One of the pivotal events in my life was that Tracy Faleide at Great Plains Software (now owned by Bill) decided to hire raw youngsters straight out of college. Once I was on board there as a techwriter, I learned more useful information about writing from Shewi than I did in college. (I'd have to say, though, that looking back, my high school English education was pretty good.) Fifteen years later, I'm still in the techwriting/editing/authoring field and loving it.
I'm taking a break from OpenOffice tips today to just talk about various grammar and punctuation tips I learned from Shewi, from editing, and various other sources. The key thing about many of these items, and useful grammar and punctuation in general, is they're not just fancy-schmancy rules. They are important rules that affect the meaning of what you say. I think most people would agree is an important component of communication--controlling the meaning of what you're writing.
Some of them don't affect meaning, but do make it easier and more pleasant for your readers. That means they're more likely to read your email, spec, or marketing blurb, and thus get the information you're trying to convey.
I hope you'll find these useful for general business writing, technical specs, emails to your VP, or wherever it's important that the writing be clear and correct.
10. Hyphenation is important.
Hyphenation is important because it affects what a sentence means, not just because your snotty English major friend will sneer at you for using it incorrectly.
You use hyphenation in two ways (at least).
a) Hyphenation determines what describes what
You use it to show what an adjective modifies (describes, or applies to).
The orange rimmed vase is not the same as the orange-rimmed vase.
If you have no hyphen between the two adjectives, orange and rimmed, then the adjectives have to both modify the following noun, vase.
In the example, that means that you have a vase which is orange, and which is also rimmed.
Here's an orange rimmed vase.
However, if you have a hyphen between the adjectives, everything changes. The hyphen means the first adjective modifies the second, and then together, they modify the noun.
Here's an orange-rimmed vase . It's a vase that has an orange rim. The hyphen shows that orange modifies rimmed, not the vase itself.
b) Hyphenation is used with compound words
You also use it with compound words like on-line (or online), re-create (as in re-create the error), etc. With this you will drive yourself crazy trying to figure out what's right so just pick a standard and follow it consistently. The standard can be what your friend the writer says, or what the Chicago Manual of Style says, or whatever. Just be consistent.
Me, I like to combine the word unless it's unclear without the hyphen. For instance, re-create is definitely different than recreated. But you know what I mean by “online”—you don't need me to write “on-line” to understand it.
9. Forget you ever encountered ellipsis....unless you're quoting a movie review...and leaving out the...bad parts...
Instead, use semicolons, commas, or the occasional dash or colon. Or just end the sentence with a period and start again with a capital letter. Ellipsis is almost always just a lazy substitute for the right punctuation.
I wanted to tell her that her skirt was tucked into her pantyhose...unfortunately, she went up on stage too soon.
Die, die, die! Unless you're trying to re-create the cadences of actual speech, ellipsis is rarely necessary.
I wanted to tell her that her skirt was tucked into her pantyhose; unfortunately, she went up on stage too soon.
A semicolon separates these two clauses. A clause is something that could technically be a separate sentence since each has a noun and verb. When you have two clauses like this, you can separate them with a semicolon.
I wanted to tell her that her skirt was tucked into her pantyhose. Unfortunately, she went up on stage too soon.
See? The two clauses are just fine as separate sentences. Making two sentences is another very legitimate approach.
I wanted to tell her that her skirt was tucked into her pantyhose, but she went up on stage too soon.
The but means that the second part of the sentence is no longer something that could stand by itself. Therefore, with this you just use a comma.
Read more on ellipsis here.
8. Cut down on the parenthetical phrases
If you write a lot of parenthetical phrases (and you know who you are) , your readers will find it annoying to have to keep ducking in (and out) of the main part of the sentence. Thus I strongly (but politely) suggest that if it's important to say, just say it. Skip the parentheses. Try your sentence without the parentheses, and just use commas if necessary. If the parentheses aren't important to your writing, leave'em out. Or consider whether the parenthetical phrase itself is necessary. Sometimes you can totally skip it.
Do use parentheses to partition off key information that, if presented normally, might interrupt the flow of the text. One example is using them to provide a definition for a word that might be unfamiliar.
I'd say you could apply the same reduction advice to dashes, too. If it's important to say it—and it always is, isn't it?—then consider whether it needs to be set off—set off and emphasized—by dashes. Usually you can just use commas, or start a new sentence. Dashes can be disruptive and annoying to read when they show up a lot.
7. Remember the comma.
If you would pause speaking, then you'd probably pause writing it.
If you're going to give a public speech be sure that your skirt isn't tucked inside your pantyhose.
Bleagh. Too stiff.
If you're going to give a public speech, be sure that your skirt isn't tucked inside your pantyhose.
This is better and more natural.
Another comma issue has to do with a series of items. Here's an example. Some people say they will pick up eggs, butter and bread. Others like me will pick up eggs, butter, and bread. The comma before and is called a serial comma and many wars have been fought over which is better. It doesn't matter. Just pick a way and stick with it.
6. Few and less and more (but is less more?)
Few is for items. Less is for quantities. You can have fewer raindrops and less rain; you can have fewer hairs but less hair.
Here's the tricky part—when quantities are reduced (fewer and less), the words are different, but when quantities are increased (more), the words are the same. More hairs, more hair.
5. Dangling participles are as bad as you've heard.
A participle is a verb ending in ing used as an adjective, as in the following sentence.
Feeling embarrassed about her haircut, Felicity hid in the closet.
That's absolutely correct. The participle comes first, and the noun in the next phrase is what the participle modifies. The phrase after the noun goes with that noun too. Felicity was feeling embarrassed, and she also hid in the closet.
Here's how it works. The noun is a big fat greedy pig and takes the phrase before it, and after it, for itself. That means both phrases had better make sense with the noun you're using.
Here are some correct examples.
Sizzling happily, the stew smelled delicious. The stew is the one that is sizzling happily and smelling delicious.
Beaming widely, Jenny accepted the Miss Linux crown. Jenny is the one who is beaming widely and who is accepting the crown.
What if you get a noun that doesn't work with both phrases? This happens most often when you have an implied subject (examples follow) and another noun shows up for the party.
had had a bad day. Being tired, the bed
In this sentence, the bed is the noun so both phrases go with bed. The bed certainly looked great but it absolutely was not tired. Belinda is tired. You would rewrite this; one way is Belinda had had a bad day and was very tired, so the bed looked great.
was depressed. Having lost the election, the
Bahamas were appealing.
George is the one who lost the election, not the Bahamas. You would rewrite this; one way is George was depressed after having lost the election. The Bahamas seemed very appealing.
4. Lay off using lie incorrectly
Lie is for what you do with your own body. Lay is for what you do to other things. Lay is also the past tense of lie, unfortunately, which makes things confusing.
Lie: I am going to lie down right now; I lay down yesterday.
Lay: I am going to lay my briefcase on the table. I laid it on the bench yesterday.
If you use lay, it had better be because you're currently taking something and putting it down someplace, or because you yourself, in the past, became horizontal. (Or because you're an attorney in the Enron trial, or you got lucky over spring break.)
3. Keep your intransitive verbs off my body
Some verbs are transitive (like lay), which means you can do them to other things. You can raise hell, you can raise your hand, but you can't just spend a day raising. Raise is a transitive verb.
Some verbs are intransitive (like lie), which means you just do them. You sleep. You dream. You don't sleep yourself, you don't sleep your bed—you just sleep.
Some verbs are both. You can just lie around the house eating, or you can eat a sandwich.
You probably know which is which; just pay attention and don't get sucked into using transitive verbs intransitively.
2. Wherever possible without sounding dorky, put only in front of the thing it applies to.
Is this sentence correct?
You only need to answer three questions to win the prize.
We don't really know without asking the writer. Since I wrote the example, though, I can tell you that the sentence is incorrect. The writer wants to say that while there are multiple questions, you need to answer only three to win the prize. So the statement isn't quite accurate. Only applies to three, not need.
If you put only in front of the thing it doesn't apply to, the sentence can be confusing.
Here's another example.
Only think about three questions.
Does that mean you should only think, rather than give the answer, or does it mean you just need to think about three of the questions?
- The way the sentence is written, only applies to think, which means you shouldn't respond aloud, or write down answers, or do anything else. If that's the intent, the sentence is correct.
- If the writer wanted to tell the reader that there are multiple questions and the reader only needs to think about three, however, the sentence is wrong.
So put only immediately in front of what it modifies, unless it sounds really stupid that way.
1. Use the word that is correct (the correct word, which helps your readers understand you, is always a good choice)
When do you use which, and when do you use that? This is another grammatical point that very much affects the meaning of what you say.
Which is for additional information you feel like providing. That is for specifying one item among several.
Here are some examples and some more explanation.
Let's say you're in the middle of doing a jigsaw puzzle, and you want your friend to reach over and give you a specific piece. You would say “Give me the piece that has the star on it.” That reduces the choices to the one that matches the information in the phrase following that.
If, however, there were only one puzzle piece left, you could correctly say, “Give me the puzzle piece, which has the star on it.” You're just talking about The Puzzle Piece, but mentioning, just because you think it might be interesting or informative, that it has a star on it. Which gives additional nice-to-know information. It doesn't restrict the way that does.
That would be kind of silly thing to say in this context, since
you don't really need to tell your friend that the only puzzle piece left has a star
on it. She can tell. But it's correct.
A better example of when to use which would be this sentence.
Rye bread, which is very nutritious, is an excellent basis for any sandwich.
Which is the kind of word you might use in a novel; that is the kind of word you'd more likely use in technical directions. Which is more on the pleasantly descriptive side; that provides important information.
The phrase you use which in is always surrounded by commas, as in the above rye bread example. Or the which phrase might have a comma before it and a period after it, as in "Pass me the puzzle piece, which has a star on it."
Here's what I think you can ignore.
A lot of people make a lot of fuss about these items. I think they don't matter and you can just do what comes naturally.
- Ignore the rule about not ending a sentence
with a preposition (up to a point). A preposition is anything, as I was taught in grade school, that a squirrel can be in relationship to a tree. In, above, beside, etc.
That said, I think prepositions at the end are just fine if the sentence is clear, accurate, and understandable. If I tell you that I give up, you understand me. Are you going to be one of those people who say “This is something up with which I will not put?” Of course not.
Now, you might not want to say It's the bananas that I'm sick of. You would say I'm sick of bananas because it's more direct, vivid, etc. It's better writing. If you've got a lot of sentences ending in prepositions, that probably indicates some awkwardness or excessive length. You could tighten up your writing to make it clearer and shorter by rewriting those sentences.
- Ignore the rule about not splitting infinitives. This is a stupid hangover from Latin. Split your infinitives. Tell the world that you're going to aggressively pursue learning to program in Ajax. (The infinitive verb to pursue is split in the middle by the adverb aggressively.)
- Just forget about forming plurals for words that end in ex, using ices. I think this is silly. In English, we form plurals with s or es—jobs, sandwiches, etc. So talk abut indexes, not indices, unless you go to work each day in an actual ivory tower.
To Learn More
If you want to learn more about grammar, buy The Deluxe Transitive Vampire : A Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager and the Doomed . (As you see, she does not put a comma in front of “and”.) It's wonderful and hilarious. http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0679418601
For punctuation, see her other book, The New Well Tempered Sentence : A Punctuation Handbook for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed . http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0395628830