The Vocabula Review

March 2007, Vol. 9, No. 4 Tuesday, May 3, 2016

A Few Rules of English-Language Use That, if Observed, Will Help Ensure Your Being Thought Well of, Employable, and Even, Perhaps, Fit for Office — Part 3 Robert Hartwell Fiske
Web version

Sentences and Paragraphs

 1.  Avoid the back-to-back, the pleonastic, is.

• Basically, what this is is a standardized procedure for saying letters — "A as in Alpha," "B as in Bravo," through to "Z as in Zulu."

• What he really is is a man at peace with his legacy and where he is in his career.

• The thing of it is is that in order to articulate the point properly, Democrats are going to need to re-learn the word "inequality."

• What this sordid, 286-page mish-mash really is is a biography.

These sentences, and many others like them, are as badly written as they are poorly thought out. To avoid the back-to-back is do not begin sentences with expressions like what (this) is and the thing (of it) is.

 2.  Use the active voice rather than the passive voice.

• Questionnaires were distributed to 176 students, from 12 to 17 years of age.

We distributed questionnaires to 176 students, from 12 to 17 years of age.

• Mistakes were made.

We made mistakes.

• This mirror was created three years ago when my father was succumbing to the ravages of Alzheimer's disease.

I created this mirror three years ago when my father was succumbing to the ravages of Alzheimer's disease.

The passive voice dehumanizes, which is why it has such an attraction for those who have behaved badly or criminally; it strips a sentence of a person and thereby that person of accountability.

 3.  An adverb, not an adjective, modifies a verb.

• She learns very quick. USE quickly.

• Women usually treat me terrible. USE terribly.

• They showed us how to build the product as cheap as possible. USE cheaply.

• Your position on taxes is so screaming loud, we can't help but know it. USE screamingly.

• Don't take this personal. USE personally.

• It could have gone very well, or it could have gone bad. USE badly.

• I wouldn't have done it any different. USE differently. — James Carville, Democratic strategist

• She managed its progress almost single-handed. USE single-handedly.

Most adverbs end in the suffix -ly, but some, such as seldom, very, quite, somewhat, rather, and altogether do not. An adverb modifies a verb; an adjective does not.

 4.  Avoid using nouns as verbs unless no other word would do.

• My husband would in the past try to guilt me into going: "If you loved me, you'd go."

• Back at the library, she used her laptop to journal her thoughts from the meeting.

• Folks who want to get involved can visit Tree-Nation's website and buy trees for themselves or gift them to others for milestones such as weddings.

To guilt instead of to make feel guilty, to journal instead of to write in a journal, and to gift instead of to give are all unnecessary. We already have verbs that describe these actions. Turning nouns into verbs occurs more readily than it needs to, and is often simply a lazy, a thoughtless, way of trying to convey a thought.

 5.  Avoid wordy expressions.

The reason I do this is because I know once you try my product you'll come back to us for all your computer-learning needs.

I do this because I know once you try my product you'll come back to us for all your computer-learning needs.

• Some showed no symptoms, but it was without doubt an overwhelming situation for the small community.

Some showed no symptoms, but it was without doubt overwhelming for the small community.

• Exactly what financial contributions do bicyclists make toward the maintenance of the public rights of way?

Exactly what financial contributions do bicyclists make toward maintaining the public rights of way?

• For the right price, any woman can get an abortion in Mexico, regardless of the fact that the procedure is not legal.

For the right price, any woman can get an abortion in Mexico, even though the procedure is not legal.

In the event that any of these assumptions proves to be incorrect, or in the event that we are affected by any of the risks identified above, we may not be able to continue in our business as planned, or at all.

If any of these assumptions proves to be incorrect, or if we are affected by any of the risks identified above, we may not be able to continue in our business as planned, or at all.

Many sentences contain wordy phrases that can easily be made more concise and more readable. Learn to identify wordy phrases, and you'll improve your writing.

 6.  Avoid writing run-on sentences.

• It appears we have a closing date set for you, this is awesome, the loan process was very smooth for you and I am happy we were able to work together and get you into a much better situation.

• I am writing this to inquire about any positions or internships you might have available right now, I have attached my resume for your review.

In the two preceding sentences, if the commas were periods, the sentences would not run on as they do. The following sentence, though the use of commas is not incorrect, also runs on.

• Presided over by a user-friendly faculty of distinguished novelists, essayists, journalists, poets, editors, critics and agents, this cornucopia of lectures, workshops, roundtables and Q&As held in a warm and nurturing, breathtakingly beautiful atmosphere will run concurrently with the traditional annual Deer Isle Lupine Festival and offers the rarest of opportunities for aspiring writers from every level to rub elbows with the masters and share the secrets of their successes.

Remove some of the adverbs, adjectives, clichés, and other seemingly extraneous information, and the sentence becomes more readable and runs on less:

• Presided over by a faculty of distinguished novelists, essayists, journalists, poets, editors, critics and agents, this cornucopia of lectures, workshops, and roundtables offers a rare opportunity for aspiring writers to learn from the masters.

 7.  Either and neither, like each and every, are singular words that require a singular verb.

• Neither one of us are afraid of talking to the brass, whether it's the president of the United States or a general. USE is. — Donna Shalala, former Health and Human Services Secretary

• It might show something completely different from what either of them are saying. USE is.

• Each of you are special to me in your own way. USE is.

After expressions like neither he nor they and either they or I, the latter pronoun determines whether the verb is singular or plural:

• The president will deliver a 20 minute speech full of idiotic platitudes that will take an hour to deliver because the audience of legislators will interrupt him 1457 times to mindlessly applaud some absurd proposal that neither he nor they has the slightest intention of actually making a reality. USE have. — Ed Brayton, freelance writer and businessman

• The other titles arranged nearby, an ancient display of some kind, are so distant that I fear either they or I are becoming less real. USE am.

 8.  Avoid using slang in your writing.

• At any other school, his Johnny Depp good looks and Aberzombie style would secure him a place among high school royalty.

• If it is utterly fantasmarific, I'd probably order from them again.

• "Sceotical" sounds like a highly majuberous term to me.

• Liberace would have ralphed, and so would Rachmaninoff.

• Over the past few years, there have been individuals who have done illegal work on their houses and have uglified their property.

Slang is ephemeral. A slang word popular one year may be forgotten the next. As clever as some slang is, if you use it in your writing, you'll ensure that your writing is equally ephemeral.

Words and Expressions

 9.  Do not use an ill-placed this or these.

• I have this interest in administration and informatics and was hoping to set up a short elective. USE an.

• Late at night, when the children are in bed, she has these thoughts of revenge. DELETE these.

• He has this friend whose name sounds very similar to mine. USE a.

A superfluous this or these will reveal to anyone who troubles to read your writing that you think as badly as you write.

 10.  Never use I have to tell you and similar dull-witted, utterly mindless expressions.

I gotta tell you, anyone can put up a shingle and call themselves a tax preparer. DELETE I gotta tell you. — Gerri Willis, CNN reporter

Lemme tell you, if Fred Thompson is running for president, he is going about it quite deftly. DELETE Lemme tell you.

I'll tell you something, when you get your sense of humor back, you know you are really getting better. DELETE I'll tell you something.

I'm telling you, the disparities aren't nearly so many that gay folks and straight folks can't still come together and make music. DELETE I'm telling you.

It may be that few people use these expressions in their writing, but too many, a great many, people use them in their speaking.

 11.  Do not use hey in your writing.

• The process that I demonstrate in this project uses the simplest of transfer methods, but hey, it works. DELETE hey.

• It's a question for the ages, but hey, it's almost Valentine's Day. DELETE hey. — New York Times

Hey, nice Ornette Coleman tribute on the Chili Peppers stage. DELETE hey.

The exclamatory or interjectory hey has no place whatever in writing. If you want to ensure your being thought an inept writer, use the word hey; otherwise, do not.

 12.  Be sure you know the meanings of the words you use.

• In this case, I have concerns that the Army is literally trying to whitewash over the problems. — U.S. Representative John Tierney

Literally means "actually; in fact; exactly."

• The bride is taking yoga classes with her fiancée, Sean, and it appears to be helping.

A fiancée is a woman to whom a man is engaged to be married.

• It was the week leading up to Palm Sunday, a very special time for Mexicans in this predominately Catholic country.

Predominantly is the adjective.

• Ira Toyota operates in a consistent manner to create raving fans of its customers.

Raving, in this sentence, means "speaking incoherently or acting irrationally."

Nothing dissuades a person quite so quickly from reading your writing as a misused word. Know the meanings of the words you use. Meaning, despite the meaninglessness, the idiocy, that engulfs us all, still matters.

 13.  Do not use as well or too, in the sense of what's more or also, to begin a sentence.

As well, Long Island is in a high-wind watch. USE What's more.

As well, if tonight is too short notice, I apologize. DELETE As well.

As well, it’s a coastal city with a major port, has farmland and agricultural land and is a powerhouse city of about seven million people. USE Moreover.

As well and too are adverbs that ought not to begin a sentence.

At other times, as well is even more awkwardly used:

• We don't negotiate with terrorists; we don't advise others to do so as well. USE nor do we advise others to do so.

 14.  Avoid using the word active as an adjective.

• The plot thickens as physicians have recently taken an active interest in conducting and being paid for care coordination activities. DELETE active.

• Like the original internet, Internet2 relies on the active involvement of research universities to develop, implement, and maintain the network. DELETE active.

• I am confident his active participation as an alumnus of the program will provide ongoing opportunities to make a difference in this arena. DELETE active.

• It is not fair to deny active treatment to these patients. DELETE active.

Placed before some nouns, active diminishes the meaning of the words it modifies. Before words like "duty" and "lifestyle" and "hurricane season," active is indeed informative, but before these other sorts of words, it is useless.

 15.  Avoid using the abbreviation a.k.a. in your writing.

• From the data, he saw evidence that computer investments were improving business efficiency, a.k.a. productivity. USE that is.

• RUF Commander, Dennis Mingo a.k.a. Superman has disappeared from Makeni. USE also known as.

• "My face is still in Chicago," Oprah announces as she ushers me (a.k.a. the poor slob) into the suite. DELETE a.k.a.

• Sharon Adl-Doost, aka The Lunch Lady, may be the most famous cafeteria worker in the country, if not the world. USE well known as.

• Before the game, Brian Mahoney-Wilson (aka BMW) heads into the lavatory to stretch and gather his thoughts. USE or.

Using a.k.a. gives your writing, whatever tone you may have wished to achieve, an aura of silliness. A.k.a. is a clownlike expression.

Also in Vocabula:

A Few Rules of English-Language Use That, if Observed, Will Help Ensure Your Being Thought Well of, Employable, and Even, Perhaps, Fit for Office — Part 2 by Robert Hartwell Fiske

Punctuation and Capitalization

 16.  Do not use quotation marks around a phrase that follows the expression so-called.

• What has happened to the so-called "honor system"? USE so-called honor system.

• It's a problem some may assume is confined to the ragged fringes of so-called "inner ring" suburbs that directly border cities, places where the housing stock is older and from which many wealthier residents long ago departed. USE so-called inner ring.

• If we follow the lead of the so-called "mainstream media," we should thank Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for Wednesday's release of 15 British sailors who were seized by the Iranian Navy and held captive for almost two weeks. USE so-called mainstream media.

Similarly, do not use quotation marks around the phrase that follows the expression called or known as or referred to as.

• As Jefferts Schori prepares for what The New York Times called a "hostile reception" this week, Ndungane says he's prepared to speak out if need be. USE called a hostile reception.

• Invention Support has signed a strategic alliance with Mr. West, the inventor of the new device known as the "Removable Brake Light." USE known as Removable Brake Light.

• The modification of the direction of the light as it passes through the lens system is referred to as "encoding." USE referred to as encoding.

The phrase so-called, called known as, or referred to as, alone, introduces the term that follows it; the quotation marks are superfluous.

 17.  Use no hyphen after adverbs ending in -ly.

Newly-elected Jamaican American Congresswoman Yvette D. Clarke is set to air her views on the hot button issue — the war in Iraq. USE Newly elected.

• They can also be irrelevant personal narratives, random diatribes and barely-literate scrawls. USE barely illiterate.

• Women daring to venture into any mostly-male bastion seemed to bring out the heavy-handed jokester in White. USE mostly male.

• I found that these little uniquely-painted tiles needed to find a life beyond that of the button. USE uniquely painted.

• This lasted thirty-eight years until his retirement as a fully-certified, nationally-renowned specialist in his field. USE fully certified, nationally renowned.

The hyphen after -ly is unnecessary. An adverb ending in -ly obviously modifies the word that follows it.

 18.  No hyphen is needed after a comparative or superlative adjective.

Higher-quality paper gives you better-looking drawings. USE Higher quality; better looking.

• In several states, lower-income families pay at least modest premiums. USE lower income.

• Our offerings include some of the most-respected footage archives in the world, including CBS News, NHK and the Australian Broadcasting Corp. USE most respected.

• American robins are perhaps the best-known birds in North America. USE best known.

• The trials of three less-significant detainees, none of them among the 14 leaders, are expected to begin soon. USE less significant.

Often, the word endings themselves, the -er and -est, signify that a word modifies the one that follows it. A hyphen might be needed after words that have neither a comparative nor a superlative suffix. Better, more, and less also signify a comparative, and best, most, and least, a superlative; similarly, no hyphen is needed after these words.

 19.  Never use a question mark and an exclamation mark at the end of the same sentence.

• Can you believe he's that stupid!?

• Who wouldn't want to date a guy that looks like that!?

• The ground is barely unfrozen; how can I already be behind with the weeds!?

Choose the question mark or the exclamation mark. Most often, the question mark is the better choice.

 20.  Avoid using the exclamation mark.

• Helen Mirren won her first Oscar!

• It was designed by my good friend Roger!

• Please email me if you have any questions!

• I have experimented with precious metal clay, and while I love the look, regular polymer clay is a much more affordable alternative!

Use the period, not the exclamation mark. Only callow writers, incapable of revealing the emotion in the words they write, rely on exclamation marks.

This is the third article from A Few Rules of English-Language Use That, if Observed, Will Help Ensure Your Being Thought Well of, Employable, and Even, Perhaps, Fit for Office, which is likely to be published in 2008. If you have any criticisms or concerns about what you read in these pieces, I'd be pleased to hear them (and I might include them in the book).

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Robert Hartwell Fiske

Robert Hartwell Fiske :: Move me  

Robert Hartwell Fiske is the editor and publisher of The Vocabula Review. He is the author of The Dictionary of Unendurable English and To the Point: A Dictionary of Concise Writing.


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