Usage and Grammar

Q. My projects include a lot of descriptions of real property. The author, the reviewer, and I are butting heads about using “a rectangularly shaped parcel” instead of “a rectangular shaped parcel.” I say if they wouldn’t use “squarely shaped parcel”—which they don’t—they should stick with “rectangular shaped.” And now that I’m typing this, I’m thinking “rectangle shaped parcel” may be even better.

Q. I am editing a short story about Rosa Parks. Should “blacks” be used instead of “African Americans”? My Australian colleague seems to think that “blacks” is more socially accepted, but I totally disagree.

Q. Can you advise what part of speech is “cowering” in the following sentence: “They discovered that she was no cowering little simpleton”? Is it possibly an adjective?

Q. In a school application would it be correct to say “At UPenn, I will participate in XYZ club” or “At UPenn, I would participate in XYZ club”? For an applicant who doesn’t yet know whether he will be admitted, the latter seems correct. Please advise. Thanks.

Q. Hello! When indexing a book that names the same person literally hundreds of times (it’s about this person’s philosophy), is passim correct in the index? Same Q about his works; some of the famous works are named or referenced dozens, if not hundreds of times.

Q. I see inconsistent usage in “she is a friend of Bill” versus “she is a friend of Bill's.” We say “a friend of his,” not “a friend of him,” so should the possessive control here?

Q. A coworker insists “protests against” is never correct because “protests” normally implies someone is against something. I think it depends on context, because one can protest for, say, human rights. Is “protests against” ever correct? I wrote: “A farmer sleeps at a protest against the World Trade Organization in New Delhi.”

Q. Is the word “how” necessary in sentences such as “Learn how to bake breads and cakes”? In some cases, it sounds better with the word “how,” but it seems unnecessary in this case.

Q. Is it “happy medium” or “happy median”? The author writes: “We would all be much better served as stewards of finite public funds if we could find that happy median where trust reigns supreme . . .” Thanks!

Q. Do you have a problem (as I do) with the phrase “the fact that,” and if so, what alternatives do you offer?