Tag Archive - grammar tips

Hyphenating Numbers and Colors

Hyphens. Probably the most misused bit of punctuation next to the semicolon. Writers hyphenate all over the place, and then leave those pesky things out when they really should use them. So we’re going over a bunch of these hyphenation rules for a few weeks, and today we’re looking at numbers and colors.

The same hyphenation rule that applies to compound modifiers and the various parts of speech also applies to  various categories of words, such as time, color, numbers, and  age. Hyphenate the compound when it appears before the noun; no hyphen following the noun.

  • Age: “a three-year-old girl,” but “she was three years old”
  • Colors: “a blue-green plate,” but “the dish was blue green”
  • Numbers: “He was twenty-five,” but “my grandfather lived to one hundred five” Continue Reading…

Not Always “As” You “Like” It

Do you recall the 1950s’ cigarette commercial jingle that went like this:  “Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should”? I know this dates me, but I do. I also recall being told in school that this sentence is grammatically incorrect. If you’re like me, you struggle a bit with like and as. Why? Because in modern usage, using like instead of as  has become almost accepted and integrated into modern language. On Garner’s scale of 1-5 (Garner’s Modern American Usage), with 5 indicating a word or phrase has become “universally accepted,” he rates this usage as a 4.

Grammatical purists insist that using like as a conjunction rather than a preposition breaks the rule. The rule they are referring to states that like is a preposition that functions as an adjective, not an adverb, and must be followed by a noun or pronoun. As or as if is a conjunction. Conjunctions connect clauses. Hence, grammarians cringed at the ad claiming that in the offending line, like functions as a conjunction joining an independent clause—”Winston tastes good”—with a subordinate clause—”a cigarette should [taste].”

When like is used as a preposition it means “similar to” or “typical of.” Notice how you could replace like with similar to in the following examples:

  • Alice looks like her mother.
  • Her dress looked like an original Donna Karan.

A common mistake is using like when as if is what’s called for:

  • It looks like as if the government shutdown is about to come to an end.
  • Joan looks like as if she has lost her best friend.

In both examples, as if functions as a conjunction connecting two independent clauses. However—and do keep this in mind—when writing fiction, there are occasions (sometimes a lot of them!) when a character is going to think and speak inaccurately, based on who he is, his background, his education. In many manuscripts I critique and edit, I allow the writer to break this rule because I can tell the characters would break certain grammatical rules. And you must always keep characters in character!

Although grammarians have agreed for hundreds of years that using like as a conjunction is not standard grammar, even The Chicago Manual of Style acknowledges that it is increasingly acceptable in spoken and colloquial usage and advises “consider context and tone when deciding whether to impose standard English.”



Are You Fortunate or Fortuitous?

Here are two words that appear to share a root but do not, and are therefore often used interchangeably and therefore incorrectly: fortuitous and fortunate.

Fortunate comes from the Latin root fortunatus, meaning “prospered, prosperous; lucky, happy.”  Fortuitous, on the other hand, comes from the Latin root forte, which means “by chance.” The incident or coincident may be good or bad—fortunate or unfortunate. Both words convey the idea of luck or chance. With fortunate, the chance results in good luck or a happy outcome. With fortuitous, the outcome may be good or bad. It’s a matter of unplanned, accidental events coming together to create a desirable or undesirable outcome.

Take a look at these examples:

  • It was fortuitous [a chance happening] that Mom stopped by just after the babysitter canceled for the evening. Fortunately, she had no plans for the evening and was delighted to babysit her adorable grandchild.
  • A series of fortuitous events conspired against the timely sale of their home—rising interest rates, an earthquake, and their realtor’s lingering illness.

Beware of using fortuitous with words like accident or coincidence. Accidents or coincidences are always fortuitous—chance happenings. To speak of a fortuitous accident or a fortuitous coincidence is repeating the obvious or being redundant. You’re fortunate that I’m alerting you to this now before you make an unfortunate error.