Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Writing Tip : Why is empty space important?

Why is empty space important?


This article discusses the benefits of including plenty of empty space in your page layouts.
Take a look at an article in one of your favourite glossy magazines. Even on a page that is mostly text, one thing is likely to be true. There's probably a lot of empty space on the page.
For example, the article text may be in two columns when three would fit with a bit of shoving. There may also be a lot of white space up at the top of the page around the title. So why do the editors of glossy magazines frequently leave so much empty space? Are they just dumb? Do they have something against trees?
No; they simply know something that most of us don't. White space (i.e. empty areas) on a page makes it easier to read.
One of the best books I ever read on this subject (and sadly now out of print) was called The Make Over Book. In it, the author (Roger C Parker) provided a series of tips on how to improve a series of sample documents. The very first point he made emphasised the importance of white space. He included these reasons among others:
  • White space is essential to readability. It makes the various elements stand out.
  • White space around the edges of a document leaves thumb areas — places for people to hold your document without obscuring the words.
  • Too often we cover every inch of a page with text. This results in publications that are intimidating and difficult to read.
So next time you're creating a document consider leaving more empty space. Generous margins or fewer columns can make your work easier for your audience to understand.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Writing Tip : Using "who's" and "whose" correctly

Using "who's" and "whose" correctly


This article provides a simple way to choose between who's and whose.
When should you use who's instead of whose?
Well, who's is always short for who is. For example:
  • Who's that guy in the red tie?
  • Who's the actress in Out of Africa?
The easiest way to explain whose is to say that you use it whenever it would be wrong to say who is. For example:
  • Is he the guy whose tie was red?
  • Was it Streep whose career peaked with Out of Africa?
  • Whose PC is this?
The different uses of these words is illustrated by the following pair of sentences:
  • Bob, who's normally prompt, was late today.
  • Bob, whose record is exemplary, was late today.
In summary, use who's when you mean who is and whose otherwise.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Writing Tip : Using "who" and "whom" correctly

Using "who" and "whom" correctly


This article provides a simple way to choose between who and whom.
When should you use who, and when should you use whom?
Well, there are two schools of thought on the topic. Let's call them contemporary and traditional. We'll look at each in turn.

Contemporary usage

It's becoming rare to see whom these days because most of us use who in almost all cases. Let's face it, whom can sound rather pretentious and stuffy, can't it? For example:
To whom am I speaking?
Whom am I speaking to?
These sound very formal. Many of us would be be more inclined to write or say:
Who am I speaking to?
Nonetheless, there are still a few stock phrases that use whom, even in contemporary English. For example:
To whom it may concern
In almost all other cases, it has become acceptable in contemporary English usage to use who.

Traditional usage

Having said that you can use who in almost all cases, it's still quite easy to use whom in the traditional fashion.
Consider the following sentence: To who/whom do I send this?
Here's how to decide whether to use who or whom:

Step 1: Look at the words after who/whom, In this case, they're: do I send this?
Step 2: Rephrase these words to include he or him: That gives us: Do I send this to he/him?
Step 3: If it sounds better with he, the original sentence should use who. If it sounds better with him, the original sentence should use whom.

So, which sounds better? Do I send this to he? or Do I send this to him?
Well, in this case, him sounds better, so the original sentence uses whom: To whom do I send this?
If you choose to follow this traditional usage, one extra piece of advice is worth noting: It was common not to use whom as the first word in a sentence. Thus, even with traditional usage, you might prefer to write:
Who am I speaking to?
rather than:
Whom am I speaking to?


Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Writing Tip : Using "which" and "that" correctly

Using "which" and "that" correctly


This article provides a simple guideline for choosing between "which" and "that".
Consider the following sentences. Both are acceptable, but their meanings are subtly different:
  • The books, which have red covers, are new.
  • The books that have red covers are new.
In the first sentence, the words "which have red covers" are adding information about the books. That is, they're telling you more about the books than you'd otherwise have known. (They're red, not some other colour.) All of the books are new.
In the second sentence, the words "that have red covers" are limiting which books we're talking about. We're no longer talking about all the books; we're only talking about the ones with red covers. So this time, only the red books are new.
Now, here's our rule of thumb: Use which (surrounded by commas) if a group of words adds information. Use that if it limits the set of things you're talking about.
Here are two more examples just to make that clear:
  • Classes that are held on Wednesdays are in building 206.
  • Leap years, which have 366 days, contain an extra day in February.
In the first sentence, the words "that are held on Wednesdays" are limiting the type of classes that we're talking about. (We're not talking about all the classes, only the ones held on Wednesdays.) We thus use that.
In the second sentence, the words "which have 366 days" are adding information. We thus use which surrounded by commas.

Is this difference worth bothering with?

Let's face it, most people are unaware of the guideline set out above. Thus, we can confidently say that most people probably use that and which interchangeably. In most instances, this doesn't cause undue confusion.
In formal business or technical communications (for example, contracts, tenders or technical specifications), though, such ambiguities can given rise to serious legal and financial problems. For example, consider this story from
A contract dispute in Canada centers on what's being called a million-dollar comma. Canada's telecommunications regulator has decided that a misplaced comma in a contract concerning telephone poles will allow a company to save an estimated $2 million (Canadian).
In summary, a pedantic attitude to the difference between that and which may be very necessary for business or technical communications.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Writing Tip : Using i.e. and e.g. correctly

Using i.e. and e.g. correctly


This article explains how to choose between i.e. and e.g.
Not quite sure when to use these or how they're different? Well, i.e. is Latin for id est and means that is or in other words.
Here are some sample sentences:
  • The standard discount applies; i.e. 10%.
  • Our backup drives (i.e. drives F and G) 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.
Users of American English frequently put a comma after i.e. and e.g.:
  • The standard discount applies; i.e., 10%.
  • Some staff (e.g., John and Tony) are on leave.
This comma is usually ommitted by users of British English.

Note that it is not necessary to set these abbreviations in italics in normal use.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Writing Tip : Underlining: why not to use it

Underlining: why not to use it 


This article explains why you should avoid underlining.
These days, underlining is almost universally avoided by professional type setters. Why? Well it’s easy to explain. Look at the following underlined text:
    g j p q y , ;
The underlining cuts through the tails of the letters and punctuation marks making them harder to read. (The degree to which this is apparent will depend upon the font your browser is using.)
In the days of mechanical typewriters, underlining was the only option available for emphasising text. These days, there are many other options: italics, bold face, colour and size.

On the web, there is an additional incentive not to underline for emphasis. People expect underlined text on a web page to be a link. When it isn’t, this leads to confusion.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Writing Tip : Two great screen fonts: Georgia and Verdana

Two great screen fonts: Georgia and Verdana


This article describes two very readable screen fonts and provides download links to them.
Fonts that look good in print don't always look good on a computer screen. Reading information from a screen is easier if you use a font that has been specially designed for on-screen reading. Two such fonts deserve special mention: Georgia and Verdana.
Georgia is a lovely serif font, and Verdana is a highly-readable sans-serif font. When compared to older fonts like Times New Roman and Arial, they appear much easier to read on-screen. Look at the following comparisons:
Georgia versus
  Times New Roman
Verdana versus
The first thing you'll notice, is that Georgia and Verdana are wider than most fonts. This adds to their readability. Another interesting characteristic is that their lower-case letters are quite tall — they're around two-thirds of the height of the upper-case letters. (This is particularly clear with Verdana.) This also adds to their readability.
Here's what Microsoft has to say about these fonts:
The typography group at Microsoft contains some of the world's experts in creating type for reading on the screen. [They] commissioned world-renowned type designer Matthew Carter to create two new typefaces exclusively for Microsoft, designed specifically for screen readability. [The] Verdana and Georgia typefaces have become classics, especially with the growth in screen reading sparked by the Internet.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Writing Tip : Successful proposal writing: persuasion

Successful proposal writing: persuasion


This article discusses four techniques for writing persuasively.
Most folk don't enjoy having to write proposals, memos, reports and the dozen other things that seem to get in the way of their real work. Nonetheless, if it's your job to do it, you need to be able to do it well.
To do this, we need to look at how to construct a persuasive argument. To write persuasively, you need to answer four key questions before you start:
  1. How are you perceived by the person reading your proposal?
    If you received a stock-market tip as an unsolicited e-mail message would you take it seriously? Of course not. What, though, if you received a tip from a long- time friend who was a rich and successful investor? Would you take that seriously? Almost certainly.
    The differences here are credibility and trust.
    How likely is your proposal to be successful if it lacks these qualities?
    So, before you start to write your proposal, you need to know in what regard you're held. Do you have an existing reputation for credibility, or will you need to establish one?
  2. How can you show that you're providing what the client needs?
    You must overcome the natural suspicion that you're proposing something that's in your own best interests. If you're really more interested in getting the grant, increasing your budget, selling a product or lessening your workload, it will be very difficult to establish a persuasive argument to the contrary.
    It is thus vitally important that you really are submitting a proposal that will solve the reader's problems. It's no use submitting a pie-in-the-sky proposal and hoping that the reader won't notice that you're the main beneficiary.
    You need to come up with a win-win proposal that makes such good sense that the reader would be a fool not to accept it.
  3. Is your proposal presented well?
    There's more to a good presentation than just putting your proposal in a nice binding. Indeed, an overly elaborate binding can backfire. You run the risk that your proposal might be seen as having more form than substance.
    Here are some things you need to consider. Will it stand by itself, or will it be accompanied by an audio-visual presentation? Will it be the only one on the client's desk, or will it be one of a dozen? What length is the client expecting? Does is contain a clear summary of the problem and your proposed solution?
  4. Who is the message directed at?
    It helps to understand a bit about the preferences of the person (or persons) reviewing your proposal. What type of information do they like to receive?
    For example, let's suppose you knew that either John or George would read your proposal. John is a real "numbers man" -- he likes to receive pages and pages of technical details and return-on-investment analyses. He likes charts and data. George, on the other hand, is an "ideas man" -- he goes with his gut. He'll carefully read your executive summary and recommendations, flip through the rest of the pages then make his decision.
    Would knowing which of these two people was going to review your proposal change the way you wrote it?
    Sure it would. Here then are a couple of questions to ask yourself about the person (or persons) who will evaluate your proposal:
    • Do they focus on details, or do they prefer the big picture?
    • Are they willing to act unilaterally, or are they consensus-oriented?
    • Are they willing to take risks, or are they conservative?
    • Are they technically adept, financially adept or both?
    • Are they the ultimate decision maker, or do they have to bump your proposal up the line?
    These may not be the easiest questions to answer, but armed with this sort of extra information, you're in a better position to construct a persuasive argument.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Writing Tip : Serif and sans-serif fonts

Serif and sans-serif fonts


This article distinguishes between serif and sans-serif fonts and discusses when each is appropriate.
Consider the following characters. The first is set in Georgia, a lovely serif font. The second is set in Verdana, an easy- to-read sans-serif font.
serifsans serif

Notice the small decorative flourishes at the ends of the strokes in the left character. These are called serif. The right character does not have these strokes and is said to be in a sans-serif font. ( Sans is the French word for without.)
Times New Roman is a commonly used serif font. Arial is a commonly used sans-serif font.

Use serif for printed work

Serif fonts are usually easier to read than sans-serif fonts.
This is because the serif make the individual letters more distinctive and easier for our brains to recognise quickly. Without the serif, the brain has to spend longer identifying the letter because the shape is less distinctive.
The commonly used convention for printed work is to use a serif font for the body of the work. A sans-serif font is often used for headings and captions.

Use sans serif for online work

An important exception must be made for the web. Printed works generally have a resolution of at least 1,000 dots per inch; whereas, computer monitors are less than 100 dots per inch. This lesser resolution can make very small serif characters harder to read than the equivalent sans-serif characters because of their more complex shapes.

It follows that small on-screen text is better in a sans-serif font like Verdana or Arial.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Writing Tip : Semicolons and commas: A few simple guidelines

Semicolons and commas: A few simple guidelines


This article provides some simple punctuation guidelines.

The problem

When writing very short sentences one after the other, an unpleasant stop–start effect can result. For example:
  • This is John. This is Kate. This is Sam.
  • Sample one worked. Sample two failed.
Joining short sentences together to form a single, longer sentence can avoid this stop–start effect. This is done using a combination of commas, semicolons and joining words like and, or and but.

Four guidelines

Note: In the examples below, "[words]" represents any sequence of words that could stand by themselves as a sentence. For example, "he missed the ball" or "today is Monday".
Similarly, "[joining word]" represents a word chosen from the left column.

RuleJoining wordsPunctuation
1.[none][Words] ; [words] .

For example:
  • This is John; this is Kate; this is Sam.
  • Sample one worked; sample two failed.
RuleJoining wordsPunctuation
for example
that is
[Words] ; [joining word] , [words] .

For example:
  • It's just what we need; thus, our search is over!
  • Sample one worked; however, sample two failed.
  • He missed the ball; therefore, he loses four points.
RuleJoining wordsPunctuation
[Words] ; [joining word] [words] .

For example:
  • Choose a common name; e.g. John or Mike.
  • Sample one worked; i.e. it yielded a positive result.
RuleJoining wordsPunctuation
[Words] , [joining word] [words] .

For example:
  • I am Karen, and this is my sister Sue.
  • Sample one worked, but sample two failed.
  • Today is Monday, so tomorrow is Tuesday.


You can find more information on the difference between i.e. and e.g. here.
Note also that if, as, because and then are usually not preceded by a comma. For example, we write:
  • Sample one worked because sample two failed.
  • Sample one worked, because sample two failed.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Writing Tip : Line spacing and you

Line spacing and you


This article discusses how and why to vary your line spacing when using Microsoft Word.
You probably know your word processor well enough to be able to get single-spacing, one-and-a-half spacing and double spacing, but are these sufficient? Well, probably not. Just look for yourself:
Different line spacings
If you agree that single spacing is too tight and one-and-a-half spacing a bit too loose, it follows that we need something in between the two. With Microsoft Word, it's easy to get any spacing you like; for example, one-and-a-third or even one-and-three-elevenths.
How? Simple. Just select the Paragraph command from Word's Format menu. You'll see a dialogue like this one:
  Paragraph dialog box
(This example uses Word 2000. Other versions may appear a little different.)
Note the pop-up menu labelled Line spacing. Here you'll see the common line- spacing values of Single, 1.5 lines and Double. The one that interests us most is Multiple.
Let's say that you want one-and-a-quarter line spacing. Just select Multiple from the pop-up menu and set the value to the right to be 1.25. That's all there is to it. If you want more space, try 1.33.

What line spacing is best?

As a rule of thumb for small text, try using a line spacing around one-and-a-quarter to one-and-a-third times the font size. Experiment, though, to discover what you prefer. Here are some examples:
Different line spacings

Monday, December 6, 2010

Writing Tip : How wide should my margins be?

How wide should my margins be?


This article provides a guideline for setting the width of a column of text.
Imagine if this article was printed on a page that was a metre wide. Reading it would be a bit like watching a tennis match. Your head would constantly be scanning left-to-right as you read each line. It wouldn't be an easy read, would it?
Conversely, what if each
line was very narrow,
like this? This isn't
much fun either.
So just how wide should a line of text be for optimum viewing?
Well, there are all sorts of opinions floating around, but I'll provide you with an easy rule of thumb. Choose the font and font size that you're going to use. Now write the alphabet in lower-case letters twice on a single line, like this:

All things being equal, that's not a bad length for a line of text. If your document is much wider than this, consider using two or three columns or changing the margin settings. (Look at your word processor's online help for instructions on how to do this.)

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Writing Tip : Formatting tables neatly

Formatting tables neatly


This article provides tips for neatly formatting tables.
Consider the two tables that follow. Both present the same information in the same order and in roughly the same amount of space. Nonetheless, one appears more presentable than the other.
Table 1
Clearly the first table looks dreadful. The caption is too large, the text is of different sizes and styles, the vertical lines are distracting and the overall effect is very poor. Although exaggerated for effect, it is not uncommon to see printed tables that do suffer from one or more of these defects.
Table 2
By comparison, the second table is an exemplar of simple elegance. Neat, understated; it presents the same information with a minimum of decoration, yet clearly appears more sophisticated for all its simplicity.

Ten table tips

Here then are some guidelines that you may wish to follow when setting tables in Word or some other word processor. These are not set in stone; they are simply a set of conventions that I've developed over the years. Feel free to adapt them to your own use.
Guideline 1
Set tables one or two points smaller than the surrounding text. For example, if your main text is set in 12 point, set your table in 10 or 11 point.
Guideline 2
Set your table in a sans-serif font like Arial or Verdana.
Guideline 3
All information in the table should be set one-and-a-half spaced. (Use the Paragraph... command from Word's Format... menu.)
Guideline 4
The paragraphs above and below the table should be separated from it by 18 points.
Guideline 5
Columns of numbers should be right-aligned if they have no decimal point or aligned on the decimal point if they do.
Guideline 6
Generally, the heading of the left-most column should be left aligned. Those in the other columns should be centred.
Guideline 7
The heading row has a thin rule (i.e. line) above and below it. There is also a thin rule below the final row.
Guideline 8
Do not use vertical rules.
Guideline 9
If the caption is more than one line long, it should be set with a hanging indent as shown above.
Guideline 10
If the final row contains summary information (e.g. totals or averages), the row should be set in bold face.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Writing Tip : Double negatives needn't be no sin

Double negatives needn't be no sin 


This article argues that double negatives can be an acceptable usage.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and contradict most of the books ever written on the subject of grammar. (Who said I wasn't brave?) Traditional advice has always been not to use double negatives. For example, sentences such as these are traditionally frowned on:
  • I didn't do nothing!
  • Don't give me no lip!
  • There ain't no such thing.
Detractors will argue that such sentences involve a contradiction of the intended meaning. In the first sentence, if the speaker didn't do nothing then he or she must have done something. In the second sentence, the speaker seems to be asking to be given some lip. In the third sentence, the speaker is arguing that there is such a thing.
My position is that while these criticisms are pedantically true, there's really no likelihood that anyone would misunderstand the intended meaning. If a mother turns to her child and snaps "Don't give me no lip!", it would take a particularly slow-witted child to assume that she was inviting a dispute. (And certainly even the dullest child wouldn't make that particular mistake twice!)
Far from being misunderstood, in these cases a double negative actually makes the intended meaning clearer by being more emphatic. For example, consider these sentences:
  • I didn't do it!
  • I didn't do nothing!
To me, the second one seems like a stronger, more emphatic denial by virtue of having two negative words (didn't and nothing), rather than just one (didn't). The speaker might not be more believable, but he or she does sound more emphatic.
So even though a literal interpretation of a double negative may contradict the speaker's intended meaning, it's unlikely to be ambiguous in context. On the contrary, the meaning is probably made clearer: doubly so.
In closing, I should note that while double negatives can be quite acceptable in casual speech, they are usually inappropriate in more formal settings such as business.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Writing Tip : Does "Fathers Day" need an apostrophe?

Does "Fathers Day" need an apostrophe?


There is no consensus on whether to use an apostrophe in Fathers Day.
Take any group of people and ask them this question. Does Fathers Day need an apostrophe, and — if so — where does it go?
After the fighting stops, the combatants will have settled into three camps. Let's look at all three in turn.
Incidentally, because the names of holidays are written with an initial capital, we write Fathers Day, not fathers day, regardless of where you put the apostrophe, if any.

Choice 1. Fathers Day: no apostrophe

The argument here is that fathers do not own the day, so no possession is involved. No apostrophe is thus needed. We are describing a day for fathers, not a day belonging to fathers.

Choice 2. Father's Day: an apostrophe before the s

Here the argument is that the day belongs to one specific father (yours presumably). So, because possession is involved, Father's Day needs an apostrophe.

Choice 3. Fathers' Day: an apostrophe after the s

Here the argument is that the day is shared among all fathers collectively. We thus need an apostrophe after the s.

And the winner is...

So, which is it? Well, let me stress that you can make a reasonable case for all three of the choices, so it comes down to whether you think that ownership is involved or not.
In British English there is an increasing tendency to omit apostrophes when for is implied rather than of or belonging to. Thus an increasing number of editors of British English publications are opting for choice one (no apostrophe) arguing that it is a day for fathers, not a day belonging to a father or fathers. US usage, however, is predominantly split between choices two and three.
Having said this, there is still a great deal of uncertainty about the issue and you will certainly continue to see all three forms in use regardless of where you live.

Related phrases

If you agree that Fathers Day doesn't need an apostrophe (and feel free not to agree — this one's still controversial), you will probably agree that these don't need apostrophes either:
  • girls school: a school for girls, not owned by girls
  • visitors book: a book for visitors, not owned by visitors
  • workers canteen: a canteen for workers, not owned by them
Note that in all the cases above the word for is implied, so no apostrophe is needed.
In the following cases, though, of or belonging to is implied, so we do use an apostrophe.
  • John's report: the report belonging to John
  • Bach's music: the music of Bach
  • the team's bus: the bus belonging to the team

A rule of thumb

If an apostrophe implies of or belonging to, keep it. If it implies for, lose it. (Keep in mind, though, that this is a predominantly British-English usage at present.)