Not that again

The February post on this blog discussed when to use that and when to use which.

That can be troublesome in another way, too: by its absence.

Many writers have developed the habit of leaving out the word that. Omitting that can cause confusion. If a reader must go back and reread a sentence because an omitted that made the sentence unclear, communication is ineffective.

I recently read a sentence that began, “We anticipate the report . . .”

How did your brain process that phrase? My brain thought the next words would probably tell me when we anticipate the report. I was ready for something like, “We anticipate the report by Friday.” The phrasing had set my expectations.

But in fact, the second half of the sentence was, “will contain your recommendations.” Wait, what? I stumbled, then read it again:

We anticipate the report will contain your recommendations.

Readers should not have to read a sentence once, pause to recover from mental whiplash, and read the sentence a second time. Readers should not have to work so hard.

The writer created a miscue by omitting that:

(Improved) We anticipate that the report will contain your recommendations.

With that included, the reader can easily understand the sentence and move on.

Another example:

Hatfield County claimed the property was worth $1 million.

Did you start out thinking that Hatfield County claimed the property? The omission of that can cause confusion for a moment.

(Improved) Hatfield County claimed that the property was worth $1 million.

Here’s one more example:

She demonstrated the system
saves time.

Where would a that help the reader?

The Associated Press Stylebook says, “When in doubt, include that. Omission can hurt. Inclusion never does.”


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Hyphen nation

Everyone knows that hyphens are used at the end of a line of type to indicate that a word continues on the next line.

Beyond that use of hyphens, some people run into confusion.

Some get downright grumpy when it comes to using hyphens in phrasal adjectives.

The journalist Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves, a humorous book about punctuation, explains that the hyphen joins words to aid understanding. Her chapter on hyphens defends the honor of sober pickled-herring merchants who have never touched a drop.

Without a hyphen, the phrase “long term plan” might leave a reader wondering whether there is something called a term plan, and he’s reading about a long one. With a hyphen, the phrase “long-term plan” lets the reader be sure he is reading about a plan for the long term.

The rule is this: If two consecutive words work together as an adjective to modify a noun that follows them, those two words should be hyphenated.

The rule is not just for two words; it is the same when any number of words work together as a modifier before a noun:

an easy-to-reach shelf

the head-over-heels-in-love couple

No hyphen is necessary if the noun does not follow the modifying words:

the up-to-date report

the report is up to date

An exception to the hyphen rule applies when the first word in the compound adjective ends in –ly. In that case, the meaning is clear without a hyphen. For example:

an openly hostile environment

a clearly attainable goal

Hyphens have other uses, too. We’ll save those for another day.


Filed under clear writing, editing, grammar, punctuation

That vs. which

Some writers struggle to choose between that and which. And some writers don’t struggle at all; they choose which because they think it sounds more correct or more formal. The writers in the second group are often wrong.

The wonderful writing teacher William Zinsser puts it simply: “Always use that unless it makes your meaning ambiguous.” In most situations, Zinsser says, that is what you would naturally say and therefore what you should write.

Readers who want a grammar rule for this guidance can have one. It’s a matter of restrictive clauses and nonrestrictive clauses.

That introduces restrictive clauses:

The leftover vegetables that are in the refrigerator would make a good stew.

“That are in the refrigerator” is a restrictive clause; it clarifies the specific vegetables being referred to. The writer is not referring to the vegetables that are in the root cellar; she is referring to the vegetables that are in the refrigerator.

Which is for nonrestrictive clauses:

The leftover vegetables, which are in the refrigerator, would make a good stew.

“Which are in the refrigerator” is nonrestrictive. The sentence would be clear without this clause; the clause simply provides additional information. It’s as if the writer were saying, “The leftover vegetables would make a good stew. Incidentally, they are in the refrigerator.”

This discussion of “that” versus “which,” like everything else in this blog, assumes U.S. English. Users of British English should pay no attention.

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Change the subject: three ways

Every complete sentence contains two parts: the subject and the predicate. The subject is what the sentence is about. It’s the doer. The predicate consists of the verb and all of its modifiers and other words that receive the action. A simple example is “Donna sang.” “Donna” is the subject.

Many writers lose sight of a sentence’s subject. Here are three ways.

1. Dangling modifiers

We often hear commercial advertisements saying things like this: “As a mother, my family’s nutrition is important.” What is the subject of that sentence?

“My family’s nutrition.”

What is the predicate?

“Is important.”

So what is “As a mother” modifying?

The writer of that script intended the speaker (“I”) to be the subject. But the sentence doesn’t work because it has a dangling participle. The intended subject isn’t even in the sentence. The sentence must be recast so the subject is the noun that the writer intended to modify. Here’s one correct way the ad could have been written:

“As a mother, I believe my family’s nutrition is important.”

Now, the subject is “I” and the verb is “believe.” (The subject is being modified by “As a mother,” as the writer intended.)

Here’s another example:

(Faulty) As a pediatrician, parents often ask what brand I recommend.

(Improved) I’m a pediatrician. Parents often ask what brand I recommend.

2. Say what

“What” and “whatever” can be sentence subjects. For example:

“Whatever you choose will be fine.”

But sometimes, clauses beginning with “what” make a cumbersome subject. For example:

“What I have already forgotten about sailing in the bay could fill a small book.”

The subject of that sentence consists of the entire clause ending in “bay.” It’s unwieldy. A writer with good awareness of the subject might instead write:

“I could fill a small book with my forgotten knowledge about sailing in the bay.”

Now, the subject is “I.”

3. Laziness

In casual conversation, people often use sentences with the subject it. An example is, “It is a sunny day.” That’s not grammatically wrong, and it’s fine for talking with friends. But careful writers should try harder. After all, what exactly is “it”?  It, used this way, is referred to as an expletive pronoun or a dummy pronoun. In writing, the subject usually can be identified, and the sentence can be made clearer and stronger as a result. “The sky is clear today.” Or, “Sunshine is abundant today.”

Here’s another example:

(Faulty) It is easy to start a walking program. (The subject is the vague “it.”)

(Improved) Starting a walking program is easy. (The subject is the gerund “starting a walking program.”)

(Even better) Walking programs are easy to start. (The subject is “walking programs.”)

Here’s an example of a similarly weak construction using “there”:

(Faulty) There is another finding in the study that casts doubt on the results. (The subject is the nebulous “there,” whatever that is. The verb is “is”—a being verb.)

(Improved) Another finding in the study casts doubt on the results. (Now the subject is “another finding.” The verb is “casts doubt”—an action verb, so it’s stronger.)

After reading three or four sentences that begin with “It is” and “There are,” the reader may begin to think a report or proposal seems weak, vague, or lazy. The writer should change the subject.

Writers of strong, clear sentences place modifiers correctly, avoid unnecessarily bulky subjects, and identify subjects.

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Teed off

For December, let’s take a break from thinking about editing business documents and news reports. In this retail-focused season, let’s critique merchandise.

Graphic T-shirts can make good gifts, but they sometimes bypass the copyediting department.

In August, Old Navy stores introduced a line of T-shirts just in time for college football season. The shirts, in team colors, featured a football image, a college logo, and a two-word phrase. The phrase should have been “Let’s go,” but Old Navy printed it without an apostrophe.

The shirts had two other mistakes, too: an upper-case G and an extra exclamation point. Because the phrase included closing punctuation, it was a sentence, not a title. So the G should not have been capitalized. And more than one exclamation point is never correct. Those two errors didn’t receive much attention (except from your humble Stickler).

The missing apostrophe, however, did receive attention. On Twitter and elsewhere, grammar guardians, punctuation protectors, and other lovers of the English language made themselves heard. They objected to the apostrophe error.

In response, Old Navy removed the T-shirts from inventory. The company placed a notice on its retail website, thanking the Grammar Police for catching the error.

Now if only Old Navy would stop calling T-shirts “tees.”

Old Navy is not the only printer of team shirts that should consult a copy editor.

In 2009, the Washington Nationals baseball team wore the team’s official jerseys in a game. Two of the jerseys—Ryan Zimmerman’s and Adam Dunn’s—had the team name misspelled. Majestic Athletic, which had printed the jerseys, apologized. (A month later, Dunn’s shirt fetched $8,000 at auction for the team’s Dream Foundation.)

In 2007, West Virginia University’s basketball team won the National Invitation Tournament title. It was the Mountaineers’ first such title in 65 years. The winners donned jerseys that the NIT had printed, to discover the indignity of a misspelling of “Virginia.”

How about a non-athletic example? Here’s a T-shirt with several problems. The “your” should be “you’re,” of course, because the meaning is “you are.” But the entire sentence is inadequate: the wearer is single regardless of whether the viewer is single. The shirt is a failure of expression. Then again, if a lady is so desperate as to advertise in giant lettering on a T-shirt, the type of gentleman she might attract with such a shirt might be her perfect match.

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Parallel universe

Careful writers use parallel construction.

Good parallelism means every item in a series is structured the same way.  Whether the items are words, phrases, or dependent clauses, the elements in the list must match each other.

Parallel structure helps give a sentence unity and clarify its meaning.  The parallel elements in a sentence help readers understand the relationship among the items in a series. Faulty constructions can cause readers to stumble.

The rule also applies for a bulleted list in a presentation. For example, if one bullet point begins with a verb, every bullet point should begin with a verb.

Here’s an example of parallel construction:

“that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Every clause in the example serves the same function. Every clause is a grammatical match. The syntax works. (The third clause contains a list of three nouns; that’s parallel, too.)

The difference between parallel and dissonant is easy to recognize in this simple series:

(Faulty) I enjoy hiking, kayaking, and to garden.

(Parallel) I enjoy hiking, kayaking, and gardening.

The problem might be less obvious in this announcement that I edited several years ago:

Professional Firm
is pleased to announce
new addresses, telephone and fax numbers
for our associates

The three items in the list as written lacked parallel structure. “Numbers” was intended to apply to telephone and fax, but not addresses. The sentence had to be corrected to say either:

new addresses and new telephone and fax numbers


new addresses, telephone numbers, and fax numbers.

Another frequent example of faulty parallelism is in sentences using “both . . . and.” The element after “both” and the element after “and” must be equivalent.

(Faulty) The journalism student aimed to both become a thorough reporter and a strong writer.

(Parallel) The journalism student aimed to become both a thorough reporter and a strong writer.

“Either  . . . or” and “neither  . . . nor” must be followed by equivalent elements, too.

Many writers have trouble keeping elements parallel, but it’s worth learning to do better. Readers will appreciate the effort.

The readers of this major newspaper deserved parallel structure on its special section’s front.


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The best word

In election season, we hear many euphemisms. Speakers and writers try to soften messages and distract us from reality. We must decipher terms such as “revenue enhancement,” used instead of direct words such as “taxes.”

Too often, though, writers and speakers use imprecise words not because they are deliberately trying to obscure a message, but because of laziness. Without giving much thought to choosing the word that will best express an idea, they settle for the nearest word that will do. In some cases, they choose a word that has been repeated so frequently that its use has become automatic, even if a different word would more precisely convey the intended meaning.

For example, the flabby word “major” is used often, and in many cases it’s ambiguous and less than clear. In the sentence, “The board plans to make major changes,” a more specific word might be important, significant, critical, sweeping, broad, extensive, far-reaching, widespread, or costly.

The related word “majority” is often the wrong choice too. “Most” is the right word in most (not “in the majority of”) cases.

And now, heaven help us, the word “major” has been made into a trendy slang adverb: “majorly.” I have heard this made-up modifier spoken in casual conversation by people under age 30. Recently, I even encountered the word in a business document that I edited. An educated person actually typed the phrase, “majorly renovated.” I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry as I substituted “extensively.”

“Get” is another overused word. Meaning might be more precisely conveyed with acquire, obtain, procure, become, develop, progress, catch, come to be, understand, or a dozen other expressions.

I noticed the word selections made by news outlets in the illustration below. Some news organizations made interesting choices.

Sometimes writers use the first word that comes to mind, instead of aiming for the most suitable word. The English language has a rich vocabulary. We can do better than choosing words that are vague or that have become diluted through overuse.


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