Category Archives: Tips


Language Tip 12 (2014-15)

Holidays are a linguistic pain. This is because so much time passes between Good Fridays and All Hallows’ Eves and Victoria Days for you to forget what you said and spelled last time.

The Chicago Manual or Style says, “The names of secular and religious holidays or officially designated days or seasons are capitalized,” and provides a few examples – Christmas Day, Hanukkah, etc.

One problem solved. But that’s only part of the story.

Apostrophes are a problem. Remember, it’s New Year’s Eve, followed by New Year’s Day (see 6).

Other tips (use them at your own peril):
1) In the UK, say, “Happy Christmas.” In North America, say, “Merry Christmas.” Elsewhere, mumble. (Actually, this is a dodgy rule of thumb: the British National Corpus has 78 hits for “Happy Christmas” and 68 for “Merry Christmas” – and the latter may be gaining ground).

2) “Christmass” (sic) is a howler.

3) If in doubt about religion, etc., belt out “Happy Holidays!”

4) If you don’t really like the greetee, say “Season’s Greetings.” It’s the “have a nice day” of the Christmas season.

5) If you are very, very old, speak of “Yuletide.”

6) “Boxing Day” is the day after Christmas. Nobody knows what it is, but because it’s a day off in many countries, nobody complains.

7) “Happy New Year!” is the correct pre-snog (i.e. pre-midnight-kiss) greeting.
But if you slur “Happy New Year’s” and someone nit-picks, just argue that you meant it elliptically (i.e. short for “Happy New Year’s EVE”).
“Happy New Years” is wrong, unless you are wishing for future years as well.

8) You do not have to shake hands when you wish somebody “Happy New Year.” In fact, if they don’t know you well, they might find you weird. Oh, and that mistletoe stuff only happens in movies.

9) Sylvester is a Puddy Tat in English.

10) James Joyce’s “The Dead” never actually mentions that the aunts’ party is on the “Feast of the Epiphany” (January 6). This was news to one of us.

Jason Blake and Monika Kavalir


Language Tip 11 (2014-15)

Do not start sentences with “This + verb” (e.g. “This is a massive generalization…” “This sounds glib…”; “This runs counter to…”; “This is troublesome…”).

This tip is a massive generalization. This advice sounds glib, but it’s an easy way to make sure that the reader knows what “this” refers to.

Follow “This” with a full noun.

“While we were watching The Muppet Show, Barry burst into the room and showed us his new sombrero. This was distracting.”

What does “This” refer to?
a) bursting into the room?
b) the sombrero?

a) “This intrusion/interruption/bothersome burst was distracting.”
b) “This sombrero/hat was distracting.”

This is easy to fix – sorry! This ERROR/POTENTIALLY AMBIGUOUS STRUCTURE is easy to fix. Just search through your essay for sentences that begin with “This…” and see whether you can add a noun and clarity.

This tip is, of course, not limited to Slovenians writing in English.

Two things to keep in mind:
1) Slovenian and other languages with grammatical gender are clearer in terms of reference
2) Slovenians tend to overuse “that” at the expense of “this” – what’s up with this (sic)?
Jason Blake and Monika Kavalir


Language Tip 10 (2014-15)

“bare” vs. “bear”

Both of these words have several meanings, but “bear” is the one that means “to carry”; “bare” is normally used when referring to someone or something devoid of clothes, plants, etc.

A few examples:

Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bare Mountain” (or “Night on Bald Mountain”)

Barenaked Ladies (the rock band that composed the music for “The Big Bang Theory”)

“I can’t bear it!” (I’ve had enough!)

“Bear with me…” (Put up with me…”)

“Grin and bear it” means something very different from “grin and bare it.”

Jason Blake and Monika Kavalir


Language Tip 9 (2014-15)

One of us was taught in high school that “like” should not precede an example:

“I saw many fruits like oranges and apples and pears” supposedly meant “I saw many fruits THAT HAD A DISTINCT RESEMBLANCE TO oranges and apples and pears (but I didn’t actually see any oranges and apples and pears.”

“I saw many fruits, SUCH AS oranges and apples and pears” was correct.

Nobody listened to this rule back in high school, and few care about it today – though “such as” sounds slightly more formal and some style guides still do not admit “like” in place of “such as.”

Slovenian students often ignore “such as” altogether and instead write “like” all the time, which is, like, annoying.
Next time you write an essay, search through for “like” and see if you can use “such as” to add some variety.


Jason Blake and Monika Kavalir


Language Tip 8 (2014-15)

Who vs. that

Some people claim that relative clauses which relate to persons should only be introduced by “who” and never by “that,” although the latter option is in fact very common.

According to this logic, the following is WRONG:
“The person that gave me the advice was mistaken.”

It is not wrong. It is just as correct as:
“The person who gave me the advice was mistaken.”

Tracking down the “some people” who/that claim “relative clauses which relate to persons should only be introduced by ‘who’” is difficult. Perhaps because it’s a silly made-up rule.

That said, a fair number of English speakers get irritated when ‘that’ is used for persons, and if the person reading your grant/job application is one of them, consequences may be grave rather than silly. If you don’t know your audience (or you know they are grammar Nazis) and the outcome is important to you, stay on the safe side, otherwise feel free to use whichever you like.

For more on this topic, see:

Of course, never use ‘which’ in place of ‘who’ – “That is that woman which [sic] sits beside me in class” begs for a little ‘discussion’, not unlike here:

Jason Blake and Monika Kavalir


Language Tip 7 (2014-15)


Quoting is not a get-out-syntax-free card. When you integrate quoted words into your sentence, your “combined” sentence has to be grammatical.

This is nonsense:

In “Strange Fits of Passion Have I Known” Wordsworth uses the symbol of the moon to increase suspense, “the sinking moon,” “on the descending moon,” leading all the way to “at once, the bright moon dropped,” to mark his arrival at Lucy’s cottage, where, “if Lucy should be dead.”

There are two easy tests for whether you have quoted properly:

i) Read your sentence aloud. Is it syntactically sound?

ii) Temporarily eliminate the quotation marks and look at your sentence. Does it make grammatical sense? Can you tell where the quoted passages are? (No? That’s a good thing in this case!)

After all, nobody would write a sentence like this:

In Strange Fits of Passion Have I Known Wordsworth uses the symbol of the moon to increase suspense, the sinking moon, on the descending moon, leading all the way to at once, the bright moon dropped, to mark his arrival at Lucy’s cottage, where, if Lucy should be dead.

Just remember to put the quotation marks back if you use the second test.


Here’s another example, albeit one that is syntactically confusing rather than flat-out wrong:

The rhyme “This Is the House That Jack Built” is replete with domestic animals, “the cat / That chased the rat” and dairy products, “the cheese.”

Solution 1:

“This Is the House That Jack Built” is replete with domestic animals, including “the cat / That chased the rat[,]” and dairy products, specifically, “the cheese.”

Solution 2:

“This Is the House That Jack Built” is replete with domestic animals and dairy products, including “the cat / That chased the rat” and “the cheese.”

Try putting the passage on Wordsworth into a sentence that is both correct and clear.
Jason Blake and Monika Kavalir


Language Tip 6 (2014-15)

“Albeit” is tricky to use correctly, which is probably why students don’t use it often. Also, dictionaries give “albeit” bad press. Some dicitionaries cautiously label it “formal” or “literary,” while others slander it with “old-fashioned,” “archaic” and “obsolete.”

If “albeit” is no longer used, could someone please inform The Guardian and the New York Times? In other words, it is very much in use, and not just by old people.

Here are some very recent examples from those two newspapers (from a variety of sections, not just the hoity-toity arts pages).

The Guardian

“The rhetoric might sound antiquated but, in a sense, we now take for granted Bebel’s communal kitchens, albeit in private form.”
“In 1967, The Beatles and a BBC executive called Aubrey Singer managed to unite the world, albeit briefly, with the first global satellite broadcast.”
“McGeady created chances for Naismith and Lukaku, albeit both with the same result as his colleagues missed the target, and it was from his corner that Everton doubled their advantage.”

The New York Times
“My survey made me realize that, at heart, I’m a purist — albeit not immune to the appeal of the zanier specimens [of donuts].”
“But, on the plus side, the overall number of women in Congress will rise, albeit at a rate that would get us to equal representation sometime around 2078.”
“And his interwoven story lines, intentionally or not, evoke a piece of jazz, albeit one that’s Buddy Bolden raggedy in places.”

Here are some examples of INCORRECT USAGE:
“We know that – albeit neither of the tests is yet optimal – they are adequate.”*

“According to the author, studying literature is required for education, albeit it is often viewed as unnecessary.”*

…and here are some tips for using it correctly – that is, not as a perfect and simple synonym for “although.”

1) It’s not good style to use albeit as part of a finite clause. To play it safe, use “albeit” where there’s no verb around, e.g.:
“I kept on reading the book, albeit very slowly.”
“The free wifi was, albeit rather slow, a nice touch.”

2) You can also use it with a non-finite verbal form but then make it clear this happens outside the main sentence frame:

“The author claims that, albeit often viewed as unnecessary, studying literature is required for education.”

A good test is that you should always be able to put the part introduced by “albeit” in brackets or separate it from the rest of the sentence with dashes.

(If this explanation isn’t long enough for you, try:

Jason Blake and Monika Kavalir


Language Tip 5 (2014-15)

The frequent confusing of “depressing” and “depressive” is depressing and it will soon turn us into depressives.

In plain English: “depressing” is the (oft-used) adjective, “depressive” the (seldom-used) noun.

If you want to say you’re feeling a little down or blue or glum, just say “depressed.”

(Admittedly, “depressive” also exists as an adjective, but it’s used almost exclusively in medical contexts.)

Jason Blake and Dr. Monika Kavalir


Language Tip 4 (2014-15)

Once upon a time, one of us had a job teaching sugar-charged Mexican kids English. “Maestro” was the charming term they used (as in, “Maestro, Pedro won’t stop hitting me!”).

Slovenians have their own difficulties with “teacher” or “professor,” so please read these tips carefully.

1) Teacher vs. professor: In English, only university teachers are ever called professor. For generic situations “teacher” is a better expression to use. If you’re not sure, ask your instructor.

2) In e-mails, both “Dear professor X” and “Dear prof. X” are wrong. Do not abbreviate, but do capitalize “Professor” in e-mails.

In other words, capitalize “Professor,” just as you would capitalize “Mr.” or “Dr.” (for more on this, see Tip #73 at

3) Realize, please, that “Mr. Jason” or “prof. Uroš” verges on the barbaric. At the university level this gaffe is inexcusable.

4) According to the Chicago Manual of Style, abbreviated titles before a full name are more common than only before only a last name (e.g. “Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand” vs. “Senator Gillibrand”). “[W]here space is tight,” the abbreviation “Prof.” “may precede a full name.” E-mails do not qualify as cramped writing quarters.
(At the risk of harping, in the last ten e-mails one of us received, only a single student managed to get the salutation right. This is a little matter that matters a great deal – if you botch the “Dear” in a scholarship or job application, rejection is almost guaranteed.)
Jason Blake and Monika Kavalir


Language Tip 3 (2014-15)

Do not mix up “motive” and “motif.”
In English, a “motive” is what compels you to commit a crime.
A “motif” is a recurring idea or image in a work of literature (or a thrice-heard theme in music).

Because “motif” is a technical term, it sounds funny if you get it wrong – the mix-up has a whiff of malapropism.
Put differently, writing “motive” for “motif” is like confusing words in a set expression, like writing “Don’t get a wasp in your bonnet” instead of the usual “bee.”
Jason Blake and Monika Kavalir

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