Attributed to, Attributes to

To attribute is a transitive verb, meaning that it needs a direct object. It also needs the preposition “to” and another noun.

Most scholars attribute the play to John Ford.

“Scholars” is the subject; “play” is the direct object; “John Ford” identifies to whom the subject attributed the object.

Attribute is very commonly used in the passive voice:

The play is attributed to John Ford.

His sudden change of heart was attributed to indigestion.

The passive voice conveniently avoids mentioning who did the attribution, which means you don’t have to look it up in Wikipedia.

So now you know enough to see why this sentence is wrong:

Wrong: The country’s wealth attributes to its large reserves and exploitation of oil and natural gas.

Change it to: The country’s wealth is attributed to its large reserves and exploitation of oil and natural gas

The Editor attributes this incorrect usage to the influence of ill-informed teachers who told their students that the passive voice is always bad.


Up To or Upto

In standard English, “up to” is always two words.

Wrong: Edit books upto 5000 words.

Change it to: Edit books up to 5000 words.


The word “includes” is too often used where just “are” would be better. We have brought up the use of “includes” before:

“Includes” or “including” implies that part of a list is being given, not necessarily the whole list. Saying “The group includes Apple, IBM, and Motorola” leaves open the possibility that it might also include Texaco and Happy Farmer Markets, Inc. If you want to say that Apple, IBM, and Motorola are the only members of the group, say “The group is made up of Apple, IBM, and Motorola.”

“Include,” according to old Noah Webster, means “To comprise; to comprehend; to contain.” Webster gives an example that is worth a look:

The history of England necessarily includes a portion of that of France.

Notice that what follows “includes” is not everything that is included. The history of England also necessarily includes the reign of Alfred the Great and the South Sea Bubble, but we have not mentioned these things. We are merely saying that we are going to have to talk about France as well as England, because the two countries kept spilling into each other.

Many writers automatically substitute “includes” for “are” or similarly simple words. Here is a paragraph from the Web site of a certain West Virginia conservatory, in which the writer has somehow managed to stick some form of “include” into all three sentences:

The Agriculturally Important plant category includes those that are important to most people usually because we eat them or use their products in some way. Examples include cashew, chocolate, banana, papaya, sugarcane, and coffee. Another useful plant includes the carnauba wax palm.

Let’s take each of those sentences individually. First:

The Agriculturally Important plant category includes those that are important to most people usually because we eat them or use their products in some way.

This is not a bad use of the word “includes.” The sentence gets a bit murky toward the end, and the Editor might revise it this way:

The “Agriculturally Important” plant category includes any plants that are important to people because we eat them or use their products in some way.

The Editor frankly can’t imagine any other reasons for a plant’s being “agriculturally important,” so he got rid of the “usually.” Now the next sentence:

Examples include cashew, chocolate, banana, papaya, sugarcane, and coffee.

Again, not an incorrect use of “include,” but it would be better to use a colon to avoid slipping into bureaucratic language:

Some examples: cashew, chocolate, banana, papaya, sugarcane, and coffee.

Now the third:

Another useful plant includes the carnauba wax palm.

This is so silly and wrong that, if you cannot see why it is silly and wrong, the Editor will not be able to explain it to you. Rewriting it is simple:

Another useful plant is the carnauba wax palm.

Archaic Verbs for Verisimilitude and Sarcasm

Every once in a while a writer takes it into his head to express himself in archaic language for humorous effect, or—more legitimately—for the sake of verisimilitude in historical fiction. As for the humorous effect, it is probably never as humorous as the writer thinks it is, but that is not the Editor’s concern right now.

His concern is that both the humor and the verisimilitude work best if you actually get the language right. Since the archaism is usually limited to sprinkling “thou” and “thee” around and using a few older verb endings, the principles of getting the language right are easy to understand. All you need to know is what the pronouns are and how to conjugate a verb the Early Modern English way.

In pronouns, the only serious difference is in the second person. For the singular, we use thou, thee, thy, and thine, which work just the same way I, me, my, and mine work in the first person. For the plural, ye is often used as a subject rather than you.

Note in particular that thou and thee are always singular. You never use them to refer to more than one person. So when, for example, God tells you “Thou shalt not covet,” he is looking you straight in the eye and speaking to you personally.

Now the verbs. Let’s start with a standard regular verb, like “start.”


First Person: I start
Second Person: Thou startest
Third Person: He, she, it starteth


First Person: We start
Second Person: Ye (or you) start
Third Person: They start

The only differences from modern usage are in the endings for the second and third person singular. For some reason, even writers who are attempting verisimilitude (rather than sarcasm) often get those mixed up. Just remember that -st is always the mark of the second-person singular: that is, it always goes with thou.

The past is the same as it is today, except in the second-person singular, where the ending -st is persistent. Usually we make the second-person singular past with the auxiliary verb “didst.” “Thou startedst” is correct, but “thou didst start” is far more common.

Many verbs are irregular, of course. With few exceptions, they have not changed in the other persons, so all you need to know is the second-person singular form.

To be:

Present: Thou art
Past: Thou wast


Present: Thou mayest (or mayst)
Past: Thou mightst (or mightest)

Note both the second-person and third-person singular of to have: thou hast, she hath. The second-person-singular past is thou hadst, or, in even older English, thou haddest.

Similarly, to do: thou dost, she doth, thou didst.

Finally, if you are attempting serious verisimilitude, you might want to note that there is no possessive pronoun its in very early Modern English. His is used instead: “The sun hath run his course.”

“Took a Different Tact” or “Took a Different Tack”?

Government regulators took a different tact than some expected, focusing on prices the stores charge in different markets.

The writer meant “took a different tack.” It’s a nautical metaphor: a tack is a change in course. Sailing vessels sail into the wind by tacking—taking a zigzag course so that the wind is first on one side and then on the other.

Tact, on the other hand, is social sensitivity.

This is a good demonstration of a general principle: know the meaning of every word you use, even in set phrases. If you know what “tact” means, then you know it makes no sense to say that the regulators “took a different tact.” If you don’t know what it means, then don’t use a phrase that has the word “tact” in it. This principle will spare you many small embarrassments.

Don’t Let Collaborators Work in Isolation

This is probably a problem with process more than it is with writing:

return to my account

The instructions tell us to click the “Return to My Account” button, but there is no such button.

What happened here?

The writer obviously wasn’t looking at the buttons when he wrote the text. The programmer obviously wasn’t looking at the text when she coded the buttons.

And it may well be that they had no opportunity to see each other’s work. In his youth, the Editor himself spent years writing and editing instruction manuals for electronic devices he was never allowed to handle or even see.

But there is no excuse for such poor organization in our electronic age. If you are a manager managing a production environment in which designing things, making them, and writing about them are all separate processes that take place in isolation, then here’s your chance to do some of that management stuff you were trained to do. Remember all the buzzwords you use all the time, like process improvement and quality and feedback? Now you can make them more than buzzwords. The people above you will be impressed. The people under you will thank you. It’s what you managers call a win-win.

Mixed Metaphor

mixed metaphor is a metaphor whose parts add up to a confused image. Perhaps the most famous mixed metaphor in all of English literature is in Hamlet:

…or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
and by opposing end them.

Taking arms against a sea is not a very productive use of one’s time, as old King Canute could have told us. The mixed metaphor does a very good job of conveying Hamlet’s disordered state of mind. And you can see why, for that very reason, a mixed metaphor is a very bad thing in ordinary writing. It makes you look a little crazy.

But there is a difference between a mixed metaphor and a series of metaphors.

After entering the inner sanctum, a writer for the Boston Saturday Express provided the following breathless, mixed-metaphor-laden account: “This is the capital of Bohemia; this little room is the rallying-place of the subjects of King Devilmaycare; this is the anvil from which fly the brightest scintillations of the hour; this is the womb of the best things that society has heard for many-a-day; this is the trysting-place of the most careless, witty, and jovial spirits of New York,—journalists, artists, and poets.” [Justin Martin, Rebel Souls.]

“Breathless” it may be, but this is a string of metaphors, not a mixed metaphor. “This little room is the rallying-place of the scintillations that fly from the womb of King Devilmaycare”—that would be a mixed metaphor.