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Writing Right

Helping and assisting writers

July 05, 2010

Advance organizers, redundancy, word choice, punctuation, and more little stuff explained.

This time I will talk about what is wrong with a few sentences I came across recently.

Here is sentence number one, the problems with this sentence are the lack of signposting, the qualifying scaffolding, and redundancy - and then one more thing that is also really quite serious. First the sentence as it was presented to me:

Before the program, to the question, “How important do you feel it is to have etiquette training at your place of work?”, those in favor accounted for 94.3%, while those not in favor accounted for 5.7%. After the program finished, those in favor increased to 95.5% and those not in favor fell to 4.5%.

This is the opening sentence in the results section of a paper. The first thing to notice is that there is no signposting for the reader to know what this section will be about, other than the section title, Results. In the paper there were four more questions for a total of five questions described in this pattern. Not notifying what is coming in a section is poor manners and it would irritate, maybe even confuse, the reader. A short mention of what to expect is the first thing to put in a new section (this has been termed an Advance Organizer).

Then the sentence has two qualifying pieces of scaffolding (my term) at the top, please never ever use two phrases to qualify (restrict) like this at the start of a sentence. Make sure that a sentence reads from left to right without the reader having to jump back and forth or take notes to know what is going on. Preferably, qualifying conditions should be integrated into the sentence so that they appear where the information supports the rest of the sentence. There is always a better place to put at least some of this than just bunging it together at the start or finish of a sentence.

please never ever use two phrases to qualify anything at the start of a sentence

Be economical with words: the five words "those in favor accounted for" can be expressed in three "were in favor." Remember that the topic here is the response, not the respondents, so the word "those" has no place in the sentence. There will be time to talk about the respondents in the conclusions.

Now for the quite serious problem, the numbers. To me (as a reader of the paper) before and after look like the same, more or less. That is of course all right but to a reader it looks funny and needs an explanation. Why did the author put two sets of numbers when there are no real changes? Usually, in this kind of paper there is some sort of statistical treatment, and the paper here also had that later. Blandly stating numbers is a job for a table and increases/decreases must be of some kind, statistical, unimportant, or maybe "surprisingly small," not just blandly stated like here.

My suggested correction was:

The responses to the survey questions will be listed first. Before the program 94.3% answered “in favor” to the question: “How important do you feel it is to have etiquette training at your place of work?” with 5.7% not in favor, after the program these numbers were 95.5% and 4.5%.

or with the second sentence further rationalized:

The responses to the survey questions will be listed first.“How important do you feel it is to have etiquette training at your place of work?” had 94.3% in favor and 5.7% not in favor before the program and after the program the numbers were 95.5% and 4.5%.

Removing the problems with the absent advance organizer, the redundancy, and word choice, the 57 words of the original became 44 (plus 10 for the introduction) or 39 for the second try at an improvement. Fewer words are always preferable if no information is lost. Adding words introduces the danger of saying things that have no place in a sentence, here using "those" "increased," and "fell" shows that the writer is not in control.

The next couple of sentences where I found things to improve on were:

Their academic backgrounds were as follows: graduates from specialist school or vocational college, 66.7% and graduates from junior college or college, 33.3%. Regarding the number of staff working under the subjects’ supervision, 50.6% of the subjects had five or fewer staff, while 49.4% had six or more staff.

Here the paper is describing the demographic details of the participants in a study, so maybe "their" could be all right but a simple "the" would also do the trick, and with two letters less. An additional issue is that the writer should try to be as general as responsibly possible, again making "the" the better choice.

Then there is the words that are used. Just before the colon it says "as follows," this is really redundant as the colon indicates that the following will be a list of things. The start of the second sentence "regarding" suggests a change of topic and so has no place in the middle of a paragraph. If you want to use "regarding" it should really start its own paragraph, or maybe show an aside that is of no great importance in the sentence/paragraph.

Then the verb to have (here in the past tense form "had") is used for staff working under the supervision of these persons. Please never say that you "have" staff or that your boss "has" you, maybe if you add "working for them" would make it acceptable, but "to have" implies close kinship or ownership (have children, have a car). Please make sure that the words you use are accurate and do not have too many meanings that are at variance with what you wish to say. Using the past tense is also not in the spirit of a report. What you discuss should be generalizable to the present and so here the present tense is preferable.

There is also a "while" here. While suggests a contrast between what came before and what comes after the "while." Here it is a simple straightforward list however, so "and" is the word to use, you are just introducing the information after all. Maybe in the discussion section the situation changes but this is not the discussion section.

About finding the best words to use, remember what I suggested about using dictionaries a couple of columns back, check both J-E and E-J dictionaries before you select unknown or iffy words.

There is also a preposition, the "from" in "from junior college etc." From suggests an origin, mainly of a geographic kind, and sometimes the usage like here could be possible, but "of" would be a better choice. There is no specific institution mentioned and the talk is of graduates. This is the main reason why "of" is the more acceptable here, but prepositional use is another can of worms that I will get back to time and again, and there are no general rules for cases like this. Only, shorter more general prepositions are preferable when writing about non-specific entities, like here.

Number. The different educational institutions mentioned are all in the singular. I wonder why, like I wonder every time I see "BOOK" outside a bookstore. In English, the form to use here and with the bookstore is the plural. A good rule of thumb when you are not too sure whether to use singular or plural is to use plural.

Now the possesives! Possesives indicate a close connection, even ownership (remember "have"). However, here the sentence is talking about "supervision," and who owns that? It is just wrong or at least awkward. A good rule when you want to use possesives is to try to avoid them. In the case here it is certainly unwarranted and would make a reader wonder if the writer knows what is what.

use punctuation marks (commas, semicolons, periods, and colons) to divide and isolate information that goes together

I have kept the biggest problem with this sentence till the last. It is the punctuation. We should always use punctuation marks (commas, semicolons, periods, and colons) to divide and isolate information that goes together. In the original sentence here, the commas are before the numbers, they separate the numbers from what they describe. We can sort of guess what belongs where, but the job of the writer is to tell the reader what belongs together - accurately, not to present a puzzle that the reader has to work out for themselves. For punctuation marks it is useful to keep in mind that semicolons are just a division mark, intermediate between periods and commas. My suggested rewritten paragraph was:

The academic backgrounds were as follows: graduates of specialist schools or vocational colleges, 66.7%; and graduates from junior colleges or colleges, 33.3%. The number of staff working under the supervision of the subjects were five or fewer for 50.6% of the subjects, and six or more for 49.4%.

No words were saved, 48 words in the original vs 48 words in my rewriting, but the rewritten sentence says what needs to be said with far less ambiguity than what the writer offered.

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