A vs. An Before an Acronym: The Pesky Rule Meant to Confuse

OK, Copy Bitch, I’ve got one for you: Is it proper to use “a” or “an” before the acronym LGBTQ? I am a firm believer that “an” should only be used before vowels, so “a” should be used prior to LGBTQ.  But everywhere I look, people are writing “an LGBTQ.” What say you?

–Rob F, NYC

It’s the vowel or consonant sound that’s critical, not necessarily what the actual letter is itself. So, because you’d say “el” for the letter “L” (which is a vowel sound), “an” is appropriate.

Grammar Girl explains it quite well in this post.

I’ve been encountering this issue lately with the word “urogynecologist” and “urologist.” (I do copywriting work for a urology practice.) Those words don’t use a vowel sound as in “undercoat.” So I’d say, “I bought an undercoat today. But now I need to find a urologist.”

Hey, we’ll work on having sentences make SENSE in another issue, OK?

Hope this helps!

Word Confusion: We vs. Us

Dear Copy Bitch: I struggle with we vs. us. Consider this example: Your properly formatted text is due at 5:30 p.m. on Monday. However, us slow readers would like to receive it BEFORE then.

Is “us” correct? If not, do you have any ideas about how to get the rule into this squirrelhead?

—Squirrel Lover, Boston

Answer: Yes, Squirrel Lover, there is a simple way to test it (so you’ll need to remember the test).

Remove any nouns (and adjectives) that get in the way of the “we/us” and the verb. So in this case, remove “slow readers” and test it:

1. Us would like to receive it BEFORE then.
2. We would like to receive it BEFORE then.

After you perform this test, the answer is obvious. The second one is correct.

Hope this helps.

Word Confusion: Adverse & Averse

Dear Copy Bitch: It drives me nuts when people mix up adverse and averse. Any tips for readers?

–Jillian, teacher, San Francisco

Answer: Adverse means “unfavorable.” Averse means “opposed.”

Examples:

  1. I had an adverse reaction to the medication.
  2. I’m not averse to seeing a film that doesn’t start George Clooney.

A trick for remembering: who here likes ads? Nine times out of ten, I bet you find them unfavorable. So try to remember the “ad” in “adverse” and think about those unfavorable ads that bombard you everywhere you go.

I’d love to hear other tricks for this one, so please share in the comments.

Word Confusion: e.g. &. i.e.

Dear Copy Bitch: Can you settle an argument I’m having with my SO? What’s the difference between “ie” and “eg”?

–In Love in Indiana

Answer: Use “i.e.” when you mean “in other words” and use “e.g.” when you mean “for example” (think of the e in e.g. and the e in example to help you remember).

Examples:

1. If George Clooney were ever to speak to me, I’d probably get all supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (i.e., I’d sputter nonsense for lack of anything brilliant to say).

2. I love anything with chocolate (e.g., ice cream, cakes, pies, etc.).

Update: I caught Get Shorty on the telly the other day. Here’s a funny (NSFW) scene that demonstrates the i.e. vs. e.g. conundrum.

Cost-Per-Click: Will it cost less if you lose the hyphens?

Dear Copy Bitch: We are always having these debates in the office.  I am always on the losing end, but I think I’m right.

1. Is website one word or two?
2. Do you capitalize internet?
3. Do you capitalize jargon phrases like “cost per click”?  Do you put dashes between them?  “cost-per-click”

I know I have others but now of course I can’t think of any of them. I thought maybe other people need/want to know the answers…

—Becca S, New York, New York

Answer: Well, you might not love my answer, which is this: it depends. It depends on the style guide you follow (e.g., AP, MLA, Chicago, etc.). Back in the dark ages (i.e., 2002) when I started my business, I wrote “Web site.” Now I write “website” as one word, but I often see it as two words and don’t think, “Gee, that’s wrong.”

As for “Internet,” I follow the rule that it’s a place and, therefore, believe it needs to be capitalized, just as Paris and George Clooney Paradise do. But I see legit pubs that lowercase it.

As for cost per click, same answer: it depends on the person, the editor, the business owner, the publication. For me, I follow this rule: I use caps only (usually) for the acronyms (CPC). I don’t usually use hyphens if the term is used as a noun: What was the cost per click? or The cost per click was $1.45. However, if a term is used as an adjective, that’s when I’d add hyphens: We need to be mindful of our cost-per-click budget. But again, I see sentences that violate my rule all the time (and I’m sure some smart reader could point out places where I violate my own rule).

The key is consistency. Be consistent with your usage (and when I say be consistent, I mean be consistent for that particular publication or for that particular company. I’m not saying you should simply decide how you want to do it and that’s it). Publications have style guides. Smart companies should have internal style guides that address items like the ones you list above (in addition to other things, such as serial commas). Anyone who creates content for the company (marketers, copywriters, consultants, etc.) should receive copies of the style guide (and adhere to the rules).

So how would you answer your own questions? I’m curious. Let me know in the comments.

Word Confusion: Nevertheless vs Nonetheless

Dear Copy Bitch: Any thoughts on the use of nevertheless vs. nonetheless?

–Jay S., from an email

Answer: Your email made me pause, Jay (which doesn’t happen too often, let me tell you). I’ve always thought of these two words as being interchangeable. But I decided to research my assumptions because, believe it or not, The Copy Bitch has been wrong before (most notably when it comes to the men I choose to date, but I digress).

I started with Diana Hacker’s A Writer’s Reference (fifth edition). She has a great “word choice” section, but those two words don’t show up. So, I cozied up with Google. The selections I read in my Google search showed that most people tend to agree with my thinking. This is an interesting forum post that goes a little deeper into meaning and usage. I’d use these words sparingly, however, since they have (in my mind) a very formal tone (I prefer conversational tones unless there’s a really good reason to go all formal). I welcome others’ thoughts on this one.

Back Up Your Backup and Long Live Redundancy!

Dear Copy Bitch: Should “back up” be one word or two?

–IT Geek

Answer: It depends on how you’re using it. If you’re using it as a verb phrase, then it should be two words. If you’re using it as a noun meaning a physical duplicate, then it should be one.

Examples:
1.  Mr. IT Geek, please back up my Pulitzer Prize-worthy novel and George Clooney photo collection. (Back up is two words because it’s a verb phrase.)

2.  Where’s the backup of my George Clooney photo collection? (Backup is one word, since it’s an actual physical duplicate.)

Confounding the Copy Bitch: You Can Die Happy Now

I may be The Copy Bitch, but that doesn’t mean I know everything (I don’t). I often turn to my fellow scribes and editors (many of whom lurk on Facebook) and ask for their help. As you’ll see from the following transcript, not even we “experts” always agree. I was going to create a post about how to use “lay/lie” based on the following conversation that took place on my Facebook today, but I realized that the transcript was pretty amusing as is and I couldn’t improve upon it. So I’m including it below. (I’ve only removed the last names to protect the innocent.) And yes, you should learn something from it.

The Copy Bitch, as posted to her status update on 11/16/09: Grammar Geeks: when “hand picked” is used as a verb, is it one word or two…and if two, do you need a hyphen? “…but rather one that had been hand picked by a professional.”

Tracey: Isn’t it two words? Isn’t picked the verb and hand is one of those thingies that modifies a verb? Clearly I’m not a grammar geek, but for the most part speak goodly.

Christine: Yes, I would hyphenate it. The words are going together as a phrase, with Hand modifying picked.

Steve: Tough one. If homemade is one word then handpicked should be, too. However, store-bought is hyphenated. I’d go with one word. Sounds like the AP would agree.

Linda: Ask @FakeAPStylebook on Twitter… you might get a really great answer. 🙂

The Copy Bitch: well if my grammar geeks can’t agree, the general public probably won’t get caught up in it 🙂 I had it as “hand-picked” but was doubting myself.

Linda: I would put “hand-picked” also.

Steve: Dictionary.com and webtser.com list it as one word. But then who am I but just another “grammar geek” no one listens to.

Tracy (without an “e”): I would hyphenate. I also think the copy bitch should do one on “lay” versus “lie.” It drives me crazy when my yoga teachers say to ‘lay’ down on my mat. It’s LIE, people, LIE, LIE, LIE.

The Copy Bitch: Steve, did you say something? 😉 Seriously, I value your opinion and we do SO listen to you. Tracy (without an “e”): I suck at the lie/lay/lain thing (hey, we all have our weaknesses) and need to consult a dictionary whenever I have to write the word and then usually find a different word, just to avoid making mistake. I also avoid making left-hand turns whenever possible. 🙂

Tracy (without an “e”): Well, if you ever want a guest blogger, I’m there with the lie/lay/lain thing.

The Copy Bitch: Do you have any tricks for keeping them straight? I’m not above admitting my weakness in writing and quoting your tricks for keeping them straight. Would make for a funny post. And I’d learn something.

Tracy (without an “e”): Yes. “Lay” as a present tense always takes a direct object (as in “now I lay me down to sleep” or “Lay your mat down on the floor” or even “lay yourself down on your mat.” But if you are just telling people to lie down on their mats (not to lay themselves down), then you use ‘to lie’ because it doesn’t take a direct object. And the past tense of “lie” is “lay”, so I think that’s where people get confused, e.g. Last night at eight, I lay down in front of the tv and fell asleep.

Tracy (without an “e”): I think the technical way of putting it is that “to lay” is transitive.

Josh: Copy Bitch, you’ll never land Clooney if u admit you stink at the “lay thing” 🙂

Tracy (without an “e”): Quoting Josh would make for a much funnier post.

[Editor’s note: Agreed.]

Word Confusion: Lose vs. Loose

Dear Copy Bitch: Your “Word Confusion” tips are great. Because of your help, I stopped myself from making a Then/Than mistake today. Got any more?

—John M, Princeton, Mass.

Answer: Have I got more? That’s like asking George Clooney if he’s got sexy. Another common mistake: lose vs. loose. There’s an easy way to remember the difference between these two words: you “lose” the extra “o” when you mean “fail to keep or maintain” (i.e., “to lose”).

Or think of it like this: the double Os mean you need extra room. You gotta keep it loose.

Example:

I guarantee my pants won’t be loose after Thanksgiving, which means I’ll need to lose the extra sweet-potato-pie poundage.

Word Confusion: Farther vs. Further

Dear Copy Bitch: I love the tips you give on confusing words. How ’bout these: further vs. farther.

–Word Lover, NYC

Answer: As long as you don’t tell me you’re a Yankees lover, I’ll answer your question. Think of the phrase “traveling afar,” and you’ll have a good hint. If you’re talking distances, use “farther” (almost always). If you’re talking quantity or degree, go with further.

Examples:
George’s home in Italy is farther away from me than his home in California is.

If I go any further into my George obsession, some blog readers might think I’m seriously nutty.

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