It’s Who You Know

Who was the name of a rock group from the sixties and seventies that included Roger Daltry and Pete Townsend.  Or should it be: Who was the name of a rock group from the sixties and seventies who included Roger Daltry and Pete Townsend?  When do you use who and when do you use that? 

The rule is easy to remember.  Who is a human being (or beings).  Use who when referring to people and that when referring to animals or objects.  Here are some examples: 

The man who would be king

The little boy who cried wolf

The lion that roared

The horse that won the race

The author who wrote the novel

Cheri, who never cared much for dogs, now has a poodle she loves.


As always, there are exceptions in usage.  Some grammarians accept that for human beings when the reference is general rather than specific, such as: I can’t stand women that never need to diet.  Most agree, however, that it’s preferable to say:  I can’t stand women who never need to diet. 

Also, who is often used in referring to animals that are treated as personalities.  It’s safe to go with the rule that who is used to refer to people, and that refers to everything else. But what about the Who?  Is rock group a human being or a thing?  Although rock groups, with a few exceptions, are made up of human beings, group is a thing.  Therefore Grammar Cop says, The Who was the name of a rock group from the sixties and seventies that included Roger Daltry and Pete Townsend.

Bonus tip: The objective form for who is whom and should be used as illustrated in the following examples:

To whom it may concern, your company’s product is defective.

The memo should be read only by the party to whom it’s addressed.

The wedding dress fit perfectly since the original bride, for whom it was designed, was the same build and size.

To whom should I address my question?

Respect the Trademark!

Writers, beware of inadvertant trademark violations in your writing. Companies and individuals invest in trademark registrations and name recognition. Honor their work by capitalizing these trademarked names. Take advantage of SpellCheck, which can recognize and mark trademarked names as you type.

Here are trademarked names commonly abused:

  • Coke
  • Jeep
  • Frigidaire
  • Windbreaker
  • Formica
  • Dumpster
  • Kleenex
  • Velcro
  • Hula Hoop
  • Band-Aid
  • Crock-Pot
  • Vaseline
  • Xerox
  • Jaws of Life

When in doubt, look it up. Respect the trademark!

Why Decimate When You Can Annihilate?

The recent misuse of the word decimate jars me as a reader (Before you leave a comment blasting me about this, yes, I know newer dictionaries are accepting as an alternate meaning “destroy completely;” nonetheless, the primary definition hasn’t changed). It annoys me almost as much as seeing Jeep spelled with a lowercase j or reading it’s instead of its for the possessive form of it. Anything that bugs a reader, distances a reader from your story. Writers can’t afford to distance readers.

Look at the history of the word decimate. From the Latin for to remove a tenth, decimate means to (duh!) remove a tenth. According to historians, the word originally referred to the practice of ancient soldiers drawing lots to determine who would be executed (one out of every ten).

If you’re a Dr. Who fan, you may remember an episode in which decimation is ordered  by the Master, who says “remove one-tenth of the population.” Yep. The Master meant decimate, not annihilate.

In the film Independence Day, the aliens came to earth to annihilate the population. Decimation wouldn’t have met their greedy goals.

Most modern writers who use decimate seem to think the word means to wipe out all existence, literally or figuratively. Frankly, annihilate carries more weight. Why not use annihilate?


Sometimes You Must Lie.

Nobody likes a liar, but there are times when the subject of your sentence should lie. If you sleep, you lie in bed, not lay in bed. (Although the past tense would be lay).

“I need to lay down” prompts me to ask, “What do you need to lay down?”

It’s time to review the lay versus lie dilemma.

Lie is an action verb; lay requires an object. Here are the various tenses:

Lie, Lay, Lain

Lay, laid, laid

I laid in bed all morning is incorrect. I lay in bed all morning.

I laid my book on the nightstand.

I had laid the knife on the table.

I had lain in bed the previous morning.

The next time you debate whether to lay or lie, ask yourself who/what is receiving the action. Is it the subject or an object? If it’s the subject, use lie (or lay or lain); if it’s the object, use lay (laid).

And that’s no lie. 😉

The Exclamation Point!

One of the most overused punctuation marks is the exclamation point. It’s used at the end of a sentence to show strong emotion or a command.

Get out of my house. Now!

Holy cow!

Its use by writers was limited in the days of typewriters because one had to type a period, then backspace and type an apostrophe to form “!” Now exclamation points are everywhere, especially social networking.

Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, you should use the exclamation point sparingly (if at all). Overuse annoys and distances the reader. Remember what F. Scott Fitzgerald said: “An exclamation point is like laughing at your own jokes.”

Usage exception: Sometimes an exclamation point is required as part of a proper name. The television game show Jeopardy! and the Internet company Yahoo! are two well-known examples. Movie titles that require the exclamation point include Oh! Calcutta!, Moulin Rouge!, and Airplane! The town of Hamilton! (Ohio) was simply Hamilton, Ohio, until 1986. For whatever reason, the town council wanted an exclamation point in the name.