Garbl's Writing Center
a, an, the The articles a, and and the are adjectives that modify nouns. Use the to point to a specific noun; use a and an to point to a general, nonspecific noun: Please bring me the newspaper suggests a specific newspaper, while Please bring me a newspaper doesn't specify which newspaper. See number.
Use a before consonant sounds: a European country, a B.A., a historic event, a one-year term, a style manual, a utopia. Use an before vowel sounds: an 18-year-old candidate, an environmental disaster, an FDA study, an MBA, an heir apparent, an honorable man, an hour ago, an NBC sitcom, an SBA loan. If the letter h is sounded, use a: a hamburger, a history book, a house, a hotel.
abbreviate Formal if you're not writing about shortening a word or phrase with an abbreviation, acronym or contraction. Simplify. Try shorten, reduce, curtail, condense or cut. See abbreviations and acronyms below, contractions.
abbreviations and acronyms Stop! Before reading the rest of this item, ask yourself: "Do I want to abbreviate or shorten a word or phrase to aid me as the writer and typist, or do I want to aid the reader?" If your answer is "the reader," you're on the right track. Must you abbreviate continued, additional, average or attorney?
Use abbreviations and acronyms only when they will help your readers by making written text simpler and less cumbersome. If you're trying to save yourself time and energy as the writer or typist, your priorities are a mess. Do not use an abbreviation or acronym that would confuse your readers, that they would not recognize quickly. When in doubt, spell it out. (An abbreviation is a shortened version of a word or phrase, like Mr. and Corp.; an acronym is an abbreviation formed from the first letter or letters of a series of words, like AIDS, Garbl, NAACP and radar.)
Always spell out terms, common names and the complete proper names of organizations, projects, programs or documents the first time you use them, and repeat the complete term or name at the beginning of sections in longer documents. Although the abbreviation or acronym is capitalized for some common or generic nouns and terms, lowercase the spelled-out form. See capitalization.
If an abbreviation or acronym of the term or name would not be clear on second reference, avoid using it. Instead, use a shortened version of the name or a generic word, such as the agency, the committee, the department or the company.
If using unfamiliar abbreviations and acronyms is necessary, follow the complete name with the shortened form set off between commas: The Endangered Species Act, or ESA, has had a positive effect. Later references could use the abbreviation, a shortened version of the name or a generic word.
When possible, avoid following the name of an organization, project or program with an abbreviation or acronym in parentheses or set off by dashes: Endangered Species Act (ESA).
Do not provide an abbreviation or acronym after spelling out a term if the shortened version isn't used elsewhere in the document.
Sometimes, when an abbreviation is likely to be more familiar than the spelled-out term, try putting the longer version in parentheses after the abbreviation. Or introduce the longer term once soon after using the abbreviation.
When placing either a or an before an abbreviation or acronym, determine how it would sound when spoken; see a, an, the entry above.
In direct quotations, spell out (don't abbreviate) all words and phrases if that's the way they were expressed by a speaker or writer: "We were in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on October 6." Similarly, use abbreviations in quotations as expressed by a speaker or writer, but make sure its meaning is clear--or spell it out before or after the quotation. See dates, quotations, state names.
Acronyms: When each letter is pronounced in most acronyms, capitalize every letter. Capitalize only the first letter in most acronyms with more than six letters. Leave out periods in most acronyms unless the result would spell an unrelated word. Check your style manual or dictionary for exceptions to these guidelines. Don't use the before acronyms pronounced as words instead of letter by letter: OSHA, CAD.
Abbreviations: Put a period after each letter in most two-letter abbreviations: U.N., U.S., M.A. When each letter is pronounced in longer abbreviations, capitalize every letter but don't include periods: NBC, EIS, NEA. Check your style manual or dictionary for exceptions to these guidelines. Use only one period when a sentences ends with an abbreviation that includes periods. Use the before abbreviations only when you would use the before the full name (usually as a noun, not an adjective): the ESA, ESA requirements, the state DOT, DOT funds, IBM.
To form most common plural abbreviations, add an s: ABCs, CDs, chaps., Drs., IOUs, TVs, UFOs. Sometimes, an apostrophe may go before the s: when the abbreviation has internal periods (M.A.'s, M.B.A.'s, Ph.D.'s), when the abbreviation is composed of lowercase letters (pdf's), when the abbreviation is a single letter (A's, S's) and when the abbreviation would be confusing if only the s were added (OWS's instead of OWSs). In the last example, if your readers might misinterpret an abbreviation like OWS's as showing possession, leave out the apostrophe.
Abbreviations and acronyms may be used in charts, tables and certain types of technical writing.
If the meaning is clear, abbreviations and acronyms may be used in headlines and headings. See headlines, headings.
ability, capability, capacity Sometimes confused. Ability is a person's mental skill or physical power to do something. Capability is the general power or ability of a machine or organization to do something or be used to do something. Capability also can apply to people, but ability is usually the simpler choice. Capacity is the amount that something can get, hold, contain, produce carry or absorb. Figuratively, it describes a person's physical or mental power to learn something. It also refers to a person's job, position or duty, though those words are simpler and clearer.
about, around About is preferred to around in mentioning numbers. Use about for round numbers, not specific figures: About 50 people volunteered. Forty-eight people volunteered. If saying a figure is an estimate, also using the word about is redundant. Use one or the other, not both. About is also redundant when giving a range. Incorrect: She estimated the crowd at about 5,500. A crowd of about 100-200 showed up. Around is more common than about in other uses: beat around the bush, strewn around the parking lot, all around the state. See approximately, at about.
abortion Someone will be displeased no matter how you discuss the constitutional right to get an abortion. For clarity about the subject, use anti-abortion instead of pro-life and abortion rights instead of pro-choice or pro-abortion. If the subject is clear, use the euphemism, if necessary, that reflects your beliefs, values and behavior. Better yet, explain the issue in a rational, caring, concise way.
above Avoid using to mean "more than" or "longer than." Use those phrases instead, or consider over. Men 18 and over could be drafted, instead of Men 18 and above could be drafted. Better yet: Men 18 and older could be drafted. Even better: Don't draft anyone! See over, more than.
aboveground One word.
absent without leave See AWOL.
academic degrees, titles, subjects Avoid an abbreviation and use instead a phrase such as Clark Kent, who has a doctorate in communications, a bachelor's degree, a master's degree. Don't abbreviate or capitalize. If using abbreviations such as B.A., M.A. or Ph.D., place them after a full name and set off with commas: Clark Kent, Ph.D., spoke. Also, capitalize and spell out formal titles like professor when they go before a name, but don't capitalize modifiers: journalism Professor Bill Chamberlin. Lowercase elsewhere. See doctor.
As noted above, lowercase academic subjects like microbiology, journalism and political science. Languages, of course, should be capitalized: Japanese, English, Spanish. See course names and numbers.
accede, exceed Occasionally confused or misused. To accede to is "to give in and accept a proposal" and "to take on the duties of an office." It doesn't mean agree or allow. Try using simpler give in or take office instead, depending on what you mean. To exceed is "to be more than or greater than" and "to go beyond a legal or official limit." See agree to, agree with, agree on; allow, enable, permit; exceed.
accent, accentuate Subtle difference in meaning of these verbs. Use accent literally, to emphasize a word or part of a word. Use accentuate figuratively, to emphasize something or make it easier to notice: She accentuated her green eyes with her scarf--or think about using simpler emphasize, stress or highlight.
accent marks Use of accent marks (or diacritical marks) varies for names like Renee and some foreign words that have joined the English language, like cliche and resume--or cliche© and resume©. If you use them, use them consistently and correctly. Follow individual preferences for names, and follow the first-listed spelling in your dictionary for other words and phrases. See foreign words and phrases.
acceptable Commonly misspelled.
accept, except Often misused or confused. Accept means "to receive" or "agree to": Please accept my apology. Except means "other than" and "to leave out: We agreed on everything except my fee. Contrast both words with exclude; the ex words leave things out; accept lets them in.
access Often misspelled or misused. It takes two c's and two s's. It's also best used as a noun. As a verb, it's technical jargon for getting information, especially on computers. For other uses, try connect, enter, find, get, use, look up or reach.
accessible Commonly misspelled. It has two c's and two s's and doesn't end with -able.
accidentally Commonly misspelled as accidently. Remember that you're adding an ly to accidental. Also, by definition, an accident is not intentional. Avoid writing that something happened accidentally, such as a car crash, when it obviously did not happen on purpose.
accommodate Often misspelled. Two c's and two m's. May be overstated if the meaning is fit. Simplify. Try replacing with fit, hold or adapt (to)--or try help, give, provide, serve, house, hold, handle or allow.
accommodation(s) Formal and overstated. Simplify. Use a more precise, descriptive word like room, rooms or seats. instead.
accompany, accompanying Overstated and formal. Simplify. Try go with, escort or with.
accomplish Overstated. Simplify. Try a form of do, succeed, carry out or finish.
accordingly Overstated. Simplify. Cut or try so, then, hence or thus.
according to According to means "as stated in" or "reported by," but avoid using: It suggests doubt in the truthfulness or accuracy of a statement. Think about using forms of show or say instead. See attribution.
accumulate Commonly misspelled. Also, think about using simpler collect, amass, gather or increase.
accustomed to Overstated and formal. Simplify. Try used to.
achieve Overstated unless you're writing about getting something done after making an effort to overcome obstacles or conquer difficulties. A 21-year-old doesn't achieve the drinking age, for example; he or she reaches it. Simplify. Try do or succeed, if that's what you mean; or try get or reach, if that's what you mean.
acknowledge, acknowledgment Avoid using the verb as formal business jargon in correspondence: Thank you for writing us about our product is friendlier than This letter acknowledges your letter about our product. For the noun, preferred spelling is to drop the e from acknowledge when adding ment. And don't forget the d in both words.
acoustic Commonly misspelled. Only one c.
acquire Overstated. Simplify. Try a form of get, buy or win.
acre See dimensions.
act Capitalize when part of the name for pending or existing legislation: the State Environmental Policy Act. Also capitalize -- and use figures -- when giving act (and scene) numbers for a drama or opera: Act 3, Scene 2. But lowercase and spell out in these uses: the third act, the second scene. See law; adopt, approve, enact, pass; motion, ordinance.
act, action Often confused and overused. As nouns they overlap in meaning, but use action as the broader term about a process that includes several acts and act as a particular action or type of action. Also, simplify and try omitting action: prevention, not preventive action; discipline, not disciplinary action. In addition, act is a strong, clear and concise verb: The department acted on the complaint. She acted quickly after getting the work order. Simplify. Avoid using the bureaucratic take action. And better yet, describe the action: The department changed its hiring process after getting the complaint. She quickly repaired the transmission.
active vs. passive verbs A verb is active when it shows the subject acts or does something: The clown caught the bouquet. The board approved the contract unanimously. A verb is passive when the subject of the verb is acted upon: The bouquet was caught by the clown. The contract was passed unanimously by the board.
The active voice is simpler, more direct and more forceful than the passive voice. Passive voice may be acceptable when the person or thing receiving the action is more important than the person or thing doing the acting.
Also, avoid shifts between active and passive within a sentence. Change: The new website manager majored in English and was employed by the city as an editor. To: The new manager majored in English and worked at the city as an editor. See headlines.
Rita Mae Brown, Starting from Scratch, 1988: "Avoid the passive voice whenever possible. University term papers bleed with the passive voice. It seems to be the accepted style of Academia. Dump it."
activity Often unnecessary and wordy. Try deleting activity when used this way: storm activity, earthquake activity.
actually Vague, overused adverb. Avoid, even delete. Change: They actually met while updating the manual. To: They met while updating the manual. And don't replace with wordier, redundant in actual fact. Also see in fact.
ADA See Americans with Disabilities Act.
adapt, adopt Occasionally confused. To adapt means "to change something to fit a new situation or purpose." To adopt means "to approve, add and accept a new idea, plan, method or child." See adopt, approve.
added See attribution.
added bonus Redundant. Simplify. Drop added.
additional Overstated. Simplify. Change to more, added, extra or other.
address. Formal and vague when used as a verb meaning "to find a way to solve a problem or answer a difficult question" and "to speak directly to a person or a group." Simplify. Instead, use deal with, consider, handle or tackle for the first definition and speak to for the second definition.
addresses. Always use numerals for an address number: The artist lives at 4567 N.E. 81st St.
In a numbered address, abbreviate compass points (N.W., S., etc.; all caps with periods) used to show directional ends of a street or quadrants of a city: The building is at 543 S.W. 21st St. The periods for abbreviated compass points in numbered addresses may be omitted in correspondence, maps, charts and tables.
Abbreviate only avenue, boulevard and street as Ave., Blvd. and St. in a numbered address: Main Street Center is at 100 Main St. See mail stops.
Spell out and capitalize words such as alley, drive, road, terrace and way when part of an address or name: His son worked on Cavanaugh Road Northwest and lived at 200 Ballinger Road N.W. Lowercase them when used alone or in plural forms: The project will close Cavanaugh and Ballinger roads for two weeks.
Spell out and capitalize First through Ninth when used as a street name: The cement truck drove down Fourth Avenue South. Use numerals with two letters for 10th and above: The artist lives on 81st Street Northeast.
When first used without a number, always spell out and capitalize the full name of a street, avenue, road or boulevard: He lived on Southwest Harbor Boulevard. Also spell out compass points (South, Northwest, etc.) if omitting the number: The building is on Southwest 32nd Street.
If the location is clear, common names (Avenue, Street, etc.) and compass points (East, Southwest, etc.) may be left off in later references.
Lowercase street, avenue, boulevard or road and the compass point when using the plural form: The shopping center is between 35th and 37th avenues southwest on Southwest 10th Street. But don't lowercase those words when the form is not plural: You can catch a bus on Second or Third Avenue. Also, lowercase and spell out avenue, boulevard, road or street when used alone: He drove down the tree-lined boulevard.
Use a ZIP code in mailing addresses, but don't include a ZIP code when giving the location or street address of a meeting, event, building or other structure. See ZIP code.
For post office boxes, use periods in the abbreviation P.O. when giving P.O. Box numbers: P.O. Box 4311. Also, lowercase post office in all uses.
adequate, enough, sufficient Sometimes confused. Use adequate when writing about something acceptable (but barely so) for a particular purpose: an adequate performance. Use enough to describe the amount of something in bulk or number of individual items: enough music, enough guitars. Use sufficient to describe only things in bulk: sufficient music, but enough (or plenty) is usually simpler and less formal. See amount, number.
Also, adequate number of and sufficient amount of are wordy and formal. Simplify. Replace with enough. Adequate enough is also wordy. Use one word or the other. And replace sufficient enough with simpler enough.
adjacent to Pompous. Simplify. Replace with next to, beside, by, near or close to.
ad-lib (n., v., adj.) Not adlib or ad lib.
administration Lowercase unless it's part of an agency name: Social Security Administration. And check to make sure it has three i's, including one before the s.
ad nauseam Often misspelled. Not ad nauseum. Also, think about replacing the Latin term with a clearer phrase: to a sickening extreme, to the point of disgust, to a ridiculous degree.
advance, advanced Sometimes confused. You order advance-purchase tickets, not advanced-purchase tickets, even if you buy them in advance with high-tech equipment. Use advanced to write about the most modern ideas or a higher level.
adverb An adverb is a word that describes or adds to the meaning of a verb, an adjective or another adverb. Place an adverb as close as possible to the word or phrase it modifies. In compound verbs, the adverb usually goes before the main verb: He will probably attend, she has already finished, the book did not clearly describe. See bad, badly; good, well; hyphen; Myths and Superstitions of Writing; only; real, really.
adverse, averse Occasionally confused adjectives. Use adverse to describe things, conditions or circumstances that are unfavorable, harmful or hostile: adverse weather, adverse publicity. Use averse to describe a person's feeling of reluctance, distaste or opposition: He was averse to the proposed budget cut.
advertise, advertisement, advertising Commonly misspelled. Not advertize, advertizement, advertizing.
advice, advise Often confused and misused. Advice, a noun, is "an opinion or guidance about how to handle a situation." Advise, a verb, means "giving an opinion or guidance about how to handle a situation." Also, advise is often overstated and vague. Simplify. Try tell, mention or explain; recommend; or warn.
adviser Preferred spelling. Not advisor. But the adjective advisory is correct, not advisery.
advisory committee See capitalization.
aesthetic Preferred spelling. Not esthetic.
affect, effect Often misused, confused or overused. Usually used as a verb, affect means "to influence, to have an effect on, to change": The pesticide will affect the stream. The new feature should affect sales. Better yet, use a verb that's describes the effect more precisely, like pollute the stream or stimulate sales. Avoid using affect as a noun that sometimes means "emotion" to psychologists. Effect is usually a noun, meaning "result," "reaction" or "consequence": The effect of the project was disappointing. Avoid using effect formally as a verb, meaning "to cause, to bring about, to produce": She will effect many changes in the group. Instead, use simpler, less formal bring about or cause. See also effect many changes, have an effect on, impact.
(in the) affirmative Formal, legalistic jargon. And silly if you mean "yes." Simplify. Use yes instead. Or use an action verb: The council approved the contract; not The council voted in the affirmative for the contract.
affirmative action An organization may have an Affirmative Action Program, but the organizations take affirmative actions in recruiting minorities, women and people with disabilities. Don't abbreviate.
afflict, inflict Commonly misused or confused verbs. People (and other living things) are afflicted with or by distress, pain or suffering. But distress, pain or suffering is inflicted on people.
African American Acceptable to use interchangeably with black when writing about black people in the United States. Don't hyphenate as a noun. Don't use Afro-American. When in doubt about how to refer to a person's race or cultural or ethnic identity, ask the person in question what is preferred. Some may prefer black, others African American. See black, capitalization, race.
afterward Not afterwards.
agencywide One word.
agenda It takes singular verbs and pronouns: The agenda is ready to print. It is three pages long. The plural is agendas.
ages Provide a person's age only when it's pertinent to the situation. If a person refers to his or her age, for example, the age could be relevant. A person's age also can be relevant in profiles, obituaries, major career milestones, and accomplishment unusual at a particular age. Other background information, such as father of two young girls or a Vietnam War veteran, can be a more interesting substitute for an age.
Use a numeral when giving the age in years or months of people, animals, events, things and other inanimate objects. When using ages as adjectives before a noun or as substitutes for a noun, use hyphens: A 6-year-old boy. The boy is 6 years old. She's 4 months old. The race is for 4-year-olds. The 5-year-old car. The car is 5 years old. The woman is in her 40s (no apostrophe). Classes are for children 6-12 years old (or 6 to 12 years old). Also: 20-something but Twenty-something to start a sentence. This rule is one of the exceptions to the general rule for numbers. Also see hyphen.
aggravate Often confused with annoy or irritate. Use aggravate to mean "to make a bad situation worse, worsen, exacerbate": Getting a speeding ticket while racing to his wedding only aggravated the situation. Or think about using simpler, clearer make worse or worsen: Getting a speeding ticket while racing to his wedding only worsened the situation. Circumstances get aggravated, not people. And some people get annoyed, even irritated, when they hear aggravate misused.
agnostic, atheist Sometimes misunderstood. An agnostic believes people cannot know for certain whether God exists. An atheist does not believe God exists.
agree to, agree with, agree on Choose the preposition to or with or on depending on what you're writing. Use agree to when expressing consent to do something: He agreed to fix the broken window. Use agree with to express similar opinions on or about something: He agreed with his neighbor about the speed limit. Use agree on when writing about the subject of the agreement: They agreed on the window repair. They agreed on the speed limit reduction.
aka Abbreviation of also known as. For informal use. Lowercase, no periods, no spacing: George W. Bush, aka Bush II.
alcoholic Use recovering, not reformed or former, when writing about people who are dealing with their alcoholism.
alibi Commonly misused. Use the noun alibi to write about a legal defense used by an accused person to state that he or she was elsewhere than at the scene of a crime. Avoid using alibi informally to mean excuse. Use excuse instead.
align Often misspelled.
all, any, most, some These words can be singular or plural. If the word means "general amount or quantity," it's singular: All the fuel was delivered Wednesday. Some of his report was quoted in the article. If you can read "individual and number" into the sentence, use a plural verb: All the passengers were treated and released. Have any of their relatives been told? See any and all, more, most.
alleged Often misused. Don't use this adjective to describe something that is true or already verified. For example, if the police have verified that a burglary happened, it's simply a burglary; it's not an alleged burglary, even if they don't have a suspect in the crime. And when they arrest someone for the crime, he is a suspect; he's not an alleged suspect. Drop alleged. The person accused of the burglary, however, is an alleged burglar. And if he's convicted of the crime, he's no longer the alleged burglar; he is the burglar in that crime.
alleviate See ameliorate.
all of Wordy. Simplify. Drop of unless followed by a pronoun: all of them.
allow, enable, permit Enable means "to help, make possible, practical or easy": The new trucks will enable the company to provide better service. Allow and permit suggest power or authority to give or deny. Permit suggests formal sanction, approval, consent or authorization. Allow, in contrast, suggests merely the absence of opposition or refraining from banning actions: The city permitted the TV station to broadcast from the park. Our supervisor allows us to dress casually on Fridays.
Also, think about using simpler help for enable and let for allow: The new trucks will help the company provide better service. Our supervisor lets us dress casually on Fridays. See lets, let's.
all ready, already Commonly confused. Use all ready to say someone is prepared to do something. Use already to say something happened earlier: The contractor is all ready to begin work; in fact, it's already started.
all right Commonly misspelled. Two words. Not alright.
all-round Commonly misspelled. Not all-around.
all-terrain vehicle Hyphenate all-terrain. ATV OK on second reference.
all time Avoid using this word unless your crystal ball is objective and always right: all-time greatest chocolate chip cookie. Try using record instead.
allude, elude Sometimes confused. See use of allude below. Elude means "to escape capture by tricking someone" and "to escape notice or understanding": She drove to the police station to elude the road-raging SUV driver. Popularity eluded the Seattle band.
allude, refer Sometimes confused. Use allude to mention something or someone in an indirect way, by suggestion. Use refer to mention someone or something directly.
allusion, delusion, illusion Sometimes confused. An allusion is "the act of writing or speaking in an indirect way about something, an indirect reference." A delusion is "a belief or notion about something that's contrary to fact or reality." An illusion is "a mirage, hallucination, unreal image, or trick" and "a false perception of reality."
almost Sometimes misused. To prevent ambiguity, put this word immediately before the word or phrase it modifies. If you mean Almost all of them were ready to go, for example, don't write All of them were almost ready to go.
alongside of Wordy and redundant. Drop of or replace with simpler beside or next to.
along with, together with Wordy. Simplify. Try cutting along or with, or omitting those phrases. Change: Plant operators, together with process control analysts, attended the meeting. To: Plant operators and process control analysts attended the meeting. Or: Plant operators attended the meeting with process control analysts.
Also, in both expressions, with does not govern the verb: The new student, along with another student, was being questioned. Not: The new student, along with another student, were being questioned.
a lot Commonly misspelled as alot. The phrase a lot of takes a plural verb with countable items--A lot of people are waiting to buy concert tickets--and a singular verb with uncountable concepts--A lot of work has gone into the project. A lot may be too casual or too imprecise for some writing. If so, try replacing with many for countable items or much for uncountable concepts--or be more specific about the amount or number. Also, try replacing a lot of (the) time with simpler often. See allot, allotted, allotting; many, much.
already exist Redundant. Drop already.
alright Nonstandard. Use all right (two words) instead, like you would use all wrong, not alwrong.
also To prevent errors in meaning, place also as close as possible to the word it modifies. Usually, that's directly before the word. Also usually goes before the main verb in compound verbs (separating the main verb from its auxiliary or helping verb): He is also threatening to run for reelection.
altar, alter Sometimes confused or misspelled. The noun altar is "a table or raised structure used in a religious ceremony." The verb alter means "to partially change something." But simplify. Try using change instead.
altercation It's a verbal quarrel, a noisy fight or brawl--using words, not fists.
alternate, alternative Often misused or confused. As a verb, alternate means to occur in turns--first one, then the other--or every other one in a series: Day alternates with night. As an adjective, it means arranged by turns: The chefs worked on alternate weekends. As a noun, it means a substitute: He's my alternate to the convention. As a noun and adjective, alternative means a choice between two things or among several things: They preferred an alternative landscape plan for the park. The alternatives are native Northwest plants and (not or) imported plants. Think about using simpler choice as a noun and different or other as an adjective.
although, though These words are interchangeable as conjunctions. Some people think although is more formal or more emphatic. Though also works as an adverb meaning "however" at the end of a sentence: She promised to do her homework, though. Though also is used in the idioms as though and even though.
altogether, all together. Sometimes confused. Use the adverb altogether to mean "completely, or the whole amount or number of something." Use the adjective phrase all together to describe everything or everyone together at once or in one place. Also, if people are in the altogether, they're nude.
alumni, alumnae, alumnus, alumna Commonly confused. Use the plural alumni when writing about a group of men or a group of men and women. Use the plural alumnae when writing about a group of women. Use the singular alumnus for a man and the singular alumna for a woman. For informal use, alum (not alumn) avoids the gender distinction.
a.m. See time.
ambience Preferred spelling. Not ambiance.
ambiguous, ambivalent, indifferent Sometimes confused. Use ambiguous to describe a word or statement that is unclear because it could have more than one meaning. Use ambivalent to described contradictory ideas or mixed feelings about something. Or try using clearer, simpler mixed feelings instead. Don't use ambivalent to mean "indecisive." Use indifferent to describe someone who has no interest, feelings or opinions about a subject. See disinterested, uninterested.
ameliorate Formal and overstated, unless you're referring to an unacceptable or intolerable condition. Simplify. Use make better or improve instead. Don't use to mean "appease, counteract, mitigate" or "lessen." And don't confuse with alleviate, which means "lessen or make less painful." Also, try substituting simpler lessen or reduce for alleviate.
amenity Usually plural as amenities, it's vague and overused. Simplify. Think about using conveniences or features instead, or be more specific: The new park features a wading pool and climbing toys.
America, American Though often used as a description for residents of the United States, American also may be applied to any resident or citizen of nations in the Caribbean and North, Central and South America. And America may be applied to any of those geographic areas. When possible, use a more precise term: United States or U.S. instead of America; U.S. citizen or U.S. resident instead of American; history of the United States or U.S. history instead of American history. Because they are used only in the United States, terms such African American, Asian American and Mexican American may be used. See African American; American Indian, Eskimo below; Asian, Pacific Islander; Hispanic, Latino; race; United States.
American Indian, Eskimo American Indian and Native American are synonymous. Preferences differ among indigenous people in the United States and Western Hemisphere. When in doubt about how to refer to a person's race or cultural or ethnic identity, ask the person in question what is preferred. But beware that Indians also refers to people who live in India. When possible, use national (or tribal) affiliation rather than generic American Indian or Native American: Navajo, Hopi, Muckleshoot. For Eskimos and Aleuts in Alaska, Alaska Native is preferred to American Indian. Don't use such disparaging words as wampum, warpath, powwow and squaw. To specify someone was born in the United States but isn't Native American, use native-born. Lowercase native when it stands alone. See capitalization, race, tribe.
Americans with Disabilities Act Spell out and capitalize on first reference. ADA (all caps, no periods) may be used on later references.
amid, amidst, among Avoid outdated amidst. Try using less formal in or among instead of amid. Use among with plural, countable nouns -- among friends, among passengers -- and save amid for use with uncountable mass nouns -- amid a crowd, amid congestion.
among, amongst, between Between introduces two items. Among introduces more than two: The host divided the pie between Don and Phil. The host divided the pie among Peter, Paul, John, George, Gordon and Mary. Amongst is archaic and pretentious; use among instead.
Between may be used to express the relationships of three or more items considered one pair at a time--when the action described can take place between only two of the several at once: Officials scheduled meetings between the community college and the Lake Washington, Bellevue and Issaquah school districts. See Myths and Superstitions of Writing.
Also, note the correct use of between ... and in this sentence: They had a choice between wide shoulders and sidewalks. Using between ... or instead is incorrect: They had a choice between wide shoulders or sidewalks.
amoral, immoral Commonly misused adjectives. Amoral means "neither moral (right) nor immoral (wrong)" or "incapable of knowing the difference." Immoral means "morally wrong and not accepted by society; wicked; improper sexual behavior." If you must judge someone's morals as worse than yours, you probably mean immoral. See moral, morale, morals.
amount, number Sometimes confused. Use amount with singular, uncountable mass nouns or things that are measured in bulk; use number with plural nouns and individual items that can be counted: a large amount of asphalt, a large number of speed bumps; a number of people, not an amount of people. Amount refers to "how much," number to "how many." See amount of below; a number of; fewer, less; many, much; number.
amount of Wordy. Think about omitting, or try replacing in the amount of with for or for the. Change: The dealer got a check in the amount of $239. To: The dealer got a check for $239. If necessary, use amount of to refer to a general quantity: There was a terrifying amount of work to be done. See number.
ampersand (&) Use the ampersand when a company uses it is part of the company's full name. Do not use the ampersand to replace and in other text. The ampersand may be used in tables and abbreviations.
Amtrak Don't use AMTRAK.
amuse, bemuse Often confused. Amuse means "to make someone smile or laugh" or "to entertain." Bemuse means "to confuse" or "to be lost in thought, preoccupied."
an See a, an.
and (conjunction) When joining two or more nouns or pronouns with and to form a compound subject, use a plural verb: The community college and the City of Vancouver are planning a joint performing arts center. Rain, hail and wind have caused about $3,400 damage. Singular verbs are OK for routinely combined phrases, such as fish and chips and law and order, but even then a plural verb would be OK. See or, plus.
and also Redundant. Simplify. Use either and or also, not both.
and, but Some teachers wisely taught us not to begin every sentence or fragment of a sentence with and (or but). And others taught us mistakenly not to begin any sentence with those conjunctions. Whatever the lesson, the result has been a common misunderstanding that it's incorrect to begin sentences with conjunctions. Ignore that myth!
And and but are simple, clear and correct transition words between related (and) and contrasting (but) sentences. Go ahead and use 'em--And instead of Additionally, Furthermore, In addition or Moreover, and But instead of However. But don't overdo it. They'll lose their punch. A comma is unnecessary following And and But at the beginning of a sentence. See also; beside, besides; so; yet; and Myths and Superstitions of Writing.
... and I, ... and me See I, me.
and/or Jargon. Avoid this ambiguous, awkward, overused phrase. Change: Use gold and/or purple beads in your project. To: Use gold beads or purple beads or both colors in your project. Or emphasize the distinction between the choices: Use both gold beads and purple beads in your project, or use either gold beads or purple beads. Or simply use or alone. See virgule (/).
anecdote, antidote Sometimes confused. An anecdote is "a short, entertaining and usually true story about a person or event." An antidote is "a remedy to the effects of a poison" and "something that makes an unpleasant situation better."
animals Use it or its with an animal unless it has a name or its sex is known: The horse was injured; it limped. The horse, Lady Godiva, was injured; she limped. The bull charged his tormentors. Lowercase the common names for types of animals, capitalizing only proper nouns and adjectives--or check a dictionary or specialized reference for specific animals: rhesus monkey, Boston terrier. For scientific (Latin) names of animals, see taxonomy.
announced See attribution.
annual Don't describe an event as annual until it has taken place at least two consecutive years. Don't use first annual. Say: Sponsors plan to hold the event annually [or simpler yearly].
annual meeting Lowercase in all uses.
antennae, antennas Insects may feel things with two long, thin antennae on their heads, but cars and radios may pick up signals with two or more antennas.
anticipate, expect Commonly confused. Anticipate means to expect and prepare for something; expect does not include the idea of preparation: Planners expect a record attendance. They have anticipated it by providing more service.
antidote See anecdote, antidote.
anxious, eager Often confused. Anxious means "to be worried, apprehensive, feeling anxiety." An unpleasant sensation, anxious is followed by about or for: The project lead is anxious about the expense. Eager means "wanting something very much." Denoting pleasant feelings, eager is followed by to: The group is eager to begin work.
anybody, any body, anyone, any one Anybody and anyone are interchangeable as indefinite references "to any person,"; anyone is used more often, and anybody is considered informal. They take singular verbs and pronouns: Anybody can ride the bus. Anyone can do that. I don't think anyone was prepared for the lesson. Any one means "any single person" or "any single thing." Use two words to single out one element of a group: Any one of them may speak at the meeting. Any body means "any human form" or "any group."
anymore, any more These two terms differ in meaning. Usually as one word in American English, anymore is an adverb that refers to time, typically in a negative sense or with the word not. It means "now," "any longer," "from now on": Alice doesn't live here anymore. I won't do that anymore.
As any more, the two words work together using their separate dictionary definitions. The term refers to number or quantity, meaning "any additional." Here, any more is an adverb modifying an adjective: I don't want any more pie. And here, any more is an adjective modifying a noun: I don't want any more. The term also is used mostly in a negative sense.
Here's a good example using both terms in a single sentence: I don't buy ties anymore because I don't need any more ties.
anyplace, anywhere Anywhere (one word) is the preferred adverb meaning "in or to any location when it doesn't matter where.": I'm willing to fly anywhere. Use any place (two words) when place is a noun: Do you know of any place that sells red galoshes?
anytime, any time One word as an adverb meaning "at any time": You're welcome to visit anytime But use two words if including the word at: You're welcome to visit at any time.
anyway, anyways Anyway is the standard word, meaning "as I was saying" at the beginning of a sentence (followed by a comma) and "in any event (or case)" at the end of a sentence. Consider dropping anyway as unnecessary. And save anyways for those uses when writing dialect.
AP See Associated Press.
apostrophe (') This punctuation mark has two main uses: First, it often shows possession: Dan Lindler's appointment. And second, it often marks the omission of letters in contractions and other words or numbers in years and decades: he'll, won't, finger lickin' good, the class of '68, the '90s.
Apostrophes never make a word plural, but they may be used to mark the plural of single letters and abbreviations with internal punctuation: Dot your i's. She got straights A's on her report card, M.A.'s Ph.D.'s. Don't use it in forming plurals of decades: the '70s, the 1980s, not '70's, the 1980's.
app Short for application. Lowercase unless part of a proper name; no period. Acceptable on second reference.
append Overstated and formal. Simplify. Try add or attach.
appendixes, appendices Except for scientific documents, appendixes is the preferred plural for appendix.
appreciate Often misused or overused. Use appreciate to express value, admiration or gratitude for a thing, behavior or action. Also, simplify. Try using thank you, please, admire, enjoy, like, prize, value or grateful instead.
appraise, apprise Often confused. To appraise means "to estimate the value of something or someone." To apprise means "to tell someone about something that interests the person." Also, apprise is overstated and formal. Simplify. Try changing to tell.
appropriate, apropos Sometimes confused. Use apropos as an adjective to mean "relevant and timely"--or use those words instead. Apropos (of) also means "about" and "by the way," but try using one of those simpler terms instead. Use appropriate or simpler right, correct or acceptable when writing about behavior or clothes. Also use appropriate--or substitute suitable--when describing the qualities of something for a particular purpose or situation. Appropriate may be more emphatic than suitable in some uses.
approximately Overstated. Replace approximately with simpler about, nearly, roughly or almost. About approximately is redundant. Drop approximately.
April Fools' Day The apostrophe goes after the s.
apt, likely Subtle difference in meaning. Use the adjective apt to describe a natural or habitual tendency or inclination to do something. Use the adjective likely to describe something that's probable or expected to happen. See liable, likely; likelihood, likely
arbitration, mediation Sometimes confused. Arbitration involves settling a dispute using a third party who hears evidence from opposing sides and makes a binding decision. Mediation involves settling differences using a third party who helps opposing sides agree through reason, persuasion and friendly or diplomatic intervention.
archaeology Preferred spelling. Not archeology.
area Overused, vague and redundant in phrases like this: She's skilled in the area of fund-raising. The program shows the area where you'll be staying. Simplify, delete or try using in, of or about instead: She's skilled in fund-raising. The program shows where you'll be staying. See field.
area codes See telephone numbers.
argument Commonly misspelled.
armed forces Lowercase when writing about the U.S. armed forces or armed forces of other countries. But capitalize Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marines, Navy, National Guard and Reserve when writing about U.S. forces. U.S. is not required before the names of U.S. forces if the affiliation is clear. Don't use abbreviations for the armed forces: USAF, USA, USCG, USMC and USN.
around See about, around.
arrive It needs the preposition at: She will arrive at Sea-Tac Airport by 4 p.m. Friday. Do not omit.
as a means to (of, for), as a way to (of, for) Wordy. Simplify. Try to or for.
ASAP Abbreviation for as soon as possible. All caps, no periods. Acceptable for casual use.
ascend See climb down, climb up.
ascertain Pompous. Simplify. Replace with find out, discover, learn, check or be sure.
as far as Wordy and often misused. Unless you're writing about distance, it must be followed by that's concerned, that goes, I know and so on. But simplify. Replace with as for: As for human rights, they must be protected. Not: As far as human rights are concerned, they must be protected. Or worse: As far as human rights, they must be protected. Correct: I'm riding the train as far as it will take me.
Asian, Pacific Islander A person having origins in any of the original people of East Asia, Southeast Asia, the Asian subcontinent or the Pacific islands. When in doubt about how to refer to a person's race or cultural or ethnic identity, ask the person in question what is preferred. When identifying U.S. citizens, specific terms like Japanese American or Korean American may be appropriate. Many people think Asiatic is offensive when applied to people. See capitalization, Oriental, race.
as if Use as if instead of like when followed by a clause with its own verb: She typed as if her life depended on it. Though interchangeable with as though, as if is preferred. See as, like below.
ask a question, ask the question Wordy and redundant. Simplify. Use ask instead or question as a verb.
as, like Often confused when comparing things. Both mean "equally" or "the same as." Use the conjunction as, however, to introduce a clause (a group of words with its own subject and verb), he should in this example: Jennifer saves her computer work as she should. Use like as a preposition to make a direct comparison of nouns or pronouns. It needs an object, an expert in this example: Jennifer saves her computer work like an expert. Memory tip: As is followed by a noun and a verb while like is followed by only a noun. See as if above; including, like, such as.
as long as Wordy. Replace with simpler if or since.
as of (now) Wordy. Replace with simpler now or today, or give a date: on Jan. 28, from Nov. 16.
as of yet See as yet, as of yet.
as per Jargon. Simplify. Replace with according to, or reword phrases to eliminate per: As per our instructions ... As we instructed. As per usual ... As usual. Avoid substituting wordy and legalistic in accordance with. See according to.
as regards Pompous. Simplify. Use about or as for.
assist, assistance Overstated and formal. Try simpler help unless someone has special skills to assist someone else.
assistant Do not abbreviate. Capitalize when part of an official title before a name: Engineering Assistant Teresa Gustafson. Lowercase when set off by commas after a name: Colin Healy, assistant supervisor, gave essential information. See capitalization, titles.
Associated Press, The Use The Associated Press on first reference. AP may be used on second reference. This manual mostly follows styles recommended in the easy-to-use Associated Press Stylebook.
as soon as. Acceptable but wordy and vague. Simplify. Try when or once or be more specific.
assuming that Wordy. Simplify. To begin a clause in a sentence, try if instead.
assure Assure means "to state confidently to another person or group that something has been or will be done": The director assured the council that staff will act on the resolution. See the ensure, insure.
asterisk (*) Often misspelled. Use this symbol in texts, charts and graphs to refer readers to footnotes, omissions, references and source information. Avoid putting important information in notes that readers may overlook. Also called a star, it's the symbol on the pushbutton in the lower left corner of the dialing pad on a standard pushbutton telephone--the star key.
as though See as if.
as to Pretentious jargon. Simplify. Except when using as to to begin a sentence, replace it with about or on. As for is a less formal phrase than as to at the beginning of a sentence.
as well as Wordy. Simplify. Use besides, and or also. If you do use as well as as a conjunction or to begin a parenthetical phrase, it does not affect the following verb: Gary as well as Greg loves her beauty. Tully's, as well as Starbucks, is expanding in the area.
Also, do not use as well as with the word both. Drop both or use and instead of as well as. Incorrect: Both Tully's, as well as Starbucks, is expanding in the area. Both Gary as well as Greg loves of her beauty. Correct: Tully's and Starbucks are expanding in the area. Both Gary and Greg love her beauty. See both; both ... and.
as yet, as of yet Wordy. Simplify. Use yet alone, so far or still.
at about Redundant. Simplify. Depending on what you're saying, drop either at or about. If you're being precise, drop about: They used to meet at 7:15 a.m. in his office. And if you're not being precise, drop at: They used to meet about 7:15 a.m. in his office. See about.
at all times Wordy. Simplify. Try always.
atheist See agnostic, atheist.
ATM Abbreviation for automated teller machine, not "automatic teller machine." ATM machine is redundant.
a total of See total, totaled, totaling.
attain Overstated and formal. Simplify. Try succeed, meet, reach or arrive at.
attempt (v.) Overstated. Simplify. Use try or take on instead.
at the end of Wordy. Simplify. Try after.
at the present time, at this point in time, at this particular time, at this point Wordy and pompous. Try now or today, which are shorter and less obtrusive if repeated. Or leave out the phrase.
at the time Wordy. Simplify. Try when.
at this juncture Formal. Use only when writing about a significant or critical activity or time. Critical junction is redundant. Pompous and comical if misused. Try using simpler now instead.
at this time Wordy, vague and pompous. Simplify. Use now instead.
attired Overstated and formal. Simplify. Try wore or dressed.
attractive in appearance Wordy and redundant. Simplify. Drop in appearance.
attorney, lawyer Not always interchangeable. Lawyers have law degrees; attorneys may have law degrees. An attorney (usually, but not necessarily, a lawyer) is a person empowered to act for another. Don't capitalize either word unless it's at the beginning of a sentence or it's part of an officeholder's title: District Attorney Eileen Delaunay.
attribution When identifying the source of information, especially for quotations or indirect quotations, avoid putting the attribution at the beginning of a sentence. Put the attribution in a less prominent position, unless the source is important or the preceding paragraph quoted another source. Include enough attribution so readers will know clearly who said what. See quotations.
The verb to say, usually in the past tense, said, is used most commonly in effective speech tags and attribution. It is inconspicuous, unobtrusive and short, and the meaning is clear.
Special situations may call for the careful use of verbs with special meanings; for example, testified in trials, public hearings and other official proceedings; cried out when quoting an injured person; pointed out if the statement is a fact. Save formal verbs like stated and announced for formal and important occasions. Be wary of words with meanings that readers could misinterpret: admitted, claimed, confessed, conceded, contended, refused, revealed. Don't use added, concluded or went on to say unless presenting statements in the same order used by the speaker. Also, went on to say is wordy. See according to, state.
The most straightforward word order for speech tags is subject first, verb second: Assaud said, President Santos said, the manager said, she said. But put said first if other words, such as long titles or descriptions of the speaker, would separate the verb and the speaker's name too widely: said David Koyama, manager of the Personnel Division; said Donna Nelson, first-place finisher in the annual golf tournament. See comma, quotation marks.
ATV See all-terrain vehicle.
audiovisual One word.
auger, augur Sometimes confused. An auger is "a tool for boring holes in wood or the earth." An augur is "a fortuneteller or prophet."
augment Formal. Consider replacing with simpler form of increase.
author Male and female authors write books, articles and stories. Authors also compose and create. Although some authors may be pretentious, author as a verb is pretentious. Don't use it.
automated teller machine, automatic teller machine See ATM.
auxiliary Commonly misspelled.
average If you're wondering how to abbreviate it, ask yourself, "If I don't know to abbreviate it, will my readers understand the abbreviation?" But if you insist on using an abbreviation, use less confusing avg instead of av, which has other meanings.
average, mean, median, mode, norm Often confused in writing about statistics. Average and mean are similar. An average is the result of adding various quantities together, then dividing the sum by the number of quantities. A mean is an amount, figure or value for the midway point between two extremes. It may be calculated like an average, with the result being the midway point between two extremes. A median is the middle number in a set of numbers arranged in order of size; half the numbers are above the median, and half are below. A mode is the value or number that occurs most often in a series. A norm is the standard for the average performance or behavior of a large group.
average of This phrase takes a plural verb when used in this way: An average of 20 CDs are missing from the store every week.
average person Imprecise. Average is best used in mentioning numbers. Think about using typical person instead.
averse See adverse, averse.
awards Capitalize the specific names of awards. Do not capitalize award if it is not part of the award's name. 2003 Editor of the Year, 2004 Platinum Award, certificate of merit. The charity gave the company an award. His son earned a first-place certificate.
awesome Cliche. Depending on your point, try good, inspiring, wonderful, impressive, serious or difficult. And better yet: Give details about why you think something is "awesome."
awhile, a while The prepositions for and in go before the noun phrase a while, not before the adverb awhile: He rested awhile. He rested for a while. Also, think about replacing either with more specific information: He rested 15 minutes.
AWOL Abbreviation for absent without leave, acceptable in all references, including first.
ax Preferred spelling. Not axe.
Maintained by Gary B. Larson of Seattle, Washington, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Updated April 14, 2013.