Year in Review: Your Questions

Teaching gives me tremendous pleasure, as anyone knows who has been in one of my classes. I love the curiosity, the wonder, the total engagement of people committed to learning.

And I especially enjoy the freedom of exploration – the “what if?” Like any good graduate school student, I can spend hours over a beer in a pub charting imagined territories in the land of “what if.”

But as a government writing trainer, I’ve also learned the value of the “what is,” as in “what is the right answer?” Sometimes you just need a definitive answer to an ambiguous question.

So here they are – the questions you asked in 2014, and the answers I found. Enjoy a little certainty to start off 2015!

Q1: I have trouble knowing the singular or plural of Latin words. This is embarrassing for a biologist: specie or species? I assume species is singular, but I see it used interchangeably for singular or plural. 

A1: The word species is both singular and plural, that’s why you see it used interchangeably. The word specie is archaic and refers to money.

Other Latin terms are pluralized by changing –on to –a (phenomenon, phenomena), –is to –es (basis, bases; thesis, theses), or –us to –i (syllabus, syllabi; cactus, cacti). Another way of pluralizing the Latin, changing –a to –ae (formula, formulae), is now considered archaic, and –s is usually added instead (formulas).

Q2: I have recently started using semi-colons in complex lists instead of commas. Is this correct?

For each ptarmigan detection, we established a waypoint at first detection, the original location of the bird, and the number of birds detected. Then as time allowed we noted vegetation class; behavior; how the bird was detected; molt code; whether it was interacting with a conspecific; and whether it was stationary, moving away from, or toward the transect route.

A2: Yes, this usage is correct. The final item in the list contains comma. Therefore, all the other items in the list must be separated by semicolons.

Q3: I have trouble understanding the grammar settings in Word. Can you help?

A3: Yes. Follow Word: Options: Proofreading to the dropdown menu for Grammar Settings. Make sure it says “Grammar & Style.” Then set as follows:


Punctuation Settings in Word

Punctuation Settings in Word

Style Settings in Word.

Style Settings in Word.

Q4: How is “long-lived” pronounced, with a long i, or a short i?

A4: Both.

Q5: I was taught to use two spaces between sentences. Now I’m hearing that one space is right. Which one is correct?

A5: One space. See GPO 2.49: “A single justified word space will be used between sentences. This applies to all types of composition.”

Q6: What is the difference (and when should you use them) between the single and double quote marks? I never know when to use ‘this’ or “this” in sentences.

A6: Always use double quote marks unless the editor tells you otherwise. Only use single quotes INSIDE double quotes. He said, “I’m certainly not going to tell him she complained about his lack of ‘interest’ in the project.”

Q7: I’m getting so confused and it’s bugging me a lot because it still sounds wrong! But [I keep seeing] this, “If nothing else, you, me and Arlene should…” And I’m not sure if that is right with the placement of “me” or not. I just keep wanting to say, “you, Arlene and I,” or “you, Arlene and myself,” but I’m sure one or more are wrong in certain contexts.

A7: The correct usage is the word “I.” The order of the words doesn’t matter, although it’s polite to put “I” last. I is a subject – me is an object. The word I, along with you and Arlene, is functioning as the subject of the clause.


I am going to the store. (Not “me is going to the store.”)

Arlene went to the store with me. (Not “Arlene went to the store with I.”)

This is a situation where it’s tempting to use the reflexive pronoun “myself” as though to say “I know me is wrong, but I can’t bring myself to say I because it sounds wrong too.” But there’s almost never any reason to use the reflexive pronoun (unless we are performing an action on ourselves – “I hit myself with the hammer.”)

Q8: What’s the difference between comprise and compose?

A8: The word compose refers to the whole (think composite); the word comprise refers to parts of the whole. If you can replace the word comprise with is/are composed of, you have used it correctly.

Populations of Klamath Basin Chinook salmon upstream of the Klamath-Trinity rivers confluence compose (NOT comprise) the Upper Klamath and Trinity Rivers Chinook Salmon evolutionarily significant unit (ESU).

The distinction between the two words is fading, and some dictionaries allow them as synonyms. But careful editors continue to insist on the difference.

Q9: Should the abbreviations i.e., et al, e.g., etc. be italicized?

A9: No, per GPO 11.2, which states that italics are not used for foreign words. (All of these refer to Latin expressions.)

Q10: Is it okay to begin sentences with And or But?

A10: Yes.

Q11: I sometimes struggle with the plural and possessive forms of names. Example – Kelly’s girl scout troop’s fundraiser. Yikes.

A11: Here are 5 rules to help you use apostrophes correctly:

1) Add an apostrophe s to show possession, not pluralizing.

2) When a word ends in an s naturally, add an apostrophe ONLY.

3) In some cases, a word is both plural and possessive. In such cases, pluralize the word first, then add the apostrophe s or the apostrophe, using the two previous rules. For examples, see GPO 8.3.

4) Rule #1 applies even when dealing with numbers and abbreviations.

1980s 1980’s             SUVs   SUV’s

5) Apostrophes can be used to indicate that something has been left out of a word, abbreviation, or number.

can’t (cannot)             abb’n (abbreviation)        ‘80s (1980s)

Q12: What is the correct way to use a forward slash with a combined phrase? Seahawks / 49ers game (with spaces) or Seahawks/49ers game (without spaces)?

A12: Don’t use a forward slash. Use “and.” If you’re tempted to say “and/or,” substitute “eagles or hawks or both.”

Q13: Where to place footnote reference numbers relative to punctuation. Examples: footnote at the end of a sentence goes before or after the period? Footnote applicable to inside parentheses stays inside the parentheses?

A13: Footnotes are set after all punctuation except the dash.

Q14: Could you please remind me where it is proper to place commas in a list form with the word “and” in it? Such as, “moose require habitats with willows, rivers and lakes” or “moose require habitats with willows, rivers, and lakes.”

A14: The second is correct, per GPO 8.42: “After each member within a series of three or more words, phrases, letters, or figures used with and, or, or nor.”

Q15: a) When to spell out numbers in a sentence? For example: I have 2 goats and twenty-five horses. B) One of my coworkers insists on starting a sentence with a numeric. I have always been taught this is incorrect. Can you comment?

A15: See numbers flowchart, based on GPO 12.

Thanks for all of the great questions. You certainly kept me busy in 2014. Now let’s see how you can challenge me in 2015!

P.S. Have you invited a friend to share the knowledge? Why don’t you share this blog post today, and invite your friend to subscribe using the form on the right. Remember, sharing is caring!


  1. Dear Michelle
    Thank you so much for the tips provided in the “Year in Review” post.
    That is exactly what a lot of non-English speeking people needed, imho. And all is provided in one place.
    Especially it would be helpfull to IELTS, TOEFL etc. takers.

    Best regards
    Michal Kashyn

  2. This is a great blog and at 83 brought back memories of high school English Grammar classes of the 40’s. I was never a good student of English but recently learned that I am a natural born linguist who never had the opportunity to further my now extreme interest in the English language BUT when I read the questions and your answers Michelle it makes my heart swell with understanding that has been hiding all these years and when I write I use the very techniques you subscribe to … (not perfectly because of my academic lack), but in a natural way because that is how it seems to be correct. I have always loved words and their meaning. Spelling was a great subject for me always getting almost perfect marks all through school. A few years ago I took an English course for mature adults and my teacher who taught for over 40 years compiled a course of exam questions that were answered incorrectly. They were drawn from students from Grade 9 to second year university and it took me about 6 months to complete over 4 six hours days a week. There was no diploma awarded, just a very poignant and thankful “you have just graduated from second year university English with marks beyond 95% and it was a pleasure to teach you.”
    That was a wonderful, humbling shock for me, and set me free from the bonds of nagging uncertainty in my once thin academic life.
    I continue to learn and enjoy your blogs and your caring ways. Happy New Year and many thanks teacher. Ron Lehman.

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