Grammar Grabbers - Oddities & Entities

Grammar Grabbers





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. . . An entity . . . possibly an oddity.


Definitely an oddity . . .



Actually, this Page consists of variations of "Helpful Hints". "OK, Bill, so why didn't you put this stuff in the Helpful Hints Page?" Well, for one thing, most of these points justify lengthier explanations. (If you're writing for a Web site, the longer you make each Page, the longer it takes to load on screen.) In addition, asking readers to scroll through endless text to reach the end of a single Page is not a good idea. Internet readers are particularly notorious for their lack of patience. For a few more ideas, visit my Web Design Tips Page by selecting the appropriate link at the end of this document. (OK, Beaker, you can stop flicking the light switch on and off ... and stop whining, will you!)



Dr. Ment's Modem

This section is particularly for people who prepare on-line manuals or documents, but some suggestions also apply to those who send e-mail or otherwise write for screen readers. It consists of snippets of wisdom modem-transmitted to Grammar Grabbers by world-renowned computer guru Ulysses Ment (alias "Doc" U. Ment):

  • keep it as short as possible . . . the small screen is very unforgiving of lengthy elaborations . . . remember, you'll have to "flip" more PC "pages" if you write as verbosely as I speak to people

  • use "clipped" English to save space . . .instead of "Complete form 865 in its entirety with the exception of fields C and D", write "Complete form 865. Leave fields C and D blank"

  • keep upper-case text to a minimum and only where it serves a specific purpose, especially if you're using boldface or on-line highlighting . . . capital letters use more space, are difficult to read and draw attention away from everything else . . . IT'S REALLY IMPORTANT THAT EVERYONE FOLLOWS THIS ADVICE AND NOT USE CAPS, ON AND ON AND ON WITHOUT ANY END IN SIGHT AND REPEATING THEMSELVES AND WRITING THE SAME THING IN MORE THAN ONE WAY. OK?

  • computer technology can be intimidating for some people . . . don't make it worse by trying to impress them with your knowledge of the latest terminology . . . don't get fancy (say "select an option" instead of "input an option choice", "printer" instead of "output device")

  • if a block of information must continue to another screen, break text at the end of a paragraph. Don't hold a reader's train of thought in limbo or risk a critical misreading because a prefix and the word to which it is hyphenated appear on different screens

  • as Elvis would say, "don't be cruel" . . . phrases like "invalid value entered" attach blame (and are vague). Words like "illegal" or "fatal" give some people that glazed-eye look or scare them into making more mistakes

  • don't use alphanumeric codes by themselves for error and other messages; say what the problem is. If you must use codes, put them in brackets after an understandable phrase

  • if you're working in hypertext, keep in mind you still have to develop and organize text and topics in a logical fashion; without a manageable trail, many users will get lost in a screen maze of poorly organized topics and information

  • don't give your program messages a personality, e.g., "Hey, pal, you made a mistake" . . . it may give the impression the system can think like a human

  • be consistent in your choice of terms . . . don't interchange words like "exit", "log off" or "quit" merely for the sake of variety

  • avoid "as shown above (below)"; use "preceding" or "following" or refer to specific heading/caption. On a small screen, what you're referring to could be on the previous (next) screen.



Say Goodbye To "bi-"

Question: if you get paid twice a month, are you paid bi-monthly or bi-weekly (or does it matter these days, as long as you're getting paid?). Bi-weekly . . . bi-monthly . . . they don't mean the same thing to everybody. When you get to "years", bi- pops up at least three times: bi-annual, biennial and bicentennial.

Fowler's Modern English Usage describes this confusion as "desperate circumstances" and goes as far as to say "there is no reason why all bi- hybrids . . . should not be allowed to perish".

So what are we supposed to do? Use semi-, twice a and every second . . . " instead. You could use fortnightly (short for fourteen-nightly) for every two weeks, but you would not be understood by most people in North America. You would, however, be "veddy" British.

Incidentally, biennial and bicentennial are the least confusing of the bi- hybrids (which probably accounts for the shedding of their hyphens). The first means "every two years" and the latter occurs every 200 years.


Can I Quote You on That?

Here's a question of vital importance: just where do you put the quotation marks when you're reporting what someone said? This is what I was taught (and I still have my notes carved on stone tablets to prove it): if you're quoting a complete sentence, put the marks outside the period; if you're only using a few words or a phrase, put them inside the period. ("Bill Cutler is one of the finest writer-editors on the continent." versus Bill Cutler is described as "one of the finest writer-editors on the continent". The styles crediting the speaker are: "I must admit," he stated, "this Cutler guy is the person to talk to about quotation marks." (one sentence) and "This Cutler guy sounds very conceited," he said. "He must be joking." (two sentences)


Adverbs . . . They're Close to the Action

Is it worth knowing about adverbs? As Curly of The Three Stooges would say: "Soytainly".

The majority of adverbs are adjectives with an ly or ily slapped on the end, sometimes with a slight spelling change to the adjective. (There are other, sneaky adverbs like now, quite and also). Basically, you use an adverb to define an action and an adjective to describe a thing or condition, e.g., "talk clearly into the telephone" versus "it's a clear night". Oh, by the way, why did I put "an" in front of the ly? ("Aren't you supposed to use "a" when it precedes a consonant like 'l'?") Not always ! If the following word begins with a letter that sounds like a vowel, use "an". In this case it sounds like "an 'el-why' ".

"That's real good of you" is grammatically incorrect. Good does not require the adjective real. If you're actually saying "that really is good of you" (to add emphasis), the correctness of the adverb form becomes apparent.

Some adverbs are used both with and without ly (late, sure, near, etc.), while others must use the adjective form, e.g., first, fast and far.

Using adverbs and adjectives correctly is more than a nicety of grammar; it can change the meaning of a phrase. Example: "hard hit by the news" versus hardly (meaning "scarcely") hit by the news".

Use an adjective in place of an adverb when the verb involves one of the senses (smell sweet, looks happy, ).


Don't Lapse Into a Comma

Don't use a comma if it interrupts the flow of a thought ("she believed, in her theory" is wrong). You shouldn't use a comma before and, unless a separate thought or possible confusion is involved ("go to the grocery store for milk, break and coffee, and pick up the dry cleaning" and "the three law firms are Jones, Jones and Jones, Taylor, Taylor and Taylor, and Anderson, Anderson and Anderson", to avoid confusion between the Taylors and the Andersons).


Semi-colons . . . Designer Punctuation?

Semi-colons . . . how exciting. When they show up most often as stops, they work like periods, only between closely related thoughts. (We'll talk about exceptions later; there are almost always exceptions.)

When a comma just doesn't cut it (see previous parenthesis), use a semi-colon to keep separate but related thoughts from running together. Also, use it when words like however and therefore separate complete thoughts, e.g., "I like coffee; however, it keeps me awake at night."

The exceptions? A semi-colon is not a full stop when it's used in a word grouping that otherwise would be a jumble of commas ("go to the mall and buy shirts, ties and socks from the men's shop; CDs, tapes and videos from the record store; and milk, bread and coffee from the supermarket"). It's also not a full stop when followed by and or or, and when it separates items in a list of many elements, e.g., names with titles and departments or geographic locations.

Don't use semi-colons to introduce a list; use a colon for that ("the advantages are:" not "the advantages are;").


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