University of Rochester

Style Guide

Common Grammar
and Usage Problems

active voice

In active voice, the subject of the sentence does the acting.

Sally caught the ball.

In passive voice, the subject is acted upon.

The ball was caught.

Active voice is clearer and more direct; it is preferred in most cases.


Not adviser.

affect, effect

Affect is a verb meaning "to influence."

How will these changes affect the situation?

Effect is almost always used as a noun meaning "result."

What will be the effect of these changes?
alumni, alumnus

Alumni and alumnus are the preferred plural and singular terms of alumni of any gender. The feminine terms alumnae and alumna may be used given the context of the publication or the preference of the subject.

Do not shorten to "alum."


Hyphenate most ethnicity combinations when used as an adjective. Do not hyphenate noun combinations.

African-American history
discrimination against Irish Americans in the 19th century

EXCEPTION: Latin American is not hyphenated when used as a adjective.

anti( )

Combines solid except before a capitalized word or the letter "i."

antiwar demonstrators
anti-American sentiment
bi( )

Combines solid except before a capitalized word or the letter i.


Twice a year. May also use semiannual. For every two years, use biennial.


Once every two months. For twice a month, use semimonthly.


Once every two weeks. For twice a week, use semiweekly.

compound nouns

Don't run words together unless this style guide or the dictionary (Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary is preferred) allows it.

bookshop; noodle shop
homepage; Web site
compound adjectives

Hyphenate compound adjectives made up of a noun and an adjective when it might be unclear which of the two nouns the adjective modifies.

free-trade agreement; inner-city school; primary-care provider
affirmative action program; civil rights law; home equity loan; nuclear power plant

Hyphenate compound adjectives with a present participle.

data-processing program; role-playing exercise; intelligence-gathering agency

Hyphenate compounds with a past participle.

fine-tuned machine; much-needed rest

Hyphenate most compounds with a number as the first element.

20th-century art; second-highest mountain
BUT 10 percent reduction; $100 million grant

Hyphenate most compounds made up of more than three words.

once-in-a-lifetime chance
BUT Master of Arts degree

Hyphenate compounds denoting color.

black-and-white photo; blue-green dress; The dress was blue-green
BUT The dress was bluish green.

Do not hyphenate compounds formed with adverbs.

very tight jeans; once reliable friend; carefully chosen words

Do not hyphenate compounds that are derived from foreign expressions.

ad hoc committee

Do not hyphenate compounds that are chemical terms.

sodium chloride solution

Do not hyphenate compounds that are proper nouns.

Pulitzer Prize committee
BUT Pulitzer Prize-winning author

Combinations that are hyphenated before nouns should not be hyphenated in the predicate—even if they are hyphenated in the dictionary—when the meaning is clear.

She has a part-time job; She works part time.
continually, continuously

Continually means "repeatedly."

He continually checked his voice mail during the meeting.

Continuously means "without interruption."

He spoke continuously for more than two hours.
council, counsel

A council is "an assembly or other governing body." Capitalize as part of a full official name; lowercase otherwise.

the Psychology Undergraduate Council; the council meeting

Counsel means "advice" or "a lawyer."

We valued his wise counsel.
He served as the court-appointed counsel on the case.
cut back (verb), cutback (noun and adjective)

Treat data as a plural noun and combine it with a plural verb when writing about the research meaning of the word.

The data from the pilot study are inconclusive.

Treat data as a collective noun and combine it with a singular verb when writing about data in the electronic, computer networking sense of the word.

When working with large files, the data is often compressed.

Data travels over wires, lines, networks, etc., not through them.

decision making (noun), decision-making (adj.)
disc, disk

Disc — "an optical-storage medium designed to be written to and read by a laser."

compact disc; laserdisc; digital versatile disc

Disk — "a portable piece of plastic embedded with magnetic material, or a less portable metal-encased storage disk."

a floppy disk; a hard disk

Lowercase when referring to dirt or the ground; capitalize when personified or when referring to the planet.

He needs to come down to earth.
The rich, dark earth is ideal for farming
He majors in earth science.
The asteroid narrowly missed hitting the Earth.
effect, affect

See affect, effect

electric, electrical, electronic

Do not use these terms interchangeably. The IEEE Standard Dictionary of Electrical and Electronics Terms defines electric as "containing, producing, arising from, actuated by or carrying electricity."

electric blanket; electric light

By contrast, electrical means "relating to, pertaining to, or associated with electricity but not having its properties."

electrical engineer

Electronics as a plural noun suggests devices and equipment. As an adjective, electronic suggests that something is implemented on or by means of a computer.

electronic filing; electronic banking
emeritus, emeriti, emerita

Emeritus is an honorary rank bestowed on some retired University faculty. NOT EVERY retired faculty member has emeritus status, so do not use the terms interchangeably.

Always use the construction "professor emeritus" NOT "emeritus professor." The title should be in lowercase; avoid constructions with the title before the name.

John Williams was named professor emeritus of mathematics in 1980.

Emeritus and emeriti are the preferred singular and plural terms of professors of any gender. The feminine term emerita may be used given the context of the publication or the preference of the subject.

The Department of History held a banquet to honor its professors emeriti.

When it means former, hyphenate.

farther, further

Farther refers to "physical distance." Further refers to "an extent of time or degree."

His new apartment is 10 miles farther from his workplace than his old apartment.
We won't take this discussion any further today.
faze, phase, Phase

Faze is a verb meaning "to disturb or disconcert."

Nothing ever seemed to faze her.

Phase is a noun meaning "a step or part of process," or a verb meaning "to carry out in stages."

We are ready to begin the next phase of the project.
We plan to phase in these changes over the next year.

"Phase" is a nickname given to the Hill Court residence halls. Avoid use in formal writing.

fewer, less

Use fewer for things you can count

fewer calories

and less for things you measure.

less time

Less can also be used as a adverb.

less successful ideas — meaning "ideas that are less successful than others."

Fewer can only be used as an adjective.

fewer successful ideas — meaning "fewer ideas that are successful."
wheat-free recipes
These recipes are wheat free.
full time, full-time
They work for us full time. They have full-time jobs.
fundraise, fundraiser, fundraising

Always closed. Fundraise can be used as a verb.

They are holding a fundraiser tonight.
He is their best fundraiser.
He attended a fundraising dinner.
She came to campus to fundraise.
Fundraising is prohibited in the dorms.

Reword sentences to avoid the awkward construction of he or she, his or her, or he/she.

A student may pick up his or her materials tomorrow.
can be rewritten as
Students can pick up their materials tomorrow.
historic, historical

Historic means "history making."

Columbus's voyage was a historic moment. (NOTE: not "an historic")

Historical means "pertaining to the study of history."

The report is a historical analysis of the Cold War. (NOTE: not "an historical")

Names of individual, easily recognized historic events should be capitalized. If in doubt, lowercase.

World War II; Boston Tea Party
home schooling

home schooling (noun)

He is opposed to home schooling.

home-schooling (adjective)

We have devised a new home-schooling curriculum.

home-school (verb)

They home-school their three children.

home-schooled (verb or adjective)

She was home-schooled until high school.
He is a home-schooled student.
its, it's

"Its" is the possessive form of the pronoun "it." "It's" is the contraction for "it is."

To fix the computer malfunction, we had to replace its motherboard.
"It's just not possible at this time," she explained.
less, fewer

See fewer, less

log on, log in, logon, login

Log on and log in are verbs. You log on to access a computer or network. When you are finished, you log off. Logon and login are nouns. You use your login to log on to your computer.


Always hyphenate.

Our organizations have had a long-standing partnership.

Always hyphenate, as both a noun and adjective.

We plan to change our policy in the long-term.
Our long-term policy will change.

Not hyphenated.

His longtime friend nominated him for the award.
media, medium

The media are plural. Medium is the singular form of the noun, used to indicate one type of media.

The media are partly responsible for increases in teen violence.
Radio is a useful medium for advertisers.
multi( )

Combines solid except before a capitalized word or the letter "i."

multipurpose; multi-institutional

When referring to an abstract quantity that is taken as a whole, use a singular verb.

None of the music selected was appropriate for the occasion.

When referring to items that can be counted, use a plural verb.

None of the cars were damaged in the accident.

Generally, "only" should be placed as close as possible to the word it modifies. Changing its placement in a sentence can change the meaning of the sentence:

Only I pushed the new car yesterday.
I only pushed the new car yesterday.
I pushed only the new car yesterday.
I pushed the only new car yesterday.
I pushed the new car only yesterday.
I pushed the new car yesterday only.
passive voice

See active voice.

phase, faze, Phase

See faze, phase, Phase.


CAPITALIZED TERMS: Lowercase the generic word when it is last.

Yale and Harvard universities
the Universities of Michigan and California


1940s, B-52s

LETTERS: Add s to multiple letters.

ABCs, PACs, HMOs, Ph.D.s, M.A.s

Add 's to single letters.

She got all A's this semester.

PROPER NAMES: When a name ends in a sibilant, add es.

the Joneses, the Cashes

Otherwise, add s.

the two Marys; the two Germanys
BUT the Rockies; the Alleghenies
pre( )

Combines solid when used as a prefix except before a capitalized word or the letter "e."

predawn patrol; pre-existing conditions
pre-judicial hearing [before a judicial hearing]; prejudicial practices [causing prejudice]; preeminent [pre is not a prefix in this case]
premier, premiere

Premier, as a noun, means "the chief official, as in government."

The French premier campaigned vigorously in favor of the referendum.

As an adjective, premier means "first in distinction, or foremost."

She was the premier soprano of her day.

Premiere is a noun meaning the first performance.

The movie premiere was attended by all the Hollywood elite.
re( )

Combines solid except before the letter "e" or a capitalization, or in confusing combinations.

regenerate; re-evaluate
re-create ("to create again," as opposed to recreate, meaning "to relax")
resume, resumé

Resume is a verb meaning "to return to or to begin again." Resumé is a noun meaning "a summary of one's work and education experiences."


Combines solid except before a capital letter of the letter "i."

semicircle; semi-involved

Twice a year. May also use biannual.


Twice a month. For once every two months, use bimonthly.


Twice a week. For once every two weeks, use biweekly.


Use this style guide as your first reference for treatment and spelling of individual words. As a second resource, Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary is preferred. Whichever dictionary you use as a spelling resource, be sure to use it consistently throughout your publication.

that, which

Descriptive (nonrestrictive) clauses are set off by commas and take a "which."

The musical, which was performed by the student drama club, was sold out on its opening night

Defining (restrictive) clauses are not set off by commas and usually take a "that."

The musical that debuted last night will run for at least two weeks.
their, there, they're

Their is a plural possessive pronoun.

I really admired their work on the project.

There is an adverb meaning "at or in that place."

Put it over there on the table.

They're is the contraction of "they are."

We are going to the movies, but they're going bowling instead.

When used to mean "former," do not hyphenate.

The then CEO was charged in the scandal, along with the current board of directors.

Not "towards."

She drove toward Buffalo.
which, that

See that, which.


Usually combines solid as an adjective, except after a proper noun.

a University-wide poll
the poll was University wide
Stanford conducted a universitywide poll
campuswide poll

Last modified: Friday, 19-Dec-2014 13:41:55 EST