentences with an adverb?

Answer: Absolutely not! Just kidding. But many grammar mavens cringe at "hopefully," wherever it is placed.

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Do You Feel Bad or Badly?

Question: What do you think of "I feel badly"?

Answer: I feel bad when I hear people say "I feel badly." Linking verbs (feel, seem, be, become, and so forth) use adjectives, not adverbs. "To feel badly" suggests one is incompetent at touching and sensing. Visit the section on linking verbs for further explanation.

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However and Other Adverbial Conjunctions

Question: To which part of speech does "however" belong?

Answer Prepare yourself for one of those mouth-numbing grammatical terms: "However" belongs to a group of words called "conjunctive adverbs" — or if you prefer, "adverbial conjunctions." Other members of this group include "therefore," "moreover," "furthermore," and "nonetheless."

Sometimes these words act like conjunctions:

I think therefore I am.

We raced home through the pouring rain, worried about the animals; however, the horses had found high ground on their own, and the ducks were ecstatic.

Sometimes they act like adverbs:

However hard he tried, he could not stay up late. He could not therefore watch David Letterman.

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Numerals and Letters, Words and Numbers


1) Which is the correct written form of this phrase?

  • 50 minutes past 11 o'clock
  • 50 minutes past 11

2) Which is the correct written form of this phrase?

  • 11 minutes past nine
  • 11 minutes past 9
  • 11 minutes past 9 o'clock

Answer: If you are writing this as dialog, then record what you wish people to say. If you are writing nonfiction, then use conventional notation: 11:50 (in the morning, at night); 9:11.

Keep numbers as numerals — do not write them as words. A few exceptions apply to this rule: the number one should be written (the number 1 looks like the letter l); spell out numbers that begin sentences (or reword the sentence); spell out one of 2 numbers next to each other (seven 5-gallon plants).

First Come. . . .

Question: Please answer this burning question for our promotional writers: Is it "first come, first serve" or "first come, first served"? (I vote for the latter.)

Answer: Thanks for the interesting question. My references do not list the expression; however, we can figure it out. Its two elements are elliptical (words are missing) and parallel. As you will see, your instinct is correct.

Restoring the elided material and preserving the parallelism produces this: "[The] first [people] [to] come [should be/will be] [the] first [people] [to be] served."

"The first people to come will be the first people to be serve" does not work — does it?

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Forms of Address

Question: One of our members is running for office in our national association. He was in the U.S. Navy Reserve from 1959 to 1963 and from 1967 to 1991. He was on active duty in the U.S. Navy from 1963 to 1967. He rose to the rank of two-star admiral before he retired from active and reserve duty. His dates of service are listed on his promotional flyer. We would like to include the fact that he was an admiral, but my boss thinks that that is a no-no because he is retired. I don't find any help in my reference books. Any ideas?

Answer: This question is better suited to "Miss Manners" than to "Miss Grammar." However, I shall fearlessly weigh in with my 2 cents.

It is entirely appropriate and indeed customary to recognize the rank of retired military (think of all those Southern "Colonels" and British "Majors"). Listing his rank at retirement seems the proper and helpful thing to do, especially since you wish to publicize his accomplishments.

If you consult Miss Manners or Emily Post, I believe you'll find the correct form of address goes something like "Admiral (Ret.)."

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Sic? Sic! Sic!


Question: What is the proper usage for the term/expression "sic?"

Answer: "Sic" is Latin for "such." It is used, typically in brackets, to indicate that the writer is aware of an error or apparent error.


Question: Should [sic] be used when an accepted — but not preferred — spelling of a word is used in quoted matter, especially when the preferred spelling is used throughout the rest of the document?

Answer: Reserve [sic] for errors. I would not, for instance, use [sic] after each British spelling: "The colours [sic] in catalogue [sic]. . . ." I'd either standardize the spelling silently or leave the original un(re)marked.


Question: I am typing a manuscript written by my deceased grandfather. In it are many errors. I am trying to keep the manuscript as true to his words and usage as I can, therefore I am needing to insert [sic] often.

My question: If he writes, "One was borned in Indiana and one was borned in Iowa and one was borned in Oklahoma..." when do I insert[sic]? Is it after every error of grammar or spelling, or just at the end of the sentence? Or is it used only at the end of a paragraph containing one or more errors?

Thanks for your help. I have scoured the English books looking for the answer, but none tell how often [sic] needs to be used in a multi-error sentence.

Answer: Treat this as a historical document and simply transcribe what is there without editing or editorial comment. If you wish, you might acknowledge in a preface that you preserved his speech patterns and did not attempt to impose contemporary usage standards on his writing. Anyone who reads the transcription will appreciate your faithful preservation of your grandfather's voice — and not be distracted by parenthetical critiques.

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Adverbs and Verbs

Question: I am requesting your assistance in settling the latest debate amongst the hackers of the American English in my firm. Where should the adverb primarily be placed in the following sentence:

"The products are primarily used in the widget industry." or

"The products are used primarily in the widget industry."

I believe the adverb should be placed before the verb. However, my sources are not clear on this point. There is a round of beers riding on this argument.

Answer: Oh, dear. I am afraid you will be buying. The verb in question is a passive — "to be used." It is best not to insert an adverb into the middle of a verb.

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Though and Although

Question: What is the proper way to use "although" in a sentence? How does the usage differ from "though"?

Answer: Here is what the usage note in the American Heritage Dictionary (3rd edition, CD-ROM) says:

  As conjunctions, although and though are generally interchangeable: Although (or though) she smiled, she was angry. Although is usually placed at the beginning of its clause (as in the preceding example), whereas though may occur elsewhere and is the more common term when used to link words or phrases, as in wiser though poorer, or in constructions such as Fond though (not although) I am of opera, I'd rather not sit through the Ring cycle this weekend.

Toward and Towards

Question: Could you enlighten me in the use (or dis-use) of the words "toward" and "towards?" Is it really as simple as the difference between singular and plural usage, or is there more to it?

Answer: The difference is dialectical and nothing more: Americans tend to use "toward," and British speakers tend to use "towards." You might enjoy the article on the differences between American and British English, Separated by a Common Language.

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Well and Good

Question: In the lunch room of a Bay Area Junior High School, we had a discussion recently about the uses of "well" and "good". We had as many opinions of usage as we had participants in our discussion. We need a definitive word on the subject. Please help.

Answer: "Well" is an adverb ("well spoken," "plays well with others"). It is also an adjective ("I am well"). "Good" is an adjective ("a good book") or a noun ("the greatest good is health"). Using "good" as an adverb ("he writes good") is not good.

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Question: I am a student editor at the Law Review, and I find myself frustrated with authors who insist on beginning sentences with "and," "but," "or," "nor," and "neither" (as in "Jack was wrong. Neither was Eric correct.").

Trying as best I can to recall my grade- and high-school grammar courses, the first four words are conjunctions, which should not be used to begin a sentence. "Neither" is an adjective, which I think is OK to start a sentence, but the usage demonstrated here just seems wrong. Am I remembering incorrectly, or do the writers need to go back to school?

Answer: Some of the rules we all once learned have indeed changed. Some of these "rules," however, never were really correct.

Conjunctions, for example, can start sentences. Coordinating conjunctions (such as "and" and "but") join independent clauses, which are simple sentences. Usually the punctuation is a comma:

He liked the play, but his friend slept through it.

One can, however, replace the comma with a period:

He liked the play. But his friend slept through it.

If overused, this style sounds staccato. It is not, however, incorrect. In short: Our teachers said you cannot start a sentence with a conjunction. But they were wrong!

I would edit the sentences you quote simply because they confuse me:

Jack was wrong. Neither was Eric correct.

Jack was wrong, but Eric was not correct.

Or some such: It's still confusing.

(I think, by the way, that "neither" is an adverb in this instance. If it were an adjective, the sentence would read, "Neither boy was right." It could be conjunction with this phrasing: "If Jack was wrong, neither was Eric correct.")

Good luck on your editing.

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Nouns as Adjectives

Question: I have found one of the most confusing aspects about English language is the use of noun as adjective. For example, if I want to mean that "every securities firm should have a person in charge of compliance," may I write the sentence as "....should have a compliance person."

Also, is there something wrong in writing the phrase "administration institutions," instead of "administrative organizations."

In general, are there some specific grammar guidelines in using noun as adjective?

Answer: You can say "a compliance person," but you might be clearer with the entire phrase.

You cannot use administration as an adjective. Also, an institution is not exactly the same as an organization. An institution is a type of organization, but an organization is not necessarily an institution. Consult a dictionary for these shades of meaning.

Nouns can become adjectives when no natural adjective exists for the noun ("administrative" for "administration") or when the existing adjective has an undesired meaning — a "compliant person" is definitely not what you mean by a "compliance person"!

You may wish to look at Grammar and Writing Links for further assistance.

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Standards and Tumbleweeds

tumblin' tumbleweed

Question: Am I the only one left? I am a writer/editor and journalism teacher, which makes me inordinately sensitive to matters of style, grammar, and usage. So it bothers me terribly to see what I consider grave errors creeping into the language.

Specifically: comprise instead of compose, as in "The region is comprised of four states" rather than "The region comprises four states." Even my dictionary concedes that these two words are becoming interchangeable in common usage. Does this mean we shouldn't care anymore about the [formerly] correct usage?

Even worse: lay instead of lie. This one is becoming ubiquitous. I hear it all the time in conversation, even from college-educated people who consider themselves fairly sophisticated. I hear it almost exclusively among my students, college journalism majors all. I hear it in songs, in commercials. I see it in ads and even in the newspaper ("Smith was laying in the middle of the track.") In fact, I see and hear it so often, I'm starting to question my own understanding of the distinction between these two words.

So, am I the only one left in the world who still cares about these finer points of the language? Have I become my 11th-grade English teacher? Should I just lighten up? Or should I keep the faith? I'm interested in your thoughts. Thank you.

Answer: Thank you very much for writing. No, you are far from the only one who cares about these matters—though it is wearying to swim against the tide.

To play devil's advocate: Language does change, and some changes are for the good. For example, I am glad we now spell "draught" as "draft" and "plough" as "plow." I wish we would continue to remove "gh" from our words. That digraph represents a runic letter from Anglo-Saxon (a "yogh"), whose sound no one has pronounced in 600 years. "Thru," "tho," or "tuff" would not bother me in the least.

Sensible people do not, in short, oppose change for the sake of opposing change. But some changes are demonstrably bad. "Everybody does it" is not a valid argument on its own. Bad usage may be just bad usage. However, bad-usage can become official prescription—if no one objects.

You and I object to using "comprise" in place of "compose" and "lay" in place of "lie" because these errors reduce our vocabulary. "Comprise" is not a fancy synonym for "compose"; it is its own word, deriving from the same root as "comprehend." Furthermore, comprise and compose have been two distinct words for millennia. Attempts to conflate them are plainly wrong.

All educated writers also object to using "lay" in the sense of "recline." Despite sharing a common etymology, "to lay" is not the same verb as "to lie." The confusion arises with this pair because, as you know, lay is the past tense of lie. Regardless, neither you nor I will start saying, "Go lay down."

Yes, many people misuse these words, and their errors confuse rather than clarify their writing. Claiming that two different words are "just the same" deprives our collective word-store of meaning and flexibility. You do not have to accept the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis to acknowledge some relationship between clear writing and clear thinking.

I like to think of the role you and I play as that of gardener. We want the language to grow and flourish, but a healthy garden needs us to prune and weed.

Here in New Mexico tumbleweeds proliferate, sprouting by the billions every spring. They are invaders, originating in a shipment of Russian flaxseed some 130 years ago, but they have thriven here. The sprouts have some nutritional value, I am told, but older plants are literally good for nothing.

Tumbleweeds compete with other plants for food and water. When they bloom, their pollen makes people sick. When mature, tumbleweeds are sticker bushes no animal eats or uses. Yes, tumbleweeds are everywhere, skipping along the highway, piling up against fences — so ubiquitous that you might think they belong here. They do not, and I burn them.

Keep the faith!

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Comprised, Comprised of, or Composed?

Question: I have a question about when to use "comprised" or " composed." I had thought that you could use "comprise" with people and "compose" when referring to putting something together.

Furthermore, is the usage of "comprised" in the following sentence correct: "Comprised of employees from across several departments, the committee will make recommendations to the association's management on policy matters." Someone told me that particular phrase was incorrect English. I'm confused!

Answer: "Comprised of" is non-standard. The American Heritage Dictionary, 3rd Edition, explains:

The traditional rule states that the whole comprises the parts; the parts compose the whole. In strict usage: The Union comprises 50 states. Fifty states compose (or constitute or make up) the Union.

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Question: Could you please clarify the usage of the words "anyway" and anyways"?

Answer: "Anyways" is nonstandard. Use "anyway."

Collective Nouns?

Question: Consider the following sentence: "Air and water that's cleaner." My intention is for "air and water" to be a flowery way of saying "the environment." Therefore, I am treating "air and water" as a collective noun and using "that's" rather than "that are." Is this grammatically correct?

Answer: Sorry — the phrase "air and water" is a compound subject, not a collective noun. Compound subjects joined by "and" take the plural verb.

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Free Reign?

Question: I've used most the search engines at my disposal in trying to find whether "free reign" or "free rein" is correct. I'm editing a music review, and I favor the latter, as I envision a horse given "free rein" to roam. The author favors the former, as he sees a monarch with no constraints in his rule. My deadline is Monday, but I'll keep looking. Please let me know what you think, as I've tried searching till my eyes pop out! God bless.

Answer: A friend just suggested free "rain" (we live in a desert), which you may be thankful has not occurred to your author! Seriously, the absolutely correct answer is "free rein"--as in loosing (not losing) one's control upon a horse.

I consulted not only my own experience (I live in the village of Corrales, whose motto is "7,000 people, 9,000 dogs, 23,000 registered quarter horses") but also the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms.

(Keep in mind, however, the rich possibilities of a deliberate pun.)

Rest your eyes.

Reader Response: Many thanks, including pun possibilities. My eyes are now intact!

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Grammar and Manners

Question: In a conversation with a fellow co-worker I said "that's besides the point" referring to several issues other than the point at hand. My co-worker berated my poor use of the English language and said the proper grammatical sentence would be "that's beside the point".

I replied that is true if I were referring to one issue, but I am referring to several issues, hence "Besides." Would you please clarify this disagreement for me with the proper grammatical usage.

Answer: Sorry — the idiom is "beside the point," even if you refer to several issues: "All these claims are beside the point." "Beside" here means "by the side of" — thus, not directly relevant. "Besides" is correct in other expressions, when it means "in addition to" or "with the exception of": "Who, besides the Smiths, called us today?"

However, I must observe that correcting people's language in the middle of a discussion distracts from the meaning of what is being said. Grammar is important, but so is listening.

Nonetheless, you may wish to study further. Peruse this site. Besides having many grammar articles of its own, it also features reference pages with useful books and online resources for continued learning.

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Log in? Log into?

Question: Which of the following is correct, and why?

1) Log into the system.
2) Log in to the system.

Answer: The correct terms are "log in" or "log on." One can find instances of computer writers using "logon" and "login" as one word.

As to why these uses are correct and "log into" isn't — basically, it is a matter of usage. Speakers and writers over the past 50 years or so have established "log in" as the phrase.

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