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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

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!

Less or fewer?

Which is correct, less cars or fewer cars?

Perhaps you find it difficult to sort out words such as little, much, few, a few, many, less, more, a lot of and plenty of.

MANY AND MUCH

Many is always used with the plural form of countable nouns (you can read about countables and uncountables here).

She has written many articles about ancient Rome.

We have many students from Asia.

Much is always used with uncountable nouns.

The production process requires much energy.

Don’t drink too much beer!

Both many and much take the comparative form more.

There were more students last year.

I wish I had more time.

A lot of, lots of and plenty of can all be combined with both countables and uncountables.

There are lots of nice places to visit along the coast.

Take it easy – you have plenty of time.

FEW AND LITTLE

Few means ’not many, almost none’. Use few with countable nouns.

He had few interests and was quite bored.

There are few artists who have had such success.

A few means ’two or three, a handful of’. Use a few with countables.

We saw a few birds by the river.

A few members of the staff had already arrived.

The difference between few and a few applies also to little and a little. Both little and a little suggest ’not much’, but there is a difference in meaning.

I have little money sounds rather negative; you would like to have more.

I have a little money implies that you actually can buy something, although nothing expensive.

I have little money but much time.

Since he had little experience, he did not get the job.

A little rain will be good for our garden.

I would be grateful for a little extra time

Just a couple of cars on the Autobahn in Austria with some farm buildings on a hill in the background
Fewer cars and less traffic on the way back home

FEWER AND LESS

Fewer is the comparative form of few. It is used with countables.

The fewer mistakes you make in your report, the better it is.

The company has fewer employees than I expected.

Some writers use the word less where they should have fewer instead. The correct choice is to use less with an uncountable.

I like my new job, even if it gives me less money.

Perhaps you should drink less beer.

Less is used before than in expressions of time and measurements.

They had lived there for less than two years.

My job is less than three kilometres from our house.

There is also the form lesser, meaning ’not as great in size or importance as something else’.

Do you consider this a lesser crime?

We need to choose the lesser of two evils.

MORE

More is the comparative of both many and much.

I wish I had more money.

This year there are more students from Africa.

How to start and end a letter or an email

In formal correspondence it is important to start – and end – a letter with the right tone.

How you can begin a letter or an email

If you know the name of the recipient, use the title and the surname after the word Dear.

Dear Ms O’Connor,

Dear Mr Harding,

Dear Dr Johnson,

Dear Professor Green,

Using the abbreviated form Prof may seem less respectful, and the full form is recommended.

As mentioned here, there is usually a period (a full stop) after abbreviated titles in American English. In American English the salutation is usually followed by a colon instead of a comma.

If a person’s name does not reveal whether it is a man or a woman and you are not sure, write the full name:

Dear Kim Nelson,

Dear Taylor Smith,

Don’t know the name?

If you do not know the name of the person you are writing to, try to find it out. Check the website of the journal, university, department, organisation, company, etc., under ”Staff”, ”About us” or ”Contact Us”. You might also find out a person’s name on LinkedIn. Another option would be to call the office and ask for the name.

If you cannot find the name but know the person’s function, you can write, for example,

Dear Editor,

Dear Librarian,

Dear Recruiting Manager,

Dear Chief Technology Officer,

Dear Communications Director,

Dear President of Sales,

Dear Social Media Specialist,

Dear Research Assistant,

Dear Supervisor,

If you know neither the name nor the function of the person you are writing to, write

Dear Sir/Madam, and if you know the recipient is a man (woman), write Dear Sir, (Dear Madam,). If there are more than one recipient, you can write Dear Sirs,.

Some writers use the phrase

To whom it may concern, (in American English To Whom It May Concern),

but that may seem too impersonal.

Battered letterbox by the roadside in the US desert
Perhaps less suitable for formal letters

Ending a letter or an email

To end a formal letter to a person whose name you know, write

Yours sincerely, (mainly British usage)

Sincerely yours, (mainly American usage)

If you do not know the name of the recipient, write

Yours faithfully, (British English)

Yours truly, (American English)

Slightly less formal endings would be

With best regards,

With kindest regards,

And more informal:

Regards,

Kind regards,

Best regards,

These last examples would be suitable in an email, since emails are seen as less formal than letters.

A hyphen is not the same as a dash

A hyphen and a dash are two different things—and there are two dashes. Confusing? Let’s try and sort it out.

This is a hyphen :
This is an en dash:
This is an em dash:

NOTICE: For some reason, WordPress does not show the correct length of the dashes. In the editor, the difference between the en dash and the em dash is clearly visible, but when I update and then look at the page (the one you are looking at now), that difference is not there. Sorry! You just have to take my word for it—the em dash is longer than the en dash.

HYPHEN

To begin with, in your native language (other than English) you can perhaps insert a hyphen when a word has to be split up at the end of a line. This is very unusual in English texts. And nowadays it is unusual in any text written on a computer, since the line breaks are inserted automatically. Even when a text is right-justified (the text is aligned with the right margin), the word processor adjusts the line length by changing the spaces between words. So we need not worry about this use of the hyphen.

A much more common use of the hyphen is in compounds, inside words or word combinations. Re-establish is a word made up of the prefix re and the verb establish. It means establish again.

We use a hyphen in compounds such as self-esteem, fifty-six, far-reaching, blue-green, sister-in-law and state-of-the-art. However, there are many compounds in English that are written without a hyphen—financial manager, production plan, information technology, etc. And many compounds are written in one word—airport, football, input, headache, etc. You can read more about compounds here.

Door with incomplete text showing opening hours.
Not much correct here…

THE EN DASH

An en dash has its name from the fact that it is as wide as the letter N. Consequently, the longer dash is called em dash.

The en dash (–) is used to indicate a range of, for example, dates, years or pages in a book:

You can find his most famous speech on pages 149–153.
Barack Obama was President of the USA 2009–2017.
The conference was held 31 August–2 September.

The en dash can also indicate a relation or connection:

His research focuses on human–robot collaboration.
They usually took the Paris–Brussels train.
They had a close mother–daughter relationship.

Notice that you cannot use a dash if you write between or from. It is wrong to write *between 2009–2017 or *from 149–153. (For the use of the asterisk here see the note at the end of this page.)

Obama’s presidency was between 2009 and 2017.
The speech is printed on the pages from 149 to 153

Street sign with most of the text hidden and wrong use of a dash
Looks like an em dash here, which is wrong

THE EM DASH

The em dash (—) is longer than a hyphen or an en dash. The em dash indicates a break or an insert in a sentence. It can be used in pairs like brackets or alone to separate the end of a sentence from the main part.

Most of their garden products—lawn mowers, grass trimmers, hedge trimmers and leaf blowers—were on sale in October.
His fame had spread far and wide—he had shown that he was a very talented footballer—and he could now sign a new and better contract.
I had better put on winter tyres right awa—there’ll be snow any day now.

There are no spaces before and after a hyphen, an en dash or an em dash.

However, some British style guides recommend to use an en dash with spaces before and after it instead of an em dash. If you write for a journal, make sure to consult its guide for authors.

In my next blog entry I will show you where to find dashes on a computer keyboard.

An old furniture salesman or an old-furniture salesman?

As you could see here, most English compounds are not hyphenated. However, a hyphen is used when a compound is a modifier. A modifier changes or adds to  the meaning of the word that follows. In the phrase That’s a big house, the word big is a modifier; it adds something to the concept house.

When the compound is a modifier, especially when it modifies a noun, we use a hyphen:
This is a well-written article.

But there is no hyphen in the following sentence:
I think the article is well written.

Here are some more examples:

They are five-year-old children. (Notice that there is no plural -s).
The children are five years old.

He is a part-time mechanic.
He works part time.

This is a long-term project.
We must plan for the long term.

The hyphen often helps to clarify what the writer wants to say.

He is selling his little-used bike means that the bike has not been used much.
He is selling his little used bike would mean that the bike is little (small) and has been used.

This is obviously a little-used bike

Do you understand the difference between a single family home and a single-family home?
And between a small business owner and a small-business owner?
Or an old furniture salesman and an old-furniture salesman?

We can leave out the hyphen if there is no risk for confusion:

I found a used car dealer.

An adverb ending in -ly is not followed by a hyphen:

A smartly dressed woman

Compounds in English

When two or more words are combined to form a new concept with a new meaning, we talk about a compound.

A compound can be a combination of a noun and a noun (school nurse), an adjective and a noun (full moon), an adverb and a verb (far-reaching), a verb and an adverb (check-up), a preposition and a noun (underworld), a preposition and a verb (overestimate), an adjective and another adjective (blue-green) – and a few more combinations.

In English there are three ways to write compound words: as separate words (open compounds), as one word (closed compounds) or as words combined with a hyphen (hyphenated compounds). This can sometimes be rather confusing. We write head office as separate words, we write head-teacher with a hyphen and we write headmaster as one word. Likewise we have table knife but tablespoon.

This may seem frustrating, and if you are in doubt, you had better check a dictionary or a style sheet. (Actually, you can also write stylesheet. Some compounds can take any of the three forms. You can write life style, life-style or lifestyle.)

OPEN COMPOUNDS

Unlike some other languages – German, Swedish or Finnish, for example – English often does not combine the separate words into one word. A breakfast table is in German Frühstückstisch; a hotel room is in Swedish hotellrum; a taxi driver is in Finnish taksinkuljettaja.

Here are some examples of open compounds in English:

apple piehalf sister
coffee muginformation technology
computer networklight year
couch potatoliving room
database designmaster bedroom
decision makerorange juice
dinner tablepost office
English teacherswimming pool
evening dresstruck driver
football stadiumvideo game
full moonwashing machine
Two adults hiking in the Julian Alps in Slovenia on their way to the highest peak, Triglav.
An open compound: Mountain climbers

CLOSED COMPOUNDS

The following are examples of compounds written in one word:

afternoonmakeup
airportnewspaper
blackboardnotebook
bodyguardonline
bookstorepaycheck
cupcakepolicewoman
cowboyskateboard
doorbellsubstandard
downtowntakeaway
footballtextbook
grandmotherunderworld
handoutwallpaper
headachewatermelon
inputworksheet

Compounds with words from Latin or Greek are written as one word:

photography

agriculture

HYPHENATED COMPOUNDS

Many compounds – especially those formed by two nouns – used to be hyphenated, but now most of them are written either as one word or two separate words. Here are some compounds that are still hyphenated (and you will notice that they are generally not of the noun+noun type):

broad-mindedrunner-up
check-insecretary-general
dry-cleaningself-esteem
far-reachingsix-pack
go-betweenwell-being
passer-byX-ray

Compounds with three or more words are usually written with hyphens:

around-the-clockmerry-go-round
do-it-yourselfmother-of-pearl
editor-in-chiefright-of-way
father-in-lawjack-of-all-trades
happy-go-luckystate-of-the-art

Compound numbers from twenty-one to ninety-nine are hyphenated:
My dad is forty-two.

Fractions also take a hyphen:
We had already driven two-thirds of the way.
Less than one-fifth of the operators are women.

But with a instead of one there is no hyphen: Less than a fifth of the operators are women.

Some compounds have changed from being hyphenated to a single word. We used to write on-line and world-wide, but nowadays online and worldwide are more common. This also applies to words such as cooperate and proactive.

To avoid confusion, a hyphen is used when the prefix ends and the base word begins with the same vowel:

anti-intellectual

COMPUNDS AS MODIFIERS

When compounds are used as modifiers, they are written with a hyphen. A modifier works as an adjective or adverb to add information about the word directly following it.

A six-year-old boy.
But: The boy was six years old.

We rely on just-in-time delivery.
But: I arrived just in time. The clock struck three when I opened the door.

You can read about compounds as modifiers here.

Co-operate or cooperate?

Co is a prefix, a syllable placed before a word. The word prefix itself is made up of the prefix pre (meaning before) and the word fix (meaning attach).

The prefix co (and its alternative forms con, com, col and cor, depending on which letter follows the prefix) has the meaning with, together with.

A prefix is usually not followed by a hyphen. Some examples:
Afterthought, antedate, biannual, collaborate, commemorate, confederation, displace, ensure, illegal, indirect, overuse, posttraumatic, prepaid, replace, submarine, underestimate, uninterested.

So you are right in leaving out the hyphen in words such as cooperate, collaborate and coordinate.

A grandfather is helping his grandson with a toy car
Cooperation

However, in some cases a hyphen is to prefer, since otherwise the spelling might suggest a different pronunciation:

If you write co-opt without a hyphen (coopt), it looks as if it could be pronounced with a vowel as in too, and re-edit, when written reedit might sound like read it. The same pronunciation issue would apply to, for example, re-enter, re-establish, and re-examine.

Some words with the prefix re- have two versions, one with and one without a hyphen:

When you re-sign a document, you sign it again, but when you resign, you quit a job.
To re-cover means to cover again, while recover is to get better, regain your health.
When you re-store goods, you put them back in store again, but to restore something means to reconstruct or bring back to a former state.

And, since we are dealing with English, we have to accept inconsistencies like the following:

Anti-clockwise, anti-hero and anti-Semitism but antirust, antiseptic and antisocial.
Vice President of a state; vice president or vice-president in business.
Viceroy but vice-chancellor.

A last note: Instead of writing cooperate, you could consider writing collaborate. There is a difference between the two!

How to use the semicolon

Many writers seem to be unsure of how to use the semicolon.

This image shows what a semicolon looks like.
A combination of a comma and a full stop

The semicolon looks like a combination of a full stop and a comma, and that is an indication of how it is used. Like the comma and the full stop, the semicolon separates clauses. The semicolon links two independent clauses that are closely related. In other words, we use a semicolon between two complete sentences to indicate that what they say is of equal importance. The semicolon can replace words such as and and but.

Finally, Tom found his bike behind the garage; it was rusty and the tires were flat.
This method is based on many years of research; particularly important are the findings from four studies in the heavy vehicles industry.
The potential variables are numerous; they include everything that might influence the evaluation criteria.

You cannot have a semicolon after a dependent clause beginning with words such as since, although, when, because, etc.

Since she had visited the city several times, she knew all the tourist spots.
She had visited the city several times; she knew all the tourist spots.

To avoid confusion, use a semicolon to separate groups in an enumeration.

Among the cities in the study were Hamburg, Germany; Milan, Italy; Copenhagen, Denmark; and Helsinki, Finland.

Don’t use the semicolon where you must have a colon!

He had three main interests: vintage cars, whisky and antique furniture.

You cannot write *He had three main interests; vintage cars, whisky and antique furniture (For the use of the asterisk read at the end of this text). After a semicolon there must be a complete, independent, clause with a subject and a verb. So you could write: He had three main interests; they were vintage cars, whisky and antique furniture.

Disinterested or uninterested?

Are you disinterested or are you uninterested? If you are not sure about the difference between those two words, you are not alone. Many writers find it difficult to distinguish between them.

DISINTERESTED

If you are disinterested, you have no stake in the actual matter, you are impartial or neutral. It is understandable that this word is often used in legal or business contexts.

Can we take it for granted that the judge in this case is truly disinterested?

UNINTERESTED

You should use uninterested if you mean that someone is bored or not engaged.

How can we catch the attention of uninterested students?

Uninterested?

Chances are that you will find disinterested used where you would expect uninterested. Not surprisingly, the two words are often confused. But you, as a good writer of English, will of course make the distinction.

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