Monday, January 31, 2011

Writing e-mail that gains the trust and confidence of your readers

Writing e-mail that gains the trust and confidence of your readers
Tim North,

How do you ensure that customers will react well to an e-mail sales letter? Similarly, what if you're soliciting a job via e-mail, pitching a book idea or any of a hundred other situations that are increasingly handled by e-mail?

In short, how do you write e-mail that will gain you the TRUST and CONFIDENCE of your readers?

Will your good looks help? Having lots of money? Being tall?

The answer to all these questions is, of course, no. While these things can be a definite advantage in the real world, in e-mail, these factors are invisible. No, when it comes to e-mail, YOU ARE WHAT YOU WRITE. (Perhaps a scary thought.)

In the everyday world, trust and confidence are influenced by many things. These include your occupation, signs of affluence, height, dress and looks. It may not be fair, but we ARE judged by these criteria. Tall people DO have an advantage. Well-dressed people ARE treated better in shops.

In an e-mail message, though, these visual cues are not present, so how do we earn trust and confidence? Here's a posting to a newsgroup that I kept from the early days of the Internet. It's as true now as it was then.

From: [e-mail deleted for privacy] (The Wolfe of the Den)
Newsgroups: alt.culture.usenet
Subject: Re: Musings on readability (longish response)
Date: 12 Apr 93 04:53:35 GMT

[e-mail deleted for privacy] (Peter Cohen) writes:
    > ...
On the internet, "you are what you write" defines how people are perceived.
    > ...

Electronic communications *does* become something of a "you are what you write" situation.  Someone who doesn't have the ability to speak clearly will generally do only slightly better when writing. Non-sequiters and poor logical organization will make readers think less of the author as a person to be respected.
Formatting is *not* wasted bandwidth.  Without the assistance of body language and other sideband information available in visual contact communications, other means are found to evaluate the sincerity and intelligence of the person "speaking."

The use of a large vocabulary, attention to proper punctuation and grammar, use of visually attractive formatting, all serve to increase the value of a posting.

In short, style becomes an issue of more importance. Style is certainly an influence in visual contact (why do news anchors wear $500 suits and dresses? - style!) so it should be no surprize that it is important in writing as well.

These two writers have made an important point. How well you write is a very significant influence in determining how your e-mail will be regarded.

When all other visual cues are gone, almost all that you can present to other people are your words. It's no surprise then that those who do not write well will find this disability a far greater handicap in the textual world of e-mail correspondence.

The message then is clear. If you are what you write, write well!

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Four strategies for persuasive writing

Four strategies for persuasive writing
Tim North,

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:


    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?


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.


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?


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.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Effective titles improve proposals

Effective titles improve proposals
Tim North,
"Titles distinguish the mediocre, embarrass the superior and are disgraced by the inferior."
                                 George Bernard Shaw
It may seem trivial to tell you to choose a good title for your next written work, but the importance of this task should not be underestimated.
A good title can help to make a good first impression.
Here then are some guidelines for choosing a good title.
When choosing your title, avoid bland, generic phrases like "A proposal for ..."  or "A response to ..." or A "submission from ...".
Such titles are a lost opportunity to make a strong and persuasive first impression.
While good detective novels will often keep the reader in suspense right up to the very end, proposals should make themselves clear as early as possible, and you can't get any earlier than the title.
Look at these two titles:
1.  A Proposal for XYZ Mining from TrainSmart
2.  Lowering Accidents Rates via the Provision of Safety Training
The first employs a bland and uninformative title.
The second contains a clear statement of the proposal's key recommendation and even a key benefit. It makes a very good first impression, particularly when compared to the other one.
If you must include your company name or the name of your client in the title then you can do so via the use of a subtitle, like so:
Lowering Accidents Rates via the Provision of Safety Training
(A Proposal for XYZ Mining from TrainSmart)
Short titles are more memorable and have greater impact, so remove unnecessary words like 'an', 'of' and 'the' where possible. For example, consider this wordy title:
An improvement to customer relations via the provision of better training
This would be better if shortened to:
Improved customer relations via better training

Friday, January 28, 2011

Do you "take" or "make" a decision?

Do you "take" or "make" a decision?
Tim North,

A friend e-mailed me recently and asked why some people write (and say) "take a decision" instead of "make a decision".

Being a good friend, he researched his own answer before I got around to replying. :-)  His investigation suggested that "take a decision" is primarily British usage, whereas "make a decision" is more common in the US.

A 'net denizen named "Trocco" provided the following insightful comment:

I was also surprised at the number of times I've read and heard "take a decision" in the last couple of years. Most of the sources were British (BBC, The Economist), but I've also noticed it creeping a bit into American speech as well.

As far as I know, there is not yet a "decision-taking process". You can never be wrong with "decision-making process".

Recent feedback from a reader named "Cip" adds this helpful information:

In Spanish you "take" a decision, you never "make" one. Perhaps the rationale behind it is that you do not create/generate choices; the choices are there, available to you.

You will hear many Spanish speaking people in the US say  "I need to take a decision" due to their native language influence.

Interesting. "Taking a decision" still sounds a little strange to me, but Cip's explanation is eminently reasonable.

A quick bit of Googling shows that, net wide, the "take" variant is used only 6.6% of the time. On UK web sites, though, this increases to 12%: almost double, but still a minority usage.

Fonts: choosing wisely

Fonts: choosing wisely
Tim North,

Choosing a font is something that most of us give little thought to. After all, most fonts are more or less the same, right? Let's face it, most writing is presented in a stock-standard font like Times New Roman or Arial.

Why is the choice of font important?
There are many differences between fonts: some obvious, some subtle. As well as setting the mood of what we write, these differences can have significant effects on legibility.

In this article, we'll classify fonts in several different ways and compare the effects that these have on legibility. Let's start by comparing serif and sans-serif fonts.

Serif versus sans-serif fonts
Start up a word processor and type a letter "h". Change it to a large size (say 72 points) and use Times New Roman as your font. Notice the three small cross strokes at the ends of the strokes. These are called serif. Fonts that provide these are said to be serif fonts. Fonts that do not are sans-serif fonts. ("Sans" is the French word for without.)

Here's a picture that explains the difference:


Now change the font to Arial, Helvetica or Verdana. These are all sans-serif fonts. Notice that the three small cross strokes have disappeared.

Serif fonts, all things being equal, are easier to read.

This is because the serif makes the individual letters more
distinctive and thus easier for our brains to recognise quickly.
Without the serif, the brain has to spend longer identifying a
letter because its shape is less distinct.

An important proviso must be made, however. On the low resolution
of a computer screen, very small serif text (say 10 points or
less) might actually be harder to read than corresponding sans
serif because the more complex shapes of serif characters cannot
be accurately drawn in sizes this small.

Deciding whether to use a serif or sans serif font is still a personal choice, however, and no hard-and-fast rules apply. Even though serif fonts are usually easier to read, you might prefer a sans-serif font for a particular document if you feel that it sets an appropriate mood. Sans-serif fonts are often thought to look more modern.

A commonly followed convention, though, is to use a serif font for the body text of your document and a sans-serif font for the headings. My recommended fonts for general work are Georgia (a very lovely serif font) and Verdana, a very legible sans-serif. Verdana is probably already installed on your computer.

Fixed-width and variable-width fonts
In some fonts, every character is the same width; in others, the characters are of different widths. Not surprisingly, these fonts are termed fixed width and variable width respectively.

Start up you word processor. Type half a dozen lower-case "l"s and then on the next line type half a dozen lower-case "w"s. In most fonts the "w"s will be much wider. (Such fonts are variable width.)  Now select the two lines of characters and set the font to Courier or Courier New. Notice that both lines are now the same length. Courier is a fixed-width font.

It should be no surprise that variable-width fonts look more natural and are thus easier to read. Fixed-width fonts such as Courier have quite limited application:

* Computer programmers use fixed-width fonts in order to neatly   align their code.

* The other main use of fixed-width fonts is to produce tables   that need to be neatly tabulated into fixed-width columns.

As an exercise go through the fonts on your computer and find five variable-width, serif fonts that you like the look of. Choose among these for the body copy of your documents.

Now find five variable-width, sans-serif fonts. Use these for your headings, captions, headers and footers.

Armed with these simple ways of classifying fonts, you should no  have an easy time of choosing suitable fonts for all occasions.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Business report writing tips

Business report writing tips
Tim North,

Let's assume that you have to write a document for work or study. Your instructions consist of the title that you are to use and nothing else. Could you -- with only the title as a guide -- write a suitable document?

Unambiguously, the answer is no.

Why? Because you haven't yet been told such things as WHO the document is for, WHY they want it or WHAT they already know (or don't know).

Without such information, it's most unlikely that you'll just happen to write a document that correctly targets these questions of who, why and what.

    TIP #1: Your readers -- just as much as the topic of the document -- will determine what you write.

This article  discusses these key questions and will help you to learn more about your readers and their needs.

Who will read this document?

Before you start writing, do your best to identify who will read your document. Will it be just one person, or might it be passed around to others?

If you're writing for a single reader, you're in luck. This will make it relatively easy to target your writing at his or her specific expectations and level of knowledge.

If you're writing for several people, though, they may have different expectations and levels of knowledge. If so, can you identify one of them as your main reader: the person whose interests you most need to satisfy?

If you can, it may be best to write the document as if you're writing just for this main reader. Trying to satisfy the needs of several different readers at once can be very difficult. You risk ending up with a document that tries to be everything to everyone yet ends up being nothing to anyone.

Sometimes it may not be possible to single out one reader as the main reader. You may have to write for several different readers (or groups of readers), and it may be important to satisfy all of them. In such a case, it might be best to write two or more separate documents, each one closely tailored to the different needs of a specific reader or group.

    TIP #2: Before you start writing, clearly identify whom you're writing for.

Why do my readers want this document?

One of the most valuable questions you can ask your readers is why they want your document. What do they want to do with the information they'll gain?

The range of possible answers is just as varied as the range of possible readers. For example:

* Reader A may want to read a comprehensive introduction to the topic before she decides if and how to use the information further.

* Reader B may want to use your information to persuade a client or superior to a certain course of action.

* Reader C may want to use your information to evaluate an idea of her own.

* Reader D may want to use your information to evaluate an idea from someone else.

* Reader E may be a fellow expert who wants to review other opinions on the topic; i.e. yours.

* Reader F may want a brief and straightforward overview so that he knows just enough not to be embarrassed when the subject is discussed.

    TIP #3: Before you start writing, clearly identify what your readers expect from your document.

What do my readers already know?

Imagine that a colleague asks for your advice on a purchasing decision -- be it for a PC, a car, a house or a pet. Ideally, what level of detail would you provide in your answer?

a.  I'd pitch my answer at a very technical level. They can always find out what it means later.

b.  I'd pitch my answer at a very simple level in order to be certain that it didn't go over their head.

c.  I'd pitch my answer at a moderate level and hope this was about right.

d.  I'd pitch my answer at the level that is convenient to me.

e.  None of the above.

Let's consider choices a and b. If you provide a very technical answer, you risk pitching the answer too high, and your colleague may not understand your advice. Similarly, if you provide a simplistic answer, you risk pitching the answer too low, and your colleague will learn little or nothing.

It may be tempting to choose answer c and say that it's reasonable to pitch your answer at a moderate level; that way it's likely to be about right. But how do you know what level your colleague will find moderate? If you're an expert on the topic, your guess about what constitutes moderate is likely to be too high. And if your colleague knows more than you realise, it may be too low.

We'll skip over answer d without further comment.  :-)

We're left, as you may have suspected, with answer e. Ideally, you'd pitch the answer at exactly the right level to suit your colleague's existing level of knowledge. Of course, you can't know what this is without first asking how much your colleague already knows.

    TIP #4: Before you start writing, identify how much your readers already understand.

So, before you start to write that next report, ask yourself these three questions:

* Who will read this?

* Why do they want this information?

* What do they already know?

Once you've answered these questions, you stand a good chance of submitting a report that will be both useful and well received.

Good luck.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Book review: "The Stories of English" by David Crystal

Book review: "The Stories of English" by David Crystal

Review by Tim North,

I had the good fortune to stumble across this wonderful book recently, and I found it both entertaining and informative.

As the title suggests, the book tells the various stories by which the English language has come to be what it is today. (It's as much about history and politics as it is about language.)

This isn't the only book to cover these topics, of course, but at 584 pages this is certainly one of the most comprehensive and well researched.

What makes this work so special is that it doesn't just concentrate on the history and character of "standard" English:

    "Indeed, for every one person who speaks Standard English, there must be a hundred who do not, and another hundred who speak other varieties as well as the standard. Where is their story told?" (p. 5)

In this vein, it tells the stories of the rise of British English, American English, Scottish English, creoles, street slang and, most recently, Internet English.

It argues that we're presently in the middle of a period of rapid change and growth of English, and these are among some of its many conclusions (p. 529):

  1. Language change is normal and unstoppable, reflecting the normal and unstoppable processes of social change.
  2. Language variation is normal and universal, reflecting the normal and universal diversity of cultural and social groups.
  3. A highly diversified society needs nonstandard varieties ('nonstandard language') to enable groups of people to  express their regional or cultural identity.

I  recommend this enjoyable and instructive work to anyone who has an interest in this wonderful and diverse language: English.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Avoid buzzwords in favour of plain English

Avoid buzzwords in favour of plain English
Tim North,

buzzword (noun): A word or phrase ... that usually sounds important or technical and is used primarily to impress laypersons. (

I'm a big believer in keeping writing simple. Long winded or pompous writing is harder for readers to understand. Also, it usually leaves them with a poor impression of the writer. So who benefits from it? No one.

Deloitte Consulting’s "Bullfighter" web site (now defunct) provided many examples of buzzword-laden nonsense taken from actual publications. Can you decipher any of these monstrosities?

    A future-proof asset that seamlessly empowers your mission critical enterprise communications.

    A value-added, leverageable, global knowledge repository.

    Repurposeable, leading-edge thoughtware that delivers results driven value.

    This assumes an even greater importance when we repurpose global value to jump-start scoping and visioning.

    We excel at the dissemination of scalable, extensive, global initiatives and their socialisation throughout an entire enterprise.

Would you buy a used car from someone who wrote like that?  :-)

Good writing isn't about demonstrating your vocabulary. It’s about communicating your message. The examples above don't do this. So instead of writing that's filled with buzzwords, aim for plain English instead.

But just what is plain English?

The term "plain English" isn't defined on a stone tablet anywhere, so it  comes down to finding a definition that seems clear and comes from a credible source. Here are a few that I found. See what you think of them:

    We define plain English as something that the intended audience can read, understand and act upon the first time they read it. Plain English takes into account design and layout as well as language.

    A plain English document uses words economically and at a level the audience can understand. Its sentence structure is tight. Its tone is welcoming and direct. Its design is visually appealing. A plain English document is easy to read and looks like it's meant to be read.  (p. 5)

    Let's get rid of some myths first. It's not baby-language, and it's not language that is abrupt, rude or ugly. Nor is it language that puts grammatical perfection ahead of clarity. It doesn't involve over-simplifying or 'dumbing down' the message so that it loses precision, force or effect.

    It's any message, written with the reader in mind, that gets its meaning across clearly and concisely.

Following any of these links will provide you with lots of additional information about plain English.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Are full stops placed inside or outside quotation marks?

Are full stops placed inside or outside quotation marks?
Tim North,

Consider the following sentence:

    One meaning of vis-a-vis is "in relation to".

Should the full stop be inside the closing quotation mark or outside it?

In US English, the full stop is usually placed inside the closing quotation mark in this sentence. In British English, it is usually placed outside.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, however. The placement of punctuation relative to a closing quotation mark is surprisingly complex. What's worse, the rules for US English are quite different to those for British English.

Indeed, practices vary, not only between US and UK English but within each group.


(Users of British English are advised to skip this section to avoid confusing the issue.)

Users of US English place the comma in the following sentence inside the closing quotation marks.

  "Hello," said John.

Incidentally, the comma is used to separate *what* was said from *who* said it. Here's another example:

 "Hello," he said. "How are you today?"

Note that both the comma and the question mark are inside the quotes.

Here are some further examples. Once again, note that the punctuation is inside the quotation marks.

  "Go home," she said to the dog.
  "Go home!" she said to the dog.

Note that in the second example the exclamation mark is used instead of the comma, not in addition to it.

If one speech or quotation occurs within another, enclose the inner one in single quotes. For example:

  "He said 'You should have known.' I was outraged!"

Notice that two distinct sentences finish at the word "known":

"He said ..." and "You should ...". Even so, there is only a one full stop, not two, and it is (once again) inside the closing quote.

Here is another example that illustrates how we avoid double punctuation when two sentences end at the same word:

  No one heard when he said "I need help."

See? Only one full stop. Needless to say, it's inside the closing quote.

Question marks, though, can be a little confusing when used with quotation marks. Compare these sentences:

  He said "What is seven times six?"
  Is it true that he said "What is seven times six"?

In the first one, it's consistent with what we've seen so far that the question mark is inside the closing quote.

In the second sentence, though, there are two questions being asked: "Is it true ..." and "What is ...". Even so, we only use a single question mark.

Notice, though, that it is placed *outside* the closing quote. (Just when you thought this was going to be easy! Don't worry, though, users of British English have it *much* harder.)

In summary, when punctuating quotations, US English places most punctuation inside the closing quotation mark.


(Users of American English are advised to skip this section to avoid confusing the issue.)

Users of British English usually place the comma in the following sentence outside the quotation marks.

  "Hello", said John.

Incidentally, the comma is used to separate *what* was said from *who* said it. Here's another example:

  "Hello", he said. "How are you today?"

Note that even though the comma is outside the quotes, the question mark is inside the quotes. Why?

The comma is not considered to be part of what was actually said, so it was placed outside the quotes. (It's part of the punctuation of the surrounding sentence, rather than of the quotation.) The question mark, however, is part of the spoken text, so it's placed inside the quotes.

There is a certain common sense to this, but it does make punctuating British English harder than punctuating US English.

Here's another example:

  "Go home!", she said to the dog.

The exclamation mark is part of what was said (or, rather, *how* it was said), so it is inside the quotation marks. The comma is not part of what was said but is part of the surrounding sentence. It separates *what* was said from *who* said it, so it's outside the quotation marks.

Here's another example:

  The man said "Is it strange?", but no one listened.

Notice that the comma is outside the quotes (because it's not part of what was said), but the question mark is inside them.

If an entire sentence is in quotation marks, the terminal punctuation is placed inside the quotes. For example:

  "He's on his own with this one."

If one speech or quotation occurs within another, enclose it in single quotes if you normally use double quotes (and vice versa).

For example:

  "He said 'You should have known'. I was outraged!"

Notice in this example, that two sentences finish on the word "known", yet there is only a single full stop, not two. Notice also that the full stop after "known" appeared outside the quotes.

Similarly, we write:

  No one heard when he said "I need help".

Notice again that even though two sentences finish on the word "help", there is only a single full stop, and it occurs outside the quote.

It should come as no surprise then to learn that we write:

  Is it true that he said "What is seven times six"?


  Is it true that he said "What is seven times six?"?

The intention here is to avoid using the same punctuation mark twice in succession.

Finally, consider these sentences:

  He said "What is seven times six?".
  He said "That's dreadful!".

In the first example, there is a question mark to end the question and a full stop to end the surrounding sentence. In the second example, there is an exclamation mark to end the quotation and a full stop to end the surrounding sentence.

In summary, when punctuating quotations, British English places some punctuation inside the closing quotation mark and some outside. Knowing which is which is almost rocket science.

Now might be a good time to have a cup of tea and a little lie down.  :-)

Monday, January 17, 2011

Double negatives needn't be no sin!

Double negatives needn't be no sin!
Tim North,

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 and, 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!)

No, far from being misunderstood, in most cases a double negative actually makes the intended meaning more clear 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 even clearer: doubly so.

Having said this, double negatives remain a non-standard usage. They may be quite suitable in casual conversation but are not usually suited to a work environment.

In summary then, double negatives needn't be no sin!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Apostrophes: a gentle introduction

Apostrophes: a gentle introduction

Apostrophes are a common source of confusion for many writers. They needn't be, though, and this easy-to-follow article will help you to use them properly.

Let's start with a very simple explanation of what a noun is. (Don't worry, this will be the only jargon in the entire article. I promise.)

A NOUN is a word that stands for a person or thing. Examples include "dog", "Tim", "love", "house" and "Ireland".

SINGULAR NOUNS stand for a single person or thing; for example, "chair". PLURAL NOUNS stand for several people or things; for example, "chairs".


The most common use of an apostrophe is to indicate possession by a person or thing of some other person or thing. For example:

"John's book" or "Europe's history".

Using an apostrophe to indicate possession is really quite straight forward, yet it's a frequent source of confusion. There are two separate cases to consider: singular nouns and plural nouns.


When a noun is singular (i.e. it stands for a single person or thing) we show possession by adding apostrophe–s. For example:

    the girl's book

    Japan's recovering economy

    the princess's gown

    Mauritius's beaches

    the cat's whiskers

Summary: Singular nouns are made possessive by adding apostrophe–s.


When a noun is plural (i.e. it stands for a several people or things) we show shared possession by adding an apostrophe after the "s". For example:

    the CEOs' perks        (the perks shared by two or more CEOs)

    the players' pride     (the pride shared by two or more players)

    the programmers' books (the books shared by two or more programmers)

    the boys' games        (the games belonging to two or more boys)

Summary: Plural nouns are made possessive by adding an apostrophe after the "s".


As with many rules, there is an exception. This one concerns nouns that form their plural without adding an s. For example:

woman/women, person/people, sheep/sheep and child/children.

Words like this take apostrophe–s in both their forms. For example:

    the woman's idea        (the idea belonging to one woman)

    the women's idea        (the idea belonging to two or more women)

    the child's gift        (the gift belonging to one child)

    the children's gift     (the gift belonging to two or more children)

Summary: Nouns that become plural without using an "s" (e.g. woman/women) are made possessive by adding apostrophe–s to both forms.

Another use of the apostrophe is to indicate missing letters in contractions such as "isn't", "doesn't" and "can't". For example:

    Full form    Shortened form
            can not        can't
            do not         don't
            does not       doesn't
            I will         I'll
            is not         isn't
            it is          it's
            let us         let's
            there is       there's
            you are        you're

You'll notice that the apostrophe appears in place of the omitted letter or letters. For example, in contracting "is not" to "isn't" the apostrophe replaces the missing "o".

That's all there is to it. Practise those simple rules, and you'll be the local expert on apostrophes.

You'll find many more helpful tips like these in Tim North's much applauded range of e-books. More information is available on his web site, and all books come with a money-back guarantee.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

"Affect" or "effect": it's harder than you think!

"Affect" or "effect": it's harder than you think!
Tim North,

"Affect" and  "effect" are commonly misused. Here are some simple examples to help you get them straight.

The most common meaning of "affect" is to influence; e.g.

    The new image AFFECTED the size of the file.
    The new sense of respect AFFECTED him profoundly.
    The sunlight has AFFECTED the finish of this paint.

Another meaning of "affect" is to behave artificially; e.g.

    He AFFECTED a lisp and pranced about.
    He tried to AFFECT an air of sophistication but failed.

A third (and rather obscure) use of "affect" is found in psychotherapy. It refers to the set of emotions associated with an idea or mental state; e.g.

    In hysteria, the AFFECT is sometimes entirely dissociated.

In this third usage (only), the stress is on the first syllable, so it's pronounced AFF-ect.

The most common meaning of "effect" is result; e.g.

    The EFFECT was that the price doubled.
    That isn't the EFFECT we want.
    I don't know what the EFFECT of this will be.

Another meaning of "effect" is to cause or to produce; e.g.

    Through shrewd tactics, he EFFECTED a turnaround in sales.
    Upon taking the job, he EFFECTED sweeping reforms.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

"Active" and "passive" voices made simple

"Active" and "passive" voices made simple
Tim North,

Open almost any book on grammar or writing skills, and you'll come across the advice "Use the active voice in preference to the passive voice".

Also, if you use Microsoft Word, you'll often get similar advice from its grammar checker.

Free of all the grammatical jargon, what does this mean?

Well, sentences written in the ACTIVE voice have the following structure:


For example:

    John wrote the report.
    We misplaced your correspondence.
    The council reserved its decision.
    The ratepayer thanked him.

As you can see, sentences written in the active voice all start with the do-er of the action.

Sentences written in the PASSIVE voice, though, start with the receiver of the action:


For example:

    The report was written by John.
    Your correspondence was misplaced by us.
    The decision was reserved by the Council.
    He was thanked by the ratepayer.

Okay, so we've made a distinction between the two. This brings us back to the traditional advice that it is preferable to write in the active voice rather than the passive voice.


The reason for this is that the active voice tends to sound simpler and more direct. Also, it often requires fewer words.

For example:

    The dog bit him.             [Active]
    He was bitten by the dog.    [Passive]

    We will send your goods within 14 days.          [Active]
    Your goods will be sent by us within 14 days.    [Passive]

Personally, I don't feel that the world is going to end if you write a few sentences in the passive voice now and then. Nonetheless, using the active voice in the majority of cases will improve your writing by making it simpler and more direct.

The passive voice does have one "advantage" though: it allows us leave out the do-er. Consider this alternative structure for passive sentences:


    The report was written.               [By whom?]
    Your correspondence was misplaced.    [By whom?]
    The decision was reserved.            [By whom?]
    He was thanked.                       [By whom?]

By leaving out the do-er, the passive voice allows us to hide responsibility. It is thus much loved in government reports.  :-)

When we write in the active voice, though, we are forced to identify the do-er, and this eliminates a certain amount of evasion.

You'll find many more helpful tips like these in Tim North's much applauded range of e-books. More information is available on his web site, and all books come with a money-back guarantee.