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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

    Running a Parallel Course

    Thursday, November 05, 2009

    Unparallel construction is a very common stylistic error that is relatively easy to correct. To create parallelism in a sentence, use similar grammatical structures - words, phrases, clauses - to express thoughts that have a similar function. Parallel structure helps your reader to make sense of things. Here are a couple of instances where you should watch for parallel construction.

    Use parallel construction for similar items within a sentence. For example, in the sentence Ankur's job includes filing, to fax, and expense accounts, the three job duties are expressed in three different ways. It's an awkward read. You can check for parallel construction by considering each list item separately. Taking our example sentence apart, we have this first thought: Ankur's job includes filing. That works. Next we have Ankur's job includes to fax. That does not work, nor is it grammatically correct. Finally, we have Ankur's job includes expense accounts. Again, the item is structurally different from the first, making the whole sentence difficult to understand. But notice how clear the three ideas become when they are presented in a parallel way: Ankur's job includes filing, faxing, and tracking expenses.

    Use the same style for items in headings and lists. Agendas and documents containing section headings and bulleted lists ought to be constructed in a parallel way. Take time to ensure that each item is written in a consistent, grammatical form. For example, a list of goals may present each item beginning with an adjective - lower prices; fewer accidents; happier workers - or beginning with a verb - reduce prices; decrease accidents; improve morale. It doesn't matter which form you use, as long as you use it consistently for all the headings or throughout a list.

    Helpful Hint: Read your sentences out loud to check for parallel construction. Often your ear will tell you more than your eye will.

    You can learn more about parallel construction on page 264 in Write for Business: A Compact Guide to Writing and Communicating in the Workplace, just one of the many helpful business writing resources from UpWrite Press.

    - Joyce Lee

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