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Adverbs to Avoid

By Erika Suffern

If you were taught to avoid using adverbs in your writing, the title of this piece might be making you nervous. True, in many cases you can eliminate an adverb by choosing a more apt verb—why walk slowly if you can stroll? But I’m not going to tell you to cut adverbs out of your prose entirely. Instead, I’m going to review a particular category of adverbs that you can easily avoid and thereby tighten your prose.

In Line by Line, Claire Kehrwald Cook recommends that writers avoid “intensive” adverbs, such as very, truly, really, actually, and extremely (15–16). These words have an effect opposite to the one intended, in two ways. First, they are so overused that readers skirt past them. Second, intensive adverbs often weaken instead of intensify the words they modify. A “really important meeting” doesn’t sound more consequential than an “important” one, and a person described as “extremely brilliant” would be just as impressive if described as “brilliant.”

When attached to words that are already absolutes, intensive adverbs can create redundancy. A “truly perfect evening” cannot be more flawless than a “perfect” one, and an “entirely complete set” is missing exactly no more items than a “complete set.”

If you’re tempted to use an adverb like very, try replacing the word you’re modifying: instead of very calm, choose serene, tranquil, or hushed. Or delete the intensive adverb and read the resulting sentence. Chances are you won’t miss the added emphasis, which wasn’t adding much.

Work Cited

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

Published 22 March 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

President’s Day: A Singular Holiday?

By Jennifer Rappaport

When it comes to styling the holiday variously known as President’s Day, Presidents’ Day, and Presidents Day, authorities disagree not only about what to call the holiday but also about what the holiday celebrates.

The Federal Holiday

If you look up “Presidents’ Day” in Webster’s, you are directed to the entry “Washington’s Birthday,” the name of the federal holiday according to the National Archives (“Federal Holidays”). Webster’s notes that the holiday—celebrating George Washington, the first president of the United States—was previously celebrated on 22 February, Washington’s actual birthday (“George Washington’s Birthday”). It is now observed the third Monday in February, thanks to the 1968 Uniform Monday Holiday Law, established to designate Monday as the day to observe most federal holidays (Arbelbide).

The Holiday State by State

Although most states shifted the day of the holiday to Monday, not all took on the official federal holiday name (Arbelbide). For example, Minnesota calls the holiday “Washington’s and Lincoln’s Birthday,” celebrating both Washington and Abraham Lincoln (Minnesota State, Legislature). The official state calendar for Alabama lists the holiday as “George Washington / Thomas Jefferson Birthday,” commemorating Thomas Jefferson as well as Washington (“2017 Holiday Schedule”). Washington State calls the holiday “Presidents’ Day,” “celebrated as the anniversary of the births of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington” (Washington State, Legislature).

The Holiday in Advertising

When the Uniform Monday Holiday Law took effect in 1971, “only two days separated Abraham Lincoln’s Friday birthday of February 12 from the Washington’s Birthday holiday that fell on February 15—the third Monday in February” (Arbelbide). Ever since, advertisers have taken advantage of the proximity of the two days to promote sales, referring to the holiday as “President’s Day,” “Presidents’ Day,” or “Presidents Day.”

The Holiday in Your Prose

So the correct way to refer to the holiday in your prose depends on your subject. If you are writing about the federal holiday, call it “Washington’s Birthday.” If you are writing about the holiday as it is observed in a particular state, consult the state’s official Web site. In other contexts, you might use one of the forms with “President” in the name. “President’s Day” uses the singular possessive, so you would likely use this form if you want to refer to a holiday celebrating Washington. “Presidents’ Day,” in the plural possessive, is the form recommended by The Chicago Manual of Style, so in our publications, we would generally use this spelling, which indicates a holiday celebrating Washington and at least one other president (“Holidays”). “Presidents Day” uses “Presidents” as an attributive noun—that is, a noun that acts like an adjective. A noun is attributive “when the relation between the plural head noun and the second noun could be expressed by the prepositions ‘for’ or ‘by’ rather than the possessive ‘of’”—for example, a teachers college is a college for teachers (Einsohn 137). If you want to refer to a holiday that is a day for celebrating all presidents of the United States, you might use this form.

Whatever you choose to call the holiday, 2017 is a good year to learn more about the American presidency and how “the personal, public, ceremonial and executive actions” of our presidents “have had a huge impact on the course of history” (“American Presidency”).

Works Cited

“The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden.” The National Museum of American History, Smithsonian,

Arbelbide, C. L. “By George, It Is Washington’s Birthday!” Prologue Magazine, vol. 31, no. 4, Winter 2004. National Archives,

Einsohn, Amy. The Copyeditor’s Handbook. 2nd ed., U of California P, 2006.

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

“George Washington’s Birthday.” National Archives, US National Archives and Records Administration, 24 Aug. 2016,

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

Minnesota State, Legislature. 2016 Minnesota Statutes. Ch. 645, sec., subdivision 5. The Office of the Revisor of Statutes, 2016,

“Presidents’ Day.”, 2017,

“2017 Holiday Schedule.”, Accessed 10 Feb. 2017.

“Washington’s Birthday.”, 2017,’s+birthday.

Washington State, Legislature. Revised Code of Washington. Ch. 1.16, sec. 050d. Washington State Legislature, Accessed 10 Feb. 2017.

Published 17 February 2017

Celebrate the New Year in (MLA) Style

By Jennifer Rappaport

Should you write, “Happy New Year,” “Happy new year,” or “Happy New Year’s”?

It depends on how much happiness you want to impart. If you want to wish someone happiness for all of 2017, write, “Happy New Year,” following the entry for “New Year” in Webster’s. But if you’re feeling especially parsimonious about the year ahead and want to wish someone happiness for only the first day of it, you would write, “Happy New Year’s Day,” or “Happy New Year’s” for short, since the name of the holiday in Webster’s is “New Year’s Day.”

The entry in Webster’s does not give us license to abandon commonsense rules about capitalization. When using new year generically and preceding it with an article, lowercase the term: It’s a new year. The audit will begin in the new year.

In future posts, we will tackle the styling of other holidays.

In the meantime, Happy New Year!

Works Cited

“New Year.”,

“New Year’s Day.”,’s%20day.

Published 10 January 2017

When Not to Include

By Michael Kandel

Many of the MLA’s authorities on English usage frown on the use of include to mean are (e.g., Bernstein 28; Follett 177). Roy H. Copperud’s explanation for the frown has a peevish snap: “That which includes is not all-inclusive, careless use to the contrary” (198). Bryan A. Garner notes that include “is now coming to be widely misused for consists of” (454). The principle is simple: If you are presenting a list and it is complete—that is, exhaustive—do not use language that suggests otherwise. For example, if you eat dinner at a restaurant that serves only avocado melba toasts, farm-raised pickled ginger, and quinoa-almond milk, do not write

The restaurant’s dinner options included avocado melba toasts, farm-raised pickled ginger, and quinoa-almond milk.

Instead, to clarify that only these three items are served, write

The restaurant’s dinner options were avocado melba toasts, farm-raised pickled ginger, and quinoa-almond milk.

If you feel that the plain to be verb is inconsistent with your tone, you could reword:

The restaurant’s dinner options consisted of avocado melba toasts, farm-raised pickled ginger, and quinoa-almond milk.

Consisted of is a little stuffy but at least correct. Included avoids stuffiness but isn’t correct.

Works Cited

Bernstein, Theodore M. The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage. Atheneum, 1965.

Copperud, Roy H. American Usage and Style: The Consensus. Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1980.

Follett, Wilson. Modern American Usage: A Guide. Hill and Wang, 1966.

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

Published 6 January 2017


By Michael KandelKeep an eye out for overhedging. Some writers are timid—or pretend to be—about making a statement, so they hedge: “I believe,” “it seems to me,” “may be,” “suggests that,” et cetera. The problem is that, having hedged, they often worry that they still have been too positive, so they hedge again, often in the same sentence or phrase. The result is redundancy or, worse, a mannerism that becomes conspicuous. A few examples, with suggested editing:
“I would like to suggest” → “I suggest”
It is obvious that the author would like to.
“The implication seems to be” → “The implication is”
“Implication” has already done the work of “seems.”
“The suggestion that it may have little to do with” → “The suggestion that it has little to do with”
“Suggestion” has already done the work of “may.”
When the topic is highly touchy and an author has reason to squirm, a copyeditor should refrain from making such suggestions.

Published 9 December 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

Does the MLA abbreviate United States U.S. or US?

In its publications, the MLA uses the abbreviation US. (Practices among publishers vary, however, and it is not incorrect to use U.S. Whichever abbreviation you choose, be consistent.)

The MLA prefers to spell out the name United States in the main text of a work, in both adjective and noun forms. It uses the adjective form sparingly.

Published 30 August 2016

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