Tag Archive for: grammar

Singular or plural–which is right for $5 million?

It’s not always easy to tell whether a noun is singular or plural. Take this example “$5 million was/were enough.”

When I informally polled some writer friends, four out of five voted for “was.” That sounds right to me, too.

The word “dollars” is plural, but “$5 million” becomes what grammarians call a collective noun.

Think of it this way, a portfolio management team is made up of people, but the team is a single entity so you say “The team was” instead of “The team were.”

On collective nouns, a Grammar Girl blog post written by Bonnie Trenga (but no longer available online) said the following:

Inanimate objects, such as “sugar” or “furniture,” are called mass nouns or uncountable nouns, and are always singular. So you would say, “This sugar is very sweet” or “My furniture is too old.” You can’t say, “This sugar are” or “My furniture are.” If you want to talk about individual grains of sugar or individual pieces of furniture, then you have to say something like “Eight grains of sugar were found” or “These pieces of furniture are new.”

However, as one of my friends and the Grammar Girl blog pointed out, the British treat collective nouns differently. They combine them with plural verbs. No wonder some of us are confused!

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net


Note: This post was updated on Nov. 30, 2023.

Use a comma between consecutive adjectives?

When two consecutive adjectives modify the same noun, you’re supposed to put a comma between them. I sometimes struggle to decide if that’s appropriate. After all, there are cases when the first adjective modifies the second, as in “pale blue paper.”

So I was delighted to find this advice from Jan Venolia in Write Right!:

One way to determine whether adjectives modify the same noun (a young, energetic student) is to insert the word and between the adjectives. “Young and energetic student” makes sense. … Use a comma between adjectives only if and would be a plausible alternative.

I must bookmark this post for the next time I struggle with this issue. I hope this tip helps you, too.

To learn more about when to use a comma between consecutive adjectives, read the Grammar Girl blog’s post on “Commas with Adjectives.” The post goes into the details of coordinate adjectives versus cumulative adjectives. Those are two terms I never heard of before.


Disclosure: If you click on an Amazon link in this post and then buy something, I will receive a small commission. I provide links to books only when I believe they have value for my readers.



“In order to” versus “to”

Is there ever a good reason to write “in order to” instead of “to”? When I posted this poll on LinkedIn, I expected the answer to be “no.” However, I did some research and was surprised by the results.

in order to vs to image

Go with “to” most of the time

Generally, it’s better to write “to” than “in order to.”

Shorter sentences are typically easier to understand. That’s why I’ve devoted many words to suggesting how you can make your writing more concise. In fact, that’s a focus of my investment commentary webinar. I’ve given many examples of how to shorten your writing in “Word and phrase substitutions for economical writers.”

As the Doris & Bertie website says: “‘In order to’ isn’t more precise. It doesn’t provide any extra meaning – just extra wordage for your reader to trawl through to get to the important words in the sentence.”

However, there are exceptions to the rule of shorter is better.


Clarity may require “in order to”

In rare cases, “in order to” must be used for clarity. Here’s an example I found in Amy Einsohn’s The Copyeditor’s Handbook:

CLEAR: “Congress modified the administration’s proposal in order to exempt small businesses.”

UNCLEAR: “Congress modified the administration’s proposal to exempt small businesses.”

In the first sentence, it’s clear that Congress acted to exempt small businesses. The second sentence could mean that. Or, it could mean that the administration wanted to exempt small businesses and Congress acted against that.

Rhythm may benefit from “in order to”

Sometimes a sentence just sounds better with the addition of “in order to.” In response to my LinkedIn poll, Paul Bobnak gave me this example from the preamble to the U.S. constitution:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

What will YOU do?

Will you adjust your use of “in order to” after reading this post?

I will continue to ruthlessly trim most instances of “in order to” from my clients’ writing, and I will sometimes leave them in place.


Disclosure: If you click on an Amazon link in this post and then buy something, I will receive a small commission. I provide links to books only when I believe they have value for my readers.



So at the start of a sentence

I am far from perfect in my knowledge of grammar, as I admitted in “Confessions of a grammar ignoramus.” So I wasn’t surprised to learn that I’ve been making a mistake when starting a sentence with “so.” Apparently, I shouldn’t have been putting a comma after “so” at the beginning of a sentence.

No comma

So is a good word for beginning a sentence,” says Garner’s Modern American Usage because “The shorter word affords a brisker pace” compared with words such as “however,” “additionally,” or “therefore.” Garner doesn’t specifically opine on whether to use a comma, but none of his examples use one.

The Chicago Manual of Style calls for not using a comma in most cases when “so” begins a sentence. Please note its explanation of exceptions to this rule.

chicago manual of style on so at the start of a sentence

Use comma

If you believe in using a comma after an initial “so,” you have some support. It’s a conjunctive adverb, so it must be followed by a comma, says Syelle Graves, in a guest post on “Is Starting a Sentence with ‘So’ Condescending?” on the Grammar Girl blog.

Both Microsoft’s grammar checker and Grammarly software flagged my lack of a comma after an initial “so” as a problem. However, both of those automated checkers make plenty of mistakes, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, including in “How I use Grammarly to improve my writing.” Moreover, note that the wording of Grammarly’s comment leaves open the possibility that you might not need a comma.

Grammarly so

Pick your style

You can make a case for using or skipping commas in this situation. I’m starting to skip them because my clients are fond of multi-clausal sentences. I figure that fewer commas will make their sentences easier to absorb.

3 times to use passive verbs in your writing

I usually slash passive verbs in articles that I edit. (Don’t know what a passive verb is? Read this.) But sometimes I leave them in place. When? When the sentence should emphasize the person or thing that the verb is acting on. Or, when you don’t want to identify the person or thing that is taking an action.

Use the passive voice in the following three instances.

1. When you want to avoid identifying the actor

Imagine that you’re communicating with a client who mistakenly deposited money into the wrong account. Do you want to emphasize the client’s mistake, as if to say, “Hey, stupid, you put money in the wrong account”? No, it’s better to say, “Money was deposited in the wrong account,” and then describe how to fix the problem.

A classic example of failing to identify the actor is the sentence: “Mistakes were made.” Sentences like that make me want to shake the author. I want to yell, “Tell me who made the mistake!” I sometimes see such sentences in descriptions of investment underperformance. I don’t agree with that approach. I think it’s better to identify the reason for underperformance and say what you’re going to do about it. I discussed that in “Four lessons from Wasatch Funds on reporting underperformance.”

2. When you don’t know the identity of the actor

Sometimes the problem with active verbs isn’t that you don’t want to identify the actor. It’s that you don’t know what the heck caused the action. For example, “The price of PQR stock was depressed.”

Perhaps that’s a bad example because you can usually find a pundit to opine on the reason for a stock price movement. However, perhaps you want to be honest about your not really knowing the reason for the stock price decline.

3. When you want to highlight the topic over the actor

Sometimes the actor is less important than the subject that it’s acting on. For example: “The conditions are forming for a dramatic decline in stock prices.” In this case, the factors driving the decline are less important than the imminent decline.

Stay active most of the time

Despite the fact that passive verbs are sometimes appropriate, please go easy on using them. Active verbs are usually better.


Go from short to long!

Rearranging elements of a sentence “from short to long, from simple to compound, increases the ability of the reader to understand them,” says Bruce Ross-Larson in Edit Yourself: A Manual for everyone who works with words, one of my favorite editing books.

Ross-Larson has three related rules.

  • First, count the syllables. This will let you identify shorter words to put first.
  • Then, “if the number of syllables is the same, count the letters.” That can be a tie-breaker.
  • Finally, “Put the compound elements last.” As an example, he suggests that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” reads better than “liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and life.” I guess that’s why the Declaration of Independence uses the suggested order.

Of course, these three rules don’t always apply. As Ross-Larson says, don’t follow the rules if that’ll:

  • Put elements out of chronological or sequential order
  • Create unintended modifiers
  • Upset a familiar or explicit order, such as “the birds and the bees” or going in order from more conservative to less conservative asset classes

Small changes like this can make your writing easier to read. That means you’re likely to convey your message more effectively.



Disclosure: If you click on an Amazon link in this post and then buy something, I will receive a small commission. I provide links to books only when I believe they have value for my readers.

Can you use numerals at the start of a sentence?

One of the first writing rules I learned was that I can’t use numerals to start a sentence. But in recent years, my certainty about that rule has been shaken.

Headlines can start with numerals

First, I learned that it’s OK to start an article headline with a numeral, at least in Associated Press (AP) style, because AP style only uses numerals—not spelled out numbers—in headlines. I operate mostly in a world of AP style. A headline isn’t a sentence, but it’s the next closest thing.AP StyleBook

Years and 401(k) as exceptions in AP style

More recently, I stumbled across this rule in the online AP Stylebook (subscription required): “Years are an exception to the general rule in numerals that a figure is not used to start a sentence: 2013 was a very good year.” Wow, that’s a big change for me!

Also, it turns out that I can start a sentence with the term “401(k)” and be in compliance with AP style. Here’s the relevant rule:

At the start of a sentence

CMOS takes a different approach

I can explain my ignorance partly in terms of my learning style rules in college and graduate school under teachers who used the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS). Plus, I used CMOS for my Ph.D. dissertation.

Here’s what CMOS says about this topic:

CMOS numerals

Readers are confused

I know I wasn’t alone in my confusion. Look at the responses I received when I polled my LinkedIn connections about this topic.

start sentence with numerals

Am I going to change my writing style to accommodate this new information? Maybe sometimes. In general, however, I’ll try to write in a way that doesn’t require putting 2022 or 401(k) at the start of a sentence.

Sure, it’s right under AP style to start a sentence that way. However, there will be CMOS followers and others who look at that sentence and think, “Susan, that’s wrong.” I blogged about this problem in “Being right about grammar isn’t always good enough.”


Disclosure: If you click on the Amazon link in this post and then buy something, I will receive a small commission. I link only to books in which I find some value for my blog’s readers.


Note: I edited this post on Sept. 30, 2022.

Data are versus data is

Should you write “data is” or “data are”? Whenever possible, I suggest writing to avoid the use of the term “data” by itself. Why? Because, as Garner’s Modern American Usage says, “Data is a SKUNKED term: whether you write data are or data is, you’re likely to make some readers raise their eyebrows.” I think Garner is right about that.

I just started a poll on LinkedIn asking if people see the word as plural or singular. There was no consensus, though respondents favored plural.

data singular or plural

Data are

There’s no question that the word “data” comes from Latin, in which “data” is plural and “datum” would be the singular form.

In favor of using plural verbs, Garner says:

  • “Technically a plural, data has, since the 1940s, been increasingly treated as a mass noun taking a singular verb. But in more or less formal contexts it is preferably treated as a plural.”
  • “In one particular use, data is rarely treated as singular: when it begins a clause and is not preceding by an article. E.g.: Data over the last two years suggest…”

Associated Press style agrees with Garner in one context, saying “In scientific and academic writing, plural verbs and pronouns are preferred.”

Should you write "data are" or "data is"?

Data is

However, times are changing. Associated Press style generally favors “data is.”

In favor of SINGULAR, Garner says: “One context in which the singular use of data might be allowed is in computing and allied disciplines…”

It depends

Some experts don’t use the same verb tense across all cases. I think Grammar Girl’s quote from Oxford Dictionaries in particularly useful in describing why one publication or editor might sometimes use singular verbs and sometimes use plural verbs. The Grammar Girl website says:

Oxford Dictionaries maintains that “data” has developed two separate meanings:

  1. the original plural meaning that conveys the idea of multiple data bits or pieces
  2. a singular meaning that acts as a mass noun roughly equivalent to the word “information.”

Grammar Girl also says:

Dictionaries and news sites including the Wall Street Journal and The Guardian, and style guides including The Chicago Manual of Style have updated their recommendations to allow that “data” can be singular or plural.

Along similar lines, The Copyeditor’s Handbook says: “…copyeditors in corporate communications departments are often expected to treat data as a singular noun.” It contrasts this with academic presses and scholarly journals using plural.

What should YOU do?

One way to deal with this issue is to avoid it by writing in a way that doesn’t make you choose between plural and singular verbs. A math writer friend uses “the set of data” for this purpose.

If you can’t avoid the need to choose, then I suggest you pick one style and stick with it. If everyone in your company knows that the corporate style is “data is” or “data are,” you’ll make everyone’s lives easier.

How I use Grammarly to improve my writing

Some writers swear by Grammarly for automated grammar and style checking of their writing. I think it’s probably most useful for inexperienced writers who lack familiarity with the rules of writing. But even I find it helpful. I check most of my articles with it.

Warning: Grammarly gets things wrong

Grammarly is great at catching obvious mistakes that violate simple rules. It’s not as good with less straightforward questions. It often makes suggestions that I disagree with. For example, I frequently don’t agree that using a different adjective or adding or deleting a comma makes sense when Grammarly says it does.

Here’s an example. In the first paragraph of this blog post, Grammarly suggested that I change “most useful” to “most beneficial.” I disagree with that advice. I prefer plain language to ten-dollar words.

most useful-most beneficial








Here’s another example of a bad recommendation by Grammarly. It suggested that I soften my tone by going from “I disagree with that advice” to “I’m afraid I have to disagree” or “I can’t entirely agree.” That’s not right for an opinionated blog post, although it might help in an email that you send to a colleague or a client.


I disagree-I'm afraid I have to disagree









Skim, don’t read every comment by Grammarly

Grammarly’s weaknesses mean that I don’t look at every single “mistake” that appears on the right-hand side of the page (as with “Choose a different word” in the screenshot below). Instead, I scan to see what Grammarly has underlined in my text—such as “most useful” in the screenshot below—and decide whether I think it’s worthwhile to check Grammarly’s suggestions.

most useful grammarly

Grammarly color-codes its comments. Green—like in the screenshot above—is for “engagement.” Grammarly explains in a blog post that its engagement comments aim to cut down on bland or overused words and monotonous passages. Red is for “correctness” in grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Blue is for “clarity,” which often targets wordiness. Purple is for “delivery” or “tone,” which seeks to identify unnecessary hedging and whether you’ve hit the right level of politeness and formality.

Grammarly pushes you to improve

To encourage you to improve, Grammarly will send you a weekly report on content that you have checked.

It reports on your:

  • Productivity in terms of the number of words checked
  • Mastery of grammar, as measured by Grammarly
  • Vocabulary, as measured by the number of unique words used
  • Tone



grammarly tone




Reading financial advisor Brian Thompson’s article “4 powerful tech tools for digital marketing” (NAPFA Advisor, August 2021), I learned that you can set targets for tone. You can try this function to see if it helps you.

Free versus paid version of Grammarly

I upgraded to the paid version of Grammarly. I didn’t experience a huge boost in its usefulness for me. If you like the free version, consider trying the paid version for one year to see if it’s worth the expense.

Best approach to Grammarly

Take what works for you from Grammarly. If you find that Grammarly is most useful in spotting problems with your tone, use it for that. If you like how it identifies sentences that are too long, focus on that. Customize your use to your needs, and it’ll be worth the investment of your time, whether you use the free or paid version of Grammarly.



Note: I edited this on Sept. 30, 2022.

No apostrophes in plurals!

Please stop using apostrophes to turn singular nouns into plurals. It’s wrong, but sadly common.

The plural of “client” is not “client’s,” it’s “clients.” “Client’s” is the possessive form of “client,” so it refers to something that belongs to a single client.

Why people are confused about apostrophes in plurals

I’m guessing that the confusion may have started with the rare style guidelines that call for using apostrophes to form plurals.

A Google search on using apostrophes to form plurals sent me to a post on the rule of adding an apostrophe to an acronym to form a plural on the website of Paul Brians, a professor of comparative literature at Washington State University. (Acronyms are words like AUM for assets under management or RIA for registered investment advisor.) However, he doesn’t cite a style guide as his source. He told me in an email that the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) was his source. However, in my admittedly old CMOS, I found a reference to “CODs and IOUs” as correct (CMOS 6.9). That sent me searching for more information.

Grammarly’s article on apostrophe rules identifies a rare exception to the no apostrophes rule, but it’s different than what Brians says. This rule says to use an apostrophe to prevent misunderstanding the plural of lowercase letters. For example, to pluralize the letter i, write “i’s.” Otherwise, people will think you’re writing “is,” a form of the verb to be.

The goal of avoiding misunderstanding also lies behind a related rule from The New York Times. The newspaper doesn’t use apostrophes to pluralize acronyms, but it does use them for words like C.P.A. that include periods. According to the newspaper’s “After Deadline” column on “FAQs on style”: “Use apostrophes for plurals of abbreviations that have capital letters and periods: M.D.’s, C.P.A.’s.”

I have a quibble with that rule. Who still uses periods in CPA? The Association of International Certified Public Accountants uses CPA without periods on its webpage about the CPA designation.

By the way, The New York Times goes one step further than Grammarly on pluralizing individual letters. It applies the rule to uppercase letters: “Also use apostrophes for plurals formed from single letters: He received A’s and B’s on his report card. Mind your p’s and q’s.”

Apostrophes don’t pluralize proper names

Proper names are sometimes mistakenly pluralized by adding apostrophe plus s. That’s wrong.

Form the plural of most proper names by simply adding the letter s. One exception for proper names, as described by Garner: “those ending in -s, -x, or -z, or in a sibilant -ch or -sh, take es.”

Don’t use the grocer’s apostrophe!

The Grammarly article I cited above says that the mistaken use of an apostrophe is known as the “grocer’s apostrophe because of how frequently it shows up in grocery store advertisements (3 orange’s for a dollar!).” I bet you’ve seen many examples of this. I’ve featured some of them in my Mistake Monday posts urging people to proofread more carefully.

The bottom line: Most of the time, you form plurals by simply adding the letter s. The rare exceptions to this rule occur only when the lack of an apostrophe might confuse readers.


Note: I updated this post on Sept. 30, 2022.