We Don’t Do Tech Writing Like This Any More

Here’s a sentence from some correspondence from the 1700’s:

Your Majesty’s Ministers, persevering in their measures, and proceeding to open hostilities for enforcing them, have compelled us to arm in our own defence, and have engaged us in a controversy so peculiarly abhorrent to the affections of your still faithful Colonists, that when we consider whom we must oppose in this contest, and if it continues, what may be the consequences, our own particular misfortunes are accounted by us only as parts of our distress.

It’s from a document called “The Olive Branch Petition,” addressed to King George III (but delivered to the Earl of Dartmouth) not long before the revolutionary war, written by Richard Penn and Arthur Lee, representing the Continental Congress. The king wouldn’t even read it, but not because of the complexity of the sentence, I suspect.

Here’s an exercise for you: Rewrite that sentence in today’s English. You can make more than one sentence out of it, and I recommend you do.

Adjectives Don’t Show Number in English

In a lot of languages, when you put an adjective with a noun, the adjective has to agree with the noun. Feminine nouns get feminine endings on their adjectives (gender), plural nouns get plural adjectives (number), and so on. If you know other languages, you know what I mean by the “and so on,” such as the effect of case.

English (with a few exceptions, such as court martial, poet laureate, secretary general) puts the adjective right in front of its noun, and it doesn’t matter much what kind of noun. Here’s an example of getting it wrong:

The New York Times (and others) reported on Plimpton 322, a famous four-millennia-old Babylonian tablet featuring a table of Pythagorean triples.

You might argue that it’s a compound adjective (hyphenated correctly, by the way), but it should still be “millennium.” The whole thing is an adjective, so it shouldn’t show number. An example of correctness:

He drives a four-door car and a sixteen-wheel truck.

That incorrect usage, by the way, is from an interesting and well-written site called Math with Bad Drawings. Even if you’re not much on math, give it a look. The bad drawings are actually pretty good, even. Here’s one:

If you’re a native English-speaker, you probably do this without thinking; this post is so you’re aware of what you’re doing already, and so you don’t stumble.


Two Pretty-Much Useless Words

The words are “within” and “upon.” Both are fancy versions of what they actually mean, namely “in” and “on.” For example:

This line of code can be found within that module.

Instead, how about:

This line of code can be found in that module.

We’ll skip my usual rant about using the passive; isn’t that second example better? It’s more direct, doesn’t call attention to itself.

Okay, it’s been several posts since I posted a comic, so here’s one to illustrate “upon.” My sincere thanks to Zach Weinersmith for his Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, (for Sept 13, 2017. You’ll have to click back to that date if you’re visiting from some day after the 13th.). It’s one of my favorite comics. They are intellectually sophisticated and funny.

The usage is in the first panel. I admit, in this context, “upon” is probably appropriate, but I think that makes the point. Are you writing an explanation for something, or are you quoting a goat skull?

So here’s the rule:

If “in” or “on” make sense, don’t use “within” or “upon.”


Test Answers 4

Last chance to go take the test without seeing the answers!

The last five questions:

  1. It was about 3 or 4 feet long, looked like a long piece of linguine (same color, similar width), except if you looked a little carefully, it was actually comprised of connected rhomboid like sections. [this one has two goofs, not counting that the 3 and 4 should be spelled out. Find both.]
  2. While China is beginning to assemble its own tunnel-boring machines, it still relies on critical, foreign-made components that its own industries can’t manufacture on its own. [first word should be “Although” or “Whereas,” but I’m looking for a different goof.]
  3. Clicking Refresh Catalog in the catalog, updates the usage information.
  4. The amount of tabs you have open at any one time has a direct impact on the performance of Chrome, as well as how much RAM the application consumes.
  5. Feminism is not a stick with which to beat other women with.

The answers:

  1. Using numerals for numbers below ten is normally a faux pas in writing, but that’s not the goof I’m thinking about. They said “comprised of”! It’s “composed of” or even “comprising connected …” For shame! Talk about being pretentious, that’s it! The other goof is a missing hyphen. It should be “rhomboid-like sections.”
  2. This one is easy. “industries” is plural, “its” is singular. Make them agree: Use either “industry…its own,” or “industries…their own.”
  3. Get rid of the comma. Never separate a subject and verb with one comma. I recommend you make “Refresh Catalog” stand out, too, with a style, quotes, italic, or bold.
  4. AAK! They should have “The number of tabs” because you’re counting, not measuring.
  5. The sentence has an extra “with” at the end. Get rid of it. In other words, proofread your work. You got that one, didn’t you?

So there you have it. If you teach English know some writers, or just want to annoy your friends, you have permission to print the quiz and hand it out. Then tell them the answers, of course.

Test Answers 3

Remember, the original test is here. go take it if you haven’t already. What’s the fun of free answers?

  1. So, the Rangers are based out of Igloolik.
  2. So what does a potential new state of matter for the rest of us?
  3.  Indiana law explicitly forbids government employees such as the Governor to conduct politics on state accounts, so it’s credible to argue Pence had no other options.
  4. “The Church and State owes them all an apology,” she said.
  5. It stands in stark contrast with a pair of current cartoons by fairly mainstream conservative cartoonists that mock Democrats for being obsessed with the Russian connections.

And the answers:

  1. They are based in that place. Even based at works, but not out of! Maybe they venture out of Igloolik occasionally…
  2. Okay, I usually don’t bother with simple carelessness, but these are professionals! What does a potential new state of matter mean for the rest of us?
  3. The reference to the governor is an aside (aka non-restrictive) so it should have commas before and after it. “…employees, such as the governor, to conduct…” but that’s not the main goof! Do you forbid someone to do something, or forbid them from doing it? You could also throw a “that” in front of Pence.
  4. Ah, good old subject-verb agreement. You should all have gotten this one. “Church and state” is a plural, so you want the plural verb, “owe.”
  5. Cartoonists are people, people. So it’s cartoonists who mock Democrats. “Who” is for people, “that” is for non-people.

Test answers 2

Here’s the whole test if you want to take it: this link. Questions 6–10:

  1.  It is now hoped that the system could be combined with the use of pheromones that lampreys use to attract mates.
  2. This weed includes the most vitamin A than all green leafy vegetables, which prevents cancer, and is abundant in Omega-3 fatty acids, so it effectively prevents heart diseases and stroke.
  3. It is more cost-effective by only utilizing more expensive authentication when warranted by the risk.
  4. It’s easier to implement than you may have thought.
  5. Sensitive personal data including cookies, API keys, and passwords has been leaked by web optimization giant Cloudflare.

…And here are the answers:

  1. “It is now hoped” is better than “Hopefully,” but you are better yet to use a real subject. The sentence should start with “We now hope…”
  2. Obviously the sentence should have “…the most vitamin A of all…” but it should also be two sentences:  “…fatty acids. It effectively…”
  3. “Utilizing” should be “using,” and “only” should be placed so the sentence reads “…by using only more…”
  4. Don’t use “may” when you mean “might.” “May” speaks of permission, “might” speaks of possibility. Besides, the sentence might be intended to mean, “It’s easier to implement than you might think.”
  5. This one is tricky. “Data” is a plural, so “has” should be “have.” I think it reads better if you make another plural, for example, “Sensitive types of personal data…” Then the obvious plural, “types” still takes “have,” and besides, that list is a list of types.

I hope you find reading about the test edifying, and I hope you go take the test. Tell me if you do, and I’ll add you to my list of testees.

Test Answers 1

Back in March of 2017 I posted a writing test. If you missed it and are curious, follow this link before you go any farther.

I’d have posted the answers sooner, but someone asked me to send the test to their dad first. Well, Dad never responded, and I got distracted by other things, hence the tardiness.

So here are some of the questions. More in another post.

  1. “The technology,” he wrote, “is not limited to only aviation.”
  2. Best known of the two is Enrico Fermi, the Italian intellectual giant who escaped from fascist Italy to America after winning a Nobel Prize for his research in nuclear physics.
  3. On February 23, 1997, NBC broadcast the film in its three-and-a-half-hour entirety, uncut and uninterrupted by commercials, as per Spielberg’s request.
  4. Who do you think you match with?
  5. 1856   The Republican Party holds it’s first national meeting.  (© Ducksters.  I wasn’t going to embarrass them, but they put a copyright symbol on it. Used without permission)

And here are the answers.

  1. In English you can split an infinitive, but this sentence is better if you don’t. It should be “…only to aviation.”
  2. When you’re comparing two things, use “better.” “Best” is for when you have three or more.
  3. This one really irritates me. It’s “per” not “as per.” Per means according to, so as per would mean as according to. Nonsense. A good example of being too fancy, which, in writing, I call a pretentiousism.
  4. Everybody has trouble with “whom,” especially in questions. Turn the sentence around: Do you think you match with him? The “m” is the give-away. Whom is the object of the preposition; objective case.
  5. Arg! I can’t believe a professional writer got this wrong. It’s ITS! no apostrophe in the possessive! His, her, its.

So there’s your dose of self-righteousness for the day. You knew all those, right? If you didn’t before, go take the test.

The Courts Have Spoken: Use the Oxford comma!

News about this item appeared in March of 2017. It’s the outcome of a court case between a dairy in Maine and the company’s drivers, and it all hinged on the Oxford, or serial, comma.

I’m pretty sure, if you are the type to read this blog even occasionally, that you know what an Oxford comma is: When you have a list of things with an “and” between the last two items in the list, the comma before the “and” is called the Oxford comma. (This applies to lists with “or” too.)

Here’s a link to the appellate court’s decision.


I don’t really recommend you bother to read it, but the gist is that the drivers were entitled to extra goodies because the last two items in a list were combined, as implied by the lack of a comma before the “and.” So the “missing” comma, even though it’s considered grammatical to leave it out, cost the company money.

Here’s the rule as I phrase it:

Without the Oxford comma, sometimes you can be misunderstood. With it, you are never misunderstood.

Since I advocate that expository should be clear, I say “Always use the Oxford comma!”

Getting Figuratively Literally Correct

Here’s the comic, Dustin:

Dustin - 08/29/2017

So. A little reminder: Literally means it actually happened; figuratively means it didn’t actually happen, just something like it happened. In informal speech we tend to use “literally” as a way to emphasize what we’re saying. That’s okay, but when you’re writing to explain something, use the correct word.

I suppose in that last panel she could have said, “You both are literally annoying me.”

I must add that I could have left “literally” out of the title of this post, and the title would still be literally correct, and I could have put an “and” between the words and it would also be literally correct. And maybe easier to read, even.

And so we come to the hidden lesson here: if something is so, it is also literally so. Hence the word “literally” is often unnecessary, especially in expository writing.

In, Into, and Even In To

German has in, but nothing exactly equivalent to into. The reason is that German uses case to indicate motion or lack of motion. In with the dative case means the same as English in; in with the accusative means into, because the accusative (among other things) implies motion.

Okay, in English and German, here’s a simple example:

I climbed into the car;  ich steig in das Auto.
I did it in the car; ich habe es in dem Auto getan.

However, you can also use in and to next to each other as two separate words, and your spell checker is even likely to get this wrong! It’s when you use a separable verb (aka phrasal verb) followed by a prepositional phrase or infinitive. Here are some example separable verbs with in: give in, put in, break in, chip in, fill in.

An example of getting it wrong, from a passage at history.com about Son of Sam:

On Christmas Eve, 1975, he gave into these internal voices and severely wounded 15-year-old Michelle Forman with a hunting knife.

And getting it right:

I chipped in to help the cause.
I shouldn’t break in to their conversation.


So be careful: this is easy to get wrong.