Formatting: Where Looks Are Everything

I always breathe a sigh of relief when I get an email or another kind of text from someone who has bothered to make it easy and pleasant for me to read it. I’ll read the whole thing. And enjoy it. The good writing espoused by Ballpoint is in the service of your reader. We are all too harried to have to work at getting through someone’s writing. In fact, we’ll just click through. Next!

When writing emails, typos, punctuation errors, and shaky grammar are just part of the picture in making them quickly readable. If you want someone to read your email — or your post or your comment or your document — pay attention also to how your text looks.

  • Brevity: If it’s too long, some people will skim it at most.
  • Formatting: Big chunks of paragraphs are too dense. Use shorter ones and headers. Bullet points are short and easy to skim.
  • Typeface: Use a plain sans-serif, at least 11 point.
  • Tone: Conversational and neutral will serve you well.
  • Prioritizing: Put your point up top, not as a conclusion.

Taking this post as a case in point, would you have even read this far if this text looked like this? Continue reading

Seems Simple, But . . .

Bad writing proliferates on the web and in casual digital communications, as you know. A bad side effect of this is that the visual reinforcement of the most common errors threatens to replace the more positive one we used to get from reading edited texts: books, newspapers, magazines, and letters written by a better-educated generation. WordWit was designed as a resource and as a practice tool (learning, quizzing) to re-reinforce the correct versions of the mistakes that litter tweets, posts, comments, chats, texts, and emails. We can all use refreshers. Lots of refreshers.

It’s insidious how it begins. How many times have you seen someone who writes “alot” instead of “a lot”? Seems simple, but the former is never correct. If it becomes correct over time because of ubiquity, then you can use it. Until then, don’t. Continue reading

How Now, Comma Cow?

Commas confuse lots of people. Structurally, they’re intended to make meanings clear in sentences, setting apart dependent clauses, separating independent clauses, making lists clear, and distinguishing introductory words — to name just a few uses.

It is currently fashionable to drop any comma that has a structural rule attached to it but which isn’t expressly needed to readily understand a sentence. In the previous sentence, for example, I could have put a comma after the first clause and before the coordinating conjunction “but.” (I chose not to since both parts of the sentence comprise a unified thought, not separate thoughts conjoined.) But, the commas before and after “for example” and the one in this sentence after “But” help with both the rhythm and meaning of their respective sentences. (I’ve highlighted the respective commas in red.) Continue reading

Letters from the Grammarverse: Based Off is Off-Base

Making mobile apps about word usage puts me in the sometimes awkward position of having to be an expert. While having very proper tea and crumpets with a Cornell professor and her British husband last weekend, I was presented with the following query. She kindly crafted a Letter to the Grammarverse so that I could consult some outside experts to corroborate my instincts — and hers.

Dear Ballpoint,

Last semester while reading a student response paper, I caught the
expression “based off of” and quickly corrected it: “Do you mean ‘based
on‘?” It quickly became apparent that usage was not done in error, but
completely intentional as there it was again and again throughout the
work. To the student, who was from the west coast (California), this usage
was common and she believed it to be correct. I then started noticing it
in other student papers and hearing people use it in conversation. So,
what is the story on this expression which sounds so utterly wrong to me?
Should we professors just let it go? Has “based off of” become so common
and accepted that it is now correct? If so, what do we do with “based on”?
Can it be saved? Continue reading

Buzz Overkill: Overused Words

“Dinner was lovely last night.” I actually wrote that in a thank you note this morning, prompting me to consider the pabulum I am capable of dishing out while writing. I might instead have written, “I’m still laughing about your crispy, roasted asparagus spears as a way of getting around eating anything green. They were tasty, I must admit, as was the rest of the meal. Thanks for the home cookin’!”

Better, yes? In lieu of a new note, I’ll send her a link to this blog to make up for it. Months ago, I gave a face lift to her event planning website to purge it of what I call “blah-blah-blah generic language” and to replace it with more attention-getting examples. And then I go and write that her dinner was “lovely?” Suh-LAP! Continue reading

Letters from the Grammarverse: A Difficult Day’s Night

Dear Ballpoint: My biggest campaign at the moment is to suggest that people use difficult instead of hard when talking of complexity or difficulty; i.e “the biscuit was so hard that it was difficult to eat.”  I fear otherwise we will soon be removing difficult from the dictionary! The difficult thing is, most dictionaries list hard as a valid synonym so I may be fighting a losing battle.


This week’s letter brings up a couple of different issues. Only one of them has to do with a traditionalist’s fear that people are losing the distinction between “hard” (as in a surface) and “hard” as a poor substitute for “difficult” when complexity is implied. The danger that we may lose “difficult” as an entire, perfectly good entry in the dictionary is an example of extreme slippery slope-ism. Peeves like this one, though, probably rank as holding on to past lessons way too strongly.

Continue reading

Haste Makes Waves

The wacky nature of our language’s spelling and pronunciation trips up the best of us from time to time. Even the most diligent of us makes typos and misuses words. Alas, there’s no magic bullet when it comes to rules or guidelines, including the automated mechanisms (man and machine) we over-rely upon in our speedy processing programs (mental and computerized).

It always pays to slow down, speak your copy out loud, and, when time permits, give your writing to someone else to review. But what about newspapers with staffs of copywriters and editors to pore over every letter and word? What excuse do they have? (Turns out they have plenty.)

A couple of weeks ago, my local Gannett newspaper ran an Associated Press-sourced story about foreign aid to Egypt. Its subhead began, “Clinton may wave criteria in favor of…” Continue reading

Born This Way


I just watched the OWN Network two-hour special on Lady Gaga, well worth viewing. I became teary a few times with the sincere and heartfelt work these two women are doing in the world to help the helpless and empower the powerless. Oprah helped Gaga kick off her Born This Way Foundation at Harvard. And we got to see Gaga’s childhood home (her parents still live there, and so does she when she’s not on tour!) and meet her mother. I was glued. She’s an inspiring person and a riveting talent, to say the least.

However, being who I am (I was made this way if I wasn’t born this way) I couldn’t help but notice this one incorrect use of I versus me in a compound subject or object. An outlier in otherwise proper pronoun use, this jangled my nerves and stuck in my craw.

The time had come for Lady Gaga and I to take the stage.

Continue reading

Letters from The Grammarverse

Dear Ballpoint: Here’s a pet peeve of mine, and maybe, I’m thinking, it shouldn’t be? Is it incorrect to use the word *that* when beginning a description of a person, instead of who? “Girls that love beer” and “The people that go to carnivals.” It should be “Girls WHO love beer” and “The people WHO go to carnivals.” Right???? Drives me nuts! Tell me I’m wrong so I can let it go! Sincerely, Clover

Dear Clover: You are right. And you can let it go. Let us ‘splain it to you. Continue reading

Apostrophe Catastrophe

The interwebs are full of sites devoted to the decline of civilization as evidenced by apostrophe misuse. I’ve written on the subject here and elsewhere, and will continue to whistle in that particular wind despite knowing that it’s probably to no avail. So on the off chance that it will make even one person think twice before inserting an apostrophe where it doesn’t belong, I purse my lips, face into the wind, and whistle. Continue reading