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Better

Writing
Skills
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Tim North
Scribe Consulting
www.BetterWritingSkills.com

Better Writing Skills

200 easy-to-follow tips on presentation, punctuation,


capitals, numbers, units and writing strategies

FREE SAMPLE

This free sample may be distributed freely as long as it is


not charged for or altered in any way.
The complete 220-page work is available from:
www.betterwritingskills.com.

© 2000–2003 Tim North, Scribe Consulting


All rights reserved worldwide.
ISBN 0-9578426-0-0

First edition.
This free sample was last modified on 27 Jul, 2003.

This work is copyright. No part may be reproduced by any process, nor may any
other exclusive right be exercised, without the written permission of its author:

Tim North
Scribe Consulting
1, 66 Park St
Como Perth WA
Australia 6152

www.scribe.com.au
www.BetterWritingSkills.com

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Author’s Introduction

The extract that follows is taken from Chapter 7 of Better Writing Skills.
It should give you a “feel” for the book and, I hope, will be useful in its
own right.

Please feel free to distribute this document as long as no changes are


made.

The full version of Better Writing Skills provides over 220 pages of
clearly presented information to help you with business, thesis, technical
and creative writing.

Better Writing Skills comes with a 30-day money-back guarantee and is


available for only US$19.95. Secure online ordering is available, or you
can order by phone or fax.

Further information can be found on the Better Writing Skills web site:

www.BetterWritingSkills.com

Regards,

Tim North
info@BetterWritingSkills.com

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7.6 Semicolons

7.6.1 Joining short sentences


When writing short sentences one after the other, you often end up with a
stop–start effect. For example:
This is good. Let’s go again.
I’m Carol. This is Bob. This is George.
Region three succeeded. Region four did not.

The above examples are correctly punctuated, but perhaps not punctuated
in the best way as the very short sentences may seem a little abrupt. You
might prefer to punctuate using a semicolon (;).

Note that semicolon is written as one word; there’s no space or hyphen.

The semicolon allows us to link together two (or more) short sentences to
form a single, longer sentence.
This is good; let’s go again.
I’m Carol; this is Bob; this is George.
Region three succeeded; region four did not.

Notice that in each sentence there is only one capital letter and one full
stop. When punctuated like this, short sentences tend to run together
more smoothly than they would if written as separate sentences.

Tip #65
We can join short sentences together with a semicolon.

It is important to note that the two pieces of text joined in this manner
each form a complete sentence in their own right. For example:
Alice and Bob are being promoted; they each become VPs.

This is fine because the two parts of this sentence could each be sentences
by themselves. It would be wrong, however, to write:
Alice and Bob are being promoted; to VPs next week.
Wrong

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The two parts of this sentence do not each form a sentence in their own
right. The first part does, but the second does not.

Some writers use a comma to join short sentences instead of using a


semicolon. This practice (called a comma splice) is incorrect and should
be avoided.
I prefer red; it looks brighter. Correct
I prefer red, it looks brighter. Wrong

Tip #66

Don’t join sentences with a comma.

7.6.2 Before however, namely, thus etc.


We have seen that we can use a semicolon to join short sentences together
to form a single sentence. Another way of joining short sentences together
is to use a word or phrase such as accordingly, consequently, for
example, furthermore, however, moreover, namely, nevertheless,
otherwise, therefore, that is, thus, e.g. and i.e. 1

Consider these two short sentences:


Today is fine. Tomorrow may be wet.

As we saw in the previous section, one way to join them together would be
to use a semicolon:
Today is fine; tomorrow may be wet.

Another way is to use a semicolon together with a joining word like


however:

Today is fine; however, tomorrow may be wet.

Notice the complicated punctuation. A semicolon is used before the


joining word and (unless it is very short like e.g. or i.e.) a comma is used
after it. Here are some other examples:

1 For those who are keen on such trivia, these words and phrases are technically
known as conjunctive adverbs. Drop this phrase into a sentence at your next
cocktail party and watch people’s eyes glaze over. ☺

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Ore sample number twenty-five was contaminated;


accordingly, the experiment is to be repeated tomorrow.
The meeting scheduled for Wednesday was cancelled;
however, we will meet sometime next week.
Newer computers have lots of memory; i.e. they usually
have at least 128 megabytes of RAM.

The table presented in section 7.7.2 summarises the use of semicolons for
joining sentences.

Tip #67

We can join sentences together with a semicolon followed by a joining


word such as accordingly, consequently, for example, furthermore,
however, moreover, namely, otherwise, therefore, that is, thus, e.g.,
i.e. or nevertheless.

Using i.e. and e.g.


We made brief mention of the abbreviations i.e. and e.g. in the previous
section. Before we go on, let’s look at what they mean and when to use
them.

i.e. is Latin for id est and means that is. Here are some sample sentences:

The standard discount applies; i.e. 10%.


Our NetWare drives (i.e. drives F through Z) are new.

e.g. is Latin for exempli gratia and means for example. Here are some
sample sentences:

Try using easy-to-read fonts; e.g. Georgia and Verdana.


Some staff (e.g. John and Tony) are on leave.

It is not necessary to set these abbreviations in italics in normal use.


Notice also that the two have quite different meanings and are not
interchangeable.

Some users of American English put a comma after i.e. and e.g.:

Try using easy-to-read fonts; e.g., Georgia and Verdana.

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Some staff (e.g., John and Tony) are on leave.

This usage, although defensible and frequently seen, strikes me as over


punctuated. Unless you have a strong preference for it, I’d advise against
using a comma after i.e. or e.g.

Tip #68

i.e. means that is; e.g. means for example.

There is a quite reasonable school of thought that argues that the terms
i.e. and e.g., being Latin, are jargonistic and should thus be avoided. If
you agree, you might prefer to avoid using them.

Exercises2

1. Correct these sentences:


a. This is unacceptable however it can be fixed.
b. Part A is very good, consequently I’d like to order part B.
c. Use the spare cases e.g. numbers 3 to 10.
d. Use the spare cases that is numbers 3 to 10.
e. It was found to be rusted thus it was necessary to replace it.

2. Join these sentences using semicolons:


a. Region A is okay. Region B needs work.
b. Today’s meeting is cancelled. Another will be called.

2 The complete edition of Better Writing Skills contains the answers to all the
exercises.

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7.7 Commas

7.7.1 Joining short sentences


We know that we can join short sentences using a semicolon, like so:

This is book one; book two is due soon.

We also know that we can join short sentences using a semicolon followed
by a joining word such as however:

This is book one; however, book two is due soon.

A third way to join short sentences is using a comma and one of these
seven small joining words: and, but, for, nor, or, so, yet. 3

This is book one, and book two is due soon.

You can see that we can use a comma and a small joining word where we
might otherwise use a semicolon. Here are some more examples:

Today is Tuesday; tomorrow is Wednesday.


Today is Tuesday, so tomorrow is Wednesday.

He is good at his job; I am better at it.


He is good at his job, but I am better at it.

This is acceptable; it could be better.


This is acceptable, yet it could be better.

Remember that both parts of the sentence must be able to be complete


sentences in their own right to be punctuated in this way. We write:

We have finished the work and are looking forward to the


weekend.
not:
We have finished the work, and are looking forward to the
weekend. Wrong

3 For those whose care about such things, these seven joining words are called
coordinating conjunctions. Big deal.

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The example above is incorrectly punctuated, because “and are looking


forward to the weekend” could not be a sentence. Notice that if we add
just one extra word, though, we can use a comma:

We have finished the work, and we are looking forward to


the weekend.

When the two sentences being joined together with a comma and a
joining word are both short, the comma is sometimes omitted. For
example:

I am John, and he is Gary. Correct


I am John and he is Gary. Correct. Better?

Choosing whether or not to use a comma in a situation like this is a matter


of personal style.

Tip #69

We can join sentences together with a comma followed by one of the


following seven joining words: and, but, for, nor, or, so and yet.

7.7.2 A summary of ways to join sentences


Just in case this is all getting a bit confusing, here’s a quick summary of
the four ways that we can join sentences together to make a longer
sentence.

In the following table, words stands for any group of words that could
stand alone as a sentence.

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Joining words Punctuation Example

[none] words ; words . Today is Friday; tomorrow


is Saturday.

accordingly words ; joining-word , words . Group three succeeded;


however, group four did
consequently
not.
for example
I like it; nevertheless, I
furthermore won’t be buying it.
however
It’s very expensive;
moreover nevertheless, it’s worth it.
namely
nevertheless
otherwise
therefore
that is
thus

i.e. words ; joining-word words . Group three succeeded;


i.e. they all received a
e.g.
bonus cheque.

and words , joining-word words . Group three succeeded,


but group four did not.
but
for I like it very much, and I
think you will too.
nor
or
so
yet

Table 7.1: A summary of the ways to join sentences.

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7.7.3 If, because, as, then


You may have noticed that the joining words if, because, as and then are
missing from Table . Perhaps surprisingly, commas are generally not used
before these joining words.4 For example, most texts recommend:

We should take the offer if it is still available.


not: We should take the offer, if it is still available.

He is happy because he got a promotion.


not: He is happy, because he got a promotion.

I like this as it is easy to understand


not: I like this, as it is easy to understand

Complete this work then fax it to me.


not: Complete this work, then fax it to me.

Tip #70

We don’t usually put a comma before if, because, as or then.

7.7.4 Nonessential comments


Pairs of commas are used to set off words or short phrases that could be
removed without substantially changing the meaning of the sentence.

Here are some examples of nonessential words or phrases that have been
surrounded by commas. Note that in each case the nonessential phrase
could be removed from the sentence while still leaving a grammatically
correct sentence.

Lynne, our CEO, is from Adelaide.


Chapter six, the one on the desk, is to be shipped before
lunch.

4 The reasons for this are unpleasantly technical. For those who really want to know
though: adverbial clauses that occur at the end of a sentence are usually considered
restrictive and are thus not preceded by a comma. Don’t you feel better for
knowing that? ☺

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It is, however, a matter of concern.


We went to a seminar last night, which was marvellous by
the way, then had dinner together.
There are some instances, though, where this is okay.
It was, without doubt, the best training I’ve had in ages.

Note that the nonessential words and phrases above could also be
surrounded by parentheses (commonly called brackets) or em dashes.
Parentheses are covered in section 7.11 and em dashes in section 7.15.

Tip #71

A pair of commas should surround nonessential words or phrases that


occur in the middle of a sentence.

7.7.5 Introductory elements


Introductory elements are usually set off from the remainder of a sentence
with a comma. Here are some examples:

To be successful in this business, you must work long and


hard.
At frequent intervals throughout the term of the lease, a
portion of the PCs will be replaced with new equipment.
As the experiment still had a long time to run, we all went
out to lunch.
To summarise, I wish to say that the conference was an
immense success.

Tip #72

Introductory elements are usually set off from the remainder of a


sentence with a comma.

Sometimes it may not be clear if a comma is needed. For example, is this


sentence correct?

The argument about opening hours, must be decided upon


before we leave. Correct?

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There’s a simple rule of thumb to answer this question. Try to move the
introductory element to the end of the sentence. If it still makes sense,
you need a comma. Consider this example:

To be successful in this business, you must work long and


hard.

If we move the introductory element to the end, the sentence still makes
sense:

You must work long and hard to be successful in this


business.

This tells us that the comma after business in the original sentence was
correctly used. Consider our earlier example, though:

The argument about opening hours, must be decided upon


before we leave. Correct?
Must be decided upon before we leave, the argument about
opening hours. Wrong.

Clearly this sentence does not make sense if we try to move the
introductory element to the end. This tells us that we do not need a
comma after the word hours in the original sentence.

Tip #73

An introductory element that is followed by a comma should be


movable to the end of the sentence without changing the meaning.

If an introductory element is very short (say, two or three words), the


comma may be omitted. For example:

If unsure, seek medical attention. Okay.


If unsure seek medical attention. Okay.

The comma after unsure can be omitted if you wish. Try to be consistent
with your usage in such situations.

Tip #74

If an introductory element is very short, the comma may be omitted.

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7.7.6 Avoiding ambiguity


A comma is used to introduce a brief delay into a sentence when a
momentary ambiguity would otherwise arise. For example:

While walking flying kites almost hit us.

On first reading you may think that the speaker was walking a flying kite.
It is not until one finishes the sentence that it becomes clear what the
actual meaning was. A comma avoids this momentary confusion; e.g.

While walking, flying kites almost hit us.

Tip #75

A comma is used to avoid ambiguity that may otherwise arise.

7.7.7 In run-in lists


Commas are used to separate the items in a run-in list. For example:

The winners are Steve, Anne, Mike and Tim.


British English
The winners are Steve, Anne, Mike, and Tim.
American English

American English and British English vary on whether or not to use a


comma between the last two elements in a list. British English does not.
Most users of American English, though, include the extra comma.5

Users of British English should take note that in some cases they must use
a comma between the last two elements of a list in order to remove a
potential ambiguity. For example:

The relevant departments are Minerals and Energy, Sport


and Recreation and the Arts.

As written, you might think that there is a department called Sport and
another department called Recreation and the Arts. An extra comma
removes this ambiguity:

5 Despite being a predominantly American usage, this extra comma is often called
the Oxford comma.

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The relevant departments are Minerals and Energy, Sport


and Recreation, and the Arts.

Since most users of American English would include this comma anyway,
they needn’t concern themselves with this special case.

Tip #76

Commas are used to separate the items in a run-in list.

7.7.8 Separating adjectives

Technical terms

An adjective is a word that describes something. Examples include


red, happy, big, sweet, grumpy, excellent, yellow and new.

When two or more adjectives are listed one after the other, they are
generally separated by commas. For example:

Fetch me the blue, leather-bound report.


The dark, dank stairway led to a cold, musty attic.
The old, tattered, dusty book was read by the old, tattered,
dusty man.

Tip #77

Multiple adjectives are usually separated by commas.

Notice that in all the examples above, the order of the adjectives is
unimportant. For example, a “blue, leather-bound report” is little
different from a “leather-bound, blue report”. When you can swap the
order of adjectives without substantially changing the meaning, this is a
sign that a comma should separate them.

Sometimes, though, the order of the adjectives is important to the


meaning of the sentence. In such cases, you don’t use a comma. For
example, we write:

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They sampled a fine red wine.


not:
They sampled a fine, red wine.
Notice that in this case you cannot swap the order of the adjectives; that
is, a “fine red wine” is quite different from a “red fine wine”.

Tip #78

If the order of a pair of adjectives is important to the meaning of the


sentence, don’t separate them with a comma.

7.7.9 Before not


A comma is used before the word not when it is used in a contradiction.
For example:
Our sales were down, not up.
It’s ghastly, not at all what I expected.
I wrote that report, not you!

Tip #79

A comma is used before the word not when it is used in a


contradiction.

7.7.10 With names


When speaking directly to a person, his or her name (or title) is set off
from the rest of the sentence with a comma or commas; e.g.
Mike, do you have that pamphlet we discussed?
Do you have that pamphlet we discussed, Mike?
Can I assist you, madam?
I want you, George, to do this personally.

You’ll notice that these sentences still make sense if the name or title is
removed; e.g.
Do you have that pamphlet we discussed?

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Being able to remove the name in this way confirms that the name or title
should be separated from the rest of the sentence with a comma.

Tip #80

When speaking directly to a person, his or her name (or title) is set off
from the rest of the sentence with a comma or commas.

Exercises

Commas sure are a lot of work aren’t they? There’s almost as much to
remember about commas as with all the other punctuation marks
combined. It would be a good idea to read through all of section 7.7 a
second or third time before doing these exercises.

Add commas to these sentences where appropriate:


1. I like this and would like to buy it.
2. I like this and I would like to buy it.
3. Johnson is a good team member but he may lack initiative.
4. Johnson is a good team member; however he may lack initiative.
5. The names of chemicals are abbreviated to one or two letters; e.g. Au
N P and Si.
6. Finish this work then meet me down at the bar.
7. The report all 200 pages of it was quite uninteresting.
8. His grades are A-plus B-plus B and B-minus.
9. I admire her because she’s a hard worker.
10. If in doubt read section 1.6 again.
11. The large ripe delicious apple was a temptation to all of them.
12. Although the results were shown later to be incorrect the methodology
was of the highest standard.
13. While walking the dog attacked him.
14. The paper had a fine smooth quality.
15. Hello Kelly.

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ABOUT BETTER WRITING SKILLS

I hope that you’ve enjoyed this brief extract from Better Writing Skills.
Being an extract from a single chapter this sample is, of course, quite
narrowly focussed on a single topic: punctuation. The complete work,
however, covers a much wider range of topics.

Here is the table of contents of the complete edition of Better Writing


Skills, which you can obtain from:

http://www.BetterWritingSkills.com

Regards,

Tim North

Table of contents ...................................................................................................................iii


Author's introduction ........................................................................................................... vi
How to use this book............................................................................................................ vii
What you'll find within ......................................................................................................... xi

MODULE 1: PRESENTATION
1. Choosing the right font................................................................................................. 3
1.1 Is the right font important? .....................................................................3
1.2 Which fonts are most legible? .................................................................5
2. Spacing ......................................................................................................................... 13
2.1 Why is empty space important? ............................................................ 13
2.2 Is character spacing important?............................................................14
2.3 What's the best line spacing?.................................................................16
2.4 What's the best paragraph spacing?......................................................18
2.5 How big should my margins be? ........................................................... 21
3. All about headings ......................................................................................................23
3.1 Why are headings important? .............................................................. 23
3.2 What are heading hierarchies?..............................................................25
3.3 How should I format headings? ............................................................27
4. Captions ....................................................................................................................... 31
5. Neatly formatting tables ............................................................................................33
6. Multiline lists............................................................................................................... 37
6.1 How should I format a list? ...................................................................37
6.2 How should I punctuate a list?............................................................. 39
6.3 What is parallel structure?.....................................................................41

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MODULE 2: NUTS AND BOLTS


7. Punctuation .................................................................................................................47
7.1 Is there a "right" way to punctuate? ..................................................... 47
7.2 Why do we punctuate? .......................................................................... 48
7.3 A before-and-after test .......................................................................... 49
7.4 Full stops................................................................................................ 50
7.5 Colons..................................................................................................... 53
7.6 Semicolons ............................................................................................. 57
7.7 Commas...................................................................................................61
7.8 Ampersands ........................................................................................... 72
7.9 Apostrophes ........................................................................................... 73
7.10 Quotation marks .................................................................................... 78
7.11 Brackets, braces and parentheses......................................................... 85
7.12 Ellipsis .................................................................................................... 87
7.13 Exclamation marks and question marks.............................................. 89
7.14 Hyphens .................................................................................................90
7.15 En dashes and em dashes...................................................................... 97
7.16 Slashes.................................................................................................. 100
8. Capital letters.............................................................................................................103
8.1 A brief anecdote ................................................................................... 103
8.2 When should I use initial capitals?..................................................... 104
8.3 When should I use full capitals? ......................................................... 108
9. Shortened forms.........................................................................................................110
9.1 Who should I believe? ..........................................................................110
9.2 Abbreviations and contractions........................................................... 111
9.3 Acronyms and initialisms..................................................................... 112
9.4 Symbols ................................................................................................. 115

MODULE 3: TECHNICAL WRITING


10. Writing numbers........................................................................................................119
10.1 Writing large numbers .........................................................................119
10.2 Spans .................................................................................................... 122
10.3 Dates..................................................................................................... 122
10.4 Times .................................................................................................... 123
10.5 Currency............................................................................................... 124
10.6 Numbers as words ................................................................................125
11. Units of measurement.............................................................................................. 128
11.1 Writing units of measurement............................................................ 128
11.2 Metric units........................................................................................... 131
11.3 Metric prefixes ...................................................................................... 131
11.4 Case sensitivity .................................................................................... 133

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MODULE 4: WRITING STRATEGIES


12. General strategies ..................................................................................................... 139
12.1 How do I get started? ...........................................................................139
12.2 What makes a good heading? ..............................................................140
12.3 Should I keep the best for last? ...........................................................142
12.4 Do I have to know my audience?.........................................................143
12.5 Does appearance really matter? ..........................................................145
12.6 Avoid cliches .........................................................................................146
12.7 Avoid exaggeration............................................................................... 147
12.8 Avoid "trendy" words and phrases ......................................................148
12.9 Are double negatives okay? .................................................................148
12.10 Should I use diacritical marks? ...........................................................149
12.11 What is the active voice?......................................................................150
12.12 Should I use contractions?................................................................... 152
13. Clarity and simplicity................................................................................................ 153
13.1 Avoid old-fashioned words .................................................................. 153
13.2 Avoid ambiguous pronouns.................................................................154
13.3 Keep it short and simple (KISS) ..........................................................154
13.4 Don't say it twice: tautologies.............................................................. 157
13.5 Avoid jargon .........................................................................................158
13.6 Avoid unnecessary foreign phrases.....................................................159
13.7 Use short paragraphs ...........................................................................160
13.8 Use short sentences..............................................................................162
14. Non-sexist language ................................................................................................. 164
14.1 Words with man in them .....................................................................164
14.2 A non-sexist pronoun...........................................................................165
14.3 Balanced usage .....................................................................................166
14.4 Belittling ............................................................................................... 167
14.5 The unnecessary use of gender............................................................168
15. Difficult words and phrases..................................................................................... 169

BONUS MODULE: ONLINE RESOURCES


16. Writing-related web sites.........................................................................................189
16.1 Web sites with writing tips ..................................................................189
16.2 Web sites with lists of links.................................................................. 191
17. E-mail lists ................................................................................................................. 193
18. Discussion forums .................................................................................................... 194
18.1 Web-based discussion forums.............................................................194
18.2 Newsgroups ..........................................................................................195
19. Other resources ......................................................................................................... 196
Answers to exercises ..........................................................................................................198
Author's postscript ............................................................................................................ 209
Index .....................................................................................................................................211
Other works by Scribe Consulting.................................................................................... 216

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OTHER WORKS BY SCRIBE CONSULTING

Business Proposal Writing Made Easy


You put your credibility and reputation on the line
every time you sit down to write.
In Business Proposal Writing Made Easy, you’ll
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credible and trusted colleague.

E-writing and Editing


E-writing and Editing is an easy-to-follow manual
aimed at anyone who needs to create or edit
electronic content that will be published on the web,
on an intranet or by e-mail.
You'll discover how to create clear, concise content
that is tailored to the specific (and rather
demanding) needs of online readers. You will learn
the critical differences between online and print
materials, how to structure online content, when to
use multimedia, how and why to edit, and much
more.

Writing Scientific Papers


There is a widely held belief that scientific writing is
writing that is so complicated that only a scientist
can understand it. Writing Scientific Papers
debunks this myth and encourages the view that
good writing is clear writing.

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