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Posts Tagged ‘grammar’

In an earlier post, I noted that one should never use the word “that” when referring to a human referent, and one of my readers was quick to point out that this is not entirely correct. So, I wanted to add a brief post to clarify.

The whole question of “who” versus “that” as a relative pronoun with a human referent is quite a gray area. My reader pointed out that before the 15th century, “that” was the only option. He is not wrong; I do, in fact, recall that Geoffrey Chaucer, for example, (14th century English poet, author, philosopher, etc.) did indeed use “that” instead of “who” in his writing. However, as time progressed and the use of “who” crept into our language, it gradually became more acceptably “correct” to use “who” rather than “that.” Therefore, I suppose it is more conventional wisdom to use “who” with a human referent rather than a hard and fast rule (my use of the word never was probably too strong!). However, I do maintain that it stills seems more correct (and more humanizing) today to use “who.” Judging by a brief google search on “grammar who versus that,” I found there a lot of smart folks who agree with me.

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Make certain your referents are clear. Remember that your reader is not as close to the research or the writing you’ve been doing. When you write “this theory,” “that point” or refer to an “it,” is it clear to which theory, point, or “it” you’re referring? When you use “he,” “she,” or “the critics,” consider whether your reader will have to pause to try to figure out the answer to the question: who are these people?

The infamous “this.” As in: I will elaborate on “this” later. As writers, we often throw the word “this” around when we’re not entirely sure what aspect of our argument we want to draw our readers’ attention to, especially when making a complex argument with multiple elements. Occasionally, vague language can be a symptom of confused thinking. Stop and ask yourself, what does “this” refer to? What words could I replace “this” with that would clarify your intention to the reader? If you can’t answer easily, go back to what you’ve already written and clarify your ideas in that section. Remember, it is impossible for your readers to understand what you mean when you don’t understand yourself.

Never write “that” when referring to a person: As in: “The man that discovered numerous uses for…” or “The author that she referred to first wrote on the subject of bee pollination.” The man and the author referred to are people, not objects, and it’s rather insulting to call them “that,” not to mention completely grammatically wrong. Use who or whom, such as: “The man who discovered numerous uses for…” and “The author to whom she was referring….” Unsure of whether to use who or whom? Read on to the next section.

“Who” is what doing what to “whom?” Ask yourself the previous question when you’re uncertain which word to use. The one that does the action (the subject) is the “who.” The one that receives the action (the object) is the “whom.”

A tip for learning the rules. Although all this grammar stuff may seem challenging and like there’s way too much to learn, learning the rules once and for all will help you write freely and intelligently. To help with this task, try starting a text file in which you list the rules you need help with and refer to it when you write. I have done this numerous times as an editor. The best part is that you can add new information to your file any time you come across it. You can look rules up in numerous style manuals or on various sources available on the Internet. Just be sure your sources are legitimate and actually know what they’re talking about. One way to figure out whether your source is legitimate is to see who published it. Usually anything published by a university or college can be considered pretty reliable. You can also always consult with your friendly neighborhood editor.

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I recently came across an incredibly fun and useful resource for answers to any number of questions regarding language, grammar, etymology, writing, and more. This invaluable resource is provided by none other than the prestigious Oxford University Press and is called, quite appropriately, AskOxford.com.

From this one multipurpose site, the language lover can access the Better Writing section which includes tips for grammar such as commonly confused words, spelling, and CVs and job applications as well as the Ask the Experts section in which one can find help with everything from etymology and proper usage to answers to fun questions like “What is the longest English word?”:

aequeosalinocalcalinoceraceoaluminosocupreovitriolic (52 letters), perhaps?

This monstrous “word” is only one example of a rather enlightening, detailed look into the many possible answers to this question.

I stumbled on the site during a google search for the etymology of the phrase “the bee’s knees,” to which they certainly do have the answer.

The Radcliffe Camera, a reading room annex of the Bodleian Library, Oxford

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Always identify abbreviations the first time you use them.

You do not need to identify the abbreviation if you feel confident that your reader is able to identify the acronym, such as when the acronym is more commonly used than the words it abbreviates (for example, it would be unnecessary to write out all the words for CEO, NATO, or AIDS). It’s always good to keep your audience in mind, however; although you may feel that readers who are specialists in the discipline for which you are writing may not want or need to have terms spelled out for them, some style guides require that this be done at the first occurrence of the term.

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Commas, semi-colons, and colons.

Remember to use commas after an introductory phrase of a sentence, for example:
At first, I always forgot when to use commas.

It may also help to read your sentences aloud to determine where you would naturally pause or draw a breath, for example:
If it’s a short pause, like this one, you probably need a comma.

However, if it’s a longer pause and especially if the information you’re providing is the beginning of a new thought that expounds on the information already provided, you probably need a semi-colon; remember that whatever follows a semi-colon must be able to stand on its own as a full sentence.

As shown in the previous examples, the colon should be used to present an example or a list, for example:
I made a list of fruit I wanted to purchase at the grocery: apples, oranges, bananas, peaches, and pomegranates.

And here’s where it gets complicated. If you’re list includes information that needs to be set off by commas, you must then use semi-colons to separate each list item, for example:
I made a list of fruit I wanted to purchase at the grocery: apples, which are red; oranges, which are orange; bananas, which are yellow; peaches, which are peach; and pomegranates which are red.

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The importance of good writing skills is evident no matter what your profession, as I noted in an earlier post. So how does one go about improving those skills? I’ve gathered some invaluable tips, which I learned through experience and which other professionals have taught me, with accompanying complementary links from around the Internet.

1. Read often and read everything. The more you read, the more you learn; the larger and stronger your vocabulary; the more you will begin to pick up on the basics of what good writing looks like as well as distinguish the good from the bad.

2. Revision, revision, revision. Whether you’re writing a business report, a work-related memo, a novel, or a poem, revision is your friend. Most great writers are great writers because they spend countless hours revising and continually improving their work.

3. Practice makes perfect. Just like anything else that you want to improve, you must practice writing. Establishing a daily writing routine is a great way to ensure that you will continually improve, especially if you enlist the help of a professional or friend who can critique your work and point out areas where you may need extra practice. In this respect…

4. Join a group or take a class. Online courses are more readily available than ever, so you may not even have to leave your house to learn to write better. You can also always check out the course schedule at your local community college.

5. Proofread. Before you sign off on anything, whether it is a paper for school, a job application, or a blog post, be sure to proofread. Even if you have already revised several times and you think the document is perfect, proofread. By this I mean, do more than just scan for obvious errors; look closely for correct spelling, word usage, and grammar. If possible, have someone who knows writing well proofread for you because even an excellent writer may not catch obvious mistakes because he or she is too close to (i.e., already spent too much time with) the work in question.

Of course, if you feel you already write well but have an all important piece that must be perfect, you can always hire a professional editor/proofreader!

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A+I know grammar can be confusing, but it is well worth learning. Knowing how to speak and write properly opens doors in any career and raises the esteem of your colleagues, no matter your profession. Matthew Arnold believed that education, through providing children with a “general liberal culture,” could overcome the divisions of social class. The basis of that education was “the common heritage of the English language and its literature.”

In grade school and in college, good writing skills and a solid vocabulary lead to better grades and therefore to better jobs. In fact, most executives cite writing as one of the most negelected skills in business; they desire better writers in the workplace as it is also one of the most valuable skills for increased productivity.

The National Commission on Writing recently released a press release called “Writing Skills Necessary for Employment, Says Big Business” that calls poorly written job applications a “figurative kiss of death” in the first line. The author of the release also notes that with the advances in technology, one might think that good, clear writing is less necessary in the workplace, but that the opposite is actually true. The advance in technology has instead made it more important for an employee to be able to write quickly and clearly to stay competitive. I highly recommend reading the entire release.

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