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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.

Shall vs. will–which is best?

“When should I use ‘shall’ instead of ‘will’? ” I confess that this reader question stumped me. I can’t remember ever using the word “shall.” The question spurred me to do some research on the topic of shall vs. will.

First person vs. second or third person

A Grammar Girl post on “‘Shall’ Versus ‘Will‘” says that British and sticklers’ rules say that

  1. “…you use shall to indicate the future if you are using first person (I or we) and if you are using second or third person (you, he, she, or they).”
  2. “The British traditionally use shall to express determination or intention on the part of the speaker or someone other than the subject of the verb.”
  3. Lawyers and orators may use shall differently.

Determination

My old Associated Press Stylebook picks up the theme of determination, seen in Grammar Girl’s second point.

It says “Use shall to express determination: We shall overcome. You and he shall stay.”

A different take on shall vs. will from Garner

Garner’s Modern American Usage includes a table showing when to use shall vs. will to show “simple futurity” vs. “determination, promise, or command.” The table distinguishes between first person vs. second and third person. However, author Bryan Garner says, “with only minor exceptions, will has become the universal word to express futurity.”

Here are the two exceptions, according to Garner:

(1) interrogative sentences requesting permission or agreement <shall we all go outside?> <shall I open the present now?>; (2) legal documents, in which shall purportedly imposes a duty <the tenant shall obtain the landlord’s permission before making any changes to the premises>.

However, Garner notes that lawyers are using “shall” less.

I can’t imagine asking “Will we all go outside?” but I’m more likely to say, “Let’s go outside” or “Would you like to go outside?”

Memory aid

If you’d like to distinguish between “simple futurity” vs. “determination, promise, or command,” this memory aid from Joe Polidoro of Polidoro Marketing Communications, may help.

Accident: “No one will save me—I shall drown!”

Suicide: “No one shall save me—I will drown.”

The bottom line

If you’re an American communicating with other Americans, you can probably get away with using only “will.”

If you want to abide by the American rules, you should probably check your trusted American grammar reference. If you’re communicating with British people, who use “shall” more frequently, find a resource that you trust for the British rules. Here’s a post from Oxford Dictionaries: “‘Shall’ or ‘will’?

I will not think less of you if you never use “shall.”

If you’d like some great references for checking your grammar, check out “My five favorite reference books for writers.” Also, try the quizzes I mention in “How can I brush up my grammar?

 

Thanks, Doug, for suggesting this topic!

 

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.

Note: I updated this post on Nov. 16, 2017, to add Joe Polidoro’s example.

When do I need quotation marks?

When should you use quotation marks? You probably know that you should use them around quotations or around the titles of some artistic works. (Books are an exception to the artistic works rule, except in AP style.) But other cases are open to debate.

I find that non-professional writers sometimes use quotation marks for emphasis, instead of their intended purposes. I don’t like that. Nor do most professional writers.

Garner’s Modern American Usage lists three times, in addition to when you’re identifying quotations or titles of artistic works, when you should use quotation marks:

  • when you’re referring to a word as a word, <the word “that”>, unless you’re using italics for that purpose
  • when you mean so-called-but-not-really <if he’s a “champion,” he certainly doesn’t act like one>
  • when you’re creating a new word for something—and then only on its first appearance <I’d call him a “mirb,” by which I mean…>

Some sources disagree with Garner and me on avoiding the use of quotation marks for emphasis, but urge discretion. Here’s what Amy Einsohn says in The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications:

Quotation marks may be used for emphasis or irony, but copyeditors should curb authors who overuse this device.

I’m okay with using quotation marks for irony. I believe that’s what Garner aims at in his so-called-but-not-really case. But I prefer to avoid using them for emphasis. In fact, I almost deleted Einsohn’s quote from this post because I dislike them so much.

You can make your own rules on this issue, but I suggest that create a style sheet to help you apply your rules consistently.

What do YOU think about quotation marks?

If you have strong feelings about the usage of quotation marks, please share. If you suggest a different set of rules, it’d be great if you could cite a source for your recommendation.

Disclosure: If you click on the 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.

 

Are you as compulsive as me or I?

I’m not perfect. I make grammar mistakes, too. This post is my attempt to learn from one of my many mistakes.

I wrote “… as compulsive as me” in a Weekly Tip. A kind reader told me I’d made a mistake, I should have written “as I.”  I have asked some friends for their opinion on this topic. They all agreed that “I” – not “me” – was correct because the sentence could be completed “…as compulsive as I am.”

Here’s an explanation by David Budin that I found particularly helpful. 

If you’d like to see more of my mistakes, please visit Mistake Monday on the Investment Writing Facebook page. When I make mistakes, I include them in my Mistake Monday feed. It’s a good reminder for me to learn from my mistakes.

Have you learned from a recent writing mistake?

Please share what you’ve learned from your mistakes.

What’s your favorite online resource for grammar, punctuation, and word usage questions?

Grammar, punctuation, and word usage questions come up every day–even for someone like me who prides herself on being a good writer.

We can all benefit from online resources that help us figure out answers to our writing challenges.

My three favorites: GrammarGirl, OWL, and Google

I often Google my writing questions.

But sometimes Google’s results aren’t on target or the sources don’t seem reliable. This is when I turn to GrammarGirl and Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab (OWL). Both are trustworthy sources that explain things clearly.

GrammarBook

Jane Straus’ GrammarBook website was brought to my attention by Jill Brogan of Martingale Asset Management after I originally drafted this post. I plan to visit this site more often. Although founder Jane Straus  passed away, her husband plans to continue her work.

Subscription-based resources

I use the hard-copy versions of the following two resources, so I imagine they’re worthwhile for organizations with budgets.

Your favorite online resource?

What’s YOUR opinion on the best online resource? Have you discovered new resources? Please share your new discoveries.

 

Note: This post has been updated since it originally appeared on Feb. 27, 2011.