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Tag Archive | grammar

Lost in Long Sentences?

Written by Lynn Gaertner-Johnston, Syntax Training

When reading essays, books, and novels, many people enjoy traveling through long, complex sentences with twists and turns that lead to a satisfying end. But in business writing, readers want a short, clear path to understanding. Follow the four tips below to edit long sentences.

1. Include just one idea per sentence. When sentences have several ideas, readers need to figure out the relationship between the ideas. They need to suspend their understanding until they get to the period (full stop). In contrast, readers can quickly grasp each one-idea sentence and move on to the next.

The sentence below packs in three ideas. The punctuation makes is easy to recognize them.

I hope you will be able to attend, and if you need more information, please call or email me, and I will be glad to help you.
This revision shows that each idea can be a crisp sentence: I hope you will be able to attend. If you need more information, please call or email me. I will be glad to help you.

Test Yourself Number 1: Revise this three-idea sentence, whose length makes readers move slowly:

Our credit department has requested that you provide a copy of your exempt sales tax document and that you fill out the top and signature portion of the credit application just for assurance that we have the pertinent contact information correct.
Revise the sentence to communicate just one idea per sentence. After you have tried, you can check my revision. It appears at the end of this article.
2. Begin with the subject, not the windup. 
In baseball, the windup is the pitcher’s actions before releasing the ball. Although important to the pitcher, the windup can distract the batter. The same is true of readers: If you begin a sentence with a fancy windup, you may lose your readers before releasing your main idea. Instead, start with your subject.This sentence has a dizzying windup, which makes it too long and complicated:

With over a decade of experience with programming, network security, reverse engineering, cryptography design and cryptanalysis, and attacking protocols, and significant expertise in information security, Lance James provides consultation to businesses ranging from small startups to governments, Fortune 500s, and top financial institutions.
If the sentence began with the subject, Lance James, rather than the long windup, it would be two clearer sentences:
Lance James has over a decade of experience with programming, network security, reverse engineering, cryptography design and cryptanalysis, and attacking protocols, and significant expertise in information security. He provides consultation to businesses ranging from small startups to governments, Fortune 500s, and top financial institutions.
Test Yourself Number 2: Start with the subject rather than the long windup in this sentence, so readers do not struggle to understand its meaning:
By keeping the three critical success factors in mind and talking with your unit manager or your peer coach whenever you find yourself struggling with an employee issue, you should have the greatest opportunity for success as a new supervisor.

My revision appears at the end of the article.

3. When a sentence is too long or has more than one idea, try inserting a period (full stop) in place of the word andSometimes your sentences will ramble on because you have forgotten to take a breath and give your reader one. Replacing and with a period may help, as it would in this sentence:
Thanks for your cooperation on this project and we look forward to meeting with you to discuss the items above.
This revision communicates in two powerful sentences: Thanks for your cooperation. We look forward to meeting with you to discuss the items above.Sometimes replacing and with a period requires the addition of a word. In the sentence below, which word would you use to replace and? 

The navigation panel on the left side of the screen is the same for all contractors and helps them navigate through the site to find what they need quickly.

Your revision might look like mine: The navigation panel on the left side of the screen is the same for all contractors. It helps them navigate through the site to find what they need quickly.

Test Yourself Number 3: Break up this long sentence by inserting a period and replacing and. Then compare your revision with mine, which appears at the end of the article.

Recently there have been several calls and emails from individuals who are using an MS Excel version dated earlier than 2007 and are not able to save their changes based on the instructions provided in the guidelines.

4. Do not let a long list transform your sentence into a solid wall of text. Often you need to include a list in your writing. But a sentence burdened with a long list can become a blur to your reader. If that happens, your reader will not see any of the important information in your list. The solution is to break up the long, heavy sentence into bullet points or short sentences that keep your reader’s attention.

How would you revise this list-heavy sentence?

Your daily work will include counseling managers on issues ranging from major incidents to employee communications and community relations, representing the company with various groups, supporting the needs of individual plants, managing strategic media opportunities and crisis communications, placing community advertising, and publicizing company efforts in environmental stewardship.
This revision helps each point stand out for the reader:
Your daily work will include:
  • Counseling managers on issues ranging from major incidents to employee communications and community relations.
  • Representing the company with various groups.
  • Supporting the needs of individual plants.
  • Managing strategic media opportunities and crisis communications.
  • Placing community advertising.
  • Publicizing company efforts in environmental stewardship.
Test Yourself Number 4: Restructure this long sentence so that each part stands out:
If new information concerning the case should come to your attention, if you should leave the area for more than a few days, or if you should change your address or telephone number, please advise Marie Smith or your insurance agent immediately.
How long is too long? Sometimes long sentences are not difficult to understand. But a document filled with long, complex sentences will slow down readers and could lose them. Strive for an average of no more than 20 words per sentence–15 is better. Also, do not allow yourself to include sentences of more than 35 words in your final draft. If a sentence gets that long, break it in two (or three) or cut words.
Solution to Number 1:
Our credit department has requested that you provide a copy of your exempt sales tax document. Also, please fill out the top and signature portion of the credit application. This step is just for assurance that we have the pertinent contact information correct.
Solution to Number 2:  
You should have the greatest opportunity for success as a new supervisor if you do these two things: Keep the three critical success factors in mind. Talk with your unit manager or your peer coach whenever you find yourself struggling with an employee issue.
Solution to Number 3:
Recently there have been several calls and emails from individuals who are using an MS Excel version dated earlier than 2007. They are not able to save their changes based on the instructions provided in the guidelines.
Solution to Number 4: 
Please immediately advise Marie Smith or your insurance agent if any of these occurs:
  • New information concerning the case comes to your attention.

  • You leave the area for more than a few days.

  • You change your address or telephone number.

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That that is is that that is not is not is that it it is

That that is is that that is not is not is that it it is is an English word sequence demonstrating syntactic ambiguity. It is used as an example illustrating the importance of proper punctuation.

The sequence can be understood as either of two sequences, each with four discrete sentences, by adding punctuation:

That that is, is. That that is not, is not. Is that it? It is.

Read More…

Why is Y Sometimes a Vowel?

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Written by Arika Okrent

A, E, I, O, U, and sometimes Y.

  • You might have learned it as a chant, a song, or a simple declaration, but this is how you learned the vowels of English.
  • You may have wondered, why is Y so unsure of itself?
  • Can’t we just decide what it is?
  • Why is Y a “sometimes” vowel?

Because writing is not the same thing as speech. While we casually refer to letters, which are written symbols, as vowels or consonants, the concepts of vowel and consonant properly belong to the domain of speech. In general terms, a consonant is a speech sound formed by some kind of constriction or impeding of air flow through the vocal tract, and a vowel lets the air flow freely through. The letter Y can stand for either of these types of sounds.

In “yes,” Y is representing a consonant, and in “gym” it is representing a vowel.

In fact, due to the imperfect match between writing and speech, there are other “sometimes” vowels:

  • W is a consonant in “we” and part of a diphthong vowel in “now.
  • H is a consonant in “hat” but what is it in “ah“? It’s part of the representation of a different vowel sound; compare it with “a.” If we look hard enough, we can even find examples of “sometimes” consonants.
  • What sound does the O represent in “one“?
  • What sound does the U represent in “united“? They are consonant+vowel combinations ‘wuh’ and ‘yu.’

A, E, I, O, U and sometimes Y is not a bad rule of thumb.

Most of the time a spoken vowel will be represented by one of those written forms. And Y swings between vowel and consonant more than other swing letters. But it’s worth remembering that letters are not speech sounds. They are lines on a page, pixels on a screen that nudge us, quite imperfectly, toward the sounds of the things we say.

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What’s the Difference Between In- and Un-?

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English has two different prefixes that make a word into its opposite.

OK, yes, there are more than two (dis-, a-, anti-, de-, etc.), but in- and un- are the most common.

They bring the sense of “not” to an adjective, and they cause trouble because it is often not clear which one should be used for a particular word. Many pairs of in-/un- words are interchangeable.

For example:

“inalienable” and “unalienable” are both correct and mean the same thing (even the drafters of the Declaration of Independence went back and forth on that one), as do “inadvisable” and “unadvisable.”

Still, the two prefixes are not equivalent.

As a pretty flimsy general rule,

UN – goes with Germanic roots and

IN – goes with Latin roots,

as seen in these pairs: unfriendly, inamicable; unteachable; ineducable; unbelievable, incredible. Still, just because a word has a Latin root doesn’t mean it can’t go with un-: see unproductive, unfortunate, unreliable, undesirable, unconscious…and so on.

Un– is also usually found with adjectives formed from participles ending in -ed or -ing: undomesticated, undeveloped, undisciplined, unconcerning, uncomprehending.

On the other hand, if a word has a Germanic root, it pretty much does mean it can’t go with in-. If you do find such a word, it is probably an example of a completely different prefix in-, meaning in or towards (incoming, infield, indwell).

In- is much more restricted than un-.

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Un– is freely productive; it can apply to new words (“this haircut is brand new and unselfied!”), while

inremains frozen in the existing vocabulary, a Latin dinosaur bone.

Un– can even apply to words that already take in-, though when it does it often creates a different, less specific meaning.

For example:

while the word “indigestible” can be traced back to the meaning “not able to be digested” it carries extra layers of connotation –food that offends the senses or makes you feel bad, information that is too confusing to process– that “undigestible” doesn’t have. “Undigestible” is more straightforwardly “not able to be digested.”A poorly prepared lasagna is indigestible, but a rock is undigestible. Its meaning is composed of its two parts, while the meaning of “indigestible” comes from its long history of use.

But the search for these kinds of meaning difference can quickly turn messy and confusing. Once you start thinking about this too much, in- and un- words start to switch back and forth in your mind like

a duck/rabbit optical illusion.

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Shades of difference in meaning emerge only to dissolve under closer scrutiny.

Inaccessible, unaccessible?

Inconsolable, unconsolable?

Indescribable, undescribable?

Surely they mean different things. No, maybe not. Many of these kinds of pairs have been switching back and forth for centuries. (At the current time, the in- forms of these particular words are considered more acceptable.) Some of them have gotten stuck on one setting or the other, and some will continue to be indecisive, or, if you will, undecided.

 

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Contronyms: What did you mean by deceptively smart?

A synonym is a word that means the same as another.

Necessary and required are synonyms.

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An antonym is a word that means the opposite of another.

Wet and dry are antonyms.

While synonyms and antonyms are not in themselves interesting, the complexities and irregularities of the English language sometimes make synonyms and antonyms interesting to explore. Many complexities result from words having multiple definitions.

A trivial example is a word with synonyms that aren’t synonyms of each other, the word beam, for example, having the synonyms bar and shine.

Similarly, some words have antonyms that are neither synonyms nor antonyms of each other but completely unrelated: the word right, for example, having the antonyms wrong and left.

A more interesting paradox occurs with the word groom, which does not really have an antonym in the strictest sense but has an opposite of sorts in the word bride, which can be used as a prefix to create a synonym, bridegroom.

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The word contronym (also antagonym) is used to refer to words that, by some freak of language evolution, are their own antonyms. Read More…

5 editor’s secrets to help you write like a pro

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Professional writers get work because they hit their deadlines, they stay on their message, and they don’t throw too many tantrums. Some pros have a great writing voice or a superb style, but as often as not, that gets in the way. When you know that the best word is “prescient,” it’s hard to swallow when an account manager tells you the client won’t know what it means.

Professional writers rely on editors to fix their clunks. Like good gardeners, sensitive editors don’t hack away—we prune and gently shape. When we’ve done a great job, the page looks just like it did before, only better. It’s the page the writer intended to write.

Editing, like writing, takes time to learn. But here are five fixes I make with nearly every project. Learn to make them yourself and you’ll take your writing to a more professional, marketable, and persuasive level.

1. Sentences can only do one thing at a time.

Have you ever heard a four-year-old run out of breath before she can finish her thought? I edit a lot of sentences that work the same way. You need a noun, you need a verb, you might need an object. Give some serious thought to stopping right there.

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Tips to Improve Your Business Vocabulary

Written by Lynn Gaertner-Johnston, Syntax Training

In the business writing classes I lead, people often tell me they want to use the right verbiage to come across professionally. The first tip I offer them is to get rid of words such as verbiage, whose meaning has been muddied and is not what people typically think it is. (Read my blog post “Watch Your Verbiage” to learn the many meanings of verbiage.)

Apply these tips to improve your language:

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Demystify Writing Misconceptions

“Demystify Writing Misconceptions” was written by Joe Moxley.

Learn the beliefs that empower successful academic authors.

To become a competent, confident writer, you may find it useful to analyze your attitudes about writing. After all, your assumptions about how writers work can limit your imagination and the quality of your finished product. You can debunk a truckload of myths about writing by analyzing how you write, how your peers write, and how professional writers write.

Writer are Born Rather Than Nurtured

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10 Very Costly Typos

Typos can be embarrassing. They can also be costly. And not just for those individuals whose jobs depend on knowing the difference between “it’s” and “its” or where a comma is most appropriate. Last weekend, bauble-loving Texans got the deal of a lifetime when a misprint in a Macy’s mailer advertised a $1500 necklace for just $47. (It should have read $497.) It didn’t take long for the entire inventory to be zapped, at a loss of $450 a pop to the retail giant. (Not to mention plenty of faces as red as the star in the company’s logo.)

Google, on the other hand, loves a good typing transposition. Not only is the mega-search engine’s own name a happy accident (it was supposed to be Googol; the domain name was incorrectly registered), but Harvard University researchers claim that the company earns about $497 million each year from everyday people mistyping the names of popular websites and landing on “typosquatter” sites… which just happen to be littered with Google ads. (Ka-ching!)

Here are 10 other costly typos that give the phrase “economy of words” new meaning.

1. NASA’S MISSING HYPHEN

The damage: $80 million

Hyphens don’t usually score high on the list of most important punctuation. But a single dash led to absolute failure for NASA in 1962 in the case of Mariner 1, America’s first interplanetary probe. The mission was simple: get up close and personal with close neighbor Venus. But a single missing hyphen in the coding used to set trajectory and speed caused the craft to explode just minutes after takeoff. 2001: A Space Odyssey novelist Arthur C. Clarke called it “the most expensive hyphen in history.”

2. THE CASE OF THE ANTIQUE ALE

The damage: $502,996

A missing ‘P’ cost one sloppy (and we’d have to surmise ill-informed) eBay seller more than half-a-mill on the 150-year-old beer he was auctioning. Few collectors knew a bottle of Allsopp’s Arctic Ale was up for bid, because it was listed as a bottle of Allsop’s Arctic Ale. One eagle-eyed bidder hit a payday of Antiques Roadshow proportions when he came across the rare booze, purchased it for $304, then immediately re-sold it for $503,300.

3. THE BIBLE PROMOTES PROMISCUITY

The damage: $4590 (and eternal damnation)

Not even the heavenly father is immune to occasional inattention to detail. In 1631, London’s Baker Book House rewrote the 10 Commandments when a missing word in the seventh directive declared, “Thou shalt commit adultery.” Parliament was not singing hallelujah; they declared that all erroneous copies of the Good Book—which came to be known as “The Wicked Bible”—be destroyed and fined the London publisher 3000 pounds.

4. PASTA GETS RACIST

The damage: $20,000

A plate of tagliatelle with sardines and prosciutto would typically only be offensive to a vegetarian’s senses. But an unfortunate blunder in The Pasta Bible, published by Penguin Australia in 2010, recommended seasoning the dish with “salt and freshly ground black people.” Though no recall was made of the books already in circulation, the printer quickly destroyed all 7000 remaining copies in its inventory. Read More…

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