Friday, September 28, 2007

Why Grammar and Style Matter

While I suspect that Jack Lynch may be unimpressed with my pedantry on this blog, he does have many good things to say about using language. It seems that several people have wandered by here looking for a reason to worry about grammar in their writing so I thought I’d offer more thoughts.

The above link takes you to his short entry on grace in your writing. I agree wholeheartedly with his point—that your ebb and flow are more important that strict adherence to rules. Nonetheless, knowing the rules helps you understand when to break them.

When you write dialogue, strict grammatical construction sounds stilted in the mouths of your characters. How you punctuate your dialogue, however, makes the difference between a clear flow between characters and a confused reader reconstructing the conversation to figure out who said what.

When asserting your creative right to play with language, keep those pesky grammar rules in mind. Make sure your grace doesn’t trump your clarity, to use Mr. Lynch’s terms. Rules of use and structure exist to help you use words to make your ideas clear to other people. Throwing those rules out of the window may make for a wilder time when writing but is likely to get the fruits of that labor thrown out of the reader’s window.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Word of the Day: A New One

As you read various articles, you may run across new words that strike you as perfect for their application. That happened to me this morning with an article about the whether the US Senate could pass the requisite spending bills in time for the beginning of the fiscal year.

The sentence read: “Federal agencies get only a small tranche of money to carry them through…”

“What’s this,” I thought, “a word I don’t know? The impossible has happened!” Okay, something relatively rare occurred. I found a completely new word.

I immediately searched out the definition and found that, in French, tranche means a slice of something. Thus, the helpfully-provided phrase “tranche de vie” would mean, in English, “slice of life”.

I share this in part because of my recent post on Latin and French phrases and in part because it serves as a reminder that new words and ways to use them exist all around you. Read whenever you have a moment to do so. Read things that cross your path that normally you would find dull or consider over your head. You never know what gems are waiting for you to discover them.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Chiasmus and Other Language Tricks

I stumbled on a terrific site today (on my own, not through Stumble Upon, though rest assured that I did Stumble it). Dr. Mardy Grothe presents a fascinating and passionate portrait of a subject with which I was wholly unfamiliar: the chiasmus.

It turns out that many snowclones are actually implied chiasms. Dr. Grothe has two full pages of discourse on those and they are entertaining reading indeed.

You can make your own chiasmus but simply switching the words in any old phrase won’t do. A simple reversal can create anything from banality to utter nonsense if you don’t choose your initial phrase carefully. You must find a saying that is recognizable in reverse and actually contributes to your topic.

Make time to play with words and phrases. The more your stretch your vocabulary and compositional skills the more flexible you become in manipulating language. Twisting a common subject around on itself with a deft flick of your phrase grabs your readers’ attention and impresses your client. It's also a great deal of fun.

If you can’t get enough of literary terms and their tricks, check out this enormous, alphabetical list of them. Here you learn words, like “anadiplosis”, with which to impress your friends and colleagues. You also find good ways to spice up your writing and catch the attention of readers.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Using Foreign Language Phrases

“Vice versa” and “et cetera” seem like innocuous phrases. In theory, they eliminate repetitive and wordy sentences while impressing your reader with your grasp of the dead language. Unfortunately, Latin phrases only make you sound smart if you use them correctly. When you misspell them or use the wrong phrase, your erudite piece reads more like a comedy sketch.

To the end of eliminating such embarrassing moments, I offer this fantastic resource—a page full of common Latin phrases and their meanings. Use them; know them; love them. Then concentrate on the page of French phrases. Ooh la la!

When you use phrases from another language, consider whether your target audience will know what they mean. When using longer phrases, make your meaning clear through context. Don’t translate the phrase in your sentence, however. Doing so restores the wordiness that you are trying to avoid by using the phrase in the first place.

Even if you use the phrase correctly, you will annoy unfamiliar readers more than you will impress them. While “par excellence” conveys superiority clearly, “sine qua non” tells your Latin-deficient reader nothing about your subject.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Why You Don't Need More Punctuation Marks

As promised, I am writing about lesser-known punctuation marks again. While I am a fan of the interrobang, as posted in yesterday’s ramblings on obscure punctuation marks, I doubt the need for the sarcasm and irony marks in more formal writing.

If you mean your piece to be humorous, whether through sarcasm or a more direct way, your words should carry that meaning. When you feel the need to use a mark to tell your reader that you are “just kidding” either you have not written well enough to make your point clear or you are insulting the intelligence of your reader. Smilies or their punctuation equivalent cannot replace clear, evocative writing in an article or fictional story.

During communication on fora and via instant messaging, however, those marks could be the difference between making yourself understood and upsetting someone needlessly. These media make down-and-dirty communication possible, but the temptation to post without proofreading for meaning and implication combines with the lack of physical and tonal clues to meaning to make sarcasm difficult to detect. Even e-mail can benefit from the clarity that such marks bring.

Articles and fiction that you mean for people to read months and years after their composition, however, require more finesse than a simple crooked exclamation point or tilde can provide. If you cannot create sentences and paragraphs that make clear your tongue-in-cheek take then work on your writing and build your vocabulary. More punctuation marks won’t strengthen your characters or descriptions.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Obscure, Sarcastic, and Ambiguous: Punctuation Helps Make Your Point

Today we focus on obscure punctuation. I can no longer hold in my desire to talk about the interrobang. It seems to me that people would consider this to be one of the most useful of punctuation marks for posting in fora, especially those where heated discussions commonly occur.

If you didn't check the above description (or read Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss) let me explain in brief. The interrobang is a combination of a question mark and an exclamation point. It is used to express an emphatic emotion like surprise or anger while asking a question. I have always used “?!” to represent an interrobang. I was unaware that offer a custom version, as listed in the above link.

Now that you know how to inject emotion into your questions, you are ready to learn how to indicate that you meant to be ironic as well. Yes, there are marks for that, as well, although none so well-regarded as the interrobang. Underware has designed their own version. You would need to combine the exclamatory power of this version with the questioning strength of the reversed question mark. I'll write about my opinion on using these tomorrow, since this post is about punctuation marks in general.

If these fail to fill your obscurity meter, consider the mark for intentional ambiguity. I like the mark, but I'm not so sure it's needed. Most folks write ambiguous sentences accidentally and generally don't realize it until someone has leapt to the wrong conclusion. (I need a mark that combines ambiguity and sarcasm for the end of this sentence!)

In my quest for other underused punctuation marks, I discovered William J Buchholz's snerk-worthy piece from the November, 1979 issue of the Phi Beta Kappan. Read the section on colon use, if you would be so kind; then read through my post titles. Clearly, I have established my intellectual authority without even trying.~

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Verbs Gone Soft: Nominalization

Raymond Ward at Minor Wisdom had this interesting post (and a few more interesting comments) regarding -tion words and their use. While I think the post over-simplifies the -tion suffix, I do think he has a valid point.

I followed up with some research on nominalization and the passive voice. You know that I've declared war on that bugger in my own writing. Thus, I seek ways to simplify finding and eliminating it.

In today's search, I came across a few sites that offer excellent advice and/or examples. DG Jerz at Seton Hill University offers a useful page that demonstrates that -tion is not the only bad guy. Two sets of revised nominalizations offer concrete options.

Now I am considering that last sentence and wondering about “options”. Should I change, “offer concrete options” to, “ you opt for concrete...”? That just adds words and clouds the point. Not all -tion words drag you down. As in so many things, following the rules carries you only so far. After that you need a little talent.

I ran across something related but more extensive today, as well. Daniel Kies has the text book for his Composition course at the College of DuPage. This starting page links to a good web of clear information about sentences and writing well worth exploring.

Check my tag cloud on the left for other posts on eliminating the passive voice and other ways to improve your writing.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Fun with Words: Sentence Diagrams

In fourth grade, I had a teacher obsessed with diagramming sentences. We each had a set of colored pencils—one for each part of speech—and a notebook with which to create beautiful complexities. I kept that notebook and look at its pages in wonder every decade or so.

I still harbor a fondness for diagramming sentences. I find it an excellent way to work out my grammar muscles and to doodle during meetings. For those of you unfamiliar with this entertaining pastime, I found a web site that gives dozens of sentence diagramming examples.

Creating a simple diagram helps you isolate your subject and verb. From there, you can determine what happens (or, more to the point, what does not) in your sentence. In the battle against the passive voice, this powerful tool points directly to weak verbs.

I don’t advocate diagramming your entire piece. I don't wish to detonate your writing schedule, after all! I do suggest analyzing sentences that don’t flow well as well as taking the main idea from each paragraph and isolating the subjects and verbs. This shows you what you’ve said and helps you focus your article. If you find a paragraph where the main idea wanders off-topic you can eliminate it rather than diluting your focus.

Employ sentence diagramming as one of a handful of the hundred techniques to tighten up your writing. Your readers and your clients will appreciate the focus and pace of your piece when you hack out the dead wood.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

You Learn Something New: Em-Dashes

I was incommunicado for a couple of days, without any computer access at all. I think I will recover fully, but it was touch-and-go last night. Please accept this complicated topic as reparations.

In response to a comment on my recent anti-semicolon post, I researched the difference between using an en-dash (a short dash that looks like a hyphen but is not a hyphen) rather than an em-dash (a long dash often represented by a double-hyphen). I came across a discussion about various type styles and dashes. The posts were written five years ago, but the discussion gives some good history.

I then found a surprising page about the en-dash versus em-dashes in singles, pairs, and trios. Each version has an appropriate set of uses and a special character. I had no idea!

I use en-dashes (hyphen-length) for em-dashes (double-hyphens that many word processors replace with a special character. I have done that for years because I think—as do several folks in the first discussion—that the double-hyphen construction is unattractive.

The special character (as seen in the previous sentence) does not appear magically on bulletin boards and fora. To avoid the ugly version, I began using the [space]hyphen[space] construction that you can see in other posts on this blog. MS Word automatically replaces that with an em-dash with a space on either side.

The problem is that the special character does not translate into a noticeably different-length dash in most HTML editors like the one for this blog. I never thought to review their appearance as posted rather than in the editor. The way I use en-dashes gets the point across but is technically incorrect. I am trying to break my bad habit, and thanks to Carradee for the “heads up”.

Does anyone else have a bad habit to explore, my oversight or yours?

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Quickie Post: That Versus Which

There are some grammar rules that are difficult to remember. One of those governs whether you use “that” or “which” in a sentence. I regularly mistake them as I tend to think of “which” as more formal. It isn't.

That and which have similar meanings but they are used for two different things. “That” tells you the object of a clause. “Which” tells you about the preceding noun or clause. Thus:

The pancakes that I made this morning tasted great. (“That” answers the question of which pancakes, as there are many.)

The pancakes, which I made this morning, tasted great. (“Which” gives me more information about the pancakes such as how long ago they were made and by whom.)

“Which”, however, has that confusing second meaning as used above. It indicates a choice. That use does not require a comma. When you use it to describe something or give more information about it, you are creating a dependent clause and need to set it off with commas (or some other punctuation, depending on where it lands in the sentence).

Saturday, September 15, 2007

FANBOYS and the Semicolon

Let us consider today the semicolon. Young folks are commonly taught to use a comma to separate two independent clauses (ones that could stand alone as a full sentence) when one of the FANBOYS connects them. [For those of you who don't know, the FANBOYS are for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so.] If you use a longer word – therefore, otherwise, moreover – you are “supposed” to use a semicolon to connect the clauses into one sentence.

Why do I mention it? Because on-line writing flies in the face of these rules. Unless you have a long list or one that contains commas in the items, you don't need the semicolon at all.

When writing for the Internet, less is more. You end up with something like, “I must study French this year; otherwise my trip to Alsace will be difficult to enjoy.” Your readers are so bored by the end of this construction that they are dreaming of the Eiffel Tower instead of reading.

If you find yourself writing sentences linked with semicolons, consider whether they ought not to be separated or combined more closely. You could write, “I must study French this year. I will not enjoy my trip to Alsace without it.” That offers more description and still emphasizes the connection between the two ideas.

You could also write, “I must study French this year to use on my trip to Alsace.” This eliminates that enjoyment factor (of course you'll enjoy the beautiful region and its tasty wines) and puts the focus squarely on the two important ideas: studying French and taking a trip. It saves a few words, too. It also lets you put the discussion of enjoying Alsace in its own paragraph, where it belongs.

Why would you write such a sentence? Pretend you're writing an article about planning that trip. You can use the idea to introduce the topic of how to choose which region of France to visit.

You can parley that into a series on planning trips – learning languages, booking tours, finding inexpensive transportation, selecting hotels – every aspect can have its own article. By the time you've thoroughly written about the topic, you've got an e-book on your hands. Package it well, sell it on Amazon and Squidoo, and you can pay for a trip to a whole new continent. All from leaving out the semicolons.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Accidental Meaning: Weigh Your Words

You often find discussions on on-line business and blogging fora about getting people to come to your site. Doing so allows you to lure them in with whatever fascinating or scintillating things you offer. For me, drawing people here lets me dazzle them with my wit and insight into the English language.

I am surprised to see the prevalence of the phrase “drive traffic to” a site. This calls to mind sheep or cattle, something unwilling forced to head down a particular path. Generally, I picture the thing at the end of such a path to be a slaughterhouse or at least somewhere you get fleeced.

Why am I writing about this? Each time I read a post or response with that term, I can’t help but wonder if the writer has thought about the words. That leads me to the wider thought that folks don’t think about the meaning of the words they choose when the post publicly. I know that I have been guilty of posting something ambiguous or that produces a negative reaction in readers.

Weighing your words makes a difference to how others perceive you on boards. How much more do the words in a static article or business web site convey?

When you proofread your work, look at the words not only in their grammatical context but with regard to their imagery as well. Consider the mental pictures that everyday words generate for your readers. You can’t be responsible for one individual’s bad associations, but you can keep in mind the various meanings of the words you use.

With the example I’m using for this thread, I assume that most people do not intend to imply that they would like to force or trick people into visiting their site. They simply use a term they have read elsewhere without considering what it means.

Think for yourselves, folks! Posts and articles that bear your name will convey impressions to readers with or without your intention. Make those words count and say what you mean.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

It's Versus Its: One Simple Rule

Today I address a topic surprises me at least once a day when I’m on-line: people cannot keep straight the difference between its and it’s. Even sites for writers include posts where someone explains to a hapless newbie, “Its the difference between getting published and not” or, “Each paragraph should have it’s own focus.”

The teachers who pounded the possessive-apostrophe rule into most folks’ heads did them no good. That rule only holds true if you are using a noun. When using a pronoun (he, she, it, you, them, they, etc.) you use no apostrophe to indicate possession. If you did, you’d write hi’s, her’s, their’s, and so on.

That’s my tip for today: pronouns don’t have apostrophes. His, hers, theirs, whose, your, its – all of these indicate possession without that pesky little hanging tail. This simple rule

The apostrophe in “it’s” indicates that the writer has left out a letter or two. It’s a contraction of “it has”, “it was”, or “it is”. If you see a pronoun with an apostrophe, it indicates a contraction – “It’s my car” means “It is my car.”

As I have previously advised, eliminate doubt by removing contractions until the rule becomes second nature. Any apostrophes you have left either mark an error or show that a noun possesses something.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Quickie Post: Grammar in the News

As I spent my writing time today actually writing, rather than musing on writing for you people, I don’t have much time. I'll post a link to the article when it's approved. In the meantime, please enjoy the following grammar-related articles.

Taking the Grammar Vandal to Task
Dr. Grammar Goes Public
Monkeys “Get” Grammar, a Bit
Cyber Grammar

Have a lovely day and I'll "see" you tomorrow with something more substantial.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Three Cheers for the Thesaurus

I found myself thinking about favorite words today. There exists, sometimes, a word as sweet or prickly as the thing it names or a word that brings to mind the opposite of its meaning. Here are a few of mine.

    The unrelated slap-dash and haberdashery
    The somewhat misleading shoehorn
    The ever-so-nasty carbuncle, which is not like a barnacle (and is not to be confused with the lesser-known furuncle, which sounds like a word invented for a raised-by-wolves story)
    The evocative spitfire
    The sophisticated svelt
    The pointy-edged complication and its softer cousin, impediment
    The expansive (or explosive) catastrophic
    The decreasingly-popular adjective lantern-jawed

There are so many words out there that you can nearly always find one that fits your point perfectly. I advocate universal Thesaurus use whenever you write.

Often I’ll compose a sentence intended to convey something only to discover that it fails. The words mean the right things but don’t evoke the right mental picture. I click over to my favorite Thesaurus site and look up the words that don’t fit.

Invariably, I find or am reminded of a word that makes my language center stand up and say, “Yes!” The cadence of a sentence and the layout of a paragraph live and die by the words you choose. Put some variety into your vocabulary, and please share some of your favorite words with me.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Sitting Around, Thinking about Gerunds

I will pull together three topics in today’s post, including gerunds and the passive voice (again). Please bear with me, and ignore the technical terms if you like. The concepts matter more than the proper names for them.

I ran across the term “stative verbs”. What, pray tell, are those? You rarely use these verbs with an –ing ending. They are almost wholly passive. Check the above link for a more detailed explanation. I didn’t want to frighten you all with the term “present perfect progressive”, nor did I want to derail my thoughts by describing it.

My English Teacher also has on that page a list of common stative verbs. I got there from their page on using gerunds. It occurred to me that perhaps looking for stative verbs used as gerunds would provide a clear way to identify passive sentences.

Take, for instance, the phrase “looking pretty.” Do you assume that the person described is, say, jumping around calling attention to herself? She is being looked at by someone, not acting. Thus, she passively receives the action, “Sue is looking pretty.” You could use “appears” instead, but Sue remains passive. Dang! The gerund gave it away but appearances can be deceiving.

Combine the two concepts for a more powerful tool. Look for either gerunds, especially followed with “by”, or stative verbs – and if you find both you know something isn’t going on.

Eliminate instances in your writing where something else acts on your subject unless you wish to emphasize that thing or person. Make your actors active and they’ll hold the attention of your readers. If your hero sits around waiting for villains to attack, your readers won’t wait with him.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Writing Prompts and Exercises

When you just can't get the writing to flow, you need a push. Look to writing exercises to loosen up those creative muscles. Here are a few places to find starting points that don't require maudlin personal memories.

This list at e-ssortment gives you some creative ideas. I particularly liked the fist as an exercise for improving things you've already written. The third tip sounds like a good way to expand your vocabulary at the same time.

If mental vapor-lock commonly stops you from writing, wander over to Meredith Sue Willis's writing exercise page. She offers 109 exercises, ranging from a single beginning phrase or a photo to three paragraphs of set-up. You're sure to find something to inspire you.

Still struggling? Try The Blob's list of 70 writing prompts. Instead of being directive, most of these consist of a few words (or only one) intended to give you a nudge. Write about number 29, “A light source.” or number 46, “Something with wings you never considered as having wings before.”

With almost 200 places to start, you can work the kinks out of your brain before you get to the heavy lifting of writing for money. You may end up with something great that you can use for the same purpose. Even if you don't, exercise is good for you. Keep your brain from getting a fat behind!

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Seek and Destroy: The Passive Voice

If you need more practice identifying and eliminating the passive voice, take a peek at the University of Calgary's page on voice. While I am not fond of the use of foreground as a verb, the rest of the page provides good tips and exercises.

I read a few sites about this every week because I know that a facility for eliminating that pesky passivity improves my writing. I'm trying to make it a habit to write actively. I come across sites that offer weak or too-easy examples and ones that give good advice.

For example, there's the lesson plan site that tells teachers to “Invite students to search for examples of passive voice in environmental literature...” Once you understand that they mean things in their environment rather than critiquing only the pamphlets of “green” groups, it's a great idea.

I think of writing like any other activity – practice equals improvement. If I wanted to improve my basketball game, I'd practice the particular shots that I found difficult. Since I want to write tighter, more effective sentences I practice finding and removing extraneous words.

The passive voice introduces those words because you have to work around your subject, taking the long way to the action. You can write a languid, story about a powerless or depressed character in the passive voice. The passivity is rather the point of the piece. But if that poor character ever gets a backbone or extricates himself from the situation the passive voice will only slow him down. He'll need to get active or your readers won't be convinced that he actually did anything.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Fallacies Are Always Bad

I have entertained myself today reading the Fallacy Files examples and explanations. The breezy writing style makes the specific examples and detailed explanations seem like juicy gossip.

Wander by the fallacy blog, while you’re there. Where else can you read such useful terms as “argumentative trees” and given ways to apply them, all in one post? In addition, you get current, real-world examples of faulty logic in arguments and explanations of how to recognize them.

You don’t need to know the “proper” names of various fallacies, but you must learn to recognize them. Either you can to use them to trick people (poorly behaved though that may be) or you want to recognize them in the articles or posts of others. For troll-like fun, you can call a well-meaning person on a fallacious argument and really get up their dander. Beware the power of logic! Use it only for good.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Quickie Post: Food for Thought

Imagine my horror in reading about grammar rants reflecting racism and class bias on the part of the peeve-holder. Do others view my entire blog as an expression of deep-seated intolerance? Am I a closet bigot?

Thankfully, I read the linked lesson (that’s an Adobe Acrobat .pdf file, so if you can’t open one don’t click the link). Rather than chiding me for being an awful person, the article praised grammar rants like mine as ways for students to learn. They also show readers not only that others will judge them on how they speak or write, but why. Whew!

I hope that I am providing a useful resource for folks who enjoy language, both reading, writing, and speaking. Take a look at these pages and let me know what you think!

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Too Funny To Take

This week turned out to be annoying error week for me and thus for you, readers. What too-common problem have I chosen as my pet peeve of the day? (Did you catch my hint?)

I’ll offer a particularly heinous example. Consider the “sentence”, “That’s to funny your awesome!!!” Perhaps you recall having seen such accolades posted on blogs or forum threads. If you haven’t, you are a luckier person than I am. I promise you that I am not exaggerating this example. I recently addressed your versus you’re. Today I take on “too” versus “to”.

You can remember the difference by substituting the words “also” or "extra" for the word “to” in your sentence. If it still makes sense, use both o’s. That’s it – the entire rule for deciding which word to use summed up in two sentences.

Perhaps you’re asking how to remember that the too that means also has two o’s. Think of an excited teenaged person saying, “Me, too!” That second word should be at least two syllables long, pronounced, “To-ooo!” Two syllables equals two o’s.

The word “to” covers a lot more territory. Because it you use it for different parts of speech, the rules dictating its proper application are more complicated. “Technical” grammar terms like preposition and infinitive can intimidate people who don’t care about the nuts and bolts of language.

This makes grammatically lazy people say to themselves, “I won’t remember all of those rules so why should I bother? Everyone knows what I mean.” That, in turn, makes fussy language freaks like me ignore their posts or e-mails. Thus, communication shuts down before it begins.

Many rules of grammar become self-evident if you take your time when writing. Consider the meaning of the words you use before you click that button and publish it for all the world to see.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Sure, You Can Write, But Can You Market?

I’m not a huge fan of Technorati because I find it unreliable. However, I do like to check in from time to time on my “Watchlist”. That’s how I ran across How to Start a Freelance Career from Inkwell Editorial.

Don’t be intimidated by the long posts. They do go on for miles but the author generously sprinkles them with valuable nuggets. Much of the advice focuses on marketing and getting clients. This valuable information fills some gaps in my experience for you, my friends.

I would prefer to believe that great writing will draw clients through word of mouth, eliminating the pesky marketing requirement entirely. Then again, I would prefer to believe that the tooth fairy will bring my children money instead of my having to keep a buck or two in my sock drawer, just in case. My preferences don’t change reality, more’s the pity.

If you intend to make freelance writing your career, you will market yourself. You can do so directly, by pitching jobs to folks through on-line sites, or you can do so in the ways suggested at this blog. Either way you must put yourself out there to make money. Try Technorati, while you're at it.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Atrocious Ads: Help Wanted

I perused the want ads in a local free paper this morning (I'm having a book drought and one must read something) and came across a want ad from a company with which I am familiar. I read through the large (and, one would think, expensive) ad only to find this sentence:
“Good PC skills is required.”

Once I'd retrieved my jaw from the floor and re-affixed it to my face , I looked through some of the other ads. I discovered such unusual circumstances as:

“Successful application should have a background in...” Gosh, here I thought they were hiring a person. If they want to pay my paper, I'll be happy to send a resumé. I suspect, however, that they intended to say that the successful applicant will have that background.

According to numerous companies, “this position will...” This is perhaps a more aesthetic objection, considering the limiting nature of want ads, but what these folks mean is that the person who accepts this position will do or have the listed things. The ephemeral, paper-based “position” cannot act.

Then I found the company that feels they are so innovative that they used the word three times in their ad, twice on the same line. They even used the word to describe the person for whom they are looking. If they were that innovative they would have thought to use a thesaurus. Another company described their benefits package as innovative. Pardon me while I doubt.

An ad for a federal agency included the phrase, “the ability to demonstrate experience in a supervisory or management role”. I'm disregarding the fact that it is part of a fragmentary sentence couched between two complete sentences. This is a simple case of word inflation. A far better ad would have read, “supervisory or management experience”. Perhaps they paid for the giant rectangle and needed the words to fill it. Then again, they could have just given the sentence a subject or verb to use up the space.

I won't even touch the Wells Fargo ad that started “Someday, a company that I can grow with.” [shudders] This all goes to show you that HR should not be left to their own devices when it comes to advertising. These things are the first impression of your company that some people get. Have your PR folks read the darn things, Corporate America!

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Your Versus You're: An Epic Battle

One of the most-covered grammar topics out there is “you” versus “you're” yet it still ranks as the most frequent error I see. (“Its” and “It's” run a close second in this race.)

As a hypothetical example, take a blog named “Your Fun”. Would you assume that the author intends to tell you about fun things to do or to find on the Internet? In actuality, the blog contains posts “to” other bloggers telling them that a post on their blog is fun. Clearly, at least to me, the writer means “You're Fun”, and intends to compliment other people.

The difference between the two words is easy to remember, if you take your time when you are writing. Stop for a moment and ask yourself if you are saying something is “yours”, indicating ownership and thus no apostrophe.

If you mean that someone sounds or acts like something (“You're silly!”) then you are telling them, “You are...” The apostrophe is simply a way to knock out the space and the letter “a” and create a contraction. In writing, the difference in size barely registers and does not factor into your composition beyond the “should I use contractions?” debate that I covered elsewhere.

Concern yourself with eliminating the contraction and you will solve your own problem. If you mean “you are” then write it. If you don't, then you either have the wrong word or you meant “that belongs to you”. In that case, use “your”. When you talk to your brother about his shoes, it's "your". When you talk about his actions, like his failure to take a shower, it's "you are". "You're stinky, and so are your shoes."

If you still find this difficult, consider that pronouns (you, he, she, they, it) don't have apostrophes in their possessive forms (yours, his, hers, theirs, its). Nouns do. A little attention to your meaning saves a lot of confusion in your writing. You'll also save people who care about language a large amount of frustration.