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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 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!

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.

Furthermore and moreover

Furthermore and moreover are often understood as synonyms. However, there is a difference in meaning between them.

FURTHERMORE

Use furthermore when you add something to what you just said.

Earlier research has shown that this applies to several sectors. Furthermore, this has been confirmed in our interviews.

MOREOVER

Use moreover to indicate that you add something beyond what has been said, something different. Sometimes moreover could be said to mean ”further and more importantly”.

Using your cellphone while driving is against the law in some countries. Moreover, you risk your own life and that of others.

Sunset behind a town on a hilltop
The sunset was magnificent. Moreover, the whole day had been fantastic with walks in the narrow streets and a gorgeous lunch in the old town.

Furthermore and moreover are transitional words. Transitional words (or transition words) are used to describe relationships between ideas, to help the reader progress from one idea to the next. They can, for example, express addition (also, and, besides, further, likewise, again), contrast (but, however, on the contrary), time (after, before, usually, finally), space (above, below, behind, opposite), details (especially, particularly) and consequence (therefore, hence, consequently, because).

To sum up:
Furthermore (in addition to what has been said) adds information.

Moreover (beyond what has been said) builds up the argument, ”not only that”, adds a reason of a different kind, adds to diversity, ”more importantly”.

Principal and principle

Principal and principle sound the same, yet they have different meanings.

PRINCIPAL

As an adjective, principal means the most important.
What’s the principal theme of the book?
Principal is also a noun, meaning leading person.
He is now principal of the school.

Oven in an industry with cement as its principal product
The principal product is cement

Principal can also refer to a sum of money on which interest is paid.
During the first years most of your payments go towards interest rather than principal.

PRINCIPLE

A principle is a rule or guideline.
The principle of subsidiarity and the principle of proportionality govern the exercise of the EU’s competences.
Einstein formulated the principle of general covariance.
I’ve always seen him as a man of principle.
”Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well I have others.” (Groucho Marx)

Than or then?

Than and then are often confused.

THAN

A landscape with a motorway in the foreground and mountains in the background against a blue sky
The weather is much nicer today than yesterday

Than is used mainly to introduce the second part of a comparison.
The weather is much nicer today than yesterday.
I’d rather go for a walk than sit in the garden.
Isn’t she taller than her brother?

But what about She is taller than he and She is taller than him?

Nowadays many linguists agree that than is both a conjunction and a preposition. As a conjunction it introduces a new clause, often only implied – She is taller than he [is], and as a preposition it is followed by the object form – She is taller than him.

However, we cannot always ignore the difference between the conjunction and the preposition. She likes my cousin better than I (with than as a conjunction) does not convey the same meaning as She likes my cousin better than me (with than as a preposition). The first sentence means She likes my cousin better than I like my cousin, whereas the second one means She likes my cousin better than she likes me.

As your copyeditor I would recommend that you use than as a conjunction (with the subject form) in formal writing such as a doctoral thesis or a paper for a scientific journal.

Than is also used with some adverbial expressions such as hardly, no sooner, scarcely.

No sooner had we settled down on the beach than a heavy rain started to fall. (Notice that the verb comes before the subject of the verb.)

THEN

Then refers to a point in time, either in the past or in the future.

He studied in Paris then.
By then, they had married and were expecting their first child.
We worked out at the gym and then we took a long swim.
First We Take Manhattan, Then We Take Berlin (Song by Leonard Cohen)
The door closes automatically at 10 p.m., so you must be back before then.
The then President Obama gave a passionate speech.

Supplement and complement – and compliment

Supplement and complement are used as nouns and verbs. The adjectives are supplementary and complementary.

SUPPLEMENT

Supplement as a verb means add to, increase.
She supplemented her salary by freelancing as a journalist.
The lecturer gave her students a handout to supplement the textbook.

It is also used as a noun.
After a few years the author felt that he had to write a supplement to his book.
Have you read the Sunday supplement? (Here supplement means an additional section of a newspaper.)
Many athletes use herbal supplements.

COMPLEMENT

Complement means complete, harmonise with, bring to perfection.
That tie really complements your suit.
Red wine and cheese complement each other.
Watching them together on the track through the forest I saw how well they complemented each other.

A drink with a few slices of lemon
The lemon taste complemented the drink

In mathematics, angles are complementary if they add up to 90 degrees and supplementary if they equal 180 degrees.

COMPLIMENT

Compliment as a verb means to praise, to express appreciation or admiration.
He complimented her on her new dress.

It is also used as a noun.
Every time someone calls me a nerd, I take it as a compliment.
The dinner was excellent. Give my compliments to the chef!

It’s or its?

Writers are sometimes not sure about when to write it’s or its.

IT’S
An apostrophe means that a letter has been left out (sometimes more than one letter).
It’s is the abbreviated form of it is (or sometimes it has).

It’s hard to believe that he is 14 years old (It is hard to believe…).
The book is very thick, but it’s really interesting (it is really interesting).
It’s been a long day (It has been a long day).
It’s got to be true (It has got to be true).

ITS
Its is the possessive form of the pronoun it.

Stockholm is known for its many islands.
The cat was licking its paw.

A grey cat licking its front paw
The cat was licking its paw

The simple rule is this: If you can say it is or it has, then the form with an apostrophe, it’s, is correct.

The head of a bear with its teeth showing
It’s frightening when the bear opens its massive jaws

The abbreviated form it’s should not be used in formal language – there you should write it is.

What is true about it’s and its also applies to you’re and your, they’re and their or who’s and whose.

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