No geek too weak.
Thursday, May 03, 2012
Lists: we love to read them (especially when reading online) but sometimes hate to make them ourselves because we worry about whether we’re using the right style and punctuation. I’m here to simplify things and make lists something to look forward to writing.
First things first: lists replace proper sentences—and so relieve yourself of the nagging sense that you have to treat them like sentences. Lists’ main task is to make words pop and ideas easy to absorb. The most important thing to achieve with them is to make them simple and uncluttered by punctuation, and to let them breathe via a little white space.
Always include a lead-in sentence or phrase to start a list, followed by a colon, then a line of white space.
Here’s an example of the simplest kind of list you could make (notice lowercased first words and no punctuation at the end of the list items):
Remember to pack:
- an umbrella
- snack food
Now let’s step it up a notch and imagine your list items are going to be longer phrases/sentences. In this case, cap the first word and stick a period at the end of each list item:
There were several reasons for the decision:
- The budget wouldn’t allow for additional labourers in the summer.
- The Board was uncomfortable contracting out the work to a second firm.
- The building plans had yet to be finalized.
Happily, numbered lists (whether list items are short or long) follow the same reasoning as the second example above: cap the first word and stick a period at the end of each list item. Therefore ...
When I asked him to prioritize his wish list, he provided me the following:
- A five-year plan that would see him debt free in 2015.
- A cottage in the surrounding area.
- Two vacations a year.
All of this is based on The Chicago Manual of Style guidelines. There are other ways of doing lists, but I say keep it simple and consistent (which the above guidelines are) and you’ll be more likely to both use lists and make them attractive and helpful to the reader.
Posted by Kiley Turner on 05/03 at 09:45 AM
Tuesday, April 17, 2012
How readable is your writing? Wikipedia defines “readability” as the ease with which your text can be read and understood, and says that it depends on various factors such as “speed of perception,” “perceptibility at a distance,” “perceptibility in peripheral vision,” “visibility,” “the reflex blink technique,” “rate of work” (e.g., speed of reading), “eye movements,” and “fatigue in reading.” Most of these factors depend on things other than writing (such as font, number of words used, and line length), but I’d say one involves how you actually write: the “rate of work.” It is easier for readers to relax into writing when they aren’t tripped up by grammar problems and style inconsistencies. When they relax, their “rate of work” goes down. They don’t work—they enjoy and absorb.
We all have our preferences regarding style and “what’s right,” but no one has a problem with reading a writer who’s chosen a certain style and is committing to it. That’s what this post is about.
One: Choose a Capitalization Style
At Turner-Riggs, we choose “up” style capitalization except for the odd cases we choose “down” style (the latter which involves capping only the first word of the title). With “up” style capping (preferred by The Chicago Manual of Style), whether or not we capitalize a word in a title depends on its part of speech. The basic rules are as follows*:
- Capitalize the first and last word in a title, regardless of part of speech
- Capitalize all nouns (baby, country, picture), pronouns (you, she, it), verbs (walk, think, dream), adjectives (sweet, large, perfect), adverbs (immediately, quietly), and subordinating conjunctions (as, because, although)
- Lowercase “to” as part of an infinitive
- Lowercase all articles (a, the), prepositions (to, at, in), and coordinating conjunctions (and, but, or)—other than those of four letters or longer (e.g., with would be With).
If “up” style feels like too much work for you and/or you’re not familiar enough with parts of speech, choose “down” style.
Two: Spell Words the Same Way All the Time
Stick to spelling certain words in a specific way—including how you spell depending on what country you’re from. If you’re writing for a Canadian audience, here are some of the rules:
Canadian spelling does not involve changing the American /-ize/ to the British /-ise/. Canadians are /-ize/ people (e.g., recognize). Exceptions (of course there are—we are talking about the English language!): All words ending in /-cise/, /-prise/ and /-vise/ (e.g., comprise, excise, supervise, televise).
More Canadian spelling:
- Behaviour, favourite
- Centre, theatre
- Chanel, channelled, channelling
- Counsel, counselled, counselling, counsellor
- Enrol, enrolled, enrolling, enrollment
- Focus, focussed, focussing**
- Glamour but glamorous, humour but humorous, rancour but rancorous, vigour but vigorous
- Travel, travelled, travelling, traveller
- A licence (noun) but to license (verb)
- A soccer practice but to practise one’s verbs
- One’s spirits sank, not sunk
Three: Don’t Use a Hyphen to Separate Ideas—Choose Either an En-Dash or an Em-Dash
Using two hyphens in a row to signify an em-dash looks rough, and using a hyphen for a dash looks amateur.
I like the em-dash with no spaces, myself (e.g., “He didn’t want to—and didn’t think he should have to—eat with them every night.”) It’s formed on Macs by pressing Shift, Option, Hyphen (-)—or of course you could insert it via Symbols found in Insert on the top control bar of your screen.
But some people like en-dashes with a space (e.g., “He didn’t want to – and didn’t think he should have to – eat with them every night.”) It’s formed on Macs by pressing Option, Hyphen (-), or again via Symbols.
Next week I’ll post a little something on lists (bulleted and numbered). Choosing a consistent style here is important, too.
If you ever want a thorough style guide for your organization, you can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
**Some people have trouble with that double “s”—including me. It’s kind of ugly and Gollumesque. Luckily, we are permitted to drop it if we are consistent: focus, focused, focusing. But again, choose one style and stay with it.
Posted by Kiley Turner on 04/17 at 08:51 AM
Tuesday, December 14, 2010
Photo credit: Mel1st
I’ve been feeling all warm and fuzzy this week so it’s time to nip it in the bud and get all rigid and unforgiving with a final installment of the regular column I’ve updated so fastidiously (!) all year: Weekly Geek. I’m going to answer five queries I hear all the time, sometimes from across the room, so I can forevermore just whip this URL over to the questioner. Without further ado:
When do I use ...
Every day vs. everyday: Use every day very literally, as in “It rained every day that week.” Use everyday as an adjective to describe a mundane or common occurrence: “It was an everyday sort of meeting—no VIPs in attendance, nothing major on the agenda, and nothing I couldn’t back out of.”
Any time vs. anytime: Similarly, use any time literally, as in “Is there any time for us to grab a quick bite?” Meanwhile, equate anytime with whenever: “Call me anytime.”
I am deathly afraid of being rapped on the knuckles if I don’t put two spaces after a period ...
Don’t be, unless you’re in school and they insist on it in the style guide they’re using. You won’t find that double space anywhere in a published article, book, or work written by a professional writer. Trust them. Personally, I wince when I see that gaping space and find it hard to make it to the next sentence.
What’s the difference between or and nor?
If you have neither in the sentence, use nor (think two n’s). If you have either in the sentence, use or.
What do I do with periods and commas when I’ve got meddlesome quotation marks to deal with?
Put them INSIDE the quotation marks, Craig, if you live in North America—which you do (e.g., Her colleague mumbled “tyrant,” then fled from the room ...). Putting them outside is a British thing.
Toward or towards?
This is another NA/British thing. Toward is North American and towards is British.
Ho ho ho! There, it’s out. Now I’m loose as a goose and at one with the universe.
Posted by Kiley Turner on 12/14 at 07:07 PM
Thursday, June 24, 2010
Are you a “Person” or a “person” kind of person?
Me, I’m a person person. My preferred capitalization style, which I share with Chicago Manual, is to energetically avoid capitalizing defined terms and positions whenever possible (and mostly it is possible). For example, it makes me squirm to see:
- “It was the University’s policy to ...”
- “The Director told the Manager of Accommodations to start again.”
Why? Overusing capitals at best suggests insecurity about writing and lack of confidence, and at worst suggests pompousness. In fact, it’s a trope used by many satirists to poke fun at those who rarely poke sufficient fun at themselves (e.g., the upper classes). Consider the following excerpt from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels:
I was surgeon successively in two Ships, and made several Voyages, for six Years, to the East and West-Indies, by which I got some Addition to my Fortune. My Hours of Leisure I spent in reading the best Authors, ancient and modern; being always provided with a good Number of Books; and when I was ashore, in observing the Manners and Dispositions of the People, as well as learning their Language; wherein I had a great Facility by the Strength of my Memory.
Just reading that paragraph makes me laugh—very directly at Swift’s intended target.
Whenever we can with clients, we recommend a lowercase style, where positions and terms don’t get capitals except in certain circumstances. According to this style, it’s okay to use capitals in really restrictive (i.e., specific) cases but not okay to use them generally. For example:
- A Master of Fine Arts but a master’s degree
- The Faculty of English, the Department of Finance but a faculty or department
- Vice Chancellor Arnold Evans but a vice chancellor (as well as “Arnold Evans, vice chancellor of the university ...”)
- “The appendix, ‘Terms of Reference,’ will follow ...” but (in normal text) “Our terms of reference for the project include ...”
And so on. Beyond matters of tone, it’s annoying to the eye to have to scale too many capitals in body text.
Consider your company’s communications—what kind of a personality are they suggesting via style conventions like use of capitals?
Posted by Kiley Turner on 06/24 at 10:15 AM
Thursday, October 01, 2009
If every person could look inside a professional editor’s office, they’d be surprised and relieved to know how often two books are in the perennial open position: a style manual and a dictionary. No one, absolutely no one, knows everything about language, and the best editors and writers are those who embrace this and make a point of looking things up whenever there’s a sliver of doubt. This practice is in fact a main reason they are so good at their jobs.
So today I’m going to cover two mistakes I see lots in my day-to-day work that some of you will find very basic and “duh.” If you fall into this camp, rest assured that you likely stumble over things that other people find amazingly easy. I certainly do. As we become more and more digital and involved in micro-format writing (e.g., Twitter and Facebook), our punctuation and usage skills can get rusty.
#1: It’s and its
There is only one reason to use it’s: to contract it is. Therefore:
- “It’s cold today.”
- “He told me that it’s the best restaurant he’s ever been to.”
Otherwise you want its.
- “Its teeth were jagged and it growled menacingly.”
- “There is no way its contents could have been leaked.”
This can be confusing because we’re so used to seeing ‘s indicate possession. If it’s any help, think of the apostrophe as standing in for the i of is. Otherwise, just keep coming back here!
#2: I.e., and E.g.,
These abbreviations truncate Latin words. I’m not going to go there because no one remembers the Latin. What you need to know is that i.e., and e.g., (and yes, they require the periods and commas) are not interchangeable; they stand for very different things.
- i.e., means that is.
- e.g., means for example.
- “If you’ve never visited the area, consult a travel guide (e.g., Lonely Planet or Fodor’s).”
- “His heroes, i.e., Spiderman and Indiana Jones, occupied prime positions on his window sill.”
Grammar Girl provides some handy help on i.e., and e.g., so go there if you’re a tips and tricks kind of person.
Till next week (or the week after),
Posted by Kiley Turner on 10/01 at 11:37 AM
Wednesday, September 09, 2009
No, not words that cause emotional damage; words that make the stomach churn. Words that cause rumbling and recoil.
The worst offender has to be “utilize.” If you use it, you’re not alone. It seems to be one of the most prolific words in business communications. But to me (and I’m not alone—see what Random House’s Media Maven has to say) it smacks of pretentiousness and insecurity. “Utilize” does have a valid meaning: “to turn to profitable use; to make a practical use for.” But in 99% of the cases I’ve seen, it replaces “use.” For that matter, a lot of people will write “employ” instead of “use.” Whatsa matta with “use”? It’s a lovely little word—just three letters that mean so much.
Other words I see too much or which otherwise and even irrationally make me cringe:
- Synergy (or synergistic)
- Actionable (used sometimes in marketing copy to mean “prompting a desired action” (e.g., “we produce actionable results”) ... “actionable” really means “giving sufficient reason to take legal action”!
- Important, efficient, and effective (they’re fine used sparingly, but it’s tempting to abuse them)
- Grow (as in “grow the business”—it’s inelegant to my ear, though I’m sure I’ve pulled it out from time to time)
- Impact (overused: try “effect” for a noun or “affect” or “influence” for verbs)
- Impactful (I liked what someone had to say on the Visual Thesaurus: “Apparently, ‘impactful’ is a word (and by this I mean it’s recognized by a handful of reasonably reputable sources). I think it sounds horrible, like an impacted wisdom tooth or, heaven forefend, an impacted bowel.”
For more ranting on horrible words, see this entry by a British guy. I like the quote he uses to starts his piece:
“Words that are horrible to one writer may not be horrible to another,” says John Grimond in The Economist Style Guide (Profile Books, 2005). “But if you are a writer for whom no words are horrible, you would do well to take up some other activity.”
Got any you want to share? It might feel good ...
Posted by Kiley Turner on 09/09 at 03:32 PM
Sunday, June 07, 2009
A geeky Toronto friend—whose geekitude surprises and delights me—asked for a post about en dashes. I’m going to throw in a couple of points about hyphens and em dashes because they help clarify the distinct use of en dashes.
- When you think en dash, think numbers in almost all cases.* Em dashes, by contrast, apply exclusively to words.
- Think number ranges when it comes to the en dash—in other words, inclusive numbers (e.g., “See pages 40–42”). Non-inclusive numbers like phone numbers (e.g., 604-734-1896) demand hyphens. En dashes with numbers mean up to and including. With the example, then, I meant “See pages 40, 41, and 42.”
- Finally, a direct and important quote from The Chicago Manual of Style: “For the sake of parallel construction the word to, never the en dash, should be used if the word from precedes the first element; similarly, and, never the en dash, should be used if between precedes the first element.” Therefore: “He was a member from 1998 to 2001,” and “Between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. there will be no power.”
*The main use of en dashes between words is when there is a to implied (e.g., “The Vancouver–Toronto train,” “The Canucks won 4–2 over the Leafs”). There is also a use for compound terms, but it occurs infrequently enough that I’m not getting into it here.
To read me waxing poetic about em dashes, please see “Writing That Sounds Like Speaking” on blogthecat.
Posted by Kiley Turner on 06/07 at 09:39 AM
Monday, May 25, 2009
Today’s Weekly Geek addresses a mistake in usage I see all the time: the erroneous use of comprise. It’s such a tough one that Frances Peck often advises her clients to simply forget comprise entirely as a word ... to just abandon it. That’s one option, and a good one since comprise can be a fussy word that often sounds too formal or even pretentious. If you do want to use comprise, check out this excerpt from a section of a client style guide I did a couple of years ago:
Use comprise, composed of, or consists of as per the examples below. As Fowler’s notes, “The special function of comprise is to introduce a list of the parts making up the whole that is its subject; that is, it means to consist of or to be composed of. All the parts compose the whole; the whole comprises all of the parts.” Therefore:
- The book comprises eight chapters.
- Milk, honey, and nutmeg compose the sauce.
- The sauce comprises milk, honey, and nutmeg.
- The committee was composed of nine representatives.
- The lesson consists of four sections.
Another trick I just thought of is to think of comprise along the same lines as contain. It’s not perfect, but it might end any confusion between comprise and compose.
Next week: the en dash.
Posted by Kiley Turner on 05/25 at 12:29 PM
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
If you take hyphens seriously, you will surely go mad.
John Benbow in Manuscript and Proof
Everyone hates hyphens. They don’t make any sense—it seems there are a million exceptions to their rules. Yet an ill-placed hyphen or lack of hyphen when there should be one can make a sentence stick out like a sore thumb and the writer look amateur. This post is devoted to an area of hyphenation that drives people especially batty: the treatment of compound terms like “middle class” or “much despised.”
There are two main points to remember when dealing with this sort of thing:
- Never hyphenate an adverb ending in -ly (e.g., you would never write “the unjustly-accused innocent”). There is no happy union between -ly and a hyphen.
- Everything depends on where compound terms occur in a sentence—that is, their position. If you’ve got two words modifying a noun and they occur before that noun, smack that hyphen right on in there. So: “the upper-class neighbourhood,” “the open-ended arrangement.” If they occur after the noun, pump the brakes—take your finger away from the keyboard and stifle your sense of injustice at the weirdness of the rule. So: “the neighborhood was upper class,” and “the arrangement is open ended.”
Just remembering these two points can help you immensely when it comes to hyphenation.
As for words that don’t serve to modify a noun, like “email,” “toothache,” or “healthcare,” the best idea is to consult a recent edition of a good dictionary. Whether to hyphenate these, close them up, or leave them open changes over time and over dictionaries, so the only way to proceed is to check the word and then remain consistent throughout your document.
Posted by Kiley Turner on 05/13 at 01:14 PM
Thursday, April 30, 2009
This week I cheat—I direct your attention to a nice little article about the emotional impact of punctuation. The author, Stuart Jeffries, doesn’t bill it as such, but that’s what he’s really getting at. He’s talking about the recent ubiquity of the exclamation mark, which he notes has been prompted vaguely but I think definitely by email communications. Jeffries weighs in on the debate as to whether it’s a sign of excitability or friendliness and explores his own feelings about the mark.
My thoughts on the exclamation mark are that:
- it shouldn’t be banned the way purists have commanded it be in the past
- it shouldn’t be overused in business communications
- it’s nice to see in emails sometimes—it can impart a friendly tone
- when it’s not used well (e.g., to camouflage insincerity or even petty negativity) it’s REALLY annoying (just like ALL CAPS are)—smiley faces are like this, too
- if it’s sprinkled all through your writing, you can come off as silly or insubstantial
But overall, I like the comeback of the exclamation mark (in small doses), and I agree with Jeffries that it really was “the funless and fastidious” who were keeping it trodden underfoot. That said, one will do: it’s a powerful mark, and there’s no need to triple the action unless you’re purposefully being goofy with good friends.
Posted by Kiley Turner on 04/30 at 08:19 PM
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
If Us Magazine is doing it, you can bet a lot of other people are, too. Us has decided to end the possessive case of words like Paris (as in Hilton) with an s’ rather than an s’s. For example:
Paris’ $250 million pool party for her newest dog ...
They’re using the style convention where when a word ends in a sibilant (a consonant that sounds like a hiss, like Paris), it’s fair game to end with the more visually attractive s’.
Paris’ does look better than Paris’s. But I’m in the camp where you always add the final s after the apostrophe. I like how Paris’ looks, but I don’t like how it sounds in my head.
Both styles are correct. What’s incorrect is to be inconsistent. Choose one style and stick to it.
p.s. When the word in question is plural—e.g., the players’ wives—just add an apostrophe. But you knew that.
p.s. When you get all hot and bothered about the issue as I so often do (just think of our company name, Turner-Riggs) try to reframe the sentence. Instead of “Turner-Riggs’ company mascot was fired soon after the unfortunate event,” I’d write “Turner-Riggs fired their company mascot soon after the unfortunate event.” And avoid the passive voice in the process!
Posted by Kiley Turner on 04/21 at 01:46 PM
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
Finally, a regular column for blogspace, an outlet for our geek. Okay, my geek ... I haven’t asked Craig about it, so maybe it’ll be just me writing. In that case, expect to hear a lot about words and grammar. I love learning about words and grammar, and I need to share what I learn with anyone who will listen. Or just anyone. Whether or not they listen.
So let’s get started!
Topic #1: Commas (Between Adjectives)
Oh, don’t pretend you’re bored by commas ... that you don’t want to know more. Commas are tricky little devils that beg for understanding—otherwise they can run rampant through your writing. They can turn you into a comma bomber, like someone I know in this office. And it isn’t me.
There is much to know about commas, but for now I’m going to limit myself to an invaluable little lesson I learned from the brilliant Frances Peck about how to figure out whether you need a comma between adjectives. If you are anything like me, you’d look at a sentence like this one (purposefully unpunctuated) and get a little anxious:
They are selling their blue pine table their damaged oak dresser their beloved shag carpet and their thick luxurious throw.
Would you put a comma between “blue” and “pine”? Between “damaged” and “oak”? Between “beloved” and “shag”? Between “thick” and “luxurious”?
I might have, pre-Frances. And I would have been 75% wrong.
The correct punctuation** for the sentence is:
They are selling their blue pine table, their damaged oak dresser, their beloved shag carpet, and their thick, luxurious throw.
Here are the tricks that helped me figure it out:
- Can you insert an “and” between the adjectives? If you can’t (e.g., you wouldn’t say “the blue and pine table”), you shouldn’t use a comma. In other words, the comma substitutes for “and,” as in “the thick, luxurious throw.”
- Can you rearrange the adjectives? If you can’t, you shouldn’t use a comma (e.g., you wouldn’t say “the pine blue table”).
To end in full geek glory, let me just add that beneath these tricks, there is a proper point of grammar: the decision about whether to use a comma between adjectives has to do with what kind of adjective you’re dealing with: coordinate or cumulative. In the sentence we used above, “thick” and “luxurious” function as coordinate adjectives (they all separately modify the same noun) while the others work in a cumulative way (they build and lean on each other).
That’s it for today. Don’t worry, Weekly Geek will be back. Soon. Like in a week.
**Assuming you’re using a serial comma, which is another topic (and a contentious one at that!). If you choose to use serial commas, as I do, you put a comma before the last item in a list.
Posted by Kiley Turner on 04/15 at 09:28 AM