When Being Inexact Is Perfectly Correct

Two years ago, the New York Times reported that on his 1996 income-tax returns, Donald Trump declared a $916 million loss.

When discussing this fact, most of us round “$916 million” up to “$1 billion.”

That’s both appropriate and advisable. In short, “one billion” is more memorable than “916 million.” Indeed, “a billion bucks” is not only easier to recall; it’s also easier to articulate.

Note: You could also round down, to $900 million. But most people, as a matter of tradition, tend to round up.

Postscript: One of my students points out an important nuance: While the headline should cite “$1B,” the article itself should use the actual number.

metonym. synonym

Earlier this month, I emailed Merriam-Webster the following question. Associate Editor, Neil Serven, replied as follows.

Q: Can you help me understand the difference between these two words?

A: A metonym is a figure of speech in which something is referred to by another thing with which it is closely associated. A common example is the use of City Hall to refer to the government of a city (as in “you can’t fight City Hall”), when literally it refers to the building that houses a city’s government offices.

Typically, synonym refers to a word that can stand in for another word and retain the same meaning, such as lukewarm for tepid, or avarice for greed, or java for coffee.

In extended use, however, synonym is something used when metonym is meant, as when one says, “Peoria has become a synonym for Middle America.”

A Better Way to Write a Long List

Two years ago, the following sentence appeared in the New York Times (the context is irrelevant to my point):

“Among those he identified were Mr. Christie’s chief counsel, his chief of staff and his press secretary, as well as a confidant he had picked as Port Authority chairman, his campaign manager and his political strategist.”

Most people wouldn’t give this sentence a second thought. And that’s as it should be. But to wordsmiths like me, what’s interesting is the way this sentence isn’t written:

“Among those he identified were Mr. Christie’s chief counsel, his chief of staff, his press secretary, a confidant he had picked as Port Authority chairman, his campaign manager and his political strategist.”

The second example is how most of us would write a list: By citing everything in a single clause.

Yet the “as well as” transition in the first example doesn’t feel forced at all. To the contrary, it flows naturally.

I suspect the reasoning for this unorthodox construction is that rattling off six things in a row inclines the reader’s eyes to glaze over, whereas citing three things, followed by three things, is easier to digest.

Coincidentally, around the same time as the article in the Times, an article in Time pulled off the same trick. Here’s the sentence:

“There will be a Madam President, after so many female governors and Senators and Prime Ministers, so many female entrepreneurs and CEOs, so many female judges and chancellors.”

Here, I suspect the reason for the odd listing is lyrical: The pairing off by two sounds so much better than one big mouthful: “Female governors, Senators, Prime Ministers, entrepreneurs, CEOs, judges and chancellors.”

How to Break Up a Long List Within a Single Sentence

Here are two sentences from my bio (which I’m in the process of rewriting):

1. He’s spoken before clients such as Nascar, Axa, Visa, the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Defense, Booz Allen Hamilton, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

2. His work has appeared in top-tier publications such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, TimeFast Company, Forbes, and Mashable.

The problem? These lists are seven items long, which is a mouthful when read aloud (or even just read on a screen; our eyes glaze over them — even mine).

Ideally, I’d turn these eye sores into bullet points. After all, this is what I teach my students.

And yet, I fear that bullets in the middle of a short bio would be awkward.

Is there another solution? Why, yes, there is! To break up each list into two smaller sets; to create clusters. Here’s what I came up with:

1. He’s spoken before clients such as Nascar, Visa, Booz Allen Hamilton, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, as well as federal agencies like the Food and Drug Administration and the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security.

2. His work has appeared in top-tier publications such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, along with business-oriented outlets like Fast Company, Forbes, and Mashable.

As you can see, I used the phrases “as well as” and “along with” to create demarcations and thus pauses. As a result, the revised sentences are far more readable than the original ones.

Why I Discourage My Students From Using the Phrase, “I Feel”

Here’s an email I just sent to my students.

My objection derives from what I perceive among students as an unnecessary lack of confidence. When someone begins an answer by saying, “I just feel that,” what I hear is, “I’m hedging because I’m afraid I’m wrong.”

(The same is true for expressions such as “I’m not sure but,” or “This may not be right, but.”)

To be sure, doubt is sometimes fully appropriate. And constant certitude can be conceited. Yet more often than not, in my view, such trepidation is unwarranted.

As I said in our first class, I believe that you each are smarter than you give yourself credit for. So when I hear hesitant, noncommittal language, it pains me.

When you speak or write, I’d encourage you to have the courage of your convictions.

Postscript (10/6/2018):

I just came across these wise words from career coach Zeta Yarwood:

“Confident people aren’t confident because they know everything. Their confidence comes from knowing that, even though they don’t know everything, they know enough.”

Does Punctuation Matter? Just Ask These Women

A professor wrote on the blackboard, “Woman without her man is nothing.” The students were then instructed to punctuate the sentence.

The male students wrote, “Woman, without her man, is nothing.”

The female students wrote, “Woman! Without her, man is nothing.”

Practicing What I Preach

Here’s a sentence I can’t believe I wrote this morning:

“The mindset of privileging the institution over the individual exemplifies an insidious form of insecurity.”

In rereading this, I immediately recognized how stilted it was, and so rewrote it as follows:

“When you value the institution over the individual, you betray your insecurity.”

The lesson? Write the way you speak, and embrace personal pronouns.

When Elegant Variation Makes Sense

A client recently asked me to edit a document about sales figures. One of the first things that stood out was the repeated use of the words “increase” and “decrease.”

What a letdown, especially with a subject like numbers, where the writing can quickly get repetitive. One of the great virtues of English is that it’s brimming with synonyms.

To be sure, you don’t want to succumb to what Fowler called “elegant variation” — unnecessarily swapping out a perfectly good word (like “said”) for another (“uttered”) solely to avoid repetition. But you do want to take advantage of the different meanings between, say, “decrease” and “plunge,” between “increase” and “skyrocket.”

Here’s a quick list of alternatives:

Decrease
call
crater
drop
plunge
slip
tumble

Increase
balloon
grow
jump
rise
shoot up
soar
spike

Only in Fantasy Football Will You Find These Names

1. Hugh G. Rection

2. Mike Hunt

3. Buster Hymen

4. Justin Casey Feltersnatch

5. Suq Maddiq

6. Anita Cock

7. Craven Morehead

8. Heywood Jablowme

9. Amanda Hugginkiss

Great Writers ​Replace ​C​lichés With ​Puns

Here’s an email I just sent to my business-writing students:

​Great writers subtly violate their reader’s expectations in order to surprise, to delight, or to emphasize a point.

For example, instead of relying on a cliché, great writers create a pun. (As wordsmith par excellence William Safire memorably put it, “Avoid clichés like the plague; seek viable alternatives.”)

You may remember the example I used in class: Instead of saying, “Go big, or go home,” try saying something like, “Go big, then go home.”

This is punning 1.0. But if you want to get fancy, here’s how to create a 2.0 pun:

I’m sure you’ve heard the expression, “Don’t bring a knife to a gun fight.” It means, If you’re preparing to do battle, then suit up appropriately.

To avoid this cliché, most writers might change “knife” or “gun” to something even more dramatic — say, “pillow” or “grenade.” That’s good, but not great. Great writers would go one step further.

For example, here’s a sentence I just read by Eric Levitz (note: the subject of the sentence, Michael Avenatti, is a pugilist who would explode the Queensbury Rules practiced by today’s congressional Democrats):

“Avenatti is bringing a knife to a policy fight.”

The pun is subtle yet sophisticated. It changes the original in a way you don’t anticipate, but which you appreciate. And that’s the stuff of which great writing is made.

When Is It Ok to Change the Punctuation or Spelling in a Company’s Name?

My colleague Paul and I had a fun debate today. Here’s a recap:

Organizations like Debevoise & Plimpton, Ben & Jerry’s, and Barnes & Noble all spell their names with an ampersand (“&”). (For official confirmation, I checked their SEC filings.)

I always change the “&” to “and”; Paul declines the edit. Respect the company’s choice, he says.

Am I distorting these companies’ choices, their legal names, in some cases their trademarks? Well, yes!

But I do it for the sake of standardization. For the same reason, back when “Yahoo” was spelled “Yahoo!” and “Recode,” “Re/code,” I removed the “!” and “/.”

And yet, as much as it pains me, I wouldn’t correct “Chick-fil-A” to “Chick Fillet,” or “Dunkin’ Donuts” to “Dunkin’ Doughnuts.” Isn’t this a glaring inconsistency?

No. To me, “&” and “!” are mere punctuation marks, which editors rightly change to fit their house style. Ditto for “centre” to “center” or “behaviour” to “behavior.” By contrast, changing the actual spelling of a name is a bridge too far.

For example, tweaking “Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services” to “Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services” is a matter of style. But tweaking “Publix” to “Public” is a matter of substance.

(For a fascinating backgrounder on this subject, check out this article in Slate by Matthew J.X. Malady.)

Postscript (9/15/2018):

Somehow, I overlooked another punctuation mark: The missing comma. For example, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid is a title of a book by Jimmy Carter. “Bed Bath & Beyond” is the name of a retailer.

I cringe when writing these appellations because they’re so obviously missing a comma.

The question: Should we correct them (to Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid and “Bed, Bath & Beyond”)?

Postscript (9/18/2018):

Sadly — or perhaps unsurprisingly — Paul, John, and I are still discussing this. Thanks to Paul for getting to the heart of the matter:

“There’s little agreement on which attributes qualify as intrinsic:

“1. Is the use of an ampersand in place of “and” an intrinsic part of an organization’s name?

“2. Is an apostrophe’s misuse (“Lands’ End”), absence (“Joes Diner”), or spurious use (imagine a “Linens’ and Things”) an intrinsic part of a company’s name?

“3. Is a nonstandard use of uppercase or lowercase an intrinsic part of a company’s name?

All good questions.

Is It “The DoD,” or Just “DoD”?

A colleague who works at the FDA would edit that sentence to read, “A colleague who works at FDA.”

I disagree. If you spell out “FDA,” which phrase sounds better?

1. “Works at the Food and Drug Administration.”

2. “Works at Food and Drug Administration.”

It’s not even close. #2 sounds awkward, whereas #1 sounds natural.

And yet, a different colleague tells me this issue isn’t that simple. According to Paul, using or not using the definite article (“the”) isn’t a hard-and-fast rule you can apply across the board. His advice: Use “the” before an initialism (e.g., the DoD, the NSA), but drop the “the” before an acronym (e.g., NASA, NIST).

On its face, this guideline seems reasonable. Yet the more I ponder it, the more I remain unsatisfied. In my view, the distinction isn’t between abbreviations and initialisms; it’s a matter of plain English. Just spell-out the sentence, as we did earlier with the FDA, and the answer will emerge clearly.

That’s because the absence of “the” (“works at Food and Drug Administration”) is distracting. It makes the listener pause because it makes the speaker sound like he’s still learning English.

If only the debate ended here.

But Paul then turned to another expert, John, who pointed to a different trick: Use “the” when you pronounce the letters (e.g., the FBI, pronounced “eff bee igh”; or the FDA, pronounced “eff dee ay”), but drop the “the” when you pronounce the abbreviation (e.g., NASA, pronounced “na suh”; NIST).

Got that? Letters vs. abbreviations.

John concluded by referencing a quintessential quirk of the English language:

“There may be some exceptions to this rule. For example, no one would say, ‘He went to the MIT.’”

Don’t you just love language?

How to Use a Colon the Right Way

When you use a colon to introduce a list, make sure to write a complete thought first. Your lead-in should be a complete thought.

So:

Wrong
Next year, we must increase crease our marketing in: the West, the Pacific Northwest, and the Southern regions.

Right
Next year, we must increase our marketing in three regions: the West, the Pacific Northwest, and the South.

Notice how the complete sentence does a much better job of helping the reader anticipate how the expression will end.

—Richard Lauchman, Punctuation at Work: Simple Principles for Achieving Clarity and Good Style

insist. insists

Wrong
I’m one of those people who insists on correctness.

Right
I’m one of those people who insist on correctness.

Why You Should Use a Hyphen: “The Millisecond of Ambiguity”

Wise counsel from Bill Walsh, author of Yes, I Could Care Less: How to be a Language Snob Without Being a Jerk:

To me, hyphens are to writing what turn signals are to driving: helpful, unobtrusive and far too often considered optional. Many in the odd-editor community disagree. Taking to heart the rationale that hyphens are used to avoid ambiguity, they are forever searching for reasons to declare certain modifiers or sorts of modifiers unambiguous and thus exempt from hyphenation.

So you have to ask yourself: What do you do when confronted with something like Doctor helps car crash victims?

Do you hyphenate all instances for consistency in this story but approach other stories case by case? Or do you just recognize that it’s a good idea to hyphenate compound modifiers and avoid all that torture?

More alarming to me was Time’s cover story about “The Only Child Myth.” What the editors meant, of course, was the only-child myth. I fear that someone on the “creative” side thought a hyphen would be all ugly and cluttery.

I’m the kind of person who uses a turn signal before changing lanes even when nobody’s watching. Just as you can’t predict when a car is going to materialize out of nowhere, you can’t necessarily predict how your copy is going to be read.

The millisecond of ambiguity is the rationale behind my policy of strictly hyphenating compound modifiers. If I simply wrote white truffle purveyors, you would briefly wonder whether the purveyors were white, and you’d have to backtrack and mentally insert the hyphen that applies the whiteness to the truffles.

forego. forgo

Before you instinctively “correct” forego to forgo, you should know that these are in fact two different words, with two different meanings.

Forego means “to come before.”

Forgo means “to do without.”

6 Signs the Guy Editing Your Work Is an Amateur

He:

1. Believes the many fallacious “rules” she learned from her third-grade teacher.

2. Hasn’t read a book on writing since Strunk and White in college.

3. Has no clue about true best practices backed up by research into how people read.

4. Insists that the passive voice is “always” wrong, not just wrong in a particular context.

5. Hypercorrects by “correcting” CMS’s to CMS’, him to himself, supersedes to supercedes, and forgoing to foregoing.

6. Thinks that contractions are unprofessional.

—Adapted from an email from Paul Stregevsky.

A Writing Tip So Obvious I’m Embarrassed I Never Thought of It Until Now

While it’s written for journalists, the same principle applies to writing in general.

From the Wall Street Journal’s latest language column:

If your lede starts off with an official, an agency, an organization, or a company following some sort of process, take another look. Yes, sometimes the process being followed is the news, but usually it’s not.

Process
A special committee of the board of directors of XYZ Corp. recommended Monday that Chief Executive John Schmidlapp resign over sexual-misconduct allegations that have dogged him since January.

Better
XYZ Corp. Chief Executive John Schmidlapp should resign over sexual-misconduct allegations that have dogged him since January, a special committee of the company’s board of directors said Monday.

Is It Ok to Use the Serial Comma Inconsistently?

I teach my students that whether they favor or oppose the serial comma, it’s important that they be consistent above all else.

Yet check out these two sentences from a recent op-ed in the ​​New York Times​:

“Conservatives and people of the right value these things as well but have several additional moral touchstones — loyalty, respect and sanctity. They value in-group solidarity, deference to authority, and the protection of purity in mind and body.”

Is there any justifiable excuse for such inconsistency — especially in the most coveted real estate in journalism?

When the Acting Is As Brilliant As the Writing


Does the Phrase, “To Be Honest,” Rub You the Wrong Way?

Maybe it’s me, but this phrase grates on me. After all, taken literally, it implies that the speaker, up to that point, has been less than honest.

To be sure, I doubt the speaker actually means that. But here’s the thing: I have to interpret words based on their actual meaning. I’m not a mind reader.

Accordingly, instead of “honest,” why not use a more precise word? Here are a few:

✔ blunt
✔ candid
✔ forthright
✔ frank

What’s the difference? While I like to assume that the person I’m speaking with is being honest with me, I can understand if he’s not being frank. The difference is subtle, but aren’t most things a difference of degree?

What do you think? Am I making a mountain out of a molehill? Or do you too find this platitude to be slightly insulting?

How Does a Copyeditor Differ From an Editor?

Note: These are rough definitions.

A copyeditor (which I’m using as a synonym of proofreader) focuses mainly on the following:

✔ typos
✔ grammar
✔ punctuation
✔ consistency

What does “consistency” mean? Let’s say the writer prefers the Oxford comma. It’s then the editor’s job to make sure this comma is always used. Ditto for how many spaces to use between sentences (please, only one); spelling out numbers; which dash to use (en or em, never a hyphen); and the like.

By contrast, an editor focuses on everything. This includes:

✔ formatting
✔ factual mistakes
✔ cogency
✔ clarity
✔ tone
✔ flow

Again, these are general guidelines that I present to clients. Other editors likely use their own distinctions.


John Hermann Sure Can Write

Check out the verbs on display in these two sentences (even if the first sentence is too long):

“It rose in the circuitous and unexpected manner of a viral video, rather than one that had been calculated to game YouTube’s algorithms by seizing on interest in breaking news or tragedy — it had no catchy headline, no recognizable personality, no vast theorizing. And yet it blasted through YouTube’s safeguards and somehow kept going, exposing the platform as vulnerable to sudden influence from inside and outside its walls.”

✔ rise
✔ calculate
✔ game
✔ seize
✔ blast

And don’t forget about these examples of parallel structure:

✔ no catchy headline, no recognizable personality, no vast theorizing

✔ from inside and outside its walls

When to Use a Comma? It’s More Complicated Than You Think

Wrong
The program evaluates your computer system, and then copies the essential files to the target location.

Right
The program evaluates your computer system, and then it copies the essential files to the target location.

The difference? In a word: “It.”

As my colleague Paul Stregevsky explains, If we use a comma, we create a miscue that leads readers to expect an entirely new clause (“and it then copies the file”) instead of merely a new phrase (“and then copies the file”).

Here’s another example (from a bullet point on a resume):

Wrong
Maintained knowledge of store merchandise, and answered customer questions.

Right
Maintained knowledge of store merchandise and answered customer questions.

Right
I maintained knowledge of store merchandise, and I answered customer questions.

One more (note: these are both correct)

Right
She resolved all manner of complaints, and she devised time-out procedures.

Right
She resolved all manner of complaints and devised time-out procedures.

Here are the guidelines:

1. Clauses get commas. Phrases don’t.

2. To warrant a comma, a clause needs both a subject and a verb. (A “subject” is different from an “object.”)

How to Write With Verbs

Check these displays of conjugative vigor, from today’s New York Times:

1. “Those mailboxes also materialized for Brady, who commanded an offense that capitalizes on nameless, faceless positions — running backs who catch like receivers, tight ends who run like running backs and receivers who do both. Brady completed passes long and short and in between, to Chris Hogan and Rob Gronkowski and Rex Burkhead, gashing the Eagles for 276 yards by halftime and 404 through three quarters. In all, New England shredded Philadelphia for eight plays of at least 20 yards.”

Note, in particular, these verbs:

✔ command

✔ capitalize

✔ gash

✔ shred

And then, a few paragraphs later, we get another verbfest:

2. “Of Brady, he said Sunday night, ‘I respect him, a great player, probably one of the greatest ever, but hey, he had not played the Eagles yet.’ He had not faced the team that choreographed elaborate touchdown celebrations and railed against social injustice and donned goofy dog masks to embrace their underdog status while mocking it. Fulfilling Lurie’s demand for a coach with emotional intelligence, Pederson fomented an inclusive locker-room culture that empowered players to flaunt their personalities.”

Again, note these power verbs:

✔ choreograph

✔ rail

✔ don

✔ foment

✔ empower

✔ flaunt

Companies Whose Names Have Been Genericized

✔ Band-Aid
✔ Dumpster
✔ Kleenex
✔ Google
✔ Jell-O
✔ Legos
✔ Photoshop
✔ Q-Tip
✔ Thermos
✔ Uber
✔ Velcro
✔ Xerox

What’s Wrong With This Sentence?

“Much has and will continue to be said about...”

Broken down, this sentence technically means

1. Much has said about...

and

2. Much will continue to be said about ...

While the reader understands the point, the grammar is wrong.

If I were editing this, I’d rewrite it as follows:

“Much has been said, and much will continue to be said, about...”

Can a Good Writer Write Anything?

I’m republishing this commentary by Paul Stregevsky, which he wrote in response to an article that argued most tech writers can only do tech writing.

Yes, Carl: We writers are one-trick ponies.

That’s why Shakespeare wrote such second-rate sonnets.

Why humorist Gene Weingarten didn’t deserve his Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing.

Why lawyer Scott Turow failed at crafting legal thrillers.

Why nonfiction writers Twain, Orwell, and E.B. White gave us such forgettable fiction as Tom Sawyer, 1984, and Charlotte’s Web.

Why scientists Stephen Gould, Carl Sagan, and Neil deGrasse Tyson were such failed popularizers.

Why Oscar Hammerstein III and Alan Jay Lerner, who wrote such memorable plays (Oklahoma, My Fair Lady), wrote such forgettable lyrics.

The Power of Denominalization

Original
Upon completion of a PWP course, you’ll know to write with vigor.

Revision
After completing a PWP course, you’ll know to write with vigor.

The 4 Kinds of Subheadings in Writing

You Can Change an Entire Debate by Simply Using a Different Word

Category
In the Old Days
Today
Taxes
tax avoidance
tax efficiency
Taxes
taxes
revenue enhancements
Taxes
tax cuts
tax relief
Taxes
estate tax
death tax
Politics
The Affordable Care Act
government takeover
Politics
public school
government school
Politics
religious
faith-based
Politics
nuclear codes
nuclear bombs
Politics
bailout
financial stability package
Politics
Democratic Party
Democrat Party
Environment
greenhouse gases
pollution
Environment
rising temperatures
extreme weather
Environment
renewable energy
clean energy
Food
prunes
dried plums
Food
drunk
overserved
Food
dolphin fish
mahi mahi
Food
Patagonian toothfish
Chilean sea bass
Food
sheep
mutton
Security
Department of War
Department of Defense
Security
torture
enhanced interrogation
Security
jail
correctional center
Security
shakedown
safety check
Sales
off-price
premium-value
Sales
used car
certified, pre-owned or factory-renewed
Other
pet owner
pet parent
Other
poor
low-income or disadvantaged
Other
fat
curvy or thick
Other
patients
members
Other
wannabe
enthusiast
Banking
corporate raider
activist investor
Banking
vulture
phoenix
Banking
junk bonds
high-yield bonds
Job Titles
secretary
executive assistant
Job Titles
janitor
custodial engineer
Job Titles
medic
hospital corpsman
The Workplace
time
bandwidth
The Workplace
fire people
increase efficiencies

For more examples — and how you can create them for your own line of work — check out my media-training workshop.

Is “sales” singular or plural?

Which of these sentences is correct?

1. What does sales have to do with copywriting?

2. What do sales have to do with copywriting?

Because Merriam-Webster doesn’t specify whether “sales” is singular or plural, I turned to my colleague Paul Stregevsky for guidance.

Paul says that #2 (where “sales” is treated as plural) is correct. That’s because “sales” is the semantic subject.

Semantic who?

Apparently, there’s a distinction between “semantics” and “syntactics.” (I'd never heard of this either.)

Happily, Paul explains by way of examples:

Syntactic Subjects

* Sales is a dwindling occupation.

Semantic Subjects

* Sales are climbing.

* What does sales have to do with copywriting?

Omit Needless Words

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

—William Strunk Jr., The Elements of Style

The Semantics of Dieting

People no longer want to talk about ‘‘dieting’’ and ‘‘weight loss.’’ They want to become ‘‘healthy’’ so they can be ‘‘fit.’’ They want to ‘‘eat clean’’ so they can be ‘‘strong.’’

Losing It in the Anti-Dieting Age

Is there a difference between “Hot Not to Bomb” and “How to Not Bomb”?

Which phrase is better, I asked my colleague Paul Stregevsky? He replied as follows:

Grammatically, of course, both are fine. They mean the same thing. It’s just a matter of where to place the emphasis.

Nine out of 10 professional writers would probably prefer “how not to bomb”; it seems to call more attention to “not.”

Democratic. Democrat

Calling someone a “Democrat Senator” is insulting; it means he’s overly liberal.

Calling someone a “Democratic Senator” is descriptive; it means he’s a member of the Democratic Party.

Keep the Verb Close to the Subject

Which sentence sounds better?

1. “The module will pass, from Google to Facebook, personal data about health, income, and eligibility.”

2. “The module will take personal data from Google about health, income, and eligibility and pass it to Facebook.”

If you said #1, you’re correct. But can you identify why?

I’ll leave it to Richard Lauchman, author of Plain Style: Techniques for Simple, Concise, Emphatic Business Writing, to explain:

“Reveal the verb early. The reader hungers for the verb. She holds her breath until the verb arrives, because until it arrives she has no sense of what the overall expression is about. Try not to separate the verb from the subject; put those words as close together as you can.”

piecemeal

“People are piecemealing a living together.”

Abbreviations Have Nothing to Do With Informality

Wise counsel from Richard Lauchman, author of Punctuation at Work: Simple Principles for Achieving Clarity and Good Style:

Abbreviate for Clarity, Not As a Rule

Many people say (because someone once said it to them) that abbreviations of any sort make your writing informal. Such a remark doesn’t get us anywhere; it merely opens the door to endless philosophical debate. And there is never a victor in a conflict about “formality” because definitions vary wildly.

What we want is writing that fits the occasion and the readership — and whether it’s “formal” or “informal” by any individual’s definition should not be a concern. Our primary concern should be clarity; the next should be economy.

Because documents vary in their conventions of style, commandments such as “It’s always best to avoid abbreviations” and “It’s always best to abbreviate” are equally oversimplified. If I were you, I wouldn’t get caught up in considerations of formality when I’m trying to decide whether to abbreviate. I encourage you to behave practically. Abbreviate when doing so would not distract, when the abbreviated form is what the reader is used to, and when the abbreviation would save the reader time.

For Example

When the abbreviation is what we’re used to, the spelled-out version can be puzzling. Many people who have never heard of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration have a good sense of what OSHA does. Isn’t it true that IBM is more familiar to you than International Business Machines Corporation? Isn't it true that NASA makes sense to you more quickly than National Aeronautics and Space Administration? Formality is not the concern here. Clarity is.

We conventionally use a.m. and p.m., for example, and if someone actually wrote six ante meridiem or four post meridiem, we would have to ponder the meaning — and then we would wonder what was wrong with him.


How to Use a Colon to Introduce a List

Wise counsel from Richard Lauchman, author of Punctuation at Work: Simple Principles for Achieving Clarity and Good Style:

When you use a colon to introduce a list, make sure to write a complete thought first. In other words, don’t write something like this:

“Next year we must increase crease our marketing in: the West, the Pacific Northwest, and the Southern regions.”

Instead, your lead-in should be a complete thought, like this:

“Next year, we must increase our marketing in three regions: the West, the Pacific Northwest, and the South.”

Notice how the complete sentence does a much better job of helping the reader anticipate how the expression will end?

A few more examples:

•   Today we will discuss two topics: executive compensation and shareholder rights.

•   She visited four countries: Portugal, Spain, France, and Italy.

•   We have only three options: reduce the bid, increase the scope of work, or abandon the proposal.

When Should You Use a Hyphen?

Wise counsel from Richard Lauchman, author of Punctuation at Work: Simple Principles for Achieving Clarity and Good Style:

Say you come across the following sentence:

“The study should yield more conclusive results.”

Does this sentence mean that additional conclusive results are required, or that results that are more conclusive are required?

In the latter instance, meaning requires more-conclusive results.

As in cases of this sort, it’s better to use a hyphen than to omit one just because the rules say it shouldn't be there. Here are three guidelines to consider when hyphenating:

1. Break the Rule When Doing So Helps Your Reader

Nearly all authorities say you shouldn’t hyphenate compound adjectives when the first word is comparative or superlatives: “most favored nation” or “less developed countries.”

Break this rule when your meaning requires it. In the sentence below, taken from the New York Times, notice how lower-ranking is handled:

“The only other figure from the Bush White House to have been convicted of a serious crime is Donald McGonegal, a lower-ranking official who has been sentenced to 18 months in connection with the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.”

Even though readers would probably get this meaning, the hyphen enables them to get it a little more quickly.

2. Know Your Audience

Phrases like spread spectrum analysis and frequency hopping system require no hyphen at FCC because they have become terms of art among communications engineers. If, however, you’re writing to a nonexpert audience, then you’re encouraged to hyphenate spread-spectrum and frequency-hopping.

3. Value Clarity Above All Else

It’s better to use a hyphen when the rules say you shouldn’t than to omit one when the reader needs it. Your readers don’t care about the rules of hyphenation. They care about clarity. I encourage you to hyphenate whenever doing so helps prevent ambiguity or facilitates understanding.

The compound adjectives below all begin with superlatives (which by rule aren’t supposed to require a hyphen), but the reader benefits when you hyphenate because he sees your intention a little more quickly. That is what we want.

•   the best-case scenario
•   the best-kept secret
•   the least-recognized fact
•   the worst-conceived plan
•   the least-annoying error
•   the weirdest-rule award

jackpot

jackpot (v): to allow an issue to fester, and then dump it on someone all at once

“You jackpotted me!”

Billions

bonus

“Axe is gonna bonus you $1.5 — minimum.”

Billions

medium-size. medium-sized

Earlier this month, I emailed Merriam-Webster the following question. Associate Editor Neil S. Serven replied.

Q: Is it “medium-size,” or “medium-sized”? I know you’re unable to say which one is correct; are you able to say which one is more common?

A: Our citation database shows a slight preference for –size, but the sample isn’t huge.

You’ve Been Making This Grammatical Mistake Your Whole Life Without Realizing It

Here’s the sentence:

“I’m one of those lucky people whose job is an extension of his hobby.”

What’s wrong with it?

Nothing, at least upon first reading.

But as my colleague and brilliant wordsmith, Paul Stregevsky, patiently explained to me, the sentence should be,

“I’m one of those lucky people whose jobs are extensions of their hobbies.”

Huh? (If you have that same reaction, rest assured, you’re in good company.)

Take it away, Paul:

Consider these two sentences, if they were uttered by Melania Trump:

1. I’m one of those women who sometimes wants to murder my husband. (Not grammatical.)

2. I’m one of those women who sometimes want to murder their husbands. (Grammatical.)

3. I’m one of those women who sometimes wants to murder her husband. (Not grammatical.)

4. I’m one of those women who sometimes want to murder my husband. (Grammatical.)

Mind you, sentence 1 is not grammatical. But let’s imagine it were. Do you understand why sentence 1 means something radically different from the meaning she intended?

Sentence 1, if it were grammatical, would have to mean, “Like many women, I sometimes want to murder Donald Trump.” And that's not what you intended, is it?

Sentence 2 means, “Many women sometimes want to murder their own husbands. I, do, too.”

Sentence 3 is a blend of the two: It’s faithful to the grammatical number of sentence 1 and the grammatical person intended by sentence 2. In effect, it splits the difference. But it, too, would be grammatically wrong.

Let’s try it again, with a more perverted scenario:

Sentence 1: I’m one of those dads who sometimes imagines banging my daughter.

Sentence 2: I’m one of those dads who sometimes imagines banging their daughters.

In sentence 1, are you trying to say that many dads want to bang your daughter? Because that’s what it must mean.



Here’s another example:

“I’m a change agent who rolls up my sleeves to get things done.”

Grammatically, the sentence should be,

“I’m a change agent who rolls up his sleeves to get things done.”

Again, here’s Paul:

Well, what a coincidence: I, too, am a change agent who rolls up Jonathan Rick’s sleeves to get things done.

At least, that’s what your wording suggests is possible.

The singular vs. plural choice is merely an artifact of the first-person vs. third-person choice. Once we establish that the grammatical number is driven by whatever agent is doing the rolling up (people), we must follow through and complete the sentence in the same grammatical person (third/he).

In other words: The pronoun must be third-person (“her sleeves”), not first (“my sleeves”).

Latino. Hispanic

“Latino” has to do with geography, while “Hispanic” has to do with language.

“Latino” means from Latin America, while “Hispanic” means from a Spanish-speaking country.

So Brazilians are Latino but not Hispanic (because they speak Portuguese).

[No Excuses: Immigration - Skimm’tionary]

How a Comma Killed Tiffany Trump

In a recent tweet, our new president wrote:



Sadly, Trump knows nothing about grammar. If he did, he’d have written:

“My daughter Ivanka” (without the comma).

Why?

Because “My daughter Ivanka” means he has multiple daughters, whereas “My daughter, Ivanka” means he has only one. (He has two daughters; the other is Tiffany.)

Commas can kill.

Here’s another example:

“If you’re like to meet my friend, Susan, please join us for dinner.”

means I have only one friend.

Whereas:

“If you’d like to meet my friend Susan, please join for us dinner.”

means Susan is one of my friends.

reposition. diminish

Mr. Baquet and Mr. Kahn said the shift to digital publishing demanded a “smaller and more focused newsroom.”

They added that the reconfiguration should be viewed as “a necessary repositioning of the Times’s newsroom, not as a diminishment.”

New York Times Study Calls for Rapid Change in Newsroom