Being right about grammar isn’t always good enough

If you want people to pay attention to your content, not your writing, then using correct grammar isn’t always enough. I could go on about readability and other factors. However, in this post, I want to focus on grammar.

Correct grammar can distract

Sometimes correct grammar that looks wrong will distract your readers from your content. That happened to me earlier this year. I sent out a newsletter that included the following line: “Their using my Twitter name—my @name, @susanweiner—forces their tweet to my attention.”

Two readers responded with gentle messages suggesting that my line included a grammatical mistake. Both said that “Their” should be “they’re.” If you delete the parenthetical reference to my Twitter name, you can see that’s not a solution. It results in a sentence that doesn’t make sense: “They’re using my Twitter name forces their tweet to my attention.” I suppose it could work if changed to “They’re using my Twitter name to force their tweet to my attention.”

I checked with some grammar-savvy friends. They said, “Their” is correct with the gerund form of “use.” That’s explained in “Using the Possessive Case with Gerunds.”

However, my readers who cared enough to contact me made an important point. The way that I’d written that sentence prevented some readers from focusing on my message. In other words, I was correct, but I’d failed to communicate effectively.

Alternative sentences

With the help of my friends, I came up with some alternative ways of saying the same thing. I ran a poll in my newsletter to see which version my readers preferred.

The winner, with 50% of the votes, was “By using my name—@susanweiner—they’re forcing me to notice their tweet.” It was followed by:

  • “When they tag me on Twitter, using @susanweiner, they call my attention to their tweet” (28.6%)
  • “Their use of my Twitter name—@susanweiner—forces their tweet to my attention” (14.3%)
  • Other (7.1%)—for example, “When they tag me on Twitter, using @susanweiner, they’re forcing me to notice their tweet.”
  • Don’t change the sentence (0%)

Ouch! Nobody preferred my original sentence. This is a good reminder for me to slow down when I write. Still, I’m not sure what technique or rule would have alerted me to the problem with this sentence. I need to reflect on this.

Another challenge: singular “they”

One respondent said, “The loser tweeter appears to be singular. If so, ‘their’ is wrong. Use the correct singular pronoun, or ‘he’ for neutral.” Of course, the problem with that is that “he” will offend some readers. And “his or her” is clunky.

“Their” is increasingly accepted as a gender-neutral singular possessive. Still, its use distracts people who were taught that “their” is strictly plural.

I often use the workaround that I describe in “Plurals: your best friend for gender-neutral financial writing ” However, in the context of my original blog post, the losers were plural, making “their” correct. (Of course, my commenter lacked the context, so he or she didn’t know that.)

Keep correcting me, please!

I appreciate all of my readers who correct me. Thank you!

You give me reason to reflect on my writing, and you often correct embarrassing mistakes. As a high schooler, I did not get a good education in correct grammar, as I discussed in “Confessions of a grammar ignoramus.” I still have a lot to learn.

Keep your comments coming!

MISTAKE MONDAY for Jul. 16: Can YOU spot what’s wrong?

Can you spot what’s wrong in the image below? Please post your answer as a comment. If you can’t find what’s wrong with this, then try my read-out-loud technique.

thrive to thrive

I post these challenges to raise awareness of the importance of proofreading.

MISTAKE MONDAY for June 25: Can YOU spot what’s wrong?

Can you spot what’s wrong in the Mistake Monday image below? Please post your answer as a comment.

MM contents content

I post these challenges to raise awareness of the importance of proofreading. However, I wonder if the author of this week’s item is a non-native speaker of English so this isn’t a proofreading problem. As a rusty, non-native speaker of Japanese, I sure would hate to be judged by the standards of native speakers.

Getting things as right as you can with a BuzzFeed copyeditor

“Getting Things As Right As You Can” is the title of a chapter in A world without whom, a book by Emmy J. Favilla, BuzzFeed’s global copy chief. As the book’s title suggests, Favilla disagrees with strict grammarians, especially if the support rules that are at odds with how people actually use language today. For example, one of her chapter subheadings uses the hashtag #banwhom.

Social Media – Untitled Design

Don’t worry about some rules

Favilla’s attitude may horrify some of my readers. She says there are matters of writing style that you shouldn’t lose sleep over. That doesn’t only mean skipping the use of “whom.” It means not obsessing over issues like “how to spell a word that has acceptable variations, whether to style abbreviations with or without periods, use of the serial comma, whether to capitalize or lowercase words of a certain length in titles, etc.”

I confess that I am a bit horrified because I get excited over some of the issues Favilla lists. On the other hand, I value clarity and conversational language over rules that undercut those values. I recognize that some “mistakes” are worse than others in their effect on your readers.

Do be consistent in your usage

Thank goodness, Favilla does believe that consistency is important. She says,

…it’s important to strive for consistency (across a publication, yes, but at the very least within a story), and there are certain things, like technical errors and typos, that may not necessarily diminish your credibility as one-off instances but, cumulatively considered, could make your work and the publication you represent look sloppy and careless. All of these things can lead to a lack of respect for stories you produce in the long run—or at least less than you have the potential to garner—because if you don’t care enough about the small things, how are you to be trusted with the bigger ones?

If you’re not a professional writer, I think “getting things as right as you can” and using a consistent style are good goals. You don’t need to drive yourself crazy to adhere to obscure rules. Making your content compelling, clear, and concise matters most.

Should you read this book?

This book is a fun read. I recommend it for writers who care about usage issues, even if you’re a grammar traditionalist.

Favilla offers insights into many of the classic questions of writing style. It also delves into many newer issues, such as language usage on social media.

Disclosure:  If you click on an Amazon link in this post and then buy something, I will receive a small commission. I link only to books in which I find some value for my blog’s readers.

June 2018 update: I edited this post to fix a typo.

Only my latest grammar mistake

If only I had paid more attention to the rules of grammar, punctuation, and usage when I was younger, I wouldn’t make so many mistakes today. I feel embarrassed because some people look to me for guidance about how to write better. Oh well, my mistakes help me to feel empathy for everyone who makes mistakes.

My mistake

A reader gently pointed out a mistake I’ve been making for a long time. I’ve been misusing “only” in my affiliate disclosure. Here’s what I’ve been saying:

If you click on one of the Amazon links on this website and then buy something, I may receive a commission. I participate in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com. I only link to books in which I find some value.

I’ve been putting “only” in the wrong place. The way it’s written now, it emphasizes that I link but don’t do other things with books in which I find some value. (In an extreme case, could this be interpreted to mean that I don’t read books in which I find some value?).

Instead, the last sentence should say, “I link only to books in which I find some value.” This version emphasizes that if I link to a book, it means I find some value in it.

An editor friend suggested this alternative: “I provide links to books only when I believe they have value for my blog’s readers.” That could work, too.

Placement matters

The bottom line? Word placement matters. When using “only,” place it as close as possible to the word to which it refers. One tricky thing about placement is that “Additive/restrictive adverbs most often modify a word or phrase rather than an entire clause,” as discussed in Erin Brenner’s “Adverb Placement, Generally and Specifically” on the Visual Thesaurus website. For more on placement, read Grammar Girl’s “‘Only’: The Most Insidious Misplaced Modifier.”

I’m going to try to use “only” correctly in the future. But please forgive me if I don’t correct the gazillion examples of misplacement in this blog’s archives.  I only have time to work on the new content.

 

 

MISTAKE MONDAY for March 26: Can YOU spot what’s wrong?

Can you spot what’s wrong in the image below? Please post your answer as a comment.

apostrophe

 

 

 

Want a clue to this week’s big mistake? Read my post on “Bloggers’ top two punctuation mistakes.” It doesn’t discuss this exact mistake, but it’ll point you in the right direction.

I post these challenges to raise awareness of the importance of proofreading. I make mistakes, too. Mistake Monday keeps me vigilant. After all, I don’t want to make any more mistakes worthy of posting here.

Stinging quotes from “Do I Make Myself Clear?”

Harold Evans wrote some great lines against bad writing in Do I Make Myself Clear? Why Writing Well Matters. Here are some of them, organized by topic.

If you can avoid making the mistakes he highlights, you can live up to his statement that “Good writers breathe a kiss of life into old dead facts.

I love the term “pussy footing passive,” which you’ll find in the section on the passive voice.

Passive voice

Evans says the passive voice “robs sentences of energy, adds unnecessary participles and prepositions, and leaves questions unanswered…

When you write in the passive voice, you can’t escape adding fat any more than you can escape piling on adipose tissue when you grab a doughnut.

However, Evans admits there are times when the passive voice is necessary. These cases include when the actor isn’t known, when the identity of the receiver of the action isn’t known, when the writer wants to conceal the actor (also known as the pussy footing passive, according to Evans’ citation of Edward Johnson), and when otherwise the verb would follow a long subject.

Negatives

Express even a negative in positive form…it is quicker and easier to understand what is than what is not.”

For example, say “Bond prices fell” instead of “Bond prices did not rise.”

Emphasize the impact on people

Put people first,” says Evans.

Eyes that glaze over at ‘a domestic accommodation energy-saving program’ will focus on ‘how to qualify for state money for insulating your house.’

Prepositions

The circumlocutory preposition is a fluffy substitute for a single preposition which gives the meaning as clearly. The grossest offenders are in the field of, in connection with, in order to, in respect of, so far as…is concerned.

Miscellaneous

The people who create and run companies aren’t stupid, but they put their names to statements that are management mumbo-jumbo, products of algorithms rather than thinking human beings.

If you like what Evans says…

I also quote Evans in “Avoid long introductory clauses, or lose readers.”

 

Disclosure:  If you click on an Amazon link in this post and then buy something, I will receive a small commission. I link only to books in which I find some value for my blog’s readers.

Writers, eat your greens!

Eat your greens! For many people, that means eating foods that they don’t enjoy, but which are good for them. In the writing world, I think a comparable challenge is proofreading your text and checking on fine points of grammar. Here are some steps I suggest to help you eat your metaphorical greens.

1. Finish your drafts early

When you finish writing something before its deadline, you can approach it with fresh eyes for a final review. With fresh eyes, you’re more likely to catch errors of reasoning, grammar, or other areas.

2. Use tools and people to help you proofread and copyedit

It’s not easy to proofread or copyedit your own work, as my husband reminds me when he proofreads my monthly newsletter.

Online tools that check your spelling, grammar, and wordiness can complement your work. My recent post on “The compelling white paper that wasn’t” includes links to tools.

However, online tools won’t catch every mistake. For example, it won’t catch the investment professional with the title “portfolio manger” instead of “portfolio manager” with the additional “a.” That’s why it’s good to get a colleague or professional proofreader to review your work. Also, consider using the tip I describe in “Why I love Adobe Acrobat Pro for proofreading” to catch errors that eyes tend to gloss over.

If organization—not grammar—is your stumbling block, use my first-sentence check.

3. Have reliable references handy

You can’t buy or find online one of the most powerful tools for catching your errors. That’s a customized checklist that lists your most common errors. For example, if you often make “Bloggers’ top two punctuation mistakes,” add them to your checklist.

My favorite online resources include:

If you have a budget, you can subscribe to online resources from AP Style or the Chicago Manual of Style. I have mixed feelings about AP Styleguard software.

You can’t find all of the answers online. That’s why my library includes “My five favorite reference books for writers.”

The result?

If you follow these three tips, you’ll produce cleaner, better organized writing. That’ll make your writing more compelling and effective.

Tip for bloggers

Bloggers sometimes ask me where I get my ideas for posts on this blog. Today’s post was inspired by the image that accompanies it. When the image appeared as a free download from Depositphotos, a website I use to source some of my photos, it made me think about how many people don’t like greens. My mind quickly bounced to the tasks that writers don’t like.

Images can be a great source of blog post ideas. For more ideas on how to find inspiration in images, read “Photo + Mind Map = Blog Inspiration.”

2018 financial bogging class

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Continuous vs. continual

My clients always strive to improve. That makes me face a word usage challenge. What’s the difference between “continuous” and “continual”? I thought about this when reading Harold Evans’ Do I Make Myself Clear? Why Writing Well Matters. Here’s what he wrote:

“Continual interruptions” says it all, meaning the speaker resumed his argument after the interruption. The speech was not continuous, as a river is, because the flow was broken.

That left me a bit confused about whether my clients are continually or continuously improving.

In “‘continual’ or ‘continuous,'” Oxford Dictionaries says the two words overlap, but “continual…typically means ‘happening frequently, with intervals between,’ as in ‘the bus service has been disrupted by continual breakdowns.’ ”

Wikipedia refers to “A continual improvement process, also often called a continuous improvement process.” It looks as if many people are confused about the distinction between the two adjectives.

My bottom line? I’m leaning toward continual improvement.

Disclosure:  If you click on an Amazon link in this post and then buy something, I will receive a small commission. I only link to books in which I find some value for my blog’s readers.

2018 financial bogging class

Learn more about my financial blogging class!

MISTAKE MONDAY for Feb. 12: Can YOU spot what’s wrong?

Can you spot what’s wrong in the image below? Please post your answer as a comment. (Sorry the type is so small. If you’re on a PC, try pressing CTRL + to enlarge the image. If you’re on a phone, perhaps you can rotate your screen.)

it's vs. its for Mistake Monday

I post these challenges to raise awareness of the importance of proofreading.

The image contains a classic mistake that you’ve probably seen many times. It’s not detected by any spell-checking or proofreading software that I’ve used. In addition to using Microsoft Word’s spell-checking feature, I use AP StyleGuard.

Aside from the blurb’s Mistake Monday problem, I like how it uses conversational language to discuss an economic term.