Pay attention, please. It's personal!
We who care deeply about language often develop a list of usage concerns to which we give special diligence. I am especially peeved by misuse of the following: 

     • “That” for “who” or “whom” in stories. 
     • “Anxious” (worry) for ”eager” (can't wait to get started). 
     • “Since” (time) for “because” (cause). 
     • “Whether or not” when “whether” is better by itself   
     • “Only” when it gives unnecessary value or isn't in the best spot. 
     • “ing”-troductions: Don't dangle your participial phrase. 
     • “Prior to” for “before”: Before (not prior to) lawyers, one word, not two. 
     • “It” and “they”: It's always nice when they agree. 
     • “Thing”: A great movie, but . . . 
     • Finally, media 'r' us. 

      Please make a special effort to sensitize yourself to these. Thank you.  

Are you man or beast? 
(Depends on “whom” or “what” you're talking about)

    Use “who” and “whom” for references to human beings and to animals with a name. Use “that” and “which” for inanimate objects and animals without a name. Some among us lapse into the incorrect usage “people that.” Avoid such lapses. It's acceptable in most speech; it is not acceptable in most good writing. 

Incorrect examples: 

    1. The president praised Americans that served in the Persian Gulf. 
    2. He said he hoped anyone that is registered will vote on Tuesday. 
    3. The woman that rented the room left the window open. 
    4. The Lawrence residents that flocked to the store were excited about the sale. 

Correct examples: 

    1. The woman who sang was talented. 
    2. Socks is the cat who moved into the White House. 
    3. Those who came early got the closer parking spaces. 
    4. The wolves that roamed the woods were vicious.  

“I'm anxious over the use of eager.”

    “Anxious” means to have anxiety. Don't use it to mean “eager.” 

Incorrect examples: 

    1. The players were anxious for the game to begin. (This would be correct only if the players truly displayed anxiety — great worry — about the game.)
    2. Many young children are anxious to receive new toys at Christmas. 

Correct examples: 

    1. Carson was eager to begin his new job. 
    2. He was anxious about whether he would succeed in that new job.  

“Since when?” “Now!” (because I say so).

    “Since” generally refers to time. It means “from a specified past time up to the present.” Avoid using it to mean “because.” 

Incorrect examples: 

    1.  Since I am the professor, I prepare the lesson plans. 
    2.  He was confident he would pass since he had studied hard. 

Correct examples: 

    1. Since arriving at KU, Sally had made several good friends. 
    2. There had not been a heavy snowfall since the winter of 1991.  

“Should I use it or not?” “Not!”

    “Whether” usually does not need to be followed by “or not” because it includes both possibilities. 

Incorrect example: 

    Whether or not you succeed in this class is determined by how well you follow the rules of editing preached by Professor Gibson. 

Correct example: 

    Whether you succeed in this class is determined by how well you follow the rules of editing preached by Professor Gibson.  

     And do not confuse if with whether. (If must have conditions attached. Here's what John Bremner says in “Words on Words”: “In 'I'll quit smoking if you'll help me,' your helping is a condition of my quitting. But in 'I want to know if you'll help me,' your helping is not a condition of my knowing." So, my dear friends, it's “whether,” as in “whether or not” (though the “or not“ is not needed). Got it?

“If only you knew” (or is it “only knew?”)

      The word “only” can cause problems that are easy to avoid if you keep three rules in mind. The first is fairly straight-forward. The second is, too, but a little more complex. The third is the easiest: Make sure you apply rules #1 and #2. 

      • Rule 1: Be careful when “only” places value on what it modifies. 
      The Legislature approved only $3.5 million for child care in the $2 billion education package.
      “Only” implies that more money should have been allocated, leaving the impression that those hard-hearted politicians don’t care about kids. That may be the case, but don’t use the word “only” to qualify the number unless the story gives a crystal-clear impression that the allocation should have been more. (Of course, if the story does that, then you don’t need the word “only.”  Makes sense, doesn't it?) 

      • Rule 2:  Make sure that “only” is in the correct spot, which is not always as easy as you might think. For example, take the following seven-word sentence (from “Word Study,” distributed by G. & C. Merriam Co.): 

     I hit him in the eye yesterday.

     You will get eight distinct meanings depending on where you put the word “only.” Try it. 

     Only I hit him in the eye yesterday.
     I only hit him in the eye yesterday.
     I hit only him in the eye yesterday.
     I hit him only in the eye yesterday.
     I hit him in only the eye yesterday.
     I hit him in the only eye yesterday.
     I hit him in the eye only yesterday.
     I hit him in the eye yesterday only.

     Always try to put the word “only” as close as possible to the word or phrase it modifies. Please note the emphasis on the words "as close as possible." Sometimes it’s better, for clarity or for the ear, to move it away. Take these two examples from "The Careful Writer" by Ted Bernstein: 

      “The decision affected only picketing at the Medical Center.” 

      Better: “...only at the Medical Center.” 

      “What is happening now can only be called a paperback-book explosion.” 

     OK, you might argue that  “only” should go directly before “a paperback-book explosion.” But that would be awkward and, unlike the “Medical Center” example, there is no ambiguity by putting it before “be.” That’s the key: ambiguity. Avoid it at all costs. And, yes, the verb split is OK. 

      • Rule #3: Every time you see the word “only,” make sure that (1) it’s needed and, if so, (2) that it’s in the best possible spot. 

Don't dangle (your participial phrase) in public

      Here's an easy way to catch dangling participial phrases every time: Whenever you see a sentence begin with “-ing,” immediately go in search of a comma to ensure that the word following it (subject of the sentence) is what's being “-ing-ed” by the “-ing.” 

Incorrect example (sent by an interested observer from the San Jose Mercury-News): 

     “After falling out of favor with Coach Kevin Constantine, the Sharks traded Jeff Norton ...” 

     The Sharks did not fall out of favor, Jeff did. Rewrite the sentence. 

     At times, it can get silly or embarrassing. For example: 

     “Voting in his first election, the guide dog led his master into the booth.”

     Hmmm, suffrage for dogs? 

Prior to litigating, literate lawyers* use before”

      This ain't the law, and you ain't no lawyer (and, yes, I intended to write it that way because most lawyers, while they don't write in the vernacular, do write in ways that no literate person should accept.) 
     So, please, when you see a sentence such as “Prior to the meeting, the mayor shot the city manager,” make it: “Before the meeting, the mayor shot the city manager.” (Then dial 911.) 

     *An oxymoron, ho, ho? Oh, on the awful chance that you decide to become a lawyer: 
     1. Don't sue me. It's just a joke. It's also an opinion protected by the First Amendment. 
     2. The “prior to/before” rule still applies. “Before” is better — as is everything else you'll experience in this class. So even if  you litigate, be literate. Please. 

“It” and “they”: It's always nice when they agree

      Ok, it's this simple: “it” is singular; “they” is plural. So please note:

     Correct: The Jayhawks are ranked number one, and they play the second-ranked team on Tuesday.
     Incorrect: The Jayhawks are ranked number one, and it will play the second-ranked team on Tuesday.

     That's the easy one. Most folks don't make that mistake. The next example is what happens more often.

    Incorrect: Kansas is expected to face a tough defense when they face Oklahoma at Allen Fieldhouse.
    Incorrect: The team is expected to face a tough defense when they face Oklahoma at Allen Fieldhouse.

     Correct: Kansas is expected to face a tough defense when it faces Oklahoma at Allen Fieldhouse.
     Correct: The team is expected to face a tough defense when it faces Oklahoma at Allen Fieldhouse.

     An anecdote: Jimmy Selmon, a helluva nice guy, ran the sports department at The Tampa Tribune, where I started my newspaper career covering, among other “things” (see next item), the Clearwater High Tornadoes. On my first story, I made an agreement error. Jimmy, a nice guy and a man of few words, called me and simply said: “It's Clearwater 'it'; Tornadoes 'they.' Don't get it wrong again.” I didn't; I wanted to keep my job. Years later, when I asked Jimmy about it, he had a simple reason for being so direct: He said an editor shouldn't have to worry about something so basic when editing a story. A writer should get something so fundamentally basic correct.. He's right. The same goes for you. It's something you (we) should get correct — every time.

“Thing”: A great movie, but . . .

      The ubiquitous “thing” shows up in stories all the time. The word should be substituted with a better word, except in quotes, 99 percent of the time. Why? It's imprecise. Use a word that encompases what “thing” is, and the story will be better. Period.
     P.S.: “The Thing” is a terrific movie — the first one (officially “The Thing from Another World,” released in 1951), not the remake (a 1982 version with Kurt Russell that was, well, bad). The first “Thing” was well-ahead of its time and is an interesting commentary on the nuclear threat at a time when folks were sensitive to that sort of, uh, thing (or, rather, threat).

Finally, media 'r' us!

      You'll likely be working in a medium and will be a member of the media, so get this correct. 
      It's “media are . . .” A medium is a newspaper or the newspaper biz, or radio, or television, or advertising, etc. Media are all of those together. (A medium is also someone who works for the Psychic Friends Network, but when there's more than one of those, then they're mediums. But we likely won't run into any of 'em here.) 
      Watch out for those Latin words: datum is/data are (though The New York Times does not use “datum,” using “data” as a singular or a plural, depending on the context); alumnus or alumna is/alumni or alumnae are. (Alumnus, by the way, refers only to a male. Alumni refers to males and also is used when referring to a mixed group of males and females. For females, it's alumna [singular] and alumnae [plural]). 

     A good way to get it correct every time: Anytime you see a vowel at the end of a word, stop for a second and ask yourself if its roots are in Latin. If so, look it up! If unsure to any degree, look it up. The best rule to follow? If you're 100 percent positive that you're correct, still look it up.


Updated Jan. 4, 2013