Style (grammar, punctuation, and sentence/paragraph structure) is not just salad dressing; rather it is fundamental to the structure and meaning of a document. While these ingredients can sometimes be added or changed at the last minute without affecting the overall structure of the document, style problems often obscure meaning and compound structural errors. Repairing and avoiding style problems requires constant attentiveness at every stage of writing.
The most prevalent class of style problems derives from the discrepancy between what the author writes down and what the reader expects. The fundamental problem is that the writer knows the material and the reader doesn't. To make up for the readers "ignorance," the writer must compensate by structuring ideas and conforming to common patterns of usage. This chapter provides examples of structure and pattern problems at the paragraph, sentence, and word level. I hint at the causes of these problems and suggest how to recognize and remedy them. I recommend reading Gopen and Swan's "The Science of Scientific Writing" in "The American Scientist," Volume 78, Nov/Dec 1990, pp 550-558. Their premise is very similar to mine and succinctly stated, with first draft and rewritten examples.
Realize as you read on (and when you write) that at some point in your writing career, you must make mistakes, and further the mistakes you make are liable to follow a pattern. Use errors to your advantage; by making errors, being aware of them, and then correcting them, you can make your prose stronger than they would be if you merely wrote down an acceptable first draft. With time, you will be able to anticipate many of these errors as you write you first draft and the process will become more efficient.
What follows is a list of common paragraph, sentence, and word level problems that crop up in writing. These are the problems to which I am most sensitive and which often lend themselves to relatively painless cures. I define the problem, show an example of the problem, and provide a possible rewrite. I believe that all these problems result from the mismatch between author and reader. At the end, I provide some hints on how to incorporate a knowledge of text problems into the writing process.
- Paragraph Level Problems
- Sentence Level Problems
- Word Level Problems
- What to Look for
Paragraph level trouble is the most troublesome. It is pervasive, hard to recognize, and presents no simple remedy. The problems stem from the complexity of the ideas expressed at the paragraph level and the guidelines (rather than rules) for structuring. What follows are descriptions of three common problems, examples of the problems, and suggested rewrites.
unity transition and development2 -- making the structure and logic accessible to the reader
A paragraph must exhibit unity, transition and development. It must contain only one idea; every sentence must focus on that idea; each sentence must connect to the previous and next sentence; these sentences have to lead to some conclusion. To see the trouble caused by the omission of these elements, compare the following original pair of paragraphs with my rewrite:
|The field of chemical process design has long been divided into two areas: process simulation and chemical information. Recently, with the help of advanced computer technology, process simulation achieved significant commercial success. Several simulation software packages, such as ASPEN, SPEEDUP, and ABACUS, have been widely employed in the chemical industry, from unit operation to plant design. On the other hand, the last fifteen years have witnessed major breakthroughs in the acquisition of chemical information. Ab initio type quantum chemical calculations, armed with ever more powerful computing facility, have been proven to generate reliable physical and kinetic information for a wide range of chemicals. At the same time, chemical databases, such as Chemical Abstract, was able to provide rapid access to variety of chemical information. However, there exists a big gap between the two areas mentions above, and a link needs to be built to enhance the cooperation between chemical information and process simulation. |
The success of process simulation depends largely on the accessibility and accuracy of physical and kinetic information for the chemicals involved. Currently, there are two major ways to obtain chemical information: ab initio calculation and chemical databases.
|The success of process simulation depends largely on the accessibility and accuracy of physical and kinetic information for the chemicals involved. Recently, process simulation has achieved significant commercial success with the help of advanced computer technology. Several simulation software packages, such as ASPEN, SPEEDUP, and ABACUS, are widely employed in tasks from unit operation to plant design. Simulation improvements have been paralleled by major breakthroughs in the acquisition of chemical information. Currently, there are two major ways to obtain chemical information, ab initio calculation and chemical databases. Quantum, ab initio chemical calculations now produce reliable physical and kinetic information for a wide range of chemicals, and chemical databases, such as Chemical Abstract, provide rapid access to variety of chemical information. While both process simulation and its information basis have advanced, the linkage between them has not.|
The original contains all the information, but the relationship and connections between the ideas are implicit rather than explicit. The author knows the connections and the savvy reader can piece the information together. My "improvements" are aimed at allowing the casual reader to understand with minimal effort. In order of occurrence, my changes and motivations to make such changes are:
- The first sentence of the original categorizes the two relevant issues simulation and information, but it does not indicate the relationship between these issues. Because the paragraph is about this relationship, I have made it the topic of the topic sentence. The first sentence of the second paragraph is the perfect definition of the relationship.
- I have inverted information order in the second sentence. Now the old information comes first, new information at the end.
- I have replaced "on the otherhand" with "Simulation improvements have been paralleled." The two "hands" are now clear.
- The second sentence of the second paragraph fits in nicely, categorizing the next two items. I have exchanged the connection "at the same time" for an "and"; the issue of time isn't important.
- I have made the "however" transition more explicit with the phrase "While both process simulation and its information basis have advanced."
By being explicit about my transitions, I claim to have improved the ease with which the information can be absorbed. As a bonus, the rewrite is a bit shorter. I don't think that the rewrite has either changed the intended purpose or eliminated important information.
|The SuperSolder process is a printed circuit board solder application process. It is an alternative to Selective Solder Strip application that should provide thicker solder on land pads and has shown better solder joint reliability. Many assembly houses have already implemented SuperSolder into their processes. The industry is tending toward SuperSolder because it offers many benefits over Selective Solder Strip. Intel, however, must test SuperSolder's reliability and manufacturability in its assembly line before beginning production scale use of this potentially beneficial process.||The SuperSolder printed circuit board solder application process is an alternative to Selective Solder Strip. SuperSolder's advantages include: thicker solder on land pads, the elimination of expensive photolithography steps, and better solder joint reliability. Because the SuperSolder offers many benefits over Selective Solder Strip, the industry is tending toward SuperSolder; many assembly houses have already implemented SuperSolder into their processes. However, before Intel can incorporate SuperSolder into its own production scale assembly line, the reliability and manufacturability of the new process must be demonstrated inhouse.|
So, what did I do, and what was I thinking when I twisted these words around?
- I combined the first sentence with part of the second. The clues were the verb "is" and the noun "process", both used twice. I also think that the one idea being conveyed is that of a new alternative process.
- I lopped off the second half of the second sentence and made it an idea of its own: benefits of the new process.
- Cause/effect linkage shows how the benefits lead to common usage. Putting the "because" at the beginning of the sentence sets the reader up for the sentence's structure.
- I've messed with new and old information order in the last sentence, leading from benefits (at Intel) to the testing that must be done.
As with the previous example, all the information was contained in the original. While the reader can figure out what the original paragraph means, the document is one of those murky technical documents that give people headaches. The structure, development, and transition can all be improved to create better prose.
A paragraph ought to have but one idea. The following original has two ideas, one that defines the internet and a one that suggests that the technology and its popularity has lead to problems. The to reduce an overabundance of ideas in a paragraph, give each idea a paragraph of its own and be sure to connect the paragraphs. Such a fix enlarges the text to make it clearer.
|The internet is a computer network that connects users from all over the world. The internet is also the largest network in the world. There are currently over 20 million users on the internet according a recent survey by Nielson Research. The internet is sometimes called a "network of networks" because it a superset of smaller networks such as America Online or Usenet. It allows users to communicate via email, discussion groups or hypertext. Other services include file transfer, remote login and indexing programs. Originally, these computer utilities were used solely for scientific research. Now these utilities are being used to exchange pornography and hate literature. The inventors of the internet never expected the network to be a distribution channel for pronography.||With over 20 million users, the internet is the largest computer network in the world. The internet's vast size results from its status as a network of networks, connecting many smaller networks such as America Online and Usenet. As an umbrella network, the internet allows subnet users to communicate via email, discussion groups or hypertext. Other services include file transfer, remote login and indexing programs. The network's size and utility make it ever more attractive to more users. |
The popularity of the internet led to a new set of problems unenvisioned by its inventors. Originally, the internet was used solely for scientific research and defense projects. The architecture was designed to be open to promote collaboration, and the system was distributed so that it could withstand nuclear war. This open, decentralized system has promoted a new degree of free speech: any user can communicate anything to any other user at any time. The unprecedented levels of freedom have lead to unprecedented levels of the abuse of free speech, such as the exchange of pornography and hate literature.
As a rough draft, the original is highly appropriate; nearly all the information is there and the connections are implicit. In the rewrite, I have separated the two principle ideas and connected them explicitly. I have made the topic sentences into contentions in contrast to the supportive nature of the original topic sentences. I have taken the liberty of adding connecting information that is not available in the original. I claim that the information in the rewrite is explicitly accessible to the reader.
Transition words are often a surprise to the reader. The author understands the connection and indeed puts in a logically correct transition word. Unfortunately, the logic and connection come too late for the reader who has either already constructed a possibly flawed logic or is lost. The most common offending words are thus, therefore, and however. Consider the following originals and rewrites:
|Immunoprecipitation is a powerful technique because the specificity of the immunoglobulin for its ligand is high. Thus, it allows detection and possible quantification of a target antigen in a mixture of proteins.||Because the specificity of the immunoglobulin for its ligand is high, immunoprecipitation allows detection and possible quantification of a target antigen in a mixture of proteins.|
The original is difficult to understand because its structure is not clear from the start. The information about immunoprecipitation is true enough, but the reader doesn't know what to do with the information. The "thus" comes as a surprise. The reader needs to backtrack and remember the previous idea. Worse, the reader does not know how far to backtrack; because I have only given you one sentence, you must go no farther, but if these sentences were embedded in a paragraph, the reader would not know how far back the causes are.
In the rewrite, the "because" sets up the structure for the reader immediately: cause/effect. Two boxes are opened in the reader's mind, and the information can now be safely poured into the boxes. As an added bonus, word count is lowered. I don't think I have changed the meaning any at all.
Please note that many people feel uneasy starting a sentence with the word because and many readers balk when finding such a word at the start of a sentence. The reason for such queasiness is that the because clause is subordinate to a main clause. All other things being equal, the main clause should come first; it is the most important. Such a rule may conflict with other information order guidelines. Use your own judgment. The next rewrite should invoke no such unease.
|There is much common sense, qualitative information available for climbers on how to place SLCDs. However, this information is based either on anecdotal evidence that lacks an experimental control or on static tests that do not take into account the dynamic nature of a falling climber.||While qualitative, common sense information provides excellent guidelines for the usage of SLCDs, this information is based either on anecdotal evidence that lacks an experimental control or on static tests that do not take into account the dynamic nature of a falling climber.|
Once again, the first sentence is true enough, but the reader is unprepared for the opposition implied with however. In the rewrite, while alerts the reader to the juxtoposition of ideas that will follow.
Sentence Level Problems
Try to keep verb tense consistent, particularly within a paragraph. When you must change the tense, warn the reader of the transition.
|Today's technology is efficient. The Iron Mountain mining operations recovered only 54 percent of the metals from ore.||While today's technology is efficient, 19th century Iron Mountain mining operations recovered only 54 percent of the metals from ore.|
Today and 19th century, explicitly warn the reader of the impending time change.
All to often, the future tense is used to refer to material that appears further on in the document.
|A hybrid system allows symbolic reasoning to complement quantitative reasoning. This paper will give an overview of the Q theory for constructing hybrid systems and will show that the Q methodology is extensible.||A hybrid system allows symbolic reasoning to complement quantitative reasoning. This paper gives an overview of the Q theory for constructing hybrid systems and shows that the Q methodology is extensible.|
|The body was found by the policeman.||The policeman found the body.|
There are good reasons to use the passive voice and there are good reasons to avoid it.
Use it to:
- Change the order of information in a sentence.
- Vary sentence structure for variety's sake. (Readers like variety.)
- Eliminate the true subject if it is not important.
Avoid it because:
- English readers prefer active sentences.
- Passive sentences use more words to express an idea.
For reasons I do not understand, writers like to write passive sentences.
It is easier to make an active sentence passive than to make a passive sentence active.
Many a technical document suggests that technical writers are paid by the word, but an inverse incentive would be preferable. Authors don't really try to pad sentences (Phase II candidates excepted), but the extra words sneak in anyhow. Sometimes the words are just oversights in the first draft like the following example.
|I plan to review the relevant technologies available in the region to generate electricity as well as efficiently irrigate crops in the region to insure that any policy recommendations are thoroughly thought out.||In order to insure that any policy recommendations are thoroughly thought out, I plan to review the technologies that are regionally available for electricity generation and crop irrigation.|
|This coupling of a continuous plant with a qualitative abstraction of the plant is called a hybrid system. A hybrid system allows symbolic reasoning to complement quantitative reasoning with symbolic reasoning.||This coupling of a continuous plant with a qualitative abstraction of the plant is called a hybrid system. It allows symbolic reasoning to complement quantitative reasoning. reasoning. |
or better yet
A hybrid system couples a continuous plant with a qualitative abstraction of the plant, allowing symbolic reasoning to complement quantitative reasoning.
|The purpose of this thesis is to try to develop and verify a model for spring loaded camming devices.||This thesis develops and verifies a model for spring loaded camming devices.|
If punctuation makes you feel uneasy because you don't know the rules, get a standard style guide and learn the rules. If you think that commas go where you naturally pause in a sentence, get a standard style guide and learn the rules.
Two things make writers who know punctuation rules feel uneasy about punctuation:
- Convention varies from document to document.
- Authors write sentences that should not be and try to fix them with punctuation, a strategy doomed to failure.
For example, an official use of the comma is to offset introductory matter in a sentence. If the matter is short, the comma may be eliminated. A second use is to connect two sentences joined by a conjunction word. If the sentences are short or have parallel structure, the comma may be eliminated. Both of the following sentence pairs are acceptable.
|The Rule||The Exception|
|However, the sky is not blue on Mars.||However the sky is not blue on Mars.|
|The ceiling is black, and the roof is blue.||The ceiling is black and the roof is blue.|
Some sentences are too long and complicated to punctuate. They can be recognized by their many clauses and conjunctions. Such super-hyper-meta-compound-complex sentences just should not be; break them into shorter, well connected sentences.
|It includes an introduction to the subject, the problem to be solved which is to obtain an upper bound to the limit load of welded T-joints with an extension to determine the work required to grow a crack on it, background and further developments.||It introduces the problem of finding an upper bound to the limit load of welded T-joints. The solution method relies on the determination of the work required for crack growth. If successful, this method will be extended to other joint types.|
A nested and is really a type of long unpunctuable sentence, though it is often punctuable at the expense of understanding.
|The rate gyroscope itself consists of a very rapidly spinning wheel and electronic components which sense changes in the axis of rotation of the wheel, and which modify and output a digital signal accordingly.||The rate gyroscope itself consists of a very rapidly spinning wheel. Changes in the wheel's axis of rotation are sensed by electronic components, which modify and output a digital signal propotional to the changes.|
The previous two examples show sentences that contain more than one idea. The solution is to give each idea a sentence of its own and to connect the sentences.
English readers like to see the subject and a verb in proximity. Humor the reader. As a guideline, keep the subject and the verb on the same line.
Tell the reader what is the case.
Pronouns Pronouns are links to previous nouns. Their misuse is usually due to the author's awareness of the correct linkage and the reader's ignorance of the linkage. Common problems are:
- this: Officially, this refers back to the most recently occurring singular, neuter noun. Often this is misused to refer to the idea embodied in the previous sentence, sentences, or paragraph(s). Modify such usage to let the reader know what the pronoun refers to.
modifying this Original Rewrite Suburbia is sprawling into farmland. This raises farm prices. Suburbia is sprawling into farmland. This encroachment raises farm prices.
- here: The common misusage of here is similar to the misuse of this. The reader doesn't know whether the author means here on the page, here in the author's lab, or here in the room where the book is being read.
- there is and it is: These pairs of words often are used to start sentences. They convey neither information nor connections themselves and are thus dead text. Worse, it has the connotation of linking back to a noun; a reader trying to make such a connection will be confused. Recast sentences that start with these pairs.
it is/there is rewrites Original Rewrite It is possible to achieve maximum velocity within five seconds. Maximum velocity can be achieved within five seconds. There is an immense amount of work that we have to do. We have to do an immense amount of work.
- Antecedents: The following sentence is funny. It has many problems, but you will get a chuckle when you understand what has been written.
Trichloroethylene (TCE) is a ubiquitous example of the dense chlorinated hydrocarbons, a family of organic liquids that have recently received great attention from environmental professionals because they are highly toxic and carcinogenic and are capable of persisting for long times in an aquifer and contaminating large volumes of groundwater.
As written, this sentence claims that environmental professionals are highly toxic and carcinogenic. The pronoun they refers back to the previous noun that matches in number and gender, professionals. The intended target clorinated hydrocarbons occurs much earlier in the sentences. Often, the reader knows which noun to match from context, but inconsistencies quickly consternate the reader.
A pronoun that starts a sentence may also refer back to the subject of the previous sentence.
Without further information, the reader does not know who went home.
- we: In technical writing, we should only be used to refer to the authors. If there is only one author, make sure that we is taken to mean the author and the author's colleagues. Often we is used to mean the author and the reader or people in general. Shun these two misuses.
misuse of we Original Rewrite Given the appropriate GDS model of the target we can fully specify the qualitative abstraction functions and automaton used by our maneuver detector. The appropriate GDS model of the target fully specifies the qualitative abstraction functions and automaton used by our maneuver detector.
- you: Readers don't like to be told what to think. By using the word you, an author suggests that a reader thinks something that the reader doesn't necessarily think. Shun the use of you.
A lot means a lot to the author, but not much to the reader. Be specific about the quantity.
|A lot of dentists recommend sugarless gum.||Four out of five dentists recommend sugarless gum.|
The reader won't know which idea to associate with these constructs. For ideas, qualify and recap the idea for the reader. For an equation, number the equation and refer to the number in the text.
- subject-verb match
I have no quick cure for ESL problems. Use the english language for 10,000 hours and you will be an expert. Get a native speaker to proof read your text. In the absence of a native speaker, devote a proofreading to these trouble spots.
My guess is that nine out of ten writers have no idea what the difference is between which and that when the words are used to introduce clauses.
|restrictive clause||non-restrictive clause|
|Get the lawn mower that is in the garage. (several lawn mowers -- the garage is fundamental)||Get the lawn mower, which is in the garage. (only one lawn mower -- the garage is parenthetical)|
|Talk to the man who is in the garage. (several men)||Talk to the man, who is in the garage. (one man)|
One of the uses of the comma is to set off parenthetical information. In the non-restrictive clauses, the information is parenthetical and is offset by commas. In the restrictive counterpart, the clause information is vital to the meaning of the sentence and no comma is used. Which is always non-restrictive and always gets a comma. That is always restrictive and never gets a comma. For non-neuter pronouns (who) the pronoun does not change, but the comma is added to the non-restrictive clauses and omitted from the restrictive clauses. For the sake of the one in ten readers who understand the difference between restrictive and non-restrictive clauses, be consistent with the convention.
These words are vague. Provide more detail; be specific. I see involve used in resumes and cover letters to very poor effect.
|I was involved in research on high temperature oxygen conductivity.||I constructed the current probes, measured the frequency response of thin film samples, and analyzed data for high temperature oxygen conductivity experiments.|
Without additional elaboration, the original sentence could mean that the author provided the researchers with pizza.
Often unfortunate for the author, but the whim of fates is rarely of importance to the reader.
In rough drafts obvious is an important flag to the writer; it means the idea is vitally important and care must be taken to make that idea obvious to the reader. Unfortunately, a thing cannot be made obvious merely by applying the adjective. A reader can think three things when reading the word obviously:
- It is obvious, so why is it mentioned.
- It is not obvious; the author is stupid.
- It is not obvious; the reader is stupid.
Because none of these modes of thought are productive, obviously should be ruthlessly eliminated from final drafts. Take care though to emphasize the point that must become obvious to the reader.
Note that is a note by the author to the author. In a rough draft it means that the information is important but has not been connected to the text. Remove the note and explicitly connect the information to the rest of the text.
scientists and researchers
Invoking scientists or researchers often makes your text sound like a caracature of a 1950's press release. Usually, these words are used to indicate the importance of an idea:
Many scientists have studied PHB, mostly because of its potential use as a biodegradable plastic.
Such a statement can be interpreted in two ways, depending on the reader's oppinion of scientists:
Scientists are always right, therefore, PHB is important.
Scientists are full of balony, therefore, PHB is unimportant.
The sophisticated reader wants to know which scientists; at a bare minimum, cite all the many scientists involved. Better yet, get rid of the pesky scientists because they are not important to the story of PHB.
The potential use of PHB as a biodegradable plastic has promted numerous studies of its physical properties and its production and purification. [1,2,3,4]
The scientists have disappeared, as has any associated stigma or glory. The people who produced the studies can tracked down if need be through the references. And, I've taken the liberty of structuring the sorts of things that are known about the substance.
Hints: Clues that might hint at a necessary improvement:
- trouble with punctuation
- long sentences/strings of clauses
- passive voice or 100% of sentences have forms of be for verbs.
- subject verb separation
- nested "ands"
- note that
Clues that show where you might add more to a section:
- parenthetical phrases
- long sentences
- one and two sentence long paragraphs.
2: "Unity, transition, and development" is a structure used in "Modern Essays" by James G. Hepburn & Robert A. Greenberg (2nd edition, 1968, Macmillan). I might not need to cite this source because these elements are rather fundamental to text, verging on common knowledge, much as the laws of thermodynamics and Newton's laws.