Do You Run, or Leap? Crawl, or Creep?

MOuntain BikerLet’s talk about that old workhorse, that four-letter word, that indispensible element in every sentence: the verb.

So what is a verb, and how do you use it? Perhaps you remember your English teacher telling you, “A verb is a word that expresses action (throw, run, examine, read, write), or state of being (is, are, was, seem).”

In a typical sentence (not always the most useful, but certainly the most common), the verb comes between the subject and the object, e.g., Mary (subject) throws (verb) the ball (object). You can also think of it as who (subject) does what (verb) to what (object). This of course, is for an active sentence. More about that later.

While we could talk about the differences between types of verbs (there are about a dozen types), Let’s concentrate today on how to use verbs for effect.

1. To add spice, and enhance your writing with greater clarity, use specific verbs, verbs that go a long way to creating the picture you want your reader to “see.” Paint a picture for your reader.

You could, for example, say,

“Jerry went down the hill.”

To be a bit more specific, you could say,

“Jerry ran down the hill.”

A bit better, but let’s be even more specific,

“Jerry raced down the hill.”

2. You can paint an even clearer picture with a step-by-step description, adding additional “picture verbs,”

“Jerry raced down the hill, tripped, stumbled, caught himself, and kept running as if the devil himself were about to devour him.”

In this case, we’ve used a couple of words with verbs to help paint the picture – “himself” with caught, and “kept” with running, and then the “as if” phrase to complete our picture.

You’ll note that in the above example, we’ve added words as we paint the whole picture for the reader.

3. Frequently, just exchanging one verb for another (“ran” for “went,” and then “raced” for “ran” in the above example) works well, and is all that is needed to paint a sufficient picture for more concise business writing. For example, you could say:

George sat at his desk.


George slumped at his desk.

For tighter writing, you may want to avoid verbs like is, was, are, were…. E.g.,

MaryAnne is a person who plans for unexpected events.


MaryAnne plans for unexpected events.

4. You could use a verb that “shows”:

Barbara is taller than her co-workers.


Barbara towers over her co-workers.

5. Finally, that familiar grammar checker item: passive verbs. An active sentence is one where someone/something is, will, or has done something – an actor and an action, e.g., “Alex grasps the situation.” A passive sentence is one where someone/something is being done to, e.g., “The situation was grasped by Alex.”

Note that the active sentence in the above example contains four words, while the passive sentence must contain six words to provide the same information.

Passive sentences tend to be longer, slower moving, and impersonal. For better comprehension, easier reading, and fewer words, use active verbs to create active sentences.

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Gail Tycer offers business writing workshops and presentations, executive coaching, consulting, and writing services. To discuss how we can help, call Gail at 503/292-9681, Toll-free at 888-634-4875 or email


Love a Mystery? Here are Some Clues

girl with fan

I’ve always thought of those magic bits – prefixes – the beginnings of many words, as clues to the mystery of what in the world that word could mean.

For one example: You go to the doctor. Your doctor says you are suffering from hypothyroidism. Does that mean you will get a prescription and be taking thyroid pills for it?

For another: If someone tells you, “That was an atypical result.” What should you expect the next time?

Let’s look at a few common prefixes:

• Hypo – as in hypodermic, or hypothyroidism. The prefix “hypo” means “under.” So it’s easy to figure out that, for example, hypodermic means under the skin (“hypo”=under, and “derm”=skin).

In similar fashion, hypothyroidism must mean that you have under (or less than) the required amount of thyroid. Your doctor could decide to write you a prescription.

• Under is also a prefix that means beneath. For example, underground, or underlayment.

• Hyper – as in hyperactive. The prefix “hyper” means “over or above.”

• A (as well as “an”) means not, or without. So, if you got an atypical result, you would not necessarily assume you would get the same result next time. In fact, it would be “atypical” if you did!

(Note that il, ir, in, and im also mean “not.” For examples, illegal, irregular, incorrect, and immoral.)

• Ante means “before,” as in antedate, or anteroom. But note that:

• Anti means “against” as in anticommunist. “Ant” also means “against,” as in antacid.

• Multi and Poly both mean “many,” as in multiply, or multiform; or polygon (a figure with many sides.)

• Extra and Extro mean “beyond, or “outside.” Examples are extraordinary, extrovert, and extracurricular.

Numbers also come into play. For example:

• Deca means “ten,” e.g., decade.

• Di means “two, or twice,” e.g., divide, dioxide, ditto.

• Hex means “six,” e.g., hexagon, a six-sided figure.

Words can be fun to investigate – to put the clues together to solve the mystery. First, of course, comes the prefix. “Pre” meaning “before.” The prefix, depending on its meaning, has the power to change the intent, or the sense of the root, or base word.

Next comes the root – the base on which to build other words. We’ve mentioned a few of the root words in the examples above. Finding the root of the word is a major clue to solving the word meaning mystery. We’ll save that for another discussion.

The final clues come with the suffix. This final bit at the end of the word (e.g., “ly,” “ology,” “al”), can be very helpful in telling what kind of a word it is – a noun, adverb, adjective, and so forth – as well as adding to the reader’s understanding of the meaning of the word.

There you have the clues to solve the mystery. Happy sleuthing!

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Gail Tycer offers business writing workshops and presentations, executive coaching, consulting, and writing services. To discuss how we can help, call Gail at 503/292-9681, Toll-free at 888-634-4875 or email


Business Writing Workarounds

Pen and Paper“Workarounds,” a word borrowed from the techie community, has become an interesting part of our business vocabulary, generally meaning if the way you usually do it, or are supposed to do it, doesn’t work, or if you’re not sure how to do it, here’s how to work around it to get the job done.

Many of us were taught – or at least thought we were taught – that there is only one correct way to write. Certainly when you are talking about a prescribed type of writing, say a thesis or a dissertation, that is true.

But in business writing, workarounds can get that piece of writing done both quickly and correctly, and can be useful when we’re not certain of the grammatical correctness of what we have written. There are many correct ways to get the job done, and in the typical business situation we do not have time to spend figuring out how to fix a particular phrase or sentence exactly as written. Business writing is not, and should not, be an English class exercise. Business writing is a tool – a way to get the job done. And the writing itself should be correctly done to enhance your professionalism and credibility.

So let’s talk about a couple of quick, correct workarounds.

1a. Here’s a very common grammatical error. So common, you may not see it at first:

Each employee will have a chance to show their best practices at the conference.

 The grammatical error in this sentence is that you are talking about each employee. One at a time. Singular. Each employee’s individual best practice (or practices) is not their best practice, but his or her best practice or, if more than one, practices. If you were fixing that sentence as written, to be correct, you would say:

Each employee will have a chance to show his or her best practice (or practices, if each is allowed to show more than one) at the conference.

 If you know that all of the employees we are talking about are female, you could just use “her best practices….” If all of the employees we are talking about are male, then use “his best practices….”

But if the employees are a mixed group – some male, some female – or if you don’t know the composition of the group by gender, use his or her.

 That’s the grammatically correct way to fix that specific sentence, keeping it generally as is.

Here’s one workaround that could avoid the seeming awkwardness of his or her:

 Each employee will have a chance to show an original best practice at the conference.

 If some of the employees will show more than one original best practice, the sentence could be:

Each employee will have a chance to show original best practices at the conference.

 1b. The problem in the original sentence is that each employee (singular) does not match up with their (plural). Another way to make the original sentence grammatically correct would be:

Employees will have a chance to show their best practices at the conference.

In this corrected version, Employees (plural) matches up with their (also plural).

2. Often, and this also happens frequently when you are editing someone else’s writing, as well as with your own writing, the sentence is such a mish-mash of stuff that fixing it as written is overwhelming.

Work around it. Get to the “bare bones” of what you (or the writer, if you are editing) are trying to say. Then re-write, to make it both grammatically correct, and understandable.

So – to be sure you are writing correctly and clearly when you are not sure:

Step 1:  Recognize and identify the error, errors, or cause of confusion.

Step 2:  Make your correction, using a good grammar guide or a good “workaround.”

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Gail Tycer offers business writing workshops and presentationsexecutive coaching,consulting, and writing services. To discuss how we can help, call Gail at 503/292-9681, or email


Is Grammar Dead – Or Deadly?

Gail Tycer wordpress wordle

In a recent New York Times piece decrying the practice, John McWhorter, author, blogger, and contributing editor states, “We cannot help associating ‘bad’ grammar with low intelligence, sloppiness and lack of refinement.”

This criterion, he notes, makes it “…increasingly challenging to find work providing a living wage or upward mobility, much less satisfaction,” for people lacking these skills. While acknowledging that this is the case, McWhorter questions barring someone from a decent job “…because he or she isn’t always clear on the difference between ‘your’ and ‘you’re.’”

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Hello 2014 – Fare Well, 2013!

Over last weekend, I’ll bet many of you, like me, were busy packing away ornaments, deciding which candles can be used again, and trying to find a youth organization to give our retired trees to for recycling. Or at least, again, like me – thinking about it!

And now it’s serious back-to-work time. Time to try something new. I’m not quite ready for 2014 yet – what happened to 2010, anyway? So, with a final salute, let’s wrap up 2013 with the Best of the Blog – a short collection of my top nineteen posts of that year, as judged by the number of “likes” each garnered. An “e-book” for want of a better name, and the first e-book I’ve ever done.

I’d like to give this compilation to you as a thought-starter. A new way of thinking about your writing. Or maybe as a way to address a New Year’s resolution to strengthen your on-the-job writing, making it faster, easier, and more effective. Totally free. Please email me (, and I’ll send you the free link.

We’ll talk about:

1. If You’ve Ever Said, “I Wasn’t Good at English in School…” Read This!

2. How to Say It When You Can’t Think of What to Say

3. Shorter, Fewer Emails

4. Strategic Email

5. Meeting Minutes

6. Writing a Successful Instruction

7. Writing a Powerful Presentation – Getting Started

8. Writing a Powerful Presentation – Finishing Strong

9. How to Write a Business Thank You Note

10. Nine Places to Find Ideas for Your Blog Post

11. “Spin”

12. Hide, Hedge, Mask, and Cloud?

13. How to Offend, Anger, or Frustrate Without Realizing It

14. How Many Common Writing Errors Do You Make?

15. Stronger, More Powerful Sentences

16. What Was That Again?

17. Words That Create Mix-Ups

18. Words, Words, Words…

19. Fatigue-Reducing, Confidence-Building Phrases

We’ll also include a few of our weekly Quick Tips, answering some of those pesky grammar questions.

So here’s to 2013, wrapped up with a bow – and on to a great new year: 2014. Let me know how I can help you to achieve your business writing goals this year. I’m totally committed to helping you write less, say more – and get results in 2014.

If you like what you’re reading, we invite you to subscribe to our blog.

Gail Tycer offers business writing workshops and presentations, executive coaching, consulting, and writing services. To discuss how we can help, call Gail at 503/292-9681, or email


How Many Common Writing Errors Do You Make?

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Let’s talk a bit about grammar and usage errors today. Can you find the errors in the following three sentences?

1. Woodland Caribou: Less than 65 roam America’s mountains and mesas.

2.  As soon as they get the test scores back, her or her assistant will call you.

3.  They thought living in Canada would be a lot different than living in Portland, Oregon.

Here are the answers:

1. The error here is “Less.” When you can count them, it’s “Fewer,” so this sentence should read: Woodland Caribou: Fewer than 65 roam America’s mountains and mesas.  Use “Less” when it’s something you can measure (volume): There is less coffee in the blue cup than in the red one.

If you thought the problem was the capitalized word following the colon, then when do you capitalize the word following a colon? Capitalize the next word after a colon when it is a proper noun, or when it is the first word of a complete sentence. If it is part of a series, and not a complete sentence, it should be lower case.

How about “65”? Numbers nine and lower are spelled out. Numbers 10 and higher are shown in Arabic numerals.

2. This one is easy, but I included it to give you a shortcut. The error, of course, is the first “her,” which should be “she.” The shortcut: When you have a situation like this one, just cover up the first of the two words or phrases in question. Cover up the first “her,” and this part of the sentence reads, “…her assistant will call you.” Sounds fine. But cover up “or her assistant,” and this part of the sentence will read, “…her will call you.” Clearly not fine. You can hear that it should be “…she will call you.” The sentence should read:

As soon as they get the test scores back, she or her assistant will call you.

3. The error here is that things are “different from,” and not “different than.”

And yes, the comma needs to be between Portland, and Oregon

Hope you’ve enjoyed this short quiz. If you’d like to test yourself further, visit our archives by clicking here.


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We’ll be happy to bring a Gail Tycer workshop to your organization. To discuss a workshop for your people at your location or ours, or a shorter presentation for an upcoming meeting, call Gail at 503/292-9681, or email


Tip of the Week: Those Four-Letter Words

Noun. Verb.

For many, these two words may have been the most troublesome four-letter words of their entire academic careers.

A noun, we are informed by our friends at Webster’s, is “a word used as a name of a person, quality, or thing….” Perhaps our teachers said that a noun is the name of a person, place, or thing. Some authorities add events or concepts to the list.

In general, there are three categories of nouns that name things: common, proper, or collective. Common nouns name people places and things. Examples might be, for people, “teacher,” or “physicist”; for places, “garden,” or “classroom”; for a thing, “computer,” or ” leash.”

Proper nouns are generally names of specific people, places, or things and are capitalized. Collective nouns refer to a single unit made up of various components – for example, “family,” or “majority.” If you are referring to a collective noun as a single entity, use a singular verb, e.g., “The family is….” If you are discussing members of the group acting individually, use a plural verb, e.g., “The majority were….”

There is of course always that quirky little thing about nouns. For example, is Harry a small businessman? Or is he a small business man? Oh well.

Let’s move on to the weightlifters of the English language: verbs. Verbs do the heavy lifting in a sentence. Without a verb, you cannot make a sentence. You may choose a verb that shows action, or one that does not. Perhaps your teacher said, “A verb is a word that shows either action, or state of being.”

Verbs can make a sentence come to life! Let’s choose wisely. For example, how many ways can you think of to say “went”? For starters, how about jogged, walked, ran, shuffled, stumbled, drove, flew, limped, cantered, hopped, climbed, perambulated? Does each one put a different picture in your mind?

Next time you sit down to read an exciting piece of fiction, notice the strong verbs, and how they move the story along, create excitement, and keep you reading – long after bedtime! Look for them, and notice how your favorite writer uses them.

If you’re a word lover too, think of an action word – a  verb (there’s that four-letter word again!) and let your mind wander. How many ways can you think of to say that word, or express that meaning?

Finally, how about those “other” four-letter words:  Think about the tone of your email or other business communication. Consider waiting a bit before emailing a “sensitive” message. Generally it’s best to avoid “venting,” vulgarity, or profanity in the business situation. Neither is business email the place for sarcasm, hostility, cynicism, or whining.

To get your Tip every week, please subscribeWe appreciate your recommending a Gail Tycer business writing workshop for your workplace, or a shorter presentation for an upcoming professional meeting.

© 2013 Gail Tycer •


Words that Create Mix-Ups – Part II

Let’s take a quick look at some more of those commonly misspelled, misused, or misunderstood words or phrases that can be such a problem:

How do you use “i.e.,” and “e.g.”?  There is a difference!

One way to remember which is which is to look at their Latin roots. My dictionary tells me that each phrase is an abbreviation for a Latin phrase: i.e. (id est) means “that is”; while e.g. (exempli gratia) means “for example.” Each, according to the AP style guide, is always followed by a comma.

To confuse the issue a bit, “I.E.” or “IE” both stand for the title “Industrial Engineer.”

You may have wondered about “pro-,” “anti-,” and “non-”

While each is most often used as part of an ordinary word, e.g., produce, anticipate, or nonsense, each may also be used to coin a new word, in which case, “pro” generally means for;  “anti” means against; and “non” means not.

Thus you have pro-peace; anti-war; and non-inflammatory. There are several rules and exceptions, so it’s always best to look up your specific word, and how to use it, in your dictionary and perhaps style guide as well.

And speaking of the need to standardize on a specific dictionary or style guide,

How about “bi-” and “semi-”?

“Bi-” means “every other,” while “semi-” means “twice.” So, when you say your newsletter is published “bimonthly,” that means it comes out every other month. But if you are really ambitious, and your newsletter is published “semimonthly,” your newsletter comes out twice a month (AP Style Guide) Whether these words are hyphenated or not depends on your dictionary or style guide.

There are some tricky exceptions. For example, “biannual” and “semiannual” are both words, mean the same, and are correctly spelled without the hyphen.  You could issue a policy update biannually (twice a year) – no hyphen, or semiannually (also twice a year).

To further confuse this issue, “biennial” means every two years. No wonder English is so difficult to learn!

Now for an easy one: “reject,” or “refute”:

Often used interchangeably, these two words have very different meanings. “Reject” means to refuse to accept. So you could say, “I totally reject the entire concept, and that is the end of it!”

On the other hand, if you just like a good argument, you could “refute” what someone has said, or offer proof that it was wrong, inaccurate, mistaken, or just a plain old lie! So you could say, “I am about to refute the accuracy of what he said: to prove that he has, indeed, lied about this matter.”

© 2013 Gail Tycer •


Tip of the Week: Help for Grammarphobia

Sometimes “grammar” becomes overwhelming – fear of making a grammatical error can block out everything else, and get in the way of saying what we really want to say – if only we could remember what that was! What was that rule again?  And how many grammar rules can any of us quote from memory?

Interestingly enough, in my workshops across the country, there is one grammar rule that just about everyone can remember. I’ll bet you know that exact rule that most people remember. Ready? All together now: “i before e…”

Why do we remember that one? As many adverting copywriters will tell you, a catchy rhyme, one that becomes memorable, works! But while it may work on our memory muscles in day-to-day activity, writing in rhyme is not exactly what we are looking for in day-to-day business writing that must be sharp, clear, and to the point. As well as accurate, correct, and professional.

So here’s what I propose: Forget the grammar rules! Instead of trying to remember the rules, focus on recognizing an error.

Your word processing program’s grammar checker can be a helpful starting point. You can find grammar guidelines in your paper or (sometimes) online dictionary, or your grammar checker will likely make suggestions. Verify grammar checker recommendations with another resource unless you are absolutely certain that the grammar checker “fix” is correct.

What if you have identified the error, but do not know how to fix it? Then it’s time for a workaround. Rewrite it in a way you know is correct. Productivity on the job – getting the work out, correctly – is the point here.

What you say on the one hand, how you say it on the other: content and grammar. Each is critical. Both are necessary to build your credibility; to prove your professionalism; to demonstrate your knowledge.

Now, how about a few more of those words that create mix-ups?

Affect and effect are two good ones to start with. Think of them in alphabetical order: You can affect an effect. Affecting is doing. An effect is the result.

So you might say, “We believe our new policy will affect the outcome to a significant degree. The effect of the required changes should be critical to our success in 2013.”

Here are two more frequently misused words: infer and imply. “Infer” is something one does inwardly. “Imply” is something one does outwardly. “Infer” is what you think you understand from what someone says; “imply” is what someone almost says.

For example, “The implication of his words is unmistakable. We can confidently infer that he will be stepping down within the next few months.”

Two final words that create mix-ups: compliment; and complement. We all love compliments – those nice things people say about us.

But what about “complement”? A totally different thing. A complement completes.

As in, “Your silk scarf beautifully complements that outfit.”

A complement could also be the complete number.

As in, “The store advertises 58 flavors, and sure enough, it has the full complement of 58 different flavors ready to serve at all times.”

For this week, instead of trying to remember the grammar rules we’ve all forgotten, focus on identifying grammatical errors you may not have been aware of – in your writing, and in what you are reading – as a practical first step to confident, correct, comfortable writing.

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Recommend a Gail Tycer workshop for your workplace, or suggest one of Gail’s shorter presentations for an upcoming meeting or conference

© 2013 Gail Tycer •


Words that Create Mix-Ups Part 1

And then there are those pesky word mix-ups – words like their, they’re, and there, for one example. Or to, two, and too, for another. Or how about can’t, can not, and cannot? Or affect and effect? It’s and its? And the worst part? These words may be incorrectly used, but as long as they are spelled correctly, even if misused, Spell Checker will not catch them!

Let’s take a look and see what we can do with this merry mélange!

All right then, let’s start with alright: While alright is shown, and given an explanation in most dictionaries, it is still considered “non standard.” So, the correct way to spell the word is “all right” – two words.

Now let’s go for our first trio:  their, they’re, and there:

Their” is a member of that group of possessive words that does not use an apostrophe. “Our,” “your,” “my,” “mine,” and so on. Think about this kind of word, and you can add a few others to this list.

“They’re” is a lovely contraction, and means “they are.” Contractions are interesting in that the apostrophe (’) shows us that something has been left out. For example, the name O’Brian was originally “of Brian,” meaning Brian’s son or daughter. So in the name O’Brian, the apostrophe shows us that the “f” and the space have been left out. Similarly, for the word “they’re,” the apostrophe shows us that the space and the “a” have been omitted.

“There” is a place.

So, perhaps we could say, “They’re there with their friends.”

 And here’s a dangerous duo – possibly the two most frequently misspelled words in the English languageits and it’s:

Its is – you remember – a possessive. Another of those possessive words that does not use an apostrophe. Did you think of “its” when adding words to your list in paragraph five?

It’s is – a contraction! “It’s” means “it is.” So what has been left out? The space and the “i.”

We could say, “It’s good to have its color such a cheery red!”

While we’re talking about the most frequently misused words in the language, here are three morecan not, cannot, and can’t:

“Can not” – two words – is only used when the next word is “only.” For example,“Mary can not only pitch, she can catch.”

“Cannot” – one word – is the most often used. For example, “I cannot thank you enough.”

“Can’t” is another of those – contractions. If you happen to be writing a term paper, thesis, or dissertation, you will not be using contractions in your writing. In the business situation, contractions will work in informal writing, but not when the situation calls for a more formal tone.

Here’s what I hope you will do this week: Concentrate on the words we’ve talked about today, to make sure you use these words correctly.

If you enjoy these Mix-Ups, let us hear your favorites! More next week.

Find this information helpful? Consider bringing a Gail Tycer workshop to your workplace, or recommend one of Gail’s shorter presentations   for an upcoming meeting or conference.

© 2013 Gail Tycer •