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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.

“All” versus “all of”

I’m a little obsessive about proper usage, but there are plenty of holes in my knowledge of writing style. Thus, when I saw “all our funds,” it drove me to the internet to see if that should read “all of our funds.” My first observation: this seems to be a question mainly for English language learners. There don’t appear to be many established grammar or style gurus writing online about this topic.

Use “all of” only with pronouns, says Grammar Monster

Grammar Monster says to use “all” before any noun except a pronoun. For example, “all of us,” but “all the cheese.” In a sidebar, it says that “all of” is an indefinite pronoun, but “all” is an “indefinite adjective.” How’s that for a bit of grammar trivia?

Garner’s agrees

Although I follow Grammar Monster on Twitter, the site isn’t one of my regular go-to resources. So, I delved into my trusty Garner’s Modern American Usage. Garner says that “all” is more formal than “all of.” He says one should use “all of” only before a pronoun—agreeing with Grammar Monster—or when a possessive noun follows, as in “Beyond all of Jones’ ego-stroking maneuvers.”

That’s all for now on my latest research.

Capitalize titles consistently in your publications

What’s the best way to capitalize a title when you write an article, blog post, book, or other publication? The rules vary. The best thing is to pick one approach and stick with it.

Option 1. Use sentence case when you capitalize titles

capitalize titles in typing publicationsI’m a big fan of using sentence case for capitalizing titles. “Sentence case” means that you only capitalize the first letter of the first word of the title, just as you’d do in a sentence. This is easy to remember. Plus, it doesn’t require judgment calls about which words deserve an initial capital. That’s its big appeal in my eyes.

However, sentence case looks funny in book titles. I didn’t use sentence case in the title of my book, Financial Blogging: How to Write Powerful Posts That Attract Clients. Perhaps that’s why the alternative to sentence case is called “title case.”

Other approaches to capitalizing titles

The alternative, title-case approaches amount to this: Capitalize the initial letter of every word in the title except for minor, helper words.

The complicated part is deciding which words are too unimportant to earn an initial capital. Typically “the” and “an” don’t make the cut. Prepositions are a bit trickier. Check your favorite style guide or use the online tool I mention in the next section.

For example, my old copy of The Chicago Manual of Style says to “Lowercase articles (the, a, an), and subordinate conjunctions (and, or, for, nor) and prepositions regardless of length, unless they are the first or last words of the title or subtitle.” I know of at least one investment management firm that uses the style guidelines of the American Psychological Association (APA). The APA’s guidelines for title case differ somewhat from the Chicago guidelines, as do the Associated Press guidelines.

A handy tool for capitalizing titles

CapitalizeMyTitle.com is a handy tool that will capitalize your title according to the rules of the style guide you choose. Just type in your title and click on the tab of your preferred style.

CapitalizeMyTitle.com shows you how to capitalize titles

Laptop image courtesy of blackzheep/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Confessions of a grammar ignoramus

Many people think of me as a grammar expert. I can see why. After all, I’ve shared many blog posts and social media updates that touch upon grammar. However, I know the truth. I’m no expert.

My history with grammar began in a conventional way, with English classes in a suburb of Rochester, N.Y. The classes challenged me. My brain didn’t seem to think in terms of the rules. However, I slowly absorbed them. As I recall, I was a B student in my high school English classes. They weren’t my strength.

Then, educational reform hit. My high school switched to teaching what it called “linguistics” instead of grammar in English class. It was a totally different approach to understanding sentence structure. It wish I could say that linguistics clicked with me in a way that traditional grammar did not. Nope. The only thing I remember from those classes is the word “morpheme.” However, I didn’t remember what it means. I had to use Google to find that Wikipedia defines it as “the smallest grammatical unit in a language.”

The result of my high school’s switch? I learned neither system. If you ask me to explain either system’s approach to sentence structure, I’ll give you a blank stare or run to my computer to do an online search.

However, I eventually came to understand many of traditional grammar’s rules. I haven’t achieved this through an intensive study of grammar rules. That strikes me as a time-consuming exercise in memorization. Instead, I’ve learned by fixing problems in my writing, with help from other people’s feedback and my research.

I’ve unconsciously absorbed good grammar by reading and applying other people’s feedback on my writing. I’ve received this feedback in writing classes and writing groups, where teachers and peers tell me what works and what doesn’t. I’ve also received it in one-on-one exchanges with editors and friends. The people who gave me feedback typically didn’t mention grammar in their feedback, but they pushed me toward writing in a more grammatical, reader-friendly way.

My grammar research has been spurred by the realization that I don’t know grammar well enough to decide what’s right. Sometimes a Google search is enough to answer my questions. Other times I turn to my favorite reference books or online resources for grammar, punctuation, and usage questions. Sometimes I turn to writers forums or friends because I’m not sure what to input into the search box—or to seek in the index—to find the answers to my questions. Some of my blog posts about grammar, punctuation, and usage have originated with my trying to answer questions raised by my writing or the questions of my readers. My question-inspired blog posts include “How do you make Degas possessive?,” “That vs. which: Which is right?,” and “Proper usage of periods: One space or two?

My inadequate knowledge of grammar has made me feel sympathy for other people’s struggles with writing. It’s not easy to get things right, especially if you haven’t received good training.

I still have a lot to learn. For example, I struggle with when to use commas in long, complex sentences. That’s a tough topic to understand. Putting commas in the right places requires making many judgments. Once I figure out the answer, I’ll share it here.

Thank you for sticking with me as continue my quest to better understand grammar!

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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.

 

Writing tip: Kill the ST words!

Looking for an easy tweak to simplify your firm’s writing? If your audience is American, stop using three prepositions: “amidst,” “amongst,” and “whilst.” Substitute “amid,” “among,” and while.”

Why bother making such a small change?

It will speed your reader’s progress through your writing. These words ending in -st are viewed as archaic in American English, says Bryan Garner in Garner’s American English. Amongst, for example, “is pretentious at best,” writes Garner.

Don’t distract your readers with archaic or pretentious words. However, if you’re writing for a British audience, consult a British style guide. Don’t push American style on your British readers, unless that style is part of your appeal.

“Within” vs. “in”

replace-in-with-within-pablo-1You can usually replace “within” with “in” to streamline your writing. “The change almost always improves a sentence,” as Bruce Ross-Larson says in Edit Yourself: A manual for everyone who works with words.

However, there are exceptions. For example, as Michael Strumpf and Auriel Douglas say in The Grammar Bible:

An event that will take place in an hour will occur will occur at the end of sixty minutes. An event that will take place within an hour may occur any time between the present and sixty minutes from the present.

Ross-Larson describes when you must favor “within”:

Within should be used when the object of the preposition is an area or space—and as a synonym for inside of, as in limits.

Did you understand this distinction? I confess that I had to do research to learn about it.

 

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.

 

That vs. which: Which is right?

Writers often use “which” when they should use “that.” The reverse is also true. It took me a while to learn this myself. This post offers some guidance on your choices.

The “That” rule

“That” is for essential clauses. The sentence doesn’t make sense without the clause.

Take a sentence like the following:

Inflation that rises rapidly may hurt bond prices more than gradual inflation.

Omit “that rises rapidly” and you get “Inflation may hurt bond prices more than gradual inflation.” Does that make sense? No! Thus, “that” is required to reflect the presence of an essential clause.

The “Which” rule

“Which” is for nonessential clauses and requires at least one comma.

Consider the following example:

Inflation was rising rapidly, which was inflicting pain on bond holders.

Delete “which was inflicting pain on bond holders” and you still have a sentence that makes sense: “Inflation was rising rapidly.”

 The British exception

The British have different rules for the use of “which” and “that.” As Shea Ammon states in Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation, they use both for essential clauses. However, they agree with Americans on using “which” for nonessential clauses.

 

For another take on which vs. that, read my post “The Which Trials” according to “Woe is I.” That post also contains links to more resources on which vs. that.

 

Note: The title of post was edited on Feb. 24, 2015, when I learned that “that” and “which” may not be considered pronouns in this context.

Do your grammar, punctuation, and usage affect your credibility?

Does the quality of your writing matter? It looks like it does. When I asked “Does a writer’s grammar, punctuation, or usage errors damage that writer’s credibility in your eyes?”, an amazing 100% of respondents said “yes” in response to the survey on my blog and in my newsletter.

Specifically, they gave the following answers to my multiple-choice question.

0%   No, I don’t notice errors
0%   No, I don’t care
26% Yes, but I forgive small mistakes, especially in social media posts
74% Yes, they damage the writer’s credibility

I imagine that my readers are more critical than the general population. Still, these numbers should make all of us, including me, pay closer attention to how we write.

Respondent comments on bad writing

As one respondent commented, “Having your reading disrupted by a misspelled word or badly written sentence is like having air suddenly let out of a balloon. It makes me question the writer as well as the content.” Another reader said, “it reflects poorly on the writer and shows lack of attention to detail.” On a similar note, one person wrote, “There’s always that nagging feeling: if they didn’t care enough to proofread this, where else are they cutting corners? I try to be charitable because I too make mistakes, but it really bugs me.”

In their comments, readers showed some tolerance for mistakes. Here’s one example, “To me, it shows the writer is not detailed enough to review their input before hitting “go” – drives me crazy. That being said, I hit the wrong key often when texting and sometimes miss it before sending, so I have a small tolerance for those sort of errors.”

Believe it or not, despite my weekly “Mistake Monday” feature on the Investment Writing Facebook page, I fall into the 26% of people who tolerate small mistakes, especially in social media.

The worst mistakes?

The second question in my survey asked, “What is the worst mistake that writers make? Why is this mistake bad?”

Popular answers included spelling mistakes, mistakenly using “it’s” as the possessive form of “it,” and failing to proofread.

Here are more answers to my question about the worst mistakes:

“It’s a toss-up between thinking they are texting and using texting acronyms and overloading their writing with technical jargon.”

“Writing with very little thought and planning… poor sequencing of ideas, incomplete sentences, stream of consciousness, no clear call to action. When that’s the output, why bother?”

“Since I read almost no fiction–in my job, I don’t have to because what I see and hear no writer could make up–I confine my comment to non-fiction. Embedding numbers inside paragraphs abuses most readers because it asks them to ‘see’ relationships between and among numbers that can be shown much more easily with charts and graphs.”

“Using too many words. I want to get the point, learn the lesson without reading useless words.”

Dave Spaulding on writing mistakes

I’m not the only person raising these questions in the world of investment management. You can read Dave Spaulding’s “Should GIPS verifiers correct grammar? Spelling?

When Dave sees mistakes, he recommends changes. In his blog post, he says, “On occasion, I’ve discussed this with our clients, and in every case the client has been very clear that they welcome my comments. Most want their materials to be as correct in all respects as possible.” That’s good news.

 

March 13, 2017 update: The original version of this post linked to my original survey. I updated the post to focus on the survey results, which I’d published in my monthly e-newsletter (click to subscribe).

Singular or plural–which is right for $5 million?

It’s not always easy to tell whether a noun is singular or plural. Take this example “$5 million was/were enough.”

When I informally polled some writer friends, four out of five voted for “was.” That sounds right to me, too.

The word “dollars” is plural, but “$5 million” becomes what grammarians call a collective noun.

Think of it this way, a portfolio management team is made up of people, but the team is a single entity so you say “The team was” instead of “The team were.”

On collective nouns, a Grammar Girl blog post written by Bonnie Trenga says the following:

Inanimate objects, such as “sugar” or “furniture,” are called mass nouns or uncountable nouns, and are always singular. So you would say, “This sugar is very sweet” or “My furniture is too old.” You can’t say, “This sugar are” or “My furniture are.” If you want to talk about individual grains of sugar or individual pieces of furniture, then you have to say something like “Eight grains of sugar were found” or “These pieces of furniture are new.”

However, as one of my friends and the Grammar Girl blog pointed out, the British treat collective nouns differently. They combine them with plural verbs. No wonder some of us are confused!

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net