More Writing Tips

Readers have continued to ask me about problems in grammar and diction, and I have addressed a few points below that may be helpful to you or to people in your organization.  

More Writing Tips
The Couple Thinks
Do collective nouns take singular or plural verbs? Take the example of couple, a singular noun that refers to two people. If they are acting as a unit, one should use a singular verb, as in "The couple is buying a new house." If, however, they are acting as individuals, one should use a plural verb, as in "The couple are voting separately this year." If these sound funny to you, you can always resort to saying, "Stan and Laura..." 

American and British usages differ. In Britain, one generally uses a plural verb with collective nouns, as in "the army think" or "the team think." When I lived there, these always grated on me, and in the U.S. one would say, "the team thinks." If you are referring to the team, however, as individuals, you would use a plural verb, as in "The team come from all over the country." When in doubt, you can always say, "Team members come from all over the country." 

Between You and Me but Among Friends 
A related problem is the difference between "between" and "among." One often thinks of using between when there are two people or objects, and among when there are more than two. This is half true. If there are only two items, you must use between, as in "between you and me," or "you must choose between the two." 
If, however, you are referring to more than two individuals, you would still use between, as in "between the four of us." By contrast, if you are referring to people or objects as a group, use among, as in "The consensus among the delegates was that the resolution would never pass." 

One exception: if you use the word divide, you would say, "divide it between the two of us," but "among the four of us."

Are You Disinterested or Uninterested?
How many times have we heard someone say that they didn't want to deal with something because they were disinterested? What they really mean is that they are uninterested. Uninterested means that you have no interest. Disinterested means that you are unbiased and objective. 

When I was a juror, the judge announced every morning that the jury was indifferent. I don't know if this is standard legal usage, but it always struck me as being equivalent to saying we were uninterested. Either that, or she was saying that they had had better jurors before but also worse ones. Perhaps the court thought that saying we were disinterested would be confusing.

Speakers Imply, Listeners Infer
If you hint at something without coming out and saying it directly, you imply it. If I am listening to you and can put two and two together, I can infer what you're getting at. If, for example, you explain a basic concept to me in simple-minded detail, you may be implying that you think I'm stupid. If I pick up on it, I may infer that you think I'm stupid. 

Who Decides on Language Change?
My advice has often been to remain flexible and use common sense, since the language is changing and not everyone agrees. I have finally been asked, who decides? That's the problem. Languages change organically, and there's no single authority. 

A public figure or journalist coins a word or expression, and it may or may not enter the language. Some concepts are developed in foreign countries - hence, for example, the word Kindergarten - and immigrants bring different language forms with them.

In some countries - France and Iceland come to mind - an academy or other body decrees what is correct. I don't know how effective these bodies are, but I suspect that they're simply playing catch up, as they try to control what is essentially uncontrollable.

All the best,
P.S. Remember: a selection of my past newsletters is available online at