(A Usage Guide)
CUNY Graduate School of Journalism
This handbook focuses on grammar and usage. You won’t find entries on AP style (which you’ll be expected to use in assigned writing) or on punching up your ledes, creating good nut grafs or tightening your sentences.
Instead, what follows is a list of words and constructions commonly misused, misspelled or mispunctuated — some drawn from the grammar section of the J-School’s entrance exam, others included to reflect errors seen over the years by professors, coaches and the Career Services folks.
The list is far from comprehensive. It skips the basics of punctuation and sentence structure, for instance. So if you have questions not addressed by these entries, be sure to bring them up with the school’s writing coaches (Tim Harper and Deborah Stead), your professors or — if English is not your first language — our ESL coach, Diane Nottle.
You might also want to buy or borrow one of the usage guides listed on the last page. (Our library has copies.)
Consult this booklet throughout the first semester (and beyond, if you need to). Your Craft professor may elect to quiz you periodically on its contents.
- “Affect” is commonly used as a verb; “effect” is commonly used as a noun.
- To affect (verb) is to influence or have an impact on.
European diplomats said the WikiLeaks disclosures would not affect relations with the U.S.
- An effect (noun) is a result or an impact. Jack’s pleading had no effect on Maria.
• Here and There
In sentences starting with “Here (is) (are)” or “There (is) (are),” the verb agrees with the subject, which comes after the verb.
There are only two U.S. newspapers covering the turmoil in Mali.
Here’s [Here is] the book you ordered.
For tighter writing, recast sentences starting with “there is/there are.” Just two U.S. papers cover the turmoil in Mali.
• Every, Everyone, No One, Nobody, Each
All of these take singular verbs and singular pronouns (its, his or her).
Every student must file his or her [not “their”] story at the start of class.
Students must file their stories at the start of class.
Either Or/Neither Nor
Use a singular verb if two singular subjects appear between either/or (or neither/nor). Use a plural verb for two plural subjects.
Neither Thomas nor Phil knows how to drive.
Either potatoes or noodles come with that dish.
Weird but true: If one of the subjects is singular and the other plural, the one nearest the verb determines the verb form.
Put the plural subject last; it sounds better.
Neither rain nor snowstorms deter our UPS guy.
• Company, Government, Group, Team
These are singular nouns in American English. The company just filed its [not “their”] 10K with the Securities & Exchange Commission.
• Prepositional Phrases (Watch Out For) Don’t let a prepositional phrase confuse you when you’re looking for the subject. In the following sentences, “One” is the subject:
Only one [of the poems] rhymes.
One [of the candidates] has a shady past.
BUT: When a prepositional phrase is followed by “who” or “that,” things change: The “who” or “that” refers to the last word of the prepositional phrase. If that last word is a plural, you must use a plural verb. This is one of the poems that rhyme.
[Of the poems that rhyme, this is one.] He is one of the candidates who have a shady past.
[Of the candidates who have a shady past, he is one.]
Grammarians differ. But AP has a rule. From the AP Stylebook: [None] usually means ‘no single one.’ When used in this sense, it always takes singular verbs and pronouns: “None of the seats was in its right place.” Use a plural verb only if the sense is ‘no two’ or ‘no amount’: “None of the consultants agree on the same approach.”
“None of the taxes have been paid.”
To allude means to refer to indirectly or hint at.
He only alluded to the scandal, calling it “our problem.”
To elude means to escape or avoid.
The fugitive eluded capture by altering his appearance.
Alumni” is the plural, so don’t refer to someone as
If you’re amused, you’re entertained. If you’re bemused, you’re bewildered. Someone with a “bemused” expression is puzzled, in other words.
APOSTROPHES (WHEN TO USE WITH PRONOUNS)
A cruel trick of written English: While we always use an apostrophe to signal possession with nouns (Joe’s diner, the Joneses’ garage), we never use an apostrophe to signal possession with pronouns.
The cat licked its paws. That book is hers. The fault is yours. Hers is the grandest house. The idea wasn’t ours; it was theirs. Whose car was stolen?
Use an apostrophe with a personal pronoun only when you’re using a contraction — that is, when you mean “it is,” “who is,” “you are,” “they are.” It’s [It is] nerve-wracking to write on deadline.
Who’s [Who is] your editor?
I hope you’re [you are] enjoying the summer.
Use “as if” before a clause. (See CLAUSE) Use “like” before a noun or phrase.
It looks as if the storm will bypass New York City.
This feels like a dangerous situation.
BIANNUAL/SEMIANNUAL VS. BIENNIAL
“Biannual” and “semiannual” mean twice yearly.
It’s time for my semiannual [twice-a-year] checkup.
“Biennial” means once every two years.
U.S.Representatives are elected biennially.
Better yet: Avoid these terms and just say “twice a year” or “once every two years.”
A capital is a country’s (or state’s) seat of government–or a place that’s considered important for another reason.
Moscow is the capital of Russia.
Des Moines is Iowa’s capital.
Aleppo is the commercial capital of Syria.
Rome, Milan and Paris are Europe’s fashion capitals.
The Capitol is the building housing a legislature.
Did you take a tour of the Capitol in Washington?
To censor something is to ban or alter it drastically.
In 2009, Russian authorities censored an episode of “South Park,” deleting a scene that ridiculed Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
To censure is to reprimand (an official, usually).
In 1867, the House of Representatives censured John
Hunter (D-N.Y.) for “unparliamentary language.”
Review, if you need to, before reading the entry on
In the realm of syntax, a clause is any group of words containing a subject and a verb. A clause can be a sentence or it can be part of a sentence.
He stole the documents from the conference room. This clause is independent. (It can stand alone as a sentence.) “He” is the subject, “stole” the verb.
Whoever stole the documents is in big trouble.
“Whoever stole the documents” is a dependent clause within a sentence. It can’t stand alone (i.e. it’s not a sentence), but it’s still a clause. Its subject is “Whoever” and its verb is “stole.” It functions as the complete subject of the entire sentence. Here’s a breakdown:
[Whoever stole the documents] is in big trouble.
To compliment is to praise. To complement is to supplement.
My compliments to the chef: The side dishes were a perfect complement to the roast pork.
Complimentary means either “expressing praise” or “given free of charge.”
I heard some complimentary remarks about your front-page piece.
Every hotel guest gets a complimentary copy of The Washington Post.
Comprise means to contain. The whole comprises the parts, in other words.
His art collection comprises 110 Renaissance prints.
- Don’t use it as a fancy word for “are.”
The Williams children are [not “comprise”] the top athletes at the high school.
- Comprise is never used with “of.” Use “composed of” instead.
His art collection is composed of 110 Renaissance prints.
“Criterion” is singular, “criteria” plural.
The college meets Joe’s two criteria: It has a renowned physics faculty and co-ed dorms. But Joe doesn’t meet the single criterion for admission: a perfect SAT score.
DANGLERS (AKA DANGLING MODIFIERS)
Introductory words or phrases meant to modify something or someone must be immediately followed by (first) a comma and (then) the things or people they describe. Otherwise they become examples of an error known as a dangling modifier.
• Danglers can occur with introductory words ending in –ing, with past participles ending in -ed, with introductory adjectives, with introductory phrases starting with Like,Unlike and even with infinitives. (See last example.)
Below, some examples of danglers (with suggested corrections). Why so many? Because it’s easy to fall into the dangler trap.
Wrong: Jogging at night, the moon lights our way. [Why wrong: The moon isn’t jogging.] Right: Jogging at night, we count on the moon to light our way.
Wrong: Injured during practice, the game was off- limits to Eli.
[Why wrong: The game wasn’t “injured.”]
Right: Injured during practice, Eli sat out the game.
Wrong: As new parents, Felipe and Joan’s refrigerator door was plastered with baby photos. [Why wrong: The refrigerator door isn’t a new parent.]
Right: As new parents, Felipe and Joan plastered their refrigerator door with baby photos.
Wrong: Just 17 when he tried to enlist, the Army recruiter told Ted to come back with his parents. [Why wrong: The recruiter isn’t “just 17.”] Right: Just 17 years old when he tried to enlist, Ted was told to come back with his parents.
Wrong: After studying all night, the couch looked pretty inviting to Deirdre.
[Why wrong: The couch wasn’t studying.] Right: After studying all night, Deirdre thought the couch looked pretty inviting.
Wrong: At the age of six, my aunt took me to Mexico. [Why wrong: Your aunt wasn’t six at the time.] Right: At the age of six, I went to Mexico with my aunt.
Wrong: Like Carmela, Doug’s copy is always clean. [Why wrong: Doug’s copy isn’t “like” Carmela.] Right: Like Carmela’s, Doug’s copy is always clean.
OR: Like Carmela, Doug always files clean copy.
Wrong: Unlike my father, my preference is for oatmeal rather than eggs.
[Your preference isn’t “unlike” your father.] Right: Unlike my father, I prefer oatmeal to eggs.
Wrong: Talented and hardworking, NBC was quick to hire Raj.
[NBC isn’t “talented and…”]
Right: Talented and hardworking, Raj was snapped up by NBC.
Wrong: To understand how to use the software, the manual must be read.
Right: To understand how to use the software, read the manual. [the subject “you” is implied.] OR: To understand how to use the software you have to read the manual.
Disinterested means impartial. Uninterested means not interested.
A disinterested industry expert settled the dispute.
Uninterested in fashion, she got another internship.
Use “due to” when you can substitute “caused by” or “attributable to.” (Use it as a modifier of nouns, in other words.)
No: Due to the fact that he’s arrogant, he is unpopular.
Yes: His lack of popularity is due to his arrogance.
Yes: He’s unpopular because he’s arrogant.
EACH OTHER/ONE ANOTHER
Use “each other” for pairs. Use “one another” for more than two people or things. The 11 team members looked out for one another.
Romeo and Juliet loved each other.
Enormity means wickedness and has no relation to “enormous.” If you mean something huge, try
Citing the enormity of the crime, the judge sentenced the defendant to life imprisonment. English teachers cringed when Joe Biden praised the “enormity” of Obama’s mind.
Both mean well-known, but use “infamous” to connote a negative quality.
My aunt is famous for her pies.
Don Juan was an infamous seducer.
Use farther for physical distance, further for Metaphorical or figurative distance or degree.
You must go farther up the mountain if you want to see the Buddhist temple. I won’t discuss it any further.
To faze is to bother, disturb or upset. A phase is a stage or development.
Nothing fazes Eliza. Her flexibility and sense of humor got her through her son’s stubborn phase.
Use “fewer” for plural nouns you can “count” (peas, calories, nickels). Use “less” for nouns that are not “countable” (meat, fat, money). Think of it this way:
“Fewer” stresses number. “Less” stresses amount.
I’m taking fewer courses, so I’m under less stress.
He’s trying to consume fewer calories by eating fewer meals, but his doctor said he should just eat less fat.
To flaunt is to show off or call attention to. To flout is to defy or disregard.
At 13, Harry flaunted his rebelliousness by flouting every school rule.
To flounder is to struggle or thrash about.
To founder is to sink or collapse.
The Phillies are floundering this year. Wall Street was stunned when Lehman Brothers foundered in 2008.
Use “historic” to describe something claiming an important place in history — something that is momentous. Use “historical” or “historically” to discuss a fact or development (maybe important, maybe not) in the context of history.
Despite the Supreme Court’s historic 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, many public school systems remain segregated.
Historically, the term “tax rate” has meant the average or effective tax rate — that is, taxes as a share of
income. (The New York Times, 5/31/2011)
It stands for “human immunodeficiency virus.” So don’t add an extra “virus” after “HIV.” The goal is to start a mobile clinic for people with HIV.
HOME IN/HONE [Why “hone in” is wrong] When people, animals or things home in, they zero in on, focus on or move toward a goal.
(Think homing pigeons and missiles.) The new drug homes in on cancer cells found in certain types of leukemia.
When people hone something — a skill, a stick — they sharpen it. [Just “hone” – no “hone in”] I hone my bargaining skills by going to flea markets.
“IMPACT” AS A VERB . . .
. . . is business jargon. Instead, use “affect,” “influence,” “have an impact on” or “have an effect on.” Avoid, too, the dreaded “impactful.” IMPLY/INFER
You imply when you suggest or hint at something as a speaker or writer. You infer when you “get” that suggestion or hint as a listener or reader.
(Implying is pitching; inferring is receiving.)
She kept glaring at me, implying that I was responsible for the failure of the project. What did you infer from her body language and her remarks?
Do not use “literally” to mean “really, really.” (Don’treport that a business was “literally flooded” with orders unless those orders arrived floating in water that inundated the premises.) Use it only to make clear that you are using a term in its exact, rather than its figurative, sense. Below, a good New York Times hed about the color of taxis in an eco-friendlier fleet:
New Taxicabs Are Green, Literally
A good metaphor creates a vivid image by using words drawn from a specific realm (war, sailing, sports, farming) to describe something outside of that realm. But watch out for mixed metaphors, which draw from, or “mix” two (or more) realms.
O.K.: That marriage is negotiating the rough seas of middle age, and Belinda is about to throw Marc overboard. [O.K. because “seas” and “throw overboard” are both drawn from one realm: sailing]
NOT O.K.: “We’re close to the end zone now,” Henderson tweeted, as the company waited to hear about the contract. “But let’s not count our chickens before they hatch.” [Not O.K., because Henderson is mixing the realms of football and farming. Also
not O.K. because Henderson uses clichés.]
Like “infamous,” “notorious” means well known in a bad way. Bernard Madoff is a notorious swindler.
Onetime means former.
One-time [hyphenated] means occurring once.
The onetime gang member now counsels teens.
Applicants must pay a one-time fee.
Patricia T. O’Conner may have said it best in her first grammar guide, Woe Is I:
There’s nothing like a scientific word to lend an air of authority to a weak sentence. (“Let us review the parameters of the issue,” said Senator Blowhard.) That’s how a word like parameter (a mathematical term for a type of arbitrary constant or independent variable) worms its way into the Official Overwriters’ Vocabulary.
The word “parameter,” as O’Conner points out, does not mean “boundary,” “limit,” “outline” or “guideline.” Use these perfectly good words instead.
Phenomenon is singular, phenomena plural. (See CRITERION/CRITERIA.)
To pique is to excite (or to annoy).
Timmy wasn’t a great reader, but the Harry Potter series piqued his interest.
On Jan. 12, 1906, excited investors learned that the Dow Jones industrial average had peaked (at 100.25).
PUNCTUATION WITH QUOTATION MARKS
In American English:
- Commas and periods always go inside the quotation mark.
Calling the article “libelous,” Henderson vowed to sue.
President Obama told a reporter that Omar Little was
His favorite character from HBO’s “The Wire.”
- The placement of question marks depends on context.
Why would she call me “arrogant”? [The question isn’t part of the quoted material.] Roberto asked, “Is the piece ready to run?” [The question is part of the quoted material.]
Colons and semicolons always go outside the quotation marks.
I know why Rosa said the movie “stunk”:
Keanu Reeves is her least favorite actor.
I should stop calling him a “kid”; he’s 28 years old.
To reign is to rule. To rein in is to restrain.
The Soviet Union began to break up during Gorbachev’s reign.
U.S. companies plan to rein in capital spending.
The person who owns or runs a restaurant. No “n.”
Stationary means fixed or standing still. A cautious child, he rode the stationary horses on the carousel.
Stationery (with an “e” — think “letter”) is writing paper.
Use “that” to introduce “essential” clauses — those that identify exactly what noun you’re talking about. Use “which” to start “non-essential” clauses, those that just give “extra” information about a noun the reader knows.
The car that I bought in Sweden never needs repairs.
[The “that” clause tells the reader exactly which car is
being discussed. NOTE: NO COMMAS BEFORE OR AFTER]
The Gettysburg Address, which takes three minutes to recite, is as eloquent as it is brief. [The “which” clause just adds additional info about the Gettysburg Address.
NOTE: “WHICH” CLAUSES ARE SET OFF BY COMMAS.]
Torturous (think of the two r’s in “torture”) means horribly painful.
The procedure was torturous, but it saved his life.
Tortuous means winding, full of twists and turns.
That road is so tortuous it adds hours to the trip.
Unique means “one of a kind.” Someone or something can’t be “very” or “sort of” unique.
Use “who,” not “that,” for people.
Those who fail can take the test again.
- Be sure you understand what a clause is before reading this entry. (See CLAUSE, above.)
- Use “who” and “whoever” when talking about the subject of a clause—including a clause WITHIN a sentence.
Who uses the newsroom at night? Who is the subject of a clause (an independent clause, aka a sentence, in this case).
Whoever was here left a mess.
Whoever is the subject of the dependent clause
“Whoever was here.”
That legislation passed because of Lyndon Johnson, who was a political genius.
Who is the subject of the dependent clause “who was a political genius.”
- Use “whom” and “whomever” when talking about the object (of a verb or a preposition) in a clause.
Whom do you admire most? Whom is the object of the verb admire in this interrogatory sentence. [You is the subject.]
That legislation passed because of the political savvy of Lyndon Johnson, about whom Robert Caro has written so compellingly.
Whom is the object of the preposition about in the clause “about whom Robert Caro has written so compellingly.”
- Let’s look at some trickier WHOEVER/WHOMEVER choices:
I will give $25 to whoever can name all 44 U.S. presidents.
Whoever is correct because it’s the subject of the dependent clause “whoever can name all 44 U.S. presidents.” True, in the sentence, this clause functions as the object of the preposition “to.” But within the clause, whoever is the subject.
So whoever is right. Here’s a breakdown:
BREAKDOWN OF THE ENTIRE SENTENCE:
I will give $35 to [whoever can name . . . ] subj. vb. obj. prep. [object of the prep. “to”] of vb.
INSIDE THE “WHOEVER” CLAUSE:
[whoever can name all 44 U.S. presidents]
Subj. verb object of the verb “name” • Now, a sentence using “whomever” correctly:
I will give $25 to whomever you select. Why “whomever”? Because within the dependent clause “whomever you select,” it is the object of the
verb “select.” (The subject of the clause is “you.”)
BREAKDOWN OF THE ENTIRE SENTENCE: !
I will give $35 to [whomever you select]. subj. verb obj. prep. [object of the prep.”to”] of vb.
INSIDE THE “WHOMEVER” CLAUSE:
[whomever you select]
object of verb “select” subject verb
w w w
Guides Consulted for This Handbook
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation
(10th ed.), Jane Straus [HAS DRILLS AND QUIZZES]
The Elements of Style (3rd ed.),
William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White
Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.),
Bryan A. Garner [ERUDITE BUT NOT STUFFY; ALL EXAMPLES DRAWN FROM JOURNALISM]
Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better
Writing, Mignon Fogarty
Woe Is I (2nd ed.), Patricia T. O’Conner
[EXPERTISE FROM A FORMER NYT JOURNALIST]