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Content or contents?

Both content and contents refer to something contained in something else. So, what’s the difference between them?

Content is uncountable; you cannot have it in the plural. It’s about the whole of something in something else.

The content of her speech really touched the audience.
He has carried out research on the fat content of frozen food.

Content providers supply material such as text, images or music, for use on websites.

In a book, content refers to all the text in a book, but contents is the list, usually at the beginning of the book, that presents the chapters of the book and what page each chapter starts at.

Obviously, contents is a countable noun – we use the plural form. We can identify the separate parts or at least understand that they are there.

He put the flask to his mouth and drank the contents.

The nouns content and contents have the stress on the first syllable.

Content pronounced with the stress on the last syllable is an adjective. This content means happy, satisfied, pleased.

He seemed very content with his new job.

Content with the stress on the last syllable can also be a verb:

I was terribly hungry but realized that I had to content myself with some wine and a small canapé or two.

Rows of small canapés with soft cheese and olives, ham, salami, etc. The image is meant to illustrate Content or contents?
A small canapé or two…

About brothers-in-law and runners-up

In an earlier blog post we looked at compounds and and noted that some are written with one or two hyphens. Here are a few examples:

Brother-in-law (your sister’s husband or your wife’s or husband’s brother)
Runner-up (one who finishes in second place)
Cul-de-sac (a street that is closed at one end)
Editor-in-chief (the manager of an editorial staff)

How should you write the plural form of such compounds? The answer is fairly logical: add the plural -s to the main part of the compound, the significant part.

Brothers-in-law
Runners-up
Editors-in-chief

Cul-de-sac has two plural forms: culs-de-sac or cul-de-sacs

When we write the genitive form, the -s comes at the end when we talk about people: 

My brother-in-law’s new car
The editor-in-chief’s wife

However, you can also write

The wife of the editor-in-chief

When we talk about things, we use the genitive form with of:

The end of the cul-de-sac

Email or e-mail? Or perhaps E-mail?

This word is a combination of electronic and mail.

Should you write it with a hyphen or not?

Some compunds have started as two words, then they have been hyphenated and finally combined into one word. Here are a couple of examples:

Proof reader – proof-reader – proofreader
Living room – living-room – livingroom

(You can read more about compounds here.)

If we follow that trend, we should write email. This form was more common in American English but is now also used in British English.

A young girl on a balcony is writing on a laptop. The image illustrates the concept of emails.
Writing an email

However, we write e-commerce and e-business, so there is a reason to use the form with a hyphen, e-mail.

Of course, if the word begins a sentence, we should write E-mail.

Other compunds with a single letter as the first part start with an uppercase letter also in the middle of a sentence:

T-shirt
U-turn
X-ray

Read more about how to write compounds here.

Re: re

Re: (with a colon) means regarding, on the subject of. Often we can find it in the subject line of an email.

Re: Your enquiry for USB cables

With the same meaning, re can be used in informal language:

We need to have a meeting re the latest sales report.

You can read more about regarding here.

In many words the prefix re means again:

Two years later he remarried.
The votes had to be recounted.
After the installation you have to restart your computer.
All components are reusable.

Since re here means again, you must avoid writing He remarried again or The votes had to be recounted again (that would mean that he married at least three times or that the votes were counted three times). You can read more about unnecessary words here.

Re can also mean a change in the position or state of something:

relocate = locate in a new place
rearrange = arrange in a different way

The image shows a room with bookshelves. There are many book on the floor, on a desk and on a step-ladder. The purpose is to illustrate the verb rearrange in a post about the prefix re..
He decided it was time to rearrange his book collection

Some words with re have two versions, one with a hyphen and one without, and there is a difference in meaning.

recollectrememberre-collectcollect again
recoverget back health, ability,
possession, etc.
re-covercover again
reformchange or improve somethingre-formcreate again
represssubdue, not allow feelings,
etc., to be expressed
re-pressmake a new copy of a recording
resentdislike or be annoyed at
someone or something
re-sentas in 'He re-sent the parcel'
reservearrange for something to be
kept for your future use
re-serveserve again

Use a hyphen if re means again and if omitting the hyphen would cause confusion with another word.

You can read more about using a hyphen here and about the difference between a hyphen and a dash here.

With respect to and in respect of

The two phrases with respect to and in respect of both mean regarding, concerning. While both are used in British English, in respect of is seldom used in American English.

With respect to your enquiry we can deliver the items by Friday.
The two novels are very different in respect of the development of their respective characters.

Both these expressions are used in formal writing. When we speak, we have other ways of expressing regarding, as you can see here.

To a non-native English writer, the use of prepositions in English is often confusing. In the phrases we are looking at here, we cannot change the prepositions and say, for example *in respect to (for the use of the asterisk see the comment at the end of this text).

To have respect for someone is to show consideration or respect towards a person or admire someone for their qualities, ideas, actions, etc.

She has great respect for her grandfather’s long experience.
I have no respect for people who keep interrupting others.

Overuse of the -ing form

As we have seen in another blog post, the -ing form, the present continuous, indicates that something is going on just for the moment.

I’m writing an email on the balcony (momentarily).
He writes articles for monthly magazines (a regular activity).

He is living in France (temporarily).
I live in Sweden (Sweden is my home country).

To say that someone is only temporarily in a place, the verb stay is often used.

He is staying at a small hotel in Lyon.

Man on a balcony is writing on a laptop
I’m writing an email on the balcony

Non-native speakers of English whose mother tongue only has the present simple sometimes tend to overuse the present continuous when they speak English, since they believe that to be the common form. Even if they intend to convey a permanent state, they may say or write sentences such as the following (for the use of the asterisk read at the end of this text):

*I’m travelling to work by bus every morning all year round. (Since this is what happens regularly you should say I travel to work by bus every morning.)

*He is designing cars. (This is his permanent job, hence the correct sentence would be He designs cars.)

*They are playing golf every weekend. (This is a habit, so it should be They play golf every weekend.) 

*That book is costing nine dollars. (That is a fixed price, so the correct version is That book costs nine dollars.)

*They are making washing machines. (Unless this is a temporary production and they normally make refrigerators, we must write They make washing machines.)

You should think twice before using the -ing form in English!

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.

Abbreviations

The word abbreviation comes from the Latin verb abbreviare with the adjective brevis, which means short. When you abbreviate something, you make it shorter.

Many abbreviations are formed by leaving out all except the first few letters of a word. These abbreviations often end with a full stop.

abstr.abstract
ad., advert.advertisement
admin.administration
approx.approximately
betw.between
cont.continue, continued
doc.document
esp.especially
est.estimated
etc.et cetera
examexamination
fig.figure
fut.future
infoinformation
introintroduction
lab.laboratory
lang.language
memomemorandum
min.minimum, minute
misc.miscellaneous
mod.modern
obs.obsolete
orig.origin, original(ly)
pop.popular
St.Street
tel.telephone
temp.temperature, temporary
vol.volume

Names of the months are abbreviated according to this general principle of just shortening words.

Jan.January
Feb.February
Mar.March
Apr.April
MayMay
Jun.June
Jul.July
Aug.August
Sep. or Sept.September
Oct.October
Nov.November
Dec.December

There is more variation in how the days of the week are abbreviated.

Mon.Monday
Tu., Tue. or Tues.Tuesday
Wed.Wednesday
Th., Thu., Thur. or Thurs.Thursday
Fri.Friday
Sat.Saturday
Sun.Sunday

Many abbreviations leave out letters in the middle of a word and end with the last letter of the word. Here are some examples:

apt.apartment
attn.attention
atty.attorney
dept.department
fwdforward
govt.government
hr.hour
Jr.junior
Ltd.Limited
mfg.manufacturing
mgmt.management
qty.quantity
tsp.teaspoon
yd.yard
yr.year

Some titles also follow this principle:

Dr.Doctor
MessrsPlural of Mr
MrMister
MrsMistress
MsgrMonsignor
St.Saint

You can read more about titles here.

Geographical names are often abbreviated:

Cambr.Cambridge
E. Afr.East Africa
Scand.Scandinavia
TXTexas
Victoria Rd.Victoria Road

Names of the states in the USA are abbreviated to two uppercase letters. You can find them here. The capital Washington is in the District of Columbia, abbreviated DC.

Abbreviations can also become words in their own right and we no longer realise that they are abbreviations.

Hankie (or hanky) is short for handkerchief.

The American colloquialism nabe comes from neighborhood.

Pram is short for perambulator, a carriage for a baby.

Soccer is an abbreviation of association football, which is different from American football.

Two girls lying on the grass watching a soccer game.
The girls were watching a soccer game

In American English abbreviations are usually followed by a full stop. In British English this generally applies to abbreviations that are formed by the first letter or the first few letters of a word as in the first table above.

There are many Latin abbreviations in the English language, which you can read about here and here.

Acronyms and initialisms are also abbreviations. Read about them here.

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 surrounded
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!

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.

And here you can read about how to write e-mail (or email).

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