Friday, May 15, 2020

Improving Style Through Syntax, Part 11: Placing Interjections

After 15+ years (5,549 days and 915 posts, to be exact), I have finally decided to write something about interjections, those emotional expressions of surprise. Since we generally accompany interjections with exclamation points, old-time stylists urge us to avoid them except in rare instances. But rebellious millennials, in their singular way, have endowed our literary landscape with enough exclamation points—to their elders' puzzlement—to populate a forest!

I try limiting exclamation points to one per message at most, and I use them only in positive contexts, avoiding "How could you!", "You really messed this one up!", and "Don't you dare!" and preferring "Congratulations!", "What a great job!", and "How thoughtful of you!" So by extension, I use interjections sparingly as I want readers to take them interpret them as intended.

When using interjections, consider where you place them to create a greater element of surprise. Examples:

  • Congratulations—again!—for winning a second Employee of the Month Award.
  • Some of this work will take endless—no kidding!—perseverance.
  • I wanted to write you early, but—alas!—again!— unreliable memory got in the way.
  • Some expected us to cancel the company picnic—yeah, right!
  • Ouch! I never spent that much for a pair of eyeglasses.

Remember: use them sparingly, positively, and surprisingly! Wow! That's enough exclamation points for a lifetime—phew!


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Friday, May 08, 2020

Improving Style Through Syntax, Part 10: Placing Conjunctions

Most of us have been taught sometime in our formal education not to begin a sentence with a conjunction (e.g., for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so). In an earlier post, I give 14 examples from 5 great writers who pay no mind to this worthless "rule".  

Now let's see how conjunctions (highlighted below) begin many a CEO sentence:
"And I am proud to say, Allison transmission plans to continue its heritage of leadership in the markets we serve and in the communities where we live and work." David S. Graziosi, President and Chief Executive Office, Allison Transmission 
"But there is more to be done, and we remain fully committed to strengthening our capabilities and to further evolving the organization going forward." Mashamichi Terabatake, President, CEO and Representative Director, JT Group
"And we would like to remind you of the special responsibility that a company like ours has at this time." Mark Schneider, Chief Executive Officer, Nestlé
See what I mean? Beginning sentences with a conjunction—sparingly—is not a problem. And that's for sure. 


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Friday, May 01, 2020

Improving Style Through Syntax, Part 9: Placing Prepositional Phrases

Where we place prepositional phrases matters as much as where we place adjectives and adverbs, as these three examples show.

1. No change in meaning, but change in impact.
Zandra walked into the office. 
Into the office Zandra walked.

2. Obvious change in meaning.
Yancy knew the speaker at the podium. (Yancy is in the audience looking at the podium.)
At the podium Yancy knew the speaker. (Yancy is a fellow speaker at the podium.)

3. Subtle change in meaning.
Xiomara works for Microsoft. (Xiomara is employed by Microsoft.)
For Microsoft Xiomara works. (Xiomara exerts effort at Microsoft in a way that she does not for others.)  

So be careful when choosing between these two sentences:

I know the policy for now. (The policy seems subject to constant revisions.)
For now I know the policy. (I tend to forget the constant policy.)


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Friday, April 24, 2020

Improving Style Through Syntax, Part 8: Placing Adjectives

In English, adjectives generally precede nouns, unlike in other languages, such as the Latin ones:

  • American problem (problema americano, in Spanish)
  • difficult job (lavoro difficile, in Italian)
  • architectural project (projet architectural, in French)
  • delicious food (comida deliciosa, in Portuguese)
  • wasted funds (fonduri irosite, in Romanian)

There are exceptions to this rule, but it comes as an early lesson in learning these languages.

Of course, this is not always the case. When we want a little more drama in our writing, we might go Latin, as in the case of the movie title The River Wild, which means the same as the wild river, or the expression musician extraordinaire, which gives a different flavor to but means the same as extraordinary musician. 

Other times, the difference in meaning is significant, as in patient one, meaning the first patient ever or the primary patient, and one patient, meaning the only patient. Another example is "I want to speak to the person responsible," meaning the person who is accountable for or in charge of solving the problem, and "I want to speak to the responsible person," meaning the only person who has a sense of accountability or ability to address the matter.

Experimenting with word and phrase order can add a lot of punch to one's style, as seen in these last two versions of a sentence meaning the same thing but with different impact: "I go there but for the grace of God" and "There but for the grace of God go I."


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Friday, April 17, 2020

Improving Style Through Syntax, Part 7: Placing Adverbs

The simple adverb only gives writers a lot of trouble. More often than not, they insert it in the wrong position of a sentence. Here is an example from a Liberty Mutual televised advertisement:
Only pay for what you need.
In its present draft, the sentence can be interpreted as you have the sole task of paying; it offers no advantage to you, the customer. Let's reposition only by one word: 
Pay only for what you need.
This sentence now means that you, the customer, have the advantage of paying only for what you need. We can assume this is what Liberty Mutual means.

Look at this final example of only changing meanings based on its position in the sentence:

  • Only Helen read the book. (This means no one but Helen read the book.)
  • Helen only read the book. (This means Helen made an effort of  nothing but reading the book.)
  • Helen read only the book. (This means Helen read nothing but the book.)
  • Helen read the only book. (This means no other books were available to Helen.)
  • Helen read the book only. (This means Helen chose not to read the other material accompanying the book.)
You can see how careful you have to be with only.


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Friday, April 10, 2020

Improving Style Through Syntax, Part 6: Freeing Fragments

A fragment is not a complete sentence because it lacks a subject, a verb, or both. Here are examples from the grammatically correct sentence Bob is unavailable:

  • Is unavailable. (fragment, no subject)
  • Bob. (fragment, no verb)
  • Unavailable. (fragment, no subject or verb)

While most writing consultants consider fragments unacceptable in formal writing, good writers know when to use them for reader ease or dramatic effect. Here are but two examples, with the fragments highlighted:

  • From The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer (page 908): How could they be very good? Without even plans to act? Now? While there was still time?
  • From "Another Message in the Bottle" in Signposts in a Strange Land by Walker Percy (page 357): Not exactly great literature.

The Shirer example seems to be for reader ease. With those fragments, he spares us the extra words, which would read something like this: How could they be very good? How could they be very good without even have plans to act? How could they be very good now?  How could they be very good while there was still time?

The Percy example, alternatively,  is for dramatic effect. This point of his essay would be weakened if he had written This example is not exactly great literature.

Reader Ease
Here are some commonly known examples from the business world:
From audit reports: Corrective action required.
From investigation reports: Case closed.
From lab reports: No exceptions noted.
From meeting minutes: Meeting adjourned.
From status reports: Awaiting action.
These sentence fragments in formal business documents are terms of art. They have a special meaning understood to the intended readers of the field. So why change a culturally acceptable non-sentence?

Dramatic Effect
Placing a fragment in the middle of sentences that adhere to language standards can be jarring to readers. But what's so bad about jarring them one in a while? In the two examples below, the fragments, highlighted only for illustrative purposes, appear in different parts of the paragraph, and they do create impact.

From an employee commendation, opening with three fragments: Diligence. Quality. Efficiency. These are three hallmarks of our Firm and, evidently, of your work ethic since you joined our team one year ago.
From a staff disciplinary memo, ending with a fragment: Your timecard indicates that on Monday you arrived 19 minutes late, on Tuesday 28 minutes late, on Wednesday 37 minutes late, and on Thursday 46 minutes. My phone log shows that on Friday you called in sick 55 minutes past your normal starting time. Zero punctuality.     
Should you write in fragments? First, know the difference between a sentence and a fragment. Second, decide if the fragment enables reader ease or creates a dramatic effect. Third, write fragments sparingly.


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Read previous posts in this series:
Part 1: Grouping and Dropping Prepositional Phrases
Part 2: Dropping Pronouns for Clarity
Part 3: Dropping Pronouns for Conciseness
Part 4: Avoiding—No, Managing—the Comma Splice

Part 5: Remedying Run-ons

Friday, April 03, 2020

Improving Style Through Syntax, Part 5: Remedying Run-ons

People often mistake a long sentence for a run-on sentence. A long sentence is syntactically sound, a widely accepted tool writers use for various reasons, among them drama and flow. An example of a properly formed 90-word sentence comes from “To Be Baptized” in No Name in the Street (referenced from James Baldwin’s Collected Essays (pages 408-9):
In that time, now so incredibly far behind us, when the Black Muslims meant to the American people exactly what the Black Panthers mean today, and when they were described in exactly the same terms by that high priest, J. Edgar Hoover, and when many of us believed or made ourselves believe that the American state still contained within itself the power of self-confrontation, the power to change itself in the direction of honor and knowledge and freedom, or, as Malcolm put it, “to atone,” I first met Malcolm X. 
You can argue all you want about whether the sentence is good or bad (I think it's great), but my point is that Baldwin packs his clauses and phrases in such a way that they hold up to form a grammatically correct sentence.

On the other hand, the next three examples are run-on sentences, considered incorrect since the two independent clauses are not joined or separated properly:
1. Please call me later I'm charging my phone.
To avoid the run-on, place a period or semicolon after later, or, better. show the cause and effect: Please call me later because I'm charging my phone. 
2. I was born in Weehawken I was raised in Manhattan.
Again, a period or semicolon after Weehawken would work, but preferable would be the more fluent I was born in Weehawken and raised in Manhattan
3. I met with Tom this morning he said he wants to meet you.
While a period or semicolon after morning would correct the run-on, the more concise edit of these 13 words would be the 9-word This morning Tom said he wants to meet you.

Reading aloud will usually work in correcting run-ons. Where you hear yourself pausing, place the appropriate punctuation mark.


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Read previous posts in this series:
Part 1: Grouping and Dropping Prepositional Phrases
Part 2: Dropping Pronouns for Clarity
Part 3: Dropping Pronouns for Conciseness

Part 4: Avoiding—No, Managing—the Comma Splice