Commas – for clarity and cash

by sue on December 4, 2009

It is time to save the comma. It seems to have gone out of style. And the cost is clarity.

I first noticed this at a client organization where numbers in many of the documents were comma free. They had 4621 people enrolled in a particular program. Shouldn’t that be 4,621? I blame Microsoft Excel and its delightful capability of lining up the commas and periods in the numbers automagically. Unfortunately, these people didn’t notice auto-comma isn’t a feature of Word or PowerPoint.

More worrisome than the missing commas in numbers are those absent from sentences. It can be really confusing. Consider these two sentences.

The student said the teacher is crazy.
The student, said the teacher, is crazy.

Identical words. Yet the addition of two commas completely changes the meaning. Just who is crazy? That example comes from Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation and Eats, Shoots & Leaves for Children: Why Commas Really DO Made A Difference, two books dedicated to correct punctuation.

While far from a punctuation purist, I do like the way commas help make a sentence easier to understand. I’ve had the good fortune, recently, to lead a class of college students. In grading their papers, I have to pencil in commas so I can understand their meaning. Even the very good writers, which several of them are, seem to be punctuation challenged. Some really helpful guidelines about comma use can be found at Purdue University’s Online Writing Library (OWL).
There’s even a section on advanced comma use.

“But the rules of grammar are changing with the times,” you say. “We’re on line now. We’re not so fussy. We don’t have time.” I might argue that taking the time to be clear will save you time in the long run. And maybe money. A misplaced comma wound up at the centre of a $2-million lawsuit between cable, Internet and phone provider Rogers Communications and one of its suppliers. Rogers thought it had a five year contract at a fixed rate, but a pesky comma, right before the word “unless,” rendered that term invalid. “Cough up the cash,” said the supplier and the regulator.

So save the comma. You never know when it will save you. That would be Rule #5.


The Sneaky Apostrophe

by sue on November 15, 2009

Once upon a time we didn’t have spelling checkers. We had editors, teachers and our own discerning eyeballs to spot our mistakes so we could correct them. Today, with the touch of a key, we can identify all the errors in our writing and the software will magically fix them. Only it doesn’t.

Your spelling checker isn’t as smart as you are. It knows if a word is spelled correctly; however, it doesn’t know if the word is used correctly. Or if a stray apostrophe sneaked in when you weren’t looking.

Here’s an example: “I gave my paper’s to my friends brother.” If you’re paying careful attention, you’ll notice that two words in that sentence are misspelled. “Paper’s” is the possessive form (as in, belonging to the paper) when it should be in the plural form, “papers” (as in, more than one paper). The word “friends” appears in the plural (more than one friend) when you mean to use the possessive (belonging to my friend). Your spell checker won’t spot that error. There’s a good chance your reader will.

Pluralization is just one area where apostrophes sometimes wander in error. Other apostrophizing problems that don’t get caught by the software are: “they’re” (when you mean their or there) and “you’re” (when you mean your) and “it’s” (a contraction of it is) when you mean “its” (belonging to it). The it’s/its problem is one I still have, even after all these years, mostly because it’s illogical that the rule for something belonging to it (“its” without an apostrophe) would be exactly the reverse of the rule for something belonging to Jenna (“Jenna’s” with an apostrophe).

So how do we avoid this problem? With Rule #4: Use and love your “trusty” spell checker. But don’t trust it absolutely. Trust what you see with your own eyes after the spell check does its job.


BLIMP – Bulk Looks IMPportant

by sue on November 9, 2009

I’ve spent a lot of time wondering about why people who can speak like normal human beings so often use long, complex words when they write. They’ll write “utilize” when they would say “use.” That’s when it’s a verb. They get even goofier when they wander into the world of nouns. A simple phrase like “frequent use” becomes “utilization frequency.”

Then they string their multisyllabic hyperextended words together to produce a complex phrase and, separated by words like “and” or “however,” they join it up with other equally complicated and unintelligible words, that, as a reader, you may or may not bother to look up in a dictionary or other reference book, ensuring that they maximize the leverage of their parameters and the creation of an alarmingly long – and possibly meaningless – sentence that goes on for days. Sort of like the one I just wrote.

They then string those impossibly incomprehensible sentences into multipage reports that land on your desk with a “Thud.” You look at them. You cry, “Ugh!” and place them on a shelf to read when you have the time. You never have the time.

People inflict these awful documents on us because, somewhere in their past, they got the impression that Bulk Looks IMPortant (BLIMP). Are big words, big sentences, big documents worth more than short, clear, crisp ones? Do they communicate better? Do they aid understanding? Far from it. They confuse. Rule #3 is Avoid BLIMP. Blimpy writing gets in the way of understanding. It’s like air in a Zeppelin, taking up lots of space, but there’s nothing there.


The KISS – it really works

by sue on November 9, 2009

We’ve all heard of “the KISS principle” – Keep it Short and Simple. When it comes to writing, that’s good advice.

Long words and long sentences make writing hard to follow. Why say something in 25 words when 12 will do?

For example, “The non-compensable evaluation heretofore assigned certain veterans for their service-connected disability is confirmed and continued,” desperately needs to be translated into meaningful English. Let’s try, “Disabled veterans whose physical condition has not changed still won’t receive any money.”

Let’s try this one. “The executive director said that this data represents the first instance in which utilization experience of a large prepayment carrier in covering in-patient mental illness has been analyzed.” You need to be a detective to figure that one out. Perhaps it means, “The executive director says this data will show whether insurance affects the rate of hospitalization for mental illness.” Or maybe not.

Why do people write those big, long, complicated sentences? Do they think convoluted terminology makes them seem smart? As readers, do we think they’re smart? Or do we simply tune out and move on?

So the second rule is Keep it Short and Simple. KISS your writing. Tests of comprehension show that short sentences with simple structure are most easily understood by people with all levels of education. People with five PhDs like clear, plain English just as much as someone without much education. And for the growing number of people we deal with whose first language is not English, clear and plain language is a gift.

I’m not recommending that we write like a Grade One Reader. “See Spot run. Jump, Spot, jump!” But a good rule is to write about who (the subject) did what (the action) to whom or what (the object).

Keep KISS in mind. Your readers will love you for it!


Writing doesn’t have to be hard

by sue on November 3, 2009

“I’m no good at writing.” This week, alone, I’ve heard three people say that. Smart people. Fun people. Young and old. People who, somewhere in the past, got the idea that writing just isn’t for them.

I happen to believe that writing is a conversation on paper. It may not be absolutely true that anyone who can talk can write, but writing is a lot like talking. In both situations, you have an idea you want to share with other people, something you’d like them to think, know or do. You want them to understand and act on your idea. So you explain it as clearly as possible. You probably use words that paint images, convey emotions and call for action.

When we’re talking, we do these things without thinking. When we write, we may think too much. Compare the way you learned to talk and the way you learned to write. For most of us, speaking evolved naturally. Writing was a school thing, caught up with rules of penmanship, spelling and grammar and striving to “get it right.” There were marks associated with writing, like A+ and C- and red correction marks. Writing was serious, unnatural and, worst of all, a place where we could make mistakes. That led us to think, “I’m no good at writing.”

The trick then – and the first rule – is to think of writing as a conversation. You just happen to be typing or scribbling, rather than talking. Write what you would say if your reader were in the room. Get the thoughts out of your head, through your lips and down on paper. (We’ll tidy it up when you’re done.)