Be More Active with Your Writing


Active and Passive Voice: When you are active, you do something. When you are passive, things happen to you. This is the same concept as the active and passive voice in sentences.

In the active voice, the subject performs the action described by the main verb. In the passive voice, the action described by the main verb is done to the subject.

Example D.1a, active voice: “The service team collected the parts.”
(subject: service team; main verb: collected)
Example D.1b, passive voice: “The parts were collected by the service team.”
(subject: parts; main verb: collected)

In example D.1a, the subject did the action, so the sentence is active. In example D.1b, the action was done to the subject, so the sentence is passive.

To determine whether your sentence is active or passive, first find the subject and main verb. Then ask, “Is the subject doing the verb?” If the answer is Yes, the sentence is active. If the answer is No, the sentence is passive.

If we describe this concept as a formula, we get this:

S >> V = active (the subject does the action)
V >> S = passive (the action is done to the subject)

Grammatically, the active voice looks like this:

Subject – Verb – Object (i.e., Who did what to whom?).

On the other hand, the passive voice uses the object as the subject of the verb, resulting in

Subject&Object – Verb (i.e., To whom was it done?). Continue reading

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Comma with “Including” Changes the Meaning


I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Where you add or leave out a comma can change the meaning of a sentence.

Let’s look at a news story I read this morning to learn how a comma before “including” changes the meaning of the sentence. In this example, I think the writer left out a comma, thus communicating something that probably isn’t true.

“The Chicago Teachers Union has [sic] announced that it will send a bus to the 50th Anniversary March on Washington, a full week of events to be hosted by the four children of Martin Luther King, Jr. and several organizations including Al Sharpton’s National Action Network.” (http://news.yahoo.com/chicago-teachers-union-headed-washington-fight-trayvon-against-124604748.html)

Leaving out the Comma before “Including”

The central concept to remember here is that commas separate information. On the other hand, leaving out a comma connects the information.

In this example, the writer chose to leave out the comma before “including.” By doing so, the writer connects the phrase “including Al Sharpton’s National Action Network” to “several organizations.” This means the organizations include (are involved with, collaborate with, have as a partner) Al Sharpton’s National Action Network. Indeed, “Al Sharpton’s National Action Network” describes “organizations.”

To say it another way, the organizations hosting the march are those that are involved with Al Sharpton’s National Action Network. If this is true, then organizations that are not involved with Al Sharpton’s organization are not hosting the event.

This is a bit tricky to understand, I know, so let’s look at a simpler example that follows the same pattern, uses “including,” and leaves out a comma.

“I enjoy making desserts including chocolate pudding.”

In this short example, the desserts I enjoy making are those desserts that have chocolate pudding in them. I may enjoy making many types of desserts, but here I’m talking about the desserts that have chocolate pudding as an ingredient. Thus, “chocolate pudding” is part of the description of the desserts. In question and answer format, the sentence means this:

“What type of desserts do I enjoy making? Those desserts including chocolate pudding.”

Now let’s go back to the original example.

“What types of organizations are hosting the event? Those organizations including Al Sharpton’s National Action Network.”

I don’t think this is what the writer meant to say.

Adding the Comma before “Including”

If leaving out a comma indicates that “Al Sharpton’s National Action Network” describes “organizations,” then putting a comma in separates “organizations” from “Al Sharpton’s National Action Network.” With a comma, “Al Sharpton’s National Action Network” is no longer a description of “organizations.”

So what does the sentence mean if we put in the comma? Simply, Al Sharpton’s National Action Network is one of the organizations hosting the event. It doesn’t describe all the organizations but is, rather, one of them.

This, too, may be a bit tricky, so let’s look at a simpler example.

“I enjoy making deserts, including chocolate pudding.”

In this simple example, one type of dessert, among several, is “chocolate pudding.”

Now, back to the original example. “Al Sharpton’s National Action Network” is one of several organizations hosting the event. With the comma, the word “including” is similar to “for example” and “such as,” as follows.

“…a full week of events to be hosted by the four children of Martin Luther King, Jr. and several organizations, such as / for example Al Sharpton’s National Action Network.”

I think that this is what the writer meant. However, without the comma, this is not what the writer communicated. What the writer meant and what the writer actually said are different.

What’s the Point of This?

When you use commas correctly, you are more likely to communicate what you mean, and the reader is more likely to have the correct understanding of your intended message.


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4 Strategies for Objective Writing


Good technical or academic writing is objective, yet many writers inadvertently insert their own opinions about, and responses to, the content. In this way, they damage their credibility and reduce the value of what they write.

Feelings, emotions, opinions, and beliefs are called, collectively, individual perspective. An individual perspective indicates the perspective of one person: the writer. In all forms of technical writing, your individual perspective is inappropriate.

Think about your reader. Your reader is seeking believable, credible information. Your opinions, etc. are not believable, credible information. They only apply to you; they do not apply to your reader.

The most obvious cases are sentence that contain such phrases as I feel that, I believe, and in my opinion. If you can express the idea as a fact, do so. If you cannot express the idea without those phrases, remove the sentence entirely.

Writers also interject their individual perspectives by using particular words and by making judgments, as explained below. Continue reading

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“Was” vs. “Were”


I have a question. Please answer my question. Which choice is correct? A or B? and why?
A) If I were you, I would help the poor.
B) If I was you, I would help the poor.
Well, as you know both a) and b) are conditional unreal clauses . My friend says that educated people will never ever use option B) and that option B) is used just by illiterate people.  He says that in conditional unreal clauses, one should use only the were form of be no matter what the subject.
Do you agree with my friend? As an educated person, do you use WAS in your speeches and writings when it comes to the “if clauses” of conditional unreal clauses?

 

Farhad,

Your friend is both right and wrong.

Your friend is right that option A (“were”) is the correct usage. When using conditional clauses (such as beginning with “if”) and when the condition is unreal or imaginary, the correct verb form is “were.”

For example, “If I were a painter, I would paint my own house.” The conditional unreal clause is “If I were a painter.” It establishes a condition for painting my own house, and it is unreal because I am not a painter.

Your friend is wrong that educated people never use option B (“was”). They do, although the incorrect usage is more common in speech than in writing.

When people speak casually, they tend to use speech habits and not analyze their word usage carefully. Indeed, the value of habits is that we can act without conscious decision-making, but it can lead to problems, as well. I probably use “was” in speech sometimes, although I am far more likely to use “were.” In my case, the correct usage is a trained, consciously developed habit. Now, “were” sounds more natural to me than “was.”

The reason many people use the wrong form, particularly in speech, is that people tend to use language the way they commonly hear the language, particularly how they heard the language used in their early years. The result is that the “wrong” usage sounds correct and natural and they don’t realize that they make mistakes.

We see the same problems with usage of “data” and “staff,” for example.


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    Bang! Writing with Impact
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    Which Word Do I Use?
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Looking for a Cover


We’re very close to sending Concise Guide to Technical and Academic Writing to press, but we need a great cover image. (More about the book here.)

Here are two potential covers, both in draft form. (The book dimensions will be 5.25″ x 8.00″.) What do you think?

Vote on the one you like and comment below. I’ll send you a PDF of Zen Comma.

Continue reading

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The Comma Versus the Dash for Emphasis


Comma or Dash?

Here’s the question: You want to add an emphatic statement to the end of a sentence, something that will catch the readers’ attention. To create reader focus, you want to create a brief pause prior to the emphatic statement. But do you use a comma or a dash?

Bad Example and Explanation

Here’s an example of the wrong way to do it:

It’s reality, and the subject of a jury-prize-winning film in the GE Focus Forward Film Competition. (http://news.yahoo.com/chemist-hopes-artificial-leaf-power-civilization-using-photosynthesis-173654018–abc-news-tech.html)

See that comma? The writer is using the comma to set off the final information and to create impact, i.e., emphasis. That comma is a problem.

One of the most common uses for commas is to signal the end of a complete sentence, a.k.a. independent clause, that the writer is linking to another complete sentence with a conjunction (e.g., and, but). The sample sentence begins with the independent clause “It’s reality” and the conjunction “and.” The comma suggests that the information following “and” will be another complete sentence, which is not true.

In fact, the entire descriptive phrase “the subject of a jury-prize-winning film…” is linked to the verb “is” found in the contraction “it’s.” As evidence of this, the writer could have written “It’s reality, and it’s the subject of a . . . .” Unfortunately, the writer didn’t do this. By using the comma to create an emphatic pause, the writer separated “it” from its description.

Still not convinced that the comma is wrong? Try this: Separate the subject from its first description and see if it looks right. “It’s, reality” is incorrect because it separates the subject “it” from its description, “reality.” The subject and the first description need to be together, not separated by a comma. The subject and second description also need to be together, but the comma separates them.

In brief, the comma needs to go.

Solution: Use a Dash

How, then, could the writer have created the pause needed to create emphasis? Answer: use an em dash, which is the long dash.

Em dashes have several uses, but the primary use is to create a pause before a final statement that is joined by a conjunction and would otherwise seems like part of the grammatical structure of the sentence. The long pause will cause the reader to focus on the final statement.

Examples of commas versus dashes for emphasis:

1. He is a veteran, a hero. (This doesn’t need a dash because “a hero” isn’t joined by a conjunction and because leaving out the comma would make an ungrammatical sentence.)

2. He is a veteran–and a great father. (This uses an em dash to separate and emphasize “a great father,” which the conjunction “and” would otherwise join to the first part of the sentence.)

If the writer of the bad example wanted to create emphasis on “the subject of a jury-prize-winning film . . . ,” the writer should have used an em dash.

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The Confusion of And vs. To


English can be a difficult language to learn, not because English grammar is tricky (though it can be) but because the language can be vague. Word choice, in particular, can be very confusing, particularly when more than one word is possible. 

Here’s a question I received recently about the nuances of the English language.

Question: Which of the following is correct:
a. I would like to send Peter an email AND give him my regards.
b. I would like to send Peter an email TO give him my regards.

As in so many cases, the answer is . . . both, depending on your intended meaning. Let’s look at these two statements to figure out which one to use.

SENTENCE A: AND

“I would like to send Peter an email AND give him my regards.”

This statement has two potential meanings.

First, this sentence could mean that I want to do two separate actions: (1) send Peter an email, and (2) give Peter my regards. These actions might happen at the same time, or they might not. This sentence isn’t clear. To understand how this sentence describes two actions, we can compare it to a similar sentence with the same structure: “I want to make a million dollars AND take a trip to the Bahamas.” They are separate actions.  Continue reading

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