Grammar and Style Guide — I


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From the Guide to Grammar and Style by Jack Lynch.
Comments are welcome.


An abbreviation of the Latin word ibidem, meaning “in the same place.” It's sometimes used in footnotes or endnotes: “Remember that long citation I gave you in the previous note? — repeat it here.” Note that it always means the immediately preceding reference. “Ibid.” is an abbreviation, so it usually gets a period at the end, but most house styles suggest roman rather than italics. It was once very common, along with “Id.” (from Latin idem, “the same” — not “the same place” but “the same work”). Both are becoming less common in most kinds of writing, though they may hang on in legal writing. [Entry added 9 May 2007.]


A language is shared by a large community: English, for instance, is the first language of most people in the UK, America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and much of South Africa, India, and so on. Thing is, the English spoken in Louisiana is pretty far from the English spoken in Cape Town. A dialect is a subset of a language shared by a smaller community, often (but not always) regional: Cockney, for instance, is a dialect of English. A dialect is distinguished from a language by a set of departures from the “norm,” but these departures are necessarily shared by some community. (I'll let the linguists wrangle over exactly which communities constitute dialects.)

An idiolect, on the other hand, is the form of a language spoken by a single person, marked by a set of departures from the “norm” that aren't shared with others, at least not as a package. A person's idiolect constitutes a kind of linguistic fingerprint, since it's by definition unique to an individual. Police forensics folks often look for idiolect markers in, say, ransom letters. It was a series of distinctive verbal tics, for example, that allowed authorities to spot the Unabomber from his “manifesto.” [Entry added 14 Sept. 2004.]


An idiom is just a way of expressing something that has been sanctified by use — often in violation of apparent logic, or at least not having an obvious logic behind it.

Some idioms can sometimes be figured out from the component words: if I say something is a dime a dozen, you can probably figure out that it means “cheap” or “common.” Others are impossible to figure out logically. If you get on my nerves and I tell you to piss off, I'm asking you to go away — not to urinate from a great height; to kick the bucket has nothing to do with buckets.

Native speakers usually have little trouble with these. The trickier ones are the more subtle idioms. For instance, in English it's idiomatic to say “I'm going home,” even though with every other destination you need a preposition like to or into: you go to work or into a store. People learning English often have trouble with this, saying things like “I'm going to home.” Even native speakers sometimes get into trouble when they start puzzling over the logic of some phrases, and end up with something that “makes sense” in the abstract, but doesn't conform to general usage.

People learning the language often want to ask why things are this way; alas, the only answer is, “It just is, that's all.” [Entry added 12 July 2005.]

I.e. versus e.g.

See E.g. versus i.e.


I have to express my disgust here: impact should remain a noun; a proposal can have an impact, but cannot impact anything without degenerating into jargon. The only thing that can be impacted is a wisdom tooth.


In grammar, an imperative is an order: instead of “You will go” — the indicative — the imperative says: “Go.” Instead of “You will get the book” — the indicative — the imperative says “Get the book.”

Though the word imperative is common in business writing, it's big and ugly and intimidating. Go with must or should. Instead of the jargony “It is imperative that the forms be completed on time,” try “Be sure to complete the forms on time.”

Imply versus Infer.

A speaker implies something by hinting at it; a listener infers something from what he or she hears. Don't use them interchangeably.


A tip: your thesis statement in an English paper should never contain the word important, which usually means something like “I think this is relevant, but I haven't a clue how.” Some examples of bad thesis statements: “The idea of money is important in Defoe's novels,” “The role of honor in the epic poems of ancient Greece is very important,” or “Race and gender are very important aspects of Toni Morrison's novels” — they're all very close to meaningless. And don't think a synonym like significant will save you. Say something precise.

In Behalf Of.

See Behalf.

Incredible versus Incredulous.

An easily confused pair. Incredible means “not believable”; incredulous means “not believing.” A story can be incredible; a person who doubts it can be incredulous. [Entry added 9 May 2007.]

Indefinite Articles.

See Articles.


See Subjunctives and Shall versus Will.


A yucky word. Usually unnecessary; use person or someone. Use individual only when you mean to distinguish an individual from a group or corporation.


The infinitive is the form of a verb that doesn't express person, number, tense, or mood. It's the uninflected form of the verb.

In most English verbs, the present infinitive is the same as the present plural indicative: “we, you, they listen,” so the infinitive is simply listen; “we you, they shake,” so the infinitive is shake. The verb to be, however, is mighty irregular; the present plural indicative is are, but the infinitive is be. The infinitive is often marked with the particle to (to listen, to shake, to be), though it's not always necessary.

There's also a past infinitive, formed with have and the past participle: to have listened, to have shaken, to have been.

See also Split Infinitive. [Entry added 3 Jan. 2005.]

Inflammable versus Flammable.

See Flammable versus Inflammable.


Inflection is the process by which words change forms, as when you change the infinitive to be and turn it into am, is, are, were, being, been, and so on, or when you take a singular noun and make it plural. Our pronouns change form according to person, number, and case — that is, the function they play in the sentence — producing I, me, my, mine.

The “base” form of a verb is the infinitive. The base form of a noun is the singular.

Modern English isn't a very “highly inflected” language — we tack an s onto the end of the infinitive to get our third-person singular present verb; we slap ed to the end of infinitives to get most of our past tenses; we paste ing to the infinitive to get the present participle. With nouns, we add an s to most singular nouns to get the plurals, apostrophe-s for singular possessives, and s-apostrophe for plural possessives. Our adjectives and adverbs aren't inflected at all. A thousand years ago, Old English was much more highly inflected. We lost most of the inflections in the Middle English period, when word order took over their function. Plenty of languages, though, have more flexibility in word order because they show grammatical relations in their word forms. Those who've studied ancient Greek, Latin, or German will know that every noun and adjective can take dozens of forms. The list of forms an ancient Greek verb can take stretches into the hundreds. On the other hand, many of the East Asian languages are even less inflected than English: Chinese and Vietnamese have hardly any changes in word forms. [Entry added 3 Jan. 2005.]


Sentences beginning “It is interesting that” or “It is significant that” are usually as far from interesting as can be. Don't just state that something is interesting: show it.

In Terms of.

Often useless padding.


Just as you might have to omit something from quoted material with ellipses, you sometimes have to add to a quotation to clarify it. A sentence with only a pronoun like he or she, without the context of the surrounding sentences, might baffle a reader. Or a word or phrase may need explanation — say, a passage in a foreign language.

In these cases, it's traditional to add material in [square brackets]. (Newspapers often use parentheses instead of square brackets, but they're a minority.) Provide an explanation if the author uses something your audience isn't likely to understand — “The first words of Joyce's ‘Stately, plump Buck Mulligan’ are Introibo ad altare dei [‘I will go to the altar of God’].” You might need to supply a detail not in the original quotation, especially if your reader is likely to be confused: “As Fairbanks notes, ‘The death of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia [Mississippi] marked a turning point.’” You might also provide a first name: “It was [George] Eliot's most successful work.” Always the question is whether the clarification will help your audience.

If you're changing a single word or a short phrase, especially a pronoun, and the word isn't especially interesting in its own right, it's okay to omit the original and replace it with the bracketed interpolation: you can change “In that year, after much deliberation, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation” to “In [1862], after much deliberation, [Lincoln] issued the Emancipation Proclamation.” If you're hesitant to monkey with words in the original that may be important — and it's wise to be circumspect — just add the bracketed interpolation after the thing you're explaining: “The sixteenth president [Lincoln] abolished slavery.”

You can also use brackets around part of a word to indicate necessary changes in its form. So, for instance, you might write, “In his brilliant Guide to Grammar and Style, Lynch provides sage advice on ‘us[ing] brackets around part of a word.’”

Some house styles call for brackets to indicate changes of upper- and lowercase letters at the beginning of a quotation: “[L]ike this.” I don't like it — it clutters a page — but I don't get to make the call, except in things I edit.

Limit square brackets to quotations of others' words. If you need to clarify something in your own prose, use parentheses (as I do here).

See also Ellipses and Sic. [Entry added 3 November 2000; revised 1 June 2004.]

Intransitive Verbs.

See Transitive versus Intransitive Verbs.

Inverted Commas.

See Single Quotation Marks.


Resist the impulse to refer to things that are merely coincidental as ironic.

Irony is a complicated notion with an even more complicated history. Those with scholarly inclinations should check out Norman Knox's important book, The Word “Irony” and Its Context, 1500-1755 (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 1961). Those without such inclinations should at least be aware that things are messy, and that precision is useful.

Irony usually refers to some kind of gap between what's said and what's meant. The simplest form is verbal irony, which in its crudest form is sarcasm. If I start praising the infinitely enlightened administrators who run my university, complimenting them for their inexhaustible wisdom and their clarity of expression, most people will recognize that I'm indulging in verbal irony. (The aforementioned bureaucrats won't, but they're beyond hope.)

Other kinds of irony are more complicated. Dramatic irony is when a speaker isn't aware of the true meaning of what he or she is saying (as when Sophocles' Oedipus vows he wants to punish the sinner who brought the plague on Thebes, unaware that he's talking about himself). Socratic irony describes Socrates' disingenuous pose of ignorance. There are also situational irony, structural irony, and romantic irony. Cosmic irony is perhaps the closest to what most people think of as irony: it's when God or fate seems to be manipulating events so as to inspire false hopes, which are inevitably dashed. Thomas Hardy's novels are filled with it. For all of these kinds of irony, the word ironic is just dandy.

But you shouldn't use it merely to suggest something coincidental or contrary to expectation. “He thought the plan would make him rich, but it turns out he lost all his money” — that's a pity, but it's not really ironic. Ditto “She spent years looking for her high school sweetheart, but he finally called her a week after she married someone else.” Again, a damn shame for all involved — but not ironic.

A middle ground — sometimes accepted, sometimes not — is for unexpected things that, in the words of The American Heritage Dictionary, “suggest . . . particular lessons about human vanity or folly.” Here's their example, which about three-quarters of their usage panel found kosher:

Ironically, even as the government was fulminating against American policy, American jeans and videocassettes were the hottest items in the stalls of the market.

The idea is that it wasn't merely an unintended consequence; it points up a serious problem of “human inconsistency.”

Even though three-quarters of the panel found it acceptable, remember that one in four disagreed. For that reason, it's always safest to use words like coincidental, unexpected, improbable, or paradoxical when they're what you mean, and to reserve ironic for unambiguous cases of irony. [Entry added 5 Jan. 2005.]


Not a word used in respectable company: somewhere between irrespective and regardless. Use one of these instead.


A terribly vague word: it always suggests to me that the writer doesn't have a clear idea of his or her meaning. Look for something more specific and more concrete. [Entry added 18 November 2006.]


Use italics for book titles, for foreign words, and for emphasis. Be careful, though, not to rely too much on italics for emphasis; they make your writing look amateurish. Let the words do most of the work.

Note that italics and underscores are the same thing — typewriters used underscore when italics weren't available — so use one or the other, but not both, in a paper. Publishers working from hard-copy typescripts usually prefer underscores; they're easier for typesetters to catch. (This is a question of house style.)

See Titles and Fonts. [Revised 1 June 2004.]

It Can Be Argued.

Aw, c'mon: anything can be argued. Don't pad your writing with useless stuff like this, especially when it's graceless, imprecise, and in the passive voice. [Entry added 14 Sept. 2004.]

It's versus Its.

There's no shortcut; all you can do is memorize the rule. It's with an apostrophe means it is (or, a little less often and a little less formally, it has); its without an apostrophe means belonging to it. An analogue might provide a mnemonic: think of “he's” (“he is” gets an apostrophe) and “his” (“belonging to him” doesn't).

What about its', with the apostrophe after the s? — Never, never, never. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Not in this language, you don't. Its, “belonging to it”; it's, it is. That's all. [Revised 8 June 2001.]


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From the Guide to Grammar and Style by Jack Lynch.
Comments are welcome.