Friday, February 15, 2013

Style Standards, Part 1: Know the Two Elements of Style

When speaking of style, we mean either syntax (word order) or diction (word choice). For precise definitions of each, I’ll defer to the Oxford Dictionary:

Syntax:  the arrangement of words and phrases to create well-formed sentences in a language

Diction: the choice and use of words and phrases in speech or writing

Let’s isolate the syntax problem by looking at well-chosen words but poor arrangement: 
Among women, for death by cancer, a leading cause is breast cancer.

The word arrangement severely tests the reader to understand a simple idea. While the words are clear, their placement is not. Here are the same words in a syntactically better sentence: 
Breast cancer is a leading cause of cancer death among women.

Now let’s consider the diction problem by looking at good syntax but poor word choice: 
The US Food and Drug Administration rendered accedence to the first human investigatory analysis of embryonic stem cells in January 2009.

While the basic subject-verb-object order of the sentence makes for easy reading, the word choice causes major distractions. The phrase rendered accidence is far too arcane for the intended meaning, and investigatory analysis is not only bloated but imprecise. Here is the same thought in the same order but with improved diction:

The US Food and Drug Administration approved the first human trial of embryonic stem cells in January 2009.

This final example shows how both syntax and diction get in the way of clear communication: 
If questions, at any time before Friday, arise about the Project Do Now, then reference to Ashley Lashley should be made, to whom is assigned the status of project manager.

Syntax first. Chaos results from the strange placement of at any time before Friday and the distance between the person and her title. As for diction, arise and status are pompous, to whom is awkward, and is assigned is an unnecessary passive verb. Here is a fluent edit: 
If you have questions before Friday about Project Do Now, please contact Ashley Lashley, Project Manager.

I’ll be looking at both of these elements of style over the next three posts.