RESPECT: Showing Consideration for Readers through Economy of Words, Elegance, and Correct Grammar

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Ulla de Stricker, de Stricker Associates

Have you ever winced at a grammatical blooper, stared at a sentence several times to make sense of it, or felt inundated by meaningless filler words and fad expressions? Have you ever been somewhat annoyed to be responsible for chasing back three sentences to figure out where “this” might be pointing? Does it bother you when human beings are reduced to the status of inanimate objects through the use of “that”? Do you inwardly say “ouch!” when a writer’s apparent desire to sound sophisticated results in a malapropism?

You are not alone. Though sloppy language and playing fast and loose with grammatical rules are “the new normal,” we writing professionals share a sense of disappointment when we come across instances of poor or lazy writing.

Naturally, clear and precise writing is essential for technical materials whose purpose is to drive, say, correct use of expensive equipment or avoidance of risk to life and limb; but why not show courtesy to all readers, no matter how casual the occasion? Elegant writing is an easy way to polish our professional brands—all it takes is a bit of extra care and a willingness to revisit a piece of writing multiple times: Did a common error creep in because it is so common? Could the point be made in fewer and simpler words? Are the idioms correctly applied

[no, “whole nine yards” is not associated with football!]?

I’m dismayed when highly educated professionals allow basic errors and misunderstood expressions to mar their writing. The dismay led me—in desperation, you could say—to develop presentations and workshops on “English Language Usage Errors You Cannot Afford.” Consistently, the feedback contains variations on “I wasn’t aware I was guilty of such linguistic sins!”

For the convenience and entertainment of CIDM readers, I have selected some examples to illustrate the pervasiveness of certain errors. Readers’ additions would be welcome!

The more that … Fight the invasion of the “that”!

WRONG: The more that we promote recycling, the more that staff pay attention.
CORRECT: The more we promote recycling, the more attention staff are paying.

SOLUTION IF IN DOUBT: With increasing promotion of recycling, staff are paying more attention.

Who vs. Whom: “Whom” may sound sophisticated—but think twice.

WRONG: Anna spoke about Bob, whom she thought had been very kind.
WRONG: Anna spoke about Bob, who she greatly admired.

CORRECT: Anna spoke about Bob, who – she thought – had been kind. (… who in her opinion had been kind)
CORRECT: Anna spoke about Bob, whom she greatly admired.

Following “to”, “for”, “from”, “with” etc, whom is correct: “We will excuse those for whom the early hour is inconvenient”.

SOLUTION: You could study the formal rules until you are blue in the face and still end up confused. Deal with the challenge by rephrasing for clarity: Anna spoke about Bob, saying he had been very kind. Anna said she admired Bob.

i.e. or e.g. ? … just spell it out!

WRONG: Vegetables, i.e. carrots (there are no other kinds of vegetables)
CORRECT: Vegetables, e.g. carrots (there are many kinds of vegetables and carrots are an example)

“i.e.” means “that is“, “in other words“, “identical to” … and “e.g.” means “for example“.

SOLUTION: Spell out the expression. Vegetables, for example carrots, are grown in the community garden plots. Your DNA, that is your genetic heritage, is a factor in health.

If only we could get “only” in the right spot!

WRONG: I only want to stay for a few minutes. He had only worked in his new job for two weeks when the company was reorganized.
CORRECT: I want to stay for only a few minutes. He had worked in his new job for only two weeks …

“Only” should be positioned directly in front of the word to which it pertains. In the above examples, “I only want to stay for a few minutes” technically means “I want nothing else in life than to stay …” and “he had only worked” means he had done nothing other than work (no sleep, etc) for the two weeks.

Let’s put little “not” in its place.

WRONG: All members do not attend the annual conference. The students are not all upset.
CORRECT: Not all members attend the conference. Not all students are upset.

Trick: Don’t allow “not” to drift toward the verb. Technically, “All members do not attend” means that absolutely no one attends; “the students are not all upset” means they are something other than “all upset”—let’s say they are hungry. WRONG: All members do not attend the annual conference. The students are not all upset. CORRECT: Not all members attend the conference. Not all students are upset. Trick: Don’t allow “not” to drift toward the verb. Technically, “All members do not attend” means that absolutely no one attends; “the students are not all upset” means they are something other than “all upset”—let’s say they are hungry.

More … than: Watch who is doing what!

WRONG: More people read X Magazine than Y Magazine and Z Magazine combined. [Here, the Y and Z magazines are doing the reading.]

CORRECT: More people read X Magazine than read Y Magazine and Z Magazine combined.

That or which? Here’s a simple test.

Some believe “which” in place of “that” lends an air of sophistication to a sentence. That would be a mistaken belief! Here is a quick bottom line to summarize the technical explanations: If the information introduced by that/which could be omitted without destroying the sense, “which” is correct:

A. The painting that was stolen a year ago is worth a fortune.
B. The Vermeer painting, which was stolen a year ago and found last week, will now be displayed in a glass enclosure.
C. The Vermeer painting, stolen a year ago and found last week, will now …

In A, the information about the theft defines the specific painting we are discussing and thus could not be omitted.
In B and C, the information about the theft could be omitted (“the Vermeer painting will now …”).

SOLUTION: Avoid tussling with any witches: The Vermeer painting was stolen a year ago. It was found last week and will now be displayed in a glass enclosure.

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