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    "Inflammation of the Sentence Structure"

    Wednesday, March 31, 2010

    The following sentences, which come from business magazines and newspapers, all suffer from particular grammatical or stylistic ailments. Here's your assignment: Explain the ailment in each one and then provide a cure by rewriting the sentence. (The first one has been done for you. I'll share my responses for the others in my next blog entry so we can compare notes.)

    • Regular, open, transparent two-way communication reduces feelings of isolation and powerlessness.
      • Ailment: the sentence suffers from redundancy. Don't "open," "transparent," and "two-way" pretty much mean the same thing?
      • Cure: Regular two-way communication reduces feelings of isolation and powerlessness.
    • There is no one-size-fits-all program that works for all people and all organizations.
      • Ailment:
      • Cure:
    • Real estate developers are sitting on the sidelines, absorbing losses for now and hoping to ride out the storm.
      • Ailment:
      • Cure:
    • Wisconsin will receive funds for high-speed rail, updating university infrastructures, clean water, and environmental restoration.
      • Ailment:
      • Cure:
    • During a sentence hearing, an attorney for the state argues for whatever penalty they believe is appropriate.
      • Ailment:
      • Cure:
    • As will all Packer greats, Brett's legacy will be celebrated by the fans.
      • Ailment:
      • Cure:

    Final Thought: My intention here is not to be critical of anyone. I could just as well have picked sentences from my own writing, many of which contain similar ailments. I was simply curious to see what I could find in a few periodicals, and slip-ups like these were few and far between.

    - Dave Kemper

    Note: My title, "Inflammation of the sentence structure," comes from one of my favorite James Thurber quotations: "With sixty staring me in the face, I have developed inflammation of the sentence structure and hardening of the paragraphs."

    Buffing Out the Scratches

    Wednesday, March 17, 2010

    There's a time when checking for correctness makes the most sense. And that time is near the end of the writing process after you've made sure that your thoughts and ideas are clear: Think content before correctness, always.

    If you pay undue attention to the spelling of every word and the placement of every punctuation mark too early in the process, you may overlook or even ignore what's really important - the quality of the information you are sharing. And you don't want to do that.

    Checking for correctness is like buffing out any smudges and scratches on a car after it has been painted. The buffing is certainly important, but it becomes so only after the main work - the actual painting - has been completed.

    I'm not trying to be cavalier about correctness. Far from it. In fact, this blog entry is meant to help you edit for accuracy. I just what to make sure that you understand at what point it becomes important.

    When editing, what you're really doing is checking for surface elements, or elements at the sentence and word level: Does this sentence need a comma? Is that word spelled correctly? Is there or their the correct word in that situation? To help you with the editing process, I've reviewed a number of Web sites to see what advice the experts offer.

    Here are some of the best tips I came across:

    • Get some distance between yourself and your writing before you begin.
    • Edit first thing in the morning, after one cup of joe.
    • Edit in short blocks of time, especially if your document is long; otherwise, you're sure to miss something.
    • Work on a printed copy so you have a record of the changes you make.
    • Separate your text into sentences. Changing the look of your work should help you check it more carefully.
    • Check one element at a time, perhaps spelling first, punctuation next, and so on. (And don't forget to check headings and page numbers.)
    • For spelling, start at the bottom of the page to force yourself to look at each word.
    • For punctuation, try circling all the marks to force yourself to look at each one. Pay special attention to your apostrophes.
    • Understand the limitations of a spell checker. It won't catch usage errors or wrong words.
    • Also understand that grammar checkers work with a limited number of rules.
    • Double- and triple-check names and facts.
    • Double-check little words: of, or, it, etc.
    • Ask a trusted colleague to check your work. If this person is agreeable, try reading the text back and forth out loud, noting any errors as you go along.

    Your Turn: Please share with us some of your own editing strategies. Perhaps you have favorite resources handy when you edit. What are they? Maybe you keep a personal list of errors. What's on it? Or maybe you read your work out loud, in a different voice. We're open to any suggestions.

    - Dave Kemper

    Humming the Tune

    Wednesday, February 24, 2010

    Stories help us make sense of who we are and what we know.

    I mention this not to wax philosophical - far from it. I simply want you to appreciate the power of stories when it comes to understanding. I, for one, have never truly understood mathematics. Part of my problem was how it was taught, as a series of independent courses - basic math, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and so forth - each with its own set of facts and formulas. I could never make any connections.

    Neil Postman in one of his last books suggested that the best way to teach mathematics may be to give it a narrative structure - tell the story of math from its beginnings. In this way, even a "mathephobe" like me could at the very least pay the discipline more respect (I do like a good story), and, perhaps, even attempt to improve my understanding of it.

    This blog post is for all of you who have never been quite sure about another subject - punctuation. You may know some of the basics (just as I do with math), but you're probably not quite sure how the whole system works and why. So what follows is a very brief story about punctuation - a narrative that may help you better understand how our system of "pointing," as it was once called, came to be.

    Very Early On
    According to Lynne Truss, author of a popular book on punctuation, the earliest marks helped actors and chanters know when to pause through parts of a lengthy text. (We're talking during the first 1,500 years or so.) An example of early punctuation credited to Aristophanes of Byzantium involved a three-part system of single points at three different heights on the line - indicating to speakers when to breath for long, not-so-long, and short speeches.

    In truth, however, punctuation was scarce in ancient manuscripts. Some manuscripts were written in all capital letters with no space between words and no punctuation. Truss says these texts "look to the modern eye like a word search puzzle."

    Printed Texts
    It wasn't until the 14th and 15th centuries, with the invention of the printing press, that standardized punctuation became important. As Thayer Watkins says, "Prior to printing, punctuation was 'light and haphazard,'" yet even with the printing press, any true semblance of order was a long way off.

    According to Watkins, William Claxton (1474), the first printer of books in English, used three marks: the stroke (/) for marking word groups, the colon (:) for marking distinct pauses, and the period for marking the end of sentences and brief pauses.

    In Tyndale's Gospels (1535), some aspects of modern punctuation were forming in that the practice of using the period for marking brief pauses was eliminated, the comma replaced the stroke, and the semicolon was reintroduced. (It was used in some ancient texts as a question mark.)

    Establishing More Order
    Watkins notes that writers in the early 17th century appeared to use colons, semicolons, and commas interchangeably. Then later in the century, writers tried to standardize the use of these marks "on the principle that a semicolon indicated a pause twice as long as that for a comma, and a colon indicated a pause twice as long as a semicolon."

    Here's a bit more about the semicolon, care of a Slate article by Paul Collins, that you might find interesting: By the mid-19th century, the semicolon was being used less and less, until some critics called it the neglected punctuation mark. The invention of the telegraph didn't help, because it cost more to send a message with a semicolon than with a single-type mark such as a period. It has been playing catch-up ever since.

    The question mark was initially called a note of interrogation. People at first wondered if it should be used to note a direct or an indirect questions, but by the 18th century it became the mark after direct questions.

    The exclamation mark came into being as a note of admiration. One theory says it comes from the Latin word for joy, IO, written with the I above the O.

    The most recent mark? That honor belongs to quotation marks, coming into being in the late 17th century. (Not a fast-forming system, is it?) Are there any new marks on the horizon? Watkins suggests that the bulleted list (thanks to word-processing programs) may soon become recognized as a standard punctuation mark.

    Final Thought: The use of punctuation, as integral to making meaning, rather than as an aid to oral reading and chanting, is how we think of punctuation today. But in reality punctuation still serves both lords, as Truss so effectively explains in this quotation: "On the page, punctuation performs its [modern] grammatical function, but in the mind of the reader it does more than that. It tells the reader how to hum the tune."

    So this is my story for now, and I'm sticking to it.

    - Dave Kemper

    Let Me Guess

    Wednesday, February 17, 2010

    English is an ever-evolving language that, according to editor Patricia T. O'Conner, may have the most words of any modern language. As a living language, it is full of "quirks and surprises" and a mind boggling, ever-changing set of standards for proper usage.

    There are countless books and Web sites devoted to proper usage. These sources agree on most usage issues, but not all of them. Mitchell Ivers, another editor, says that it's up to the writer to "know the distinctions to make educated choices."

    Of course, you already know the difference between your and you're; their, they're, and there; and so on. And when you do have a question, you know where to turn for help, either a business-writing handbook or the Net. (Write for Business, for example, lists more than 100 commonly mixed pairs, many of which are also covered here on our Web site.)

    But as I discovered during the past few days, there are all kinds of quirky (interesting, amusing, odd) usage issues that never make most business-writing resources. What follows are a 15 of them. All except the last three will apply to most business writing.)

    • peruse (This word is commonly, and incorrectly, used to mean "to skim," when it really means the opposite - "to read thoughtfully and carefully.")
    • unique (The word needs no help; to say "very unique" is redundant.)
    • lawyer, attorney (A lawyer has a law degree; an attorney acts in a lawyerly way for a client.)
    • persuade, convince (Persuade involves action - and usually teams up with the word to; convince involves thought - as in "convince her that or of…")
    • impact (Don't use as a transitive verb: not "The proposal impacted their second-quarter forecast"; instead "The proposal affected their second-quarter forecast.")
    • both agree (a slight redundancy)
    • bemused (Incorrectly used as a synonym of amused; bemused means "to make confused.")
    • cache, cachet (Cache is pronounced "cash" and means "hiding place." Cachet is pronounced "ca-SHAY" and means "a seal, noting official approval.")
    • loath, loathe (Loath means "unwilling"; loathe means "to hate.")
    • prescribe, proscribe (Prescribe means "to recommend"; proscribe means "prohibit.")
    • try and, try to (Use try to, not try and.)
    • on behalf of, in behalf of (On behalf of means "in place off" - as in "On behalf of the sunshine committee…"; in behalf of means "in the interest of" - as in "We raised $4,000 in behalf of the earthquake victims.")
    • gourmet, gourmand, glutton (A gourmet is a connoisseur, a gourmand is an eager consumer, and a glutton is an overeater.)
    • biceps (A singular and plural form.)
    • Afghan, Afghani (An Afghan is a person, a blanket, and a type of dog; the monetary unit of Afghanistan is the Afghani. [I'm sure that I've heard commentators say the "Afghani people."])

    My sources for these examples are Lapsing Into a Comma by Bill Walsh, the Random House Guide to Good Writing by Mitchell Ivers, and the Times Online Web site, listing commonly misused pairs in business writing.

    Your Turn: Are you aware of any usage issues that that don't appear in most common resources? If so, please share them with us.

    - Dave Kemper

    Dialectically Speaking

    Wednesday, January 13, 2010

    In my previous post, "The Cash Language," I provided a brief history of Standard English (SE) - the variety of English anointed by educated, influential people as the dialect to use in business, education, and government.

    You should already know all that you need to know about SE - that is, if you were paying attention in school - or you should, at the very least, know where to look if you have any questions. A business-writing handbook, a dictionary, language Web sites, and a trusted co-worker/editor are indispensable SE resources for any workplace writer.

    In truth, there are not that many differences between SE and non-standard variations of American English (NS). As one linguist put it, "The differences boil down to the details," as you will see in the table that follows.

    Note: Remember that a grammatical form that is verboten in SE may be perfectly acceptable in another dialect. So we're not talking about errors here, just variations.
     

    Differences in… NS SE
    expressing plurals
    after numbers
    10 mile 10 miles
    expressing habitual
    action
    He always be early. He always is early.
    expressing ownership My friend car… My friend's car…
    expressing the third-
    person singular verb
    The customer ask… The customer asks…
    expressing negatives She doesn't never… She doesn't ever…
    using reflexive
    pronouns
    He sees hisself… He sees himself as…
    using demonstrative
    pronouns
    Them reports are… Those reports are…
    using forms of do He done it. He did it.
    using or not using
    a double subject
    My manager he… My manager…
    using or not using
    a or an
    She had angry caller.
    I need new laptop.
    She had an angry caller.
    I need a new laptop.
    using or not using
    irregular forms of
    the "be" verb
    This list be helpful. This list is helpful
    using or not using
    the past tense of verb forms
    Carl finish his… Carl finished his…
    using ain't versus
    using isn't or aren't
    The company ain't… The company isn't…

     
    Final Thought: Some of us use an informal style of SE in everyday conversation and switch, quite smoothly, to a more formal style of SE when called for. SE is, in effect, our all-purpose dialect. Other people may use a different dialect in some informal situations, then have to switch to SE in other situations. For these individuals, switching from one dialect to another may not be that easy, depending on their experiences and training. Some experts would say that it is, in effect, a form of translating - a challenge indeed.

    - Dave Kemper