Triangle Grammar Guide

Longtime N&O journalist Pam Nelson writes about language use and misuse and answers questions about grammar and style. Readers can weigh in on what annoys them, too. Think of this as your online grammar class. Send e-mail to Pam at

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Grammar Guide quiz: Just a note before I go

This is my final post on the Triangle Grammar Guide. I was among the copy editors and designers at The News & Observer whose jobs were eliminated in Raleigh.

Calling all word nerds: Grammar Guide quiz is up

grammar-quiziconA new Grammar Guide quiz is up. Here is the disclaimer for all you sticklers: No, it's not really about grammar; it's about usage and word choice. The sentences all come from real life this time -- from copy I have read or have edited. Of course, we copy editors don't catch everything -- as readers remind us often. We try, though, even in these trying times.

Click here or on the question mark icon to begin the 10-sentence quiz. Be sure to click through to read the explanations (which, by the way, are the same whether you answered correctly or incorrectly). Leave a comment here if you would like or send me a message.

I am on Twitter, too -- #grammarguide.

Word usage: How "impact" got a bad reputation

I made this edit one night last week:

The company adopted new accounting standards after the acquisition that significantly impacted affected its results, so comparisons with year-ago results are skewed.

I admit that it was an almost automatic action on my part.

Practice your word usage skills: Grammar Guide quiz


Here is a new Grammar Guide quiz. Almost all of the 10 sentences involve word usage challenges. I have one timely sentence at the end that is more of a copy editing or proofreading  challenge.

Click here or on the question mark icon to begin.

Click here to find other Grammar Guide quizzes.

Let's learn about pronouns: Grammar Guide quiz No. 55

grammar-quiziconThe latest Grammar Guide quiz involves pronouns. Some explanations in this quiz include grammatical terms such as "nominative case" and "bare infinitive." Those are for the true geeks among us. I hope even those with only casual interest in grammar and usage will find something of interest in the quiz and the explanations. 

Click here to begin the quiz. As always, I welcome comments and e-mail messages.

My plea for hits on the quiz I posted Sunday with posts on my own Facebook page and the Grammar Guide Twitter feed @grammarguide worked wonderfully well. I am grateful to all who tried the quiz and who spread the word.

Don't expect the lexicographers to referee

Columnist Barry Saunders finds fault with the word ginormous and wishes editors would not allow such coinages into the pages of dictionaries. John McIntyre, who writes You Don't Say at, explains that lexicographers are not legislators. They describe what is going on with language; they do not put a stamp of approval on coinages merely by adding them to the dictionary.

Of course, I don't recommend using "ginormous" in a news story or in an academic paper. The New Oxford American Dictionary's entry for "ginormous" notes that it is "informal, humorous." That's guidance that writers can heed. And if you are on a job interview, it might be best to describe your capacity for hard work with a more formal word -- enormous or boundless, perhaps.

Tricky word choices: A Grammar Guide Quiz (No. 54)

grammar-quiziconThe latest Grammar Guide quiz involves commonly confused words -- as you might have guessed, one of my favorite copy editing challenges. Some of the sentences on the quiz lend themselves to varied interpretation, so if you happen to choose the "incorrect" answer, you could argue that you read the writer's meaning differently. This quiz has 10 sentences, rather than the standard five. I've been saving up examples. As an enticement, I promise a little humor in some explanations.

Click here to begin the quiz. As always, I welcome comments and e-mail messages. Tell your friends and spread the word. I could use some hits.

Word nerd reading: Untranslatable expressions

I saw this feature in the March issue of Reader's Digest: Eight expressions that ought to exist in our native tongue but don't. The excerpt comes from a travel site called Matador Network.

My favorite is "jayus" from Indonesian: "a joke so poorly told and so unfunny that one cannot help but laugh." Check out the list of "20 Awesomely Untranslatable Words from Around the World" by Jason Wire.

The disappearing regional dialect: Raleigh

A story in The News & Observer's Sunday edition might be interesting to language buffs and fans of regional accents. Robin Dodsworth, an associate linguistics professor at N.C. State University, says that the Raleigh accent is gradually disappearing.

She's also looking for natives of Raleigh to participate in her study. If you grew up in Raleigh -- as far south as Garner or as far north as Wake Forest -- and want to contribute your voice to Dodsworth's data, e-mail her at


Kayaker vs. canoeist: agent nouns and suffixes

A reader asks this interesting question:

Two items in the news yesterday made me wonder, and I hope you have an answer to my question. The first Item referred to a man in a kayak as a "kayaker," the second item referred to a man in a canoe as a "canoeist." Both are paddling a watercraft, so why is one an "er" and the other an "ist"?

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