“Better writing without parentheses” by Harriett Magee

Parentheses are overused in financial writing. Here’s a guest article about them by Harriett Magee, a writer-editor who specialized in alternative investments. Her article originally appeared on Jan. 27, 2008, on one of my earlier blogs. It’s still relevant, so I’m sharing it here.

Better writing without parentheses

By Harriett Magee

Parentheses (like all punctuation) can hurt (and help) most writers (maybe even all) in getting their point across to readers.

Readers may find such marks annoying, like in the previous sentence, because they interrupt the flow and weaken the message with irrelevancies. And while most readers don’t count words in sentences, parentheses often result in long sentences, which tire and confuse readers. (The ideal sentence length is 15–20 words.) To get your message across, use parentheses sparingly.

For writers, parentheses can seem like a lifesaver because they offer a home to data and show you’ve done your homework. They’re ubiquitous in research reports. Writers may also use them as a way to repeat information to drive the point home. For example, “The $750 million Big Ideas Venture Fund II was allocated roughly half to early- and to late-stage life science investments (49% and 51%, respectively). Fund III, however, had only about a tenth of capital ($75 million) invested in one early-stage investment.” But readers will get the point faster if you leave out numbers.

When writing about investments, often the urge to insert alternative metrics can be satisfied by putting the data in a graph. For example, give the prospective investors in the $2 billion Big Ideas Fund IV a bar graph showing the shift in allocations to young vs. more-established companies. A bar graph would accomplish two things: provide variety by breaking up the text with a picture, resulting in more white space to give the eyes a rest, and provide alternative metrics for people, especially those who want more detail.

I love Harriett’s idea of moving the parenthetical information to a graph. It’s a great way to boost the visual appeal of your writing. At the same time, it makes the text easier to read.

By the way, using parentheses isn’t the same as making parenthetical references. Parenthetical references can make your writing more reader-friendly. I explain that in “Plain language: Let’s get parenthetical.”

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

Can you spot what’s wrong in the image below? I think you’ll find this one pretty easily. Please post your answer as a comment.

 

MM-get-gets-Boston-Globe-002

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Fewer subordinates, please

If you’re a boss, you may think the more subordinates you have, the better. But if those subordinates are subordinate clauses, too many subordinates will sap the power of your writing.

Subordinate clause defined

A subordinate clause—also known as a dependent clause—is “… a group of words that contains a subject and verb but does not express a complete thought,” according to the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL). As OWL notes, “A dependent clause cannot be a sentence.”

Subordinating conjunctions, such as “for, as, since, therefore, hence, consequently, though, due to, provided that, because, unless, once, while, when, whenever, where, wherever, before, and after” often alert you to the existence of a subordinate clause, says the Grammarly Blog’s discussion of subordinate clauses.

As Joe Moran says in First You Write a Sentence, “The subordinate clauses are servants to the main clause, and the sentence makes sense only when you have untied it all.”

The problem with subordinate clauses

Subordinate clauses are OK in moderation. But used to excess, they can exhaust the reader when they run on and on before the reader reaches the heart of the sentence.

As Moran says in First You Write a Sentence, “If the subordinate clauses extend into ten words or more, and become longer than the main clauses, reading them is a grind.” You’re asking a lot of your reader when you start with a long dependent clause.

Subordinate clause example

Here’s an example of a sentence that starts with a subordinate clause about Fed meetings. I use this example in my investment commentary webinar:

With only two more Fed meetings remaining in 2007 (on Oct. 31 and Dec. 11), the issue remains whether the Fed’s unexpectedly aggressive 50 basis point cut in the fed funds rate last week was intended to shock the markets to restore confidence or, they are concerned that the underlying economic conditions are worse than most of us think.

A more reader-friendly approach is to start your sentence with the main idea. Then, use a word like “and,” “but,” or “so” to add the information that you might otherwise have put in a subordinate clause. It’ll be easier for your reader to absorb your information when it’s presented in this order.

When I rewrote the sample sentence above about Fed policy. I dumped the subordinate clause, figuring the information in it wasn’t important enough to retain. I divided the rest of the content into three sentences. That left me with:

The meaning of the Fed’s half-percent cut in short-term interest rates is not clear. The Fed may have made this large cut to restore confidence. Or, the Fed may be worried that the economy is in worse shape than most of us think.

Want to learn how I got from the “before” to the “after” version of that sentence? Check out my investment commentary webinar. It’s available on demand.

Look for subordinate clauses in your writing. See if cutting them strengthens your prose. If you can’t cut them, move them so it’s easier for readers to grasp your meaning.

 

Disclosure:  If you click on an Amazon link in this post and then buy something, I will receive a small commission. I provide links to books only when I believe they have value for my readers.

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

Can you spot what’s wrong in the image below? Please post your answer as a comment. Oh, how could The Wall Street Journal miss this? Does the newspaper not employ proofreaders?

MM mean's means
I post these challenges to raise awareness of the importance of proofreading.

MISTAKE MONDAY for July 27: Can YOU spot what’s wrong?

Can you spot what’s wrong in the image below? Please post your answer as a comment. Don’t feel bad if you don’t identify it immediately. I had to check my notes to catch this one, even though I’d spotted right away when I made this screenshot months ago.

 

MM it's its BillW
I post these challenges to raise awareness of the importance of proofreading.

MISTAKE MONDAY for February 24: Can YOU spot what’s wrong?

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

Spellchecking wouldn’t catch this error.

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

I feel bad, or do I?

Which is correct—“I feel bad” or “I feel badly”—when asked “how do you feel?”

I know “bad” is an adjective and “badly” is an adverb. However, I wasn’t sure which was correct in this case. So, I was interested in the entry for “Bad, badly” in Theodore Bernstein’s The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage. Would it clarify the conflict of bad vs. badly?

Bernstein’s take on bad vs. badly

Bernstein says “bad” is correct because “’Feel’ is a copulative verb, equivalent in meaning to ‘am,’ and therefore is followed by an adjectival form (bad), not an adverbial form (badly).”

Copulative verb? I don’t remember hearing that term before.

Garner’s take

I turned to Garner’s Modern American Usage for his take. Garner says, “When someone is sick or unhappy, that person feels bad—not badly. In this phrase, feel is a linking verb, which takes a predicate adjective instead of an adverb.”

Predicate adjective is another unfamiliar term. But, I’m relieved to find that Bernstein and Garner agree on “feel bad.”

Garner cites a number of cases where major newspapers incorrectly used “feel badly” instead of “feel bad.” So, if you sometimes use the wrong form, you have company. (However, if you ever read my Mistake Monday posts, you know that newspapers make plenty of mistakes.)

Garner’s “Language-Change Index” estimates that the incorrect use of “feel badly” is at Stage 2, in which “The form spreads to a significant fraction of the language community but remains unacceptable in standard usage.” (My copy of Garners dates back to 2009. The stage may have changed since then.)

Now, how do you feel?

 

Disclosure:  If you click on an Amazon link in this post and then buy something, I will receive a small commission. I provide links to books only when I believe they have value for my readers.

MISTAKE MONDAY for October 28: Can YOU spot what’s wrong?

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

mm comma no comma

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

Contractions: Use or avoid in formal writing?

Are contractions good or bad in formal writing?

I’ve had several clients whose style guidelines don’t allow the use of contractions. For my part, I didn’t believe in contractions at the start of my investment writing career. That’s what I’d learned in my high school English classes. I remember “fixing” all of the contractions in a portfolio manager’s commentary when I worked at Batterymarch Financial Management. However, I am now a fan of contractions.

Style guides for contractions

I found a statement against avoiding contractions in Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. Benjamin Dreyer says of the rule against contractions:

This may be a fine rule to observe if you learned English on your native Mars, but there’s not a goshdarn thing wrong with “don’t,” “can’t,” “wouldn’t,” and all the rest of them that people naturally use, and without them many a piece would turn out stilted and would turn out stilted and wooden… Contractions are why God invented the apostrophe, so make good use of both.

Bryan Garner agrees in Garner’s Modern American Usage. He says of contractions, “…why shouldn’t writers use them in most types of writing?”

Garner also says, “The common fear is that using contractions can make the writing seem breezy. For most of us, though, that risk is nil. What you gain should be a relaxed sincerity—not breeziness.” He cites several authorities on writing to support his opinion.

Style guides against contractions

My old printed copy of The Associated Press Style Guide says, “Avoid excessive use of contractions. Contractions listed in the dictionary are acceptable, however, in informal contexts where they reflect the way a phrase commonly appears in speech or writing.”

The Grammar Bible says, “Contractions may be appropriate and expeditious in casual writing, but they are to be avoided in more formal documents.”

Both Dreyer and Garner warn against more casual contractions, such as “should’ve,” which Garner calls a “casualism.”

What do YOU think about contractions?

I’m sure you use contractions in your daily speech, and probably even in your blog posts. But what about a white paper?

Please answer this one-question poll. I’ll report on the answers in a future edition of my newsletter.

 

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.

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

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

This mistake is too common.

MM it's its

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

NOTE: As of September, Mistake Monday will only be published once a month, on the last Monday of the month (for example, Monday, Sept. 30). I hope that you’ll continue to test your proofreading skills on Mistake Mondays.