Monthly Archives: April 2012

Vacation Time.

Hello everyone.  I will be on vacation until next week.  The next blog will be posted on Friday, May 4.  The subject will be use of the active voice.    Arnold Regardie.

Leave a comment

Filed under clear writing

For Clearer Writing, Use Personal Pronouns.

 Use personal pronouns.

Meet the personal pronouns.  They are your friends and will help you to write more clearly.

If you use personal pronouns, the quality of your writing will substantially improve, no matter what level of sophistication your reading audience has. Pronouns help your readers relate better to your writing by visualizing themselves in the text.

Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th Ed. p. 995), defines a pronoun as “any of a small set of words in a language that are used as substitutes for nouns or noun phrases and whose references are named or understood in the context.”   The noun it replaces is called the antecedent.  Thus, in the sentence, “Gold is not only a rare metal, but it has become a symbol of wealth,” “Gold” is the antecedent of “it”.

As a reminder, the most common types of personal pronouns include I, you, he, she, it, we, and they.  Pronouns can vary in person (first, second, or third) and in number (singular or plural). Why use them? Even with a knowledgeable reader, use of personal pronouns will dramatically improve the clarity of your writing.  They will,

–    help keep sentences short and concise.

–   provide the information your reader wants to know in a logical order,

–   assign responsibilities and requirements clearly.

Pronouns also aid in reader understanding of your writing because they eliminate ambiguity and minimize abstract language by encouraging the use of more concrete, everyday words.    They also help to lock in reader interest by allowing you to “speak” directly to your reader and specify exactly who is being addressed. Remember that you are speaking to the one person who is reading your document, even though it may affect the public at large.  For example,

You should carefully review your ballot before voting,

is clearer and more definite than,

The ballot should be carefully reviewed before voting.

Use of personal pronouns may also avoid the awkwardness of the he/she dilemma.  Thus,

I saw Ken and Linda at the ballpark today and bought them each a hotdog,

is better than,

I saw Ken and Linda at the ballpark today and bought him and her a hotdog.

You must provide the requisite information, including name, address, and telephone number, when replying,

is better than,

The addressee must provide his or her name, address, and telephone number when replying.

Good teachers should not lose their tempers,

is better than

A good teacher should not lose his or her temper.

Use of the pronoun in the foregoing examples eliminates confusion and allows the sentences to flow more smoothly.

A Pronoun Must Agree With Its Antecedent.

A pronoun must agree with its antecedent in gender, number, and person.  The following words when used as antecedents are deemed to be singular:  each, every, any, no one, thing, body either and neither (except when they refer to plural sets) are singular.  Here are some examples:

Everybody did his best [Not their].

Every one raised his hand.  [Not their].

Each person must have  his ticket. [Not their].

Neither [Albert nor Louis] speak with an accent. [Not speaks].

Kind and sort are also singular:

I like that kind of pants.  [Not those].

That kind of scissors is very sharp.  [Not those].

But where the antecedent is plural, the pronoun must still agree:

Both know their trade.

Other antecedents may be singular or plural:

Most of this is mine.  Most of these are useless.

A collective noun usually takes a singular pronoun:

The assembly has given its report.

The team has played its last game.

The jury has reached its decision.

Sometimes, however, a collective noun may be thought of as separate individuals.  In that case a plural pronoun is appropriate, as in the following:

The jury disagree.

     

Copyright © 2012.  Arnold G. Regardie.  All Rights Reserved.

Leave a comment

Filed under clear writing, Writing Improvement

Tips On Sound Sentence Structure.

 Clear Sentences Require Sound Structure.

As pointed out in the last post, short, simple sentences and short, common words, enhance the effectiveness of a paragraph.  Your writing will be streamlined even further and your writing will be even clearer if you follow the natural word sequence of English speakers, “subject-verb-object,” as closely as possible.   Keep subjects and objects close to their verbs.  Putting modifiers, clauses, or phrases between any of these essential parts of a sentence will make it harder for the reader to understand you and weakens your sentence structure.

Before

Holders of common stock will be entitled to receive, to the extent money is available, a cash payment, as set forth in the accompanying schedules.

After

Cash distributions will be made to holders of common stock on the payment dates indicated in the accompanying schedules, if cash is available.

However, sloppy word placement even in a short sentence can cause ambiguity.   The following sentence makes it appear as if the writer has decided to be disabled:

Ambiguous – If you are determined to have a disability, the company will pay you according to the schedule set forth below.

Clearer – If the company determines that you have a disability, it will pay you according to the schedule set forth below.

 Strive For Consistent Sentence Construction. 

Uneven sentence construction will lead to unclear writing.  A common form of mixed sentence construction is the use of two negatives in a sentence.  Use of the so-called double negative destroys the orderly structure of the sentence and marks you as an uninformed writer.

For example, a company manual might provide as follows on the subject of extra vacation pay:  No approval of extra vacation pay may be implied in the absence of express approval from the company.

It is clearer to say:  You must obtain express company approval for extra vacation pay.

Other examples:

Wrong:  I haven’t got nothing to say about it.

Right:   I don’t have anything to say about it.

Wrong: He can’t write no better now than he could then.

Right:   He can’t write any better now than he could then.

Wrong: He couldn’t hardly run a step.

Right:   He could hardly run a step.

Wrong: Your invitation cannot at no time be accepted.

Right:   Your invitation cannot be accepted at any time.

Follow Parallel Sentence Structure For Parallel Thoughts.

A reader is attentive to both the form of the sentence as well as the thought.  The idea behind parallel sentence structure, or parallelism, is that the sentence should contain likeness of form.  That is, you should use parts of speech that are consistent in form.  Parallelism thus assures the smooth rhythm of a sentence by use of a consistent grammatical form.  Unparallel sentences can slip into your writing easily. Read the finished writing through at least once to look solely for these mistakes; reading it aloud can also help to spot them.  Here are some examples of unparallel structure with corrections:

Not parallel: Walking can sometimes be better exercise than to jog.

Parallel:    Walking can sometimes be better exercise than jogging.

Not parallel:  Your competitor sells lawnmowers of better quality and having a lower selling price.

Parallel:   Your competitor sells lawnmowers of better quality and at a lower price.

Not parallel:  If you want to buy ABC vitamins, simply fill out the coupon  below, making your check payable to the X Company, and mailing it to the address shown.

Parallel:  If you want to buy ABC vitamins, simply fill out the coupon below, make your check payable to the ABC Company, and mail it to the address shown.

Copyright © 2012.  Arnold G. Regardie.  All rights reserved.

Leave a comment

Filed under clear writing, sound sentence structure

Hidden Verbs Can Derail Clear Writing.

To avoid  the problem of so-called hidden verbs,  it helps to know exactly what a verb is.  Let’s go back to basics for a moment.  A verb is a word or word group which makes an assertion.  Although a verb  usually expresses action (Rain falls), it may also express being or mental state (The statement is true.  He dreams).

As explained in the  Federal Plain Language Guidelines, March 2011, Rev. 1, May 2011, p. 23 (Guidelines),  “verbs are the fuel of writing.”  By giving sentences power and direction, they make your writing lively and more interesting.  A hidden verb is a verb converted into a noun.  It often needs an extra verb to make sense.   Hidden verbs  can be a problem  by making a verb less effective and requiring more words than otherwise needed to complete the sentence.

The easiest way around this problem is to avoid using longer words when shorter ones will suffice.  Instead of getting mired in a grammarian’s technical jargon as to whether a sentence contains a buried or hidden verb or not or whether you have turned a verb into a noun, you can train yourself to look for certain words or phrases and try to eliminate or rewrite them as the context permits.

So, for example, words ending in “tion” and “ment” can often be used in a different form without concern as to what grammatical label applies.

Write,

“You are required to apply for a fishing license,” rather than,

“You are required to make an application for a fishing license.”

In the same vein, write,

“The cutback is not to be made unless authorized,” rather than,

“You must seek authorization for the cutback before making it.”

The latter sentence in each of the two examples is less effective and uses more words than necessary to convey the same thought as in the former sentence.  The following suggestions are also illustrative:

      Avoid                                                      Use

Authorization                                           Authorize

Negotiation                                              Negotiate

Settlement                                                Settle

Litigation                                                  Litigate

Achievement                                            Achieve

In summary, a hidden verb can come in two forms.  It may have a tell-tale ending such as -ment, –tion, -sion, and -ance;  or, it may link with verbs such as achieve, effect, give, make, reach, and take.  Here are more examples:

Before:

We will make an application…

We have made a determination…

The company has reached a decision…

After:

We applied…

We determined…

The company decided…

Find the noun and try to make it the main verb of your sentence.  As you change nouns to verbs, your writing will become more vigorous and less abstract.  It will be clearer if you say who does what.  As pointed out by attorney Bryan Garner in his able work, The Winning Brief, at p. 161, “Whenever the true verb will work in context, the better choice is to use it instead of the buried verb.”  In other words, “Use the strongest, most direct form of the verb possible.”  Guidelines, p. 23.

Copyright 2012.  Arnold G. Regardie.  All rights reserved.

Leave a comment

Filed under clear writing, Writing Improvement

Shorten Your Sentences To Minimize Ambiguity.

Here is an important clear writing pitfall to avoid: long and  complex  sentences. They are simply harder for the reader to understand.  No one likes to read a sentence that’s unwieldy.    Resist the temptation to put everything in one sentence.  A good rule of thumb is to express only one idea in a sentence. This will reduce many sources of ambiguity.

Writing a company report that describes the company’s product and its pricing does not have to result in a reader’s nightmare.  Information packed sentences leave most readers scratching their heads; they will get lost in the trees without seeing the forest. The key is to strive for better organization. Use shorter sentences in conjunction with shorter paragraphs.

The following one-sentence paragraph contains many shortcomings:

Before

The ABC Natural Medicine Group founded by Dr. Chang Zhou, a  medical doctor with many years of experience in the natural medicine field,  who was introduced to the formula used in this product while on sabbatical in a small town south of Shanghai and was motivated  to pursue the benefits of the mind- body unity of natural healing instead of following the path of conventional medicine after seeing his father, once robust but who became sluggish, apathetic, and listless, which he attributed to the damaging effects of a typical western diet, will be introducing its premier high potency, super energy health supplements later  this year, composed of the highest quality, health- enhancing phyto-nutrients which allow for instant nutrient absorption, as well as other medicinal components including dried seahorses, ginseng, turtle plastron, aloe vera, and other plant and animal parts.

 The difficulty with this paragraph is that it provides a lot of information without allowing the reader to take a breath or see any context.  The use of short sentences  broken up from the one long single sentence, together with some logical reorganizing of the sentence and the paragraph, provides context and makes this paragraph much easier to read as shown by the rewrite.

After

The ABC Natural Medicine Group will introduce its premier, high potency super energy health supplements later this year.  They are composed of the highest quality, health-enhancing phyto-nutrients, which allow for instant nutrient absorption.

The Group was founded by Dr. Chang Zhou, a medical doctor with many years of experience in the natural medicine field.  He was introduced to the formula used in this product while on sabbatical in a small town south of Shanghai.

Instead of following the path of conventional medicine, Dr. Zhou was motivated to pursue the benefits of the mind-body unity of natural healing after seeing his father, once robust, become sluggish, apathetic, and listless.  He attributed this condition to the damaging effects of a typical western diet.

As is evident, breaking up the one long sentence into six shorter ones and three paragraphs has made the general, rambling paragraph into three concise, specific ones.  The information only has to be read once to understand it. Also, the components of the medicine, dried seahorses, etc., have been deleted from the paragraph to facilitate the flow of information; these items are best left for a separate paragraph or even an appendix or supplement.

Often you can shorten your sentences to make them easier to understand by replacing a negative phrase with one word that conveys the same thought.  Thus,

Negative Phrase                                           Replacement Word

not able                                                               unable

not certain                                                           uncertain

not often                                                              infrequent

not many                                                             few

not the same                                                        different

not acceptable                                                      unacceptable

does not include                                                   excludes, omits

does not have                                                       lacks

An unduly long sentence has no place in clear writing.  Follow the techniques summarized above to help avoid “choking” your writing with lengthy, information packed sentences.  Work on developing shorter, pithy sentences;  the construction of great sentences requires no less.

Copyright 2012.  Arnold G. Regardie.  All rights reserved.

Leave a comment

Filed under clear writing

A Final word On Diction.

Overuse Of Jargon.  Jargon is an affected or exaggerated way of expressing yourself. Use it sparingly. Don’t create jargon that’s unique to your document in the form of abbreviations, acronyms, or other short-hand words.  It may be hard to spot this problem if you’ve been working in a certain field for awhile.  Consider asking someone outside your field to review your work for unfamiliar words.

Even the use of an acronym that is not new to you may be new to someone who does not have your familiarity with the subject.  Thus, the fact that the term “euro,” refers to the currency unit used by some members of the European Union may not be known to those who do not follow business news or have foreign  investments. A good rule of thumb to remember is not to use jargon without explanation or providing a definition if its use increases the difficulty of understanding your writing.  And don’t use it more than two or three times, whether explained or not.

For example, if following sports is your passion, acronyms or abbreviations such as NCAA, NFL, and PGA may be as familiar to you as the back of your hand.  But to a non-sports fan they are likely to be meaningless.  So, spell them out, National Collegiate Athletic Association, National Football League, and Professional Golfers Association, to be on the safe side, and briefly explain what each is and what each does.

If you’re a financial news maven, abbreviations such as DJIA, S & P and CPI may be second nature to you; if you’re not into reading the business news, better to spell it out that DJIA refers to the Dow Jones Industrial Average, S & P refers to Standard & Poor, a well known financial rating service, and CPI stands for Consumer Price Index.

On the other hand some acronyms and abbreviations are so well known as not to require any explanation.  NATO, CPA, CIA, GM, and ATM are in such common usage that they are universally known and should not require definition.

Weights and measures should be expressed in U.S. equivalents and not the metric system. If you absolutely have to use the metric system, also show the U.S. equivalents.

Use words and terms consistently throughout your writing.

 No Rhythm.  Proper diction is also evidenced by rhythmic writing.   This means sentences and paragraphs must flow smoothly and evenly, without undue interruption or qualification.  Lack of rhythm is evidenced by a herky jerky, jumpy flow of information.  Develop an ear for your writing and listen to its tempo as you write and revise.    

Avoid Common Usage Mistakes. Finally, avoid common mistakes such as writing “in regards to”; the correct usage is “in regard to.”  But, ending a letter with “Best Regards,” is correct.  Don’t use “irregardless“, there is no such word; use “regardless.” Don’t write “your” when you mean “you’re,” and don’t write, “I’ve been waiting on [someone or something],” an often used colloquialism, when you mean, “I’ve been waiting for [someone or something].”

Learn the difference between often misused words such as capital and capitol, principle and principal, then and than, that and which, and affect and effect, to name a few, and correctly use them.  The following definitions may be found in Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th Ed.)  (Use an unabridged dictionary or a good style manual to flesh out the full meaning and correct usage of all unfamiliar words):

capital – seat of government (Washington D.C. is the capital of the  United States);  a crime punishable by death is a capital offense.

capitol – the building where the U.S. Congress or a state legislature  meets.

then       —    at that time, next in order

than       —    in comparison with

affect    —     inclined, disposed

effect    —     to bring about, put into operation

farther — at a greater distance or more advanced point

further — advanced not only in space or time but in quantity

The farther mountain; which is the farther tree?  No  further steps will be taken; we will not go any further.

that    )  —

which)

who   )

 Use who chiefly with persons, sometimes animals; use which to refer chiefly to things; use that with persons or things; according to Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th Ed.), p.1294 (that, def. 4, usage), that and which are used regularly to introduce restrictive clauses. (A restrictive clause is a descriptive clause that is essential to the definiteness of the word it modifies, e.g., Where is the house that Jack built?  The ink that you need is no longer available.)  Id. p. 1063 (restrictive clause).

 Failure to use a word correctly will cause a major drop in your credibility, which is the bottom line.  Once you lose credibility, you may face an uphill battle to regain it.   Common writing mistakes such as these will quickly stamp you as an amateur.  Avoid them at all costs.

Copyright 20o12.  Arnold G. Regardie.  All rights reserved.

 

   

2 Comments

Filed under clear writing

Good Diction Also Requires Use Of The Exact Word And Concrete Writing.

Failure To Use The Exact Word.   Don’t settle for approximations of your thought. Imprecise words and expressions detract from clarity and may cause your reader to question all the other statements you make.  Generalities will roll off a reader like water off a duck’s back.  Accuracy of word usage is what you seek.  The mental discipline of searching for and finding the right word will pay huge dividends for you in developing a clear writing style.

 For example, writing that the XYZ machine is a bad product is far too general.  “Bad” is a very overworked word and not very specific in this context.  A look at Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Ed.,  reveals “failing to reach an acceptable standard,”  as the first choice of definition  for this word.   Thus, writing that the XYZ machine requires far too many repairs to meet acceptable consumer standards is an obvious gain in specificity.

  “Cool” is another greatly overused word in today’s society.  It is often used in everyday conversation to signify the speaker’s acceptance of a thought, description, etc., uttered by another.  But it has little place in formal writing.

For example, if you were to write that Murphys, California is a “cool” place to visit, the reader would have little understanding of what you mean and would have no incentive to go there.  But if you wrote that it’s nestled in the farmland of the upper San Joaquin Valley and is accessible only after driving through rolling farmland countryside, that it’s a living remnant of the old West and is a shopper’s delight complete with casual dining and a nearby winery, the added specificity will make  a visit sound much more inviting.

  An overly general choice of words is frequently the mark of a lazy mind. Sharpen your word selection by resorting to an unabridged dictionary. A general word will usually have many definitions to choose from to make your meaning definite. When a shorter synonym for a word is available use it.  Often you will find that the use of a shorter synonym for the word you are using is the best option.  Common words such as “end” instead of “terminate”, “explain” rather than “elucidate”, and “use” instead of “utilize,” are better choices.

Failure To Write Concretely.  Concrete words that can be seen or felt have a stronger appeal than vague words because the reader can readily come to grips with them.  Be alert for vague or abstract language, the opposite of concrete, in your writing.  A good writer uses detail to encourage visualization and the formation of word pictures in the reader’s mind.  Stronger writing will always use definite, specific language because it will be far easier for the reader to understand a concept when the reader’s mind can form images. The following examples show how replacing abstract words with more definite ones can increase reader understanding:

Before – The ABC Fund seeks capital appreciation and, secondarily, income from investing in securities, primarily equities, that the company believes are undervalued and therefore represent basic investment value.

After – The ABC Fund strives to increase the value of your shares and also to provide income by investing in stocks that are selling for low prices based on the financial strength of the companies.

Before – No financial consideration or surrender of ABC stock will be required of shareholders of the ABC Company in return for the issuance of stock in the new company issued pursuant to the spin-off.

After – You will not have to turn in your shares of ABC Company stock or pay any money to receive your shares issued by the new XYZ Company as a result of the ABC Company’s reorganization.

Use quotations and examples from other sources where possible to avoid operating in a vacuum.  An astute lawyer often uses quotations from prior decisions to  drive home a point or help explain a difficult concept.

It is often desirable to create a scenario where people perform actions to help explain vague text.   A study conducted at the Carnegie-Mellon University concluded that readers, when faced with complex information, often preferred scenarios to better understand the text.  Thus, in explaining the use of call options to buy stock, the following example may help:

You can buy an option from Mr. Smith that gives you the right to buy 100 shares of stock X from him at $25.00 per share anytime between now and six weeks from now. You believe that X’s price will go up between now and then.  He believes it will stay the same or go down.  If you exercise the option before it expires, Mr. Smith must sell you 100 shares of stock X at $25.00 per share, even if the purchase price has gone up.  Either way, whether you exercise your option or not, he keeps the money that you paid him for the option.

Use of this technique has often made a complex concept more understandable.  Similarly, a question and answer format may succeed in place of an abstract narrative discussion.

Work on being specific and avoiding generalities.  Say precisely what you mean.  Although it may be impossible to eliminate all abstractions from your writing, minimize them by using concrete terms whenever possible.

Copyright 2012.  Arnold G. Regardie.  All rights reserved.

Leave a comment

Filed under clear writing