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Archive for December, 2010

Say it simply; simply say it.

Some words and phrases have come to sound somehow “official” to us.  We hear them so often that we use them ourselves when we write.  But many of those words do nothing to enhance what we are trying to say; indeed they get in the way.

For example:


Here’s a word that ought never be employed.  Its synonym, “use” is always a better choice.  The same goes for the related “utilization”.  Best to choose “use” instead.  Don’t worry. “Use” is a resilient little word.  Not much risk of its wearing out from overutilization.

Then there are the phrases we could do without:

Do not write:                                                             Instead, do write:

at a price of $9                                                                      $9

make an adjustment to                                                        adjust

make an examination of                                                      examine

make mention of                                                                   mention

make out a list                                                                       list

to the fullest possible extent                                               fully

are found to be in agreement                                              agree

it has been brought to my attention                                  I have learned

There are many, many more of these, of course.  And you can find them in a book mentioned in an earlier WordWorks, Writing for Results in Business, Government, The Sciences, and The Professions, by David Ewing.

Time and Space

Writing and speaking have a lot in common.  We use both forms of communication to get business done, to persuade others to agree with our points of view, to amuse and entertain.   Thinking about the ways they differ, though, can help us be better writers.

The essential difference between writing and speaking is that writing-like painting and sculpture-exists only in space, while speaking-like music-exists only in time.   We can stop reading whenever we please and resume tomorrow or next week; we can go back and reread; we can see what we read right there on the page (or Kindle, if you like).  Listening to a speaker, though, we get it the first time through or not at all.

Keeping this difference in mind when we write can help our writing in some trivial and not-so-trivial ways.  Here are some of them:


Good speakers understand that they must repeat important ideas if they expect their audiences to remember them.  But in writing, too much repetition quickly grows irksome.  As a reader, you think, “Yeah, got that.  You don’t need to keep saying it.”

NOTE:  when referring to a point you already made in a speech, use “before”.  (“As I mentioned before, . . . “)  In writing, however, use “above”.  (“As noted above, . . . “)


Few words are as welcome to the audience at a long speech as, “In conclusion.”  They let us know that we’re in the home stretch; soon we’ll be standing up, heading for the rest room, and off homeward.

In an essay, however, there’s no need for those words at all.  The reader can see right there on the page that we’re nearly done, that this is the last section.

Furthermore, while a summing up may be absolutely necessary (see “Repetition” above) in the conclusion of a speech, it is almost always to be avoided in writing.  Unless the piece of writing is extremely long (hundreds of pages), summarizing serves only to annoy the reader.  (“Didn’t I just read that two pages ago?”)  It’s much better to use the conclusion to restate your thesis and bring things to a graceful close by returning to a point you made in your Introduction.

Lead On!

As readers, we humans don’t like not knowing where we are.  We don’t appreciate a discussion that begins in the middle.  And we especially have a hard time when we lack a context.  That’s why an Introduction is so important.

The word itself tells us a lot about the job of the Introduction.  It is formed from two Latin words:  intro- “inward, to the inside” + ducere “to lead”.  “To lead (the reader from outside the piece of writing) to the inside,” then, is what the Introduction needs to do.

There are many, many ways to do this, certainly.  But one method that works well for virtually any piece of writing is to progress from a very broad generalization to a quite precise Thesis Statement.

An example.

Let’s say that our thesis is something like:  ”Taking courses online is an attractive option because you can work when you want to, work from home, and get the undivided attention of the instructor.”  We’ll put that at the end of our Introduction.

The first sentence needs to be a broad generalization, an attention-getter, and it also needs to define the context of the essay.  Something like:

“It is impossible to overstate the impact of technology on our lives over the past 20 years.”

The next sentence would then be narrower in focus, something like:  “From movies and music to coffee and cookies, we can get what we want faster and easier.”

Then, even narrower:  “One area in which the change has been most profoundly felt is in higher education.”

And still narrower:  “Hundreds of thousands of people have found that going to college online removes significant barriers that had previously stood in their way.”

So our Introduction would go something like this:

“It is impossible to overstate the impact of technology on our lives over the past 20 years.  From movies and music to coffee and cookies, we can get what we want faster and easier.  One area in which the change has been most profoundly felt is higher education. Hundreds of thousands of people have found that going to college online removes significant barriers that had previously stood in their way.  Clearly, taking courses online is an attractive option because you can work when you want to, work from home, and get the undivided attention of the instructor.”

It’s pretty easy to imagine the essay that would follow, and that’s exactly the point.  The Introduction should lead the reader into the essay so that what follows is no surprise.

Again, this is only one of many methods of constructing an Introduction.  The method you choose is, of course, up to you.  The main thing to keep in mind is that, as the writer, it is your job to LEAD your reader into your writing.

Not Quite Dead

For a long time now, we’ve been accustomed to referring to Latin-the language of the Roman Empire-as a “dead” language.  It is true that the Catholic Church held on to Latin for its liturgies, but even that came to a halt (in our hemisphere at any rate) thirty-some years ago.  So Latin is no longer a language of literature, business, politics, or conversation; but it has held on for certain ceremonial uses (some diplomas and ecclesiastical documents, for example).  And it’s right there on our money:  “E Pluribus Unum.”

It also shows up in our everyday writing.  And contractions of Latin expressions especially can give us trouble.  But, actually, most if not all of that trouble can be avoided if we simply remember what the Latin expressions actually mean.


“I.e.” is a contraction for the Latin phrase id est., which means “that is.”  We use it when we wish to clarify a generalization or abstraction by stating exactly what we mean.

“He owns several automobiles, but usually drives his favorite one, i.e., his ’64 Mustang.”


“E.g.” is also a contraction of two Latin words, exempli gratia, literally “for the sake of an example;” we simplify it to mean “for example.”   So:

“Only well-funded national newspapers, e.g., The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, are likely to survive for very long in the digital age.”


Two Latin words, et (and) and cetera (other things), are contracted to make “etc.,” which we use to save our reader the trouble of reading a long series of obvious items.

Once in a while, you will read a series that goes, “x, y, z, and etc.”  The “and” is obviously redundant.  Remembering that “et” means “and” will take care of that.

More serious, however, is using “etc.” to make your reader work too hard.

In this sentence, for example,

“We took out a second mortgage to repave the driveway, put in a brick sidewalk,  plant ornamental trees, build a gazebo, etc.”

it is clear how the series might have continued.

But it would not be fair to your reader to write,

“We took out a second mortgage to repave the driveway, etc.”

leaving him or her to figure out what else you might have done with the cash.

Words to Watch For, Part III

Here are a few more words to add to the list of those we need to keep a careful eye on when revising.  Thanks again to those who suggested these particular words.

Bring and Take

Your choice here depends on nothing more complicated than point of origin.  If it’s from there to here, choose “bring”.

“Be sure to bring your textbook to each class,’ said the instructor.”

But if it’s from here to there, “take” is the word you want.

“Please take some of this cake home to your kids; I can’t possibly eat it all.”

This does get a little tricky with certain regional usage:  in New York City and its suburbs, for example, they tend to “bring” everything everywhere, regardless.  (They also stand “on” line rather than “in” line.  Go figure.)

Accept and Except

We all accept that these two words have almost nothing in common, except that they sort of sound alike.

“Accept” means to receive without protest.

“The students accept their instructor’s criticism.”

“Except” means “leaving out”.

“Every Senator except one voted in favor of the bill.”

Continual and Continuous

“Continuous” means without interruption.

“His continuous bragging left everyone feeling somewhat annoyed.”

“Continual” means over and over and over again.

“Her car’s continual stalling made it pretty clear that a trip to the mechanic was unavoidable.”

By the Numbers . . .

Often, especially when writing about research, numbers play an important role in what we wish to say.  Like most other grammar considerations, the guiding principles in writing numbers are consistency and clarity.  Reliably, the APA does present some guidelines, but even following those, you will find that you will need to make some judgment calls now and then.

The most basic APA guideline is to use numerals for all numbers 10 and higher.  The major exception to this rule is that a sentence can’t begin with a numeral.

    “Seventeen of the 21 students in the class arrived late for the lecture.”

    Another exception occurs when it is necessary to be consistent within a categor

      “She expected nine guests for dinner, so she made 10 individual pizzas, 3 of which were meatless.”  (Note:  guests and pizzas are different categories.  Also, the numbers of pizzas could just as well have been stated in words.  But it would be incorrect to write, ” . . . she made 10 individual pizzas, three of which were meatless.”  It is important to be consistent.

      To indicate time, use numerals with A.M. or P.M. (6:30 A.M.); without A.M. or P.M., use words (six-thirty, eleven o’clock).

      Use hyphens when you:  spell out numbers between twenty-one and ninety-nine; spell out simple fractions (two-thirds, four-fifths); or combine numbers and words to make modifiers (10-point scale).  (Note:  if you had a bunch of 10-point scales, to avoid confusion you would spell out the quantity–fifteen 10-point scales.)

      To write plural numbers, simply add an “s”-with no apostrophe:  “sixes and sevens”  “10s and 20s”.  “American culture underwent a profound dislocation during the 1960s and 1970s.”

      (Note:  these decades could have been expressed as “the ’60s and ’70s” or as “the sixties and seventies”–your choice.)

      Words to Watch For, Part II

      Once again, the idea here is to become alert to these words when they show up in your writing-even if it’s only to be sure you have used them correctly.

      Its and It’s

      I make this correction in my own writing at least once a week.  But, as we all know–but tend to overlook when we’re typing rapidly–in this case the possessive (“its”) has no apostrophe because the contraction (“it’s” for “it is”) requires one.

      “Some people believe that it’s the role of government to look after its citizens.”

      Amount and Number

      Usually what happens is that we unthinkingly use “amount” when we really mean “number”; it rarely happens the other way around.  Use “amount” when you refer to something that must be weighed or measured; use “number” when you refer to something you count.

      Wrong:  “The amount of students who vote using absentee ballots is surprisingly small.”

      Right  “The number of students who vote using absentee ballots is surprisingly small.”

      Less and Fewer

      This pair follows exactly the same rule:  use “less” when you weigh or measure; use “fewer” when you count.

      Wrong:  “The ferry had less passengers than the captain expected.”

      Right:  “The ferry had fewer passengers than the captain expected.”

      Weird Al captures it perfectly in this YouTube video.

      Affect and Effect

      This pair makes it on to the list of frequently misused words for a couple of reasons.  First of all, lots of folks confuse “affect” (the verb) with “effect” (the noun).

      “He hopes that the new legislation will positively affect all of his constituents and that the main effect will be higher employment.”

      The other reason this pair is problematic is that each word (in spelling, at least) is also a whole other word.  So, we have “affect”, a noun, pronounced with a short “a”, which has to do with expression or outward apearance.

      “His paralysis meant that his face was without affect.”  “Her black turtleneck and beret conveyed a Bohemian affect.”

      “Effect”, with a long initial “e”, is a verb that means “to make happen”, most often used with “change”.

      “Her only objective was to effect some sort of change in the organization.”

      Writing for Your Reader

      When it’s midnight and you’re straining your intellectual muscles–and your coffee pot–to the limit to finish that research paper, it can be easy to forget the most obvious fact about writing.  Except for diaries and journals, you don’t write for yourself; you write for someone else to read.  Keeping that fact in mind, though, will profoundly affect how well you succeed.

      So . . .

      1.  Make It Clear Where You’re Going

      When you write, you see all aspects of your work in your mind’s eye.  Having planned, researched, and thought, you understand entirely how all the ideas, bits of evidence, major and minor points, examples, and citations fit together.  Your reader, on the other hand, has an entirely different point of view.  He or she encounters your writing from the beginning and moves word by word to the conclusion.  That simple fact emphasizes how important it is to start by letting your reader know your subject, its context, your attitude, and-in general-the method you will use.

      (A hint here:  for whatever reason, we all like to make our last sentences real zingers, to slam home our point.  Because of that, you will find that, more often than not, your paper will be improved greatly if you make that last sentence your first sentence.   Try it, it really works.)

      2.  Assume That Your Reader Knows Next To Nothing of Your Topic

      Even if you think of your instructor as your reader (she surely knows more about this than I do!), it’s still better to over-explain than to under-explain.  Your writing will be clearer; it will be much more likely that your reader gets your point, less likely that your writing will be vague or easily misconstrued.

      Some specifics:

      3.  Give a Thought to Presentation

      A piece of writing makes an impression even before you begin to read it.

      So make yours look clean and inviting.  Use white space, numbers, bullet lists.  Think about subheads for the sections of your paper.  (This is one of the advantages of APA, by the way; it pretty well forces you to format things.

      Words to Watch For, Part I

      As you read through the draft of your essay, keep your eyes peeled in case you have erroneously written:

      Everyday for every day

      “Everyday” means “ordinary”, as in, “This is my everyday Bills cap; I wear my new Bills cap only on game days.”  But, more and more, I’m seeing folks write “everyday” when they really mean “today, tomorrow, the day after, etc.” or “every day”.

      Infer for imply

      The writer or speaker implies; the reader or listener infers.  It’s that simple.

      Lead for led

      This one has begun to crop up in recent years, for some reason.  ”Led” is the past tense of “lead” (rhymes with “bleed”).  ”Lead” (rhymes with “bed”) is the heavy metal that Superman uses to protect himself from Kryptonite.

      Loosing for losing

      I suspect that this is probably just a spelling problem that spell check won’t catch.  (Lots of those, aren’t there?)   Something in us wants to type “oo” for that long “o” sound.

      Then for than

      Here’s another one that’s way more frequent then (oops!) it ought to be.  I imagine it’s because, in conversation at least, we pronounce them both the same.  (Note:  I spotted this error in a New York Times online story on 9/20. By the next morning they had, of course, fixed it.  It can happen to anybody.)

      Could of for could have

      English teachers everywhere have been tearing out their hair over this one for decades, at least.  But it’s still alive and well.  Again, I’m sure the error comes from the way we speak in conversation:  ”could’ve” sounds much more like “could of” than it does like “could have”.