Professional Communications

Professional Communications

A Common Approach to Work-place Writing

Jordan Smith

Melissa Ashman

eCampusOntario

Brian Dunphy

Andrew Stracuzzi

eCampus Pressbooks

London, ON

Professional Communications

Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Professional Communications by Jordan Smith, Melissa Ashman, eCampusOntario, Brian Dunphy, and Andrew Stracuzzi is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Acknowledgements

1

About this Textbook

FanshaweThis open textbook has been compiled, edited and partially adapted by faculty from the School of Language and Liberal Studies at Fanshawe College by using existing open educational sources available through a Creative Commons ShareAlike attribution licence.

If sections of this resource appear to contain several styles of writing and/or voice, then that’s intentional! As a compilation, we have attempted to gather sources that not only reflect and reinforce the core teaching and learning methodologies we use in our professional communications curriculum, but also to mirror the often collaborative nature of professional communication itself.

We would like to acknowledge and thank the following authors/entities who have graciously made their work available for the remixing, reusing, and adapting of this text:

About eCampusOntario

eCampusOntario is a not-for-profit corporation funded by the Government of Ontario. It serves as a centre of excellence in online and technology-enabled learning for all publicly funded colleges and universities in Ontario and has embarked on a bold mission to widen access to post-secondary education and training in Ontario. This textbook is part of eCampusOntario’s open textbook library, which provides free learning resources in a wide range of subject areas. These open textbooks can be assigned by instructors for their classes and can be downloaded by learners to electronic devices or printed for a low cost by our printing partner, The University of Waterloo. These free and open educational resources are customizable to meet a wide range of learning needs, and we invite instructors to review and adopt the resources for use in their courses.

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We invite you to adapt this book further to meet your and your students’ needs. Please let us know if you do! If you would like to use Pressbooks, the platform used to make this book, contact eCampusOntario for an account using open@ecampusontario.ca.

If this text does not meet your needs, please check out our full library at www.openlibrary.ecampusontario.ca. If you still cannot find what you are looking for, connect with colleagues and eCampusOntario to explore creating your own open education resource (OER).

Introduction to the Text

2

Professional Communications: A Common Approach to Work-place Writing

Textbook Cover

Welcome to your new communications textbook! Now, you may be feeling like English classes should be behind you since you graduated from high school, but don’t worry. This is different. At Fanshawe College, if you have taken the Reason and Writing curriculum  (or “WRIT”), then you’ll already be familiar with the importance we place on making sure students are equipped with the essential principles of reading, writing, and reasoning at the post secondary level.  Just as WRIT is designed to help students succeed in becoming functional, competent communicators in college, Communications (or “COMM”) courses  are designed to prepare you for the real, everyday tasks of writing and speaking in your chosen profession. Ask any professional in your field, and they’ll set you straight on the enormous importance of practical communication in the work they do.

So How Does College Writing Differ from Workplace Writing?

The kind of writing you do and the communication skills you use in college are designed to help you achieve a specific purpose: to earn your academic credentials. Workplace writing, however, is specific to the needs of your job. One of the major differences between workplace writing and college writing is reflected in the expectations of those who assign the writing. In the workplace, the emphasis is on producing a written product. In college writing, the emphasis is on writing to think, writing to learn, and writing to demonstrate learning. For example, at work, you may be expected to write an email to employees to explain a procedural change. In a college assignment, you may be expected to understand the process of creating an email, to clearly explain a new policy, and to demonstrate reader-centered writing techniques in writing the email (Guffey, 2010).

At other times, the content, form, and style of your writing will follow company expectations and/or industry-standard conventions, and the process of writing may already be established for you. Using existing document templates and formats, as well as specific work-related language and tone may also be required. In short, work-place writing requires you to be adaptable and apply the skills you’ve acquired in college and tailor your writing for a number of situations and audiences. As a writer, you may be expected to occupy multiples roles, such as information gatherer, researcher, presenter and, in some instances, you may need to write a document as part of a team.

Another way academic writing can differ from workplace writing is in the level of original ideas that are explored as well as the way personal opinion, individual preference, and unique expression of thought takes shape. Academic writing shows knowledge and understanding of both content and process.  On the other hand, workplace writing often aims to convey information clearly and concisely about a specific issue at hand. The channel of communication is often already determined in its purpose and form, whether it be internally via an email to colleagues or externally in a press release for business clientele. Workplace writing tends to be practical—geared toward completing a work-related task—whereas college writing enables you to explore new avenues of thought.

Keep in mind that writing is also only one form of communication;  it’s one of the primary ways we communicate in school, but it’s also important  to think about the value of communication, in general, and specifically how your ability to communicate will differ in personal and professional settings.

As we continue to evolve in an ever changing digital landscape, communication technology within the workplace (and in school), is changing, so it is also important for you to understand how communication must be altered in these new media settings.  Social media, web-based writing, teleconferencing, cloud-based collaboration, and visual and graphic-based communication are common place today and will impact the way you write and communicate in a globally-connected always-on  world.

This should be something you think about as you go through your Communications course. You may not fully appreciate it yet, but this open text is compiled to help develop those vital communication skills now and in the years ahead as you grow professionally.

Common Communications Course Learning Outcomes

This open textbook is designed to support the learning outcomes of  Fanshawe College’s first-year Common Communications curriculum.  If you are taking this course, it means that your program requires an advanced professional communication credit as part of your diploma.  In fact, because almost all diploma programs at Fanshawe have a communications component, you can be sure that your class will be similar in content, structure, and approach; in short, all students will have a common or shared experience regardless of their program.

Although each school offer a variation of COMM and assigns a different course code, they’re all consistent in their approach to professional communication studies. At Fanshawe, the following schools are part of the common communications curriculum:

Because all common COMM courses are equivalent credits, the courses listed above also share similar course learning outcomes, which are sometimes referred to as CLOs and appear on your course outline. CLOs provide you with a set of measurable goals to achieve success in your COMM course.   As such, this textbook refers to the following common learning outcomes, and they appear at the beginning of each chapter and section:

  1. Compose workplace documents including emails, letters, and a research report;
  2. Analyze an audience and tailor a message to that audience (objective/subjective writing, persuasive writing, internal/external audience);
  3. Apply principles of grammar, punctuation, and editing appropriate to professional writing;
  4. Prepare documents according to basic principles of formatting and visual communication in various written documents;
  5. Demonstrate critical thinking skills in reading, writing, and discussion;
  6. Perform an effective presentation; and
  7. Employ research skills including locating, selecting, evaluating, and documenting source materials.

In addition, the Lawrence Kinlin School of Business’s COMM 3020, which is a part of our common curriculum, contains the following learning outcomes:

  1. Communicate clearly, concisely and correctly in the written, spoken and visual form that fulfills the purpose and meets the needs of the audience;
  2. Respond to written, spoken or visual messages in a manner that ensures effective communication;
  3. Create well-organized business documents (including emails, letters and reports);
  4. Compose stylistically appropriate business documents;
  5. Evaluate business case studies;
  6. Deliver a persuasive presentation on a business-related topic;
  7. Synthesize research sources in an APA-style, analytic report;
  8. Create a resume and cover letter for use in employment searches;
  9. Explain cultural differences and the impact these differences have on effective business communication, and
  10. Implement principles of properly documenting the use of research sources and others’ ideas.

The above outcomes may not represent every aspect you’ll learn in your course or they may be expressed using slightly different wording on some course outlines (depending on the school and program you’re in), but they nonetheless represent a common set of shared skills and tasks.

What You Need to Succeed

This resource is suited best to students who use:

A Note on Style

Whereas most commercial textbooks on communications maintain a high level of formality, this open textbook relaxes that a little to include contractions, colourful expressions, liberal use of “they” (rather than “he or she”) as a singular pronoun, and other characteristics of semi-formal or casual business writing. The idea is to model the style of a common email between work colleagues, which imitates a conversational style of writing while still being grammatically correct. Notice in the previous sentence and section, for instance, that “email” and “internet” appear instead of the more formal, old-fashioned “e-mail” and “Internet” often used in other textbooks. For this we take our cue from style guides in leading tech publications and international news organizations that trend towards lowercasing and de-branding the terms (Martin, 2016). See §4.5.1.2 on the formality spectrum in professional writing for more on the editorial decision to model a casual style for accessibility reasons.

Organization

This textbook is divided into five major units designed to guide first-year college students who have a high school education and perhaps some employment experience through the steps towards proficiency in English communication for college and professional success.

Unit 1: Communication Foundations
Unit 2: The Writing Process
Unit 3: Workplace Communication
Unit 4: Employment and Interpersonal Communication
Unit 5: Presentations and Group Communication

From the above units, you can further explore the full range of topics in the textbook’s chapters, sections, and subsections.

REFERENCES

Guffey, M.E., and Lowery, D. (2010). Communication Process: Essential of Business Communication

Martin, K. C. (2016, April 5). Should you capitalize the word Internet? Retrieved from https://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2016/04/05/should-you-capitalize-internet/

Online Guide to Writing and Research (2011). University of Maryland University College (UMUC).

Rockinson-Szapkiw, A. J., Courduff, J., Carter, K., & Bennett, D. (2013). Electronic versus traditional print textbooks: A comparison study on the influence of university students’ learning. Computers & Education. Retrieved from http://static.trogu.com/documents/articles/palgrave/references/rockinson%20Electronic%20versus%20traditional%20print%20textbooks.pdf

 

Unit 1: Communication Foundations

I

Fanshawe

 

Common COMM Course Learning Outcomes

This unit supports the following course learning outcomes (COMM 3048, COMM 3073, COMM 3074, COMM 3075, COMM 3077, COMM 3080, COMM 3082):

COMM 3020:

 

Chapter 1: Professional Communications

Jordan Smith

Chapter Learning Objectives

  1. Distinguish between the nature of English and Communications courses.
  2. Explain the importance of studying Communications.
  3. Identify communication-related skills and personal qualities favoured by employers.
  4. Consider how communication skills will ensure your future professional success.
  5. Recognize that the quality of your communication represents the quality of your company.
  6. Distinguish between personal and professional uses of communications technology in ways that ensure career success and personal health.
  7. Select and use common, basic information technology tools to support communication.
  8. Illustrate the communication process to explain the end goal of communication.
  9. Troubleshoot communication errors by breaking down the communication process into its component parts.
  10. Reframe information gained from spoken messages in ways that show accurate analysis and comprehension.

Why Communications?

Let’s begin by answering the question that is probably on the mind of anyone enrolled in an introductory English Communications course. Why are you here? It’s probably not because you chose this course out of your natural enthusiasm for English classes. It’s because it is a requirement to advance in the program and graduate.

So why would the program administrators require you to take this course? Is it just a money grab? The short answer to the second question is: No. The answer to the first question is: because you need sharp communication skills to be able to apply the core skills you’re learning in your other courses in the program. This textbook’s first section expands on that answer in more detail so that you can proceed through this course in the right frame of mind. None of your course’s lessons make sense unless you realize that communications skills are not merely nice-to-have assets in your program and in life; they are absolutely necessary to your survivability in this social world and tough economy.

1.1 Communications vs. English Courses

1.1.1: Communications vs. English Courses

LEARNING OBJECTIVES

target icon1. Distinguish between the nature of English and Communications courses

2. Explain the importance of studying Communications

Whether students enter their first-year college Communications courses right out of high school or with years of work experience behind them, they often fear being doomed to repeat their high school English class, reading Shakespeare and writing essays. Welcome relief comes when they discover that a course in Communications has nothing to do with either of those things. Why should it when no one in the modern workplace speaks in a Shakespearean dialect or writes expository essays? If not High School English 2.0, what is Communications all about, then?

For our purposes, Communications (yes, with a capital C and ending with an s) is essentially the practice of interacting with others in the workplace and other professional contexts. Absolutely every job—from A to Z, accountant to Zamboni mechanic—involves dealing with a variety of people all day long. You may deal with clients, managers, coworkers, stakeholders (people and organizations yours deals with, such as suppliers), professional organizations, a union perhaps, investors, the public, media, students, and so on depending on the nature of the job.

When dealing with each of those audiences, we adjust the way we communicate according to well-known conventions. You wouldn’t talk to a customer or client the same way you would a long-time friendly co-worker; depending on what kind of relationship you have with your manager, you probably wouldn’t speak or write to them in the same way you would either of the others. Learning those communication conventions is certainly easier and more useful than learning how to interpret a four-hundred-year-old play. If we communicate effectively—that is, clearly, concisely, coherently, correctly, and convincingly—by following those conventions, we can do a better job of applying our core technical skills, whether they be in sales, the skilled trades, the service industry, health care, office management, the government, the arts, and so on.

A course in Communications brings your existing communication skills up to a professional level by focusing on how to follow conventions for interacting with those various audiences in a variety of channels—whether they be speaking in person, by phone, email, text, or emojis, for instance. That we don’t generally communicate by emojis with clients or managers (unless they tell us that they prefer it), for instance, is a convention that doesn’t occur naturally to some. Indeed, it may come as a surprise to some that you’d risk embarrassing yourself and permanently undermining your credibility if you added emojis to a message sent to a manager or client. Because we are not born with an instinct for staying within the bounds of respectable communication, the channel conventions must be learned and practiced.

Some will approach this course with years of professional experience behind them and will appreciate that the communication aspect of any job is easy to underestimate. They will also appreciate that not abiding by those well-established communication conventions—by going rogue and freestyling the way you communicate—usually brings embarrassment and failure. To the audiences you deal with in the workplace, how well you communicate determines your level of professionalism. It’s like your style of dress: a well-written email has the same effect as a nice suit worn in an office or a clean uniform worn by a service worker—it suggests detail-oriented competence. Major writing errors are like big stains down the front of that suit or revealing rips in that uniform—they make you look sloppy, foolish, and unreliable. Just as we spent decades getting to where we are now as communicators in whatever situation we find ourselves, we need a college course to iron out the wrinkles of our communication skills for the better workplaces we aspire to—what we go to a vocational college for—in ways that our previous work experience and high school English classes didn’t.

This isn’t to say that your high school English classes were useless, though few can claim that they prepared you adequately for the modern workplace. Arguably the movement away from English fundamentals (grammar, punctuation, spelling, style, mechanics, etc.) in Canadian high schools does a disservice to students when they get into their careers. There they soon realize that stakeholders—customers, managers, co-workers, etc.—tend to judge the quality of a person’s general competence by the quality of their writing (if that’s all they have to go on) and speaking. The topic of Communications, then, includes aspects of the traditional English class curriculum, at least in terms of the basics of English writing. But the emphasis always returns to what is practical and necessary for succeeding in the modern workplace—wherever that is—not simply what is “good for you” in the abstract just because someone says it is.

If you feel that you are a weak writer but an excellent speaker or vice versa, rest assured that weaknesses and strengths in different areas of the communication spectrum don’t necessarily mean that you will always be good or bad at communication in general. Weaknesses can and should be improved upon, strengths built upon. It’s important to recognize that we have more communication channels available to us than ever before, which means that the communication spectrum—from oral to written to nonverbal channels—is broader than ever. Competence across that spectrum is no longer just a “nice to have” asset sought by employers, but essential to career success.

KEY TAKEAWAY

key iconBy teaching you the communications conventions for dealing with a variety of stakeholders, a course in Communications has different goals from your high school English course and is a vitally important step towards professionalizing you for entry or re-entry into the workforce.

EXERCISE

pen and paper iconList your communication strengths and weaknesses. Next, explain what you hope to get out of this Communications course now that you know a little more about what it involves. Before you answer, however, read ahead through the rest of this chapter to get a further sense of why this course is so vital to your career success.

1.1.2: Communication Skills Desired by Employers

Learning Objectives

target icon3. Identify communication-related skills and personal qualities favoured by employers

If there’s a shorthand reason for why you need communication skills to complement your technical skills, it’s that you don’t get paid without them. You need communication and “soft” skills to get work and keep working so that people continue to want to employ you to apply your core technical skills. A diverse skill set that includes communication is really the key to survival in the modern workforce, and hiring trends bear this out.

In its Employability Skills 2000+, the Conference Board of Canada lists “the skills you need to enter, stay in, and progress” in the 21st century workplace. The first category listed is communication skills, specifically how to:

Likewise, the non-profit National Association of Colleges and Employers in the US surveys hundreds of employers annually and has found that, in the last several years, they consistently rank the following four skills as most desirable ahead of fifth-ranked technical skills:

  1. Critical thinking and problem solving
  2. Professionalism and work ethic
  3. Teamwork
  4. Oral and written communication (NACE, 2016)

When employers include these interrelated soft skills in job postings, it’s not because they copied everyone else’s job posting, but because they really want to hire people with those skills. From experience, they know that such skills directly contribute to the success of any operation no matter whether you’re in the public or private sector because they help attract and retain customers and client organizations.

Traditional hiring practices filter out applicants who have poor communication skills, starting with a “written exam”—the résumé and cover letter. As documents that represent you in your physical absence, these indicate whether you are detail oriented in how you organize information and whether you can compose proper, grammatically correct sentences and paragraphs. If you pass that test, you are invited to the “oral exam,” where your face-to-face conversational skills are assessed. If you prove that you have strong soft skills in this two-stage filter, especially if you come off as friendly, happy, and easy to work with in the interview, an employer will be more likely to hire you, keep you, and trust you with co-workers and clients.

The latest thinking in human resources (HR), however, is that both of those traditional filters are unreliable. Applicants can fake them. Expensive as it might be, you could get someone else to write your résumé and cover letter for you, or you can just follow a template and replace someone else’s details with your own. Though most job competitions for well-paying jobs will yield exceptionally good and bad résumés and cover letters amidst a tall stack of applications, most tend to look the same because most applicants follow fairly consistent advice about how to put them together. Likewise, you can train for an interview and “fake it to make it” (Cuddy, 2012), then go back to being your less hireable self in the workplace, only to be the first one “let go” when the next office “reorganization” comes down.

Recruiters at the most successful companies such as tech giant Google have looked at the big data on hiring and found that traditional criteria, including GPA and technical-skills test scores in the interview process, are poor predictors of how well a hire will perform and advance. New hires with only core technical skills, even if exceptionally advanced, don’t necessarily become successful employees; in fact, they are the most replaceable in any organization, especially in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) industries (Sena & Zimm, 2017). According to Business Insider, Google’s recruiters took an analytics approach like that portrayed in the 2011 film Moneyball and found that key predictors of success are instead personal traits, especially:

In other words, the quality of your communication skills in dealing with the various audiences that surround you in your workplace are the best predictors of professional success.

Key Takeaway

key iconEmployers value employees who excel in communication skills rather than just technical skills because, by ensuring better workplace and client relations, they contribute directly to the viability of the organization.

Exercises

pen and paper icon1. Go to the Government of Canada’s Job Bank site and find your chosen profession (i.e., the job your program will lead to) via the Explore Careers by Essential Skills page. List the particular document types you will be responsible for communicating with in a professional capacity by reading closely through the Reading, Document Use, and Writing drop-downs. List the in-person responsibilities and communication technologies featured under the Oral Communication drop-down.

2. Go to the Conference Board of Canada’s Employability Skills Toolkit preview document and scroll down to p. 4 (numbered p. 8). Copy the communication skills listed in the middle column. Next, format a checklist document like that on the following page (numbered p. 40). Add to it some of the other personal qualities listed in the section above. For each skill or quality, write the best example you can think of demonstrating it in your current or past employment experience, academic program of study, or personal life.

REFERENCES

Conference Board of Canada. (n.d.a). Employability skills 2000+. Retrieved from http://www.conferenceboard.ca/Libraries/EDUC_PUBLIC/esp2000.sflb

Conference Board of Canada. (n.d.b). Employability skills toolkit for the self-managing learner (preview). Retrieved from http://www.conferenceboard.ca/Libraries/PUBLIC_PDFS/es_toolkit_preview.sflb

Cuddy, A. (2012). Your body language may shape who you are. TED Talks. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_shapes_who_you_are

Government of Canada. (2017). Explore careers by essential skills. (2017). Retrieved from https://www.jobbank.gc.ca/es_all-eng.do

National Association of Colleges and Employers. (2016, April 20). Employers identify four “must have” career readiness competencies for college graduates. Retrieved from https://www.naceweb.org/career-readiness/competencies/employers-identify-four-must-have-career-readiness-competencies-for-college-graduates/

Nisen, M. (2013, May 6). Moneyball at work: They’ve discovered what really makes a great employee. Business Insider. Retrieved from http://www.businessinsider.com/big-data-in-the-workplace-2013-5

Patel, V. (2017, August 7). Soft skills are the key to finding the most valuable employees. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/theyec/2017/08/07/soft-skills-are-the-key-to-finding-the-most-valuable-employees/2/#5604d5c616e7

Sena, P., & Zimm, M. (2017, September 30). Dear tech world, STEMism is hurting us. VentureBeat. Retrieved from https://venturebeat.com/2017/09/30/dear-tech-world-stemism-is-hurting-us/

1.1.3: A Diverse Skillset Featuring Communications Is Key to Survival

Learning Objectives

target icon4. Consider how communication skills will ensure your future professional success

The picture painted by this insight into what employers are looking for tells us plenty about what we must do about our skillset to have a fighting chance in the fierce competition for jobs: diversify it and keep our communication skills at a high level. Gone are the days when someone would do one or two jobs throughout their entire career. Rather, if the current job-hopping trend continues, “Canadians can expect to hold roughly 15 jobs in their careers” (Harris, 2014) and the future for many will involve gigging for several employers at once rather than for one (Mahdawi, 2017).

Futurists tell us that the “gig economy” will evolve alongside advances in AI (artificial intelligence) and automation that will phase out jobs of a routine and mechanical nature with machines. On the bright side, jobs that require advanced communication skills will still be safe for humans because AI and robotics can’t so easily imitate them in a way that meets human needs. Taxi drivers, for instance, are a threatened species now with Uber encroaching on their territory and will certainly go extinct when the promised driverless car revolution arrives in the next 10-15 years, along with truckers, bus drivers, and dozens of other auto- and transport-industry roles (Frey, 2016). They can resist, but the market will ultimately force them into retraining and finding work that is hopefully more future-proof—work that prioritizes the human element.

Indeed, current predictions from the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship at Ryerson University in Toronto are that 42% of Canadian jobs—especially low-paying ones—are at high risk of being affected by automation by the mid-2020s to 2030s. Some of those will be eliminated outright, but most will be redefined by requiring new skillsets that cannot be automated so easily. The 36% of jobs at low risk are those that require either advanced soft skills and emotional intelligence featured in roles such as managers, nurses, and teachers (Lamb, 2016), creativity, or advanced STEM skills in developing and servicing those technologies (Mahdawi, 2017; Riddell, 2017).

Since the future of work is a series of careers and juggling several gigs at once, communication skills are key to transitioning between them all. The gears of every career switch and new job added are greased by the soft skills that help convince your new employers and clients to hire you, or, if you strike out on your own, convince your new partners and employees to work with or for you. Career changes certainly aren’t the signs of catastrophe that they perhaps used to be; usually they mark moves up the pay scale so that you end your working life where you should: far beyond where you started in terms of both your role and pay bracket.

You simply cannot make those career and gig transitions without communication skills. In other words, you will be stuck on the first floor of entry-level gigging unless you have the soft skills to lift you up and shop you around. A nurse who graduates with a diploma and enters the workforce quilting together a patchwork of part-time gigs in hospitals, care homes, clinics, and schools, for instance, won’t still be exhausted by this juggling act if they have the soft skills to rise to decision-making positions in any one of those places. Though the job will be technologically assisted in ways that it never had been before with machines handling the menial dirty work, the fundamental human need for human interaction and decision-making will keep that nurse employed and upwardly mobile. The more advanced your communication skills develop as you find your way through the gig economy, the further up the pay scale you’ll climb.

Exercises

pen and paper icon1. Again using the Government of Canada’s Job Bank site, go to the Explore Careers by Outlook page and search for your chosen profession (i.e., the job your program will lead to). Using the sources listed below as well as other internet research, explain whether near- and long-term projections predict that your job will survive the automation and AI revolution or disruption in the workforce. If the role you’re training for will be redefined rather than eliminated, describe what new skillsets will “future proof” it.

2. Plot out a career path starting with your chosen profession and where it might take you. Consider that you can rise to supervisory or managerial positions within the profession you’re training for, but then transfer into related industries. Name those related industries and consider how they too will survive the automation/AI disruption.

REFERENCES

Frey, T. (2016, April 5). 128 Things that will disappear in the driverless car era. Retrieved from http://www.futuristspeaker.com/job-opportunities/128-things-that-will-disappear-in-the-driverless-car-era/

Government of Canada. (2017). Explore careers by outlook. (2017). Retrieved from https://www.jobbank.gc.ca/wage-outlook_search-eng.do?reportOption=outlook

Harris, P. (2014, December 4). How many jobs do Canadians hold in a lifetime? Workopolis. Retrieved from https://careers.workopolis.com/advice/how-many-jobs-do-canadians-hold-in-a-lifetime/

Lamb, C. (2016, June). The talented Mr. Robot: The impact of automation on Canada’s workforce. The Brook¬field Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship. Retrieved from http://brookfieldinstitute.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/TalentedMrRobot_BIIE.pdf

Mahdawi, A. (2017, June 26). What jobs will still be around in 20 years? Read this to prepare your future. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jun/26/jobs-future-automation-robots-skills-creative-health

Riddell, C. (2017, February 10). 10 high-paying jobs that will survive the robot invasion. Retrieved from https://careers.workopolis.com/advice/10-high-paying-jobs-will-survive-robot-invasion/

1.1.4: Communication Represents You and Your Employer

Learning Objectives

target icon5. Recognize that the quality of your communication represents the quality of your company

Imagine a situation where you are looking for a contractor for a custom job you need done on your car and you email several companies for a quote breaking down how much the job will cost. You narrow it down to two companies who have about the same price, and one gets back to you within 24 hours with a clear price breakdown in a PDF attached in an email that is friendly in tone and perfectly written. But the other took four days to respond with an email that looked like it was written by a sixth-grader with multiple grammar errors in each sentence and an attached quote that was just a scan of some nearly illegible chicken-scratch writing. Comparing the communication styles of the two companies, choosing who you’re going to go with for your custom job is a no-brainer.

Of course, the connection between the quality of their communication and the quality of the job they’ll do for you isn’t water-tight, but it’s a fairly good conclusion to jump to, one that customers will always make. The company representative who took the time to ensure their writing was clear and professional, even proofreading it to confirm that it was error-free, will probably take the time to ensure the job they do for you will be the same high-calibre work that you’re paying for. By the same token, we can assume that the one who didn’t bother to proofread their email at all will likewise do a quick, sloppy, and disappointing job that will require you to hound them to come back and do it right—a hassle you have no time for. We are all picky, judgmental consumers for obvious reasons: we are careful with our money and expect only the best work value for our dollar.

Good managers know that about their customers, so they hire and retain employees with the same scruples, which means they appreciate more than anyone that your writing represents you and your company. As tech CEO Kyle Wiens (2012) says, “Good grammar is credibility, especially on the internet” where your writing is “a projection of you in your physical absence.” Just as people judge flaws in your personal appearance such as a stain on your shirt or broccoli between your teeth, suggesting a sloppy lack of self-awareness and personal care, so they will judge you as a person if it’s obvious from your writing that “you can’t tell the difference between their, there, and they’re” (¶6).

As the marketing slogan goes, you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. If potential employers or clients (who are, essentially, your employers) see that you care enough about details to write a flawless email, they will jump to the conclusion that you will be as conscientious in your job and are thus a safe bet for hire. Again, it’s no guarantee of future success, but it increases your chances immeasurably. As Wiens says of the job of coding in the business of software programming, “details are everything. I hire people who care about those details” (¶12-13), but you could substitute “programmer” with any job title and it would be just as true.

Key Takeaway

key iconThe quality of your communication represents the quality of your work and the organization you work for, especially online when others have only your words to judge.

Exercise

pen and paper iconDescribe an incident when you were disappointed with the professionalism of a business you dealt with, either because of shoddy work, poor customer service, shabby online or in-person appearance, etc. Explain how the quality of their communication impacted that experience and what you would have done differently if you were in their position.

REFERENCES

Wiens, K. (2012, July 20). I won’t hire people who use poor grammar. Here’s why. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2012/07/i-wont-hire-people-who-use-poo/

 

1.2: Communicating in the Digital Age

Learning Objectives

target icon6. Distinguish between personal and professional uses of communications technology in ways that ensure career success and personal health

7. Use common, basic information technology tools to support communication.

Honestly, how many texts or instant messages do you send in a day? How many emails? Do you prefer communicating by text, instant message app (e.g., SnapChat), or generally online instead of face-to-face in person with businesses? If you’re an average millennial sending out and receiving more than the 2013 average of 128 texts per day (Burke, 2016), that’s a lot of reading and responding quickly in writing—so much more than people your age were doing 20 years ago. Even if just for social reasons, you are probably writing more than most people in your demographic have at any point in human history. This is mostly an advantage because it gives you a baseline comfort with the writing process, even if the quality of that writing probably isn’t quite where it should be if you were doing it for professional reasons.

Where being overly comfortable with texting becomes a disadvantage, however, is when it is used as a way of avoiding the in-person, face-to-face communication that is vital to the routine functioning of any organization. As uncomfortable as it may sometimes be, especially for teens in their “cringey awkward years,” developing conversational skills throughout that decade is hugely important by the time they enter a workforce mostly populated by older generations that grew up without smartphones, developed those advanced conversational skills the hard way by making mistakes and learning from them, and expect well-developed conversational skills of younger generations entering the workforce. Though plenty of business is done online these days, there really is no good substitute for face-to-face interaction.

According to Twilio’s 2016 consumer report on messaging, however, the most preferred channel for customer service among 18-24 year-olds (said 31% of respondents) is by text or instant messaging, followed closely by email (p. 8). Face-to-face interaction, however, is preferred by only 6% of respondents.

Chart showing preferred communication media by age group
Messaging Email Telephone Face to Face Other Web Live Chat Mail
18-24 years  31%  29%  23%  6%  4%  4%  2%
25-34 years  32%  32%  21%  4%  5%  5%  2%
35-44 years  31%  30%  26%  4%  4%  4%  1%
45 – 54 years  24%  31%  32%  5%  2%  5%  2%
55+ years  24%  33%  30%  8%  1%  2%  1%

Figure 1.2: Preferred customer service channel by age group (Twilio, 2016)

Customer service aside, face-to-face interactions are still vitally important to the functioning of any organization. In a study on the effectiveness of in-person requests for donations versus requests by email, for instance, the in-person approach was found to be 34 times more successful (Bohns, 2017). We instinctively value human over machine interaction in many (but not all) situations we find ourselves. Though some jobs like nurse or therapist simply cannot function without in-person interaction and would be the last to be automated (if ever), most others will involve a mix of written and face-to-face communication.

Our responsibility in handling that mix requires that we become competent in the use of a variety of devices that bring us a competitive advantage in our work (see Table 1 below). By working in the cloud with our smartphones and laptop, desktop, or tablet devices, for instance, we can collaborate with individuals or teams anywhere and anytime, as well as secure our work in ways we couldn’t when files were tied to specific devices. Through the years, new technology trends will offer up new advantages with new devices that we will have to master to stay competitive.

Those advantages are double-edged swords, however, so it is important that we manage the risks associated with them. With so much mobile technology enabling us to communicate and work on the go, from home, or anywhere in the world with a wi-fi connection, we are expected to be always available to work, to always be “on”—even after hours, on weekends, and on vacation—lest we lose a client to someone else who is available at those times. The early bird gets the worm. Add to that the psychological and physiological impacts of adults averaging 8.8 hours of screen time per day (Dunckley, 2014; Twenge, 2017; Nielsen, 2016, p. 4), and it’s no wonder that problematic technology use, including screen addiction, is a growing concern among both health and technology experts (Phillips, 2015). Beyond being an effective communicator and professional in general, just being an effective person—in the sense of being physically and mentally healthy—requires knowing when not to use technology.

But in the workplace, especially if it’s a traditional office environment, we must be savvy in knowing which technology to use rather than always reach for our smartphones. The modern office offers up a variety of tools that increase productivity and raise the bar on the quality and appearance of the work we do. You must be competent in the use of the latest in presentation technology, voice and video conferencing, company intranets, multifunctional printers, and so on. Even using the latest industry-wide software and social media apps ensures that your communication looks and functions on-point rather than in an antiquated way that makes you look like you stopped trying six years ago.

All such technology will change rapidly in our lifetimes, some will disappear completely, and new devices and software will emerge and either dominate or also disappear. So long as others are using the dominant technology for an advantage in your type of business, then it’s on you to use them also to avoid falling behind and getting stuck on obsolete technology that fewer and fewer people use. Depending on how successful you’re driven to be, you would be wise to even get ahead of the curve by adopting emerging technology early.

Key Takeaway

key iconUse an array of dominant communications technology to maintain a competitive advantage, and know when to put it all away in favour in-person communication.

Exercises

pen and paper icon1. Keep a daily journal recording the length of time you spend using various screen devices such as your smartphone, tablet, laptop, desktop, TV, etc. Also record the amount of time you use these for school-related activities, social networking activities, entertainment (which you can further break down into passive viewing, such as watching Netflix and YouTube videos, and interactive use such as gaming). What conclusions can you draw from quantifying your screen time? Are your habits consistent each day or throughout the week? Explain what benefit you derive from these activities and how they might help and hinder your professional development.

2. Record how many texts or instant messages you send and receive per day over the course of a week. Count how many you sent because you had good reason to do so by text (as opposed to phone call), such as to reply in the same channel you received a message or to send a message quietly so as to avoid disturbing others around you (e.g., in class or late at night). Identify how many messages you could have exchanged merely by calling the person up and having a quick back-and-forth or waiting to talk to them in person. What conclusions can you draw from quantifying your messaging habits?

3. Research what future technology might revolutionize the work you’re training to do. Bearing in mind the job description on the Government of Canada’s Job Bank Explore Careers by Essential Skills page, what tasks identified there can be automated? What will still be done by you because it involves the human element that can’t be automated?

REFERENCES

Bohns, V. K. (2017, April 11). A face-to-face request is 34 times more successful than an email. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2017/04/a-face-to-face-request-is-34-times-more-successful-than-an-email

Dunckley, V. L. (2014, February 27). Gray matters: Too much screen time damages the brain. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/mental-wealth/201402/gray-matters-too-much-screen-time-damages-the-brain

Nielsen. (2016). The Nielsen Total Audience Report. Retrieved from http://www.nielsen.com/content/dam/corporate/us/en/reports-downloads/2016-reports/total-audience-report-q1-2016.pdf

Phillips, B. (2015). Problematic technology use: The impact of capital enhancing activity. Association for Information Systems Electronic Library. Retrieved from http://aisel.aisnet.org/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1003&context=sais2015

Twenge, J. M. (2017, September). Have smartphones destroyed a generation? The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the-smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/

Twilio. (2016). Understand how consumers use messaging: Global mobile messaging consumer report 2016. Retrieved from https://assets.contentful.com/2fcg2lkzxw1t/5l4ljDXMvSKkqiU64akoOW/
cab0836a76d892bb4a654a4dbd16d4e6/Twilio_-_Messaging_Consumer_Survey_Report_FINAL.pdf

1.3: The Communication Process

Learning Objectives

target icon
8. Illustrate the communication process to explain the end goal of communication

Stripping away the myriad array of technology and channels we use to communicate, at its core the whole point of communication is to move an idea from your head into someone else’s so that they understand that idea the same way you do. If there is work to be done to ensure that the person receiving a message understands the sender’s intended meaning, the responsibility falls mainly on the sender. But the receiver is also responsible for confirming their understanding of that message, making communication a dynamic, cyclical process.

Breaking down the communication cycle into its component parts is helpful to understand your responsibilities as both a sender and receiver of communication, as well as to troubleshoot communication problems. First, let’s appreciate how amazing it is that you can form an idea as an incredibly complicated pattern of electrical impulses in your brain and plant that same pattern of impulses in someone else’s brain very easily. It may sound complicated, but you are wired to do this every second of the day.

Two silhouetted heads talking with identical brain patterns and labelling showing how a message is encoded by one, sent to and decoded and interpreted by the other, who then encodes a feedback message that is decoded and interpreted by the first speaker.

Figure 1.3: The Osgood-Schramm model of communication.
Sources: Kisspng, 2018Web Editor 4, 2017

According to the Osgood-Schramm model of communication (1954), you first encode an idea into a message when you want to communicate that idea with the outside world (or even just to yourself). If you choose to send that message in the channel of in-person speech (as opposed to other spoken, written, or visual channels, examples of which are listed in Table 1), you first form the word into the language in which you will be understood, then send electrical impulses to your lungs to push air past your vocal chords, send electrical impulses to vibrate your vocal chords to bend the air into a sound, shape those sound waves further with your jaw, tongue, and lips, send that sound on its way through the air till it reaches the eardrum of the receiver, which vibrates in a manner that tickles the cochlear cilia in their inner ear, which sends a patterned electrical impulse into their brain, which proceeds to decode that impulse into the same pattern of electrical impulses that constitute the same idea that you had in your brain.

Table 1.3: Examples of Communication Channels

Verbal Written Visual
In-person speech Email Drawings, paintings
Phone conversation Text, instant message Photos, graphic designs
Voice-over-internet protocol (VoIP) Report, article, essay Body language (e.g., eye contact, hand gestures)
Radio Letter Graphs
Podcast Memo Font types
Voicemail message Blog Semaphore
Intercom Tweet Architecture

To ensure that the message was decoded properly and understood, the receiver then encodes and sends an intentional or unintentional feedback message that the first sender receives and decodes; when the first sender understands that the receiver understood the first message, then the goal of the communication process has been achieved. If you stated, for instance, “I’m hungry” and the receiver of that message responded by saying, “Me too. Let’s get a taco,” you can be sure that they understood your intended meaning without them stating that they understood. From there, the message and feedback can continue to cycle around in a back-and-forth conversation that exchanges new ideas and offers opportunities for the receiver of those messages to ask for clarification if understanding isn’t achieved as intended.

But the receiver’s intentional or unintentional feedback message need not be in the same channel as the sender’s. If the receiver of the above “I’m hungry” message nodded and held up a cookie for you to take instead of saying anything at all, it would be clear from their intentional nonverbal expressions and actions that they correctly decoded and understood your meaning: that you’re not only hungry, but also that your hunger would be somewhat relieved by the cookie at hand. And if the receiver responded in no other way but with a rumble of their stomach, their unintentional feedback also confirmed understanding of the message.

As you can see, this whole process is easier done than said because you encode incredible masses of data to transmit to others all day long in multiple channels, often at once, and are likewise bombarded with a constant multi-channel stream of information in each of your five senses that you decode without being even consciously aware of this complex process. You just do it. Even when you merely talk to someone in person, you’re communicating not just the words you’re voicing, but also through your tone of voice, volume, speed, facial expressions, eye contact, posture, hand movements, style of dress, etc. All such channels convey information besides the words themselves, which, if they were extracted into a transcript of words on a page or screen, communicate relatively little. In professional situations, especially in important ones such as job interviews or meetings with clients where your success depends entirely on how well you communicate across the verbal and all the nonverbal channels, it’s extremely important that you be in complete control of all of them and present yourself as a detail-oriented pro—one they can trust to get the job done perfectly for their money.

Key Takeaway

key iconAs a cyclical exchange of messages, the goal of communication is to ensure that you’ve moved an idea in your head into someone else’s head so that they understand your idea as you understood it.

Exercises

pen and paper icon1. Without looking at the communication process model above, illustrate your own theory of how communication works and label the diagram’s parts. Compare it to the model above and discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each.
2. Table 1 above compiles only a partial list of channels for verbal, written, and visual channels. Extend that list as far as you can push it.

References

Kisspng. (2018, March 17). Clip art – Two people talking. Retrieved from https://www.kisspng.com/png-clip-art-two-people-talking-569998/

Schramm, W. L. (1954). The Process and Effects of Mass Communication. Champaign, IL: U of Illinois P.

Web Editor 4. (2017, Januray 12). A pattern of brain activity may link stress to heart attacks. Daily Messenger. Retrieved from https://dailymessenger.com.pk/2017/01/12/a-pattern-of-brain-activity-may-link-stress-to-heart-attacks/

 

1.4: Troubleshooting Miscommunication

Learning Objectives

target icon9. Troubleshoot communication errors by breaking down the communication process into its component parts

Now with a basic overview of the communication process under our belts, troubleshooting miscommunication becomes a matter of locating where in the cyclical exchange of messages lies the problem: with the sender and the message they put together, the receiver and their feedback message, or the channel in the context of the environment between them. Identifying the culprit can help avoid one of the most costly errors in any business. According to Susan Washburn, communication problems can lead to:

Let’s examine some of these in the real and imaged scenarios below.
If the receiver of the above “I’m hungry” message responded with something like “Yes, and I’m Romania,” to the sender the receiver would appear for a moment to have misunderstood the message as it was intended, though indeed the receiver did but chose to respond in a way that plays with the unintended possible misinterpretation of “hungry” as the homophone (a word that sounds the same as another completely different word) “Hungary,” a European country next to Romania. Part of the beauty and fun of language is that words—especially spoken ones—can have multiple meanings, which means that senders must be careful to anticipate potential misinterpretations of their messages due to carelessness towards ambiguities. In any case, once the joke is understood, the first sender can rest assured that the feedback message still confirms that the first message was understood, which is the end goal of communication.

Most jokes toy with communication breakdowns in harmless ways, but when breakdowns happen unintentionally in professional situations where opportunities, money, and reputations are on the line, their serious costs make them no laughing matter. Take, for instance, the misplaced comma that cost Rogers Communications $1 million in a contract dispute over New Brunswick telephone poles (Austen, 2006) or the absence of an Oxford comma that cost Oakhurst Dairy $10 million in a Maine labour dispute (Associated Press, 2017). In both cases, everyone involved would have preferred to continue with business as usual rather than sink time and resources into protracted legal and labour disputes all stemming from a mere misplaced or missing comma. To avoid costly miscommunication in any business or organization, senders and receivers must be diligent in fulfilling their communication responsibilities and be wary of potential misunderstandings throughout the communication cycle outlined above.

1.4.1: Sender-related Miscommunication

The responsibility of the sender of a message is to make it as easy as possible to understand the intended meaning. If work must be done to get your point across, it is on you as the sender to do all you can to make that happen. (The receiver also has their responsibilities that we’ll examine below, but listening and reading are not necessarily as labour-intensive as composing a message in either speech or writing.) This is why grammar, punctuation, and even document design in written materials, as well as excellent conversational and presentation skills, are so important: sender errors in these aspects of communication lead to readers’ and audiences’ confusion and frustration, which get in the way of their understanding the meaning you intended. If senders of messages fail to anticipate their audience’s needs and miss the target of writing or saying the right thing in the right way to get their messages across, they bear the responsibility for miscommunication and need to pay close attention to the lessons throughout this textbook to help them get back on target.

If the sender has any doubt that their message is being understood, it’s also on them to check in to make sure. If you are giving a presentation, for instance, you can employ several techniques to help ensure that your audience stays with you:

1.4.2: Channel-related Miscommunication

Errors can also be blamed on the medium of the message such as the technology and the environment—some of which can slide back to choices the sender makes, but others are out of anyone’s control. If you need to work out the terms of a sale with a supplier a few towns over before you draw up the invoice and time is of the essence, sending an email and expecting a quick response would be foolish when you (a) have no idea if anyone’s there to write back right away, and (b) would potentially need to go back and forth over the terms; this exchange could potentially take days, but you only have an hour. The smart move is instead to phone the supplier so that you can have a quick back-and-forth. If you need to, you could also text them to say that you’re calling to hammer out the details before writing it up. Of course, you wouldn’t call using a cellphone from inside a parking garage because blame for problems with the reception (or interference) would slide back on you for not positioning yourself appropriately given the available environments. If phone lines and the internet are down due to equipment malfunction (despite paying your bills and buying trustworthy equipment), however rare that might be, the problem is obviously out of your hands and in the environment. Otherwise, it’s entirely up to you to use the right channels the correct way in the environments best suited to clear communication to get the job done.

1.4.3: Receiver-related Miscommunication

The responsibility of the receiver of a message is to be able to actively read or hear not only the message itself, but also to understand the nuances of that message in context. Say you were a relatively recent hire at a company and were in line for a promotion for the excellent work you’ve been doing lately, it’s 11:45am, you just crossed paths with your manager in the hallway, and she’s the one who said “I’m hungry” (to use our example from above). That statement is the primary message, which simply describes how the speaker feels. But if she says it in a manner that, with nonverbals (or secondary messages) such as eyebrows raised signalling interest in your response and a flick of the head towards the exit, suggests an invitation to join her for lunch, you would be foolish not to put all of these contextual cues together and see this as a professional opportunity worth pursuing. If you responded with “Enjoy your lunch!” your manager would probably question your social intelligence and whether you would be able to capitalize on opportunities with clients when cues lined up for business opportunities that would benefit your company. But if you replied, “I’m starving, too. May I join you for lunch? I know a great place around the corner,” you would be correctly interpreting auxiliary messages such as your manager’s intention to assess your professionalism outside of the traditional office environment.

Say you arrive at the lunch spot with your manager and sit down to eat, but it’s too noisy to hear each other well; you would be equally foolish to use this environmental problem as an excuse not to talk and instead just browse your social media accounts on your phone (perhaps your usual lunchtime routine when eating solo) in front of her. You could accommodate her need to hear you by raising your voice, but the image of you shouting at your manager also sends all the wrong messages. Rather, if you cite the competing noise as a reason to move to a quieter spot where you can converse with her in a way that displays the polish of your manners and ultimately positions you nicely for the promotion, she would understand that you have the social intelligence to control the environmental conditions in ways that prioritize effective communication.

Of course, so much more can go wrong with the receiver. In general, the receiver may lack the knowledge to understand your message; if this is because you failed to accommodate their situation—say you used formal language and big, fancy words but they don’t understand because they are EAL (English as an additional language)—then the blame shifts back to you because you can do something about it. You could instead use more plain, easy-to-understand language. If your audience is a co-worker who should know what you’re talking about when you use the jargon of your profession, but they don’t because they’re in the wrong position and in over their head, the problem is with the receiver (and perhaps the hiring process).

Another receiver problem may have to do with attitude. If a student, for instance, believes that they don’t really need to take a class in Communications because they’ve been speaking English for 19 years, think their high school English classes were a complete joke, and figure they’ll do just fine working out how to communicate in the workplace on their own, then the problem with this receiver is that overconfidence prevents them from keeping the open mind necessary to learn and take direction. Carried into the workplace, such arrogance would prevent them from actively listening to customers and managers, and they would most likely fail until they develop necessary active listening skills (see below). Employers like employees who can solve problems on their own, but not those who are unable to take direction.

The picture emerging here, then, is one where many factors must work in concert to achieve communication of intended meaning. The responsibility of reaching the goal of understanding in the communication process requires the full cooperation of both the sender and receiver of a message to make the right choices and avoid all the perils—personal and situational—that lead to costly miscommunication.

Key Takeaway

key iconBeing an effective professional involves knowing how to avoid miscommunication by upholding one’s responsibilities in the communication process towards the goal of ensuring proper understanding.

Exercise

pen and paper iconDescribe a major miscommunication that you were involved in lately and its consequences. Was the problem with the sender, channel, environment, receiver, or a combination of these? Explain what you did about it and what you would do (or advise someone else to do) to avoid the problem in the future.

References

Associated Press. (2017, March 21). Lack of comma, sense, ignites debate after $10m US court ruling. CBC News | Business. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/news/business/comma-lawsuit-dairy-truckers-1.4034234

Austen, I. (2006, October 25). The comma that costs 1 million dollars (Canadian). The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/25/business/worldbusiness/25comma.html

Washburn, S. (2008, February). The miscommunication gap. ESI Horizons, 9(2). Retrieved from http://www.esi-intl.com/public/Library/html/200802HorizonsArticle1.asp?UnityID=8522516.1290

 

1.5: Listening Effectively

Learning Objectives

target icon10. Reframe information gained from spoken messages in ways that show accurate analysis and comprehension

If most communication these days is text-based, why is it still important to be an effective listener? Can’t we just wait till everyone who’s grown up avoiding in-person contact in favour of filtering all social interaction through their smartphones dominate the workforce so that conversation can be done away with at last?

No. Perhaps the first rule in business is to know your customer. If you don’t know what they want or need, you can’t successfully supply that demand and no one’s going to buy what you have to sell. If you don’t actively listen to what your customers or managers say they want, or fail to piece together what they don’t know they want from their description of a problem they need solved, then you may just find yourself always passed over for advancement. Business “intel” gleaned from conversation is the lifeblood of any business, as is the daily functioning of anyone working within one.

A receiver’s responsibilities in the communication process will be to use their senses of hearing, vision, and even touch, taste, and smell to understand messages in whatever channels target those senses. In the case of routine in-person communication, active listening and reading nonverbal social cues are vitally important to understanding messages, including subtext—that is, significant messages that are not explicitly stated but must be inferred from context and nonverbals. In the above case of the manager saying she’s hungry, for instance, she did not say “Join me for lunch so I can base my decision about whether to promote you on your social graces, emotional intelligence, and conversational ability.” Rather, plenty of reading between the lines was required of the receiver to figure out that:

  1. This is an invitation to lunch that ought to accepted
  2. Given the context, the invitation suggests that the manager is considering the receiver for the promotion (otherwise she would avoid the receiver altogether)
  3. This opportunity should be treated like an informal job interview

With so much of the communication process’s success riding on the responsibility of the receiver to understand both explicit and implicit messages, effective, active listening skills are keys to success in any business.

1.5.1: Receiver Errors

Unfortunately, plenty can go wrong on the receiver’s end in listening effectively and making the right inferences. We’ve already looked at the possibility that they may just lack knowledge about both the job and the broader context to understand fully the content of workplace messages and their underlying meanings. They may be:

Many students struggle with this. Some have difficulty being patient enough to listen and would rather speak, otherwise known as grandstanding. In all such cases, the problem is passive listening—when you merely hear noises and barely register the meaning of the message because you have preoccupying internal agenda that is more compelling. Once again, however, communication requires that you do your fair share to ensure that the sender’s meaning is understood.

1.5.2: Be an Active Listener

Fortunately, everyone can practice being a more effective listener by making themselves aware of their own listening habits and actively seeking to improve them. Doing so certainly takes work, especially if your listening habits have been largely passive for most of your life and your attention span is short from a steady diet of small units of media content such as memes. If your problem is that your mind wanders, you must train yourself to focus on the message at hand rather than consume other media in a failed effort to multitask or get distracted by the internal monologue that tries to whisk you away from the present. Work on just being present. Take the earbuds out and keep your cellphone in your pocket when someone is talking, including your college instructors. (When your instructors see you staring intently in the direction of your crotch under your desk and your hands are twitching a little down there, they’re not stupid; they know you’re fiddling with your phone.) Would you tolerate someone blatantly ignoring you to focus on their phone if you were speaking right in front of them? It’s just plain rude and doing this yourself could, in professional situations, get you blacklisted by managers, coworkers, and customers, resulting in missed opportunities.

Rather, maintain strong eye contact with the speaker to show active interest. Resist the social anxiety-driven urge to avert your eyes as soon as pupil-to-pupil contact lasting more than a second or two makes the human connection too real for comfort. Challenge that. Eye contact builds trust, so don’t signal to the speaker that you have something to hide (such as a lack of confidence in yourself) by darting your eyes away. But don’t fake attention either by maintaining eye contact while your mind is a million miles away; good communicators can tell from your nonverbals (like nodding in agreement at the wrong things) when the lights are on but no one’s home.

Perhaps the best strategy for active listening is to devote your brain’s full processing power to the message at hand. One way you can do this is to paraphrase the message (i.e., re-state it in your own words) then ask the speaker if you understood it correctly. Translating the message into words that resonate more with you than what the speaker used helps you remember it because you’ve personally invested yourself in it. You can find a way to make it your own without necessarily agreeing with it (but that helps, too). By doing this, you signal to the speaker that you’ve completed the whole goal of communication: to understand the sender’s meaning as they intended it.

Another processing strategy is to think of questions you can ask for clarification. No matter how thorough a speaker covers a topic, you can probably find gaps to ask about for clarification. “I understand that you’re saying A, B, and C, but what happens to those in situations X, Y, and Z?” Identifying gaps requires keen interest and strong processing power of your brain. But it’s the kind of processing that sends the auxiliary message that you are interested in what the speaker says, which may lead to a deeper conversation and connection—the holy grail of networking.

Figuring out when to talk and when to listen also requires social skills. If you like to grandstand and you get impatient when someone else is talking, you must practice exercising some impulse control. Take turns! By hearing them out and reserving judgment, you can really learn something. If you’re dealing with someone like that—one who monologues and doesn’t know when to pass the ball—you must be a good reader of nonverbal cues to capitalize on the right moment to jump in with the right thing to say. On the other end of the spectrum, it takes skill to know how to draw people who communicate mostly in silence out of their shell if it means that you will mutually benefit from it on a business or personal level.

If you spent too much of your youth lost in screen time rather than interacting in person with friends, however, there’s no time like now and the rest of your life to begin favouring human contact over technology. Of course, the technology will always be there and you’ll be great at using it when the situation calls for it. But your professional and personal well-being depends on knowing how and when to do without it and to get back to what really matters: being human. From there, professional success follows from keeping the communication channels open to solve problems collaboratively one conversation at a time.

Key Takeaway

key iconThe receiver of a message plays a significant role in ensuring that the goal of understanding is achieved, which means active listening in the case of spoken messages.

Exercises

pen and paper icon1. Pair up with a classmate and do a role-play exercise where one of you tries to explain how to do something while the other multitasks and interrupts. Quiz the multitasker to see if they remember specific steps in the procedure described. Then try it again while the listener practices active listening. How do the two communication experiences compare? Discuss your findings.
2. In a half-hour period of conversation with friends, see if you can count how many times you are interrupted, but don’t tell them ahead of time that you’re counting for this. Share and compare with your classmates.
3. Take Psychology Today’s 33-question (15 min.) Listening Skills Test. Grab a screenshot of your results and, below it and the heading “Barriers to Effective Listening,” write five barriers that particularly annoy you or prevent you from being an active listener—both that you notice in other people and in yourself. Below that and the heading “Effective Listening Strategies,” list five strategies, one for each of the barriers listed above, each identifying a strategy for overcoming the barrier.

References

Hall, A. (2012, July 14). To succeed as an entrepreneur, know your customer. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/alanhall/2012/06/14/to-succeed-as-an-entrepreneur-know-your-customer/

Listening Skills Test. (n.d.). Psychology Today. Retrieved on October 3, 2017, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/tests/relationships/listening-skills-test

Sanbonmatsu, D. M., Strayer, D.L., Medeiros-Ward, N., Watson, J.M. (2013). Who multi-tasks and why? Multi-tasking ability, perceived multi-tasking ability, impulsivity, and sensation seeking. PLoS ONE 8(1): e54402. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0054402

 

 

Unit 2: The Writing Process

II

Fanshawe

 

Common COMM Course Learning Outcomes

This unit supports the following course learning outcomes (COMM 3048, COMM 3073, COMM 3074, COMM 3075, COMM 3077, COMM 3080, COMM 3082):

COMM 3020:

 

Chapter 2: The Writing Process I: Preparing

Jordan Smith

Chapter Learning Objectives

  1. Distinguish between general and specific purposes for writing.
  2. Analyze primary and secondary audiences using common profiling techniques
  3. Identify techniques for adjusting writing style according to audience size, position relative to you, knowledge of your topic, and demographic.
  4. Distinguish between communication channels to determine which is most appropriate for particular situations.
  5. Plan, write, revise, and edit short documents and messages that are organized, complete, and tailored to specific audiences.
  6. Use common, basic information technology tools to support communication.

Like communication in general, good writing comes from following a process. Between an author hatching an idea and the audience reading and understanding that idea, the writing process enables the author to craft messages in a time-efficient manner that ultimately meets the needs of the audience. Without following a four-stage process from (1) preparing to (2) information gathering, to (3) drafting, to (4) editing through to sending the message, an author can waste plenty of their own time writing what doesn’t need to be written and wasting the reader’s time by confusing them with a message that doesn’t meet their needs. The next four chapters deal with each of these four writing stages, dividing them into several steps that, when followed as a matter of habit, can save you time by helping you write no more or less than you need to in achieving your professional communication goals.

1 Preparing, 2 Researching, 3 Drafting, 4 Editing              1 Preparing, 1.1 Purpose, 1.2 Audience, 1.3 Channel

Figure 2: The four-stage writing process and Stage 1 breakdown

2.1: Knowing Your Purpose for Writing

Learning Objectives

target icon1. Distinguish between general and specific purposes for writing.

5. Plan, write, revise, and edit short documents and messages that are organized, complete, and tailored to specific audiences.

Rarely does anyone write for professional reasons just for fun. Whether you’re dashing off a quick email, filling out a work order, or a composing a large market research report, there’s a good reason for doing it—related, even if in a roundabout way, to getting paid for contributing to the profitability of an organization. Knowing your reason for writing is essential to staying on track in a writing process that, if followed from beginning to end, will save you time and effort by helping you write no more or less than you have to. The next four chapters will break down this writing process into four stages—preparing, researching, composing, and editing—each with a few sub-stages. But the whole process starts with knowing your purpose, which will guide you towards writing an effective message in a document appropriate for the audience and occasion.

Getting back to the communication process examined in the previous chapter, we can say that all communication, including writing documents, involves both a general and a specific purpose regarding the feedback message. The general purpose is the end-goal of communication such as aiming to inform, persuade, motivate, entertain, or a combination of these and other effects. The hope is that a sender’s message will come back as a feedback message proving that the receiver correctly understood the information, was persuaded to support an idea, was motivated to follow a desired action, was amused, etc. With the end goal in mind, the effective writer reverse-engineers the message to achieve the desired effect.

The most common general purpose of workplace messages is to inform. Most emails, memos, and reports cover a topic thoroughly and precisely with the journalistic 5 Ws + H subtopics

How much weight you give each subtopic (or any weight at all) depends on the situation. Sometimes the why isn’t important and other times a rationale is crucial to an information message that also requires persuasion. Take, for instance, an email by a construction contractor responding to a customer inquiry about whether they can do a bathroom renovation. A thorough response would include details such as what exactly would need to be done and how (a labour itemization as part of the price estimate), how many workers would be assigned to the job (the who), and how long it would take (the when). Details such as the where and why are already given (e.g., the bathroom is being renovated because it is 25 years out of style and the baseboards are mouldy) although the contractor may provide an estimate that includes explanations detailing why the price might fluctuate given unknown factors such as delayed materials shipments and midway design changes by the client.

The specific purpose always depends on the situation at hand. If the general purpose of the above estimate is to inform, the specific purpose is to provide a written record of the probable price so that the customer can compare estimates from other companies and decide which offers the best value. Specific purposes may involve ulterior motives—hence secondary or tertiary purposes besides the primary general purpose. The contractor may, for instance, use the opportunity to provide a brochure illustrating attractive-looking past reno jobs to give the customer a sense of the quality of work the contractor does and inspire them with options ahead of their design consultation. Such marketing falls under secondary general purposes related to credibility and persuasion

Of course, any communicator must ensure that their purpose is realistic, which again affects the credibility of the message. If, for instance, the contractor priced themselves out of a job by providing a $40,000 bathroom reno estimate to a lower- or middle-income customer, the goal of winning the contract would fail for the contractor having misjudged the customer’s price range. All customers and employers seek the greatest value—preferably higher quality at lower cost. If professionals fail to strike a realistic balance by offering low quality at unreasonably high cost or “over-promise and under-deliver” with a too-good-to-be-true offer of extremely high quality at very low cost (unless this is a “loss-leader” marketing strategy for more regularly priced work to follow), they will be seen as lacking credibility either way.

Key Takeaways

key iconKnowing your general and specific purposes for writing at the outset of the writing process helps keep you on track with topic selection.

Exercises

pen and paper iconSelect a letter you’ve recently received in the mail (or one your roommate, friend, or family member has received) from a company or organization, ideally a promotional or campaign letter rather than one too specific to your or the recipient’s situation, and describe both its general and specific purposes. If its general purpose included informing (recall that a document can have more than one general purpose), identify the subtopics (5 W’s + H).

 

2.2: Analyzing your Audience

Learning Objectives

target icon2. Analyze primary and secondary audiences using common profiling techniques

3. Identify techniques for adjusting writing style according to audience size, position relative to you, knowledge of your topic, and demographic.

5. Plan, write, revise, and edit short documents and messages that are organized, complete, and tailored to specific audiences.

Just as the first commandment in any business is “Know thy customer,” so the first in communication is “Know thy audience.” And just as any business thrives or dies by how well it supplies a customer demand, any act of communication’s success depends entirely on how well the sender tailored it to meet the needs and expectations of the audience. Sometimes that audience is a person or group you know; sometimes it’s a person or group you don’t, but you always adjust your message content and style to what you know or can guess at about them. You wouldn’t speak to a customer approaching you for the first time the same way you would a co-worker buddy, nor would you speak to your manager the same way you would speak to either of the others (depending on what type of manager you have). In each case, you adjust the level of detail in your content, as well as your tone, word choices (diction), grammar, and overall style (formal or casual) based on how you’ve profiled your audience.

Profiling or analyzing your audience takes skill and consideration. When you sit down to write, ask yourself the following questions:

The following subsections delve further into these considerations to help you answer the above questions in specific situations.

2.2.1: Writing for Audiences of Various Sizes

Writing to one person is a relatively straightforward task, but you must adjust your writing style to accommodate a larger audience. When emailing one person, for instance, you can address them by name in the opening salutation and continue to use the second person singular you throughout. When addressing two or three, say for a project that involves 2-3 partners (including you, making 3-4 altogether), you would likewise address them each by name, either in alphabetical order or in order of who is primarily involved and then descending in size of contribution. Past four, however, you may start to use collective salutations such as “Hello, team,” or “Hi, all.” Luckily, the second-person plural pronoun you is the same as the singular. For small audience such as this, your style can generally follow the conversational rapport you’ve developed with them, whether that be formal or informal, humourless or humorous, literal or expressive, and so on.

The larger the group, however, the more general and accessible your language has to be. When writing for an indeterminately large group such as the consumer public, say in a blog on your company’s website, your language must be as plain and accessible as possible. In Canada, the public includes readers who will appreciate that you use simple words rather than big, fancy equivalents because English may be their second or third language. Indeed, the Government of Canada has published a handy guide for how to write accessibly in plain language:

Use Familiar language, known as expressions and illustrations

Tips:

  • Choose familiar, everyday words and expressions (e.g., “quite” rather than “relatively”)
  • Define specialized words and difficult concepts, illustrate them with examples and provide a glossary when it is necessary to use several such words/concepts
  • Choose concrete rather than abstract words and give explicit information (e.g., “car crash” rather than “unfortunate accident”)
  • Avoid jargon and bureaucratic expressions
  • Use acronyms with care and only after having spelled them out
  • Choose one term to describe something important and stick to it; using various terms to describe the same thing can confuse the reader
  • Add tables, graphs, illustrations and simple visual symbols to promote understanding

Examples:

Instead of: Use:
23-01-2003 January 23, 2003
We can reasonably speculate that young adults want to hear about terrorism and security issues. Young adults are likely to want to hear about terrorism and security.
Tax payers are encouraged to e-file their tax returns. Did you know that you can file your tax returns on the internet?

Source: Communication Canada (2003, p. 16)

To reinforce these lessons on plain language, you can examine US Government resources on the topic such as the “Principles of Plain Language” PowerPoint on their Tools page (PLAIN, 2011) and do a selection of plain language exercises (PLAIN, n.d.).

Likewise, your writing to large audiences cannot reveal any bias in terms of gender, ethnicity, age, ability, or orientation lest you offend members of that group. Because using masculine singular pronouns like he, his, and him would exclude the female half of your audience, for instance, you would use the gender-neutral plural pronouns they, their, and them instead. (Using those plural pronouns for singular situations is also becoming acceptable, although you might want to avoid doing that if writing to someone you know is a grammar stickler unless you discover that they are fine with the practice.) When identifying people by their role, use non-gender-exclusive equivalents. See Queen’s University’s (2014) Inclusive Language Guidelines page for more on avoiding bias in your writing.

The larger the group, the more careful you must be with using unique English idioms as well. Idioms are quirky or funny expressions we use to make a point. If you wanted to reassure a customer who recently immigrated from North Africa, for instance, before explaining an automotive maintenance procedure unique to Canadian winter weather and said, “Hey, don’t worry, it’ll be a piece of cake,” they may be wondering what eating cake has to do with switching to winter tires. Likewise, if you said instead that it’ll be “a walk in the park,” they would be confused about why they need to walk through a park to get their radials switched. Calling it a “cakewalk” wouldn’t help much, either. These expressions would be perfectly understood by anyone who has been conversing in English for years because they would have heard it many times before and used it themselves. In the case of using them around EAL (English as an additional language) speakers, however, you would be better off using the one word that these idioms translate as: easy. Again, the whole goal of communication is to be understood, so if you use idioms with people who haven’t yet learned them, you will fail to reach that goal. See www.theidioms.com for a wide selection of English idioms and their meanings.

References

Communication Canada. (2003, May). Successful communication tool kit: Literary and you. Government of Canada Publications. Retrieved from http://publications.gc.ca/collections/Collection/PF4-16-2003E.pdf

PLAIN. (n.d.). Principles of plain language: Exercise packet. The Plain Language Action and Information Network. Retrieved from http://www.plainlanguage.gov/resources/for_trainers/plainfiles/exercises_all_writing_classes.pdf

PLAIN. (2011, March 27). Tools from PLAIN. The Plain Language Action and Information Network. Retrieved from http://www.plainlanguage.gov/resources/for_trainers/PLAIN.cfm

Queen’s University. (2014, April 9). Inclusive language guidelines. Style Guide. Retrieved from http://queensu.ca/styleguide/inclusivelanguage

2.2.2: Considering Secondary Audiences

Always consider secondary or even tertiary audiences for any message you send because, besides secondary audiences you may invite, you have little-to-no control over what tertiary audiences see your message unless confidentiality can be somehow guaranteed. Your emails can be forwarded, your text or voicemail messages shown or played, and even what you say can simply be reported to tertiary audiences and be believed (depending on the credibility of the reporter). Youth who are more comfortable writing electronically than speaking in person often make the mistake of assuming privacy when sending messages and get burned when those messages fall into the wrong hands—sometimes with surprising legal consequences related to bullying or worse. Before sending that email or text, or leaving that voicemail in professional situations, however, always consider how it would go over with your manager, your family, or a jury.

You may think that you have a right to privacy in communication, and you do to some extent, but employers also have certain rights to monitor their employees and ensure company property (including cyber property) isn’t being misused (Lublin, 2012, ¶14). If a disgruntled employee, for instance, uses their company email account in communication with a rival company to prove that they are part of a target company, then uses that email account to sell trade secrets before leaving for another job, the employer has a right to read those emails and take measures to protect against such corporate espionage. Because company emails can be stored on the organization’s servers, always assume that any email you send using a company account can be retrieved and read by tertiary audiences. If you are at all concerned that an email might hurt you if it fell into the wrong hands, arrange to talk to the primary audience in a channel that won’t be so easily monitored.

Even in more harmless and routine information sharing, you must adjust your message for any known or unknown secondary audiences. If you CC (carbon copy) your manager or other interested stakeholders in any email, for instance, you will be more careful than you otherwise would be to ensure that your message is completely free of any language or content that would make you or them look bad. Your style will be a little more formal and you will proofread more thoroughly to avoid writing errors that make you appear uneducated and sloppy, which no employer wants to pay for.

Even if you don’t yourself designate CC recipients, as explained above, someone else could. Say you’re in a back-and-forth email thread with a co-worker as you collaborate on a project. You’re making good progress at first, but your partner begins slacking off and your emails become progressively impatient, even angry and threatening. Frustrated, you enlist another collaborator who, towards the end of the thread as drafts are exchanged with finishing touches, CC’s your manager to show that the work is completed. Seeing the lack of professionalism in your exchanges with the previous collaborator when trying to assess what discipline may be necessary, your manager now sees that you must share some of the blame for your poor communication choices.

Of course, netiquette requires that you be careful with whom you CC on messages. Often managers will be interested in what’s going on with certain projects and would like to be CC’d to be kept in the loop. In such cases, clarify with them to what extent they want to see the progress; CC’ing them on every little exchange will just waste their time and annoy them by flooding their inbox. Involving them only when important milestones are met, however, will be much appreciated.

Reference

Lublin, D. (2012, November 8). Do employers have a right to spy on workers? The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from https://beta.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/careers/career-advice/experts/do-employers-have-a-right-to-spy-on-workers/article5104037/?ref=http://www.theglobeandmail.com&

2.2.3: Considering Your Relationship to the Audience and Their Position

Just as you might wear your best clothes for an important occasion like a job interview or wedding, you must respectfully elevate the formality of your language depending the perceived importance of the person you’re communicating with. As said above, if you’re writing to your manager about something very important, something that will be read closely perhaps by many people, you would be more careful to write in a professional style and fully proofread your email than you would if you were writing a co-worker who doesn’t really care about the odd spelling mistake. Employers or clients are judgmental and will pigeonhole you as sloppy and careless about details if you send them a poorly written email, whereas all employers want to see that their employees are detail-oriented for the money they’re paying them, especially if the employees’ writing is representing the company to clients and other stakeholders (Wiens, 2012). Ultimately, you don’t want to embarrass yourself and lose out on professional opportunities with glaring writing mistakes that more thorough proofreading could have caught.

Formality in writing requires correct grammar and punctuation, whereas more casual writing takes liberties such as using sentence fragments and contractions. If writing to a friendly co-worker a quick information-sharing email, for instance, you might say, “Just a quick heads-up: don’t forget to submit your travel expenses to Brenda in HR by 4:30 today.” The first clause is a noun-phrase fragment rather than an independent clause with a subject (“I …”) and predicate (“… am sending you …”), it contains colloquialisms such as “heads-up” (meaning “forewarning” or “reminder”), the contraction “don’t” shortens “do not,” and the initials “HR” are shorthand for “the Human Resources department.” Of course, your audience knows how to interpret all of this and will appreciate the conciseness of the message because it shaves seconds off the reading process, respecting their time. If you were the administrative assistant to an important manager, however, you may want to be more formal, courteous, correct, and yet still concise by saying “Please submit your travel expenses to Brenda in HR by 4:30pm today.” Formality conveys respect.

Formality in writing also involves carefully selecting words that are slightly fancier than the colloquial (“informal”) words you would normally use in everyday situations. Word choice is called “diction” and, if it requires that you use a thesaurus to find words with meanings equivalent to the simpler words that come to mind (called “synonyms”), then always use a dictionary to ensure that the synonym is the correct choice in the context you’re using it. When writing a relatively non-judgmental co-worker whom you’ve become good friends with, you tend to write more casually with plain words that are possibly even slightly slangy for comic effect. When writing someone higher up in your organization’s hierarchy, however, you would probably choose slightly fancier words along the formality spectrum, yet not so fancy as to come off as pretentious and trying to make them feel stupid by forcing them to look them up in the dictionary. Such obfuscation wouldn’t be reader-friendly and accomplish the basic communication goal of being understood, as you might realize right now if you don’t know what the word obfuscation means (it means the act of intentionally making your meaning unclear to confuse your audience).

On most occasions, especially with customers, you want instead to strike a balance with a semi-formal style somewhere between overly formal and too casual. Your writing should read much like you talk in conversation, although it must be grammatically correct.

Table 2.2.3: Word Choices along the Formality Spectrum

Informal / Slang Semi-formal / Common Formal / Fancy
kick off begin / start commence
cut off end terminate
put off delay postpone
awesome / dope good positive
crappy / shoddy bad negative
flaunt show demonstrate
find out discover ascertain
go up rise increase
fess up / come clean admit confess
 mull over  consider  contemplate
 bad-mouth / put down  insult / belittle  denigrate
 plus  also  moreover
 jones for  need  require
 put up with  endure / suffer  tolerate
 leave out / skip  omit  exclude
 give the go-ahead / greenlight  permit  authorize
 loaded / well-heeled  wealthy / rich  affluent / monied
 deal with  handle  manage
 pronto / a.s.a.p.  now  immediately
 muddy  confuse  obfuscate

2.2.4: Considering Your Audience’s Level of Knowledge

A key preparatory step whenever sharing information is to gauge approximately how much your audience knows about the topic you’re writing about so that you provide no more and no less information than is necessary. This benefits both them and you. A safe assumption with everyone you deal with in professional situations is that they’re busy and don’t have time to read any more than they need to. If you over explain a topic in an email, you make the double mistake of wasting the reader’s time and insulting them by presuming their ignorance. Besides getting on their bad side, this becomes a triple mistake considering the time you wasted in writing more than you had to.

On the other end of that spectrum, writing too little because you’ve incorrectly assumed that your audience knows what you know also inconveniences them and maybe puts you on their blacklist. A lack of necessary information in a message ultimately leads to either errors due to confusion or wasted time from having to respond with requests for clarification or, worse, damage control because your reader acted on misunderstandings resulting from your miscommunication; either way, the goal of communication (for the receiver to understand information as it was understood by the sender) isn’t met by the message. If you email an older client describing a procedure for how to connect with you by video conference using a favourite online application but omit mention of your correspondent needing to download software from the application website prior to the conference call—a detail you just assumed everyone knows about web conferencing software as common as Skype—you not only cause costly delays, but you also make the client feel stupid and reluctant to deal with you for not being tech-savvy enough.

Appropriately gauging your audience’s level of knowledge extends to the language you use. Every profession has its jargon, which is the specialized vocabulary, shorthand code words, and slang that you use amongst colleagues with the same discipline-specific education as you. Jargon saves time by making elaborate descriptions unnecessary, so it’s useful among people who speak the same language. But some professionals err by using jargon with customers and even employers who don’t know the lingo. At worst, this puts those audiences in the uncomfortable position of feeling ignorant of something perhaps they should know about, leading to confusion; at best it leads to opportunities for educating those audiences so they can use the same jargon with you. A legal professional, for instance, is necessary to help navigate someone through an unfamiliar court process and the bewildering legal terminology in documents related to it. But that professional must be able to translate that difficult legal language into familiar terms that the uninitiated can easily understand.

Besides using plain language, effective document design can also help aid understanding for those who may have difficulty with reading comprehension, as well as for those who are competent professionals but are just busy. When explaining a procedure, for instance, using a numbered list rather than a paragraph description helps the reader skim to find their spot when going back and forth between your instructions and performing the procedure itself. For instance, if you’re explaining how to find the date of a webpage if one is not indicated on the page itself:

    1. Go to google.com or place your cursor in the search bar of a Chrome browser tab.
    2. Write “inurl:” in the search bar and paste the URL of the webpage you want the date for from “www.” onward.
    3. Paste “&as_qdr=y15” at the end of the Google search URL.
    4. Hit your Enter key and the date that the webpage was last updated will appear in grey on the third line of the first result.

is so much easier for your reader to follow than:
First, go to google.com or place your cursor in the search bar of a Chrome browser tab, write “inurl:” in the search bar, and paste the URL of the webpage you want the date for from “www.” onward. Next, paste “&as_qdr=y15” at the end of the Google search URL, then hit your Enter key. The date will appear in grey on the third line of the first result.

When the reader flips between the three browser tabs involved in this operation, the numbered list in one of them (perhaps an email tab) allows them to easily find where they left off when they go back to the email tab to follow the next step.

Brief, bolded headings and subheadings for discreet topics within a document also help orient readers looking for specific information, as you can see from scanning through this textbook. If this chapter contained no such headings and instead was just a ream of paragraphs like in a novel, finding this section using the Table of Contents and index alone would probably double or triple the time it takes to narrow down where it begins and ends. Again, if there are choices to be made and work to be done to make the reader’s job of understanding your meaning as you intend it easier, it’s on you to do that work. You don’t want them to miss vital information merely because you buried it as a common brick in a wall of text.

2.2.5: Considering Your Audience’s Demographic

The previous subsection explained the necessity of gauging your audience’s level of education in a given subject area, and that extends to their more general level of education as well as other demographic factors such as age. Depending on your profession, you may have to deal with people of all ages and levels of education from elementary school children to world-wise retirees. A dental hygienist, for instance, adjusts their language from being simple with an overly enthusiastic, over-the-top friendly and reassuring tone with a child client in the dentist chair one moment, then switches in the next to using more technical vocabulary in a matter-of-fact yet still-friendly tone with an older client who has had years of dentist-chair lectures enough to know what “excessive plaque buildup at the gumline” means.

Sometimes judging levels of understanding can be difficult and lead to trouble when done in error, so tact and emotional intelligence is essential. Speaking to an elderly person as you would a child because you assume they’ve fallen into feeble-minded senility when they are indeed still sharp as a tack can be downright insulting to them. Don’t be surprised if your condescension is met with sassy kickback if you make that mistake. But if you speak to an elderly person as you would a middle-aged adult despite their having severe hearing loss and undiagnosed early-onset dementia, this will also lead to failures in communication and understanding. So, what are we to do, then?

The key to gauging the level of one’s understanding if it could be either expert or clueless is always to begin communication with a mid-level diction and conversational tone in your opening message, then adjust based on the feedback message, which includes both a verbal or written response and nonverbals (if communicating in person). In person, nonverbal feedback such as a briefly furrowed brow of confusion helps to determine if a message has gone over the receiver’s head even if they misleadingly say they understood just to save face. A slight eyeroll subtly informs you that you’ve started off too basic and need to jump up to a more advanced level. Sometimes you can even “see” these expressions in writing by reading between the lines of a response that indicates a more advanced understanding than you assumed.

If your correspondent’s writing style similarly betrays a lack of lack of education—for whatever reason—through numerous grammatical, spelling, and punctuation errors, then you know to adjust your own style to use more plain expressions accommodating someone with a more basic reading level. In such cases, be understanding rather than assume that the person is merely dim-witted. They could be:

Unless you know otherwise, you can guess at any of the above explanations (or a combination of them) before responding, but never respond assuming one of them to be the case. Rather, respond without judgment to someone who writes poorly, but do so in a plain, accessible style using familiar words and fully explain your topic.

Being nonjudgmental as well as respectful towards those of different cultures and religious beliefs is also key to effective communication. If you are committed to a belief system yourself, never assume that everyone else shares your views or is wrong for believing otherwise. Even if you are not religious per se, you still have a belief system shaped by the culture in which you developed. Everyone’s belief system is the result of life experiences that differ from those of others; unless that system drives them towards anti-social behaviour or even violence, nothing is wrong with holding those beliefs as far as you’re concerned. The success of Canada’s multicultural society depends on the tolerance and understanding between citizens. In your writing, always be understanding towards others’ beliefs; don’t belittle or insult them. If someone writes you to say that they will be absent because of a Muslim holiday you had no idea about, for instance, use this as an opportunity to learn something about that holiday so you can say, for instance, “Eid Mubarak” at the end of your message to maintain goodwill.

Key Takeaways

key iconKnowing your audience by their size, position relative to you, knowledge of your topic, and demographic helps you craft your message content and style to meet their needs.

Exercises

pen and paper icon1. List at least three demographic traits that apply to you. How does belonging to these demographic groups influence your perceptions and priorities? Share your thoughts with your classmates.
2. Recall a time when you started a new job and learned the jargon of the workplace—words that the general public wouldn’t know the meaning of, or at least the meanings you attached to them. Write a glossary listing as many such jargon words as you can along with their definitions (how you would explain them to the public). Share a few with the class. (If you’ve never been employed, use a volunteer, sports, or other group activity you’ve engaged in.)
3. Review the last email you wrote. Is it written formally or informally? If informal, revise it so that it is more formal as if you were to send it to a manager or client; if formal, revise it so that it is more informal as if you were to send it to a trusted co-worker. (If you want your most recent email to remain private, search back for one you wouldn’t mind sharing. Include the original email in your submission.

Reference

The Conference Board of Canada. (2013). Adult literacy rate—low-level skills. How Canada Performs. Retrieved from http://www.conferenceboard.ca/hcp/details/education/adult-literacy-rate-low-skills.aspx

2.3: Selecting Appropriate Channels

Learning Objectives

target icon4. Distinguish between communication channels to determine which is most appropriate for particular situations.

5. Plan, write, revise, and edit short documents and messages that are organized, complete, and tailored to specific audiences.

Throughout this chapter we’ve been considering messages sent via email because it is the most common channel for written business messages. However, many professionals make the mistake of sending an email when another channel (e.g., a verbal rather than a written one) would be more appropriate for the situation and the audience. If you had to deal with inappropriate behaviour in the workplace, for instance, the right thing to do is discuss it in person with all involved because conflict resolution requires social intelligence informed by all the verbal and nonverbal information you can gather from them. You could follow up with an email summarizing a remedial action plan reached through constructive dialogue, but you would never deal with the situation by email alone.

Woman sitting at a table sending a text message on a mobile phoneAddressing sensitive situations exclusively by email (or, even worse, text message) tends only to intensify a conflict. Email or messaging can’t possibly address the emotional complexity of a toxic situation and usually results in costly delays given the time lag between responses. Tensions also tend to escalate when people have the time to read too much into emails and text or instant messages about sensitive topics, misinterpret their tone, and write angry or passive-aggressive ones in return. (Many people tend to lack filters when writing electronically in a state of heightened emotion because they feel relatively free to express the internal monologue that they would otherwise restrain if in the physical company of the person they’re writing to.) Recognizing that email is only one channel on a spectrum of other options, however, and that others would be more efficient in certain situations, can save plenty of hassle from knee-jerk reliance on one favoured or comfortable channel.

Between traditional and rapid electronic media, we have more choice for communication channels than ever in human history. Each has its own unique advantages and disadvantages that make it appropriate or inappropriate for specific situations. Knowing those pros and cons, summarized in Table 2.3 below for a dozen of the most common verbal and written channels available, is necessary for being an effective communicator in the modern workplace. Choosing channels wisely can mean the difference between a message that is received and understood as intended (the goal of communication), and one that is lost in the noise or misunderstood in costly ways.

Table 2.3: The Spectrum of Common Workplace Communication Channels

Channel: In-person conversation and group meeting

Advantages Disadvantages Expectations Appropriate Use
  • The most information-rich channel combining words and nonverbal messages
  • Dialogue facilitates immediate back-and-forth exchange of ideas
  • Maintains the human element lacking in most other channels
  • Additional participants can join for group discussion
  • Requires that speakers travel to be physically in the same space together
  • Some people are poor listeners and some are poor speakers
  • Impermanent unless recording equipment is used
  • Audience must be present and attentive rather than distracted by their mobile technology or multitasking
  • Use for genuine dialogue rather than monologue or shallow, superficial exchanges
  • A dynamic speaking ability is required to engage audiences
  • Quickly exchange ideas with people close by
  • Visually communicate to complement your words
  • Add the human element in discussing sensitive or confidential topics that need to be worked out through dialogue

Channel: Email

Advantages Disadvantages Expectations Appropriate Use
  • Delivers messages instantly anywhere in the world to anyone with an internet connection and email address you have
  • Sends to one or many people at once, including secondary audiences CC’d or BCC’d
  • Allows you to attach documents up to several megabytes in size or links to any internet webpages
  • Allows for a back-and-forth thread on the topic in the subject line
  • Archives written correspondence for review even decades later
  • Can be done on any mobile device with an internet connection
  • Is free (beyond your subscription fees to an internet or phone provider)
  • Is somewhat permanent in that emails exist somewhere on a server even if deleted by both sender and receiver
  • Gives the illusion of privacy: your messages can be forwarded to anyone, monitored by your company or an outside security agency, retrieved with a warrant, or hacked even if both you and receiver delete them
  • Can be slow when used for back-and-forth dialogue
  • Tone may be misread (e.g., jokes misunderstood) due to the absence of nonverbal cues
  • May be sent automatically to the recipient’s spam folder or otherwise overlooked or deleted without being read given the volume of emails some people get in a day
  • Subject to errors such as hitting “send” prematurely or replying to all when only the sender should be replied to
  • Subject to limits on document attachment size
  • Subject to spam (unsolicited emails)
  • Regretted emails can’t be taken back or edited
  • Requires a working internet connection on a computing device, which isn’t available everywhere in the world
  • Reply within 24 hours, or sooner if company policy requires it
  • Follow conventions for writing a clear subject line; salutation; message opening, body, and closing; closing salutation, and e-signature
  • Netiquette: be as kind as you should be in person; don’t write emails angrily
  • Edit to ensure coverage of the subject indicated in the subject line with no more or less information than the recipient needs to do their job
  • Proofread to ensure correct grammar, punctuation, and spelling because errors compromise your credibility
  • Avoid confusion due to vagueness that requires that the recipient respond asking for clarification
  • Quickly deliver a message that doesn’t need an immediate response
  • Send a message and receive a response in writing as evidence for future review (lay down a paper trail)
  • Use when confidentiality isn’t necessary
  • Send electronic documents as attachments
  • Send the same message to several people at once, including perhaps people whose email address you need to hide from the others (using BCC) to respect their confidentiality

Channel: Instant/Text message

Advantages Disadvantages Expectations Appropriate Use
  • Enables the rapid exchange of concise written messages
  • Can be done quietly so as to not be overheard
  • Inexpensive
  • Autocomplete feature helps achieve efficiencies in typing speed and spelling
  • Nonverbal characters such as emojis can clarify tone
  • Plenty of instant message applications are available, such as Facebook Messenger, Google Talk, WhatsApp, and SnapChat
  • Often used to avoid human contact when telephone or in-person communication is available and more appropriate
  • Encourages informality with lazy abbreviations, initialisms, and acronyms
  • Even with autocomplete, typing with thumbs alone can be slower than using 10 fingers on a desktop or laptop computer
  • Concise text alone can be misinterpreted for tone when used to summarize complex ideas
  • Other nonverbals such as emojis help clarify tone, but also undermine credibility if used in professional situations
  • Give the illusion of privacy: texts exist on servers and can be retrieved even if deleted by both sender and receiver
  • Mobility and portability of texting devices tempt users with poor impulse control to text dangerously while walking or driving, or rudely in front of people talking to them
  • Respond immediately or as soon as possible, since the choice to text or IM is usually for rapid exchange of information
  • Be patient if the recipient doesn’t respond immediately; they may be busy with real-life tasks
  • Proofread when used for professional purposes as confusion due to writing errors can be costly when acted upon immediately
  • Use only when able; never text when driving because the distraction turns your vehicle into a lethal weapon; never text when walking because you get in people’s way, hit obstacles yourself, and look like a slave to technology
  • Use for exchanging short messages quickly with someone physically distant
  • Get an information exchange in writing for reference later
  • Use when confidentiality isn’t important

Channel: Tweet

Advantages Disadvantages Expectations Appropriate Use
  • Able to reach a large audience of social media users for promotion using hashtags and by developing a following
  • Able to broadcast real-time updates accessible on smartphones
  • Able to send and reply to direct messages rapidly (like texting and instant messaging)
  • The 280-character limit (previously 140 before 2018) on tweets encourages conciseness
  • Able to link people to webpages for more information
  • The 280-character limit forces concision often leading to confusing initialisms, abbreviations, and word omission
  • Strike a balance in posting frequency—not too seldom, not too often
  • Be concise but also clear and grammatically correct
  • Maximize potential by using hashtags and links to usher readers towards further information
  • Broadcast information in real time to a broad range of users
  • Use when confidentiality isn’t important

Channel: Instagram

Advantages Disadvantages Expectations Appropriate Use
  • Instagram for Business provides branding visuals for interested customers, especially millennials
  • Allows customers to respond in real time
  • The audience is largely limited to a younger demographic with limited spending power
  • Means of expression is limited to photos and brief captions
  • Can undermine professional credibility if used for selfies, which make you appear juvenile and overly self-involved
  • Inconvenient if posting and managing an account from a laptop or desktop computer rather than a smartphone
  • Doesn’t provide an easy way to link to a company website to provide audiences with further information
  • Contributes to a platform seen to be the worst for mental health (Royal Society for Public Health, 2017)
  • Use for providing visuals of company products or services rather than for individual self-promotion with selfies
  • Strike a balance in posting frequency—not too seldom, not too often
  • Include as part of a marketing mix that includes other social media such as Facebook and Twitter
  • Post company photos to reach younger demographics

Channel: Article, essay, or blog

Advantages Disadvantages Expectations Appropriate Use
  • Able to write at length about any topic and reach a potentially large online audience as a blog or article published in an online media outlet
  • Can allow dialogue if a comments section is enabled below if posted online
  • Tend to be monologues without the possibility of feedback
  • People with short attention spans tend to avoid large chunks of text
  • Some tend to be wary of blogs because they are a genre overpopulated by people’s ill-formed opinions
  • Organize with a clear topic thesis and support it with a logical flow of convincing arguments built around credible evidence
  • Edit and proofread to ensure correctness, conciseness, and reader-friendly flow
  • Enable comments for feedback and dialogue
  • Articulate thoughts on topics that require lengthy development

Channel: Letter

Advantages Disadvantages Expectations Appropriate Use
  • Shows respect through formality and effort
  • Ensures confidentiality when sealed in an envelope and delivered to the recipient’s physical address (it is illegal to open someone else’s mail)
  • Can introduce other physical documents (enclosures)
  • Slow to arrive at the recipient’s address depending on how far away they are from the sender
  • Can be intercepted or tampered with in transit (albeit illegally)
  • Can be overlooked as junk mail
  • Time consuming to print, sign, seal, and send for delivery
  • Mail postage is costlier than email
  • Follow conventions for different types of letters (e.g., block for company letters, modified block for personal letters) and providing the sender’s and recipient’s address, date, recipient salutation, closing salutation, and author’s signature
  • Use company letterhead template when writing on behalf of your organization
  • For providing a formal, permanent, confidential written message to a single important person or organization
  • Ideal for job applications (cover letter), persuasive messages (e.g., fundraising campaigns), bad-news messages, matters with possible legal implications (e.g., claims), and responses to letters
  • For non-urgent matters

Channel: Memo

Advantages Disadvantages Expectations Appropriate Use
  • Provides a written record of group decisions, announcements, policies, and procedures within an organization
  • Can also be a format for delivering small reports (e.g., conference report) and recording negotiating terms in agreements between organizations (e.g., memo of understanding)
  • Can be posted on a physical bulletin board and/or emailed
  • Requires a good archiving system to make memos easily accessible for those (especially new employees) needing to review a record of company policies, procedures, etc.
  • Use template with company letterhead
  • Follow the same conventions as email, except omit the opening and closing salutations and e-signature
  • For a written record for decisions, announcements, policies, procedures, and small reports shared within an organization
  • Post a printed version on an office bulletin board and email to all involved

Channel: Report / PowerPoint

Advantages Disadvantages Expectations Appropriate Use
  • Allows presentation of a high volume of information presenting research and analysis
  • Can take various forms such a document booklet or proposal for reading alone or PowerPoint for presenting
  • Time-consuming to write with proper research documentation and visual content, as well as to prepare for (presentations)
  • Time-consuming for the busy professional to read or an audience to take in
  • Presentations can bore audiences if not engaging
  • Follow conventions for organizing information according to the size of the report, audience, and purpose
  • Augment with visuals
  • Engage audiences with effective oral delivery and visual appeal
  • For providing thorough business intelligence on topics important to an organization’s operation
  • For internal or external audiences
  • For persuading audiences with well-developed arguments (e.g., proposal reports)

Channel: Fax

Advantages Disadvantages Expectations Appropriate Use
  • Fast delivery of letters and forms
  • Allows the use of company letterhead
  • Limited to 8.5×11” formats
  • Expensive for the purchase of fax machines and paper rolls that need regular replacing
  • Possibly expensive if long-distance phone charges apply
  • Few people use fax and a dwindling number of businesses still use them
  • Keep it short
  • Use only if required in an industry that still favours fax
  • For sending forms or work orders in industries that still use fax (e.g., health care)

Channel: Phone, VoIP, voicemail, and conference calls

Advantages Disadvantages Expectations Appropriate Use
  • Enables audio-only dialogue between speakers anywhere in the world
  • Quick back-and-forth saves time compared to written dialogue by email or text
  • Can send one-way voicemail messages or leave them when the recipient isn’t available
  • Can be conducted cheaply over the internet (with Voice over Internet Protocol) and easily on smartphones
  • Specialized phone equipment and VoIP enable conference calls among multiple users
  • Absence of nonverbal visual cues can make dialogue occasionally difficult
  • The receiver of a call isn’t always available, so the timing must be right on both ends; if not, availability problems lead to “phone tag”
  • Time zone differences complicate the timing of long-distance calls
  • Possibly expensive for long-distance calls over a public switched telephone network (PSTN) if VoIP isn’t available
  • Not always clear how long you have to leave a voicemail message, running the risk of being cut off if your message runs too long
  • Recording of conversations is typically unavailable unless you have special equipment
  • Follow conventions for initiating and ending audio-only conversation
  • For voicemail, strike a balance between brevity and providing a thorough description of the reason for the call and your contact information
  • Record a professional call-back message for voicemail when not available to take a call
  • Respond to voicemail as soon as possible since you were called with the hope that you would be available to talk immediately
  • Be careful with confidential information over the phone, and don’t discuss confidential information via voicemail
  • For when quick dialogue is necessary between speakers physically distant from one another
  • Conference call when members of a team can’t be physically present for a meeting
  • Use VoIP to avoid long-distance charges
  • Leave clear voicemail messages when receivers aren’t available
  • When a record of the conversation isn’t necessary
  • When confidentiality is somewhat important

Channel: Video chat and web conference

Advantages Disadvantages Expectations Appropriate Use
  • Enables face-to-face one-on-one or group meetings for people physically distant from one another (anywhere from across town to the other side of the planet)
  • Allows participants to see nonverbals that would be unseen in a phone conference meeting
  • Can be integrated into a real in-person meeting to include physically absent members
  • Inexpensive with common applications such as Skype, FaceTime (for Apple devices), and Google Talk
  • Cheaper than flying people around to conduct routine meetings
  • Connection problems often result in poor audio quality (cutting in and out) and split-second delays that result in misleading nonverbal cues and participants talking over one another
  • Enterprise applications improve functionality but for a cost
  • Requires a high-speed internet connection, microphone, and webcam all in good working order
  • Requires that participants be as present and presentable (at least from the waist-up) as they would be for an in-person meeting
  • Participants must control their background surroundings, especially when web conferencing from home, to avoid interruptions
  • For when in-person meetings are necessary but participants are in different physical locations
  • Often used for job interviews when participants cannot conveniently attend in person

Choosing the correct communication channel on the spectrum of options using the criteria above involves a decision-making process based on the purposes of the communication, as discussed earlier in this chapter. Factors to consider include convenience for both the sender and receiver, timeliness, and cost in terms of both time and money. When choosing to send an email, for instance, you:

  1. Begin with the thought you need to communicate
  2. Decide that it must be in writing for future reference rather than spoken
  3. Consider that it would be more convenient if it arrived cheaply the instant you finished writing it and hit Send
  4. Want to give the recipient the opportunity to respond quickly or at least within the 24-hour norm
  5. Decide that it would be better to send your message by email rather than by other electronic channels such as text, instant message (because you have more to say than would fit in either of those formats), or fax because you know the recipient prefers email over fax, as do most people and all but a few professional fields.

All of these decisions may occur to you in the span of a second or so because they are largely habitual. Figure 2.3 charts out that decision-making process for selecting the most appropriate channel among the 12 given in Table 2.3 above.

Flow chart outlining how to choose the best channel of communication for your needs

Figure 2.3: Channel Selection Process Flow Chart

We will examine the uses, misuses, conventions, and implications of these channels in the chapters ahead, especially Chapters 6-7 on written documents in Unit 2 and Chapters 10-11 on oral communication in Unit 3. For now, however, let’s appreciate that choosing the right channel at the outset of the writing process saves time—the time that you would otherwise spend correcting communication errors and doing damage control for having chosen the wrong one for the situation at hand. If you find yourself forced to meet someone in person to deal with the damage wrought by a toxic email exchange before moving forward, just think how you would be into the next steps if you had skipped the email war and met in person to deal with the situation like adults in the first place.

Key Takeaway

key iconChoose the most appropriate communication channel for the occasion by taking into account the full spectrum of traditional and electronic means, as well as your own and your audience’s needs.

Exercises

pen and paper iconIdentify the most appropriate channel for communicating what’s necessary in the given situation and explain your reasoning.
1. You come up with a new procedure that makes a routine task in your role in the organization quicker and easier; praise for your innovation goes all the way up to the CEO, who now wants you to meet with the other employees in your role in the seven other branch offices across the country to share the procedure.
2. A customer emails you for a price quote on a custom job they would like you to do for them. (Your company has a formal process for writing up quotes on an electronic form that gives a price breakdown on a PDF.)
3. You are working with two officemates on a market report. Both have been bad lately about submitting their work on time and you’re starting to worry about meeting the next major milestone a few days from now. Neither has been absent because you can see them in their offices as you walk by in the hallway.
4. You are about to close a deal but need quick authorization from your manager across town about a certain discount you would like to apply. You need it in writing just in case your manager forgets about the authorization or anyone else questions it back at the office.
5. Your division recently received word from management that changes to local bylaws mean that a common procurement procedure will have to be slightly altered when dealing with suppliers. Your team meets to go over the changes and the new procedure, but you need to set it down in writing so that everyone in attendance can refer to it, as well as any new hires.
6. You have a limited amount of time to discuss a potential funding opportunity with a colleague in another city because the proposal deadline is later in the week and it’s almost closing time in your colleague’s office. You’ll have to hammer out some details about who will write the various parts of the proposal before you get to work on it tonight.
7. You were under contract with a local entrepreneur to perform major landscaping services. Near the end of the job, you discovered that he dissolved his company and is moving on, but you haven’t yet been paid for services rendered. You want to formally inform him of the charges and remind him of his contractual obligations; in doing so you want to lay down a paper trail in case you need to take him to court for breach of contract.

Reference

Royal Society for Public Health. (2017, May 19). Instagram ranked worst for young people’s mental health. Retrieved from https://www.rsph.org.uk/about-us/news/instagram-ranked-worst-for-young-people-s-mental-health.html

 

Chapter 3: The Writing Process II: Researching

Jordan Smith

Chapter Learning Objectives

  1. Determine the appropriate research methodology that meets the needs of the audience.
  2. Distinguish between formal and informal research.
  3. Quote source text directly with accuracy and correct punctuation.
  4. Use effective reading strategies to collect and reframe information from a variety of written materials accurately.
  5. Locate, select, and organize relevant and accurate information drawn from a variety of sources appropriate to the task.
  6. Integrate and document information using commonly accepted citation guidelines.

Once you’ve identified your purpose for writing, profiled your audience, and selected the appropriate channel (Stage 1 in the writing process covered in Ch. 2 above), next you must gather the information that your audience needs. From the shortest informative email to the sprawling analytical report, most professional messages involve relaying information that was looked up—that is, they involve research. Employers value employees who are resourceful, whose research skills go well beyond Google-searching on the internet and focusing on the top few results like anyone can do. Whether such in-demand employees get the needed information from a print book in a library, a manual from a database on a company intranet, an article from a subscription database on the internet, or simply by asking a reputable authority such as a veteran co-worker, they prove their value by knowing where to find valuable information, how to use it appropriately, and how to document it if necessary.

1 Preparing, 2 Researching, 3 Drafting, 4 Editing                  2 Researching, 2.1 Selecting a Methodology, 2.2 Collecting Sources, 2.3 Using Sources, 2.4 Crediting Sources

Figure 3: The four-stage writing process and Stage 2 breakdown

3.1: Choosing a Research Methodology

Learning Objectives

Target icon1. Determine the appropriate research methodology that meets the needs of the audience.

2. Distinguish between formal and informal research.

5.  Locate, select, and organize relevant and accurate information drawn from a variety of sources appropriate to the task.

The first step in research is to know what the situation calls for in terms of the formality or rigour of research required. Although formal research carefully documents sources with citations and references, most messages relay informal research such as when you quickly look up some information you have access to and email it to the person who requested it. Either way, you apply skills in retrieving and delivering the needed information to meet your audience’s needs, often by paraphrasing or summarizing, which are extremely valuable skills coveted by employers. Knowing what research type or “methodology” the situation calls for—formal or informal research, or primary or secondary research—in the first place will keep you on track in this still-preliminary stage of the writing process.

The research methodology where you look up information and deliver the goods in an email answering someone’s question without needing to formally cite your sources is informal research. It is by far the most common type of research because any professional does it several times a day in their routine communication with the various audiences they serve. Say your manager emails asking you to recommend a new printer to replace the one that’s dying. You’re no expert on printers but you know who to ask. You go to Erika, the admin. assistant in your previous department, and she says to definitely go with the Ricoh printer. You trust what she says, so you end your research there and pass along this recommendation to your manager. Now, because your source for the information, whom you don’t necessarily need to identify in informal research, was relatively subjective and didn’t explain in full why the Ricoh was better than all the other models available, you can’t really have 100% confidence in the recommendation you pass along. This type of research will do in a pinch when you’re short on time and your audience doesn’t need to check your sources.

Formal research, on the other hand, takes a more systematic approach and documents the sources of information compiled using a conventional citation and reference system designed to make it easy for the audience to check out your sources themselves to verify their credibility. Formal research is more scientific in discovering needed information or solving a problem, beginning with a hypothesis (your main idea when you begin, which, in the case above, could be that the Ricoh might be the best printer), and then testing that hypothesis in a rigorous way. In this case you would come up with a set of criteria including certain features and capabilities that you need your printer to have, cost, warranty and service plan, availability, etc. Next you would look at all the accessible literature on the printers available to you, including the product webpages and spec manuals, customer reviews from other vendors, and reviews from reputable sources such as Consumer Reports, which gets experts to test the various available models against a set of criteria. Finally, you could test the printers yourself, score them according to your assessment criteria, rank the best to worst, and report the results.

Formal research obviously requires more time, labour, practice, skill, and resources in following a rigorous procedure. In the case of the printer research above, having a subscription to Consumer Reports gives you access to valuable information that not everyone has. (If you simply Google-searched “best office printer,” you may get a Consumer Reports ranking as one of your top results, but when you follow the links, you’ll get to a subscription pricing page rather than the list you’re looking for. A large part of the internet exists on the other side of paywalls.) If you’re a college student, however, you can access Consumer Reports via your college library account if its journal and magazine databases include Consumer Reports, search for office printers, and get a handy ranking of the latest multifunctional printers for the modern office. You check out their selection criteria and determine that their number-one choice is the right printer for your needs, so you respond to your manager with the make and model number. Finally, to prove that the recommendation comes from a reputable authority, you cite the Consumer Reports article showing the author, year, title, and retrieval information so that your manager can verify that you used a reputable, current source.

But why go to so much trouble? Why not just look briefly at all the options and follow your gut? Well, your gut isn’t much help when you’re in over your head. If you’re going to spend a few thousand dollars on the best printer, you’re going to want to do it right. You don’t want to waste money on one that has several problems that you could have known about beforehand had you done your homework. In this case, formal research (“homework”) protects you against preventable losses.

Like formal vs. informal research, primary vs. secondary has much to do with the level of rigor. Basically, primary research generates new knowledge and secondary research applies it. In the above case, the authors of the Consumer Reports article conducted primary research because they came up with the assessment criteria, arranged for access to all the printers, tested and scored each according to how well they performed against each criterion, analyzed the data, determined the ranking of best to worst printer on the market, and reported it in a published article. If you can’t conduct primary research yourself because you don’t have easy access to all the printers worth considering, you are thankful someone else has and would even pay money for that intel.

Other forms of primary research include surveys of randomly sampled people to gauge general attitudes on certain subjects and lab experiments that follow the scientific method. If a pharmaceutical company is researching a new treatment option for a particular health condition, for instance, it starts in the chemistry lab producing a compound that could be put in a pill, tests its safety on animal subjects, then runs human trials where it’s given to as many test subjects as possible. Some are given a placebo without knowing it (making them “blind”) by someone on the research team who also doesn’t know whether it’s the real pill or the placebo (making the study “double blind”). Close observations of the effects on people with the condition and without, having taken the new pill and the placebo, determines whether the new drug is actually effective and safe. Primary research is labour-intensive, typically expensive, and may include aspects of secondary research if referring to previous primary research.

Secondary research is what most people—especially students—do when they have academic or professional tasks because it involves finding and using primary research. To use the printer example above, accessing the Consumer Reports article and using its recommendation to make a case for office printer selection was secondary research. Depending on whether that secondary research is informal or formal, it may or may not cite and reference sources.

The easiest, most common, and most expedient research, the kind that the vast majority of informative workplace communication involves, is informal secondary research. As when an employee sends company pricing and scheduling information in response to a request from a potential customer, informal secondary research involves quickly retrieving and relaying information without citing it—not out of laziness or intentional plagiarism, but because formal citations are neither necessary nor even expected by the audience. When you do a school research assignment requiring you to document your sources, however, and if your manager requires you to cite the sources you used as a basis for endorsing an office printer in a recommendation report (because it will be an expensive investment), for example, you perform formal secondary research. In business, the latter type is best for ensuring that company resources are used appropriately and can be supported by all stakeholders. In other words, formal secondary research is a necessary part of a business’s due diligence. In the following section (§3.2), we will break down the labour-intensive process of building a document around source material collected through formal secondary research.

Key Takeaway

key iconDetermine the most appropriate research methodology—informal or formal, primary or secondary—for your audience and purpose depending on the level of rigour required.

Exercise

1. Use your college library account to access Consumer Reports and find a report on a product type of interest to you. Assuming that your audience’s needs are for informal secondary research only, write a mock (pretend) email making a recommendation based on the report’s endorsement.
2. Now, for the sake of comparing sources, search for recommendation information on the same product type just by Googling it. What are the top search results? Going down the results list, did you find any unbiased sources that you could use in your recommendation email? What makes these sources biased or unbiased?

 

3.2: Locating Credible Sources

Learning Objectives

Target icon
5. Locate, select, and organize relevant and accurate information drawn from a variety of sources appropriate to the task.

Once you’ve selected the appropriate research methodology, your next task is to search for sources that can be taken seriously by your audiences and, in so doing, narrow down your topic. Research is largely a process of sorting out the wheat from the chaff, then processing that wheat into a wholesome product people will buy and digest. Appropriately using credible sources reflects well on your own credibility, whereas using suspicious sources—perhaps because they were the top results of a Google-search filtered by an algorithm informed by your search history, which may show that you haven’t been much concerned with quality sources—undermines your own authority.

A research document full of dubious sources makes you look uneducated, lazy, flakey, or gullible at best, or at worst conniving and deceptive. We’re in an age that some have dubbed the “post-truth era” where “fake news” churned out by clickbait-driven edutainment outlets can be a major determining factor in the course of history (White, 2017). Building the critical-thinking skills to distinguish truth from lies, good ideas from bad, facts from propaganda, objective viewpoints from spin, and credible sources from dubious ones is not only an academic or civic duty but also key to our collective survival. Learning how to navigate these perilous waters is one of the most important skills we can learn in school.

College or public libraries and their online databases are excellent places to find quality sources, and you should familiarize yourself with their features such as subject guides and advanced search filters. Even libraries are populated by sources outside the realm of respectability, however, because they cater to diverse stakeholders and interests by being comprehensive, including entertainment materials in their collections. They also have holdings that are horribly out of date and only of historical interest. Whether in the library or on the open internet, the only real way to ensure that a source is worth using is to develop critical thinking skills in knowing what to look for in sorting the wheat from the chaff.

3.2.1: Assessing the Credibility of Print Sources

Developing a good sense of what sources are trustworthy takes time, often through seeing patterns of approval in how diligent professionals rely on certain sources for credible information. If you continue to see respected professionals cite articles in Scientific American and The Economist, for instance, you can be reasonably assured of those sources’ credibility. If you see few or no professionals cite Popular Mechanics or Infowars and you also see non-professionals cite fantastic, sensational, or shocking stories from them in social media, you have good reason to suspect their reliability. The same goes for sources regarding certain issues; if 97% of relevant scientists confirm that global climate change results from human activity (Cook et al., 2016), for instance, sources representing or championing the 3% opposition will be seen as lacking credibility. Patterns of source approval take time to track, but you can count on many more immediate ways of assessing credibility in the meantime.

The following indicators are worth considering when assessing print sources (and some online sources, but we will deal with them separately after) because they usually all align in credible sources:

3.2.2: Assessing the Credibility of Online Sources

Online sources pose special challenges to students and professionals conducting research, since most will expediently conduct research entirely online where some of the above indicators of credibility must be rethought a little. Sometimes the author isn’t revealed on a webpage, perhaps because it’s a company or organization’s website, in which case your scrutiny shifts to the organization, its potential biases, and its agenda. A research project on electronic surveillance, for instance, might turn up the websites of companies selling monitoring systems, in which case you must be wary of any facts or statistics (especially uncited ones, but even cited sources) they use because they will likely be cherry-picked to help sell products and services. And instead of checking the publisher as you would for a print source, you could consider the domain name; websites with .edu or .gov URL endings usually have higher standards of credibility for the information they publish than sites ending with .com or .org, which are typically the province of commercial enterprises (as in the monitoring systems example above) and special interest groups with unique agendas.

Although successful in being a comprehensive repository of knowledge, Wikipedia.org, for instance, is not generally considered credible and should therefore not appear as a source in a research document unless it’s for a topic so new or niche that no other credible sources for it exist. By the organization’s own admission, “Wikipedia cannot guarantee the validity of the information found [on their site].” The Web 2.0, user-generated nature of Wikipedia means that its articles are susceptible to vandalism or content changes inconsistent with expert opinion, and they aren’t improved by any formal peer-review process (Wikipedia, 2015). Wikipedia sacrifices credibility for comprehensiveness. For these reasons, a Wikipedia article in a research report is a little laughable; few will take you seriously if they see it there because you will look lazy for stopping at the first available source and picking the lowest-hanging fruit.

A Wikipedia article can be a good place to start in a research task, however. If you’re approaching a topic for the first time, use Wikipedia for a general introduction and a sense of the topic’s scope and key subtopics. (Wikimedia Commons is also a reliable source of images provided you credit them properly.) But if you’re going to cite any sources, don’t stop there; use the credible ones that the Wikipedia article cites by scrolling down to the References section, checking them out, and assessing them for their credibility using the criteria outlined above in §3.2.1.

A final indicator of credibility for online sources, similar to the writing-quality check discussed above, is the overall design quality of the website. The attractiveness of a site may be subjective, but a user-friendly and modern design suggests that money was spent relatively recently on improving its quality. If the site looks like it was designed 10-15 years ago and hasn’t had a facelift since, you can suspect that it’s lost its currency. Some websites look dated despite their content still being relevant, however, because that content doesn’t change drastically over time. Like Strunk and White’s Elements of Style mentioned above, sites such as The Mayfield Handbook of Technical & Scientific Writing can still prove useful as free writing guides despite looking like they were designed when most of their current student users were in diapers.

Key Takeaway

key iconInvestigating and narrowing down a research topic involves using databases to locate reputable sources using criteria to assess for credibility such as the quality of the source author, writing, references, and publisher.

Exercises

1. Choose a research topic based on an aspect of your professional field that piqued your attention in your other courses in the program. Assemble credible sources using a rubric that ranks each relevant source based on the assessment criteria explained in §3.2.1 above (e.g., the criterion for the first line of the rubric may be Author Credibility, which you can score out of 10, with 10 being a bona fide expert in their field and 0 being a dilettante with no experience; the second may be Currency, with 10 points going to a source published last year and 0 for something a century or more out of date, etc.). With each score for each source, give a brief explanation for why you scored it as you did.

2. Consider a recent controversy in the news that all news outlets have covered. Assemble articles from a variety of outlets throughout Canada, the United States, and even internationally, including those with major audience share like the CBC, CNN, FoxNews, and the Guardian, as well as some on the fringe. First compare the articles to identify the information that’s common to them all, then contrast them to identify the information and analysis that distinguishes them from one another. What conclusions can you draw about how bias factors into the reportage of world events?

References

Cook, J., et al. (2016, April 13). Consensus on consensus: A synthesis of consensus estimates on human-caused global warming. Environmental Research Letters 11, 1-7. Retrieved from http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/11/4/048002/pdf

Cornell University Library. (2017, September 7). Distinguishing scholarly from non-scholarly periodicals: A checklist of criteria. Retrieved from http://guides.library.cornell.edu/scholarlyjournals.

White, A. (2017, January 10). Fake news: Facebook and matters of fact in the post-truth era. Ethics in the News: EJN Report on Challenges for Journalism in the Post-truth Era. Retrieved from http://ethicaljournalismnetwork.org/resources/publications/ethics-in-the-news/fake-news

Wikipedia. (2015, December 17). General disclaimer. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:General_disclaimer

Wikipedia. (2017, October 21). List of English-language book publishing companies. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_English-language_book_publishing_companies

Wikipedia. (2017, November 18). List of university presses. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_university_presses

3.3: Collecting Sources by Reading with a Purpose

Learning Objectives

Target icon
4. Use effective reading strategies to collect and reframe information from a variety of written materials accurately.

Part of the process of identifying credible sources involves reading critically to find the best information available for your purposes, and those are whatever you’ve determined your audience’s needs to be. When collecting sources online by entering key terms into a search engine, examining the list of titles, and clicking on those that seem relevant, you begin the process of narrowing down your topic by what research materials are available. Of course, you don’t have time to read all the thousands or even millions of webpages and articles that turn up in Google search results to determine which fulfill your (and your audience’s) purposes. You skim.

Successful skim-reading depends on the effective organization of the sources you’re sorting through as well as your own time-management strategies. For articles, you would focus on the abstract or synopsis—a paragraph that summarizes the entire piece and helps determine if it’s what you’re looking for. For webpages, you would read the very top and then skip down to see if the section headings indicate topics of interest; you can also do a word search (ctrl + f) if you’re scanning for specific concepts. At the level of each paragraph, you rely on the first sentences representing the topic of the paragraph (see §4.7 below for more on paragraph organization) so that you can skim the topic sentences, and perhaps the concluding sentences, to capture the main points and get a sense of how the content flows (Freedman, 2012). Bolded key words and illustrations also help. (If your sources are effectively organized in this fashion, you can express your gratitude by paying it forward to your own readers. Organize your own writing so that you place main points strategically in topic sentences and highlight topics as subheadings. Your readers will be grateful if you help them to skim effectively.)

When you find online sources relevant to your topic, best practice for preparing to document and use them properly is to collect them in an informal annotated bibliography. A formal annotated bibliography lists full bibliographical entries (see §3.5 below) and a proper summary under each entry (see §3.4.3 below); as a set of notes, on the other hand, an informal annotated bibliography need only include the source titles, web addresses (URLs that allow you to get back to the sources and collect more information about them later if you end up using them), and some summary points about the sources under each URL. When you begin your research investigation, however, you may want to collect only titles and URLs until you’ve narrowed down a list of sources you think you’ll use, then go back and confirm their relevance by writing some notes under each. (Getting some note-form points down on paper—or on your word processor screen—counts as your first step in the actual writing of your document, giving you a foundation to build on, as we shall see in Chapter 4 below.)

The most relevant and useful sources meet the needs of the audience you are preparing your document for. For this you must choose sources with the right amount of detail. You may find plenty of general sources that offer decent introductions (e.g., from Wikipedia) but fall short of providing appropriate detail; in such cases you might be able to find more detailed coverage in the sources that they’ve used if those introductory sources you found are credible for having properly documented their research in the first place. On the other end of the spectrum, sources such as peer-reviewed journal articles might offer a level of detail that far exceeds what you need along with content that goes way over your head; you may want to include these as mere citations if only to point readers in the direction of credible evidence for a minor point supporting a major point. In such cases, you should at least ensure that they indeed prove your point rather than prove something distantly related but not relevant enough to your topic.

During this process you will encounter plenty of information in sources that may both confirm and contradict what you already know about your topic. It’s important that you do what you’re supposed to do as a student: keep an open mind and learn! Refrain from simply discarding contradictory information that will over-complicate your argument. If it turns out that a reputable source undermines your argument entirely, then this is the right point in the game to change your argument so that you don’t end up embarrassing yourself in the end with a fantasy-driven document. If you’re doing a research report into the viability of a waste-to-energy gasification facility, for instance, and you really want to say that it solves both your city’s municipal garbage disposal and energy production needs, you don’t want to find yourself too far down that road before addressing why no such facility has ever achieved profitable positive energy production. Ignoring such a record and the reasons why investors tend to avoid such opportunities, such as the failed Plasco plant in Ottawa (Chianello & Pearson, 2015), will undermine your credibility.

As a final word of warning, be careful with how you collect source content so that you don’t accidentally plagiarize by the time you use the sources you’ve collected in your final document. If you copy and paste text from sources into your notes as a basis for quotations or paraphrases, ensure that you put quotation marks around it and cite the page numbers (if the source has them) or paragraph numbers (if it doesn’t have page numbers) in parentheses immediately following the closing quotation marks so you can properly cite them if you go on to use them later. If you don’t put quotation marks around copied text, you run the risk of committing plagiarism by rolling unmarked quotations into your final document; even if you cite them, implying that you’ve paraphrased when you’ve really quoted still counts as a breach of academic integrity. We will return to the problem of plagiarism in the next section (§3.4) when we continue examining the process of building a document around research, but at this point it’s worth reviewing your collection of research material to ensure that it meets the needs of the audience and works towards fulfilling the purpose you determined at the outset of the writing process.

Key Takeaways

key iconNarrowing down a research topic involves skimming through database search results to select relevant sources, as well as skimming through source text to pull out main points that support your hypothesis by knowing where to find them.

Exercises

Building on Exercise #1 in the previous section (§3.2), develop the sources you found into an informal annotated bibliography with just titles and URLs for each source, as well as 2-3 main points in quotation marks pulled from the source text and bullet-listed under each URL.

References

Chianello, J., & Pearson, M. (2015, February 10). Ottawa severs ties with Plasco as company files for creditor protection. Ottawa Citizen. Retrieved from http://ottawacitizen.com/news/local-news/plasco-energy-group-files-for-creditor-protection

Freedman, L. (2012). Skimming and scanning. Writing Advice. Retrieved from http://advice.writing.utoronto.ca/researching/skim-and-scan/

 

3.4: Using Source Text: Quoting, Paraphrasing, and Summarizing

Learning Objectives

Target icon3. Quote source text directly with accuracy and correct punctuation.

4. Use effective reading strategies to collect and reframe information from a variety of written materials accurately.

5.  Locate, select, and organize relevant and accurate information drawn from a variety of sources appropriate to the task.

6. Integrate and document information using commonly accepted citation guidelines.

Once you have a collection of credible sources as part of a formal secondary research project such as a report, your next step is to build that report around those sources, using them as anchors of evidence around your own arguments. If you began with an hypothesis and you’re using the sources as evidence to support it, or if you realize that your hypothesis is wrong because all the credible sources you’ve found poked holes in it, you should at this point be able to draft a thesis—your whole point in a nutshell. From there, you can arrange your sources in an order that follows a logical sequence such as general to specific or advantages versus disadvantages. We will examine organizational structures in the next chapter (Ch. 4) on drafting, but we are now going to focus on how to incorporate source material into usable evidence.

You essentially have four ways of using source material available to you, three of them involving text, and one media:

In each case, acknowledging your source with a citation at the point of use and follow-up bibliographical reference at the end of your document (see §3.5 below) is essential to avoid a charge of plagiarism. Let’s now look at each of these in turn.

3.4.1: Quoting Sources

Quoting is the easiest way to use sources in a research document, but it also requires care in using it properly so that you don’t accidentally plagiarize, misquote, or overquote. At its simplest, quoting takes source text exactly as it is and puts quotation marks (“ ”) around that text to set it off from your own words. The following points represent conventions and best practices when quoting:

References

Conrey, S. M., Pepper, M., & Brizee, A. (2013, April 3). Quotation mark exercise and answers. Purdue OWL. Retrieved from https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/577/05/

Conrey, S. M., Pepper, M., & Brizee, A. (2017, July 25). How to use quotation marks. Purdue OWL. Retrieved from https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/577/01/

Hacker, Diana. (2006). The Bedford handbook (7th ed.). New York: St. Martin’s. Retrieved from https://department.monm.edu/english/mew/signal_phrases.htm

Lester, J. D. (1976). Writing research papers: A complete guide (2nd ed.). Glenview, Illinois: Scott, Foresman.

3.4.2: Paraphrasing Sources

Paraphrasing or “indirect quotation” is putting source text in your own words and altering the sentence structure to avoid using the quotation marks required in direct quotation. Paraphrasing is the preferred way of using a source when the original wording isn’t important. This way, you can incorporate the source’s ideas so they’re stylistically consistent with the rest of your document and thus better tailored to the needs of your audience (presuming the original was tailored for a different audience with different needs). Also, paraphrasing a source into your own words proves your advanced understanding of the source text.

A paraphrase must faithfully represent the source text by containing the same ideas as in the original in about the same length. As a matter of good writing, however, you should try to streamline your paraphrase so that it tallies fewer words than the source passage while still preserving the original meaning. An accurate paraphrase of the Lester (1976) passage block-quoted in the section above, for instance, can reduce a five-line passage to three lines without losing or distorting any of the original points:

Lester (1976) advises against exceeding 10% quotation in your written work. Since students writing research reports often quote excessively because of copy-cut-and-paste note-taking, try to minimize using sources word for word (pp. 46-47).

Notice that using a few isolated words from the original (“research,” “students,” “10%”) is fine, but also that this paraphrase doesn’t repeat any two-word sequence from the original because it changes the sentence structure along with most of the words. Properly paraphrasing without distorting, slanting, adding to, or deleting ideas from the source passage takes skill. The stylistic versatility required to paraphrase can be especially challenging to EAL learners and native English users whose general writing skills are still developing.

A common mistake that students make when paraphrasing is to go only part way towards paraphrasing by substituting-out major words (nouns, verbs, and adjectives) here and there while leaving the source passage’s basic sentence structure intact. This inevitably leaves strings of words from the original untouched in the “paraphrased” version, which can be dangerous because including such direct quotation without quotation marks will be caught by the plagiarism-busting software that college instructors use these days. Consider, for instance, the following botched attempt at a paraphrase of the Lester (1976) passage that subs out words selectively (lazily):

Students often overuse quotations when taking notes, and thus overuse them in research reports. About 10% of your final paper should be direct quotation. You should thus attempt to reduce the exact copying of source materials while note taking (pp. 46-47).

Let’s look at the same attempt, but colour the unchanged words red to see how unsuccessful the paraphraser was in rephrasing the original in their own words (given in black):

Students often overuse quotations when taking notes, and thus overuse them in research reports. About 10% of your final paper should be direct quotation. You should thus attempt to reduce the exact copying of source materials while note taking (pp. 46-47).

As you can see, several strings of words from the original are left untouched because the writer didn’t go the distance in changing the sentence structure of the original. The Originality Report from plagiarism-catching software such as Turnitin would indicate that the passage is 64% plagiarized because it retains 25 of the original words (out of 39 in this “paraphrase”) but without quotation marks around them. Correcting this by simply adding quotation marks around passages like “when taking notes, and” would be unacceptable because those words aren’t important enough on their own to warrant direct quotation. The fix would just be to paraphrase more thoroughly by altering the words and the sentence structure, as shown in the paraphrase a few paragraphs above. But how do you go about doing this?

Paraphrase easily by breaking down the task into these seven steps:

  1. Read and re-read the source-text passage so that you thoroughly understand each point it makes. If it’s a long passage, you might want to break it up into digestible chunks. If you’re unsure of the meaning of any of the words, look them up in a dictionary; you can even just type the word into the Google search bar, hit Enter, and a definition will appear, along with results of other online dictionary pages that define the same word.
  2. Look away and get your mind off the target passage. Process some different information for a while (e.g., a few minutes of gaming or social media—but just a few!)
  3. Without looking back at the source text, repeat its main points as you understood them—not from memorizing the exact words, but as you would explain the same ideas in different words out loud to a friend.
  4. Still without looking back at the source text, jot down that spoken wording and tailor the language so that it’s stylistically appropriate for your audience; edit and proofread your written version to make it grammatically correct in a way that perhaps your spoken-word version wasn’t.
  5. Now compare your written paraphrase version to the original to ensure that:
  1. If any two words from the original remain, go further in changing those expressions by using a thesaurus in combination with a dictionary. When you enter a word into a thesaurus, it gives you a list of synonyms, which are different words that mean the same thing as the word you enter into it.
  1. Cite your source. Just because you didn’t put quotation marks around the words doesn’t mean that you don’t have to cite your source. For more on citing, see §3.5.2 below).

For more on paraphrasing, consult the Purdue OWL Paraphrasing learning module (Cimasko, 2013), Exercise, and Answer Key.

References

Cimasko, T. (2013, March 22). Paraphrasing. Purdue OWL. Retrieved from https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/976/02/

3.4.3: Summarizing Sources

Summarizing is one of the most important skills in communications because professionals of every kind must explain to non-expert customers, managers, and even co-workers the complex concepts on which they are experts, but in a way that those non-experts can understand. Adapting the message to such audiences requires brevity but also translating jargon-heavy technical details into plain, accessible language.

Summarizing is thus paraphrasing only the highlights of a source text or speech. Like paraphrasing, a summary is indirect quotation that re-casts the source in your own words; unlike a paraphrase, however, a summary is a fraction of the source length—anywhere from less than 1% to a quarter depending on the source length and length of the summary. A summary can reduce a whole novel or film to a single-sentence blurb, for instance, or it could reduce a 50-word paragraph to a 15-word sentence. It can be as casual as a spoken run-down of a meeting your colleague was absent from and wanted to know what he missed, or an elevator pitch selling a project idea to a manager. It can also be as formal as a memo report on a conference you attended on behalf of your organization so your colleagues there can learn in a few minutes of reading the highlights of what you learned in a few days of attending the conference, saving them time and money.

The procedure for summarizing is much like that of paraphrasing except that it involves the extra step of pulling out highlights from the source. Altogether, this can be done in six steps, one of which includes the seven steps of paraphrasing, making this a twelve-step procedure:

  1. Determine how big your summary should be (according to your audience’s needs) so that you have a sense of how much material you should collect from the source.
  2. Read and re-read the source text so that you thoroughly understand it.
  3. Pull out the main points, which usually come first at any level of direct-approach organization (i.e., the prologue or introduction at the beginning of a book, the abstract at the beginning of an article, or the topic sentence at the beginning of a paragraph); review §3.3 above on reading for main points and §4.1 below on organizational patterns.
    • Disregard detail such as supporting evidence and examples.
    • If you have an electronic copy of the source, copy and paste the main points into your notes; for a print source that you can mark up, use a highlighter then transcribe those main points into your electronic notes.
    • How many points you collect depends on how big your summary should be (according to audience needs).
  4. Paraphrase those main points following the seven-step procedure for paraphrasing outlined in §3.4.2 above.
  5. Edit your draft to make it coherent, clear, and especially concise.
  6. Ensure that your summary meets the needs of your audience and that your source is cited. Again, not having quotation marks around words doesn’t mean that you are off the hook for documenting your source(s).

Once you have a stable of summarized, paraphrased, and quoted passages from research sources, building your document around them requires good organizational skills. We’ll focus more on this next step of the drafting process in the following chapter (Ch. 4), but basically it involves arranging your integrated research material in a coherent fashion, with main points up front and supporting points below proceeding in a logical sequence towards a convincing conclusion. Throughout this chapter, however, we’ve frequently encountered the requirement to document sources by citing and referencing, as in the last steps of both summarizing and paraphrasing indicated above. After reinforcing our quoting, paraphrasing, and summarizing skills, we can turn our focus on how to document sources.

Key Takeaway

key iconIncluding research in your work typically involves properly quoting, paraphrasing, and/or summarizing source text, as well as citing it.

Exercises

Find an example of professional writing in your field of study, perhaps from a textbook, trade journal, or industry website that you collected as part of the previous section’s informal annotated bibliography exercise.

  1. If you’ve already pulled out the main points as part of the previous exercise, practice including them as properly punctuated quotations in your document with smooth signal phrases introducing them.
  2. Paraphrase those same main-point sentences following the seven-step procedure outlined in §3.4.2 above. In other words, if Exercise 1 above was direct quotation, now try indirect quotation for each passage.
  3. Following the six-step procedure outlined in §3.4.3 above, summarize the entire source article, webpage, or whatever document you chose by reducing it to a single coherent paragraph of no more than 10 lines on your page.

3.5: Documenting Sources in APA, MLA, or IEEE Styles

Learning Objectives

Target icon
6.
 Integrate and document information using commonly accepted citation guidelines.

To prove formally that we’ve done research, we use a two-part system for documenting sources. The first part is a citation that gives a few brief pieces of information about the source right where that source is used in our document and points to the second part, the bibliographic reference at the end of the document. This second part gives further details about the source so that readers can easily retrieve it themselves. Though documenting research requires a little more effort than not, it looks so much better than including research in a document without showing where you got it, which is called plagiarism. Before focusing further on how to document sources, it’s worthwhile considering why we do it and what exactly is wrong with plagiarism.

3.5.1: Academic Integrity vs. Plagiarism

Academic integrity basically means that you do your work yourself and formally credit your sources when you use research, whereas plagiarism is cheating. Students often plagiarize by stealing the work of others from the internet (e.g., copying and pasting text, or dragging and dropping images) and dumping it into an assignment without quoting or citing; putting their name on that assignment means that they’ve dishonestly presented someone else’s work as their own. Lesser violations involve not quoting or citing properly. But why would anyone try to pull one over on their instructor like this when instructors award points for doing research? If you’re going to do your homework, you might as well do it right by finding credible sources, documenting them, and getting credit for doing so rather than sneak your research in as if you’ll get points for originality, for coming up with professional-grade material yourself, and end up getting penalized for it. But what makes plagiarism so wrong?

Plagiarism is theft, and bad habits of stealing others’ work in school likely begin as liberal attitudes towards intellectual property in our personal lives, but often develop into more serious crimes of copyright or patent violations in professional situations with equally serious financial penalties or destruction of reputations and earning power. The bad habits perhaps start from routines of downloading movies and music illegally because, well, everybody’s does it and few get caught (Helbig, 2014), or so the thinking goes; the rewards seem to outweigh the risks. But when download bandits become professionals, and are tasked with, say, posting on their company website some information about a new service the company is offering, their research and writing procedure might go something like this:

  1. They want their description of the service to look professional, so they Google-search to see what other companies offering the same service say about it on their websites. So far so good.
  2. Those other descriptions look good, and the employee can’t think of a better way to put it, so they copy and paste the other company’s description into their own website. Here’s where things go wrong.
  3. They also see that the other company has posted an attractive photo beside their description, so the employee downloads that and puts it on their website also.

The problem is that both the text and photo were copyrighted, as indicated by the “All Rights Reserved” copyright notice at the bottom of the other company’s webpage. Once the employee posts the stolen text and photo, the copyright owner (or their legal agents) find it through a simple Google search, Google Alerts notification, reverse image search, or digital watermarking notification (Rose, 2013). The company’s agents send them a “cease & desist” order, but they ignore it and then find that they’re getting sued for damages. Likewise, if you’re in hi-tech R&D (research and development), help develop technology that uses already-patented technology without paying royalties to the patent owner, and take it to market, the patent owner is being robbed of the ability to bring in revenue on their intellectual property themselves and can sue you for lost earnings. Patent, copyright, and trademark violations are a major legal and financial concern in the professional world (SecureYourTrademark, 2015), and acts of plagiarism have indeed ruined perpetrators’ careers when they’re caught, which is easier than ever (Bailey, 2012).

Every college has its own plagiarism policy that helps you avoid the consequences of plagiarism. Algonquin College’s policy, for instance, is very thorough:

Plagiarism, whether done deliberately or accidentally, is defined as presenting someone else’s work, in whole or in part, as one’s own. It includes the verbal or written submission of another work without crediting that source. This applies to ideas, wording, code, graphics, music, and inventions. It includes all electronic sources, including the Internet, television, video, film, and recordings, all print and written sources, such as books, periodicals, lyrics, government publications, promotional materials, and academic assignments; and all verbal sources such as conversations and interviews. Sharing one’s work with other students is also considered an act of plagiarism. (Algonquin College, 2016)

The first and last points are especially important: you can be penalized for (1) sloppy research that results in accidental plagiarism such as copying text from the internet but not identifying the source, forgetting where the text came from, then putting it in your assignment anyway in the final rush to get it done. Likewise, you can be penalized for casually dragging and dropping a photo from the internet into a PowerPoint presentation without crediting the source because putting your name on that presentation implies that you generated all the content, including that image, when in fact you just stole it. You can also be penalized for (2) providing a classmate with your work for the purposes of plagiarizing.

Algonquin’s penalties for plagiarizing increase with each offense. Whether accidental or deliberate, your first act of plagiarism might result in getting a grade of zero on the assignment. However, the instructor may give you the opportunity to correct just the plagiarism in it, resubmit it, and get the mark you would have earned originally if not for the plagiarism. For instance, if your grade would have been 85% if it hadn’t been zeroed due to the plagiarism, the instructor can change the grade back to 85% as soon as they see that you’ve corrected the plagiarism, but just leave the grade at 0% if you don’t bother to correct it. Depending on the instructor and department, your instructor may submit the details to their manager so that a record of the offense is logged in case a second offense happens in that or course or another in the program. That way, the manager can see a pattern of plagiarism across all of the student’s courses, a pattern that the instructors in each individual course don’t see.

Your second offense could result in a grade of zero but without the opportunity to correct and resubmit it. When your instructor reports this to the department, the chair will likely put an “encumbrance” on your academic record. This means you are force-registered into an Academic Integrity online course that takes a few hours to complete. You won’t be able to progress to the next semester or graduate without passing the course.

Subsequent plagiarism offenses after this can get you expelled from the course, from your program, and from the College altogether. You would probably be hotly pursuing expulsion if you became a serial plagiarist who knows that it’s wrong and that you’ll get caught but do it anyway. The internet may make cheating easier by offering easy access to coveted material, but it also makes detection easier in the same way.

Students who think they’re too clever to get caught plagiarizing may not realize that plagiarism in anything they submit electronically is easily exposed by sophisticated plagiarism-detection software and other techniques. Most instructors use apps like Turnitin (built into the BrightSpace LMS) that produce originality reports showing the percentage of assignment content copied from sources found either on the public internet or in a global database of student-submitted assignments. That way, assignments borrowed or bought from someone who’s submitted the same or similar will also be flagged. For instance, the software would alert the instructor of common plagiarism scenarios, such as when:

Other techniques allow instructors to track down uncited media just as professional photographers or stock photography vendors like Getty Images use digital watermarks or reverse image searches to find unpermitted uses of their copyrighted material.

Plagiarism is also easy to sniff out in hardcopy assignments by any but the most novice and gullible instructors. Dramatic, isolated improvements in a student’s quality of work either between assignments or within an assignment will trigger an instructor’s suspicions. If a student’s writing on an assignment is mostly terrible with multiple writing errors in each sentence, but then is suddenly perfect and professional-looking in one sentence only without quotation marks or a citation, the instructor just runs a Google search on that sentence to find where exactly it was copied from.

A cheater’s last resort to try to make plagiarism untraceable is to pay someone to do a customized assignment for them, but this still arouses suspicions for the same reasons as above. The student who goes from submitting poor work to perfect work becomes a “person of interest” target to their instructor in all that they do after that. The hack also becomes expensive not only for that assignment but also for all the instances when the cheater will have to pay someone to do the work that they should have just learned to do themselves. For all these reasons, it’s better just to learn what you’re supposed to by doing assignments yourself and showing academic integrity by crediting sources properly when doing research.

But do you need to cite absolutely everything you research? Not necessarily. Good judgment is required to know what information can be left uncited without penalty. If you look up facts that are common knowledge (perhaps just not common to you yet, since you had to look them up), such as that the first Prime Minister of Canada Sir John A. MacDonald represented the riding of Victoria for his second term as PM even without setting foot there, you wouldn’t need to cite them because any credible source you consulted would say the same. Such citations end up looking like attempts to pad an assignment with research.

Certainly anything quoted directly from a source (because the wording is important) must be cited, as well as anyone’s original ideas, opinions, or theories that you paraphrase or summarize (i.e., indirectly quote) from a book, article, or webpage with an identifiable author, argument, and/or primary research producing new facts. You must also cite any media such as photos, videos, drawings/paintings, graphics, graphs, etc. If you are ever unsure about whether something should be cited, you can always ask your librarian or, better yet, your instructor since they’ll ultimately assess your work for academic integrity. Even the mere act of asking assures them that you care about academic integrity. For more on plagiarism, you can also visit plagiarism.org and the Purdue OWL Avoiding Plagiarism series of modules (Elder, Pflugfelder, & Angeli, 2010).

References

Algonquin College. (2016, March 23). AA20: Plagiarism. Policies. Retrieved from https://www.algonquincollege.com/policies/policy/plagiarism/

Bailey, J. (2012, August 21). 5 famous plagiarists: Where are they now? PlagiarismToday. Retrieved from https://www.plagiarismtoday.com/2012/08/21/5-famous-plagiarists-where-are-they-now/

Elder, C., Pflugfelder, E., & Angeli, E. (2010, December 2). Avoiding plagiarism. Purdue OWL. Retrieved from https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/930/01/

Helbig, K. (2014, April 20). 11 numbers that show how prolific illegal downloading is right now. Public Radio International. Retrieved from https://www.pri.org/stories/2014-04-20/11-numbers-show-how-prolific-illegal-downloading-right-now

Rose, O. (2013, August 16). 5 easy to use tools to effectively find and remove stolen content. Kissmetrics. Retrieved from https://blog.kissmetrics.com/find-remove-stolen-content/

SecureYourTrademark. (2015, July 13). 71 notorious patent, trademark, and copyright infringement cases. https://secureyourtrademark.com/blog/71-notorious-patent-trademark-and-copyright-infringement-cases/

3.5.2: Citing and Referencing Sources in APA Style

As mentioned above, a documentation system comes in two parts, the first of which briefly notes a few details about the source (author, year, and location) in parentheses immediately after you use the source, and this citation points the reader to more reference details (title and publication information) in a full bibliographical entry at the end of your document. Let’s now focus on these in-text citations (“in-text” because the citation is placed at the point of use in your sentence rather than footnoted or referenced at the end) in the different documentation styles—APA, MLA, and IEEE—used by different disciplines across the college.

The American Psychological Association’s documentation style is preferred by the social sciences and general disciplines such as business because it strips the essential elements of a citation down to a few pieces of information that briefly identify the source and cue the reader to further details in the References list at the back. The basic structure of the parenthetical in-text citation is as follows:

Its placement tells the reader that everything between the signal phrase and citation is either or direct or indirect quotation of the source, and everything after (until the next signal phrase) is your own writing and ideas. As you can see above, the three pieces of information in the citation are author, year, and location. Follow the conventions for each discussed below:

  1. Author(s) last name(s)
  1. Year of Publication
  1. Location of the direct or indirect quotation within the work used

Table 3.5.2 shows how these guidelines play out in sample citations with variables such as the placement of the author and year in either the signal phrase or parenthetical in-text citation, number of authors, and source types. Notice that, for punctuation:

Table 3.5.2: Example APA-style In-text Citations with Variations in Number of Authors and Source Types

Ex. Signal Phrase In-text Citation Example Sentences Citing Sources
1. Single author + year Paragraph location on a webpage According to CEO Kyle Wiens (2012), “Good grammar makes good business sense” (¶ 7).
2. Generalization Single author + year + location Smart CEOs know th at “Good grammar makes good business sense” (Wiens, 2012, ¶ 7).
3. Two authors + year Page number in a paginated book Smart CEOs know th at “Good grammar makes good business sense” (Wiens, 2012, ¶ 7).
As Strunk and White (2000) put it, “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words . . . for the same reason that a . . . machine [should have] no unnecessary parts” (p. 32).
4. Book title Two authors + year + page number As the popular Elements of Style authors put it, “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words” (Strunk & White, 2000, p. 32).
5. Three authors + year for first and subsequent instances Paragraph location on a webpage Conrey, Pepper, and Brizee (2017) advise, “successful use of quotation marks is a practical defense against accidental plagiarism” (¶ 1). . . . Conrey et al. also warn, “indirect quotations still require proper citations, and you will be committing plagiarism if you fail to do so” (¶ 6).
6. Website Three authors + year + location for first and subsequent instances The Purdue OWL advises that “successful use of quotation marks is a practical defense against accidental plagiarism” (Conrey, Pepper, & Brizee, 2017, ¶ 1). . . . The OWL also warns, “indirect quotations still require proper citations, and you will be committing plagiarism if you fail to do so” (Conrey et al., 2017, ¶ 6).
7. More than five authors + year Page number in an article John Cook et al. (2016) prove that “Climate scientists overwhelmingly agree that humans are causing recent global warming” (p. 1).
8. Generalization More than four authors + year + page number How can politicians still deny that “Climate scientists overwhelmingly agree that humans are causing recent global warming” (John Cook et al., 2016, p. 1)?
9. Corporate author + year Page number in a report The Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC, 2012) recommends that health care spending on mental wellness increase from 7% to 9% by 2022 (p. 13). . . . The MHCC (2012) estimates that “the total costs of mental health problems and illnesses to the Canadian economy are at least $50 billion per year” (p. 125).
10. Paraphrase instead Corporate author + year + page number Spending on mental wellness should increase from 7% to 9% by 2022 (The Mental Health Commission of Canada [MHCC], p. 13). . . . Current estimates are that “the total costs of mental health problems and illnesses to the Canadian economy are at least $50 billion per year” (MHCC, 2012, p. 125).

For more on APA-style citations, see Purdue OWL’s In-Text Citations: The Basics (Paiz et al., 2017) and its follow-up page on authors.

In combination, citations and references offer a reader-friendly means of enabling readers to find and retrieve research sources themselves, as each citation points them to the full bibliographical details in the References list at the end of the document. If the documentation system were reduced to just one part where citations were filled with the bibliographical details, the reader would be constantly impeded by 2-3 lines of bibliographical details following each use of a source. By tucking the bibliographical entries away at the back, authors also enable readers to go to the References list to examine at a glance the extent to which a document is informed by credible sources as part of a due-diligence credibility check in the research process (see §3.2 above).

Each bibliographical entry making up the References list includes information about a source in a certain order. Consider the following bibliographical entry for a book in APA style, for instance:

Strunk, W., & White, E. B. (2000). Elements of style (4th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

We see here a standard sequence including the authors, year of publication, title (italicized because it’s a long work), and publication information. You can follow this closely for the punctuation and style for any book. Online sources follow much the same style, except that the publisher location and name are replaced by the web address preceded by “Retrieved from,” as in:

Wiens, K. (2012, July 20). I won’t hire people who use poor grammar. Here’s why. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from http://blogs.hbr.org/2012/07/i-wont-hire-people-who-use-poo/

Note also that the title has been split into both a webpage title (the non-italicized title of the article) in sentence style and the title of the website (italicized because it’s the larger work from which the smaller one came). The easiest way to remember the rule for whether to italicize the title is to ask yourself: is the source I’m referencing the part or the whole? The whole (a book, a website, a newspaper title) is always in italics, whereas the part (a book chapter, a webpage, a newspaper article title) is not; see the third point below on Titles for more on this). A magazine article reference follows a similar sequence of information pieces, albeit replacing the publication or web information with the volume number, issue number, and page range of the article within the magazine, as in:

Dames, K. M. (2007, June). Understanding plagiarism and how it differs from copyright infringement. Computers in Libraries, 27(6), 25-27.

With these three basic source types in mind, let’s examine some of the guidelines for forming bibliographical entries with a view to variations for each part such as number and types of authors and titles:

Though reference generator applications are available online (simply Google-search for them) and as features within word processing applications like Microsoft Word to construct citations and references for you, putting them together on your own may save time if you’re adept at APA. The following guidelines help you organize and format your References page(s) according to APA convention when doing it manually:

Tabbing a References list by making the left-margin tab visible, clicking on the bottom triangle, and dragging it a half-centimeter to the right

Figure 3.5.2: Tabbing a References list by making the left-margin tab visible, clicking on the bottom triangle, and dragging it a half-centimeter to the right

Examine the bibliographical entries below and throughout this textbook for examples of the variations discussed throughout.

References

American Psychological Association (APA). (2018). The Basics of APA style: Tutorial. Learning APA Style. Retrieved from http://www.apastyle.org/learn/index.aspx

APA. (2009). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association (6th ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Conrey, S. M., Pepper, M., & Brizee, A. (2017, July 25). How to use quotation marks. Purdue OWL. Retrieved from https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/577/01/

Cook, J., et al. (2016, April 13). Consensus on consensus: A synthesis of consensus estimates on human-caused global warming. Environmental Research Letters 11, 1-7. Retrieved from http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/11/4/048002/pdf

Mental Health Commission of Canada. (2012). Changing directions, changing lives: The mental health strategy for Canada. Calgary: MHCC. Retrieved from http://strategy.mentalhealthcommission.ca/pdf/strategy-images-en.pdf

Paiz, J. M., Angeli, E., Wagner, J., Lawrick, E., Moore, K., Anderson, M., Soderlund, L., Brizee, A., & Keck, R. (2017, September 11). In-text citation: The basics. Purdue OWL. Retrieved from https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/560/02/

Paiz, J. M., Angeli, E., Wagner, J., Lawrick, E., Moore, K., Anderson, M., Soderlund, L., Brizee, A., & Keck, R. (2017, October 2). Reference list: Basic rules. Purdue OWL. Retrieved from https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/560/05/

Strunk, W., & White, E. B. (2000). Elements of style (4th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon. Retrieved from http://www.jlakes.org/ch/web/The-elements-of-style.pdf

Wiens, K. (2012, July 20). I won’t hire people who use poor grammar. Here’s why. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from http://blogs.hbr.org/2012/07/i-wont-hire-people-who-use-poo/

3.5.3: Citing and Referencing Sources in MLA Style

The Modern Languages Association (MLA) documentation style is favoured by humanities disciplines and is therefore rarely used in the vocational college system. Though both two-part systems apply many of the same principles in citing and referencing, MLA favours an even more streamlined structure of citation, reduced to just the author(s) and location with no comma between:

Notice also how the “p.” we saw in APA is assumed (omitted) in MLA. Like APA, if the author is identified in the signal phrase, the contents of the parenthetical in-text citation are reduced to just the page number—e.g., “(66)” in the example above. Slight deviations from APA style also include using “and” instead of “&” to separate two authors in MLA in-text citations, and “et al.” replaces the second, third, and any other authors, even the first time it appears if the source has three or more authors. For more on MLA-style citations, see MLA In-Text Citations: The Basics (Russell et al., 2017).

MLA bibliographical entries are similar to APA references in many respects but different in certain details. Consider typical book, article, and online article bibliographical entries in an MLA-style Works Cited list:

Dames, K. Matthew. “Understanding Plagiarism and How It Differs from Copyright Infringement.” Computers in Libraries, vol. 27, no. 6, 2007, pp. 25-27.

Strunk, William, and E. B. White. Elements of Style. 1959. 4th ed., Allyn & Bacon, 2000.

Wiens, Kyle. “I Won’t Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar. Here’s Why.” Harvard Business Review, 20 July 2012, blogs.hbr.org/2012/07/i-wont-hire-people-who-use-poo/. Accessed 20 November 2017.

The following points cover major differences between MLA and APA:

For more on MLA Works Cited conventions, see MLA Works Cited Page: Basic Format (Russel et al., 2017) and the pages following it.

References

Russell, T., Brizee, A., Angeli, E., Keck, R., Paiz, J. M., Campbell, M., Rodríguez-Fuentes, R., Kenzie, D. P., Wegener, S., Ghafoor, M. (2017, October 23). MLA in-text citations: The basics. Purdue OWL. Retrieved from https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/747/02/

Russell, T., Brizee, A., Angeli, E., Keck, R., Paiz, J. M., Campbell, M., Rodríguez-Fuentes, R., Kenzie, D. P., Wegener, S., Ghafoor, M. (2017, October 23). MLA works cited page: Basic format. Purdue OWL. Retrieved from https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/747/05/

3.5.4: Citing and Referencing Sources in IEEE Style

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) documentation style is favoured by pure STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) disciplines and is therefore second to APA in its prevalence in the College of Applied Arts and Technology system. Like APA and MLA, it features a two-part system of in-text citations used throughout and references tucked away at the end of a document, but streamlines the former even further to just a bracketed number. Citations are numbered in order of their appearance, as are the bibliographical entries at the back since they correspond to the bracketed numbers throughout the document. The first few sources used would be cited as such:

Direct or indirect quotation from the first source [1]. Direct or indirect quotation from a second source [2]. Direct or indirect quotation from the first source again [1]. Direction or indirect quotation from a third source [3].

Besides being citations, the bracketed numbers may also be used as substitutes for naming the source itself, as in the following signal phrase preceding a summary of several sources:

According to [12], [15], and [17]-[20], . . . .

Bracketing the whole group of references (rather than each individually) is also acceptable (Murdoch University Library, 2018):

According to [12, 15, and 17-20], . . . .

Page or paragraph references can also be inserted into the citations as they were in APA and MLA—e.g., [12, p. 4], [15, ¶ 7].

The list of bibliographical entries at the back of the document is called “References” like in APA, but its organization differs. Rather than list the entries alphabetically by author last name, IEEE lists them in order of their appearance throughout your text with a column of the bracketed citation numbers flush to the left margin. Consider the three sample sources used to compare and contrast bibliographical entries for APA and MLA style above, now in IEEE:

[1] W. Strunk and E. B. White, Elements of Style, 4th ed., Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon, 2000.

[2] K. Wiens. (2012, July 20). I won’t hire people who use poor grammar. Here’s why. Harv. Bus. Rev. [Online]. Available: https://hbr.org/2012/07/i-wont-hire-people-who-use-poo. [Accessed: January 27, 2018].

[3] K. M. Dames, “Understanding plagiarism and how it differs from copyright infringement,” Comp. in Libr., vol. 27, no. 6, pp. 25-27, Jun., 2006.

The basic differences between IEEE-style References, APA, and MLA are as follows:

When writing a document involving research in IEEE style, you are strongly advised to use a citation and references generator such as that available in MS Word. Begin one even when starting a project with notes by going to the “References” menu at the top and selecting “Insert Citation.” Though the IEEE numbering system is reader friendly, documenting research manually, especially for larger projects with several sources, is difficult because adding references out of order during the writing process requires re-numbering all subsequent citations as well as their corresponding bibliographical entry numbers at the back. Say you’re writing a 20-page report and realize that you need to add an extra source between [12] and [13], and you’ve already cited 26 sources; after inserting the new [13], you would have to manually change the  old [13] to [14], [14] to [15], and 11 others both throughout your report and in your references at the back; if you added yet another source in the middle somewhere, you’ll be re-numbering them all over again. A reference generator will re-number your references with the press of a button when adding citations out of order, as well as format your References list for you. Some stylistic adjustments will be necessary, however, due to differences between MS Word’s References formatting and that modeled in the IEEE Editorial Style Manual (n.d.).

References

IEEE editorial style manual. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.ieee.org/conferences_events/conferences/publishing/style_references_manual.pdf

Murdoch University Library. (2018, January 18). IEEE style: Citing in the text. Retrieved from http://libguides.murdoch.edu.au/IEEE/text

3.5.5: Citing Images and Other Media

We’ve so far covered citations and references when using text, but what about other media? How do you cite an image or a video embedded in a presentation, for instance? A common mistake among students is to just grab whatever photos or illustrations they find in a Google image search, toss them into a presentation PowerPoint or other document, and be done with it. That would be classic plagiarism, however, since putting their name on an assignment that includes the uncredited work of others dishonestly presents other people’s work as their own. To avoid plagiarism, the student would first have to determine if they’re permitted to use the image then cite it properly.

Whether you’ve been granted permission, own the image yourself, or not, you must still credit the source of the image just like when you quote directly or indirectly. Not citing an image even in the case of owning it yourself will result in the reader thinking that you may have stolen it from internet. Just because a photo or graphic is on the internet doesn’t mean that it’s for the taking; any image is automatically copyrighted by the owner as soon as they produce it (e.g., you own the copyright to all the photos you take on your smartphone). Whether or not you can download and use images from the internet depends on both its copyright status and your purpose for using it. According to Canadian legislation, using images for educational purposes is considered “Fair Dealing” (i.e., safe) when you won’t make any money on it (Copyright Act, 1985, §29), but contacting the owner and asking permission is still the safest course of action. Next safest is to ask your librarian if your use of an image in whatever circumstances might be considered offside or fair.

Standard practice in citing images in APA style is to refer to them in your text and then properly label them with figure numbers, captions, and copyright details. Referring to them in your text, referencing the figure numbers in parentheses, and placing the image as close as possible to that reference ensures that the image is relevant to your topic rather than a frivolous attempt to pad your research document with non-text space-filler. The image must be:

Even if you retrieve the image from public domain archives such as the Wikimedia Commons (see Figure 1), you must indicate that status along with the other information outlined above and illustrated below.

. Algonquin couple of the Kitcisipiriniwak

Figure 1. Algonquin couple of the Kitcisipiriniwak (“Ottawa River Men”) encountered by the French on an islet on the Ottawa River. From “Algonquines,” watercolour by an unknown 18th-century artist, https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3a/Algonquins.jpg. Public domain (2008) courtesy of the City of Montreal Records Management & Archives, Montreal, Canada.

If your document is a PowerPoint or other type of presentation, however, which doesn’t give you much room for 2-4 lines of citation information without compromising clarity by minimizing its size, a more concise citation more like that you would do for directly or indirectly quoted text might be more appropriate. The citation below an image on a PowerPoint slide could thus look more like:

. Algonquin couple of the Kitcisipiriniwak

Source: “Algonquines” (2008)

In either case, the References at the end of the paper or slide deck would have a proper APA-style bibliographical entry in the following format:

Creator’s last name, first initial. (Role of creator). (Year of creation). Title of image or description of image. [Type of work]. Retrieved from URL/database

If the identity of the creator is not available and year of creation unknown, as in the above case, the title moves into the creator/owner’s position and the date given is when the image was posted online:

Algonquines. (2008, August 19). [Digital Image]. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Algonquin_people#/media/File:Algonquins.jpg

A common mistake is to identify “Google Images” as the source, but it’s a search engine, not a source, and doesn’t guarantee that the reader will be able to find the source you used. By having either that actual owner/author or title in the citation and the matching owner/author as the first word in the References section, you make it easy for the reader to go directly to the source you used, which is the whole point of the two-part citation/reference system.

For more, see the Simon Fraser University Library website’s guide Finding and using online images (Thompson, 2017) for a collection of excellent databases and other websites to locate images, detailed instructions for how to cite images in APA and MLA style, and information on handling copyrighted material. Though the IEEE Editorial Style Manual omits a section on citing images, the University of Manitoba’s Citation Guide – IEEE Style shows that the label below the image looks puts the figure number in uppercase along with the title caption, and replaces everything else with just the bracketed in-text citation number:

. Algonquin couple of the Kitcisipiriniwak

FIGURE 1. ALGONQUIN COUPLE [4]

In the References at the back, the IEEE figure would appear as:

[4] “Algonquines” [Online]. (2008, August 19). Available: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Algonquin_people#/media/File:Algonquins.jpg. [Accessed: January 27, 2018].

For more on citing images in IEEE, as well as further examples of all other source types, see Citation Guide – IEEE Style (Godavari, 2008).

For citing and referencing an online video such as from YouTube, you would just follow the latest guidelines from the official authority on each style such as APAStyle.org. Citing these is a little tricky because YouTube users often post content they don’t own the copyright to. If that’s the case, you would indicate the actual author or owner in the author position as you would for anything else, but follow it with the user’s screen name in brackets. If the author and the screen name are the same, you would just go with the screen name in the author position. For a video on how to do this exactly, for instance, you would cite the screen given under the video in YouTube as the author, followed by just the year (not the full date) indicated below the screen name following “Published on” (James B. Duke, 2017). In the References section, “[Video file]” follows the video’s italicized, sentence-style title, and the bibliographical reference otherwise looks like any other online source:

James B. Duke. (2017, January 13). How to cite Youtube videos in APA format [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ydJ7k1ix-p8

Whenever in doubt about what style to follow, especially as technology changes, always consult the relevant authority on whatever source medium you need to cite and reference. If you doubt the James B. Duke Memorial Library employee’s video above, for instance, you can verify the information at APAStyle.org and see that it indeed is accurate advice (McAdoo, 2011).

Key Takeaways

key iconCite and reference each source you use in a research document following the documentation style conventions adopted by your field of study, whether APA, MLA, or IEEE.

Exercises

Drawing from your quotation, paraphrase, and summary exercises at the end of §3.4, assemble of combination of each, as well as media such as a photograph and a YouTube video, into a short research report on your chosen topic with in-text citations and bibliographical entries in the documentation style (APA, MLA, or IEEE) adopted by your field of study.

References

Copyright Act (R.S.C., 1985, c. C-42, amended June 19, 2017). Retrieved from the Justice Laws Website: http://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/c-42/

Godavari, S. N. (2008, September). Citation Guide – IEEE style. Retrieved from https://www.umanitoba.ca/faculties/engineering/departments/mechanical/pdf/Citing-IEEE.pdf

James B. Duke. (2017, January 13). How to cite Youtube videos in APA format [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ydJ7k1ix-p8

McAdoo, T. (2011, October 27). How to create a reference for a YouTube video. APA Style. Retrieved from http://blog.apastyle.org/apastyle/2011/10/how-to-create-a-reference-for-a-youtube-video.html

Murdoch University Library. (2018, January 18). IEEE style: Citing in the text. Retrieved from http://libguides.murdoch.edu.au/IEEE/text

Thompson, J. (2017, September 26). Finding and using online images: Citing. Library. Retrieved from https://www.lib.sfu.ca/help/research-assistance/format-type/online-images/citing

 

Chapter 4: The Writing Process III: Drafting

Jordan Smith

Chapter Learning Objectives

  1. Use effective reading strategies to collect and reframe information from a variety of written materials accurately.
  2. Apply outlining techniques to begin drafting a document.
  3.  Plan, write, revise, and edit short documents and messages that are organized, complete, and tailored to specific audiences.
  4. Apply the principles of reader-friendly document design to various written formats.

Now that you’ve planned out your document and gathered information that meets your audience’s needs, you’re just about ready to start drafting the document’s message. At this point it’s worthwhile reminding yourself that the words you start entering in your word processor will look different from those your reader will eventually read. By the end of the drafting stage examined in this chapter, your document will be partway there, but how much revising you do in the fourth stage (see Ch. 5) depends on how effectively you’ve organized your message in the first step of this third stage.

1 Preparing, 2 Researching, 3 Drafting, 4 Editing           3. Drafting, 3.1 Organizing, 3.2 Outlining, 3.3 Stylizing Sentences and Paragraphs, 3.4 Document Design

Figure 4: The four-stage writing process and Stage 3 Breakdown

4.1: Choosing an Organizational Pattern

Learning Objectives

Target icon1.  Use effective reading strategies to collect and reframe information from a variety of written materials accurately.

3. Plan, write, revise, and edit short documents and messages that are organized, complete, and tailored to specific audiences.

The shape of your message depends on the purpose you set out to achieve, which is why we said in §2.1 above that a clearly formulated purpose must be kept in mind throughout the writing process. Whether your purpose is to inform, instruct, persuade, or entertain, structuring your message according to set patterns associated with each purpose helps achieve those goals. Without those familiar structures guiding your reader toward the intended effect, your reader can get lost and confused, perhaps reflecting the confusion in your own mind if your thoughts aren’t clearly focused and organized enough themselves. Or perhaps your message is crystal clear in your own mind, but you articulate it in an unstructured way that assumes your reader sees what you think is an obvious main point. Either way, miscommunication results because your point gets lost in the noise. Lucky for us, we have standard patterns of organization to structure our thoughts and messages to make them understandable to our audiences.

From paragraphs to essays to long reports, most messages follow a three-part structure that accommodates the three-part division of our attention spans and memory:

  1. Attention-grabbing opening
  1. Detail-packed body

This information is crucial to the audience’s understanding of and commitment to the message, so it cannot be neglected despite the primacy and recency effects.

  1. Wrap-up and transitional closing

The effective writer therefore loads the message with important points both at the opening and closing because the reader will focus on and remember what they read there best, as well as organizes the body in a manner that is engaging and easy to follow. In the next section, we will explore some of the possibilities for different message patterns while bearing in mind that they all follow this general three-part structure. Learning these patterns is valuable beyond merely being able to write better. Though a confused and scattered mind produces confusing and disorganized messages, anyone can become a more clear and coherent thinker by learning to organize messages consistently according to well-established patterns.

4.1.1: Direct Messages

Because we’re all going to die and life is short, most messages do their reader a solid favour by taking the direct approach or frontloading the main point, which means getting right to the point and not wasting precious time. In college and in professional situations, no one wants to read or write more than they have to when figuring out a message’s meaning, so everybody wins when you open with the main point or thesis and follow with details in the message body. If it takes you a while before you find your own point in the process of writing, leaving it at the end where you finally discovered what your point was, or burying it somewhere in the middle, will frustrate your reader by forcing them to go looking for it. If you don’t move that main point by copying, cutting, and pasting it at the very beginning, you risk annoying your busy reader because it’s uncomfortable for them to start off in the weeds and linger in a state of confusion until they finally find that main point later. Leaving out the main point because it’s obvious to you—though it isn’t at all to the reader coming to the topic for the first time—is another common writing error. The writer who frontloads their message, on the other hand, finds themselves in their readers’ good graces right away for making their meaning clear upfront, freeing up readers to move quickly through the rest and on to other important tasks in their busy lives.

Whether or not you take the direct approach depends on the effect your message will have on the reader. If you anticipate your reader being interested in the message or their attitude to it being anywhere from neutral to positive, the direct approach is the only appropriate organizational pattern. Except in rare cases where your message delivers bad news, is on a sensitive topic, or when your goal is to be persuasive (see §4.1.2 below), all messages should take the direct approach. Since most business messages have a positive or neutral effect, all writers should frontload their messages as a matter of habit unless they have good reason to do otherwise. The three-part message organization outlined in the §4.1 introduction above helps explain the psychological reasons why frontloading is necessary: it accommodates the reader’s highly tuned capacity for remembering what they see first, as well as respects their time in achieving the goal of communication, which is understanding the writer’s point.

Let’s say, for instance, that you send an email to a client with e-transfer payment instructions so that you can be paid for work you did for them. Because you send this same message so often, the objective and context of this procedure is so well understood by you that you may fall into the trap of thinking that it goes without saying, so your version of “getting to the point” is just to open with the payment instructions. Perhaps you may have even said in a previous email that you’d be sending payment instructions in a later email, so you think that the reader knows what it’s about, or you may get around to saying that this is about paying for the job you did at the end of the email, effectively burying it under a pile of details. Either way, to the reader who opens the email to see a list of instructions for a procedure they’ve never done before with no explanation as to why they need to do this and what it’s all for exactly, confusion abounds. At best the client will email you back asking for clarification; at worst they will just ignore it, thinking that it was sent in error and was supposed to go to someone who would know what to do with it. You’ll have to follow up either way, but you have better things to do. If you properly anticipated your audience’s reaction and level of knowledge as discussed in Step 1.2 of the writing process (see §2.2.4 above), however, you would
know that opening with a main point like the following would put your client in the proper frame of mind for following the instructions and paying you on time:

Please follow the instructions below for how to send an e-transfer payment for the installation work completed at your residence on July 22.

In the above case, the opening’s main point or central idea is a polite request to follow instructions, but in other messages it may be a thesis statement, which is a summary of the whole argument; in others it may be a question or request for action. The main point of any message, no matter what type or how long, should be an idea that you can state clearly and concisely in one complete sentence if someone came up to you and asked you what it’s all about in a nutshell. Some people don’t know what their point is exactly when they start writing, in which case writing is an exploratory exercise through the evidence assembled in the research stage. As they move toward such a statement in their conclusion, however, it’s crucial that they copy, cut, and paste that main point so that it is among the first—if not the first—sentence the reader sees at the top of the document, despite being among the last written.

: Choosing an organizational approach in the writing process infographic

Figure 4.1.1: Choosing an organizational approach in the writing process

4.1.2: Indirect Messages

While the direct approach leads with the main point, the indirect approach strategically buries it deeper in the message when you expect that your reader will be resistant to it, displeased with it, upset or shocked by it, or even hostile towards it. In such cases, the direct approach would come off as overly blunt, tactless, and even cruel by hitting the reader over the head with it in the opening. The goal of indirect messages is not to deceive the reader nor make a game of finding the main point, but instead to use the opening and some of the message body to ease the reader towards an unwanted or upsetting message by framing it in such a way that the reader becomes interested enough to read the whole message and is in the proper mindset for following through on it. This organizational pattern is ideal for two main types of messages: those delivering bad news or addressing a sensitive subject, and those requiring persuasion such as marketing messages pitching a product, service, or even an idea. Both types are the focus of the two final sections of Chapter 9 respectively (see §9.4 and §9.5).

For now, however, all we need to know is that the organization of a persuasive message follows the so-called AIDA approach, which divides the message body in the traditional three-part organization into two parts, making for a four-part structure:

  1. Attention-grabbing opener
  2. Interest-generating follow-up
  3. Desire-building details
  4. Action cue

Nearly every commercial you’ve ever seen follows this general structure, which is designed to keep you interested while enticing you towards a certain action such as buying a product or service. If a commercial took the direct approach, it would say upfront “Give us $19.99 and we’ll give you this turkey,” but you never see that. Instead you see all manner of techniques used to grab your attention in the opening, keep you tuned in through the follow-up, pique your desire in the third part, and get you to act on it with purchasing information at the end. Marketing relies on this structure because it effectively accommodates our attention spans’ need to be hooked in with a strong first impression and told what to do at the end so that we remember those details best, while working on our desires—even subconsciously—in the two-part middle body.

Likewise, a bad-news message divides the message body into two parts with the main point buried in the second of them (the third part overall), with the opening used as a hook that delays delivery of the main point and the closing giving action instructions as in persuasive AIDA messages. The typical organization of a bad-news message is:

  1. Buffer offering some good news, positives, or any other reason to keep reading
  2. Reasons for the bad news about to come
  3. Bad news buried and quickly deflected towards further positives or alternatives
  4. Action cue

Delaying the bad news till the third part of the message manages to soften the blow by surrounding it with positive or agreeable information that keeps the audience reading so that they miss neither the bad news nor the rest of the information they need to understand it. If a doctor opened by saying “You’ve got cancer and probably have six months to live,” the patient would probably be reeling so much in hopelessness from the death-sentence blow that they wouldn’t be in the proper frame of mind to hear important follow-up information about life-extending treatment options. If an explanation of those options preceded the bad news, however, the patient would probably walk away with a more hopeful feeling of being able to beat the cancer and survive. Framing is everything when delivering bad news.

Consider these two concise statements of the same information taking both the direct and indirect approach:

Table 4.1.2: Comparison of Direct and Indirect Messages

Direct Message Indirect Message
Global Media is cutting costs in its print division by shutting down several local newspapers. Global Media is seeking to improve its profitability across its various divisions. To this end, it is streamlining its local newspaper holdings by strengthening those in robust markets while redirecting resources away from those that have suffered in the economic downturn and trend towards fully online content.

Here we can see at first glance that the indirect message is longer because it takes more care to frame and justify the bad news, starting with an opening that attempts to win over the reader’s agreement by appealing to their sense of reason. In the direct approach, the bad news is delivered concisely in blunt words such as “cutting” and “shutting,” which get the point across economically but suggest cruel aggression with violent imagery. The indirect approach, however, makes the bad news sound quite good—at least to shareholders—with positive words like “improve,” “streamlining,” and “strengthening.” The good news that frames the bad news makes the action sound more like an angelic act of mercy than an aggressive attack. The combination of careful word choices and the order in which the message unfolds determines how well it is received, understood, and remembered as we shall see when we consider further examples of persuasive and bad-news messages later in §9.4 and §9.5.

4.1.3: Organizing Principles

Several message patterns are available to suit your purposes for writing in both direct and indirect-approach message bodies, so choosing one before writing is essential for staying on track. Their formulaic structures make the job of writing as easy and routine as filling out a form—just so long as you know which form to grab and have familiarized yourself with what they look like when they’re filled out. Examples you can follow are your best friends through this process. By using such organizing principles as chronology (a linear narrative from past to present to future), comparison-contrast, or problem-solution, you arrange your content in a logical order that makes it easy for the reader to follow your message and buy what you’re selling.

If you undertake a large marketing project like a website for a small business, it’s likely that you’ll need to write pieces based on many of the available organizing principles identified, explained, and exemplified in Table 4.1.3 below. For instance, you might:

Checking out a variety of websites to see how they use these principles effectively will provide a helpful guide for how to write them yourself. So long as you don’t plagiarize their actual wording (see §3.5.1 above for why you mustn’t do this and §3.4.2 for how to avoid it), copying their basic structure so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel means that you can provide readers with a recognizable form that will enable them to find the information they need.

Table 4.1.3: Ten Common Organizing Principles

Organizing Principle Structure & Use Example
1. Chronology & 5W+H
  • Linear narrative from beginning to end, including past, present, and possibly future, as well as the who, what, where, when, and how of the story
  • For historical accounts, incident reports, and biographies
Wolfe Landscaping & Snowblowing began when founder Robert Wolfe realized in 1993 that there was a huge demand for reliable summer lawncare and winter snow removal when it seemed that the few other available services were letting their customers down. Wolfe began operations with three snow-blowing vehicles in the Bridlewood community of Kanata and expanded to include the rest of Kanata and Stittsville throughout the 1990s.

WLS continued its eastward expansion throughout the 2000s and now covers the entire capital region as far east as Orleans, plus Barrhaven in the south, with 64 snow-blowing vehicles out on the road at any one time. WLS recently added real-time GPS tracking to its app service and plans to continue expanding its service area to the rural west, south, and east of Ottawa throughout the 2020s.

2. Comparison & Contrast
  • Point-by-point account of the similarities between two or more things, followed by a similarly structured account of their differences
  • For descriptive analysis of two or more somehow related things
Wolfe Snowblowing goes above and beyond what its competitors offer. While all snowblowing services will send a loader-mount snow blower (LMSB) to your house to clear your driveway after a big snowfall, Wolfe’s LMSBs closely follow the city plow to clear your driveway and the snow bank made by the city plow in front of it, as well as the curbside area in front of your house so you still have street parking.

If you go with the “Don’t Lift a Finger This Winter” deluxe package, Wolfe will additionally clear and salt your walkway, stairs, and doorstep. With base service pricing 10% cheaper than other companies, going with Wolfe for your snow-removal needs is a no-brainer.

3. Pros & Cons
  • Account of advantages followed by disadvantages
  • For an analysis of something’s value as a basis for a recommendation to either adopt it or not
Why would you want a snow-removal service?

Advantages include:

  • Worry-free driveway clearing following the city plow
  • Round-the-clock service clearing your driveway before you leave for work and before you return
  • Time saved from shoveling your driveway yourself
  • Avoiding the injuries incurred from shoveling yourself

The disadvantages of other snow-removal services include:

    • 10% more expensive than our base price
    • Potential damage to your driveway or adjoining lawn (WLS will fix any damage free of charge)

As you can see, the advantages of WLS outweigh the disadvantages for any busy household.

4. Problem & Solution
  • Description of a problem scenario followed by a solution that directly solves that problem
  • For marketing products or services and scientific reporting of breakthroughs
Are you fed up with getting all geared up in -40 degree weather at 6am to shovel your driveway before leaving for work? Fed up with finishing shoveling the driveway in a hurry, late for work in the morning, and then the city plow comes by and snow-banks you in just as you’re about to leave? Fed up with coming home after a long, hard day at work only to find that the city plow snow-banked you out?

Well worry no more! Wolfe Landscaping & Snowblowing has got you covered with its 24-hour snow removal service that follows the city plow to ensure that you always have driveway access throughout the winter months.

5. Cause & Effect
  • Detailed description of the connection between two or more events, actions, or things to show how they work
  • For an analysis of the causal connection between things
As soon as snow appears in the weather forecast, Wolfe Landscaping & Snowblowing reserves its crew of dedicated snow blowers for 24-hour snow removal. When accumulation reaches 5cm in your area, our fleet deploys to remove snow from the driveways of all registered customers before the city plows get there. Once the city plow clears your street, a WLS snow blower returns shortly after to clear the snow bank formed by the city plow at the end of your driveway.
6. Process & Procedure
  • Numbered list describing steps in a chronological sequence of actions towards a goal
  • For an analysis of how something works, or instructions for performing a certain task
Ordering our snow removal service is as easy as 1 2 3:
  1. Call 1-800-555-SNOW or email us at info@wolfelandscaping&snow
  2. Let us know your address and driveway size (can it fit only one parked car, two end-to-end or side-by-side, four, etc.?)
  3. Pay by credit card over the phone or via our secure website, and we will come by to plant driveway markers within the week. That way, our snow blowers will be able to respect your driveway boundaries throughout the winter clearing season.
7. General to Specific
  • Starts with the bigger picture as context before narrowing the focus to something very specific
  • For an in-depth analysis or explanation of a topic
Wolfe Landscaping & Snowblowing provides a reliable snow-removal service throughout the winter. We got you covered for any snowfall of 5cm or more between November 1st and April 15th. Once accumulation reaches 5cm at any time day or night, weekday or weekend, holiday or not, we send out our fleet of snow blowers to cover neighbourhood routes, going house-by-house to service registered customers. At each house, a loader-mount snow blower scrapes your driveway and redistributes the snow evenly across your front yard in less than five minutes.
8. Definition & Example
  • Starts with a definition and provides specific examples for illustration
  • For explaining concepts to people coming to the topic for the first time
A loader-mount snow blower (LMSB) is a heavy-equipment vehicle that removes snow from a surface by pulling it into a front-mounted impeller with an auger and propelling it out of a top-mounted discharge chute. Our fleet consists of green John Deere SB21 Series and red M-B HD-SNB LMSBs.
9. Point Pattern
  • A bullet-point listing of various connected but unprioritized points supporting a main point preceding them
  • For breaking down an explanation in a reader-friendly point-by-point presentation such as an FAQ page
Wolfe Landscaping & Snowblowing’s “Don’t Lift a Finger This Winter” deluxe package ensures that you will always find your walkway and driveway clear when you exit your home after a snowfall this winter! It includes:
  • Clearing and salting your driveway with every 3cm or more of snow accumulation
  • Clearing the snowbank at the end of your driveway within minutes of it being formed by the city plow
  • Shoveling and salting your walkway all the way to your front door after a 3cm+ snowfall or freezing rain
  • Shoveling by request any other walkways on your property
10. Testimonial
  • First-person account of an experience
  • For offering a perspective that the reader can relate to as if they were to experience it themselves
According to Linda Sinclair in the Katimavik neighbourhood, “Wolfe did a great job clearing our snow this past winter. We didn’t see them much because they were always there and gone in a flash, but the laneway was always scraped clear by the time we left for work in the morning if it snowed in the night. We never had a problem when we got home either, unlike when we used Sherman Snowblowing the year before and we always had to stop, park on the street, and shovel the snow bank made by the city plow whenever it snowed while we were at work. Wolfe was the better service by far.”

Though shorter documents may contain only one such organizing principle, longer ones typically involve a mix of different organizational patterns used as necessary to support the document’s overall purpose.

Key Takeaways

key iconBefore beginning to draft a document, let your purpose for writing and anticipated audience reaction determine whether to take a direct or indirect approach, and choose an appropriate organizing principle to help structure your message.

Exercises

1. Consider some good news you’ve received recently (or would like to receive if you haven’t). Assuming the role of the one who delivered it (or who you would like to deliver it), write a three-part direct-approach message explaining it to yourself in as much detail as necessary.
2. Consider some bad news you’ve received recently (or fear receiving if you haven’t). Write a four-part indirect-approach message explaining it to yourself as if you were the one delivering it.
3. Draft a three-paragraph email to your boss (actual or imagined) where you recommend purchasing a new piece of equipment or tool. Use the following organizational structure:

i. Frontload your message by stating your purpose for writing directly in the first sentence or two.
ii. Describe the problem that the tool is meant to address in the follow-up paragraph.
iii. Provide a detailed solution describing the equipment/tool and its action in the third paragraph.

4. Picture yourself a few years from now as a professional in your chosen field. You’ve been employed and are getting to know how things work in this industry when an opportunity to branch out on your own presents itself. To minimize start-up costs, you do as much of the work as you can manage yourself, including the marketing and promotion. To this end, you figure out how to put together a website and write the content yourself. For this exercise, write a piece for each of the ten organizing principles explained and exemplified in Table 4.1.3 above and about the same length as each, but tailored to suit the products and/or services you will be offering in your chosen profession.

References

Baddeley, A. (2000). Short-term and working memory. In E. Tulving & F. I. M. Craik (Eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Memory (pp. 77-92). New York: Oxford University Press. Retrieved from https://books.google.ca/books?id=DOYJCAAAQBAJ

 

4.2: Outlining Your Message

Learning Objectives

Target icon1. Use effective reading strategies to collect and reframe information from a variety of written materials accurately.

2. Apply outlining techniques to begin drafting a document.

3.  Plan, write, revise, and edit short documents and messages that are organized, complete, and tailored to specific audiences.

Once you’ve clarified the organizing principle of your message, outlining with hierarchical notes helps you plot out the bare-bones structure of the message’s full scope so that you can flesh it out into full sentences and paragraphs shortly after. Outlining helps you get past one of the most terrifying moments in any student’s or professional’s job, especially when beginning a large writing project: writer’s block. Even after completing all the other steps of the writing process explored above, freezing up while staring down a blank screen is an anxiety-driven mental bottleneck that often comes from either lacking anything to say because you haven’t researched the topic, or thinking that your draft writing has to come out perfectly just as the reader will see it by the end of the process. It absolutely doesn’t. Drafting is supposed to produce a sketchy, disappointing mess only because the goal at this stage is to get ideas down fast so that you can fix them up later in the editing stage.

Outlining is a structured brainstorming activity that helps keep you on track by assigning major, overarching ideas and relatively minor, supporting points to their proper places in the framework of your chosen organizing principle. At its most basic form for a three-part message, an outline looks like the following:

  1. Opening
    1. Point 1
    2. Point 2
  2. Body
    1. Point 1
      1. Subpoint 1
      2. Subpoint 2
        1. Sub-subpoint 1
        2. Sub-subpoint 2
          1. Sub-sub-subpoint 1
          2. Sub-sub-subpoint 2
          3. Sub-sub-subpoint 3
        3. Sub-subpoint 3
      3. Subpoint 3
    2. Point 2
      1. Subpoint 1
      2. Subpoint 2
      3. Subpoint 3
  3. Closing
    1. Point 1
    2. Point 2

You can add further points in the body and, as shown in the middle of the above outline template, subdivide them even further with lowercase roman numerals, regular numbers, lowercase letters, etc. depending on the size of the document and the support needed. Even when drafting a short email, throwing down a few point-form words as soon as you think of them, arranged in the basic three-part message structure, can help you get started, especially if you don’t have time to write the full email as soon as you think of it (or respond to one as soon as you read it) but nonetheless need to get some quick ideas down before you forget so that you can expand on those points later when you have time. For instance, if it occurs to you that subscribing to a snow-removal service might be a good idea and quickly draft an email on the weekend while doing several other winterizing chores, it may look like the one in the left column of Table 4.2a below.

Table 4.2a: Brief Message Outline as a Basis for an Email Draft

Message Outline Email Message Draft
  1. Interested
  2. Our details
    1.  address
    2. driveway
  3. Questions:
    1. prepaid cost vs. one-time?
    2. discounts?
Greetings!I am interested in your snow-removal service this winter.

We’re at 5034 Tofino Crescent, and our driveway can fit four cars, so how much would that come to for the prepaid service?

Alternatively, if we decide to do the snow removal ourselves for most of the winter but are in a jam at some point, is it possible to call you for one-time snow removal? How much would that be? Also, do you offer any discounts for first-time customers?

Warm regards,

Christine Cook

However numbered, the hierarchical structure of these notes is like the scaffolding that holds you up as you construct a building from the inside out, knowing that you will just remove that scaffolding when its exterior is complete. Once the outline is in place, you can likewise just delete the numbering and flesh out the points into full sentences, such as those in the email message in the second column of Table 4.2a above, as well as add the other conventional email message components (see §6.1 below).

The specific architecture of the outline depends on the organizing principle you’ve chosen as appropriate for your writing purpose. In the case of the 10 common organizing principles used throughout the Wolfe Landscaping & Snowblowing website example in Table 4.1.3 above, Table 4.2b below shows how the outline for each of the first three principles keeps each piece organized prior to being fleshed out into sentences.

Table 4.2b: Outline Possibilities Based on Organizing Principles

Organizing Principle Outline
1. Chronology & 5W+H
  1. Past
    1. Founding: who, when, what, and why
    2. Origin and expansion: where, when, and how
  2. Present
    1. Coverage: where
    2. Technology: what
  3. Future: where and when
2. Comparison & Contrast
  1. Thesis: Wolfe is better than the competition
  2. Body: Comparison-Contrast
    1. Comparison: what all companies do—clear your driveway
    2. Contrast: how Wolfe does it better
      1. Follows the city plow
      2. Does your street parking
      3. Offers walkway shoveling and salting
      4. 10% cheaper for base service
  3. Conclusion: Wolfe wins, no contest!
3. Pros & Cons
  1. FAQ: Why get snow removal?
  2. Pros & Cons
    1. Advantages
      1. professional driveway clearing
      2. 24/7 service
      3. saves time
      4. avoids injury
    2. Disadvantages
      1. expense
      2. potential property damage
  3. Concluding recommendation: get the service

As we shall see later in §11.1, outlining is key to organizing other projects such as presentations. If your task is to do a 20-minute presentation, preparing for it involves outlining your topic so that you can plot out the full scope of your speech, then fleshing out that outline into a coherent script with smooth transitions linking each point and subpoint. If it takes you 15 minutes to read that first version of the script out loud, then you simply add a third more material in the form of points in areas that need more development in your outline, then script them out into five more minutes of speech. But if it takes a half hour to read the first version of the script, then you know that you need to pare it down, chopping about a third of its length. Outlining and scripting prior to building a PowerPoint for a 20-minute presentation that would take you a half hour to present would save you the time of making slides for material that would have to be cut out anyway. In this way, outlining keeps you on track to prevent wasted efforts.

Key Takeaways

key iconBegin your draft by outlining the major and minor points in a framework based on the organizing principle appropriate for your purpose so that you can flesh it out into full draft sentences after.

Exercises

1. Find a sample article or document and break it down into a hierarchically structured outline with brief points for each level of organization. Follow the numbering divisions in the outline template given at the beginning of this section. Does this help you understand the structure of the message that you otherwise didn’t consider but nonetheless relied on to understand it?
2. Outline your next substantial email (i.e., more than a hundred words in length) using hierarchical notes following the structure given at the beginning of this section. Does doing so offer any advantages to approaching the writing process without a plan?

 

4.3: Forming Effective Sentences

Learning Objectives

Target icon
3.  Plan, write, revise, and edit short documents and messages that are organized, complete, and tailored to specific audiences.

Once you’ve put words on the screen with research material and outlined the shape of your content with point-form notes, building around that research and fleshing out those notes into correct English sentences should be quick and dirty composition—“quick” because speed-typing helps get your thoughts down almost as soon as they occur to you, and “dirty” because it’s fine if those typed-out thoughts are garbage writing rife with errors. A talented few might be able think and draft in perfectly correct sentences, but that’s not our goal at this stage.

As long as you clean it all up later, what’s important during the drafting stage is that you get your ideas down quickly to avoid losing any in the nitty-gritty bog of perfectionist composition. If you’re still working on speeding up your typing (it can be a lifelong process!), however, consider using your smartphone’s voice recorder to capture what you want to say out loud, then transcribe it into somewhat proper sentences by playing it back sentence by sentence. Correcting that writing as you draft is a waste of time because, in the first substage of editing (see §5.1 below), you may find yourself deleting whole sentences and even paragraphs that you meticulously perfected at the drafting stage. As we shall see in Chapter 5, scrupulously proof-editing for spelling, grammar, and mechanical errors—as well as the finer points of style—should be one of your final tasks in the whole writing process. At this stage, however, you at least need some sentences to work with.

Fashioning effective sentences requires an understanding of sentence structure. Now, the eyes of many native English speakers glaze over as soon as English grammar terminology rears its head. But think of it this way: to survive as a human being you must take care of your health, which means occasionally going to the doctor for help with the injuries and conditions that inevitably afflict you; to understand these, you listen to your doctor’s explanations of how they work in your body, and you add to your vocabulary anatomical terms and processes—words you didn’t need for those processes to function when you were healthy. Now that you need to work to improve your health, however, you need that technical understanding to know how exactly to improve. It’s likewise worth learning grammar terminology because writing mistakes undermine your professionalism, and you won’t know how to write correctly, such as where to put punctuation and where not to, if you don’t know basic sentence structure and the terminology we use to describe it. Trust me, we’ll be using it often throughout this chapter and the next. Many native English speakers who say, “I don’t know what the rule’s called, but I know what looks right” actually can improve their writing if they understand more about how it works. Pay close attention throughout the following introductory lesson on sentence structure and variety especially if you’re not entirely confident in your knowledge of grammar.

4.3.1: Sentence Structure and the Four Moods

Four basic sentence moods (or types) help you express whatever you want in English, as detailed in Table 4.3.1 below. The most common sentence mood, the declarative (a.k.a. indicative), must always have a subject and a predicate to be grammatically correct. The subject in the grammatical sense (not to be confused with the topic in terms of the content) is the doer (actor or performer) of the action. The core of the subject is a noun (person, place, or thing) that does something, but this may be surrounded by other words (modifiers) such as adjectives (words that describe the noun), articles (a, an, the), possessive determiners (e.g., our, my, your, their), quantifiers (e.g., few, several), etc. to make a noun phrase. The core of the predicate is a verb (action), but it may also be preceded by modifiers such as adverbs, which describe the action in more detail, and followed by an object, which is the thing (noun or noun phrase) acted upon by the verb. If you consider the sentence Our business offers discount rates, you can divide it into a subject and predicate, then further divide those into their component parts of speech (nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc.):

Figure 4.3.1: Breakdown of a simple declarative sentence into its component parts of speech

Breakdown of a simple declarative sentence into its component parts of speech

Our business offers discount rates

Subjects and predicates can also grow with the addition of other types of phrases (e.g., prepositional, infinitive, participial, gerund phrases) (Cimasko, 2013; Purdue OWL, 2010, 2011a, 2011b; Darling, 2014a) to clarify meaning even further. As large as a sentence can get with the addition of all these parts, however, you should always be able to spot the core noun of the subject and main verb of the predicate. Sentences that omit either are called fragments and should be avoided (or fixed later, as we’ll see in §5.2) because they confuse the reader, being unclear about who’s doing what.

Table 4.3.1: Four Sentence Moods

Sentence Mood Structure and Use Example and Breakdown
1. Declarative
  • Subject + predicate
  • States information
  • The most common type of sentence
We quickly updated our computer systems.

Subject: We (pronoun)
Predicate: quickly updated our computer systems (verb phrase):

  • Verb: updated
  • Adverb: quickly
  • Object: our computer systems (noun phrase):
    • Noun: systems
    • Determiner: our (possessive)
    • Adjective: computer
2. Imperative
  • Just a predicate (verb phrase)
  • Gives an order or instruction (e.g., in a list of instructions), or makes a request
Please update our computer systems quickly.

The subject (e.g., You) that would be identified in the declarative form is always assumed (never included).

3. Interrogative
  • Verb phrase + subject + object, ending with a question mark
  • Asks a question
Can you please update our computer systems quickly?
4. Exclamatory
  • Same structure as a declarative, but ends with an exclamation point
  • Expresses emotion
Thanks for updating our computer systems so quickly!
5. Subjunctive
  • Uses were as the form of to be
  • Expresses hypothetical scenarios
If you were to update our computer systems this weekend, we would be incredibly grateful.

A declarative sentence with just a straightforward subject and predicate is a simple sentence expressing a complete thought. If all sentences were simple, such as you might see in a children’s reader (e.g., The dog’s name is Spot. Spot fetched the stick. He is a good boy sometimes. etc.), we would say that this is a choppy or wooden style of writing. We avoid this result by adding subject-predicate combinations together within a sentence to clarify the relationships between complete thoughts. Such combinations make what’s called compound, complex, and compound-complex sentences. Before we break down these sentence varieties, however, it’s important to know what a clause is.

4.3.2: Four Sentence Varieties

We keep our readers interested in our writing by using a variety of sentence structures that combine simple units called clauses. These combinations of subjects and predicates come in two types:

  1. An independent or main clause can stand on its own as a sentence like the simple declarative ones broken down in §4.3.1 above.
  2. A dependent or subordinate clause begins with a subordinating conjunction like when, if, though, etc. (Darling, 2014b) and needs to either precede or follow a main clause to make sense. Like a domesticated dog that strays from their owner, a dependent clause can’t survive on its own; if it tries anyway, a subordinate clause posing as a sentence on its own is just a fragment (see §5.2 below) that confuses the reader.

An independent clause on its own plus combinations of these two types of clauses make up the four varieties of sentences we use everyday in our writing. Two or more independent clauses joined together with a comma and coordinating conjunction (see Table 4.3.2a below for the seven of them, represented by the mnemonic acronym fanboys) or semicolon (;) make a compound sentence (Darling, 2014c, 2014d, 2014e). When combined with a main clause by a subordinating conjunction, a subordinate clause makes a complex sentence (Darling, 2014e). That subordinating conjunction (see a variety of them in Table 4.3.2a below) establishes the relationship between the subordinate and main clause as one of time, place, or cause and effect (Simmons, 2012). When a subordinate clause precedes the main clause, a comma separates it from the main clause (as in this sentence to this point), but a comma is unnecessary if the subordinate clause follows the main clause (as in this sentence from but onwards; notice that a comma doesn’t come between unnecessary and if).

Table 4.3.2a: Coordinating and Subordinating Conjunctions

Coordinating Conjunctions Subordinating Conjunctions
for
and
nor
but
or
yet
so
After
Although
As
As if
As long as
As though
Because
Before
Even if
Even though
If
If only
In order that
Now that
Once
Provided that
Rather than
Since
So that
Than
That
Though
Till
UnlessUntil
When
Whenever
Where
Whereas
Wherever
Whether
While

You can combine compound and complex sentences into compound-complex sentences, like the sentence that precedes this one, though you should keep these streamlined so your wordcount (29 words in the sentence just before Table 4.3.2a, not including the parenthetical asides) doesn’t make comprehension difficult. We’ll return to the question of length in the following subsection (§4.3.3), but let’s focus now on how these four sentence varieties are structured.

Table 4.3.2b: Four Sentence Varieties

Sentence Variety Structure & Use Examples
1. Simple
  • Subject + predicate (one independent clause)
  • Expresses one complete thought
  • Stylistically straightforward for easy comprehension
We quickly updated our computer systems.

Subject: We (noun)
Predicate: quickly updated our computer systems (verb phrase):

  • Verb: updated
  • Adverb: quickly
  • Object: our computer systems (noun phrase):
    • Noun: systems
    • Determiner: our (possessive)
    • Adjective: computer

Productivity increased 35% by the end of the week.

2. Compound
  • At least two independent clauses joined by either (1) a comma and coordinating conjunction or (2) a semicolon (;)
  • Combines complete thoughts to show the relationship between them (e.g., the coordinating conjunction and connects the ideas, but contrasts them, so establishes cause and effect, or distinguishes them as possibilities, etc.)
We updated our computer systems on the 12th, and productivity increased 35% by the end of the week.

We updated our computer systems on the 12th; productivity increased 35% by the end of the week.

We updated our computer systems on the 12th, yet productivity didn’t increase the next day.

We updated our systems on the 12th, but gains in productivity weren’t seen till the end of the week.

If the subject is the same in both clauses, omit both the comma that precedes the conjunction, as well as the repeated the subject:

We updated our computer systems and increased our productivity 35% by the end of the week.

(The subject “we” is common to both clauses, so the second “we” [in “we increased”] is omitted, making this a single independent clause with coordinated verbs [“updated” and “increased”] rather than two coordinated clauses.)

3. Complex
  • Subordinate clause + main clause
  • Signalled by a subordinating conjunction (e.g., when, if, though, after, because, since, until, etc.)
  • The subordinating conjunctions show the relationships between clauses
After we updated our computer systems on the 12th, productivity increased 35% by the end of the week.

When the subordinate clause precedes the main clause, a comma separates them, as in the example above. When the subordinate clause follows the main clause, a comma is unnecessary, as in the example below.

Productivity increased by 35% in a week after we updated our computer systems on the 12th.

However, if the subordinate clause strikes a contrast with the main clause preceding it, a comma separates them:

Productivity increased by 35%, although it took a week after updating our systems to see those gains.

4. Compound-complex
  • Combines compound and complex sentences, requiring at least two independent clauses and one dependent clause
  • Use occasionally because these can be long sentences
When we updated our computer systems on the 12th, productivity increased 35% by the end of the week, but the systems needed updating again within the month to restore productivity increases. (31 words)

Introductory dependent clause + independent clause + independent clause

Combinations of sentence moods and varieties are all possible, so we have many hybrid sentence structures available to express our thoughts. For instance, an introductory subordinate clause can precede an interrogative main clause:

If you are available to update our computer systems on the 12th, can you please sign and return the attached contract at your earliest convenience?

Combining clauses to communicate your ideas is a skill like any other that requires practice, which you do whenever you draft a message. The more you do it, the better you get at it and the easier it becomes. It’s essential to your professional success that you become good at it, however, because your reading audiences will become frustrated with you if you cannot put sentences together effectively. Worse, disorganized sentences betray a scattered mind. Rather than stop to help you, your readers are more likely to avoid you because they have no time for the lack of professionalism signalled by poor writing and the miscommunication it leads to. Before we return to the subject of clauses when we examine how to correct sentence errors (see §5.2 below), we should stop to consider the issue of sentence length brought up in our discussion of compound-complex sentences above.

4.3.3: Sentence Length

What is the appropriate length for a sentence? Ten words? Twenty? Thirty? The answer will always be: it depends on what you expect your audience to be able to handle and what you need to say to express a complete thought to them. A children’s primer sticks to simple sentences of 5-7 concise words because children learning how to read will be stymied by anything but the simplest possible sentences. A 30-page market analysis report aimed at business executives with advanced literacy skills, on the other hand, will have sentences of varying lengths, perhaps anywhere from 5 to 45 words. The longer sentences with plenty of subordination and compounding will hopefully be rare because too many sentences of 45 words will exhaust a reader’s patience and compromise comprehension with complexity. Too many five-word sentences will insult the reader’s intelligence, but they play well as punchy follow-ups that conclude paragraphs full of long sentences. Ultimately, you should treat your audience to a variety of sentence lengths (Nichol, 2016).

Sentences in most business documents should average around 25 words, which you may consider your baseline goal for sentence length. There’s nothing wrong with sentences shorter than that if they don’t sacrifice clarity in achieving conciseness. There’s also nothing wrong with writing the odd 40-word sentence if it takes that many words to express a complete (and probably complex) thought when anything less would again sacrifice clarity. In all cases, however, you must consider your intended audience’s reading abilities.

If the goal of communication is to plant an idea hatched in your brain undistorted into someone else’s brain, don’t make length a distorting factor. Sentences can technically go on forever with compounding and subordination, yet still be grammatically correct, because a long sentence is not the same as a run-on (Darling, 2014f). But too many 40-word sentences in a row will betray a lack of skill in concision and respect for audience attention spans. Ultimately, no hard and fast rules for sentence length keep us from writing sentences that are as short or long as they need to be, but there is such a thing as too much if length becomes a barrier to understanding.

4.3.4: Active- vs. Passive-voice Sentences

When your style goal is to write clear, concise sentences, most of them should be in the active voice rather than passive. Voice in this grammatical sense concerns the order of words around the main verb and whether the verb requires an additional auxiliary (helper) verb. We use two voice varieties:

Consider the following example simple sentences that say the very same thing in both voices, one in the subject-verb-object active voice, the other in the object-verb-subject passive voice:

Figure 4.3.4: Comparison of active- and passive-voice sentences

We can further divide the passive voice into sentences that identify the doer of the action and those that don’t:

Comparison of Active- and Passive-voice Sentences

Active Voice: The manager chose Sara

Passive Voice: Sara was chosen by the manager.

We can further divide the passive voice into sentences that identify the doer of the action and those that don’t:

Table 4.3.4: Comparison of Active- and Passive-voice Sentences

Voice Examples Structural Breakdown
Active Voice The manager chose Sara. Subject (doer): The manager
Verb: chose (past tense)
Object: Sara
Passive Voice Sara was chosen by the manager. Object: Sara
Verb phrase: was chosen (form of to be + past participle)
Preposition: by
Subject (doer): the manager
Passive Voice Sara was chosen. Object: Sara
Verb phrase: was chosen (form of to be + past participle)
Preposition: by
Subject (doer): the manager

From this you can see that the two necessary markers of a passive-voice construction are:

Be careful, however: a sentence having a form of the verb to be in it doesn’t necessarily make it passive; if the form of the verb to be is the main verb and it isn’t accompanied by an auxiliary, such as in the sentence Sara is thrilled, then the form of the verb to be is what’s called a copular verb, which functions as an equals sign (“Sara = thrilled”). And though the prepositional phrase “by [the doer of the action]” may also signal a passive voice, the fact that identifying the doer is optional means that having the word by in the sentence doesn’t guarantee that it’s in the passive voice. For instance, the active-voice sentence Sara won the promotion by working hard all year is in the active voice and uses by in a manner unrelated to voice type.

Readers prefer active-voice (AV) verbs in most cases because AV sentences are more clear and concise—clear because they identify who does what (the manager chose someone in the Figure 4.3.4 and Table 4.3.4 example AV sentences), and concise because they use as few words as possible to state their point. Passive-voice (PV) verbs, on the other hand, say the same thing with more words because, in flipping the order, they must add an auxiliary verb (was in the above case) to indicate the tense—as well as the preposition by to identify the doer of the action, totalling six words in the above example to say what the AV said in four. If the PV didn’t add these words, then simply flipping the order of words to say “Sara chose the manager” would turn the meaning of the sentence on its head.

You can make the PV sentence shorter than even the AV one while still be grammatically correct, however, by omitting the doer of the action, as in the second PV example given in Table 4.3.4. The catch is that doing this makes the sentence less clear than the AV version. AV clauses cannot just omit the subject because they would be grammatically incorrect fragments: Chose Sara, for instance, would make no sense on its own as a sentence, whereas Sara was chosen would, even though it begs the question, “By whom?” PV sentences are thus either vague or wordy compared with AV, which are qualities exactly opposite our stylistic ideal of being clear and concise.

Now, before you fall into the trap of thinking that this is some kind of advanced writing technique just because it takes considerable explanation to break it all down, it’s worth stopping to appreciate that you speak AV sentences all day every day, as well as naturally slip into the PV for strategic purposes probably about 5-10% of the time, even if you didn’t have the terminology to describe what you were doing until now. You just do it to suit your purposes. Sometimes those purposes are contrary to the ideals of good writing, such as when people lapse into the passive voice—even if they don’t realize it—because they think it makes their writing look more sophisticated and scientific sounding, or they just want to write complicated, wordcount-extending sentences to make up for an embarrassing lack of things to say. In such cases, discerning readers aren’t fooled; they know what the writer is doing and are frustrated by having to hack and slash through vague and wordy verbiage to rescue what meagre point the author meant to make. Please (please!) don’t use the PV in this way.

Appropriate uses of the PV, on the other hand, are few. You can use it to:

  1. Emphasize the object of the verb (the person, place, or thing acted upon) for variety amidst a majority of AV sentences that prioritize the subject. In the Table 4.3.4 example, saying “Sara was chosen” in the PV focuses the audience’s attention on the object, Sara, by putting her first, rather than on the manager as the doer of the action. Indeed, the manager’s role in the choosing might be so irrelevant that they can exit the sentence altogether, perhaps because the context of the conversation makes it so obvious that it goes without saying.
  2. Hide the doer of the action. If Sara was chosen for a promotion over her colleagues, saying “Sara was chosen” in the PV focuses on her accomplishment while drawing attention entirely away from the manager. Perhaps you don’t want the people who were passed up for promotion to know who exactly they should direct their resentment at. Using the PV in this case makes the choice of Sara sound objective, like anyone would have chosen her for this promotion because she really deserved it. PV is often used in this way as a public relations strategy to control the message. This use of the PV can be quite problematic when used as cover for the doer (see #3 below), however, as we see in the rhetoric surrounding gender violence. Rephrasing a sentence like John beat Mary as Mary was beaten shifts the focus of violence to the victim rather than the perpetrator by dropping the latter from the conversation altogether. We need to target the perpetrators of gender violence (mainly men and boys), however, as the root of the problem if we hope to reduce and eliminate the harm done to women and girls, as explained in the accompanying video lecture (TEDx Talks, 2013, 4:15-6:50).
    Thumbnail for the embedded element "Violence against women—it's a men's issue: Jackson Katz at TEDxFiDiWomen"

    A YouTube element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here: https://ecampusontario.pressbooks.pub/llscomm/?p=80

  3. Avoid accepting responsibility. In answer to an irate parent’s question “Who broke this glass?” a fibbing two-year-old might say, “It was just broken when I got here.” We learn early—long before we even know how to read and write—how to cover up for our mistakes with this trick of language. Even dodging politicians will say, “Clearly, mistakes were made,” which makes it sound as if the blunders were made by unknown actors, rather than the policy-makers themselves, as the more honest alternative in the AV, “Clearly, we made mistakes,” would make clear (Benen, 2015).
  4. Indicate that you don’t actually know who the doer is. Saying “A charitable donation was left in our mailbox” in the PV is stylistically appropriate if you want to focus on the donation and don’t know who left it, whereas “Someone left a charitable donation in our mailbox” is an AV equivalent that focuses more on the anonymity of the benefactor.
  5. State a general rule or principle without singling anyone out. Declaring that “Returns must be accompanied with a receipt in order to receive a refund” in the PV is a more tactful, less authoritarian and negative way of saying “You can’t get a refund without a receipt” in the AV.
  6. Follow a stylistic preference for PV sentences in some scientific writing. Saying “The titration was performed” or “a lean approach is recommended” sounds more objective—albeit a little unnatural, especially when nearly every sentence is in the PV rather than the 5-10% we are used to in conversation—compared with the more subjective-sounding AV statements “I performed the titration” or “I recommend a lean approach.” (See the following paragraph for a solution to this predicament.)

We’re focusing on AV and PV now at the drafting stage of the writing process because favouring the AV is a stylistic requirement in business and technical writing where clarity and conciseness are especially valued, bu it it’s also possible to sound objective in the AV in technical writing. You can, for instance, identify the role of the doer rather than an individual person by name or first-person pronoun. Sentences like “The lab technician performed the titration” or “This report recommends a lean approach” still sound objective in the AV and therefore have an advantage over the PV.

We will return to the issue of AV vs. PV in §5.4 on editing for style, but if you train yourself to write in the AV rather than PV as a habit and only use PV when it’s justified by strategic advantage or necessity, you can save yourself time in both the drafting and editing stages of the writing process. For further explanation of the AV vs. PV and example sentences, see:

Key Takeaways

key iconFlesh out your draft by expanding outlined points into full, mostly active-voice sentences that are varied in length and style as simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex structures correct in their declarative, imperative, interrogative, exclamatory, or subjunctive mood.

Exercises

1. Re-read the paragraphs above in this chapter section and pull out examples of declarative and imperative sentences, as well as simple, compound, and complex sentences (but not those given as examples when illustrating each form, in or out of the tables). In your document, write headings in bold for each sentence type and variety, then copy and paste at least a few examples under each.
2. Take the outline you drafted for the email if you did Exercise 2 at the end of §4.2 (or any other outlined message that you intend to write) and expand those points into a message that includes at least one example of each of the four sentence types and varieties covered in this section.
3. Identify whether the sentences in the following Guide to Grammar & Writing digital activity are in the active or passive voice: http://www.dactivity.com/activity/index.aspx?content=3BIFrLublu
4. Copy and paste at least five active- and five passive-voice main clauses from sentences in the paragraphs of this chapter section (besides those used as examples) into a document and break them down to identify their subject, main verb (or passive verb phrase, including the auxiliary verb) and object in the manner demonstrated in Table 4.3.4. Under each, rewrite the five active-voice clauses as passive-voice sentences, and each of the passive-voice clauses as active-voice sentences.

References

Benen, S. (2015, February 18). A passive-voice Bush Family tradition. MSNBC. Retrieved from http://www.msnbc.com/rachel-maddow-show/passive-voice-bush-family-tradition

Cimasko, T. (2013, March 22). Prepositions. Purdue OWL. Retrieved from https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/974/01/

Corson, T., & Smollett, R. (2007). Passive voice: When to use it and when to avoid it. University of Toronto. Retrieved from http://advice.writing.utoronto.ca/revising/passive-voice/

Darling, C. (2014a). Phrases. Guide to Grammar and Writing. Retrieved from http://plato.algonquincollege.com/applications/guideToGrammar/?page_id=3257

Darling, C. (2014b). Clauses. Guide to Grammar and Writing. Retrieved from http://plato.algonquincollege.com/applications/guideToGrammar/?page_id=3745

Darling, C. (2014c). Conjunctions. Guide to Grammar and Writing. Retrieved from http://plato.algonquincollege.com/applications/guideToGrammar/?page_id=1566

Darling, C. (2014d). Semicolons. Guide to Grammar and Writing. Retrieved from http://plato.algonquincollege.com/applications/guideToGrammar/?page_id=978

Darling, C. (2014e). Sentence constructions. Guide to Grammar and Writing. Retrieved from http://plato.algonquincollege.com/applications/guideToGrammar/?page_id=3194

Darling, C. (2014f). Run-on sentences and comma splices. Guide to Grammar and Writing. https://plato.algonquincollege.com/applications/guideToGrammar/?page_id=3374

Darling, C. (2014g). Passive and active voices. Guide to Grammar and Writing. Retrieved from https://plato.algonquincollege.com/applications/guideToGrammar/?page_id=698

Nichol, M. (2016, May 9). How long should a sentence be? Daily Writing Tips. Retrieved from https://www.dailywritingtips.com/how-long-should-a-sentence-be/

Now Novel. (2014, January 21). Writer’s tip: Avoid passive voice. Retrieved from https://www.nownovel.com/blog/writers-tip-avoid-passive-voice/

Purdue OWL. (2010, April 17). Infinitives. Purdue OWL. Retrieved from https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/627/03/

Purdue OWL. (2011a, April 13). Participles. Purdue OWL. Retrieved from https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/627/02/

Purdue OWL. (2011b, December 9). Gerunds. Purdue OWL. Retrieved from https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/627/1/

Simmons, R. L. (2012, December 20). The subordinate conjunction. Grammar Bytes! Retrieved from: http://www.chompchomp.com/terms/subordinateconjunction.htm

TEDx Talks. (2013, February 11). Violence against women—it’s a men’s issue: Jackson Katz at TEDxFiDiWomen [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KTvSfeCRxe8

Toadvine, A., Brizee, A, & Angell, E. (2011, July 13). Active and passive voice. Purdue OWL. Retrieved from https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/539/01/

 

4.4: Forming Effective Paragraphs

Learning Objectives

Target icon
3. Plan, write, revise, and edit short documents and messages that are organized, complete, and tailored to specific audiences

As you expand your research material and outline notes into sentences, you will also begin to package those sentences into larger units—paragraphs—that follow a standard, familiar structure that enables readers to easily follow their content and locate key information at a glance. If a sentence communicates a complete thought, a paragraph communicates a topic comprised of a few thoughts coherently collected together in an organized sequence. (Paragraphs themselves assemble to form larger units of meaning such as sections in a report, as we shall see in §7.34 below, or chapters in a book as you can see in this one, so paragraphs represent an intermediate level of organization in larger documents.) Whether your message is a long one made of many paragraphs or just one paragraph fired off in an email, organizing paragraphs helps you clarify your thoughts to both yourself and your reader.

4.4.1: Paragraph Size and Structure

A well-organized paragraph follows the standard three-part message structure outlined in §4.1 above. In a paragraph, we call these three parts the:

  1. Topic sentence
  2. Body or development sentences
  3. Transitional or concluding sentence

At minimum, then, a paragraph should have at least three sentences, but ideally 4-5 to allow the development sentences in the body to explore the topic in detail. If a rule of thumb on sentence length is that sentences should vary in size but average about 25 words long (see §4.3.3 above), then a normal paragraph should be about ten lines on the page when the font is 12-pt. in a document with 1-inch margins. Like sentences, however, paragraphs should vary in length depending on audience needs and abilities, as well as the topics being covered. An audience with advanced literacy skills can handle longer paragraphs that would lose an audience reading at a more basic level, which takes us back to our earlier points about adjusting the message to the audience profile (see §2.2 above). Some topics need more development sentences than others and don’t easily divide in the middle, though a paragraph of ten sentences or more is really pushing it. “Wall-of-text” paragraphs longer than a page are out of the question in professional writing. No matter what the size, however, all paragraphs should follow the standard structure explained below so that readers at any level can easily find what they’re looking for.

1. Topic Sentence

The topic sentence states the main point or thesis of the paragraph and thus summarizes the small collection of sentences following it, so the reader can take in the whole before examining the parts. As we saw in §4.1 above, this direct-approach organization caters to the primacy effect in our psychology whereby first impressions are the strongest and most memorable. Readers should thus be able to see how every sentence in any well-organized paragraph expands on something said in the topic sentence. In this particular paragraph, for example, you will see how the second sentence expands on the part in the topic sentence about accommodating the reader. The third sentence extends that idea to expand on the part in the topic sentence about how topic sentences summarize all paragraph parts as a whole. The sentences that follow (including this one) illustrate how that system works with examples. The final sentence wraps up the topic as broached in the first sentence while bridging to the next topic sentence, which in this case is about how to come up with a topic sentence.

For many writers, drafting a topic sentence is typically a search for one while writing the rest of the paragraph first and then discovering it as a concluding summary exercise. When you are just putting ideas down in the drafting stage of the writing process, you may not know yet what your point is at the outset of writing a paragraph. You likely have a general sense of your topic and some points to cover, probably based on information you collected in your research earlier (see Ch. 3 on Stage 2 of the writing process). As you connect that evidence and build sentences around those information points, you begin to see where you’re going with the topic and the thesis suddenly comes into focus near the end. If you then say “In conclusion, …, ” summarize what you were getting at in a nutshell, and leave it there, however, you will do your reader a disservice by leaving your topic sentence buried under the pile of evidence that should be supporting it. In this case, delete “In conclusion,” highlight the final sentence, copy and cut it (ctrl. + c, ctrl. + x), and paste it (ctrl. + v) at the top of the paragraph so it does what a topic paragraph should do: preview what follows with an at-a-glance summary.

2. Body or Development Sentences

The development sentences expand on every component part of the topic sentence in a sequence of complete thoughts. The sentences that comprise this sequence explore the topic by following an organizing principle through detailed explanations, supporting evidence, illustrative examples, rhetorical counterpoints, and so on. The organizing principle could be any of those listed in Table 4.1.3 above such as chronology or comparison and contrast. As parts of a logical sequence of sentences, each sentence connects to those around it with pronouns that use effective repetition (referring to nearby points without repeating them word for word; see Table 4.4.2a below) and transitional expressions (see Table 4.4.2b) to drive the topic exploration forward. In the paragraph under “1. Topic Sentence” above, for instance, the pronoun “this” in the first development sentence (the second sentence in the paragraph) represents the topic sentence position referred to in the topic sentence preceding it. In the sentence above this one, the transitional phrase “for instance” signals an illustrative example offered as supporting evidence of the topic sentence thesis on the sentences’ path towards the transitional or concluding sentence.

3. Transitional or Concluding Sentence

The final sentence of a well-organized sentence wraps up the topic exploration by completing the main point stated in the topic sentence, as well as establishing a thematic bridge to the topic sentence of the next paragraph if indeed there is one. As a bridge, the final sentence looks forward to the following topic sentence by previewing some of its terminology, just as the paragraph preceding this one does. As a wrap-up, the final sentence should in no way merely paraphrase the topic sentence, as you were probably taught to do in middle school or junior high, because the repetition of a point read 20 seconds earlier would waste the reader’s time. Any topic summary belongs at the top where it can summarily preview the paragraph’s subject, not buried at the bottom. Rather, the final sentence concludes the topic in the sense that it completes the expansion of topic-sentence points carried by the development sentences, leaving no loose ends to confuse the reader.

Especially in cases of stand-alone paragraphs or final paragraphs in a document, concluding sentences that tie up those lose ends with a clever and memorable turn of phrase cater to the recency principle in psychology. Recall how “recency” means that final impressions have impact similar to first impressions (see §4.1 above), making the concluding/transitional sentence an important one to the overall success of a paragraph in ensuring that the main point broached in the topic sentence is fully understood. With every part of a paragraph fulfilling a purpose towards communicating a larger point, the double duty that the concluding/transitional sentence performs makes it the glue that binds together paragraphs and the documents they comprise.

4.4.2: Paragraph Coherence

Coherence is achieved by paragraphs sticking to the topic summarized in the opening sentence, as well as using pronouns and transitional expressions to link sentences together while developing that topic. Paragraphs that grow to the point where they exceed about a dozen lines on the page usually deserve to be broken up into a couple of topics as their internal transitions take them into territory far enough from the topic stated in the first sentence. Generally, a paragraph sticks to just one topic while the one following it covers a related but distinct topic.

Like the organizational principles we explored above, we have a repertoire of recognizable pronouns, transitional expressions, and particular words or phrases that connect ideas in our writing so readers can easily follow our trains of thought. Pronouns such as those in Table 4.4.2a below allow us to represent nouns, phrases, and even whole sentences that came before (called antecedents) without repeating them word for word—as long as the antecedents are clear (Pronouns, 2016; Darling, 2014; see also §5.2 on proof-editing for pronoun-antecedent disagreement or ambiguity).

Table 4.4.2a: Pronoun Types and Examples

Pronoun Type Singular Plural Examples in Sentences
1. Personal subject pronouns  1st person: I
2nd person: you
3rd person: she, he, it
we
you
they
I wrote the script so that we would be prepared. Would you all prefer if you, Jenny, went first? She said that he could do it first instead. The team members are really quite good at what they do.
2. Personal object pronouns 1st person: me
2nd person: you
3rd person: her, him, it
us
you
them
The committee awarded the contract to me but the credit goes to all of us. They could give one to you, as well. The committee sent her the news yesterday, sent it to him today, and wished them all good luck.
3. Personal possessive determiners 1st person: my
2nd person: your
3rd person: her, his, its
our
your
their
My advice is to deposit your payment in our account now. Indeed, all your payments are late. Her payment came through, but his didn’t. Their payment plan needs updating so that its bad timing doesn’t them in trouble.
4. Personal possessive pronouns  1st person: mine
2nd person: yours
3rd person: hers, his, its
ours
yours
theirs
Let’s figure out what’s mine and what’s ours. You’ll get yours. The house is hers, the car is his, but the account is theirs.
5. Reflexive and intensive pronouns 1st person: myself
2nd person: yourself
3rd person: herself, himself, itself Reflexive: when the subject(s) and object(s) are the same person or people. Intensive: when it can be deleted without being ungrammatical.
ourselves
yourselves
themselves
I gave myself a break and you gave yourself an ache when we threw ourselves in the lake. He perjured himself (reflexive) and she won herself a new car (intensive). Love itself was lost (intensive). Do yourselves a favour. They stopped themselves from falling.
6. Demonstrative pronouns close by: this
remote: that
these
those
This deal might take some time. Pass me that report over there. These are the kinds of things you can expect when those people get involved.
7. Relative pronouns subject: who
object: whom
restrictive: that
non-restrictive: which
The accountant who does our taxes asked whom he should send the funds to. The account that he set up is a trust fund, which can be accessed in five years.
8. Interrogative pronouns  personal: who
objective: what, which
possessive: whose
Who is going to call? What are they going to say? Which company do they represent? Whose number are they going to use?
9. Indefinite pronouns one, everyone, no one, none, someone, somebody, anybody, everybody, nobody, other, another, everything, either all, most, many, several, some, few, others, both, neither One of us cannot be wrong. Everybody knows somebody. No one can tell anyone else what to do. Everyone has a right to know everything, but many don’t know that. All or most came today. Anybody can play guitar. Some went on, but none came back. Neither showed up, but either could have called, so both are at fault. Someone sent several calls to the others. Few can say that the other sent another.

While pronouns often look back, transitional expressions drive a topic forward by establishing the relationships between the content of sentences. Table 4.4.2b below collects many such adverbs and conjunctive adverbs, prepositions and prepositional phrases, coordinating and subordinating conjunctions, infinitive phrases, interjections, and so on.

Table 4.4.2b: Transitional Expressions within and between Paragraphs

Transition Type Examples
1. Sequence First, …. Second, …. Third, …
Initially, …
From the start,
…Next, …
…, then …
Later,
…Ultimately, …
Finally, …
2. Addition, repetition Additionally, …
Again, …
Also …
Not only …, but also …
Furthermore, …
… and …
… or …
…, as well as …
Besides, …
Equally important …
Further …
Alternatively, …
In addition, …
Another …
Moreover, …
3. Time When … / Whenever …
Before …
Earlier, …
Recently, …
Meanwhile, …
While …
Now …
Currently, …
During …
Immediately …
Simultaneously,
Subsequently,
After …
Afterwards, …
At last, …
4. Place, position Above …
Below …
Near …
To the left/right of …
Opposite …
Close to …
Adjacent to …
Farther on …
Beyond …
In front of …
Behind …
Throughout …
5. Logic, cause & effect Therefore, …
Thus, …
For this reason, …
Consequently, …
Hence …
If …, then …
Clearly then, …
It follows that …
Accordingly, …
As a result, …
Because …
Since …
6. Similarity, comparison In the same way, …
Just as …, so too …
Likewise, …
Similarly, …
 … also …
7. Example For example, …
For instance, …
…, specifically …
… in particular …
To illustrate, …
In this way, …
8. Opposition, exception, contrast However, …
…, however, …
… notwithstanding, …
On the one/other hand, …
On the contrary, …
 …, but …
…, although …
Nevertheless, …
Nonetheless, …
… instead …
Still, …
…, yet …
In spite of …
In contrast, …
9. Emphasis Indeed, …
In fact, …
Even …
Of course, …
10. Paraphrase, summary In other words, …
…—that is, …
…—that is to say, …
To paraphrase, …
To summarize, …
In conclusion, …
In sum, …
in a nutshell,
In a word, …
In brief, …
Ultimately, …
in the end,

Source: Transitional Expressions (2003)

Key Takeaway

key iconCollect and connect your sentences into coherent paragraphs that use a three-part structure to provide readers with a means to skim when pressed for time, find appropriate detail otherwise, and follow your train of thought through the effective use of pronouns and transitions.

Exercises

1. Find a professionally written document that contains paragraphs. Copy and paste one paragraph (or transcribe it if it’s from a print source) into a document and separate the sentences so that you put the topic sentence under the heading “Topic Sentence,” development sentences under a heading of their own, and concluding/transitional sentence under a heading of its own, too. Under each development sentence, explain what part of the topic sentence it expands on. If the paragraph lacks coherence, rewrite (1) the topic sentence so it’s a more effective summary of the whole paragraph, and (2) each development sentence so its role in extending the topic sentence is clearer.
2. Write a coherent, well-organized paragraph on a topic you recently learned about in another course in your program. Don’t use the textbook or other text that you learned it from as a source to copy from; instead, write from memory and your understanding. Ensure that:

i. The topic sentence explains the whole thing in a nutshell
ii. Each of the development sentences expand on ideas in the topic sentence and flow from one to another using pronouns from Table 4.4.2a and transitions from Table 4.4.2b.
iii. The concluding sentence completes the reader’s understanding of the topic.

3. Write a paragraph on how to make coffee, tea, or another hot beverage. Begin the paragraph with a topic sentence, provide the details in the development sentences, and end with a concluding sentence. Include at least two transitional expressions from the table above.

References

Darling, C. (2014). Pronouns. Guide to Grammar and Writing. Retrieved from https://plato.algonquincollege.com/applications/guideToGrammar/?page_id=3423

Pronouns. (2016, March 25). Grammarly. Retrieved from https://www.grammarly.com/blog/pronouns/

Transitional expressions. (2003). Iowa State University. Retrieved from http://www.public.iastate.edu/~jeaune/Horticulture_LC_105/Web/Transitionalexpressions.htm

4.5: Standard Business Style

Learning Objectives

Target icon
3. Plan, write, revise, and edit short documents and messages that are organized, complete, and tailored to specific audiences.

Among the most important skills in communication is to adjust your style according to the audience to meet their needs as well as your own. You would speak differently to a customer or manager compared with how you would to a long-time co-worker who has also become a friend. In each case, these audiences have certain expectations about your style of communication, and you must meet those expectations to be respected and maintain good relations. This section reviews those style choices and focuses especially on the six major characteristics of good writing common to both formal and casual writing.

4.5.1: The Formality Spectrum

We began looking at the general choice between a formal and informal style of writing based on how you’ve profiled your audience’s position in relation to you in §2.2.3 above. There, we saw how certain situations call for formal writing and others for a more relaxed style, and saw in Table 2.2.3 that these styles involve word choices along a spectrum of synonyms from “slangy” to casual to fancy. Here we will review those considerations in the context of the writing process.

1. Formal Style in Writing

Because a formal style of writing shows respect for the reader, use standard business English especially your goal is to curry favour with your audience, such as anyone outside your organization, higher than you within your organization, and those on or around your level whom you have never communicated with before. These audiences include managers, customers, clients, B2B suppliers and vendors, regulators, and other interested stakeholders such as government agencies. A cover letter, for instance, will be read by a future potential manager probably unfamiliar to you, so it is a very real test of your ability to write formally—a test that is crucial to your career success. Many common professional document types also require formality such as other letters, memos, reports, proposals, agreements, and contracts. In such cases, you are expected to follow grammatical rules more strictly and make slightly elevated word choices, but not so elevated that you force your reader to look up rarely used words (they will not; they will just make up their mind about you being pretentious and a slight pain to deal with).

Writing in such a style requires effort because your grammar must be tighter and the vocabulary advanced. Sometimes a more elevated word choice—one with more syllables than perhaps the word that comes to mind—will elude you, requiring you to use a thesaurus (such as that built into MS Word in the Proofing section under the Review menu tab, or the Synonyms option in the drop-down menu that appears when you highlight and right-click a word). At the drafting stage you should, in the interests of speed-writing to get your ideas down nearly as fast as they come, go with the word that comes to mind and leave the synonym-finding efforts for the editing stage. Strictly maintaining a formal style in all situations would also be your downfall, however, because flexibility is also expected depending on the situation.

2. Casual Style in Writing

Your ability to gear-down to a more casual style is necessary in any situation where you’re communicating with familiar people generally on your level and when a personable, conversational tone is appreciated, such as when writing to someone with basic reading skills (e.g., an EAL learner, as we saw in §2.2.3). In a routine email to a colleague, for instance, you would use the informal vocabulary exemplified in the semi-formal/common column of Table 2.2.3 above, including conversational expressions such as “a lot” instead of the more formal “plenty.” You would also use contractions such as it’s for it is or it has, would’ve for would have, and you’re for you are (see Table 5.3.2 for more contractions). Two paragraphs up from this one, the effort to model a more formal style included avoiding contractions such as you’ve in the first sentence, it’s in the third, and won’t and they’ll in the last, which requires a determined effort because you must fully spell out each word. While not a sign of disrespect, the more relaxed approach says to the reader “Hey, we’re all friends here, so let’s not try so hard to impress each other.” When an upper-level manager wants to be liked rather than feared, they’ll permit a more casual style of communication in their employees’ interactions with them, assuming that doing so achieves collegiality rather than disrespect.

Incidentally, this textbook mostly sticks to a more casual style because it’s easy to follow for a readership that includes international EAL learners. Instead of using the slightly fancy, three-syllable word “comprehend” in the middle of the previous sentence, for instance, “follow” gets the point across with a familiar, two-syllable word. Likewise, “casual” is used to describe this type of writing because it’s a six-letter, three-syllable word that’s more accessible to a general audience than the ten-letter, four-syllable synonym “colloquial.” These word choices make for small savings in character- and word-counts in each individual case, but, tallied up over the course of the whole book, make a big difference in size, tone, and general readability, while remaining appropriate in many business contexts. Drafting in such a style is easy because it generally follows the diction and rhythms that come naturally in common conversation.

3. Slang Style in Writing

As the furthest extreme on the formality spectrum, slang and other informal means of communication such as emojis are generally unacceptable in business contexts for a variety of reasons. First, because slang is common in teen texting and social media, it appears immature, frivolous, out of place, confusing, and possibly even offensive in serious adult professional situations. Say someone emailed a car cleaning company with questions about their detailing service and received a reply that looks like it was texted out by a 14-year-old trying to sound “street,” such as:

Fo sho i set u up real good, well get yr car cleen smoove top 2 bottom – inside + out – be real lit when were done widdit, cost a buck fiddy for da hole d-lux package, so u down widdit erwat

The inquiring customer would have serious concerns about the quality and educational level of the personnel staffing the company, and thus about the quality of work they’d do. The customer may even wonder if they’ll get their car back after giving them the keys. The customer will probably just give the company a pass and continue looking for one with a more formal or even casual style that suggests greater attention to detail and awareness of professional communication standards. A company rep that comes back with a response more like the following would likely assure the customer that their car is in good hands:

Absolutely, we can do that for you. Our White Glove service thoroughly vacuums and wet-vacs all upholstery, plus scrubs all hard surfaces with pro-grade cleaners, then does a thorough wash and wax outside. Your autobody will be like a mirror when you pick it up. Please let us know if you are interested in our $150 White Glove service.

Second, the whole point of slang is to be incomprehensible to most people, which is opposite the goal of communication discussed in §1.3 above, and especially in situations where you want to be understood by a general audience (see §2.2.3). As a deviation from accepted standards of “proper” vocabulary, grammar, punctuation, syntax, etc., slang is entirely appropriate in adolescent and subculture communication because it is meant to score points with an in-group that sets itself apart from the rest of polite society. Its set of codewords and nonstandard grammar is meant to confuse anyone not part of that in-group and would sound ridiculous if anyone else even tried to speak it, as when parents try to level with their teens in teen vernacular. Obviously, if slang is used in professional contexts where audiences just don’t know how to accurately translate the expressions, or they don’t even know about Urban Dictionary to help translate “a buck fiddy” in the above example as $150 rather than $1.50, the ensuing confusion results in all the expensive problems brought on by miscommunication.

In terms of the writing process, professionals should generally avoid slang style in almost all business situations, even if it’s what comes naturally, because it leaves the writer too much work in the editing stage. If slang is your style, it’s in your best interests to bring your writing habits up to the casual level with constant practice. Perhaps the only acceptable situation where a slang-heavy style would be appropriate is if you’re on a secure texting or IM channel with a trusted colleague whom you’ve developed a correspondence rapport with, in which case that style is appropriate for the audience because they understand it, expect it, and appreciate it. It can even be funny and lighten up someone’s day.

The danger of expressing yourself in such a colourful style in email exchanges with that trusted friend-colleague when using company channels, however, is that they may be seen by unintended audiences. Say you have a back-and-forth exchange about a report you’re collaborating on and you need to CC your manager at some point so that they are up to speed on your project (or someone else involved does this for you, leaving you no opportunity to clean up the thread of past emails). If your manager looks back at the atrocious language and sees offensive statements, your employment could be in jeopardy. You could just as easily imagine other situations where slang style might be advantageous, such as marketing to teens, but generally it’s avoidable because it tends to deviate from the typical characteristics of good writing.

4. Emojis in Professional Writing?

Though emojis’ typical appearance in social media and texting places them at the informal end of the formality spectrum, their advantages in certain situations require special consideration along with some clarity about their current place in professional communication. Besides being easy to access on mobile device keyboards and favoured in social media communication especially among millennials, emojis are useful for helping clarify the emotional state of the message sender in a way that plain text can’t. They offer a visual cue in lieu of in-person nonverbals. A simple “thumbs up” emoji even works well as an “Okay, got it” reply in lieu of any words at all, so they can help save time for the busy professional. Interestingly, 2,500 years after Egyptian hieroglyphics fell out of use, pictographs are making a comeback! Emojis also go partway toward providing something of a universal language that allows people who speak different languages to communicate in a way that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.

However, the lack of precision in emojis can also cause confusion as they may be interpreted differently if the social and cultural context of the receiver differs enough from that of the sender (Pringle, 2018), not to mention differences in their emotional states. This means that emojis aren’t as universal as some claim they are, especially when used by correspondents who speak different languages (Caramela, 2018). Even between those who speak the same language, a smiley-face emoji added to a lightly insulting text message might be intended as a light-hearted jab at the receiver by the sender, but might be read as a deeply cutting passive-aggressive dig by the receiver. The same text message said in person, however, comes with a multitude of nonverbal cues (facial expressions, eye movements, body movements, timing, voice intonation, volume, speed, etc.) that help the listener determine the exact intentions of the speaker—meanings that can’t possibly be covered by a little 2D cartoon character.

You can imagine plenty of other scenarios where emojis could backfire with dire consequences. A red heart emoji added to a business message sent by a male to a female colleague, though perhaps meant in the casual sense of the word “love” when we say, “I love what you did there,” might be taken as signalling unwanted romantic intentions. In the #metoo era, this is totally inappropriate and can potentially ruin professional partnerships and even careers. Be careful with emojis also in any situation involving buying or selling, since commercial messages can end up in court if meanings, intentions, and actions part ways. In one case, emojis were used in a text message signalling intent to rent an apartment by someone who reneged and was judged to be nonetheless on the hook for the $3,000 commitment (Pringle, 2017). As with any new means of communication, some caution and good judgment, as well as attention to notable uses and abuses that show up in the news or company policy directives, can help you avoid making potentially disastrous mistakes.

Though emojis may be meaningfully and understandably added to text/instant messages or even emails between familiar colleagues who have developed a light-hearted rapport featuring their use, there are several situations where they should be avoided at all cost because of their juvenile or frivolous social media reputation. It’s a good idea to avoid using emojis in business contexts when communicating with:

However, in any of the above cases, you would probably be safe to mirror the use of emojis (see §10.6 below for more on mirroring) after your correspondent gives you the greenlight by using them first (Caramela, 2018). Yes, emojis lighten the mood and help with bonding among workplace colleagues. If used excessively as part of a larger breakdown of decorum, as mocked in the accompanying Baroness von Sketch Show video short (CBC Comedy, 2017), they suggest a troubling lack of professionalism. Managers especially should refrain from emoji use to set an example of impeccable decorum in communications to the employees they supervise.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XWA_j4Vy4oM[/embed]

Source: CBC Comedy (2017)

4.5.2: The 6 Cs of Style

Whether you’re writing in a formal or casual style, all good writing is characterized by the “6 Cs”:

Six-C writing is good for business because it fulfills the author’s purpose and meets the needs of the audience by making communication understandable and impactful. Such audience-oriented writing is clearly understood by busy readers on the first pass; it doesn’t confuse them with ambiguities and require them to come back with questions for clarification. It gets the point across in as few words as possible so that it doesn’t waste readers’ time with wordcount-extending filler. Good writing flows logically by being organized according to recognizable patterns with its sub-points connected by well-marked transitions. Six-C writing avoids confusing readers with grammar, punctuation, or spelling errors, as well as avoids embarrassing its author and the company they represent, because it is flawlessly correct. It leaves the reader with a good feeling because it is polite, positive, and focuses on the reader’s needs. Six-C writing is persuasive because, with all the above going for it, it exudes confidence. The following sections explain these characteristics in greater detail with an emphasis on how to achieve Six-C writing at the drafting stage.

1. Clarity

Clarity in writing means that the words on the page are like a perfectly transparent window to the author’s meaning; they don’t confuse that meaning like the dirty, shattered window of bad writing or require fanciful interpretation like the stained-glass window of poetry. Business or technical writing has no time for anything that requires the reader to interpret the author’s meaning or ask for clarification. To the busy reader scanning quickly, bad writing opens the door for wrong guesses that, acted upon, result in mistakes that must be corrected later; the later the miscommunication is discovered and the further the mistakes spread, the greater the damage control required. Vague writing draws out the communication exchange unnecessarily with back-and-forth requests for clarification and details that should have been clear the first time. Either way, a lack of clarity in writing costs businesses by hindering personal and organizational productivity. Every operation stands to gain if its personnel’s writing is clear in the first place.

So much confusion from vague expressions can be avoided if you use hard facts, precise values, and concrete, visualizable images. For example:

The same is true of vague pronouns such as its, this, that, these, they, their, there, etc. (see the demonstrative and indefinite pronouns, #6 and #9 in Table 4.4.2a above) when it’s unclear what they’re referring to earlier in a sentence or paragraph. Such pronoun-antecedent ambiguity, as it’s called (with antecedent meaning the noun that the pronoun represents), can be avoided if you can spot the ambiguity that the reader would be confused by and use other words to connect them to their antecedents. If you say, for instance,

The union reps criticized the employer council for putting their latest offer to a membership vote.

Whether the offer is coming from the union, the employer, or possibly (but unlikely) both is unclear because their could go either way. You can resolve the ambiguity by using words like the former, the latter, or a shortened version of one of the names:

The union reps criticized the employer council for putting the council’s latest offer to a membership vote.

When pronouns aren’t preceded by the noun to which they refer, the good writer must simply define them. Though these additions extend the wordcount a little, the gains in clarity justify the expense.

2. Conciseness

Because the goal of professional writing, especially when sharing expertise, is to make complex concepts sound simple without necessarily dumbing them down, such writing should communicate ideas in as few words as possible without compromising clarity. The worst writing predictably does the opposite, making simple things sound complicated. This is a rookie mistake among some students new to college or employees new to their profession. Perhaps because they think they must sound “smart,” they use expressions that are their attempt at imitating the kind of writing that goes over their head with fancy words and complex, wordcount-extending sentence constructions, including the passive voice (see §4.3.4 above). Such attempts are usually smokescreens for a lack of quality ideas; if someone is embarrassed by how meagre their ideas are, they tend to dress them up to seem more substantial. Of course, their college instructors or professional audiences are frustrated by this kind of writing rather than fooled by it because it doesn’t help them find the clear meaning that they expect and seek. It just gets in the way and wastes their time until they resent the person who wrote it.

If the temptation to overcomplicate a point is uncontrollable at the drafting stage, it’s probably better to vomit it all up at this point just so that you can get everything out while knowing that you’ll be mopping it up by paring down your writing later (see §5.1 below). By analogy, a film production will overshoot with perhaps 20 takes of (attempts at) a single shot just so that it has plenty of material “in the can” to choose from when assembling the sequence of shots needed to comprise a scene during post-production editing. However, as you become a better writer and hone your craft, you’ll be able to resist those filler words and overcomplicated expressions at the drafting stage from having been so aggressive in chopping them out at the editing stage of the writing process so many times before. Of course, if you make a habit of writing concisely even at the drafting stage, you’ll minimize the amount of chopping work you leave yourself at the editing stage.

3. Coherence and Completeness

Coherence means that your writing flows logically and makes sense because it says everything it needs to say to meet your audience’s needs. The organizational patterns discussed in §4.1, outlining structures in §4.2, and paragraph organization in §4.4 all help to achieve a sense of coherence. The pronouns and transitions listed in Table 4.4.2a and Table 4.4.2b above especially help to connect the distinct points that make up your bare-bones outline structure as you flesh them out into meaningful sentences and paragraphs just as ligaments and tendons connect bones and tissues throughout your body.

4. Correctness

Correct spelling, grammar, mechanics, etc. should not be a concern at the drafting stage of the writing process, though they certainly must be at the end of the editing stage (see Ch. 5 below). As explained above in the §4.3 introduction above, speed-writing to get ideas down requires being comfortable with the writing errors that inevitably pockmark your draft sentences. The perfectionists among us will find ignoring those errors difficult, but resisting the temptation to bog yourself down by on-the-go proof-editing will pay off at the revision stage when some of those awfully written sentences get chopped in the end anyway. Much of the careful grooming during the drafting stage will have been a waste of time.

5. Courtesy

No matter what kind of document you’re writing and what you can expect your audience’s reaction to it to be, writing courteously so that your reader feels respected is fundamental to reader-friendly messages. Whether you’re simply sharing information, making a sales pitch, explaining a procedure, or doing damage control, using polite language helps ensure your intended effects—that your reader will be receptive to that information, will buy what you’re selling, will want to perform that procedure, or will be onboard with helping to fix the error. The cornerstone of polite language is obviously saying “the P-word” that you learn gets what you want when you’re 18 months old—because saying please never gets old when asking someone to do something for you, nor does saying thanks when they’ve done so—but there’s more to it than that.

Much of courtesy in writing involves taking care to use words that focus on the positive, improvement, and what can be done rather than those that come off as being negative, critical, pushy, and hung up on what can’t be done. If you’re processing a contract and the client forgot to sign and date it, for instance, the first thought that occurs to you when emailing to inform them of the error may go something like the following:

You forgot to sign and date our contract, so you’ve got to do that and send it to me a.s.a.p. because I can’t process it till I receive it signed.

Now, if you were the client reading this slightly angry-sounding, accusatory order, you would likely feel a little embarrassed and maybe even a little upset by the edgy, pushy tone coming through in negative words like forgot, do that, a.s.a.p., and can’t. That feeling wouldn’t sit well with you, and you will begin to build an aversion to that person and the organization they represent. (If this isn’t the first time you forgot to sign a contract for them, however, the demanding tone would be more justified or at least more understandable.) Now imagine you read instead a message that says, with reference to the very same situation, the following:

For your contract to be processed and services initiated, please sign, date, and return it as soon as possible.

You would probably feel much better about coming through with the signed contract in short order. You may think that this is a small, almost insignificant shift in meaning, but the difference in psychological impact can be quite substantial, even if it operates subconsciously. From this example you can pull out the following three characteristics of courteous writing.

a. Use the “You” View

Audience-oriented messages that address the reader directly using the pronouns you and your have a much greater impact when the message is positive or even neutral. Writing this way is a little counterintuitive, however, because when we begin to encode any message into words, we do so naturally from our own perspective. The sender-oriented messages that result from our perspective don’t register as well with readers because they use first-person personal and possessive pronouns (I, me, my, we, us, and our) that tend to come off as being self-involved. In the above case, the contract is shared by both parties, but saying “our contract” is a little ambiguous because it may be read as saying “the employer’s contract” rather than “your and my contract.” Saying “your contract,” however, entitles the reader with a sense of ownership over the contract, which sits much better with them.

The trick to achieving audience-oriented message is to catch yourself whenever you begin writing from your perspective with first-person personal pronouns like I and my, and immediately flip the sentence around to say you and your instead. Simply changing the pronouns isn’t enough, though; in the above case, it involved changing the wording so that the contract is sent by you rather than received by me. Switching to the audience perspective takes constant vigilance and practice even from seasoned professionals, but soon leads to an audience-oriented habit of writing that endears you more to your readers and leads to positive results. An added benefit to habitually considering your audience’s perspective is that it makes you more considerate, sympathetic, and even empathetic, improving your sense of humanity in general.

The flipside of this stylistic advice is to use the first-person pronouns (I, we, etc.) as seldom as possible, which is true, but obviously you can’t do without these entirely—not in all situations. When it’s necessary to say what you did, especially when it comes to negative situations where representing your perspective and accepting responsibility is the right thing to do, not using the first-person pronouns will result in awkward stylistic acrobatics. Simply use the audience-oriented “you” view and sender-oriented first-person personal pronouns when appropriate.

b. Prioritize Audience Benefits

man holding money in one hand (Dos) and a stick in the other hand (Don'ts) reading Carrot-and-Stick ManagementWhenever you need to convince someone to do something, leading with the positive result—what the reader will get out of it for their effort—followed by the instruction has a much better chance of getting the reader on board. Notice in the two example sentences above that the reader-hostile version places the demand before the result, whereas the improved, reader-friendly version places the result before the (kindly worded) demand. This simple organizational technique of leading with the audience benefit works because people are usually more motivated by the carrot (reward) than the stick (consequence), and dangling the carrot attracts the initial interest necessary to make the action seem worthwhile. It’s effective because it answers what we can always assume the reader is wondering: “What’s in it for me?”

Messages that don’t immediately answer that question and instead lead with the action, however, come from a sender-oriented perspective that initially turns off the reader because it comes off as being demanding in tone. Obviously, some situations require a demanding tone, as when being nice gets no results and necessity forces you to switch to the stick. Again, leading with the demand may be what occurs to you first because it addresses your immediate needs rather than your reader’s, but making a habit of flipping it around will give your writing greater impact whenever you give direction or issue instructions.

c. Focus on Future Positive Outcomes

Focusing on what can be done and improvement sits better with readers than focusing on what can’t be done and criticism. In the above case, the initial rendering of the problem focused on blaming the reader for what they did wrong and on the impasse of the situation with the contract. The improved version corrects this because it skips the fault-finding criticism and instead moves directly to what good things will happen if the reader does what needs to be done. The reader of the second sentence will associate you with the feeling of being pleased by the taste of the carrot rather than smarting from the whack of the stick.

The flipside of this stylistic preference involves replacing negative words with positive words unless you have an important reason for not being nice. Being vigilantly kind in this way takes some practice, not because you’re a bad person but because your writing habits may not reflect your kindness in writing. Vigilance here means being on the lookout whenever you’re tempted to use the following words or their like in situations that aren’t too dire:

Rather than shaming the author of a report by saying that their document is terrible, for instance, calling it “improvable” and pointing out what exactly they can do to fix it respects the author’s feelings and motivates them to improve the report better than what you really want to say in a passing moment of disappointment. Of course, taking this advice to its extreme by considering it a hard-and-fast rule will obviously destroy good writing by hindering your range of expression. You’ll notice that this textbook uses many of the above words when necessary. In any case, make it a habit to use positive words instead of negative if it’s clear that doing so will result in a more positive outcome.

On its own, translating a single sentence like the one exemplified above will likely not have a lasting effect; over time, however, an habitual focus on negative outcomes and use of negative language will result in people developing a dislike for dealing with you and, by association, the company you represent. If you make a habit of writing in positive words most of the time and use negative words only in situations where they’re necessary, on the other hand, you stand a good chance of being well liked. People will enjoy working with or for you, which ensures continued positive relations as well as opens the door to other opportunities.

6. Convincing and Confident

When all the other aspects of style described above are in working in concert, and when the information your writing presents comes from sound sources, it naturally acquires an air of confidence that is highly convincing to readers. That confidence is contagious if you are rightfully confident in your information or argument, decisive in your diction, and avoid lapsing into wishy-washy, noncommittal indecision by overusing weak words and expressions like:

These timid, vapid words are death to any sales message especially. This is not to say that your writing can’t err toward overconfidence through lapses in judgment or haughtiness. If you apply the same rigour in argument and persuasion that you do in selecting for quality research sources that are themselves well reasoned, however, by considering a topic holistically rather than simplistically for the sake of advancing a narrowminded position, it’s easy to get readers to comprehend your information share, follow your instruction, buy what you’re selling, and so on.

Key Takeaways

key iconDrafting involves writing consistently in a formal, casual, or informal style characterized by the “Six Cs”: clarity, conciseness, coherence, correctness, courtesy, and conviction.

Exercises

1. Assemble a Six-Cs scoring rubric for assessing professional writing using the descriptions throughout §4.5.2 above. In the highest-achievement column, list in point-form the attributes of each characteristic. In the columns describing lesser and lesser levels of achievement, identify how those expectations can fall apart. For help with the rubric form, you may wish to use Rubistar’s writing rubric template.
2. Find examples of past emails or other documents you’ve written that make you cringe, perhaps even high school essays or reports. Identify instances where they are unclear, unnecessarily longwinded, incoherent (lacking both a clear organizational pattern and transitions that drive the argument along), rife with writing errors, rude, and/or unconvincing. Assess and score those specimens using your Six-Cs rubric from Exercise 1 above. Begin to think of how you would improve them (a future exercise in Ch. 5 will ask you to revise and proof-edit them).
3. Find a professionally written document, perhaps from a case study in another class. Assess it using the same Six-Cs scoring rubric.
4. Speed-write a written assignment that you’ve been recently assigned in one of the other courses in your program. If you’re not fast at typing (or even if you are and want to try something new), you may start by recording your message into your smartphone’s or computer’s voice recorder app or program and then transcribe it. Ensure that your style hits five of the six style Cs (clarity, conciseness, coherence, courtesy, and conviction) as you write and most definitely do not correct as you go.

References

Caramela, S. (2018, February 5). Put a smiley on it: Should you use emojis in business communication? Business.com. Retrieved from https://www.business.com/articles/put-an-emoji-on-it-should-you-use-emojis-in-business-communication/

CBC Comedy. (2017, July 17). Work emails | Baroness von Sketch Show [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XWA_j4Vy4oM

Goodman, S. (2016, November 23). And the most enchanting emoji on Instagram is… Curalate. Retrieved from https://www.curalate.com/blog/the-top-100-most-popular-instagram-emojis/

Gray, D. (2011, November 27). Carrot-and-stick management. Retrieved from https://www.flickr.com/photos/davegray/6416285269/

Me.me. (n.d.). Sometimes I use big words I don’t fully understand in an effort to make my self sound more photosynthesis. Retrieved from https://me.me/i/11273424

Pringle, R. (2017, May 26). Using the wrong emoji can cost you—literally. CBC News. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/news/opinion/emoji-lawsuit-1.4131697

Pringle, R. (2018, March 18). Emojis are everywhere and they’re changing how we communicate. CBC News. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/emojis-forever-pringle-1.4577456

4.6: Effective Document Design

Learning Objectives

Target icon3. Plan, write, revise, and edit short documents and messages that are organized, complete, and tailored to specific audiences.

4. Apply the principles of reader-friendly document design to various written formats.

The responsibility of a writer to produce reader-friendly documents extends to layout, design, and organizational elements surrounding the words themselves. If an email or report were simply a wall of undifferentiated text running for several screens or pages, any reader would be daunted by the prospect of having to scale that wall. Fortunately, writers can use document templates that make those design choices for them with established styles so that writing a document becomes a matter of just filling in the blanks; if you work for a company that uses templates for certain documents, of course you will use them also for consistency and your own convenience. Even without templates, however, you can use several techniques to help guide your readers’ eyes across the page or screen to easily find what they’re looking for. Rather than being optional nice-to-haves, such techniques are crucially important to how well your document is received.

4.6.1: Titles

Almost every document that exists as a standalone unit must have a title that accurately represents its contents in a nutshell. It’s the first thing a reader looks for to understand what a document is all about and should thus be easily found centred at the top of the first page of any small document, and prominently placed on the cover of larger documents (see §7.34 on report cover pages and cover images). Though some documents represent exceptions to this rule (e.g., business letters lack titles, and many lack subject lines), any document that brings with it the expectation of a title but omits it is like a grotesquely decapitated body; readers just won’t know what to make of it. Even emails and memos have titles in the form of subject lines (see §6.1 and §7.2 below). In whatever document you find it, a title’s following characteristics make it essential to your reader’s understanding of the whole:

For examples of titles that are near at hand, see the References sections at the end of most chapter sections throughout this textbook. The following collects a small selection of them:

For more example titles, go to Wikipedia.org and search for articles on any business or technology topic, scroll down to the References section at the bottom, and see an abundance of legitimate titles.

4.6.2: Headings and Subheadings

After the main title of a document, using headings and subheadings as titles for sections and subsections helps guide the reader around a document’s breakdown of topics. Especially in reports, headings and subheadings that stand out in bold typeface flush (or close) to the left margin and follow a consistent numbering system, exactly as you see in this textbook, help a busy reader quickly locate any specific content they seek. Even a routine email that covers a topic in so much detail that it could be internally divided—without being so big that its content should just go into a document attachment—would benefit from bolded headings (see §6.1 for more on emailing).

If your drafting process follows the guide in this chapter, then you would have already drafted your headings and subheadings (and possibly numbering if necessitated by the size of the document) in your outline (see §4.2 above). The drafting process of fleshing out that outline may suggest tweaks to those heading and subheading titles. As titles, headings must be properly phrased and capitalized like main titles (see §4.6.1 above).

When using a word processor such as Microsoft Word, you can achieve additional functionality by using “true headings.” From the Home menu tool ribbon, heading styles are available as options in the Styles section. If you prefer to design your own styles of headings, you can click on the downward triangle at the bottom right of the style examples field and select “Create a Style.” Doing this allows you to see your entire document at a glance on the left and quickly jump to any section you wish by clicking on the Navigation Pane checkbox in the Show section of the View menu tool ribbon (or Alt + w, k), then clicking on the heading for the section you want. This is especially useful in larger documents like reports. Additionally, using such headings makes your document accessible to audiences with assistive technologies such as screen readers (see §4.6.9 below on AODA compliance).

4.6.3: Font

Font selection is an important consideration because it determines how the audience will receive a document. Font involves decisions concerning the style of type, size, and even colour. Consider the following:

1. Font Type

A list of font styles including: Arial, Garamond, Times New Roman, Verdana and Comic SansWriters considering typeface must choose between two major style categories depending on how they would like to accommodate their reader. Serif fonts like Times New Roman and Garamond have little perpendicular crossline “feet” or “hands” at the ends of letter strokes, as well as variable thickness in the strokes themselves depending on their horizontal/vertical or curving position, which altogether help readers distinguish between similar letters or combinations of letters, such as m and rn, which almost look like the same letter in a non-serif font. Serif fonts are ideal for printed documents, especially those with smallish font sizes such as newspapers. Without serifs, sans-serif fonts like Arial (the one used in this textbook) or Verdana achieve a more clean and modern look, especially on computer screens where serif fonts appear to whither away at the thin part of the stroke and are thus harder to read. In the appropriate format, all the fonts mentioned above make a document look respectable. Comic Sans, on the other hand, is appropriate for documents aimed at children, but undermines the credibility of any professional document, such as when the unfortunate choice to use it when reporting CERN particle physics discoveries became more newsworthy than the discoveries themselves (CBC, 2012).

Anticipate that audiences might care about font choices, especially if the font clashes with the content like the example above. To anyone who considers the effects that fonts have on an audience, even going with the Microsoft Word default font of Calibri has its dangers because it comes off looking lazy, being the non-choice of those who never consider the importance of font. At the other extreme, digging around for and using exotic fonts for a document is risky because they can look flakey, such as Papyrus or Copperplate (Butterick, 2013). Even if they look nice, however, the receiver opening the document on the other end may not have that font in their word processor program, requiring that program to substitute it with another font, which may look worse or mangle layouts arranged around that font. The safe bet, then, is always to go with familiar, respectable-looking serif or sans serif fonts like those identified at the top of this subsection.

2. Font Size

Size is another important consideration because readers depend on text being an ideal “Goldilocks” size for readability and are frustrated by font sizes that are bigger or smaller than that. In a standard written document, for instance, a 12-point Arial or Times New Roman is the Goldilocks size. If the MS Word default size when you open a blank document is 11-point, it’s worth increasing it for the sake of those who have slight visual impairment. Increasing the size much past 12-point has a similar effect as using the Comic Sans font type: it makes your document appear to be targeting an audience of children. Of course, situations where you want to increase the font size abound, such as for titles on title pages so that the eye is drawn immediately to them, and any time readers are required to read at a distance, such as posters on a notice board or presentation slides. As we shall see in §11.5 below, the ideal font size for bullet points in a PowerPoint is in the 30- to 35-point range, whereas a 12-point font will appear microscopic on a projector screen, if not invisible, from across the room.

Occasions for going smaller with your font size include footnotes in a report or source credits under images in a document or PowerPoint presentation. Decreasing font size to 8-point merely to get all your text to fit into a one-page résumé, however, would undermine the document’s purpose because, by frustrating the hiring manager trying to read it, it runs the risk of prompting them to just dump it in the shredder and move on to the next (hopefully reader-friendly) résumé. In such cases, choosing the right font size becomes a major life decision. Whatever the situation, strike a balance between meeting the needs of the reader to see the text and design considerations.

3. Font Colour

A choice of colour may also enter into document design considerations, in which case, again, the needs of the reader must be accommodated. Used appropriately, a touch of colour can draw the eye to important text. Colouring your name red at the top of your résumé is effective if few or no other elements in the document are so coloured because your name is essentially the title of your document (see §8.2 below). Likewise, colouring the title of other documents is effective if there are no expectations of doing otherwise (some style guidelines forbid colour).

Any use of colour for text must be high-contrast enough to be readable. The gold standard for high-contrast readability is black text on a white background. Grey-on-white, on the other hand, sacrifices readability for stylishness depending on how light the shade of grey is. A light-yellow text on a white background is nearly impossible to read. In all cases, the readability of the text should be considered not just for those with perfect vision, but especially for those who find themselves anywhere on the spectrum of visual impairment (see §4.6.9 on accessibility below). For this reason, colour should always be used to enhance a document that is already perfectly organized without it; never use colour-coding alone as an organizing principle in a document read by anyone other than you because you can never be sure if some readers will be colour blind or have other visual impairments that render that colour coding useless as a cause for confusion.

4. Boldface, Italics, and Underlining

Boldface, italics, and underlining serve various purposes in focusing audience attention on certain words. Boldface type is especially helpful in directing audience eyes towards titles, headings, and keywords as you can see at the beginning of this paragraph and throughout this textbook. Highlighting in this way is especially helpful to anyone who is visually impaired in any degree. Of course, overusing boldface undermines its impact, so it should be used sparingly and strategically. Likewise, italics and underlining have very specific purposes that we will look at under the banner of mechanics in §5.4 below.

4.6.4: Line Spacing

Single-spaced lines are common to most documents because they accommodate the reader’s need to dart quickly to the next line to continue reading a sentence. The gap between 1.0-spaced lines is just enough to clearly separate one line from another so the hanging elements at the bottom of letters like j and g don’t interfere with the tops of uppercase letters on the line below. Some documents such as academic manuscripts are double-spaced to give readers, who are usually the instructors or teaching assistants grading them, enough space to write comments and editorial marks between the lines. Because doubling the line spacing also doubles the number of pages in a print version, avoid double-spacing documents for audiences who don’t explicitly require it.

Frustratingly, some word processors such as Microsoft Word open blank pages with line spacing values other than single (1.0) spacing as their default setting, such as 1.08 or 1.15. In such cases, a couple of adjustments are necessary if you want to single-space a document you’re writing from scratch. Make these adjustments as soon as you open a blank page or by highlighting all (ctrl. + a) if you’ve already started. In MS Word’s Home menu:

  1. Click on the Line and Paragraph Spacing icon that has four lines representing text with two blue arrows on its left side, one pointing up and one down, in the Paragraph section of the Home menu ribbon (or just type the Alt + h, k keys).Screen shot of Microsoft Office Toolbar showing where line spacing can be foundScreen shot of dialog box in Microsoft Word showing the dropdown menu where line spacing can be changedFigure 4.6.4a: Where to click to get line-spacing options in the MS Word tool ribbon (above) and Paragraph control panel (right)
  2. Select 1.0 from the dropdown menu or Line Spacing Options from the same to open the Paragraph control panel and select Single from the Line Spacing dropdown menu in the Spacing section.
  3. Perform the same two steps as above to get the Line and Paragraph Spacing dropdown menu and select Remove Space After Paragraph or, from the Paragraph control panel, click on the “Don’t add space between paragraphs of the same style” checkbox and the Okay button at the bottom to apply the style.

The third action above prevents MS Word from adding a full line of space every time you hit Enter at the end of a line. When typing address lines for a letter without the “Don’t add space” checkbox ticked, for instance, the default line spacing will continue to look like double spacing even if you set the line spacing to single.

Justification should ideally be left as the default left-aligned or “Left-justified / ragged right.” This means that all lines are flush to the left margin and the lines end wherever the last full word fits before the right margin sends (or “wraps”) the next word down to the next line, making each line vary in length so the right margin looks “ragged,” as you can see throughout this textbook. This is usually preferable to “justifying” both the left and right edges of the text so that they align perfectly along both the left and right margins, as in the paragraph below. While this may look clean like newspapers often do with their columns, it does so by adding space between the words within each line, and since every line varies in length without justification, every line with it will vary in the amount of space added between words. Some lines that would be short without justification look awkward with it because the space between some words is greater than the span of small words.

To fix the “hockey teeth” gaps resulting from justification such as what you see in parts of this paragraph, turn on hyphenation in MS Word via the Layout tool ribbon: select Automatic in the Hyphenation dropdown menu in the Page Setup section. This automatically adds hyphens between syllables of long words whose size and position at the end of a line would otherwise send them entirely to the beginning of the next line, decreasing the number of words in the line above and increasing the gap between each. If working in a company document template with justification, keep the justification throughout to be stylistically consistent with other documents produced in that template and ensure that the hyphenation is turned on (unlike this paragraph). Otherwise, left-aligned text is perfectly fine and may even help readers find their place if they lose it momentarily compared with the uniform brick-wall effect of justified text seen here.

Screenshot of Microsoft Word tool bar showing justification icons

Figure 4.6.4b: Where to click to select text justification or left-aligned (“ragged right”) text in the MS Word Home menu tool ribbon

To fix the “hockey teeth” gaps resulting from justification such as what you see in parts of this paragraph, turn on hyphenation in MS Word via the Layout tool ribbon: select Automatic in the Hyphenation dropdown menu in the Page Setup section. This automatically adds hyphens between syllables of long words whose size and position at the end of a line would otherwise send them entirely to the beginning of the next line, decreasing the number of words in the line above and increasing the gap between each. If working in a company document template with justification, keep the justification throughout to be stylistically consistent with other documents produced in that template and ensure that the hyphenation is turned on (unlike this paragraph). Otherwise, left-aligned text is perfectly fine and may even help readers find their place if they lose it momentarily compared with the uniform brick-wall effect of justified text seen here.

4.6.5: Lists

Another technique that helps the reader skim and easily find sought-after content is numbered or bulleted lists for a series of discreet but related items. Whether you use numbered or bulleted lists depends on your organizing principle:

Use Numbered Lists for a: Use Bulleted Lists for:
  • An unprioritized collection of related points
  • Sentences under a heading in an email or note-form points on a presentation slide (e.g., PowerPoint) for easier readability
  • Step-by-step procedure such as a set of instructions
  • Description of a chronological sequence — a series of events unfolding in time
  • Rankings that arrange items in priority order

You’ve seen numbered and bulleted lists used throughout this textbook (e.g., the two bulleted lists immediately above and a numbered one in the section prior to this). Whichever list type you use, ensure each has the following:

The need for parallelism extends also to lists within a sentence. See §5.2 below for more on how to correct for faulty parallelism.

4.6.6: Visual Aids

The cliché that a picture is worth a thousand words holds true because images are excellent aids to understanding when placed near the messages they illustrate. Just as the visual elements in this textbook support and reinforce the content, such as those in §4.6.4 above, so photos, graphics, charts, and graphs provide readers something that can be understood and remembered at a glance—as long as those visuals are used appropriately. Of course, the main criterion for usability is if the image helps the reader understand the text better. If the image is complementary, it can only help. If it is unnecessary, confusing, or contradicts the text, however, the image isn’t worth the time and effort it takes to add it to your document. When considering using an image, ask yourself:

The ideal size depends on the resolution, detail of the content, relative importance, and the use to which the document will be put. The following guidelines help ensure that the images you use will meet aesthetic, design, technical, and legal expectations:

With modern word processors, placing an image is as easy as dragging and dropping the image file from a folder into a document (or copying and pasting). Sometimes you will need to be a little craftier with capturing images, however. For instance, if you need to capture a still image of a YouTube video to use as an image such as you see near the end of §4.3.4 above, you can pause the video at the moment you would like to capture and use your computer’s screen-capturing program to get the image.

Once your image is in your document, use the layout options to place it where appropriate. Clicking on it may produce a layout icon near the top right that you can click on to open the dropdown menu (alternatively, you can right-click on the image and select the Wrap Text option from the dropdown menu). The default setting left-justifies the image and displaces the text around where you put it, but other layout options allow you to place it elsewhere on the page so that your text wraps around it (“Square,” “Tight,” or “Through”) or so that text doesn’t move around it at all (“Behind” or “In front of text”), which gives you the freedom to move the image anywhere.

See §3.5.5 above for further information on labelling an image according to APA style guidelines and §4.6.9 below on alt-text captioning images for accessibility.

4.6.7: Interactive Elements

Another aid to understanding that can benefit readers of an online or electronic document is a weblink that provides them with the option of accessing other online media. Hyperlinking is easy in modern word processors and online applications such as websites and email simply by highlighting text or clicking on an image and activating the hyperlinking feature. Press the control and k keys simultaneously (Ctrl + k), paste the web address into the URL field (copy it by clicking on the web address bar or keying Alt + d, then Ctrl + c), and hit the Okay button (Microsoft Office Support, 2016). Users prefer links that open new tabs in their browser rather than take them away entirely, so seek out that option when hyperlinking. By doing this for an image of a YouTube video screenshot, for instance, you enable readers of a document (including a PowerPoint presentation) to link directly to that video in YouTube (as you can with the YouTube image near the end of §4.3.4 above) rather than embed a large video file in your document. You can additionally link to other areas within a document, as the document version of this textbook does with links to various sections like the one in the previous sentence.

4.6.8: Balancing Text and Whitespace

Another consideration that helps a reader find their way around a page is the balance of text and whitespace, which is simply a gap unoccupied by text or graphic elements. The enemy of readability is a wall of text that squeezes out any whitespace, whereas a well-designed document uses whitespace to usher the reader’s eyes towards units of text. Whitespace margins frame the text in a document, for instance, as well as give readers something to hold on to so that they don’t cover up any text with their thumbs. Margins should be 3cm or 1″ (2.54cm), which are the default margin sizes in most word processors’ (e.g., Microsoft Word’s) blank 8.5″x11″ document. Margins also focus attention on the text itself, which makes any crowding of the margins an offense to good design. An attempt to cram more information into a one-page résumé by edging further and further into the margins, for instance, follows the law of diminishing returns: the hiring manager might take your sacrifice of the document’s readability as a sign of selfishness—that you place your own needs above that of your audience, which suggests you would do the same to the customers and management if it suited you (see §8.2 below for more on résumés).

4.6.9: Making Accessible, AODA-compliant Documents

The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (2005) sets out guidelines for how workplaces can help people with disabilities, including accommodations that extend to document design. Many of the recommendations covered in the sections throughout §4.6 above, such as font size and colour, are justified as accommodations to people with even mild visual impairment. Someone with colour blindness, for instance, may be confused if you use coloured text alone as an organizing principle, which is why you should use colour only to enhance text readability while using other means of organization such as boldface type (see §4.6.3.4 above). Not only must you accommodate such individuals, but also those whose severity of impairment requires that they use assistive technologies such as screen readers that convert text to automated voice. The more straightforward your text is presented, as well as formatted with “true headings” that a screen reader can identify as headings, the easier a person with a disability can hear and understand your message when it’s read out by a screen reader.

Once you are done drafting your document, you can begin to check for any accessibility issues and act on them right away. In MS Word, just to go to File and, in the Info tab, select the “Check for Issues” button in the Inspect Document section. It will identify accessibility problems in your document as well as suggest fixes (watch the video below for a demonstration). For instance, if you have a photo without alt text, it will prompt you to write a caption by right-clicking on the image, selecting “Edit Alt Text…” from the dropdown menu, and writing a one- or two-sentence description of the image so that users with screen readers will be able to hear a description of the image they can’t see very well or at all. See the Creating Accessible Documents resources (Algonquin College, 2013) for more on how to make your documents AODA compliant.

https://youtu.be/mSY2EyA0rH4[/embed]

Key Takeaways

key iconMake your document easy to follow at a glance and accessible by using a variety of document design features such as titles, headings/subheadings, lists, visual aids, interactive elements, line spacing, and appropriate font types, sizes, and colours.

Exercises

1. Collect a variety of professional documents, such as reports, memos, and letters. If you have perfect vision, impair your vision perhaps by dimming the lights at night or using a friend’s or family member’s prescription glasses. What do you notice about the readability of those documents when you’ve limited your eyesight? What organizational elements do you especially appreciate when trying to make sense of the document when you’ve otherwise hindered your ability to read?

2. Take any multi-page assignment you’ve done in MS Word that also includes non-text elements like photos. Run an accessibility check on it using the procedure described in §4.6.9 above and fix the issues identified.

3. Produce a dummy document that follows guidelines in each of the §4.6 subsections above. The content doesn’t much matter so much as the inclusion of features. Ensure that it has:

  1. A proper title
  2. Some headings and subheadings
  3. A well-chosen font
  4. Single-spacing (1.0 with the “Don’t add space” checkbox checked)
  5. A numbered and a bulleted list A properly labeled image
  6. A hyperlink
  7. Nicely balanced
  8. An accessibility check that you act upon by following the recommended fixes for AODA compliancewhitespace and text

References

Academic Algonquin. (2013, July 29). Using the accessibility checker [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=62&v=mSY2EyA0rH4

Algonquin College. (2013). Creating accessible documents. Accessibility Resources. Retrieved from https://www.algonquincollege.com/accessibility-resources/accessible-education-tools/creating-accessible-documents/

Apple Support. (2017, November 20). How to take a screenshot on your Mac. Retrieved from https://support.apple.com/en-ca/HT201361

Butterick, M. (2013). Bad fonts. Practical Typography. Retrieved from https://practicaltypography.com/bad-fonts.html

CBC. (2012, July 4). Higgs boson researchers mocked for using Comic Sans font. CBC News. Retrieved http://www.cbc.ca/newsblogs/yourcommunity/2012/07/do-you-use-the-comic-sans-font.html

Darling, (2014a). Prepositions. Guide to Grammar and Writing. Retrieved from https://plato.algonquincollege.com/applications/guideToGrammar/?page_id=1622

Darling, (2014b). Conjunctions. Guide to Grammar and Writing. Retrieved from https://plato.algonquincollege.com/applications/guideToGrammar/?page_id=1566

Darling, (2014c). Articles and other determiners. Guide to Grammar and Writing. Retrieved from https://plato.algonquincollege.com/applications/guideToGrammar/?page_id=162#art

Microsoft Office Support. (2016, September 7). Create or edit a hyperlink. Retrieved from https://support.office.com/en-us/article/create-or-edit-a-hyperlink-5d8c0804-f998-4143-86b1-1199735e07bf

Microsoft Support. (2017, April 26). Use Snipping Tool to capture screenshots. Retrieved from https://support.microsoft.com/en-ca/help/13776/windows-use-snipping-tool-to-capture-screenshots

 

Chapter 5: The Writing Process IV: Editing

Jordan Smith

Chapter Learning Objectives

  1. Plan, write, revise, and edit short documents and messages that are organized, complete, and tailored to specific audiences.

Whatever you do, don’t quit now! Self-correction is an essential part of the writing process, one that students or professionals skip at their peril. Say you’ve just dashed off a quick email. Glancing back to ensure that it’s correct in terms of its grammar, punctuation, spelling, and mechanics helps you avoid confusing your reader or embarrassing yourself. Those errors can be like stains on your shirt or rips in your uniform: they give the impression that you’re incompetent or uncaring—qualities no employers respect because it suggests a lack of attention to detail.

Always keep in mind that people generalize to equate the quality of your writing with the quality of your work. Because readers tend to be judgmental, they may even draw bigger conclusions about your level of education, work ethic, and overall professionalism from even a small writing sample. Especially with résumés and cover letters where your words are the first impression employers have of you, employers are judgmental about your writing because customers can be. Employers don’t want you to represent their company to customers in a way that makes it look like the whole organization does shoddy, amateur work.

The final stage of the writing process is thus managing your readers’ impressions by editing your draft from beginning to end. This involves first returning to your headspace at the start of the writing process and assessing where your document is in relation to the purpose you set out to achieve for it (see Step 1.1 in §2.1 above). When you get a sense of how far your document is from achieving that primary purpose, you realize what needs to be done to close that gap—what you need to add, rewrite, delete, and improve. Your next move is a two-step editing process of substantial revisions and proof-editing. The order of these is crucial to avoid wasting time. You wouldn’t proofread for minor grammatical errors before substantial revisions because you may end up just deleting altogether paragraphs that you meticulously proofread with a fine-tooth comb. We’ll therefore divide the process into lessons you can apply to the editing process in the following order:

1 Preparing, 2 Researching, 3 Drafting, 4 Editing            4 Editing, 4.1 Evaluating, 4.2 Reorganizing, adding and trimming, 4.3 Proofreading for Grammar, Punctuation, Spelling and Mechanics

Figure 5: The four-stage writing process and Stage 4 Breakdown

5.1: Substantial Revisions

Before you begin your editing process with a bird’s-eye view of the whole document, it might be a good idea to step away from it altogether. Distancing yourself from the work you just drafted helps you approach it again with fresh eyes. This requires effective time management so that you have a solid draft ready well ahead of a deadline. Leaving enough time to shift attention to other work projects or your personal life, however, helps you forget a little what you were doing with the document in question. After some time, return to the document pretending it was written by someone else and you are its target audience, the one you profiled in Step 1.2 of the writing process (see §2.2 above). Ask yourself: will that target reader understand what you’ve written in the order you’ve presented it? To complete their understanding of your topic, what do they need to see that isn’t in your draft yet? What parts are redundant, confuse the reader, or otherwise get in the way of their understanding and can just be deleted?

Alienating yourself from your own work helps give you the critical distance necessary to be more ruthless towards it than you are at the drafting stage. You cling too personally to the words you come up with at the drafting stage, whereas you would be more critical of the same words if they were written by someone else. Creating that critical distance helps you:

  1. Re-arrange the order that you originally plotted out at the outlining step (see §4.2 above) if need be
  2. Recognize gaps that must be filled with yet more draft material
  3. Chop out parts that don’t contribute to the purpose you set out to achieve, difficult as it may be to delete words that you laboured into being

Before returning to the topic of trimming, however, let’s consider what you’re looking for when you evaluate your draft.

5.1.1: Evaluating Your Draft

When considering how your draft meets the objectives you set out to achieve at the outset (see Step 1.1 of the writing process in §2.1 above), use a few different lenses to assess that achievement. Each lens corresponds to a step in the drafting process, as shown in the table below.

Table 5.1.1: Evaluation Lenses and Corresponding Steps in the Drafting Process

Evaluate for Corresponding Step in the Drafting Process
1. Content Laying down content in the researching stage (Ch. 3)
2. Organization Organizing that material (§4.1§4.2)
3. Style Stylizing it into effective sentences and paragraphs (§4.3, §4.4, §4.5)
4. Readability Adding document design features (§4.6)

When reading with these lenses after taking a break from your work, approach it more critically as if you were the reader you’re catering to (§2.2), not as the words’ sentimental and protective parent.

When evaluating for content, consider what your audience needs to see for understanding the topic. Ask yourself if your coverage is thorough, or if you’ve left gaps that would confuse your target audience. Do any concepts need further explanation? Less? With constraints on the length and scope of your document in mind, consider if you got carried away with digressions that would send your reader down off-topic dead ends. Have you given your audience more than what they need so that your document would overwhelm them? More specifically, have you fact-checked all of your information to ensure that it is true and, if based on sources that must be documented, accurately cited and referenced?

When evaluating for organization, consider the flow of content to determine if the document leads the reader through to the intended understanding of the topic. Is it clear that you’re taking the direct approach (see §4.1.1 above) by getting right to the point when you need to do so, or is it obvious that you’re taking the indirect approach as necessary (§4.1.2)? Would it be clear to your reader what organizing principle you’ve followed (§4.1.3)? When you outlined your draft in Step 3.2 of the writing process (§4.2), you did so from a preliminary understanding of your topic. As you drafted your message, do you see that something you first thought made sense near the end of your draft makes more sense at the beginning?

When evaluating for style, again consider your audience’s needs, expectations, and abilities. Did you draft in an informal style but now realize that a slightly more formal style is more appropriate (§4.5.1) or vice versa? If you produced a 6 Cs style rubric for Exercise #1 at the end of §4.5.2 above, apply it now to your draft to determine if it meets audience expectations in terms of its clarity, conciseness, coherence, correctness, courtesy, and confidence. Now would also be a great time to assess whether your style is consistent or whether you started off formal but then lapsed into informality, or vice versa.

When evaluating for readability, consider your audience’s needs in terms of the many features that frame and divide the text so that your reader doesn’t get lost, confused, overwhelmed, repulsed, or bored. Check for whether you can do the following:

The conclusions you draw from these evaluations will help inform and motivate you towards the substantial revisions explained below.

5.1.2: Reorganizing Your Draft

When you first move into a new apartment or house, you have a general idea of where all your furniture should go based on where it was in your previous place. After a few days, however, you may realize that the old arrangement doesn’t make as much sense in the new layout. A new arrangement would be much more practical. The same is true of your document’s organization once you’ve completed a working draft. You may realize that your original outline plan doesn’t flow as well as you thought it would now that you’ve learned more about the topic in the process of writing on it.

Moving pieces around is as easy as highlighting, copying (Ctrl c), cutting (Ctrl x), and pasting (Ctrl v) into new positions. When moving a whole paragraph or more, however, ensure coherence (recall §4.4.2) by rewriting the transitional element in the concluding sentence of the paragraph above the relocated paragraph so that it properly bridges to the newly located topic sentence below it. Likewise, the relocated paragraph’s (or paragraphs’) concluding sentence must transition properly to the new topic sentence below it. Additionally, any elements within the relocated text that assume knowledge of what came just before, such as abbreviations (e.g., CBC) that the reader hasn’t seen fully spelled out yet (see §5.4.1 below) must be fully spelled out here and can be abbreviated later in the text.

5.1.3: Adding to Your Draft

In furnishing your new apartment or house, especially if it’s larger than what you had before, you’ll find that merely transplanting your old furniture isn’t enough. The new space now has gaps that need to be filled—a chair here, a couch there, perhaps a rug to tie the whole room together. Likewise, you’ll find when writing a document that gaps need to be filled with more detail. Knowing your organizing principles well (recall §4.1.3 above) is helpful here. If you’re explaining a procedure in a chronological sequence of steps, for instance, you may find that one of the steps you describe involves a whole other sequence of steps that you’re sure your audience won’t know (based on your profile of them in Step 1.2; see §2.2). In this case, embedding the additional sequence using a sub-list numbered with roman numerals (if you used Arabic numerals in the main list) completes the explanation. Of course, keep in mind any stated maximum word- or page-counts in case your document exceeds the acceptable range. If it does, then you must be ruthless about chopping anything unnecessary out of your draft.

5.1.4: Trimming Your Draft

Gardener trimming hedgesAs #2 in the 6 Cs of good writing (see §4.5.2.2 above), conciseness means using the fewest words possible to achieve the goal of communication, which is for your reader to understand your intended meaning (see §1.3 above). Many college students who stretched out their words to reach 1000-word essays are relieved to find that college and professional audiences prefer writing that is as terse as a text. Indeed, because typing with thumbs is inefficient compared with 10 fingers on a keyboard and no one wants to read more than they must on a little screen, texting helps teach conciseness. Although professional writing requires a higher quality of writing than friends require of texts, the audience expectations are the same. The more succinct your writing is without compromising clarity, the more your reader will appreciate your writing. Given the choice between an article of 500 words and one of 250 that says the same thing, any reader would prefer the 250-word version. We all have better things to do in our jobs than read long-winded blather. Anything that doesn’t contribute to the purpose of your message or document as you conceived it back in Step 1.1 of the writing process (§2.1) must go.

The first trick to paring down your writing is to really want to make every word count and to see excess words as grotesque indulgence. So, pretend that words are expensive. If you had to pay a cent of your own money for every character you wrote in a document that you had to print 1,000 copies of, you would surely adopt a frugal writing style. You would then see that adding unnecessary words is doubly wasteful because time is money. Time spent writing or reading tiresome pap is time you and your reader could spend making money doing other things. Terse, to-the-point writing is both easier to write and easier to read than insufferable rambling. After putting yourself in a frugal frame of mind that detests an excessively wordy style, follow the practical advice in the subsections below to trim your writing effectively.

1. Mass-delete Whatever Doesn’t Belong

The first practical step towards trimming your document is a large-scale purge of whatever doesn’t contribute to the purpose you set out to achieve. The order is important because you don’t want to do any fine-tooth-comb proof-editing on anything that you’re just going to delete anyway. This is probably the most difficult action to follow through on because it means deleting large swaths of writing that may have taken some time and effort to compose. You may even have enjoyed writing them because they’re on quite interesting sub-topics. If they sidetrack readers, whose understanding of the topic would be unaffected (at best) or (worst) overwhelmed by their inclusion, those sentences, paragraphs, and even whole sections simply must go. Perhaps save them in an “outtakes” document if you think you can use them elsewhere. Otherwise, like those who declutter their apartment after reading Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (2014), the release that follows such a purge can feel something like enlightenment. Highlight, delete, and don’t look back.

2. Delete Long Lead-ins

The next-biggest savings come from deleting lead-ins that you wrote to gear up towards your main point. In ordinary speech, we use lead-ins as something like throat-clearing exercises. In writing, however, these are useless at best because they state the obvious. At worst, lead-ins immediately repulse the reader by signalling that the rest of the message will contain some time-wasting verbiage. If you see the following crossed-out expressions or anything like them in your writing, just delete them:

In the first example, the recipient sees the name of the sender before even opening their email. It’s therefore redundant for the sender to introduce themselves by name and say that they wrote this email. Likewise, in the third example, the reader can see that this is the conclusion if it’s the last paragraph, especially if it comes below the heading “Conclusion.” In each case, the sentence really begins after these lead-in expressions, and the reader misses nothing in their absence. Delete them.

3. Pare Down Unnecessarily Wordy Phrases

We habitually sprinkle long stock phrases into everyday speech because they sound fancy merely because they’re long and sometimes old-fashioned, as if length and long-time use grants respectability (it doesn’t). These phrases look ridiculously cumbersome when seen next to their more concise equivalent words and phrases, as you can see in Table 5.1.4.3 below. Unless you have good reason to do otherwise, always replace the former with the latter in your writing.

Table 5.1.4.3: Replace Unnecessarily Wordy Phrases with 1-2 Word Equivalents

Replace These Wordy Phrases with These Concise Equivalents
at this present moment in time now
in any way, shape, or form in any way
pursuant to your request as requested
thanking you in advance thank you
in addition to the above also
in spite of the fact that even though / although
in view of the fact that because / since
are of the opinion that believe that / think that
afford an opportunity allow
despite the fact that though
during the time that while
due to the fact that because / since
at a later date/time later
until such time as until
in the near future soon
fully cognizant of aware of
in the event that if
for the period of for
attached hereto attached
each and every all
in as much as because / since
more or less about
feel free to please

Again, the reader misses nothing if you use the words and phrases in the second column above instead of those in the first. Also, concise writing is more accessible to readers who are learning English as an additional language.

4. Delete Redundant Words

Like the wordy expressions in Table 5.1.4.3 above, our speech is also riddled with redundant words tacked on unnecessarily in stock expressions. These prefabricated phrases strung mindlessly together aren’t so bad when spoken because talk is cheap. In writing, however, which should be considered expensive, they make the author look like an irresponsible heavy spender. Be on the lookout for the expressions below so that you are in command of your language. Simply delete the crossed-out words in red if they appear in combination with those in blue:

5. Delete Filler Expressions and Words

If you audio-record your conversations and make a transcript of just the words themselves, you’ll find an abundance of filler words and expressions that you could do without and your sentences would still mean the same thing. A few common ones that appear at the beginning of sentences are “There is,” “There are,” and “It is,” which must be followed by a relative clause starting with the relative pronoun that or who. Consider the following, for example:

1. There are many who want to take your place. Many want to take your place.
2. There is nothing you can do about it. You can do nothing about it.
3. It is the software that keeps making the error. The software keeps erring.

In the first and third cases, you can simply delete “There are” and “It is,” as well as the relative pronouns “who” and “that” respectively, leaving the sentence perfectly fine without them. In the second case, deleting “There is” requires slightly reorganizing the word order, but otherwise requires no additional words to say the very same thing. In each case, you save two or three words that simply don’t need to be there.

Other common filler words include the articles a, an, and the, especially in combination with the preposition of. You can eliminate many instances of of the simply by deleting them and flipping the order of the nouns on either side of them.

technology of the future future technology

Obviously, you can’t do this in all cases (e.g., changing “first of the month” to “month first” makes no sense). When proofreading, however, just be on the lookout for instances where you can.

The definite article the preceding plural nouns is also an easy target. Try deleting the article to see if the sentence still makes sense without it.

The shareholders unanimously supported the initiative. Shareholders unanimously supported the initiative.

Though the above excess words seem insignificant on their own, they bulk up the total word count unnecessarily when used in combination throughout a large document. They are like dog food fillers such as “powdered cellulose” (a.k.a. sawdust). They provide no nutritive value, but manufacturers add them to charge you more for the mere volume they add to the product. Please don’t cut your writing with filler.

6. Delete Needless Adverbs

Streamline your writing by purging the filler adverbs that you pepper your conversational speech with. In writing, these add little meaning. Recall that adverbs are words that explain verbs (like adjectives do nouns) and typically, but not always, end in -ly. Some of the most common intensifying adverbs include the following:

Perhaps the worst offender in recent years has been literally, which people overuse and often misuse when they mean “figuratively” or even “extremely,” especially when exaggerating. Saying, “I’ve literally told you a million times not to exaggerate” misuses literally (albeit ironically in this case) because telling someone not to exaggerate a million times would literally take about 20 days if you did nothing but repeat the phrase constantly all day every day without sleeping. That’s not going to happen. If you say, “I’m literally crazy for your speaking style,” you just mean “I’m thrilled by your speaking style.” Using “literally” in this case is just babbling nonsense.

If you find yourself slipping in any of the above adverbs in your writing, question whether they need to be there. (In the case of the previous sentence, leaving out “really” before “need” doesn’t diminish the impact of the statement much.) Consider the following sentence:

Basically, you can’t really do much to fully eliminate bad ideas because they’re quite common. You can’t do much to eliminate bad ideas because they’re so common.

7. Favour Short, Plain Words and Use Jargon Selectively

If you pretend that every character in each word you write costs money from your own pocket, you would do what readers prefer: use shorter words. The beauty of plain words is that they are more understandable and draw less attention to themselves than big, fancy words while still getting the point across. This is especially true when your audience includes ESL readers. Choosing shorter words is easy because they are often the first that come to mind, so writing in plain language saves you time in having to look up and use bigger words unnecessarily. It also involves vigilance in opting for shorter words if longer jargon words come to mind first.

Obviously, you would use jargon for precision when appropriate for your audience’s needs and your own. You would use the word “photosynthesis,” for instance, if (1) you needed to refer to the process by which plants convert solar energy into sugars and (2) you know your audience knows what the word means. In this case, using the big, fancy jargon word achieves a net savings in the number of characters because it’s the most precise term for a process that otherwise needs several words. Using jargon words merely to extend the number of characters, however, is a desperate-looking move that your instructors and professional audiences will see through as a time-wasting smokescreen for a lack of quality ideas.

Table 5.1.4.7 below lists several polysyllabic words (those having more than one syllable) that writers often use when a shorter, more plain and familiar word will do just as well. There’s a time and place for fancier words, such as when formality is required, but in routine writing situations where there’s no need for them, always opt for the simple, one- or two-syllable word.

Table 5.1.4.7: Favour Plain, Simple Words over Polysyllabic Words

Big, Fancy Words Short, Plain Options
advantageous helpful
ameliorate improve
cognizant aware
commence begin, start
consolidate combine
deleterious harmful
demonstrate show
disseminate issue, send
endeavour try
erroneous wrong
expeditious fast
facilitate ease, help
implement carry out
inception start
leverage use
optimize perfect
proficiencies skills
proximity near
regarding about
subsequent later
utilize use

Source: Brockway (2015)

The longer words in the above table tend to come from the Greek and Latin side of the English language’s parentage, whereas the shorter words come from the Anglo-Saxon (Germanic) side. When toddlers begin speaking English, they use Anglo-Saxon-derived words because they’re easier to master, and therefore recognize them as plain, simple words throughout their adult lives.

Definitely don’t use longer words when they’re grammatically incorrect. For instance, using reflexive pronouns such as “myself” just because it sounds fancy instead looks foolish when the subject pronoun “I” or object pronoun “me” are correct.

Aaron and myself will do the heavy lifting on this project. Aaron and I will do the heavy lifting on this project.
I’m grateful that you contacted myself for this opportunity. I’m grateful that you contacted me for this opportunity.

The same goes for misusing the other reflexive pronouns “yourself” instead of “you,” “himself” or “herself” instead of “him” or “her,” etc. See Table 4.4.2a above for more on correct uses of pronouns.

Sometimes, you see short words rarely used in conversation being used in writing to appear fancy, but just look pretentious, such as “said” preceding a noun.

Call me if you are confused by anything in the said contract. Call me if you are confused by anything in the contract.

Usually, the context helps determine that the noun following “said” is the one mentioned earlier, making “said” an unnecessary, pompous add-on. Delete it or use the demonstrative pronouns “this” or “that” if necessary to avoid confusion.

Finally, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that a simple style is the same as being simplistic. Good writing can communicate complex ideas in simple words just like bad writing can communicate simple ideas with overly complex words. The job of the writer in professional situations is to make smart things sound simple. Be wary of writing that makes simple things sound complex. You probably don’t want what it’s selling.

8. Simplify Verbs

Yet another way that people overcomplicate their writing involves expressing the action in as many words as possible, such as by using the passive voice (see §4.3.4 above), continuous tenses, and nominalizations. We’ve already seen how the passive voice rearranges the standard subject-verb-object word order so that, by going object-verb-subject, an auxiliary verb (form of the verb to be) and the preposition by must be added to say what an active voice sentence says without them. Consider the following sentences, for instance:

The candidate cannot be supported by our membership. Our members cannot support the candidate.

Here, the active-voice construction on the right uses two fewer words to say the same thing. Though we saw in §4.3.4 that there certainly are legitimate uses of the passive voice, overusing the passive voice sounds unnatural and appears as an attempt to extend the word count or sound more fancy and objective. Because the passive voice is either more wordy or vague than the active voice, however, readers prefer the latter most of the time and so should you.

Another common annoyance to busy readers is using continuous verb forms instead of simple ones. The continuous verb form uses the participle form of the main verb, which means adding an -ing ending to it, and adds an auxiliary verb (form of the verb to be, which differs according to the person and number) to determine the tense (past, past perfect, present, future, future perfect, etc.). In the table below, you can see how cumbersome continuous forms are compared with simple ones.

Table 5.1.4.8: Favour Simple Verb Forms Instead of Continuous Forms

Continuous Verb Forms Simple Verb Forms
I was writing a letter to her. I wrote a letter to her.
I had been writing a letter to her. I had written a letter to her.
I have been writing a letter to her. I have written a letter to her
I would have been writing a letter to her. I would have written a letter to her.
I am writing a letter to her. I write a letter to her.
I would be writing a letter to her. I would write a letter to her.
I will be writing a letter to her. I will write a letter to her.
I will have been writing a letter to her. I will have written a letter to her.

There are certainly legitimate reasons for using continuous verb forms to describe actions stretching out over time. In the case of the present tense, saying, “I am considering my options” is more appropriate compared with “I consider my options” because you really are in the process of considering your options. In other tenses, however, people who use wordcount-extending strategies favour continuous verb forms because they think those forms sounds fancier. Overused or misused, however, such verb forms just annoy the reader by overcomplicating the language.

Yet another strategy for extending the wordcount with verbs is to turn the main action they describe into nouns, a process called nominalization. This involves taking a verb and adding a suffix such as -ant, -ent, -ion, -tion, -sion, -ence, -ance, or -ing, as well as adding forms of other verbs, such as to make or to give. Nominalization may also require determiners such as articles (the, a, or an) before the action nouns. Consider the following comparisons of nominalized-verb sentences with simplified verb forms:

The committee had a discussion about the new budget constraints. The committee discussed the new budget constraints.
We will make a recommendation to proceed with the investment option. We will recommend proceeding with the investment option.
They handed down a judgment that the offer wasn’t worth their time. They judged that the offer wasn’t worth their time.
The regulator will grant approval of the new process within the week. The regulator will approve the new process within the week.
He always gives me advice on what to say to the media. He always advises me on what to say to the media.
She’s giving your application a pass because of all the errors in it. She’s passing on your application because of all the errors in it.

You can tell that the above sentences where the simple verb drives the action are punchier and have greater impact than those that turn the action into a noun and thus require more words to say the same thing. Indeed, each of the verb-complicating, wordcount-extending strategies throughout this subsection is bad enough on its own. In combination, however, writing riddled with nominalization, continuous verb forms, and passive-voice verb constructions muddies writing with an insufferable multitude of unnecessary words.

The final trick to making your writing more concise is the Editor feature in your word processor. In Microsoft Word, for instance, you can set up the Spelling & Grammar checker to scan for all the problems above by following the procedure below:

The committee had a discussion about the new budget constraints. The committee discussed the new budget constraints.
We will make a recommendation to proceed with the investment option. We will recommend proceeding with the investment option.
They handed down a judgment that the offer wasn’t worth their time. They judged that the offer wasn’t worth their time.
The regulator will grant approval of the new process within the week. The regulator will approve the new process within the week.
He always gives me advice on what to say to the media. He always advises me on what to say to the media.
She’s giving your application a pass because of all the errors in it. She’s passing on your application because of all the errors in it.

You can tell that the above sentences where the simple verb drives the action are punchier and have greater impact than those that turn the action into a noun and thus require more words to say the same thing. Indeed, each of the verb-complicating, wordcount-extending strategies throughout this subsection is bad enough on its own. In combination, however, writing riddled with nominalization, continuous verb forms, and passive-voice verb constructions muddies writing with an insufferable multitude of unnecessary words.

The final trick to making your writing more concise is the Editor feature in your word processor. In Microsoft Word, for instance, you can set up the Spelling & Grammar checker to scan for all the problems above by following the procedure below:

  1. Go to File (alt. + f) and, in the File menu, click on Options (at the bottom; alt. + t) to open the Word Options control panel.
  2. Click on Proofing in the Word Options control panel.
  3. Check all the boxes in the “When correcting spelling and grammar in Word” section of the Word Options control panel.
  4. Click on the Settings… button beside “Writing Style” under the check boxes to open the Grammar Settings control panel.
  5. Click on all the check boxes in the Grammar Settings control panel, as well as the Okay button of both this panel and the Word Options panel to activate.
    Screenshot showing how to change Spelling and Grammar settings in Microsoft WordFigure 5.1.4.8: Setting up your MS Word Grammar, Style, and Spellchecker
  6. Go to the Review menu tab in the tool ribbon at the top of the Word screen and select Spelling & Grammar (alt. + r, s) to activate the Editor that will, besides checking for spelling and grammar errors, also check for all of the stylistic errors you checked boxes for in the Grammar Settings control panel.

When you finish running your grammar, style, and spellchecker through your document, a dialog box will appear showing readability statistics. Pay close attention to stats such as the average number of words per sentence and letters per word. If the former exceeds thirty and the latter ten, your writing might pose significant challenges to some readers, especially ESL. Do them a solid favour by breaking up your sentences and simplifying your word choices.

Rather than suck the life out of language by adding useless verbiage, make your writing like a paperclip. A paperclip is beautiful in its elegance. It’s so simple in its construction and yet does its job of holding paper together perfectly without any extra parts or mechanisms like staples need to fasten pages together and unfasten them. A paperclip does it with just a couple inches of thin, machine-bent wire. We should all aspire to make our language as elegant as a paperclip so that we can live life free of time-wasting writing.

Key Takeaways

key iconBegin editing any document by evaluating it for the quality of its content, organization, style, and readability, then add to it, reorganize, and trim it as necessary to meet the needs of the target audience.

Exercises

1. Take any writing assignment you’ve previously submitted for another course, ideally one that you did some time ago so that it almost seems like it was written by another person. Evaluate and comment on its content, organization, style, and readability. Explain how you can improve it from each of these perspectives (see §5.1.1 above).

2. Add to that assignment anything that would help the target audience understand it better (see §5.1.3 above).

3. Trim that assignment using the eight strategies explained in §5.1.4 above.

References

Brockway, L. H. (2015, November 3). 24 complex words—and their simpler alternatives. Ragan’s PR Daily. Retrieved from https://www.prdaily.com/Main/Articles/24_complex_wordsand_their_simpler_alternatives_8750.aspx

Porter, R. (2015, July 30). Box hedge topiary shears gardener 869073. Retrieved from https://pixabay.com/en/box-hedge-topiary-shears-gardener-869073/

The Hustle. (2017, December 3). The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Retrieved from https://thehustle.co/life-changing-magic-tidying/

5.2: Proofreading for Grammar

Learning Objectives

Target icon1. Identify and correct sentence errors such as comma splices, run-ons, and fragments.

2. Identify and correct grammatical errors such as subject-verb and pronoun-antecedent disagreement, as well as faulty parallelism.

3. Identify and correct syntax errors such as misplaced modifiers.

4. Plan, write, revise, and edit short documents and messages that are organized, complete, and tailored to specific audiences.

Grammar organizes the relationships between words in a sentence, especially between the doer and action, so that the reader can understand in detail who’s doing what. When you botch those connections with grammar errors, however, you risk confusing the reader. Severe errors force the reader to interpret what you meant. If the reader then acts on an interpretation different from the meaning you intended, major consequences can ensue, including expensive damage control. You can avoid being a liability and embarrassing yourself by following some simple rules for how to structure your sentences grammatically. By following these rules habitually, especially when you apply them at the proofreading stage, not only will your writing be clearer to the reader and better organized, but your thought process may become more organized as well.

5.2.1: Sentence Errors

Readers who find comma splices, fragments, and run-on sentences lose confidence in the writer’s command of language and thus the quality of their work. Such giveaways suggest that the writer doesn’t know much about sentence structure and punctuation. This is especially bad coming from native English speakers in their 20s or older because it says that they still don’t understand the basics of their own written language even after decades of using it. It’s important to know what to look for, then, when proofreading your draft for sentence errors.

1. Comma Splices

A comma splice is simply two independent clauses separated by only a comma. Perhaps the error comes from writers thinking that, because the two clauses say closely related things, they need something a little “lighter” than a period to separate them. While separating them with a comma is certainly possible, doing so with a comma alone shows that the writer doesn’t fully understand what a sentence is and what commas do.

The sale begins on Saturday comma let's get there right at 9am.

Figure 5.2.1.1: A comma splice is a comma separating two independent clauses

Spotting a comma splice requires being able to identify an independent clause—i.e. the combination of a subject and predicate (noun + verb) that can stand on its own as a sentence (see §4.3.1 and §4.3.2 above). In the Figure 5.2.1.1 example above, the first independent clause’s subject is “The sale” and its predicate is “begins on Saturday” (sale + begins), so it can stand on its own as a sentence if it ended with a period. The second is an imperative clause (see Table 4.3.1 for more on imperatives) with the main verb being “let,” so it too can stand on its own as a sentence. When proofreading, be on the lookout for commas that have independent clauses on either side—that is, clauses that can stand on their own as sentences.

Fixing a comma splice is as easy as swapping out the comma for the correct punctuation or adding a conjunction, depending on the relationship you want to express between the two clauses. Altogether, you have four options in correcting a comma splice—two that replace the comma with other punctuation and two that leave it as-is but add a conjunction:

The sale begins on Saturday. Let’s get there at 9am.

The sale begins on Saturday; let’s get there at 9am.

If the writer wanted something a little lighter than a period to separate the two clauses, then a semicolon fits the bill.

The sale begins on Saturday, so let’s get there at 9am.

Note that if you see three or more independent clauses with commas between them and an and or or before the last one, then it’s a perfectly correct (albeit probably too long) compound sentence that combines whole clauses rather than just nouns or verbs. See the final example given in Comma Rule 4 below for a sentence organized into a list of clauses.

When the sale begins on Saturday, let’s get there at 9am.

Though each of the above comma-splice fixes is grammatically correct, the last two are best because adding a conjunction clarifies the relationship between the ideas expressed in the two clauses.

A common comma splice error involves “however” following a comma that separates two independent clauses. Consider the following sentence that are grammatically equivalent:

The company raised its rates, however, we were granted an exemption.

= The company raised its rates, however we were granted an exemption.

= The company raised its rates, we were granted an exemption.

Seeing that you have independent clauses on either side of the comma preceding “however” is easier if you imagine the sentence without both “however” and the comma following it, as in the third example sentence above. Fixing the error is as easy as replacing the comma preceding “however” with a semicolon and ensuring that a comma follows “however,” which is a conjunctive adverb (see Comma Rule 2 below):

The company raised its rates; however, we were granted an exemption.

This is somewhat tricky because “however” can be surrounded by commas if it’s used as an interjection between the subject and predicate (see Comma Rule 3 below) or between clauses in a complex sentence:

This particular company, however, had been delaying raising its rates for years.

With the company raising its rates, however, we had to apply for an exemption.

Because you see the first clause beginning with “With” in the second example, you know that it’s a dependent clause that will end with a comma followed by the main clause. It’s thus possible to add “however” where the comma separates the subordinate from the main clause.

When proofreading, be on the lookout for “however” surrounded by commas. If the clauses on either side can stand on their own as sentences, fix the comma splice easily by replacing the first comma with a semicolon. If one of the clauses before or after is a subordinate clause and the other a main clause, however, then you’re safe (as in this sentence). For more on comma splices, see the following resources:

2. Run-on Sentences

Whereas a comma splice places the wrong punctuation between independent clauses, a run-on (a.k.a. fused) sentence simply omits punctuation between them. Perhaps this comes from the second clause following the first so closely in the writer’s free-flowing stream of consciousness that they don’t think any punctuation is necessary between them. While it may be clear to the writer where one idea-clause ends and the other begins, that division isn’t so clear to the reader. The absence of punctuation will cause them to trip up, and they’re forced to mentally insert the proper punctuation to make sense of it, which is frustrating.

Spotting a run-on is easy if it’s just commas missing before coordinating conjunctions. If you string together the last couple of sentences concluding the above paragraph, for instance, and use conjunctions to separate the four clauses without accompanying commas, you’ll get a cumbersome run-on:

That division isn’t so clear to the reader and the absence of punctuation will cause them to trip up and they’re forced to mentally insert the proper punctuation to make sense of it and that’s frustrating.

“Run-on” is a good description for sentences like this because they seem like they can just go on forever like a toddler tacking on clause after clause using coordinating conjunctions (… and … and … and …). Though the above sentence would be perfectly correct if commas preceded “and” and “so,” adding further clauses would just exhaust the reader’s patience, commas or no commas. A run-on is not necessarily the same as a long sentence, then, as you can see with the perfectly correct 239-word sentence in Algonquin College’s Guide to Grammar and Writing page on run-ons (Darling, 2014). Such a long sentence can become convoluted, however, especially for audiences who may struggle with English such as ESL learners.

Sometimes spotting a run-on is just a matter of tripping over its nonsense. Say you’re reading your draft and then come across the following sentence:

We’ll have to drive the station is too far away to get there on foot.

You’re doing just fine reading this sentence up until the word “is” since, the way things were going, you probably expected a vehicle to follow the article “the.” Assuming “drive” is being used as a transitive verb (Simmons, 2007) that takes an object, “station wagon” would make sense. When you see “is” instead of “wagon,” however, you might go back and see if the writer forgot to put “to” before “station” to make “drive to the station.” That doesn’t make sense either, however, given what follows. Finally, you realize that you’re really dealing with two distinct independent clauses starting with a short one, and that some punctuation is missing after “drive.” The sentence is like a chain with a broken link.

Once you’ve found that missing link, fixing a run-on is just a simple matter of adding the correct punctuation and perhaps a conjunction, depending on the relationship between the clauses. Indeed, the options for fixing a run-on are identical to those for fixing a comma splice. Following the same menu of options as those presented above, you would be correct doing any of the following:

We’ll have to drive. The station is too far away to get there on foot.

We’ll have to drive; the station is too far away to get there on foot.

This is the easiest, quickest fix of them all.

We’ll have to drive, for the station is too far away to get there on foot.

We’ll have to drive because the station is too far away to get there on foot.

Again, though each of the above run-on fixes is grammatically correct, only the last one best clarifies the relationship between the ideas expressed in the two clauses. For more on run-on sentences, see the following resources:

3. Sentence Fragments

A sentence fragment is one that’s incomplete usually because either the main-clause subject, predicate, or both are missing. The most common sentence fragment is the latter, where a subordinate clause poses as a sentence on its own, usually with its main clause being the preceding or following sentence. If the final example in §5.2.1.2 above were a fragment, it would look like the following:

We’ll have to drive. Because the station is too far away to get there on foot.

Recall from §4.3.2 that a complex sentence combines a main (a.k.a. independent) clause with a subordinate (a.k.a. dependent) clause, and the cue for the latter is that it begins with a subordinating conjunction (see Table 4.3.2a for several examples). In the above case, the coordinating conjunction “because” makes the clause subordinate, which must join with a main clause in the same sentence to be complete.

The fix is simply to join the fragment subordinate clause with its main clause nearby so that they’re in the same sentence. You can do this in one of two ways, either of which is perfectly correct:

We’ll have to drive because the station is too far away to get there on foot.

Because the station is too far away to get there on foot, we’ll have to drive.

The same applies to sentences that begin with any of the seven coordinating conjunctions. These are technically fragments but can be easily fixed either by joining them with the previous sentence to make a compound. You could also change the conjunction to something else such as a conjunctive adverb like “However” for “but” or “Also” for “and” followed by a comma:

The station is too far away to get there on foot. But we’ll drive. The station is too far away to get there on foot, but we’ll drive. The station is too far away to get there on foot. However, we’ll drive.

You may also encounter fragments that are just noun phrases, verb phrases, prepositional phrases, and so on. Of course, we speak often in fragments rather than full sentences, so if we’re writing informally, such fragments are perfectly acceptable. Even in some formal documents, such as résumés, fragments are expected in certain locations such as the Objective statement (an infinitive phrase) and profile paragraph (noun phrases) in the Qualifications Summary (see §8.2 below).

If we’re writing formally, however, these fragmentary phrases are variations on the error of leaving sentences incomplete. The easy fix is always to re-unite them with a proper sentence or to make them into one by adding parts.

We thank you for choosing our company. As well as the impressive initiative you’ve taken. We thank you for choosing our company and are impressed by the initiative you’ve taken.
We thank you for choosing our company. You’ve shown impressive initiative.

The beauty of the English language is that there’s and endless number of ways to say something and still be grammatically correct as long as you know what makes a proper sentence. If you don’t, reviewing §4.3.1 and §4.3.2 above till you can spot the main subject noun and verb in any sentence, as well as tell if they’re missing. For more on fragments, see the following resources:

For exercises in spotting and fixing comma splices, run-ons, and fragments, see the digital activities at the bottom of the Guide to Grammar and Writing pages linked above (Darling, 2014a & 2014b), as well as Exercise: Run-ons, Comma Splices, and Fused Sentences (Purdue OWL, 2009).

5.2.2: Grammar Errors

Let’s focus on some of the most common grammar errors in college and professional writing:

1. Subject-verb Disagreement

Perhaps the most common grammatical error is subject-verb disagreement, which is when you pair a singular subject noun with a plural verb (usually ending without an s) instead of a singular one (usually ending with an s), or vice versa. Spotting such disagreements of number requires being able to identify the subject noun and main verb of every sentence and hence knowledge of sentence structure (see §4.3.1 and §4.3.2 above). The search for the main subject noun and verb is complicated by the fact that many other nouns and verbs in various phrase types can crowd into a sentence. The following subject-verb agreement (abbreviated “Subj-v Agr.”) rules help you know what to look for.

Quick Rules

Click on the rules below to see further explanations, examples, advice on what to look for when proofreading, and demonstrations of how to correct common subject-verb disagreement errors associated with each one.

Subj-v Agr Rule 1.1:

Singular subjects take singular verbs.

The first of many cuts is going to be the deepest.

Subj-v Agr Rule 1.2:

The indefinite pronouns each, either, neither, and those ending with -body or -one take a singular verb.

If each of you chooses wisely, someone is going to win the prize, but everybody wins because neither really loses.

Subj-v Agr Rule 1.3:

Collective nouns and some irregular nouns with plural endings are singular and take a singular verb.

The band isn’t going on stage until the news about the stage lighting is more positive.

Subj-v Agr Rule 2:

Plural noun, compound noun, and plural indefinite pronoun subjects take plural verbs.

The rights of the majority usually trump those of minority groups, except when money and politics conspire, and both usually do.

Subj-v Agr Rule 3:

Compound subjects joined by or or nor take verbs that agree in number with the nouns closest to them.

Neither your lawyers nor the justice system is going to be able to adequately punish this type of crime.

Subj-v Agr Rule 4:

The verb in clauses beginning with there or here agrees with the subject noun following the verb.

There are two types of people in the world, and here comes one of them now.

Extended Explanations

Subj-v Agr. Rule 1.1: Singular subjects take singular verbs.

When the subject of the sentence—the doer of the action—is a singular subject (i.e. one doer), the verb (the action it performs) is always singular. Watch out, though: this rule holds even if phrases modifying the subject or intervening parenthetical elements are plural. You just have to be able to tell that those phrases and parenthetical elements aren’t the main subject and therefore don’t count when determining the number of the verb.

Correct:

Our investment is paying off nicely.

Why it’s correct: The singular subject “investment” takes the singular verb “is,” which is the third-person singular form of the verb to be.

Correct:

The source of all our network errors disappears whenever you do a system restart.

Why it’s correct: The singular subject “source” takes the singular main verb “disappears”; the plural noun “errors” immediately before the verb is just the last word in a prepositional phrase (“of . . .”) modifying the subject.

Correct:

Stalling for time to think of better responses doesn’t work in a job interview.

Why it’s correct: The singular subject “stalling,” a gerund (action noun) takes the singular main verb “does”; the plural noun “responses” immediately before the verb is just the last word in a prepositional phrase (“of . . .”) embedded in an infinitive phrase (“to think . . .”) embedded in another prepositional phrase (“for . . .”).

Correct:

The singer-songwriter, along with new additions to her five-piece backup band, arrives at the press conference at 1:30pm.

Why it’s correct: Despite the parenthetical addition of other actors, the grammatical subject (“singer-songwriter”) is still singular and takes a singular verb.

How This Helps the Reader

Following this rule helps the reader connect the doer of the action with main action itself, especially when a variety of phrases, including nouns of different number, intervene between the subject noun and main verb.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for subject nouns (the main doers of the action) and the main verbs that the subject noun takes, then ensure that both are singular. Look out especially for verbs that are wrongly plural in form because the nouns immediately preceding them are plural despite the fact that they are only part of phrases modifying the main subject noun.

Incorrect:

The best vodka in the opinion of all the experts at international competitions are surprisingly the bottom-shelf Alberta Pure.

The fix:

The best vodka in the opinion of all the experts at international competitions is surprisingly the bottom-shelf Alberta Pure.

Incorrect:

The lucky winner, as well as three of their best friends, are going on an all-expenses-paid trip to beautiful Cornwall, Ontario!

The fix:

The lucky winner, as well as three of their best friends, is going on an all-expenses-paid trip to beautiful Cornwall, Ontario!

In the first incorrect example sentence above, the proximity of the plural nouns “experts” and “competitions” to the main verb (form of to be) probably made the writer think that the verb had to be plural, too. The true subject noun of the sentence, however, is “vodka,” which is singular and therefore takes the singular verb “is” no matter what comes between them. In the second incorrect sentence, the grammatical subject is the singular “winner,” so the main verb should be the singular “is,” not the plural “are.” A parenthetical interjection between the subject and the verb, even if it appears to pluralize the subject with “as well as,” “along with,” “plus,” or the like, technically doesn’t make a compound subject (see Subj-v Agr. Rule 2 below for more on compounds).

Subj-v Agr. Rule 1.2:  The indefinite pronouns each, either, neither, and those ending with -body or -one take a singular verb.

When the subject noun of the sentence is the indefinite pronoun either, neither, each, anybody, everybody, nobody, somebody, anyone, everyone, someone, no one, or none (see Table 4.4.2a above on pronouns), it is singular and takes a singular verb.

Correct:

Each has enough personal finance know-how to handle her own taxes.

Why it’s correct: The subject pronoun “Each” can be thought of the singular “Each one” and therefore takes a singular verb In this case the verb is “has” rather than the plural “have” that would be appropriate if the subject were “All of them.”

Correct:

Either is fine.

Why it’s correct: The subject pronoun “Either” can be thought of the singular “Either one,” despite implying a pair of options, and therefore takes a singular verb—in this case “is.”

Correct:

“Perhaps none is more vulnerable than James, a soft-spoken 19-year-old who is quick to flash a smile that would melt ice” (Chianello, 2014, ¶24).

Why it’s correct: The subject pronoun “none” in this case can be thought of the singular “no one” because the topic of the sentence concerns a single person. The pronoun therefore takes a singular verb—in this case “is” rather than the plural “are.”

Exception: None can sometimes be a plural indefinite pronoun depending on what comes later in the sentence.

Correct:

None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free” (Goethe, 1809, p. 397).

Why it’s correct: The subject pronoun “none” can be thought of as “no people,” consistent in number with the later pronoun “those,” and thus a plural pronoun that takes a plural verb—in this case “are,” not “is.”

How This Helps the Reader

Following this rule helps the reader see that the “one” or “body” suffix in each of these indefinite pronouns is singular, even if the word applies to many people, and therefore takes a singular verb form.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for any indefinite pronouns ending with -one or -body taking a plural main verb and change the verb to the singular form.

Incorrect:

Everybody here share our opinion on quantitative easing.

The fix:Everybody here shares our opinion on quantitative easing.

The fix:All here share our opinion on quantitative easing.

Incorrect:

Each of you send enough carbon into the atmosphere to poison a river.

The fix: Each of you sends enough carbon into the atmosphere to poison a river.

The fix:All of you send enough carbon into the atmosphere to poison a river.

Here, the “every” part of the word everybody in the first incorrect sentence and the fact that the second address a group suggest to the confused writer that a plurality of actors is at play, thus requiring the plural verbs “share” and “send.” Wrong! The “body” part of the word is the operative one; being singular, it takes a singular verb—“shares” in this case—and “Each” is short for “Each one.” Another fix in each case is to make the subject the plural “All” and keep the verbs plural.

Subj-v Agr. Rule 1.3:    Collective nouns and some irregular nouns with plural endings are singular and take a singular verb.

Collective nouns such as “group” are grammatically singular and thus take a singular verb despite meaning several people or things. The following are common collective nouns:

army
audience
band
board
bundle
cabinet
class
committee
company
corporation
council
crew
department
faculty
family
firm
gang
group
jury
majority
membership
minority
navy
pack
party
plethora
public
office
school
senate
society
task force
team
tribe
troupe

The same is true of any company name that ends in s or has a compound name (e.g. Food Basics, Long & McQuade), as well as any compound of inanimate objects treated as a singular entity (e.g., meat and potatoes is considered one dish; see Subj-v Agr. Rule 2 below for more on compounds). Likewise, some special-case words that look like plurals because they end with s instead take singular pronouns and verbs, especially names for games and disciplines or areas of study, as well as dollar amounts, distances, and amounts of time:

acoustics
billiards
cards
civics
crossroads
darts
# dollars
dominoes
economics
ethics
gymnastics
# hours
# metres
linguistics
mathematics
measles
mumps
news
physics
rabies
shambles

Note that most of these words will be plural if used other than meaning disciplines, fields of study, games, or number of units. For instance, when you’re playing darts, you would use the plural verb in “Three darts remain” to refer to three individual darts in your hand but use a singular verb when saying “Darts is a way of life” because you’re now using “darts” in the sense of the game rather than the object.

Correct:

The committee demands action on the latest media blunder.

Why it’s correct: The collective noun “committee” is singular, despite being comprised of several people, and therefore takes the singular verb “demands,” not the plural “demand.”

Correct:

A demolition crew of three sledgehammer-wielding heavies is levelling the house as we speak.

Why it’s correct: The collective noun “crew” is singular despite being followed by a prepositional phrase detailing how many people are in the crew. Despite also the plural noun “heavies” preceding the main verb, the singular “is” is the correct verb rather than the plural “are.”

Correct:

Food Basics has a deal on for ice cream right now, and Dolce & Gabbana has some fresh new styles coming this season.

Why it’s correct: Though the subject nouns seem plural because one ends with s and the other compounds two names, being a single corporate entity in each case makes them singular and take the singular verb “has” rather than the plural “have.”

Correct:

Oh look, green eggs and ham is on the menu.

Why it’s correct: Though the subject noun seems plural because it is a compound of a plural and singular noun, it is considered one singular dish and therefore takes the singular verb “is” rather than the plural “are.”

Correct:

The news is so depressing today.

Why it’s correct: Though the subject noun seems plural because it ends with s, “news” is a singular noun taking the singular verb “is,” not the plural “are.”

Correct:

Ethics isn’t an optional field of study for business professionals.

Why it’s correct: Though the subject noun seems plural because it ends with s and the singular “ethic” is also a legitimate word, it acts in this case as a singular entity because it is a field of study and therefore takes the singular verb “is.”

Correct:

Five dollars donated to the right charities is all that’s needed to save a life.

Why it’s correct: Though the subject noun seems plural because it contains more than one dollar, it acts as a singular entity and thus takes the singular verb “is” regardless of the noun “charities” that comes before it in a prepositional phrase.

Correct:

Ten kilometres is too far to walk because those ten kilometres are going to make us late.

Why it’s correct: The first “Ten kilometers” is a grammatically singular subject because the distance as a whole is meant. The second instance refers to each individual kilometer together with the others, however, so it is grammatically plural, taking the plural pronoun “those” and verb “are.”

How This Helps the Reader

Following this rule helps the reader connect the singular grammatical subject performing a single action in concert as one entity with the main verb, especially when phrases of different number come between them.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for count nouns, as well as special-case nouns that look plural but are actually singular, such as games and areas of study, like those identified above. Ensure that the main verb following them is singular rather than plural.

Incorrect:

A pack of lies averaging around twenty per day are winning over a confused and angry swath of the electorate.

The fix: A pack of lies averaging around twenty per day is winning over a confused and angry swath of the electorate.

Incorrect:

The acoustics in here are so bad that it makes me want to study acoustics, which are all about how sounds behave in certain environments.

The fix: The acoustics in here are so bad that it makes me want to study acoustics, which is all about how sounds behave in certain environments.

In the first incorrect sentence above, the collective noun “pack” is grammatically singular and must therefore take the singular verb “is,” not the plural verb “are”), despite it being comprised of a plurality of things (“lies”) identified in the prepositional phrase following it. In the second incorrect sentence, we see two different types of the word “acoustics.” One type means “sound quality,” acts as a plural grammatical subject, and therefore takes the plural verb “are.” The other, meaning the study of how sounds interact with the environment, takes the singular verb “is,” not the plural verb “are.”

Subj-v Agr. Rule 2: Plural noun, compound noun, and plural indefinite pronoun subjects take plural verbs.

When the subject of the sentence is plural or contains two or more nouns or pronouns joined by and to make a compound subject, the verb describing the action they perform together is always plural regardless of whether the nouns are singular or plural. The verb is plural even if the compounded subject noun closest to the verb is singular. Other word types that take plural pronouns and verbs include:

Correct:

Self-driving cars are going to revolutionize more than just the auto industry.

Why it’s correct: The plural subject noun “cars” takes the plural main verb “are.”

Correct:

Goodness, we have our work cut out for us.

Why it’s correct: The plural subject pronoun “we” takes the plural main verb “have”

Correct:

All the network systems and the mainframe we’ve been updating are going to have to be liquidated now.

Why it’s correct: The compound subject with the plural noun “systems” and singular noun “mainframe” takes the plural main verb “are.” All the other verbs are part of embedded phrases that don’t affect the verb number.

Correct:

A few of them say they can’t go, but several are still going.

Why it’s correct: The plural indefinite pronouns “few” and “several” take the plural verbs “say” and “are” respectively.

Correct:

These pants don’t fit, these scissors don’t cut, and these shears are kaput.

Why it’s correct: Though each of these subject nouns sells as one item, they are considered pairs grammatically and therefore take plural verbs such as “don’t” instead of the singular “doesn’t.”

Correct:

The Tragically Hip are playing their final concert in Kingston where they played their first show 32 years earlier.

Why it’s correct: As a five-piece band of musicians, the Tragically Hip are a grammatically plural noun despite having a singular-sounding name, and therefore take the plural verb “are.”

How This Helps the Reader

Following this rule helps the reader connect the doer of the action with the main action itself, especially when a variety of phrases, including nouns of different numbers, intervene between the subject noun and main verb.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for subject nouns (the main doers of the action) and the main verbs that the subject noun takes, then ensure that both are plural. Look out especially for compound subjects with a singular noun close to the verb tricking you into making the main verb singular.

Incorrect:

Most major auto manufacturers and, of course, Tesla is leading the way towards self-driving cars via a switch to all-electric drivetrains.

The fix: Most major auto manufacturers and, of course, Tesla are leading the way towards self-driving cars via a switch to all-electric drivetrains.

Incorrect:

I can respect their musicianship, but Rush just annoys me, or maybe it’s just Geddy Lee’s voice.

The fix: I can respect their musicianship, but Rush just annoy me, or maybe it’s just Geddy Lee’s voice.

In the first incorrect example above, the proximity of the singular noun “Tesla” to the main verb probably made the confused writer think that the verb had to be the singular “is,” too. The subject is in fact a compound, however: “manufacturers and . . . Tesla.” Changing the main verb to a plural form easily fixes the subject-verb disagreement of number.

In the second incorrect example, the band Rush seems like it should be a singular noun and take the singular verb “annoys” because the word rush is singular; as a trio of musicians, however, the band is grammatically plural and takes the plural verb “annoy.” Notice, when we use the noun “band” in front of “Rush” so that “band” is grammatically the subject noun, however, we use a singular verb following Subj-v Agr. Rule 1.3 above.

Subj-v Agr. Rule 3: Compound subjects joined by or or nor take verbs that agree in number with the nouns closest to them.

When the subject of the sentence is a compound joined by the coordinating conjunction or or nor, the number (singular or plural) of the verb is determined by the subject noun that comes immediately before it.

Correct:

Either the players or the coach is going to take the fall for the loss.

Why it’s correct: Though this is a compound subject comprised of the plural “players” and singular “coach,” the main verb is the singular “is” because “or” joins the two subject nouns and the one closest to the verb, “coach,” is singular.

Correct:

When neither the project lead nor dozens of engineers dare to doubt the safety of the launch, you have all the makings of a Challenger-like disaster.

Why it’s correct: The plural subject pronoun “dozens,” as the second part of the compound subject including the singular “lead,” takes the plural main verb “dare” because it is closer.

How This Helps the Reader

Following this rule helps the reader see the two compounded subject nouns as separate actors performing the verb action independently of one another rather than together.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for plural verbs that disagree in number with singular subject nouns closest to them when the subject nouns are joined by or or nor.

Incorrect:

A rock or a hard place are your only choice in this situation.

The fix: A rock or a hard place is your only choice in this situation.

In the incorrect example above, the compounding of the two singular nouns likely made the confused writer think that the verb should be plural as it is when and compounds subject nouns. When or or nor compounds subject, however, the verb must agree with whatever subject noun comes immediately before it.

Subj-v Agr. Rule 4: The verb in clauses beginning with there or here agrees with the subject noun following the verb.

When a sentence or clause begins with the pronoun there or here, the subject noun follows the verb and therefore determines whether the verb should be singular or plural. In other words, what comes before the verb usually determines whether the verb is singular or plural, but in this case, what comes after the verb does that. In such expletive constructions, as they’re called, here or there are not actually subjects.

Correct:

There appears to be a mighty storm approaching on the horizon.

Why it’s correct: The singular subject noun “storm” following the verb takes the singular verb “appears.”

Correct:

Here is a pencil and here are some forms you need to fill out.

Why it’s correct: The singular subject noun “pencil” following the main verb takes the singular verb “is” in the first clause. The plural subject noun “forms” in the second clause takes the plural verb “are.”

Correct:

There happen to be six conditions on which the growth of our business depends.

Why it’s correct: The plural subject noun “conditions” following the verb takes the plural verb “happen” rather than the singular “happens.”

Correct:

There is nothing to the allegations of wrongdoing.

Why it’s correct: The singular subject noun “nothing” following the verb takes the singular verb “is” regardless of the plural noun “allegations” in the prepositional phrase modifying the subject noun.

Correct:

There are too many applications to sort through in the given timeframe.

Why it’s correct: The plural subject noun “applications” following the verb takes the plural verb “are.”

How This Helps the Reader

In sentences beginning with the pronoun there, following this rule cues the reader towards the number of the subject noun before it appears.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for sentences or clauses beginning with there and ensure that the verb agrees with the noun that follows it. The verb isn’t necessarily singular just because there comes before the verb (where the subject is usually located) and seems like a singular pronoun.

Incorrect:

I can’t believe there just happens to be two tickets to the show you wanted to see in my pocket here.

The fix: I can’t believe there just happen to be two tickets to the show you wanted to see in my pocket here.

Incorrect:

Here is a bar graph and pie chart you can extrapolate results from.

The fix: Here are a bar graph and pie chart you can extrapolate results from.

In the first incorrect sentence above, the pronoun “there” is not the subject noun of the relative clause following “that”; the plural noun “tickets” is the subject and therefore takes the plural verb “happen” rather than the singular “happens.” In the second incorrect sentence, the grammatical subject is the compound noun “bar graph and pie chart” following “Here,” so the main verb must be the plural “are,” not the singular “is.”

For more on subject-verb agreement and how to correct disagreement, see the following resources:

For more exercises, see Subject-Verb Agreement I and II (Darling, 2014c).

2. Pronoun Errors

For more on pronoun-antecedent disagreements of number (e.g., Everybody has an opinion on this, but they are all wrong), ambiguous pronouns (e.g., The plane crashed in the field, but somehow it ended up unscathed—was the plane or field left unscathed?), and pronoun case errors (e.g., Rob and me are going to the bank—would you say “me is going to the bank”?), see the following resources:

For self-check exercises on correct use of pronouns, see Pronouns – Exercises (Darling, 2014d).

3. Faulty Parallelism

For more on parallelism, see the following resources:

4. Dangling and Misplaced Modifiers

For more on dangling modifiers, see the following resources:

Key Takeaways

key iconWriting sentences free of common grammar errors such as comma splices and subject-verb disagreement not only helps you avoid confusing the reader and embarrassing yourself, but also helps keep your own thinking organized.

Exercises

1. Go through the above sections and follow the links to self-check exercises at the end of each section to confirm your mastery of the grammar rules.

2. Take any writing assignment you’ve previously submitted for another course, ideally one that you did some time ago, perhaps even in high school. Scan for the sentence and grammar errors covered in this section now that you know what to look for. How often do such errors appear? Correct them following the suggestions given above.

References

Benner, M. L. (2000). Self teaching unit: Subject-verb agreement. Retrieved from https://webapps.towson.edu/ows/moduleSVAGR.htm

Berry, C. Brizee, A., Boyle, E. C. M., Atherton, R., Geib, E., Sheble, M., & Murton, H. (2010, April 17). Pronoun case. Purdue OWL. Retrieved from https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/595/02/

Berry, C. Brizee, A., Boyle, E. C. M., Atherton, R., Geib, E., Sheble, M., & Murton, H. (2013, February 21). Using pronouns clearly. Purdue OWL. Retrieved from https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/595/01/

Berry, C. Brizee, A., Boyle, E. C. M., Atherton, R., Geib, E., Sheble, M., & Murton, H. (2017, November 2). Gendered pronouns & singular “they.” Purdue OWL. Retrieved from https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/595/04/

Berry, C., & Stolley, K. (2013, January 7). Dangling modifiers and how to correct them. Purdue OWL. Retrieved from https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/597/01/

Chianello, J. (2014, November 29). Giving youth futures. The Ottawa Citizen. Retrieved from http://ottawacitizen.com/news/local-news/giving-youth-futures

Darling, C. (2014a). Run-on sentences and comma splices and Repairing run-on sentences. Guide to Grammar and Writing. Retrieved from https://plato.algonquincollege.com/applications/guideToGrammar/?page_id=3374 and http://www.dactivity.com/activity/index.aspx?content=r3SA7E9Yf

Darling, C. (2014b). Sentence fragments. Guide to Grammar and Writing. Retrieved from https://plato.algonquincollege.com/applications/guideToGrammar/?page_id=596

Darling, C. (2014c). Subject-verb agreement I and II. Guide to Grammar and Writing. Retrieved from http://www.dactivity.com/activity/index.aspx?content=37AytmjXJ8 and http://www.dactivity.com/activity/index.aspx?content=18hS2l9Byj

Darling, C. (2014d). Pronouns – Exercises. Guide to Grammar and Writing. Retrieved from https://plato.algonquincollege.com/applications/guideToGrammar/?page_id=3423#ex

Darling, C. (2014e). Parallel structure and Parallelism I. Guide to Grammar and Writing. Retrieved from https://plato.algonquincollege.com/applications/guideToGrammar/?page_id=4213 and http://www.dactivity.com/activity/index.aspx?content=12jiBRskrR

Darling, C. (2014f). Modifier placement and Modifier placement I. Guide to Grammar and Writing. Retrieved from https://plato.algonquincollege.com/applications/guideToGrammar/?page_id=3380 and http://www.dactivity.com/activity/index.aspx?content=yKDDHtzkv

Driscoll, D. L. (2018a, March 28). Parallel structure. Purdue OWL. Retrieved from https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/623/01/

Driscoll, D. L. (2018b, March 23). Parallel structure in professional writing. Purdue OWL. Retrieved from https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/644/01/

Goethe, J. W. v. (1809, trans. 1982). Die wahlverwandtschaften, Hamburger ausgabe [Elective affinities, Hamburg edition]. Munich: DTV Verlag. Retrieved from https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Johann_Wolfgang_von_Goethe

Paiz, J. M., Berry, C., & Brizee, A. (2018, February 21). Making subjects and verbs agree. Purdue OWL. Retrieved from https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/599/01/

Plotnick, J. (2003, August 13). Fixing comma splices. University of Toronto. Retrieved from http://www.uc.utoronto.ca/comma-splices

Purdue OWL. (2009, October 31). Exercise: Run-ons, comma splices, and fused sentences. Retrieved from https://owl.english.purdue.edu/exercises/5/26/5

Shankbone 33. (2011, September 28). Day 12 Occupy Wall Street September 28 2011 Shankbone 33. Retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16761555

Simmons, R. L. (2007, November 24). The transitive verb. Grammar Bytes! Retrieved from http://www.chompchomp.com/terms/transitiveverb.htm

Simmons, R. L. (2011, September 4). The dangling modifier and The misplaced modifier. Grammar Bytes! Retrieved from http://www.chompchomp.com/terms/danglingmodifier.htm and http://www.chompchomp.com/terms/misplacedmodifier.htm

Walden University. (2016, April 2). Grammar: Run-on sentences and sentence fragments. Writing Centre. Retrieved from https://academicguides.waldenu.edu/writingcenter/grammar/runonsentences

Wells, J. M., & Brizee, A. (2009, August 7). Comma splices. Purdue OWL. Retrieved from https://owl.english.purdue.edu/engagement/2/1/34/

Wells, J. M., & Brizee, A. (2013, March 22). Fragments and run-ons. Purdue OWL. Retrieved from https://owl.english.purdue.edu/engagement/2/1/33/

 

5.3: Proofreading for Punctuation

 

Learning Objectives

Target icon1. Identify and correct punctuation errors involving commas, apostrophes, colons and semicolons, parentheses and brackets, quotation marks, hyphens and dashes, question and exclamation marks, and periods.

2. Plan, write, revise, and edit short documents and messages that are organized, complete, and tailored to specific audiences.

As the little marks added between words, punctuation is like a system of traffic signs: it guides the reader towards the intended meaning of the words just as road signs guide drivers to their destination. They tell the reader when to go, when to pause, when to stop, when to go again, when to pay close attention, and when to turn (Truss, 2003, p. 7). They’re also crucial for avoiding accidents. A paragraph without punctuation—no periods, commas, apostrophes, etc.—quickly spins out into utter nonsense and kills the reader’s understanding of the writer’s meaning.

Punctuation that’s merely missing or unnecessary here and there can confuse a reader and even lead to expensive lawsuits if they plague contentious documents like contracts. To anyone who knows how to use them, seeing punctuation mistakes in someone else’s writing makes that other person look sloppy and amateurish. Punctuation errors by adult native English speakers look especially bad because they reflect poorly on their education and attention to detail, especially if they’re habitual mistakes. The critical reader looks down on anyone who hasn’t figured out how to use their own language in their 20+ years of immersion in it. Not knowing the difference between a colon and semicolon, for instance, is like not knowing the difference between a cucumber and a zucchini; sure they look alike from a distance, but they’re completely different species and serve different culinary functions. If you don’t know these differences by the time you’re an adult, however, it doesn’t take much to learn.

In this section, we focus on how to spot and correct common punctuation errors, starting with commas because most problems with people’s writing in general are related to missing and misused commas. The goal is to help you avoid making mistakes that can potentially embarrass you in the eyes of people who should be taking you seriously.

Complete List of Punctuation Covered in This Chapter Section

5.3.1: Commas

Most punctuation problems are comma-related because of the important role commas play in providing readers with guidance on how a sentence is organized and is to be read to understand the writer’s intended meaning. As we saw in §4.3.2, commas signal to the reader where one clause ends and another begins in compound and complex sentences, but they serve several other roles as well. We use commas in four general ways, each with several variations and special cases. To these we can add rules about where not to add commas, since many writers confuse their readers by putting commas where they shouldn’t go. Most style guides advocate for using as few commas as possible, though you certainly must use them wherever needed to avoid ambiguities that lead readers astray. Closely follow the sixteen rules below to guide your reader towards your intended meaning and avoid confusing them with comma misplacement.

Quick Rules: Commas

Click on the rules below to see further explanations, examples, advice on what to look for when proofreading, and demonstrations of how to correct common comma errors associated with each one.

Comma Rule 1.1 Put a comma before coordinating conjunctions in compound sentences.
The installers came to do their work at 8am, and the regulators came to inspect the installation by the end of the day.
Comma Rule 1.2 Don’t put a comma between independent clauses in a compound sentence if not followed by a coordinating conjunction.
Our main concern is patient safety; we don’t want any therapeutic intervention to cause harm. (semicolon rather than a comma after “safety”)
Comma Rule 2.1 Put a comma after introductory subordinate clauses, phrases, or words preceding main clauses.
If we can’t secure investor funding and launch the site by April, the clients will likely go elsewhere.
Comma Rule 2.2 Don’t put a comma after main clauses followed by subordinate clauses or phrases unless the latter strikes a contrast with the former.
They’re paying us a visit because they haven’t seen us in a while. (no comma before “because”)
Comma Rule 3.1 Put commas around parenthetical words, phrases, or clauses.
See my portfolio, which includes my best work, on ArtStation.
Comma Rule 3.2 Put a comma before contrasting coordinate elements, end-of-sentence shifts, and omitted repetitions.
He said, “go to Customer Service, not the checkout,” didn’t he?
Comma Rule 3.3 Put a comma before sentence-ending free-modifier phrases that describe elements at the beginning or middle of sentences.
We are putting in long hours on the report, writing frantically.
Comma Rule 3.4 Put commas around higher levels of organization in dates, places, addresses, names, and numbers.
Send your ticket to Gina Kew, RN, in Ottawa, Ontario, by Tuesday, October 9, 2018, for your chance to win the $5,000,000 prize.
Comma Rule 3.5 Put a comma between a signal phrase and a quotation.
The reporter replied, “Yes, this is strictly off the record.”
Comma Rule 3.6 Don’t put commas around restrictive relative clauses (before that).
The purchased item that we agreed to return is now completely lost. (no comma before “that” and after “return”)
Comma Rule 3.7 Don’t put commas between subjects and their predicates.
The just reward for the difficult and dangerous job that Kyle performed for his clientele was the knowledge that they were safe. (no comma before “was”)
Comma Rule 4.1 Put commas between each item in a series, including the last two items.
You must be kind, conscientious, and caring in this line of work.
Comma Rule 4.2 Put commas between two or more coordinate adjectives.
It was a cool, crisp, bright autumn morning.
Comma Rule 4.3 Don’t put a comma after the final coordinate adjective.
The team devised a daring, ambitious plan. (no comma after “ambitious”)
Comma Rule 4.4 Don’t put a comma between non-coordinate adjectives.
David played his Candy Apple Red ’57 reissue Fender Stratocaster electric guitar like he was flying a Saturn V rocket to the moon. (no comma between the non-coordinate adjectives throughout)
Comma Rule 4.5 Don’t put commas between two coordinate nouns or verbs.
Tesla and Edison invented and patented a complete circuit of electricity distribution systems and consumption devices. (no commas before any “and” here)

Extended Explanations

Comma Rule 1.1:    Put a comma before coordinating conjunctions in compound sentences.

Put a comma before the coordinating conjunction (e.g., and, but, so; Darling, 2014a) that joins two independent clauses in a compound sentence. A compound sentence contains two or more clauses that can stand on their own as sentences (see Table 4.3.2b for more on compounds sentences) with a different subject in each clause.

Correct:

We were having the time of our lives, and our lucky streak was far from over.

Why it’s correct: A comma precedes the coordinating conjunction “and” joining the independent clause beginning with the subject “We” and another beginning with the subject “our lucky streak.”

Correct:

The first round of layoffs was welcomed by all, but the second devastated morale.

Why it’s correct: A comma precedes the coordinating conjunction “but” joining the independent clause beginning with the subject “The first round” and another beginning with the subject “the second.”

Correct:

The management blamed external factors, yet none of the company’s blunders would have happened under good leadership.

Why it’s correct: A comma precedes the coordinating conjunction “yet” joining the independent clause beginning with the subject “The management” and another beginning with the subject “none.”

Correct:

You can take advantage of this golden opportunity, or a thousand other investors will take advantage of it instead as soon as they know about it.

Why it’s correct: A comma precedes the coordinating conjunction “or” joining the independent clause beginning with the subject “You” and another beginning with the subject “a thousand.”

Correct:

He didn’t see the necessity of lean principles, nor would they have made sense in a business model based on inefficiency.

Why it’s correct: A comma precedes the coordinating conjunction “nor” joining the independent clause beginning with the subject “He” and another beginning with the subject “they.”

Correct:

Market forces left them behind, for the law of supply and demand isn’t necessarily a force for social justice.

Why it’s correct: A comma precedes the coordinating conjunction “for” joining the independent clause beginning with the subject “Market forces” and another beginning with the subject “the law.”

Correct:

The competition started to heat up, so we did everything we could to protect our assets.

Why it’s correct: A comma precedes the coordinating conjunction “so” joining the independent clause beginning with the subject “The competition” and another beginning with the subject “we.”

Exception:

If the two independent clauses are short (five words or fewer), the comma may be unnecessary.

Correct:

You bring the wine and we’ll make dinner.

Why it’s correct: A comma is unnecessary before the coordinating conjunction “and” joining the two short, four-word independent clauses beginning with the subjects “You” and “we.”

How This Helps the Reader

The comma tells the reader to pause a little after one independent clause ends and before the coordinating conjunction signals that another (with a new subject) is joining it to make a compound sentence. In each of the examples sentences above, the independent clause on either side of the comma-conjunction combination could stand on its own as a sentence (see §4.3.1§4.3.2 for more on sentence structure and independent clauses). In the first example above, for instance, we could replace the comma and conjunction with a period, then capitalize the o in “our,” and both would be grammatically correct sentences. We combine them with a comma and the conjunction and, however, to clarify the relationship between the two ideas. The comma signals that these are coordinated clauses rather than noun or verb phrases.

If the subject were the same in both clauses, however, both the comma and subject of the second clause would be unnecessary. In that case, the sentence would just be a one-subject clause with a compound predicate—that is, two coordinated verbs (see Comma Rule 4.4 below). Consider the following examples:

Correct:

We were having the time of our lives and would continue to enjoy that lucky streak.

Why it’s correct: The subject “we” is the same in the independent clauses “We were having the time of our lives” and “we would continue to enjoy that lucky streak,” so the comma and second “we” are omitted to make a compound predicate joining the verbs “were having” and “would continue” with the coordinating conjunction “and.”

Correct:

They won the battle but lost the war.

Why it’s correct: The subject “They” is the same in the independent clauses “They won the battle” and “they lost the war,” so the comma and second “they” are omitted to make compound predicate joining the verbs “won” and “lost” with the coordinating conjunction “but.”

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for run-on sentences (see §5.2.1.2 above), which are sentences that omit a comma before the coordinating conjunction joining two independent clauses. Keep an eye out for the seven coordinating conjunctions for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so (see Table 4.3.2a and use the mnemonic acronym fanboys to remember them). Simply add a comma before the conjunction if the independent clause on either side of the conjunction could stand on its own as a sentence because it has a subject and predicate (see §4.3.1 for more on sentence structure).

Incorrect:

We were losing money with each acquisition but our long-term plan was total market dominance.

Incorrect:

We were losing money with each acquisition but, our long-term plan was total market dominance.

The fix:

We were losing money with each acquisition, but our long-term plan was total market dominance.

In the example above, the coordinating conjunction “but” joins the two independent clauses beginning with the subjects “We” and “Our long-term plan.” Omitting the comma in the first example makes the sentence a run-on. Misplacing the comma after the conjunction in the second miscues the reader to pause after, rather than before, the conjunction. The easy fix is just to add the comma or move it so it goes before the conjunction.

Comma Rule 1.2: Don’t put a comma between independent clauses in a compound sentence if not followed by a coordinating conjunction.

Don’t put a comma between two independent clauses if it’s not followed by a coordinating conjunction because this is a comma splice sentence error (see §5.2.1.1 above). We have two distinct ways of forming a compound sentence (see §4.3.2 above) and a comma splice confuses the two. One way of making a compound sentence is to join independent clauses by placing a comma and one of the seven “fanboys” coordinating conjunctions between them (see Table 4.3.2a for the coordinating conjunctions). Simply omitting the coordinating conjunction after the comma makes a comma splice. The other way of making a compound sentence is to end the first clause with a semicolon when it doesn’t make sense to use any of the coordinating conjunctions to establish a certain relationship between the clauses (see Table §4.3.2b on sentence varieties for more on compound sentences and Semicolon Rule 1 below). Using a comma instead of a semicolon in such compound sentences makes a comma splice.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for commas separating two independent clauses (clauses that can stand on their own as sentences because they each have a subject and predicate) without any of the seven coordinating conjunctions (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, or so) following the comma.

Incorrect:

The first proposal was from the Davidson group, the second came from a company we hadn’t seen before.

The fix:

The first proposal was from the Davidson group; the second came from a company we hadn’t seen before.

The fix:

The first proposal was from the Davidson group; but the second came from a company we hadn’t seen before.

The fix:

Though the first proposal was from the Davidson group, the second came from a company we hadn’t seen before.

In the incorrect example above, the comma separates two independent clauses that can stand on their own as sentences if you replaced the comma with a period and capitalized the t in “the second.” You have three options for fixing the comma splice corresponding to the three examples above:

  1. Replace the comma with a semicolon to make a compound sentence.
  2. Add a coordinating conjunction, such as but, to make a compound sentence that clarifies the relationship between the clauses.
  3. Add a subordinating conjunction, such as Though, at the beginning of the first clause to make it a dependent (a.k.a. a subordinate) clause. This makes the sentence a complex one (see §4.3.2 above for more on subordinating conjunctions and complex sentences).

Comma Rule 2.1:    Put a comma after introductory subordinate clauses, phrases, or words preceding main clauses.

Put a comma before the main clause (a.k.a. independent clause) when it is preceded by an introductory word, phrase (e.g., a prepositional or participial phrase), or subordinate clause (a.k.a. dependent clause) in a complex sentence.

Correct:

If we follow our project plan’s critical path down to the minute, we will finish on time and on budget.

Why it’s correct: The comma separates the subordinate clause beginning with the subordinating conjunction “If” from the main clause (beginning with the subject “we”) that follows it.

Correct:

When my ship comes in, I’ll be repaying every favour anyone ever did for me.

Why it’s correct: The comma separates the subordinate clause, beginning with the subordinating conjunction “When,” from the main clause that follows it, beginning with the subject “I.”

Correct:

To make ourselves better understood, we’ve left post-it notes all around the room.

Why it’s correct: The comma separates the introductory infinitive phrase, beginning with the infinitive verb “To make,” from the main clause that follows it, beginning with the subject “we.”

Correct:

After the flood, the Poulins took out some expensive disaster insurance.

Why it’s correct: The comma separates the introductory prepositional phrase, beginning with the preposition “after,” from the main clause that follows it, beginning with the subject “the Poulins.”

Correct:

Greeting me at the door, she said that I was a half hour early and would have to wait to see the director.

Why it’s correct: The comma separates the introductory participial phrase, beginning with the present participle (Simmons, 2001a) “Greeting,” from the main clause that follows it, beginning with the subject “she.”

Correct:

The downturn of 2008 now forgotten, the investors threw other people’s money around like it was 2007 again.

Why it’s correct: The comma separates the introductory absolute phrase, ending with the past participle (Simmons, 2001a) “forgotten,” from the main clause that follows it, beginning with the subject “the investors.”

Correct:

Delighted, she accepted their offer even with the conditions.

Why it’s correct: The comma separates the single-word introductory past-participle appositive (Simmons, 2001b) “Delighted” from the main clause that follows it, beginning with the subject “she.”

Correct:

Therefore, you are encouraged to submit your timesheet the Friday before payday.

Why it’s correct: The comma separates the introductory conjunctive adverb (Simmons, 2007b) “Therefore” from the main clause that follows it, beginning with the subject “you.”

Correct:

However, there’s not much we can do if the patient refuses our help.

Why it’s correct: The comma separates the introductory conjunctive adverb “However” from the main clause that follows it, beginning with the subject “you.”

Correct:

Yes, please go ahead and submit your payment.

Why it’s correct: The comma separates the single-word introductory interjection “Yes” from the main clause imperative clause that follows it, the core of which is the verb “go.”

Correct:

Hello, Claude:

Why it’s correct: The comma marks the pause between the greeting word and name address in a respectful, semiformal salutation opening email.

Exception: The comma is unnecessary if the introductory dependent clause or prepositional phrase is short (fewer than four words) and its omission doesn’t cause confusion.

Correct:

At this point we’re not accepting any applications.

Why it’s correct: Omitting the comma after the short, three-word prepositional phrase doesn’t cause confusion.

How This Helps the Reader

The comma tells the reader to pause a little prior to the main clause as if to say, “Okay, here’s where the sentence really begins with the main-clause subject and predicate.” The main clause is the main point, whereas the subordinate clause that precedes it is relatively minor, providing context.

Recall from the lesson on sentence varieties (§4.3.2) that a complex sentence is one where a subordinating conjunction (Darling, 2014a) begins an independent or subordinate clause, which cannot stand on its own as a sentence. A subordinate clause (a.k.a. dependent clause) becomes part of a proper sentence only when it joins a main (a.k.a. independent) clause. When that subordinate clause precedes the main clause, a comma separates them. The same is true when that main clause is preceded by a phrase (e.g., prepositional, infinitive, participial, gerund, etc.; Darling, 2014b) or even just a word such as an appositive participle (as in the “Delighted” example above) or conjunctive adverb (Darling, 2014c), as in the “Therefore” example above.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for words, phrases, or clauses preceding the main clause without a comma separating them. For this, you must know how to spot the main clause when it comes later in the sentence; in other words, you need to be able to spot the main grammatical subject (the doer of the action) and predicate (the action itself; review §4.3.1’s introduction to sentence structure). If the main subject is preceded by words, phrases, or clauses but not a comma, then you need to add one before the main clause.

Incorrect:

Because first impressions are lasting ones you must always come out swinging at the beginning of your presentation.

The fix:

Because first impressions are lasting ones, you must always come out swinging at the beginning of your presentation.

In the example above, “you” is the main grammatical subject that begins the main clause, whose main verb is “come.” The subordinate clause begins with the subordinating conjunction “Because” and ends at “ones,” so the comma must follow “ones” to separate it from the beginning of the main clause.

Comma Rule 2.2:  Don’t put a comma after main clauses followed by subordinate clauses or phrases unless the latter strikes a contrast with the former.

Don’t put a comma after a main clause (a.k.a. independent clause) if it is followed by a subordinate (a.k.a. dependent) clause or phrase in a complex sentence. If the subordinate clause begins with a contrasting subordinating conjunction such as “although,” a comma must separate the two clauses.

Correct:

You can’t apply for permits from the city  because you haven’t even secured funding yet.

Why it’s correct: A comma is unnecessary because the subordinate clause, beginning with the subordinating conjunction “because,” follows the main clause rather than precedes it, so you can read it without a pause.

Correct:

We will finish on time and on budget if we follow the critical path of our plan to the minute.

Why it’s correct: A comma is unnecessary because the subordinate clause, beginning with the subordinating conjunction “if,” follows the main clause rather than precedes it, so you can read it without a pause.

Correct:

I’ll be repaying every favour anyone ever did for me when my ship comes in.

Why it’s correct: A comma is unnecessary because the subordinate clause, beginning with the subordinating conjunction “when,” follows the main clause rather than precedes it, so you can read it without a pause.

Correct:

The Poulins took out some expensive disaster insurance after the flood.

Why it’s correct: A comma is unnecessary because the prepositional phrase, beginning with the preposition “after,” follows the main clause rather than precedes it, so you can read it without a pause.

Correct:

We’re not accepting any applications at this time, though we might make an exception for a truly remarkable applicant.

Why it’s correct: A comma is necessary because the subordinate clause, beginning with the subordinating conjunction “though,” strikes a contrast with the main clause that precedes it, making a pause appropriate.

Correct:

We could easily hire a new full-time assistant in the fourth quarter, unless our profit margin drops below 5% in the third.

Why it’s correct: A comma is necessary because the subordinate clause, beginning with the subordinating conjunction “unless,” strikes a contrast with the main clause that precedes it, making a pause appropriate.

How This Helps the Reader

The absence of the comma tells the reader to keep reading smoothly without pause between the main and subordinate clauses. In the case of the contrasting subordinate clause, however, the comma signals a pause as if to say that the subordinate clause is a kind of afterthought or qualification added to the main clause.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for commas unnecessarily added before subordinating conjunctions (see Table 4.3.2a for a list of subordinating conjunctions) in complex sentences where the subordinate clause follows the main clause and doesn’t strike a contrast with it.

Incorrect:

The technician is switching to plan B, because the manifold blew a gasket.

The fix:

The technician is switching to plan B because the manifold blew a gasket.

Incorrect:

The Goliath Games label was founded in 2003, to create the most innovative and progressive interactive entertainment.

The fix:

The Goliath Games label was founded in 2003 to create the most innovative and progressive interactive entertainment.

In the examples above, the comma is simply unnecessary and should be deleted. It would be necessary, however, if the first sentence began with the subordinate clause beginning with “Because . . . ” or after the infinitive phrase if the second sentence began with “To create . . . .” In those cases, the comma would follow “gasket” and “2003” respectively and you would change the first letter in the main clauses to lowercase.

Comma Rule 3.1: Put commas around parenthetical words, phrases, or clauses.

Put commas before and after parenthetical or non-essential words, phrases, or clauses that would leave the sentence grammatically correct if you omitted them. Placed in the middle of a sentence between the subject and predicate or at the end of the sentence, however, those elements lend further detail to the words or phrases that come just before them. Commas in this way function as a lighter form of parentheses (see §5.3.5 below).

Correct:

The promotion went to Mr. Speck, who neither wanted nor deserved it, to make it look like something was being done about the glass ceiling.

Why it’s correct: Like parentheses, the commas mark off the relative clause beginning with the relative pronoun “who” in the middle of the sentence, lending more information on the word coming just before (“Mr. Speck”).

Correct:

Global Solutions went on a hiring spree, which was well-timed given the change in telecoms legislation that was about to come down.

Why it’s correct: The comma marks the switch to a restrictive relative clause beginning with the relative pronoun “which” after the main clause, lending more information to its final word, “hiring spree.” The restrictive relative clause is non-essential in the sense that the main clause still means the same thing if the restrictive clause were omitted.

Correct:

We’ll get back to you as soon as possible, needless to say.

Why it’s correct: The comma marks the switch to an interjection tacked onto the end of the sentence.

Correct:

The second customer, on the other hand, absolutely loved the new colour.

Why it’s correct: The comma marks off a parenthetical prepositional phrase separating the subject from the predicate in the middle of the sentence.

Correct:

The time for expressing interest in the buy-out option, however, had long since passed.

Why it’s correct: The commas mark off the conjunctive adverb “however” interjected between the subject and the predicate in the middle of the sentence.

Correct:

We’ve heard that, in fact, the delegation won’t be coming after all.

Why it’s correct: The commas mark off a parenthetical prepositional phrase interjected between the subject and the predicate in the middle of the sentence.

Correct:

Always treat the customer with respect, unless of course certain behaviours, such as belligerent drunkenness, compel you to take a firm stand against them.

Why it’s correct: The commas mark off a parenthetical phrase offering an example interjected between the subject and the predicate in the middle of the dependent clause.

Correct:

The nicest thing about you, Josh, is that you get the best work out of your employees by only praising achievements rather than criticizing mistakes.

Why it’s correct: The commas mark off a parenthetical appositive address clarifying who “you” is between the subject and the predicate in the middle of the sentence.

Correct:

I sent the application to Grace Garrison, the departmental secretary, last Tuesday.

Why it’s correct: The commas mark off a parenthetical appositive noun phrase identifying the role of the person named.

Exceptions: When the appositive is so close to the noun it modifies that the sentence wouldn’t make sense without it, omit the commas. Also omit commas:

Correct:

Departmental secretary Grace Garrison received the application Tuesday.

Why it’s correct: You can omit commas around the appositive following “Departmental secretary” because “Departmental secretary received the application” wouldn’t make sense unless “The” preceded it.

Correct:

They offer competitive fringe benefits such as health and dental coverage, three weeks’ paid vacation per year, and sick leave.

Why it’s correct: A comma would be excessive before the “such as” phrase introducing the list of examples unless it appeared as a parenthetical aside in the middle of the sentence.

Correct:

We don’t have to go, and of course they don’t have to take us.

Why it’s correct: Adding commas around “of course,” though technically correct, would be excessive and look cluttered, so the parenthetical commas drop in priority to the comma separating compounded independent clauses.

How This Helps the Reader

As light alternatives to parentheses, these parenthetical commas tell the reader to pause a little when a non-essential (a.k.a. parenthetical) point is interjected or tacked on to explain the word or phrase preceding it. Common parenthetical phrases include:

all things considered
as a matter of fact
as a result
as a rule
at the same time
consequently
for example
furthermore
however
in addition
incidentally
in fact
in my opinion
in the first place
in the meantime
moreover
needless to say
nevertheless
no doubt
of course
on the contrary
on the other hand
therefore
under the circumstances

Interestingly, this rule also helped the Atlantic Canada telephone company Bell Aliant cancel a contract with Rogers Communications over the use of telephone poles prior to Rogers’s intended five-year term, costing Rogers a million dollars and resulting in a bitter court battle in 2006. The dispute concerned the following sentence in the middle of the 14-page contract:

This agreement shall be effective from the date it is made and shall continue in force for a period of five (5) years from the date it is made, and thereafter for successive five (5) year terms, unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party.

Without the comma after “terms,” you could read the contract as Rogers intended, which was to say that it could be terminated with a year’s notice any time after the first five years. By adding the second comma to make the “and thereafter” phrase parenthetical and therefore non-essential, however, Rogers in effect made the “unless . . .” clause apply to the first five-year term as well as to any subsequent term. That one misplaced comma thus gave Bell Aliant the right to cancel at any time.

Citing this parenthetical comma rule, the Canadian Radio-Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) ruled in favour of Bell Aliant at Rogers’s expense (Austen, 2006). The CRTC later reversed its ruling when Rogers invoked the less ambiguous French version of the contract to force Aliant to return to its contractual obligations. Still, Rogers ultimately paid heavily for un-recouped losses during the contract’s cancellation and in legal fees throughout the contract dispute, which dragged out till 2009 (Bowal & Layton, 2014). You can bet Rogers pays people to ensure its contracts are punctuated unambiguously now.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for words, phrases, or clauses that could be deleted from a sentence without making it grammatically incomplete. Add commas if none mark off the parenthetical word, phrase, or clause, or if the first is there but not the second (or vice versa) in the case of parenthetical elements ending a sentence.

Incorrect:

Emphasizing your spoken points with gesticulation which may sound like a dirty word can certainly help your audience understand them better.

The fix:

Emphasizing your spoken points with gesticulation, which may sound like a dirty word, can certainly help your audience understand them better.

Here, the non-essential parenthetical relative clause beginning with the non-restrictive relative pronoun which (see Table 4.4.2a, #7, for relative pronouns) and ending with “word,” could be deleted from the sentence and leave it grammatically complete. However, as an interjection, it clarifies the word that precedes it (“gesticulation”), and therefore has a place in the sentence, albeit one set apart from the rest.

Incorrect:

Let’s start cooking Grandpa!

The fix:

Let’s start cooking, Grandpa!

Here, the comma is crucial in signalling that Grandpa is being addressed. Without the comma, the sentence recommends preparing Grandpa to be cooked and presumably eaten, which is hopefully not the intended meaning.

Comma Rule 3.2: Put a comma before contrasting coordinate elements, end-of-sentence shifts, and omitted repetitions.

Put commas before end-of-sentence:

Correct:

This presentation seems like it’s gone on for days, doesn’t it?

Why it’s correct: The comma marks off the question added to the end of the sentence to ask whether the opposite of the main-clause point is true as a way of seeking agreement with it.

Correct:

Please send the document to Accounts Receivable, not Payable.

Why it’s correct: The comma marks off the contrasting element added to the end, abbreviating the clause “do not send the document to Accounts Payable,” which has the exact structure of the main clause, but shows only the words that differ from the main-clause wording rather than repeating most of it to make a compound sentence.

Correct:

The potential we envision for AI is that it will at best bring a world of convenience and leisure, at worst total annihilation.

Why it’s correct: The comma marks off the clause that states the complementary contrast to the first statement by omitting the repeated relative clause root “it will . . . bring.”

Correct:

The president’s statement to the media seemed incoherent, even demented.

Why it’s correct: The comma marks off the clause that extends the main clause statement assuming the same root structure.

How This Helps the Reader

The comma cues the reader to pause before the sentence shifts to contrasting elements, as well as to indicate that some phrasing from the first part of the sentence is being assumed rather than repeated in the second.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for run-on-like gaps where no punctuation separates the main clause from questions or contrasting phrases tacked on to the end of a sentence, and add the comma.

Incorrect:

This is a great time to be alive isn’t it?

The fix:

This is a great time to be alive, isn’t it?

Here, the main clause ends with “alive,” and the follow-up recasting of the statement as an interrogative sentence (“isn’t this the best time to be alive?”) abbreviated as “isn’t it?” forms a run-on without any punctuation separating it from the main clause. The comma added between the clauses represents the words that were omitted to avoid repetition.

Comma Rule 3.3: Put a comma before sentence-ending free-modifier phrases that describe elements at the beginning or middle of sentences.

Put commas before phrases that appear at the end of a sentence but modify (describe) actions or things at the sentence’s beginning or middle. As long as such phrases don’t cause confusion with their ambiguity, they are free to either follow the noun they modify or appear at the end.

Correct:

The MC desperately cued for applause, clapping aggressively.

Why it’s correct: The comma marks off the sentence-ending participial phrase starting with the present participle “clapping” describes the action “cued” in the middle of the sentence.

How This Helps the Reader

The comma signals to the reader that the phrase ending the sentence refers to something that came earlier in the sentence. Without a comma, the phrase would describe what came immediately before it.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for phrases (especially participial phrases—words ending -ing) at the end of sentences without commas preceding them but not making sense. If they indeed have commas preceding them but the participle could refer to more than one thing in the main clause, resolve the ambiguity by moving the phrase closer to the thing it modifies.

Incorrect:

The bellhop held out his hand for a gratuity smiling obsequiously.

The fix:

The bellhop held out his hand for a gratuity, smiling obsequiously.

Here, the omitted comma makes it seem like the gratuity is smiling obsequiously, which doesn’t make sense. Adding the comma before “smiling” makes it clear that the bellhop mentioned earlier in the sentence is the one smiling.

Incorrect:

The MC invited the plenary speaker to the stage, bowing graciously.

The fix:

Bowing graciously, the MC invited the plenary speaker to the stage.

The participial phrase is ambiguous when placed at the end of the sentence because it’s unclear whether the MC or plenary speaker is bowing graciously. Moving the participial phrase to the beginning so that it is in appositive relation to the noun it modifies clarifies the sentence to say that the MC is bowing.

Comma Rule 3.4: Put commas around higher levels of organization in dates, places, addresses, names, and numbers.

Put commas around the:

Correct:

The release date of April 14, 2019, will be honoured if there are no delays.

Why it’s correct: The commas mark off the year as parenthetical in the three-part date to ensure that there is no ambiguity about which April 14 (2018? 2020?) is intended.

Correct:

We agreed to continue our meeting on Thursday, January 28, to cover the agenda items we didn’t get to on Monday.

Why it’s correct: The commas mark off the calendar date as parenthetical after the day of the week to ensure that there is no ambiguity about which Thursday is intended.

Correct:

Gord Downie was born in Amherstview, Ontario, to a traveling salesman father and stay-at-home mother.

Why it’s correct: The commas mark off the province as parenthetical after the smaller town to ensure that there is no ambiguity about which town is intended, assuming other towns in other provinces may share the same name.

Correct:

Bowie was born David Robert Jones in London, England, on 8 January 1947.

Why it’s correct: The commas mark off the country as parenthetical after the city within it to ensure that there is no ambiguity about which city is intended (i.e., not the one in Ontario, Canada).

Correct:

Send your inquiries to 1385 Woodroffe Avenue, Ottawa, ON  K26 1V8.

Why it’s correct: The commas mark off the larger geographical region in which the street is situated.

Correct:

Please welcome Daria Rimini, RN, to the department.

Why it’s correct: The commas mark off the person’s credentials as non-essential to her name rather than initials in her name.

Correct:

Send your inquiries to Albert Irwin, Jr., at the email address below.

Why it’s correct: The commas mark off the generational tag following the name.

Correct:

You can always trust old George Wilson, Professor of English, to make a mountain of a molehill.

Why it’s correct: The commas mark off the individual’s professional title following their name.

Correct:

The awards for damages ranged anywhere from a token $4,882 to a whopping $13,945,718.

Why it’s correct: The commas mark off every group of thousand (three digits) to help the reader quickly recognize the magnitude of the number without counting the number of digits.

Exceptions:

Don’t surround a year with commas if it follows only a month; use them only around years following a month and date. Also, drop the second comma if the larger geographical region is possessive in form.

Correct:

Recording began in November 2005 and continued to February 2006.

Why it’s correct: Commas are unnecessary in general two-part dates.

Correct:

The charm of London, Ontario’s street buskers almost rivals that of its UK namesake.

Why it’s correct: A comma following the possessive form of the larger geographical region would look even more awkward than this. Of course, the sentence could be reworded as “The street buskers’ charm in London, Ontario, almost . . . .”

How This Helps the Reader

The commas tell the reader to pause a little within a detailed series of time, geographical, or name designations when adding a higher order of organization just as commas were used as light alternatives to parentheses in Comma Rule 3.1.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for years added to three-part dates, larger geographical regions added after cities and towns, or credentials added after names with either no comma added on either side of that year, region, or credential, or added only before it but not after. Add both or the second comma. If the date only has the month and year, but a comma or two surrounds the date, delete commas.

Incorrect:

We can probably fit you in for the procedure on Tuesday December 12.

The fix:

We can probably fit you in for the procedure on Tuesday, December 12.

Here, the month and date follow the day of the week without a comma. Just add one between them.

Incorrect:

They moved the release date to March 14, 2020 to allow enough time for post-production.

The fix:

They moved the release date to March 14, 2020, to allow enough time for post-production.

Here, the year gets the first of its two parenthetical commas but not the second, so just add one after the year.

Incorrect:

The company was founded in July, 1978, to address an urgent need.

The fix:

The company was founded in July 1978 to address an urgent need.

The commas around the year are unnecessary because it’s only a two-part date. Just delete them.

Comma Rule 3.5: Put a comma between a signal phrase and a quotation.

Put commas between signal phrases and the quotations they introduce when the signal phrases end with a verb that gives rise to the quoted words or thoughts.

Correct:

The chair of the meeting shouted, “We cannot proceed unless we have order.”

Why it’s correct: A comma separates the signal phrase ending with a verb from the quotation it introduces.

Correct:

“Stay the course,” the supervisor advised, “and you shall soon find success.”

Why it’s correct: The parenthetical commas mark off the signal phrase interjected between quoted clauses.

Correct:

You could tell she was thinking, “Is this guy for real?”

Why it’s correct: A comma separates the signal phrase ending with a verb from the quotation it introduces even if the quotation is merely thought rather than said.

Exception:

A comma is unnecessary if the signal phrase ends with the restrictive relative pronoun that or the quotation is a phrase incorporated into the sentence rather than a sentence or clause on its own.

Correct:

The customer service rep said that “The offer expired on August 23, not the 24th” and they have a “no exceptions” policy due to the perishable nature of the product.

Why it’s correct: The signal phrase ends with the restrictive relative pronoun that, which a comma doesn’t follow but could replace, and “no exceptions is a phrase rather than a clause or sentence.

Correct:

The customer service representative confirmed “August 23, not the 24” was the expiration date.

Why it’s correct: No comma follows the signal phrase because the quotation is just a phrase excerpt rather than a clause or sentence.

How This Helps the Reader

The comma cues the reader to pause as it abbreviates the relative pronoun that, which makes the comma unnecessary if it’s included.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for missing commas around quotations and add them between the signal phrase ending with a verb and the quotation, or look for unnecessary commas that split a sentence unnaturally, such as going before or after the that that precedes a quotation if present), and delete them.

Incorrect:

The authorization said “Go for it.”

The fix:

The authorization said, “Go for it.”

Here, the signal phrase omits a comma between the main verb and the quotation, so adding one corrects the error.

Incorrect:

The current contract says clearly that, “overtime is time and a half.”

The fix:

The current contract says clearly that “overtime is time and a half.”

Here, a comma unnecessarily follows the relative pronoun that perhaps because the writer thought that a comma should always precede the quotation. You could either delete the comma or “that,” but not both.

Comma Rule 3.6: Don’t put commas around restrictive relative clauses (before that).

Don’t put a comma before a restrictive relative clause (e.g., beginning with the relative pronoun who or that) following a main clause.

Correct:

The stocks that we all thought were going to offer the best returns are doing the worst.

Why it’s correct: No commas surround the restrictive clause from “that” to “returns,” which is somewhat parenthetical in that the sentence could grammatically function without it (“The stocks are doing the worst”). However, this would be misleading because it implies that all the stocks are failing expectations, whereas the sentence focuses on only a subset. The vagueness resulting from omitting the restrictive clause proves that it is essential to the sentence’s clarity.

Correct:

The students who presented first set the bar high for those who followed.

Why it’s correct: No commas surround the restrictive clause from “who” to “first.” The clause is restrictive because it specifies a small group of students. Adding commas around the clause would make it non-restrictive (see Comma Rule 3.1 above) and would change the meaning of the sentence: it would mean that all the students presented first.

Correct:

She didn’t say that we couldn’t work together.

Why it’s correct: No comma precedes the restrictive clause beginning with “that.”

How This Helps the Reader

The absence of the comma tells the reader that the relative clause starting with the relative pronoun that or who is essential to the meaning of the sentence and should be read smoothly without pauses around it. For more on restrictive and non-restrictive relative clauses, see Introduction and General Usage in Defining Clauses (Keck & Angeli, 2018) and Clauses (Darling, 2014d).

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for commas preceding that or who and determine whether the meaning of the sentence would be significantly changed if you deleted the restrictive relative clause. If it would be, delete the commas.

Incorrect:

You don’t have to cite common-knowledge facts, that every source you can find agrees on.

The fix:

You don’t have to cite common-knowledge facts that every source you can find agrees on.

Here, the restrictive relative clause beginning with that is essential to the meaning because it clarifies what kind of facts are common knowledge. It is not interchangeable with the non-restrictive relative clause beginning with which, which requires a comma before it because it is non-essential (see Comma Rule 3.1 above). In the UK, writers often use “which” instead of “that” even in non-restrictive relative clauses without the comma preceding them. In North America, however, we distinguish the relative clause types by using a comma and which for non-restrictive clauses and that without a comma for restrictive clauses.

Incorrect:

The students, who were caught plagiarizing, were each given a zero, whereas the rest did quite well.

The fix:

The students who were caught plagiarizing were each given a zero, whereas the rest did quite well.

Here, the commas in the incorrect sentence say that all students were caught plagiarizing. Deleting the commas to make “who were caught plagiarizing” a restrictive relative clause brings the sentence back to the intended meaning, which is that a subset of students were caught plagiarizing and the rest did well.

Comma Rule 3.7: Don’t put commas between subjects and their predicates.

Don’t put a comma between a clause’s subject (even if it’s a long one) and predicate (the main verb action) if there are no parenthetical elements between them.

Correct:

Participants who quit smoking because of the new treatment option were twice as likely to remain smoke-free as those who quit cold turkey.

Why it’s correct: No comma separates the subject “Participants who . . . option” from the predicate “were . . . turkey” even though the subject is quite long at ten words.

Exception:

Adding a pair of commas between the subject and predicate is acceptable when they are divided by an interjection. See the fourth and fifth correct examples illustrating Comma Rule 3.1).

How This Helps the Reader

The absence of the comma tells the reader to read smoothly across the subject and predicate because they are the integral parts of a unified clause even if the subject is long.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for commas that separate the subject from the predicate when there are no parenthetical words or phrases, or non-restrictive clauses, separating them. For this, you must know how to spot the main-clause subject and predicate (review §4.3.1 on sentence structure) and delete any stray commas that come between them.

Incorrect:

All the businesses that benefitted from the new regulatory environment following the passing of Bill 134, have given back to their community.

The fix:

All the business that benefitted from the new regulatory environment following the passing of Bill 134 have given back to their community.

The subject of the above sentence is a long one because, following the core noun “businesses,” it contains a restrictive relative clause beginning with that, which contains prepositional phrases (“from the new . . .” and “of Bill 134”) and a participial phrase (“following . . .”). None of these length-extending units change the fact that there is no legitimate parenthetical interjection requiring commas between the subject and the predicate that begins with “have given.” The easy fix is just to delete the comma.

Comma Rule 4.1: Put commas between each item in a series, including the last two items.

Put commas between each item in a series, including before the and or or that separates the second-to-last (a.k.a. penultimate) and last items, whether those items be words, phrases, or even clauses in a series.

Correct:

NASA sent the space shuttles Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour on 135 orbital missions from 1982 to 2011.

Why it’s correct: A comma follows each noun in a series up to the penultimate one before the and joining the last two.

Correct:

I gave them the option of either researching the content, preparing the PowerPoint, or doing the actual presentation.

Why it’s correct: A comma follows each participial phrase in a series up to the penultimate one before the or joining the last two.

Correct:

The presenters rehearsed before Week 5, during Reading Week, and again after Week 7.

Why it’s correct: A comma follows each prepositional phrase in a series up to the penultimate one before the and joining the last two.

Correct:

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards set the stage for other singer-guitarist power duos like Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, Freddie Mercury and Brian May, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, Axl Rose and Slash, and Anthony Kiedis and John Frusciante.

Why it’s correct: A comma follows each compound noun phrase in a series up to the penultimate one before the and joining the last two pairs.

Correct:

I can’t stand comma splices, you have no patience for run-ons, and she won’t tolerate sentence fragments.

Why it’s correct: In a compound sentence containing three independent clauses, a comma follows each clause up to the penultimate one before the and joining the last two.

How This Helps the Reader

The serial commas help separate each item in the series, and the one that comes before the coordinating conjunction and that joins the last two items (a.k.a. the “Oxford comma”), helps resolve various ambiguities that may arise without it (see some below). The question of whether to use the Oxford comma has been a long-running debate. Some style guides, such as the Canadian Press, Associated Press, and even institutions like Algonquin College, recommend omitting it because they advocate for as few commas as possible. However, they say nothing about situations where omitting the Oxford comma creates unavoidable ambiguity—that is, two interpretations that mean two very different things. The anti-Oxford comma side even has an anthem in the Grammy-winning indie band Vampire Weekend’s 2008 debut-album single “Oxford Comma,” which opens with the lyric “Who gives a f**k about the Oxford comma?”.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P_i1xk07o4g[/embed]

However, grammarians, readers, and writers who care about clarity in writing, and even the plaintiffs awarded $5 million in a US civil suit (as well as the defendants paying the price) certainly care about the Oxford comma. The significant confusion and even conflict that results from its absence in clutch situations justifies its inclusion in all. For instance:

If the Oxford comma is necessary to avoid ambiguity in such cases, it should be used as a rule in all cases. Writers shouldn’t have to make a subjective judgment call about whether the reader would find it ambiguous with or without the Oxford comma because some readers are more astute than others. Except perhaps in titles where brevity is highly valued and no ambiguities of the kind listed above can confuse the reader, the Oxford comma should always be used.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for list of three or more words, phrases, or clauses in a sentence. If you don’t see a comma before the and that separates the last two items, add one there.

Incorrect:

Our group is full of non-contributors, my friend and me.

The fix:

Our group is full of non-contributors, my friend, and me.

Omitting the Oxford comma in the incorrect example above suggests that you and your friend are non-contributors because “my friend and me” are in appositive relation to “non-contributors.” Though you did not mean to say this, you are in effect offering yourself and your friend as particular examples of non-contributors. By adding the Oxford comma, however, you now say that the group is comprised of you, your friend, and some non-contributors. With the Oxford comma, you and your friend are productive members rather than non-contributors despite being grouped with them.

Comma Rule 4.2: Put commas between two or more coordinate adjectives.

Put commas between two or more coordinate adjectives that refer to the same noun. Coordinate adjectives are those stacked in front of a noun in no particular order to describe the noun in multiple ways. You can tell that they’re coordinate adjectives if you can (1) change their order and (2) add and between each without changing the meaning either way.

Correct:

The new hires turned out to be dedicated, ambitious employees.

Why it’s correct: Both adjectives, “dedicated” and “ambitious,” describe the noun “employees” in no particular order, and you can replace the comma with an and to make “. . . dedicated and ambitious employees.”

Correct:

Would you like a nice, new, clean, dry diaper?

Why it’s correct: All four coordinate adjectives describe the noun “diaper” in no particular order.

Correct:

The incessant, thunderous drum beat changed the rhythm of their hearts.

Why it’s correct: The comma goes between “incessant” and “thunderous” because they are coordinate. The comma doesn’t go between “thunderous” and “drum” because they are non-coordinate in that you can’t change their order and add and between them without changing the meaning.

Correct:

Use SMS for brief, fast text message exchanges.

Why it’s correct: The comma goes between “brief” and “fast” because they are coordinate. The comma doesn’t go after “fast,” “text,” or “message” because they are non-coordinate in that you can’t change their order and add and between them without changing the meaning.

How This Helps the Reader

The commas distinguish coordinate from non-coordinate adjectives, and therefore what adjectives are incidental and which are intrinsic qualities of the noun they describe. For more, see Commas: Coordinate Adjectives (Write, 2012) and Comma Tip 6: Use Commas Correctly with a Series of Adjectives (Simmons, 2018a).

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for a series of two or more adjectives preceding a noun without commas between them. If you can put and between them and change their order without changing the meaning of the sentence, they’re coordinate adjectives that need commas between them.

Incorrect:

The day started off with a vicious unrelenting freezing rain.

The fix:

The day started off with a vicious, unrelenting freezing rain.

The only adjectives that could be swapped around and have and added between them are “vicious” and “unrelenting.” The adjective “freezing” is locked in its position before the noun “rain” to mean the type of rain that makes the outside one huge ice rink. Therefore, you need to add a comma between “vicious” and “unrelenting,” but not between “unrelenting” and “freezing.”

Comma Rule 4.3: Don’t put a comma after the final coordinate adjective.

Don’t put a comma after the second of two (or third of three, etc.) coordinate adjectives—i.e., between the final coordinate adjective and the noun it describes. See Comma Rule 4.2 above for a further explanation of coordinate vs. non-coordinate adjectives.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for coordinate adjectives preceding a noun with commas between them. If you can put and between them and change their order without changing the meaning of the sentence, they’re coordinate adjectives that need commas between them.

Incorrect:

Select and use common, basic, information technology tools to support communication.

The fix:

Select and use common, basic information technology tools to support communication.

The only adjectives that could be swapped around and have and added between them are “common” and “basic.” In this case, “information technology” (a.k.a. “IT”) is a noun phrase that modifies the noun “tools,” so their order is locked in, making them non-coordinate.

Comma Rule 4.4: Don’t put a comma between non-coordinate adjectives.

Don’t put commas between non-coordinate adjectives—that is, between adjectives that are in a fixed order before the noun they modify and cannot have and added between them without changing the meaning of the sentence. See Comma Rule 4.2 above for a further explanation of coordinate vs. non-coordinate adjectives.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for coordinate adjectives preceding a noun with commas between them. If you can’t put and between them and change their order without changing the meaning of the sentence, they’re non-coordinate adjectives. Any commas between them must be deleted.

Incorrect:

Send the black, Pearl, drum kit to the heavy, metal drummer.

The fix:

Send the black Pearl drum kit to the heavy metal drummer.

The order is important in the first set of non-coordinate adjectives describing the noun “kit” because the type of kit we’re dealing with is a drum kit, so “drum” must come immediately before “kit.” The brand of drum kit is Pearl (capitalized because it is a proper noun), so “Pearl” precedes “drum kit.” The only adjective preceding these non-coordinate adjectives is “black,” but it is unaccompanied by another to make it a coordinate adjective, so there are no commas. Likewise, inserting a comma between “heavy” and “metal” splits the musical genre “heavy metal” serving as a non-coordinate adjective to “drummer,” so it misleadingly implies that the drummer is a 400kg led statue.

Comma Rule 4.5:    Don’t put commas between two coordinate nouns or verbs.

Don’t put commas between two nouns (or noun phrases) or verbs (or verb phrases) joined by the coordinating conjunction and in a compound subject, predicate, or object.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for commas appearing before or after the coordinating conjunction and when it comes between nouns (or noun phrases) or verbs (or verb phrases), then delete them.

Incorrect:

The communications director from your company, and the same from our company met to discuss a common strategy.

The Fix:

The communications director from your company, and the same from our company met to discuss a common strategy.

This above sentence features a compound subject, meaning that two subjects (the two communications directors) perform the main action (“met”). Though each is followed by a prepositional phrase (“from . . .”), the comma between them must be deleted in the incorrect sentence to avoid impeding the reader.

Incorrect:

They applied for an extension, and worked all weekend on the report.

The fix:

They applied for an extension and worked all weekend on the report.

The sentence above has a compound predicate, meaning that the one subject (“They”) performed two actions (“applied” and “worked”). Again, the comma is unnecessary between them and must be deleted from the incorrect sentence. The comma would be necessary if the second verb had a different subject performing the action, in which case they would be two independent clauses in a compound sentence (see Table 4.3.2b and Comma Rule 1.1).

Incorrect:

They can’t expect us to write both the report and memo, and not pay us.

The fix:

They can’t expect us to write both the report and memo but not pay us.

The above sentence also has a compound predicate (“can’t expect” and “not pay”). Adding a comma makes this out to be a compound sentence, which it isn’t because the subject “They” is common to both actions. To avoid an “X and Y and Z” structure caused by having a compound object (“report and memo”) appearing just before the conjunction coordinating the second verb, the “and” joining the two verb phrases can simply be changed to “but.”

Incorrect:

The teacher gave us a new deadline based on the revised schedule, and a slightly revised end-of-semester timeline.

The fix:

The teacher gave us a new deadline based on the revised schedule and a slightly revised end-of-semester timeline.

The above sentences have a compound object, meaning that two objects (“deadline” and “timeline”) are acted upon by the verb “gave.” The objects here are in somewhat long noun phrases, but to add a comma between them (after ”schedule”) would mislead the reader into thinking that this is a compound sentence with a new independent clause following “and.” Deleting the comma would ensure that the reader understands the sentence instead as a simple sentence with a compound object.

Return to Quick Rules: Commas

For more on commas, see the following resources:

Return to the Complete List of Punctuation Covered in This Chapter Section

5.3.2: Apostrophes

Apostrophes are mainly used to indicate possession and contraction but are probably the most misplaced punctuation mark after commas. They can embarrass the writer who misuses them, show a lack of attention to detail, and confuse readers about whether a noun is singular or plural, possessive, a contraction, or just a misspelling. Used properly, apostrophes at the end of a noun cue readers that the noun following is possessed by what the noun preceding refers to. For instance, in “Uncle Tom’s cabin,” the apostrophe indicates that the cabin (noun) is owned by Uncle Tom. Placement of apostrophes before or after the s ending a word determines if the noun is plural or singular. They’re also used for contractions in informal writing such as you see at the beginning of this sentence. You have four main rules to follow when using apostrophes, as well as several special cases.

Quick Rules: Apostrophes

Click on the rules below to see further explanations, examples, advice on what to look for when proofreading, and demonstrations of how to correct common apostrophe errors associated with each one.

Apostrophe Rule 1.1 Put an apostrophe before the s ending a singular possessive noun.Jenna’s goal is to find a money manager who can diversify her portfolio.
Apostrophe Rule 1.2 Don’t put an apostrophe at the end of a simple plural noun.Corben put on his glasses to see the looks on their faces. (no apostrophe at the end of “glasses,” “looks,” or “faces”).
Apostrophe Rule 2.1 Put an apostrophe after the s ending a plural possessive noun.All three companies’ bids for the contract were rejected.
Apostrophe Rule 2.2 Don’t put an apostrophe before the s ending a non-possessive plural decade.The corporation was in the black back in the 1940s. (no apostrophe between the 0 and s in “1940s”)
Apostrophe Rule 3 Put an apostrophe where letters are omitted in contractions.You’re saying that it’s not a mistake if they’re doing it twice?
Apostrophe Rule 4 Put an apostrophe before a plural s following single lettersMind your p’s and q’s, son.

Extended Explanations

Apostrophe Rule 1.1:    Put an apostrophe before the s ending a singular possessive noun.

Put an apostrophe before the s added to the end of a singular noun when the noun or noun phrase following belongs to the noun preceding it. In the case of joint ownership in compound nouns (when two or more nouns have joint possession of the noun following), the apostrophe-s goes only at the end of the second or final noun.

Correct:

Have you heard the story of Albert Einstein’s brain?

Why it’s correct: The brain belongs to Einstein (singular), so the apostrophe and s indicate possession.

Correct:

Grace Jones’s formidable presence in 1985’s A View to a Kill electrified audiences.

Why it’s correct: The “formidable presence” belongs to Grace Jones. Though her name ends with an s, she is grammatically singular and therefore receives an apostrophe and s just like any other singular noun. The apostrophe and s are also added to the end of years to indicate that the noun following (in this case a James Bond film) occurred in that year.

Correct:

I’ve always heeded my brother-in-law’s financial advice.

Why it’s correct: The apostrophe and s are added to the end of a compound noun.

Correct:

Reznor and Ross’s first soundtrack won a 2010 Oscar for Best Original Score.

Why it’s correct: The apostrophe and s are added to the end of the final noun in cases of joint possession. Saying “Reznor’s and Ross’s first soundtrack” would refer to solo soundtracks by each.

How This Helps the Reader

The apostrophe before the s signals to the reader that the preceding singular noun is in possession of the noun or noun phrase following. To test whether you are dealing with a case of possession, you can flip the order and insert “of the” between the nouns or noun phrases. In the first example above where the brain belongs to Einstein, for instance, “the brain of Einstein” is a wordier equivalent of “Einstein’s brain” but confirms possession.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for s added to the end of words when your intention is to show possession, but you’ve omitted the apostrophe, making the word look like a simple plural. Add the apostrophe. Also, in cases where an apostrophe is added to the very end of a singular noun that ends in s to show possession (see the second correct example above), add another s rather than imply that the singular noun is plural.

Incorrect:

Mr. Davis’ companies proposals request is for a 33% funding increase.

The fix:

Mr. Davis’s company’s proposal’s request is for a 33% funding increase.

The incorrect sentence above contains three apostrophe errors:

 

Apostrophe Rule 2.1:    Put an apostrophe after the s ending a plural possessive noun.

Put an apostrophe after the s at the end of a plural noun (a noun of two or more people, places, or things) when the noun or noun phrase following belongs to it.

Correct:

The two companies’ merger was finalized last month.

Why it’s correct: The apostrophe goes at the end of the plural noun “companies” to indicate that the noun following (“merger”) belonged to both.

Correct:

The Joneses’ family tradition includes rescuing ancient artifacts from dastardly villains.

Why it’s correct: The apostrophe is added to the end of “Joneses,” the plural of the surname “Jones,” meaning each individual Jones family member is in joint possession of the noun phrase following (“family tradition”).

Correct:

I listed having had three years’ experience in C++ coding on my résumé.

Why it’s correct: The apostrophe comes at the end of the plural “years” to indicate that the noun following happened in those years. This is a more concise alternative to saying “three years of experience.”

Exception:

When the plural form of the noun is irregular in that it doesn’t end in s (e.g., “feet,” “children,” “men,” “mice,” “teeth”), use the singular possessive apostrophe-s.

Correct:

Can you please point me to the men’s room?

Why it’s correct: The singular possessive apostrophe-s form is added to the end of an irregular plural noun that doesn’t end in s to indicate possession.

How This Helps the Reader

The apostrophe after the s tells the reader to read the noun as being a plural in possession of the noun or noun phrase following, as opposed to the apostrophe before the s signalling a singular possessive.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for plural words that end in s being in possession of the noun following without an apostrophe at the end, or the apostrophe added before the s. Either add the apostrophe to the end of the word or move the it there.

Incorrect:

We’ve been granted two months grace.

Incorrect:

We’ve been granted two month’s grace.

The fix:

We’ve been granted two months’ grace.

Here, the grace period belongs to the two months (plural), so omitting the apostrophe is incorrect because it leaves “months” as a simple plural. The apostrophe-s ending is also incorrect because it makes “month” singular, which disagrees with the “two” preceding. To correct these errors, the apostrophe must go after the s at the end of “months.”

Apostrophe Rule 2.2:    Don’t put an apostrophe before the s ending a non-possessive plural decade

Don’t put an apostrophe between the 0 and s when writing a plural decade that’s not possessive (e.g., 1990s). Put an apostrophe at the end only if the decade is in possession of the noun or noun phrase following.

Correct:

The 1980s’ main contribution to popular music was excessive cheesy synthesizers.

Why it’s correct: The apostrophe follows the plural decade, (meaning everything that happened from January 1, 1981, to December 31st, 1990) to show possession of the noun phrase “main contribution.” You could also say, “The main contribution of the 1980s to popular music was . . . .”

Correct:

1980’s Academy Award for Best Picture went to Ordinary People.

Why it’s correct: The apostrophe precedes the s to mean that the event following happened in the year 1980.

How This Helps the Reader:

The apostrophe after the s signals to the reader that the noun or noun phrase following happened in the decade given. Some mistakenly put an apostrophe between the 0 and s when referring to the simple plural of a decade (e.g., 1990’s), but this conflicts with the singular possessive form of the year (see the “1980’s” example above). If the decade were also possessive, “1990’s’” (with two apostrophes—one before and one after the s) would look awkward. The non-possessive apostrophe between the 0 and s is probably confusing the rule that places the contraction apostrophe before the last two digits of the year or decade (see the third example in Apostrophe Rule 3 below).

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for an apostrophe-s added to the end of a decade and delete the apostrophe if the decade (or year at the beginning of the decade) isn’t in possession of the following noun or noun phrase.

Incorrect:

The 1990’s were a colourful decade in men’s fashion.

The fix:

The 1990s were a colourful decade in men’s fashion.

The ’90s were a colourful decade in men’s fashion.

In the incorrect sentence above, “1990’s” is the singular possessive form of “1990,” meaning something belonging to the year 1990 should follow it rather than a verb. Perhaps the writer confused “1990’s” with the contraction “ ’90s.” The apostrophe before the s must be deleted to make the simple plural “1990s,” meaning all the years from 1991 to 2000 inclusive.

Apostrophe Rule 3:    Put an apostrophe where letters are omitted in contractions.

Put an apostrophe wherever letters and characters (including spaces) have been omitted in contractions. Contractions are two (sometimes more) words combined into one word to represent the way they’re often said quickly as one word in informal speech. In the examples below, the contractions would be incorrect if formal writing were expected by the audience but are correct as informal writing.

Correct:

There’s going to be a huge reckoning when markets adjust, and it won’t be pretty.

Why it’s correct: The first apostrophes replace the omitted i in “There is” and the second for the o in “will not”)

Correct:

I woudn’t’ve have said that if I knew you were sensitive about your nose.

Why it’s correct: The apostrophes replace the omitted o and a in the three-word phrase “would not have” contracted into one word.

Correct:

She’s been bangin’ out hit records since the ’70s.

Why it’s correct: The apostrophes replace the omitted space and ha in “She has,” final g in “banging,” and 19 in “1970s.”

Correct:

It’s a pretty bad cold, sure, but ’sbeen a while and ’tis the season, as they say.

Why it’s correct: The apostrophes replace the omitted space and i in the contraction for “It is,” it ha in “it has been,” and first i in “it is.”

Exceptions: Many contractions at the far end of informality typically omit even contractions.

Correct:

I’m gonna get me a cold beer when this shift’s over.

Why it’s correct: The first apostrophe replaces the omitted space and a in “I am,” and the second replaces the space and i in “shift is.” As a convention in the writing of gonna as a contraction of “going to,” apostrophes aren’t used to replace the omitted i, g, t, and o.

How This Helps the Reader

The apostrophe replaces omitted letters in contractions and thus signals informal writing meant to represent the way we speak words informally, though they would be unacceptable in formal writing. Some common contractions that often confuse readers because they are homophones with other words include:

Table 5.3.2: Commonly Confused or Misspelled Contractions
Contraction Meaning Not Meaning
can’t cannot cant slang
could’ve could have could of (“of” confused with “have”)
I’d I would Id agent of instinct to Freud
I’m I am Im Cockney for “him”
it’s it is its possessive pronoun
I’ve I have Ive (misspelled)
let’s let us lets a form of the verb to let
o’clock of the clock oclock (misspelled)
should’ve should have should of (“of” confused with “have”)
there’s there is / was theirs possessive pronoun
they’re they are there / their pronoun / possessive pron.
we’re we are / were were a form of the verb to be
where’s where is / was wears a form of the verb to wear
who’s who is / was whose possessive pronoun
who’re who are / were whore prostitute
would’ve would have would of (“of” confused with “have”)
you’re you are / were your possessive pronoun

For a more exhaustive set, see the List of English contractions (Wikipedia, 2018).

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for the absence of apostrophes in contractions and add them. Your spellchecker will help catch these in most cases (see Figure 5.1.4.8 above), but you must be especially careful in seeking them out if your spellchecker has any difficulty. Ensure also that you always use the form of apostrophe that looks like a small superscript “9,” not “6” (the opening of single quotation marks; see Quotation Marks Rule 2) especially when placed at the beginning of words or numbers.

Incorrect:

Its not like there gone to kick us out if im late and your hammered.

The fix:

It’s not like they’re gonna kick me out if I’m late and you’re hammered.

The many errors in the incorrect sentence can be corrected in the following ways:

Incorrect:

I cant imagine life without ‘70’s rock ‘n roll.

The fix:

I can’t imagine life without ’70s rock n’ roll.

The errors in the incorrect sentence can be corrected in the following ways:

 

Apostrophe Rule 4:    Put an apostrophe before a plural s following single letters.

Put an apostrophe wherever adding an s to make a simple plural would be confusing, such as pluralizing a single letter.

Correct:

As my mom always said, “Mind your p’s and q’s, dot your i’s, and cross your t’s.”

Why it’s correct: The apostrophes help form the plurals of the lowercase letters when they would otherwise look confusing as “ps” and “qs,” or ambiguous as “is.”

Correct:

I’m aiming for straight A’s this semester.

Why it’s correct: The apostrophe helps form the plural of the uppercase letters when it would otherwise look ambiguous as “As.”

How This Helps the Reader

The apostrophe helps the reader see these as plural forms of letters rather than as misspellings or typos.

What to Look for When Proofreading

In the rare case of using a plural form of a letter, separate the letter and its s with an apostrophe if you have omitted it.

Incorrect:

You need to practice rolling your rs if you want to nail the Italian accent.

The fix:

You need to practice rolling your r’s if you want to nail the Italian accent.

In the example above, omitting the apostrophe makes the plural of the letter r appear as a typo.

Return to Quick Rules: Apostrophes

For more on apostrophes, see the following resources:

Return to the Complete List of Punctuation Covered in This Chapter Section

5.3.3: Colons

Colon and semicolonColons and semicolons are often confused because of the similarities in both their names and form, though they perform quite different punctuation roles. A colon looks like a period stacked on top of another and is mainly used to equate information on either side of it somewhat like an equals sign (=) in math. A semicolon, on the other hand, looks like a period stacked on top of a comma. The semicolon usually separates independent clauses from one another in a compound sentence as an alternative to using a comma and a conjunction. They both have additional specific uses as we shall see below, starting with the colon.

 

Quick Rules: Colons

Click on the rules below to see further explanations, examples, advice on what to look for when proofreading, and demonstrations of how to correct common colon errors associated with each one.

Colon Rule 1.1 Put a colon at the end of a clause or phrase introducing a list.
NASA built six space shuttles: Enterprise, Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour.
Colon Rule 1.2 Put a colon at the end of an opening salutation in formal emails and letters.
Dear Ms. O’Reilly:
Colon Rule 2.1 Put a colon between an explanation and its introductory independent clause.
The error in our prototype led to the solution of quite another problem: how to stabilize the transducer.
Colon Rule 2.2 Put a colon between a quotation and its introductory independent clause if the latter is a complete sentence.
What they were actually saying was much simpler: “Either give us the money up front, or we won’t install the program.”
Colon Rule 2.3 Don’t put a colon before a list or explanation preceded by a fragment.
Their three best albums are Fully Completely, Day for Night, and Trouble at the Henhouse. (no colon after “are”)
Colon Rule 3.1 Put a colon between a main title and its subtitle.
In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction
Colon Rule 3.2 Put a colon between publisher locations and names in bibliographical references.
Toronto: Nelson
Colon Rule 3.3 Put a colon between numbers in ratios and times.
There’s a 3:1 chance that the experiment will end before the 8:23:40 mark.

Extended Explanations

Colon Rule 1.1:    Put a colon at the end of a clause or phrase introducing a list.

Put colon after a clause or phrase that introduces a list formatted either as a series separated by commas in the sentence or a bulleted or numbered stack down the page.

Correct:

We’re going to need some branded stationery: business cards for all associates, letterhead and memo templates, post-it notes, pens, and USB sticks.

Why it’s correct: The colon ends an independent clause (complete with a subject and predicate) that introduces a list arranged within the sentence.

Correct:

To find the date of a webpage that doesn’t otherwise have one:

 

  1. Type “inurl:” into the Google Search field, then copy and paste the URL of the webpage whose date you’re looking for immediately after it
  2. Hit Enter and add “&as_qdr=y15” to the end of the search result URL in the address bar above the results page, which should show the title of the webpage whose date you’re looking for, but without the date yet
  3. Hit Enter again and you’ll see the date appear in grey font below the webpage title in the updated results list

Why it’s correct: The colon ends an infinitive phrase that, as a dependent clause, is completed by each imperative sentence in the numbered list of procedural steps arranged down the page.

How This Helps the Reader

The colon cues the reader to read the information following as a list of items in parallel delivering on the promise made in the clause or phrase preceding it.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for lists either in sentence form with each item separated by a comma or in the form of a numbered or bulleted list. If no colons separate the introductory clauses or phrases from the lists that follow, add them. If semicolons or commas introduce the lists (see Semicolon Rule 3 below), replace them with colons.

Incorrect:

Four obstacles infuriate me on my rush to class through the hallways; inattentive people texting while walking, slow walkers, people who stop suddenly as if there’s no one behind them, and 4-5 people walking side-by-side, taking up the whole hallway.

The fix:

Four obstacles infuriate me on my rush to class through the hallways: inattentive people texting while walking, slow walkers, people who stop suddenly as if there’s no one behind them, and 4-5 people walking side-by-side, taking up the whole hallway.

In the example above, the writer made the common mistake of confusing a semicolon for a colon. Fixing it is a simple matter of replacing one with the other. See the example correct sentence for Colon Rule 2.1 below for a handy mnemonic for getting the right punctuation in these cases.

Colon Rule 1.2:    Put a colon at the end of an opening salutation in formal emails and letters.

Put a colon at the end of the opening salutation line where you address the recipient by name at the opening of a formal email or letter. In a semiformal email, a comma at the end of the salutation is fine. If an email is formal, however, a comma follows the greeting word (e.g., Hello) and the colon follows the recipient’s name.

Correct:

Greetings, Greta:

Why it’s correct: The colon following the semiformal email’s opening salutation cues the recipient (Greta) to read the message following it.

Correct:

Dear Mrs. Jackson:

Why it’s correct: The colon following the formal letter’s opening salutation cues the recipient (Mrs. Jackson) to read the message following it.

Exception: In an informal message, a comma following the recipient’s name (but not the greeting word) strikes a more casual tone in the opening salutation.

Correct:

Hi Hank,

Why it’s correct: The comma following the informal message’s opening salutation cues the recipient (Hank) to read the message following it.

How This Helps the Reader

The colon cues the reader to read the message following the salutation that addresses them by name.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for either no punctuation used at the end of an opening salutation address or other punctuation inappropriate for the occasion, such as a comma in a letter’s salutation, or incorrect, such as a semicolon.

Incorrect:

Dear Mr. Bobrovsky,

Incorrect:

Dear Mr. Bobrovsky;

The fix:

Dear Mr. Bobrovsky:

In the first incorrect example, a comma used at the end of an opening salutation addressing the reader in a letter is too informal for the given channel. This suggests to the professional reader that the writer isn’t up to date on business letter writing conventions. Modern business writers use a colon instead of a comma. Worse, the semicolon suggests that the writer is confused about the respective roles of colons and semicolons despite having had ample opportunity to learn them throughout their Enlgish-speaking lives.

Colon Rule 2.1:    Put a colon between an explanation and its introductory independent clause.

Put colon after an independent clause followed by a statement that explains in further detail what the introductory clause states in general. An independent clause is one that can stand on its own as a sentence beginning with a capital and ending with a period because it expresses a complete thought with a subject (doer) and a predicate (action; see §4.3.1 above). This colon usually stands for the causal transition phrase “—that is, . . . .”

Correct:

Imagining the colon elongating into an equals sign (=) is a useful way to remember what it does: equate information on either side of it.

Why it’s correct: The independent clause ends with a colon and the verb phrase following explains what “does” means. Since the material to the right of the colon is a verb phrase rather than a complete sentence, the e in “equate” remains lowercase.

How This Helps the Reader

The colon cues the reader to read the phrase or clause to the right of the colon as an explanation of what the clause to the left of it says.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for combination statement-explanation sentence structures with either no punctuation between them or the wrong punctuation such as a semicolon, comma, or long dash (em dash).

Incorrect:

You have only one option left—delete the corrupted file from your hard drive and download the last version you saved to the cloud.

The fix:

You have only one option left: delete the corrupted file from your hard drive and download the last version you saved to the cloud.

In the incorrect sentence above, the writer made the common mistake of using the long dash as multipurpose punctuation for any pause you hear in speech. Fixing the sentence is a simple matter of replacing the long dash with a colon. You could alternatively add “that is, ” between the long dash and “delete,” but the colon makes for a more concise sentence with two fewer words.

Colon Rule 2.2:    Put a colon between a quotation and its introductory independent clause if the latter is a complete sentence.

Put a colon after an independent clause that introduces a quotation. Like the clause followed by an explanation in Colon Rule 2.1 above, it must be a complete clause that can stand on its own before the colon and quotation.

Correct:

The first joke he told was a groaner of the highest order: “What did the fish say when you put him in his tank? . . . ‘Hey, how do you drive this thing?’”

Why it’s correct: The quotation is introduced by an independent clause that ends with a colon, whereas a signal phrase that ends with a verb such as “said” is followed by a comma.

How This Helps the Reader

The colon cues the reader to read the quotation to the right of the colon.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for quotations preceded by a complete independent clause. If they don’t have a colon separating them from the quotation, add one. Also, look for colons used to set up quotations when a comma is more appropriate, such as if the last word before the quotation is a verb, which would make the clause preceding the colon incomplete. In such cases, you would either replace the colon with a comma or rephrase the introductory fragment to make it an independent clause.

Incorrect:

Mama called the doctor and the doctor said: “No more monkeys jumping on the bed.”

The fix:

Mama called the doctor and the doctor said, “No more monkeys jumping on the bed.”

The fix:

Mama called the doctor and the doctor gave her an ultimatum: “Look, if another one of your children falls off the bed and gets a concussion, I’ll be reporting you to the Children’s Aid Society.”

In the example above, the clause preceding the colon and quotation is a compound with a fragmentary second clause missing an object after the transitive verb “said,” whereas it would have to be a complete independent clause to use a colon. Correcting it would be a simple matter of replacing the colon with a comma (see Comma Rule 3.5 above). Alternatively, you could make the introductory clause a complete and independent one, meaning it could stand on its own as a sentence, then use a colon before the quotation.

Colon Rule 2.3:    Don’t put a colon before an explanation or quotation preceded by a fragment.

Don’t put a colon before an explanation or list if the clause that precedes it is not an independent one—that is, if it cannot stand on its own as a sentence.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for colons ending phrases or incomplete clauses with lists or explanatory statements following, and simply delete them or rephrase the incomplete clause as a complete one. The incorrect sentence at the end of Colon Rule 2.2 above exemplifies an incomplete clause preceding a quotation; below is one preceding a list:

Incorrect:

The remaining tasks include: picking up the birthday cake, putting up the streamers, and wrapping the presents.

The fix:

The remaining tasks include picking up the birthday cake, putting up the streamers, and wrapping the presents.

The fix:

The following tasks remain: picking up the birthday cake, putting up the streamers, and wrapping the presents.

In the example above, the colon ends an incomplete clause—incomplete because it has a subject and only half of the predicate. The verb “include” is transitive, which means that an object (a thing acted upon by the verb) must follow it (Simmons, 2007a). The objects here are gerunds, which are verbs in noun form ending in -ing (Simmons, 2018b) and are all on the other side of the colon, so the colon can just be deleted. Alternatively, the incomplete clause can be completed by changing the subject to “The following tasks” to set up the list and changing the verb to the intransitive “remain”—intransitive because it doesn’t take an object (Simmons, 2008).

Colon Rule 3.1:    Put a colon between a main title and its subtitle.

Correct:

The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man.

Why it’s correct: The colon separates main title from subtitle.

How This Helps the Reader

The colon distinguishes what should be known as the main title of the book, film, report, assignment, etc. Often this is a catchy, snappy handle for what to call it. The subtitle usually provides a little more practical information about what the work is about (see §4.6.1 above for more on titles).

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for titles that have any punctuation other than colons between main titles and subtitles. Often the cover of a book positions the subtitle below the main title and in a smaller font, in which case a colon must be added when transcribing the title into a document.

Incorrect:

Amusing Ourselves to Death / Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.

The fix:

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

In the example above, the absence of punctuation separating the main title from the subtitle on the cover may have prompted the writer to make one up by using a slash. The convention for representing main titles and subtitles, however, is to separate them with a colon.

Colon Rule 3.2:    Put a colon between publisher locations and names in bibliographical references.

Put a colon between the location and company name of a publisher in APA References.

Correct:

Toronto: ECW.

Why it’s correct: The colon separates location and publisher.

How This Helps the Reader

The colon is merely a convention for separating the publisher location and name. Readers like to know if the book is published in the major centres like New York or London, or if they’re more local like Toronto or Vancouver.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for the part in bibliographical references of books where the publisher information is given. If any punctuation other than a colon separates them, replace it with a colon.

Incorrect:

New York, Random House.

The fix:

New York: Random House.

In the example above, the comma is non-standard punctuation separating the city where the book publisher is based and the name of the publisher. It must be replaced with a colon.

Colon Rule 3.3:    Put a colon between numbers in ratios and times.

Put a colon between numbers in mathematical ratios and to separate hours, minutes, and seconds when indicating time.

Correct:

A globe scaled 1:50,220,000 (or 790 miles to the inch) is one you can grip in the palm of your hand.

Why it’s correct: The ratio colon indicates the relative size difference between the model (given as 1 here) and the real thing, which in this case is over fifty million times bigger than the model.

Correct:

Clocking in at 3:24:56, that film was three hours, twenty-four minutes, and fifty-six seconds too long.

Why it’s correct: The colons divide units of time into hours, minutes, and seconds. After seconds, decimal-periods are used for fractions of seconds.

How This Helps the Reader

The colon expresses mathematical relationships and the division of units between numbers in a space-efficient manner.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for ratios and times to ensure that a colon is being used and that there are no spaces between it and the numbers on either side.

Incorrect:

My first marathon time was 3: 22: 15 and my second was a slower 3.26.44.

The fix:

My first marathon time was 3:22:15 and my second was a slower 3:26:44.

In the example above, errors in spacing and using non-standard punctuation are easily corrected by deleting spaces between the numbers and colons in the first time written and using colons instead of periods in the second.

For more on colons, see the following resources:

5.3.4: Semicolons

semicolon and colonSemicolons and colons are often confused because of the similarities in both their names and form, though they perform quite different punctuation roles. A semicolon looks like a period stacked on top of a comma and is mainly used to separate independent clauses from one another in a compound sentence as an alternative to using a comma and a conjunction. A colon, on the other hand, looks like a period stacked atop another and is mainly used to equate information on either side of it somewhat like an equals sign (=) in math. They both have additional specific uses as we saw above with colons in §5.3.3 above and will now see with semicolons.

Quick Rules: Semicolons

Click on the rules below to see further explanations, examples, advice on what to look for when proofreading, and demonstrations of how to correct common semicolon errors associated with each one.

Semicolon Rule 1 Put a semicolon between related independent clauses to make a compound sentence.Yes, we finished the marketing report you asked for; it’s printed and bound in your departmental mailbox.
Semicolon Rule 2 Put a semicolon between sub-lists in a series of lists in a sentence.Italicize words, phrases, and clauses for emphasis or when you refer to them as such; the titles of books, albums, feature-length films, and websites; and ships, named aircraft, and other named vehicles.
Semicolon Rule 3 Don’t put a semicolon where a colon should be used.We can be thankful for what Oscar taught us: that being kind to our canine companions brings immense joy to our lives. (colon used after “us” to set up an explanation, not a semicolon)

Extended Explanations

Semicolon Rule 1:    Put a semicolon between related independent clauses to make a compound sentence.

Put a semicolon between independent clauses whose content is so closely related that it makes sense to keep them in the same sentence, though they have different grammatical subjects (doers of the action). An independent clause is one that can stand on its own as a complete sentence because it has a subject (doer) and predicate (action) (see §4.3.1). A compound sentence joins two independent clauses either with a comma and coordinating conjunction (and, but, so, etc.; see Table 4.3.2a) or with a semicolon. Doing neither would make a run-on sentence, and using only a comma between the clauses would make a comma splice. Use a semicolon in compound sentences where none of the seven coordinating conjunctions is appropriate to use or where you need to be as concise as possible and can do without the conjunction without sacrificing clarity.

Correct:

The new website is nearly ready to launch; we just need to set some SEO controls and publish it.

Why it’s correct: The semicolon joins the independent clause beginning with the subject “The new website” and the other with the subject “we.” Both could stand on their own as sentences but are closely related enough to be in the same sentence.

How This Helps the Reader

The semicolon helps the reader see where one clause ends and another (with a different grammatical subject) begins. It also signals that these are two closely related ideas worth joining in the same sentence.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for compound sentences punctuated with anything other than a semicolon (e.g., a comma, which makes a comma splice; see §5.2.1.1) or with no punctuation at all between them (run-on sentences; see §5.2.1.2). For this you really must know sentence structure well enough to spot the grammatical subject of a main (a.k.a. independent) clause so that you can tell if a second subject begins a new independent clause within a sentence but without the necessary punctuation preceding it. Review §4.3.1 above on sentence structure if you need a refresher.

Incorrect:

We would like to see less personal cellphone use from employees during working hours, however you can of course use your cellphone in an emergency.

The fix:

We would like to see less personal cellphone use from employees during working hours; however, you can of course use your cellphone in an emergency.

The incorrect sentence above is a comma splice because it uses only a comma to separate two independent clauses (see Comma Rule 1.2). The error is easier to spot if you imagine deleting the conjunctive adverb however. Replacing the comma with a semicolon and adding a comma after the conjunctive adverb easily fixes the problem.

Incorrect:

You can put the meeting in the calendar make it so we get a notification the day before.

The fix:

You can put the meeting in the calendar; make it so we get a notification the day before.

The incorrect sentence above is a run-on sentence because it contains two independent clauses without any punctuation between them. Adding a semicolon quickly makes the sentence a properly punctuated compound sentence.

Semicolon Rule 2:    Put a semicolon between sub-lists in a series of lists in a sentence.

Use semicolons as a “super comma” between groups of items in a long list of items arranged in a sentence.

Correct:

Please send T4s to Brenda, Albert, and Joan in Accounting; Jeremy, Lorraine, and Drew in Marketing; and Jasmine, Lily, and Alphonso in Legal.

Why it’s correct: The semicolon acts as a “super comma” that separates three sub-lists of three employees each according to their respective department in an office.

How This Helps the Reader

The semicolon helps the reader see subgroups within a long list that would be confusing if it included ands between the two last items in each subgroup throughout.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for sentences that contain long lists and see if there are internal groupings that can be separated with semicolons rather than commas.

Incorrect:

She was a kind mother, sister, and daughter, a dedicated public servant, business owner, and campaigner for progressive issues, as well as a kind soul with an insatiable curiosity, brilliant mind, and a big heart.

The fix:

She was a kind mother, sister, and daughter; a dedicated public servant, business owner, and campaigner for progressive issues; as well as a kind soul with an insatiable curiosity, brilliant mind, and a big heart.

In the incorrect example above, the long list of items is internally organized into groups of family and professional roles, as well as personal qualities. To help the reader follow these divisions as they switch from one group to another, the semicolon acts as a “super comma.”

Semicolon Rule 3:    Don’t put a semicolon where a colon should be used.

Don’t use semicolons as if they were interchangeable with colons. They are different punctuation marks performing different functions. Review the semicolon rules above and compare with §5.3.3 on uses for colons.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for semicolons and determine if they are being used appropriately in the manner described in the rules above, or if they are actually performing the functions of colons explained and exemplified in §5.3.3 above. You can jump straight to every instance of a semicolon throughout your document by performing a word search (ctrl. + f) and just typing in a semicolon (;).

Incorrect:

Please send notifications to the following people; your family, friends, employer(s), legal representative(s), and financial planner(s).

The fix:

Please send notifications to the following people: your family, friends, employer(s), legal representative(s), and financial planner(s).

In the incorrect example above, the semicolon is being used to introduce a list of items, which is the function of a colon (see Colon Rule 1). Simply replacing the semicolon with a colon corrects the error.

For more on colons, see the following resources:

5.3.5: Parentheses

parentheses and bracketsParentheses are often confused with brackets because they look alike and perform similar functions. Parentheses are curved lines that surround qualifying, non-essential elements, whereas brackets are squared, open-ended boxes used for very specific parenthetical situations. Let’s take a closer look at the occasions for which we would use parentheses rather than brackets or even commas.

Quick Rules: Parentheses

Click on the rules below to see further explanations, examples, advice on what to look for when proofreading, and demonstrations of how to correct common parentheses errors associated with each one.

Parentheses Rule 1.1 Put parentheses around qualifying interjections of lesser importance within and between sentences.He put the folder (the green one, not the blue) in the filing cabinet thinking it was a client file rather than an administrative one.
Parentheses Rule 1.2 Don’t use parentheses where parenthetical commas would do.He put the green folder, not the blue one, in the filing cabinet. (commas used instead of parentheses)
Parentheses Rule 2 Put parentheses around in-text citations crediting research sources in APA and MLA documentation styles.Cellphones are giving youths neck and back problems typically seen in much older people (Cuéllar & Lanman, 2017).

Extended Explanations

Parentheses Rule 1.1:    Put parentheses around qualifying interjections of lesser importance within and between sentences.

Use parentheses around interjections within a sentence where using parenthetical commas would lead to confusion. You can also use parentheses around an entire sentence that offers an aside that helps explain something said in the sentence previous. Parentheses always come in pairs: an opening parenthesis signals the beginning of an interjection of lesser importance, and a closing parenthesis signals the return to the sentence proper. When used around an entire sentence, the closing parenthesis goes after the sentence-ending period; otherwise, it goes before.

Correct:

We called pest control to get our office back from the vermin (silverfish, mites, house flies, fruit flies, and spiders) that seem to have taken up residency this past year.

Why it’s correct: The parentheses mark off a list that digresses from the main point of the sentence with a series of illustrative examples. Parentheses are a better alternative to parenthetical commas because they would confuse the reader with two different types of commas: parenthetical and series.

Correct:

I’ve come around in my opinion of the common house centipede. (I used to squash them at first sight.) It turns out that they’re effective pest control agents themselves.

Why it’s correct: The parentheses mark off a whole sentence as a slightly digressive aside interrupting the flow of the main point.

How This Helps the Reader

The parentheses guide the reader towards reading the words, phrases, and clauses surrounded by them as being of lesser importance but still offering insight into what comes immediately before them.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look to make sure that the parentheses you use genuinely set off words, phrases, or clauses that help explain those that came before them, and that the parentheses both open and close. If you use parentheses around a whole sentence, ensure that the closing parenthesis goes to the right of the period rather than to the left.

Incorrect:

I know house centipedes, scutigera coleoptrata, are ugly, but I’m sure you would much rather have them in your home than the vermin they feed on.

Incorrect:

I know house centipedes (scutigera coleoptrata, are ugly, but I’m sure you would much rather have them in your home than the vermin they feed on.

The fix:

I know house centipedes (scutigera coleoptrata) are ugly, but I’m sure you would much rather have them in your home than the vermin they feed on.

The incorrect example above uses parenthetical commas to set off the Latin name of the insect referred to in the first clause, then uses a Rule 1.1 comma to crowd the area with commas. Parentheses would be more appropriate here, as well as in the second incorrect example that omits the closing parenthesis. The second sentence also places the parenthetical element at the end of the clause rather than where it should be: immediately after the common name of the insect it explains.

Incorrect:

The next time you see a house centipede stuck in your bathtub, throw it a lifeline. (Don’t try to pick it up; they’re extremely fragile and fall apart at the slightest touch). Just rest one end of a metre stick on the edge of the tub and put the other end inside so the little guy can use it as a ramp to climb up and out.

The fix:

The next time you see a house centipede stuck in your bathtub, throw it a lifeline. (Don’t try to pick it up; they’re extremely fragile and fall apart at the slightest touch.) Just rest one end of a metre stick on the edge of the tub and put the other end inside so the little guy can use it as a ramp to climb up and out.

The incorrect sentence places the closing parenthesis to the left of the period ending the parenthetical sentence; if the parenthetical sentence were deleted along with the parentheses, the period would be stranded between sentences. Correcting this involves simply moving the period so it goes to the left of the closing parenthesis.

Parentheses Rule 1.2:    Don’t use parentheses where parenthetical commas would do.

Don’t overuse parentheses, especially where parenthetical commas would be more appropriate. Recall that, according to Comma Rule 3.1, commas can surround parenthetical, non-essential words, phrases, and clauses added to explain immediately what came before. Whether you use commas or parentheses, the sentence must make grammatical sense without the interjected element. The problem with overusing parentheses, however, is that it clutters up your writing with distracting asides, so the less conspicuous comma is preferable in situations where a parenthetical element doesn’t need full parentheses.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look to make sure that the parentheses you use can’t be replaced with commas without causing confusion. In other words, if the parenthetical element follows Comma Rule 3.1 and doesn’t involve other types of commas covered by the other rules, then use commas instead of parentheses.

Incorrect:

At the same time, the market dropped a few thousand points (which wouldn’t have been so bad if it didn’t stay down for so long), so no one was buying anything.

The fix:

At the same time, the market dropped a few thousand points, which wouldn’t have been so bad if it didn’t stay down for so long, so no one was buying anything.

The incorrect example above includes a restrictive relative clause beginning with which, which is a perfect example of a non-essential parenthetical clause that we saw being set off from the main clause in Comma Rule 3.1 above. In this case, commas would be better to use than parentheses.

Parentheses Rule 2:    Put parentheses around in-text citations crediting research sources in APA and MLA documentation styles.

Correct:

Others argue that “text neck” is neither a true epidemic nor even a true ailment (Skwarecki, 2018), just as “book neck” was never a condition that concerned anyone.

Why it’s correct: The parentheses mark off an APA-style in-text citation.

How This Helps the Reader

The parentheses tell the reader that the quotation, paraphrase, or summary came from the author or authors named within the parentheses. The reader can then consult the References section at the end of the document and easily find the full bibliographical reference for that source by searching out the same author last name in the alphabetical list of source authors. When citing multiple works by the same author, the year of publication in the citation allows the reader to distinguish between them (see §3.5.2§3.5.3 above for more on citations and references).

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look to make sure that you use parentheses rather than brackets if your documentation style is APA or MLA. IEEE, on the other hand, does use brackets, albeit with a numerical citation rather than author and year.

Incorrect:

Text neck” results from people straining their necks hunched over cellphones for several more hours per day, and thousands more per year, than they would if they were just reading books [Shoshany, 2015].

The fix:

“Text neck” results from people straining their necks hunched over cellphones for several more hours per day, and thousands more per year, than they would if they were just reading books (Shoshany, 2015).

The incorrect sentence above uses brackets rather than parentheses to mark off an in-text citation. Use parentheses for APA or MLA in-text citations.

For more on parentheses, see the following resources:

5.3.6: Brackets

brackets and parenthesesBrackets are often confused with parentheses because they look alike and perform similar functions. Brackets are squared open-ended boxes used for more specific parenthetical situations than their curved-line counterparts. Let’s take a closer look at the occasions for which we would use brackets rather than parentheses.

 

Quick Rules: Brackets

Click on the rules below to see further explanations, examples, advice on what to look for when proofreading, and demonstrations of how to correct common bracket errors associated with each one.

Brackets Rule 1.1 Put brackets around changes or additions to the wording of quotations.He clearly wrote that “The contract [was] for $1.2 million [CDN] over five years” back in 2012.
Brackets Rule 1.2 Don’t put brackets around what should have parentheses.There’s no law of physics (at least not technically) that keeps top athletes from running the 100m in under 9 seconds. (parentheses appropriate instead of brackets)
Brackets Rule 2 Put brackets around parenthetical elements within parentheses.We didn’t have a clue what was causing the issue (we scoured the troubleshooting manual [Brulé, 2012]), so they shut it down.
Brackets Rule 3 Put brackets around numerical in-text citations crediting research sources when required to use IEEE style.Cellphones are giving youth neck and back problems typically seen in much older people [1].

Extended Explanations

Brackets Rule 1.1:    Put brackets around changes or additions to the wording of quotations.

Correct:

The president tweeted that “All of the phony T.V. commercials against [him were] bought and payed [sic] for by SPECIAL INTEREST GROUPS.”

Why it’s correct: The first brackets change the original “me are” to “him were” to be consistent with the third-person orientation and past-tense verb in the signal phrase. The bracketed “[sic]” indicates that the quotation’s spelling mistake was in the original source and intentionally kept rather than introduced by the writer when repeating the quotation.

How This Helps the Reader

The brackets indicate what changes the writer makes to a quotation, whether to lend clarity to the original wording or to make it grammatically consistent with the sentence around it. Doing so shows a concern for both quoting accurately and writing correctly. Sneaking in some changes to a quotation to suit your purposes is called misquoting. Sometimes the additions draw attention to errors in the original, such as corrections to the spelling or the use of “[sic],” short for the Latin sic erat scriptum (“thus was it written”), to preserve the author’s error.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Ensure that quotations are exact transcriptions of the original to avoid misquoting. If you find any intentional changes, surround them with brackets. Ensure also that any errors in the original quotation are preserved but identified with “[sic]” immediately following.

Incorrect:

Apple’s 1997 slogan encourages you to “Think different” by using their computers for outside-the-box solutions.

The fix:

Apple’s 1997 slogan encourages you to “Think different [sic]” by using their computers for outside-the-box solutions.

The fix:

Apple’s 1997 slogan encourages you to “Think different[ly]” by using their computers for outside-the-box solutions.

The incorrect example above contains a quotation that is grammatically incorrect in its original form. Adding “[sic]” ensures the reader that the critical writer is well aware that, with “think” being a verb, “different” would have to be the adverb “differently” to be correct. Adding the -ly ending in brackets takes a more corrective approach to the error.

Brackets Rule 1.2:    Don’t put brackets around what should have parentheses.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Ensure that the brackets you use don’t follow either of the parentheses rules explained in §5.3.5 above.

Incorrect:

I know house centipedes [scutigera coleoptrata] are ugly, but I’m sure you would much rather have them in your home than the vermin they feed on.

The fix:

I know house centipedes (scutigera coleoptrata) are ugly, but I’m sure you would much rather have them in your home than the vermin they feed on.

The incorrect example above mistakenly uses brackets around the parenthetical Latin name of the insect identified just before by its common name. Following Parentheses Rule 1.1, however, you would just replace the brackets with parentheses.

Brackets Rule 2:    Put brackets around parenthetical elements within parentheses.

Use brackets whenever you have parenthetical elements within a phrase or clause that is already surrounded by parentheses.

Correct:

Though “text neck” is controversial (some argue that it was only ever a chiropractors’ marketing gimmick [Skwarecki, 2018]), it makes sense that neck strain sustained for several hours daily harms our musculoskeletal health.

Why it’s correct: The brackets mark off an in-text citation within a parenthetical statement. If not within parentheses, the citation would be framed by parentheses instead of brackets.

How This Helps the Reader

Brackets help the reader keep track of nested parenthetical elements. Switching to brackets for parenthetical elements within parentheses also helps avoid the awkwardness of “double-chin” parentheses such as “)).”

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look to make sure that you don’t double up parentheses with “))” anywhere in your document.

Incorrect:

The snake-oil rhetoric of Dr. Fishman’s website undermines the credibility of his “text neck” concept (with a chronic lack of proper citations for research supporting his claims (Fishman, 2018)).

The fix:

The snake-oil rhetoric of Dr. Fishman’s website undermines the credibility of his “text neck” concept (with a chronic lack of proper citations for research supporting his claims [Fishman, 2018]).

In the incorrect sentence above, parentheses are used within parentheses. Simply replace the inner parentheses with brackets.

Brackets Rule 3:    Put brackets around IEEE-style numerical in-text citations crediting research sources.

Correct:

Physiopedia recommends holding up your mobile device so that it’s level with your eyes and avoiding “prolonged static postures” [4].

Why it’s correct: The brackets mark off an IEEE-style numerical in-text citation.

How This Helps the Reader

The brackets tell the reader that the quotation, paraphrase, or summary came from the research source numbered within the brackets. The reader can then consult the References section at the back and easily find the full bibliographical reference for that source by the corresponding number (see §3.5.4 above for more on IEEE-style citations and references).

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look to make sure that you use brackets rather than parentheses if your documentation style is IEEE, as opposed to APA or MLA, which use parentheses.

Incorrect:

Shoshany argues that “Text neck” results from people straining their necks hunched over cellphones for several more hours per day, and thousands more per year, than they would if they were just reading books (5).

The fix:

Shoshany argues that “Text neck” results from people straining their necks hunched over cellphones for several more hours per day, and thousands more per year, than they would if they were just reading books [5].

In the incorrect example above, parentheses are used rather than brackets to mark off an in-text citation. The correct in-text citation style for IEEE is to use brackets instead.

For more on brackets, see the following resources:

5.3.7: Quotation Marks

Double quotation marks and single quotation marksQuotation marks are mostly used to set reported speech or text apart from the author’s words. They essentially say, “These are someone else’s words, not mine.” But some writers confuse double quotation marks (simply called “quotation marks” here) with single quotation marks, as well as misplace punctuation around quotation marks, so let’s focus on when and how to use quotation marks, as well as single quotation marks, properly. Since the absence of quotation marks when using research sources in your document can result in plagiarism (see §3.4.1 and §3.5.1 above), knowing how to use them correctly is vitally important to your success as a student and professional.

Quick Rules: Quotation Marks

Click on the rules below to see further explanations, examples, advice on what to look for when proofreading, and demonstrations of how to correct common quotation mark errors associated with each one.

Quotation Marks Rule 1.1 Use quotation marks to indicate reported speech or text.She said, “Put the G-8320 form on the shared drive,” not in your personal Dropbox, “so that it’s available to all the associates.”
Quotation Marks Rule 1.2 Use quotation marks in pairs to begin and end a quotation.
Quotation Marks Rule 1.3 Use a comma between a verb (or verb phrase) introducing a quotation and the quotation itself.
Quotation Marks Rule 1.4 Capitalize the first letter in a quotation unless it’s only a fragment of one.
Quotation Marks Rule 1.5 Place periods and commas before the closing quotation mark, not after.
Quotation Marks Rule 1.6 Place colons and semicolons after the closing quotation mark, not before.Like the main character in the 1998 Coen Brothers’ film The Big Lebowski, “the dude abides”; in other words, I’ll be compliant.
Quotation Marks Rule 1.7 Place question and exclamation marks before the closing quotation mark if they’re part of the quotation and after if they’re part of the sentence framing the quotation.I thought you were kidding when you asked, “How can I help?”!
Quotation Marks Rule 1.8 Quote exactly what’s between quotation marks; otherwise, use brackets to indicate changes made to words and ellipses for omissions.Prime Minister Trudeau insisted that “Bilingualism [was] not an imposition on the citizens. . . . [It was] an imposition on the state” (Problems of Journalism, 1966).
Quotation Marks Rule 1.9 Don’t use quotation marks around a paraphrase (a.k.a. indirect quotation).Prime Minister Trudeau insisted that the people were forcing two official languages on the country rather than the other way around. (no quotation marks around the indirectly quoted speech)
Quotation Marks Rule 2 Use quotation marks as “scare quotes” to draw attention to the way a word or phrase is used by others.You can’t simply “phone this one in” because too many people will be depending on you doing this right.
Quotation Marks Rule 3 Use single quotation marks only for reported speech within a quotation.The interviewer then asked, “What did you mean when you said, in 1997, ‘The great thing about the hockey world is that there are a lot of people with loose lips’?” (Fitz-Gerald, 2015).
Quotation Marks Rule 4 Use quotation marks around the title of a short work within a larger work such as an article in a magazine or journal, webpage in a website, chapter in a book, song on an album, short film or TV episode in a series, etc.The article “Bill Gates and Steve Jobs Raised Their Kids Tech-free—and It Should Have Been a Red Flag” (Weller, 2018) made me reflect on my own technology addiction.

For more on quotations, see §3.4.1 above and the following resources:

5.3.8: Hyphens

Using hyphens between two or more words in combination helps the reader treat them as if they were one word when the words around them would create ambiguity without the hyphen(s). We do this especially with compound modifiers, which are two or more adjectives that modify the same noun in combination. For instance, if you said that there was funding available for small business owners, does that mean funding is only available for people who are under five feet tall? (In that case, “business owners” is read as a compound noun and “small” is the adjective modifying it.) If you mean that funding is available for business owners who employ fewer than 15 people, then you want to use the compound-modifier hyphen to pair up “small” and “business” so that they are read as if they were one adjective modifying the noun “owners”: small-business owners. Hyphens help the reader by guiding them toward what words to pair up when it could go either way.

The same is true of hyphens used in compound nouns. Saying, “It was a light year” means something completely different from “It was a light-year.” In the first case, you’re saying that nothing much happened that year; in the second, you’re saying that something spanned nearly ten trillion kilometres. Hyphens matter!

5.3.8.1: Compound-modifier Hyphens

The most common use of hyphens is for compound modifiers—that is, two or more adjectives that must be read in combination before a noun they describe. In fact, the hyphen you see between “compound” and “modifier” in the sentence above exemplifies how this works: since both of those words together (and in that order only) modify the noun “hyphen” (“modify” meaning that they tell you what kind of hyphen it is), the hyphen helps the reader identify which words functions as modifiers and which as nouns, since “modifier” in this case behaves as an adjective rather than a noun. Without the hyphen, the reader might make the mistake of taking “modifier hyphen” as a compound noun, as in the case of “small business owners” above.

If you were to say that the USSR was the first second world country to de-communize, the combination “first second” would surely trip up the reader. But pairing “second” and “world” with a hyphen resolves the ambiguity to say “The USSR was the first second-world country to de-communize.”

Table 5.3.8.1a: Common First-term Nouns in Compound Modifiers

Noun Examples Not Following a Noun
bottom-
or
top-
bottom-feeding fish
top-shelf liquor
top-tier player
Those fish are bottom feeding.
All your liquor is top-shelf.
The players we churn out are all top-tier.
high-
or
low-
high-calibre bullet
low-cost solution
high-fidelity sound
low-life criminal
high-quality products
low-resolution screen
Most of the bullets found were high calibre.
Let’s find a solution that’s low-cost.
I want a sound that’s more high fidelity.
He is a total low-life.
We ship products that are mostly high quality.
Don’t use pictures with low resolution.
self- self-driven woman
self-inflicted wound
self-motivated boy
self-taught pilot
She is very self-driven.
We don’t treat wounds that are self-inflicted.
He is not self-motivated enough.
I am totally self-taught.
well- well-known solution
well-thought-out plan
well-trained army
well-written letter
The solution is very well known.
My plan is very well thought out.
We’re no match for an army so well trained.
Only send the letter if it is well written.

Table 5.3.8.1b: Common Adverbs in Compound Modifiers

Noun Examples Not Following a Noun
fast-
or
slow-
Fast-moving process
Slow-motion replay
The process is fast-moving after that.
Let’s review the goal in slow motion.
well- well-chosen words
well-known solution
well-thought-out plan
well-trained army
well-written letter
Your words were all well-chosen.
The solution is very well known.
My plan is very well thought out.
We’re no match for an army so well trained.
Only send the letter if it is well written.

Exception: Don’t add hyphens after adverbs ending in -ly.

Table 5.3.8.1c: Common Prefixes Making Compound Modifiers

Prefix Examples Not Following a Noun
all- all-inclusive resort
all-powerful tech giant
all-out offensive
Let’s just go to an all-inclusive.
Google’s dominance has made it all-powerful.
We sent everyone so our offensive was all-out.

Table 5.3.8.1d: Common Middle-term Prepositions in Three-part Compound Modifiers

Preposition Examples Without a Noun Following
-at- Stay-at-home mom You work and I’ll just stay at home.
-by- case-by-case basis
six-by-six rule
We’re just taking it case by case.
Follow the rule called “six by six”
-for- word-for-word translation Don’t copy word for word.
-of- Cost-of-living index
Out-of-province funding
The cost of living is always rising.
The funding came from out of province.
-on- one-on-one game Let’s play one on one.
-to- Back-to-back classes
business-to-business retailer
coast-to-coast flight
easy-to-follow presentation
up-to-date calendar
My two classes today are back to back.
Our sales are B2B (business to business).
I’m flying coast to coast tonight.
Your presentation was very easy to follow.
My calendar is all up to date.

Table 5.3.8.1e: Common Three-part Compound-modifier Phrases

Examples Without a Noun Following
Long-drawn-out affair The affairs would all be long drawn out.
Off-the-charts happiness I wish you happiness that is totally off the charts.
On-the-job training All of the training will be done on the job.

Table 5.3.8.1f: Common Foreign-phrase Compound Modifiers

Examples Without a Noun Following
Avant-garde filmmaker His latest film is more avant garde.
Laissez-faire capitalism Our approach is fairly laissez faire.

Don’t hyphenate more recently imported foreign phrases that are still italicized.

Table 5.3.8.1g: Common End-term Nouns in Compound Modifiers

Noun Examples Without a Noun Following
-class first-class cabin
second-class citizen
economy-class seating
I’m going first class.
They treated me like I was second class.
We bought economy class.
-degree first-degree burns I had burns in only the first degree.
-interest Special-interest groups All of those groups are special interest.
-ready Game-ready athlete
Job-ready graduate
All of our kids are game-ready.
My training makes me fully job-ready.
-scale Large-scale project I’ve never done a project this large scale.
-time full-time job
half-time show
part-time employment
She works full time.
Let’s talk about it at half time.
We work part time on weekends.

Table 5.3.8.1h: Common Past-participles Following Nouns

Past Participle Examples Not Following the Noun
-based evidence-based treatment
faith-based reasoning
The treatment is evidence-based.
The programming is all faith-based.
-bodied Able-bodied teenager You’re able-bodied enough.
-capped Snow-capped mountains The mountains are nicely snow-capped.
-edged double-edged sword That sword is doubled edged.
-eyed cross-eyed goofball She went cross-eyed after a mule kick.
-faced Two-faced charlatan That guy is so two-faced.
-filled garbage-filled bins Those bins are all garbage filled.
-focused solution-focused apology The apology was solution focused.
-footed Fleet-footed deliverer The delivery man is fleet-footed.
-handed Left-handed writer
Right-handed stick
Short-handed goal
We want a writer who is left handed.
Pass me a stick that’s right handed.
The goal was short-handed.
-oriented audience-oriented writing
client-oriented response
The writing is more audience-oriented.
Make it more client-oriented.
-sided many-sided issue
eight-sided dice
The issue is many sided.
This dice is eight-sided.
-willed Strong-willed daughter My daughter sure is strong-willed.

Table 5.3.8.1i: Common End-term Present-participle and Gerund Compound-modifier Adjectives