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Saturday, May 4, 2013

20 Basic Writing 'Rules' for Business Owners | On correct word usage

I came across an article in Small Business Trends that provides useful but brief advice on the correct use of selected similar words. The article calls them "grammar rules" for preventing "grammatical errors." But the article is really about correct word usage. 

if you're looking for true grammar advice--on the proper use of nouns, pronouns, the other parts of speech, and sentence structure--you won't find it in this article. My online editorial style manual provides some grammar  advice, though its editorial style preferences (for capitalization, numbers and so on) also aren't grammar "rules."

Anyway, here's additional advice, in alphabetical order, from Garbl's Editorial Style and Usage Manual on the terms discussed in this article:

affect, effect Often misused, confused or overused. Usually used as a verb, affect means "to influence, to have an effect on, to change": The pesticide will affect the stream. The new feature should affect sales. Better yet, use a verb that's describes the effect more precisely, like pollute the stream or stimulate sales. Avoid using affect as a noun that sometimes means "emotion" to psychologists. Effect is usually a noun, meaning "result," "reaction" or "consequence": The effect of the project was disappointing.Avoid using effect formally as a verb, meaning "to cause, to bring about, to produce": She will effect many changes in the group.Instead, use simpler, less formal bring about or cause.

bring, take Often confused. Their meaning is similar, but their points of view are different. Bring suggests motion toward the speaker or writer: We bring in the mail. If something is coming to your home or office or city, someone is bringing it. Take suggests motion away from the speaker or writer: We take out the recycling. If something is leaving your home or office or city, someone is taking it. Usually, the distinction is easy to make. But it might be best just to say what feels natural to you if you are offering dessert for a potluck dinner: You'll be bringing it to the potluck (its destination), but you'll be taking it with you from home (its origin). Either way, it'll probably be delicious!

capital, capitol Often confused or misspelled. Capital is a city, the seat of government. Do not capitalize: Salem is the capital of OregonCapital city is redundant. Capital also refers to money. Capitol is the building in which the U.S. Congress or the state Legislature meets. Capitalize U.S. Capitol and the Capitol when writing about the building in Washington, D.C., and do the same when writing about state capitols: The California Capitol is in SacramentoCapitol building is redundant.

complement, compliment Often misused or confused. Complement is a noun or verb for "something that fills up or completes": The company has a complement of 250 drivers, 75 mechanics and 10 office workers. The two ideas complement each other well. A hat may complement a suit, but you would compliment the wearer on her or his hat. A related term: full complement.

Compliment is a noun or verb for "praise or a flattering remark" and "something free": The supervisor complimented the staff for a job well done. The supervisor's compliment boosted morale.

continual, continuous Often misused or confused. Continual means "repeatedly, often recurring or intermittent, with breaks in between": She has to repair the car continually. Periodically or intermittently are useful, clear synonyms for continually to describe something that starts and stops. Continuous means "uninterrupted, in an unbroken stream": Sales have been growing continuously for the past five years.

either ... or, neither ... nor The nouns that follow those words don't make a compound subject. They are alternative subjects and need a verb that agrees with the nearer subject; a singular verb if the nearer subject is singular and a plural verb if the nearer subject is plural: Neither his sisters nor he is going. Either he or they are going.

elicit, illicit Sometimes confused. Elicit is a verb meaning "to reveal information or provoke a reaction, draw out." Illicit is an adjective for describing something that's unlawful, forbidden or improper.

enormity, enormousness Sometimes confused as synonyms. Use enormity to label a wicked, monstrous or outrageous act or crime. Use enormousness to label something that exceeds what's normal or usual in size, amount or degree.

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.

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." 

its, it's Often confused or misspelled. Its is the possessive form of the pronoun it, meaning "belonging to it." The possessive its never takes an apostrophe: Mary had a little lamb; its fleece was white as snow. It's is a contraction that means "it is" and sometimes "it has." The contraction always takes an apostrophe: It's a beautiful day. It's gotten out of hand. If you often mix up these words, consider using only it is or it has and its; drop it's. Finally, use its' only when you're trying to show poor spelling skills or confuse your readers. It's not a word, and no one will know its meaning.

literally Overused and misused. It means "actually or in fact," not "figuratively." No politician, rock band or cult, for example, can literally sweep the Earth. In other words, use literally only when describing reality, or consider dropping the word.

principle, principal Commonly confused. Principal is a noun and adjective meaning someone or something first in rank, authority, importance or degree: She was the principal player on the team. Money is the principal problem. Think about using simpler adjectives main or chiefPrincipal is also the amount of debt, investment, stock or bond.

Principle is a noun that means a basic truth, belief, understanding, law, doctrine or motivating force: They fought for the principle of free speech.

than, then Often confused or misspelled. Use than when you're comparing things: No one is more aware of local driving behaviors than bus drivers. Use the adverb then when you're writing about time -- if one thing follows or results from another, suggesting a logical conclusion, or meaning "soon afterward": If this, then that. First they toured the vehicle maintenance shop; then they visited the sign shop.

their, there, they're Commonly confused, misspelled or mistyped. And computer spellcheckers won't catch the mistaken substitution of one of these homonyms for the other--nor for there's and the plural possessive theirsTheir is the possessive form of the pronoun they, meaning "belonging to them." Don't misspell it as thierThey're is a contraction of they are. (And there's is a contraction of there is.) There (like here) refers to place. But see below for more on there.

to, too, two Computer spellcheckers won't note the mistaken substitution of one of these homonyms for the other.
too When using too to mean "also," no comma is necessary before too at the end of a clause or sentence: She finished her first task and her second task too. But set off too with commas elsewhere in a sentence: He, too, finished both tasks.

ultimate, ultimately Overstated. Simplify. Try most, final, last, best, crowning, perfect, supreme or eventual for ultimate and at last, in the end, finally, lastly or eventually for ultimately.

who, whom [I should note that some writing authorities suggest or contend that whom is a dead word because it's so poorly understood and used. While I agree, I provide this advice anyway for people who want or need to know.] 

Often confused. Who does something, and whom has something done to it. Use whom when someone is the object of verb or preposition: The man to whom the car was rented did not fill the gas tank. Whom do you wish to see?

A preposition (such as to, at, by, for, from, in, toward, upon and with) often comes just before whomWho does something to whomWho is the word in all other uses, especially when someone takes an action as the subject of a sentence, clause or phrase:The man who rented the car did not fill the gas tank. Who is still here?

To test for correctness: Who equals he, she or they while whom equals him, her or them. Replace who or whom in the sentence with one of those pronouns. If it sounds wrong, it probably is.

who's, whose Who's is a contraction for who is or who has, not a possessive: Who's using the cellular phone? Who's been eating my radishes? For the possessive, use whoseI do not know whose galoshes these are. Whose may refer to things as well as people: The shopping mall, whose customers come from miles around, began charging for parking.

your, you're Often confused or misspelled. And computer spellcheckers won't catch the mistaken substitution of one of these homonyms for the other. Your is the possessive form of the pronoun you, meaning "belonging to you," while you're is a contraction of "you are."

The Business Executive article is featured today, May 4, in my daily online paper, Garbl's Style: Write Choices, available at the Editorial Style tab above and by free email subscription.

Good news about a simplified, shortened U.S. government form

The U.S. Health and Human Services Department announced some good news this past week--good news about the value of clear, concise writing and design--in the creation of a government form for use by citizens. 

The announcement is also good news about responsible efforts to aid implementation of the U.S. Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. 

As summarized in this article from Government Executive:
The Health and Human Services Department team implementing the Affordable Care Act on Tuesday unveiled a shortened and simplified application form to enter state health insurance exchanges established by the law. ...
Other comments on the new form:

Marilyn Tavenner, acting administrator of HHS’s Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services:

Consumers will have a simple, easy-to-understand way to apply for health coverage later this year. The application for individuals is now three pages, making it easier to use and significantly shorter than industry standards. This is another step complete as we get ready for a consumer-friendly marketplace that will be open for business later this year.
Health-care activist Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA:
With tens of millions of uninsured people eligible for new help in securing affordable health coverage – either through substantial premium tax credits that will make private health insurance much more affordable or through the expansion of Medicaid – it is crucial that the enrollment process is as simple and consumer-friendly as possible. The new, improved forms are a huge step in that direction.
The article also reports on related comments by President Obama and some Republican critics of the Affordable Care Act.

I figure developers of the new form are members of the U.S. Plain Language Action and Information Networka government-wide group of federal employees working to improve communications from the government to the public. The group's website provides Federal Plain Language Guidelines for use by employees, but the advice is also helpful for other people who want to improve their writing and editing.

You can get more information on plain language at my website, Garbl's Plain English Writing GuideCheck out its pages  to learn how to improve your writing skills by using plain English techniques:
  • 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.
The article is featured today, May 4, in my daily online paper, Garbl's Plain English Paragraphs, available at the Plain Language tab above and by free email subscription.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Editing Tool Cleaning Up Legalese in Seattle | And Another Tool for Cleaning Documents

I retired a couple of years from the King County government serving the greater Seattle area--after more than 30 years of working as an editor and public information officer. During my time there, I became increasingly emphatic about the need to write and edit public documents in clear, concise, plain language. If we want people to read, use and benefit from our materials, we must make sure our documents are understandable.

And now I read about a new software product that's helping the city government of Seattle produce official documents that aren't filled with bureaucratic terminology and legal jargon. As described in this article:

Called WordRake, the technology is a plug-in for Microsoft Word. Once activated, the program “rakes” a document, highlighting unnecessary words and phrases for the writer to eliminate. Seattle’s purchasing department, transportation department, Mayor’s office and City Attorney’s office started using the program earlier this year.
Says Nancy Locke, director of purchasing for Seattle:
It takes the bureaucracy out of our writing. As soon as I tried it myself, I wanted my staff to have this capability on their desktops. The program has helped them communicate better to our public and any tool that can do that is very valuable.
According to the WorkRake website, subscriptions to the online software begin at $89 a year, and there are two-year, three-year and quantity pricing. I'm going to test it on a free three-day trial, though I doubt I'll subscribe.

WorkRake is not for everyone, whether they work in government or somewhere else. The WordRake website says it's "The first editing software for lawyers."

I'm also familiar with a British-based software product, called StyleWriter, that can be used by writers and editors in all fields--including law offices and government agencies. I use it and recommend it highly.  (In the interest of full disclosure, I used to make commissions from selling it at Garbl's Writing Center, but I don't now have a direct link to its online sales tool).

According to its website in the United States:
StyleWriter searches for thousands of writing faults, including complex words, jargon and abstract words, wordy phrases, hidden verbs, passive verbs, clich├ęs and long sentences. It then pops up advice showing you how to edit each sentence. ...
Websites for both these products make clear that users cannot just launch the software and let it do all the thinking, artificially. Humans must be involved -and should be involved--in making choices from those offered by the software. That human involvement is as essential with these products as it is when people use the spelling and grammar checkers built into Microsoft Word.

To aid that thinking, whether you have these products or not, I offer free, handy advice on clear, concise writing at a couple of websites:
The WordRake article is featured today, May 3, in my daily online paper, Garbl's Plain English Paragraphs, available at the Plain Language tab above and by free email subscription.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Damn Google Blogger crashes ... and moving on, lesson relearned

Twice in the past two days, as I've been in the midst of writing a blog item-- and happy with what I had written so far, my Google Blogger page has crashed. Actually, it sends me to a "Snap" page that advises me to respond by refreshing my browser screen. 

The first time, without thinking, I did refresh and immediately lost all my work. The second time, instead, I followed some Google links about preventing the problem from happening. I tried a couple of them (and have some hope they'll work), but I also figured I had lost my second draft post. Yup.

So I've relearned that long-time lesson about saving documents while writing them. It's just that for more than a year I've been drafting and posting in Blogger (and sometimes saving my work) without ever having this problem. Still, as the finger-waggers will say ...

Unfortunately, I didn't have the energy, time or desire to recreate my lost post after the first Blogger crash. And I didn't have any of it after the second one. So I'll move on ... saving my work more often in the future.


Monday, April 29, 2013

Kaplan International Study: Grammar and Spelling Not Affected by Text Speak Claim English Learners

A new study by Kaplan International Colleges has found that 63% of English learners believe that using text speak does not have a negative impact on their spelling or grammar.
No comment, for now. I'm still thinking about the findings reported in this article from PRWeb and what they mean to education, language, and communication among diverse people across boundaries of age, communities, nations, work, and culture.

I know people who teach English to international students at Kaplan, but I haven't heard from them yet about this study. I wonder what they and their students think about it.

If blog readers would like to comment, please do!

This article is featured today, April 29, in my daily online paper, Garbl's Style: Write Choices, available at the Editorial Style tab above and by free email subscription.

The Climate It Is A-Changin' aka A Change is Gonna Come

With my headline on this blog, I do not mean to belittle or minimize the reality of climate change on our planet. I believe it is happening; humans must take some, even much, blame for causing it; and humans must work together now to slow it down, if not prevent it. 

But I used that headline to grab attention, to put the fact of climate change into simpler, familiar words--words from a couple of my favorite songs.

What prompted me to do that is a website I came across today that uses "plain language" in this heading:

Climate Diplomacy in plain language – glossary of key UN terms and their secret meaning | The Adopt a Negotiator Project.
As I note often in my blog, I advocate for using plain language in all types of documents for all types of purposes, for all types of audiences. So I appreciate the intent of this Web page. It begins:
This little glossary provides a short and critical guide to the main terms used in the context of the negotiations towards a climate agreement in 2015. Its main objective is not only to help the user navigate the climate discussions but also to read between the lines of country positions and understand the intent of negotiators invoking the terms including below.
Not being familiar with most of the terms in that glossary, I think it helps. But wow, I keep thinking: Since the climate-change action negotiators from various country governments are using that language among themselves, how much do they understand climate change? How much do they accept the reality of climate change? How effective are they, really, in coming up with real-life, human, international actions to deal with it?

In asking those questions, I don't mean to imply that all the negotiators are insincere or ignorant in their discussions. (On the other hand, I believe there's a range of knowledge and sincerity among them that probably hinders discussion and agreement on real action.)

But I know from my 30 years of work in local government (and my earlier work in journalism, education, and nonprofit communications) that well-meaning people (and not-so-well-meaning people) get caught up in the jargon of their fields and interests. Talking among themselves, people use the common language of their workplace--be it government, the law, medicine, or something else--and can lose sight of the people who are likely affected by their work.

So I value the efforts of independent, volunteer activists and advocates outside the confines of those fields to communicate what's going on within those fields. (As a retired government communicator, of course, I also value the staff and consultants within those fields who try to get the word out in clear, concise and familiar language.)

And I value the efforts of the The Adopt a Negotiator Project and other organizations like it. Its website identifier says, in all-capital letters:

Tracking international efforts to deal with climate change.
Its About page says, in clear, human terms:
Climate change is the defining issue of our generation. How we confront it is literally shaping the world we grow up in. It’s shaping our challenges and our opportunities, from the cost of food to whether there’s any food to put on the table; from how we get energy to power our phones to how we get energy to power our classrooms and lift our communities. It touches almost every aspect of our lives.
Our leaders have worked on climate change for decades, negotiating amongst themselves and on our behalf how to deal or not deal with our changing world.
So why do we leave the most important decisions in the world to a few hundred people? Why doesn't everyone know about it? Why aren't we all having our say? And what can we do about it? These are the questions we asked ourselves.
And we came up with an answer: Adopt a Negotiator. We thought it was time to let our leaders know we are here and we are watching them and we are going to take our future into our own hands.
For more information on plain language, visit Garbl's Plain English Writing Guide. The Climate Diplomacy article is featured today, April 29, in my daily online paper, Garbl's Plain English Paragraphs, available at the Plain Language tab above and by free email subscription.

Whither Moral Courage? | Salman Rushdie, New York Times

Rushdie's words speak for themselves, as he makes this point, followed by many examples: 
We have become suspicious of those who take a stand against the abuses of power or dogma.
Rushdie begins his opinion piece in the New York Times:
WE find it easier, in these confused times, to admire physical bravery than moral courage — the courage of the life of the mind, or of public figures. ...
Perhaps we have seen too much, grown too cynical about the inevitable compromises of power. ... We no longer easily agree on what it means to be good, or principled, or brave.  
And he concludes:
It’s a vexing time for those of us who believe in the right of artists, intellectuals and ordinary, affronted citizens to push boundaries and take risks and so, at times, to change the way we see the world. There’s nothing to be done but to go on restating the importance of this kind of courage, and to try to make sure that these oppressed individuals — Ai Weiwei, the members of Pussy Riot, Hamza Kashgari — are seen for what they are: men and women standing on the front line of liberty. How to do this? Sign the petitions against their treatment, join the protests. Speak up. Every little bit counts.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

When Should Lawyers Use Big Words? | And How Should Writers Use Big Words?

As an advocate for the use of clear, concise plain language by writers in every profession, including the law, I was intrigued when I saw the headline above about lawyers. It was on an article in The Jury Expert by Adam Alter, an assistant professor of marketing and psychology at New York University.

[Don't get sidetracked by the italicized Editor's Note at the beginning of Alter's article. Read it later.]

Alter first explains what he means by the "big words" of legal discourse, or "legalese." He writes:
People esteem lawyers for their intellects and the lawyer’s unique command of legalese and its vocabulary can perpetuate that image. But there’s no inherent reason why lawyers absolutely must use bigger words when smaller ones will do.
When I'm writing, editing, and advising people about writing, I try to follow that important plain-language guideline: Don't use bigger words when smaller ones will do. But plain language has two related, significant principles (and others) that apply here. 

First, writers must be clear about the purpose(s) of their documents--not just for writing and publishing them but also for other people to read them. And writers must be clear, in their own minds at least, about the people they want to reach and influence with their document. In other words, their documents must meet the needs of both the writer and the reader.

So: The writer must consider those purposes and needs when choosing words for a document, be they small, familiar words or big, complex words.

Referring to cited research findings that conflict with other cited research findings, Alter explains that "humans are mentally quite lazy" and don't want "to expend extra mental effort" to read something. He writes: 
If, on the other hand, the information is innately complex, that extra effort is justified[,] and oversimplification might even suggest [to the reader] that the communicator is missing some of the nuances.
Further, Alter notes research that suggests there are times when it may be appropriate "to inject artificial bursts of complexity into a statement":
Longer words slow people down and force them to think just slightly harder than they had to think beforehand. They may not enjoy the experience ... but their mental systems kick into gear, processing what comes next with a greater degree of care and effort.
Referring to complex words as cues that tell readers to pay more attention, Alter writes:
The answer to the question I posed earlier is that you should use long words when they're appropriate. Don't avoid them altogether just because they'll make you look stodgy—but never use a long word when a shorter word will do (this is the same advice that grammarians have been giving for years).
As I interpret Alter's advice using plain-language principles, it's OK for an attorney or other writer to choose some big or precise words if there's a clear purpose in using them that benefits both the writer and the reader. Alter concludes:
More surprising, perhaps, is the importance of peppering simpler words with complex words at critical junctures: before a key argument, or before a message that you want the jury (or other listeners) to process more carefully. In that case, the benefit of encouraging people to pay closer attention outweighs the cost of forcing them to think harder in the first place.
I'll conclude by stressing it's the responsibility of the writer, speaker or editor to help the reader or listener through that thinking process. That's possible by providing a clarifying context when using complex words (through anecdotes and metaphors, for example), by including nearby definitions of the complex words, or by enabling easy reader access to a glossary or linked reference with an explanation. 

Here are a couple of my resources on this topic:

Alter's column is featured today, April 28, in my daily online paper, Garbl's Plain English Paragraphs, available at the Plain Language tab above and by free email subscription.

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