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Saturday, May 18, 2013

Pausing after making an introduction: good grammar and good etiquette

As in human relationships, we often learn and follow certain rules of writing that aid communication between speakers and listeners, and between writers and readers. Some of those rules are so well-known, useful and expected that it's a mistake to not follow them. Others are considered optional and depend on the circumstances and context.

In writing, the correct and consistent use of punctuation marks can aid clarity and comprehension among readers--enhancing a reader's relationship with the writer. Using those marks is good writing etiquette. Those marks are also like traffic signs for following the rules of the road. When readers see them, they know what to expect in connecting and following the words in a sentence.

For punctuating sentences, commas have a couple of optional rules (as well as some "required" rules). One of those optional rules is, actually, not considered optional by many writers and editors. It's about using the serial, or Oxford,  comma before a conjunction in a series of three or more items. The second sentence in my first paragraph above contains an example of not using it (after useful). But I'm not focusing on that comma here.

Instead, I'm focusing on the comma that may be used after introductory clauses and phrases in a sentence. The first sentence in the first paragraph begins with an example. So do the second and fourth sentences in the second paragraph. The first sentence in the third paragraph also begins with one.

Prompting this blog item is an article in the British newspaper The Guardian. It describes the actions of a 10-year-old student who challenged England's education secretary for inconsistent use of this comma in required school tests, called SATS (for statutory assessment tests).

For one of the tests, students had to insert a correctly spelled word missing from two sentences:

Question 6 read: "If there is not [blank] rainfall this month there will be a drought." Question 16 read: "As he was the [blank] of the tribe the final decision was his."
The student protester, Rebecca Lee, contended that a comma is required after month in Q6 and tribe in Q16. She wrote:
I understand that you are very keen for us all to learn our complex sentences and use of accurate punctuation. I believe that your department should also use the correct punctuation in all the Sats tasks.
But she added:

I would like to hear what you have to say about this and also whether you will perhaps admit that punctuation is often a matter of judgment, with not necessarily a single right answer.
The article continues, quoting various authorities on this question. Rebecca's teacher at the Church of England primary academy in Clifton said:
The whole question with grammar is that it is flexible. But when you have to teach it for a test then you have to teach it as a rule.
A spokesperson for the Standards and Testing Agency, an executive agency of the Department for Education: 
The commas here are a matter of choice: they can be used to mark out clauses that appear at the beginning or the end of a sentence, but they are not necessary. We decided to use commas sometimes and not at others to make the tests more like real life where people will have their own styles.
David Marsh, editor of the Guardian style guide: 
You don't need to insert a comma between clauses, but doing so can make the sentence easier to read ....
Both examples are perfectly grammatical with or without the comma but I would be inclined to use a comma after "tribe" in the second one.
Reading such sentences out loud is a good guide. I pause slightly after "tribe", which suggests that a comma should be inserted. It adds a slight emphasis to the clause that follows. ...
I like Marsh's suggestion about inserting this comma--to prompt a pause in reading. It can aid the reader by clarifying the relationship between the words before the comma and the words after the comma. 

And, getting back to etiquette, inserting that comma is like pausing after introducing two people. It gives them a moment to remember the name or face or other identifying trait of the person they just met 

Despite Marsh's advice for using the comma, he adds that it shouldn't be required. I agree that the comma may not be needed if the introductory clause or phrase is short, but I would emphasize that using it is never wrong.

Here's my related advice in the comma entry of Garbl's Editorial Style and Usage Manual:
[U]se a comma to separate an introductory phrase or clause from the rest of the sentence: After graduating from college, he joined AmeriCorps. It may be omitted after short introductory phrases (less than three words) if no ambiguity would result: On Thursday the Kennewick City Council will decide the issue. When in doubt, use the comma, especially when it separates two capitalized words.
Also, FYI, here's my advice on using the serial comma (I'll add here that using it also is never wrong, unless your boss, professor or editor has a different expectation):
[I]n a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term: She opened the closet, grabbed a coat, and picked up an umbrella. In a complex series of phrases, the serial comma before the final conjunction aids readability. In a simple series, the comma is optional before the conjunction: The van is economical, roomy and dependable. Also, put a comma before the final conjunction in a series if an integral element of the series needs a conjunction: He likes folk, rock, and rhythm and blues. Don't put a comma before the first item in a series or after the and in a series. 
The Guardian article is featured today, May 18, in my daily online paper, Garbl's Style: Write Choices, available at the Editorial Style tab above and by free email subscription.

Friday, May 17, 2013

International conference scheduled to help writers, editors reach their readers

If you would like to improve your writing so your customers, clients, members, employees and other readers will "get it" faster and better, consider attending the 20th anniversary conference of the Plain Language Association InterNationalThe conference is scheduled for Oct. 10-13 in Vancouver, B.C., Canada. 

The conference theme: "Plain Language Advances: New skills, knowledge, research, and best practices." Plain language principles can help you write clearly and concisely. Plain language matches the needs of your readers with your needs as a writer, leading to effective, efficient communication.

The Community Plain Language Services Corp., conference organizer and host,  has been announcing conference topics, sessions and speakers on the conference website. It has confirmed presenters from Spain, Portugal, Brazil, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand,  Belgium, Sweden, Norway, and Britain--as well as Canada and the United States.

Here is some information, so far, about conference presentations:

For more information about plain language and the Plain Language Association InterNational (or PLAIN), visit PLAIN's website. I also describe plain language (aka plain English) at Garbl's Plain English Writing Guide

Articles about the conference are featured today, May 17, in my daily online paper, Garbl's Plain English Paragraphs, available at the Plain Language tab above and by free email subscription.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The backlash over making state laws gender neutral in Washington

Good for Washington state and its state Legislature!

In a guest column in the Seattle Times, state Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles responds to criticism of approved legislation that updates old state laws with gender-neutral language:
The legislation simply reflects society’s steady progression to update outdated or insensitive terms. Words matter, and language that accurately references gender should not be threatening to anyone.
A Democrat, Kohl-Welles explains that the legislation had overwhelming bipartisan support. It passed unanimously in the state Senate and by a 70-22 vote in the state House. She writes:
If anything, the hysterical and misogynistic reactions to my bill suggest the need for intelligent, reasoned discussion that advances mutual respect for gender and common courtesy. ...
I can understand that someone who has gone through life using terms like “policeman” might feel defensive when it’s suggested that such a term is outdated. But I also wonder if society’s gender history were reversed, whether a male firefighter wouldn’t chafe at being called a “firewoman.” Sometimes it’s difficult to understand how others feel unless you take a walk in their shoes.
Kohl-Welles notes that other states are also changing the language of their statutes:
[T]his is not unusual. Florida adopted gender-neutral laws in 1993, North Carolina in 2009. California, New York, Vermont, Maine, Rhode Island and Utah have gender-neutral state constitutions. Legislatures in Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Nevada, Nebraska, New Hampshire and Wyoming are deliberating comparable changes.  
Her column reminded me of my advice under sex, sexism in Garbl's Editorial Style and Usage Manual. Here's an excerpt:
Avoid the outdated use of words that restrict meaning to males. Include all people in general references by substituting unbiased, asexual words and phrases: informal agreement for gentlemen's agreementhomemaker for housewifeemployees and their spouses for employees and their wives. 
Here are other examples: hours worked, staff hours or working hours for man-hours; people, men and women, human beings, the human race, civilization or humanity for mankind; physical strength, resources, human effort, staff, workers or work force for manpower; artificial, synthetic, manufactured or handmade for manmade; and large, big, generous or formidable for man-sized. 
And as I note in the Using suitable words section of Garbl's Plain English Writing Guide:
Use inclusive language
Sexist writing builds a barrier between you and half your readers. Use sex-neutral terms by avoiding words that suggest maleness is the norm, superior or positive and that femaleness is nonstandard, subordinate or negative. 
Kohl-Welles also explains that Washington began using gender-neutral language in new legislation under a 1983 state law. For all laws written before 1983, legislative staff updated the language between legislative sessions, when their workload was less hectic. Doing that was also less time consuming and less costly than updating the statute language piecemeal when new laws modify old laws. 

And she notes:
The new law pertains only to statutes. It does not require anyone to use gender-neutral language in conversation, in the workplace or in other everyday venues. Schools are not required to refer to students as “first-year students” instead of “freshmen.” Individuals are not required to use the term “fisher” instead of “fisherman,” or “handwriting” instead of “penmanship.” The law does not ban the term “man” from the English language.

Apple Corps to Beatlemania: the language of the Beatles

The month I turned 14 years old was the same month The Beatles began their first tour of the United States: January 1964. As a newish teenager, I immediately became a Beatlemaniac ... listening to them on KJR radio in Seattle, watching them on the Ed Sullivan Show, and buying (or getting my parents to buy) their first U.S. albums. 

I also bought Beatles cards (with gum), tacked photos of them to my bedroom walls, began brushing my hair over my forehead (and still do), began playing guitar, and filled a scrapbook of newspaper clippings about them; I still have that scrapbook! My younger brother and I saw them perform in Seattle later that year ... and a couple of years later as well.

I'm still a fan, and my sons (now in their 30s) "inherited" that trait. Though I'm also a fan of other older and newer popular music performers, The Beatles are still in my top 5. I figure they'll rank there until I stop listening to music.

So when I see headlines for new articles about The Beatles, I usually read them. I saw a headline today that intrigued me: Apple Corps to Beatlemania: the language of the Beatles, published by Oxford Dictionaries. Author Colin Thomas writes:

The Beatles are regarded by many – including me – as the greatest band of all time, and few would doubt the significance of their impact on popular music. Their impact on the lexicon is less clear, though, since using the word ‘na’ 217 times in the lyrics of Hey Jude really doesn't count. ...
The Beatles’ contribution to the English language goes further than that, thankfully. ...
Despite all of Thomas' words, though, the article revealed to me that the influence of The Beatles on English was nowhere near their influence on music, fashion and even lifestyles. I was surprised.

Here are the few words discussed in the article that get credit from The Beatles; some are obvious:
  • Beatlesque (“characteristic or reminiscent of The Beatles, their music, or their cultural impact”)
  • Beatlemania (“addiction to the Beatles and their characteristics; the frenzied behaviour of their admirers.”). 
  • Even Beatle itself has an entry (“applied attrib. to the hair-style or other characteristics of ‘The Beatles’ or of their imitators.”) ...
  • grotty, shortened from grotesque ...
  • moptop (“a rather shaggy hairstyle popularized by members of the British band the Beatles; a person with such a hairstyle”) ...
  • mod (“A young person belonging to a subculture preoccupied with smart, stylish dress, characteristically associated with riding motor scooters and listening to soul music. Freq. contrasted with rocker”) ....
As a lover of wordplay--and frequent maker of puns--I appreciated the article's references to puns used by The Beatles:
  • The names of two albums, Revolver ("the vinyl record revolves, geddit?") and Rubber Soul ( "derived from the phrase 'plastic soul' ... the first known use of plastic to mean artificial or superficial is currently dated to only two years earlier in an article by British newspaper The Daily Telegraph ...")
  • The company and record label they launched: Apple Corps.
I wonder if The Beatles' use of language--and least their use of wordplay--influenced my eventual interest in writing and punning. I know I was a fan of John Lennon's books, also filled with wordplay ... and mentioned in this article. 

The Thomas article is featured today, May 15, in my daily online paper, Garbl's Style: Write Choices, available at the Editorial Style tab above and by free email subscription.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Hopefully, You Will Get Smarter ... And Shall Laugh About It

Ah ... humor. I enjoy it. I like hearing good jokes and funny stories. I even tell them sometimes (mostly involving wordplay ... puns!)

But humor doesn't always work, depending on the context, the audience, and other factors. As I've learned after making a pun, that attempt at humor can sometimes distract listeners from the main message or weaken the message, perhaps even the credibility of the speaker.

For me, my wordplay usually happens when I'm talking, not often when I'm writing. If I make a pun while writing, it's usually for a headline--as a way to attract attention to an article. For better or worse, I don't write much funny stuff for this blog.

I'm writing briefly about humor here because I read a blog article today--by  Patrick Lockerby in Science 2.0--that I enjoyed because of its humor. But I also thought Lockerby got so involved in trying to be funny that his main message--the point of his article--was weakened. I could see some readers giving up on the blog article because it was taking too long for them to get the writer's point.

(I should admit that my discussion of humor here also delays my comments on Lockerby's main point. I also should point out that I don't regularly read his blog, called The Chatter Box. Perhaps regular readers would expect and appreciate his humor.)

Anyway, to get to the point of that blog item, Lockerby was commenting on the use of hopefully and shall, will. I think I liked what he wrote about using hopefully at the start of a sentence. But I disagree with his comments on using shall and will interchangeably.

I hope you'll enjoy Lockerby's way of describing those words, from his point of view. But for a more straightforward approach, here's how I describe using those words in Garbl's Editorial Style and Usage Manual:
hopefully Ignore the rapidly dwindling number of style gurus who think it is incorrect to modify the meaning of an entire sentence by beginning it with the adverb hopefully. As other style experts note, adverbs such as apparently, fortunately and obviously are already used correctly to modify entire sentences. And hopefully can be used that way too! Thus, go ahead and use hopefully to mean "it is hoped, let us hope, we hope" or "I hope" when describing feelings toward the entire sentence: Hopefully, the war will end quickly with few civilian casualties.
Hopefully may also be used to mean "hopeful or with hope or in a hopeful manner" when describing how the subject of a sentence feels: Hopefully, the dog sat by the dinner table. (The dog is hopeful.) Hopefully, Carlos emailed his request for a vacation. (Carlos is hopeful.)
shall Avoid this formal, ambiguous, pretentious word:
  • Try dropping use of any pronoun.
  • Use is when something is fact: The senior editor is [not shall beresponsible for reviewing all documents for clarity and consistency.
  • Use may instead to give permission: Members may borrow up to three CDs a month.
  • Use must instead to express legal obligation: Tenants must pay rent by the 15th of each month.
  • Use have to, must, need to or required instead to express other requirements: Each student is required to take the exam.
  • Use should when recommending a course of action: We should move ahead with the project by Friday.
  • Use will instead to express what someone plans to do or expects: I will be there. We will meet. You will like it. She will not be pleased.
The shall entry also includes style manual links to other uses of the alternative words mentioned above: See can, maymay, mightshould, wouldwill, would.

Lockerby's article is featured today, May 13, 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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