What was that again?

Take a quick look at the following sentences. Can you see what the three of them have in common?

  1. The troops fired into crowds protesting the return of the religious leader.
  2. John and Bob were in the coffee room when Bill Smith and Art Jones from accounting walked in. Words were exchanged, and the two wanted to argue about the hiring policy decision.
  3. Army helicopter pilots reported seeing steam plumes venting from near the top of the smaller mountain last week, but they disappeared shortly after the observation.

Whatever else these sentences may have in common, none of them tells the reader who did what. Take another look.

In sentence1., who was protesting the return of the religious leader? Was it the troops who were protesting? Was it the crowds? And in sentence 2., who was it who wanted to argue? And how about sentence 3.?

Creating confusion is easy to do when the writer knows so much about the subject that it all seems clear at first glance. So now look at sentence 1. How can you make it perfectly clear who was doing the protesting?

Perhaps you said something like.

“The troops, who were protesting the return of the religious leader, fired into the crowds.”

Or, if it had been the other way around, perhaps something like,

“The troops fired into the crowds, who were protesting the return of the religious leader.”

And how about sentence 2. How could you make it clear which two wanted to argue?:

This one is relatively easy, right? All you need to do is substitute the names of the would-be arguers for “the two.” So fixes are not always that complicated. The hard part is to recognize when what you have written is not as clear to the reader as it was to you when you wrote it.

And now for sentence 3.  Who was it who disappeared?:

This one is probably the most common source of confusion created by the writer. Is “they” the pilots (oh no!) or the plumes? This sort of confusion is also the easiest to spot when you proofread your writing before you send it. Just look for words like  “they,” “he,” “she,” “we,” “it.” Then substitute the name or description for that word.

Fixing this sort of confusion – who did what? – can be relatively easy. The trick is to be aware of, and to recognize the sentences that will be confusing to the reader. Then fix them.

© 2013 Gail Tycer • www.GailTycer.com

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Passive Sentences: What is Grammar Checker Telling You?

And, I’m guessing, telling you wrong maybe 50% of the time. So which 50%? And how do you know? And what is a passive sentence, anyway? You need to be able to check the grammar checker.

To begin with, let’s look at what a sentence is. Webster’s tells us that a sentence is “a combination of words, which is complete as expressing a thought…”  A sentence starts with a capital letter, and most often ends with a period (.), although it could end with an exclamation point (!) or a question mark (?).  Various types of sentences are usually categorized in one of two ways: structure, or function.

Structure-wise, there are three types of sentences: Active, Passive, and Descriptive.

An Active sentence is a sentence in which someone or something does something, e.g.,

John throws the ball.

A Passive sentence is a sentence in which someone or something is being done to, e.g.,

The ball was thrown.

A Descriptive sentence is one that uses a form of “to be,” such as: is, are, was, were, will be, and so on, and may be used in combination with words like “seems,” or “feels,” e.g.,

The ball is green.

The ball seems to be green.

So what about passive sentences? Well, for one thing, they are harder to read. Harder to comprehend, and almost always longer. In the above examples, you will need six words in the passive sentence to provide the same information the reader gets from the active sentence. The four-word active sentence above  (“John throws the ball.”) becomes a six-word passive sentence (“The ball was thrown by John.”)

If you are writing to be more concise, more clearly understood at a glance – use active sentences.

Strategically: A piece loaded with passive sentences will certainly discourage readership and can lead to misunderstanding – or no understanding.  Can often lead to a generally bad feeling about you or your organization, perhaps even, at the extreme, to the point of mistrust. Think about some of the least-trusted sectors of our society. Take a look at how they communicate with their various publics. Although many organizations now discourage over-use of passive sentences, you will likely still see a lot of passive sentences in these written materials.

So, are passive sentences lethal in your writing? Depends on what you are trying to accomplish. Readership, or non-readership.

Occasional passive sentences are not deadly. Active sentences communicate.

If you find these tips helpful, bring Gail to your workplace for an onsite workshop. To learn more click here.

© 2013 Gail Tycer • www.GailTycer.com

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What Should a Title Look Like?

The style you use to show the titles of books, magazines, plays, software, and so on has changed over the years as better technology has emerged. Even so, not all authorities agree on what this sort of “major” title should look like.

Let’s take a time out to take a quick look at the issue of style:

 The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law is arguably the premier style guide for newspapers and publications written for the average adult reader. Also perhaps the most widely used business writing style guide.

The MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, probably one of the most often used style guides for academic writing, defines style guidelines for the scholar. There are also specialized style guides for specialized fields and disciplines.

In addition, many universities, colleges, and schools devise their own style guides, addressing such common questions as “where does the comma go,”  “what should a title look like,” and “how many spaces should there be between sentences.” Similarly, a great many public- and private-sector organizations also produce their own style guides, similarly advising their writers how to use punctuation, or capitalize words. 

Thus, we have two major styles: formal, or academic; and informal, or journalistic. Many style guides are available either in paper versions, or online, frequently on a subscription basis.

So, is there a difference between “correct” grammar and usage and style?

Absolutely. And the confusion and resulting arguments – online, as well as around the water cooler – can gobble up on-the-job hours, as well as playing fast and loose with the spirit of cooperation and respect every organization needs to be most productive.

The solution: Standardize on the style guide to be used in your office, or in your organization, and have everyone use the same guidelines.

Many organizations have a style guide that no one knows about. So find out if your organization has its own style guide.  If there is one, everyone needs to use that one!

But what if your organization truly does not have a standard style guide? Then you may use the style that seems to you most effective in making your point clearly – assuming, of course, that you are (1) using that style bit consistently, and are (2) also following the appropriate grammar rules.

Oh yes, back to titles:

 What should a title look like?

The AP Stylebook says to capitalize the main words, including prepositions and conjunctions if they contain four or more letters; and to capitalize articles or short words (fewer than four letters) if it is the first or the last word in the title.

Then put quotation marks around the title, with the exception of the Bible, and reference materials.

MLA says capitalize the first, last, and all principal words in the title, including both words of a hyphenated word.

Then for the major works: books, plays, newspapers, journals, websites, online databases, films, radio or television broadcasts, performances, musical compositions, paintings, sculpture – well, you get the idea – italicize the title.

For titles of sub-sets of the major work, e.g., chapters of the book; essays, stories, or poems published as a part of the larger work; magazine or journal articles; pages of a website; TV broadcast segments – and so on, use quotation marks.

So who is right? As a practical matter, do what your boss says! Just (1) do it consistently; and (2) use the appropriate grammar rules, and you’ll be fine.

If you find these tips helpful, why not bring Gail to your workplace for an onsite workshop, coaching, or consulting. Or to work with you to complete a project.  To learn more

© 2013 Gail Tycer • www.GailTycer.com

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When is a question not a question?

When is a question not a question?

Answer: When it’s a rhetorical question. A rhetorical question is a question (yes, it has a question mark at the end) that does not ask for, or require an answer.  It is meant to emphasize a point, and when used well, can be a strong technique for building or strengthening your case.

Meant to focus the reader’s attention on a problem as the writer sees it, the rhetorical question is frequently meant to “set up” an issue for the reader’s consideration. While frequently used as the first sentence in a new paragraph, it may be used anywhere in the piece, as appropriate.

How do we need to deal with this crisis? First, we must remain calm, and view the situation analytically. Second, devise a plan to deal with it. Third, assign the work to our people with the most experience in this field.

© 2013 Gail Tycer • www.GailTycer.com

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Is or Are?

Just had a call from one of our grammar workshop alums, who had heard a radio spot where the announcer said, “Our team of experts is waiting….” His question: Should it be “our team of experts is…” or “our team of experts are…”?

Stop reading for a moment and think about it. How would you answer his question?

Answer: It could be either one.

“Team” is one of those pesky collective nouns – words like “family,” “group,” “committee.” So it could be either “is,” or “are,” depending on whether you think of a team as a single unit (“is”) or as a group of individuals (“are.”)

Having settled the grammatical correctness issue, now let’s take a look at the much more subtle “perception” issue – how the reader “gets it” at an almost subliminal level. Would you rather hire an unidentified single unit (“is”), or would you be more likely to hire a group of individuals (“are”) to handle your needs?

Grammar is more than a set of rules which most of us have forgotten. Indeed, grammar can be a powerful tool for subtly shading meaning – for “writing between the lines.”

© 2013 Gail Tycer • www.GailTycer.com

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Thank Your Favorite English Teacher!

I hope everyone reading today’s entry will take a moment to drop a note or call to thank your favorite English teacher. Without him or her none of us would be where we are today. So bless that English teacher for giving us the sound, solid basic writing skills that have helped us so very much so far. The skills that allow us to build from them to move forward and take the next step. The skills that allow us to prove our professionalism and demonstrate our credibility.

In my business writing workshops, I often hear stories about a participant’s favorite English teacher. For example:

We were discussing prepositions one day, and how the last word of a prepositional phrase may cause confusion, resulting in a plural verb with a singular subject. This can happen because the last word of the prepositional phrase, often located next to the subject it describes, was plural, while the subject of the sentence was actually singular. One of the class members said, “My English teacher told us that ‘a preposition is a word that describes any way a bird can fly.’”

While this is not strictly true, it is fairly accurate, and is somewhat easier than memorizing the entire list of prepositions in the English language, which is not a bad idea either. (If you would like to take a look at the list of prepositions, visit my BusinessWritingZone.com website.)

It’s amazing how much can be learned from class members! I hope you will share your favorite teacher story, too. Just comment, or e-mail me. Thanks, I’ll look forward to hearing from you.

© 2013 Gail Tycer • www.GailTycer.com

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Blogger Tip #1: Make it readable

This week, we’re welcoming blogger Marilyn Tycer. Marilyn is a graphic designer and blogger, and we’ve asked her to share some of her tips for bloggers.

Tip #1: Make it readable.

Now that you have a subject for your blog, and some ideas for posts, what comes next? Start typing! But it’s important to take care to craft your blog posts into something readable. So before you hit the “Publish” button, take a moment to revise your writing. While the subject of your blog might be popular, your blog probably won’t get a lot of followers if your writing is hard to read or bland. Continue reading

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Overcoming Email Irritants

If I were to ask you what are the things about your incoming email that are most likely to drive you right over the edge some day, what would you say?

Here are the most common, perhaps not-so-surprising answers most often given at my email workshops across the country:

1.  Emails sent “reply all,” or to an entire emailing list, rather than just to those few who really have a need for the information

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Review: Writers INC

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Writers INC is a valuable resource for writers of all ages and all genres. While intended for high school students, it contains a wealth of essential information that is relevant to business writers.

A quick look at the Writers INC table of contents:
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Prepositions

A preposition is a connecting word that shows the relationship between words in a sentence, and elaborates meaning. A prepositional phrase begins with one of the prepositions below. A very common mistake is to match the verb in the sentence to the word at the end of the prepositional phrase, rather than to the subject of the sentence (“A selection of three entrees is available at dinner” is correct; “A selection of three entrees are available at dinner” is incorrect). By learning to recognize a preposition when you see is, you can avoid this grammatical error.
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