Author Archives: Laurel Shane

Usings Commas with Job Titles

Commas Job Title

One of the most common errors I see in business writing is the misuse of commas with names and titles. If you’re trying to figure out when to use commas with someone’s job title, just use these formulas to see three correct ways to express the same information.

[Name], the [job title] of [company name], [rest of sentence].

The [job title] of [company name], [name], [rest of sentence].

[Company name] [job title] [name] [rest of sentence].

Warren Buffett, the chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, plays the ukulele.

The chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, Warren Buffett, plays the ukulele.

Berkshire Hathaway chairman Warren Buffett plays the ukulele.

Why do job titles sometimes need commas and sometimes not? It depends on whether the sentence contains restrictive or nonrestrictive elements (also called essential or nonessential elements).

The top two examples each contain a nonrestrictive clause between the two commas, meaning that it doesn’t restrict the meaning of the rest of the sentence. If you removed that clause, the sentence would still make sense.

Warren Buffett, the chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, plays the ukulele.

The chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, Warren Buffett, plays the ukulele.

Warren Buffett plays the ukulele.

The chairman of Berkshire Hathaway plays the ukulele.

As my trusty reference guide Universal Keys for Writers explains,

“Commas signal that the extra, nonessential information they set off (useful and interesting as it may be) can be removed without radically altering or limiting the meaning of the independent clause. Think of paired commas as handles that can lift the enclosed information out of the sentence without making the sentence’s meaning confusing.”

But in the bottom example, Warren Buffett is a restrictive element, meaning that it restricts the meaning of the rest of the sentence. If you removed that information, you’d be left with an incomplete sentence.

Berkshire Hathaway chairman Warren Buffett plays the ukulele.

Berkshire Hathaway chairman plays the ukulele.

Universal Keys commands, “Do not use commas to set off restrictive information.”

Next time you’re writing a sentence containing a name and job title, follow these steps to figure out if you need commas or not:

  1. Use the formulas at the top of this guide.
  2. Put commas where you think they should go, and then try removing them. If the sentence still makes sense, you need the commas. If the sentence sounds wrong, you need to leave the commas out.
  3. If you’re still not sure, send me an email. I will happily tell you the answer.

For more fun with commas, check out 5 Surprising Places You Need a Comma and 3 Surprising Places You Don’t Need a Comma.

Photo credit: By TheYellowFellow (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

No, It’s Called “Dressing”: 3 Thanksgiving Vocabulary Arguments You Can Win This Year

On the last fourth Thursday of every November,* American families gather together to half-watch football, complain about airports, and eat foods covered in baby marshmallows. Most people’s goal, apart from stuffing themselves silly, is to avoid conflict. But there are a few brave individuals out there who will risk getting sent to their old childhood bedroom with no pumpkin pie: sticklers.

These foolhardy souls are more concerned with being right than being popular. They hear a term used incorrectly, and they just can’t stop themselves from piping up about it, damn the social consequences. It is for this group of impolitic pedants that I present the answers to three common Thanksgiving vocabulary arguments. Correct at your own risk.

1. Sweet Potatoes vs. Yams

The sweet potato, Ipomoea batatas, originated in Latin America. It shares a genus with the morning glory and is distantly related to actual potatoes.

The yam, a name for numerous species in the Dioscorea genus, originated in Africa and Asia. The most common species, Dioscorea rotundata (a.k.a. white yam), is a staple food in West Africa.

The two foods have a similar look, but yams are starchier and sweet potatoes are sweeter. The Thanksgiving food is sweet potatoes.

2. Cranberry Jelly vs. Cranberry Sauce

There are two options for your canned cranberry side dish: the sliceable kind and the chunky kind. Ocean Spray, the leading brand, calls them Jellied Cranberry Sauce and Whole Berry Cranberry Sauce, but that’s too wordy to catch on.

“Could you please pass the whole berry cranberry sauce?”
“What is wrong with you?”

The easy way to get someone to pass you the right kind is to call it “cranberry jelly” when it’s slices of gelatinized juice on a platter and “cranberry sauce” when it’s gooey berries in a bowl.

3. Stuffing vs. Dressing

The mix of crumbled bread and spices that is one of Thanksgiving’s most important side dishes has a bit of an identity crisis. Is it called “stuffing” or “dressing”? That depends on where you’re from.

To make a sweeping generalization, in the South, the dish is usually made with cornbread, and it’s called “stuffing” when it’s cooked inside the turkey and “dressing” when it’s cooked separately. In most of the rest of the country, stuffing is stuffing, regardless of whether it’s actually stuffing the bird or not, and it’s usually made with wheat bread.

The regional differences are not exact, though, as you can see from this handy guide to where each term is more common:

This argument can be a tricky one to win because it depends on location and tradition. If you see that the dish is made with cornbread, go ahead and smugly make the distinction between stuffing and dressing. If it’s made with wheat bread, you can try to argue that the portion cooked in the Pyrex is called “dressing,” but you’re not likely to make any converts.

I hope this guide wins you many debates. Please remember to take a long enough break from patting yourself on the back to enjoy some pie. Happy Thanksgiving.

* This post has been updated to reflect the fact that . Hat tip to my friend Shane, a true Thanksgiving pedant, for correcting me on this one.

Required Wikimedia Commons attributions:

Turkey: By Jamain (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Sweet potatoes: “Ipomoea batatas 006” by Llez – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons –

Top 10 Punny Halloween Costumes—Animal Edition

Long live the pumpking! Maybe next year I’ll do an all-gourd edition.

Regular readers may have noticed that I have a deep, abiding love for both puns and Halloween. Celebrating the combination of the two is becoming an annual tradition around here; see Top 10 Punny Halloween Costumes and 10 More Punny Halloween Costumes if you missed them the first time around (and especially if you need a last-minute costume idea).

But you know what I like better than puns or Halloween costumes? Animals. And you know what I like better than animals? Animals in punny Halloween costumes, of course. Why, they’re pawsitively purrfect!

If you’re a pun/Halloween/animal lover like me, these costumes will leave you ast-hound-ed and a-mew-sed.

10. Rufferee

Always calls a foul for unnecessary ruffness.

9. Pool Shark

I think Paul Mewman won an Oscar for this one.

8. Baked Pugtato

Pairs nicely with a pugkin spice latte, obvi.

7. Santa Claws

You better watch out … because Santa Claws will scratch your face off for making him wear this humiliating costume.

6. Sheep Dog / Corn Dog / Watch Dog / Hot Dog

That’s a mutt-load of dog puns!

5. I Dream of Weenie

Your wish is her command. Because she’s a dog, and that’s the deal they make with humans.

4. Harry Trotter

He spends the last two books looking for Lord Voldemort’s Horse-cruxes.

3. Muttley Cyrus

She came in like a rrrrrrrecking ball.

2. Bunny Bee

Or maybe it’s a rab-bee-t?

1. Slow Cooker

Slow and steady wins the punny Halloween costume countdown.

San Francisco’s Punniest Laundromat Names, Ranked—Plus Two that Are Just Plain Fun to Say!

As noted in my recent post on idiom-based laundromat names, I also found quite a few laundromats that use pun-based names to attract attention.

This is a risky strategy because some people just hate puns, period. Even those of us who delight in them are more likely to groan than laugh at puns. But a punny business name has a way of sticking in your head—just ask any of the owners of Vietnamese restaurants who choose . Pho-king pho-nomenal!

The punning possibilities of pho are hard to beat, but laundromats manage to give pho shops a run for their punny. (Sorry, but I truly could not help myself.)

As proof, here’s a ranking of the best pun-based laundromat names in San Francisco:

6. Greenwich Clean Time

5. Clothes Encounters

4. The Washing Well

3. Laundropalooza

2. Haight to Wash

1. Get the Funk Out

Bonus: Two Fun Non-Pun Names

These laundromat names aren’t puns, but they’re too delightful to leave off the list.

1. Coiniop Washidry

2. Spwash

San Francisco’s Idiom-Based Laundromat Names, Ranked

Note: This post contains some salty language. Sensitive readers should go watch this video of . Eager readers should skip right to the ranked list. Curious readers should just continue reading.

Want to make your business name memorable? Make it a play on words. Puns are one option, and I’ll talk about those next time, but today I want to focus on idioms.

An idiom is “an expression in the usage of a language that is peculiar to itself either grammatically … or in having a meaning that cannot be derived from the conjoined meanings of its elements,” according to Webster’s.

If you’re a native English speaker, you use idioms all the time without even noticing. If English isn’t your first language, you probably find many idioms incomprehensible. A dust bunny? A horse of a different color? Crocodile tears? The words are all familiar, but the meaning is mystifying.

Still, idioms are such an integral part of language that they have built-in “stickiness,” a term popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his bestseller The Tipping Point. As he explains, “We tend to spend a lot of time thinking about how to make messages more contagious—how to reach as many people as possible with our products or ideas. But the hard part of communication is often figuring out how to make sure a message doesn’t go in one ear and out the other. Stickiness means that a message makes an impact.”

People often take advantage of the stickiness of idioms by recontextualizing them as a memorable business name. The name of my business, for example, is Let’s Just Be Clear. In conversation, this phrase conveys something like, “I want to cut the bullshit and get straight to the point.” And that’s part of what I mean, but I’m also implying, “You and I should work together to create online content that’s succinct and straightforward.”

Ever since I chose an idiomatic business name, I’ve been on the lookout for others, and I’ve noticed that laundromats around town are particularly clever with using idioms in a new context. Here’s my selection of the best laundromat names based on idioms in San Francisco, ranked:

9. A Clean Slate

8. Soap Box

7. Spin City

6. All Washed Up

5. Dirty Little Secret

Note: Yelp says this laundromat is named Dirty Little Secret, but it has no sign, so I can’t confirm this. It did look fairly dirty and little, though, and its name is a secret, so the moniker seems apt.

4. Brain Wash

3. Wishy Washy

2. Rub-A-Dub-Dub

1. Sit and Spin

Small Businessman? Small Business Man? Small-Business Man? How Do You Write This Term?

In my last post, I talked about compound words and inserting hyphens to clarify meaning, using the example of the novelty song “The Purple People Eater.” Although I spent a truly ridiculous amount of time researching that one, and I hope you will read and enjoy it, I do recognize that it’s unlikely to be directly applicable in your everyday writing. So I thought I would follow up on that idea with an example that gets used (and misused) frequently in business writing: what to call a man who runs a small business.

Many people incorrectly write this term as small businessman. It’s easy to see why this error is so common: a man who works in business is a businessman, one word. But businessman is actually a compound noun that lost its hyphen along the way. In its earliest days, going back to 1798, the term was written as business-man, with a hyphen, or business man, two words. It first got squished into one word in 1860, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and that spelling eventually became standard.

If you call someone a small businessman, you’re implying that he is a businessman who is small. While some men may technically fit into this category (e.g., the three-foot-six actor of Return of the Jedi and Harry Potter fame, who also owns a talent agency for actors under five feet tall, Willow Management), I doubt any of them prefer to identify as such.

Sure, he’s technically a small businessman but, more importantly, he’s a small-business man.

If you write the term as three separate words, small business man, you’re no longer actively suggesting that the man is small, but people may read it that way. It’s hard to tell what’s modifying what, and that results in confusion.

The proper way to write the term is small-business man. The compound adjective small-business modifies the noun man, implying a man who is involved in a small business.

The AP Stylebook uses this term as the example for using a hyphen to avoid ambiguity:

The president will speak to small-business men. (Businessmen normally is one word. But the president will speak to small businessmen is unclear.)

Next time you start to write this term, stop and remind yourself that what’s small is the business, not the man. And even if both are small, err on the side of modifying the business—the company wouldn’t feel belittled by being called small, but the man probably would.

What Is a Purple People Eater, Anyway?: Thoughts on Hyphenating Compound Words

Spoiler Alert: This post contains a mild spoiler for the Netflix show Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. If you haven’t watched it yet, do, but in the meantime, scroll down and start reading the next section. It will still make sense, I promise.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

In episode 11 of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, the Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (Jon Hamm) is on trial for kidnapping four women and keeping them in an underground bunker for fifteen years, claiming that the apocalypse had happened. Representing himself in the trial, he uses his folksy mannerisms, guitar playing, and Jon Hamm handsomeness to charm the jury, at one point telling them, “I’d like to play you folks a little song about another ‘craaaaazy’ preacher you might’a heard of. His name was Jesus.” And then he launches into the classic novelty song “The Purple People Eater.”

He was a one-eyed, one-horned, flyin’ purple people eater
One-eyed, one-horned, flyin’ purple people eater
One-eyed, one-horned, flyin’ purple people eater
Sure looks strange to me

After I recovered from cracking up at this beautifully executed joke, I wondered, Wait, what the hell is a purple people eater? As it turns out, there’s some controversy about this question because the song’s title lacks clarifying punctuation.

The Confusion

“The Purple People Eater,” written and performed by Sheb Wooley, was the song of the summer in 1958—it for six weeks. It tells a very silly story about an alien who comes to earth because he wants to be a rock star and possibly also eat people. From the beginning, people were confused about the meaning of the song. What was purple: the alien or the people?

When multiple adjectives are piled in front of a noun (called , , or in writing guides), the relationship between the words in the phrase can become confusing. Inserting hyphens prevents misreading.

Floor-length gown
Four-year-old child
Blue-collar jobs

Similarly, when two or more words are put together to make one noun, adding a hyphen can clarify that the words are one item (called a ).


If the title had been “The PurplePeople Eater,” the song would clearly be about an alien who eats purple people (a compound adjective modifying a noun). If it had been called “The Purple PeopleEater,” it would clearly be about a purple alien who eats people (an adjective modifying a compound noun). But the song’s title, “The Purple People Eater,” doesn’t use a hyphen, so it can be interpreted either way.

Possibility 1: The Alien Is Purple

I had always assumed, based on the cover of the LP that I had as a youngster, that the one-eyed, one-horned alien was purple.

Most people interpret the song this way. In fact, a low-budget movie based on the song was made in 1988. It starred a young Neil Patrick Harris, along with Ned Beatty, Shelley Winters, Thora Burch, Chubby Checker, Little Richard, and a very purple alien.

You can , but I should warn you that San Francisco Chronicle critic Peter Stack called it “a new low in children’s films.”*

Possibility 2: The People Are Purple

Why do some listeners disagree with the idea that the alien is purple? Because of this lyric:

I said Mr. Purple People Eater, what’s your line
He said it’s eatin’ purple people and it sure is fine
But that’s not the reason that I came to land
I wanna get a job in a rock and roll band

Oldies expert Dusty Rhodes told the column , “It would seem as though the color refers to the people being ingested more than the monster.”

written at the height the song’s popularity declares, “Disk jockeys all over the country have invited their listeners to draw the Purple People Eater (both the jockeys and listeners seemed to miss the fine point that the People Eater is not really purple but merely an eater of purple people).”

That summer, LIFE magazine created a spread featuring some of these drawings, and a photograph in the middle shows Sheb Wooley with a people eater puppet that his wife made. But the photo is in black and white, so we can’t be 100 percent sure that the puppet is purple.

The Answer

I dug through a bunch of archives to get to the bottom of this question. It turns out the song was inspired by a joke another songwriter, Don Robertson, heard from his kids and told to Sheb Wooley.

“What has one eye, one horn, flies, and eats people?”
“A one-eyed, one-horned flying people-eater.”

Wooley decided there was song potential in it. He let it marinate for a few days until “the purple people eater landed in Sheb’s patio. When he saw that part of the riddle was missing—he hadn’t known before that the one-eyed, one-horned fellow was purple—the song was as good as finished,” explains a 1958 Tucson Daily Citizenprofile of Wooley. “I could see him sitting on the lawn,” Wooley recalls, “one eye, one horn, and all purple.”**

That same year, a United Press International article quotes Wooley as saying, “I just gave him a color—purple.”***

In 1988, he told the Newspaper Enterprise Association (NEA) that he “added the purple part ‘for color.’”**** The interview was occasioned by the release of the movie, in which, it turns out, Sheb Wooley has a small part. (In addition to being a songwriter, Wooley was an actor who mostly appeared in Westerns, including Rawhide and High Noon.)

It would seem, then, that the songwriter intended the one-eyed, one-horned flying people eater to be purple. I couldn’t find any interviews with Wooley that directly address the line about eatin’ purple people, but I like to imagine that he wrote that lyric to add to the song’s overall zaniness.

“I think we need humor in music,” Wooley explains to the NEA. “I think we need more humor in the world, period. It’s a healing ointment.” If Wooley were still alive, I think he’d be pleased to see what Kimmy Schmidt has done with his song.

* Stack, Peter. “‘Purple People Eater’: Nothing to Sing About.” San Francisco Chronicle 19 Dec. 1988. Web [NewsBank database]. 27 Apr. 2015.

** Campbell, Bob. “The Living End Is Reached.” Tucson Daily Citizen 28 June 1958. Web [Newspaper ARCHIVE Library Edition]. 27 Apr. 2015.

*** United Press International. “Purple People Eater Rates No. 1 on Everybody’s List.” Independent Press-Telegram 15 June 1958. Web [Newspaper ARCHIVE Library Edition]. 27 Apr. 2015.

**** Newspaper Enterprise Association. Vare, Ethelie Ann. “Video Update.” The Frederick Post 16 Dec. 1988. Web [Newspaper ARCHIVE Library Edition]. 27 Apr. 2015.

3 Places You Can Use a Comma, or Not

Note: this is part three of a three-part series on comma use. Be sure to check out these posts as well:

5 Surprising Places You Need a Comma

3 Surprising Places You Don’t Need a Comma

My last two blog posts on commas were all about the official rules of where you do or do not place a comma. But not all comma rules are written in stone; this time, let’s take a look at the situations in which comma use is entirely up to you.

1. Before the last item in a series. When you’re listing three or more items, you can choose whether or not to use a comma before the final item in the series:

Red, white, and blue or red, white and blue

Word nerds often have very passionate opinions about this comma, which is called the serial comma or Oxford comma. For example, you can buy this t-shirt—

—even though Thomas Jefferson did not use a serial comma when he wrote about “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”:

People who use the AP Stylebook argue that the serial comma is not necessary because the and signals that the last item of the series is coming up. People who follow The Chicago Manual of Style or the MLA Style Manual say that it is necessary, pointing out that omitting the final comma can result in comical misreading:

And then non-serial-comma-users will point out that the sentence could easily be rearranged so it doesn’t imply that Washington and Lincoln were rhinoceri. The argument goes on forever.

As I always say about matters of style, the most important thing is consistency. Either always use an Oxford comma or never use one.

2. After a brief introductory word or phrase. If you have just a word or a few words introducing your sentence, you can choose whether or not to use a comma before the rest of the sentence.

On a whim, we decided to spend the weekend in Vegas.
In retrospect, it would have been easier to take a taxi.
Later, we’ll look back on this and laugh.


On a whim we decided to spend the weekend in Vegas.
In retrospect it would have been easier to take a taxi.
Later we’ll look back on this and laugh.

You get to decide when you want to use a comma with short introductory phrases. But if you are going to leave out the comma, make sure that doing so won’t cause misreading.

X Before eating the family always said grace.
Before eating, the family always said grace.

With a longer introductory phrase, you should always use a comma to prevent confusion.

Come to think of it, I’m not sure that I ever have seen a baby squirrel.
And on top of everything else, I came down with the flu.

There’s no real consensus about the exact number of words an introductory phrase needs to have before it requires a comma; most websites recommend somewhere between three and five, but none of the major style guides addresses it directly. I always use a comma after four words, but I picked that number arbitrarily. You can set your own rule.

3. With the word too. When using too to mean in addition, you can just put it in the sentence, or you can set it off with a comma (or a pair of commas if it’s mid-sentence).

I, too, wish summer could last forever.
“I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too.”


I too wish summer could last forever.
“I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog too.”

Using a comma with too creates a pause around the word, giving it more emphasis. Read your sentence aloud, and if you naturally pause at too, add a comma (or commas). If it flows as part of the sentence, leave it be.

I hope this series on comma use has helped clarify when you should or should not use a comma, and when you can choose for yourself. If you have any questions about commas, please ; as these posts prove, I’m always happy to talk about comma use.

10 More Punny Halloween Costumes

It’s that time of year again. The leaves are turning, the air is nipping, and food is being pumpkin spiced. But most importantly, people are creating their pun-based Halloween costumes.

Last year I celebrated the season with the Top 10 Punny Halloween Costumes. This year I found ten more punderful costumes that you can use to show how clever/broke/last-minute you are. Enjoy!

10. A Salt and Battery

The defendants are being charged with felony wordplay.

9. Cap-Sized Ship

Not to get nitpicky, but I think this is slightly larger than cap-sized. Still, good work with the cardboard.

8. Cereal Killer

She’s homicidal for Cocoa Puffs.

7. A Brush with Death

Who knew the Grim Reaper was so concerned with oral hygiene?

6. The Diction-Fairy

She has the magical power of reading.

5. A Bag of Eminems

Hi, my name is (what) my name is (who) my name is (chicka-chicka) Slim Bag-Lady.

4. God’s Gift to Women

This one’s for all the literalists out there.

3. Dunkin’ Donuts

America runs, dribbles, jumps, shoots, and scores on Dunkin’.

2. Iron Man

This suit doesn’t fly, but it does eliminate wrinkles. Your move, Tony Stark.

1. Bud Light-Year

I’ve set my lasers from stun to swill.

Uncommon Words, Commonly Confused—Part II

I promised that I have a long list of homonyms (words that sound or look like other words) wherein one of the words in the pair is used rarely, so it’s easily mistaken for the word that’s used frequently. Let’s examine some more!

The definitions below are from my dictionary of choice, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Words between brackets are mine.

And be sure to peruse the original post on these uncommon words that are commonly confused with common ones.

Uncommon Word Common Homonym
Aweigh: Raised just clear of the bottom—used of an anchor. [Anchors aweigh!] Away: From this or that place. In another direction. Absent from a place. Distant in space or time. [And many others.]
Eke: To get with great difficulty. [Eke out a living.] Eek: Used to express surprise or dismay. [Eek! A mouse.]
Forebear: Ancestor, forefather; also precursor—usu. used in pl. Forbear: To hold oneself back from esp. with an effort.
Gage: A token of defiance; a glove or cap cast on the ground to be taken up by an opponent as a pledge of combat. Gauge: A measurement (as of linear dimension) according to some standard or system. [Railroad gauge or shotgun gauge.]
Mantle: A loose sleeveless garment worn over other clothes: cloak. A figurative cloak symbolizing preeminence or authority (accepted the mantle of leadership). Something that covers, enfolds, or envelops. Mantel: A beam, stone, or arch serving as a lintel to support the masonry above a fireplace. The finish around a fireplace. A shelf above a fireplace.

Can you think of any other words that belong on this list? Post them in the comments.