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Friday, July 26, 2013

Blog Redux: That To-Do List of Yours Could Be the First Step toward Writing a Best-Seller

If you follow this blog occasionally, you might have noticed that I'm not posting many items these days. After more than a year of running this blog--and posting 1,043 items--I'm moving toward shutting it down, for various reasons.

Here's the first item I posted here, almost two years ago before I knew what I would be doing doing with the blog. Posting this item back then was an experiment, following up on an email message I sent a former colleague.

________________

A former colleague at King County asked me recently for some advice on helping a staff member get started on writing projects. Below is a modified version of how I responded. ...

First, here's a method that's worked for me at times and when I've been advising and teaching others--when it's tough to get started and keep going:

Think of lists--to-do lists, shopping lists, top 10 lists, how-to-do-it lists, vacation/travel suitcase lists, Christmas present lists, thank-you card lists, party invitation lists, and so on. Each item on those lists might have a lot of meaning, but just writing down the key words helps the list-writer figure out what he or she needs, likes, wants to do, and so on.

Apply that type of list-making to whatever you need to write about. Start with the simple: What's important to you about the topic? What's important to your boss? What's important to the project? What's important in the research? What's important to the audience? And so on. But don't rank or explain anything; just start listing short answers to those types of questions.

Do NOT worry about writing complete sentences at this point. Think of topic headings or book titles or just prompt words, words with symbolic or deeper meaning to the writer.

And don't think of writing the list items in some dreaded outline, as we may have been taught to do in school. In other words, don't worry about the structure of the list--and all those numbers and letters and Roman numerals. Instead, think of it as a bulleted list (the bullets can help separate items from one another).

And once you're exhausted doing that (for now), think about lists that could go below some or all of those original list topics--other bullets that provide more info about each original bullet ... or your brief thoughts or feelings about those original bullets ... or reference sources to get more information about those bullets ... and so on.

Perhaps you'll find that some of those sub-bullets need to stand alone. Pull them out and add them to the original list.

THEN start ranking the list items: What's the highest priority? What's most meaningful? What's most interesting? What's most useful? And so on? Also think about what could be scratched off the list as nonessential (or, at least, set aside for future consideration). If you're writing this list on a piece of paper, simply circle the most important list items--or start numbering them (in pencil--or be willing to cross out numbers). If you're using a computer, save the original list--unchanged--and start moving things around on a copy of that list.

NOW, you can start filling in the blanks--with words that make complete sentences of the list items. And then think about how to organize the sentences into paragraphs or sections or chapters. The original bullets might be sections of a report or paper--the heading or first paragraph--and the sub-bullets could be additional paragraphs. Heck, the bulleted items could actually become bullets in the paper. But don't overdo that--it can start looking tedious and uninteresting to the reader.

Also, if you've ranked list items by number, think of using those numbers in the sentences: First, here's some important information. Second, here's some other information to explain that. Third, here's additional evidence. And so on. Or use transitional words between the list items like "Next," "Then," "Later," "Also" "For example," "Likewise" and so on. That helps you as the writer keep things in order. But more importantly, it helps the reader follow your thought process.
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In my original message to my former colleague, I concluded my writing advice with this statement:  I'm going to blunder and do something I've told myself NOT to do in other places--I'm not going to proofread or edit my words above; I need to do something else. But there's a lesson in this, too: Tell your colleague not to start judging and revising what he's listed--or even written--until he's done with the list or a section of the document. Just get it out on paper or on the computer. THEN he can go back and start editing or revising it.)
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Second, here's a Web page of mine that includes links to other Web pages that provide advice on the writing process and overcoming writer's block: Garbl’s Writing Process Links. It's been a while since I reviewed the links and can't endorse any particular website. [Please note: I learned recently that this Web page is not working properly in Internet Explorer or Opera; it’s working fine in Firefox. I’m trying to fix it and some other pages.]

Third, check out the Garbl's Plain Language Writing Guide. The first two sections--on Reader/Purpose and Organization--can aid getting started. (If you’re interested, I can provide many other excellent online resources about plain language.)

And finally, here are three books on writing that could be helpful, even inspirational. All three are good, but I've listed them in order of complexity, from the simplest and least overwhelming:
  • The Little Red Writing Book: 20 Powerful Principles of Structure, Style and Readability, Brandon Royal.
  • Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, Roy Peter Clark. Part IV, called Useful Habits, has 11 short sections that can help a writer get started and overcome writer's block.
  • A Writer's Coach: An Editor's Guide to Words that Work, Jack Hart. The first chapter, in particular, is about Process and covers getting started and writer's block. But it's all good.
If you have questions or comments about any of this, please contact me!

Gary


Thursday, July 25, 2013

Oxford English Dictionary to update entry for 'marriage' to include gay unions

Good news!

Salon.com reports:
The language experts behind the Oxford English Dictionary have confirmed that the definition of “marriage” will be changed to reflect the inclusion of gay couples, in light of a string of recent marriage equality victories around the world.
I'll be curious to see how Oxford updates the marriage entry in its directionless  I'm also curious about when and how other dictionaries (and style manuals) will update their entries.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The New Illiteracy -- Obfuscation -- Hinders Progress | Counter It with Plain Language

Though Richard Steiner calls it a "new illiteracy" in this column, he's right on when he defines obfuscation and the essential actions to fight it. He writes:
[O]bfuscation is the intentional misuse of language in order to avoid communication, to conceal or distract from substance or meaning. This rhetorical tool allows a speaker or writer to feign concern for an issue, while remaining vague, confusing, opaque, and ambiguous.
I like his point that efforts to spread this new form of illiteracy are really promoting "an anti-literacy of sorts, where language is used to avoid communication," an effort that's not new in our culture. He writes:
Just as malnutrition can result from too little food (hunger) or too much food (obesity), illiteracy can likewise result from either the under use, or over use, of language. Each year, thousands of speeches, articles, webpages, reports, conferences, and workshops discuss important issues, but mostly as pretense and subterfuge to mask the lack of progress on these very same issues.
Fortunately, Steiner notes, organizations in the United States and around the world are working to counter obfuscation:
At this point in human history, we need clear, honest discussion of issues -- environmental, economic, and social. And this is the focus of an emerging global "plain language movement", with organizations now in the UK, U.S., Australia, Sweden, Portugal, the Netherlands, Italy, Ireland, France, Finland, and Belgium. There is the Plain Language Association International, Clarity International, and the Center for Plain Language, whose motto is: "If it doesn't makes sense, demand to understand."
And he emphasizes that we must go beyond revealing, questioning and explaining the language used by obfuscators:
In discussions about real-world problems, we should demand real-world answers, with specifics, commitments, and timelines. We should pay closer attention to the actions (and budgets) of industry and government, rather than their words. We should demand that public officials say what they mean, and mean what they say. If we can't talk honestly and clearly about our problems, we can't solve them.
For more information on plain language, aka plain English, visit Garbl's Plain English Writing Guide. It describes seven steps on "How to write clearly to meet the needs of your readers--and your needs too!"_______
Steiner's column is featured today, July 10, in my daily online paper, Garbl's Plain English Paragraphs, available at the Plain Language tab above and by free email subscription.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

20 Strategies for Writing in Plain Language | How to meet the needs of your readers

Editor Mark Nichol provides a clear, concise description of plain-language strategies in this blog article at Daily Writing Tips. He begins:
The increasing popularity of plain language, the concept of writing clear, simple prose, is making it easier for people to understand legal documents and government forms. It’s also recommended for any print or online publications intended to provide information or explain a process — and writers should consider its utility for any content context. ...
For more information and advice, visit my plain-language website: Garbl's Plain English Writing Guide:. How to write clearly to meet the needs of your readers--and your needs too! I begin:
Plain English is an approach to writing that concentrates on the needs of your readers. This clear writing approach is often called plain language because of its international value and use in other languages. It is ideal for people who write to and for clients, customers, employees, organization members, ratepayers, students and taxpayers. It helps us write for people who read at all levels of time, interest, education and literacy. It also benefits readers with limited English proficiency or learning disabilities.
My guide discusses plain language in these seven steps:
  • Focusing on your reader and purpose
  • Organizing your ideas
  • Writing clear, effective paragraphs
  • Writing clear, simple sentences
  • Using suitable words
  • Creating an enticing design
  • Testing for clarity.
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Nichol's article is featured today, July 6, in my daily online paper, Garbl's Plain English Paragraphs, available at the Plain Language tab above and by free email subscription.

What’s wrong with the passive voice? | The Stroppy Editor

Despite the title, this blog article by a London writer also discusses the differences between passive and active voice, reasons to be passive, and "Bad passives and the indirect way to fix them."

Blogger Tom Freeman begins:
Michael Gove, the [British] Education Secretary, has joined the Campaign Against the Passive Voice. He follows in the footsteps of Strunk and White (whose section on the passive voice, while more nuanced than many people recognise, is calamitously misleading) and of George Orwell (who complained about the passive while using it extensively himself, even in the same sentence as his complaint).
The campaign isn't wholly wrong, but it goes too far and it doesn’t properly understand the problem. The passive voice is often better than the active, and its overuse is usually a symptom of something else.
Freeman concludes:
There are times when the difference between the active and passive doesn’t matter much. If you’ve been staring at two versions of a sentence for a while, trying to decide which is better, chances are you’ll be fine either way. Pick one and get on with life. 
For more advice, here are my related entries in Garbl's Editorial Style and Usage Manual:
active vs. passive verbs A verb is active when it shows the subject acts or does something: The clown caught the bouquetThe board approved the contract unanimously. A verb is passive when the subject of the verb is acted upon: The bouquet was caught by the clown. The contract was passed unanimously by the board.
The active voice is simpler, more direct and more forceful than the passive voice. Passive voice may be acceptable when the person or thing receiving the action is more important than the person or thing doing the acting.
Also, avoid shifts between active and passive within a sentence. Change: The new website manager majored in English and was employed by the city as an editor. To: The new manager majored in English and worked at the city as an editor. See headlines.
Rita Mae Brown, Starting from Scratch, 1988: "Avoid the passive voice whenever possible. University term papers bleed with the passive voice. It seems to be the accepted style of Academia. Dump it."
headlines, headings ...
For headlines, state or imply a complete sentence in the present tense. Avoid using passive voice. Omit most "helping" and "to be" verbs: Road improvements planned for Belvidere Avenue Southwest instead of Road improvements are planned for Belvidere Avenue Southwest. Cut articles (a, an, the): School district schedules open house on proposed curriculum changes instead of School district has scheduled an open house on the proposed curriculum changes. Infinitive is preferred to future tense: City Council to consider budget recommendation instead of The City Council will consider the budget recommendation. In headlines with more than one line, avoid separating verbs of more than one word, modifiers from the words they modify and prepositions from the phrases they introduce. ...
I also discuss passive voice in the Writing clear, simple sentences section of Garbl's Plain English Writing Guide:
Use active voice verbs--unless there's a strong reason to use passive
Putting the "doer"--the person or thing doing the action in a sentence--in front of its verb will usually ensure the verb is in the active voice. The "doer" in active sentences is usually named or described at the start of the sentence. The active is more direct; it helps drive home the message. Active verbs usually suggest that someone is doing something: collapse, confuse, jumpThe passive can obscure the message.
Active voice is usually more concise than passive voice. Sentences that are passive instead of active usually contain forms of the verb to beam, are, is, was, were, be, been, being. And those verbs usually come before verbs than end in -ed or -encarried, taken.
  • Instead of:  
The fund-raising campaign was approved by the Executive Committee.
  • Use:
The Executive Committee approved the fund-raising campaign.
  • Instead of:
Complaints are taken seriously by the Parks Department.
  • Use:
The Parks Department takes complaints seriously.
Passive voice may be suitable for one of these reasons: when you don't know the doer or actor, when the doer or actor is unimportant to the point you're making, or when the emphasis is clearly not on the actor but the acted upon. 
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Freeman's blog entry is featured today, July 6, in my daily online paper,
Garbl's Style: Write Choices, available at the Editorial Style tab above and by free emails subscription.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Call to Artists for Plain Language Day | International Plain Language Day

Celebration planners are seeking artists to create artwork for International Plain Language Day, Oct. 13, 2013. Says the Call to Artists:
Right to Understand graphicExpress the desire for clarity through plain language
People who advocate for plain language see beauty and sophistication in simplicity, clarity, and focus. They always try to see reality from the point of view of the other person in a conversation. They want to upset the status quo for the benefit of the people. We are passionate about plain language.

See the Call to Artists for the two artwork themes, selection criteria, and the jury panel. Entries are due Aug. 31, 2013. 

International Plain Language Day is celebrated around the world to mark the progress made in adopting plain language in government, health, business, and law. 


The 2013 celebration will be centered in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, during the closing session of PLAIN 2013. The ninth conference and 20th anniversary of Plain Language Association InterNational runs from Oct. 10-13.

Cursing: An Editorial Style Guide | I Miss You When I Blink

I was laughing out loud while reading this blog post from I Miss You When I Blink

I can't do the column justice by excerpting from its 10 tips, even their titles. Read it instead. But here's Mary Laura's Philpott's concluding bit of advice:
10. Use your manners.
If you follow none of the other guidelines, observe this one: respect basic rules of civility. If you're in a setting where you know the people don't like cursing, don't do it. Unless you're in a setting where you know the people don't like it, but you also know the people hate you and are just pretending to like you, and they think you're so stupid that you don’t know that they hate you, like you can't read body language or are completely lacking in social intelligence. In that case, play along nicely and with extreme restraint until it’s time to leave, then casually toss this over your shoulder as you walk out the door:
“Later, bitches.”
And wink.
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Philpott's blog post, from April 2012, is featured today, July 2, in my daily online paper, Garbl's Style: Write Choices, available at the Editorial Style tab above and by free email subscription.

Even Thomas Jefferson favored independence from gobbledygook

I love this--a quotation from 1821 by the author of the Declaration of Independence. In Chapter 4 of his autobiography, Thomas Jefferson advocated for use of "plain" words in writing:
[I]t would be useful . . . to reform the style of [statutes] which, from their verbosity, their endless tautologies, . . . and their multiplied efforts at certainty, by saids and aforesaids, by ors and by ands, to make them more plain, do really render them more perplexed and incomprehensible, not only to common readers, but to the lawyers themselves.
Another reason to celebrate Jefferson, his belief in democracy, the power of the people, and the July 4th birth of the United States. 

Jefferson wrote in 1821 about language in federal statutes and other government documents, as noted in this article from Legal Writer Editor.

But I think it's significant he wrote about the comprehension of "common readers," as well as lawyers. Since Jefferson believed 192 years ago that legal documents should use plain language, surely he believed that nonlegal documents also should be easy to understand. 

Unfortunately, that is still not the case in 2013 for far too many documents--legal and otherwise. 

Fortunately, important organizations are advocating for use of clear, concise writing and design in all fields--from the law and government to health care and medicine, from education to engineering, from corporations to nonprofits. 

For an annotated list of government agencies and other organizations providing advice and information on plain language, check out Other plain-language resources in Garbl's Plain English Writing Guide.

To find "plain" words for all types of writing, also check out Garbl's Concise Writing Guide. This free guide provides alternatives to overstated, pompous words; wordy, bureaucratic phrases; and verbose, sometimes amusing redundant phrases:
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The article featuring Jefferson's quotation--"Plain-English Reform Transcends Ideology"--is featured today, July 2, in my daily online paper, Garbl's Plain English Paragraphs, available at the Plain Language tab above and by free email subscription.


Tuesday, July 2, 2013

New Questions and Answers, July 2013 | Chicago Style Manual of Style

The Chicago Manual of Style has published its July Q&A--questions about writing from readers and answers to the questions by Chicago staff. I get a monthly email message from Chicago whenever they appear.

Here are the excerpts from the latest questions and some answers:

Q. The title page identifies the authors as Lyotard and Th├ębaud, but the Library of Congress CIP data lists only Lyotard. How should I cite this work in my text and bibliography and why?
Q. I've noticed that many newspapers and magazines still avoid splitting verb phrases. Does CMOS have a position on this issue? A. CMOS does: please see sections 5.102 and 5.168. The idea that verb phrases cannot be split in this way is quite mistaken, and there is no reason to arbitrarily avoid it.
Q. Is “The clothes need washed” an incorrect or incomplete sentence?
Q. All of this plus installation, at no cost to you. Is the comma necessary here?
Q. For proofreading on paper, how does Chicago recommend indicating that there should be one space between two words rather than two?
Q. Which punctuation is correct for the following title: “Transitioning to More-Rigorous Assessments” or “Transitioning to More Rigorous Assessments”?
Q. In a recent New York Times online article, I noticed several instances where that was dropped in cases of indirect address. It seems to be common practice, but is it correct? A. Newspaper writers make a habit of dropping an optional that to conserve space, and if the sentence is readable, there’s nothing wrong with omitting it. Sometimes it is needed, however, to keep the reader from stumbling: She maintained the haircut on a strict budget was optional. He allowed children in his swimming pool were a nuisance.
Q. In formal writing, I have been shown by my coworkers that U.S. is the way to write United States. However, I was always told that very few abbreviation are to be used in formal writing, and the abbreviation U.S. should never be used in replacement of United States when writing federal documents.
Q. What is Chicago’s style for cyber plus noun (cyber attack, cyber security, cyber crime, cyber defenses, cyber warfare, etc.)?
Q. What is the CMOS position on how to reference the titles of posters (such as those presented at professional conferences) in the body of a document? Should the title be in quotation marks, italicized, or something else?
Q. If you are referring to a specific war, like World War II, do you capitalize the word war even when you’re not attaching the full title, or leave it uncapitalized? A. If you type war into the Search box or look under war in the index, you'll find examples at CMOS 8.112: World War I, Vietnam War, the war, the two world wars, etc.
Q. Why is it so hard to find things in CMOSA. It must be just one of those things. If only there were a search box, or an index . . .

Monday, July 1, 2013

International conference features latest advice on clear, concise communications


PLAIN conference logo
Here's a chance to immerse yourself for several days in informative, useful and interactive discussions about the best ways to communicate clearly and concisely with your readers. Check out PLAIN 2013!

It's the 20th-anniversary conference of the Plain Language Association InterNational (or PLAIN), scheduled for Oct. 10-13 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. I've been studying the schedule for the conference, and it promises to live up to its theme: "Plain Language Advances: new skills, knowledge, research and best practices."

The conference will use presentations, workshops, round robins, authors' tables, posters and displays to share the latest on plain-language research, practice, integration, and design. I'm even scheduled to speak at a couple of workshops. 

Conference planners have confirmed presenters from Canada, the United States, Spain, Portugal, Brazil, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Belgium, Sweden, Norway, and Britain. People are likely to attend from all those countries. 

Participants will be able to choose from a range of topics and formats to share, learn, and build their plain-language knowledge base and network.

The program presentations will cover strategies and best practices on accessibility, usability, ethics, and connecting with audiences. Presenters will share plain-language tips on promoting plain language to clients, new technology, writing legal information, document design, knowledge mobilization, global English, and the profession's future direction. 

Updates on the activities of plain-language professionals in government, health, financial, legal, and educational fields will give participants the opportunity to gain sector insights.

Here's more information on the Plain Language Association InterNational. Low-cost membership in PLAIN reduces the conference fee (through August). I've been a board member, website manager, and email discussion group moderator for PLAIN.

And here's more information on plain language, aka plain English: Garbl's Plain English Writing Guide.

May or might: what’s the difference?

One of my online writing references, Garbl's Editorial Style and Usage Manual, includes an item about using may and might:
may, might Both words suggest possibility. One meaning of may suggests a likelihood that something will happen. It may rain. Might suggests a remote possibility or a possibility that once existed but no longer does: I might as well be the man in the moon. I might have married her if our circumstances had been different. Consider using might if using may could imply permission instead of possibility: The graduating seniors might skip classes on Friday
That entry also links to these related terms:
can, could Use can to express certainty or willingness in being able to do something. Use could when there's less certainty or when doing something depends on something else.
can, may Commonly confused. Use can when writing about capability, physical or mental ability, or the power to do something. Use may when writing about authorization or permission and sometimes possibility: They can finish the report by November. May we have an extra month to finish the report? You may lead the horse to water, but you can't make it drink. May is almost always the correct word to use in a question. 
could of, may of, might of, must of, should of, would of Frequent misspellings of could have or could've, may have, might have or might've, must have, should have or should've, and would have or would've. Also, avoid using those awkward contractions in writing. 
Prompting my blog post today is a recent entry in the OxfordWords.blog of OxfordDictionaries.comMay or might: what’s the difference?

It covers the distinctions between may and might in much more detail. And it's useful advice. But I must say that my eyes started glazing over before I finished reading the blog item. 
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An Oxford article on can and and could--with a link to its may and might article--is featured today, July 1, in my daily online paper, Garbl's Style: Write Choices, available at the Editorial Style tab above and by free email subscription.


Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Providing writing advice, then and now. But now what? | Garbl's Writing Center

When I created and published my first one-page version of Garbl's Writing Resources Online more than 15 years ago, I had two main purposes. First, I developed and maintained the site as a way to learn basic HTML coding and website management. And second, I wanted to do that while providing free useful information and advice about writing. Even when I linked my annotated directory to private writing consultants, their sites had to provide a significant amount of free advice and information.

And I continued to follow those purposes as the website grew, eventually becoming Garbl's Writing Center, with multiple free resources for writers and editors:
My purpose in providing free writing advice has become more focused, as I've added links and information about clear, concise writing and plain language (aka plain English). During the past couple of years, I've also added or modified pages to provide more information about me as I've developed a writing and editing practice in my semi-retirement.

And during the past year, I developed the blog you're now reading. Its focus has mostly been on writing and editing, though I've touched on other forms of communication, in broad terms--from creativity to simplicity, from philanthropy to travel photography, from peace activism to progressive politics.

But during the past two months, I've been wrestling (almost literally) with what I want to do with this blog, my Writing Center website and even my writing/editing career. 

Somehow (perhaps when using a new-to-me weight machine), I must have torn the meniscus in my left knee, and I've been suffering with its pain as I've consulted with my doctor, a physical therapist and, soon, a knee surgeon. It's been frustrating, even depressing at times, because it has limited my ability to move around and get out of the house.

It's been easier to sit at this computer or relax in my easy chair, but I haven't wanted to do that. I've continued to get out--to do volunteer work a couple of times a week, to see friends and family members, to travel with my wife. 

But during that time, I've also become less motivated to maintain this blog, which I used to add to nearly every day, spending a couple of hours on it most days. I'm also less motivated to maintain the rest of my writing website, though that loss of interest has been developing for several years as I've almost resented the "obligation" I created. 

When I was actively managing my website, I tracked the hits its pages got and   did occasional Web searches to see how it ranked and what other sites were linking to it. And I felt pretty good that I was providing a service that other people valued and used. For a while, my site featured a free service in which I'd answer submitted questions about writing. But I eventually dropped that service because it kept me too busy; it became too much of an obligation.

With this blog, I've been uncertain about its usage and thus its value to other people. The stats for visits have increased, especially as I began providing more commentary and advice about writing, using the blog less to simply report on articles at other websites and blogs.

But I still get very little interaction with readers, as direct messages to me or as comments on blog items. So I don't really don't know what's working or not, what's helping people or not.

So, I'm wondering, is my time writing this blog well spent? Or, as soon as I get my knee repaired, in early July, should I spend more time--in true retirement with occasional paid editing work--taking pictures, discovering my own city (Seattle), volunteering, reading my Kindle, working out at the Y (correctly, ahem), visiting with friends and family, and doing other projects around the house? 

I just know I gotta get off my butt more often. Now approaching my mid-60s, I need the physical exercise that comes with doing that!

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Making your communications accessible to people with disabilities

The clear, concise writing and design principles of plain language can be applied effectively to making documents--from brochures to signs to websites--more accessible. That is, plain language can make all kinds of communication materials easier to read and understand by people with physical and mental disabilities as well as low literacy and limited English proficiency.

Since at least 1990 in the United States, government agencies, private employers, and organizations open to the public have had to consider federal requirements for making their facilities, services and communications accessible to people with disabilities. The requirements are outlined in the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and amendments to it in 2008. 

Other countries--including Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Sri Lanka, and the European Union--also have federal accessibility laws. 

I've had a longtime interest in the U.S. law for several reasons:
  • I worked as an editor and public information officer for more than 30 years with public agencies in the Seattle, King County area, most often for the public transit agency. 
  • The law affected the ways we wrote, designed and provided communication materials--and the facilities and services we described in them. For example, were our brochures accessible to people with disabilities? Can people with impaired vision or hearing read them or get the information in them in alternative ways?
  • My older brother, now deceased, had a mental disability but used public transit and other public accommodations. 
According to Wikipedia:
Accessibility is the degree to which a product, device, service, or environment is available to as many people as possible. Accessibility can be viewed as the "ability to access" and benefit from some system or entity. The concept often focuses on people with disabilities or special needs (such as the [United Nations] Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities) and their right of access, enabling the use of assistive technology.
Prompting this blog item today is a website of the New Zealand Office of Disability Issues, titled "Make your communications accessible." The site provides "quick tips for writers, communicators, designers and production houses."

The resource is available to read on the Web and as a downloadable PDF document. It covers these topics:

  • Accessibility overview
  • More people understand plain language
  • How to talk to, and about, disabled people
  • Make print accessible
  • Email and web accessibility
  • Specialised formats.
The section that says "More people understand plain language" provides this advice (and links to "A guide to making ‘easy-read’ information"):
  • Know your audience.
  • Use everyday language readers are familiar with.
  • Use short, clear sentences (15–20 words).
  • One idea in a sentence is best.
  • Keep paragraphs short with one subject in one paragraph.
  • Avoid using a multi-syllable word when a shorter one will do.
  • Avoid jargon, acronyms, technical words and details and, if you must use an acronym, always provide a full version the first time you mention it.
  • Use active rather than passive verbs, for example `Peter kicked the ball’ rather than `the ball was kicked by Peter’.
  • Use `you’ and `we’.
  • Give straightforward instructions, for example `Please reply to this letter’.
  • Be helpful, human and polite.
  • It is okay to use lists, like this one, where appropriate.
The site also provides links to other information guides and tool kits. Many of them are designed to help users implement the New Zealand Disability Strategy. But they also could be useful in other counties, covering these broad topics:
  • Being responsive to disabled people
  • Communications, information and resources
  • Access and mobility around the community.
I provide more information about plain language (aka plain English) at Garbl's Plain English Writing Guide.

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An article on the New Zealand information is featured today, June 8, in my daily online paper, Garbl's Plain English Paragraphs, available at the Plain Language tab above and by free email subscription.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Poll: Which grammar rules would you ban?

After an Oxford University professor questioned the continued use of apostrophes (to much alarm in response), a British newspaper asked readers about other grammar rules they would ban:
[T]he idea got members of the Telegraph Arts and Entertainment desks thinking – what grammatical and spelling pedantries would we like to rid ourselves of?
Below are the newspaper's eight suggestions. You can vote on them and see the latest results at the newspaper's website:
  • Never start a sentence with a conjunction
  • Never split an infinitive
  • Never use "like" as a conjunction
  • Always i before e, except after c
  • Always use "fewer" for plural, and "less" for singular objects
  • Always use apostrophes for plural possessives
  • Always differentiate between "which" and "that"
  • Never use "me" as a subject pronoun.

My comments (from Seattle in the United States) are not likely to sway a British poll, but here are my thoughts on some of the listed rules--and related items in Garbl's Editorial Style and Usage Manual.
First, though, the basic rules for using apostrophes are not that difficult to remember and follow. Here's the entry in my online manual:
apostrophe (') This punctuation mark has two main uses: First, it often shows possession: Dan Lindler's appointment. And second, it often marks the omission of letters in contractions and other words or numbers in years and decades: he'll, won't, finger lickin' good, the class of '68, the '90s.
Apostrophes never make a word plural, but they may be used to mark the plural of single letters and abbreviations with internal punctuation: Dot your i's. She got straights A's on her report card, M.A.'s Ph.D.'s. Don't use it in forming plurals of decades: the '70s, the 1980s, not '70's, the 1980's.

Second, highly respected language authorities, now and in the past, already consider the first two so-called rules to be myths--starting a sentence with a conjunction and splitting infinitives. I list those "rules" and others at Garbl's Myths and Superstitions of Writing

Here are my style manual items on those rules:

and, but Some teachers wisely taught us not to begin every sentence or fragment of a sentence with and (or but). And others taught us mistakenly not to begin any sentence with those conjunctions. Whatever the lesson, the result has been a common misunderstanding that it's incorrect to begin sentences with conjunctions. Ignore that myth!
And and but are simple, clear and correct transition words between related (and) and contrasting (but) sentences. Go ahead and use 'em--And instead of Additionally, Furthermore, In addition or Moreover, and But instead of However. But don't overdo it. They'll lose their punch. A comma is unnecessary following And and But at the beginning of a sentence.
split infinitives Avoid awkward sentence constructions that split the infinitive forms of a verb, such as to leave or to help, as in this sentence: Try to not awkwardly or incorrectly split infinitives. But splitting infinitives is grammatically correct--and even useful if it helps strengthen the meaning of a sentence by placing the modifier before the word it's modifying: He wanted to really impress the council. Unfortunately, split infinitives can distract some readers who think they're incorrect.
I realize the rule about using like as a preposition (and as as a conjunction) is often confused, but it's not a difficult rule to learn and follow. My style manual says:
as, like Often confused when comparing things. Both mean "equally" or "the same as." Use the conjunction as, however, to introduce a clause (a group of words with its own subject and verb), he should in this example: Jennifer saves her computer work as she should. Use like as a preposition to make a direct comparison of nouns or pronouns. It needs an object, an expert in this example: Jennifer saves her computer work like an expert. Memory tip: As is followed by a noun and a verb while like is followed by only a noun.

The "i before e" rule listed in the article is incomplete; the complete rule acknowledges exceptions  ("... Or when sounded as 'a,' As in neighbor and weigh"). Sure, that rule has other exceptions, but as a mnemonic tip, it's a good starting point before checking a dictionary.

The rule for using fewer and less is described incompletely in the article, even inaccurately. Here's a more complete description from my style manual that I think is clear and useful to readers:

fewer, less Fewer (or few) stresses number, and less stresses degree or quantity. Use fewer for plural nouns and individual items that can be counted, less for singular nouns and a bulk, amount, sum, period of time or idea that is measured in other ways: Fewer than 10 applicants called. I had less than $50 in my pocket. Fewer dollars, less money. Less food, fewer calories
Agreed, the rules about using apostrophes for plural possessives are not easy to remember, but that's why having access to a style manual is useful and smart. I think using them correctly aids reader comprehension. Here's an outline of related rules under possessives in my online guide:
  • Use only an apostrophe for singular proper names ending in sDrakes' decision. And add only an apostrophe to plural proper names ending in sthe Parkses' home.
  • Add 's to plural nouns not ending is schildren's passes, men's bike, women's rights, women's room.
  • Add only an apostrophe to plural nouns ending in sthe girls' books, boys' bike, plants' supervisors, families' cars.
  • When a plural noun is possessive but each person "owns" only one item, the item should also be listed in plural form. To confirm correctness, rephrase the possessive relationship as an of phrase: the children's brains or the brains of the childrenthe teachers' hands or the hands of the teachers.
  • When two or more people jointly own an item, put the apostrophe after the noun closest to the item: Gary and Gina's car(they jointly own car), Gary and Gina's cars (they jointly own more than one car). But when two or more people separately own items, put an apostrophe or an 's after each noun: Gary's and Gina's cars.
  • When writing about a family in the plural, add s and then an apostrophe: the Abernathys' Christmas greeting (but Bob Abernathy's Christmas greeting).
  • Add only an apostrophe to nouns plural in form, singular in meaning: mathematics' rules, United States' wealth.
Some writing authorities don't like differentiating that and which, but I agree with those authorities who believe making the distinction can aid readers. And it's usually not difficult to follow the rule. Here's the description in my style manual:
that, which, who, whom That is the defining, or restrictive, pronoun for essential clauses: The camera that is broken is in the shop (tells which one). Which is the nondefining, or nonrestrictive, pronoun for nonessential clauses: The camera, which is broken, is in the shop (adds a fact about the only camera in question).
In the examples above, note the correct use of commas: Which clauses are always set off with commas (or sometimes dashes or parentheses), and that clauses aren't. Essential that clauses cannot be cut without changing the meaning of a sentence. Don't set off an essential clause from the rest of a sentence with commas.
Nonessential which clauses can be dropped without altering the meaning. Set off a nonessential clause with commas.
James J. Kilpatrick, The Writer's Art, 1984: "Rule of thumb: If the qualifying phrase is set off by commas, use which; if not, use that."
In addition, that is the preferred pronoun to introduce clauses that refer to an inanimate object: Greg remodeled the house that burned down Friday. Which is the only acceptable pronoun to introduce a nonessential clause that refers to an inanimate object: The house, which Greg remodeled, burned down Friday.
When an essential or nonessential clause refers to a human being or something with human qualities (such as a family), introduce it with who or whomThat -- but not which -- also may be used to refer to human beings, as well as inanimate objects. Don't use commas if the clause is essential to the meaning. Use them if it is not. 
Theodore M. Bernstein, The Careful Writer, 1977: "Which normally refers to things, who to persons, and that to either persons or things."
Finally, I'm sorry (I guess), but I think using "me" as a subject pronoun makes a speaker sound careless and immodest at best, unsophisticated and illiterate at worst. It's just not that hard to remember and follow the basic rule correctly. I don't think this error comes up much in serious writing. My style manual:
I, me Often confused. the pronoun I (like he, she, we and they) is always the subject of sentences and clauses. And the pronoun me (like him, her, us and them) is always the object of verbs and prepositions. In other words, I is more likely to be at the front of a sentence or clause (typically before the verb). And me is more likely to be at the back of a sentence or clause (typically after the verb): I hugged her. He talked to me. She hugged him. We talked to them. They talked to us.
 Also, please remember these correct uses when the sentence has a conjunction (such as and or or): He talked to Linda and me. Linda and I talked to him. The horse carried Debbie and me. Debbie and I rode the horse. Incorrect: He talked to Linda and I. Linda and me talked to him. The horse carried Debbie and I. Debbie and me rode the horse. To be polite, me or I usually follows the conjunction.
To test for correctness: Remove the other person's name and the conjunction from the sentence, leaving the pronoun; if it sounds incorrect, it probably is. For example, you wouldn't want to be heard saying, "He talked to I" or "Me talked to him" or "Me rode the horse." 
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The article from
The Telegraph is featured today, June 5, in my daily online paper, Garbl's Style: Write Choices, available at the Editorial Style tab above and by free email subscription.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

AP Stylebook marks 60th anniversary with new print edition

If you're in the market for buying an easy-to-use, up-to-date editorial style manual, now would be a good time to check out the new version of the Associated Press Stylebook.

According to an AP news release:
The AP Stylebook is marking its 60th anniversary with the 2013 print edition, which includes more than 90 new or updated entries and broadens the guidelines on social media.
At about 500 pages, the AP Stylebook is widely used in newsrooms, classrooms and corporate offices worldwide.
The style manual includes new and revised entries that I highlight occasionally in this blog. such as the entries on numerals:

The numerals entries have been updated and consolidated for easier understanding and searching. The four-page section adopts numerals as the preferred usage for all distances and dimensions and provides, alphabetically by topic, almost 200 examples of when to use figures and when to spell them out.
Other updated entries include mental illness, illegal immigration and weapons. AP notes:

Among other new and revised entries are: Advent, Alaska Native, Asperger’s syndrome, athletic trainers in Sports Guidelines, disabled/handicapped, doughnut, dumpster, ethnic cleansing, homicide/murder/manslaughter, moped, populist, rack/wrack, red carpet, swag, underway, wacky and wildfires.
I subscribe to the online version of the AP Stylebook. AP gives a discount for the online version to people who buy the print version.

Of course, you can use my online reference for free: Garbl's Editorial Style and Usage Manual. It mostly follows AP preferences but includes my examples and my interpretation of unclear styles and advice from other the Gregg Reference Manual, Chicago Manual of Style, Garner's Modern American Usage, and other references.

New Questions and Answers | Chicago Manual of Style

The Chicago Manual of Style announced June 3 its monthly answers to questions about writing--punctuation, capitalization, word choice, grammar, and so on. I subscribe to monthly email messages about the updates.

Items on the latest updates also appear today, June 4, in my daily online papers, Garbl's Style: Write Choices and Garbl's Plain Enligh Paragraphs. They're available at the Editorial Style and Plain Language tabs above and by free email subscription.


Here are excerpts from the latest questions:
Q. In an article I am editing, the book title Di kupe appears, and in the text the author will use the Yiddish word kupe. I am following CMOS advice to italicize a foreign word if it is not in the dictionary. I am afraid that it might confuse the reader. Should I translate the Yiddish word when it is not used as a title?
Q. Is it correct to have the exclamation point or question mark immediately after the period in each of the following sentences?
Q. In the following sentence, is a comma required before “and her ten-year-old son”? “She is especially distraught when her preteen daughter, Pam, rebels by befriending a navel-pierced neighbor and her ten-year-old son, Joe, betrays her by making contact with the father.”
 Q. A colleague said to me, “She is based out of Chennai.” Is this standard English?
Q. This material was published in the Philippines, but it was accessed in the United States. So we have an access date that is one day before the date of publication. Which option do you like best/dislike least?
Q. It has baffled me for years why the name of The New Yorker is sometimes written the New Yorker, and today I learned it is because the Chicago Manual advises it. I’m not sure why.
Q. When writing out a person’s title that includes a hyphen, when the first letter would be capitalized, should the word following the hyphen also be capitalized (e.g., Co-Founder)?
Q. I have an author who wants to use a quote about the subject of his book by a famous, now deceased news anchor on the cover, but it turns out that the quote is something he heard at a speaking engagement. Do you think it would be OK to use a paraphrase on the book jacket?
Q. In the following sentence, should “instead of” be replaced with “rather than”?
Besides buying a hardback version of the Chicago Manual, you can pay a fee for online access to the manual. My online guide, Garbl's Editorial Style and Usage Manual, is free.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Inverted Pyramid Writing Style | First, tell your readers what you're writing about

Admittedly, I'm biased. But it's a bias I'm proud to announce, promote and follow. It's a bias for a style of writing that can benefit nearly all writing for nearly all readers and organizations.

And that's my bias for the inverted pyramid writing style. 


I first learned about it nearly 50 years ago in my high-school journalism class. I studied it again as a journalism (and political science) major in college. I practiced it as a newspaper reporter and editor for weekly and daily newspapers--and as an editor and public information officer for nonprofit and government agencies. And I taught it as a community college instructor. 

As described in this Blogging 101 article by Brad Zomick:
The Inverted Pyramid style, also known as ‘front-loading,‘ involved including all of the most important details which you hope to introduce over the course of the article in the first paragraph. 
Zomick says the technique is especially important when writing for the Web, "where audiences have low attention spans and readers more often scan, rather than read, entire articles." I agree!

But it's equally as useful, for those reasons and others, in writing business documents, academic papers, brochures, PowerPoint presentations, and other materials. The inverted pyramid technique is also effective in following the principles of plain language to meet the needs of your readers. 

Whatever your publication or whomever your audience, the technique is useful for this reason:
[S]o readers quickly decide whether or not to read the article and if they do decide to pass on it, they get all the key details. 
Zomick goes on to describe the technique in more detail and provides a video and links for more information. And he concludes:
Write Your Conclusion First
It’s that simple! The inverted pyramid style of writing contains all the key details of the article up front. It engages your impatient web readers quickly and reels them into the rest of your article or website for that matter. It also places all the relevant keywords in the top portion of the article so your webpage ranks better in search. Morale of the story: Don’t write for web readers without using the inverted pyramid writing style.
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Zomick's article is featured today, May 21, in my daily online paper, Garbl's Style: Write Choices, available at the Editorial Style tab above and by free email subscription.

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