Quit being passive: A grammar tip

If you reduce your use of the passive voice, your writing will become more powerful. That’s something I often tell my writing students.

If you can’t recognize the passive voice, check out the passive voice resources highlighted by Barbara Feldman in “Active and Passive Voice.”  Don’t be put off by the “Kids” in Feldman’s column title. She’s referring you to websites appropriate for adults.

According to the Guide to Grammar and Writing’s “The Passive Voice” page

In the active voice, the subject and verb relationship is straightforward: the subject is a be-er or a do-er and the verb moves the sentence along. In the passive voice, the subject of the sentence is neither a do-er or a be-er, but is acted upon by some other agent or by something unnamed (The new policy was approved).

In my opinion, the active voice has a couple of advantages compared to the passive voice

  • It shortens sentences
  • It clarifies the relationship between cause and effect

If you’re not sure you can recognize the passive voice, take the Guide to Grammar and Writing’s passive voice quiz, “Exercise in Revising Passive Constructions.” 

Some of the other resources mentioned by Feldman include

Thank you, Boston Women in Finance, for your feedback on my writing workshop

Boston Women in Finance gave me great feedback on my workshop “How to Write What People Will Read About Investments.” Before I share some their feedback with you, I’d like to thank all of the participants. Your energetic participation made it a very enjoyable workshop for me, too.

Here are some participant comments.

  •  “A very practical workshop! You’ll get tips you’ll use as soon as you return to the office.
  • “I truly learned a lot from this presentation. It was refreshing to have someone break down how to best reach people and to say it’s okay to write in simple short sentences.”
  • “It’s always good to hear these reminders to get you back to the basics of effective writing. This seminar was a great way to refocus.”
  • “The mapping technique was helpful. I will use this for brainstorming and helping with project plans and meetings.”
  • “Susan’s ‘how to’ approach packed dozens of indispensable tips into 1 1/2 hours. Incredible!”
  • “I believe the mapping exercise will help me organize my thoughts and overcome writer’s block and get past the first blank page or screen.”

Some of you said that you would prefer “More time; more opportunity for individual exercises.” I’m interested in creating longer, customized training sessions for corporate clients that would allow more interaction. I’m also for hire to present the one-and-one-half hour version I delivered to Boston Women in Finance.

May vs. might: It may matter, but it might not

I thought I might have absorbed the difference between “may” and “might” after reading “I Wish I May, I Wish I Might” in Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips (a similar explanation is on the Grammar Girl blog). Grammar Girl, AKA Mignon Fogarty, wrote “If something is likely to happen, use may.” Might is for cases when the thing is “a mighty stretch.”

But the next day I read “Mighty Likely” by Jan Freeman in The Boston Globe. Freeman uncovered disagreement among usage mavens about which word is more optimistic. In her opinion, this distinction doesn’t matter much. It may be much ado about nothing. 

However, cautioned Freeman, it is important to use “might” rather than “may” when discussing past events.

For another perspective on this dispute, read “May, Might, Muddle” on The New York Times‘ “Times Topics” blog. It may help. Then again, it might not.

3Q09 vs. Q3 09 –which is better?

You probably know that Q is the abbreviation for quarter. But what’s the proper way to abbreviate “third quarter of 2009”?

I prefer 3Q09 to Q3 09. It seems cleaner to separate the 3 of third quarter from the 09 of 2009. I worry that readers will get confused if the numbers in Q3 09 run together, as in Q309.

Looking for evidence to back up my opinion, I did a Google search. I found about 121,000 instances of 3Q09 vs. 10.9 million for Q3 09.

Wow–that’s quite a disparity! Q3 09 is the format that @BillWinterberg sees in regulatory filings. Perhaps that explains it. I wonder if the SEC requires the Q3 09 format. 

Please answer the poll in the right-hand column of my blog. I’ll track your answers with interest and will report on them in my November e-newsletter. Thank you!

Do you use “pride capitals”?

If you’re in business, you probably use capital letters more than grammar geeks recommend.

I confess. I was guilty of overcapitalizing titles until Prof. Albert Craig, my Ph.D. thesis advisor, drummed the rules into me. I learned to write “Goto Fumio, home minister” instead of “Goto Fumio, Home Minister.” Titles should be capitalized only when they directly precede the titleholder’s name, as in “Home Minister Goto Fumio.” Goto Fumio, by the way, was the focus of my Ph.D. dissertation.

For a quick overview of the rules, read–or listen to–the Grammar Girl blog’s “When Should You Capitalize Words?” The blog post, written by Rob Reinalda, who goes by word_czar on Twitter, discusses “pride capitals” to explain why “One mistake business writers often make is capitalizing words simply for emphasis or to augment their importance.”

You’re using pride capitals if your firm’s biographies refer to “Jane Smith, President and Chief Investment Officer” instead of “Jane Smith, president and chief investment officer.”


Note: edited on Feb. 11, 2016 to delete an outdated reference.

Image courtesy of FrameAngel at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

Six ways to stop sending emails with errors

Everybody sends occasional emails with typos and punctuation mistakes. But some emails are more important than others. When you want to make your email perfect, follow these rules. 

1. Print out your email.
Somehow it’s easier to see errors on paper. 

2. Read it out loud.
This is good for catching missing words that your mind might otherwise fill in.Otherwise, you often see what you expect to see.

3. Get someone else to proofread it.
It’s easier for a third party to catch your errors. 

4. Let it sit overnight.
When you read with fresh eyes, you’re more likely to catch errors. 

5. Use a spell-checking program.
If your email program doesn’t support spell-checking, copy the email into your word-processing program, so you can check it there. However, remember that spell-checkers aren’t foolproof. 

6. Create a checklist of common errors.

Using a checklist makes you slow down and, so you’re more likely to catch the errors highlighted on the checklist. For example, let’s say you’re confused about “How to punctuate bullet-pointed lists.” Add to your checklist: “check bullet point punctuation rules” with a link to the rules. 

Have you got other suggestions for keeping emails error-free? Please share them in the Comments section.

“10 Easy Secrets of Good Grammar”

10 Easy Secrets of Good Grammar” by Martha Brockenbrough gives useful advice.

Many will be surprised by number 2: ” ‘I’ isn’t always the more educated choice.” But she’s got it right.

I don’t agree that “semicolons are easy to use,” even though I’m getting better at them.

But don’t rely on my comments. Read Brockenbrough’s article now!

"Quiz: Are You a Grammar Geek?"

If you’re reading this, you probably care about grammar.

So test your grammar knowledge with the quiz in “Are You a Grammar Geek? It’s tough.

"Can not" vs. "cannot"

Which is right? “Can not” or “cannot”?

Habit tells me “cannot,” but I can’t find this peculiar spelling in the index of any of my style guides.

However, Wikipedia gives me this quote, in which I’ve added the bolding to “cannot”:
In this regard, the following quotation from The Chicago Manual of Style deserves notice:

Rules and regulations such as these, in the nature of the case, cannotbe endowed with the fixity of rock-ribbed law. They are meant for theaverage case, and must be applied with a certain degree of elasticity.

I haven’t thought about this issue in years. I usually work around it by using “can’t.”

What’s your practice?

This is a reposting of one of the most popular posts on one of my predecessor blogs. I originally posted it in April 2006.

Should you hyphenate “fixed income”?

It depends.

There are two schools of thoughts about whether to hyphenate compound adjectives, which is what “fixed income” becomes when you use it as an adjective. It’s the reader-friendly approach vs. common usage.


Let’s talk about “fixed income investing.” When you combine an adjective and noun and then use them to describe a second noun, you’re creating a compound adjective.

You’re also making it more difficult for your readers to interpret your text. They’re used to thinking of “income” as a noun, so they may struggle for a moment before they realize that “fixed income” serves as an adjective in “fixed income investing.” Following this line of thought, it’s kinder to your reader to write “fixed-income investing.”

Common usage

Opponents of writing “fixed-income investing” say “fixed income” is so commonly used as an adjective that a hyphen is unnecessary.

Your decision

Grammar Girl says that you should always consider whether a hyphen changes your meaning. As she points out:

  • A hot-water bottle is a bottle for holding hot water.
  • A hot water bottle is a water bottle that is hot.

The Wall Street Journal uses a hyphen when fixed-income is an adjective.

What’s your decision? Is it fixed-income investing or fixed income investing?

Whichever approach you adopt, be consistent in your usage. That will help your readers know what to expect.

Image courtesy of iosphere at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.