Archive for August, 2010

Like vs. As

August 31, 2010

Back in the Cretaceous when there used to be cigarette advertisements on TV, there was a commercial that claimed:

“Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.”

 Well, the English teachers, librarians, and grammarians of the day all had a mass conniption, because it should have been:

“Winston tastes good as a cigarette should.”

 Soon afterward, Winston came out with a new commercial:

“What do you want, good grammar or good taste?”

I don’t know if that ad was done by the same advertising agency as the first commercial or not. But I do know that misusing “like” and “as” is considered a cardinal sin in grammar circles; therefore, I’m going to make sure that you don’t commit this error.

“Like” is a preposition that takes an object, either a noun or pronoun.


He plays golf like a pro.  She sings like a canary.

“As” is a conjunction connecting two phrases, each of which includes a verb.

In the Winston example, you have the phrase “Winston tastes good” being connected with the phrase “a cigarette should.” Both have subjects and verbs. Therefore, the ad agency should have used “as” in the original commercial. They got quite a black eye; and because they would rather fight than switch, they would have done better in a Lucky Strike commercial!

Is Geophysics Singular or Plural?

August 30, 2010

Answer: That depends.

Some words look like plurals, but are actually singular. In addition, some mass nouns and abstract nouns can go either way.

Take for example the word “water.” It is a mass noun like “flour” or “rice,” and is normally singular. However, I’m sure you have heard about how drillships are used in ultradeep waters (plural), indicating various places around the world. Likewise, mass nouns like “beer” and “wine” become plural when differentiating between the various kinds.


Beers and wines take on different flavors depending on the waters used in their fermentation.

Then there are the abstract nouns, such as Physics, Geophysics, and Politics. These represent a mass of thought, as it were, and normally take a singular verb.


Geophysics is the study of physical processes and phenomena occurring in the earth.

However, in some constructions, “geophysics” can be plural:

The interpretation is subject to change, depending on what the actual geophysics are.

I saw a headline in the newspaper the other day that showed how even professional journalists can err in their decision as to whether an abstract noun is singular or plural.

Bad Example:

All Politics Is Local

Yes, “politics” can be singular:

Politics is a topic that should be forbidden at our family gatherings.

But when you talk about all politics, obviously you are referring to more than one, so the noun should take the plural verb in that case.

Corrected Headline:

All Politics Are Local

Everybody Uses Indefinite Pronouns

August 26, 2010

We have a question from the Peanut Gallery today:

“Is everybody singular or plural?”

To answer, I will launch into a lesson on a certain group of compound indefinite pronouns that includes:

Anybody, anyone, anything

Everybody, everyone, everything

Nobody, no one  (Note: two words!), nothing

Somebody, someone, something

First of all, the –body and –one pairs of words mean the same thing and can be used interchangeably.

Knock, Knock.  Is anybody home?  Yoo-hoo!  Is anyone home?

Nobody is home; no one at all.

Secondly, these compound words can be used as two separate words in certain circumstances. If you are purposefully being indefinite, use the single word. If you are singling out a particular element of a group, then use two words.

The AP Style Guide gives the following examples:

Indefinite:  Anyone can do that.

Singling out:  Any one of them can speak up. (Think: any single one)

Here’s another example:

Everyone had a good time at the party.

After the party, every one of us had to take a cab home. (Every single one.)

The third thing to remember about these compound indefinite pronouns is that they are singular. While “everybody” might sound like a lot of people, it is still a singular body and takes a singular verb. Also, as singular subjects, they do not take a plural referring pronoun.

Bad Examples:

Somebody has been shirking their duties.

Everybody who doesn’t do their work is in trouble.

To correct these sentences, you should use “his,” “her,” or “his or her” instead of “their.”

In English, it’s hard to assign a gendered pronoun to refer to an indefinite pronoun, because you’re basically fuzzy on the gender in the first place. I suppose you could use “one’s” instead of “his or her,” but it is grammatically correct (although not fully inclusive) to say:

Everybody should use his indefinite pronouns correctly.

Comparisons Using Than

August 23, 2010

I’ve seen some documents recently in which people try to compare two things using the word “then” rather than “than.”

Bad Example:

My brother and sister are both younger then me.

That sentence actually has two things wrong with it. First, change “then” to “than.” Then change the word “me” to “I.”

Corrected Example:

My brother and sister are both younger than I. 

(Think: younger than I am.)

“Than” is used as a conjunction here, comparing two subjects; thus, the pronouns after it should take the subjective case. As a review, the subject pronouns are: I, he, she, we, they. Object pronouns include: me, him, her, us, them.

Other good examples of “than” comparing subjects:

She is shorter than I.

He is not smarter than she.  (Think: smarter than she is.)

Now, if  you’re comparing direct or indirect objects, the pronouns after “than” should be objective case.


I’ve never worked with a more difficult client than him. 

(Think: never worked with … him.)

In The English Language: A User’s Guide, Professor Jack Lynch of Rutgers University uses the following two sentences to illustrate the difference in meaning when using the subjective and objective case:

1) He has more friends than I.  (Think: than I do)

Here, his total number of friends is higher than my total number of friends.

2) He has more friends than me. (Think:  he has … me)

This means that I’m not his only friend; he has others.

Sometimes doing the grammatically correct thing sounds stuffy, so many people use the objective case pronouns when speaking because “He’s taller than me” sounds more natural. However, in technical writing, I recommend keeping the correct case to avoid confusion, particularly in the following situation:

Nobody appoints better managers than he.  (He appoints the best managers.)

Nobody appoints better managers than him.  (He is the best manager ever to be appointed.)

Starting Sentences with Numbers

August 18, 2010

Never start a sentence with a numeral.

Bad Example:

30 of the wells in the eastern quadrant required workovers.

If you have to start a sentence with a number, then you have to spell it out.

Good Example:

Thirty of the wells in the eastern quadrant required workovers.

I have a few tricks I like to use to start the sentence with words rather than numerals.

Some of these are:

About 30 of the wells….

Nearly 30 of the wells….

Up to 30 of the wells….

Last year, 30 of the wells….

One bad example I saw today while editing was:

2010 saw the drilling of 30 wells……

For one thing, years have no eyes, so they cannot see.

Groaner of the Day: But they do have ears. (Haw, haw, haw!)

For another thing, a year number counts as a numeral, and you can’t start a sentence with a numeral.

There was one typo I found today that cracked me up big time:

Thermal development “aria,” rather than “area.”

Now that there opera singer be hittin’ some REALLY high notes!

Attain vs. Obtain

August 17, 2010

To attain means to reach as an end, to gain or achieve a goal through some growth, effort, or progression.


The report stated that the company had attained a perfect safety record for the quarter.

To obtain means to acquire, get hold of, procure, or possess.


He obtained a copy of the report the day before it was to be released.

Obtain also has a second meaning as an intransitive verb, which takes no object.

It means to exist, to prevail, or to be customary or established.


Because the original plan no longer obtains, we will need to revise the budget.

Happy 100th Tip of the Day! Equations

August 16, 2010

Today I would like to get REALLY technical and talk about equations in technical papers. Trying to use simple typing in Word to convey a complex equation on a single line of text can destroy its readability – and sometimes its understandability.

Consider the following Thomeer Equation:


You really have to study it and count your nested parentheses to understand this equation.

However, if you use Word’s Equation feature, it will look like a professor wrote it on the board

It will be much faster and easier to understand the relationships among the variables.

So how do we get there from here?

  1. Click the spot where you want to insert the equation.
  2. On the Insert menu, click Object, and then click the Create New tab.
  3. In the Object type box, click Microsoft Equation 3.0. (You may need to install it.)
  4. Click OK.
  5. Build the equation by selecting symbols from the Equation toolbar and by typing variables and numbers. From the top row of the Equation toolbar, you can choose from more than 150 mathematical symbols. From the bottom row, you can choose from a variety of templates or frameworks that contain symbols such as fractions, integrals, and summations.
  6. To return to Microsoft Word, click the Word document.

Equations are the scientific foundation of the oil and gas industry. They need to be absolutely correct, down to the smallest subscript, so proofread them carefully. Be sure to define each variable and the units that are assumed immediately after the equation. And try to keep the number of equations to a minimum, because most readers will just skim over them. In some journal articles, lengthy derivations can be placed in a sidebar box or in an appendix at the end so as not to detract from the flow or pace of the main article.

Don’t be afraid to use a few equations in your technical writing, because nothing shows that you really know your subject better than a good formula for how to calculate something important.

Planed vs. Planned

August 12, 2010

English is a funny language, and by funny I mean peculiar. We have these weird rules for making verb forms. Here’s one such rule I saw broken this week. The person wrote “planed” instead of “planned.” The former would be pronounced “plained” with a Long A sound, rather than a Short A sound (cat), like the latter.

If he actually had “planed” something, he would have used a wood plane to shave off a thin layer of wood. My dad had one of these tools. It comes in handy when your house settles after many years and doors start to stick on the top or the bottom.

Here’s the rule: When a regular verb ends with a short vowel sound followed by a single consonant, double the consonant before adding the –ed or –ing endings for the past and present participles, respectively.


Can, canned, canning (when you can vegetables for long-term storage) Short A sound

If you don’t follow the double consonant rule, the word can be mistaken for something else entirely:

Cane, caned, caning (when you weave a chair out of canes) Long A sound

Here’s another example:

Short I: Pin, pinned, pinning – He pinned the corsage on his girlfriend’s sweater.

Long I: Pine, pined, pining – He pined for his girlfriend, who was away on vacation.

So pay attention to your participles. You may have to buy an extra consonant if it’s a short vowel!

In Addition, He Used an Extra Also, Too

August 11, 2010

What’s wrong with this sentence?

Bad Example:

Also, some additional inhibitor was added to prevent hydrate formation.

Here we have three instances of the concept of addition (also + additional + added) in a single sentence, resulting in what I like to call “repetitive redundancy.”

More Bad Examples:

Plus, she also bought shoes and a scarf to go along with the new dress.

(plus + also + along with = three concepts)

Additionally, the sonic imaging log was run together with the neutron density log as well as the resistivity log.

(additionally + together with + as well as = three concepts) 

Furthermore, an extra scoop of ice cream was piled on top, too.

(furthermore + extra + piled on top + too = four concepts)

Try to limit yourself to a single concept of addition per sentence if you can, and never include more than two – even in a compound sentence.


En Dash and Em Dash

August 10, 2010

Dashes are not to be confused with hyphens. Dashes have other uses altogether.

The en dash (N-dash) is a short horizontal line that is the width of the letter N.

It is commonly used to indicate a range of numbers, including times and dates.

Note that there are no spaces on either side of the en dash for such use.

In Microsoft Word, go to Insert Symbol and scroll way down until you get to the en dash, or type in Unicode (hex) #2013.


Work hours are Mon.–Fri., 8:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m., with one hour off for lunch.

Do not use an en dash if you express the range using the words “from X to Y” or “between X and Z.”

The em dash (M-dash) is twice as wide—the width of the letter M. No spaces are used on either side of it, as it’s plenty wide enough by itself.

Em dashes are used to set off a parenthetical expression in the middle of a sentence. In Word, the em dash is Unicode (hex) #2014 when you do Insert Symbol.


The compressors will arrive in Qatar August 11—the first day of Ramadan—late in the afternoon.

Em dashes are also used to camouflage identity, mark where somebody is interrupted by someone else, or show that someone stops speaking in mid-sentence.


S— informed police that the gang members were planning a rumble Friday night.

“Janie said she might not get here until—” Ding-dong! “Oh, that must be she now.”

And then there’s Darth Vader’s line in the movie Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope:

“I sense something, a presence I have not felt since—” and then he turns and walks away with a sweep of his black cape.

Sometimes en dashes are used mark off an “aside,” or parenthetical expression – such as this one – instead of an em dash, especially in narrow columns.

In such situations, en dashes have a single space on either side.