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UpWrite Press understands the importance of writing skills in business: We're business people just like you. On this blog you'll find tips to improve your writing, along with topics of interest to our staff.

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    Stylists Aren’t Rulers

    Friday, November 21, 2014
    The world is waiting for your fabulousness, don't forget your crown! (CC)

    In language, there are grammar rules, and then there are styles. Let’s consider, for example, using a series in a sentence.

    English grammar says that a series ought to be parallel.

    Don’t write this: Laine signed the contracts, the time sheets, and wrote his name on the paychecks.

    Do write this: Laine signed the contracts, the time sheets, and the paychecks.

    Then style comes into play. Oxford style says a comma should come before the last item in a series.

    Laine signed the contracts, the time sheets, and the paychecks.

    Associated Press style says that the final comma is unnecessary.

    Laine signed the contracts, the time sheets and the paychecks.

    So certain rules change according to which style you are following. Easy enough, you might say. Just use the right manual.

    The trouble is, however, that grammar itself doesn’t have a rule for every situation. At the very least, some rules are obscure.

    Consider, for example, the situation described in “My Big Fat Greek Blog Post.” Never in my education as an English major did anyone ever teach that adjectives are placed in order of opinion, size, age, shape, color, origin, material, and purpose. Nor does the possessive adjective “my” fit any of those categories.

    Such gaps become most evident when teaching a language to non-native speakers. One of my daughters teaches English to adults in Belgium. Recently, her students asked which of these is correct: “A friend of Mary’s” or “A friend of Mary.” She suggested that both are correct and mean the same thing, but the first puts a slightly greater emphasis on Mary.

    Then the students changed one word. What about “A photo of Mary’s” versus “A photo of Mary”? In this case, of course, the meanings are entirely different. Depending on what they wanted to say, the students would have to choose one phrase or the other.

    At times like these, grammarians are forced to invent a rule to describe (or fit) the situation. In a way, such scenarios define grammar—a set of rules describing how people use language. The language comes first; the description comes second. And style trails along after that.

    —Lester Smith

    When Less Is Not More

    Wednesday, November 12, 2014
    Due Mani Due Generazioni - Two Hands Two Generations - by Dino Olivieri 

    Maybe your pet grammar peeve (like mine) is a misplaced apostrophe, or maybe seeing a blatant error in agreement sends you up the wall. One of the biggest complaints of many is mixing up words that describe amounts: less and fewer, or more than and over.

    The difference lies in what the words describe. There is a clear delineation between the words fewer and less. Fewer describes things that can be counted (“count nouns”) while less applies to things that cannot be divided up (“mass nouns”).

                We counted fewer than a hundred people in the audience.

                The size of the audience was less than we had anticipated.

    But the decision between more than or over is not as clear-cut. It used to be the rule that more than was used for count nouns, while over was for noncount nouns. However editors were divided on that rule and tended to disregard it whenever they wished.

    Now, an announcement by the Associated Press, that bastion of journalistic style, has rocked the world of words by declaring that it is now acceptable AP style to use more than and over interchangeably.

                There were more than three dozen applicants for the job.

                There were over three dozen applicants for the job.

    Reaction to the announcement was strong, both positive and negative. One wag (RT@TheSlot) Tweeted “More than my dead body!” Meanwhile, others blithely noted that the argument was moot, as there had never been any hard-and-fast rule about interchanging these words.

    For your own use, either common sense or your editor’s choice should rule. Stylistcally, however, it sounds odd to my ear to say:

                That building will require more than a million dollars in repairs.

    I’d argue it sounds better to say:

                That building will require over a million dollars in repairs.

    English is a living language, which means there will be changes in usage over time, and this is just one of them. Also, bear in mind that language “rules” and language “style” are not coequal. Change in style usually comes about to enhance communication, so know the rules, but, as indicated by RT@TheSlot, use common sense in your style. 

    —Joyce Lee


    Double Jeopardy

    Monday, April 15, 2013

    Edgar Degas - Madame Jeantaud in the mirror (1875)

    As you may know, in formal English it is improper to use two negative words together to emphasize a point—as in, “I didn’t never say that.” Logic argues that two negatives cancel each other to make a positive, in this case meaning, “At some point in time I said that.”

    There are occasions, however, when doubled negatives do suit a purpose, even in formal English. That is, when you intentionally want to negate a negative to create a positive. Here’s an example:

    She couldn’t not notice that he was barefoot beneath his business suit.

    This sentence implies that she tried to be polite and ignore his bare feet, but they were too obvious. Granted, this is a somewhat clumsy sentence, perhaps better written as “She couldn’t avoid noticing…” or “She could hardly help but notice…” 

    A perhaps more legitimate example comes in this sentence:

    The lecture on global financial trends turned out to be not uninteresting.

    This suggests that the writer expected the talk to be less than interesting and was surprised. Or the sentence could be intended as a modest statement of praise.

    Of course, neither the “barefoot” example above nor this “lecture” example belong in good business writing. Neither is concise or clear.

    But they do illustrate that writing correctly is more than just a matter of memorizing grammar rules. Communication is a dynamic, living thing. Just as human beings are dynamic, living creatures. That's something worth reflecting on.

    —Joyce Lee

    Parallel Writing for Clarity

    Monday, October 15, 2012

    Unparallel construction uses words, phrases, and sometimes clauses that are inconsistent in form. This inconsistency can result in jarring, confusing, choppy writing. Here are some examples and corrections of unparallel writing.

    • Verb forms. The verb forms in a series should be consistent.

    Unparallel: We emailed, faxed, and had texted our customers to alert them of the change.
    (Verb forms shift from past to past-perfect tense.)

    Parallel: We emailed, faxed, and texted our customers to alert them of the change.
    (All verbs are past tense.)

    Famous example: “I came; I saw; I conquered.” —Julius Caesar

    • Phrases. The types of phrases used in a series ought to be consistent.

    Unparallel: After networking all day, talking to many customers, and then to seal several big deals, the team was tired.
    (Verbals shift from gerunds to an infinitive.)

    Parallel: After networking all day, talking to many customers, and then sealing several big deals, the team was tired.
    (All verbal phrases use gerunds.)

    Famous example: “[G]overnment of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” —Abraham Lincoln

    • Clauses. When two or more clauses are used to make an overall point, parallel construction can add emphasis and clarity to the message.

    Unparallel: The board met every day for two weeks, they would pore over the financial reports, and the members had to make some hard decisions.
    (The clauses use different subjects and verb forms.)

    Parallel: The board met every day for two weeks, they pored over the financial reports, and they made some hard decisions.
    (Using parallel subjects and verb forms unifies the three clauses into a strong point.)

    Famous example: “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.” —Benjamin Franklin

    Keeping elements parallel gives them equal weight, creating balance and rhythm in your writing, which sends a clear message to your reader.

    —Joyce Lee

    Photo by far closer

    Big Trouble in Little Commas

    Tuesday, September 25, 2012

    Consider the little things that often cause trouble—the speck in your eye, the pebble in your shoe, the drip in your sink, and so on. In writing, one such trouble is the omission or misplacement of commas. Here are quick reminders of three places commas should be used.

    • Following introductory clauses and phrases: Commas are needed to set these off from the rest of a sentence.

      Example introductory clause: Although we had gone over the company’s requirements, the advertising campaign fell woefully short of our needs.

      Example introductory Phrase: By my reckoning, we needed to obtain at least three more sales to finish the year in the black.
    • Between independent clauses: A comma is needed to separate two or more complete thoughts in one sentence. Place the comma before the coordinating conjunction.

      Example 1: Madeleine spoke about making the office more environmentally friendly, and then she introduced our new energy plan.

      Example 2: You can elect to go with the company insurance plan, or you can select the HMA option.
    • Around nonrestrictive modifiers: Use commas to separate modifying phrases that aren’t critical to understanding the sentence.

      Example 1: Chris introduced the new hire, a recent college graduate, to the rest of the team.

      Example 2: The contract, which had been extensively revised, was finally signed.

    Want more? Check out page 258 of Write for Business for more information on using commas to set off different elements in sentences.

    —Joyce Lee

    Image by Brett Jordan