Phrase out of Place

As a rule, you should put similar parts of a sentence together. For example, if a sentence has two subjects, put them together.

Tom and Dave played tag.
S               S        V       DO

What happens when you don’t put them together? You get confusion!

Tom played tag and Dave
S        V     DO           ?

Huh? Is “Dave” some new kind of game that Tom played? After all, it’s right next to the direct object.

That example is trivial, perhaps, so here’s an example from real life:

Access in divisional and functional areas is too broad in some systems, increasing security risks for potential misappropriation, due to IT [the Information Technology department] owning systems instead of the business areas.

Look at the part after “due to.” “IT” is the subject, “owning” is the verb, and “systems” is the direct object. What is “business areas”? I don’t think IT would be owning business areas, so let’s rewrite the sentence so you can tell that “business areas” is another subject:

Access in divisional and functional areas is too broad in some systems, increasing security risks for potential misappropriation, due to IT instead of the business areas owning systems.

That makes more sense! Go thou and do likewise.

Some Thoughts About the Singular They

I touched on the singular they in the past, and I recommend you follow the link if you don’t know what the singular they is. Today I ran into a usage of it that jumped out at me a little, so I thought I’d share.

First, look at the conversation in the third panel of Scott Meyer’s Basic Instructions:

Since we’re talking about spouses here, the issue of “his” or “hers” being the right word is a little stronger than it would be in a lot of other contexts. On one hand, in this context he’s talking about his wife. And on the other hand, he wants to make his statement tactfully general. And on the third hand, Scott is somewhat constrained for space, so “their” fits better than “his or her.”

Now look at panel three’s heading. Same problems. Scott doesn’t have much room, and he doesn’t know whether your spouse is male of female. So even though the topic is spouses, which is reasonably gender related, which would make “his or her” appropriate, he chose “their.”

Writing can get tricky sometimes, eh?

How Not to do Tech Writing

I dare say this Boomerangs comic speaks for itself…

Do I need to belabor the point? Tech writing should be so plain and clear that you don’t notice the writing! Send for that five critical techniques for good writing document I mention in the column on the right if you don’t believe me, or if you want some good advice.

Someone Gets Enormity Correct

I suppose this is another one of my pet peeves. Enormity means “extremely bad,” not “extremely large.” ‘Nuff said.This is most of one panel from a longish narrative about a visit to a post-apocalyptic—well, here’s the link. Not my kind of adventure, but at least he got “enormity” right.

The Only Time I Recommend Using “It”

That headline is a bit strong, but I want to keep the title to this post short.

To clarify,

  • I generally recommend against pronouns altogether because your reader might not understand what word (called the antecedent, by the way) the pronoun is referring to. Do a search on “pronoun” in the upper right corner of this page to find several more posts on the subject of avoiding pronouns.
  • I also tell you not to use false subjects, one of which is “It is.” See also “There is” and “There are.” Make your sentences name the guilty party!

Here’s a comic that illustrates a point I made in that post about false subjects; the weather can have a false subject:

Mr. Bucket’s hair looks funny drawn from the back.

Lesson in a Pun

English is replete with words that are pronounced the same, but spelled differently, and have different meanings. Peek and peak, for instance. We call these homonyms. Here’s another one, not as common, perhaps, but I still recommend you get these right:

Thank you, Hägar the Horrible.

A Standing Joke

The protagonist in Darren Bell’s strip Candorville is a writer. Hence, like me he’s somewhat of a grammar curmudgeon. Darren must figure that this lesson needs repeating, because I’ve seen this conversation before.

He’s absolutely correct, too.  Myself, I prefer to shop at grocery stores whose express lane says “15 or fewer items.”

Why Pronouns are Dangerous

Remember, folks, this site is not about politics. I ran into a sentence in a political context, though, that is such an excellent example of why I recommend against pronouns, that I have to quote it.

“The president believes in making sure that information is accurate before pushing it out as fact, when it certainly and clearly is not.”

What does that second “it” refer to? I predict that people will choose the antecedent based on their politics. And well they might. The sentence is not a good one, semantically speaking. It is hard to tell what the sentence literally means.

The rule with pronouns is that they should refer to the closest noun. This rule is so easy to break that ambiguity often results, and that’s the case here, and ambiguity is not something you want in a contentious environment.

I think this is what the speaker intended to mean (edited to remove ambiguity):

“The president believes in making sure that information is accurate before pushing [the information] out as fact, [especially] when the [so-called] information certainly and clearly is not accurate [to start with].”

Here’s what the grammar says:

“The president believes in making sure that information is accurate before pushing [the information] out as fact, when the [claimed] fact certainly and clearly is not accurate.”

I think That’s what was meant. Hard to tell. The second version is self-contradictory. Don’t jump all over me if you think I got it wrong, but feel free to put your own translation in the comments.

The rule: avoid pronouns. Say exactly what you mean.


Pet Peeve Day Three

My peevishness is aroused when people use transitive verbs as if they were intransitive, particularly “display” and “complete.”

Enough jargon. Here’s a definition by example:

When you display, you display something. When you complete, you complete something.

Back to jargon: That word “something” is called a direct object, and transitive verbs always have one. Intransitive verbs don’t have to have one: you can think, you can suppose, you can walk, you can appear or disappear (in a puff of smoke, perhaps), all without having to put something after them. That’s intransitive.

Here’s an article where they (The National Oceanography Centre in the UK) do it wrong in the headline, then do it right in the article (with a different verb, but you get the point):

The COMICS expedition completes

The COMICS team  The first COMICS expedition reached a conclusion just before Christmas, having collected a great data set on biological carbon in the Ocean’s twilight zone.

I suppose we grammar curmudgeons will have to get used to this solecism, especially the one with “display,” because computer instructions are so common. But when you press Enter, the window doesn’t display, it appears!