Capital and Capitol

A friend asked if I could tell him what the difference is between capital (with an “a”) and capitol (with an “o”). The basic rule is that capitol refers to a government building, while capital refers to everything else. Here are abridged definitions from The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition:

1. a building or complex of buildings in which a state legislature meets 2. (with a capital “c”) the building in Washington, D.C., where the Congress of the United States meets [full definition]
(noun) 1a. a town or city that is the official seat of government; b. a city that is the center of a specific activity or industry, e.g. the financial capital of the world. 2a. wealth in the form of money or property; b. material wealth used or available for use in the production of more wealth; c. human resources considered in terms of their contributions to an economy 3. an asset or advantage 4. a capital letter
(adjective) 1. first and foremost; principal 2. first-rate; excellent 3. relating to or being a seat of government. 4. involving death or calling for the death penalty, e.g. a capital offense 5. of or relating to financial assets [full definition]
(noun, in architecture) the top part of a pillar or column [full definition]
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More Punctuation with Quotation Marks

A visitor to the Writing Guide asked about the proper punctuation of quotations in a couple examples where it looks as if doubling up the punctuation marks would be in order:

What is the proper placement of punctuation and quotes in the following two sentences?

  1. “Why is it increasing?”, “Do you think it will continue to increase?”, and “What is the smallest value?” are some questions a math teacher might ask their students.
  2. Unfortunately, this student’s usual reaction is to make some rude remark, yell “I don’t understand!”, or not attempt the assignment at all.

Actually, I don’t know of any instance in which using double punctuation would be acceptable, except in informal writing when showing exclamation and surprise (“?!?”). However, I must say that I was stumped, especially with the first example.

I turned to someone who is much smarter and more knowledgeable than I am—a former colleague of mine in the Calvin College English Department, who suggested recasting the first sentence and simply removing the comma in the second. Here is what the two sentences would look like with proper punctuation:

  1. Here are some questions a math teacher might ask students: “What is the smallest value?” “Why is it increasing?” “Do you think it will continue to increase?”
  2. Unfortunately, this student’s usual reaction is to make some rude remark, yell “I don’t understand!” or not attempt the assignment at all.

You’ll notice that in the first sentence we put a complete statement first and followed it with a colon. We then listed each question in a more logical sequence, wrapping each one in quotation marks. Finally, we removed “their” to avoid the pronoun-antecedent disagreement (a math teacher/their).

For basic guidelines on using punctuation with quotation marks, see my previous entry: Quotation Marks. Please note, though, that the rules are different for Canadian/British English.

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Bring versus Take

Someone just asked about the rule for bring versus take.

The general guideline is to use bring when something is being moved closer and to use take when something is being moved farther away. Sometimes, though, either word could be used just as well.


  1. Ben brought a friend home from school today.
  2. Lucy takes her blanket with her when she goes outside.
  3. Take a credit card with you when you travel to Seattle.
  4. Please bring that chair in here from the dining room.

Source: Capital Community College’s Guide to Grammar and Writing

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The Absolute Phrase

Sudhir Khare recently asked the English Master, What is the ‘absolute construction’ in English grammar. Please explain to me in a clear and lucid manner. Okay, Sudhir, I’ll do my best.

The absolute phrase is a sentence modifier, adding particular description. It’s like a close-up shot in a movie that follows an establishing shot. It’s also one of my favorite sentence constructions, especially for narrative writing.

In her book Rhetorical Grammar, Martha Kolln describes the absolute phrase this way:

Among the modifiers that we use to add information to our sentences, the absolute phrase is probably the least used and the least understood. In form, the absoute is a noun phrase—a noun headword with a postnoun modifier; it adds a focusing detail to the idea of the whole sentence.


  1. Nervous and buzzing on caffeine, Jane stood by the window, her eyes darting around the room.
  2. “The darling!” thought Newland Archer, his glance flitting back to the young girl with the lilies-of-the-valley. (from The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton)
  3. She walked indolently along, with a mind at rest, its peace reflected in her innocent face. (from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain)

Kolln points out that the absolute phrase is almost a sentence; the only thing missing is a “be” verb. For example, if we added “was” to the absolute phrase in example 3, we would get, “Its peace was reflected in her innocent face.”

Extra Credit

I went to a seminar a few years ago led by a man named William Spivey, who had his own system of grammar with a corresponding nomenclature. He called the absolute phrase a “noun-part +” pattern. By noun-part, he meant a part of the actual thing itself (or a part of its environment), not a part of the word. What comes after the “+” could be an “-ing group” (present participial phrase), an “-ed group” (past participial phrase), or any of a number of other groups of words. In my first two examples above, then, the absolute phrases would be “noun-part + -ing groups”; the absolute phrase in the third example would be a “noun-part + -ed group.”

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Which versus That

Two recent visitors have asked what the difference is between which and that and when to use each.

People usually struggle with the distinction when they are used as relative pronouns beginning a relative clause, which acts as an adjective in a sentence.

Restrictive and Nonrestrictive Clauses

The pronoun which begins a nonrestrictive relative clause, which means that the clause only comments on or adds information about a noun. In other words, the clause is not essential; it’s not necessary to identify the noun that it is modifying. It’s descriptive only.

The pronoun that begins a restrictive relative clause. This type of clause restricts the meaning of the noun. It is essential to identify the noun that it modifies.

Punctuating Which and That

Because a clause beginning with which is not essential to the meaning or identification of the noun that it modifies, it is set off by commas. I used to tell my students to think of the commas as hooks that we put on either side of an “optional” group of words. The hooks suggest to us that we can pull the group of words out of the sentence and still retain meaning.

A restrictive clause is not set off by commas because it’s necessary for the meaning of the sentence. Think of it as a permanent fixture, one that is seamlessly integrated with the rest of the sentence.


Geoffrey K. Pullum, who is far more knowledgeable about such matters than I ever was, argues quite convincingly in his recent blog post, “Check all boxes,” that “it is the commas around non-restrictive relative clauses that identify them in written English, not whether the first word is which or that.”


  1. And there is other evidence that supports the idea of matter composed of multiple neutrons: neutron stars. These bodies, which contain an enormous number of bound neutrons, suggest that as yet unexplained forces come into play when neutrons gather en masse. —Michael Brooks, 13 things that do not make sense [Brooks uses "which" with commas because "the bodies" have already been identified; he's simply adding information about them.]
  2. And when the parents wanted to take up the fight against the teacher’s lawsuit, they created their own Web site, which became a base for framing their argument in the news media. —Peter Boyer, Q. & A. – What Would Jesus Teach? [Here the "which" clause has an opening comma, but because it is located at the end of the sentence, it doesn't have a trailing comma.]
  3. After checking with a postal clerk about the legality of stepping up his efforts, he began cutting up magazines, heavy bond paper, and small strips of sheet metal and stuffing them into the business reply envelopes that came with the junk packages. —Ian Urbina, No Need to Stew [The relative clause here is necessary to identify the particular business reply envelopes.]
  4. To coexist with loud cellphone talkers, the Web offers hand-held jammers that, although illegal in the United States, can block all signals within a 45-foot radius. —Ian Urbina, No Need to Stew [Part of this sentence is set off by commas, but that part is within the relative clause, not the clause itself. The relative clause begins with "that" and has no commas because it is identifying the particular hand-held jammers that the Web offers.]
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Inline and Block Quotations

A visitor to the site writes, “How many lines of printed text must be covered before a quotation becomes long enough to be a block quotation. I used to know, but I can’t remember, and I can’t find it anywhere!”

According to Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab, the MLA guideline for formatting quotations is as follows:

Place quotations longer than four typed lines in a free-standing block of typewritten lines, and omit quotation marks. Start the quotation on a new line, indented one inch from the left margin, and maintain double-spacing.

Of course, the guideline applies mainly to academic writing in the humanities. For writing on the internet, line length is often determined by the reader’s web browser, and double-spaced paragraphs are rarely used.

If you’re writing for the web, Dr. Brian J. McFadden at Texas Tech University suggests using block style for quotations of more than 50 words. I’m not sure how he arrived at that number, but it seems reasonable enough to me.

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A versus An: The Indefinite Article

A visitor wrote in to ask when to use “a” and when to use “an.” In particular, she wanted to know which of the following is correct:

  1. Citibank is a MNC Bank
  2. Citibank is an MNC Bank

The correct sentence is number 2.

The Rule

Use “a” when the following word begins with a consonant sound; use “an” when the following word begins with a vowel sound. What matters is how the following word is pronounced, not what it looks like. In the example sentence, “MNC” begins with a consonant, but it begins with the sound of the vowel “e,” since we would pronounce it as “em en see.”

Extra Credit

Some people, especially those who are trying extra hard to sound erudite, will use “an” before a word that begins with the letter “h,” such as “an historical artifact.” In the United States, this usage is incorrect. Instead, we write, “a historical artifact.” For a more detailed discussion of this issue, see “More on A vs. An” from Bill Walsh’s Sharp Points.

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Double Negatives

Ask a grammar geek about the double negative, and you’ll invariably hear about its long and noble heritage in the English language, from Chaucer to Shakespeare, up to the 18th century, when it all but died at the hands of overly zealous, systematizing Enlightenment linguists.

Whatever its history, however, the current view of most pragmatic writers is that the double negative should be avoided, if for no other reason than that a crotchety old English teacher might discover it and try to publicly humiliate them for using it. In many cases, people will read a double negative as if it equals a positive. One exception, as the American Heritage Dictionary of English Usage points out, is the expression, “You ain’t seen nothing yet,” which any reasonable person would admit is the equivalent of “You haven’t seen anything yet.”

The problem with the double negative is probably more social than grammatical. Sadly, many people are quick to make assumptions about the education, intelligence, or even social class of someone when they hear him or her use a double negative such as “I didn’t do nothing last night,” or “I couldn’t find nothing at the store.” My advice is to avoid it, especially in writing or when standard spoken English is expected.

Extra Credit

One form of a double negative is also an example of the rhetorical figure litotes, or the use of understatement by denying the contrary. (e.g. She is not unkind.)


You can read more about double negatives at the American Heritage Dictionary of English Usage.

Thank you, Marla, for the question and the examples!

Posted in grammar | 8 Comments

Active and Passive Voice

Manju submitted a request for information on “how to write passive sentences & cosutive [sic] sentences.” I’ll focus here on passive (voice) sentences, and how to distinguish them from sentences using active voice.

Active Voice

A sentence is written in the active voice if the subject—the main person, place, thing, or idea—performs the action.


  1. Jonathan threw the ball across the street. (The subject, “Jonathan,” performed the action, “threw.”)
  2. Because it hadn’t been seen for decades, the obelisk surprised the audience when the lecturer presented it. (The subject, “obelisk,” performed the action, “surprised.” Note that we’re focusing on the subject of the independent, or main, clause.)

Passive Voice

A sentence is written in the passive voice if the subject—the main person, place, thing, or idea—receives the action.


  1. The orchestra is conducted by Ms. Phelps. (The subject, “orchestra,” is receiving the action here. “Ms. Phelps” is conducting the orchestra, so she is the sentence’s “agent,” but not its subject.)
  2. The door was shut tight. (The subject, “door,” received the action, “was shut.” We don’t know, from this sentence at least, who performed the action.)

How to Identify Active and Passive Voice

To find out if a sentence is written in the active or passive voice, ask yourself these two questions:

  1. What is the subject?
  2. Is the subject doing something?

If the answer to question 2 is “Yes,” the sentence is active; if the answer is “No,” the sentence is passive.

Thanks for the question, Manju!

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Grammar Books for College Students

A visitor recently asked if I could recommend some good grammar books for college writing. Here are a few of my favorites:


The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. This one is a classic, no-nonsense introduction to English style and usage. Some may find it too pedantic, but I think it’s a great place to start. It’s also available online at

A Writer’s Reference by Diana Hacker. The author does a nice job concisely explaining a lot of principles. Also, it comes with a convenient spiral binding and tabbed chapter dividers.

The Everyday Writer. This book has everything a college writer could want—grammar, style, composition techniques, research tips, guidelines for docementation (MLA, APA, Chicago), and more.


Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace. This book provides very practical advanced techniques that will help your writing sing.

Understanding Style by Joe Glaser. I would rank this in the top five of my all-time favorite books on writing. Almost as enjoyable as Rhetorical Grammar.

Rhetorical Grammar by Martha Kolln. I was absolutely blown away when I first read this book. It presented a a whole new approach to grammar—an approach based on how grammar actually functions, how it is used to achieve various goals, rather than on grammar for its own sake. It has some theory, and Kolln can at times get a little too wordy with the explanations, but if you stick with this book, it will surely improve your writing.


Please keep in mind that all of these books, with the exception of The Elements of Style, are geared toward the college market and are, therefore, quite expensive if you buy them new. You can find used copies pretty easily at online shops such as and

Also, remember that this is merely my highly subjective list of personal favorites. If anyone else has a book on grammar, style, or writing in general to recommend to a college student, please leave a comment.

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