Category: Word Usage


By Sarah-Ann Binning
While proof reading my boyfriend’s group paper Monday night, I came across today’s topic: amongst. Whichever group member typed the case study, used “amongst” rather than “among.” I thought to myself, that can’t be right, can it? I mean, it sounds like old English. As I read “amongst” I couldn’t help picturing Bryan and his group sitting around the round table dressed in the latest medieval apparel, writing their paper by candlelight, scribbling feverishly with a quill. I chuckled to myself as I changed “amongst” to “among.”
I didn’t have my AP stylebook or my Precision Language handbook nearby as I proofread, so I made a mental note to look it up when I returned home and blog about it on Wednesday.

One’s use of amongst or among depends on one’s location. The dictionary acknowledges that the terms can be used interchangeably. Amongst and among are both preposition meaning “In the midst of; surrounded by.”  However, dictionary.com and other sources state that “amongst” in primarily used in Britain. (That’s probably why it sounds so ‘old English’ to me.)

I must confess I do enjoy using “Amongst” on occasion. Sometime we just need a Briticism like “amongst” to make us feel prim, proper and plain ol’ silly.

In the United States, the preference is toward “among.” As a journalist, my leaning is also toward “among” as it is the shorter choice … and in the printing business we care most about tightening and condensing our work.

Now, what about “amid?” It’s an even shorter word than “among.” Can we use these two terms interchangeably? No. Dictionary.com lists then as synonyms, but my Precision Language handbook disagrees. While amid, and amidst, also are prepositions meaning “in the middle of; surrounded by,” their use depends on the prepositional phrase.

Take a look at the phrase. Can the items be counted? If so, use among. The eagle seemed to dance among the stars. Stars can be counted. (It just might take you awhile on a clear night in the country to count all the stars, but they can still be counted).

If the items cannot be separated, the term to use is amid (or amidst).  The orphan stood amid the ruins. I trod amidst the heartache and sorrow.  The ruins, heartache and sorrow are collective and difficult to measure. I apologize for offering such depressing examples for amid. Here’s a more upbeat one: After receiving an “A” on her exam, she felt like she was soaring among happiness and the heavens.

These rules are similar to the fewer/less rule I discuss in my “Weird Al” Grammar Lessons on May 5, 2010.



By Sarah-Ann Binning

Allow me to begin my second “rainy day” blog post with a silly personal story from freshman year at Ohio University.

At pre-college orientation they made us watch a ridiculous film where past students giving advice to freshman. I remember one girl said she spent hours getting ready for class on the first day. Hair straightened, make-up applied, cutest outfit picked out. When she stepped outside, she discovered it was pouring. Ten steps outside and she had already slipped and ruined her hour of preparation. She had to quick run upstairs and change.

Now, I think the advice that she was trying to offer us was not to worry about what you wear to class. This isn’t high school and it’s not a popularity test. But what I learned was bring an umbrella and check the forecast before leaving the house.

I came to school prepared. I convinced my mom to let me bring the largest umbrella we owned to OU. This thing was a beauty and was decorated in comic strips. (Funny and entertaining to read while walking in gloomy rainy weather!) I’m not sure how my family came into possession of it, but my grandpa’s daily newspaper logo was splattered on it, so I’m assuming he had something to do with it.

The first rainy day Fall quarter, I was a giddy school girl. Time to bust out my unique umbrella. I grabbed my very distinctive umbrella, ready to make the trek up Jeff Hill. Stepping outside, I opened up the umbrella and instantaneously it broke.  It wouldn’t stay open and had rusted into a shape that only  kept half my body dry. I struggled up the hill, trying to keep at least my book bag dry. When I got to class, I threw the umbrella into the trash outside the door. My favorite umbrella had betrayed me and I was a wet soaking mess.

After class, I decided to run to Court Street and buy a new umbrella. Along the way, I noticed the comic strip-disaster of an umbrella sitting in a different dumpster. Someone must have spotted it in the trash and decided a broken umbrella was better than no umbrella. Apparently whoever picked it up had decided it was a worthless POS and tossed it when they reached a dry building.

Throughout the day, I spotted that umbrella in no less than five trash cans. It comforted me to know I wasn’t the only baboon who made a moron of herself trying to keep dry.

The sudden surge of rainy weather makes me smile, because I get to tell this story. But the one thing that disappoints me about the rain in Athens is that it rarely thunderstorms. We’ll get an occasional clasp of thunder and maybe some streaks of heat lightning now and then, but we don’t seem to get the never-ending, eardrum deafening, lightning flashing storms.

I can remember three or four storms in the four years I’ve lived in Athens. Here’s one of them:

Students in Brown Hall caught this candid moment on video. The lightning hit the lightning rod (duh, because that’s what it’s there for!) and set off the fire alarm in the process.

I selected this video because of the lightning. Lightning is today’s grammar topic of choice.

Do not confuse this with “lightening.” Lightening is a progressive form of the verb “lighten.” We use this form when we wish to say that something is being made lighter in weight, color or harshness/severity.

Examples: Alan is lightening his backpack by removing some textbooks. Sally is lightening the image because it is  too dark. There’s no hope in lightening Greg’s punishment.

Lightning, on the other hand, can be used as a noun or an adjective. As a noun it means a flash of light that is caused by a discharge of electricity in the atmosphere. Example: The lightning struck Brown Hall.  As an adjective it indicates swift speed, such as the speed of a flash of lightning. Example: The track star runs lightning fast.

(A Editor’s note to the wise: Do not be fooled by Google images. I did a search for lightening, so see if I could find examples of incorrect uses of the word. I found so many examples of people using the incorrect spelling. When typing lighTENning, I found thousands, upon thousands of pictures of lighTNing—flashes of light!)

Pass me the gray crayon

By Sarah-Ann Binning

It’s raining. It’s pouring. The old man is snoring.

Looks like spring is arriving a tad late. The 10-day forecast on weather.com offers rain, scattered showers, thunderstorms and cloudy skies. Sun does not appear on the agenda for the next week.

Instead of becoming an Eeyore over all this gray weather we’re having, I decided now is the perfect time to use my “rainy day” blog idea.

Did you happen to notice how I spelled gray? Gray as opposed to grey.

What’s the difference? They’re spelled different, so they MUST mean different things, right?

Wrong. Although these two words have a slight vowel differentiation, they are pronounced and mean exactly the same thing: a neutral hue, a color between white and black.

The variations in these words developed in the divide between U.S. English and UK English. If you live in a region that generally speaks UK English, you’ll typically spell grey with the ‘e.’ But if you use the U.S. dialect, you’ll spell the gloomy color with an ‘a.’

However, time impacts how we use our language. We seem to be on better terms with Britain since the American Revolution. My research shows that it is generally acceptable to use either spelling in everyday use.

However, I must also remember that my AP Stylebook is my Bible. According to my 2007 Stylebook, use the U.S. form gray, never grey, in journalistic writing, unless grey is part of a proper noun. (Editor’s Note: I obviously have an outdated Stylebook. I’m waiting for the 2010 book to come out before I buy another one. If you have a later edition and find this statement to be incorrect, please correct me.)

In popular culture, there are multiple examples of both forms being used. Here are a few who choose to utilize “gray.”

In 1949, Crayola added 40 new colors to their collection. Among them was “gray.” In 1958 Crayola would invent and then later retire “blue gray.” The American based company never selected the –ey spelling of this neutral color.

Buckeye fans, I mustn’t forget you either. What are the Ohio State University’s team colors? Scarlet and gray.

And do not forget my favorite Civil War historical novel, “Shades of Gray” by Carolyn Reeder. My fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Tippin, made us read this book in school. I have never forgotten its story. I’ll spare you the sentimental flashback. Rather, allow me to introduce some references where we use “grey.”

BarlowGirl, a Christian Rock band of three sisters, names their first track on their Album Another Journal Entry “Grey.

“Grey’s my favorite color/ black and white has never been my thing.”

Why BarlowGirl selected the –ey ending is not 100 percent clear. They were born in Illinois, which is nowhere near the UK.

While you’re listening to BarlowGirl’s Grey” maybe you’d like some tea to drink? Will you drink Earl Grey? When I think tea, I immediately think of Britain. That’s how I choose to remember that the beverage is spelled grey.  It is also important to note this tea was named for Earl Charles Grey.

By Sarah Binning

Today’s Internet exploring resulted in an interesting find: “Weird Al” Yankovic giving YouTube grammar lessons!

Here’s one of my favorites:

15 Items of fewer, not less. Thank you Weird Al! So why is it fewer, as opposed to less?

As Grammar Girl points out, fewer and less mean the same thing—“the opposite of more.” So how do you know which one to use, if they mean the same thing? It all depends on the noun.

We use “fewer” when dealing with nouns that can be counted. Stars can be counted. So tonight we’d say there are fewer stars in the sky. Books can be counted. The Montpelier library has fewer books than the Boston Public Library. Similarly, the items in the grocery line can be counted, so thus, 15 items or fewer.

We use “less” with nouns that can’t be counted individually. Flour, is a mass noun. We consider the flour as a whole, singular unit … rather than individual grains. Therefore, the recipe should call for less flour, not fewer flour.

Other examples: The lecture was less than satisfactory. My life is less predictable now.

But it seems that for every rule, there must be an exception. In this case, the exception arises when you’re dealing with money, time and distance. One would assume that these are things that can be counted. Well, you know what they say about assuming. In these instances, it is customary to use “less.” The trick is to think of time, currency and distance as a unit … a singular unit that (because of its solidarity and wholeness) cannot be counted. Therefore we say: I paid less than full price. Or, I ran less than three miles. Or, we have less than a minute to make it home before curfew.

I’d like to take a minute to thank Weird Al and his dedication to correcting the world’s grammar. There’s nothing like a little celebrity endorsement to help spread enthusiasm for proper English.

Take a look at this other video:

Oh those “ly” adverbs and adjectives are tricky. How do you know when to add the “-ly” and when to leave it home? Here’s one general tip: Can the sentence be reshaped into a “How” question?

Caution! Drive slow/slowly becomes the how question “how should you drive?” If you can transform the sentence into a “how” question, then ADD the -LY. The Caution sign can be turned into a  how question. Thus, we should drive slowLY.

This fish smells bad/badly … how does the fish smell? The fish smells badly. (Added Later: The fish smells badly would mean that the fish has a poor sense of smell. However, as Vance and Grammar Girl remind me: you can also say “the fish smells bad.” This would mean that the fish is producing a foul odor.)

I sing poorly. I type quickly. I hum loudly. I whisper softly.

She is a bad dancer. This sentence doesn’t make sense if transformed into a “how question” so we do not add “-ly.” (Note: if you really, really, really wanted to use “badly” you could rephrase the sentence to say she dances badly. Isn’t grammar fun!)

And speaking of bad verse badly, Donald Trump could learn a thing or two about humility: Check out Grammar Girl correcting Donald Trump’s incorrect use of the word “badly” in her latest blog post.

By Sarah Binning

Flash back to Saturday. My roommates and their moms and I are all relaxing in the living room, when the age-old dilemma rolls into the conversation: “What do we want for dinner?” The humidity and rain clouds filled us with laziness, so we settled on the classic solution: order pizza.

“What kind do we want?”

“Pepperoni.”

Of course, this response shifted the discussion away from actually ordering our pizza to: “What is the plural of Pepperoni?”

Oh boy, here we go. Everyone had a different answer: Pepperoni is the plural. No, pepperoni is both singular and plural. No, the plural is pepperonis. Are you serious? There’s not way the plural is pepperonis!

The room fell silent as all eyes focused on me, as if I magically knew the answer. Come on, Ms. Grammar, what is the plural of pepperoni?

My vote was that pepperoni was the plural, but I didn’t know for sure. So I did what every good writer should do, research.

Researching the plural of pepperoni was no easy task. Website after website, article after article, no one could seem to agree on the plural. This site said pepperoni is singular and plural. That site said pepperoni is plural. And so on and so forth. But we wanted some hard data. We needed an answer. So I turned to a more reliable source: my faithful friend dictionary.com.

The answer? Well, we’re all a little correct. Pepperoni is an Americanism developed in the early to mid 1920s. The term originates from the Italian word peperoni, which is plural for a “peperone cayenne pepper plant.” Pepperoni is a plural misspelling, adapted by Americans.  However, Americans mess everything up. When we adopted the word, we of course adopted it in a SINGULAR sense. According to dictionary.com, the plural of pepperoni (when used in English, not Italian) is pepperonis.

Example: I pick pepperonis off my pizza.

Of course, it is impossible to discuss the plural of pepperoni without allowing the conversation to switch to other English quirky plurals.

What is the plural of Octopus? The answer might surprise you. The original, correct Anglicized plural form is Octopuses. However, the incorrect term Octopi is so commonly used, the dictionary adopts and accepts both plural forms. The same is true for hippopotamus (hippopotami and hippopotamuses).

To wrap up this entry: I thought I might include some other interesting singular to plural transformations that trip up most Americans: (singular/plural)

Crisis/Crises … curriculum/curricula … medium/media …

And because I’m in the middle of job hunting, I think it’s also interesting to touch upon plural courtesy titles. These courtesy titles can become difficult to spell, because they are in fact French words. (Yeah for French!)

Mister/Messieurs …. Misses/Mesdames … Miss/Misses

To see the abbreviations for these titles, I recommend this site.

The your/you’re dilemma

By Sarah-Ann Binning

My brother’s sarcastic yet supportive comment on my last blog post inspired this first grammatical lesson: your and you’re. For some, the difference between “your” and “you’re” has been drilled into our heads, while others can never seem to use them correctly. Does it really matter if you don’t know the difference? Is anyone really going to care if you mix them up?

The answer is, of course, YES!

Say, for example, you were applying for a job and your cover letter started a little something like this. (NOTE: This is a dreadful opening to a cover letter. I would never recommend opening letter like this. But for the sake of this example, please just go with me.) Example: To Whom It May Concern: I am interested in applying for the secretarial intern position with you’re company.

BAM. Your cover letter just went into the garbage. When applying for any position (be it school, job, etc) employers throw away resumes with any spelling errors. If you cannot take the time to make ONE resume error free, why should they hire you? The worst part about the “your/you’re” problem is that spell check won’t catch when you use the incorrect one, only if you spell them wrong. So you have to be extra diligent in your editing.

Honestly, using the incorrect “your/you’re” is embarrassing. Not only can it hurt your employment opportunities, it also will make others think less of you. Just this past week I was reading a note from my boss in our manager logbook. His grammar was, well, atrocious. One of the student managers actually took a red pen and corrected his many mistakes. Front and center of all those mistakes was using “your” instead of “you’re.” When employees half your age are correcting your mistakes, it doesn’t make you look good.

But don’t lose hope. It’s never too late to learn. In fact, I encourage you to learn. Yes, occasionally you’ll mix-up the two words. I understand in the heat of that Facebook wall post, you don’t think about spell check. I’ve fallen victim to the un-proofread wall posts many times. And boy do my friends love to point out my own “your/you’re” errors.

So let’s break this down.

YOUR is a possessive pronoun. Example: Your coat is on the chair.

A more in depth Explanation: What does possessive mean? The coat belongs to you. You posses it. Thus, “your” is possessive.

YOU’RE is a contraction for YOU ARE. Example: When you’re at the store, please pick up some chicken.

When using “your/you’re” I ask one simple question to make sure I’ve used the correct one. Can you substitute “you are” for the word? If the answer is yes, then you want to use YOU’RE. If not, then use YOUR.

While we’re on the subject of “your/you’re”, I’d like to address another issue: UR. While texting lingo is becoming widely popular, I don’t believe you should incorporate it into your everyday communication. Again, it all goes back to professionalism. Practice makes perfect, but it also creates habits. If you use “U” and “UR” in e-mails with friends, it will slowly leak its way into your professional life. My roommate, a reporter for Ohio University’s student-run newspaper, received an e-mail from a PR official from a major corporation in New York. He used “UR.” Seriously? He couldn’t take the time to spell out the word correctly? Is he really that great at communicating with media if he’s using such informal grammar?

So, if you couldn’t already tell “your/you’re” is a pet peeve of mine. Take the time to re-read your work. Taking the time to learn small grammar bits can make a big difference when you’re applying for jobs. But for now, here are some more examples:

Your:

What’s your favorite color?

When is your recital?

She went to your house.

Don’t forget to e-mail your friends.

Get your coat.

You’re:

You’re looking wonderful tonight.

You’re assigned to the late shift.

Sing while you’re dancing.

You’re responsible for him.