Is Grammar Dead – Or Deadly?

Is Grammar Dead – Or Deadly?

Gail Tycer wordpress wordleDoes grammar really matter? Well it certainly does to some people.

In a recent New York Times piece decrying the practice, John McWhorter, author, blogger, and contributing editor states, “We cannot help associating ‘bad’ grammar with low intelligence, sloppiness and lack of refinement.”

This criterion, he notes, makes it “…increasingly challenging to find work providing a living wage or upward mobility, much less satisfaction,” for people lacking these skills. While acknowledging that this is the case, McWhorter questions barring someone from a decent job “…because he or she isn’t always clear on the difference between ‘your’ and ‘you’re.’”

Nor does this seem to be a situation limited to the United States. Commenting on “the debate around grammar,” a French scientist said, “I personally don’t hire people whose resumes and letters are full of…mistakes, for two reasons. First, I know I will need to rewrite everything they do…which is a huge waste of time. Second, I consider that someone who is sloppy enough not to check…before they send a resume…is not to be trusted to do serious, precise scientific work.


If you like what you’re reading, we invite you to subscribe to our blog, and subscribe to our newsletter.

Gail Tycer offers business writing workshops and presentationsexecutive coaching,consulting, and writing services. To discuss how we can help, call Gail at 503/292-9681, or email

Published in: on February 11, 2014 at 5:17 pm  Leave a Comment  

Over last weekend, I’ll bet many of you, like me, were busy packing away ornaments, deciding which candles can be used again, and trying to find a youth organization to give our retired trees to for recycling. Or at least, again, like me – thinking about it!

And now it’s serious back-to-work time. Time to try something new. I’m not quite ready for 2014 yet – what happened to 2010, anyway? So, with a final salute, let’s wrap up 2013 with the Best of the Blog – a short collection of my top nineteen posts of that year, as judged by the number of “likes” each garnered. An “e-book” for want of a better name, and the first e-book I’ve ever done. Please email me (, and I’ll send you the free link.

I’d like to give this compilation to you as a thought-starter. A new way of thinking about your writing. Or maybe as a way to address a New Year’s resolution to strengthen your on-the-job writing, making it faster, easier, and more effective. Totally free. No advertising, no name collecting, no strings. Please email me (, and I’ll send you the free link.

We’ll talk about:


How Many Common Writing Errors Do You Make?

Let’s talk a bit about grammar and usage errors today. Can you find the errors in the following three sentences?Gail Tycer wordpress wordle

1. Woodland Caribou: Less than 65 roam America’s mountains and mesas.

2. As soon as they get the test scores back, her or her assistant will call you

3. They thought living in Canada would be a lot different than living in Portland, Oregon.


Hope you’ve enjoyed this short quiz. If you’d like to test yourself further, visit our archives:

Published in: on December 9, 2013 at 12:46 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , ,

Tip of the Week: Those Four-Letter Words

Noun. Verb.

For many, these two words may have been the most troublesome four-letter words of their entire academic careers.

A noun, we are informed by our friends at Webster’s, is “a word used as a name of a person, quality, or thing….” Perhaps our teachers said that a noun is the name of a person, place, or thing. Some authorities add events or concepts to the list.

In general, there are three categories of nouns that name things: common, proper, or collective. Common nouns name people places and things. Examples might be, for people, “teacher,” or “physicist”; for places, “garden,” or “classroom”; for a thing, “computer,” or ” leash.”

Proper nouns are generally names of specific people, places, or things and are capitalized. Collective nouns refer to a single unit made up of various components – for example, “family,” or “majority.” If you are referring to a collective noun as a single entity, use a singular verb, e.g., “The family is….” If you are discussing members of the group acting individually, use a plural verb, e.g., “The majority were….”

There is of course always that quirky little thing about nouns. For example, is Harry a small businessman? Or is he a small business man? Oh well.

Let’s move on to the weightlifters of the English language: verbs. Verbs do the heavy lifting in a sentence. Without a verb, you cannot make a sentence. You may choose a verb that shows action, or one that does not. Perhaps your teacher said, “A verb is a word that shows either action, or state of being.”

Verbs can make a sentence come to life! Let’s choose wisely. For example, how many ways can you think of to say “went”? For starters, how about jogged, walked, ran, shuffled, stumbled, drove, flew, limped, cantered, hopped, climbed, perambulated? Does each one put a different picture in your mind?

Next time you sit down to read an exciting piece of fiction, notice the strong verbs, and how they move the story along, create excitement, and keep you reading – long after bedtime! Look for them, and notice how your favorite writer uses them.

If you’re a word lover too, think of an action word – a  verb (there’s that four-letter word again!) and let your mind wander. How many ways can you think of to say that word, or express that meaning?

Finally, how about those “other” four-letter words:  Think about the tone of your email or other business communication. Consider waiting a bit before emailing a “sensitive” message. Generally it’s best to avoid “venting,” vulgarity, or profanity in the business situation. Neither is business email the place for sarcasm, hostility, cynicism, or whining.

To get your Tip every week, please subscribeWe appreciate your recommending a Gail Tycer business writing workshop for your workplace, or a shorter presentation for an upcoming professional meeting.

© 2013 Gail Tycer •

Published in: on January 28, 2013 at 4:29 pm  Leave a Comment  

Words that Create Mix-Ups – Part II

Let’s take a quick look at some more of those commonly misspelled, misused, or misunderstood words or phrases that can be such a problem:

How do you use “i.e.,” and “e.g.”?  There is a difference!

One way to remember which is which is to look at their Latin roots. My dictionary tells me that each phrase is an abbreviation for a Latin phrase: i.e. (id est) means “that is”; while e.g. (exempli gratia) means “for example.” Each, according to the AP style guide, is always followed by a comma.

To confuse the issue a bit, “I.E.” or “IE” both stand for the title “Industrial Engineer.”

You may have wondered about “pro-,” “anti-,” and “non-”

While each is most often used as part of an ordinary word, e.g., produce, anticipate, or nonsense, each may also be used to coin a new word, in which case, “pro” generally means for;  “anti” means against; and “non” means not.

Thus you have pro-peace; anti-war; and non-inflammatory. There are several rules and exceptions, so it’s always best to look up your specific word, and how to use it, in your dictionary and perhaps style guide as well.

And speaking of the need to standardize on a specific dictionary or style guide,

How about “bi-” and “semi-”?

“Bi-” means “every other,” while “semi-” means “twice.” So, when you say your newsletter is published “bimonthly,” that means it comes out every other month. But if you are really ambitious, and your newsletter is published “semimonthly,” your newsletter comes out twice a month (AP Style Guide) Whether these words are hyphenated or not depends on your dictionary or style guide.

There are some tricky exceptions. For example, “biannual” and “semiannual” are both words, mean the same, and are correctly spelled without the hyphen.  You could issue a policy update biannually (twice a year) – no hyphen, or semiannually (also twice a year).

To further confuse this issue, “biennial” means every two years. No wonder English is so difficult to learn!

Now for an easy one: “reject,” or “refute”:

Often used interchangeably, these two words have very different meanings. “Reject” means to refuse to accept. So you could say, “I totally reject the entire concept, and that is the end of it!”

On the other hand, if you just like a good argument, you could “refute” what someone has said, or offer proof that it was wrong, inaccurate, mistaken, or just a plain old lie! So you could say, “I am about to refute the accuracy of what he said: to prove that he has, indeed, lied about this matter.”

© 2013 Gail Tycer •

Published in: on November 16, 2012 at 1:54 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: ,

Tip of the Week: Help for Grammarphobia

Sometimes “grammar” becomes overwhelming – fear of making a grammatical error can block out everything else, and get in the way of saying what we really want to say – if only we could remember what that was! What was that rule again?  And how many grammar rules can any of us quote from memory?

Interestingly enough, in my workshops across the country, there is one grammar rule that just about everyone can remember. I’ll bet you know that exact rule that most people remember. Ready? All together now: “i before e…”

Why do we remember that one? As many adverting copywriters will tell you, a catchy rhyme, one that becomes memorable, works! But while it may work on our memory muscles in day-to-day activity, writing in rhyme is not exactly what we are looking for in day-to-day business writing that must be sharp, clear, and to the point. As well as accurate, correct, and professional.

So here’s what I propose: Forget the grammar rules! Instead of trying to remember the rules, focus on recognizing an error.

Your word processing program’s grammar checker can be a helpful starting point. You can find grammar guidelines in your paper or (sometimes) online dictionary, or your grammar checker will likely make suggestions. Verify grammar checker recommendations with another resource unless you are absolutely certain that the grammar checker “fix” is correct.

What if you have identified the error, but do not know how to fix it? Then it’s time for a workaround. Rewrite it in a way you know is correct. Productivity on the job – getting the work out, correctly – is the point here.

What you say on the one hand, how you say it on the other: content and grammar. Each is critical. Both are necessary to build your credibility; to prove your professionalism; to demonstrate your knowledge.

Now, how about a few more of those words that create mix-ups?

Affect and effect are two good ones to start with. Think of them in alphabetical order: You can affect an effect. Affecting is doing. An effect is the result.

So you might say, “We believe our new policy will affect the outcome to a significant degree. The effect of the required changes should be critical to our success in 2013.”

Here are two more frequently misused words: infer and imply. “Infer” is something one does inwardly. “Imply” is something one does outwardly. “Infer” is what you think you understand from what someone says; “imply” is what someone almost says.

For example, “The implication of his words is unmistakable. We can confidently infer that he will be stepping down within the next few months.”

Two final words that create mix-ups: compliment; and complement. We all love compliments – those nice things people say about us.

But what about “complement”? A totally different thing. A complement completes.

As in, “Your silk scarf beautifully complements that outfit.”

A complement could also be the complete number.

As in, “The store advertises 58 flavors, and sure enough, it has the full complement of 58 different flavors ready to serve at all times.”

For this week, instead of trying to remember the grammar rules we’ve all forgotten, focus on identifying grammatical errors you may not have been aware of – in your writing, and in what you are reading – as a practical first step to confident, correct, comfortable writing.

If you’ve found this information useful, subscribe, forward it to a friend, or share it.

Recommend a Gail Tycer workshop for your workplace, or suggest one of Gail’s shorter presentations for an upcoming meeting or conference

© 2013 Gail Tycer •

Published in: on November 12, 2012 at 3:47 pm  Comments (1)  

Words that Create Mix-Ups Part 1

And then there are those pesky word mix-ups – words like their, they’re, and there, for one example. Or to, two, and too, for another. Or how about can’t, can not, and cannot? Or affect and effect? It’s and its? And the worst part? These words may be incorrectly used, but as long as they are spelled correctly, even if misused, Spell Checker will not catch them!

Let’s take a look and see what we can do with this merry mélange!

All right then, let’s start with alright: While alright is shown, and given an explanation in most dictionaries, it is still considered “non standard.” So, the correct way to spell the word is “all right” – two words.

Now let’s go for our first trio:  their, they’re, and there:

Their” is a member of that group of possessive words that does not use an apostrophe. “Our,” “your,” “my,” “mine,” and so on. Think about this kind of word, and you can add a few others to this list.

“They’re” is a lovely contraction, and means “they are.” Contractions are interesting in that the apostrophe (’) shows us that something has been left out. For example, the name O’Brian was originally “of Brian,” meaning Brian’s son or daughter. So in the name O’Brian, the apostrophe shows us that the “f” and the space have been left out. Similarly, for the word “they’re,” the apostrophe shows us that the space and the “a” have been omitted.

“There” is a place.

So, perhaps we could say, “They’re there with their friends.”

 And here’s a dangerous duo – possibly the two most frequently misspelled words in the English languageits and it’s:

Its is – you remember – a possessive. Another of those possessive words that does not use an apostrophe. Did you think of “its” when adding words to your list in paragraph five?

It’s is – a contraction! “It’s” means “it is.” So what has been left out? The space and the “i.”

We could say, “It’s good to have its color such a cheery red!”

While we’re talking about the most frequently misused words in the language, here are three morecan not, cannot, and can’t:

“Can not” – two words – is only used when the next word is “only.” For example,“Mary can not only pitch, she can catch.”

“Cannot” – one word – is the most often used. For example, “I cannot thank you enough.”

“Can’t” is another of those – contractions. If you happen to be writing a term paper, thesis, or dissertation, you will not be using contractions in your writing. In the business situation, contractions will work in informal writing, but not when the situation calls for a more formal tone.

Here’s what I hope you will do this week: Concentrate on the words we’ve talked about today, to make sure you use these words correctly.

If you enjoy these Mix-Ups, let us hear your favorites! More next week.

Find this information helpful? Consider bringing a Gail Tycer workshop to your workplace, or recommend one of Gail’s shorter presentations   for an upcoming meeting or conference.

© 2013 Gail Tycer •

Published in: on November 5, 2012 at 11:54 am  Leave a Comment  

What was that again?

Take a quick look at the following sentences. Can you see what the three of them have in common?

  1. The troops fired into crowds protesting the return of the religious leader.
  2. John and Bob were in the coffee room when Bill Smith and Art Jones from accounting walked in. Words were exchanged, and the two wanted to argue about the hiring policy decision.
  3. Army helicopter pilots reported seeing steam plumes venting from near the top of the smaller mountain last week, but they disappeared shortly after the observation.

Whatever else these sentences may have in common, none of them tells the reader who did what. Take another look.

In sentence1., who was protesting the return of the religious leader? Was it the troops who were protesting? Was it the crowds? And in sentence 2., who was it who wanted to argue? And how about sentence 3.?

Creating confusion is easy to do when the writer knows so much about the subject that it all seems clear at first glance. So now look at sentence 1. How can you make it perfectly clear who was doing the protesting?

Perhaps you said something like.

“The troops, who were protesting the return of the religious leader, fired into the crowds.”

Or, if it had been the other way around, perhaps something like,

“The troops fired into the crowds, who were protesting the return of the religious leader.”

And how about sentence 2. How could you make it clear which two wanted to argue?:

This one is relatively easy, right? All you need to do is substitute the names of the would-be arguers for “the two.” So fixes are not always that complicated. The hard part is to recognize when what you have written is not as clear to the reader as it was to you when you wrote it.

And now for sentence 3.  Who was it who disappeared?:

This one is probably the most common source of confusion created by the writer. Is “they” the pilots (oh no!) or the plumes? This sort of confusion is also the easiest to spot when you proofread your writing before you send it. Just look for words like  “they,” “he,” “she,” “we,” “it.” Then substitute the name or description for that word.

Fixing this sort of confusion – who did what? – can be relatively easy. The trick is to be aware of, and to recognize the sentences that will be confusing to the reader. Then fix them.

© 2013 Gail Tycer •

Published in: on October 29, 2012 at 3:05 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: ,

Passive Sentences: What is Grammar Checker Telling You?

And, I’m guessing, telling you wrong maybe 50% of the time. So which 50%? And how do you know? And what is a passive sentence, anyway? You need to be able to check the grammar checker.

To begin with, let’s look at what a sentence is. Webster’s tells us that a sentence is “a combination of words, which is complete as expressing a thought…”  A sentence starts with a capital letter, and most often ends with a period (.), although it could end with an exclamation point (!) or a question mark (?).  Various types of sentences are usually categorized in one of two ways: structure, or function.

Structure-wise, there are three types of sentences: Active, Passive, and Descriptive.

An Active sentence is a sentence in which someone or something does something, e.g.,

John throws the ball.

A Passive sentence is a sentence in which someone or something is being done to, e.g.,

The ball was thrown.

A Descriptive sentence is one that uses a form of “to be,” such as: is, are, was, were, will be, and so on, and may be used in combination with words like “seems,” or “feels,” e.g.,

The ball is green.

The ball seems to be green.

So what about passive sentences? Well, for one thing, they are harder to read. Harder to comprehend, and almost always longer. In the above examples, you will need six words in the passive sentence to provide the same information the reader gets from the active sentence. The four-word active sentence above  (“John throws the ball.”) becomes a six-word passive sentence (“The ball was thrown by John.”)

If you are writing to be more concise, more clearly understood at a glance – use active sentences.

Strategically: A piece loaded with passive sentences will certainly discourage readership and can lead to misunderstanding – or no understanding.  Can often lead to a generally bad feeling about you or your organization, perhaps even, at the extreme, to the point of mistrust. Think about some of the least-trusted sectors of our society. Take a look at how they communicate with their various publics. Although many organizations now discourage over-use of passive sentences, you will likely still see a lot of passive sentences in these written materials.

So, are passive sentences lethal in your writing? Depends on what you are trying to accomplish. Readership, or non-readership.

Occasional passive sentences are not deadly. Active sentences communicate.

If you find these tips helpful, bring Gail to your workplace for an onsite workshop. To learn more click here.

© 2013 Gail Tycer •

What Should a Title Look Like?

The style you use to show the titles of books, magazines, plays, software, and so on has changed over the years as better technology has emerged. Even so, not all authorities agree on what this sort of “major” title should look like.

Let’s take a time out to take a quick look at the issue of style:

 The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law is arguably the premier style guide for newspapers and publications written for the average adult reader. Also perhaps the most widely used business writing style guide.

The MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, probably one of the most often used style guides for academic writing, defines style guidelines for the scholar. There are also specialized style guides for specialized fields and disciplines.

In addition, many universities, colleges, and schools devise their own style guides, addressing such common questions as “where does the comma go,”  “what should a title look like,” and “how many spaces should there be between sentences.” Similarly, a great many public- and private-sector organizations also produce their own style guides, similarly advising their writers how to use punctuation, or capitalize words. 

Thus, we have two major styles: formal, or academic; and informal, or journalistic. Many style guides are available either in paper versions, or online, frequently on a subscription basis.

So, is there a difference between “correct” grammar and usage and style?

Absolutely. And the confusion and resulting arguments – online, as well as around the water cooler – can gobble up on-the-job hours, as well as playing fast and loose with the spirit of cooperation and respect every organization needs to be most productive.

The solution: Standardize on the style guide to be used in your office, or in your organization, and have everyone use the same guidelines.

Many organizations have a style guide that no one knows about. So find out if your organization has its own style guide.  If there is one, everyone needs to use that one!

But what if your organization truly does not have a standard style guide? Then you may use the style that seems to you most effective in making your point clearly – assuming, of course, that you are (1) using that style bit consistently, and are (2) also following the appropriate grammar rules.

Oh yes, back to titles:

 What should a title look like?

The AP Stylebook says to capitalize the main words, including prepositions and conjunctions if they contain four or more letters; and to capitalize articles or short words (fewer than four letters) if it is the first or the last word in the title.

Then put quotation marks around the title, with the exception of the Bible, and reference materials.

MLA says capitalize the first, last, and all principal words in the title, including both words of a hyphenated word.

Then for the major works: books, plays, newspapers, journals, websites, online databases, films, radio or television broadcasts, performances, musical compositions, paintings, sculpture – well, you get the idea – italicize the title.

For titles of sub-sets of the major work, e.g., chapters of the book; essays, stories, or poems published as a part of the larger work; magazine or journal articles; pages of a website; TV broadcast segments – and so on, use quotation marks.

So who is right? As a practical matter, do what your boss says! Just (1) do it consistently; and (2) use the appropriate grammar rules, and you’ll be fine.

If you find these tips helpful, why not bring Gail to your workplace for an onsite workshop, coaching, or consulting. Or to work with you to complete a project.  To learn more

© 2013 Gail Tycer •

Published in: on October 8, 2012 at 10:47 am  Comments (2)  
Tags: , ,
%d bloggers like this: