All posts by jbair

“Until” vs. “Before”

Dear Navi:

You wrote:

>Is there any difference between:
>1-Don’t talk to John before I am back.
>2-Don’t talk to John until I am back.

>Do either of these sentences imply that you should talk to John when I have come back? Does either one mean:
>”Wait till I am back and then do talk to John.”

They are similar, but there is a subtle difference. #2 sets a specific condition, #1 is a bit more general. #2 suggests that there is a specific condition that cannot be fulfilled until I return. #1 merely suggests timing.

For example, if I were leaving to find out some information that John would want to know, then I might say #2 because a certain condition (my finding out something more) would give a better reason for speaking to John.

#2 can suggest “Wait till I am back and then do talk to John” if the context has been established. Without a context, neither is imperative about talking to John, just about NOT talking to him. Neither really says what your sentence in quotation marks suggests.

“Too” or “So”?

Dear Joan Skliar:

You wrote:

>>Why do we change “too” to “so” when using “should have”?
>>Ex: He bought too much popcorn at the movie. He shouldn’t have bought so much popcorn at the movie.
They mean two different things. You could certainly say “He shouldn’t have bought too much popcorn,” but it means something else. Ditto with “He bought so much popcorn.”

Too means “excessively.”

So in this sense means something akin to “thus,” “such,” or “in this or that way.” In other words, saying “so much” you are indicating either that the listener is aware of how much popcorn he bought, or you are going to tell him. For example, “He bought so much popcorn that he had to throw half of it away.”

Do you recall the scene in the film Casablanca with the two Dutch refugees who are fleeing to America and trying to teach one another English? When told that it is ten o’clock (or “ten watch”), one of them says “Such much?” She should have said “So much?” or “So late?” but the reply does illustrate what “so” means in this sense.

Either sentence works fine with either word, but they have two different meanings.

“Well Done”?

Dear S____:

You wrote:

>>Would it be possible for you to tell me whether or not this sentence is grammatically correct.

>>”Well done; you’ve a healthy and balanced approach to life.”

>>Should it not read-“Well done, you have a healthy and balanced approach to life.”

The first is correct. This is really two sentences or clauses. The first is elliptical, but the “you have” or “it is” is understood. That is the way we often respond to what others say or do.

“What is your name?”
“James.” (i.e., “My name is James.”)

So it is with the expression “well done.”

I hope this helps.

Used To

Dear N___:

You wrote:

>1-I went to a place where I used to work.
> Can we tell from this sentence whether I was still working there when I went there?
Of course. “Used to” means that it is something in the past. In a sense, your time there is all “used.” Whenever you “used to do” something, it means that you no longer do it. That is what it means.
> Can one say:
> 2-I went to a place where I had used to work.

No. This makes no sense in English. “Used to” in the past sense does not take any auxiliaries. Try saying “I went to the place where I had worked” if you think you must put it in the past perfect.

There + To Be

Dear A__:

You wrote:
>a. There were Pete and Roger drinking at the bar.
>b. There were Pete and Roger at the bar drinking.
>c. There was Pete and Roger drinking at the bar.
>d. There was Pete and Roger at the bar drinking.

>Which of the above is grammatical?
>Could one add a comma before “drinking” in each sentence?
A and b are both grammatically correct and say the same thing, but putting drinking at the end emphasizes it more. A comma is necessary before drinking in b and d because it is out of the usual order and acts as an appostive.

A comma is not necessary in a or c but is normal. Basically, if you put a comma in, you are emphasizing the two men and “drinking at the bar” is a participial phrase modifying “Peter and Roger.” If you leave the comma out, you are putting more emphasis on the action, but this is less common, and could only be done with c for reasons stated below.

C and d are not grammatically correct since the subject is plural. However, this is the way many native English speakers say it.

You could argue that without the comma, c is OK. You could say that “drinking at the bar” is a gerund phrase and the subject of the sentence and that “Peter and Roger” is the subject of the gerund. This is a stretch, but one could make a case for it.

I hope this helps.

“Dos” and “Don’ts”?

Dear Ms. M__ C___:

You wrote:
>>I would love to know the proper spelling of the phrase “dos and don’ts.” Going by proper grammar, there should be no apostrophes (except for the contraction part of “don’t,” of course), but I see it constantly as do’s and don’t’s…what is your opinion?
To be technically correct, the words do and don’t should be italicized or underlined since you are referring to the words themselves. The only time you use an apostrophe plus s to show a plural is with an italicized word. (Some authorities use them with acronyms).

So to be precise, write “do’s and don’t’s” with “do‘s” and “don’t‘s” italicized as well. See Grammar Slammer entries “Underlining or Italicizing Items which Name Themselves” and “Apostrophes with Italicized or Underlined Items” for more on this.

Online see and

Capitalizing in Outlines

Dear W___:

You wrote:
>I have a question regarding capitalization in business writing.

>When writing a meeting’s topic agenda, is it okay to treat the listed topics like titles, capitalizing every word?

>Sometimes agenda items can be longer than the examples provided below, yet are almost always incomplete sentences. Should I continue capitalizing every word, or are there certain
words such as “And” and “Of”, in item 3 below, that should remain lower case?

>I was even unsure about the capitalization of certain letters in the subject line of this e-mail.
> Agenda
> 1- Meeting Introduction
> 2- Project A Deadline
> 3- Determine Roles And Responsibilities Of Third Party Vendor
> 4- Discuss Plan C
> 5- Roundtable Project Status
> 6- Next Steps
> 7- Action Item Recap

It depends on the purpose of your list. The example you gave is really something like chapter headings, so the capitalizing as you show it would be appropriate except for “And” and “Of” in item 3.

If the presentation were more like an outline, then only the first word would be capitalized. For what it is worth, your subject line was fine, but a true bulleted list is simply a variation of the outline. The example you gave is really more like a table of contents.

In titles, the first and last word are always capitalized. Articles, conjunctions, and short prepositions are not otherwise capitalized unless there is a specific reason to do so for emphasis. Item 3 should read “Determine Roles and Responsibilities of Third Party Vendor.”

If there is such a thing as a formal e-mail, then the subject line should follow title rules, but e-mails are not usually that formal.

I hope this helps

Prepositions Ending Sentences?

The following refers to our observationi on “Prepositions ending Sentences” in Grammar Slammer and online at

> >I believe Churchill’s correction to his sentence that ended in a preposition was incorrect. “Up with” is part of the verb “put up with”.

>> There is a class of verbs that are constructed of a verb and a word (in this case two) that is usually used as a preposition. The way to distinguish them is through their meaning. The term “put up with” does not mean “place in a higher location with”

>>I also think the point of the rule
is not that the object of the preposition precedes the preposition but that the preposition has no object. Usually when a sentence ends in a preposition the inferred object is already the object of the verb. Saying “with which” creates a word that can act as the object of the preposition.

>>For example, “I like the town I come from.” Where is the object of the preposition, “from”? “Town” is the object of the verb. I suppose one could say, “I like the town which I came from.” This would still violate the “rule” but not its spirit.

Dear D___:

“Put up with” is a idiomatic expression meaning “to endure.” “With” is a preposition; “up” is an adverb. We can drop the “with” if there is no object, as in the expression “Put up or shut up.”

In everyday English we often drop the relative pronoun in adjective clauses. The sentence about the hometown merely illustrates this.

The whole thing is bogus. If you check our newsletters online, you’ll see that we have received more correspondence on this “rule” than anything. The most striking thing is that no one follows it. The few nineteenth century grammar texts that mentioned it did so in the way we stated—that it was a matter of style, not of accuracy in grammar.

Having said that, we also do repeat that if you think a correspondent might not like it, then avoid it for reasons of taste and harmony.

See and for our newsletters on this.