A Magazine by the Society of Professional Journalists


Words & Language Toolbox


July 2nd, 2018 • Quill Blog, Words & Language Toolbox
Take this quiz to help refresh your writing

Nothing annoys readers like having to plow through a litter of errors on their way to a period. And because even professional writers can get rusty regarding the basics, it’s a good idea to check on one’s recall from time to time.


March 28th, 2018 • Words & Language Toolbox
This checklist will help you edit faster and better

A reader had a question: “You say in The Book on Writing that we should write fast and edit slowly. As a reporter, I found that advice helpful, and I’ve tried to follow it. Problem is, I’m now a copy editor — and I edit too slowly.


November 10th, 2016 • Quill Archives, Words & Language Toolbox
Words & Language Toolbox

I get lots of reader queries about that and which. Here’s a typical email: “I’m pretty good at grammar and usage, but apparently I don’t have a clue about the correct use of which and that. There’s some principle at work here that I don’t understand.


February 17th, 2016 • Quill Archives, Words & Language Toolbox
Words & Language Toolbox

I know a real-life Mrs. Malaprop, and it’s impossible not to grin when she speaks. Examples: She said she didn’t think her skin rash was generic because no one else in her family had it. She said that when she mentioned her favorite uncle, she meant Uncle Joe pacifically.


December 15th, 2015 • Quill Archives, Words & Language Toolbox
Words & Language Toolbox

A self-described “obsessive-compulsive copy editor” sent the following: “I just saw the word miserly used as an adverb in an online news story: ‘What moral person could gratuitously, miserly, refuse health insurance to their own citizens?’” You probably spotted yet another error (albeit more common and less peculiar) in that sentence.


October 22nd, 2015 • Quill Archives, Words & Language Toolbox
Words & Language Toolbox

One thing I’ve learned during a decade of teaching writing in universities and two decades as a newsroom writing coach is the importance of the small things. The single syllable, for example. On one hand, single-syllable words are the province of naturally gifted writers.


August 17th, 2015 • Quill Archives, Words & Language Toolbox
Words and Language Toolbox

An editor asks: “What’s with journalists and the verb ‘sunk’? We’re getting it wrong all over the place. Her spirits sunk, slowly the truth sunk in — like that. I learned to conjugate ’sank’ in the third grade!” That editor and I must have had the same third-grade teacher.


April 3rd, 2015 • Quill Archives, Words & Language Toolbox
Words & Language Toolbox

A common punctuation problem in media writing is the unnecessary comma between multiple adjectives preceding a noun. Whether or not we should separate adjectives with commas is a simple matter — there are even some grade-school tricks to help. Yet that mistake litters otherwise polished media writing: “She wowed in a gauzy, off-white, Zac Posen dress.” “U.S.


February 3rd, 2015 • Quill Archives, Words & Language Toolbox
Words & Language Toolbox

Once, while chatting over lunch with a friend who also happens to be a highly skilled writer, I used a simile. I mentioned I’d had dinner with a woman whose false lashes were so profuse and so precariously attached that they looked like caterpillars clinging to her eyelids.


December 9th, 2014 • Quill Archives, Words & Language Toolbox
Words & Language Toolbox

One of my year-end tasks is going through a fat desktop folder labeled “GRIST.” It contains writing examples, some sent by Quill readers, that I saved during the year and now must sort, read, write about or toss. Within my GRIST folder is another folder, labeled “SNARK.” In that folder are passages from professional wordsmiths who seem to know less about words than people who aren’t wordsmiths.


October 22nd, 2014 • Quill Archives, Words & Language Toolbox
Words & Language Toolbox

A friend told me he once heard a dinner speaker whose remarks were so disorganized and disjointed that at one point someone in the audience said quietly to those within earshot: “Let’s take up a collection and buy this guy a clue.” Readers are like that audience.


September 2nd, 2014 • Quill Archives, Words & Language Toolbox
Words and Language Toolbox

Once, during my 20-year tenure as Dallas Morning News writing coach, an intern told me triumphantly: “Hey! I got all the W’s plus the H in my lead!” Now, writing being what writing is — that is, infinitely various — I knew the intern’s lead could be great.