Thursday, October 28, 2010

When combining Present Perfect tense and Future tense, don’t omit any verbs

When combining the Present Perfect tense and the Future tense in one sentence, don’t omit any verbs. That is to say, include all auxiliary verbs and all main verbs.

Omitting the first main verb is a common mistake. Here are two examples.

Example from Bleacher Report:

“Through significant pain, [Andrew] Bynum [pictured] gave everything he had and opted out of surgery, possibly putting his NBA career in jeopardy just to help his team win.... This won him major kudos with teammates, most notably Kobe Bryant, and head coach Phil Jackson. This has and will further contribute to the respect Bynum gets from his teammates and coaching staff alike.” (Boldface added.)


has contributed and will further contribute

Example from The Market Ticker:

“We are not far away from a complete and total breakdown of lawful behavior among the population of this nation…. This has and will in the future occur because the government has refused to enforce long-standing laws…” (Boldface added.)

A literal correction would be:

has occurred and will in the future occur

A smoother correction would be:

has occurred and will continue to occur

The author did not notice that the meaning of this sentence is logically inconsistent with the phrase “total breakdown,” which occurs in an earlier sentence. For, when a total breakdown has occurred, nothing more can break down.

For additional information on the combining of tenses, see these two posts on the Sequence of Tenses: (1, 2).

The Takeaway: When combining the Present Perfect tense and the Future tense in one sentence, don’t omit any verbs. When you omit verbs, you run two risks: (1) that you will confuse some readers; (2) that you will appear to be careless.

See disclaimer.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Prefer strong verbs to weak verbs (1)

If you aim to write clear, informative, persuasive English, you should prefer strong verbs to weak verbs. Usually, weak verbs are general and dull, while strong verbs are specific and expressive.

By far, the most common weak verbs are to be and to have.

Example, with to be

WEAK: “...believes her father was instrumental in the writing of the Navajo Code Talkers codebook... ” (Source) (Boldface added.)

STRONG: ...believes her father helped write the Navajo Code Talkers codebook...

STRONGER: ...believes her father co-authored the Navajo Code Talkers codebook...

Example, with to have

WEAK: “The new Elector, Charles Albert, clearly had an affection for the Wittelsbach [a famous diamond] [pictured] because during his lifetime he had its setting altered several times, each more beautiful than the last.” (Source) (Boldface added.)

STRONG: The new Elector, Charles Albert, clearly loved the Wittelsbach...

STRONGER: The new Elector, Charles Albert, clearly cherished the Wittelsbach...

The Takeaway: When you fear you have written some weak copy, here’s a quick way to strengthen it: Count the instances of to be and to have. If there are a great many, replace several with strong verbs. In a 1,500-word article, for example, even ten or twelve replacements will make a noticeable difference. As you write or edit, always prefer strong verbs to weak verbs. It will become a habit, and it will improve your writing forever.

A Good Resource: I recommend you read this lesson from the writing center of The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. From time to time, re-read it to gauge your progress.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Mantra overload (8)

Mantra overload – the excessive use of trendy, vague expressions – is a widespread habit among financial writers.

For example, on MarketWatch, February 9, Paul B. Farrell opened his column with this paragraph (boldface added):

Wake up investors. Are you prepared for the economic anarchy coming after a global-debt time bomb explodes? Are you thinking outside the box? Investing differently? Act now -- tomorrow will be too late.

I count five mantras in 33 words. After suffering this fusillade of mantras, the intelligent reader is likely to grumble, “Are you finished playing? Get to the point.”

A reader who endures the entire column will have suffered several times more than five mantras.

The Takeaway: If you intend to write clearly, do not mimic financial writers. With few exceptions, these writers obscure their topics with numerous mantras. Overuse of mantras hampers communication, damages your credibility, and dulls your mind. Use mantras sparingly or not at all. Keep asking yourself, “What do I really mean here?” Over time, this diligent habit will make your writing more precise and more honest.

See disclaimer.

Monday, October 18, 2010

First, second and third person (5) – road signs

First, second and third person are all used on road signs. Here are some examples:

First person

Most first-person road signs are ceremonial:

[We] Welcome [You] to New Hampshire

Second person

Most second-person road signs are in the imperative mood:

[You] Stop [Here]

[You Drive] Slow[ly]

Sometimes the second person is tricky. For example, consider this sign, which I saw years ago at a turnpike toll plaza:

[You] Use All Lanes

The person at the Turnpike Authority who wrote that copy was really talking to himself (lack of empathy), saying, “We hope that drivers approaching this toll plaza will help relieve congestion by (collectively) spreading out and using all lanes.”

But each driver is an individual. As he reads the sign, he thinks, “I can’t use all lanes – I can use only one lane. And by the way, why don’t they tell me the one thing I do want to know: which lane am I supposed to use?

The sign should, of course, have said:

[You] Use Any Lane

Third person

Most third-person road signs state routine facts:

[The] Speed Limit [Here is] 50 [Miles per Hour]

But sometimes they state unusual facts:

[A] Duck Crossing [Lies Ahead]

Or even arcane facts:

Road Ends in Water

The Takeaway: Happy motoring!

See disclaimer.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Don’t misuse the verb “to see”

Because the verb to see is a familiar verb, we often misuse it: we try to force it to do the work of more-specific verbs.


From a column in the Guardian (UK): “The incidents in America on 9/11 (2001) and in London on 7/7 (2005) saw the greatest ever peacetime growth in spending on security. Unlike most forms of public spending, this one could by its nature demand cash with menaces and with no account of value for money.” (Boldface added.)

The first sentence boils down to “Incidents saw growth.” But saw is too vague here. The columnist was probably too hurried to identify and use the more-specific verb he had in the back of his mind. We readers are left to guess: was that verb triggered, occasioned, justified, excused, or rationalized? Or something else?

The Takeaway: Don’t misuse the verb to see. It is frequently tempting to use it instead of a more-specific verb. But doing so can weaken your copy and can even obscure your meaning.

See disclaimer.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The value of meticulous copy editing

Meticulous copy editing is valuable. It is especially valuable when the copy is intended to be prominent and permanent; for example, this large metal sign outside the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA), in North Adams, Massachusetts.

The word everyday is incorrect here. It is an adjective meaning ordinary, routine or commonplace. What is needed here the adverbial phrase every day, meaning each day.

The Takeaway: When the copy is intended to be prominent and permanent, take a second look while you’re copy editing. Look up any word or phrase you are not absolutely sure of. And, if the final form of the copy is someone else’s responsibility, be sure to proofread that person’s work.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Readers can’t help judging you by your writing (3)

Readers can’t help judging you by your writing: your diction and grammar. Especially readers who are seeing your work for the first time.

On September 23, I discussed how new readers sometimes judge you even by the first few lines they read. The example I used then was the brief introduction to an online glossary. That’s not as formal a context as, say, an annual report, but it is still fairly formal. Therefore, new readers expect fairly high quality. And they tend to judge you earlier, even in the first line or two.

Less-formal copy

In less-formal copy, such as a comment on a blog or web site, readers expect less quality. They will tolerate more errors. And they will read more copy (maybe a paragraph or two) before judging you.

But every reader has a limit. It varies from reader to reader; if your copy contains a lot of errors, you risk losing a lot of readers.

I saw a good example of that on Yahoo! News. It was a comment on a story titled, “Army colonel in Afghanistan fired for criticizing PowerPoint.” The comment was only 105 words long, but it contained more than 30 errors.


This is the whole 105-word comment:

Have we forgotten charity begins @ Home. We need to secure our own borders and honor our fonding core. The Consitution, Bill of Rights and our Flag(old glory) We are AMERICANS, a very unique and wonderful peoples! Let's HONOR our own! Do NOT let this GREAT country be pulled apart, by allowing others to condiming our Laws, spit on our flag, our military to wear badges of others,ie; NATO. Those we have elected must be representive of the people or be FIRED! Our monies are being squandered( Iraq) we need to take care of our own. Build from with in ,DON'T sell your FREEDOMS!! E PLURIBUS UNUM!!!


We all make errors.

But I think you’ll agree that the sheer weight of 30-plus errors detracts so much from the author’s credibility that he fails to deliver a clear message. In fact, the author sounds like one of those people who stand on street corners and harangue invisible audiences.

Here’s my analysis, sentence by sentence. The author’s words are in green. My inserts, corrections and comments are in black and in brackets. I have ignored errors of spacing.

Have we forgotten charity begins @ [In prose, it is sloppy to use @ in place of at.] Home. [The capital H is gratuitous and therefore distracting. The sentence should end with a question mark, not a period.]

We need to secure our own borders and honor our fonding core [What does “fonding core” mean?].

The Consitution [Misspelled.], Bill of Rights and our Flag [The capital F is gratuitous.] (old glory) [Old Glory is a popular and affectionate nickname for the flag of the United States; a nickname should be initial-capped.] [The author has omitted the period at the end of the sentence.]

We are AMERICANS [Gratuitous caps.], a very unique [There are no degrees of uniqueness; something either is or is not unique.] and wonderful peoples [people]!

Let's HONOR [Gratuitous caps.] our own!

Do NOT [Gratuitous caps.] let this GREAT [Gratuitous caps.] country be pulled apart, by allowing others to [The author appears to intend this to as the to in an infinitive; but what follows is a gerund or present participle.] condiming [There is no such word.] our Laws [Gratuitous cap.], spit on our flag, [A verb is needed here.] our military to wear badges of others, ie; [This abbreviation should be spelled with periods (i.e.). The semicolon should precede and the comma should follow. The author’s use of others suggests that he means e.g.] NATO.

Those we have elected must be representive [Misspelled.] of the people or be FIRED! [Gratuitous caps.]

Our monies are [Our money is] being squandered ([; e.g., in] Iraq) [Should a new sentence begin here?] we need to take care of our own.

Build from within, DON'T [Gratuitous caps.] sell your FREEDOMS [Gratuitous caps.]!! [Multiple exclamation points usually indicate immaturity, flightiness or mania – and therefore detract from an author’s credibility.]

E PLURIBUS UNUM [Gratuitous caps.]!!! [Multiple exclamation points.]

The Takeaway: Your readers can’t help judging you by your writing. This is especially true of readers who have never seen your work before. Readers tend to judge formal copy by the first line or two and less-formal copy by the first paragraph or two. Be on your best writing behavior early in your copy.

See disclaimer.

Monday, October 4, 2010

A few amusing examples of mixed metaphors (9)

Mixed metaphors are often amusing, as these examples illustrate. However, we writers are usually more interested in informing and persuading our readers than in amusing them. Mixed metaphors may distract our readers and impede information and persuasion.

Example of a mixed metaphor

In PCWorld magazine, Harry McCracken writes, “Apologies in advance for the mixed metaphor: For many years, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer has been a sleeping giant that’s marched to its own drummer.”

Example of a mixed metaphor

A sports reporter in the United Kingdom uses a neat mixed metaphor: “He took to Arsenal’s midfield like a duck to the slaughter (that’s for those who like a bit of mixed metaphor with their football punditry)…”

Example of a mixed metaphor

A recent employment ad in craigslist begins, “Local Vermont magazine seeking freelance writers from Vermont for specific Vermont-oriented assignements [sic]. Must possess a strong voice, and the ability to wade through vanilla material to capture the heart of a story.” (Boldface added.) One hopes the magazine is also hiring a copy editor.

The Takeaway: Mixed metaphors may distract your readers. They may even make your prose impossible to understand. Ideally, you should have someone edit your copy (mixed metaphors are more easily spotted by the reader than by the writer).

See disclaimer.