Go from short to long!

Rearranging elements of a sentence “from short to long, from simple to compound, increases the ability of the reader to understand them,” says Bruce Ross-Larson in Edit Yourself: A Manual for everyone who works with words, one of my favorite editing books.

Ross-Larson has three related rules.

  • First, count the syllables. This will let you identify shorter words to put first.
  • Then, “if the number of syllables is the same, count the letters.” That can be a tie-breaker.
  • Finally, “Put the compound elements last.” As an example, he suggests that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” reads better than “liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and life.” I guess that’s why the Declaration of Independence uses the suggested order.

Of course, these three rules don’t always apply. As Ross-Larson says, don’t follow the rules if that’ll:

  • Put elements out of chronological or sequential order
  • Create unintended modifiers
  • Upset a familiar or explicit order, such as “the birds and the bees” or going in order from more conservative to less conservative asset classes

Small changes like this can make your writing easier to read. That means you’re likely to convey your message more effectively.

 

 

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.

Can you use numerals at the start of a sentence?

One of the first writing rules I learned was that I can’t use numerals to start a sentence. But in recent years, my certainty about that rule has been shaken.

Headlines can start with numerals

First, I learned that it’s OK to start an article headline with a numeral, at least in Associated Press (AP) style, because AP style only uses numerals—not spelled out numbers—in headlines. I operate mostly in a world of AP style. A headline isn’t a sentence, but it’s the next closest thing.AP StyleBook

Years and 401(k) as exceptions in AP style

More recently, I stumbled across this rule in the online AP Stylebook (subscription required): “Years are an exception to the general rule in numerals that a figure is not used to start a sentence: 2013 was a very good year.” Wow, that’s a big change for me!

Also, it turns out that I can start a sentence with the term “401(k),” and be in compliance with AP style. Here’s the relevant rule:

At the start of a sentence

CMOS takes a different approach

I can explain my ignorance partly in terms of my learning style rules in college and graduate school under teachers who used the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS). Plus, I used CMOS for my Ph.D. dissertation.

Here’s what CMOS says about this topic:

CMOS numerals

Readers are confused

I know I wasn’t alone in my confusion. Look at the response I received when I polled my LinkedIn connections about this topic.

start sentence with numerals

Am I going to change my writing style to accommodate this new information? Maybe sometimes. In general, however, I’ll try to write in a way that doesn’t require putting 2022 or 401(k) at the start of a sentence.

Sure, it’s right under AP style to start a sentence that way. However, there will be CMOS followers and others who look at that sentence and think, “Susan, that’s wrong.” I blogged about this problem in “Being right about grammar isn’t always good enough.”

 

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Data are versus data is

Should you write “data is” or “data are”? Whenever possible, I suggest writing to avoid the use of the term “data” by itself. Why? Because, as Garner’s Modern American Usage says, “Data is a SKUNKED term: whether you write data are or data is, you’re likely to make some readers raise their eyebrows.” I think Garner is right about that.

I just started a poll on LinkedIn asking if people see the word as plural or singular. There was no consensus, though respondents favored plural.

data singular or plural

Data are

There’s no question that the word “data” comes from Latin, in which “data” is plural and “datum” would be the singular form.

In favor of using plural verbs, Garner says:

  • “Technically a plural, data has, since the 1940s, been increasingly treated as a mass noun taking a singular verb. But in more or less formal contexts it is preferably treated as a plural.”
  • “In one particular use, data is rarely treated as singular: when it begins a clause and is not preceding by an article. E.g.: Data over the last two years suggest…”

Associated Press style agrees with Garner in one context, saying “In scientific and academic writing, plural verbs and pronouns are preferred.”

Should you write "data are" or "data is"?

Data is

However, times are changing. Associated Press style generally favors “data is.”

In favor of SINGULAR, Garner says: “One context in which the singular use of data might be allowed is in computing and allied disciplines…”

It depends

Some experts don’t use the same verb tense across all cases. I think Grammar Girl’s quote from Oxford Dictionaries in particularly useful in describing why one publication or editor might sometimes use singular verbs and sometimes use plural verbs. The Grammar Girl website says:

Oxford Dictionaries maintains that “data” has developed two separate meanings:

  1. the original plural meaning that conveys the idea of multiple data bits or pieces
  2. a singular meaning that acts as a mass noun roughly equivalent to the word “information.”

Grammar Girl also says:

Dictionaries and news sites including the Wall Street Journal and The Guardian, and style guides including The Chicago Manual of Style have updated their recommendations to allow that “data” can be singular or plural.

Along similar lines, The Copyeditor’s Handbook says: “…copyeditors in corporate communications departments are often expected to treat data as a singular noun.” It contrasts this with academic presses and scholarly journals using plural.

What should YOU do?

One way to deal with this issue is to avoid it by writing in a way that doesn’t make you choose between plural and singular verbs. A math writer friend uses “the set of data” for this purpose.

If you can’t avoid the need to choose, then I suggest you pick one style and stick with it. If everyone in your company knows that the corporate style is “data is” or “data are,” you’ll make everyone’s lives easier.

How I use Grammarly to improve my writing

Some writers swear by Grammarly for automated grammar and style checking of their writing. I think it’s probably most useful for inexperienced writers who lack familiarity with the rules of writing. But even I find it helpful. I check most of my articles with it.

Warning: Grammarly gets things wrong

Grammarly is great at catching obvious mistakes that violate simple rules. It’s not as good with less straightforward questions. It often makes suggestions that I disagree with. For example, I frequently don’t agree that using a different adjective or adding or deleting a comma makes sense when Grammarly says it does.

Here’s an example. In the first paragraph of this blog post, Grammarly suggested that I change “most useful” to “most beneficial.” I disagree with that advice. I prefer plain language to ten-dollar words.

most useful-most beneficial

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s another example of a bad recommendation by Grammarly. It suggested that I soften my tone by going from “I disagree with that advice” to “I’m afraid I have to disagree” or “I can’t entirely agree.” That’s not right for an opinionated blog post, although it might help in an email that you send to a colleague or a client.

 

I disagree-I'm afraid I have to disagree

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Skim, don’t read every comment by Grammarly

Grammarly’s weaknesses mean that I don’t look at every single “mistake” that appears on the right-hand side of the page (as with “Choose a different word” in the screenshot below). Instead, I scan to see what Grammarly has underlined in my text—such as “most useful” in the screenshot below—and decide whether I think it’s worthwhile to check Grammarly’s suggestions.

most useful grammarly

Grammarly color-codes its comments. Green—like in the screenshot above—is for “engagement.” Grammarly explains in a blog post that its engagement comments aim to cut down on bland or overused words and monotonous passages. Red is for “correctness” in grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Blue is for “clarity,” which often targets wordiness. Purple is for “delivery” or “tone,” which seeks to identify unnecessary hedging and whether you’ve hit the right level of politeness and formality.

Grammarly pushes you to improve

To encourage you to improve, Grammarly will send you a weekly report on content that you have checked.

It reports on your:

  • Productivity in terms of numbers of words checked
  • Mastery of grammar, as measured by Grammarly
  • Vocabulary, as measured by number of unique words used
  • Tone

productivity-mastery-vocabulary

 

grammarly tone

 

 

 

Reading financial advisor Brian Thompson’s article “4 powerful tech tools for digital marketing” (NAPFA Advisor, August 2021), I learned that you can set targets for tone. You can try this function to see if it helps you.

Free versus paid version of Grammarly

I upgraded to the paid version of Grammarly. I didn’t experience a huge boost in its usefulness for me. If you like the free version, consider trying the paid version for one year to see if it’s worth the expense.

Best approach to Grammarly

Take what works for you from Grammarly. If you find that Grammarly is most useful in spotting problems with your tone, use it for that. If you like how it identifies sentences that are too long, focus on that. Customize your use to your needs, and it’ll be worth the investment of your time, whether you use the free or paid version of Grammarly.

 

No apostrophes in plurals!

Please stop using apostrophes to turn singular nouns into plurals. It’s wrong, but sadly common.

The plural of “client” is not “client’s,” it’s “clients.” “Client’s” is the possessive form of “client,” so it refers to something that belongs to a single client.

Why people are confused about apostrophes in plurals

I’m guessing that the confusion may have started with the rare style guidelines that call for using apostrophes to form plurals.

A Google search on using apostrophes to form plurals sent me to a post on the rule of adding an apostrophe to an acronym to form a plural on the website of Paul Brians, a professor of comparative literature at Washington State University. (Acronyms are words like AUM for assets under management or RIA for registered investment advisor.) However, he doesn’t cite a style guide as his source. He told me in an email that the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) was his source. However, in my admittedly old CMOS, I found a reference to “CODs and IOUs” as correct (CMOS 6.9). That sent me searching for more information.

Grammarly’s article on apostrophe rules identifies a rare exception to the no apostrophes rule, but it’s different than what Brians says. This rule says to use an apostrophe to prevent misunderstanding the plural of lowercase letters. For example, to pluralize the letter i, write i’s. Otherwise, people will think you’re writing is, a form of the verb to be.

The goal of avoiding misunderstanding also lies behind a related rule from The New York Times. The newspaper doesn’t use apostrophes to pluralize acronyms, but it does use them for words like C.P.A. that include periods. According to the newspaper’s “After Deadline” column on “FAQs on style”: “Use apostrophes for plurals of abbreviations that have capital letters and periods: M.D.’s, C.P.A.’s.”

I have a quibble with that rule. Who still uses periods in CPA? The Association of International Certified Public Accountants uses CPA without periods on its webpage about the CPA designation.

By the way, The New York Times goes one step further than Grammarly on pluralizing individual letters. It applies the rule to uppercase letters: “Also use apostrophes for plurals formed from single letters: He received A’s and B’s on his report card. Mind your p’s and q’s.

Apostrophes don’t pluralize proper names

Proper names are sometimes mistakenly pluralized by adding apostrophe plus s. That’s wrong.

Form the plural of most proper names by simply adding the letter s. One exception for proper names, as described by Garner: “those ending in -s, -x, or -z, or in a sibilant -ch or -sh, take es.”

Don’t use the grocer’s apostrophe!

The Grammarly article I cited above says that the mistaken use of an apostrophe is known as the “grocer’s apostrophe because of how frequently it shows up in grocery store advertisements (3 orange’s for a dollar!).” I bet you’ve seen many examples of this. I’ve featured some of them in my Mistake Monday posts urging people to proofread more carefully.

The bottom line: Most of the time, you form plurals by simply adding the letter s. The rare exceptions to this rule occur only when the lack of an apostrophe might confuse readers.

 

 

“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.