Your professional help to improve your written English

Category: vocabulary (Page 1 of 5)

Briefly and shortly

Briefly and shortly are easily confused. While brief and short are often synonymous (as you can read here), briefly and shortly have very different meanings.

Briefly means for a short time.

She appeared briefly in an Italian film.
In Britain he worked briefly as a veterinarian.
We spoke briefly about the weather.

Shortly means soon and indicates a point in time.

Shortly after her exam, she moved to Paris.
I’ll be with you shortly.

The following message should not worry you too much:

The landlord will briefly cut off electricity in the building.
This means that you will be without electricity for a short time.

However, if you get the following message, you might worry:

The landlord will shortly cut off electricity in the building.
This implies that you may not have time to prepare for the power cut.

To sum up:

Briefly tells us that something lasts for a short time.
Shortly indicates a short time before or after something.

I’ll see you briefly means that I will see you for a short time.
I’ll see you shortly means that I will see you very soon.

A young couple is seen from above waving goodbye.
They said they’d be back shortly

As I mentioned above, you can read about the words brief and short here.

Brief and short

What’s the difference between brief and short?

Both brief and short are adjectives that are the opposite of long when we talk about time.

The lecturer gave a brief summary of previous research.
There was a brief moment of silence.

We had a short discussion.
It happened a short time ago.

Short can also be the opposite of tall as well as the opposite of long when we talk about distance.

The boy was short and chubby.
The bus stop is just a short distance from our house.

A small boy is taking a short walk with his grandfather.
A short walk with grandpa

Brief is sometimes used as a verb meaning inform and as a noun meaning short information, summary.

The press secretary briefed us about the decision.
Our boss gave us a first brief of the negotiations.

Brief can also mean instructions about duties, responsibilities, etc.

Part of the architect’s brief was to design a building that would comply with local environmental regulations.

A briefing is a meeting in which detailed information or instructions are given.

Debriefing has two meanings: A detailed report given by an agent or a soldier after a mission has been carried out or a meeting held after a traumatic event (such as a natural disaster, a hijacking, etc.) to let victims deal with their trauma.

Briefs is another word for underwear, while shorts are trousers (usually for sport or relaxing) that reach only to the thighs or the knees. Shorts can also refer to underwear for men.

Before this text gets too long, I had better remind myself to be brief or to keep it short.

My next blog post takes a look at briefly and shortly, two words with very different meanings.

Take or bring

These two words usually indicate direction in relation to the speaker or the listener.

Take implies moving something from where the speaker or listener is.
Bring implies moving something to where the speaker or listener is.

Can you take my dress to the dry cleaner’s?
You can bring it back when you come next week.
Should I take some flowers to Mary’s party?
Don’t take your car to work today. There’s an awful traffic jam in the centre.
Bring the salt, please!
Wait a second! I’ll bring you your towel.

In the last sentence we look at the situation from the listener’s point of view. In other words, we have changed the perspective as in the following examples:

I took your briefcase home with me by mistake.
Thanks for your kind invitation. I’ll be happy to come. Shall I bring some wine?

A woman is standing in front of a lot of wine bottles in a liquor store
Shall I bring some wine?

To sum up, think of movement to or from a position. You can compare with come and go. You come here and you go there. Bring it here and take it there.

That said, you may find that either take or bring is used when the direction is unclear or unimportant. It can also depend on whether you put the emphasis on here or there, if you think about where you are now or already imagine yourself at another location.

When you say ”Should I take some flowers to Mary’s party?”, you are still at home. When you say, ”Shall I bring some wine?”, you are already imagining yourself at the party.

That’s OK!

In a previous blog entry we looked at acronyms and initialisms. Probably the most common initialism is OK. Meaning acceptable, everything is in order, go ahead, I approve, etc., it is used in many languages.

Just as internet-savvy young people nowadays use fancy abbreviations such as 2Y2 (to you too), CU L8ER (see you later) and TNX (thanks), people in the 1830s also made up funny abbreviations, often based on intended misspellings. They could, for example, write KY for know yuse, meaning no use. All right was abbreviated OW (oll wright). OK was such a misspelling, supposed to mean oll korrect. It became popular when it first appeared in print in the Boston Morning Post in 1839.

In 1840, President Martin van Buren campaigned for reelection, and his supporters chose O.K. as the motto for the campaign. Van Buren’s nickname was Old Kinderhook, and supporters formed O.K. Clubs around the country. In the end, van Buren was not okayed by the voters; his opponent William Henry Harrison won the election.

OK became increasingly popular and is used all over the world in various versions such as okeh, okie, okej, okey, ookoo, owkej, hokay and others.

You can write OK in different ways, with and without full stops and in uppercase or lowercase letters. If you write for a journal, you should consult its style guide. OK is also written okay, and in student slang it became okey-dokey or okie-dokie.

Space people at NASA added a letter; AOK means All OK.

The initialism has its own sign: to signal OK, you form a circle with your thumb and first finger with the other fingers pointing upwards.

A hand showing the OK sign with thumb and index finger forming a circle and the other fingers pointing upwards.
That’s OK!

You should, however, be cautious about using this OK sign in certain countries, where it might be vulgar or offensive. In Brazil, for example, it is the equivalent of giving someone the middle finger (up yours!). The sign has also become linked to white supremacist groups in the USA.

There have been alternative suggestions about the origin of OK. One theory says that the abbreviation is from the Choctaw language (the Choctaws are a Native American people in the southeastern United States). An example of folk etymology is the belief that OK comes from the Scottish och aye, meaning oh yes. Another explanation points out that the letters OK were stamped on biscuits given to soldiers in the American Civil War. The biscuits came from Orrin Kendall’s bakery. But the most probable explanation is the one from the Boston Morning Post.

Acronyms and initialisms

Acronyms are a type of abbreviation. They are formed by the first letter of each word in a phrase and usually, but not always, written in capital letters. An acronym is pronounced as a word:

ASAPAs soon as possible
HIRCHuman–industrial robot collaboration
NASDAQNational Association of Securities Dealers Automated Quotations
NATONorth Atlantic Treaty Organization
PINPersonal identification number
POTUSPresident of the United States
SARSSevere acute respiratory syndrome
SWOTStrengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats
UNESCOUnited Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
WADAWorld Anti-Doping Agency

Some words created as acronyms have become so common that people do not know they are acronyms. Some examples:

laserlight amplification by stimulated emission of radiation
radarradio detection and ranging
scubaself-contained underwater breathing apparatus
sonarsound navigation and ranging
taserThomas A Swift's Electric Rifle

There are other abbreviations formed by the first letter of each word, but they are pronounced as individual letters. These abbreviations are called initialisms. Some examples:

B2BBusiness-to-business
BMXBicycle motocross
CEOChief executive officer
CIACentral Intelligence Agency
DIYDo-it-yourself
FAQFrequently asked questions
FBIFederal Bureau of Investigation
IPOInitial public offering
NHLNational Hockey League
RFIDRadio frequency identification
WWWWorld Wide Web
An RFID tag.
Detail of an RFID tag used on a garment

The most common initialism is probably OK. It is such a popular abbreviation that it deserves its own blog post.

Communicating on the internet has created many abbreviations:

2F4UToo fast for you
AFKAway from keyboard
BBSBe back soon
LOLLaughing out loud
KISSKeep it simple, stupid
ROFLRolling on the floor laughing
YOLOYou only live once

How the first letter in an abbreviation is pronounced determines whether the indefinite article should be written a or an. Compare the following:

A UNESCO spokespersonAn unknown person
An FBI agentA federal agent
An HR managerA human resources manager

In my next blog post you can read about backronyms.

Like or such as?

Some writers use like when they should have used such as instead.

When you suggest a category or give something as a type example, write like:

Uncle Bill often listens to crooners like Bing Crosby.

Here Bing Crosby represents a specific type of singers, crooners, who often perform in a sentimental way (think of Crosby’s version of White Christmas and you will understand!).

The sentence does not state that Uncle Bill actually listens to Bing Crosby, only that he listens to singers of that type.

When you specify singers that Uncle Bill listens to, use such as:

He collects vinyl records with singers such as Dean Martin, Fred Astaire, Perry Como, Tony Bennett and Nat King Cole.

These singers are generally known as crooners, and here we understand that Uncle Bill has their records.

A plate of squids.
Seafood such as octopus is healthy

Some more examples:

You should eat more fruits like oranges.
Citrus fruits such as tangerines, clementines and lemons are rich in C vitamin. 
Advanced tools like robots can reduce production costs.
Robots can take over more complicated tasks such as welding and grinding.
The course covers basic concepts of business administration such as accounting, finance, human resources and marketing.

A songwriter like Leonard Cohen will be remembered forever (Songwriters similar to Cohen will never be forgotten).
A songwriter such as Leonard Cohen will be remembered forever (Leonard Cohen will never be forgotten).

There should not be a comma or a colon after such as, but you can have a comma before such as. Leave out that comma if what comes after such as is additional and essential information.

To sum up:

Use like when you refer to a category (you imply comparison).

Use such as when you give actual examples (you imply inclusion).

Recipe and receipt

What is a recipe and what is a receipt? The two words have different meanings, but it was not always so.

A recipe is something you use in the kitchen. It is a list of ingredients and instructions on how to prepare a dish or make a cake, for example.

When you pay for something you usually get a receipt, a proof of a transaction. Money has been received.

Originally these two words had the same meaning, coming from the Latin word recipere, to receive or take. In 14th century English both words referred to medicine, not to food. A prescription for a medicine usually started with the word recipe, meaning take.

Interior of a pharmacy with bottles of medicine.
Perhaps you need a prescription for this

There is not really much difference between preparing medicine and preparing food – in both cases it is a matter of preparing ingredients – so in the 18th century recipe began to be used also in the kitchen.

Recipe can also be used metaforically in expressions such as a recipe for disaster or a recipe for success.

In modern language, prescription is used to refer to medicine. The doctor prescribes what medicine you should take.

Then, when you have paid the doctor, he may write out a receipt.

Enquire and inquire

Enquire and inquire both mean to ask or seek information about something. The corresponding nouns are enquiry and inquiry.

Basically there is no big difference in meaning between these words. It can be generally said that inquire is the common form in the USA and enquire in Britain.

Burly man on a beach speaking on a cellphone. He is enquiring about renting a sunshade.
The man enquired about renting a sunshade

However, there are writers – particularly in Britain – who make a slight distinction between the two forms of the word. They use enquire simply as a synonym of ask in a general sense. Inquire is used with the meaning of making a formal investigation.

My boss enquired about the passing away of our dog.

The police are making inquiries to find the owner of the abandoned car.

If you write American English, you could use inquire, but otherwise you need not worry about which form is correct. As always, choose one form and be consistent throughout your text!

Don’t say too much!

Writers often say too much by adding unnecessary words. Phrases such as free gift and joint cooperation are examples of tautology (saying the same thing twice) or pleonasm (using more words than necessary). Words that do not add information are called redundant words. Get rid of redundancies!

Here are some examples of unnecessary words:

General consensus – if you have a consensus, all agree

Foreign imports – imports are always from another country

Unexpected surprise – it wouldn’t be a surprise if you expected it

Personal friend – if  you have a friend, you have a personal relationship. Someone who is not a friend may be an acquaintance

Past history – history is about the past

The two twins – would you expect them to be three?

Four different colours – if something comes in four colours, you can be sure they are different

Unsolved mystery – if you have solved it, it is not a mystery

I am sure you can see what’s wrong in the following examples:

Moment in time

Period of time

Few in number

On a daily basis

In actual fact

Sum total

Close proximity

Necessary requirement

New beginning

Advance planning

Outward appearances

The reason why

Return back

Combinations with together and each other are common – and unnecessary:

Combine together

Collaborate together

Join together

Merge together

Mix together

Blend together

Interact with each other

Another often unnecessary word is completely:

Completely surround

Completely empty

Completely unanimous

A man lying on a sun chair on a beach.
Completely alone? No, alone!

We might include end result and final outcome in the list of unnecessary words, but these combinations are acceptable, since it is possible to also talk about a preliminary result or a preliminary outcome.

Some abbreviations:

Since LCD means liquid crystal display, you should not write LCD display.

In PIN and ISBN, N stands for number – writing number after the abbreviation is pleonastic.

RAM means random access memory – don’t add memory.

UPC stands for universal product code and therefore you should not write UPC code.

ATM means automated teller machine – write only ATM.

Pleonasm is sometimes used as a rhetorical device for emphasis:

Each and every

Any and all

First and foremost

To all intents and purposes

Such emphasis is common in legal texts:

Null and void

Aid and abet

Fit and proper

Cease and desist

Sole and exclusive

Redundant words are so common that we often don’t notice them. Read your text with an eye on redundancies – and delete them!

Copy editor, copy-editor or copyeditor?

Am I a copy editor or a copy-editor? Or perhaps a copyeditor?

First, what is a copyeditor? In publishing, copy means text. Consequently a copyeditor edits texts. However, one could argue that there is a difference between what, for example, a managing editor does and what a copyeditor does. Or, to quote Karen Judd, ”A copyeditor does not edit copy; a copyeditor copyedits copy”. You can read about how I work here.

Man writing on a desktop computer. Is he a copy editor, a copy-editor or a copyeditor?
Copyeditor at work

Dictionaries differ in their recommendations. Merriam-Webster and Oxford English Dictionary have copy editor; The American Heritage Dictionary and The Chicago Manual of Style have copyeditor.

In book titles we can find both one and two words:

The Copyeditor’s Handbook (University of California Press)
Carol Fisher Salter: The Subversive Copy Editor: Advice from Chicago (University of Chicago Press)
Butcher’s Copy-editing (Cambridge University Press)
Karen Judd: Copyediting: A Practical Guide (Crisp Publications)

The Copy Editor newsletter changed its name to Copyediting newsletter.

As you can see from the URL of this site, I have settled for the one-word version copyeditor. One of the reasons is that my website address copyeditor.se looks better as one word; another reason is that many words beginning with copy are written as one word:

Copywriter, copydesk, copyright, copybook, etc.

There seems to be a trend for some compound words to go from two words via hyphenation to one word. A few examples:

proof reader – proof-reader – proofreader
base ball – base-ball – baseball
sub editor – sub-editor – subeditor
ink well – ink-well – inkwell
living room – living-room – livingroom

As always, the important thing is that you are consistent!

UPDATE June 2021:
Debbie Emmitt brilliantly sums up the issue here.

You can read more about compounds in this blog entry.

« Older posts

© 2022 copyeditor.se

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑