College miscellanea

Autumn always takes me back to my glorious college days at the hallowed halls of the venerable University of Kansas. The blazing fall colors, the snap in the air, the smell of cheap beer…so in that spirit, we’re going to tackle two things that confuse writers on a consistent basis: the various forms of the Latin alumni and the correct punctuation and grammar of college degrees. Continue reading

Bimonthly vs. semimonthly


Dear Conan,

Does bimonthly mean twice in 1 month, or every other month?? And what is the other one called?



Oh, Carolyn,

You’ve stumbled onto one of those prickly questions that has plagued mankind for centuries (actually, about a century and a half). Guess what? According to Merriam-Webster, it means either! How annoying is that? However, bimonthly has consistently been used in publishing (thus saith, and they’re, like, some of the dudes who invented English) to mean every two months. If it helps, semimonthly always means twice a month.

My advice? Stick to the concise, unambiguous terms “twice monthly” and “every other month.”

Your ally in correctness,


Less vs. fewer

Hard to read, but it says "10 or fewer items"

The most famous example of the confusion between these two words is the ubiquitous “10 items or less” signs at your local Piggly Wiggly. It actually should be “10 items or fewer,” like the one to the left that was snapped at a grocery store in Ithaca, NY, home of Cornell University. You know, one of the seven Ivy League universities. See now why they’re so expensive? They know and teach the difference between less and fewer. Continue reading

Too many editors spoil the manuscript

So you’ve finally finished your magnum opus, your great American novel, the book that is going to change English literature forever. And you want said manuscript to be the best that it can be before you send it off to be abused, laughed at and soundly rejected, so that you can eventually self-publish it. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I once sent a query to an agent for my manuscript Everybody Knows This is Nowhere and got my form rejection letter 24 months later. So I understand not wanting to spend the rest of your life writing queries that are answered with Xeroxed “thanks but no thanks” letters.) Continue reading

Infinitives, split and otherwise

Dear Conan,

I have a question about splitting infinitives. I was reading an article online and it struck me that the sentence “So you clearly have to state you want none” conveys to me that it is obvious that you should state you want none. Am I parsing the sentence incorrectly? It would seem that the sentence would make more sense, and be easier to read as “So you have to clearly state you want none”, or maybe “So you have to state clearly that you want none.” Continue reading

Showing vs. telling what I'll be on Tuesday nights after 5/10

In honor of the final few episodes of ABC’s Lost, we’re going to briefly revisit last season’s storyline for help in understanding an oft-discussed issue facing writers of all stripes: showing vs. telling. Continue reading


"Half the lies they tell about me aren't true." - Yogi Berra

Malapropisms. The word itself makes my heart sing…so symmetrical and full of whimsy. But the concept is deadly.

What is a malapropism? Well, it came from a character named Mrs. Malaprop in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s play The Rivals. This character routinely mistook one word for another, and the resulting language was pretty comical. When the average person uses a malapropism in speech or writing, the result is typically high hilarity and a severe dip in his/her “take me seriously” quotient. Usually, a malapropism is used because it sounds a lot like the correct word. Continue reading


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