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Writing Elegantly

Most of us know clumsy sentences when we hear or read them, but we don’t always know exactly why they are clumsy or possess the skills to fix them. An E-Newsletter reader heard the awkwardness of the following sentence but was puzzled by how to reword it.

The network that this computer is able to connect to contains information that is privileged and confidential.

She may have felt uncomfortable about “able to connect to” because it sounds like a dangling modifier. However, this is just a symptom of bigger problems. The clumsiness is caused by several common writing errors:

*Unnecessary dependent clauses
Get rid of that is/which is, that are/which are clauses whenever possible.

*Extraneous verb phrases
Delete verb phrases that don’t add meaning: is able to.

*Subjects too far away from their verbs
Place subjects closer to their verbs: computer connects, network contains.

*Redundancy
Weed out repetitious words: Confidential and privileged mean the same thing in this context.

Finally, tweak the wording so that the sentence flows:
This computer connects to a network containing confidential information.

For more tips on effective writing, including using specific rather than vague language, active vs. passive voice, and parallel form, click here.

Posted on Monday, March 1, 2010, at 9:12 am


19 Comments

19 Responses to “Writing Elegantly”

  1. Buddy says:

    I have a few questions:

    1. Can you start a sentence with the word “then”? (Example: “Oh, we are going to your grandmother’s. Then we are going to the store.”)

    2. Should a comma precede “as well” when it means “in addition to” (so it will not be misinterpreted as meaning “also”)? (Example: “I have a piece of cake, as well as a bowl of ice cream.”

    3. How can I tell when I should begin a new paragraph?

    • Jane says:

      1. You can start a sentence with “then” just about anytime. It is fine to write, “Then we are going to the store.” You could also write, “Oh, we are going to your grandmother’s; then we are going to the store.”
      2. The comma after “cake,” introducing “as well as” is considered optional when “as well as” takes the place of “and.”
      3. There are no rules for when to start a new paragraph. It’s a judgment call on the author’s part. If you are writing a business letter/memo/e-mail, keep your paragraphs short. If you are writing a dissertation or novel, you will have longer trains of thought.

  2. Buddy says:

    When exclaiming an inquisition, should an exclamation mark or question mark be used?

  3. Buddy says:

    The following questions are being shouted, so does the question mark or exclamation mark have priority?
    - How did you do that?/!
    - Victor won first place?/!
    - Randy ran away from home?/!

    How can I tell whether to use either a question mark or an exclamation mark?

    • Jane says:

      Only the first example is a question and should, therefore, end with a question mark. The second and third sentences would require exclamation marks only to let the reader know they are being shouted rather than stated. If the second and third sentences are meant to be questions, they should be rewritten:
      Did Victor win first place?
      Did Randy run away from home?
      The question overrides the exclamation.

  4. Prashantha says:

    Pls let me know how and when to use base form of ‘Be’, plz let me know if use in passive voice what it means, e.g, it has to be done, to be happy,
    to be died, what is the actuall meaning of the sentence.

    • Jane says:

      The word “be” has many different meanings depeding on how it is used in the sentence. It is highly irregular and takes on eight forms (be, am, are, is, was, were, been, being). It is one of the most common verbs in the English language. Unfortunately, with irregular verbs memorization and a decent dictionary are necessary to master their usage.

      It has to be done. (Here the word is used as a verbal auxiliary. It is used with to and a verb to express what will happen in the future.)

      “to be happy” and “to be dead” (Here the word is used to describe the condition of a person or thing.)

  5. mark says:

    hello, I would like to ask a question about an exclamation mark but couldnt find any file about this so I am using this one.

    When I want to emphasize just one word in a sentence, I can write an exclamation mark in parantheses (apart from other ways) right after the word, separated just by a space:

    - When he was seventy (!), he became a father.

    Here I want to emphasize the age of that man who became a father, that’s why I wrote the exclamation mark right after the age.

    But if I wanted to emphasize a word, not the whole sentence, and the word I’d like to emphasize would stay at the end of a sentence, should I write an exclamation mark enclosed in parentheses or normally – alone without parentheses as if finishing the whole sentence? I think that in this situation it would be better to emphasize the word by italics and not to use the exclamation mark at all, am I right?

    But if it would be possible to write the exclamation mark enclosed in parentheses at the end of a sentence, would I have to finish the sentence with a period?

    - He became a father when he was seventy! – in a sentence terminated by the exclamation mark – like this one, would I have to emphasize the word “seventy” in italics, for example?
    - He became a father when he was seventy (!). – is this a possible way to emphasize the word “seventy” or would the exclamation mark at the end of the sentence be written without the parentheses?

    Thank you very much for your answer, I hope my question was not too confusing. I appreciate your web.

    • Jane says:

      Use of an exclamation point enclosed in parentheses would only be used for extremely informal writing (which is why you were unable to find information about it). Using italics for emphasis would be acceptable, but should be used sparingly. In formal English, either “When he was seventy he became a father!” or “He became a father when he was seventy!” would be acceptable.

  6. mark says:

    Hello, Jane, the other day I was writing an essay where I wanted to use a domain Google and nowhere I could find if I should write the name in italics or if I should use quotation marks or just capitalize the first word. Which way would be correct? Thank you for your answer.

    • Jane says:

      According to the Chicago Manual of Style (14.244), “Websites should be referred to in text and notes by specific title (if any), by the name of the sponsor or author, or by a descriptive phrase. Some sites refer to themselves by their domain name (the first part of a URL, following the double slash and ending in a domain-type indication such as .com, .edu, or .org); such monikers, which are not case sensitive, are often shortened and capitalized in a logical way (e.g., http://www.nytimes.com becomes NYTimes.com; http://www.google.com becomes Google). Titles of websites are generally set in roman without quotation marks and capitalized headline-style, but titles that are analogous to books or other types of publications may be styled accordingly. Titled sections or pages within a website should be placed in quotation marks. Specific titles of blogs–which are analogous to periodicals–should be set in italics; titles of blog entries (analogous to articles in a periodical) should be in quotation marks.”

  7. Tim says:

    What are the rules about paragraphs that break across a page. I believe I should move the entire paragraph to the next page so it’s not partly on one page and partly on the other. That view is not shared by my colleagues. Please advise and thank you.

    • Jane says:

      It seems that your colleagues are correct. The restrictions only apply to single lines of a paragraph. The Chicago Manual of Style advises, “A page should not begin with the last line of a paragraph unless it is full measure [margin to margin]. (A page can, however, end with the first line of a new paragraph.) Nor should the last word in any paragraph be broken–that is, hyphenated, with the last part of the word beginning a new line. To correct any of these occurrences, page length may be adjusted. (A short last line of a paragraph carried over to the top of a page is sometimes referred to as a “widow”; when the first line of a paragraph appears at the bottom of a page, it is sometimes called an “orphan.”)”

  8. Ed says:

    I attended public junior high school in the 1960’s. In that environment, our English teacher
    stressed that “You’ve got” was a phrase that only “country bumpkins” would use, viz.:
    – Obviously, one wouldn’t use “you got”
    – “You’ve got” is the contraction of “you have got” which is not “proper” usage.
    – So, “you have” or “you’ve” is sufficient

    Please comment &/or provide a reference to your “Blue Book”

    • Jane says:

      It may not sound elegant to some people, but it seems that The Chicago Manual of Style does recognize “have got” as being grammatically correct. Their rule in the section Auxiliary Verbs (5.145) says,
      “When have got precedes to plus an infinitive, it means must {I have got to pass this test!}.”

  9. Gail M. says:

    Is the sentence below grammatically correct? I have a bet with a co-worker and would like you to be the judge.

    “Among other goals, those policies and procedures assure that the services you provide do not violate the Dental Practice Act and reduces the risk and liability for both the College and you as an individual.”

    • Jane says:

      There are two problems we see with the sentence. First, the verb reduces needs a singular subject, but your subjects are plural. Which raises the second problem: what reduces the risk and liability—the policies and procedures (of the college) or the services (you provide)? It’s probably the policies and procedures, but it’s impossible to tell for sure. One way to write the sentence could be:

      “Among other goals, those policies and procedures 1) assure that the services you provide do not violate the Dental Practice Act, and 2) reduce the risk and liability for both the College and you as an individual.”

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