Compose / comprise (“comprised of”)—Your dictionary may indicate that comprise and compose can be used synonymously, but I prefer them to be used in an opposite manner. Use comprise to mean “to contain or embrace,” as in The state comprises sixteen counties. But do not use the expression comprised of or is comprised of. Use made up of or consisting of instead. Compose and constitute are used conversely for the parts that make up the whole: Together, the counties compose (constitute) a state). Consist of should be used to mean “to be made up of or composed of” (The state’s highway system consists of two expressways and several turnpikes and parkways). Memorize the phrase The parts compose the whole; the whole is comprised of its parts.
Compound adjectives—These words are combined with a hyphen and, as a unit, modify a noun. To make sense, the adjectives must be combined by using a hyphen. For example, if you use the adjectives less and desirable to describe beach, less beach doesn’t make sense. But combined with desirable and connected with a hyphen—less-desirable beach-—it does. If the compound adjectives follow rather than precede the noun, then no hyphen is required unless the compound is hyphenated in the dictionary, such as with the compound well-known.
Continual / continuous—The continual lasts, but with pauses or breaks (He continually annoyed her). The continuous lasts without pauses or breaks (The roar of the waterfall was continuous).
Convince / persuade—Incorrect: The salesman convinced the woman to buy the car. Writers often use convince when they should use persuade. Convince means “to satisfy by argument or evidence,” and persuade means “to induce.” Therefore, you convince people to believe something and persuade them to act: She convinced him [that] he was wrong and persuaded him to return the stolen car. If you use convince, then you must write “convince of” or “convinced that,” and if you use persuade, then you should write “persuade to.”
“Could care less”—This is an illogical expression that writers have contracted like the flu from everyday speech. When you write Robert could care less about. . . what you mean to say is that Robert could not care any less about such and such. This turn of phrase is acceptable in speech, but in writing, use could not care.
“Could of”—Could of and could’ve sound alike, but have, not of, should be used after such verbs as could, must, would, might, and should.
“Different than”—In the United States, the preferred expression is different from. To remember this, just say Things differ from one another.
Direct address—When you have one person addressing another in dialogue either by first name or title, that name is set off from the rest of the sentence by commas. This is called “direct address.” This rule applies no matter where the person’s name or title appears in the sentence. Examples: My intentions are honorable, Mr. President. My intentions, Mr. President, are honorable. Mr. President, my intentions are honorable.
Disinterested / uninterested—Disinterested means “impartial,” and uninterested means “indifferent” and “not concerned with.”
Double negative—A double negative is the incorrect use of two negative words to make one negative statement: “I didn’t kill nobody.” A double negative is permissible in dialogue if it fits the character.
“Due to”—Due to, meaning “caused by,” is correct in contexts where due is an adjective that directly follows a form of to be and modifies a noun, as in I was late getting home due to the storm and Our thanks is due to his generous donation. But its use in contexts where due is an adverb (He failed due to carelessness) has been disputed. If due to (or its cousin, owing to) sound antiquated to you, as they do to me, then use because or because of. Especially avoid coupling due to with the fact that. [See “The fact that” topic below]
Each other / one another—The reciprocal pronouns each other and one another are used in different situations. Each other is used when you refer to two people or things, and one another is used when you refer to three or more people or things.
Ellipsis—An ellipsis, or elision, indicates the omission of a word, phrase, line, paragraph, or more. Ellipses are also used occasionally to indicate a pause in dialogue or a trailing off of dialogue. If a complete sentence is fading, then use an ellipsis of four points or dots: "If I ever see that guy again. . . .” The first dot serves as a period and is placed right up against the end of the final word. If a sentence fragment is trailing off, then use three dots, leaving a space between the end of the final word and the first dot ("But Robert . . .”). The ellipsis should not be used indiscriminately to avoid using other punctuation marks. Overuse makes the printed page look as if it had been spattered with buckshot. They will distract the reader from the content by pulling the reader’s eyes back to them.
Em dash—The em dash is written as one long line (—). It’s used to set off a sudden break in thought, an interruption in dialogue, an introductory series, and a parenthetical element (such as an appositive) in a sentence. Em dashes are most commonly used to set off parenthetical elements: Four states—Illinois, Ohio, Alabama, and New Jersey—are putting up highway signs in metric language. The words between the dashes can be deleted from the sentence without affecting its sense. Dashes used like this are a lot like parentheses, but they are not as strong. A parenthetical phrase is much more of an aside to the reader. An em dash can also be used to set off a word or words that come at the end of a sentence: They had twenty-three murders to solve, no leads, and only one suspect—Hannibal Lecter. The em dash should not be used as a generic form of punctuation.
“Equally as”—This expression is redundant, so don't use it. Just say equally.
Everyday / every day—Incorrect: Jenny was at Linda’s house everyday. This term is written as one word only if you’re using it as an adjective: They sell clothes for everyday wear.
Everyone / every one— Incorrect: God has all the answers for everyone of his children. Here everyone is a pronoun that means “every person collectively,” the same as everybody. Correct: God spoke to everyone in the room or God has all the answers for everyone. The example sentence says that God has all the answers for every [single] one of his children—two words.
Everytime—Everyday is a standard English word, but everytime isn’t. It should always be written as two words: Every time you go away. . . .
Expletives—In writing, an expletive is not just an obscene word. The most common expletives are there and it, which are used as structural fillers that have no reference and add no meaning to the sentence. Examples: There is an old expression that says, “Know your enemy.” There are more than a few males in this culture who believe that “she’s out there somewhere.” Using an occasional expletive will not condemn a writer to being shot at sunrise, but overuse should be avoided.
Most expletives are in the it was, there was, there were form, along with it took and it seemed. Such constructions overload a narrative with too many state-of-being verbs, which makes the writing vague and static. Expletives are often included in sentence constructions such as There is . . . that, There are . . . who, and It was . . . who/that. They make a sentence wordy. Using expletives also leads to problems with subject-verb agreement and pronoun-antecedent agreement. More bad news: Using it with an indefinite reference is not acceptable in written English (It says right here in The New York Times that . . .). Furthermore, using the expletive it and the pronoun it in the same sentence can be confusing.
Expletives are usually easy to eliminate. The expletive at the beginning of a sentence (or an independent clause) typically buries the noun/subject, which should be more prominently displayed up front. So you could change the example sentences to read An old expression says, “Know your enemy.” And: More than a few males in this culture believe that “she’s out there somewhere” or Many males in this culture believe that “she’s out there somewhere.” Eliminating expletives makes sentences shorter, more direct, and more easily understood. You don’t have to eliminate all of them, but you should do so when you see too many of them in a paragraph or on a page.
Extracts—When you are quoting ten or more lines of text, skip a line and indent five spaces on the left side (a “hanging indent”). Double-space this text on a manuscript, and don’t use quotation marks. Skip another line at the end of the block quote before returning to the main text. Two or more lines of poetry may be set as an extract by either centering the text on the page or aligning it a short distance from the left margin, indenting individual lines and using spacing that reflects the pattern of the original. Quotations of less than ten lines of text or two lines of poetry should be run into the main text and set off with quotation marks. One word of caution: For some reason, people resist reading long extracts, so keep them as short as possible. If you must include a lengthy one in a novel, then break it up with narration or dialogue. Cut away from the extract and have the characters react to what they are reading.
Fewer / less—Fewer is used before a plural noun; less is used before a singular noun. Also, fewer is used of numbers (of things), and less is used of quantity: Fewer soldiers require less food. You may have noticed that many grocery stores have changed the signs at their express checkout lanes to read “10 items or fewer” to correct the old ones, which said “10 items or less.”
Figurative language—Using figurative language—similes, metaphors, and such—can help bring your writing to life, but such language should be used sparingly, in most cases, and it should be appropriate to your subject. Furthermore, any comparisons you make with similes and metaphors should be fresh and right on target; if they aren’t, you’re shooting yourself in the foot.
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