Archive for the ‘Grammar’ Category

The Cacophany of Collective Nouns

Sunday, October 9th, 2011

Why do we have so much trouble with collective nouns? Staff, faculty, herd, group, team, senate, congress, cast, crew, jury, choir, committee, majority, minority … the list goes on.

Collective nouns signal a group of people or things that may act as individuals or one entity. And there’s the rub.

When we want the context to say that this group acts as a single unit, then we use a singular verb in the sentence. (“The committee is in session.”) When we want to say that the individual members of the group do something, we use a plural verb. (“The faculty are presenting at the October oncology symposium.”) Sounds simple, right?

The faculty is/are receiving raises this year.
(Could go either way, depending on the context.)

The crew is/are in charge of maintaining the sails.
(Doesn’t sound right unless you use “is.”)

The team run/runs through six defensive drills during every practice.
(That one is a no-brainer.)

So why does this get murky?

Most of the pizza is/are gone.
(“Are” would sound good in the pizza sentence if we said “Most of the pizzas”—because we’d definitely be talking about more than one pizza. But, “Most of the pizza is gone” is fine grammatically because it considers the pizza order as a whole.)

One-third of all Americans is/are overweight.
“Are” sounds good here because “Americans” comes right before the verb. But “Americans” is the object of a prepositional phrase—not the subject of the sentence. So, is “one-third” singular or plural?) Here’s where common sense must prevail. You can be grammatically correct and still leave readers scratching their heads.

Here’s an example and a “test” you can do to help you determine the right wording and subject-verb agreement:
The fourth of the 10 examples is wrong.        
vs.      
A fourth of the 10 examples are wrong.

The first sentence specifies that only example #4 is wrong, so that takes a singular verb.
The second sentence means 40% of the examples are wrong.
Note the difference in the articles used in the two sentences (“the” vs. “a”). That can be a signal to tell you whether to use a singular or plural verb.

If it sounds awkward no matter what the grammarians say, then rewrite the sentence.

Some of this confusion stems from the use of the word “one.” “One” can be a noun or an indefinite pronoun—that is, a pronoun that doesn’t refer to a specific person, place or thing. “One” is always singular (makes sense), but when we see it hitched to something like “one-third,” we need to think about what type of verb to use with it.

For the record, other indefinite pronouns give us fits because they function collectively, too. “Everyone” and “everybody” take singular verbs. (“Everybody is at the game.”)

You can alleviate some of this problem by living  in a country other than the U.S. The British use the plural more frequently than we do here in the states. They say, “Parliament are in session,” while we say, “The senate is in session.”

So, bottom line: look at the context of the sentence. Is the group acting as a whole, or are its members acting individually? If it’s not that straightforward, run the “test” I suggested. And, above all else, make your writing readable!

What’s Up with Adjectives?

Wednesday, August 10th, 2011

You can identify many adjectives by their endings:

-able achievable, capable
-al functional, logical
-ful beautiful, careful
-ic cubic, rustic
-ical anatomical, classical
-less breathless, groundless
-ous courageous, disastrous

But when do you use -ic versus -ical? Does it make a difference?

Short answer: sometimes.

English loves to trim words to their lowest common denominator. Not surprisingly, -ical increasingly is being lopped in favor of -ic. So you have a numeric advantage (not a numerical advantage). Your grandmother has a rheumatologic disorder (not a rheumatological disorder).

But, in other cases, both forms need to exist because they mean different things. “Biological” is anything that has to do with biology. However, a “biologic” or a “biologic drug” specifies a diagnostic or therapeutic entity made from a living organism or its products. Examples are vaccines, monoclonal antibodies and interleukins.

Ditto for needing to differentiate the terms “historic” and “historical.” A historic era is an influential one in history. “Historical” pertains to events in history, such as in a historical novel, a historical review of pain management treatments, and so on.

Classic cars and classic black dresses embody versatility. But classical music pertains to a certain period in time.

“Economic” relates to that field of study (e.g., economic forecasting). “Economical” depicts money-saving strategies.

The Amazon’s rainy season is a periodic occurrence—it happens at regular intervals. But “periodical” is relegated to the realm of publishing.

Some adjectives don’t have this problem at all. You can understand basic but not basical English; you can be dramatic but not dramatical. We are patriotic but not patriotical.

Finally, just to stir the pot, is the head-scratcher of “anatomical” versus “anatomic.” In med-speak, “anatomical” is still preferred—simply because it’s preferred.

So, bottom line: know your target audience, and look up the words if you’re not sure. You’ll avoid ending up with “ic” all over your face.

4 Reasons to Insist on Proofreading Final Changes

Thursday, January 13th, 2011

Typical scenario: client asks your help in editing a manuscript or report. Client likes your edits and asks you to proof the final copy before submission. Client runs behind schedule. Client submits document without your proofing expertise. What could go wrong? Plenty.

“Plenty” happened to me twice last month.

In the first instance, language issues were involved. The main author was a non-native speaker of English.

While language hiccups would make a journal editor think twice about sending a manuscript to peer review, the second instance had even more dramatic implications.

The second manuscript hit a snag when a drug manufacturer published unfavorable interim results of a clinical trial after I had finished working on another client’s manuscript. We aborted the submission process to wait for word on whether the company would continue the trial. When the drug company said it likely would suspend all trials on this drug, it was a big blow to my client—who had invested years of time in the drug’s late-stage testing.

I asked my client if I should amend the manuscript or if he would prefer to. He e-mailed me a paragraph to insert—and it raised red flags all over the place for me.

That brings me to the four reasons why you should insist on proofing final documents, even if the client’s last round of changes is “minor:”

  • The tone may be inconsistent with the rest of the document.
    That’s what happened with my client who got the bad news. His tone reflected his disappointment. But the tone needed to stay objective, underscoring the merits of what came before, despite the drug’s uncertain future.
  • The language may be inconsistent with the rest of the document (e.g., native vs. non-native English).
  • The changes can contain grammar, punctuation, and spelling errorsespecially if they were written in haste (which often happens in the 11th hour).
  • If the submission is to a journal, some of the changes may contradict submission requirements. Most authors ignore the requirements set forth in journals’ style guides. They leave those details to people like me. 

So, tread lightly but give objective reasons why you should cast your eyes one more time on something your client deems “finished.” They’ll thank you for it after the fact!

Proofreading Avoids Punctuation Pitfalls

Thursday, August 5th, 2010

A poignant article about children’s hospice centers appeared in The Baltimore Sun this week. The article did a masterful job explaining the problems (including insurance snafus) associated with pediatric hospice efforts. The thoughtful treatment of one family’s plight was also laudable. Then, on the second page of the article was this paragraph:
“The Murphys had finally uncovered Kayla’s condition; she was 3 years old. The bad news: There is no cure.”

If you read that casually—especially if you mentally insert a colon where the semicolon is—it sounds like the source of Kayla’s terminal condition was simply that she was 3 years old.

That sentence never should have made past the editor or proofreader without red-inking it.

The sentence suffers from both context and punctuation problems. The previous paragraph described the family’s cross-country efforts to find what was wrong with their child, priming the reader to hear about the diagnosis in the next paragraph (the one I’m calling out). The writer meant to say that the girl had lived 3 years before doctors diagnosed her. But that’s not how it comes across. 

An easy correction would be:
“WHEN the Murphys finally uncovered Kayla’s condition, she was 3 years old.” 

Another easy correction:
“After 3 years of searching, the Murphys finally uncovered Kayla’s condition.”

One blot on an otherwise great article—but what a blot. That blot damaged the writer’s credibility.

The widespread online chatter about this slip-up is proof positive that we need to be more diligent than ever in scrutinizing what we write after we write it. 

In the most technical sense, the sentence structure and punctuation are okay. But it’s a mess in terms of what it says versus what it intends to say.

So how do you catch errors like this, especially if you already know what the words should say? Adopt a system for proofreading. How do you do that? Buy and read my book, Proofread like a Pro. I’ve spent decades teaching writing classes and honing my real-world skills on virtually every type of print- and web-based content. Now I’ve distilled my experience into an easy-to-use system (called 3-9-3) that will make you “nails” on proofreading anything. Don’t risk having an important paper or presentation fall flat because of an embarrassing error. Everyone who’s e-mailed me after reading the book says it made their job easier and faster—and took the dread out of proofreading. I call that working smarter.

12 Pet Peeves of Writing

Friday, July 9th, 2010

Sometimes we write the way we talk: sloppily. Other times we write the wrong thing out of habit or because other people do the same. Here are a dozen of my pet writing peeves; I hope sharing them with you will help your writing. 

1. Using “under” when you mean “less than” or “fewer than”
WRONG     under 20 players                  
WRITE       fewer than 20 players          
WRONG     under age 20
WRITE       age ___; less than 20 years old 

2. Using “over” when you mean “more than,” “greater than,” “higher than” or “wider than”
WRONG     over 600 participants                         
WRITE       more than 600 participants
WRONG     over 5,500 feet
WRITE       higher than 5,500 feet 

3. Using “below” when you mean “older than” or “before”
WRONG:    cars made below 1999
WRITE:      cars made before 1999; cars more than __ years old 

4. Using “increased” or “greater” when you mean “longer,” “farther” or “higher”
All of them can mean “more,” but the latter three are measurable.
WRONG      greater lumen output              
WRITE        higher lumen output
WRONG      greater stopping distances
WRITE        longer stopping distances 

5. Using “assure” or “insure” when you mean “ensure”
“Ensure” = “to make certain something happens”
“Insure” = “to protect from loss—specifically, what you do to your car and house
“Assure” = “to encourage, make safe”
WRONG       This construction assures a longer battery life.
WRITE         This construction ensures a longer battery life. 

6. Using “try and” instead of “try to”
You don’t create a compound verb—just bad grammar—when you say “try and ___.”
WRONG      We will try and make your deadline.
WRITE        We will try to make your deadline.

7. Confusing compose, comprise and constitute 
Compose” = create or put together. The parts compose a whole.
“Comprise” = contain include all; embrace. The whole comprises the parts.
Because 1) the two terms are misused SO frequently, 2) additional rules apply regarding preposition usage with them), and 3) sometimes the construction sounds awkward, a good substitute for both is “constitute,” which means “to form” or “to make up” (like the elements of an idea).
WRITE         The all-star team comprises 51 players.
WRITE         Fifty-one players compose the all-star team.

8. Using “could of” when you mean “could have” 

9. Using unnecessarily long phrases when a single word will do
WRONG      due to the fact that
WRITE        because 

10. Using the same word or a form of the same word in the same sentence
WRONG      The planning for a replacement facility was included as part of the regional plan …
WRITE         Planning … was part of the regional strategy … 

11. Randomly capitalizing important-sounding words that aren’t proper nouns
WRONG      the Chairman of the Board (no cap unless you say which company’s board)
WRITE         the chairman of the board

12. Misspelling ITS. It’s misspelled more than any other word in the English language. Why? Because it’s an indefinite pronoun, and its rules about possession differ from that of nouns and definite pronouns. Indefinite pronouns (including “it”) never use apostrophes to show possession.

WRONG Its the best. WRONG it’s due date
WRITE It’s the best. WRITE its due date
Contraction: short for “it is” Shows possession (NO apostrophe)

Show your best side when you write—your readers notice these little details!

Clear Thinking for Good Writing, Part 2

Tuesday, April 27th, 2010

My last post highlighted the importance of THINKING about what you write. This post gives you tips for how to do that.

Modifiers explain something about a noun or other word, so it makes sense that modifiers should be near what they modify. The two can get separated when you write

  • Long sentences
  • Sentences with multiple phrases and clauses as modifiers
  • Sentences with strings of modifiers in a row

With that in mind, let’s look at a sample of each. 

Long:
Long sentences can get snarled simply because faulty construction. If you have trouble making the sentence sound right and say what you mean to say, then consider 1) simplifying the sentence or 2) making two sentences from the one. Too-long sentences often are two thoughts smooshed together. If you can easily split the sentence into two separate thoughts, you probably should have had two sentences to begin with. 

BAD:
The support of UPL makes it possible for 100 percent of the proceeds to go to the hospital, helping to support such initiatives as a re-entry education program to help hospitalized children keep pace with their classmates and interactive, educational closed-circuit television hospital patients. 

BETTER:
All of UPL’s proceeds fund many initiatives for hospital patients. These programs include a re-entry education program … 

Multiple Phrases:
Faulty construction can snarl complex sentences. Here’s one with a clause inside of a clause and phrases inside of another clause. You can fix this many ways, but one option follows. 

BAD:
Jim Smith, the lead construction engineer, says that because workers at a construction site rely so heavily on each other, it’s critical that workers arrive at the job site in a condition that ensures their personal safety and that poses no safety risk to others on the site. 

BETTER:
Because on-site construction workers relay so heavily on each other, they must arrive in a condition that ensures their safety and the safety of others at the site, says Jim Smith, the lead construction engineer.

Editing/Proofing Tips:

  • To ensure you put your modifiers where they belong, underline each; then draw an arrow to what it modifies. If you draw a long arrow—or it crosses over a line of text in a multi-line sentence—that’s usually a sign to move things around.
  • If you have trouble putting modifiers where they need to go to make the sentence sound right and say what you mean to say, then simplify the sentence.  

String of Beads:
BAD:
He made an application for sufficient funding for the purchase of 10 computers.

See the three prepositional phrases strung together like beads? Often, you can change such phrases to single-word modifiers. And here’s a thought: do you ever apply for insufficient funding? 

BETTER:
He requested funds to purchase 10 computers.

Bonus: In each case above, a little sleuthing slashed the sentence length. Readers find such compact writing powerful, engaging and easy to understand. So keep thinking when you write!

Clear Thinking for Good Writing

Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

Ever read a sentence and said to yourself, “Wha? Huh?”

It happens all the time.

I see this in too-long sentences, when a hurried writer strings together a bunch of thoughts but doesn’t take time to sort out what should go where. The result: a jumbled sentence. Sometimes it’s downright laughable.

I’m not here to give you a grammar lesson. Rules can only go so far. I forgot all of them in high school and had to re-teach myself everything when I started writing regularly in a previous job.

Rules have purpose. But they make good technicians—not necessarily good writers.

Example:
“After being inspired by an ER episode about living kidney donations, surgeons at XYZ Hospital transplanted one of Smith’s kidneys to a stranger.”
This sentence literally means the surgeons got stoked by a TV show to do a transplant. The writer meant to say that Mr. Smith saw the TV show and decided to become a donor.

The writer had an idea about a donor, a donee, the reason for the donation and where the transplant took place—then smooshed it all together in a long sentence. When you write a sentence like that and you know what it’s supposed to say, you can miss the fact that you missed the boat in your meaning.

Better:
“After Mr. Smith saw an ER episode about living kidney donations, he donated one of his kidneys to a stranger.”
(Talk about the surgeons and the hospital in another sentence.)

Here’s another one:
“He has put his body to the test for the past five years by running and biking on two consecutive days for Miles for Muscular Dystrophy.”
Wow. All of two days in the past five years.

Finally:
“Confirmation statements will be mailed to the homes of all employees eligible for Web enrollment by the end of November.”
This sentence is incorrectly too restrictive—until you start it with “By the end of November.” (The sentence has other problems, too.)

What’s missing here?

THOUGHT. One cure for bad writing is good thinking.

While grammar rules have names for these problems and their fixes, THINKING about what you write can go further than remembering what dangling participles and misplaced modifiers are.

Sentences either “hang” or “huh?” when you don’t put modifiers in their rightful spots. If a reader has to backtrack to re-read your sentence, he’ll likely quit reading. Not good—especially if that reader is your boss, a client, a review board, etc.

Rule of thumb: modifiers go right next to what they modify. Keep your antennae tuned for this when you proofread your work. If you write a lengthy sentence and don’t explain something about its third word until you get to the last half of the sentence, then shuffle things around for clarity. By doing so, you may avoid a major OOPS.

If you’re not one for rules, then make common sense prevail. Good thinking can fix bad writing.