Category Archives: Tips

“Drive safe!” Wherein I am again surprised by my “simple tip” research.

When I was home in Wisconsin last weekend, my family helped me brainstorm some ideas for new blog posts. My mom suggested writing one on how many people tend to say “drive safe” when it should really be “drive safely.” Easy enough, I thought. Adjectives and adverbs are different and should be upheld as such.

Then I did my customary “quick research,” and it turns out to be not so simple after all.

I’ll get to the wrinkles at the end, but let’s start with the basics. Adjectives modify nouns and usually answer which, what kind, or how many. Adverbs, most of which end in -ly, modify verbs, adjectives, and even other adverbs. They usually answer how, but sometimes answer where or why. For an excellent summary filled with great examples, see this article on the Purdue OWL site.

Following these strict rules, then, since the root word safe is modifying the verb drive, we should use the adverbial form safely. But as I’m continually learning, “following these strict rules” needn’t always apply.

This article at The Economist describes how “adverbs in adjective form have been around in English since forever,” citing examples from Shakespeare himself. Apparently it has to do with a quirk of Old English, and it’s especially common with monosyllabic words (like slow, fast, hard, and safe).

I did a Google Ngram search comparing drive safely and drive safe to track their actual usages across time. As you can see in the image below, safely has always been the more common choice, but safe has modestly risen in popularity, especially since 1995.

safe v safely

Keep in mind that Google Ngram only searches books. I suspect if it included more informal language contexts such as blogs or everyday speech, drive safe would appear much more frequently.

Beyond citing longstanding use of adjectives where one “should” have an adverb, the Economist article also argues there is a subtle difference in meaning between the two phrases: “‘Get home safely’ would be telling someone to get home in a safe manner, while ‘get home safe’ would be telling them to arrive home in a state of safety.”

Whether you accept the “been around since forever” argument or the case that the meanings are actually different–and I’m still mulling over whether I do in this instance–it’s clear that the issue isn’t as black and white as first imagined. And as I appreciate more each day I delve deeper into editing, that’s the beauty of our language.

Writing science in plain English video

*Don’t forget about the ongoing contest for 10% off your next edit! Figure out how to parse the buffalo sentence from Monday’s post before my reveal tomorrow morning and you could win!*

If you’re looking for some good productive procrastination today, take 30 minutes to watch this video about how to write science in plain English. Dr. Lynn Dicks at the University of Cambridge gives a talk full of helpful tips supported by examples that leave you wondering why we’re not taught to write that way already. You should watch it yourself to have the reasoning and examples fleshed out, but here’s the distilled version:

  • Write like you would talk to someone
  • Put important messages at the start
  • Write short sentences
  • One sentence one idea
  • Vary the rhythm
  • Break the text into small chunks
  • Avoid making nouns from verbs
  • Avoid jargon
  • Avoid long words
  • Do not be afraid of repetition
  • Avoid acronyms
  • Cut out redundant words
  • Use the active voice

Learn this tip and you’ll go further. Or is it farther?

*Don’t forget about the ongoing contest for 10% off your next edit! Figure out how to parse the buffalo sentence from yesterday’s post and you could win!*

The other day I received this text from my husband: “I parked a little farther (further?) today.” I know this is a common usage question, so let’s dive into it.

I always do some research before writing up these tips, and this time I was surprised by what I found. I’ve always been taught that there was a clear distinction between these two words that follows a hard and fast rule. Apparently, not so! Many reputable sources say they’re often used interchangeably, especially in British English, and this is perfectly accepted.

But, especially in American English, some prescriptivism remains. If you’re writing in a more formal context, here’s the residual rule. Use farther when you’re talking about a physical distance (that’s my simple mnemonic) and further when it’s a matter of degree. For example,  the student farther down the table is further along on her test.

Further can also mean more (e.g., “call for further information”) or as a verb meaning to advance (e.g., “further the cause”). These meanings are not interchangeable with farther.

So, my poor husband needn’t have been intimidated by his texting word choice: either would have been acceptable. But if we’re being sticklers, he parked a farther distance away.

The toughest verb choice I know: lie and lay.

Knowing when to use the various forms of the verbs lie and lay is the hardest writing and editing trick for me. In fact, here’s something I recently posted on Facebook: “Benefit of freelancing: I feel crummy, so I can break my own rule and lay on the couch Facebooking in the middle of the day.” A few hours later when I reread it, I had to add this corrective comment: “Ah! Lie on the couch! Bad editor, bad!” So this post is as much for my own future reference as it is for any of you! And it’s not just me: just yesterday I saw a query about which to use in a LinkedIn group for professional editors, and even Grammar Girl admits to having to look them up every time. All right (or is it alright? topic for another day…), time to quit stalling and get to it.

I try to keep my tips simple and free of technical jargon, but this time I’ll need just a bit. The difference between lie and lay is whether they require a direct object. A direct object is the entity being acted upon. Put another way, a direct object is what the subject of the sentence is verbing. In the sentence, “Jason hung the coat on the rack,” Jason is the subject, hung is the verb, and the coat is the direct object. In the sentence, “Marla gave the box to him,” Marla is the subject, gave is the verb, and the box is the direct object. Keep in mind that not every sentence has a direct object.

Now that we have that out of the way, it’s time for the big reveal. Use the various forms of the verb lie when there is NO direct object and use the various forms of the verb lay when there IS a direct object. Accordingly, lie means recline (i.e., the subject is reclining, so no direct object is needed) while lay means to put (i.e., put something–the direct object). Here’s a chart to help keep the forms straight:


Direct Object?

Root Verb

-ing Form

Past Tense

Past Participle

Recline No Lie Lying Lay Lain
Put Yes Lay Laying Laid Laid

Examples with lie:

  • Joe likes to lie on the couch all day.
  • Joe was lying on the couch when I came over.
  • Joe lay on the couch all day yesterday.
  • Joe has lain on the couch for weeks.

Examples with lay (with the direct object italicized):

  • Joe will lay his book on the couch when he is done reading it.
  • Joe will be laying his book on the couch when he is done reading it.
  • Joe laid his book on the couch when he was done reading it.
  • Joe has laid his book on the couch every evening.

Of course, there are many more definitions of both words than just recline and put (Merriam-Webster has 17 for lie and 32 for lay), but hopefully this clears up the most common mistakes with these two confusing verbs.

She was ingenious, but ingenuous.

“She was ingenious, but ingenuous.” What now? Look closely and you’ll notice I haven’t gone completely crazy and those are different words.

Before delving into their definitions, let’s check out their use. Below is a figure I made from the Google books Ngram Viewer:

ingenious-ingenuous ngramFirst, we can see that ingenious is more frequent than ingenuous for the entire period of 1800-2008. Ingenious has been in steady decline and is now only 10% as common as it used to be. Ingenuous was slightly more popular in the early 1800s, but is now used approximately never. So you’re forgiven for not knowing both these relatively rare words off the top of your head!

Ingenious (in-JEEN-ee-us) has positive connotations today. It can be used to describe a person as clever and original (“an ingenious inventor”) or a something as cleverly designed (“an ingenious invention”). It’s similar to the word genius.

Ingenuous (in-JEN-you-us) , on the other hand, has negative connotations today. It means unsuspecting and naïve (“an ingenuous child”). You can remember this by thinking about the word ingenue, which today usually refers to a theatrical role for a wholesome young woman. Be careful because disingenuous is not simply an antonym of ingenuous; it means someone is deceitfully pretending to be ingenuous.

So while it would be great to cultivate a reputation as an ingenious scientist who develops ingenious theories, you probably don’t want to be known as ingenuously falling for everyone else’s fad theories.

(Today’s tip inspired by this post from The Publishing Training Centre.)

Should you use questions on your posters?

Zen Faulkes (I wasn’t kidding when I said you should be following him) says no. In his post “Detective stories: ‘Whodunnit?’ versus ‘How’s he gonna prove it?’,” Faulkes argues that scientists’ curiosity leads us to overdo it on the questions.

Academic posters are meant to be understood in a flash. I’ve even heard the advice that people should be able to take in the gist of your project while walking by slowly without stopping. The best way to aid this rapid digestion is to “tell them the bottom line right away.”

I still think questions have their place in scientific communication. But if this blog post was the title of or a heading on an academic poster, I would format it: “You should not use questions on your posters” and include my supporting evidence to build that case.

Her affect was affecting her ability to effect the best effect.

“Her affect was affecting her ability to effect the best effect.” Now there’s a tricky sentence for anyone struggling with the differences between affect and effect! Let’s unpack it.

The first option, of course, would be to rephrase the whole thing to avoid having to use either affect or effect: “Her mood was influencing her ability to bring about the best result.” Sure, you can get away with that sometimes (and in this case changing a few of the a/effects would be welcome!), but sometimes a/effect really is the best word for the job. And in those instances, you’ll need to know which to use.

  • Most of the time, affect is a verb meaning something like to influence.
  • Most of the time, effect is a noun meaning something like a result.

My easy way to remember these is to think “thE Effect.” Most of the time, when you can put “the” in front of it, you should be using the noun effect and when you can’t put “the” in front of it, you should be using the verb affect.

But most of the time won’t get you the right answer every time. There are rarer meanings of affect and effect that switch the verb and noun roles!

  • Rarely (unless you’re in psychology or related fields like Affective Neuroscience), affect is a noun relating to mood or emotion.
  • Rarely, effect is a verb meaning something like bring about (and it’s usually accompanied by “change”).

So the bottom line is you can use the “thE Effect” trick to get the right a/effect most of the time. (If that particular mnemonic doesn’t work for you, check out Grammar Girl’s here.) And, unless you’re a psychologist who should know better, if you accidentally slip up on one of the rare cases, I won’t even be upset.