The Grammar Factor – commonly confused words, commas with ‘and’

By Mary Morel | May 2103

Commonly confused words

A few weeks ago, Richard Nordquist  had a quiz on some commonly confused words. Here are five of the words he covered. The answers are at the bottom of this newsletter.

Climactic or climatic
‘A zoo director might, for practical purposes, choose to classify organisms by size (as a convenience for selecting cages) or by _____ preferences (so that his polar bears won’t asphyxiate in an exhibit on tropical rain forests).’
Stephen Jay Gould, I Have Landed: The End of a Beginning in Natural History, 2002

I or me
‘My father and I walked home in the darkness, and he suggested hiding the trophy under his coat to fool my mom. The ruse didn’t work, because she saw the glow on my face. This walk home is one of the few times I remember my father and ____ being close.’
Steve Martin, Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life, 2007

Luxuriant or luxurious
‘The car continued to climb through _____ forest, plants with leaves as big as elephants’ ears crowding each other out in the shade.’
Martin Booth, Golden Boy: Memories of a Hong Kong Childhood, 2005

Respectfully or respectively
‘The morning after the balloon had gone up with Oz, the four travelers met in the Throne Room and talked matters over. The Scarecrow sat in the big throne and the others stood _____ before him.’
L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, 1900

Seasonable or seasonal
‘She had been trained for business and finance, but she had to take the only jobs available: mostly _____ work in canneries, and later, factory jobs in Richmond, where she observed firsthand the dreary lot of the workers.’
Tim Reiterman, Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People, 1982

Learn more about commonly confused words at Online Writing Training.

Readers’ questions

Styles for bulleted lists
Reader’s question: My workplace dictates that each point in a bulleted list starts with a capital letter and ends with a semicolon. The last point has a comma after the ‘and’. This style is used for both run-on and stand-alone sentences.

• Xxx…;
• Aaaaa…;
• Yyyyy…; and,
• Pppp… .

Response: I agree this style is odd. With stand-alone bullet points, normal sentence punctuation is usually used.

With run-on sentences, punctuation styles have changed over time. Traditionally, lists used to have semicolons at the end of each point, but there was never a comma after the ‘and’ and each point started with a lower-case letter. This style is still used in legal writing, but seldom in business writing.

The next style to evolve was for each point to start with lower case and the final point to end with a full stop. The other points had no punctuation at the end.

Today, many organisations now start each point with an initial capital because that is the Microsoft default. Some organisations put a full stop at the end of the last point and others have no end punctuation.

So you can see that there is no agreement about list styles, but I would have difficulty using your organisation’s style.

Commas before ‘and’
Reader’s question: When should you use a comma before ‘and’?

Response: Commas before ‘and’ are tricky – partly because many of us were taught at school to never use a comma before ‘and’.

Join two independent clauses
A comma is sometimes used before certain conjunctions (joining words) that join two independent clauses. These conjunctions are known as the FANBOYS (for, and, nor, but, or, yet and so).

‘The optimist thinks that this is the best of all possible worlds, and the pessimist knows it.’
Robert Oppenheimer, American theoretical physicist

I used the word ‘sometimes’ because we now drop the comma if the meaning is clear without the comma.

We provided the ingredients and he cooked the meal.

Separate items in a list
We sometimes use a comma before ‘and’ in a list to clarify that items belong together.

I took a potato salad, bread and butter, and lasagna to the picnic.

This comma is called a serial comma or an Oxford comma. I think Americans use the serial comma more than we do in Australia and New Zealand. Your thoughts?

To learn more about commas, buy my punctuation e-book for just $9.95.


What a difference a nudge in the right direction can make
As we all know, the way we write things makes a difference and an article in The Sydney Morning Herald looks at how ‘nudges’ are used to influence behaviour. For example:

The following sign reduced lift use by 1.8%.

‘Taking the stairs instead of the elevator is a good way to get some exercise. Why not try it?’

A new sign reduced lift use by 7%.

‘More than 90 per cent of the time people in this building use the stairs instead of the elevator. Why not you?’

Read more.

PS How could I have written my invitation to my online program mentioned above to create a stronger nudge?

Write emails that people won’t ignore
A blog by Bryan A. Garner gives some tips on writing effective emails, including:
• Stick to standard capitalisation and punctuation
• Get straight to the point (politely, of course)
• Be brief — but not too brief
• Plot out what happened, and when
• Add a short but descriptive subject line
• Copy people judiciously

Read the full blog.

A writing coach becomes a listener
William Zinsser’s book On Writing Well is a classic guide to non-fiction writing. This article in The New York Times is about how William Zinsser is still teaching at the age of 90.

Read the article.

My blogs this month
Delete clutter from your writing

Quote of the month

‘We do not see things as they are; we see things as we are.’
Richard Rohr, Franciscan priest, international speaker and author

Answers: climatic, me, luxuriant, respectfully, seasonal


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