The Penguin dictionary of American English usage and style : a readable reference book, illuminating thousands of traps that snare writers and speakers /
Paul W. Lovinger.
New York : Penguin Reference, 2000.
xv, 491 p. ; 25 cm.
0670891665 (acid-free paper)
More Details
New York : Penguin Reference, 2000.
0670891665 (acid-free paper)
catalogue key
Includes bibliographical references (p. 487-491).
A Look Inside
First Chapter

Chapter One


A and AN. The choice of using a or an before a word depends on the sound of the word. Use a if the next word begins with a consonant: a daisy, a good egg. Use an if the next word begins with a vowel: an ape, an easy victory.

    The wrong choice showed up in three newspapers. A federal official was quoted (or misquoted) as saying, "We are concerned any time there is a allegation of serious wrongdoing...." In another news story, an investor "filed a $800 million lawsuit." In a column, a presidential candidate drove "a M-1 tank."

    Corrections: It is " an allegation," because allegation begins with a vowel sound. It is " an $800 million lawsuit," because eight begins with a vowel sound. (The number phrase would be pronounced as eight-hundred-million-dollar .) And it is " an M-1 tank": Although m normally is a consonant, the letter as such is pronounced em .

    A precedes the sound of the y consonant, even if the initial letter is usually a vowel: a European, a ewe, a uniform. The use of an before such a word is not standard.

    An precedes a word starting with a silent h: an hour, an honorable man. Using an before a pronounced h , in words whose h was once silent, like historic or humble , is an uncommon practice in the U.S.A. but more common in Britain. It is observed by a few American writers and speakers, such as an anchor woman who said, "NASA today called off an historic space mission."

    The foregoing rules assume that one needs a or an (indefinite article) and not the (definite article). A or an goes before a word or phrase denoting a person or thing (noun) but not a specific one. The person or thing is usually singular but sometimes plural: a few good men, a great many people.

    A or an is properly omitted from some common constructions. One variety contains no followed by an adjective: "no better time" / "no more beneficial discovery" / "no such animal." Another contains kind, sort, type, species , or the like: "that kind of gem" / "this sort of thing" / "some type of evergreen."

    Meaning can hinge on the presence or absence of a or an . "A novelist and poet spoke" suggests one person. For two persons, an extra a is necessary: "A novelist and a poet spoke" (although " both spoke" makes it clearer). "The zoo will acquire an apteryx, or kiwi"--two alternative names for the same creature. But "The zoo will acquire a koala or a wombat"--one or the other.

    In writing certain phrases that contain a , particularly a lot and a hold , some people erroneously affix the a to the noun. A while may be properly written as one word sometimes, but not always. See A WHILE and AWHILE; HOLD; LOT.

    See also THE.

Abbreviation. 1. Code letters, 2. Three forms .

1. Code letters

    A newspaper article uses the initials "APS" eleven times but never says what they stand for. In the same issue, another article mentions "WIPP" twice without explaining it. Another newspaper mentions "North Carolina A&T State University" three times in an article, never informing the readers (mostly non-Carolinians) what "A&T" stands for.

    A piece by a news agency cites a "DOE study done by Aerospace Corp. of Los Angeles." The context indicates that the research did not involve female deer. But the uninitiated reader has no way to relate those three letters to "Energy Department," which is mentioned several paragraphs before and after "DOE."

    Unless initials are as widely known as U.S., C.O.D., M.D., and the letters of the broadcasting networks, the full name or phrase should be used at first. If the initials will be used thereafter, the full name may be linked to them in this way: "Albuquerque Public Schools (APS)" or "Department of Energy (DOE)."

    Often initials are unnecessary. In subsequent references it may be clearer to refer, for example, to the schools or the department . Better yet, repeat the full name, if it is not too long.

    Even when initials are explained at the start, they can challenge one's memory if there are too many of them. A book on international law contains statements like this: "... The remaining 40 NNNS parties to the NPT had still not ... [concluded] a safeguards agreement with the IAEA." One chapter uses such forms some 300 times. A reader needing a reminder has to go back and hunt for it.

    In telling of the bags O. J. Simpson took to "LAX," was a television reporter lax in assuming that everyone knew the airline industry's code for the Los Angeles airport? San Francisco newscasters continually spell out "SFO," never identifying it as their airport's code. It has at least eighteen other meanings.

    One of those newscasters said on the radio, "There will be no water rationing this year for East Bay MUD [pronounced "mud"] customers." Some listeners may have heard of the East Bay Municipal Utility District. Others may wonder who would want to buy mud.

2. Three forms

    Technically, three main condensed forms may be distinguished, though all three are often lumped under the word abbreviation .

    An abbreviation , strictly speaking, is a short version of a word or phrase in writing, such as Rep . for Representative and etc . for et cetera .

    An acronym is pronounced like a word; it is formed from initials or parts of a name or phrase. Examples are AIDS from acquired immune deficiency syndrome and LORAN from long-range (aid to navigation).

    An initialism is composed of initials that are spelled out in pronunciation, letter by letter, such as FBI for Federal Bureau of Investigation and cc for cubic centimeter(s).

    See also Punctuation, 8; and Titles , 2


ABIDE and ABIDE BY.To abide something usually means to endure it, to tolerate it. "Can you abide such hot weather?" It can also mean to await it.

    A columnist thinks that the press has treated a certain local politician too kindly. The politician "has succeeded in making himself the personification of the city." An attack on him therefore becomes an attack on the city "and no one can abide by that." It should be "and no one can abide that." Omit "by."

    To abide by something is to comply with it, conform to it. "I abide by the law." / "I'm a law-abiding citizen."

    The past tense and past participle of abide is abode or abided .


Absolute constructions. See Modifiers, 1D .

Abstract noun. See Nouns, 1 .

ACCEPT confused with EXCEPT. See EXCEPT and EXCEPTING; Homophones.

ACCORDING TO. According to is a common phrase that is used in sentences like these: "A promising discovery in the fight against flat feet was made this week, according to a local professor." / "According to the sect, the world will come to an end next Thursday."

    It tells us that the statement is made on the authority of the one quoted. It implies that the writer does not vouch for the veracity or sense of the statement or may even question it. Thus it should be used with caution.

    News people sometimes append "according to" to what should be matters of objective fact. For example:

According to the administration, Contra aid will run out September 30.

Will it or won't it? If the writer has any doubt, he should find out for himself.

    Some statements are too obvious to need any attribution, let alone the "according to" form. This item is no scoop:

Many Jewish students at SF State will not be attending class today due to Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, according to A----- S-----, Director of Programs of the Northern California Hillel Council. [ See also DUE TO. ]

Is the reporter so afraid of sticking her neck out that she requires the weight of authority behind an announcement of a holiday?

ACCOST. To accost is to approach and speak to someone first. A panhandler and a person seeking directions accost people on the street. Some have the mistaken idea that it means to assault or attack.

    A news report on national television said that several friends were "accosted by a white mob." Probably attacked should have been used instead of "accosted."

    A city official, speaking about assaults on parking officers, referred to "their chances of being accosted." He meant assaulted .

Accuracy and inaccuracy. See Numbers, 5 ; Quotation problems, 1 ; Reversal of meaning.

Accusative case. See Pronouns, 10 A .


SUSPECTED. 1. Accused

in the news media. 2. Two


1. Accused in the news media

    "An accused mass murderer finally gets his day in court," it was announced on local television. This would have been a better way to phrase it: "A man accused of mass murder finally...." What the newscaster essentially called him was a mass murderer who had been accused.

    Such misuse of the participle accused has become fairly common among news people. They assume that it protects them from any libel suit. When they describe someone as an "accused thief," for example, they mean he is not definitely a thief, just one who has been accused of being a thief. But to call someone an "accused thief" is still calling him a thief. "Accused" modifies "thief"; it does not mollify it. Similarly an "accused doctor" or "accused lawyer" is a doctor or lawyer who has been accused.

    The misuse of alleged , as a synonym for "accused" in its objectionable sense, has long been established among journalists. An example: "Dazed and bleeding from a vicious assault ... Laurie M----- pleaded with alleged attacker David A----- to take her to a hospital...." Alleged normally means declared as such without proof. But the sentence essentially says the accused man committed the crime; "alleged" scarcely mitigates the nastiness joined to his name. A fairer phrasing would be: "... Laurie ... pleaded with her attacker--alleged to be David ... --to take...."

    Suspected is apt to be treated in the manner of the other two questionable words. The comments about accused hold for suspected . A "suspected assailant" is an assailant who is suspected, according to the literal meaning of the words. In stating that "serious damage has been done to national security by convicted or suspected spies," two newspaper by-liners show that they regard "suspected spies" the same as convicted spies. ( See Guilt and innocence, 3 .)

    The word reported often is used in a similar grammatical way. Although usually applied to incidents, rather than people, its presence can raise questions. For instance, when a news story mentions a "reported crime," is it referring to a crime that has been reported to the police, or is it just using "reported" in its vague, journalistic sense, as a supposed hedge against legal action, or as if to say: "We're not sure that it happened, but we were told that it did"?

    Writers and editors should be aware that none of the four words in question will protect them against suit. It is not enough to say "There really was an accusation"--or "allegation" or "report" or "suspicion"--if its substance was false or erroneous. As a rule of thumb, avoid charged prose if there is no charged defendant.

2. Two adverbs

    Allegedlyand reportedly (a later arrival) occupy the domain of the news media, and there they should be confined. They are used in this way: "The accused man allegedly [or "reportedly"] struck the victim." In grammatical terms, the selected adverb modifies the verb, struck . Someone ought to explain in what manner the accused person struck the other when he "allegedly" struck him or "reportedly" struck him.

    During our Persian Gulf war, a banner in an American newspaper cried: "Hussein reportedly asks for asylum in Algeria" (referring to President Hussein of Iraq). The "report" came from a French newspaper, which cited no source. No more was heard of it. We need not ponder the unimaginable act of "reportedly asking"; a larger question is involved: When an editor finds a story so shaky that he must qualify its headline with "reportedly," should he not think twice before running it at all?

ACRONYM. See Abbreviation.


"ACROSS FROM."These two sentences, which appeared in newspapers in Texas and New York, raise questions: "The farm is across from the plant." / "... This man's brother was across from the President's house with a gun...." Across what? The tracks? The street? The park? Use of the slang term "across from" requires that the topographical entity in the way be obvious.

Active voice and passive voice. An announcer broadcast the following sentence, and in a sense he spoke with two voices.

If you're in the market for high-quality furniture, this sale should not be missed.

Notice how weak the sentence gets after the comma. It starts out in the active voice and finishes in the passive voice . It would have more punch if it followed through actively: "... don't miss this sale" or "you should not miss this sale." The inconsistency as much as the relative weakness of the passive voice impaired the announcement.

    Voice is the form of a verb that indicates whether the subject of a sentence performs the action or receives the action. The two sentences that follow express the same thought in two ways.

· "Matilda found a chinchilla" is in the active voice . The subject (Matilda) performed the action.

· "A chinchilla was found by Matilda" is in the passive voice . The subject (a chinchilla) received the action.

    The active voice is more direct and usually more forceful than the passive . Nevertheless, the passive has a place. You may want to emphasize the doing and play down the doer. The identity of the doer may be obvious, unknown, insignificant, or indefinite: "Letterpress printing is not used much now." / "Flags are being lowered to half-mast." / "The package was delivered yesterday." / "It just isn't done."

    A book on world history says, "The Neolithic stage in culture is characterized by the following important innovations:" Five numbered paragraphs follow. Such a format lends itself to the passive.

    Too much passive can get dull. Scientists load their writing with it. If you read research papers, you can get the idea that scientists never do anything. Somehow everything is done , as though by magic. Take the following description of an experiment, from a biology annual (emphasis added).

Stock suspension of normal erythrocytes were prepared from freshly heparinized rat blood.... The plasma and buffy coat were removed, and the cells were washed.... The supernatant of the first washing was discarded, and the cells were resuspended and diluted.... NACl dissolved in 10 ml sodium buffer, at the appropriate Ph, was chosen for the preparation of the hypotonic solutions.... The required standard 50% hemolysis was reached by adjustment of the NACl concentration.

    The combining of voices can produce a sentence that is not just weak but also ungrammatical. It happens when a verb in the active part does not agree with anything in the passive part. Such a sentence appears in the foreword of a generally admirable dictionary. The sentence preceding it says the editors do not give merely the essence of a definition.

Instead, the reader is given the necessary additional connotative information, even if it means devoting a good deal of space to doing so....

The sentence is passive up to the second comma; thereafter it is active . That fact alone does not spoil it. The trouble is that the words "doing so" do not refer to anything. If, for instance, the sentence began (in an active voice ) "Instead, we insist on giving the reader the necessary ...," doing so would fit. Another way to correct the sentence is to make the second part "... even if it requires a good deal of space."

    Double passives can be awkward. This is acceptable (though not an illustration of energetic reporting): "The suspect was said to be wanted in three states." This, however, is too clumsy for publication: "The peak was again attempted to be climbed." Better: "Another attempt was made to climb the peak." A passive believed, reported, said , or thought will tolerably combine with another passive. Many others will not: attempted, begun, forgotten, proposed, sought , and so on.

AD and ADD. See Homophones.

ADAPT and ADOPT.To adapt something is to adjust or change it so as to make it suitable for one's purpose. Hollywood writers often adapt novels to the screen.

    To adopt something is to accept or take it as one's own--unchanged--as one would adopt a child.

    An anchor man who referred to "the platform that the Democrats adapted in Atlanta" chose the wrong word. It should have been adopted .

    By the way, adopted children have adoptive parents.

Adjectives and adverbs. 1. In general. 2. Placement.

1. In general

    An adjective describes someone or something. (In terms of grammar, it modifies a noun or pronoun.) Examples of adjectives are green, wet , and European .

    An adverb describes an action, or it further describes a description. (It modifies a verb, an adjective, or another adverb.) Examples of adverbs are thinly, probably , and increasingly .

    It seems as though every piece of writing about improving one's English has to contain some mistake. (The book you are now reading is probably no exception.) So a newspaper article on legal English indirectly quotes a judge "who advises lawyers to write like good newspaper reporters: simple and straightforward." And ungrammatically?

    You may write a simple piece or write a piece that is simple --this word is an adjective only. But you write simply --this word is an adverb only.

    Unlike simple and simply, straightforward may be used either as an adjective or as an adverb.

    Among other words that serve both as adjectives and as adverbs are down, far, fast, first, little, much, same, straight, very , and well . They have one form only. (They are sometimes called flat adverbs .) The following are more examples of words that double as adjectives; used as an adverb, each has an alternative form ending in - ly , the form of most adverbs: bright, cheap, loud, quick, sharp, slow, strong, sure , and tight . Some writers consider the - ly form-- brightly, cheaply , etc.--more formal or fancy.

    In some cases, adding - ly changes the meaning. Each of these is a combined adjective and adverb: hard, high, late . And each has an - ly form with a different meaning: hardly, highly, lately .

    Hyphens should never be attached to adverbs ending in - ly: "a strongly worded letter" / "the rapidly moving train." (Some adjectives end in - ly and are subject to hyphenating when attached to participles. See Punctuation, 4D .)

    Sometimes an adjective is erroneously used for an adverb and vice versa. An attorney general said, "We take it very serious"--instead of seriously , the adverb. A psychologist said, "You've done all of those things that sound wonderfully"--instead of wonderful , the adjective. ( Sound is a linking verb. See Verbs, 1F .)

    Descriptive terms ought to be stinted, used only when needed to paint a picture. Some writers and speakers shovel them out when the unadorned facts would suffice. In prose characteristic of supermarket tabloids, a reporter said on a television network, "Amazing new research has led to an astonishing discovery" (about the migration of brain cells). See also CELEBRATED; GRISLY (etc.); Synonymic silliness.

    Adjectives or adverbs come up in hundreds of word entries and such topic entries as Comparative and superlative degrees; Comparison; Double negative; Joining of words; Modifiers; Modifying; Nouns; Participle; Possessive problems; Series errors; Tautology; Verbs.

2. Placement

    An adjective may go just before the noun it modifies, as in "A yellow bird appeared" (an attributive adjective ); or it may follow a linking verb, as in "The bird was yellow " (a predicate adjective ).

(Continues ...)

Excerpted from THE PENGUIN DICTIONARY OF AMERICAN ENGLISH USAGE AND STYLE by PAUL W. LOVINGER. Copyright © 2000 by Paul W. Lovinger. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Choice on 2001-01-01:
Both useful and enjoyable, this readable dictionary of American English usage and style has entries with examples drawn from the popular press, media, and various other sources, later 1980s and 1990s. Entries include usage and misusage of words, word pairs, and general entries on grammar, punctuation, and style. Word entries, devoted to specific words or phrases indicated by boldface, range in length from a few sentences and examples to a full page. Cross-references are plentiful. Each entry gives part of speech and correct and incorrect usage with an example of each. Examples are identified as newspaper, broadcasting, publication, etc. Longer entries are divided and numbered for clarity and cross-referencing. With the front matter are lists of general topics covered and of cross-references for those topics. A lengthy list of reference works is located at the end. The volume's best feature is its enjoyable and readable style. Using examples from common sources rather than scholarly works gives it a wider appeal in a subject area that can be tedious. Recommended for public libraries and lower-division undergraduates; enjoyable reading for those who work with words. J. P. Burton; West Chester University of Pennsylvania
Appeared in Library Journal on 2000-09-15:
This alphabetically arranged resource features specific words and general-usage topics that can confound readers, writers, and editors alike. Typical usage errors include referring to "Frankenstein's monster" as "Frankenstein," using "try and" instead of "try to," and describing a parallel or coincidental situation as "ironic." The 75 topic entries cover subjects as varied as abbreviations, collective nouns, homophones, prepositions, punctuation, and, interestingly, Iran, often erroneously referred to as Arab. This compact reference work will prove handy for users struggling with the differences between flaunt and flout; gantlet, gauntlet, and gamut; hypothesis and theory; and homophonic terms such as allude/elude or persecute/prosecute. Numerous cross references and 2000 richly contemporary examples replete with quotations add to this tool's usefulness. Lovinger is a former reporter and newspaper columnist, and many of the examples are derived from the world of journalism. Despite this emphasis on media usage, this is still a worthwhile purchase for libraries that already own The New Fowler's Modern English Usage (LJ 3/15/97). Recommended for wordsmiths, arbiters of good usage, and larger collections.DElizabeth Connor, Medical Univ. of South Carolina Lib., Charleston (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
This item was reviewed in:
Library Journal, September 2000
Booklist, November 2000
Choice, January 2001
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Unpaid Annotation
Professional wordsmiths, students, and general readers of every kind will find their questions about correct writing, however complicated, clearly answered in this major new reference work. From Abide and Abide By to Lay and Lie, it illuminates common pitfalls and traps, boldly distinguishing between right and wrong and permissible alternatives. More than 1,000 major entries distill lessons from over 2,000 examples of media misusage and questionable style. Highly readable and completely authoritative, this is both an overdue antidote to laissez-faire lexicography and anything-goes grammar and a true reflection of English "as she is spoken"--and should be spoken.
Unpaid Annotation
"The Penguin Dictionary of American English Style and Usage" is a readable reference book that illuminates thousands of pitfalls and traps that snare writers and speakers -- and shows how to avoid them. Designed for general readers as well as those who work with words, it has more than 1,000 major entries and sub-entries, from A and And, Abbreviation, and Abide and Abide By to Latter, Lay and Lie, and Lay Off and Layoff to Punctuation, Pupil and Student, and Purport, Purported to Wither and Writhe, Your and You're, and Zero In. Entries range from a few sentences in length to -- in the case of Punctuation, with sub-entries on the Apostrophe, Colon, and Comma, and so on -- as many as thirty pages.This book is distinguished for its many examples and for its generally conservative approach to usage. The author does not simply tell readers what to do, he shows them, often wittily as well as insightfully, through analysis of some 2,000 quoted examples of misusage and questionable usage from the press and other media. And readers who find themselves floundering in a sea of permissivism, never sure but what something might be considered "c

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