Thayer Literary Services ~ Book Editing

Preposition, using the right one—Writers often fail to see the nuances of meaning in the prepositional idiom, that is, how to pair a word with a particular preposition before a noun or after a verb or adjective. For example, you would say a person is addicted to a drug, not addicted by a drug. Here are some incorrect uses of a preposition, followed by the proper one:


partake in [of]

revel on [in]

curious of [about]

in awe at [of]


There’s a big difference between saying “We felt each other out” and “We felt each other up.” :o) Some books on grammar and composition include useful lists of prepositional pairings. Words into Type is one of them.


Prepositions, multiple—Don’t use two or more prepositions when one will do. Common examples include inside of, out of, off of, out in, and out from under.


Punctuation with quotation marks—Place the period and the comma within quotation marks, and put the colon and the semicolon outside the quote marks. Place the em dash, the question mark, and the exclamation point within the quotation marks when they apply only to the quoted material and outside when they apply to the whole sentence. That is, if the dash, the question mark, and the exclamation point belong to the words enclosed in quotation marks, put them inside the quotation marks. Examples:


“What Now, My Love?” is her favorite song.

“Holy cow!” Danny shouted.


If a question mark, an exclamation point, or a dash does not belong to the material being quoted, put the punctuation outside the quotation marks. Example:


Have you read Stephen King’s short story “The Body”?


“Purposes”Purposes is a junk word that serves no real purpose in a variety of wordy expressions, including for educational purposes, for financial purposes, and even for play purposes. People often use the word situation in the same way: a work situation, a play situation. Take it too far and you’ll find yourself writing things like, “We bought some food for eating purposes because we found ourselves in a hunger situation.” Puh-leeze! Delete all such expressions.


Qualifiers—Qualifying words or word groups limit or modify the meaning of other words or word groups. Qualifiers such as a bit, a little, sort of, kind of, somewhat, very, pretty, and rather weaken statements. Professor Strunk (The Elements of Style) calls such words “the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words.” I just call them cheating words (pretty excited, a little suspicious, kind of stupid etc.). Think about this. People and things are usually one thing or another, not something in between. If you’re angry, then you’re angry, not rather angry or sort of angry any more than someone can be sort of pregnant.


Question mark and exclamation point—If the sentence asks a direct question, then it should end with a question mark: What do you want? Some writers go crazy with exclamation marks, but you have to use restraint. Facetiously, I always remind writers that each of us is issued only five exclamation marks at birth to use in our lifetime. The exclamation mark should be used only after an emphatic interjection and after a sentence, clause, or phrase that expresses a high degree of surprise, incredulity, or other strong emotion (Holy cow! That car blew up!).


Quotation marks, special usage—Quotation marks have a variety of technical uses and some special uses as well, although using them as a device for special expression such as emphasis or irony is fast becoming a thing of the past. You will still commonly see them used for irony, though, as in: Last week NATO forces subjected five villages to “pacification" and The “debate” resulted in three cracked heads. The Chicago Manual of Style says, “Words classed as slang or argot may be enclosed in quotation marks if they are foreign to the normal vocabulary of the writer,” as in: Victoria was accompanied by her “trouble and strife” everywhere she went and He sold the stolen jewelry to the local “fence.” Maxims such as “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” may or may not be enclosed in quotes, according to the author’s preference. Many technical terms are often set in quotes, too.


Quote within a quote—Whenever a speaker quotes a word, words, or sentence from someone else, or reads a word, words, or sentence from a source, or projects out loud the exact words he will speak to someone else, those words must be enclosed in single quotation marks. When the speaker is finished talking, his speech is closed with double quotation marks. This is called a quote within a quote. Example: “When he refers to casualties as ‘collateral damage,’ I feel disgusted.”


“Reason is because”—Consider this sentence: The reason you’re reading that book is because you want to have fewer problems in your sex life. Although this locution has been around for about 350 years, it is still attacked by teachers of composition and usage commentators. Nevertheless, it has been shown to be neither ungrammatical nor redundant. The worst thing you can say about it is that it’s simply a waste of words. You don’t need both reason and because in the same sentence to be clear. In some contexts, writing The reason is that is better. Or you can sidestep the whole debate by recasting the sentence: You’re reading this book because you want to have fewer problems in your sex life.


Singular noun with a plural possessive—To avoid ambiguity, a singular noun is usually used with a plural possessive when only one of the things possessed could belong to an individual. Examples: The four astronauts crashed to their death (not deaths). Professor Smith knew most of his students by their first name (not names). Tom and Sally shook their head (not heads). See the plural possessive their in these sentences? Explanation: Each of the astronauts can experience only one death; each student has only one first name; and Tom and Sally each have only one head.


Sit / setSit means “to be seated” (He likes to sit in the front row). To set something is to place it or put it somewhere (She set the book aside). The verb set usually takes an object (book is the object of the verb in She set the book aside). To sit becomes sat in the past tense and as a past participle and sitting as a present participle: He sat there all day. She had sat there too long. He is sitting in there now. To set becomes set (past tense/past participle) and setting (present participle): She set the book aside. She had set the table before I arrived. She is setting the table now.


Sometime / some time—Incorrect: I met him sometime ago. As a single word, sometime can be used as an adverb that usually means “at some time in the future” (I’ll do it sometime) or “at some not specified or definitely known point of time” (sometime last night). The adjective sometime means “having been formerly (former/late),” as in, The sometime president of the club called me today. The two-word expression some time must be used in the example sentence.


Subjunctive mood—Yes, verbs are moody little buggers, and one of their weirder moods is called the subjunctive. This form of the verb, which expresses an improbable condition, one contrary to fact, or a wish, command, or desire, is a booby trap for many writers. Its use in both spoken and written English is nearly extinct, but it survives in certain traditional phrases such as If I were you. . . . Wish you were here. . . . If I were a rich man. . . . Come what may. . . . Far be it from me. . . .


The condition contrary to fact is the construction that is the biggest bugaboo in the use of the subjunctive. Example: If such a procedure as this were not used, many patients would die. This example is correctly expressed. But many clauses introduced by if do not express a condition contrary to fact but merely a condition or contingency—something that may or may not happen or be true. In such cases, the subjunctive mood is incorrect. Clauses introduced by as if or as though, however, usually—repeat, usually—express an unreal condition (a condition contrary to fact). Therefore, you must use the subjunctive mood of the verb with them in most cases. Example: She looked at me as if I were Vlad the Impaler.


“Surrounded on all sides”Surrounded means to be encircled, enveloped, or enclosed on all sides. Something or someone cannot be surrounded on one or two or three sides. Never write “surrounded on each side,” “surrounded on three sides,” and “surrounded on all sides.”


That as a conjunction—When the word that is used as a relative pronoun, it can often be omitted from a sentence: The books that I ordered arrived today > The books I ordered arrived today. But the word that is also used as a conjunction in a variety of ways. In such cases it is a function word that often clarifies meaning. It may be omitted in some instances, but you should include it in your sentence if it helps to prevent misreading. Example: U.S. military leaders openly declared [that] nuclear war, both global and limited, is worth the risk.


“The fact that”— The authoritative Elements of Style by Strunk and White says the fact that “should be revised out of every sentence in which it occurs.” That’s good advice.


Then and thanThen is most commonly used as an adverb that refers to time (I was so much younger then . . . I went to the gas station, and then I went to the bank). The word than is a conjunction or a preposition—a function word that is often used in comparisons (He is older than I am).


To / too—The word to is a preposition used to indicate movement toward something (We went to the mall). The double-oh word too is an adverb that usually means “also” or “besides” or “to an excessive or regrettable degree,” as in He pushes me too far.


Towards—The preferred usage in the U.S. is without the s. Likewise, no s should be added to the words backward, forward, afterward, and others that end with -ward.


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