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Friday, June 19, 2009

Parallel Structure Makes Sentences Smoother

An advertisement this week for a "government backed Home Equity Conversion" contained the following sentence:

Learn how the Government provides home equity conversions to seniors to preserve what they have, avoid outliving income, and retaining financial independence while never leaving home.

Whoever created this sentence meant to suggest that this type of home equity conversion would help senior citizens do THREE things:

1. preserve what they have
2. avoid outliving their income
3. retain financial independence while never leaving home

Unfortunately, because the sentence does NOT put all three of these things in the same format, the reader has trouble figuring out the meaning. In addition, because the sentence does not use wording that expresses the cause/effect relationship, the main point is weak.

Here is my suggestion for a much-improved sentence:

Learn how the Government provides home equity conversions to help seniors preserve what they have, avoid outliving their income, and retain financial independence without having to give up their home.

I hope you agree that this is much clearer. Please leave a comment below to let me know what you think.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

COULD OF?? SHOULD OF?? WOULD OF??

Sometimes the casual expressions we use out loud creep into our written language in incorrect ways. Here is a good example of that from an article about a high school extemporaneous speech competition:

It was well said, and he probably could of gone on for another 6 minutes and 30 seconds.

When we say "could have" out loud, it SOUNDS like "could of," but it is not supposed to be written that way. OF is a preposition, but this phrase needs the helping verb HAVE to be correct. The sentence should read as follows:

It was well said, and he probably could have gone on for another 6 minutes and 30 seconds.

The 3,500 students who came to Birmingham last week for the United States Extemporaneous Speaking national competition at Oak Mountain High School were challenged to draw an unknown topic from a tray, spend 30 minutes researching it, and then prepare and memorize a seven-minute speech. Quite impressive.



Thursday, June 11, 2009

If you use a pronoun, be sure your reader can tell what "it" or "they" refers to.

Pronouns are useful writing tools when used correctly. They allow a writer to avoid repeating a noun over and over. However, when the antecedent for a pronoun (the noun it refers back to) is not clear, the reader gets confused.


Here is a good example of what I mean from a paragraph in Monday's The Birmingham News:


Under the eCrash system, information can be added to a crash report by a trooper electronically scanning a driver license or electronically running a tag number. A drawing program is included for diagramming crash scenes. They type in other pertinent information.


Who does "they" refer to in this paragraph? If you check, you will see that the only "plural" noun in this paragraph is "scenes, and I seriously doubt the writer means to suggest that scenes can type. "They" is not appropriate. We do have "a trooper" in the sentence, so perhaps the solution is to change "they" to "he," but then we get into the whole issue of excluding the female half of the population. Perhaps the solution is to leave "they" and change "trooper" to "troopers," but that doesn't work because "they" is still next to "scenes."

Conclusion: This paragraph is not a good place to use a pronoun. The word "troopers" should be used again to avoid confusion.


Before we sign off on this paragraph, let's also look at the use of passive voice. ...information can be added by a trooper by electronically...is an "around your elbow" way to say what needs to be said. It is much simpler to say ...a trooper can add information to a crash report electronically...


Let's see what this paragraph looks like if we correct the pronoun confusion AND eliminate the use of passive voice:


Under the eCrash system, troopers can add information to crash reports by electronically scanning a driver license or electronically running a tag number. The system includes a program for diagramming crash scenes. Troopers can type in other pertinent information.

From my perspective, this is much easier to read. I hope you agree.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Wacky word order can make a sentence difficult to read.

Word order can help or hinder the clarity of a sentence, especially if a sequence of qualifying phrases is not in the most logical order. Here is a good example from a letter to the editor in today's The Birmingham News:

In late May, some 500 CEOs and other business experts, at the World Business Summit on Climate Change, concluded there should be "immediate and substantial" reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases by 2020 and at least 50 percent reductions by midcentury.

The two phrases that are highlighted in red should be together. By separating them, the writer has buried the subject (the 500 CEOs and other business experts) between them and lessened the impact of the sentence. It should read as follows:


At the World Business Summit on Climate Change in late May , some 500 CEOs and other business experts concluded there should be "immediate and substantial" reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases by 2020 and at least 50 percent reductions by midcentury.

I hope you agree that the sentence is easier to read this way.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

You Can't Use Spell Checker When You Call 911!

video

A friend sent this along, and I thought it was a fun way to remind you once again that taking time to be aware of spelling--for instance, the name of the street where you live?--can be useful in everyday life.

Just a thought....

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Parallel Structure Aids Smooth Writing (and Reading)

Parallel structure makes sentences easier to read. By creating phrases that are parallel (in the same format as each other), you keep the reader from having to switch brain gears to get your meaning.



Here is a good example from June 2, 2009 in The Birmingham News:



Having the mayor and the council members walk into the Hispanic neighborhoods and becoming involved in their events, she said, would go a long way toward gaining their trust.



The reporter who created this sentence probably THOUGHT he or she was using correct parallel structure because "having" and "becoming" were in the same format. However, a closer look at the meaning of the sentence shows that the two verbs that need to be parallel to each other are "walk" and "become." Those are the two verbs connected to each other by "and." "Having" is going solo here. The sentence should read as follows:



Having the mayor and council members walk into the Hispanic neighborhoods and become more involved in their events, she said, would go a long way toward gaining their trust.



This sentence came from a newspaper article about the City of Albertville, Alabama, which has a large Hispanic population. There is a dispute there about whether signs in Spanish should have to be posted in English, too. Hm-mmmm.