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Month: January 2018

3 More Cases of Dangling Modifiers

3 More Cases of Dangling Modifiers

In each of the following sentences, a phrase that is intended to modify the core of the sentence is treated as if it is associated with the subject, but a flaw in the sentence construction leaves the modifier dangling, hence the phrase denoting this type of error. Discussion after each example points out the problem, and revisions demonstrate the solution.

1. We’ll give you more detailed information before making your application.

This sentence is intended to assure the reader that helpful information will be provided before he or she completes an application, but the wording implies that “we,” the entity sending the information, will complete the application for the reader. The statement should therefore be revised to explicitly express the intended idea: “We’ll give you more detailed information before you make your application.”

2. The suspect entered the apartment via an unlocked balcony door and confronted three female tenants while sleeping.

Here, the implication is that the suspect was sleepwalking. But the tenants, not the suspect, were asleep during the incident, and as in the previous example, a pronoun—one alluding to the former rather than the latter—as well as a helpful verb, must be inserted: “The suspect entered the apartment via an unlocked balcony door and confronted three female tenants while they were sleeping.”

3. When delivered in a fresh, artistic way, children will seize on writing as they do art and drawing.

It is writing (more accurately, writing instruction), not children, that is being delivered in the manner described, and the sentence construction must convey this idea: “When delivered in a fresh, artistic way, writing will be seized on by children as eagerly as art and drawing.” Alternatively, to maintain active voice, writing can be relocated to the introductory modifying phrase and its original instance replaced with a pronoun: “When writing is delivered in a fresh, artistic way, children will seize on it as they do art and drawing.”

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Beware of Wielding Unwieldy Jargon

Beware of Wielding Unwieldy Jargon

This post pertains to the pitfalls of employing jargon to convey ideas without considering that colorful usage may confound instead of convey.

I once edited a book that referred to “dual-wielding pistols,” a reference to the trademark weapons of a movie character: a brace of flintlock pistols. Mentally shaking my head in mild consternation, I revised what I considered an exceedingly awkward and misleading effort to express that the character routinely fought with both guns at once—a dynamic image commonly seen in action films, but one that depicts a strategy seldom employed in real life. As it turns out (meaning, I did some research), the phrase is valid, but not as the author employed it.

Websites and publications devoted to firearms sometimes refer to dual-wielding handguns—but with dual-wielding operating as a phrasal verb, not a phrasal adjective. One can use the phrase to refer to the action of firing two handguns at once (“Is dual-wielding pistols practical?”). However, because no firearms are specifically designed to be used in parallel—presumably (meaning, my research didn’t turn up any such weaponry), there is no such thing as dual-wielding pistols—there is no reason for such phrasing. Therefore, though the phrase exists, it was not correct as employed. And even if it had been used as a phrasal verb, although any reasonably intelligent reader could be expected to understand the phrase, because it is jargon, it would be more courteous to all readers to simply write something like “wielding two pistols at once.”

The lesson for writers is, one can be clear, concise, or both, but if you must choose between clear and concise, be clear.

Speaking of phrasal adjectives, one hallmark of jargon is to omit hyphenation in some such phrases, as they are understood to be terms of art (words or phrases understood by a certain readership and not requiring explanation or the hand-holding treatment hyphenation provides). Therefore, although the phrasal adjective in, for example, “data-governance initiatives” would generally be hyphenated in lay publications to clarify that the reference is to initiatives regarding governance of data, not governance initiatives pertaining to data, publishers of content intended for readers familiar with the concept might consider the helpful hyphen superfluous. (For clarity and consistency, such publishers should codify this style in a manual accessible—and familiar—to a publication’s writers and editors.)

In publications intended for the general public, however, dictionary usage should guide writers and editors in treatment of phrasal adjectives.

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3 Types of Unnecessary Hyphenation

3 Types of Unnecessary Hyphenation

An extraneous instance of hyphenation occurs in each of the following sentences. Discussion after each example explains the error, and revisions illustrate correct treatment.

1. Those organizations that adapt will be able to excel in the long-term.

Some pairs of words closely associated because they commonly appear together as phrasal adjectives are often unnecessarily hyphenated when they do not serve that grammatical function. Though long and term frequently serve together as a phrasal adjective, as in “long-term goals,” in this sentence, they are an adjective and a noun, respectively, and hyphenating them is an error: “Those organizations that adapt will be able to excel in the long term.”

2. NASA officials recommend viewing the eclipse through specially-made glasses to prevent eye damage.

What is perhaps the most common type of error of intrusive hyphenation is as a result of confusion between phrasal adjectives and phrasal adverbs. When two or more words team up to modify a noun, the modifying terms are usually hyphenated to signal their teamwork, as in “four-legged animals.” (Otherwise, the implication is that the phrase refers to a quartet of animals with legs.)

But when the first word is an adverb ending in -ly, that ending sends an obvious signal that the first word modifies not the noun but the accompanying modifying word, as in “NASA officials recommend viewing the eclipse through specially made glasses to prevent eye damage,” where specially modifies glasses (and, in turn, the two words provide additional information about the glasses.)

However, for the sake of clarity, flat adverbs—those lacking the -ly ending—are hyphenated, as in “high-pitched voice.”

3. After two weeks, it turns out letting strangers in has been the least-troubling part of the experience. . . . There are certainly less-invasive ways to keep packages safe, like lockboxes or shipping to the office.

Similarly, do not hyphenate modifying phrases that start with least or less (or most or more): “After two weeks, it turns out letting strangers in has been the least troubling part of the experience. . . . There are certainly less invasive ways to keep packages safe, like lockboxes or shipping to the office.” However, a phrase beginning with “less than” or “more than” is hyphenated when the string of words provides more information about a noun that follows the phrase: “Less-than-optimal terms can result in future costs that reduce the benefit of a lower purchase price.”

But note that stand-alone phrases beginning with less and the like are sometimes mistakenly hyphenated, as in “Some people were less-than-thrilled to see the giraffe in the indoor pen.” Here, “less than thrilled” is merely describing a reaction, not modifying a noun, so omit the hyphens: “Some people were less than thrilled to see the giraffe in the indoor pen.”

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Gratitude and Congratulations

Gratitude and Congratulations

Gratitude and congratulations, along with some other words with the element grat and associated with giving thanks, are related. Such words, and a couple of disguised cognates, are listed and defined in this post.

Gratitude, and the other words discussed here, derive from the Latin adjective gratus, meaning “pleasing” or “thankful.” Gratitude is the state of being thankful, and a synonym for thankful is grateful. The antonym of that word is ungrateful, but someone who withholds gratitude is an ingrate.

Gratify, though stemming from the same origin, has a different sense; it means “give pleasure or satisfaction,” and, depending on context, it can have a positive or negative connotation. For example, the noun form in “instant gratification” refers critically to an undesirable personal or cultural trait associated with seeking short-term satisfaction to the detriment of more productive habits or pursuits.

Similarly, though gratuitous originally meant simply “free,” that sense has largely been overtaken by the meanings “unearned” and “unwarranted,” as in a reference to gratuitous sex or violence in a film; the element or scene is not integral to the plot and is therefore considered exploitative. A gratuity, however, is always welcome: It is something given voluntarily. (Often, the word is simply employed as a formal alternative to tip in the context of rendering services.)

Centuries ago, when one expressed pleasure in the achievements of another, one offered gratulation. However, that form was superseded by congratulation, and now it is customary to pluralize that word. (Congrats is a slang truncation.) Unfortunately, thanks to the punning exclamation “Congradulations!” in the context of graduation from school or college, seen on greeting cards and the like, congratulations is sometimes inadvertently misspelled.

Grate, meaning “grill” or “scraper,” is unrelated, but grace, meaning “mercy,” “elegance,” and “virtue,” and the identical verb form, meaning “show favor,” are descended from gratus. Something exemplifying grace in the sense of “elegance” is graceful, while something lacking that quality is graceless. Disgrace is the loss of favor or honor, and something that brings (or should bring) shame to someone is disgraceful. Meanwhile, scapegrace, on the model of scapegoat, means “someone who falls out of favor with God.”

Another disguised descendant of gratus, by way of French, is agree, meaning “give assent or consent” or “coincide.” Something agreed on is an agreement. Something is said to be agreeable when it is acceptable, in harmony with what is desired, or pleasing, and a person with a pleasing or positive disposition is agreeable. In all cases, the antonym is represented by attaching the prefix dis-.

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Punctuation Quiz #25: Possessive Apostrophes

Punctuation Quiz #25: Possessive Apostrophes

One use of the apostrophe is to form the possessive case of nouns and indefinite pronouns. Add apostrophes to show possession as needed in the following sentences.

1. All my friends and I gather at the Joneses house every Christmas Eve.

2. We celebrated JFKs life on the fiftieth anniversary of his death.

3. Everyones opinion is important.

4. Carol and Janettes room is to the left of my room.

5. Philip didn’t understand my directions to the store.

Answers and Explanations

1.
Original: All my friends and I gather at the Joneses house every Christmas Eve.
Correct : All my friends and I gather at the Joneses’ house every Christmas Eve.

For a plural ending in s, x, or z add only an apostrophe to show possession.

2.
Original: We celebrated JFKs life on the fiftieth anniversary of his death.
Correct : We celebrated JFK’s life on the fiftieth anniversary of his death.

Initials are treated like single nouns that show possession by adding an apostrophe followed by an s.

3.
Original: Everyones opinion is important.
Correct : Everyone’s opinion is important.

Everyone is an indefinite pronoun and follows the general rule for showing possession.

4.
Original: Carol and Janettes room is to the left of my room.
Correct : Carol and Janette’s room is to the left of my room.

The singular verb is shows that Carol and Janette share one room. When a compound noun refers to something possessed in common, only the second noun shows possession. If Carol and Janette possessed different rooms, each name would be in the possessive case: Both Carol’s and Janette’s rooms are upstairs.

5.
Original: Philip didn’t understand my directions to the store.
Correct : Philip didn’t understand my directions to the store.

No apostrophe is needed before the s in directions because the word does not show possession; it is simply a plural noun.

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3 Cases of Misuse of Dashes

3 Cases of Misuse of Dashes

In each of the following sentences, dashes are erroneously employed, resulted in confused sentences. Discussion following each example explains the problem, and one or more revisions illustrate solutions.

1. When driving long distances—know that children get restless.

A dash is not applicable when one clause naturally follows another. “Know that children get restless” does not abruptly break from the subordinate clause that precedes it, so a comma suffices here: “When driving long distances, know that children get restless.”

2. Few banks can afford their customer experiences to plateau for long before customers with ever-increasing expectations choose to do business with a competitor—or worse—with a disruptive market entrant.

“Or worse” is treated here as a parenthetical phrase but is not intended as one. Because what follows the first dash signals a syntactical break, only that first dash is called for. In addition, because worse, on its own, is parenthetical to the phrase “or with a disruptive market tenant,” it should be bracketed by punctuation, but two mere commas suffice (and a pair of dashes would confuse in proximity to the preceding one): “Few banks can afford their customer experiences to plateau for long before customers with ever-increasing expectations choose to do business with a competitor—or, worse, with a disruptive market entrant.”

3. Some features predicted in this article—like seat belts—became ubiquitous, while others—like braking distance indicated on speedometers—never caught on.

As mentioned in the discussion for the previous example, employing one or two dashes more than once in a given sentence can be confusing, as readers see several phrases separated by the dashes with no indication of syntactical hierarchy, so avoid doing so: “Some features predicted in this article, like seat belts, became ubiquitous, while others, like braking distance indicated on speedometers, never caught on.”

If two complementary phrases, such as those specifying examples in the original sentence, are going to be used parenthetically, the pairs of punctuation marks must be identical to indicate their equivalence. However, in this case, because a comma already exists in the sentence, the sentence organization is still muddled (and the statement is crowded with commas), so it is more helpful to the reader to frame the two examples in parentheses: “Some features predicted in this article (like seat belts) became ubiquitous, while others (like braking distance indicated on speedometers) never caught on.”

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3 Examples of Confusion Caused by Missing Words

3 Examples of Confusion Caused by Missing Words

In each of the sentences below, omission of a small but key word muddles the statement’s meaning. Discussion after each example explains the problem, and a revision to each sentence provides a clarifying solution.

1. Some organizations still look at privacy and security as a cost/benefit equation, rather than an issue that could create long-term damage.

This sentence requires corresponding prepositions preceding the phrases that express conflicting possibilities; otherwise, readers may be unclear as to whether “an issue that could create long-term damage” is complementary to “a cost/benefit equation” or whether the former phrase describes something organizations still look at instead of privacy and security: “Some organizations still look at privacy and security as a cost/benefit equation, rather than as an issue that could create long-term damage.”

2. The agency particularly calls out the need for firms to ensure systems and technologies are resilient to cyberattack and that firms are not exposed to attack during periods of change.

The conjunction that is often optional, but it is recommended after ensure so that the reader is not temporarily misled into misunderstanding, for example, that the phrase “ensure systems and technologies” does not refer to ensuring those things themselves as opposed to ensuring that something about them occurs or is true: “The agency particularly calls out the need for firms to ensure that systems and technologies are resilient to cyberattack and that firms are not exposed to attack during periods of change.”

3. Respondents from the region are also significantly less likely to believe that the direction of regulatory scrutiny is increasing than other regions.

Here, the notion of other regions, rather than a situation occurring in other regions, is compared to the original situation. To clarify the relationship of the key phrases, a preposition should precede “other regions”: “Respondents from the region are also significantly less likely to believe that the direction of regulatory scrutiny is increasing than those in other regions.”

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3 Types of Redundancy to Avoid

3 Types of Redundancy to Avoid

Redundancy in a sentence is annoying, and it is also a nuisance. Conveying information in more than one way, or by repeating wording, is consciously or subconsciously distracting to the reader and contributes to compositional clutter. Note in the discussions and revisions following each example how the sentence in question can be improved by deleting such infelicities.

1. Like Smith, Jones also owns a family-run business.

When an additive word or phrase such as like or “in addition to” introduces a sentence, using also to bridge the complementary phrases is redundant: “Like Smith, Jones owns a family-run business.”

2. Many components, such as asset balance, deposit balance, and interest income, etc., should be sensitive to the change in the macroeconomic environment.

Use of a phrase like “such as” or “for example” (or the corresponding abbreviation e.g.) is redundant to etc. (or “and so on”): “Many components, such as asset balance, deposit balance, and interest income, should be sensitive to the change in the macroeconomic environment.” (Or “Many components—asset balance, deposit balance, and interest income, etc.—should be sensitive to the change in the macroeconomic environment.”) Note, however, that i.e., which means “that is” (or “that is” itself), pertains to clarification and not to listing of examples, so it is not redundant to etc.

3. But the policy is not solely about consumers; it is about what the law calls a data subject. A data subject is defined as a living individual to whom personal data relates.

Avoid ending one sentence and beginning the subsequent sentence with the same word or phrase, which generally occurs when a word or phrase is introduced and then immediately defined: “But the policy is not solely about consumers; it is about what the law calls a data subject, which is defined as a living individual to whom personal data relates.”

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Admonitions and Premonitions

Admonitions and Premonitions

Admonition and premonition are two members of a small word family based on a root pertaining to scolding or warning. The family is introduced below.

The Latin verb monere, meaning “advise,” “express disapproval,” or “warn,” is the root of admonition and premonition. Admonition and its sister noun admonishment are distinguished by the senses “warning about behavior” and “criticism of behavior,” respectively; the verb form, admonish, applies to both senses. A premonition, meanwhile, is a feeling of forewarning not based on conscious thought; unlike admonition, the noun does not take other forms. Monition itself, meanwhile, is a rare noun meaning “caution” or “warning.”

Summon is also descended from monere, originally in the form of the Latin verb summonere, which means “warn secretly” (the first syllable is a variant of sub-); the English verb means “send for,” with the connotation of an imperative; to summon up is to call forth or evoke, as in the notion of summoning up courage or another emotion. Something that can be summoned is summonable, and one who summons is a summoner. Summons is a noun meaning “an act of summoning,” usually in the form of an order to appear in court; the plural is summonses.

Other words based on monere include monitor, which originally referred to one who admonishes, checks, or reminds and came to mean “guide,” “instructor,” and “overseer.” This word has several other distinct senses: First, the monitor lizards, a genus that includes the Komodo dragon, were supposedly named for a habit some species have of standing on two legs or acting otherwise to check on or warn about the presence of predators. Second, a Civil War–era warship armored with iron was dubbed the Monitor with the notion that it would admonish its foes; the name was applied to similar and not-so-similar vessels for the next hundred years. Finally, the use of the word to describe equipment for checking the quality of electronic transmissions led to its employment in reference to display screens for televisions, computers, and other devices.

Then there’s monument, from the sense of monere pertaining to reminding: A monument is a written document, record, or tribute; a structure honoring a person or event or something pertaining to a notable person or thing; or a boundary marker. A national monument is one of a class of places set aside by a country for its historic, scenic, or scientific significance. Because of the associations of structural monuments with grandeur, something great or outstanding is said to be monumental; monumentally is the adverbial form.

Finally, monster derives from a sense of “something that warns”: The word describes an abnormal, strange, or terrifying living thing; something cruel, threatening, or ugly; or something especially large or successful. Monster is employed as an adjective as well in the last sense, while monstrous applies for the other meanings and monstrously serves as an adverb.

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3 Examples of Incorrect Use of Semicolons

3 Examples of Incorrect Use of Semicolons

In each of the following sentences, semicolons are incorrectly employed. Discussion following each example explains why the use of one or more semicolons is an error, and revisions demonstrate proper punctuation.

1. The lack of specificity allows flexibility; but the lack of clarity also makes certification less certain.

This sentence consists of two independent clauses. Two strategies for dividing a pair of such clauses are separating them with a semicolon and separating them with a conjunction. This sentence redundantly applies both methods, so employ one or the other (preferably, the simpler solution of signaling the transition with a conjunction): “The lack of specificity allows flexibility, but the lack of clarity also makes certification less certain.” (But if one uses a conjunctive adverb such as however or nonetheless in place of the conjunction, a comma must follow that word, and a semicolon should precede it: “The lack of specificity allows flexibility; however, the lack of clarity also makes certification less certain.”)

2. The film’s inane plotting; randomly gratuitous violence; utter sexlessness; and questionable grasp of grown-up behavior suggest that the true author might have been an eight-year-old boy.

Semicolons can serve as supercommas, dividing a series of equivalent sentence elements such as items in a list when at least of one of them is already divided by commas, necessitating a more robust punctuation mark to delineate the larger divisions from the smaller ones. This sentence errs in two ways. First, the lack of subdivisions means that semicolons need not supplant commas. Second, using semicolons implies that the phrase beginning with suggest applies only to the final characteristic in question. For those reasons, use only commas: “The film’s inane plotting, randomly gratuitous violence, utter sexlessness, and questionable grasp of grown-up behavior suggest that the true author might have been an eight-year-old boy.”

3. The subcontractors were fined for allegedly failing to ensure that the formwork and shoring were designed to safely withstand all intended loads; failing to have calculations and drawings approved by a civil engineer; and failing to ensure the shoring supports were erected on a stable base.

Even when a list consists of a series of extended phrases rather than several sets of just a few words each, mere commas suffice to separate the elements if they do not themselves include punctuation: “The subcontractors were fined for allegedly failing to ensure that the formwork and shoring were designed to safely withstand all intended loads, failing to have calculations and drawings approved by a civil engineer, and failing to ensure the shoring supports were erected on a stable base.”

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