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Henry Hitchings on Punctuation

On October 22, 2011, Henry Hitchings, author of the upcoming book, The Language Wars: A History of Proper English, wrote a column in The Wall Street Journal titled “Is This the Future of Punctuation?”. In it, he proposes that English is rapidly becoming more oriented toward the spoken language than toward the conventions of written punctuation. He notes that “People fuss about punctuation not only because it clarifies meaning but also because its neglect appears to reflect wider social decline. And while the big social battles seem intractable, smaller battles over the use of the apostrophe feel like they can be won.”

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Commonly Confused Words in Business Writing

In the word penultimate, the prefix pen means almost. Thus, penultimate means “almost ultimate,” specifically, next to last. Ultimate is the last; it often has the positive connotation of also being the best.

“I was in the penultimate place in the race!” seems like an achievement unless you know that only two people were racing.

Who wants to own the penultimate driving machine? Give me a BMW!

Her outfit was the ultimate in fashion.

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Want to learn more about transitive and intransitive verbs?

I saw a bumper sticker recently that said, “You can lead a horse to water  but a pencil must be lead.”  This would be funny if it were not incorrect. The past tense and the past participle of lead is led.

A  general leads his troops into battle.

Napoleon led his men into Russia just before the winter.

Soon the men realized that they had been led into a dire situation.

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Commonly Misused Words in Business Writing: Enormousness/Enormity, Amount/Number, Fewer/Less

Here are a few more pairs of commonly confused words. You will make fewer, lesser mistakes if you learn them well.

Enormousness vs. Enormity

Enormousness always refers to something that is a huge size.

The enormousness of the elephant amazed him.

The enormousness of the portions she served made it impossible for him to eat everything on his plate.

Enormity is another matter. Some people use it to describe something huge, but in reality the word is meant to carry a value judgment: It refers to something big and bad.

After he detonated the bomb, he was overwhelmed by the enormity of what he had done.

When American troops entered the concentration camps, they were stunned by the enormity of what they saw.

Some enormously relaxed writing mavens claim that since enormity has the same root as enormousness, well what the heck, let’s just make them synonymous. But no! Let us fight the good fight against sloppy definition. If we do not, we may look back ruefully someday on the enormity of what we have done to the language.

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