Archive for July, 2010

Millions and Billions

July 29, 2010

Q: How many zeros are in a billion?

A: That depends.

That depends on whether you are British or American, because the British Billion used to be equivalent to a million million (1,000,000,000,000), rather than a thousand million (1,000,000,000) like the American billion. The British Billion had twice as many zeros as a million, and the corollary was that a British Trillion had three times as many zeros, or 1,000,000,000,000,000,000, rather than the American trillion, 1,000,000,000,000. In other words, a British Billion was equal to an American trillion. Lately, however, the British have adopted the American Way.

I am using the capitalized Billion and Trillion here to denote the British “long scale” usage, with lower case billion and trillion to denote the American “short scale” usage. In the old British way, a thousand million was called a “milliard,” not a billion. Likewise, a thousand billion was called a “billiard,” which is about how much money I would lose if I had to play billiards (pool) for a living.

We shall stick to the following, and leave billiards to the pool hall:

thousand  = 103  

million = 106

billion = 109  

trillion = 1012  

In the 1960s, Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen famously quipped: “A billion here, a billion there — pretty soon, you’re talking real money.”

Here are a couple of interesting huge numbers:

Hella = 1027

Vigintillion = 1063  

Googol = 10100  

Centillion = 10303  

Q: When do you use the plurals “millions” and “billions”?

A: That depends.

If a number is in front of it, or if it is an expression of currency with a numeral, or if it has units of measure afterward, it is singular.


The viewing audience for the final World Cup game was estimated at 26 million.

The Opex budget increased by $40 million.

The sun is 93 million miles away from the earth.

Use the plural only if the number is fuzzy, but certainly more than one.


Millions of people die each year of hunger.

With this online business, you could make millions!

Funky Plurals

July 28, 2010

Most words just need to add an S or ES at the end to form the plural. Here are some of the more unusual plurals in the English language.

Some words that end in Y will change the Y to I and add ES.

Examples: babies, cities, navies  (exceptions: keys, donkeys, monkeys)

Some words that end in F will change the F to V and add ES.

Examples: leaves, loaves, selves, hooves  (exception: roofs)

Some words that end in a consonant followed by an O will add ES.

Examples: tomatoes, potatoes, heroes, buffaloes, dominoes  (exception: pianos)

Latin words have their own rules:

   Alumnus, alumni (masculine)

   Alumna, alumnae (feminine)

   Addendum, addenda

   Curriculum, curricula

   Medium, media (media are plural!)

And then there are some very interesting compound word plurals:

   Attorneys general




   Deputy chiefs of staff

   Sergeants major

   Major generals

   Postmasters general

   Assistant corporation counsels

The rule of thumb here is to make the most significant word plural.

Flammable vs. Inflammable

July 27, 2010

Many words with the prefix “in-” mean the opposite of the same word without the prefix.


Accurate, inaccurate

Audible, inaudible

Capable, incapable

Direct, indirect

Edible, inedible

Such is NOT the case with inflammable. Inflammable means “easily inflamed,” which is basically the same thing as flammable, not the opposite. Rather than the usual meaning of “not,” the Latin prefix “in-” is used as an intensifier with the word “flammable.” (I would explain why, but I took French in high school instead of Latin, much to Mr. Borelli’s dismay. Why would I want to learn a language that nobody speaks?)

According to Jack Lynch, author of The English Language: A User’s Guide, the word inflammable long predates flammable (1605 vs. 1813). The word flammability appeared in the seventeenth century, but it then disappeared until the twentieth century. In the twentieth century, flammable was increasingly used to mean “able to be set on fire,” while inflammable has been losing ground.

Now, the problem occurs when people think the “in-” prefix means “not” flammable, as in the examples above. Usually in such situations, they don’t have time to look up the meaning of the word in the dictionary to discover that it really means “flammable.” As Jack Lynch puts it: “Someone trying to put out a fire who sees a bucket of something labeled INFLAMMABLE has good reason to hope for perfect clarity.”

Therefore, if there’s any chance at all that somebody could misunderstand your written instructions and go up in flames as a result, use “flammable” or “nonflammable” to be perfectly clear. And if you’re the one trying to put out a fire, whatever you do, don’t use the liquid labeled “inflammable”!

None: Singular or Plural?

July 26, 2010

Back in the day when I was new to the oil patch, a seasoned engineer imparted to me the following wisdom:

There are only two things you need to know as a petroleum engineer:

1)      There are 42 gallons in a barrel.

2)      The answer to every question is: “That depends.”

Then he asked me: “How many gallons are in a barrel?”

And, of course, the smartest girl in school answered: “Forty-two.”

Wrong! The answer is: “That depends.” It depends on what kind of barrel, of course.

Which brings me to today’s question:

“Does the word ‘none’ take a singular or plural verb?”

Correct answer: “That depends.”

Philosophically, it should take neither, since it is neither one (singular) nor two or more (plural), but zero. However, English speakers and writers haven’t invented zero/nil verb conjugations yet, to my knowledge. Thus, we have to choose either the singular or plural form for our verb.

The word “none” is a contraction for the words “not one,” which would be singular. However, “none” can also mean “not any,” which would be plural. According to the AP Style Guide, “none” can also mean “no amount,” which would also be plural.


Not One: None of the wells was completed on time and under budget.

Not Any: None of the wells in the south portion of the field are producing any water.

No Amount: None of the royalties have been paid.

Here are the two rules of thumb:

1)      If you can substitute “not a single one” for none and it makes sense, use a singular verb.

2)      If the sense of the subject is singular, use a singular verb; if the sense of the subject is plural, use the plural verb.

Q: Now do you understand whether “none” is singular or plural?

A: That depends.

Articles Before Acronyms and H

July 23, 2010

The usual rule about indefinite articles goes something like this:

If a word starts with a consonant, use “a” before it;

if a word starts with a vowel, use “an” before it.

Examples: an apple, a banana

However, this rule has some exceptions in the case of acronyms and the letter H, which is sometimes pronounced with some wind behind it, but sometimes it is silent.

In the case of acronyms, if the initials are pronounced like a word, like NASA, you would use “a” rather than “an.” Also, if the letters are spelled out and the first one is pronounced as if it had a consonant at the beginning like “Pee” or “Bee” or “Tee,” use “a” before it.

Examples: a NASA engineer, a BP executive

However, if the letters of the abbreviation are spelled out and the first letter is pronounced as if it had a vowel at the beginning like “Em” or “En” or “Ess,” then use the word “an” before it.

Examples: an MMS employee, an SPE paper

Similarly, words beginning with the letter H that sound like they start with a windy consonant take “a” before them, whereas those where the H is silent take “an” before them.

Windy Examples: a historically important event, a hysterectomy

Silent Examples: an hourly employee, an honorary degree

Now, some British folks might pronounce “historical” without any wind, in which case they can use “an” and get away with it. Same thing with the old Exxon folks who still live in Humble, Texas, where they have an Humble resident or two.

Lagniappe Mini-Tip:

I saw the same error several times today that cracked me up. There was a valve that was supposed to “relive” pressure, rather than “relieve” pressure. This is something that spell checker will not catch. I think most of us would prefer the latter.

Help Plus Infinitive

July 22, 2010

Help Plus Infinitive

I got a question from the Peanut Gallery today. Paul asks:

Many, many years ago when I was learning English, I thought I came across a rule for the use of the verb “help.” There is not supposed to be “to” after help, as in “please help me be a better writer,” as opposed to “please help me to be a better writer.” Which is correct?

They are both acceptable, with the version lacking the word “to” a bit more informal.

In the “help me be” example, the word “be” is called a “bare infinitive,” which means it doesn’t have the customary “to” in front of it. Help is a verb that can be used with or without the “to” and with or without an object before the infinitive (help me be). To be or not to be, that is a “to-infinitive.” Whether ’tis nobler….

Here’s another example where you can use either the to-infinitive or the bare infinitive:

What they did was circulate the drilling mud prior to cementing the well.

What they did was to circulate the drilling mud prior to cementing the well.

In a series containing more than one infinitive, the second one generally is left bare.

Example: They are planning to drill the well and [to] complete it with a slotted liner.

Oh dear, here comes a song into my head that I’m sure I’ll never get rid of:

“Look for the… BARE infinitives, the simple bare infinitives,

forget about your worries and your strife…..”

(with apologies to The Jungle Book movie maestro)

Gerunds: Nouning a Verb

July 21, 2010

Remember when I got up on my soapbox and ranted about “verbing a noun”?

(Bad Example: trialed)

Well, today I plan to talk about nouning a verb, which is perfectly copacetic.

(Word of the day: copacetic = satisfactory, acceptable)

In fact, they have an official word for “nouning a verb”: gerund.

Most gerunds end in -ing; hence, verbing and nouning could be gerunds if they were real words.

My personal motto is made up of three gerunds:

“Learning, loving, serving.” I figure a life spent doing these three things would be a life well spent.

These gerunds are nouns just like “Truth, justice, and the American way.”

A gerund differs from a present participle in that it acts as a noun, performing as a subject or object of the sentence.


Learning can be fun. (subject)

I have always liked learning. (direct object)

Present participles generally have some form of the verb “to be” in front of it:

… is learning, are learning, were learning, have been learning.

These are verbs; they are not acting as nouns, therefore they are not gerunds.

Because a gerund acts as a noun, it can have a possessive pronoun in front of it.

I could have used a gerund in yesterday’s tip:

“I thought my being a cheerleader would make me popular.”

“Being” is the gerund here. Note that this doesn’t say “me being a cheerleader…”

Here’s another example of a possessive pronoun in front of a gerund:

I’m sorry about your having to wait for an hour.

Gerunds can also be the object of a preposition:

The course was about drilling in the deepwater Gulf of Mexico.

The purchase order for completing the water treatment plant was finally approved.

So don’t be afraid of nouning a verb – just do it correctly!

Alternate vs. Alternative

July 20, 2010

People tend to confuse these two adjectives. Alternate means going back and forth between two things, such as when things occur by turns (odds and evens).

Example: We have alternate Fridays off as part of our 9/80 work week.

Alternative means another option, such as when a choice is offered.

Example: We will need to find an alternative supplier if AcmeThermo cannot get our thermocombobulator here by August 15.

Back in the Cretaceous when I was a cheerleader in high school, there were seven regular cheerleaders, and I was the “alternate” cheerleader. This was not a correct use of the term, as I did not cheer every other game, but only as another option if one of the regulars happened to be sick or “benched” for some reason. I was really the “alternative” cheerleader. But I did not point that out to anybody, because that would have been too nerdy for words. I thought my being a cheerleader would make the smartest girl in school popular, but NOOOOO. Apparently nobody was brave enough to date Coach’s daughter. Dad had a big wooden paddle hanging on the wall in his office in the boys’ gym that said “Board of Education,” and he was not afraid to use it. I’m glad he never brought it home when he retired!

Compound Sentences and Commas

July 19, 2010

A compound sentence is a sentence that has two or more parts that are independent clauses, i.e., each can stand alone as a full sentence with a subject, a verb and an object.

These simple sentences in a compound sentence are grammatically equal structures, separated by a comma, but joined by a coordinating conjunction: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so. (Taken together, the first letters spell FANBOYS.) The comma goes before the coordinating conjunction, not after it (even though that might be how you pause when you speak the words).

Bad Example: We left for the airport early but, we still missed the plane.

Good Example: We left for the airport early, but we still missed the plane.

Compound sentences can also use the formulaic structure of correlatives: either-or, neither-nor, not only-but also, both-and. A comma is used to separate both complete clauses.

Example: Not only was the well drilled in record time, but it was also completed in a single day.

Under certain circumstances, the comma between independent clauses in a compound sentence can be – and sometimes should be – left out:

  • If both independent clauses are short and very closely related, especially if the subject of both clauses is the same.

Example: I saw the movie and I liked it. 

  • If only the first clause is short, and the two clauses are closely related, especially if the subject of both clauses is the same.

Example: I got in line early so I could get front-row seats to the concert.

Paint a Picture with Words

July 14, 2010

Seeing is believing, which is why there is a saying that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” However, sometimes you cannot use a picture, as the subject is underground or underwater or even way out in cyberspace. However, you can still use words to paint a picture, giving the reader an image to which he or she can relate.

One example is to compare a large area, say 120 acres, to a certain number of football fields. This reminds me of the time I was a librarian at Texaco and I got an unusual “stump the librarian” question: how wide is a football field? I knew the length was 100 yards, but I didn’t know the width off the top of my head. Note: this was before Google was invented; today it’s easy. Answer: 160 ft wide or 53.3 yards. But my point is that a football field area is something familiar to most people, and far more familiar than 120 acres. And by football, I mean the kind they play in the US while wearing shoulder pads and helmets using an oblong ball. A soccer field may be more familiar to the rest of the world (same 100 yards in length, but a bit wider at 60 yards).

So how can you use imagery with words to illustrate technical concepts without graphics? Michel Fortin, a writer, author, speaker, and consultant in the field of direct response selling, recommends using “upwords,” or “Universal Picture Words Or Relatable, Descriptive Sentences.” Here’s how he defines them:

“Upwords are words that paint vivid pictures in the mind, or expressions that describe an idea to which the mind of your reader or prospect can quickly and easily relate to. [Pardon his dangling preposition here.] In other words, upwords are metaphors, similes, analogies, examples, comparisons, mental imagery, stories, illustrations, etc. – anything to help the mind instantly visualize what it is being told, without the need for critical thinking.”

Not that I’m trying to discourage critical thinking, mind you, merely trying to enable the reader to grasp a complex concept more easily. If you put yourself in the readers’ shoes, you will be able to select word pictures that the readers will be able to decode, making the synapses in their brains link up to something they already know. It’s like greasing the skid to help get your ideas into their heads. Hey, that’s a perfect example!