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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: 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.

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.

Word Confusion: “Irregardless, I Could Care Less”

Dear Copy Bitch: My girlfriend says that when I say something like “Irregardless of what you think, I’m really a sensitive guy,” that I’m wrong and the word is “regardless.” Who’s right?

—Betrothed in Sioux City

Answer: Dear Betrothed…in this case, your girlfriend is right, at least regarding the word “irregardless” (Madame Copy Bitch makes no claim about your sensitivity one way or the other). Use “regardless.”

Here’s another phrase that confuses many: “could care less” vs. “couldn’t care less.” The proper use is “couldn’t care less.” For example, “I couldn’t care less about George’s supposed ‘other’ woman.”

UPDATED IN 2017: I learned something new. “Irregardless” IS a word. But it probably doesn’t mean what you think. And you probably shouldn’t use it. Here’s the explanation.

Word Confusion: Affect vs Effect

Hey, Copy Bitch: Got any tips for keeping affect and effect straight? I can never remember which word is correct in a sentence like “This marketing campaign will affect/effect conversions.”

—The Copy Bastard, Sacramento

Answer: Both affect and effect can be used as verbs and nouns, which is why these words cause so much confusion. In my experience in business writing, however, I see more instances where affect is used as a verb (meaning “to influence”) and effect is used as a noun (meaning “result” or “consequence”). (Grammar experts, I realize that there are multiple definitions, but I’m trying to keep it simple for my readers.)

When we think verbs, we tend to think “action.” So when you’re writing, ask yourself if there’s an action taking place. Think “a” for “action,” and think “a” for “affect.” In your example, the correct answer is “affect,” since the marketing campaign will influence conversions (an action). This isn’t a foolproof method, but it will likely help you keep them straight most of the time. Here are some more examples:

  1. George, your rejection of my love will affect me for the rest of my life.
  2. George, your rejection of my love has had a profound effect on my life.

If anyone has a better way of remembering the differences between these two pesky words, I’d love to hear it. Leave your tricks or strategies in the comments thread.

Word Confusion: No Peeking at my Peak!

Dear Copy Bitch: Got any tips for remembering how to use peek and peak correctly?

Answer: Sure. You need your eyes to look quickly–or “peek”–at something. There are two e’s in eyes. Same for peek. (You also have two eyes, so you can use that hint as well.)

The peak is the top of something, often a mountain. Think of the Alps (“a” in Alps; “a” in “peak”). By the way, if you “pique” someone’s interest, it’s spelled p-i-q-u-e. Think of it this way: Q is one of the craziest, coolest letters in our alphabet (and worth 10 points in Scrabble). If something interests you, it’s probably because it’s cool. So think “cool Q” and write pique correctly.