Particularly Nasty Whether

(In case you’re wondering, and even if you aren’t, the title–with a different spelling–comes from just before the punchline (call it the setup) in a joke a law school friend told me the night before we graduated. We were driving around the countryside west of Gainesville, just the two of us, a six-pack of beer on the seat between us, telling nothing but the punchlines of jokes. If the other one liked the punchline, he would ask to hear the whole joke. I asked to hear this one. The whole evening was his idea. Later, he became a judge.)


A while back, I wrote that when we juxtapose the affirmative with the negative—and stick or in the middle—we usually need only the affirmative (See Tip: “On Or About Or”):



When we juxtapose the affirmative with the negative and stick or in the middle, we usually need only the affirmative:

Now, I have no idea exactly how Obama disciplines or doesn’t discipline Sasha and Malia.

Most often these unnecessary words are the expression or not following whether. Occasionally, we need or not, or the sentence makes no sense:

In fact, the responses will be mailed today and would have been mailed today whether or not I received your letter.
But we can usually shorten whether or not to whether, or even if. First, if it’s not already there, move or not next to whether; second, decide whether you need or not; third, when you can (and want to) replace whether with if:

I forgot to ask him whether he was on a small plane or not.

I forgot to ask him whether or not he was on a small plane.

I forgot to ask him whether or not he was on a small plane.

I forgot to ask him if he was on a small plane.

When you see the phrase regardless of whether or not, delete only regardless of:

I will have to prepare for trial regardless of whether or not we believe Ms. Nelson will appear.

The success or failure of the IPO depends on many factors.

Most often these unnecessary words are the expression or not following whether. Occasionally, we need or not, or the sentence makes no sense. Below are examples of when we need it, when we delete it, when we move it, and when we replace whether with if.


When we need or not:


A firmly decisive, top-down system means that projects are built whether or not people in local neighborhoods want them.


When we need or not in the phrase regardless of whether or not:


You are obligated to pay our fees regardless of whether or not the opposing party is ordered to pay your fees and costs.


When we delete or not:


The pushup also strengthens your core, and it’s a good indicator of whether or not you’re exercising enough now to avoid fat later.


When we move or not next to whether (always):


Whether it leads to true romance or not, each of the significant characters in the story is moonstruck.


Whether or not it leads to true romance, each of the significant characters in the story is moonstruck.


When we move and remove or not:


In determining whether the means used are improper or not, the Colorado Supreme Court provided guidance in Amoco Oil with a list of factors:


In determining whether or not the means used are improper, the Colorado Supreme Court provided guidance in Amoco Oil with a list of factors:


After we remove or not, do we replace whether with if?


According to Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage, an obscure editor in 1762 arbitrarily declared that certain “Scotticisms,” like using if instead of whether, were improper. For a hundred years, everyone ignored him, and only a few still follow his “rule.” Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, William Faulkner, and other authors never did follow it. Sometimes if doesn’t make sense when replacing whether, but often it does, and if you prefer it, make the change:


Once you help me bring that laser focus to the project, they can decide whether or not if they want to do this.


Unabashed, self-serving postscript: At the push of a button, WordRake will make many of these whether or not edits for you; here are a few examples, with additional edits noted:


We need to decide whether or not proceeding with this action is in Carbine’s best interest.

The line had stopped moving; even the women who were free to go could go now stopped to watch her, regardless of whether or not they had any idea of knew what she was saying.

There was a big to-do about whether or not he was going to get would get his wish.

A Leech on His Tongue

In great film, a moment comes when the last layer of our natural cynicism peels away; we cease trying to figure out what will happen next; we forget that people with clipboards and headsets are running around behind the camera, chewing gum ten feet away. We relax into our seats and give ourselves over to the writer, the director, the actors, to perform their magic, to take us anywhere they please because they have earned our trust, and we are happy to be along for the ride. In film, if it ever occurs, the process can unfold in ten minutes.

With a book, it can happen in the first sentence, the first paragraph, that moment we let go and allow the storyteller to drive us anywhere, because we know that at the helm sits a real writer. It’s the joy of reading. Here are a few classic openings mixed with some of my favorites:


Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country:

There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it.


Ivan Doig’s This House of Sky:

Soon before daybreak on my sixth birthday, my mother’s breathing wheezed more raggedly than ever, then quieted. And then stopped.

The remembering begins out of that new silence. Through the time since, I reach back along my father’s tellings and around the urgings which would have me face about and forget, to feel into these oldest shadows for the first sudden edge of it all.


Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man:

I am an invisible man.

No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids–and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.


Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:


Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.


Discover Moses and the Bulrushers

You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. But that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.


Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News:

HERE is an account of a few years in the life of Quoyle, born in Brooklyn and raised in a shuffle of dreary upstate towns.

Hive-spangled, gut roaring with gas and cramp, he survived childhood; at the state university, hand clapped over his chin, he camouflaged torment with smiles and silence. Stumbled through his twenties and into his thirties learning to separate his feelings from his life, counting on nothing. He ate prodigiously, liked a ham knuckle, buttered spuds.


Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato:

It was a bad time. Billy Boy Watkins was dead, and so was Frenchie Tucker. Billy Boy had died of fright, scared to death on the field of battle, and Frenchie Tucker had been shot through the nose. Bernie Lynn and Lieutenant Sidney Martin had died in tunnels. Pederson was dead and Rudy Chassler was dead. Buff was dead. Ready Mix was dead. They were all among the dead. The rain fed fungus that grew in the men’s boots and socks, and their socks rotted, and their feet turned white and soft so that the skin could be scraped off with a fingernail, and Stink Harris woke up screaming one night with a leech on his tongue.


Jim Harrison’s Legends of the Fall:

You could not tell if you were a bird descending (and there was a bird descending, a vulture) if the naked man was dead or alive. The man didn’t know himself and the bird was tentative when he reached the ground and made a croaking sideward approach, askance and looking off down the chaparral in the arroyo as if expecting company from the coyotes.


Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.


J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye:

IF YOU REALLY want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.


As loose and flowing, natural and rhythmic as they are, these sentences do not come easily; nor do they come quickly. I realize that most of us don’t have time to craft them in our report to the department, or our memorandum for a client, or our brief to the judge. But how inspiring to know it’s possible to capture so much with but a few words. And that if we stretched just a little further in that direction, perhaps that report, that memorandum, that brief, might sing to our audience in a more memorable way.

WordRake will not help us find these words. But it will help us spot the words that get in their way, so we can remove them to clear the air for the words that sing to our reader.








Thomas and the Boys

As you can see, we have in front of us one large bowl of chili, one small cedar tree, and an exceedingly jolly man. We also have two words, hearty and hardy, to describe each; but we stand here confused, and no wonder.


The Oxford English Dictionary defines hearty fifteen ways and hardy five, and some definitions of one sound suspiciously like some definitions of the other. Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage describes hearty and hardy as “vaguely similar in meaning” in some senses, but “not interchangeable.” So when do we apply one to the bowl of chili, and the other to the little tree, and what about the friendly fella? Remember this, and it will help guide you through the maze: One who is both hearty and hardy can tell jokes in a snow cave.


Hearty once meant courageous and bold; over centuries that sense has drifted to hardy alone. But the line still blurs when we talk of physical prowess, because hearty can mean physically vigorous, strong, and healthy, and hardy can mean physically robust, strong, and sturdy. But hearty strength tends more to the lively, energetic kind, and hardy more to a strength that can endure great fatigue and hardship. Here’s a breakdown, drawing the line between the two:



The definitions of hearty and hardy can overlap slightly when describing physical prowess, but the two words have distinct meanings. We should not confuse them.


Use hearty to describe friendly and affectionate people; enthusiastic, vigorous, and jovial people; genuine, sincere, and devoted people; exuberant and forceful action; and abundant and nourishing food.


Use hardy to describe bold, daring, courageous people; strong, robust, and enduring people; audacious and foolhardy people; and anyone or anything that can withstand extreme hardship or conditions.

HEARTY refers to:

warm, friendly, affectionate people

enthusiastic, vigorous, jovial people

genuine, sincere, devoted people

exuberant, forceful action

nourishing food


HARDY refers to:

bold, daring, courageous people

strong, robust, enduring people

audacious, foolhardy people

anything that can survive extreme

hardship or conditions


In a thesis on the Hardy Boys, a masters candidate noted that the boys’ surname is not an accident, that Frank and Joe “always bounce back . . . because they are hardy boys, luckier and more clever than anyone around them.” They are also hearty, as the author describes them here:


While the Hardy boys can be boisterous, playful, and forceful when necessary [i.e., enthusiastic, jovial, forceful], those behaviors are also matched by honorable conduct [i.e., genuine, sincere, devoted].


In a sentence from Far from the Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy uses hearty in its most popular sense:


She could see the brown and black heads of the young lads darting about right and left . . . whilst occasionally a shout and a peal of hearty laughter varied the stillness of the evening air.


But here, did Hardy mean for his laborers to be a happy-go-lucky bunch or men conditioned to hardship? Or both? Some dictionaries define hearty as blithe.


“At one end of the street stood from two to three hundred blithe and hearty labourers waiting upon Chance — all men of the stamp to whom labour suggests nothing worse than a wrestle with gravitation . . . .”


I am not second-guessing Hardy’s choice, only suggesting it was a difficult one: I agonize over every word I write. In the second sentence below, Hardy must have agonized again: hardy and merry rarely mix, but they can; hearty and merry are synonymous; and hardy and thriving can be nearly synonymous. The sentence and its purpose only underscore the similarity of the two words and why we have to be careful when we use them. The rest is up to the author:


Moreover, the Weatherbury folk were by no means uninteresting intrinsically. If reports spoke truly they were as hardy, merry, thriving, wicked a set as any in the whole county.


To avoid confusion, I would let hardy describe the bold and courageous, the tough survivors, and the cattle, plants, and furniture we leave outside in the winter. Save hearty to cover friendly or jovial or vigorous or sincere people–and hot soup.

Bloody-Minded Tarantulas

Let’s examine a groundless grammar proclamation: That it is absolutely, unequivocally unacceptable to write over instead of more than.


Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage calls the spittin’-nails intolerance of some editors to accept over as equal to more than a “hoary American newspaper tradition.” That means the battle has a long white beard.




Writing over rather than more than

is acceptable, and neither is preferred over the other. Even the Associated Press Stylebook now agrees.

It all began in the 1860s, when poet and Editor-in-Chief of the New York Evening Post for 50 years, William Cullen Bryant—not to be confused with William Jennings Bryan, who ran for president three times—produced a list of forbidden words and “usages” he wished not to see from his writers and editors at the Post. He warned, “The words in this list are to be avoided.” The first entry:


“Above and over, for ‘more than.’”


No explanation; just don’t do it. Bryant also preferred gentlemen to gents and pantaloons to pants, and shunned what he called “Wall Street slang,” like bulls and bears and long and short. The list grew into Bryant’s Index Expurgatorius, published in 1877, and because of Bryant’s stature as a romantic poet and editor of the Post, the Index became a bible for journalists.


While Bryant was terrorizing his staff at the Post, a journalist named Mark Twain had lit out for the Territory: the silver-mining, gold-panning, frog-jumping, horse-stealing, fist-fighting American West of the 1860s. When he wrote of his adventures in Roughing It, Twain either had never gotten Bryant’s memo or had ignored it when it arrived, because sometimes he uses over when he could have used more than:


“Two tons of silver bullion would be in the neighborhood of forty bars, and the freight on it over $1,000.”

“The greater part of the vast floor of the desert under us was as black as ink, and apparently smooth and level; but over a mile square of it was ringed and streaked and striped with a thousand branching streams of liquid and gorgeously brilliant fire!”


And sometimes he uses more than when he could have used over:


“. . . an atmosphere of such amazing magnifying properties that trees that seemed close at hand were more than three mile away.”

“. . . as the saddle went down over the horse’s rump he gave it a lift with his heels that sent it more than four hundred yards up in the air, I wish I may die in a minute if he didn’t.”


And sometimes he has nothing to decide:


“I know I am not capable of suffering more than I did during those few minutes of suspense in the dark, surrounded by those creeping, bloody-minded tarantulas.”


Twain’s decision rides on whichever was handy at that moment and in that context.


Another influential journalist writing in the late nineteenth century, Ambrose Bierce, compiled his own list of words and phrases to avoid: WRITE IT RIGHT, A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults. Bierce warned against using “Over for More than” as in “A sum of over ten thousand dollars.” Newspapers that hadn’t followed Bryant now followed Bierce, and the “rule” spread to almost every newspaper stylebook in America: The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Associated Press. Ironically, Detroit Free Press adopted the rule even though the paper’s masthead read “On Guard for Over a Century.”


Almost two years ago, the Associated Press dropped the rule. The editor announced: “We decided on the change because it has become common usage.” It was never needed: Using over instead of more than had been around for about 600 years before Bryant or Bierce.


When appropriate, WordRake will replace more than with over. If you agree with Bryant and Bierce, hit the “Reject” button. That’s what it’s for.


Although the practice is acceptable today, polite society in 18th-century America did not tolerate those who played with their genitives. Especially in public. The faux pas was so serious that a violator could be forever banished from intellectual circles.


This was so because a gaggle of 18th-century grammarians—dilettantes who had butlers to brasso their buckles and maids to press their jodhpurs—had arbitrarily decreed: “From henceforth and forevermore the genitive form shall mean only the possessive form and the genitive marker shall be ‘s, and whosoever shall use this possessive form with inanimate objects shall be made to bear a scarlet ‘S.”


Quick lesson:


We use the genitive to express a relationship between nouns. It comes in two forms: the of (or genitive) form—“the purpose of the man,” “the mast of the ship”—and the ’s (or genitive/possessive) form—“the man’s purpose,” “the ship’s mast.”


The dilettantes reasoned that even a fool knows that ships are inanimate and therefore cannot possess anything, so the unenlightened caught writing “the ship’s mast” could find themselves not invited to the next garden party.


Inanimate Possessing

Today, playing with our genitives is acceptable because even the intellectual elite among us do not know that the possessive began long ago with something called the genitive. Here’s the simple rule now:


You may use the genitive/possessive form even with inanimate objects, like ships, unless it sounds awkward.


James Fernald writes in English Grammar Simplified, “The use of the inanimate possessive seems to be determined more by euphony than by logical prescription.” Because it is difficult to say “such risk’s likelihood,” it is better to write “the likelihood of such risk.” But either “the rays of the sun” or “the sun’s rays” is correct.


Joint Possessing

If two or more people possess an item or items together, we add ‘s only after the last person. Let’s say that George and Giuseppe together buy a 1949 MGTC; we then describe the antique car as:


George and Giuseppe’s ’49 TC


If George already owns a British racing green ’49 TC, and Giuseppe buys a turquoise ’49 TC, so their ownership of the cars is separate, we describe the cars as:


George’s and Giuseppe’s ’49 TCs


But if George and Giuseppe together own a British racing green ’49 TC, and the two together buy a turquoise ’49 TC, we again add ‘s only to the latter name:


George and Giuseppe’s ’49 TCs


Compound Possessing

Compound nouns contain two or more words, often separated by hyphens, but always read as one unit. Form their possessive and the possessive of any “closely associated” words by adding ‘s to the end:


my brother-in-law’s boat

the National Institute of Science’s recommendation


Double Possessing

Sometimes we combine the genitive of construction with the genitive/possessive ‘s construction: a tic of Lucretia’s; a habit of Susan’s. Why this is acceptable used to confound me; shouldn’t we write a tic of Lucretia, and a habit of Susan? But think of it this way: If we wrote with the of construction using pronouns, which form of the pronoun would we use? The possessive: a friend of mine, not a friend of me; a book of his, not a book of him. So when a noun appears after the of, it too must be in the possessive form: a client of the firm’s.

Among the Soapsuds

A while back, I compared fewer to less (See Tip: “Still Another Three Words Many Writers Misuse”), and we saw that fewer applies only where we can separate something, like trees, and that we use less only where we cannot separate something, like shade.


A similar relationship exists between among and certain other prepositions, like in, amid, within, and through. If we can separate the items, we should use among; if we cannot separate them, we should use another preposition. Below, we can’t separate news or debris:


Among In today’s news from Baghdad is a piece predicting a Kurdish victory in Kobani.

First responders searched among through the twisted debris for survivors.


I would be correct (two ways), however, to write, “This Tip is among the shortest I have ever written.” Among is correct because we can separate the Tips and count them. And this Tip is one of the shortest.

So we have countable things and uncountable things; but grammarians love to taunt us, so they add a third category: mass or collective nouns. This is where the point gets stickier. A collective noun is one you could count if you wanted to and had the time, but few of us would bother; for example, “Basque sheep-herding families” or “the elite of America’s blue-collar workers.” The grammarians tell us that among should accompany these collective nouns because collective nouns are “notionally plural.” (God help us.)


In The Yearling, published in 1938 and awarded the Pulitzer Prize, author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings writes:


He began to be sick again and let the boat drift among the cat-tails.


I suppose, if we wanted to, we could count all of the cattails, so among would be correct. But in the following example, we should use another preposition because we cannot count fast enough to get all the bubbles:


He opened one bright eye among amid the soap-suds and winked at his son.


Use among with things we can count (even if we would have to spend hours counting), and find another preposition for those we cannot count.

Emenem (Part III of III – The Hyphen)

If you have been sane far too long, and you miss the old days of total insanity, ponder why the Oxford American Dictionary would approve this sentence:




Fowler laments having to discuss hyphen usage because, “its infinite variety defies description.” The Chicago Manual of Style tells us, “Probably nine out of ten spelling questions that arise in writing or editing concern compound words.”



Use hyphens to separate non-continuous numbers, like phone numbers and Social Security numbers; and to separate compound numbers twenty-one to ninety-nine.



A hyphen signals that two or more words are to be read together as one. Placing a hyphen appropriately can clarify: extra marital sex, a little used car, small business men.


Hyphenate when:


two or more words must be read as one noun


Where would you place the hyphen here?


On the Isle of Skye, a short distance from the lodge, lies a large moor reserved for shooting visitors.


two or more words must be read as one adjective


red-hot, dark-blue, white-haired, sky-high, snow-packed, easy-going, battle-scarred, backed-up, up-to-date. Try it again:


As we neared the point, we saw a man eating hammerhead.


a prefix must be attached to a word


Use a hyphen with prefixes ex, self, all, un, anti, pro, quasi, and the suffix elect. Hyphenate a prefix before a proper noun: un-American.



Hyphenate an adverb followed by an adjective, UNLESS the adverb ends in ly. “A well-dressed woman” is correct; “a nicely-dressed woman” is not.

Hyphenate a compound modifier if it appears before the noun; do not hyphenate it if it appears after the noun: He is a well-known cellist. The cellist is well known.


Sometimes, we can replace a hyphen with a preposition: “half-hour intervals” becomes “intervals of half an hour.”


Where the first word of a compound is one of two alternatives, leave the first hyphen open. “Our hybrids include both hand- and machine-made parts.” Or repeat the second half: “Our hybrids include both hand-made and machine-made parts.”


Check a current dictionary for the latest on hyphenated words.

The half-truth is that the halfback’s running was halfhearted, but the half-wit, who is half-baked, went off half-cocked, and drove the half-track, halfway, for a halfpenny, with his fly at half-mast.


This is why Fowler begins his discussion of hyphens, “No attempt will be made here to describe modern English usage in the matter of hyphens; its infinite variety defies description.” Even Lynne Truss, in Eats, Shoots & Leaves, concedes, “In the end, hyphen usage is just a big bloody mess and is likely to get messier.”



We use hyphens to separate non-inclusive numbers like phone numbers and Social Security numbers; and to separate compound numbers, twenty-one to ninety-nine.



Fowler explains: “The primary function of the hyphen is to indicate that two or more words are to be read together as a single word with its own meaning.” Churchill once wrote that the hyphen was “a blemish to be avoided wherever possible,” but he added, “except when nature revolts.” Here’s when nature revolts: extra marital sex, the five hundred odd members of the House, a little used car, the nine-millimeter gun owner, small business women. Although a missing hyphen will sometimes help the rest of us get through the day and provide “likes” on our FaceBook page when we circulate it to our seven thousand closest friends, a hyphen properly placed can avoid ambiguity and absurdity.


Hyphenate when:


two or more words must be read as one noun


Dictionaries usually hyphenate for a few decades and then drop the hyphen. Pullover, breakthrough, and holdup all used to be compounds joined by hyphens. Here, you try it; put this hyphen “-“ anywhere you please in this sentence:


On the Isle of Skye, a short distance from the lodge, sits a large moor reserved for shooting visitors.


two or more words must be read as one adjective

Red-hot, dark-blue, white-haired, sky-high, snow-packed, easy-going, nice-mannered, battle-scarred, backed-up, door-to-door, up-to-date. Here’s another hyphen “-“ to try again:


As we neared the point, we saw a man eating hammerhead.


a prefix must be attached to a word


Nonsense has been combined, but non-stop has not. Postscript has arrived, but post-mortem isn’t there yet. Why bystander but not by-product? Generally, use a hyphen with prefixes ex, self, all, un, anti, pro, quasi, and the suffix elect. If any prefix appears before a proper noun, always hyphenate: un-American.


The prefix re sometimes needs a hyphen: re-enter; and sometimes does not: rewrite. But each version can mean something different: re-formed and reformed; re-mark and remark. We use the hyphen to clarify.


Except for the Hard Rules below, you likely will not make a mistake by hyphenating or refusing to hyphenate, unless what you write is absurd or ambiguous.




Hyphenate an adverb followed by an adjective where the two modify a noun: the now-retreating tide. However, as Churchill pointed out: “Richly embroidered seems to me two words, and it is terrible to think of linking every adverb to a verb by a hyphen.” Within that comment lies a little-known grammar rule: Hyphenate an adverb followed by an adjective, UNLESS the adverb ends in ly.


“A well-dressed man” is correct; “a nicely-dressed man” is not.


Hyphenate a compound modifier if it appears before the noun; but do not hyphenate it if it appears after the noun: “hard-to-find MG parts” is correct; but “MG parts are hard-to-find” is not.


Sometimes you can avoid hyphens by replacing them with prepositions: “half-hour intervals” could become “intervals of half an hour.”


When the first word of a compound is one of two alternatives, leave the first hyphen open: “Our hybrids include both hand- and machine-made parts.” Or repeat the second half: “Our hybrids include both hand-made and machine-made parts.” When the first hyphen is left open, it is called a “suspensive” hyphen. but in a job interview, reveal this information only if you prefer to remain unemployed.


If you’re not sure whether to hyphenate, use a fairly recent edition of a reliable dictionary. But remember that what appears with a hyphen in a Webster’s 30 years ago might appear in a new Webster’s as one word.

What Position My Condition Is In

The term conditional clause explains itself. Typically, a conditional clause begins with ifwhenwhere, or because (or one of dozens of similar words) and states a condition that must occur or not occur before something else can occur or not occur, or has already occurred or not occurred, prompting something else to occur or preventing something else from occurring. (I think I said that right.)

Too often we place the conditional clause at the end of a sentence, which prevents us from emphasizing the main point (which is not the condition) and counteracts the natural flow of ideas for our readers.

I’m moving to Borneo, if this Brexit thing happens.

The Portland Commission acts under constitutional authority, when it creates renewal districts.

Adequate notice has been provided where the opponent had a chance to file a written objection.

These sentences make a U-turn at the end, taking our reader back with them and burying the main point. Properly arranged sentences will be chronological: What happens first, goes first. (See Tip: “The Best-Kept Writing Secret of All Time.”) A condition must always happen, or fail to happen, first, so we place it at the beginning of the sentence to set the stage for our main point. That chronological flow helps our readers remember what is important and keeps them moving forward.

If this Brexit thing happens, I’m moving to Borneo.

When it creates renewal districts, the Portland Commission acts under constitutional authority.

Where the opponent had a chance to file a written objection, adequate notice has been provided.

If our sentence contains a condition, it should always come first, even when we simply sign off on an email:

Please let me know if you need further clarification.

If you need further clarification, please let me know.

Hear how much sharper that sounds (on paper)? No reader will sit back and marvel at how well you order your clauses (or avoid passive voice, or use verbs rather than nouns, or remove words with no meaning). They will just love your writing; but they won’t know why.

You Insane Steaming Pile of Horsehockey

This Fourth of July, I wanted to do something different, so I exhumed three of our Forefathers for a beer.


I dug up Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams because they had written the most important document in human history: the Declaration of Independence. “There were five of us on the drafting committee,” said Adams, “but everyone agreed that Jefferson was the best writer, so we picked him to write the Declaration.”


Franklin and Adams suggested he open with something like this:


When in the course of human events, some people get so fed up with some other people trying to tell them what to do all the time, and they don’t want to have anything to do with those people anymore, by god, they have the right to tell those other people, like you, George, to ‘Kiss our sweet cheeks.’ You are a sterling example of what happens when we mix royal inbreeding with small doses of arsenic. But before we go, we thought you, you putrid pile of pusillanimous pustules, should know why we are leaving. Mainly, it’s because we are just as good as you are, you effete foppish prig, and we have every right to do whatever we want to do, which includes drinking untaxed tea and good wine, and making candles and love and shoeing horses and flying kites whenever and wherever and with whomever we please, you insane steaming pile of horsehockey. Etc., etc., etc.


Franklin explained, “This was to give Jefferson an idea of the tone we wanted.”


With that in mind, Jefferson repaired to his rented rooms in Philadelphia to spend the next two and a half weeks, rising before the sun each day for tea and biscuits, to write with a quill dipped in ink, scratching on parchment, ripping up page after page after page, trying to get it right. He told me, “The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words where one will do.” The pages of his rough drafts look like pages from a Hemingway manuscript, cut to pieces with crossouts, arrows, and insertions of line after eloquent line. Baby America in ink. He begins slowly:


When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another . . . .


He adds:


We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.


Then he states his business:

That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it . . . it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.


One of my favorite lines is the pivotal point:


. . . let Facts be submitted to a candid world.


As all good writers do, Jefferson then lays out facts: that King George has refused, forbidden, called, endeavoured, made, obstructed, erected, kept, affected, combined; that he has exceeded his authority by quartering, cutting, imposing, depriving, transporting, taking, abolishing, altering, suspending.


He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people . . . . In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Then he brings it home and stamps it with resolve:


We, therefore, . . . in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States . . . And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.


Franklin and Adams agreed it was better than their draft. They took the Declaration to Congress on July 2, and there debate raged until the afternoon of July 4. The cuts were mostly for content, like Jefferson’s section attacking the slave trade.


It is a fine choice of words up to the task of birthing the strongest nation on earth. Click here to read them, not because they are the cornerstone of our democracy, but because they are an example of the power of words, only 1323 of them–the length of the average writing assignment for a high school sophomore.


PostScript: The two men most responsible for our Declaration of Independence, later our second and third Presidents, Adams and Jefferson, with disparate personalities and politics (Jefferson defeated Adams in Adams’s bid for a second term), died within hours of each other, exactly fifty years later, on the Fourth of July.


Happy Fourth. And be safe.

Emenem (Part II of III – The En Dash)

As you know, all grammarians are sadists. You can spot them in elementary school, boiling live frogs. When they reach maturity and start looking for a career, they naturally gravitate toward grammar. No longer satisfied with tying M-80s to the tails of stray cats, they grow up to inflict pain on the rest of us by creating dogma and waiting in the bushes for the rest of us to come along and step in it.

Look! Here’s a pile of dogma right here, the dashes: , , and -. Simple, simple, simple little marks, so innocuous, so seemingly innocent; only a sadist would create them, make them look so similar, then call them by different names and use them for different purposes.


The en dash is the width of a lower case n. We need the en dash for three reasons:

1) to indicate inclusive numbers and words representing dates, time periods, or references: 1962–1975; 2:00–5:00 p.m.; April–June; Chicago Manual of Style, 6.32–6.42; the hyphen isn’t long enough;

2) to leave a date open ended: “Pat Benatar (1953–)”; and

3) to separate “compounds”

(two or more words that act together as a unit) containing “open” elements or elements already hyphenated: “The New York–Boston line”; “the pre-formed–pre-manufactured home”


The en dash does not mean “to” or “and”; it may not follow a preposition: do not write “from 2008–2012” or “between Tuesday–Saturday.” Write: “from 2008 to 2012” and “between Tuesday and Saturday.” And we may write, “The store is open Tuesday–Saturday.” No preposition.

How to Make an En Dash

Type a word, hit space, tap “-” twice, hit space again, and type the following word. Microsoft Word will automatically turn that double hyphen into a dash the width of a small case n, or an en dash. Then remove the spaces on either side.

Alternatives: on a PC, go to Insert -> Symbol -> More Symbols -> Special Characters; highlight “En Dash” and click “Insert.” On a Mac, hold down “option” and tap “-.”

If you go back over a century ago to early Fowler, and drop in on the musings of various grammarians every few decades since, right up to Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves, which I highly recommend, you will see the evolution of thought on “dashes” (I include the “hyphen” here). The en dash has muscled its way onto the page between the other two only recently, as grammarians began to follow the lead of typesetters and publishers.

As we saw last week, we use the em dash, the longest one, to push words apart; as we shall see next week, we use the hyphen, the shortest one, to bring them together. But we needed another dash, the en dash, the one in the middle, to indicate continuing numbers and dates open ended, and to separate “compound” words containing “open” elements or elements already hyphenated. There’s the pile!


The en dash is so named because it is the width of a lower case n, which is half the width of an upper case M—or an em dash. We should not confuse the en dash with the em dash—each has its own function—neither should we confuse it with the hyphen, which is half as wide as an en dash. We will explore hyphens next week.


We use the en dash for three things:

First, to separate inclusive numbers and words representing dates, time periods, or references: 1962–1975; 2:00–5:00 p.m.; April–June; Chicago Manual of Style, 6.32–6.42.

Here’s another little pile they’re waiting for us to step in: the en dash does not mean “to” or “and”; it may not follow a preposition: to write “from 2008–2012” is incorrect, and so is “between Tuesday–Friday.” The correct way is: “from 2008 to 2012” and “between Tuesday and Friday.” But we may write, “The store is open Tuesday–Friday,” because no preposition precedes it.

Second, use the en dash when the end date has not yet been determined: “Pat Benatar (1953–).”

Grammar Guru of The Washington Post, Bill Walsh, calls hog-walsh on the en dash; absolutely no need for it; just use the hyphen, a perfectly good separation. I agree, sort of; but there’s this . . .

. . . third situation, which admittedly will not come up often, where one element in a “compound” adjective or “compound” noun is “open” or already hyphenated.

A “compound” is two or more words that act together as a unit. “New York” is an “open” compound. When we combine it with another word to describe “line,” we separate “New York” and the next word with an en dash: “The New York–Boston line.” Where one or both compounds are already hyphenated, we also need to separate them with an en dash: “the pre-formed–pre-manufactured home”

I suspect the en dash will continue to muscle its way onto the page, and it does distinguish in a way the hyphen cannot, so we should try to use it correctly.


Type a word, hit space, tap “-” twice, hit space again, and type the following word. Microsoft Word will automatically turn that double hyphen into a dash the width of a small case n, or an en dash. Then remove the spaces on either side.

Alternatives: on a PC, go to Insert -> Symbol -> More Symbols -> Special Characters; highlight “En Dash” and click “Insert.” On a Mac, hold down “option” and tap “-.”

I have said many times that when you get the finer points of grammar correct, you send the impression to your readers (many of whom know the difference) that you are competent and informed about many other things. But don’t wipe your shoes just yet; the pile gets much deeper next week.