Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Where, oh where, is where?

Tuesday, March 17th, 2009

Time to scratch another itch that has been bothering me — the use (or rather, misuse) — of the word where.

According to the dictionary, where can be used as an adverb, a conjunction, a pronoun, and even a noun. But for one poetic exception, its use always refers to something spatial — a place.

That seems pretty clear to me. So, where were the editors when I found these where errors?

• “They want better results than they might obtain on their own where they do not have the training or experience to feel comfortable making these decisions…”


Actually, I’m not sure what the author meant to say. I think he meant, “They want better results than they might obtain on their own, although they do not have the training or experience to feel comfortable making these decisions.” But, that’s what happens when you do not select words precisely.


• “We found that in elite athletes where there was more likelihood of obtaining sports injuries, there was an increased risk of OA in the damaged joints, but in most people vigorous, low-impact exercise is beneficial for both its physical and mental benefits.”[doctor commenting on a medical study]


This sentence has several problems in addition to the misuse of where. Here is how I would edit (rewrite) it: “We found that elite athletes who were more likely to get sports injuries had an increased risk of OA in the damaged joints. However, in most people, vigorous, low-impact exercise provides both physical and mental benefits…”


• “Nucleation is the step where the solute molecules dispersed in the solvent start to gather…” Correctly stated, this sentence should read: “Nucleation is the step in which the solute molecules dispersed in the solvent start to gather…” 


Why is it so difficult to use this five-letter word correctly? I hear it misused on the radio by announcers and discussion hosts. (I expect more from NPR and faulty grammar.) I see it in the newspaper and in magazines. (Shame on the writers; more shame on the editors.)

I grant you, language is dynamic. It changes with the times. But, I can find no reason for where to take on a completely new meaning, especially since we have so many other fine words that more  than adequately provide descriptions.

I am probably fighting a losing battle. Those who misuse where will continue to misuse it, and editors — who were overworked before the recession caused their numbers to be cut — are now more overworked and are likely to skip over grammatical mistakes that annoy me to no end.

Of course, I have no control over anyone else, so I will refocus on what I can do. So, beware! If you give me something to edit, where will be on my watch list!

Until next time,

Linda Segall
Segall Enterprises: Writing and Editing Solutions


Wednesday, December 17th, 2008

I can accept bad grammar from those who don’t know any better — such as small children or individuals who are learning a new language or even people who have not been priviliged to have had a good education. But my tolerance runs short when persons in a role-model position (such as the President of the United States) or in a position of written trust (such as newspaper reporters) misuse the language.

I recently witnessed the commission of a grammatical mortal sin in the lead paragraph of a newspaper story published in the Jacksonville (Florida) Times-Union. It was a wire story from McClatchy Newspapers (which owns the Times-Union). The story reported on a fire at a church Gov. Sarah Palin attends in Wasilla, Alaska. The story began:

“WASILLA, ALASKA — Whomever torched Gov. Sarah Palin’s home church tried to start fires in several places about the building … ”

Did you catch the gross error? I hope so. The first word in the sentence should have been “whoever.” This word is used as the subject of the sentence (nominative case, to be technical); whomever is only used in the objective case, as “She questioned whomever she met.”

Shame on the writer of that article! Double shame on the newswire editor who let the story get out with the error! And triple shame on the local newspaper editor who allowed it into print!

Sometimes people misuse grammar when they are trying to “put on airs.” Sometimes, they misuse it because they remember hearing “something” about a rule of grammar and do not want to make a mistake. For example, I hear people — including our President Elect — incorrectly say, “between she and I.” (President-Elect Obama has said, on many occasions, “Between Michelle and I.”) The correct usage is “between her and me” and “between Michelle and me.” Why? Between is a preposition, and words following a preposition must be in the objective case. Hence, the correct words are “her” and “me.”

No one is perfect, even with respect to grammar. I make errors when I speak and probably when I write, also. I hope they are little mistakes, though — ones that don’t cause people to cover their ears.

The problem with published mistakes of grammar is that the writer forgets the power of the printed word. After all, if you see it printed, it must be true! At least, that is the public’s perception. So, those of us who write and publish shoulda tremendous responsibility to publish the truth, even down to the grammar we use.

If you see any grammatical errors in the magazines and newspapers you read, let me know. I think we need to bring them to light.

Until next time,

Linda Segall
Segall Enterprises: Writing and Editing Solutions

3 broken rules

Sunday, August 31st, 2008

I know I amlinda an anomaly: I love grammar. Actually, I don’t love grammar so much as I love the order grammar gives to language. Its rules allow us to communicate with little misunderstanding. But, for communication to occur, the rules have to be followed.

I cringe whenever I hear three rules broken — and I heard all three broken time and again as I listened intently to the politicians at the Democratic National Convention last week. As Ann Landers used to say, they deserve 40 lashes of a wet noodle.

The three broken rules? Here they are:

1. “Graduate college (or high school).” Oh, were my ears pained when I heard the phrase,”When I graduated college.” Please! Graduate is almost always an intransitive verb, which means it cannot take a direct object. If the speaker meant to say s/he received a diploma from a college, the correct usage would be “graduate from,” as in “I graduated from Indiana University.”

That said, graduate can be used as a transitive verb, but it is used in this way only rarely. As a transitive verb, it means to confer a degree or certificate, as in “Indiana University graduated 5,000 individuals last spring in an outdoor ceremony.”

2. Over. Such a little word, but it drives me crazy when it is used to mean “more than.” The first definitions of “over” refer to spatial and time relationships, such as “the roof over your head” or “over a period of 10 years.” 

OK. I’ll concede: The dictionary does allow over to mean more than, but this meaning is far down on the list of definitions. So, if you are referring to a number, use more than, not over, as in “More than 38 million people tuned in to Barack Obama’s acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. That’s more than the number tuned in to the Olympics the week before.”

3. There is/there are. Strictly speaking, this phrase is grammatically correct. It is, however, editorially lazy. As an editor, whenever I see that phrase, I look to see if the sentence can be recast without it. And usually it can be. For example, “There are rules that govern speed limits” can be restated, “Rules govern speed limits.” Or “There is only one acceptable answer” can be restated, “Only one acceptable answer exists.”

Does that mean you should never use the phrase “there is”? Absolutely not. Just use it judiciously. This is a case of less is more.

Each year, the editors of Miriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary come out with new additions in American English in spelling and usage. Language does change, but at a very slow pace. Until it is official, please try not to break the rules of grammar!

Until next time,

Linda Segall
Segall Enterprises: Writing and Editing Solutions

Writer myopia

Thursday, July 31st, 2008

Have you ever been frustrated by technology such as not being able to make your new gadget work as it was advertised?

LindaI suspect the frustration may not arise so much from the technology itself as from the instructions — or lack of them — that accompanied it. Take, as an example, my experience with my new cell phone.

I am a basic cell-phone person. All I really want the phone to do is to enable me to talk to someone when I am on the go. The only feature I truly appreciate is voice mail. All the others, including texting, are things I can easily do without.

However, cell phones today come loaded with all types of features, and since they are available, I want to know what they are how to use them. Once informed, I can then make a decision if I want to use them. So, when my husband and I traded in our two-year-old phones (which had no camera) for a newer model (with a camera), we pulled out the instruction book and began to learn what these phones could do to complicate (or simplify) our lives.

We might as well have left the instruction book in the box. It was worthless. The book’s grammar was correct, but the technical writer made all sorts of assumptions when he or she wrote it.

Here are two examples:

  • The back ‘button.’ When you turn on the display to show the various options (such as log, voice notes, settings, etc.), in the lower right corner is the word “exit.” Hitting the red “key” on the lower right side activates exit. However, once you go to an option, such as “settings,” “exit” becomes “back.” “Back” — to me — means going back one screen.But no, that is not what it means. “Back” means exit. It took (literally) several hours before I discovered where the “back” button was (upper right). It was not specified in the instruction book.  
  • Meaning of each display item. The writer obviously assumed the user would understand the meaning of each item shown on the display, such as “profiles.” Since I have used a cell phone for years, I knew what a profile was. But, every manufacturer defines its various profiles in different ways, and nowhere in the instruction book did Nokia, the manufacturer of my new phone, explain normal, silent, meeting, outdoor, my profile 1, my profile 2, and flight.In addition to profiles, the phone’s settings listed themes, tones, main display, mini-display, time and date, my shortcuts, connectivity, call, phone, enhancements, and security. Few of these were self-explanatory; fewer yet, such as “welcome note” and “flight query” (under phone settings) contained any explanation in the instruction book.

I suspect the primary reason why the instruction book lacked detail was because the writer suffered from writer myopia: He or she was too close to the subject matter and made too many assumptions about what the user would know.

Many years ago I took a graduate-level class in instructional design. The professor stressed we should never make assumptions about our learners. To demonstrate that most people do make assumptions, she had us pick a very simple task describe it step-by-step.

Try doing this. Pick a task, such as using your e-mail.

Did you remember to start by stating, “Turn on the computer”?

The lesson from my cell-phone experience is this: Don’t make assumptions about your audience. Stand back from what you are writing and think like your reader. Ask yourself how much knowledge this person has about your subject matter. It’s better to “dummy down” than to “talk over” the reader’s head.

And when you are done writing, ask someone who knows nothing about the subject to proof it for you — not only for spelling and punctuation, but for meaning. Does your piece make sense? If the person has questions, use the criticism to clarify what you are trying to say.

We have enough misunderstandings in the world. Don’t make your writing like a cell-phone instruction book.

Until next time,

Linda Segall
Writing and Editing Solutions

How to hire a writer or editor

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2008

LindaI subscribe to a number of e-newsletters. One of them is put out by a company called Marketprofs ( The other day, the e-newsletter had an article on how to select a copywriter.

The article gave me pause: It occurred to me that unless you are in publishing, you will not have a lot of experience hiring someone to help you with your writing or editing projects. So, I’d like to offer a few suggestions on how to select someone to help you with your projects:

Know what you want the person to do. Refine your vague ideas before you start looking. It’s like hiring an employee: Write a job description before you start recruiting.

  • Start your search.Some suggestions: Post your job on a number of Web sites dedicated to freelancers; place an ad on; Google the type of freelancer you want to hire; or network among friends.
  • Narrow the selection.Look at samples ofthe individual’s work; read them carefully. Does the person have expertise in the area you require? Does he or she write in the style you prefer? Is the sample “clean”? Do you understand what the individual is saying? If you aren’t happy with the samples, then move on.
  • Be specific in your assignment. Because you already defined what you want the person to do, this should not be a problem. But, put everything in writing, including terms of the contract (amount of pay, due date, manner in which the copy should be delivered, etc.). If it is an extensive project, be specific about when you should connect to review progress and how corrections and clarifications should be made.
  • Pay a fair price. Writers and editors are skilled individuals. Value what they do. Pay a fair, competitive rate for their work.

A writer can take ideas and put them into words. An editor can take your words and give them a polish that will make you shine. Whether you have a short press or product release, a white paper, Web content, a business report, or a book, you can make a great impression and be perceived for the expert you are — provided you hire the right writer or editor.

Until next time,

Linda Segall
Segall Enterprises: Writing and Editing Solutions

Written words are indelible

Tuesday, July 15th, 2008

LindaBy this time, you know about the fiasco of The New Yorker’s cover image. The attempt by the editors of the New Yorker to joke about Sen. Obama’s religious preferences and ethnic origins backfired. New YorkerEditor David Remmick said in a statement, “Satire is part of what we do, and it is meant to bring things out into the open, to hold up a mirror to the absurd. And that’s the spirit of this cover.”

Unfortunately, when you have to explain a joke, the joke loses its humor. That’s what happened here.

The cover, though, teaches an important lesson: Be careful what you publish, because your words become indelible.

You say you don’t publish? Do you send e-mail? Then you publish, albeit on a small scale. 

I use e-mail all the time. As an editor, I use e-mail as my primary means of communication with writers. E-mail expedites the business of writing and editing.

As you write your next e-mail, I’d like to caution you not to make four mistakes I see quite often:

  • Using caps and big fonts, and
  • Misspelling and writing in fragments.

I communicate by e-mail with a top executive in a large company. He is a kind and gentle man, and his messages to me have always been kind and gentle. The messages — not the way in which he conveys his messages. He always writes in capital letters and he always uses a very large font (14 or 16 points).

I suspect he writes in caps because he is a poor typist. As a hunt-and-peck person, it is easier for him to keep the cap lock on than to use the shift key. And I think he writes in large fonts because he can read what he is typing without putting on his reading glasses.

Unfortunately, his e-mails always look like they are shouting. That’s what caps and big letters do. They shout.

Shouting e-mails make a not-so-nice impression on the recipient. But e-mails that are written in fragmented sentences and with misspellings make an even worse impression.

Another executive writes missives that have no verbs! Words are misspelled, and nothing is capitalized. This executive is a well-schooled individual, but his e-mails suggest he failed sixth-grade spelling.

What’s so bad about these types of e-mails? Back in the days when people wrote letters, they rarely shared the content of personal letters with others. But e-mails are different. Recipients respond; they forward the message to other recipients. The result is that you never know who might read your original e-mail. So, you never know who is getting a first impression of you.

New Yorker Editor David Remmick’s choice of cover caused quite a controversy, but at least he had an opportunity to explain the reasoning behind his cover decision. The cover, though, is published for posterity. When you send an e-mail you probably won’t have an opportunity to explain yourself. Worse, you may not even know if an explanation is necessary. But your words will be indelible.

Writing is a useful, efficient, and effective way to communicate. If your typing skills are almost non-existent, consider taking an online class — or invest in dictation software. Before you send that e-mail, make sure your cap lock is set to off. And, finally, do a spell check.

Until next time,

Linda Segall
Segall Enterprises: Writing and Editing Solutions

More than commas

Tuesday, July 15th, 2008

LindaBelieve it or not, everyone is a writer.  You aren’t, you say? I disagree. You talk; you communicate. If you can present your ideas with a semblance of logic, then you are a writer. The only thing missing is putting those words on paper.

People believe they cannot write because they get caught up on the rules of grammar, organization, and spelling. Don’t misunderstand me: Grammar, organization, and spelling are all important — very important. But they are not “writing.”

Writing is conveying your thoughts. It is persuading. It is exposing ideas. It is expressing your feelings. You do those things every day; you just don’t do it on paper.

When I first began to write, I did it with pen in hand. Having ink-stained and callused fingers felt like writing to me. Sitting at a typewriter (no computers back then!) and hammering out mechanical words did notseem like writing, regardless of the ideas I was enscribing. However, I soon discovered that I could type faster (about 90 words per minute) and more legibly than I could pen by hand. So, I adapted. I learned to compose at the typewriter.

I bought my first computer for the sole purpose of writing. I learned the hard way that editors often want changes made to submitted work.  I had sent a series of five articles on job-seeking skills to the editor of the National Business Employment Weekly, a newspaper (now defunct) published by The Wall Street Journal. The editor liked my submisions and agreed to buy them, but he wanted a few enhancements.

I had sent him typed pages. To make the necessary changes I had to retype entire pages. Depending upon the extent of corrections and the point in the manuscript they were needed, that meant retyping almost entire articles. 

So, I bought my first computer and learned how to use a word processor. Not only was it easier to make corrections, but now I had a permanent record of everything I wrote. ‘Ain’t’ science and technology grand!

(For the record, today I find it very difficult to compose with a pen and paper. My best thoughts come out on the computer.)

To get back to my original premise: You can write. Put down your ideas. Dictate into a digital recorder; use a legal pad; or sit down at a computer. The method of writing doesn’t matter; recording your thoughts for posterity does.

If you decide to submit your written work for publication, you can hire a professional to help you polish it.

Don’t confuse commas with writing. It’s your ideas that count.

Until next time,

Linda Segall
Segall Enterprises: Writing & Editing Services