Here are a few commonly-misused and commonly-abused phrases and writing
strategies that I expect you to avoid. Not all are incorrect, but all
bother me in some way. Hence, it behooves you to avoid them in any writing
you show to me.
I've listed these ``bugaboos'' alphabetically,
since I didn't want to provide any implicit order-of-precedence.
- couple used as an adjective
- ``Couple'' is a noun (meaning two or a few) or a verb (meaning
join). Please don't use it as an adjective. That is, don't write
``a couple mistakes''. Rather, write ``a few mistakes'' (preferred)
or ``a couple of mistakes''.
- This is used too often as a synonym for destroy. However, it
means something more, particularly because of its historical
background. The origin of the term has to do with an ancient
military practice (a Roman practice, I believe) of lining up the
people in a village and killing every tenth person (or man), thereby
demoralizing the populace. Use it only when you mean ``remove one
in ten'' or ``harm to such a level that it demoralizes that which
- An overused word, that doesn't say much more than ``makes it
easier for X to do Y''. Tends to lead to weak, inactive sentences.
- data is
- ``Data'' is a plural noun (the plural of ``datum''). Hence, you
should write ``data are''.
- HTML programming
- You do not program in HTML. HTML is a markup language, not
a programming language. Markup languages talk about appearance or
roles. Programming languages (typically) talk about actions. You
might ``write HTML''. You might ``mark-up a page with HTML''.
You do not ``program HTML''>
- media is
- ``Media'' is a plural noun (the plural of ``medium''). Hence, you
should write ``media are''.
- Do not use ``real'' to mean ``very'', as in ``that's a real cute
kid you have''.
- I dislike this word for a number of reasons. One is that it is
often too vague. We speak of ``users'' of particular kinds of software.
However, at least on the Web, it may be more appropriate to speak of
``readers'' and ``authors''. While ``users'' may be appropriate
for some forms of software (after all, people do use software),
you might consider making it clearer what use people are making of that
- A second reason that I dislike this word is that it is often used
condescendingly, often leading to the term ``lusers''.
- Yes, there are others.
- "Use", dressed up, but with no additional meaning.
You should also be careful when using multiple adjectives to modify
a noun, since there are fairly strict rules about meaning (and misuse
of the rules can lead to you saying something other than what you mean).
There are three basic forms for two-adjective modifiers,
- adjective1 adjective2 noun (no extra
puntuation). In this
case, the second adjective modifies the noun (creating a noun phrase), and the first adjective
modifies the noun phrase. For example, a ``red oak tree'' is an
oak tree that is red. A ``cool mathematics class'' is a
mathematics class that happens to be cool. A ``happy wild child''
is a wild child who is also happy.
- adjective1, adjective2 noun (adjectives
separated by commas). In this
case, both adjectives independently modify the noun. For example, a
``red, oak tree'' is a tree that is red and a tree that is an oak.
(Okay, that wasn't the best example.) Similarly, a ``cool,
mathematics class'' is a class that is cool, and a class that is in
math. A ``happy, wild child'' is a child who is both happy and
- adjective1-adjective2 noun (hyphenated
adjectives). In this
case, the first adjective (okay, it's really acting as an adverb)
modifies the second adjective, and the adjectival phrase modifies
the noun. For example, a ``red-oak tree'' is a tree belonging to
the species ``red oak'' and a ``cool-mathematics class'' is
a class in a subdiscipline of mathematics known as ``cool mathematics''.
Obviously, for some cases, standards or custom allow you to violate
these rules. For example, in ``Supreme Court justice'', it is clear
that ``Supreme Court'' is intended as a logical whole, even though it
is not hyphenated and probably shouldn't be. (Note, however, that
``supreme court justice'' refers to the most supreme of the court
justices.) In other cases, the context makes the meaning obvious.
However, in almost every case, you should punctuate your adjectives
For my class, you should always use ``World-Wide Web'', even though
convention is moving toward the incorrectly hyphenated version.
(The more obnoxious among you may be wondering why I didn't hyphenate
``incorrectly hyphenated'', since the third rule seems to imply that
I should do so. However, ``incorrectly'' is an adverb, not an
adjective (what is an ``incorrectly version?''), so the
association of adverb to adjective is clear.
As you will soon realize, I also care a lot about formatting, particularly
formatting in HTML. Here are a few simple guidelines.
- Use <P> and </P> tags to indicate paragraphs.
Don't use <BR> with some non-breaking spaces.
- Don't (except for links, which the browser should do automatically).
Underlining has its roots in typewritten text, in which
writers did not have different weights and styles available. If you
want to underline, use italics, boldface, or perhaps a different
font color (depending on intent). In addition, underlining on the
Web typically means ``this is a link'', so you should not
use it for other purposes.
I prefer to see syntactically correct HTML, even if I don't always write
it. If you're not sure whether or not your HTML is syntactically correct,
run it through the verifier at
(Unfortunately, this page is not correct because of some difficulty
my page generator has with description lists.)
Monday, 7 June 1999.
- Created, partially for tutorial, partially for the purposes
for my summer research students.
Saturday, 21 August 1999.