Grammar Pet Peeves Wallet Card

Over the last few years, we have posted five or six installments of our Grammar Pet Peeves. (I’d go back and actually count them, but that sounds like a lot of effort.) Anyway, after one of these posts, an astute reader (a self-identified non-grammarian) asked when we were going to make these into a wallet card. I thought, “That’s a great idea! I’m going to be rich!” (If only we weren’t giving this stuff away for free.)

So here it is. (Remember, just two more months to get your Christmas shopping done!) Click on either of the images below to download a pdf that you can print, crop, laminate, and keep in your wallet. Obviously, we can only do so many pet peeves on one card, so this may be the first in a series of collectors’ items.

And because some readers get angry if we don’t meet a certain minimum word count, here are the points included on this first card:

  • Your does not mean you are.
  • A lot is two words.
  • You are going to lie down, not lay down.
  • Everyday means common. Every day means daily.
  • Firstly is not a word. What you mean is first.
  • Fewer is for items you can count. Less is for mass nouns.
  • Who is for people. That is for things.
  • It’s is not possessive.
  • Literally means actually, not a million gagillion.
  • Loose and Lose are different words.
  • Presently means soon. Currently means now.

Keep this on you at all times and you’ll be the most popular kid at the dance. I promise.

The Rule of Third (Base) and other unwritten rules of graphic design/baseball

Not too long ago, my co-author and friend Shea called me with an interesting question: “Is there a way we could somehow incorporate baseball into our blog about graphic design and interpretation?” It seemed like a stretch, but since baseball is a mutual interest, we thought we’d give it a try this week.

In today’s post, I will discuss how graphic designers can make use of some of the unwritten rules of baseball (actually, for the purposes of this post, they are, in fact, written rules of baseball). Thursday, Shea will address how interpreters can do the same. Here goes:

If you intentionally hit a batter, don’t aim at his head.
Sometimes a baseball pitcher needs to send a message. Suppose the pitcher is unhappy with a player on the other team for violating one of the many unwritten rules of baseball, and he decides to intentionally plunk him with a pitch. It’s an unwritten rule that the pitcher should aim at the batter’s backside rather than a more vulnerable area, like his head.

Designers send messages, too, and it’s important not to aim at your audience’s head. Large fields of bright red, using lots of different typefaces, bolding everything, and filling every last square inch of white space—these are all examples of being overly aggressive, or aiming at your audience’s head. It’s important to get your message across, but you don’t have to beat people over the head with it.

Don’t step on the foul line.
This is more of a superstition than an unwritten rule, but many players—pitchers, mostly—avoid stepping on the lines drawn on the field as they enter or leave the field between innings. There are parts of the field clearly designated for different purposes—fair territory is for game faces and steadfast focus, foul territory is where players can relax and prepare for the next inning. Stepping on the line between those two areas muddies the distinction between them.

Designers rely on lines and areas with clearly defined purposes as well. A grid system helps designers decide where to place important elements on a page. (See a post on the grid here.)

Don’t slide with your spikes up.
When a runner slides into a base with the spikes on his shoes up, there’s a risk of serious injury. This is something noted jerk and Detroit Tiger Ty Cobb was famous for. Clearly, for designers, this rule relates to using starbursts. You’d have to be a real Ty Cobb to intentionally inflict those pointy aberrations on your audience.

Don’t make the first or third out at third base.
For various strategic reasons that I will resist detailing here, base runners should avoid making the first or third out of an inning trying to reach third base. They’re better off staying at second, if the situation allows, rather than risking making an out at third base. That said, there are occasions where it’s okay to force the issue and aggressively try for third base.

Designers use a Rule of Thirds as a guide to attractive compositions. Like baseball’s Rule of Third Base, though, there are times when the compositional Rule of Thirds can be violated. See a post about the Rule of Thirds here.

Pitchers should not show up their fielders.
When a fielder makes an error, pitchers have to resist outwardly showing their displeasure. Even though the pitcher has inherited a difficult situation because of his teammate’s misstep, he has to suck it up and focus on that next batter.

Similarly, every design project is a collaboration. If the copy writer comes in with too high a word count or the photographer gets thrown out trying to stretch a double into a triple, the project manager still needs to own the project and work with team members to get it right.

Don’t bunt to break up a no-hitter.
This is just a weasely thing to do. Swing the bat. This is not a concern in the American League because no one bunts there.

Well, there you go. Tune in next week when we’ll delve into the importance of working pitch counts when setting type!

Shortest Post Ever (Excluding Parentheses)

I decided to challenge myself this week and practice what I preach. This is going to be the shortest post in the history of IBD. This is the point where in most of my posts, I make some sort of a confession, and then begin telling a story in attempt to relate some obsolete element of my life to whatever topic I am writing about that week. If that’s not working for me that week, I just start making fun of Paul. Okay, already getting too winded…sorry. Here are the rules, I’m going to keep the word count on this week’s post as low as if it was going to be placed on a wayside exhibit, the text in parentheses doesn’t count since it represents my thoughts, and the post starts at the beginning of the next paragraph. (How’s that for justification of breaking my own rules in this challenge?)

After reviewing a wayside exhibit proposal for a friend, I found myself telling her it was time to cut the text. Which is easier said than done. In IBD (the book not the blog, published in 2008, written by Caputo, Lewis, and Brochu, for sale through the link on the right side of this page) we refer to Gross, Zimmerman, and Buchholz’s 3-30-3 Rule from Signs, Trails, Wayside Exhibits where they say that most visitors spend 3 seconds looking at any given wayside exhibit, some look at the sign for about 30 seconds, and few spend 3 minutes reading the entire sign. (The 3-30-3 rule can also be adapted and modified to the 3-3-30-3-3 for the 3 readers of this blog who spend approximately 3 seconds reading our posts, 30 minutes making fun of us, who tell 3 friends about what idiots we are, and spend the next 3 days reading blogs that are more insightful than ours.) (Paragraph count: 76.)

I am also reminded here that each paragraph should have between 50-75 words and the number of paragraphs should not exceed three paragraphs. The most important elements of the theme should be included in the title. Especially, if most visitors only spend 3 seconds, primarily reading the title and looking at the message though images and graphics. (Paragraph count: 57, Total post word count excluding parentheses and starting with the second paragraph: 132, Words available for third and final paragraph: 92.)

I closed the conversation with a quote from Mark Twain who said, “I would have written you a shorter letter, but I didn’t have the time.” Based on the sigh heard over the phone, she most likely will not be asking me to review her work again. We should be reminded of Gross and Zimmerman’s 3-30-3 rule (it was Gross, Zimmerman and Buchholz’s 3-30-3 rule but, I’m counting words and had to make a cut somewhere. Sorry, Jim.) and how we craft  messages for the maximum effect. This exercise has been a great reminder to me of how difficult it is to be brief, how to break rules, and the power of parentheses. (Paragraph count: 92, Total post word count excluding parentheses and starting with the second paragraph: 225, Words allotted in three paragraphs according to Caputo, Lewis and Brochu: 225.)

Ask a Nerd: Are Script Typefaces Legible?

Dear nerds,

I have been thoroughly enjoying the many discussions about different typefaces. I’m wondering what your thoughts are about scripted type (type that copies cursive handwriting). Some coworkers of mine and I have had some interesting discussions about using scripted type for subtitles on interpretive signs. Althought it might “set a mood,” my concern is that it might be difficult to read for certain audiences. I know studies have been done on the effect of all caps on reading speeds. Have you encountered similar studies that look at the effect of scripted fonts for interpretive panels?

Thanks for your continued help, Cal


There has been a lot of research on typography, much of it contradictory or too specialized for general usefulness. Also, as my grad school roommate Kristy Pennino points out, most of the research is done by behavioral psychologists and not typographers. Still, there are certain points of agreement, like the fact that upper- and lower-case letters are more legible than all caps, as you point out.

Here’s an important point researchers agree upon related to your question: Regular, roman (not italics) type is more legible than slanted, italics, or oblique type. Typically, these studies relate to italicized versus roman type, but since most script typefaces are slanted, you can draw your own parallels. You can find a couple studies related to this subject on the Education Resources Education Center (ERIC) website:

EJ416365 – The Effects of Italic Handwriting on Legibility: The Methods and Findings of a Three-Year Study

ED265540 – An Evaluation of the Speed and Legibility of Italic Handwriting

Another important factor is the difference between legibility and readability. Certain typefaces are more legible than others because of the clarity of their design. At a certain size and/or a low enough word count, however, even less legible typefaces are still readable. That is to say, if you have few enough words and a large enough point size, you can get away with using a script typeface.


philswinIn the examples here, the traditional serif typeface Adobe Garamond is more legible than Edwardian Script. In the longer sentence at the smaller point size, “The Phillies are World Series champions,” the script typeface is difficult to read and should not be used, but in the simple, two-word “Phils win!” both are readable and either one would be acceptable.

An article on Wikipedia (I know, weak reference, but it’s still a good point) has this to say:

“If the columns of a newspaper or magazine or the pages of a book can be read for many minutes at a time without strain or difficulty, then we can say the type has good readability.”

Think about how long you are asking visitors to read certain passages when making decisions about your typefaces. Once you get one short phrase or sentence, I’d err on the side of the more traditional, non-slanted typeface for better legibility.

Ask a Nerd: Help! We have three months to make 27 wayside exhibits!

bio-lisa-1This message from the Nerd Herd came in about three months ago. We’ve been too busy railing against Comic Sans and making fun of each other’s baseball teams to get to it, so we asked our mysterious and reclusive third co-author (and also fifth Beatle) Lisa Brochu (pictured here in her natural habitat) to answer it:

Dear Nerds,

What if, hypothetically, a friend of mine worked for an agency that “forgot” they had funding for 27 wayside exhibits, suddenly realizing this fact exactly 3 months before the end of the fiscal year? Of course the whole project would have to be conceptualized, written, designed, fabricated, and paid for by then.

Any tips to avoid hurried, glaring mistakes in content development or design? Any magic tricks you know to legally maneuver a molasses-slow bureaucracy? Are we, er, I mean, is my hypothetical friend going to be ok or as doomed as a grasshopper pierced on barbwire by a shrike?

—Frantic in Cyberspace

Lisa replies:

Do you really have to have 27 signs? You might want to think about cutting the budget in half and spending half to get some professional help (not the on-the-couch kind, but the planner/writer/designer kind) and then spending the rest on the sign fabrication. Think purchase order (the all-purpose legal maneuver). If that’s not possible, at least do the following:

1. Check fabrication times so you know what your absolute drop dead deadline will be.

2. Determine whether any of the signs could be considered unnecessary or redundant (most signs are). The fewer you have to produce, the fewer mistakes you will make.

3. Write first, then find graphics that illustrate the text (no clip-art allowed).

4. After you write the first draft, edit. Edit again. Edit one more time. Come on, you can get that word count down if you really try – edit, edit, edit. Try to get to where you have no more than 100 words per panel – 50 would be better.

5. Follow the instructions in Interpretation by Design related to grid layouts (this works for signs as well as publications).

6. If any of these things go wrong, make sure your tetanus shot is up to date (that barbed wire is just filthy).