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Singular or plural? Revisited

The New Yorker is legendary for its meticulous copy editing. So when it deviates from established grammar, as in Larissa MacFarquhar’s Oct. 8 article “The Memory House,” it’s an event. The piece repeatedly used plural verbs and pronouns with singular nouns like a person or each patient. A few examples: Each patient wore a nametag at all times; there was […]

Anatomy of a cover letter

It’s application season. First-semester students past the first shock of grad school are looking (or should be by now) for summer internships and scholarships. Soon-to-be graduates are seeking fellowships, further internships, actual jobs or, in the case of international students, optional practical training under their F-1 visas. So perfecting their resumes and cover letters is […]

AP updates: vocabulary for election season

“Make friends with your stylebook,” I advise incoming students each summer at international pre-orientation.  “Not only will you learn AP style, but you’ll also learn a lot about the English language.”  These days, of course, “stylebook” really means the online version. It’s superior to the physical book for two reasons: it’s updated constantly (as opposed to […]

Hardy perennials

Every fall brings a new crop of students making the same mistakes in English as the class before them, and the class before that, and one before that. (And second-year students aren’t necessarily any better.) From student work early this semester, here are fresh examples of some of the most common, and avoidable, mistakes I’ve seen […]

Time words

Ago and before, after and since. They all have to do with time, and as paired above, they’re often confused. Let’s clear up that confusion. First, the easy ones, ago and before. Years ago, I noticed my German friends almost always said before when they mean ago, possibly because the German word is the same […]

Reported speech and sequence of tenses

Grammatically speaking, reported or indirect speech means one person is communicating another’s ideas, but not the exact words — in short, paraphrasing. The concept is important in journalism because, well, journalists report a lot of speech. Often we do it in direct quotes: “Come on, Charlie Brown,” Lucy said. “I’ll hold the ball and you […]

Can you count?

Some years ago, my friend Steffen Muench, a German radio journalist, was counting out cash he owed me for theater tickets on a family visit to New York. No matter how many times the two of us counted and recounted, we couldn’t come up with the same figure. “We can’t count,” I explained to his […]

Idiom: the advanced course

Native English-speakers use idioms — those funny expressions like putting the cart before the horse and sleeps with the fishes and Break a leg!  — without thinking twice. But idioms often leave non-native speakers scratching their heads. (If you don’t know those, e-mail me at diane.nottle@journalism.cuny.edu for a list of common ones. It runs six pages.) A real-life example from […]

-ing or -ed?

“I am boring,” a Japanese student a few years ago would tell me repeatedly. Actually, she was anything but. She meant she was bored. Adjectives like boring and bored are often confusing to international students. They and many other English language-learners are confused by such participial modifiers — that is, adjectives that originate as participles. Such […]