Figures of Speech in Expository Writing

When you write to explain something, your goal is to be clear, not necessarily beautiful or picturesque. Some figures of speech are so common we don’t think of them as such; see the use of “window” in the sentence below. But how about the word “born”?

Because the cesium-rich particles were born early in the meltdown, they offer scientists an important window into the exact sequence of events in the disaster.

Being born is normally a biological term. Might be a little better to have said “…particles were created,” eh? Or how about getting rid of the passive while we’re at it, and say that the particles formed early in the meltdown?

Not as distracting now, is it?

Rule of thumb: The more technical you are, the less poetic you should be.

Here’s a photo of the event:

The Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power plant after a massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami on March 14, 2011 in Futaba, Japan. Credit: Getty Images

Another Comma Function

Commas separate things. Dates from years, cities from states, and so on. Another thing they separate is direct address, as shown below:

The more astute among you might suggest that the maybe guy was using an appositive, explaining what was to be eaten. Good point, but that’s a bigger break than a comma can handle, so in that case, he should have used an M-dash:

Would you like the all-you-can-eat—shrimp!

The hyphens and the cook are both correct, by the way.

Well and Good

This is a sixth grade lesson, so you probably know it, so consider this post to be a review, or something to show your fifth grade friends.

“Well” goes with verbs, things you do. We call it an adverb. It tells how you do something. My wife cooks well.

“Good” goes with nouns. We call it an adjective. It tells what something is like. My wife is a good cook.

So the robot, of all people, gets it wrong. Next-to-last panel. He’s telling how it worked out, so he should have used “well.”

One exception to this rule: “Well” is an adjective when you’re talking about health. You should say “I don’t feel well when I eat too much.”

Two Verbs Again

Back in February I mentioned this construction, putting two verbs together, especially “is.” Here’s another example:

“What this spring is is a miracle,” said Sean Milanovich, 49, a member of the Agua Caliente band of the Cahuilla tribe, which makes its home in the Old Woman Mountains southeast of the spring.

As I mentioned last time, this looks as if it ought to be wrong somehow, but it’s not!

The first “is” goes with what’s before it, which is a noun clause. That clause functions as the subject of the second “is,” which is the sentence’s main verb.

You could reword the sentnce to make this a little easier to see:

This spring is what is a miracle.

or even:

This spring is a miracle.

Simpler, more concise. I like it.

A Tip When You Write an Introduction

I’m a technical writer. A lot of SMEs have handed me drafts of their documentation to “work my magic” on. If their document has an introduction (usually a paragraph right under the first heading) I frequently have to fix the first sentence. They like to write something like this:

This document is intended to describe/show/give the instructions for operating XYZ software/machine/process.

(the words with slashes are variables)

Folks, things like instructions are tangible. Either they’re in the document or they aren’t.

Get rid of that “intended”! The document either describes/shows/gives the content or it doesn’t!

Today I ran into a document that both uses “intended” and doesn’t use “intended” correctly !

My introduction is intended to provide a motivation for what follows. The first four chapters discuss the most plentiful objects in the night sky—the stars.

See? He intends to motivate you, and actually discusses the topic. Good for him! Go thou and do likewise!

The document deserves a bit more than a line of citation. The University of Chicago Press has a program where they let you download one of their books (of their choosing) for free every month. I downloaded this book, How We See the Sky: A Naked-Eye Tour of Day and Night by Thomas Hockey in March of 2019. Here’s a link to their program. If you like to read serious books online, take a look.

PS—He could have used the active instead of passive (“intends to provide” instead of “is intended to provide”), but hey, it’s academic. They always use the passive, don’t they?

Abbreviations are Words!

Thought I’d share sometning that I noticed the other day. We treat abbreviations as if they were words separate from the phrase they represent. Here’s the sentence that I noticed:

Coincidentally, I used a clip from “Stalag 17” yesterday, and, in the movie version, Peter Graves plays a rat who is collaborating with government forces to betray Allied POWs.

What’s the plural of “prisoner of war”? It’s “prisoners of war.” But what’s the plural of “POW”? Yup, it’s “POWs.”—That certainly doesn’t mean “prisoner of wars.”

The plurals of “attorney general” and “court martial” both put the “s” on the first word, but after the abbreviation. Well, I’ve seen “AG” used for “attorney general.” I haven’t actually run into “CM,” though I suppose it could happen.

Not much of a lesson, but I thought I’d share. Can you think of any other examples? Put them in the comments.

A Gentle Correction

Middle panel:

Why is it “we” and not “us”? Isn’t this like the slogan “Us Tareyton smokers would rather fight than switch”? (That should date you if you remember that one.)

Well, “[x] students are behaving” is a subordinate clause (It’s a noun clause acting as the direct object of “observe”) and clauses have subjects. The subject is “x students.”

Why two words for the subject? It’s called an appositive. Examples: Blacksmith Bob, Farmer Jones, Bill the salesman. You could remove either word from the phrase and you’d have essentially the same meaning.

“We” is for subjects, and “us” is for objects, so there you have it.

And get rid of those Tareytons.

Getting “If” and “Whether” Correct

The rules:

  • When you refer to a condition, use “if.”
  • When you refer to a choice, use “whether.”

Rule of thumb: “whether” implies that you have something equivalent to “or not” at the end.

This guy gets “whether” correct:

Shoe - 02/21/2019

Don’t End a Sentence with This Preposition

I’ve mentioned so-called “prepositions” at the end of sentences before, that they are okay because they are part of separable verbs. (A famous example: it’s okay to say “not put up with” rather than “up with which I will not put.”)

Here’s one that’s an actual preposition. Last sentence in the last panel:

Take It From The Tinkersons - 02/21/2019

The problem here is not just that it’s a preposition, but that it’s redundant. The sentence already mentions location with the word “where.”

So all you need to say is “Do you know where the crushed red pepper flakes are?”

When you’re talking about location, don’t end your sentence with “at.”

How to Write a Definition

A definition, as you no doubt know, is the explanation of the meaning of a word. When you define a word, you should follow a few rules. Here are two:

  • a definition may be a sentence fragment
  • a definition should not contain the word you’re defining.

Here’s a good example of breaking that second rule: