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Commas with Pairs of Adjectives


You have two adjectives together. Do you or don’t you put a comma between them? If they are coordinate adjectives, you do. This follows Zen Comma Rule P.

Comma Rule P: Put a Comma between Coordinate Adjectives.

Definition of Coordinate Adjectives. Adjectives are coordinate if they meet two criteria: (1) You can place and between the two words, and the sentence means the same thing, and (2) You can reverse their order, and the sentence means the same thing.

Sample 1: We had a hot, dry summer.

Sample 1 has the adjectives hot and dry, both used to describe summer. If we write We had a hot and dry summer, the sentence makes sense. It also makes sense if we write We had a dry, hot summer. The adjectives meet both criteria, so we know they are coordinate and put a comma between them.

To native English speakers, the two revised sentences will sound like natural speech, and the two criteria are likely sufficient to identify coordinate adjectives. For a more technical explanation, we can examine the Royal Order of Adjectives.

(If these criteria and revisions make sense to you, skip the next section and go to Rule Q.)

Definition of Royal Order of Adjectives. This is the order in which native English speakers naturally use adjectives in speech and writing. Although exceptions exist, such as to emphasize specific characteristics, this order is generally true. Continue reading

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3 Strategies to Make Bad Information Sound Good


Sometimes, things are not as good as you expect. Sometimes, the truth hurts. Sometimes, you are not perfect. And you have to write about it. These three strategies will help you write about bad, or embarrassing, information in a way that makes the bad information sound better than it is. You need to tell the truth; that’s a given. But you can tell it in a way that produces a positive, or less, bad reaction from your reader. 

Day 146: Put a positive spin on negative information by writing not + [positive term] + [excuse].

When we talk about spin, spinning, or putting a spin on information, we mean writing information in a manner that leads to a particular interpretation. This is used to make good news seem bad or unimportant. This is also used to make potentially unpleasant information seem more acceptable. Spin is very common in the media and political world, but it is also used in everyday writing and speech. You will have to decide for yourself whether or not this is ethical. Continue reading

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Strategies for Writing Concise Descriptions


Concise writing is clear writing. By definition, concise writing communicates in as few words as necessary. Everything in a sentence other than the subject, verb, and object is description. Descriptions cause most of the “fluff” in sentences, but, fortunately, some simple strategies will help you write concise descriptions.

Simplifying ownership

You can show ownership in two ways, with a possessive or a prepositional phrase. Prepositional phrases always make writing less concise. Using possessives, such as the apostrophe-S, will make writing more concise.

Example 1.a, prepositional phrase: The purpose of the CEO is to create an environment for efficiency. (12 words)
Example 1.b, possessive: The CEO’s purpose is to create an environment for efficiency. (10 words)

In example 1, revising the prepositional phrase reduces the sentence’s word count by 2 words. This might not seem significant, but it is. First, if you do this multiple times in a document, the overall effect is more concise writing. You will have removed many unnecessary words. Second, the writing will be stronger overall because you will have removed the weak prepositional phrases.

I only endorse prepositional phrases for ownership when the “owner” is a phrase of 3 or more words. With the possessive, the sentence may be confusing or awkward because the sentence has multiple descriptive words before naming the thing being described. Each case needs to be considered carefully. In example 2, the sentence with the prepositional phrase may be better than sentence with the possessive.

Example 2.a, prepositional phrase: The design of the ergonomic latex foam chair compensates for spine curvature.
Example 2.b, possessive: The ergonomic latex foam chair’s design compensates for spine curvature. Continue reading

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Action Verbs Good. Nominalizations Bad


What are nominalizations?

Nominalizations are the noun forms of action verbs, as seen Table 1.

Table 1: Sample action verbs and corresponding nouns (nominalizations)

Sample action verbs

Corresponding nouns

illustrate
fail
react
announce
increase (v)

illustration
failure
reaction
announcement
increase (n)

Why are they bad, and how do I fix them?

Nominalizations have multiple negative effects.

1. They make sentences less concise.
2. They increase the noun-to-verb ratio.
3. They make sentences difficult to understand.
4. They make reading tedious.

Nominalizations often force writers to add additional words to sentences. Changing nominalizations back to action verbs often decreases the number of words needed to communicate the idea, as seen here:

Example 1a, with nominalization: “The commencement of the ceremony will be at noon.”
Example 1b, with action verb: “The ceremony will commence at noon.” Continue reading

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Writing Style and Language Complexity


Writing style comprises four characteristics:

  1. Formality
  2. Language complexity
  3. Objectivity, and
  4. Information depth.

The purpose you are trying to accomplish, the readers’ needs, your relationship with the reader, and the type of document affect the style in which you write. Style is a strategy for effective writing, not a goal.

Levels of Language Complexity 

Some writers use simple, straightforward sentences with few modifying phrases and clauses. Others use complex sentences with many modifiers, interjected descriptions, and multiple clauses and phrases.

Simple sentence example: “Lisa bought a red car.”

This simple sentence contains a simple subject (“Lisa”) and a simple predicate with an object (“bought a red car”). This sentence has two modifying words (“a,” “red”) but no other phrases or clauses.

Moderately complex sentence example: “When the day ended, Lisa, a sales clerk at the downtown market, bought a red car.”

This moderately complex sentence has an introductory descriptive clause (“when the day ended”), a simple subject (“Lisa”), an appositive for the subject (“a sales clerk at the downtown market”), and a simple predicate with an object (“bought a red car”).

Very complex sentence example: “When the day ended, which couldn’t have happened soon enough, given the type of day she had had, Lisa, a sales clerk at the downtown market, a grimy, dark nook in an old building, bought what she mistakenly thought was a new, or, at the worst, slightly used, red car.”

This complex sentence has an introductory descriptive clause (“when the day ended”), a description of the introductory clause (“which couldn’t have happened soon enough”), a description of the description of the introductory clause (“given the type of day she had had”), a subject (“Lisa”), an appositive for the subject (“a sales clerk at the downtown market”), a description of the appositive for the subject (“a grimy, dark nook”), a description of the description of the appositive for the subject (“in an old building”). And then we finally get to the predicate, which is similarly complicated.

Key Features of Language Complexity

As these three examples show, the 2 key features of language complexity are

  1. the number of descriptive phases and clauses and
  2. the levels of description (such as description of description).

A careful writer considers sentence complexity in light of the readers’ needs. Simple sentences can be read quickly and understood easily. As sentences become more complex, they contain more information and “flavor,” but they require more work from the readers and increase the potential for misunderstanding.

Advice for Writers

As with all style issues, the level of language complexity needs to fit the readers’ needs. Simple sentences are the most easy to understand. They present minimal information in a straightforward manner, with no interruptions in the main thought being communicated. On the other hand, using too many simple sentences, or a string of simple sentences, makes the writing appear amateurish.

For technical manuals, lists of instructions, user guides, and other documents that present single action steps, stick with simple sentences. For most other types of documents, the writer can present more complex information and create better reader interest and engagement by using a mix of simple and moderately complex sentences.

If your goal is reader understanding and interest, avoid very complex sentences. Overall, you will communicate best by

  • using a mix of simple and moderately complex sentences,
  • limiting the number of descriptive phrases,
  • presenting only one descriptive phrase at a time, and
  • avoiding descriptions of descriptions.

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Active Voice and Passive Voice


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 main action. In the passive voice, the main action 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)

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

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

S –> V = active (the subject does the verb)
V –> S = passive (the verb 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 grammatical subject of the verb, resulting in

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

By using the object as the grammatical subject, a passive voice sentence makes the information convoluted and complex, and the reader will be less likely to respond to it. Additionally, the meaningful subject (i.e., who or what does the main action) will never be the grammatical subject in the passive voice. 

Definitions:
Main action: The main action described by the sentence, what the sentence is about.
Meaningful subject: The person or thing doing the main action.
Grammatical subject: The word in the subject position in the sentence.

In nearly every sentence, the active voice results in more direct writing. However, the passive voice has a purpose, too. Next, we’ll look at the reasons for each voice.

Reasons for active voice

The main reason for using the active voice is that it directly answers the readers’ question: Who did what to whom? It provides that information and in that order. As a result, the reader can more easily understand and remember the idea you wish to communicate.

Other reasons include the following:

  1. Sentences in the active voice are more engaging. Something is performing an action.
  2. The active voice is more likely to use the meaningful subject as the grammatical subject and the meaningful action as the main verb.
  3. Active voice sentences are generally more concise.
  4. The active voice emphasizes active verbs.

In brief, active voice follows the principles of direct writing.

Reasons for passive voice

The passive voice may be appropriate for two reasons: (1) to de-emphasize the person or thing doing the action, and (2) to shorten the grammatical subject.

The main reason for using the passive voice is to hide or de-emphasize the meaningful subject, the person or thing that did the meaningful action. Instead, the passive voice emphasizes the person or thing on which the action was performed, as seen in D.2a and D.2b.

Example D.2a, passive, emphasizes the material: “The material was first developed in the laboratory by researchers from Oslo.”
Example D.2.b, active, emphasizes the researchers: “Researchers from Oslo first developed the material in a laboratory.”

In both D.2a and D.2b, the meaningful action is developed, making researchers the meaningful subject. Whereas the active voice sentence in D.2a uses the meaningful subject as the grammatical subject, the passive voice sentence in D.2b does not. If the writer wishes to focus on the material, and if the researchers are not important (or not at this point in the document), the writer might prefer the passive voice.

Scientific writing, regardless of the field, does not require the passive voice. This also applies to dissertation writing. The active voice is perfectly appropriate for describing the research methodology. The purpose of the research methodology is to describe what the researchers did to collect and analyze the data. Thus, the researchers are correct to use the active voice when describing their actions. Instead of writing

“The data were collected from six species of house sparrows,”

The researcher can write

“We collected data from six species of house sparrows.”

In many cases, the writer can revise the sentence to use the active voice without mentioning the researchers, as seen here:

“Six species of house sparrows provided the initial data for analysis.”

The second reason for using the passive voice is to simplify and shorten the subject of the sentence so that the main verb is closer to the beginning of the sentence and easier to find.

Example D.3a, active voice sentence: “The decision whether to solicit for and hire a new personnel manager or to outsource those functions to an external agency consumed valuable work time.” (subject: 21 words)
Example D.3b, passive voice sentence: “Valuable work time was consumed by the decision whether to solicit for and hire a new personnel manager or to outsource those functions to an external agency.” (subject: 3 words)

Example D.3a uses the meaningful subject (The decision whether to . . .) as the grammatical subject. It focuses the readers’ attention on the main idea of the sentence. For these reasons, Example D.3a is more direct than Example D.3b. However, the subject contains 21 words, greatly delaying the reader from reaching the main verb. On the other hand, Example D.3b uses the object (Valuable work time) as the grammatical subject, forcing the meaningful subject to the end of the sentence. However, the grammatical subject contains only 3 words, so the reader can reach the main verb more quickly.

In cases similar to Examples D.3a, the writer may choose to use the passive voice to reduce the length of the grammatical subject.

In a limited number of cases, the passive voice is useful, but examine every passive voice sentence carefully to make sure it is the better choice. Other than in these two cases, the active voice will produce better writing. When we editing clients’ documents at Precise Edit, we rarely need to use the passive voice.

(Adapted from the forthcoming Bowman’s Concise Guide to Technical Writing, available mid-February 2012 at http://HostileEditing.com.)

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Whom Do You Love


When I was in college, I worked behind the front desk of a major hotel. Directly across the lobby was the hotel bar, a small, dark lounge with the bar counter on the opposite side and a stage at one end. George Thorogood, when he stayed at the hotel, would sit at the far end of the counter, next to the stage. 

Connie, the bartender, once told me that her job was to keep people away from George, but I never once saw her have to do this. George Thorogood would nurse his drink in silence. That’s when I started listening to his music and became a fan. 

My favorite song performed by George Thorogood is “Move It On Over,” and my second favorite is “Who Do You Love?” This order would be reversed except for one thing: bad grammar in the song title. To be grammatically correct, “Who Do You Love?” should be “Whom Do You Love?” 

Why Whom?
Many people are confused by “whom.” What does “whom” mean? When do you use “whom”? These are easy questions to answer if you know about objects and object pronouns. 

An object in a sentence is either (1) the referent for a preposition or (2) the recipient of an action. Let’s look at these in order.  Continue reading

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