Monday, July 21, 2014

Word Crimes?

Being in the business, I’ve always found grammar inherently interesting and fun. Now, thanks to Weird Al Yankovic, I am sure others will find it fun too!

Here it is: Word Crimes – enjoy!

Friday, October 25, 2013

Reflecting on Reflexive Pronouns

I’ll admit it up front: misusing reflexive pronouns (which are pronouns that end in –self or –selves) is a pet peeve of mine, so when I read this sentence from a letter written by Toronto’s mayor, I cringed:

“Mr. [X] has demonstrated to myself that he has a great work ethic and has always shown tact and diplomacy.”

As the name implies, reflexive pronouns reflect back on the subject of the sentence. Here’s a simple example: She bathes herself. I like this example because the mental image it presents makes it easy to envision the subject of the sentence doing something to herself.

Another way of describing when it’s ok to use a reflexive pronoun is when the subject and object are the same entity. In the mayor’s sentence, the subject (Mr. X) and the object (the author of the sentence – in this case, the mayor) are not the same entity, so “myself” is clearly wrong. The proper pronoun in that sentence is “me”: “Mr. X demonstrated to me that he has a great work ethic…”

If these explanations don’t make use of reflexive pronouns clear enough, here’s how MS Word’s grammar help explains why “myself” is incorrect in a sentence like the one the mayor wrote:

Reflexive Pronoun Use: It is incorrect to use "myself" alone as a subject, as in "Jake and myself went to town," or alone as an object, as in "You will talk only to myself."

Pronouns ending in –self (or –selves) can also be used to emphasize something, in which case grammarians call them intensive pronouns (rather than reflexive pronouns). As the name “intensive pronouns” implies, such pronouns are inserted for emphasis – to make you take notice of the noun or pronoun they go with.  Here’s an example: Tom himself did the laundry.

Given how simple the rules for using reflexive pronouns are (or, looked at it another way, the relatively few situations when using reflexive pronouns makes sense), I wonder why they are so often misused. In Grammatically Correct: The Writer’s Essential Guide to punctuation, spelling, style, usage and grammar, Anne Stilman suggested that one reason writers might insert reflexive pronouns where they don’t belong is because they may think that “it sounds more important or genteel to say myself than plain I or me would do”.  That may be the case, but it certainly backfires because doing so only makes the writer seem illiterate.

So, next time you’re tempted to tack a “–self” or “–selves” onto a pronoun, stop and be sure to consider whether doing so is correct.

Monday, October 07, 2013

PLAIN Language International’s Upcoming Conference

I’m a member of PLAIN, the international association for plain language professionals. PLAIN’s 20thAnniversary Conference is coming up in Vancouver from Oct. 10-13, 2013. In the lead-up to the conference there have been many interesting discussions in the Member’s message forum.

In one of the discussions, William DuBay, of Impact Information Plain Language Services, offered up a great description of our profession. I thought I’d share it with readers as we mark International Plain Language Day (October 11). Here’s what Bill said:

“We are indeed a unique profession. We are not about writing; we are not about reading. We are at the point where these two activities intersect, at the point where comprehension takes place, where the rubber hits the road.”

I often describe plain language as reader-focused writing, which is what I think Bill is getting at when he talks about plain language practitioners being concerned with making sure the reader understands what’s written.

If you’d like to learn more about plain language – or better yet, if you’d like to join the conversation – I encourage you to join PLAIN.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Benefits of Hearing Your Text Read Aloud

Today I was doing some on-line research on a grammar issue and I happened on a terrific writing web site: DailyWritingTips. There’s lots of very useful information on the site on a wide range of topics. I clicked on a few topics that were of general interest to me and then I noticed an item titled: 34 Writing Tips that Will Make You a Better Writer. Curious, I clicked on it.

The 2007 article was based on tips from readers. While all the tips were good advice – most are conventional wisdom.  But Tip #30, apparently submitted by E.I. Sanchez, offered a fantastic idea that I’ll certainly put into practice – and so I wanted to share it.

Here’s Tip 30:

“30. E. I. Sanchez
For large documents, I use Word’s Speech feature to have the computer read the article back. This allows me to catch errors I have missed – especially missing words or words that ’sort of sound the same’ but are spelled differently (e.g. Front me instead of ‘From me’).”

I had never heard of Microsoft Word’s Speech feature and I didn’t know if Word 2010 – the version I’m running – had the feature. With a bit more on-line research I found a simple description of how to enable it – and I did. I’m thrilled to say that the text-to-speech feature works really well. 

Reading your writing aloud has always been a terrific way of catching clumsy writing and even some typos. Indeed, it is a practice I employ often. But, I’ve found that when I read my own writing aloud, I don’t always catch typos because I read too quickly and because my mind knows what I meant to write and so that’s what I “read” – even though that might not be exactly what’s on the page.

Word’s Speech function reads at a more reasonable pace than I read my own stuff, and it read exactly what’s written. I’ve found that by reading the document on-screen as the document is read aloud to you, there’s a darned good chance you’ll catch things you wouldn’t catch if you simply read it aloud yourself.

Give it a try – I think you’ll find it as helpful as I do.  Thank you E.I. Sanchez!

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Speaking my language

I was reading the latest Ontario Power Authority’s NewsOn-line newsletter and it had a terrific example of plain language principles that I thought I must share with you. It was a story about the recent rain storm that hit Toronto, dumping the most one-day rainfall ever recorded in Toronto.

The paragraph in the story that made me cheer was this:

About 100 millimetres (four inches) of rain fell during the storm that struck during the evening commute on July 8. It is the heaviest one-day rainfall recorded in Toronto.

Why do I love that simple two-sentence paragraph? Because it helped me understand what 100 millimetres of water is – it’s about 4 inches. I can’t tell you how many articles I’ve read recently about flooding in Alberta, for example, that have only provided the rainfall in millimeters – a concept I simply can’t wrap my mind around. (I know I should be able to comprehend what a millimeter is, since Canada uses the metric system. But, I grew up in the non-metric world and so a millimetre of water simply doesn’t mean much to me.)

By including that additional information in simple parentheses the writer helped me – and I suspect many other readers – immeasurably. And, as you can see – the additional parenthetical information didn’t disrupt the flow of the story or add much to the length.

That’s good business writing!

Plain Language writing is all about expressing information in ways so that different readers can understand it.