Year 2001 Writing/Communication Tips
by Lucy Paine Kezar

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Tip #4
January, 2001

Is e-mail different?

Yes, in several ways.

One is ease of misinterpretation.

E-mail has been described as a "disembodied voice."

Communication in this medium, seen on a cool, neutral screen and often both written and read in haste, is easily misunderstood in mood, attitude, and intent.  It's easy to offend someone on-line without the slightest intent to do so.

E-mail is best for simple, friendly, unambiguous messages.

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Tip #5
February, 2001

Of what use is the semicolon?

One grammarian has said, "It looks like what it is:  part  period and part comma."

We can use a semicolon to separate two or more statements, each of which could be a sentence by itself,  but between or among which you'd like the reader to make a connection, as in:

"Horses are domesticable; zebras remain wild."

A semicolon also separates items in a series when those items contain commas, as in:

"Among my favorite cities are Lyon, France;  Heidelberg, Germany;  and Kyoto, Japan."

A common mistake is use of a comma where a semicolon is needed, as in:
"He plows his driveway when an inch of snow falls, he thinks plowing is fun."

In that run-on sentence, the comma should be replaced by
  a semicolon, or
  a conjunction such as "and" or "because," or
  a period, making it into two sentences.

It is possible to overdo use of semicolons.  They are convenient, however, when we would like the reader to pause briefly and at the same time mentally link the two or more clauses, connecting them to a greater degree than he or she would, were they to appear as separate sentences.

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Tip #6
March
, 2001

Daunted by the blank page?

Forget the blank page for a while, and speak it!

Say your message aloud, into a tape recorder.  Any tape recorder with a "record" switch will do.  Imagining in front of you an actual person with whom you're speaking may make this easier.

Then transcribe it.  Changing your spoken language into the more formal language of written discourse won't be difficult, and you can do that later.  Other ideas will come to you as you transcribe your spoken words.  Meanwhile, you will have cleared the hurdle of the blank page.

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Tip #7
April, 2001

Proofreading our own writing.

Don't we all occasionally miss our own mistakes in writing, even if we are excellent proofreaders of others' work?

There are several ways of upgrading this skill.   Here are three:

1.  When possible, take time.  Set your work aside and proofread it later in the day, or on another day. 

2.  Read one line at a time, possibly covering the lines below with a piece of paper.

3.  Proofread backward, either by line--reading the bottom line first and progressing up, or by word--reading from right to left.

 

Computer spell-and-grammar checks are interesting, often-useful, and sometimes amusing tools, but as we know they have limitations and are not sufficient in themselves.  Obviously they don't touch factual errors. 

Happy springtime!  To our friends in New Zealand, we wish you a pleasant autumn.

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Tip #8
May, 2001

What's wrong with this sentence?

"If you'd like to work on this project, speak with Dana or I."

If a line doesn't sound right, but you don't know much about grammar, you can sometimes use shortcuts to figure out what's wrong.

Here, you can delete something.   Then the error will emerge.

Simply delete, "Dana or."  That leaves you with a sentence ending, "speak with I."  That doesn't sound correct, does it?

Changing one small word rectifies it to

"...speak with Dana or me."

GRAMMATICAL EXPLANATION:

Any noun or pronoun used in a sentence has a "case," or way in which it is used in the sentence.  In English we usually don't need to know the case of a noun because, unlike the situation in many other languages, neither the spelling nor the pronunciation of the noun changes when its case, or use in the sentence, changes.

Pronouns in English do change with "case," though.  For example, "I" and "me" are the same pronoun in two different cases.  "I" is in the nominative case; "me," in the objective case.

Cases in English are:

  Nominative

     (subject of verb or "predicate nominative")

  Objective

     (object of verb or preposition)

  Possessive

     (showing ownership; examples:  "her," "his," "its")

Examples: 

  In the sentence, "I swim," "I" is in the nominative case, being the subject of the verb "swim."

  In the sentence, "Fido followed me," "me" is in the objective case.  It is the object of the verb "followed."

 

  In the sentence,  "Leslie met with Dana and me," "me is in the objective case.  It is object of the preposition "with."

 

A PSYCHOLOGICAL ORIGIN of this ERROR: 

One reason why this incorrect usage develops is that any young child is likely to say at some point, "Me and him are going out to play."

At that point an adult may correct the child, saying" Put the other person's name first, and also use 'I." Say instead,  'He and I are going out to play."

Here the adult is correct, of course.  In that sentence  both "He" and "I" are in the nominative case.  From such instruction, though, the child may infer that it's never acceptable to say "me" with another person's name, as in "Cameron and me."  This discomfort leads people  to say sentences like, "She met Cameron and I at the restaurant."

Knowledge of grammar makes it easy for us to avoid these mistakes.

Happy springtime!  To our friends in New Zealand, we wish a happy autumn.

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Tip #9
June, 2001

It's its own little puzzle.

Some writers who usually have no trouble with contractions (example: "they're"), or possessives (examples: "her," "their") nevertheless report that they sometimes confuse "its" and "it's," especially when writing quickly.

Telling them apart is simple.  Just ask yourself, "Does this mean, 'It is'?" If so, use "it's."   In contractions an apostrophe always indicates a missing letter or letters.

The confusion between "its" and "it's" may arise from the fact that possessives other than pronoun forms also involve the apostrophe, as in "cat's," "world's," "the Smiths' house."   Don't think about that when choosing between "its" and "it's";  just remember the "it is" criterion for "it's."

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Tip #10
July, 2001

Do you postpone certain writing tasks?  Do these obligations then "hang over your head?"  Here's a way of rocketing past the procrastination barrier.

Pretend that someone has given you just three minutes to get your message across, in writing or speaking.

Set yourself up in an interruption-free area.  Decide whether you will keyboard your message, hand-write it, or dictate it into a  tape recorder.  Set a timer.  Begin.  Don't pause, don't edit.  Simply concentrate on putting it across.

Stop when the timer rings.  In these three minutes you will have broken the postponement barrier and accomplished the most challenging aspect of the task.  Refining and adding to what you've written or dictated will be easier.

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Tip #11
August, 2001

Do questions marks go inside or outside quotation marks?

It depends on meaning.  Unlike commas and periods,  which always appear inside quotation marks, question marks vary in position.

If the quotation is in  itself the question, the question mark goes inside:

"Do you think we're having global warming?" she asked.

Otherwise it goes outside:

Can you explain why he thinks we're now experiencing  "global cooling"?

It's as simple as that.

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Tip #12
September, 2001

E-mail etiquette for today.

E-mail is evolving.  Among many current guidelines, here are three:

1.  Keep it short, remembering that many people feel inundated with e-mail.

2.  If your message is complex, potentially ambiguous, or emotional in nature, consider using another medium.  E-mailed messages are easily misread and misunderstood.

3.  Remember that e-mail is not always private.

Wishing you well in this time of international crisis and grief.

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Tip #13
October, 2001

Passive or active?

Verbs have "voice," active or passive.

In active voice, the grammatical subject of the verb acts, as in:

"Jen scored the first goal."

"Scored" is an active verb.  "Jen," the grammatical subject of the sentence, acts.

In the passive voice, the subject of the verb is acted upon, as in:

"The first goal was scored by Jen."

"Was scored" is a passive verb.  "Goal," the grammatical subject, is acted upon.

Clear, strong writing is primarily in the active voice.  Occasionally, a passive verb is the better choice, but as a rule we communicate most effectively when we use verbs in the active voice.

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