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coarse / course

“Coarse” is always an adjective meaning “rough, crude.” Unfortunately, this spelling is often mistakenly used for a quite different word, “course,” which can be either a verb or a noun (with several different meanings).

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concensus

You might suppose that this word had to do with taking a census of the participants in a discussion, but it doesn’t. It is a good old Latin word that has to do with arriving at a common sense of the meeting, and the fourth letter is an “S.”

Speaking of a “general consensus” is extremely common, though strictly speaking it’s a redundant expression since a consensus is by definition a general agreement.

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colons / semicolons

Colons have a host of uses, but they mostly have in common that the colon acts to connect what precedes it with what follows. Think of the two dots of a colon as if they were stretched out to form an equal sign, so that you get cases like this: “he provided all the ingredients: sugar, flour, butter, and vanilla.” There are a few exceptions to this pattern, however. One unusual use of colons is in between the chapter and verses of a Biblical citation, for instance, “Matthew 6:5.” In bibliographic citation a colon separates the city from the publisher: “New York: New Directions, 1979.” It also separates minutes from hours in times of day when given in figures: “8:35.”

It is incorrect to substitute a semicolon in any of these cases. Think of the semicolon as erecting a little barrier with that dug-in comma under the dot; semicolons always imply separation rather than connection. A sentence made up of two distinct parts whose separation needs to be emphasized may do so with a semicolon: “Mary moved to Seattle; she was sick of getting sunburned in Los Angeles.” When a compound sentence contains commas within one or more of its clauses, you have to escalate to a semicolon to separate the clauses themselves: “It was a mild, deliciously warm spring day; and Mary decided to walk to the fair.” The other main use of semicolons is to separate one series of items from another—a series within a series, if you will: “The issues discussed by the board of directors were many: the loud, acrimonious complaints of the stockholders; the abrupt, devastating departure of the director; and the startling, humiliating discovery that he had absconded with half the company’s assets.” Any time the phrases which make up a series contain commas, for whatever reason, they need to be separated by semicolons.

Many people are so terrified of making the wrong choice that they try to avoid colons and semicolons altogether; but formal writing often requires their use, and it’s wise for serious writers to learn the correct patterns.

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commas

What follows is not a comprehensive guide to the many uses of commas, but a quick tour of the most common errors involving them.

The first thing to note is that the comma often marks a brief pause in the flow of a sentence, and helpfully marks off one phrase from another. If you write “I plan to see Shirley and Fred will go shopping while we visit” your readers are naturally going to think the announced visit will be to both Shirley and Fred until the second half surprises them into realizing that Fred is not involved in this visit at all. A simple comma makes everything clear: “I plan to see Shirley, and Fred will go shopping while we visit.” People who read and write little have trouble with commas if they deal with English primarily as a spoken language, where emphasis and rhythm mark out phrases. It takes a conscious effort to translate the rhythm of a sentence into writing using punctuation.

Not many people other than creative writers have the occasion to write dialogue, but it is surprising how few understand that introductory words and phrases have to be separated from the main body of speech in direct address: “Well, what did you think of that?” “Good evening, Mr. Nightingale.”

Commas often help set off interrupting matter within sentences. The proper term for this sort of word or phrase is “parenthetical.” There are three ways to handle parenthetical matter. For asides sharply interrupting the flow of the sentence (think of your own examples) use parentheses. For many other kinds of fairly strong interjections, dashes—if you know how to type them properly—work best. Milder interruptions, like this, are nicely set off with commas. Many writers don’t realize that they are setting off a phrase, so they begin with the first comma but omit the second, which should conclude the parenthetical matter. Check for this sort of thing in your proofreading.

A standard use for commas is to separate the items in a series: “cats, dogs, and gerbils.” Authorities differ as to whether that final comma before the “and” is required. Follow the style recommended by your teacher, editor, or boss when you have to please them; but if you are on your own, I suggest you use the final comma. It often removes ambiguities.

A different kind of series has to do with a string of adjectives modifying a single noun: “He was a tall, strong, handsome, but stupid man.” But when the adjective becomes an adverb modifying another adjective instead of the noun, then no comma is used: “He was wearing a garish bright green tie.” A simple test: if you could logically insert “and” between the adjectives in a series like this, you need commas.

English teachers refer to sentences where clauses requiring some stronger punctuation are instead lightly pasted together with a comma as “comma splices.” Here’s an example: “He brought her a dozen roses, he had forgotten she was allergic to them.” In this sentence the reader needs to be brought up sharply and reoriented mid-sentence with a semicolon; a comma is too weak to do the trick. Here’s a worse example of a comma splice: “It was a beautiful day outside, she remembered just in time to grab the coffee mug.” There is no obvious logical connection between the two parts of this sentence. They don’t belong in the same sentence at all. The comma should be a period, with the rest being turned into a separate sentence.

Some writers insert commas seemingly at random: “The unabridged dictionary, was used mainly to press flowers.” When you’re not certain a comma is required, read your sentence aloud. If it doesn’t seem natural to insert a slight pause or hesitation at the point marked by the comma, it should probably be omitted.

See also colons/semicolons and hyphens & dashes.

Hear Paul Brians discuss commas on his Common Errors in English Podcast.

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collective plural

In UK English it is common to see statements like “Parliament have raised many questions about the proposal” in which because Parliament is made up of many individuals, several of whom are raising questions, the word is treated as if it were plural in form and given a plural verb. This is the proper-noun form of what is called the “collective plural.” Many UK authorities object when this pattern is applied to organization names if the organization is being discussed as a whole and not as a collection of individuals. According to them, “The BBC have been filming in Papua New Guinea” should be “The BBC has been filming. . . .”

This sort of collective plural applied to the names of organizations is almost unheard of in the US, and in fact strikes most Americans as distinctly weird, with an exception being the occasional sports team with a singular-form name like the Utah Jazz, the Miami Heat, the Orlando Magic, or the Seattle Storm. There’s a sarcastic saying, “The Utah Jazz are to basketball what Utah is to jazz.”

Another occasional exception is singular performing group names which are sometimes treated as plural, like The Who and The Clash, though such groups are also often referred to in the singular. It’s almost as common to say “The Who rule” as “The Who rules.”

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coiffeur

The guy who does your hair is a “coiffeur,” just as the person who drives a car is a “chauffeur,” and a restaurant owner is a “restaurateur.” The -eursuffix occurs regularly in occupation names which we have borrowed from the French. In French all of these would be male, though Americans often refer to female restaurateurs and chauffeurs. But it less acceptable to refer to a female hairdresser as a coiffeur.

When the coiffeur has finished, the end product—your hairdo—is your “coiffure.”

critique

A critique is a detailed evaluation of something. The formal way to request one is “give me your critique,” though people often say informally “critique this”—meaning “evaluate it thoroughly.” But “critique” as a verb is not synonymous with “criticize” and should not be routinely substituted for it. “Josh critiqued my backhand” means Josh evaluated your tennis technique but not necessarily that he found it lacking. “Josh criticized my backhand” means that he had a low opinion of it.

You can write criticism on a subject, but you don’t criticize on something, you just criticize it.

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