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Quotes When Nothing Is Being Quoted

By Michael Kandel

Authors often use quotation marks when nothing is being quoted. The marks may indicate irony, skepticism, derision—as such, they are sometimes called scare quotes. They distance an author from a term: “Others say this, but I wouldn’t.” Example: “Bob experienced the ‘catastrophe’ of having his tooth pulled.” Bob may have thought it was a catastrophe, but the author of the sentence is letting us know that she does not.

Such distancing is particularly important when a topic is politically sensitive: authors do not want their readers to think, even for a moment, that they endorse a racist or sexist opinion that they are describing or giving an account of.

Quotation marks may also suggest that the term so singled out has a sense slightly different from what is usually meant by it. Example: “Bob wore his usual ‘suit’ to the interview.” The author of the sentence is suggesting that it was not actually a suit. Perhaps Bob pulls out the same threadbare, rumpled blazer whenever he needs to dress up. Or perhaps Bob only ever wears a hoodie and jeans—his version of business attire.

Quotation marks may also be used to emphasize or highlight a term, much as italics or capitalization can serve as a typographic aid to draw attention. Example: “At the ‘burger joint,’ Bob ordered sushi.” The author of the sentence doesn’t want us to miss the culinary incongruity.

The context and the writing may make the intention of the quotation marks clear, but more often than not there is no such clarity. Precisely because there are so many possible ways to interpret quotation marks that are not used for quotation, some uncertainty results, some ambiguity—and, even if the ambiguity is a relatively small matter, we recommend against using them or using them sparingly and with explanation.

Published 22 May 2017

Contemporary as a Kind of Janus Word

By Michael Kandel

The word contemporary is commonly used as a synonym for modern—definition 2b in Merriam-Webster—the sense being that something is contemporary with us, readers today. An example is seen in Herbert R. Coursen’s discussion of modern-day Shakespeare adaptations: “contemporary Shakespeare in any format,” he contends, “makes the script ‘relevant’ but only by ignoring much of what the original contains (xxi). Contemporary also means, more literally, “at the time of” something in the past, per definition 1 in Merriam-Webster. An example would be the statement that Shakespeare was a contemporary of Ben Jonson. Context usually makes it clear which meaning is intended, as Theodore Bernstein and Claire Kehrwald Cook both observe. But it’s not that rare, unfortunately, that the word can be read either way. (It can also happen that a writer will carelessly, inelegantly, use definition 1 in one sentence and definition 2b in another nearby.)

In your writing, do be mindful of the possibility of the past-present ambiguity of contemporary.

Works Cited

Bernstein, Theodore M. The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage. Atheneum, 1985.

“Contemporary.” Merriam-Webster,

Cook, Claire Kehrwald. Line by Line: How to Improve Your Own Writing. Houghton Mifflin, 1985.

Coursen, Herbert R. Contemporary Shakespeare Production. Peter Lang Publishing, 2010.

Published 16 March 2017

The Danger of Deploy

By Michael Kandel

Deploy is not a good synonym for use, utilize, or employ, because it has a narrower sense and specific associations. The word appears in the context of military preparation (“deploy troops”); suggests a purposeful arrangement, often spatial, to make something possible (“deploy a parachute”); or stresses instrumentality, making use of something to achieve an end (“deploy resources”). See the definitions and examples given in Merriam-Webster and Oxford Dictionaries.

Caution: if you choose a term that blurs or compromises your meaning for the sake of sounding more learned, important, or scientific, you run the risk of falling into the embarrassment of “windyfoggery” (Bernstein 480–82).

Works Cited

Bernstein, Theodore M. The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage. Atheneum, 1985.

“Deploy.” Merriam-Webster,

“Deploy.” Oxford Dictionaries, Oxford UP,

Published 8 March 2017

It is . . . that; or, How Not to Edit Jane Austen

By Barney Latimer

The formula it is . . . that is one of the most common rhetorical tics in academic writing. This formula also provides a great opportunity to edit for concision, since it can usually be removed easily from a sentence without changing the meaning.

Often, one can simply remove “It is” and “that” and leave the sentence otherwise untouched.


It is this ambivalence that gives the poem its power.

Edited version:

This ambivalence gives the poem its power.

Sometimes, it may work better to place the phrase that follows “It is” at the end of the sentence.


It is in the light of this discovery that we should reexamine our understanding of T. S. Eliot’s early poems.

Edited version A:

We should reexamine our understanding of T. S. Eliot’s early poems in the light of this discovery.

Some sentences, like this one, lend themselves to a more radical overhaul. Here is one way to make this sentence even more concise and dynamic.

Edited version B:

This discovery compels us to look at T. S. Eliot’s early poems in a new light.

This formula, however, is not intrinsically bad. Used sparingly, “it is . . . that” can be an effective rhetorical tool. A writer can use it to pluck an otherwise unremarkable phrase from the surrounding prose and unveil it before the reader with a flourish. Jane Austen comes to mind:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

Few readers have ever wished that Austen had begun Pride and Prejudice this way instead:

We all know that a single man with a lot of money must need a wife.

Published 8 February 2017

MLK Day the MLA Way

By Jennifer Rappaport

Martin Luther King Day? Martin Luther King, Jr., Day? MLK Day? There seems to be no consensus on how to style the name of this federal holiday, established to celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. In deciding how to treat the name of the holiday, you should consider your audience and the purpose of your reference.

Consider also the consistent treatment of King’s name in your work. Both “Martin Luther King Jr.” (without a comma before the suffix) and “Martin Luther King, Jr.” (with a comma) are acceptable variations, but in MLA style, a comma always precedes Jr. (read more about suffixes and names in an earlier post).

Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.

The National Archives calls the holiday “Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” following the federal policy to use “the name designated by the law” that established the holiday (“Federal Holidays”). If your goal is to consistently and accurately refer to the text of the legislation, for legal, historical, or archival reasons, use this version.

Martin Luther King Day

Merriam-Webster’s and The American Heritage Dictionary both omit Jr. in the name of the holiday, calling it “Martin Luther King Day,” but not in their entries for the man whom the holiday commemorates. If you want to avoid a discrepancy between King’s name and the holiday celebrating his birthday, you might use a different treatment. Treating the suffix as a parenthetical in the title of the holiday (e.g., “Martin Luther King, Jr., Day”) would not be acceptable—this formulation not only looks awkward but also illogically muddies the distinction between a personal name and a holiday name.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day

The Chicago Manual of Style, used by many book publishers, lists the holiday in its “Holidays” section as “Martin Luther King Jr. Day.” If you can handle inconsistency in the treatment of personal names and holidays, use this formulation to refer to the holiday—even when styling King’s name with a comma before the suffix, per MLA style.

MLK Day / MLK Jr. Day

Apparently the federally run Corporation for National and Community Service, which uses “MLK Day” on its Web site about King’s birthday, didn’t get the same memo as the National Archives about using the name designated by law for federal holidays. That’s OK: the goal of this site is community outreach, not documenting archival records. In casual contexts, you might use either of these formulations (note: see the title of this blog post).

However you style the name of the holiday, take a moment to remember the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., or find one of the many opportunities for community service taking place to commemorate him.

Works Cited

“Federal Holidays.” National Archives, US National Archives and Records Administration, 3 Jan. 2017,

“Holidays.” The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed., sec 8.88, U of Chicago P, 2010,

“King, Martin Luther, Jr.”, 2017,

“King, Martin Luther, Jr.” The American Heritage Dictionary of English Language, 3rd ed., Houghton Mifflin, 1992, p. 992.

“Martin Luther King Day.”, 2017,

“Martin Luther King Day.” The American Heritage Dictionary of English Language, 3rd ed., Houghton Mifflin, 1992, p. 1104.

Published 13 January 2017

Former and Latter

By Barney Latimer

There are many stylistic sins worse than using former and latter. But if you’ve ever had to stop and reread a sentence or passage to figure out what former and latter point back to, you know why it’s best to avoid them. Making readers pick their way back through the text will surely frustrate them and delay or inhibit their ability to understand your point.

The following is a good example of a passage that relies on former and latter to create a bridge between two sentences:

The Congress of Paris was announced in Comœdia and L’ère nouvelle. These ideologically different venues—the former was a snobbish daily catering to the Parisian artistic scene, the latter an “organ of the allied left”—revealed the congress’s inclusive goals.

So what’s a writer to do? One possibility is to repeat the two things that former and latter refer to so the reader no longer has to scan back over the text:

The Congress of Paris was announced in Comœdia and L’ère nouvelle. These ideologically different venues—Comœdia was a snobbish daily catering to the Parisian artistic scene, L’ère nouvelle an “organ of the allied left”—revealed the congress’s inclusive goals.

Doing so, however, introduces the clunky repetition that the writer was looking to avoid in the first place.

A solution will often reveal itself when you look beyond the obvious, quick fix. Step back and try looking at the passage as a kind of puzzle that hasn’t been solved yet. By assembling the pieces in different ways, the picture will become either more or less clear. This can be an empowering and even liberating way of thinking about revision.

This approach of reconfiguration means that the writer is not locked in to a choice between the two alternatives above. Let’s dig a little deeper and ask, Does the author even need to refer to each periodical more than once? Can we rework the prose to obviate the need for repetition? When we look again at the passage with these questions in mind, a solution reveals itself:

The announcement of the Congress of Paris in two ideologically different venues—Comœdia, a snobbish daily catering to the Parisian artistic scene, and L’ère nouvelle, an “organ of the allied left”—revealed the congress’s inclusive goals.

This revision allows the names of the periodicals to take the place of former and latter. And, as sometimes happens when you identify one problem and find a creative solution to it, another aspect of the passage improves as well. In the original, “These ideologically different venues” are described as “reveal[ing] the congress’s inclusive goals.” However, it’s not exactly the venues themselves—but, rather, the fact that the congress was announced in two different places—that revealed the congress’s inclusivity.

This kind of happy accident is surprisingly common. When you look beyond the quick fix and approach the passage you are revising as a whole composed of many movable parts, reconfiguring the parts to remove one weakness can yield a structure that is stronger overall.

Published 30 November 2016

Critique versus Criticize

By Michael KandelClaire Kehrwald Cook, in her Line by Line, noted that critique as a verb “has not yet won full acceptance.” That was more than thirty years ago, and nowadays a great many scholarly writers use critique as a verb routinely and without blinking. But Cook also observed, though in passing, that the meaning of critique, “to give a critical examination of,” differs from that of criticize or review (174). The difference is important. Merriam-Webster defines the noun critique as “a careful judgment in which you give your opinion about the good and bad parts of something (such as a piece of writing or a work of art)” but points out its overlap with criticism:
Criticism usually means “the act of criticizing” or a “remark or comment that expresses disapproval,” but it can also refer to the activity of making judgments about the qualities of books, movies, etc. (as in “literary criticism”). Critique is a somewhat formal word that typically refers to a careful judgment in which someone gives an opinion about something.
The overlap notwithstanding, here is a reasonable example of why maintaining a distinction matters: On the one hand, “The ballet instructor critiqued the dancer’s pirouette” could mean that the ballet dancer performed an excellent pirouette but that the teacher gave the dancer pointers to make it dazzling. On the other hand, “The reviewer criticized the dancer’s pirouette” means that the reviewer regarded the dancer’s performance unfavorably. The formal prose required in scholarly writing can make writers hesitant to use simple, down-to-earth words, lest their authority appear questionable. But the preference for critique in academic writing often erases the valuable difference between the two words.

Works Cited

Cook, Claire Kehrwald. Line by Line: How to Improve Your Own Writing. Houghton Mifflin, 1985.

“Critique.”, /critique.

Published 17 October 2016

Liberate Those Verbs!

By Barney LatimerLike pink slime mixed in with real beef to plump up a hamburger, some phrases in English lengthen a sentence while adding nothing to its meaning and diluting its rhetorical force. Two common culprits are in the process of and serves to. Both phrases precede verbs that usually do better on their own. Take the following example:
She is in the process of writing a book that serves to illuminate the role of poetry in Queen Elizabeth’s court.
When the filler phrases are omitted, the sentence conveys its meaning more swiftly:
She is writing a book that illuminates the role of poetry in Queen Elizabeth’s court.
Sometimes, too, a needlessly long verbal phrase can be replaced by a single verb:
The newsletter will put its emphasis on the success of the school’s writing program.
In this sentence, put its emphasis on can be replaced by a single verb:
The newsletter will emphasize the success of the school’s writing program.
Don’t fear simple wording. Sometimes writers reach for filler phrases because longer, more complex sentences seem more sophisticated. But there is nothing more sophisticated than being understood. One way to achieve this is to look for opportunities to liberate verbs from sluggish phrases.

Published 15 October 2016

A Regrettable Shortcut: The Pseudo Conjunction With

By Eric Wirth

The use of with as a pseudo conjunction weakens prose. To understand how, recall that prepositions govern nouns (as in the first example below), while subordinating conjunctions govern clauses, containing a verb idea (the second example):

The nation struggled with a deepening economic crisis.

The nation struggled as the economic crisis deepened.

A nation can struggle with a crisis—one thing with another. But a nation doesn’t struggle with a crisis deepened. The verb idea (“deepened”) calls for the switch from with to as.

Merriam-Webster and American Heritage present with as a preposition (“With”; “With”). Nevertheless, when writers need to tie together two clauses in a sentence, they sometimes use with as a patch between them:

With the economic crisis deepening, employers cut back on hiring.

Here with is made to serve as a subordinating conjunction (Quirk et al. 9.55). It is stripped of its prepositional meaning (since we can’t understand employers with the crisis deepening), but it has no meaning as a conjunction. With before a clause serves only to mark the clause as describing a vague, free-floating condition.

The pseudo conjunction with is pervasive in journalism:

Part of the port is still a construction site, with work to begin soon on a second grain berth. (Gillet)

Some countries, notably Italy, are worried that shutting the Greek-Macedonian border might only open up new migration routes, with the most likely being a sea crossing from Greece or Albania to Italy. (Pop and Troianovski)

His announcement followed a surge of families opting out of state exams in reading and math last spring, with state data saying about one of five eligible students skipped them. (Brody)

But with the drought turning soil to dust and trees to tinder, the fire, still smoking, has consumed a swath of national forest roughly the size of San Francisco. (Park, Cave, and Andrews)

In the last example above, there is no grammatical relation—hence no explanatory connection—between the drought’s effects on soil and trees and the fire’s advance. One way to establish the relation is to introduce a term that can modify “the fire”:

But, aided by the drought, which has turned soil to dust and trees to tinder, the fire, still smoking, has consumed a swath of national forest roughly the size of San Francisco.

After this revision, the sentence ties its ideas together: the fire is aided by the drought.

Many commentators on usage advise against with as a pseudo conjunction. Bryan Garner calls it a “sloppy construction” (865). Wilson Follett covers it in a larger discussion of the ways that writers misuse with “to bring attendant circumstances into a sentence without analyzing or making clear their relation to the central fact” (363).

Works Cited

Brody, Leslie. “New York Education Task Force Report Expected This Month.” The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones, 3 Dec. 2015, Accessed 4 Mar. 2016.

Follett, Wilson. Modern American Usage: A Guide. Edited and completed by Jacques Barzun, Hill and Wang, 1966.

Garner, Bryan A. Garner’s Modern American Usage. 3rd ed., Oxford UP, 2009.

Gillet, Kit. “Time-Worn Village in Moldova Springs Back to Life, Thanks to Port.” The New York Times, 2 Sept. 2015, Accessed 4 Mar. 2016.

Park, Haeyoun, Damien Cave, and Wilson Andrews. “After Years of Drought, Wildfires Rage in California.” The New York Times, 15 July 2015, Accessed 4 Mar. 2016.

Pop, Valentina, and Anton Troianovski. “Europe Chokes Flow of Migrants to Buy Time for a Solution.” The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones, 31 Jan. 2016, Accessed 4 Mar. 2016.

Quirk, Randolph, et al. A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. Longman, 1985.

“With.” Merriam-Webster, Accessed 4 Mar. 2016.

“With.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed., Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015, Accessed 4 Mar. 2016.

Published 29 February 2016

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